Enemy of Mine

by Ice Star

First published

A few years after Luna's return it seems that Equestria will finally know an era of peace and appears to be on the verge of a new renaissance. Ponies are happy. Luna is recovering. Celestia is miserable.

A few years after Luna's return it seems that Equestria will finally know an era of peace and appears to be on the verge of a new renaissance. Ponies are blithely happy, as they are often.

Luna is recovering, and happier than she's been a long, long time.

Celestia is miserable. She's faced with unexpected changes, like always. It never really mattered until she was faced with something (or rather somepony) she wasn't sure if she could cope with, and everything that came with him.

Now, it feels like she is watching the world fall apart. Her world.


Book One of the Strange Future arc. Thanks to NorrisThePony for proofreading and editing help! There are also unmarked spoilers in the comments. Content warnings are for discussions, themes, and 'off-screen' events. Contribute to the TVTropes page! The lovely art is by Rocket Lawn Chair but it has been edited by me. Old cover art by Alumx may be found here. Find the previous arc here!

Chapter 1: Problem of Mine

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Celestia closed the door quietly behind her, so she would not cause even the slightest disturbance in the truly silent night. Her golden aura was thin, and weak, but not by her doing. Her chest ached with the dreadful sensation of something being forcibly constricted inside until only a poisonous ache resonated through her body. The world seemed to buzz with heavy pinpricks she did not know, acting up when she passed the door that was woven with enough magic to fry any hostile who would even dream of entering and inlaid with even more powerful, subtler shields. Yet when she passed by and probed the balcony door with her own magic, her body burned from within, making every nerve feel feverish. Her head throbs worse than any hangover.

And then, it all passed. She swallowed dryly as she slunk out into the dark, almost limping as her muscles ached and her head pulsed with something ugly. Something ugly had been grating up against her insides for some time now. Ten years, she thinks, as a new stab of pain resonates in her mind, outward. Her next swallow is pained, but they all are. She thinks it has been ten years, and that is surprisingly, partially true, but Celestia doesn't dwell on it.

Celestia's legs wobble with nopony around to see, as though she were a wind-up toy experiencing... imperfections.

The last word leaves a sourness blooming in her, the foulness spreading through the prickling of her coat, mostly along her back and neck. Chills from the dark and everything anything else tickled her body cruelly. She wanted warmth and light more than ever; she needed for nothing to hurt. If she could curl up inside herself and whimper for a bit of sunshine, she would. Whatever it took to make everything kind again, Celestia would try and do that.

Instead, she tried to keep up her limping gait and force it into a regal stride that she never thought twice about. She didn't try to recall the last time the sun's warmth had touched because she didn't think it was much of a problem anymore. No, she just felt every muscle, nerve, and the deepest flesh of her divine skin and blood ache like a knotted string would feel, all tangled up in itself. Her head throbbed and her heart lurched. She teetered on her legs, and her gold shoes made a creaking noise, shaking with her, though she still attempted to maintain stiff perfection. Large wings hung like tattered, feathered weights at her sides. They only looked tattered because of how ruffled they were. She always preened them. She always looked perfect, even when she hurt. Especially when she hurt.

She had for the past ten years. Eleven years. One thousand years. Two thousand.

Celestia kept her ill breathing concealed with forced tranquility, so that attempting to make it sound like she was relaxed only highlighted how ragged the sound was.

Clouds drifted across the sky in trails. Each was organically shaped, wispy trails acting as streams between a brilliant array of stars flashing between all the shadows of the sky. Celestia had never thought of it as anything but black and cold. Nights were always cold to the sun goddess. She stopped and craned her head up so she could see the only light the night had to offer. Moonlight rained down upon her, something she still found alien despite managing her sister's celestial body for a millennium, but she did not feel the moonlight itself. It washed over her: a face that was very pallid in places with unusual fatigue. She had packed everything away under the perfect amount of cosmetics. Lots of it. And, of course, it hadn't been attributed to the true problem worming through her — why would it ever be?

Her ears hung limp too. Her mane only flowed sluggishly when she'd let it, her tail too, and so it was now that they did.

She closed her eyes, yearning to see anything other than darkness. Not being a filly any longer did not stop something about it from frightening a primal part of her.

Celestia thought of years wandering the wilds as a foal, stepping on a fresh world whose foundation was built from ashes. Meanwhile, her sister had thought nothing of her abandonment. Instead, Luna had mastered magic and flight long before the grip of adolescence only sharpened those abilities. Luna had run singing through the night because her flight made no sound while Celestia's wings had been too big for her even then, and her legs were always too gangly. Thus, she was the clumsy one for some time. She was afraid and clung to the edges of campfires, always. She slept early.

She watched dear Luna.

She tried. Luna ran wild. Her mane was short, her heart lighter than her unearthly grace, moving as though she were in tune with a wild world, and yet all attention flowed to her. Luna played with wolves. Luna hunted for their young when they were too weak. Luna tracked and came to know all the secrets of the wild. Luna fought — as a game, then — the beasts that Celestia could never trust. They bothered her not, something Celestia could never understand. The light of her little star's big, toothy smile and soft-spoken ways split a dark night more than any racket ever could.

Celestia's forehooves found the golden balcony of the spire of Canterlot castle that did not belong to her. It was just as a flurry of images cut themselves from a memory that was rich with divinity's blessing bombarded her. Every part that she always wanted to remember could be recalled with absolute clarity — and so could everything she only wished that she could forget.

The wilds changed, and her own mind pushed her and had her plunge into brutal recollection. She was teetering at an edge that was choices, murky and dark. Oh, and a physical edge too, but that meant little. Falling would only break her body. It wouldn't kill Celestia. Nothing would.

But that only made so many more choices far direr for her. Her life really was flashing before her eyes — and it hurt. There was nothing but a horridness to that; Celestia always believed she had a life filled with optimism and heroism. She told herself that she was ignoring certain parts: the Tribal Era that she didn't allow herself to acknowledge any longer. Among those were the brief reign of her first friend and now-lover who she once warred against, and the window of time before...

Celestia squeezed her eyes shut and the trickle of tears welling up beneath her eyes felt as foreign as oil. Although alone, she refused to shed them, and a painful presence shifted itself in her mind, like it was trying to crush something. Of all the memories to be forced to the surface on this occasion, the uncomfortable sense of shifting of it in her mind was stirring up something... peculiar. The thought of this moment playing behind her now-open eyes was not nearly as haunting as everything else. She personally considered the experience to have been a great failure on her part.

It was when Luna — her dear, resourceful, near-silent companion — had ceased her personal fight with King Sombra. Now, that name would never cease to be anything but venom to her, Celestia loathed speaking it. Celestia knew enough of the story. In her own fight, she had been tricked into charging a door... a door that showed her something that then, she held nothing but contempt for...

A gasp startled Celestia, and she realized it was her own. She had been clutching the ornate gold rail of the balcony too tightly, so that the pain managed to briefly rise above everything else. Before she could stop herself, a sigh, heavy as could be, tumbled out of her. It felt like it had forcibly fallen from her throat.

Luna, who had one hundred years til her fall back then, had pulled her out of that trance, somehow. The kin she then... despised... and barely acknowledged — much to her own disgust now, centuries later — had prevented her from staring into her worst fear for. Well, Celestia hadn't the faintest clue to what would have become of her, other than something involving the fathomless cruelty of the stallion who called himself king. Even now, she shuddered a little at what could have been.

Then — Celestia only remembered the wail that came from no creature that rung in her ears. Their terrible sound that shook her very bones, and whose echoes still hummed within her in the moments after the long call had died. That was what her senses had awakened to when she found herself with the freezing feeling of the floor under her and her kin, a dark shadow of silence in the dreary Empire. Something had come with the noise, following that echo she recalled a peculiar, ticklish sensation in her chest, a flutter of her heart — a startled one, in her mind — before she had blinked and found herself staring only at a wall.

Saving the crystal ponies and ending the life and reign of the tyrant king did not go as planned. She was younger and wanted only to sweep the lonely land of the crystal ponies into an Equestrian embrace. Technically, she wasn't even the ruler of Equestria then, nor was Luna. 'Princess' was something that they were called, but both of them hadn't been much more than honorary nobility. She, the elder was the epitome of social radiance, groomed by the Unicorn Court, and a battle ax-toting charger who gleamed as she fought in battle as the ideal paladin. Her fire scorched any who dared step outside of the lines she drew.

Luna had been the silent 'other one' with all her passions stifled, her eyes on the stars, always a spell on her horn, philosophy in her mind, and the blood of a seasoned world-walker and all the skills that came with it. Ponies were scared of her and the things she said. Celestia swore that her kin was afraid of ponies then, even though Luna accepted the reality of the goddess identity that... well, Celestia was more selective about which traits she embraced there. She preferred her power to be political, and she still did. Luna embraced magical arts, conventional or otherwise.

But all that was a long time ago, no matter how clear it was in Celestia's mind.

Now — she had always thought that fluttering sensation was an omen. Why wouldn't it be? They lived in a world of omens and prophecies, of the adventures Celestia was careful to never go. Most of all, they lived in a world ruled by magic above all else. That feeling was the start of something new, in the midst of her first great failure, she was going to continue on. Celestia was going to spread ideals of goodness and kindness. Harmony was not to be contained. History chugged on like the trains of the present, always aiming for the forest and ignoring every tree, favoring the destinations that meant to much over the journeys that meant so little to her. Celestia had plenty of reason to dislike those wandering, imperfect endeavors.

It took many more beginnings. Equestria started after Discord's rule once more. Both Equestria and her had to begin again after...

On that balcony, she sucked in a breath and forced the neatest recollection of the moon's once-marred surface into her mind momentarily.

...After that. And yet, there was always more to come. In the name of her attempt at catharsis in the harrowing aftermath of something so unpredictable, unfathomable, and hollowing, she flew north again to begin... something.

Equestria was a land of endless beginnings for the good ponies who deserved it. There were so many chances. There were so little failures. There were so many beginnings. It was destined — so it must be! Celestia kept beginning, changing as much as she could. She had to loosen her grip on that gold rail again. She had wrapped her forelegs around the gilded rail so tightly and desperately, clutching at it with all she had until parts of her immaculate white coat had been rubbed raw and dribbles of blood marked her scuffed coat and angry, raw skin.

Falling backward in silent, but uncharacteristic clumsiness, she realized that she hadn't been paying attention to if she had been standing or sitting. Did it matter? She dismissed the question easily, as she settled down. The wind stung her raw wounds. Celestia's mind swarmed with a pained static composed of a disgustingly messy swarm of entangled ideas, thoughts, and emotions that had never been so grossly disorganized. That wasn't even the half of it. She did not go poking in any darker reaches she might have, she shined a light in them and called them solved. She did not dwell on herself. She had a nation to rule.

And somehow, this had all crept up on her, hadn't it?

Celestia felt herself nod numbly to her own thoughts. She wondered for a short moment when she decided to do that — to have her head bob up in a silent agreement with something and listen to the faint stirring of her heavy mane swishing. There was no wind, but she felt the coat along her spine prickle with another presence. She had not realized that she still held her large wings rather stiffly, like a statue, and let them fall down to meet the rest of her.

A small bit of thought — a pinprick among everything else — told herself that she looked very undignified and not even remotely respectable in this position that was just short of being clumsily slumped. She could do casual, but this? The first hint of a tiny scowl twitched in the corner of her lips, but did not break her impassive facade.

Really, she was just glad that the voice was her own.

Celestia's throat tightened abruptly, and she liked to pretend that she anticipated it.

For one thousand years everything had been... blithe. Largely predictable. Safe. Cheery. She could plan almost anything with ease. The other gods of this world — the remaining ones — acknowledged her. Over the course of those ten centuries, ten stallions called themselves her lover, but she did not wed, she still hadn't. She had Faithful Students to offer companionship to her aside from her lovers. Hundreds of friends kept her company and more acquaintances. Why, even if she were no princess-goddess, she would be a socialite! She certainly had large enough wings to be an ideal social butterfly, and that she was! Galas often knew her presence beyond the ones she hosted in Canterlot. Summer Sun Celebrations were glorious for her subjects. Nightmare Nights were something she would grin and bear. Personally, she fought in no wars, but when her southern allies needed her aid throughout the ages, she helped them. It was both part of her duty as a friend and as a princess would dictate.

She smiled. She delegated. She chatted. She laughed. She cried. She ruled. She frowned. She scheduled. She killed time quite nicely. She wasn't unhappy. She wasn't upset. She told herself that even though she was missing somepony dearly, she was just fine. Celestia believed herself with ease, and batted no eyelashes over the matter for nearly a thousand years. Her suitors would be the ponies who saw that sight, and other party-goers that found themselves at Canterlot festivities. While nopony knew anything, she planned as much as she could. Laughing to herself, she often wished she could plan everything! She planned weddings, funerals, celebrations, galas that always seemed to lack something if she dwelt on it too much, and anything and everything.

Well, she thought, those were the plans that ponies knew about.

Her ear flicked once before she stopped herself. Behind every closed door and drawn curtain, she worked tirelessly behind a smile that never truly faltered, but was exchanged for something else as needed. She tested ponies, but only her Faithful Students knew that she did... but she did not just test them academically. So much more had to be done. It was three students before Sunset Shimmer — a stallion named Skipping Stone who was among the most powerful of geomancers — that she began to consider the words from a fortune teller ages and ages ago. Then, the Faithful Student became a little bit more than a sorrowful consolation 'prize' for the sister that might not be coming back at all.

She planned anyway, trying to find a promising candidate to groom into being the perfect Element Bearer — which Element they would be, she could only hope that for the sake of her plans they would be the Spark of Magic. With no Bearers, she had to try and shape a Student into the perfect pawn. The young mare or stallion — she rarely got her hooves on anypony that wasn't already a teenager — would be her most perfect template. The potential their minds had to be molded into what they must be was beyond the comprehension of most ponies.

She had no proof then that a mortal could even be an Element of Harmony — Luna and she had been able to wield three Elements each; more than any previous gods had — but she wasn't even sure if a mortal was capable of managing even one, and even if they were...

The soft sigh that escaped Celestia was odd. Had she heard herself right? Was that the correct sound her ears picked up on this painfully silent night? Something in her mind stirred uncomfortably again. How much time did she have left? The flat stretch of silence, internal and external, that followed was chilling, and Celestia was unable to resist a shudder.

...Even if she knew they were capable then, if she didn't have control over that pony... there was no telling what could have happened.

Celestia was presented with a haunting sign in the form of what had to be the most fragile, eager, impressionable, and entirely unsuspecting young filly's cutie mark. Twilight Sparkle sealed the deal. She was the last Faithful Student. She was the magnum opus of her teachings, the key she needed in an array of bent copper sticks. Had she not been a goddess herself, she would have called the sweet little filly a godsend.

The Second Longest Night should have been the 'happily ever after' that Celestia had waited so long for. Luna and she had promised to be better family to one another. They had cried an uncountable amount of tears. Harmony was restored. Twilight had even made friends! Everything had been so picturesque and perfect. It was supposed to be a completely tidy wrap on their story, one where nothing remarkable would ever happen again. But something dark still lingered, so Celestia dismissed any thought of it. She was going to be the sister she used to be and now Luna was back. She was overjoyed. Delighted. In control. Her smile was lopsided and she cried in earnest so much and then—

Discord happened. She hid how much that confrontation hurt and did what she could, carefully predicting Twilight's moves and doing her duty when she could. Changelings followed. That... she did not wish to review that one, but as always, she thought with the first tingle of being pleased that she had felt in quite a few years, good had won. That was just as things were supposed to be.

Sombra had been the hairline fracture upon her perfect life, its start, and present. While he was her greatest failure, she was young when she faced him. Young and rather misguided in some ways. So much had changed since then. She told herself that, and of course, she believed it, her behavior, her nation — there was so much more proof. No longer was she what she was then, in terms of magical ability, nor was her kin. Reclaiming the Crystal Empire and facing magic that was no longer alien to them would have been easy... Luna certainly argued that. But Celestia had Cadance, and saw a heart of crystal upon her flank... and wondered if it meant something at last.

She sent Twilight to face true evil, and Twilight did not succumb. She had taught Twilight the smallest dribble of a dark power that felt too natural coming from her, the sun goddess and—

Twilight demonstrated perfect humility. She defeated Sombra, and everything was as it should be. When Twilight Sparkle, still a filly at heart, managed to finish a spell so advanced and... She did it all before she was twenty. Celestia found herself facing a second lesser alicorn — technically a demigod — with only slightly less bewilderment than before, not that she let it show. She had stared at Twilight Sparkle and thought of Luna. She thought of Luna, who couldn't be anything but lonely, who surely hadn't really meant to turn down Twilight's advances after Luna's first Nightmare Night, who was too isolated for her own good, and whose lack of romantic interest in stallions spoke to Celestia about something she should've spotted long ago.

Twilight Sparkle and Luna became something else for her to plan, in the whole background of everything. It was a possibility she wished to arrange. Oh, how she just wanted to clap her hooves like a breezie godmother and simply hoof over to Luna a tangible 'happily ever after' and all it entailed: a family who loved her, a lovely young unicorn-turned-demigod just waiting for her to admit her feelings, and how everypony was a friend that Luna hadn't met. Yes, Celestia was struggling at the time about Discord's then-new reformation and their bond. While good once again triumphed over Tirek, there was bound to be a little more stirring, at least for now. This wasn't her quiet solo reign anymore, as much as she longed for normalcy to fall upon Equestria.

Celestia muffled a small cough politely with her forehoof. Her chest ached for the optimism and control that she had in those years that felt as far as possible from that brief, idyllic time. It was like she had simply blinked one day... and it vanished. Where had it started? Even though it only stirred her aching head more, Celestia shook her head almost gingerly, and winced as a jolt of dizziness shot through her while she sat in the dark.

That was a very easy answer. All these changes that should never be, all began with one thing.

That last word sent a trickle of satisfaction coursing through Celestia, but it subsided quickly, and she was forced to lean her head upon the railing by propping herself sloppily with a shaky forehoof. She inhaled more shakily and forcefully than she meant to and felt her stomach churn bitterly. Her fluttering eyes almost triggered whatever slippery slope of recollection she teetered on. Whatever part of her that wasn't pained or numbed was vividly recalling this and that while her body was chilled by the night atmosphere, and maybe something more.

Shortly before Twilight Sparkle, now the official Princess of Friendship and a Lesser Princess of the three mares who ruled Equestria, ever encountered a mare that Celestia had only heard of through her former student — a very troubled Neo-Trotskyite cultist named Starlight Glimmer — Celestia was faced with the news that was downright startling. King Sombra had resurrected himself. That alone almost had her spit her morning tea. Teatime, an orderly and peaceful affair had been spoiled by what was undoubtedly the news of a disaster. She didn't want it to get any worse that day, but it had.

How had she heard? From a stallion by the name of Platinum Laurel, who was a member of the New Crystal Militia organized by Shining Armor. The previous had been slaughtered by King Sombra, as much of the populace had been during his eight-year reign. Not even foals had been spared his bloodlust. To Celestia, there was little lower than foal-killers, and that wasn't even all he had done. She had written books on the subject back in the day — books that had become very popular and frequently distributed in modern Equestria, with all kinds of updates and revisions.

News of King Sombra being found alive near the Gemheart Mountains that bordered the Empire came to Celestia in distant Canterlot through a letter and the promise of a meeting with important members of the NCM who wished to offer advice on what to do. Worse was still to come. When Cadance, her sweet and dutiful social butterfly of a niece, was interrogating Sombra, of all things, she had somehow been convinced by something he had said. What followed was her helping him sneak into the Canterlot Archives right under the muzzle of her and Luna, and was preparing to whisk her off to the Arctic.

Celestia had sharply swallowed hot tea and vividly felt the phantom impression of the illusory burn in the present, even on this surprisingly tranquil winter night so soon after the new year.

A whirlwind of things happened next: a large explosion in said Archives. In the aftermath of that catastrophe, where thankfully nopony had been killed, when Celestia had sent a tracker after her dear niece while she had been swept up dealing with her poor, frightened subjects, Cadance was already missing. Only Sombra could be blamed. The days that followed were a disaster in themselves. Soon, it seemed as if the world suddenly spun faster and had left Celestia in a stupor where she was only truly certain of a timeline: the Crystal Heart was snatched, Sombra and Cadance were sighted near the Empire, a fatal train wreck was discovered, and once again Cadance and Sombra disappeared to the harsh Arctic that even Celestia did not dare venture into. Even now, over a decade later, she didn't even appear at any kind of event held on Yakyakistanian soil... er, permafrost. She found it to be too close to old memories she wanted to seal and wipe away forever.

Cadance returned whole, restored the Heart, and with Sombra... who she was convinced needed a chance. The revolting stallion who had his effigy burned shortly after the ponies he terrorized were freed, somehow, had acted, as the Crystalline citizens would say 'like a keener' in order to win the trust of her niece, who believed in love most of all. She ended up defending somemonster who knew nothing of it.

For Cadance's sake, Celestia had allowed it.

With all that done, Celestia resumed her duties and waited for the twilight of all these unruly adventures to fade into the prosperity that should be.

Her hooves were shaking where she had positioned themselves again, but she remained passive.

She wished that had been the last of Sombra. A mortal being sealed inside the barren Arctic in non-physical form was not something that could be without consequences. Time displacement would have killed him, just as it would have if Discord had been a mortal and any other creature placed in similar circumstances. Instead, he was able to use his magic to keep himself alive — a feat Celestia would have deemed impressive if it weren't unnatural and were done by somepony worthy of any acknowledgment at all — for just a short while longer. Celestia didn't really care why, it never excused his crimes. Nothing did.

He disappeared into the wilds, where the few spies she sent could not track him, and lived a horribly isolated life... or so she guessed. To this day, many of his actions are a little bit of a blind spot to her. Her spies in SMILE returned with too little every time.

Twilight Sparkle wrote her a letter then, all those years back — as though it had been a long time at all! — before she was wed, or the princess she was now, writing all sorts of papers about how great Harmony and friendship were. Most importantly, Twilight Sparkle wrote of the reasons why they should be readily embraced by everypony to this day.

Her letter detailed something that sent her on an Arctic journey of her own — one with a shining destination in her mind. And part of the arrangement was King Sombra accompanying her, as arranged by Celestia herself. If anypony could manage King Sombra, Twilight could, or so went the thoughts of the princess. Except, Twilight didn't. She hadn't come close to being able to control him at all. Princess Celestia thought of the hospital room that had followed. Celestia's chest tightened with a sudden clench of pain that wrenched her back into an agonizing second of lucidity.

Gasping, she willed it away, and wished that the sound didn't sound like thunder to her, and that nopony would wake, even if they always felt too far away now. Then as it ebbed away and her heart continued shaking in her chest, she wanted to weep for sound again. She did not find anything but her emotions made into some kind of weird frizzy feeling that put the image of curling up into a ball in her head and made it hard to tell if she was cold or not anymore.

She wanted to tear her voice from her throat and scatter the sound, but she was afraid to speak.

She sank into recollection, and for a little while longer, let herself disappear there. Where everything unfolding behind her tired eyes had already happened and she could not be surprised. There was the memory of when she saw King Sombra after that and he was one of the few beings that she could say she truly hated in some fashion. He ended up walking out of that encounter, as smug as ever and immortal, with the potential for divinity on the horizon.

Celestia found herself somewhat surprised by her own lucidity. Lately, much of life had felt like it was not accessible to her and hidden behind a haze in her mind, through which only so much was able to show through. To have memory pour so freely — and overwhelm her anyway — was almost relieving. She thought it might be a sign that there was still self control in her, and that she still had time to make this awful, awful choice while something inside her stirred... and with it, she felt her body scream out in pain again, a dreadful thing that only she knew... and masked too well. It was something worse than any simple fever. Her mind and every aching part of her was slammed with dizzying, pained sensations. It was like something in her was ripping. She didn't need that many guesses to what it was, either.

So she let the memories pour forth and allowed them to run their course, pretending that she still had a choice in the matter and that this wasn't a positively immobilizing experience.

Those years ago, a magical catastrophe had almost fallen upon the entire world — one that was rooted in ugly knots of emotion all twisted up behind Celestia's pretty face. She hadn't expected to see an immortal Sombra gathered among all gods who were infinitely more respectable when compared to him. He shouldn't have been there. He didn't know the spell to bring him to the Pantheon, where all gods met, and where unaltered mortals must die to glimpse it. She learned later, that it had been her dear niece that had aided Sombra yet again. The stab of betrayal from that had not healed. Celestia had covered it up, put on her best act, and only let so much show, filtering her emotions spectacularly — and why wouldn't she? Celestia had the experience. Celestia had the time. Celestia had the reasons. Celestia was scared enough. Celestia knew better.

But then, she might have gotten just a little something wrong. Instead of hiding Luna from news that would upset her, she ended up allowing Luna to be exposed to negativity. When Luna left, she thought her sister was retreating somewhere quiet, and into the unhealthy isolation Celestia swore was Luna's addiction and her bane. Learning that Luna had run off to avert a catastrophe was shocking. Learning Luna up and stole an airship to do it had hurt. The pain from knowing that Luna had managed to acquire Sombra as a companion to do so was almost unimaginable, and had ensured that all the politicking, bickering, putting on reassuring airs, and managing a nation in a world that might not have made it — at least at the time — while hiding all but the iceberg's tip of what was really occurring. The feeling was not one she liked dwelling upon after experiencing it. She really hadn't believed that any worse thing could come at the time, and she certainly couldn't believe that had happened.

Seeing the way Luna looked at Sombra upon their return had sent Celestia's heart warring as she heard words that should never be true: Luna did not love Sombra, now a rogue god, Luna should not love Sombra, Luna could not love Sombra. That mantra replayed in her head over and over again. That had been the worst pain she had felt since...

The lump in Celestia's throat felt brutally convenient, and she dared not look at the sky.

...The light of the stars was a slim comfort. It usually was — for her, any light was usually a good one.

She wished she could have stopped Luna. Through all the internal wars going on between those white ears of hers, and all the little whispers that had evolved into brief, noisy battle cries that has all sorts of things to say about the subject... that was one of the loudest. Or the simplest, and Celestia loved simple things. It was probably both. She wished the talk she had with Luna afterward, the one filtered through innumerable layers of sugar, matronly concern, shreds of worry, and all sorts of things so sickly-sweet while whispers kept ringing in her ears like they hadn't in a long, long time — she wished that talk had convinced Luna to pursue a good relationship, one that Celestia could approve of.

To this day, Celestia had no trust for Sombra, and no compassion. Any emotion she had towards the stallion who undoubtedly stole her Luna from her was justified, of course, but unpleasant.

She wished it hadn't continued the way she wished that it had never started.

She wished it hadn't gone as far as it had.

She wanted Luna to be able to be that effervescent around everypony but him and put all her private habits behind her.

She wished that Luna could give that terribly earnest smile to anypony else.

She wished that she could pinpoint the last time she had even seen Luna smile like she did when she saw Sombra.

Ah, and there was the shaking of her legs again. They felt stiff with pain and very cold. She tried to concentrate on that numbness, gently pressing herself against any cold surface in hopes that she could absorb some of it and the burning pains that she hid for so long would cease. But at this point, she'd settle for numbness, too.

She hated the silence of a sleeping world that left her all alone. It managed to slip a strange bit of thought into her head: the thought that things could — or at least they could feel like they could — consume her. Thoughts after sunset were toxic, ugly things. Musings that should not be. Seeds of doubt that should not have bloomed. Cruel nagging in the back of her mind. Bleak things that she waited to fade into the mostly dreamless slumbers that she had. These thoughts and worries that were not, could not, and would not be her own always vanished within the bland normalcy of her personal dreams, which was something she welcomed.

The thought of all who lived in Equestria asleep at this hour filled her mind briefly. Her ear twitched to acknowledge a sound that wasn't there. Twilight Sparkle and her friends and family lay in Ponyville. To the north, Cadance, Shining Armor, and Skyla would be asleep under the aurora of the Empire.

A sound between a faint wheezing breath and a sigh escaped Celestia, startling her heart into racing as she froze up, dreading another presence —
and then resenting herself for ever thinking that something as treasured as company could ever be so feared. Only then did she realized it was her who made the sound.

This year, her young daughter was staying with her father in Ponyville too. Royal duties cast a surprisingly big divide between Celestia, her partner, and the little kirin filly who adored her 'Auntie' Fluttershy and had to fake sleeping through magic lessons she stumbled through, taught by none other than 'Aunt' Twilight while her father was off turning apples into oranges and making rose petals into chicken wings. Celestia would see her next year, and maybe next year her daughter would cease to age normally. So far, the little immortal had gone through her first eleven years normally, gleefully crowing about how wonderful it was to have a birthday the night before Nightmare Night while Celestia just bit her lip ever so slightly and wondered how much candy she was going to have to help the little filly count.

Celestia would be lying if she didn't think of Discord and Qilin hadn't come to mind and made guilt clench in her chest and a tear or two stings at the corner of her eyes just a little.

Celestia told herself just that. It was the kinder thing to do.

She hated that Luna loved Sombra, and that he slept in the castle that was the unspoken homecoming gift to Luna, who badly needed one not so long ago... almost sixteen years ago, or at least, that is the estimate Celestia's tired mind summons. She'd never forget, but it was hard to remember when she was in this state... and so weary, as well.

Forcing thoughts of 'stay' and 'go' away with an almost emotionless feat of mental professionalism in an attempt to create the illusion of being unburdened, Celestia collapsed onto the balcony. Well, 'collapsing' was not a good word for it. Crumpling fit better.

A haze of memory with all the feeling of an intense fever worked its way to the forefront of Celestia's mind as she lay in an inelegant heap on the ground with a small sheen of sweat forming under her mane.

She remembered when Canterlot, as ponies knew it today, was first completed, castle and all. The castle had come first, like a great tree, with construction having started not that long after Luna's banishment — in fact, it began almost immediately after. Not long after, the city began to be built, in the same style as the new castle. The old stone streets, buildings, and crystal caves of a city known as Canterlote were whitewashed by something new and strange. Celestia had tossed aside the styles that were popular at the time and actually presented knowledge of Old World architecture, albeit in pieces, to her little mortals building it. It was the most advanced city at the time, and was still one of the greatest and most beautiful today.

She didn't know Luna was coming back, but she built her a home anyway. She had wished that the scars on the moon could see it even if Luna couldn't. Canterlote was eventually flattened. It was the hidden city beneath the city that less than ten individuals, including Celestia herself, knew about and she intended to keep it that way... though she was sure that a criminal or two knew of the under-city. But before it was flattened, and before Celestia flew north, she was presented with the plans for a new palace. It was to be domineering and gilded. Sun icons would be everywhere, placed there by ponies who wanted to pay tribute to the only goddess they ever loved of the two of them. They would not even try to hide it, how could they when they had sung it in the streets? They were overjoyed that their princess had 'slain' the moon!

It was to be built by serfs, and to be always lit. No luxury was to be spared. Parties were to have their sound ring in the halls. Every bit of the place was something only an elitist, spoiled, and admittedly classist sort would find the utmost appreciation for. The one who ruled from such a castle would be worshipped in almost every way imaginable. This was not the home of a wise god, nor a warrior god, even if Celestia's conquests were to be made known in golden murals, and this was not the home of a god who could be called kind beyond vanity's sake. Only the vainest god could live here, and one who craved the attention of their subjects. Here was the reward for winning their popularity contest — the one that had resulted in Nightmare Moon.

A younger Celestia had loved it with all her heart, and the Celestia crumpled upon a Canterlot balcony had an aching nostalgia for much of what that design had offered, with some obvious exceptions. The notion of serfs disgusted her now. But, such a castle had certainly suited her tastes! It had been one of the most tantalizing things that Celestia had ever been faced with. If it had been proper for her to drool then, she would likely have done so.

So she had refused it and presented her idea: a city in a style that none of them would ever remember, and was more advanced than anything those ponies would have ever hoped to see in their lives. An Old World-esque place even though she detested what that world stood for. She wanted it to be built by paid, skilled craftsponies. Her blueprints had needed some work too, she was hardly capable of drawing much more than nice flower sketches and stick-ponies, even then. It was unconventional, and that meant un-Celestia. She had seen that they hated it, and were baffled by her actions, but they would never question her, even if she was flying north. She was their goddess.

So Canterlot was built — everypony knew that.

For Luna — only Celestia and Luna knew that.

Celestia remembered it because in the one thousand years of her rule, there had been so many suitors, and it was popular to proclaim the goddess that was their princess to be living in a city as divine as she was. They said that Canterlot would not fall until Celestia did, and she was called the Crown Jewel of Canterlot by some and greater than any jewel by others. She had been presented with many sonnets and sonnet attempts — she didn't need to be Luna to spot the worst of poetry and poetry attempts, even if she treated the two like they were the same — that had compared Canterlot's walls to the white of her coat. Celestia was not a city, but right now, she felt like she was crumbling. Her mane twitched faintly, as if responding, and Celestia drew in a deep breath while the balcony's cold touched her back. Inside and out, it felt like there were fractures running through her. She knew there were fractures running through her. Had this all been some deadly waiting game? Just sitting by until she—

As heavy as Celestia felt she was, her great wings flared and circled her. She felt these fractures; she knew that they were in her — and fractures were imperfections!

Pain flared in her, like her guts were being twisted and knotted up. Feverish heat gripped her insides. If Celestia's flesh was a string, then it felt like something was attempting to unravel her, yanking her apart so very slowly. What was salt in a wound compared to this? Her legs were stiff stalks she planted on the ground, unmoving beams supporting a body that felt like... she felt like she just ought to fall. Her breathes came in deep, choked inhales and her eyes were wide as they searched the darkness, fearful over something they would never find.

Everything external of her was so hauntingly silent that she felt like the silence was squeezing at her, and it was maddening.

She got it in her head to create a small werelight, just to shoo the shadows away. The way they moved and wavered disturbed her mind greatly. Her horn ached like no physical pain she had ever felt before. Horns did not bend. Horns did not break... at least, not through anything a pony or Alicorn could do in their everyday life. It took dark experiments and immense divine power to break a horn — the latter mostly applying to Alicorns — and they did not grow back. In mortals, such a break would be lethal — it had been for Clover the Clever.

Celestia's horn almost felt like it moved. She didn't feel the tear trickling down her cheek. Her body exploded with nothing short of pure agony. Combat wounds were nothing compared to this tidal wave of misery. She swayed with the unnatural movements of clockwork toys. There was a scream — a long one — working its way through her throat, like some kind of large, disgusting spider trying to crawl out. Celestia found it difficult to breathe, but didn't have time to wonder if it was possible to choke on a scream. It felt like her nerves were on fire, and not the fire that one would see every day. This was not a candle, a torch, or a conjured flame. It was her own natural magic. It was sunfire; her fire.

And it was hungry.

With it was her goddess nature — her as she should be — locked away behind it all. She was the pyromancer of pyromancers.

Celestia was terrified of this. The burning feeling sweeping through her, the raw hunger wracking her body worse than starvation... it was all the magic that she had been trying to seal away. Celestia's mouth opened and a small whimpering sound managed to escape her windpipe while she looked on at nothing in the distance of the currently desolate — at least to her — scene of Canterlot that was spread out below her. She hated her magic so much. She would raise and lower the sun. She would allow herself advanced magics, of course — raising the sun was some of that, and as an Alicorn, she could never get by with even a demigod's level of magic.

But she hated that fire desperately. This was her nature, and there was something greedy about it. Parts of her she lied about loved it, but this power, this identity, was something she could not stand. The hurt that came from her powers, the ugly truth of it all, there was so much about it that she thought wrong, and she had no way to get rid of it.

Since she was young, she refrained from using her magic as much as she could. It was Luna who was magically inclined anyway. Celestia had started feeling herself... grow, and become more. She was scared of herself... but hadn't she always been? Simply not using magic was not enough. It ate at her. She was starving herself of something. Living, maybe. To Celestia, this was no kind of living she wanted, if it was living at all. When she found ponies, and she and Luna got their cutie marks, she saw how so many ponies called her a monster for the power they displayed... and she agreed with them. So many ponies were not going to be wrong, too. Even the Unicorn Tribe barely used magic!

It was horrifying how Luna argued against this, and how magic was more a part of them than it could be for any unicorn. She saw the nature of her younger kin, and how she tried to embrace... all of it.

But Celestia would not. This could not be her, not at all. Her kin studied magic, but Celestia had different studies. As a young mare, she certainly wasn't able to access a real wealth of knowledge among the tribal ponies, but they had enough. Luna was making her own experiments and delving into magic on her own, weaving her own enchantments and applying what she had learned. From what Luna told Celestia years later, she did more than Celestia ever really wanted to know.

When she was young though, Celestia had a plan. She picked through advanced books, scrolls, and anything to offer her what she needed. She siphoned some of her power to experiment with, but always with restriction and normalcy above all else. It was not normal to have this much power, it was monstrous. Rulers could not be monsters. So, Celestia had started doing sewing of the most peculiar variety. She crafted networks of seals, internal wards, special barriers, and anything and everything that she could use to stitch her magic up. That is exactly what she had done! She really had stitched and sealed and tucked everything away. Everything was perfectly repressed.

Once, she allowed herself to break a good number of the layers of magical networks smothering her, and that was at the Crystal Empire when she first fought King Sombra. After that, she cleaned up and sealed up everything. There was nopony who would ever know she did this, and all the ways that she hobbled herself. Nopony at all would glimpse her wild power. Maybe Sombra, through his dark trickery, found a way to find out just a little.

And now, those stitches were frayed, because lately, it seems that she had been holding something else back, and she... oh, now when she was like this it was hard to recall how everything started... and...

There was the railing again. Celestia steadied herself by leaning against some of it. The chilly night air stung her throat, which felt raw. The ghost of a flare of golden aura hung on her horn, but it was still flickering weakly. She stared at it with eyes both hungry and terrified. Still, it felt like she was not the only one looking at what was lying before her, on her aching horn. It truly felt like something else was peering at her horn through her own rose eyes... and she would not be wrong to guess that at all. There was the presence in her head stirring again, and the unmistakable sinister feeling that it brought. For flaring on her horn, brighter than the golden aura, but not so much that it would really be 'bright' on its own was different magic... and familiar all the same.

Magenta smoke hung around black and—

Peeking through her rosy eyes, stinging more than tears ever did, was the same magenta smoke, with little wisps of it curling through — all in all, barely enough to be detected.

Fighting through, something clearly in vain, Celestia tried to will the gold brighter, and stitch herself back up. Her chest felt constricted again. Her magic faltered entirely, and the near-fully fledged dark magic with it. That was hardly the 'amateur' — as amateur as dark magic could be — little glimpse she showed an unaltered Twilight Sparkle over ten years ago. This was more mature.

With the light of her horn gone, she was left in the dark once more.

This was back before everything began.

Interlude 1: Celestia

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It's so hard not to smile like the royal I have conditioned myself to behave like, so the mutterings in the back of my skull do not appear to trouble me at all, so they don't hurt anypony and make themselves known. Your smile is so free, and ever so uneven. It kills the hollowness I can feel when it creeps up on me. Just for a while I can forget myself more and more, and have the strength to put Destiny and Harmony where they must be: before all other things. There is no greater good without such things.

Ever since I was a filly, I was frightened and as I grew, I became like a pot that can no longer contain the flower within: a small speck amidst a sea of gnawing emptiness, with the perfectly tailored mask to hide it all. I was afraid, when times grow dark, that the light of Destiny will not be there. I know now that Destiny is above any Harmony, but if all is shadows and hinged on hope, meaning is lost. One of the greatest lessons that any ruler must learn is to cast off hope, for hope removes the thethers that keep us where we must be by duty and destiny. Hope is for uncertainty, and there is nothing fouler than the thought of a world without such kind things. We only hope for the best if we do not think the best will come, and that must be dealt away with, because hope cannot exist in a kind world.

I am a creature of order, and once, of the Harmony that I still preach to all my little ponies. Yet your chaos is a welcome distraction from everything that must be, and there is a draw to it that I will never be able to deny. I love you, and how no matter all the things you refute, you have always managed to fit into my life. I love the light I bring forth each day, because with every ray I know that Destiny can be made clearer. I love my little ponies, my niece, Twilight Sparkle, and my poor, gloomy daughter. Despite all this love, without ponies or any other soul beside me, I feel empty. A faint pulse that highlights a space in myself that should — or might — have been filled by something I can't bear to acknowledge. It's like part of me is — was — mortal, and has left so long ago, though no part of me has ever been able to exist that can fit those constraints.

The mortal constraints, as Luna is so quick to describe what she sees as limits within them.

This part of me I cannot ever say is real, and I am destined to fight it the way light overcomes darkness: a bright and beautiful distraction to strangle out all that is impure. The strange corner of an otherwise perfect mind feels almost like a contradiction, something soft and whispery that tells me little things I can't feel I understand, mostly because I do not want to.

You know that Luna was the Element of Honesty and how when we were all so young and innocent together I would tell Luna little white lies. I loved watching her smile when I told her something to make her feel better. One by one, I would layer such things upon each other because I knew they had all the sweetness of cake. To bring pleasure, control, and kindness is higher than anything that dares insinuate it is true, because nothing bitter can be good.

It is here that I need to say that our love has always been sweet, it just took ages to ripen.

It could last, this sugary-sweet and ever-so-kind white lie — a word only said to be cruel by those who do not know its power. So much can last on lies, and that is a power greater than myself I will never cease to be humbled by. Twilight Sparkle has written so much of the supposed virtue of honesty to me, though I have given the virtues of Equestria and the Elements of Harmony many names in the past. I find that I can do so blindfolded now, these new names will slide of my tongue like silver. Goodness knows that I have even come up with better things than what they are, things that my little ponies find much more fitting in their lives and tales than Laughter, Magic, and other things. Every time I read those letters I can't fathom why somepony would want to have honesty so much.

Honesty hurts.

It hurts more than most things in this world.

I don't feel like myself when I think these things, so I say that the voices think them.

They do, and accept these sweet indulgences I gorge them on.

I don't want to hurt ponies as a tyrant does, so even though many consider honesty a virtue, I do not correct them. My little ponies of Equestria know better than to clutch onto it as tightly, and I can say with relief that it is one of the weaker Elements present in my society for very, very good reasons. I need everypony to be happy in Equestria, happier than all the fillies of bedtime stories and sugar plum breezies, and I need them to be kinder than the mother who cradles her foal and knows to keep the world from them. There is no happiness that can be gained with honesty, and one day I wish that this encouragement of honesty in all ways will fade for good — in both senses of goodness. Honesty must be small if it is to exist at all.

I remember that after Luna and I lost the Elements, I lied more than ever. To pull that divide from right and wrong and the world's kind shades of ebony and ivory was worse than death, so I let my mind fill up like runoff flowing into a well after winter. I drowned all the gray, blurry thoughts of a life without heroes and villains once again, and flew north where I knew every ache would be frozen over and evil could be buried at last. I am not an evil mare, nor will I ever be — staring at the wretched spire in that cold land gave me the chance to change.

I have done nothing but change, change, and change again in all these years. I started to look at myself, briefly before that trip, and I looked too deeply within and almost found darkness. We're all like drawings with different lines, features, and outlines of black and white. Some lines are bold, some thin.

Drawings can be erased, painted over, altered, and even destroyed. This does not mean they will never be the good or the bad, the most precious white or the cruelest of dark hues. I gained such a fascination with lies after that, or at least it was changed so that they envigorated me more than ever. It feels so good to make other ponies happy, to see them believe things.

How can those things be lies? Lies were supposed to be 'bad' and that sense of bad never stopped being in quotes. Or rather, how can lie be wrong if they do not bring anything unkind? I hear two buried Alicorns from a world that has changed say these things to their children, and many parts of me don't understand what this is supposed to mean. It's not kind, to tell the truth. As a former Element of Kindness, I would know what is cruel to ponies and honesty is one of the cruelest things I know. Honesty is one of the worst constants. What in the heavens' name can most constants be if they aren't plagues? Honesty hurts everypony, and who would want to hurt ponies except somepony who was cruel?

Sometimes, I don't quite know what goes on in this mind of mine. It's quite funny, actually. Nopony would ever know because I'm very good at being a princess.

Life is so surreal, even without you, my dear. There are times when I don't feel like I'm in it, but my mask keeps smiling because I don't want anypony to worry or see what I'm really like, including you and everypony else. I just can't have everypony acting like there are layers of faces to peel off of me, like there are so many fossils of previous Celestias that still exist and could be unearthed. That is what change is for, after all.

Change is for the kindness of erasure.

Every time I wake up, I feel as if I'm a different me, like I've changed and changed all over again. What else is change but for the better?

I'm not refreshed or rested. I'm not sure who I am at times, just that I have to be Princess Celestia, who is a princess beloved by everypony. There is something so humbling and nesscary in that experience. That means that when I go to sleep it's like dying, except there's only a foggy, and everyday oblivion for that particular day's Celestia.

Is it so strange that I feel nothing at all towards my own life, but vow to protect the lives of others? Or is that just the nobility of self-sacrifice flooding me?

It's like all the voices: each and every one of them is me, or Celestia, or the ever-needed princess my little ponies have never been able to live without. At times it can be hard to tell who is who. I don't know myself, but I know everypony else. Luna, you, Twilight, Cadance, and others. You are the ones who tell me who I am supposed to be, and I love that.

But I don't need to fear the voices anymore.

I don't need to feel anything unless somepony tells me to. Some of the Celestias know what they're doing and that helps.

But they all love the same ponies, and believe the same things. With company like you, I know who I am no matter what I go through because, with the company I keep, I'll never have to remember myself. Only Celestia and all the things I know about her.

Discord, I love you and your chaos with all of Celestia's heart because no matter who I am or where my mind is, you've always been an anchor in all this even though nopony — not you, not Luna — absolutely nopony will know about anything beyond Celestia's mask. She loves you and everypony else too much to tell the truth.

Maybe tomorrow's princess will feel more like Celestia.

But she'll still love you.

Chapter 2: Sister of Mine

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Princess Celestia clicked her tongue with the faintest, lightest disapproval she could convey and calmly looked upward, lighting her horn up with golden magic in the process. She adjusted the festive, low-hanging garland that had gotten caught on her horn. Soon, it was tucked right where it belonged as was neatly bordering the doorway — which was long ago constructed with her, ah, generous stature in mind, and bore all the stunning features one would expect from a timeless structure like Canterlot Castle.

Once she was done, Celestia stepped back into the room to admire her work, however minor it was. The holly sprigs and the beautiful door, colored in soothing shades of purple and gold-trimmed, were a lovely mood-lifter to anypony who looked upon them. If there was anypony who doubted the concept of 'holiday cheer' it wasn't Princess Celestia.

She lit her horn again, and delicately fished a few peppermint candies and small chocolates from a nearby vase that was brimming with them. A small, friendly sign read for anypony to have some, whether it was Princess Celestia, who didn't mind a treat or two; Luna, who had a sweet tooth when it came to such small treats; a maid who simply wished to have a piece of candy... or Qilin, the little kirin filly, whose mismatched limbs and small bursts of chaos magic who would be eager to have a sweet treat clutched in her grabby toddler hooves.

Celestia sighed deeply now that nopony was around and popped a few candies into her mouth. She could imagine the delighted cooing of little Qilin at discovering the taste of peppermint, wherever her father was taking her this Hearth's Warming Day. Celestia had no doubt that Discord would be allowing Qilin to indulge in as much of the foalish behavior of stuffing herself with candy, even at her tender age.

Even though Celestia wasn't the — ahem — 'prime parent' for the year, as Discord liked to put it, she had been called over on Nightmare Night. It was only a few months earlier, and she had been required to sort out something that went far beyond a simple 'tummy ache' in the young one.

Celestia never minded that she saw the little one in intervals instead of more consistently. She had Equestria to rule too, and arrangements like that had to be done. Discord certainly enjoyed it. They kept in touch. She managed the expected things... and he... well, he looked after Qilin for a year, and then it was her turn. She'd try to be as attentive as he was.

She swallowed the remains of a bitter peppermint. Her ears pricked to catch the melody of bells tolling in the city below her castle tower, and she knew if she were to turn around she could see the snow falling softly upon her city through the chilly glass. Instead, she stood in the somewhat unbearable quiet and listened to the song of pendulums swinging ringing throughout Canterlot, whose homes would be filled with joyful families sharing traditions.

Lovers would relish together in what Harmony and all things good had rewarded them with, allowing them a safe, normal holiday. Foals with perfect shining eyes, innocent smiles, manners as good as their hearts, sweet faces, soft coats, and cute little muzzles would learn the virtues of their parents, of humility and kindness and guardians who always stayed. The young would enjoy the gifts presented to them. They would know no strife. Ponies young and old would sing blithely in the streets. There would be a pageant to see and meals to have. They would talk and welcome all who should be welcomed. Ponies would be ponies.

Hearth's Warming was about many things. It was about Harmony, good, helping ponies, kindness, and the company one kept. Ponies would be brought together, no matter what. Who was to spend Hearth's Warming alone, after all? Who would want to spend it alone?

Celestia hadn't. For a thousand years, she spent it as public as can be just to escape such circumstances. Her ponies wanted it too. There had never been a private Hearth's Warming until Luna returned, and then she had someone to share it with. Alone. How odd that was — and how she really hadn't bothered with that then. Cadance had even brought gifts addressed to each sister.

Now? Cadance was spending the holiday with her husband, and Discord and Qilin were joining them up in Equestria's northern colony. After all, as young as Qilin was, she was never too young for friendship. Cadance's daughter was only slightly older than the little hybrid, and Somber Skies — or 'Skyla' as she was usually called — was already showing signs of being very playful.

Celestia chewed at her chocolate, and yet she frowned. She believed Cadance named her daughter 'Somber Skies' for the reason she told the public: it was after the World Tree, a distant magical phenomenon of light painting the midnight sky that looked so lovely up north, where it seemed intertwined with the aurora of the Empire. And yet, Celestia didn't believe it entirely. She knew there was something about the first part of the poor young filly's name — a soft reference to somepony that Cadance had started keeping the company of when she visited Equestria.

She never confronted Cadance about it, but she had her suspicions, and so did Twilight Sparkle. Celestia had never called the heir to the Crystal Empire's throne — a sweet pegasus filly who was leagues more innocent than her name could ever suggest — anything but Skyla. Maybe Cadance knew this. Maybe she didn't.

Celestia polished off the last of the hooful of candies that she had been keeping in her telekinesis, and carefully disposed of the wrappers, tossing them in a wastepaper basket where bits of colorful wrapping paper stood out. After that was done, she finally decided to seat herself. She thought she felt a headache coming on.

The parlor she was in was one of many in the castle. A fireplace crackled, its flame covered with a faintly shimmering magical barrier as sparks danced warmly within. With Qilin and Skyla visiting, little barriers like this had become strongly enforced, taking on a new use beyond good castle-keeping. Most of them were cast by Luna, who was always eager to work her magic. None were Celestia's own, and the slightest evidence of rippling turquoise when anything impacted them was the most obvious evidence of this.

A grand oak table sat in the middle of the room, where it was a comfortable distance from the fireplace. Luna had always called it 'proud' when referring to this particular table — it was heavy, and of Germane craftsmanship — but Celestia rarely described anything as such. Not when there was nothing good in such a word. A tray containing two metal pitchers holding coffee and hot chocolate sat on the table's surface, with small bowls of candies, cookies, and other extras present too. Luna had even brought a can of whipped cream down.

Celestia wasn't entirely sure why there had to be coffee. She loved the beverage since it might as well be the only thing that got her up in the morning and had been vital in pushing herself through centuries of sleepless nights when Equestria needed a princess. It was three in the afternoon. Hadn't Luna made a comment about how he loved black coffee some time ago? Giving the covered pitcher another glance, she flared her magic to renew the enchantment on the pot kept the dark liquid hot.

She also said that he hates rising before one o'clock on most days, thought Celestia, and that simply can't be healthy. But I can't say that I'm surprised that is the case.

There was a twinge of something peculiar and bitter in her chest. A small sound of alarm made it partway past her lips, but she ignored the ache — she usually did — and thus her facade resumed if it had ever dropped at all.

Below the table was a rug decorated with Prancian floral patterns. It was something Celestia had a particular fondness for, out of all the foreign treasures in her castle, this floral print rug was her a definite favorite. Sitting softly upon it, but below the table bearing the modest amount of snacks were a few presents that she had wrapped a few days earlier. One was obtained in earnest, and one was just because it would be rude not to give one to him, though he didn't deserve one. Or any. Luna had hidden her presents somewhere in her room. Somehow, she always managed to find a way to stash things in every part of the castle Celestia thought she knew.

A couch and two chairs surrounded the table, all in rich, darker shades and mild earthy tones that complemented everything well — including the coats of most guests. Celestia sank into one of the chairs with grace as practiced as her smile and levitated a mug from the table's selection. It was decorated with a smiling snow-mare and the message of 'Season's Greetings!' in loopy red script against a snowy, dark blue background. Many of the letters were intertwined with sprigs of holly, and the snow-mare even wore an adorable scarf.

Celestia couldn't help herself when she caught sight of it; her smile slipped and cracked into something a bit bigger, and much more genuine. "It seems that Luna has been raiding my prized collection again," she murmured, mostly just to break the silence. While it was common knowledge that Princess Celestia collected tacky coffee mugs — and just coffee mugs in general — only Luna and a select division of maids had the key to the Hall of Mugs, from where the selection laid out before her had come from.

She calmly busied herself with pouring a cup of hot chocolate before placing two jumbo marshmallows in. Whipped cream and candy canes were Luna's choice in cocoa toppings, but Celestia couldn't ignore the call of two simple mallows. She also didn't think whipped cream was really the best topping. The way it made the cocoa taste? It wasn't for her. She liked simple things, and marshmallows were very, very simple.

Taking a test sip of her drink, she found it satisfying and placed her mug back upon the table with the utmost ease. Her horn was lit again, this time her magic found the phonograph in the room with ease, and she carefully levitated an album out of the bin nearby, only to sigh in disappointment, which is something she would never do if anypony was around — this wasn't her record bin at all, but one of Cadance's — and she wasn't her niece. She disliked alternative rock, and it didn't help that the band name she was currently reading sounded like a cough. She replaced it and returned to her drink, occasionally shaking one of the snow globes sitting upon the mantle boredly before dimming her horn and returning to her waiting.

Occasionally, she would also glance at the cards lining the mantle, pushed in between snow globes. A march of wedding photos and family holiday cards were arranged rather neatly. Shining and Cadance. Twilight and Rarity. Pinkie Pie and Cheese Sandwich. Evidence of births, like those of Somber Skies and Qilin, were also there among the clearer of the pictures. The mares who once bore the Elements of Harmony were now moving on... from something.

From what they had been.

Celestia didn't like the silence pressing down on her ears, and calmly pulled the collar of her sweater straighter. It wasn't a traditional 'ugly sweater' but a designer holiday sweater done in a soft shade of blue and made out of the finest materials. A few elegant snowflakes framed the collar and wound their way on each sleeve. Little pearls were sewn onto the smooth fabric as the center of most of the snowflakes. Her crown still sat on her head, a noble and permanent fixture on her form, and she still wore her gilded shoes, but her collar had been forsaken.

She cleared her throat in the empty room once she had finished her drink and adjusted the jar of roses resting on a small table near a window. There. Perfect. A small, satisfactory smile crept across her muzzle before she poured herself another drink.

If it weren't for spending time with Luna, she would be out in public, attending an event open to her little ponies and encouraging Luna to do the same instead of spending time with him.

In a rare moment, she let her thoughts stray a bit, thinking on the pageant of last year. Each year, a different Equestrian royal — Luna, Twilight, or herself — will preside over the pageant. They are given the opportunity to govern the event: choosing the writers, or working their own version, picking the set designers, and the list goes on. Critics of theater all across Equestria look forward to the event like a wolf looks forward to pouncing upon a lamb. What will each princess bring to the celebration? How will her writing grace Equestria and uphold its long-standing legacy? Will the traditional values of Equestria, known to her ponies as the Celestian Moral Principles be represented in the pageant of that year?

Last year was Luna's turn — her first chance to really experience the pageant as royalty was meant to. She loved theater. The arts were among her passions, that which she spun her soul into, and she would act as a patron to many types of artists, all from then and now. The art of one thousand years ago was... limited, to say the least, and not because of anything Luna had done. Luna had eagerly attended many operas, art shows, and live orchestras since Celestia was able to hold her little sister again and pull her into a hug and tell her that she was so, so sorry for everything that had happened between them.

Luna's play had been the most controversial piece to ever make it into Equestrian holiday theater, and easily among the least-loved pieces of drama ever performed in Equestrian history. Ponies were reeling. They wanted to see the friend-less, silly tribes find Equestria and have their ‘happily ever after!’ as the history classes and bedtime stories had spoonfed them that narrative all their lives. Everypony wanted simple costumes and even simpler archetypes: heroes and monsters, the nobles and the peasants, along with the sociable and the shunned. They demanded gags and smiles! Their subjects wanted morals as easy, sweet, and blatant as a bag of sugar to dissolve on their tongue. They wanted the personalities they were familiar with: shallow Platinum, brash Hurricane, humble Clover — they wanted fun, wholesome, addictively simple things. Celestia's little ponies wanted the most real thing that they knew, and that was fake heroes.

Celestia bit her lip, and the pain pulled her back to the present. Her and Luna had known all of those ponies. They’d known what had really happened. Celestia had warned Luna, gently, constantly, and kindly. Through careful sugarcoating, reassurance, and a thousand and more years of diplomacy, she did everything to get Luna to drop her dream. Celestia had spent so long caring for the young mare who was once a little filly big enough for her to hold like a real daughter that she tried to tell Luna: don't be honest.

But honesty was Luna's nature, and always had been, in some shape or form. Ponies were left with a dramatic, darker tale of a history that they didn't recognize. The draconian and vain Platinum, harsh and cold as the material she was named for shocked viewers. Luna's rendition was benevolent compared to how Platinum really was, but Celestia stayed silent on that. So did a Clover who was in no way a clever hero brimming with the moral values of Equestria. Instead, Luna had captured a fragment of that long-dead mare's reality by showing how Clover's life of servitude bordered on being a slave, something hardly any modern pony was truly aware of...

In her chair, and over her second cup of hot chocolate, Celestia sighed, causing wisps of steam to trail around her muzzle. She hadn't bothered with marshmallows this time.

Luna was so stubborn. She defended her work. She gave nopony what they wanted — nopony but herself, and that... that selfishness made Celestia's insides twist. Just do what everypony else did with the play. She had said that to her dearest little sister in so many iterations and...

Celestia's artificial calm never broke. She sipped her hot chocolate for a long while, letting the smooth, hot liquid pour down her throat—

—and coming down the hall was the richest sound she ever knew, that put all the bell tolls of her lifetime to shame with just a single peal—

—a sound so rare her imagination could never capture it true—

—Luna's laughter, and if Celestia didn't think twice and know better, the faint echo of a male chuckle.

Her throat burned with hot chocolate swallowed the wrong way. She suppressed a hack, gasping, and wheezing instead. Her eyes widened at the thought of the mistletoe pinned above the doorway, about his first Hearth's Warming, about him sitting across from her (and next to Luna), and everything about him.

Zippering a garment was more difficult than Celestia pulling every little emotional shift back to her tranquil norm, hiding all her darker thoughts, and smiling calmly once again. In an instant, her composure was there again, stitching everything up because, always, Celestia has been beauty. Celestia has been grace. Celestia has been haunted too — and guilty — but that's not something anypony needs to know.

Luna does, she reminded herself with a kick at her heart.

Celestia blinked back tears that thankfully weren't there and ignored it. She wondered if Luna would like her present. She wondered if it would mean anything to Luna. She hoped it would. She wanted to hug Luna and talk about their silly sweaters. She wanted to drink hot chocolate with her, play board games, hang up garlands.

She didn't want Luna to give Sombra his Hearth's Warming present ever, or to even know him.

Celestia tried not to close her eyes because then she knew she would see the present that made her stomach drop and churn so clearly. Instead, she waited while looking like the epitome of serenity. Hoofsteps grew closer but hardly louder. Luna's voice, though not loud and devoted to Sombra, had a way of spreading, so all felt encompassed in the peculiar sound of her little sister's voice. Sombra's voice was there too, but Celestia shuddered at the thought of him. He sounded... well, when she pricked her ears to listen in on what he could be saying, she didn't hear much, so he wasn't up to anything. Yet. Her calm facade only solidified with this knowledge, but she still wished the walls weren't muffling so much.

When she stifled a sigh and leaned forward to take another sip of hot chocolate, she found that the thought of Sombra, and what his visit that she so graciously permitted might bring made her once-sweet drink now tasted as bitter as poison.

...

From where she sat, Princess Celestia did not need to turn around to see the newest occupants of the room, who no longer stepped as quietly as before. There was the beautiful sound of Luna's laughter now so close. Celestia would have swiveled her ears toward the rich, dulcet sound if she had not refused to cave into the smallest impulses and behavioral tics long ago. It wasn't even a conscious thought to remain so perfectly undisturbed. She just did.

And she did just that, tuning out their voices for a minute until they were no longer so interested in the 'discovery' of mistletoe that Luna had fixed in the door's frame before her departure and date... and then walking through the city with — she dare not look that way just yet — him to meet her here once more. Celestia refused what would've been an unnatural swallow, trying to think about what the holiday should be about instead of who tainted it. To exchange gifts. To celebrate.

It was a quick kiss, of course. Celestia's throat had a dry, sour taste she'd never admit to all the same.

When she did turn, there was a humble grace to her movements. "Luna!" she greeted the dark goddess that was her little sister with an earnest (if cautious) smile. Thankfully, it drew away from the subtlest — really, the movements were barely detectable — scrutinizing flicks of her rose eyes as they looked over Luna.

No sign of distress... hmm. No cuts. She looked rather jolly, really... but...

No obvious bruises. Celestia kept her eyes from widening and an imperial verdict from leaping from her throat, but her heartbeat quickened.

She looked at Luna's green sweater, thick and woolly, and decorated with a row of ancient Crystalline runes in the center. The color was decidedly less garish. They spelled out something akin to 'Happy Hearth's Warming' or so Celestia was informed by Cadance. The latter had taken to knitting with the arrival of her daughter and was beginning to take interest in ancient Crystalline history: tales of mead halls and the mysterious 'Ouroboros' used to frighten foals. So yes, the piece was tacky, but the gift was thoughtful. There were rare occasions where that mattered more than presentation.

Luna's red scarf, made from the same wool, was red and an alternating pattern of snowflakes on it — a few even had a slight touch of glitter on them and sparkled faintly. The scarf was untied — something the practical Luna would certainly never do — and hung almost loosely around Luna's neck.

Luna's sweater even looked a little rumpled — her new sweater — and had a good deal of snow clinging to it.

Ages of experience kept Celestia's declarations boiling below the surface, hidden and smothered, and her composure intact — for now.

She saw Sombra, whose intense eyes regarded Celestia with something that she could never seem to place, their crimson irises holding an unusual vibrancy. Celestia found his aloofness to be disgusting. He always had a faint scowl when he eyed her with an unusual directness — he'd turn that piercing stare on anypony as wantonly as he wished. Here he was, at a quiet holiday celebration with a mare he claimed to love and he could not even thank her for allowing him here? Or look like he appreciated it?

Celestia always had a hard time looking at him directly — there was a wrongness to Sombra, the way he acted, the way he spoke. It wasn't just his nature as a magic-made monster — a demon, a living taboo, with this part about not known to the public he avoided — that made him seem... 'off', and permanently so. Celestia let her gaze flick over him again, as though he were a page in a magazine she could skim with unshakable calm. Everything about him had a stubborn performance that she had no fondness for. It was as though he thought he could defy change itself, and then somehow manage to appear reserved at the same time.

She saw the crimson traveling cloak he wore, which was plain and almost earthy in the exact shade of crimson it was. Dull, even. It was slightly askew — she had to narrow her eyes slightly to see that — and covered with a dusting of snow. However, she was pleased to see he lacked a weapon at his side. He was covered with little else, having nothing against the cold, and his hood was pulled down, so she could see his face clearly. His disheveled black mane was kept long, but despite the roguishness it gave his appearance, Celestia didn't see any sign of it being poorly kept. There was his faint scowl again, as if he was the one who wanted to be elsewhere.

Of course, he didn't even have the manners to pay attention to her. The furniture in the room's background caught his attention — though 'attention' was putting it very loosely.

"Hello, Luna," Celestia said, looking in the direction of Luna, but never taking her eyes off the snow on her — the same snow Sombra brushed onto the floor without a word. To properly conceal a sharp swallow, Celestia sipped at a cup of hot chocolate, finding the sweet drink to be bitter with the exact nature of her thoughts about what could have caused the strange untidiness of Luna's clothes... and Sombra's as well.

It worked, of course. If she had almost slipped up as she thought she might've, the technique worked just fine.

Luna's face brightened — something Celestia was still getting used to seeing. "Always with the pleasantries, sister! You know that I am glad to see you."

'Sister' was a strange barb coming from Luna, though there was a faint sweetness to it, the title was poisoned too. Celestia simply accepted it. She always did.

Sombra's gaze looked over Celestia briefly, with all the disinterest one would see from somepony peering at a mundane flyer in the streets, yet there was the contempt of looking at trash in his eyes too, glinting behind indifference that Celestia knew must mask the monstrous side of him that he so obviously had.

"One of us is excited to see you," he grumbled with all the rudeness Celestia expected of him and his coarse manner, "the other one wishes he were still asleep."

Could he never speak politely? "It is past noon, Sombra," Celestia said plainly, and obviously, but her tone held faint, frosty politeness all the same. Level, as always, it gave away nothing that she didn't allow it to.

"That's exactly my point," he replied grumpily, lighting his horn to briefly adjust his cloak. The last of the snowflakes that clung to him fell to the floor. The clean floor — and Sombra gave her a look that says he knew that.

Still smiling, but not as broadly, Luna hummed and swatted a snowflake away from Sombra's wither, melting it into his cloak when it came in contact with her feather tips. "Tia, we got in a snowball fight!"

Celestia wasn't sure if a snowball fight between them would consist of anything but Luna having fun. "I'm glad you had fun Luna," Celestia said gently, and genuinely, but making her exclusion of Sombra clear. The tall stallion noticed, but only said so with a faint look in his eyes that the distracted Luna didn't pick up on — otherwise, they both knew that the perceptive mare would see something was up easily.

Even if she just saw Luna hours earlier, Celestia didn't deviate from the pleasantries she found necessary, and Luna often proclaimed 'meaningless' right to Celestia's muzzle. She rose from her chair, and Celestia embraced the mare that was supposed to be her little sister, closing her eyes to enjoy the moment (any moment she could get Luna away from Sombra was a good one, and she was going to be optimistic about this). His presence wasn't going to spoil such a lovely Hearth's Warming!

As she hugged Luna — it was really a quick hug — and pulled her sweater-clad sister close, her horn glowing gold as she set Luna's scarf aside for her. Celestia then busied herself with draping it across her chair — she found time to think.

She never stopped trying to figure out what it was Luna saw in Sombra. He was a disgusting, violent, loveless, and unforgivable stallion at his least, and Luna never talked about him that way.

Luna, her reclusive, aloof, intelligent, brave, and tragically asocial little sister. She was passionate, creative, and the fighter of them both, who never 'wasted kindness' as she proclaimed — it was such a sad viewpoint to Celestia — had grown close to this utter monster and fallen in 'love' with him.

Celestia was glad Sombra wouldn't be able to see the sudden flash of sorrow that worked its way into her expression at that last part.

Being the good sister that she was, Celestia listened to what Luna did mention about him, even if she never believed a word. She took solace in the fact that Sombra was a phase, and would listen calmly as Luna would talk about him, and the things that they had done in the time they spent dating.

She'd tell Celestia about when she took him to plays or ice-skating with him, going hiking, ponywatching in the park with him (Celestia longed for her to talk to any of those ponies!), exploring the city, sparring, reading dates, and even sharing a bit about curios he had in his pocket dimension when she... when Luna stayed over. The knowledge that those two had been sleeping together was one of the most disgusting things Celestia had ever learned... and yet, Luna certainly didn't seem to mind Sombra in the slightest.

Celestia, upon learning that detail, had instantly wondered how poor Luna, no longer the goofy, cheerful ingénue mare Celestia remembered, could have been coerced into doing something with Sombra. And, when she had heard the words 'cared for her', 'trustworthy', and 'agreed to' come out of her sister's mouth that day, in reference to Sombra, Celestia was terrified. This was not because there was something so obviously dark and vile going on surrounding that vile stallion... but because there almost didn't seem to be. It was almost like Luna didn't see what her caring older sister could be implying that he would— could do...

Since forever, Celestia was the experienced one and Luna the innocent one, and it was up to her to protect Luna.

The things she was faced with made it sound like Luna could tell this stallion anything. Luna called him lots of things, and Celestia couldn't believe that the way Luna saw him was true.

Luna said: blunt, antisocial, witty, sarcastic, understanding, charming, moody-but-caring, patient, stubborn, selectively compassionate, and sardonic.

Celestia would've said: rude, disturbingly antisocial, brutish, violent, unable to empathize, domineering, cruel, sadistic, mentally unstable in nearly every way, ungrateful, constantly intolerant, stubborn, callous, and abusive if given the chance.

She just knew he was. What effort had he made to integrate himself into society, as Discord had?

Against her better judgement, Celestia permitted him to stay.

Because she thought if something happened to him — her chest tightened at the thought — a part of her knew that Luna might not ever really smile again. The laughing that shamed the merriest of bells would cease to be... and it would all be because of Sombra. Celestia hated knowing that, and she hated very little — but that evil stallion was one such thing.

When Celestia released Luna from her hug, she was still smiling. Though, her heart ached a little at the thought of an adventurous filly with a cornflower mane and stars in her eyes... that had just vanished.

Or maybe she had grown — and grown into the very mare that was nuzzling Sombra back right now, with a smile that was achingly genuine.

Under her own smile, Celestia's stomach felt sick.

...

Sombra seated himself as far from Celestia as he could be, and made no effort to put on polite airs about it. Celestia found herself unsurprised by this. She didn't purse her lips sourly and call him out. She smiled instead. Next to him was Luna, excitement shining in her eyes and her horn lit as she levitated Celestia's still-wrapped gifts from where they sat. From where he reclined, with his head comfortably against her wither, the still-cloaked Sombra followed the path of the packages with his eyes, even though he didn't appear impressed in the slightest with their appearance.

Must he always be so unbearably cynical? Celestia maintained her smile and refused to give him her slightest attention any longer. Of course he wouldn't appreciate gifts.

Instead, she listened to Luna, who continued to discuss the city sights.

"...and that one book shop — the out-of-the-way one that Sombra and I like — has a magnificent display from the front windows! Colored werelights clinging about the ceiling and shifting in lovely patterns! You would love it, sister."

Celestia nodded politely and smiled, ignoring Sombra sitting up a little from his nonchalant slouch so he could levitate the coffee pitcher and a mug over. Of course he had to choose the plainest.

"I'm sure it was lovely, Luna," Celestia said lightly, watching Luna empty her third mug of hot chocolate with ease. The presents to her side — the one not occupied by Sombra — rustled faintly. Before her magic reached out for more hot chocolate, she planted a gentle kiss on top of Sombra's head. If Celestia didn't know him better, she'd have sworn he almost smiled for a second. It wasn't even a real smile, just a sort of crooked half-smile. Like the mysterious impressions that would occasionally gather in the shadows of his cloak when he wasn't fully relaxed, it was momentary. Luna said he did that, but Celestia couldn't see Sombra ever being relaxed unless everypony was submitting to his every whim.

"The lack of ponies mindlessly flocking everywhere and gawking at everything was an improvement," Sombra mumbled between a sip of black coffee. His words were still clear — just tired.

Just as he said that Celestia swallowed the tea she had conjured a little sharply and opened her mouth to call him out.

Luna chuckled, and it sounded like a treasured song. A select, almost secretive, and largely unheard-of warmth came from the sound. There was something heartfelt about the laughter of every Element of Laughter that made it so precious, and it was no enchantment. Oftentimes, when Celestia heard the rare sound of Luna's laughter, she wished that Luna could laugh as often as Pinkie Pie so that other ponies could hear the sound too. Instead, hearing Luna's laugh was still something that bordered on startling in its rarity.

Sombra sat through it, his horn lit as he sipped coffee and toyed with a strand of Luna's dark mane. Celestia almost felt like she should be aghast at how he sat through this, acting like this was an everyday occurrence. Celestia took a thin sip of her hot chocolate while Luna licked whipped cream from her face.

"It certainly was lovely to have the city so empty!" The sound of a peppermint stick swirling against Luna's mug was heard; the clinking rang around the table area. "There was space to breathe and room for contemplation around every corner without all the ponies smothering the streets. Oh, Tia, all of it was cold, lonesome, and truly lovely. Seeing the rivers frozen over was breathtaking! Were you to go up to the fountains that still have water frozen in them, the light of gold bits gleaming through the ice is such a personal, enchanting sight!" Luna smiled exuberantly and Celestia couldn't remember the last time she had gone on in such excited bursts like this — mostly because Sombra interrupted her thought process.

"Isn't this festival about sucking up to biological relatives, pointless gluttony, and lying through your teeth that the trinkets they've given you are great?"

"Sombra!" Celestia scolded, setting down her mug. "That is a disgusting interpretation of what Hearth's Warming is! They are called 'family' not 'biological relatives' as you so clinically put it." Of course, he wouldn't know that, being a demon.

"That's exactly what family is," Sombra said curtly. "They're ponies with blood relations, so I'll call them what they. I have no idea how that offends you. I also haven't been able to find anything to read that explains any other reason for why this holiday exists."

"Family is not something you can just dismiss like that," Celestia said, frowning just a little bit. "If you were more apt to listen to ponies and accept them, you would understand that which is foreign to you, and tragically so. The family is one of the cornerstones of society, and its value cannot be diminished nor its image compromised because of rebellious and misleading bullies."

Sombra's burning gaze turned to her, black equine pupils that Celestia knew didn't hold the slightest shred of equinity. His tone was dripping with sarcasm while crimson irises and a mean-spirited, bitter smirk flashed with insolence that every part of his movements accented, even in his slouched position, Celestia observed an odd sort of charisma coming from him, and found it disgusting. "Guess what? I did just dismiss it. What are you going to do about that, Miss Morality Play?"

Celestia pursed her lips. She expected him to disregard everything that Equestrian culture had to offer, knowing that something geared towards her good little ponies — the beloved, ever-popular genre of morality plays, like the very Hearth's Warming play occurring today — would be scorned by him, and only give Celestia another reason to believe he was so uncultured.

"Oh?" Luna said, tugging sharply on a strand of Sombra's mane with a flick of magic, and earning a sharp look from him. "I suppose that neither of you want presents then. I shall just have to keep them all for myself," she finished with a knowing look in Sombra's direction. Luna gave another short tug of his mane and a small, playful smirk.

Sombra met her eyes, and something more was exchanged between them besides looks, and then he rolled his eyes. Luna must've found it playful because she smiled where Celestia was not able to.

Celestia relaxed. Knowing that Sombra was being controlled by the greater force of Luna's kindness was a relief. "Yes, if Sombra is done, I would love to exchange gifts." She smiled brightly in their direction, and while Sombra gave her an expected hostile look, Luna pouted.

"Can't you two tolerate one another for a short while?"

Both Sombra and Celestia were quiet. Celestia did it for Luna, but she was sure Sombra — who gave Luna a quiet look Celestia still couldn't read — was doing this only for himself.

Calmly, Celestia took one last sip of her drink — what cup was she on? — and lowered her eyes. She really hadn't meant to upset her. "I'm sorry, Luna," she said, voice gentle.

To her surprise, Luna's frown deepened. "I don't think that I'm the one you should be apologizing to."

And with a flawless look that was a mixture of everything expected and needed: humility wrapped in insincere kindness that only Celestia knew was false — and of course, Sombra, who would accuse her of it anyway — and a tone as warm as the fire even though she addressed a monster, Celestia apologized.

"I'm sorry," she began, specifically avoiding the name that might as well be a curse, "I shouldn't have contributed to an argument that would make a guest feel so unwelcome, and possibly shame the royal household too. Though slight, I shouldn't have said anything that would annoy you. This was incredibly rude of me. Will you forgive me?"

Sombra's fierce stare doesn't waver. "No," he deadpans.

Celestia's eyes widened slightly. Did he really just...? And after she had asked him — Sombra, who never deserved it — so kindly if he would be willing to extend forgiveness, as anypony would.

She looked to Luna for help but kept her emotions in check even if her throat was a little tight with indignation.

Luna didn't seem to mind this at all. She looked between them and twirled a strand of her own mane in turquoise aura thoughtfully. Her expression was reserved, but not distant. Whatever she saw when her eyes darted between them calmly — Celestia saw Luna's gaze linger on Sombra longer — and then Luna refocused her magic on the presents, which glimmered softly in her aura. She didn't call Sombra out for anything. She didn't bring anything up.

She gave a small but honest ghost of a smile and floated a present over to Celestia. It was from her, the label of 'Tia' in Luna's distinct writing made that clear. Celestia's throat felt dry when she realized that Sombra would be getting his gift soon — the one that was kept away from all the others. A special gift.

Celestia's magic embraced the gift and held it delicately. She pushed unwelcome thoughts away, no matter if they were 'true' — Celestia loathed that thorn of a word.

They shouldn't be.

None of that went into her plans. In her plans, there was no Sombra, nor had there ever been one. The Empire wasn't even expected to return!

Luna was different in her plans. She had always been, and Celestia didn't realize how she had neglected her the first time. If — because for the longest time it was a mere fantasy, and one she couldn't indulge in because of how painful it was to even try to hope for anything — Luna was to return, Celestia would have her sister's happily ever after written out for her as best as she could.

Celestia could not control everything — no divine could — but Tartarus knows she would try.

For Luna.

And everything could have gone according to plan. Luna could have read all the friendship reports Twilight wrote when Celestia urged her to, and be loved by the masses of ponies who wanted to know their 'new' princess. She could've made herself known at the Gala, where she could be introduced to Twilight Sparkle properly — she would have to be soon... if things were to go according to plan. Celestia hadn't mailed Twilight Sparkle two Grand Galloping tickets for nothing, after all.

Instead, Luna had met Cadance, and the two spent the Gala away from crowds, and Celestia was left to deal with everything as best as she could. She who sets the chessboard always had to have a backup play, and this was not a game that Celestia was a stranger to.

Luna should've — as Celestia's original plans had dictated — walked among the subjects that she was to rule. This time, she would have gotten to be a real princess, not some titled, powerless spare to the Sovereign Princess of Equestria when it was governed from one lone castle in the Everfree. In her plans, Luna would have to make connections by participating in the talk of the common pony and the modest staff — guards, household servants, and some scribes and such — that lived in the castle, though their number was not as great as the rank of a mortal ruler's servants. Luna's odder habits could dissolve in the sea of modern acceptance until she was just like their little ponies. Her adjustment would have been speedy.

And instead Luna — as unintentionally rebellious as she was intentionally so — planned her own visit to the town of Ponyville. Not only that, but she did so with a little input from her only friend, Cadance, as encouragement, and zero discussion with Celestia beforehoof! Luna had not yet integrated herself and never concealed the extent of her divine powers — herself, a part of Celestia added, and as always it was ignored — as Celestia did. What did go according to plan was Luna meeting Twilight. What continued to go according to plan those few years ago was Twilight became infatuated with Luna. She was the only one of Princess Celestia's hoof-picked Faithful Students to be a young lady besotted by other young ladies in all the time that she had taken on Faithful Students at all.

Celestia, as any good caretaker would have, should have noted Luna's abnormal behavior back at the Tribal Court of the unicorns. How Luna had taken to dressing much more like a stallion as soon as the two had access to any clothing at all. Her lower resistance to going off to war than participating in any of the conventions proper to maidens of courting age. Never eyeing a single noblestallion in the ways that Celestia couldn't resist. When Celestia caught the glimpse of any admirable handsome stallion, she couldn't resist swooning over the tribal heroes... while Luna simply had given the floor more attention every single time. (Why had it taken Celestia until she was banished to notice those things about Luna?) Hating every attempt that a stallion would make to woo her only made Luna stand out more in those times. Never thinking about courting in an age when those who did not fight and toil lived to marry for the sake of pushing coin higher or twisting the roots of a political deal — it was highly abnormal.

And in those times, of course, Luna would have been afraid to say anything! Worse, Luna was afraid of her then.

Celestia had been a fool to not realize what all that meant then, and a fool to still be puzzled by it long afterward. That's why little Twilight was such a blessing — a mare who not only loved mare and one who also loved perfection. Twilight loved every technicality about Luna's light sky — every organized line and angle could be made into a sensible graph in her Faithful Student's mind, which was drastically different than the canvas Celestia had always been foreign to. Twilight had always applied the reason to the stars, never knowing about her innocent hobby's darker meaning...

There was a darker meaning, wasn't there? The stars could aid in Luna's escape...

Twilight would love Luna. To Celestia, it was simply meant to be. How could one not see that in them?

Except...

Luna wouldn't even be Twilight's friend. What had Twilight received shortly after Luna's first Nightmare Night when she asked the goddess out on a date? A rejection. A blunt rejection from Luna. It didn't matter how old Twilight was — filly or grown mare, Celestia could never bear the tears of a Faithful Student.

The present in her hooves was an excellent distraction and the perfect, unspoken excuse not to look at Sombra.

It should be Twilight sitting next to her, Celestia reminded herself with a thin layer of venom that Sombra would never hear.

She pretended it wasn't there and opened her present. Under all that paper and packaged within a little cardboard box was another coffee mug for her collection. It floated in her magic, and Celestia couldn't help but smile at Luna's gift. The pale yellow mug read 'NOT A MORNING PONY' in soft orange letters. Celestia certainly wasn't a morning pony, not with the amount of coffee it took to power her and smiled a little wider. Leave it to Luna to know that a corny coffee mug was better than most things she could be offered by the ponies who would be thinking of sending her Hearth's Warming gifts. This was the most fitting gift that she had been given in the whole season, save for her present from Discord.

"Thank you, Luna," she said, smiling so that the corners of her eyes creased into her soft smile.

Luna gave Celestia a lopsided, true smile and lit her horn to go through the gifts again, her eyes widening in excitement when she found a particular package. Celestia allowed a small smile to settle onto her muzzle so that her expression was as pleasant as possible. Nopony would guess that it was forced.

"Sombra!" Luna cried excitedly, nudging the reclining demon urgently. He raised an eyebrow and looked mildly curious and also slightly disgusted, though the disgust did not appear to be directed at anypony in particular. "Look! This one is for you!"

She let the wrapped box fall into his forehooves. While they did not wait for the gift to be plopped there, he caught it nonchalantly, and his expression shifted. One ear fell to the side, flopping downward and the other swiveled off to the side, highlighting the confusion in his expression. Both eyes were trained on the package, as though it was slightly offensive and also greatly perplexing to him at the same time. As he gripped it, his conflicted state unconcealed, and eyebrows raised.

"You got me this?" Sombra said, the faintest edge to his voice still detectable.

Celestia's smile slipped only a little. "I did," and then with the barest trace of a patronizing quality: "Aren't you going to open it?"

Sombra gave the present a flat stare. "...Perhaps, once I'm certain I'm not intoxicated."

"B-Beg pardon?" Celestia stuttered, eyeing him warily while Luna giggled into her forehoof, which was unable to mask a cheeky grin.

"We both know how surreal this is," he grumbled, giving her a sharp look while Luna's grin widened. "Either what's in here is going to be ironic as Tartarus, offensive, or unworthy of me since you don't know the first damned thing about what I do with my life."

"Always eloquent, Sombra," Luna said with a small smirk and playful wink in his direction, "and as subtle as ever."

Sombra rolled his eyes and nuzzled her. Celestia looked away discreetly and stifled an exhausted sigh perfectly.

The sound of wrapping paper being torn as unceremoniously as possible causes Celestia's ears to turn in Sombra's direction. She silently watches him levitate his gift from the box with a look of annoyed apprehension all while maintaining a flawless air of disgruntledness. And thus his gift sees the light, and his confusion shifts to a sort of existential questioning look.

Meanwhile, Luna tilts her head to the side, mane cascading with the gesture as she blinks in confusion. "Oh," she murmurs, "Well, this is certainly a surprise."

"A useless banana holding abomination...?" Sombra said, holding the small package and looking at it as though it might bite him.

"It's a banana holder," Celestia corrects, no inkling of irritation showing on her face.

Luna examined it, blinking. "Why do bananas even need to be held somewhere special?"

"I don't even eat bananas," Sombra protested, levitating the box off to the side and setting it on the floor.

He gave Celestia the slightest look of disgust. She shifted her gaze away slightly. It really was rude to stare, and of course, Sombra would not respect this.

"Well, Sombra?" Celestia prompted politely. She smiled.

His stare was unwavering, and the mild tension was between them and them alone. Sombra raised an eyebrow with a disgusting nonchalance that was too knowing for Celestia's taste. Too smart.

"What, Celestia?" His expression stayed unamused, and Luna snorted, giving her mane a little toss. There was an almost sardonic glint in her eyes, but it faded quickly. Everything about Sombra was nigh unreadable to Celestia except in gestures of half-intent and shades of almost.

"Didn't you bring any gifts?" Celestia prompted with just enough pleasantness in her tone. It was perfectly measured, as could be expected.

"No."

He didn't miss a beat. The rude, deadpan answer was presented instantly and bluntly, as though he saw nothing wrong with what he did. Typical.

"You didn't bring any gifts?" Celestia repeated.

"I just said that." He still wouldn't look away, even when he sipped his coffee. Something so simple was handled with such clear irritation, like a cat who lashed its tail about.

Luna tapped the edges of her forehooves together and looked to Celestia. "Sister," she began, slowly, her gaze sweeping between the two, "I must go to my chambers to get Sombra's gift. Will you two hold off tearing one another limb from limb for a short while?" She nuzzled Sombra, who met the gesture halfway, a smirk already faintly visible on his muzzle.

Luna pulled away with a smile and didn't notice that Celestia had skillfully averted her eyes from Luna's affection.

"Luna," Sombra said carefully, his attention on her and hers directed toward him. If Celestia didn't know him better, she'd think it was sincere. "You really didn't have to get me anything—"

Luna swallowed quickly, and her eyes widened just a little. She placed a hoof on Sombra's chest to interrupt him before she rose. Both Celestia and Luna knew what Sombra was to receive for Hearth's Warming. "S-Sombra, I promise, you shall love it!" There was a nervous edge to her voice that both Sombra and Celestia noticed.

Sombra looked at her with what would've been love on any other pony, Celestia was certain of it. "Luna, really. Something like a book is fine, but any more than that—"

Luna had gotten him so much more than a book.

"Sombra," Celestia scolded, speaking the name that left a poisonous taste in her mouth, "Hearth's Warming Eve is a time about giving and being generous, which is something that is a core value to ponykind and Equestria. Your attempts at being humble instead of selfish at this time aren't appreciated."

Luna cringed a little and anger crossed Sombra's face. Celestia saw him grit his teeth and hold back whatever poison was welling up in his mouth, waiting to be spoken to her. "Sister, please!" Luna pleaded, wincing. Sombra glared at Celestia.

Seeing Luna react so, Celestia exhaled and her expression and imperial manner softened into her usual humble demeanor. "I'm sorry, Luna," she murmured, bowing her head slightly.

Sinking back into the chair she hadn't realized she had risen from, Celestia watched Luna leave. She watched her sister shoot the now-aloof Sombra a concerned look, but she couldn't imagine why.

...

"Are you really reading a book?" Celestia said levelly. She was rather astonished and offended by the large volume that Sombra conjured in Luna's absence. He now read with as much interest as he seemed to allow himself in her company. She saw how his eyes moved quickly over the words, but could not see what was written on the cover, so the subject remained a mystery to her.

"I am," he said brusquely, and without looking away. He just kept levitating the book and used his magic to turn the pages when needed.

She counted five pages before she spoke again. "Do you want to sample any of the cookies?" Celestia nodded to the sprinkled treats that sat on a small plate in the shadow of the beverage pitchers.

"I don't." His delivery was as blunt as before, and Celestia's smile slipped because she let it, and Sombra went on, still not looking away and making it clear he cared little for this. "I'm a vegan, too. I definitely don't want to eat those when it'd be wasteful of me to try them at all. They're probably too sweet as well. Just give them to somepony without my preferences."

Celestia bit her lip ever so slightly. She really didn't believe that he was a vegan, that was the choice of ponies who were thoughtful and kind, like Fluttershy. What reason would there be to trust him?

"Are you truly so bitter and rude that you won't just have a little bit? Please, as your hostess, I insist. They're really quite nice. I'll send your compliments to the chef if you have one." She smiled politely.

He turned another page, absolutely refusing to pay her any mind.

This time, Celestia blinked in confusion. "Did you hear me?" she inquired calmly.

Sombra flipped another page upon finishing it. "I did."

"And? Would you like one or two? I can get you a plate if you wish."

For somepony who glared at her so much before, he didn't even bother to prick an ear in her direction now. "Remember when I said I didn't want any? That still stands. Drop the act."

Celestia didn't. "And must you always be so impolite?"

"Is that a crime now? You calling me 'impolite' of all things is almost kind, considering everything else you've said about me. I dare say you're being almost honest for once."

"You're more than impolite," Celestia said coolly, one ear involuntarily swiveling toward the closed door, wanting to hear past it. "It is a commonly held belief that you are unbearable."

"Ignorance is also common," he grumbles, "dare I even suggest there might a correlation? I for one think it would work fabulously alongside your knack for twisting everything about any creature who would so much as doubt your opinion about the weather. I fucking wonder what happens when you have that and your affinity for feeding your populace breezie tales as history for over ten centuries."

Celestia's gaze hardened as she surveyed Sombra, who clearly knew that she looked upon him. "The common pony is far better than you could ever be, and were you right in your mind, you would see that my subjects' unified beliefs are a wall to block out the individual stones of ignorance and cynical vulgarity you wish to cast at them. Insulting my subjects will get you nothing, Sombra. No ambition of yours is to ever come true. You blunt, arrogant, downright antisocial—"

Even his smirk managed to be a bit irritated. "You wouldn't do this if Luna were around. We both know it. This has been far from our nastiest clash to date. I'm here for Luna."

She absolutely could not believe that.

"You're here for Luna too. Otherwise, you would have had a pretense thicker than plaster for me to try and chip at."

She really was. She knew he would be here, but Luna mattered more. "I'm here to spend time with my little sister, yes, but do not act like you know what I do. I am not on the same level you are—"

"You're below it," he interjected smoothly, finally looking up from his book. There was satisfaction in his eyes and more she couldn't get a read on; though he was not relaxed, he did not view her warily. Yet, there was no kindness in his gaze, not for her. Never for her.

"How arrogant," she whispered as coldly as she could, a tone that was not fitting for her and few had ever heard. "That is all there is to you, the folly of pride, and any other guest to show half of what you do now would—"

Sombra returned her stare coolly, even after she had to look away from him so nonchalantly locking his eyes with hers. Celestia hid her disgust for the gesture and instead fetched herself a small cookie to nibble on. The flavor was a brief balm for the bitterness every rebuttal he offered her left in her mouth.

"Arrogant and false aren't the same thing, Celestia. We can play this game all day." His horn glowed a vibrant crimson and the book was gone. "Let's try a different subject then, and I have no need to be subtle about it: the Hearth's Warming play. Last year's, to be precise. What were your thoughts on it?"

Celestia's frown softened. What was his game? She knew he had one. "I wasn't there."

What could've been a twinge of genuine confusion showed on Sombra's face. "I'm aware because I was present. Where were you?"

They both knew where she was. "I was presiding over an ice skating competition in Manehattan. They have a lovely ice rink and their competition has grown to be very popular."

Sombra sat up and got himself more coffee, talking to her as he poured another mug. "You were judging, weren't you? Alongside that soul-exhausting smiling and waving; that's what you were doing, weren't you?"

"I was!" Celestia smiled politely and ignoring what she didn't want to hear. "It's one of the few Hearth's Warming events that have a significant gathering but no required royal presence. My attendance was merely ceremonial."

Sombra gave her a bitter look as flat as his tone proved to be. "I'm sure everypony was delighted to see you."

"They were," Celestia replied simply, sitting patiently while minutes ticked away in her mind. Her smile softened to something a bit blander and more relaxed.

"Luna did miss you at her play," Sombra mumbled into his sip of coffee. Celestia heard him anyway.

Celestia's brow furrowed. "Are you... trying to guilt-trip me with something that happened over a year ago?"

"A year isn't a long time, even for us, and no. I just remember how disappointed she was that you didn't show up. When Luna asked me to join her here for Hearth's Warming I wasn't sure if it was related to the reception of her take on the play."

Celestia did not permit herself to frown. When did she ever allow such a gesture to come naturally? She decided to play along and let Sombra think she believed he wasn't guilt-tripping her. "Where could you possibly have learned this, provided it is true?"

"Luna told me then, even though it was obvious how she felt, and she mentioned it on the way here." His reply was far too quick for Celestia's liking. He almost looked bored saying it. "Diplomacy is far from my strong suit, but I would give her the cloak off my withers if it meant mending a rift between you two about her play."

"Why didn't she tell me, if this is true?" She hinged some emphasis on the 'is' to push her uncharacteristic skepticism to the forefront a bit since Sombra probably didn't note it. His empathy needed more work than his diplomatic ability, that was very clear.

His eyes flashed slightly and there was the left side of his mouth dipping into a scowl. Sombra gave her the look of a careful tactician regarding their foe in battle, but that comparison surely was an embellishment on her own part. Celestia expected little from this brute.

Sombra almost looked surprised. "She didn't...?" Celestia's unusual silence was enough confirmation for him, apparently. "You could always ask her later, then, but she probably just didn't want you to worry."

Celestia did worry about Luna. A lot. Equestria wasn't as sisterly with their gossipy concerns about Luna, but their little ponies had their own ways of worrying. Out of the four princesses of Equestria, three were well-known to the public and favorites of the ponies of Equestria. Celestia, Twilight, and Cadance all had their own little fan bases and extra loyal subjects who loved the princesses that were the epitomes of Equestrian values. Luna never fit in. Luna didn't even want to.

So, of course Celestia worried. She worried about her sweet little sister who was in a relationship with Sombra and the least favored princess of the public. Celestia thought that the things ponies said about Luna's unfortunate involvement with Sombra might give her second thoughts before it came to... well, where this was going. She thought Luna might have broken things off with Sombra. She had hoped dearly that she would've.

"You do not need to tell me when I can and cannot talk to my own sister," Celestia said, narrowing her eyes so that his attention could be drawn away from something other than her usually warm voice. "And I hope you realize that you have no authority over Luna."

Sombra emitted a low growl and his crimson irises burned with anger he was holding back. "I would never claim that."

Celestia's calm expression and never-harsh voice worked for her. She looked in his direction, but never directly at him, her regality quite apparent. "Sombra, if I know anything about you, it's that you are reluctant to speak to truth. Instead, you prefer to spew forth nothing but remarks that are rude, uncensored attempts to shock others. Your horrible etiquette aside, I know that you are evil at heart, and petty bullying brings you entertainment. What else would you call my polite attempts to socialize with my guest right now?"

Sombra rolled his eyes and snorted. "I haven't stolen anypony's lunch money yet, so no, none of that has a ring of truth to it. But go on about how I'm the worst entity to ever to breathe on Midgard. I'm bored enough as it is. Your ridiculousness and coloring will have to be a substitute for the jokes of a parrot."

"You think that you are better than anypony."

Sombra shrugged. "I'm above everypony that isn't my peer — that is how the dynamic functions. Luna is my only peer, so yes, I am superior to everypony. I'm absolutely thrilled we could get that out of the way. Do you have anything I can light on fire?"

Celestia looked at him sternly. "I do not, and your arrogance is as appreciated as your dark sarcasm. I certainly do not have anything for you to ruin on Hearth's Warming Day, be it with words of fire. Are you really unable to interact with anypony respectfully?"

Sombra just stared at her. "So that's a 'no' to the 'light things on fire' question."

"Facetious. Domineering. Disgusting. You're an antithesis to everything Equestria stands for and the common good itself as it stands in all nations. My ponies have done nothing but tolerate you, wishing that you'd change your ways, repent, and embrace the harmony that is the opposite to your cruel, false, and arrogant ways."

At 'domineering' Sombra's expression darkened. "It's lovely to see you, too. And don't worry — I know you lie to your subjects with that mouth and have been doing so for centuries."

"You cannot refrain from being rude and flinging accusations even when I am your hostess?" Celestia said, tone scolding.

Sombra rolled his eyes again, the left of his mouth curling into a smirk. He mouthed 'reformed' and made a sound like the start of dry, humorless laughter, but it didn't last. How could Luna, a former Bearer of Laughter herself love somepony that was easily described as 'humorless' or who enjoyed the pain of others?

And he still went on.

"I'm the one flinging accusations?" He snorted and cast his gaze to the ceiling in disdain and sardonic exasperation. "That's always rich from the mare who has taken such pleasure in ruining as much of my life in any way she can. You know I'm not going to quit, don't you? I'm never going to knock upon Tartarus' gate and waltz my way in, claiming I've done so much wrong. I can't even dance!"

There was the smirk she hated again, this time with the crueler edge of somepony who mistakenly had thought that they had won. Against her. His arrogance was without any limit.

"You don't deserve Luna's gift," Celestia said in a low mumble that she hadn't realized was anything she had actually spoken aloud.

Once again, Sombra's glare fell on her. Celestia had to avert her own eyes from the intensity she hated that gaze for — almost as much as she hated Sombra himself, and Celestia wasn't a mare who hated much of anything. She hated Sombra. She hated cruelty. She hated evil. Other than those three things, there was little that could garner such a nasty, extreme emotion from her.

"I don't deserve anything, Celestia." Her name was spoken with a thin impatience. A warning. It had an insult layered in it, but she felt no violation in that particular aspect of how he spoke to her. "I don't deserve kindness, and neither does anypony else."

Celestia's throat tightened with a volley of retaliations she wanted to speak against his falsehoods.

"I don't deserve any cruelty either, and there isn't another pony that does. This isn't something that needs to be repeated, because it's as obvious as you raising your damned sun. You can refuse to believe it because you can refuse to believe anything — like me ever attempting to hold a conversation with you. I really don't deserve whatever little trinket Luna is going to give me, but she's thoughtful and no matter how many times you are going to keep thinking otherwise, I love her. I think that matters more than the gift for a holiday I don't even celebrate."

Celestia opted to contribute to the tense silence that was building on her bend as she carefully folded her sweater's collar back again, maintaining her regality effortlessly, no matter how unneeded the gesture was.

"Is there anything else you feel the need to proclaim?" she asked with a hint of mock cheer wrapped up in the subtly patronizing fake pleasantness that she radiated, never once losing the composure that weighed on her like wet cement.

Nopony ever saw Celestia — whoever that mare was supposed to be, except maybe Luna — but everypony knew the princess.

She feared Sombra caught glimpses of Celestia and maybe somepony more, but she never showed this. She wasn't sure if she could. It wasn't a recurring second thought. However, she hated Sombra for seeing what he never was supposed to. She hated the red of his eyes too, and how they looked like blood.

Celestia hated the sight of blood, too. It was not just because she had seen great wounds made, but because those wars had to be healed too, and she would often be the one to do so. In the start of the war waged on Discord, before their first loss to him and her and Luna's eventual discovery of the Elements, it was Luna who fought every battle. From the Everfree, Celestia was the shining king piece who directed this and that. She ushered forth battles she could never bear to fight in, and it was Celestia who was holed up in the castle crouched over sickbeds that cradled the broken and dying ponies who departed with prayers to her on their lips.

It was long before Luna's recent discovery of her special dreamwalking. In those days, every night Celestia would dream of funeral pyres she read about in the crude reports she was presented with. All of this had gone on until she would wake up screaming in an empty stone keep about ponies burning and twisted chaos, her own white coat wet with sweat until she stitched her composure back up again and smiled for everypony who wasn't there so she could slip back into slumber. Her smiles had never been for herself, not truly.

Most of all, she would scream about the ashes all those years ago.

Celestia exhaled quite normally. Sombra's coat was the color of ashes.

They both heard hoofsteps in the hallway, but Sombra looked alert before the sound could be heard.

Celestia tried to look like she wasn't holding her breath — it really wasn't that hard — and willed herself not to dwell on what Luna would have with her...

...

Whenever Luna was around, Sombra was clearly more attentive. Celestia thought that there was some sort of eerie paranoia about the way that she swore he could almost sense her sister. It puzzled her over what might be the exact cause of such a possessive trait, but she simply watched as Sombra's tufted ears flicked in the direction of the door.

Was he really that impatient? Perhaps. Sombra did have a short temper, and that was a source of worry for Celestia. She discreetly watched as Sombra's eyes turned to the doorway. Celestia simply searched for any signs of discontent. His jaw was relaxed, and she was glad that she was able to glimpse that past the fluff visible on his cheeks. Though the rest of a fluffy winter coat was evident past his antisocial posture and cloak, Celestia noted only vigilance, and as best as she could, but there was no indication of any aggression. Luna had a bizarre knack for reading ponies better than she could.

Celestia simply found the scruffy look his winter coat lent to his general rough appearance to be distasteful. Could he not have cleaned up before visiting? Did he think himself charming? She stifled a tsk as the sound of hoofsteps became louder and the sound of blood in her ears grew with it. Everything external of Celestia — herself and Sombra being the exceptions — felt jubilant and charged with worry all at once. Celestia tried not to think of Sombra's gift. She did not look at his tufted ears, or gaze upon the face of evil.

She remained calm. Luna walked into the room, a burst of dark and an all-too-natural lopsided smile upon her muzzle. Her turquoise eyes were filled something that couldn't be described as anything but happiness and earnest. Luna had never been the one to hide feelings; whatever she showed was earnest.

"What in particular were you two squabbling about while I was gone? Sister, does my dear Sombra want a sweater too?"

Sombra rolled his eyes but didn't appear annoyed.

Celestia gave Luna one of her thin, small smiles. "No, Luna, he simply was being a bit rude, and did not try any cookies. I told him that as our guest he is able to have some."

Luna didn't look the slightest bit surprised, simply standing tall in the doorway with her horn lit. "Tia, Sombra is a vegan, as the diet is called by modern ponies," Luna said casually, as this were a plain fact. Maybe it really was.

Celestia inclined her head politely, smile lessening as needed. She didn't look at Sombra. She couldn't look at Sombra, and it had nothing to do with his alleged dietary habits according to Luna. Over a quarter of the population of Equestria's ponies was vegan, and more than half the food items any one of her subjects could purchase in the average store were as well.

"And is it true that you two were bickering over cookies?" Luna asked, eyes glimmering with traces of mischief, and amusement in her tone. Her horn still glowed, attached to something unseen — even Sombra looked about a little curiously to see what Luna was so playfully concealing. Celestia already knew. Celestia did not want to see. Her heart ached a bit at the thought.

To Celestia, there was uncertainty in the air of the parlor, but nopony who looked upon her would know. No subject. No sister. No draconequus. No monster.

She stood without ceremony, and she stayed calm as she spoke to her sister with the same warm one she used nearly always. She even used it with Sombra many times, but there was always deception in it with him when it was not cold — no monster like him needed even the simplest warmth — even if she wasn't the most intimidating mare when speaking so.

"I will be leaving you two by yourselves then," and before Sombra's piqued curiosity could be vocalized again and she would be subjected to the sound of his baritone voice, she added to Luna: "Have fun."

There was a smile there too. Maybe part of her even meant it. Celestia simply walked out into the hallway as conversation whirled around the room. Her spine prickled lightly with the slightest chill — and all at the knowledge that Luna was with him, and that her gift to him was.

Behind her, and through the door that her heavy-feeling hoofsteps guided her away from, the sound of Luna taking her seat could be heard — likely besides Sombra. Celestia's throat tightened with a sudden queasiness she was careful to suppress.

Luna must be nervous. Celestia wouldn't have heard her otherwise. Luna's array of near-silent motions and unearthly fluidity in said motions caused her to frighten many ponies, no matter how much Celestia told her that if she were to just adjust more she shouldn't have to... and now Luna didn't seem to care about what was commonly thought of her.

Celestia was far enough away from the room. She certainly thought so. The merry halls of the castle seemed to suddenly be quite suffocating the more she thought about the distance that she was putting between herself and Luna.

Yes, she was far enough. If she took a single step forward in the hall — it felt quite chilly to her, she noted absentmindedly, and she disliked this greatly — Celestia thought that her own heart might hammer out of her chest, scraping its way out with all the sharpened feelings wounding her inside. She urged herself not to think about Luna, to make her breathing look more natural, healthy, and restrained even if there was nopony around. Celestia choked the weight of this nervousness down and ignored the pulse of bitterness she felt from it.

Celestia knew full well that she could still hear Sombra and Luna. She wanted to, even if it hurt. In case something went wrong. Her Luna was alone with that monster...

Luna said Sombra could feel magic, and sense the signatures and spells of everypony and everything with some skill — it was because he was a demon, and made from magic himself. That's what Luna said. Celestia didn't doubt it entirely. She was careful with magic around him anyway, she usually had been. He couldn't sense her right here, just whatever bit of her presence was in the room. Her position in the hallway was careful. She was always careful.

And so, two voices drifted from the closed door, and each one was a little pinprick to Celestia's ears...

"A spell-concealing trinket?" began Sombra's voice. Celestia's stomach churned at the sound of it. "You of every creature on this world should know that I can sense something like that."

Celestia's ears couldn't quite believe the small chuckle that followed. Her mind certainly didn't.

"Hiding my gift, are we~?" There was a smirk in his tone of all things, and the melodic sound of a rich, genuine giggle from Luna following.

"Sombra, if this is leading up to you accusing me of getting you nothing more than something so obvious as a spell-concealing object that you'll find as unsubtle upon your sense as I'd find Twilight Sycophant perched on my balcony, black feathers stuck on her plain form and squawking like a crow, then you are sorely mistaken."

Twilight... what?! I know that Luna has paid little mind to Twilight since the Nightmare Night they met, but I thought they were friends! Twilight is a lovely mare, and Luna has instead taken to insulting her behind her back with this beast? I... I'll need to talk with her after all of this is over...

There was that chuckle again, and the sound of movement.

"Luna, just how much does this mean to you? Don't think I can't see it in your eyes; what surprise to have here? Luna, I—"

"Sombra," Luna interrupted, somewhat nervously, but Celestia heard growing confidence in her voice, and Sombra must've too because it seems that he let her speak, "This is important, and I know that you don't need anything showy, but—"

"Luna," Sombra said with a gentle strength that was so unexpected Celestia found it frightening, "You didn't have to get me anything. You aren't trying to hide that you're fidgeting with the edge of the bag — how can I mistake that for anything else? Do you think I'm not going to like it?"

A short, sardonic laugh mixed with a touch of the arrogance Celestia never stopped loathing.

"Som," Luna said quietly, "it isn't that..."

"Even if you got me a radish with a face drawn on it or a single, stale waffle, I wouldn't exactly mind," came that dreaded deadpan. Celestia almost wanted to storm in there herself. He might as well have been insulting Luna's gift — one he hadn't even been presented with and was already rejecting, the ingrate! Was this supposed to reassure Luna? How were her feelings supposed to be preserved against this?

Celestia did want him to say 'no'...

"Oh? I shall certainly keep that in mind for next year! And what if I were to get you a fine crab as a gift?" Luna's voice didn't sound like a mare who had been slighted at all. She sounded like she found a joke — though there hadn't been any — to be quite funny.

"Luna," Sombra said her name with a growl that had Celestia's heartbeat quickening at the cruel, rough, and unequine sound and her legs wanting to run, to dash in there for Luna and—

"What, Som? Don't you just adore crabs, as you adore your Fish?"

Luna's teasing tone stunned Celestia. Just what was...?

She didn't register herself blinking until after it happened. She vaguely recalled something Luna said at least once before, about Sombra having a pet fish as she had her dear Philomena. She didn't recall if Luna mentioned the creature's name, mostly because the tragic realization of Sombra being in charge of any life that wasn't his own would end with abuse or the death of whatever charge Sombra had.

Her legs were rooted to the hallway's floor. Her head felt a tad dizzy. The garlands in the hallway looked out of place. They felt out of place.

"Now I'm starting to wonder who is the worst gift-giver between us on this day. You, who has been threatening to gift me with something I despise—"

"Som, crabs really are not worth such a burning vendetta—"

"Crabs are a mistake," Sombra growls, and even where she stood, Celestia felt herself shudder a bit at the awful sound. Part of her wondered what little trip of Sombra and Luna's caused him to direct such a burning rage against such an innocent creature. She'd try to guess why too if she thought Sombra needed a reason to hate anything or anypony.

"Very well. But between us, you might be the worst giver. On other occasions, you have given me such lovely gifts, and yet on Hearth's Warming, you bring me nothing at all? No surprise from the one who knows me best? Som, my heart is wounded."

Luna's voice dripped with a degree of playfulness that numbed Celestia. 'The one who knows her best'? How was that not... Celestia? She was Luna's...

Celestia's mind went quiet. She simply listed again, standing alone with her knees weak from such words.

"Hearth's Warming was founded by bigoted idiots getting lost in the snow. Should we really be complaining about such a bloody stupid holiday?"

"Oh, but there is eggnog!"

It had to just be Celestia's mind, but she could almost hear Sombra raising an eyebrow. "Yes, because I'm sure that eggnog is the best way to redeem this largely useless occasion."

"Perhaps I won't be gifting you with any cuddles later, dear Sombra."

Celestia was relieved she was unable to imagine those two... cuddling. Up until now, she really hadn't even suspected Sombra of having any knowledge against something so kind.

"And perhaps 'dear Sombra' won't even consider staying around if I'm not vigorously cuddled by the end of this riveting ordeal that consisted of me having to be in the presence of your sister."

"...You know, there might be pizza instead of cookies here the next time you're here."

There was a strange pause, and then Sombra's voice: "You know me far too well, Luna."

"And I could say the same from my perspective." There was such fondness in Luna's voice... Celestia thought as hard as she could to where she could have heard such a loving tone used by her reserved little sister, who never had the kindness to spare for any before... and she found nothing.

Another faint sound emanated from the room: something like distant thunder, or perhaps the purr of a cat, only deeper. It was followed by the sound of movement — just slight shifts — and a loud, fond sigh from Luna.

"I love you too, Som." Luna's voice sounded muffled — by a mane or fur. They were... embracing.

The strange 'purr' seemed to grow a bit louder. Celestia found the sound to be so bizarre that she almost had to remember she needed to be alert, for Luna's sake. Then, she was able to feel all the suspicions she needed to consider once again coming to mind, along with the old question of how Luna decided on a relationship with a stall— well, in Sombra's case, a male — in the first place. She could only believe it when it was right in front of her... but always, she remained suitably skeptical of that... not that Luna knew.

"Sombra?" Luna said after a very short while when the rumbling noise died down. "You still want your gift... don't you...?"

There was such a hesitance in Luna's tone, and an almost tangible silent plead that Celestia was baffled as to why Luna just simply didn't beg outright in this; as ugly and morbid a thought as it was, she simply couldn't see how she could get Sombra to do anything. Just how egotistical was he, and how far would he go to have others humiliate themselves before he would do even the simplest things, and for a mare he was supposed to love? For a mare who always deserved better?

"Yes, Luna, give me a free trinket. I'm extremely curious as to why you needed to hide the enchantment." If Sombra smiled, then perhaps he'd flash an arrogant one to Luna as he spoke this.

"Of course you are!" Luna's laugh was short but surprisingly mirthful.

Sombra's response was a muffled noise that might have been a snort. "Can you blame me?"

"Hardly, but Sombra..." The sudden change in Luna's tone with those two words — 'but Sombra' — left Celestia breathless. Might she reconsider? "...I need to talk to you a-about something."

Luna clearly sounded somewhere between nervous and sure of herself: her voice was strong, yet she faltered slightly.

She really was going to consider, wasn't she?

"Luna...?" If Celestia didn't know the monster better, she would almost think that Sombra sounded concerned. "Was it something I said? About Celestia?"

"Not at all, Sombra. I have nothing bad to say, and you know I don't mind most of what you say about her. Your loathing of her has always been apparent."

...And Luna never even tried to correct it? To spread kindness? To push his arrogance into place? If he really loves her and Luna loves Sombra, she could very obviously change him.

More muffled noise slipped past Celestia's ears, but it sounded like motion again, and maybe some disgruntled noise on Sombra's part? She wasn't certain.

"Well, Luna?" Curiosity and caution were apparent in his level voice. "What's on your mind?"

They really had no idea she could hear them.

"You, Sombra," Luna says so softly that Celestia almost couldn't hear.

"Me?" There was a splash of something grandiose in Sombra's usually arrogant tone. "Well, this is certainly going to be flattering." Celestia heard that laugh that had to be his — somehow — again. However, she knew her ears deceived her when they picked up a warmth in the sound — a warmth that was just her imagination. Poor Luna.

"Yes, I am sure you shall find it flattering, Som." Luna's voice sounded a touch wistful. Loving. Truly, the poor dear thought he loved her, didn't she? Celestia's heart sank a little.

Again, Celestia heard that faint rumbling, bodies shifting, and her sister's haunting, soft laugh.

"I'm delighted to spending this day with you too, especially since I will be getting more cookies if Tia is too busy telling you about such dreaded things as—" Luna gagged quite loudly and made a retching noise for dramatic effect, "—common courtesy!"

Celestia was puzzled — and deep down, a little disgusted — to how two such cynical laughs could be so merry at the same time.

Sombra's laugh ended first, but that didn't surprise Celestia. Luna's words did.

"I don't think there's any I love more than you, Som."

The silence that Celestia felt around her was painful. Did that mean...?

"What of your sister?"

"Sombra, that's a different relationship altogether."

"I'm aware, Luna."

"When her and I were younger and we traveled together, I thought we were going to be eternal companions... or at least, as eternal as sisters could be. She was always going to find love. I knew it. No matter how many centuries I live, even if my first were spent with the heart, body, and mind of a filly, there's always some things that are known, and my sister finding love and a kingdom were those things."

If Sombra said anything in reply, Celestia didn't hear it. She didn't think she wanted to anyway and instead tried to keep the flurry of advancing memories at bay, even if their pace was painfully glacial.

Luna continued with a voice that spun the soul of a story, making almost anything she said to sound as though some epic wisdom could be buried in it... at least most of the time.

"Never in my life did I ever think of 'the prince' my sister did. There was no 'princess' either."

What?! No, that couldn't be — Luna doesn't have to lie to herself any longer! She knows that I'll love her either way, won't she? Whether she wants a prince or a princess, I'd never cast her out, never forsake her, not again...

"I had a world, and that was wonderful. I had myself, and that only sealed a love of solitude I already had an inclination towards."

"The best of us do," Sombra commented wryly, earning a short laugh from Luna.

"Indeed! You know what it was like when Celestia and I found the Tribes, and how awful that was for everypony." Luna trailed off into a sigh, and Sombra must've hugged her because she heard Luna thank him for one, voice a little more somber than before.

Celestia wanted to fling that door right open when she heard it. She wanted to get Luna outside, let her talk to ponies to take her mind off this sorrow that would dissolve best in good company. She wanted the contents of that bag to be forgotten. If anything deserved to be banished, it was the gift and the monster who was its intended recipient.

"Celestia loved some of the stallions in the Unicorn Court. I don't know how she did. It really couldn't be love — just blind attraction, maybe? Pity? She was young and thought them handsome beyond the true romantic aspect of such a trait, I know, and I know that around ponies who looked at others with such lust from the corners of their eyes. The very feeling that has never once infected me as wantonly as it does others. I was made even more of a monster for the absence of this and whatever feelings my sister ran wild with, at least in comparison — oh, Sombra stop looking at me like that, you know that Tia is not and has never been any kind of strumpet. But for me, to be shamed and held with such distaste... For not wanting... ugh... to just be invited into the chambers of a stallion that's never treated me like you have, and would think of me just as some kind of temporary pet. And when I was truly not much more than a child! Yet, to them, I should have already had three or so foals and... It was a disgusting era."

Celestia was glad that there was nopony around to see the embarrassed flush of her face. She tried not to concentrate on her thoughts, and all the things she'd need to bring up with her little sister later, and attempted to force them into some kind of static in the back of her mind.

"Ponies are only slightly less disgusting," Sombra said, as though it were plain fact.

"Your contribution is much appreciated," said Luna, exasperated, "And how true that can often be. I'd drink to every instance, but then I'd have nothing left of a liver by the year's end."

"Or the month's."

"A month!" Luna's astonished voice rang out. "Sombra, what faith you have in ponies! I see my dislike of them is rubbing off on you and replacing your wild contempt. Huzzah!"

"Hardly. Can we go back to building up something meant to inflate the ego of yours truly?"

"Of course." Luna's voice held a smile just for him and Celestia hated it. "We met as foes, me attempting to end your life, despite you being not much more than a mystery to me, and you fighting admirably to save your own life."

"So, I'm not the only one nostalgic about that?"

The sound of Luna blowing a raspberry echoed through the hall just enough to be audible to Celestia. "You sap! Between us, it is always you who will be the romantic!"

"Oh, be quiet!" His tone was slightly testy, causing Celestia's ears to perk forward and her great tail to swish with worry. "Somepony might hear! And I'm not that big of a sap—"

"You're a hopeless romantic."

"I am absolutely not," Sombra huffed, and for once Celestia almost probably maybe agreed with him. Somewhat. Partially. There wasn't a romantic bone in Sombra's magic-made-body-from-nothing.

"...And what I meant to say is that here we are now, Sombra. We love one another terribly, and though it has been a rough, long road, I would have it no other way — and never would I travel it with anypony but you. Sombra, for the past two years, you have gone beyond the world's end with me, kept me laughing like no other, listened to and understood everything about me—"

"—everything except your dislike of pizza," Sombra interjected, causing Celestia to allow a small snort to slip — and thankfully go unnoticed.

Rude.

"Yes, yes — but aside from that, Sombra, I have gotten along better with you than anypony else. I've told you things that I've never told Celestia, and that I don't want to. You're the one pony I truly look forward to being around, which is something I can't say for anypony else, your company is always wonderful." She pauses. Perhaps to look at him? "Sombra, you're often on my thoughts at the most mundane of times. I actively want to talk to you. I like to hear your voice and your thoughts. That is something I cannot say for any other. You help me, and I help you. We can do the silliest things together and the most serious. Braving things on my own has always been necessary, but with you, it is something I want whenever I feel lost."

"Luna," Sombra said, sounding... touched by Luna's words. "I—"

She laughed. Gently. "Sombra, you should see the look on your face!" Luna's voice caught a little — she was clearly tearing up, and little sobs mixed with her laughs.

From behind the door, there was a faint noise of confusion that Celestia can't say she had ever heard before. Something like... well, if she were to describe it, Celestia would call it a 'murp'.

"Oh, Sombra!" Luna never sounded this... joyous... in her day-to-day routine, not usually. "I apologize, but you really should have seen the look on your face..." Celestia listened curiously now, as Luna trailed off into laughter again. "...I truly did not mean to poke your muzzle like that — I swear, Sombra I really was just waving my hoof about for emphasis!"

Sombra's response was clear enough: grumbles and inequine growls.

Luna's reply was only to laugh at sounds that stirred a primal part of Celestia — the slightest bit of fear at the noises of a predator.

Celestia was a mare who fancied the God of Chaos and there was something she absolutely never understood about these two.

"Sombra," Luna's voice was so obviously trying to hide a giggle or two, "Would you please listen? There is still a little more I wanted you to know before I present you with your gift."

A short pause, and then: "Very well."

Of course, Sombra had to sound so... grouchy. He really never deserved Luna.

"Oh, no need to look that deadpan, Sombra! I know that you love any praise from me~!"

"That's because you have the nerve to be both honest and flattering towards my egotistical self," Sombra replied, an arrogant slyness in his tone — which had grown more relaxed the longer he spent talking with Luna.

"Then, shall I continue?"

Sombra's response was likely nonverbal — Celestia couldn't hear even the slightest muffled sound — or a whisper.

"All my life, I have known that I have never really needed ponies as I grew older."

Celestia bit back a gasp. That wasn't true! Luna... her time back in Canterlot, her cleansing, her exposure to modern ponies, and more should have taught her just how much she needs ponies — their words, their opinions, their company, and their friendship. Twilight Sparkle had learned, but why had Luna retreated? Why did she seem so happy about it? It couldn't be true happiness — how many times had she said to her, that ponies needed only to understand her. How many times had she repeated what was one an old saying of her own to Luna, now a mantra of her subjects? 'Happiness is in other ponies.'

Celestia's gaze fell down to the floor somberly. If only Luna could have learned that lesson...

"Sombra, your company and the comfort has never been something I've needed, and you know this just as well as I do."

A hoof flew to prevent a gasp from escaping Celestia as her eyes widened. No, Luna, don't say that! I know you love him where I loathe Sombra, but if you really are going to go through with this, you cannot tell him that. You must tell him that it is him you need, and how he occupies your every thought — something, anything but this!

Sombra must've been silently furious at Luna's words, or biding his time and waiting for... Celestia wasn't entirely sure. Her's wasn't Sombra's foul mind.

Though every second of this ordeal was its own eternity, Celestia kept listening. Just in case.

"But unlike any other, I want your company. I want to stand at your side and want you at mine. I want us, Sombra... and that means..."

At the sound of paper rustling, Celestia knew exactly what was being levitated from that glittery paper gift bag with its festive holly patterns. She'd seen that bag far too many times — enough for ten eternities.

"...I want to choose you..."

"Luna," Sombra's confused tone cut in, a sharp contrast to Luna's passionate, loving words, "why are you levitating a damn box that small? What exactly did you get that needed a box with a spell like that one on it?"

He was really that callous, that clueless... In Celestia's mind, Luna was swallowing. Maybe even shaking?

"S-Sombra—"

"Luna," Sombra managed to sound so concerned when he said her name, and Celestia wasn't sure how. "This box, right here, in my magic—"

He took it from her?! He ruined Luna's perfect moment?

"—there's no lock on it, or anything of the sort," he observed carefully. "What could be in here...?"

One of the most painful silence's of Celestia's life followed.

"Luna," Sombra said urgently, finally, voice worried of all things. He'd seen the contents alright.

"S-Sombra—"

"Luna," he cut her off with a repetition somewhere between brusque and clumsy. "Luna, this is a ring. You got me a—"

"...Sombra," Luna said, voice hopeful, concerned, and pleading.

"T-This... I-I can't believe it..." Never would Celestia have thought that Sombra's confident voice could be in emotional tatters of sound. "C-Can I even legally, well... do this? As a demo— when I'm viewed as less than property?"

"Y-You can," Luna said quickly, "If I propose, you most certainly can. That loophole will be more than enough until I can strike such a thing from the laws of this land."

"Why did you do this? Luna, isn't this too much?"

"No, Som. Nothing is too much when what I do is for you... but it is because I knew you would not. We spoke of starting a family eventually — you said you wanted to try a-and..."

They talked about... Celestia's blood felt like ice.

"Luna, I... you had it engraved... 'My Eternity'... That's what I am to you?" Sombra, the greatest monster that Celestia had known, sounded completely and utterly starstruck. Loved, even.

Oh, her stomach felt sick at the sound. A demon should never be lov

"Yes, Sombra. You've been all that and more to me. I want to be your wife. I'd love it if you were my prince, my Sombra. That would be enough."

"...And the magic on this... Luna, the damage that this ring could withstand is amazing. Your spellwork on this is absolutely fantastic! The ring is even drawn to my presence — how interesting. I won't lose it and it won't be damaged... these enchantments are even easy enough for me to work with if I ever wanted to alter anything..." He trailed off, excited or perhaps lost in thought. "Thank you..."

That absolutely baffling couldn't-be-true phrase coming from Sombra — it simply couldn't mean anything coming from his mouth — pulled Celestia from the chilly feelings and worries that had been roiling in her as she listened, until her heartbeat in her ears was roaring once again. The very sound was like a clock ticking away something precious with that sound.

"Sombra?" Luna's cautious tone cut down the silence Celestia dreaded as much as their words.

As though to spite her unknowingly, Sombra didn't speak, instead, Celestia heard startled 'murps' sound clearly. Had he been that lost in thought? Or...? She let those thoughts fade; Celestia hadn't been too sure to how he'd react to this, but this certainly wasn't how she envisioned Sombra's reaction.

"I chose you, but... Sombra, won't you choose me too?"

Were Celestia not her sewn-up-tight-constant-composure-responsible-careful-you-made-a-promise-you-make-her-happy self she might've burst at the intensity on the silence, the moment. She wanted an answer, and it rang in her head on repeat, no matter how fiercely the quiet drowned it out.

No. No. No. No No.

"Yes."

Blunt as ever, that word was like a needle of ice to her chest. Celestia squeezed her eyes shut, as though that might block out the sounds of Sombra coughing from Luna tackle-hugging her fiancé and attempting to break all his ribs with a crushing hug.

Celestia knew; she'd gotten her fair share of those hugs.

But for composure’s — Luna's — sake she held everything all sewed up tight.

Except for — sinking to her knees.

Except for — the silent tears that coursed down her cheeks no matter how hard she tried to blink them back.

She thought about other things. She tried to distance her mind from all that was unfolding around her. Celestia thought of the distant Crystal Empire, where snow fell plentifully. She tried to imagine Qilin batting at snowflakes with her mismatched limbs, gleefully cooing in her father's arms.

But, she did not see Qilin, nor did she see a green-eyed infant filly with a splash of silver freckles across her little white muzzle, and a mane of soft pink. A face that nopony ever knew she mothered and was born in the court of the unicorns, given to her lover of the time — Sigurd Goldenrod took Freyja Blueblood away from the life she could never have: the life with a mother who was never, ever ready, who loved politics more, it seemed. She couldn't have ever kept that filly — not when she was Starswirl's charge. So, she gave her away. It had felt simple then, it felt simple now. Every doctor who knew or suspected anything was sworn to secrecy, the house Blueblood never even knew their true heritage, and Discord was told the same thing that Luna was, upon her return, when Celestia peeled a few painful layers away from a secret she didn't want to pull from the ugly past: Celestia simply said that she had miscarried a mortal's foal once when she was a young, young mare.

She closed her eyes and tried to imagine her daughter.

As always, she saw Luna's face instead.

Interlude 2: Luna

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Two saddlebags that weren't mine rested upon my back. In them were various trinkets of Sombra's — or at least the ones that didn't need to be stored within the pocket enchantments Sombra had woven into the fabric. A maid passing us by a few hallways ago had given me a look that told me I should be aware of the state of the saddlebags. Oh, and always who they belonged to — for they were quite worn from Sombra's habit of traveling. I'm afraid that they were not nearly as well made as other pairs he has had in the past. The books that he decided to immediately store within were much better taken care of but clearly read thoroughly. Many were second-hoof titles obtained on our dates together. What else could I expect from a mind as curious and sharp as Sombra's?

I would talk to that maid later. She must be a newer face since I didn't have her name on the tip of my tongue. Celestia truly hires too many of these ponies for what gets done around here and all the familiar staff as are known to me as they are to her.

The cool air of the Lunar Wing was refreshing, not that the move of Sombra's things was to be any trouble. I hummed merrily now that it was just Sombra and me. How could I not be delighted? My husband-to-be was going to be residing with me! No longer were we in an arrangement that bordered on cohabitation, with me visiting the pocket realm he had recently dismantled — where he attached it now, I do not know, but he has kept it. He shall no longer be treated as though he is unwelcome in the castle for a variety of reasons. Among them is his discomfort with the place that made anything short of a brief visit outside of my Lunar Wing an uncomfortable affair for the poor fellow. We both know that he still had to endure great prejudice — as there was anything great about it other than its intensity! Minding these mortals and their injustices is truly tiresome task!

My tune died when I was pulled from that peculiar sense of elation where one becomes less focused. It wasn't like me to allow that to happen, but I was home — it felt better calling the Lunar Wing that now that I knew that Sombra was going to share it with me, and as my dearest husband. Still, I wonder if it should be called the Lunar Wing any longer if the Night Goddess and the God of Knowledge are to occupy it together. I wouldn't want to exclude Sombra from his own home.

At least, I dearly hope he considers Canterlot to be his home one day too, and that he'll begin to feel comfortable enough here.

"Som?" I said quietly, looking around the shady hallway. It was evening, and the shadows of snowflakes fell across the wall like ghosts. I simply adored the near-perpetual silence of our wing of the castle. No servants gathered here; I worked on my own and took care of myself, as they were just an intrusion where I knew to mind my way, and to mind it right. The old castle didn't ever have them, and we could get by without them with enough effort, though Canterlot's castle is a grand palace compared to our forest stronghold.

Doorways stood quietly in the shadows, many of the dark-hued doors were closed — I had no reason to keep them open otherwise, even if there were no mortals to gape and nose about.

Then, I saw that Sombra had strayed from my side.

He had been following me...

I couldn't be surprised by Sombra wanting to explore such a wondrous place as Canterlot Castle extensively. However, I was just bursting with barely-contained excitement at the prospect of showing Sombra around myself. I knew that it would be the utmost pleasure to watch his reaction to everything I had spruced up just for him. I spoke little around other ponies, except when I needed or wanted to, but there were times when Sombra and I could just talk on and on, never minding the hours...

Ah, I thought as I turned my head to look back down the hall, my shadow unfolding behind me, there is a door open wider than I leave them. He really is so sneaky when he wants to be.

Trotting over to investigate, I lit my horn and pushed the door open a bit more. I didn't need to ask if he was inside.

At the very center of one of my studies, Sombra stood alone. Floor to ceiling bookshelves surrounded him and acted as a backdrop to the silent stage he occupied. Columns divided each shelf from the other, and all were carved with ivy and patterns in the styles of old. All of them were rendered so wonderfully, as though they flowed across the stone, each so timeless and life-like.

All my books; hardcover poetry volumes, great novels, modern texts, magical tomes, fine plays, and anything that I have ever enjoyed and studied caught Sombra's attention. Oh, how I know he would love to see the collections in my offices too. He knew that I had a fine collection — and he himself had hundreds of books of his own built up in these few years — but I had never shown him mine in full before. Tia made it very clear that he was not permitted in my libraries and offices during our courtship, for she was always fretting about the sanctity of government texts and not letting any of the texts on the Solar Index that I possessed outside of the walls. I had stuck by this to some degree, for I wouldn't want her to worry, but not all of it was justified. Sombra shared his books only with me, and I trusted him more than her — to offer him nothing was too much, so if sneaking out a few titles would get her to fuss, then so be it. Now I no longer had to only lend him some books, we could share all.

A couple of his books were here too, since I never parted with any he gave me.

"I take it that you like the Lunar Wing, now that you have gotten a better look at it?" I said as I walked over to him, and eventually I rested a forehoof on his wither. I felt him lean a little closer to me as soon as I was near. The fabric of his cloak was little in the way of a barrier at all between us. His saddlebags were filled with things like currycombs, loose papers, and a toothbrush, sat by his armored legs.

Sombra nodded carefully, the gesture easy to miss because of how slight it was. His ears pricked at my voice, which was something I'd become accustomed to. He loved my voice — I meant to infuse no unwarrented pride in that statement — and was the only one other than my sister who had knowledge of my singing.

I reached a forehoof up to stroke his mane, and noted the thin chain he wore around his neck — and what was attached to his necklace: his ring. It was customary for the ring to only be given after the wedding ceremony for the majority of the time in this modern age. 'Twas modern ponies, such as Cadance and Shining Armor, who were as faithful as any true couple of old, though they kept their rings stored away like the treasures they were. Then, after a week, the modern wedding ring was usually off and made into a sacred keepsake until a mortal was buried. Sombra and I were no mortals, but that didn't make it any more unusual that Sombra hadn't removed the ring from the chain since I proposed to him a week ago.

He didn't purr when I stroked his mane, not this time. Sombra still inched even closer to me with a distant nonchalance. Shadows flickered across his face, adding a muted beauty to his gray coat. I knew that if I asked later, he would let me brush it for him. There was no better way to unwind after our effort to move him than to get to curry his lovely coat and relax together. Cadance had mailed me a new set of vinyl records as a gift to celebrate our engagement, and I can think of nothing that would be nicer than getting to have one playing too.

"This is only one of my studies," I murmured into his ear before placing a kiss on top of his head. Upon seeing the wide-eyed look of wonder spark in his eyes, I hurriedly placed a kiss on his cheek, and nuzzled him, laughing softly into his mane. "You needn't worry about a thing, Sombra. There will be plenty of space still for you to house your books and scrolls. I might even need to consider expanding our quarters!"

"Ours?" he echoes, his voice distant while he eyes various titles with awe still in his eyes.

"Of course." I flick his ear ever so lightly and am rewarded with a low warble from his throat. "All the castle, save the Solar Wing, is ours now! We can even decorate things so that they're a bit more to your liking, hmm?"

"Luna, I'm sure the decorations are fine. I'm not that picky... but I'm going to need a new swivel chair."

Oh, to think that I offer him nearly all the castle, and he still makes such a small request — and as though he were still a guest!

Feigning hurt, I rested a forehoof against my chest like an accused mare. "I did not mean to break such a valuable possession! I swear upon the stars! Please forgive me, Sombra."

Sombra turns his gaze to me, surveying me with analytical coldness. He narrowed his eyes. "I suppose I could forgive you... couldn't I?"

He spoke the last two words with emphasized caution, dangling the option out, manipulative, and self-aware of the control he could hold over others. When he used this tone, Sombra was smugly, coldly, and often angrily relishing in how your fate dances on the knife's edge. He's still capable of being frightening just as easily as he's able to be the absolute sap I'll never stop teasing.

"Oh, you most certainly could," I said, smiling and letting my horn flare to life.

No matter how easy it was for Sombra to sense the nature of so much of my magic, and that of others, he could still be surprised with the right amount of effort. I used a sudden bit of magic to flick one of Sombra's ear tufts.

"Ppht," I declared triumphantly upon seeing Sombra's flat stare. "Are you in any way offended by my most sincere pleas for forgiveness?"

"I used to be offended by the very existence of ponies, so who says I'm immune to feeling offended by your slight, maiden goddess?"

My own forehoof raised up to hide a cheeky smile that had a twist somewhere between daring and embarrassed peeking out from behind my shoe. "Sombra, I'm hardly a maiden anymore."

He rolled his eyes good-naturedly and snorted, a smirk threatening to break across his muzzle.

"Very well then, I forgive you for your crimes." He arched an eyebrow at the sight of my smile growing beyond what my forehoof could hide — and it didn't help that he had lit his horn and was toying with locks of my mane.

The next laugh to escape me — a rich, merry sound — was cut off as he pulled me into a quick, deep kiss, a few low rumbles of a purr starting up in his throat. When he pulled away, there was a half-smirk on his muzzle that I hadn't seen in a few days and was certainly delighted to see now.

"And the condition?" I asked, voice an awed whisper.

Sombra levitated his saddlebags off of his back. "Unpack as much as you can; I'd like to go off and explore a bit."

I wanted to pout. He could never resist much of anything when I pouted, no matter how long we've been together. Still, he called me a witch attempting to ensorcell him, sometimes grumpy and sometimes playful about the unusual weakness.

"Luna, I promise that I'll help more later."

Instead, I took the bags. Sombra had every right to want to explore the place I dearly hoped he would come to think of as home. Canterlot Castle was such a majestic example of architecture filled with many halls, balconies, spires, and other places of interest. Many relics were in the rooms where things of the present and past stood in this city of legend even I found timeless. With so many possible destinations for solitude, of course, Sombra would wish to venture through the grounds. He likely just wanted to wander into a lonely library to spend a few precious hours recharging. I think it is fair to let him have some time to himself, 'tis not as though we have been doing nothing.

"That simply can't be all you say before heading off, Som." A knowing smile twisted across my muzzle, curling with a hint of my own mischief.

He cocked his head to the side, eyes already trying to read my ever subtle motion — or lack thereof. "Why is that, Luna? What reason do you need me to stay?

Oh, need I smile any wider?

"Double or nothing, Som."

I looked into his eyes and, by his half-smile, I know that he wouldn't mind tarrying for just a little bit longer in my study with me. For it is Sombra who is the one I could talk of everything with and nothing at all, and that would be just fine.

Chapter 3: Brother of Mine

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Celestia was not a mortal. She did not fear death and she did not know death. The concept was not inborn for one of her kind, and could not be woven with her thoughts the way it would be with an objectively lesser species, though she refused to ever admit such superiority aloud as Luna would. The long and short of death and intimate workings of a concept like mortality, which gods always spoke of as the antithesis to self and intimacy, was not something she could know except vicariously. She could not yearn for it. Even intellectually desiring death itself was beyond the workings of Alicorns — the most she could manage was admiring the side effects.

So, it would be a surprise to anypony to learn that she had something like a last will and testament, as some temporary soul might. Gods could still perish, but their absence was not permanent. Usually not. A will from a ruling god was a sort of undeniable code to be followed in order to keep their nation running until a return was possible and physical form attained once more. Most other divine had one — but only if they were in the position of Celestia, Luna, or Neptune of Aquastria did.

Celestia's will had a few highlights. Notably, there was a lack of any substantial amending since she had originally drafted it five hundred years ago. That was so entirely unlike herself — why, it would almost be hypocrisy (if the Princess were capable of such a thing) that Celestia did not force her need of constant change and revisionism upon something, since it was she who loved to eradicate artifacts. It was a document that primarily dictated any worldly possessions held by Celestia herself, and the management thereof, and it was the closest thing to any kind of statement of universal rights of ponies under her rule. No other kind of exceptions, nor kinds of flimsy charters limited any of the absolute power she had held like a miser for centuries.

The will was dictated without ever mentioning any other family. Luna was a myth at the time it was written, when she was remembered at all in Equestria's often obscured history. Nopony knew that the Bluebloods ever had any relation to the Princess of Princesses upon Equestria's throne. The only reason the current heir to the ceremonial dukedom, Gaylord Blueblood, called her 'Auntie' is because it was the custom. All his kin to bear the title had done the same, and if there was one great similarity between the Bluebloods and Celestia, it was that any tradition to benefit them was not one that was going to be changed. She didn't even know Neptune was well until forty years after she initially wrote it. Even if she had, she wouldn't have included him. Parents? Of course, none were mentioned! As far as Equestrians were concerned, her birth was steeped in hero-tropes and myths filled with seafoam, prophecies, and the small percentage of her population that still clung to the falsehood of all Alicorns simply being matured demigods. The tapestry of Equestria's history was rich with a multitude of lies woven beyond the amount of silk a castle full of spiders could spin, and her heart was warmer each day at the thought of it.

Never would parents appear throughout any tales — or have the kindly effect on her that such miraculous lies held.

Only recently did she amend it to include a few things, while the rest remained untouched. Three, to be precise.

The first was a simple bit to acknowledge that Luna would rule in her absence, as the closest thing she would have to an heir, in the traditional sense of the word that mortal rulers did. It was added a couple of months after Luna's return, among the maelstrom of legal changes that needed to be made to the rest of Equestria, changing it from an absolute monarchy ruled by a lax enough despot (one who pretended to be anything but that, both in her thoughts and on paper) to gradually (truly, it was very gradually) shaping it into a fully functioning absolute diarchy ruled by two despots. Luna gained power from her watchful co-ruler gradually as she adjusted to the modern-day, all while Celestia fussed over the precious, fragile beauty of illusions of finite power over one thousand years in the making.

After that, little was altered for years. It wasn't until Sombra became the world's newest god that she bothered with any alterations again, and those were not something she gave up with a light heart. Sombra would not be tried for any of his despicable crimes as long as Celestia was Equestria's ruler.

The final alteration was that her daughter, Qilin, would remain in her father's care if anything happened to her. That was a very recent addition.

Sometimes, Celestia worried she wasn't very good at writing wills. In her case, it would be more like final orders, anyway — dying was not her worry. (Though, there were times she liked to pretend that it was.)

She wasn't going to die, though she would live now and forever after her sun eventually passed. Why did she have one of these? It was more than caution that had forced her to write the first, and now the thing still had a distant way to haunt her all these years later.

It felt wrong — like she were food in need of an expiration date.

She was thinking about a will, about perishing, and the nature of death. And why?

Not a single thing she could dredge up felt more fitting to think about. She was at Luna's wedding, a little serene look carved onto her plaster face and her breathing practices in top form, so as not to disturb the silver fabric of her dress, or cause the blue sash tied around her waist to stir and resemble a waterfall as it cascaded down onto the floor. She stood in the very same hall where Cadance married Shining Armor years earlier, and a numb sensation of paralysis could only do so much to bury the hurt of the whole situation.

The Crystal Empire had become a popular destination for the most dedicated of lovers to wed, but Sombra was barred from the Empire's borders as long as they still were spoken of. He almost seemed glad by this... or, as glad as Sombra could seem.

Celestia swallowed quickly and carefully, feeling the absence of her usual gold necklace.

Murmurs rang out and reminded her of ominous, distant thunder. Luna would always run off to chase storms, and to sing to the sky rather than show even a hint of the same dedication to any pony. Celestia loved to fly and feel the breeze chill her skin by digging past her coat. She loved calm skies and sunny days. A storm sent discontent through her even still. There was no safety to be found in a storm, the sky was split with so much of anything, and she'd find herself assaulted by icy flicks of rain. Storms were not something to call to her, and it often felt impossible to be anything but alone in them.

Celestia adjusted her smile carefully and looked over the attendees below, pony or otherwise. Everypony was well-dressed, and Rarity had designed everything to look elegant, despite the exact match being made... being one that nopony else could love since all the weight in the room could make nothing else clearer. After all, there was no other designer who would take the job, and Celestia and Luna would not force them to, even if their reasons for refraining from doing so differed.

She didn't say it, but she sympathized completely with wanting to shut the door on this whole attempt at merriment, not that she would ever say so. It held all the love and laughter of the usual somber affair of a funereal. And despite that, there was a surprising amount of smiles that were unexpectedly earnest among the crowd that wore Rarity's lovely designs. The theme for the wedding was a blend of silvers, whites, blue, and black that didn't seem to be the joyous colors Celestia — they seemed entirely inappropriate when contrasted with traditional colors.

But this was hard to describe as just 'any wedding' regardless of how informal certain individuals had been acting. For a multitude of reasons — as many as there were shades of silver among the wedding-goers — the whole ceremony and following party would be private. There would be awkward revelry — she'd try, of course. She really would. The selfish reason for the current ceremony was that Luna and Sombra compromised on a private wedding that wasn't just 'Luna's friends and family watching her and I sign a paper and exchange vows', as Sombra had said. Celestia had raised her eyebrow a little at the implications of Sombra taking wedding vows seriously. She was moderately pleased with the prospect of seeing her Faithful Student regardless of the occasion. Weddings were things that Celestia loved, and that was because of the ponies she got to see. Shutting everypony away at a wedding felt abhorrent, just as pushing ponies away at a funeral prevented sympathy via company, and all the healing powers solitude lacked.

The other reasons for such a distastefully reclusive wedding were not simple because they were politics. Luna didn't want Sombra to be 'harassed' by anypony at a large royal wedding — which Celestia couldn't understand why she'd be against even personally — even though he was cold enough to handle a tomato or two. It was not as though Celestia would break her passivity if he were to have been confronted by those who shouted to remind him of his deeds, and the disgusted looks of the poor crystal ponies who relished in their liberation. Yet, crystal ponies were not even that uncivilized. Luna said it would drive him to have a panic attack. Celestia did not believe Sombra had them, or could, but she did not say that. It seemed as though only she remembered what Sombra really was, and that was not a source of loneliness that Celestia wanted.

Sombra was no victim, he was an abuser, and Celestia and everypony else knew that. She didn't want mobs — though, the Equestrian idea of a mob was a surprisingly tame thing — or the ponies she had so much faith in. For them to be hurt by an entity so cruel as the demon who was going to marry her daughter...

...the one she had to keep calling 'sister'...

She really didn't want to finish that thought — but Celesia's mind rarely let her have choices. She loathed the thought of having to stand up to it even more than the things it would often inflict on her.

Her daughter. Luna could not be anything else, because it was Celestia who knew that Luna was raised by her and her alone. Anything else wasn't true, she wouldn't allow it to be. Luna was her daughter, and she loved her more than any one of her subjects of Faithful Students, and seeing her now broke her heart because Celestia knew who what she was marrying. She knew whose wedding date was a temporary and unofficial holiday. She knew all the reasons that the gold-armored military all across Equestria were on active duty; and not a single soldier at rest just in case. Luna agreed — she said that this safety measure was for Sombra and to curtail all potential unruly displays by ponies. Celestia did make sure to remind her that this course of action was for the safety and well-being of Equestira's citizens. She did not point out that the welfare of their ponies was more important than a demon-god's own because the many always outranked the few. It seemed so obvious — Equestria was founded on the health of the herd trampling upon the hooves of the arrogant minority who would dare threaten their privileges. That was what she reminded herself of in frustrating situations like this when the lessons taught to school-foals were lost upon her daughter-goddess so quick to drown in her own wants.

The Crystal Empire and the safety of its citizens were in Shining Armor's capable hooves. He may not be a god, but he was loved by his ponies, and they did not protest the foreign wedding as... violently... as they might've liked to. Perhaps a burned effigy or two of Sombra would turn up afterward if the Crystalline guard poked around enough, but that would be it. Not to mention, entry into many royal families usually meant that even colony subjects like the crystal ponies would find it anywhere from more difficult (if not outright impossible) to be so blatant about their opinions on an extended family member to the foremost ruler of the nation. Ponies were quite literally past the age of torches and pitchforks... at least most of the time.

Celestia still hid an uncertain fear of anypony getting hurt. Sometimes, and she'd never admitted it, but a little bit of her was unsure of that. She had seen the world when ponies still burned. Instead of allowing herself to be nagged by such a thing, she scanned the guests to find her Faithful Student.

Twilight was not difficult for Celestia to pick out from her own position as best mare — something Sombra surprisingly didn't have any objection to in the slightest. Her chic dress was a dark shade of gray, her smile was polite, and her eyes were as mournful as the dour colors suggested. A little bit of weepiness had streaked some of the makeup she was wearing. Celestia had no doubt it was applied expertly by Twilight's wife. A pastel orange pegasus toddler had her mouth open with hazy delight as she rested in her mother's forehooves. The little filly was staring up at the sitting demigod and pulling gently at her purple and magenta striped mane when she so innocently caught her smile slipping. Stellar Streak only became distracted when she wished to play with the silver link necklace that hung around her neck or the velvety bow that had been stuck in her own royal purple mane.

Next to Twilight was the elegantly dressed Rarity, whose rich purple curls were pulled up with a net of jewels. Silver earrings winked in her pale ears, far out of reach from the little unicorn colt with a silvery coat that looked up eagerly at them. His other mother tutted and adjusted her gown of midnight blue, skillfully wrapping the wisteria sash around her withers while managing her son. Princess Celestia's smile cracked ever so slightly into something a bit more genuine at the sight of the unicorn managing something so simple. A mother and child with her family embodied what Celestia longed to protect most with her rule. Then, her gaze roamed once more. It drifted past Twilight and her wife, who were the only Element Bearers present among the shockingly modest crowd — it had really surprised Princess Celestia that the foolishly arrogant Sombra didn't wish to have everypony, common or otherwise, look upon him, and impose this desire onto his new bride.

My daughter.

Celestia ignored the cutting pang that the thought brought. It was eased somewhat not by the sight of Twilight in the crowd, even if there was a little comfort in Celestia being able to have her Faithful Student invited to a wedding that she might have been barred from otherwise. Discord was able to ease enough of whatever else was plaguing her — was it guilt? — and there was another slight crack in the smile of her heavily maintained facade. The tall draconequus was seated with his top hat askew and his excited eyes focused on everypony but Celestia, looking about without ever really pausing to truly examine anything. He was talking, but to who or what about Celestia could only guess from where she stood. He was her anchor no matter what because he was always changing, and she could count on him to do that — and she loved it. She hated it when she woke up and the world felt the same.

In his talon and paw was the quadruped kirin daughter of theirs. Discord's daughter. That last correction was more of a reminder, really. Luna was Celestia's daughter. Obviously. Qilin was Discord's flesh and blood. She was one of Princess Celestia's beloved subjects. Right now, Qilin looked up at her father with happy eyes of sky blue, cooing as she tugged at his bread with one of her mismatched forelimbs, swishing her tail wildly from underneath the ruffles of her dress while her soft, wavy mane of stripes of gold, sorrel, and orange intertwining with a shade of pale pink much like Celestia's own mane used to be. Qilin's little wings, also mismatched but functional, were carefully tucked out of sight.

Next to Discord, and under his very temporary watch since her father was unable to attend and sit with her, was a snow-white pegasus filly with pale blue around the tip of her wings, as though the feathers had been touched by a windigo of lore. The toddler's thick, rolling curls of deep blue and stormy grays had been carefully pulled away from her face with a pale, lacy headband. Her ruffly gown with sparkles and lace made it seem as though she were among the snow of the Empire she lived in. Skyla looked at everything with deep confusion and curiosity entwined as closely the small ribbons in her mane.

Duke Blueblood and his partner, Donut Joe were a striking pair and like Twilight, Celestia 'suggested' that they be invited. Of course, Celestia was aware that Duke Blueblood would only be attending for reasons purely related to his status, but Celestia would extend an invitation to him anyway. If she had been feeling up to it, later she might have given Blueblood the usual Teasing Auntie jokes — Luna certainly never did — this time, about him ever having a wedding of his own.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime event, seeing as the divine hardly wed anyway. Something awful told Celestia that Luna, her dear daughter, might not ever wed again.

How imperfect that would be, echoed something in Celestia's head that she might've known as herself. Might've. Perhaps it was another voice. A dumb little whisper that would peel itself away and shove itself where she wouldn't find it again.

Perhaps, it went again, echoing into a soft shadow in her mind. The silence nibbled at her peculiarly and she shifted politely.

This was the wedding crowd. There were no cameras beyond the one that Discord had just conjured, and Celestia would still make a scrapbook for Luna and anypony who wanted one with her Dissy's photos. Sometimes, it was easy not to think when scrap-booking. Maybe she would be lucky when that time came. Each colorful border, sticker, or appliqué had more of a pattern than words she could not figure out how she might begin to arrange them if she were to tell Luna — or anypony — anything.

Celestia smiled a little, eyes teary with what she had made everypony believe was happiness. Her neck-wear of the occasion, a little string of sapphires on the thinnest golden chain — she always loved a little color of gold to brighten her day — that she had commissioned for the 'celebration' in a fit of numbness she never let anypony see felt terribly icy against her neck. This wedding was on the cusp of spring, March 28th, and the sun was warm outside. Clouds, vast and fluffy, floated in the sky. Only ponies were discontent, and she with them. She did not know why she felt cold though; centuries here had left her well-adjusted to the mountain air, even if she had a slight longing for warmer weather.

Under an arch of blue roses and moonflowers — the latter had been coaxed to bloom so many hours before even dusk touched the sky by a special florist — Princess Cadance had excitement in her lilac eyes. Her mane was done up as the Crystal Headdress, and a giddy smile as bright as the hints of the Crystal Heart's flashes of work in her coat. Cadance was a mare who was authentic and good with love, but not love itself just as Twilight was not friendship itself, but for her to be the vow master at a wedding was truly, and richly symbolic. And at a wedding between two everlasting souls whose love had the chance to be everlasting as well? Luna would call it wondrous.

It was something star-crossed to Celestia, too, because 'star-crossed' had an ugly side to it, as Saddlespeare's famous work and other pieces proved. To be star-crossed was to have a fixed and ugly fate, to grow from something innocent into a tragedy where one is but a puppet to some greater orchestration. Celestia's tears were for her daughter. For Luna. This match was ill, this match was star-crossed. Her heart scraped in her breast, aching for what might befall her sister amidst the numbness and haze of a wedding that should never be. She wanted Sombra to fall, let his pride doom him, but not Luna.

Never Luna. She wished for anything, to wake up, an ax to connect with Sombra's neck as it should've when she first met this stallion who dodged every bit of her magic because then none of this would ever have to happen. Anything, anything. Just to stop this. A part of her even entertained an uncharacteristically absurd fancy of the remaining Element Bearers to burst in, Elements borrowed again and led by the heroic Faithful Student so that they could defeat the vile, lecherous demon. Then, the Bearers could show her daughter the compassion she needed once more. That was all she really ever wanted for Luna now.

Instead, Celestia watched Cadance hum happily, smile widening and wingtips ruffling with glee. Her own dress was shades of soft blurs of white and the foggiest gray, like the puffs of one's cold breath against the smudge of a horizon. The mist-like gown clung to Cadance's frame in an almost enchanting way that made her look like a sorceress straight out of some great legend. Her gown glittered faintly in the afternoon light when the sun's light shone on the fabric a certain way, and reached up to her forehoof now and then to tuck a stray curl away. She hummed a soft tune, the oddly happy melody a contrast to the dire sense of wrongness that Celestia held to the whole event.

Everything stuck out in all the wrong ways, as glaring as the groom did when he was in one of his clearly constant moods. Celestia felt like she was reading a story, or perhaps a film star on the wrong set, as niche a form as entertainment as films were. Fog and clarity of a horrifying, creeping variety alternated in her mind. Beneath her chiseled smile where darker thoughts brewed, she carefully swept through every last thing she could with the trained gaze of a mare who found some very nasty parts of herself in the Unicorn Court, forever unknown to modern Equestria.

She spotted another in the crowd, a sort of weed that fit the strangeness of the surreal horror Celestia felt at her daughter's wedding.

A youth was not the strangest guest at most weddings, but for such a private affair that lacked even a flower filly, a guest that was not a royal toddler was strange indeed. Celestia watched him, a young pegasus colt that was maybe thirteen at most. He had wide eyes that looked about energetically for somepony specific he couldn't seem to find but knew was already there. The way his feathers were twitching was visible from where she stood with a calm that none would guess had an ugly storm going on beneath it. His bright green coat was a little bit of an eyesore, but the strangest features of him were his shock white mane and tail and the beading on his surprisingly formal jacket in the unmistakable style of the buffalo.

Celestia knew little of him but vaguely knew of the role he held that allowed him to be invited, and the stallion who he accompanied.

Feeling rather ill at the thought of the stallion, Celestia coolly gave the monster in front of her, and across from her, a slice of her focus.

Sombra was an enigma, even at his own wedding, and not one she liked to attempt to decipher.

His mane and tail were the same as ever, and his crimson eyes a constant. Their look was... isolated. Reserved. It was like Sombra wished for others to believe there was a world of thought and sharp intelligence behind them — or that they were simply supposed to believe that. Celestia didn't; she even saw the greatest contradictions to any potential intellect: his arrogance and willingness to shut himself away was a most wicked hubris. He was so adamant on carrying himself like his mind was some great machine that could save the world, but he'd never let you see it. Celestia didn't like how he had the audacity to simply do as he wished and the inconsiderate nature that he possessed, one as painfully obvious as Fluttershy's meekness. How was it that he was able to do as he wished and be as he wished no matter how much persecution he faced?

She just... couldn't fathom it. She watched instead. She still tried to scrape up any good reason as to why Luna loved him, or to what her daughter saw in him.

It wasn't exactly an entertaining sight — and 'it', in this case, was Sombra. To refer to him as such was a shallow comfort for Celestia, and each substitution felt like a miniature victory, albeit secret ones.

He didn't like his suit, that much was clear to everypony who bothered to observe him. It was a strange kind of suit, one that Duke Blueblood had remarked made Sombra look like a crime lord before getting a strange, narrowed-eyes and raised eyebrow-raise combo from the bitterly antisocial demon... stallion? Celestia actually really wasn't sure what male demons were really supposed to be called, and applying such a normal word to them made her feel entrenched in an error of what was supposed to be mundane. Not 'stallion' at least. Sombra being a species of one now made her guesses no easier for the right way to part him from her ponies — or describe his species.

Well, Blueblood had simply ended up watching as Sombra shot him a dirty look and flipped up his collar. Celestia had merely watched with distaste. What exactly was he trying to accomplish, Celestia didn't know. Looking as he did, Celestia was astonished that he showed up. Did he want to disrespect Luna so? She had been quite careful and calm with how she had explained Equestrian wedding customs to Sombra, and of course, her earnestly polite effort had gone up in smoke with his every move. How could she not be frustrated by somepony who only thought for themselves?

He knew she was looking at him in that horrible way of his, yet he gave her no attention. She was not surprised by the rudeness of it, but let some of her focus on him dribble away because of it. Sombra bore no medals. He was no decorated hero. Sombra was cold and unapproachable. Every bit of him radiated a distaste of others. The loathsome beast had laid his eyes on her daughter at some point... and never looked away.

He wasn't deserving of Luna.

He wasn't anypony that Celestia's mind could conjure that could ever stand beside Luna and ever have Celestia's approval, and really, almost anypony would do. He stood in his suit, horn lit and tugging his crimson tie away from his neck. Celestia bit her lip delicately at the site to bite back any stern retort she'd love to hiss at him through clenched teeth. She could only imagine how her words would mingle among others at this dreary event. Instead, she smiled a little more calmly. It was a wedding. It was her daughter's wedding. It wasn't about her, and she would never make it so. She would never be selfish like that, not like him. Celestia doubted that he cared even a bit for maintaining the air of formality she wished this event could have beyond what gowns and suits could do, but in her heart, she knew it wasn't there.

Celestia narrowed her eyes at Sombra ever so slightly so that her facade was still what everypony needed it to be in order to bring them any cheer for Luna's wedding. The anti-art of blending in was one that Celestia wore more closely than her own skin. Even after all this time, it took some energy to pretend, and that was pleasantly distracting.

She couldn't believe he had forgone almost all the options he had been presented with in terms of clothing for a royal wedding. She'd always had the hunch that he was greedier than his loner persona let on — and he must have been quietly seething about how one of the most sought-after designers in the world was not good enough for his ego. He wore no regalia and was so possessive of the ring he had never removed from his necklace, even though it would be needed for the ceremony. The empty chain around his neck seemed to bother him, for he cast sullen and impatient glances at the thin links.

Meanwhile, Cadance's horn is lit and she sways delicately on her hooves and fiddling with one of her curls, which had a small streak of black dyed in the otherwise happy multi-colored ringlets. A hyper little grin was on her face. Celestia didn't need to guess as to why Cadance had chosen the color. She leaned forward with the aid of a little sway, hoof cupped around her muzzle, and the shine of her gold shoe dimmed the outline of her smile as she whispered something to Sombra.

Celestia didn't hear anything beyond the muffled sound of words being exchanged, despite her relative proximity to them, but Sombra tsked and rolled his eyes, one of his silly tuft-tipped ears flicked.

She didn't understand his ridiculously fuzzy winter coat — he looked like a lynx — but she did understand two words of his reply: Pink One. She could read it upon his lips, though only barely.

Refusing to let herself frown even a little, Celestia just let her mind slip to earlier...

...

The hallway felt empty and cold as Celestia stepped quietly through it, yearning for any bit of solace or reason before the ceremony began and her daughter's fate would be sealed with her speaking two words and staring into Sombra's pitiless gaze. Familiar columns loomed around her, the tallest princess, with a foreign and subtle sinister air, their shadows seeming all the more pronounced with such a dark event occurring. Even the colors of Celestia's dress, which she found unusually (and yet fittingly) somber in color hung across her pale form with all the weight of a shroud. Of course, Lady Rarity had told her earnestly that it was such a lovely dress for the best mare. Lying, Celestia had agreed with her with a numbness that only she felt — but why? — upon realizing that the dress wasn't that terrible for a mourning mother either.

Her stomach churned throughout her slow stroll, and she felt as though she were an apparition as she walked with an uncharacteristic silence through the castle that she called home. Even the garlands hung heavily, as though they mourned with her. Occasionally, the bunches of lavender, hyacinths, cornflowers, apple blossoms, white lilies, and daisies were a bombardment of color against the ghastly near-gothic event. The sight of such an array of flowers strung in that combination made Princess Celestia's stomach feel just as sour as when she had forced herself to help the maids ensure the vases of honeysuckle and red tulips caught the light of her day radiantly in the halls.

This was the seal to something awful Celestia did not wish to finalize. It had torn at her worse than any other time she had accepted the surrender of a pony's fate, be it something like sending soldiers off under the care of the Royal Guard's Captain or having to personally end the life of the most despicable criminals or criminals that emerged every few centuries before Luna's return. Those types were the serial murderer, who stole the lives of Princess Celestia's ponies, the rarer terrorist who would use the suffering of others to make a brutish statement and callously demand radical change with claims that they stood for the same ponies that they hurt. These ended up being the same ponies that would find them guilty of the cruel offenses against the same populace they were 'helping' and seal the fate of the guilty, as their civic duty to uphold the best life possible could often mean costing the execution of others. Even Luna agreed with Celestia about this — and that was rarer than gray-striped zap apple harvests!

Then it was simple: the life of evil was a thin string, a decent thread. Princess Celestia would cut that same strand quickly, and coldly, with a good deal more mercy than they could have ever deserved in her eyes and the eyes of her ponies.

As time wore on those years ago, she stopped reminding herself that the nasty last act used to be Luna's job. Her daughter was a mare of spells and a master of the blade as well, and a battleax was nothing more than a metal banner to her in combat for how bulky it was, but she could swing it swiftly at least once. It was really all she needed. Ponies feared her greatly for it, but they feared her for many things too. Crime was more rampant in those times than it was now, but that didn't matter. Celestia never gave Luna that job back. It was her penance now.

Luna never asked for it back, a barbed bit of musing reminded her, stinging her from her numb excuse for solace and pause in her stroll. She pursed her lips slightly and stared down at the flower whose petals she had been pulling at absentmindedly, and tiredly looked up to where she had pulled it from one of the garlands. They actually smelled quite nice. Celestia wasn't a mare who liked to be left all by her lonesome often. When she was, she enjoyed all things flower-related: window boxes were a frequent sight in the Solar Wing, she loved gardening, pressed flowers were her bookmarks, floral print her pattern of choice, her favorite mementos and souvenirs were usually floral. One of her favorite gifts — and snacks — was a bouquet of fresh flowers.

The language of flowers was among the ones she spoke most fluently, too. While Luna was the botanist of them both and enjoyed hanging various plants — flowers included, to her mother's delight — throughout the halls on many nights, it was Celestia who left the staff floral presents. Luna hung herbs to clean the air, and Celestia made sure each maid had a flower and a smile to brighten difficult days — and she usually ensured it would be her ponies' favorite kind since she was always sure to learn those details all in the chattering she immersed herself in. Princess Celestia would even slip in a few with positive meanings mixed in for the occasion.

Vain mares love flowers, stung a small voice. Maybe it was hers, but Celestia ignored it. It was true. She still ignored it, and let herself extend the radiant smile of the princess just a little more. She simply shouldn't look so morose.

Sniffing the violet thoughtfully, she decided it was best to tuck it back where she found it. Fiddling with things was such an anxious behavior, and she didn't want to indulge in any uncomfortable nervous tics that she might've picked up from one of the castle staff. It would be best to curb the impulse quickly, so not to give any little voice — hers, they were always some bit of her own tone, mixed with something else — anything to whisper about, with each nagging syllable and thought that likely was just whatever shard of her splintered reflection she felt herself drifting toward on that particular day. For her, every new dawn began with a new Celestia and an old, yawning emptiness she buried under a busy schedule, coffee, and as many positive mantras as she needed.

She was the light of her ponies' lives — and only because they affirmed her destiny for her — and it was the duty of all light to cast away what was not fit to be seen, and protect at any cost. Yet, no matter where she was, Celestia always felt as though part of her was a pretty doll. Her coat was pure and bright. She had eyes that never looked to what was behind her, and there was always a delicate smile upon her face. She could have her unnatural mane brushed any way she liked, yet refrained from doing so. Even if she could be herself, why would she want to be?

Quiet rang in her ears, forming a static she told herself would be banished as she yanked all her thoughts away, imagining them like paper she could toss in a fire. It was a new day. It was a good day for everypony, only she had no right to ruin it. Everypony was happy on this wedding day. Everypony but her. She wouldn't steal her daughter's happiness.

Not again, nagged another bit of Celestia. It certainly wasn't today Celestia, whose smile faltered and felt a fog of sadness swirl around her. She wasn't sure if she'd call it 'sadness', but refused to dwell on it. This was a good day. The princess just plucked a rose this time.

Such a simple flower, she thought, anchoring as many detached thoughts as she could gather to something as plain as the red rose in front of her, but conventional and classic nonetheless. Still, blue roses weaved in with red ones? It certainly wouldn't have been my first choice to tie back the curtains, something else... There are many more colors that would go nicely with Luna's blue roses than this absolutely garish red.

She swallowed and gradually tried to correct her smile because this wasn't about her, and none of this would be. It wasn't her wedding, she had no say in anything. She had tried to warn Luna. Princess Celestia didn't want to give her away, she didn't want to have her one and only daughter and lifelong companion ripped from her by a beast who didn't give one iota about her happiness. On top of that, he was terribly reminiscent of Starswirl, only worse...

Biting down on her lip delicately enough that it wouldn't be noticed by anypony, even if she weren't alone, Celestia's rosy eyes wandered over to the garlands strung up opposite of her. Her mind busily worked to drown out all the thoughts that sought to invade a brain that felt like it was stuffed with whispers and cotton — or at least more than usual — in a desperate attempt to anchor herself.

She told herself that she wasn't Celestia, and it was like hitting a window in front of her with glass — a barrier was removed!

She knew some relief! Celestia's daughter needn't worry, the princess would surely take care of her, but she would be neither now.

She was a humble gardener. Her name was Sunflower. She didn't have a daughter and certainly not one who was getting married. She wasn't alone, she was simply browsing flowers. The princess, the happy and ever-dutiful Goddess-Princess of the Sun needed suggestions for better floral arrangements. Red simply won't do, and the princess needs everything to be perfect for the wedding of Celestia's daughter.

Everything had to be perfect for the princess. The princess had to be perfect for her ponies, or so help Equestria.

Her eyes found the violets again, but they weren't Celestia's rosy eyes because she wasn't Celestia. She wasn't a goddess. She wasn't immortal or an Alicorn. She was a pegasus gardener well respected for being opinionated — but free of the vice of being outspoken — on the subject of flowers.

Sunflower smiled and made a happy humming noise in the back of her throat. Every bit of her surroundings buzzed with a whole lot of nothing in the back of her mind and a stupid sense of giddiness. It was like she had too much wine. Yes, she was certain she liked wine. There would be plenty at the wedding, of course, but for now, she must focus on the flowers...

Yes, the violets would do nicely with the blue roses, and would make an excellent bit of support with each blue rose at the center in little vases on tables... Sunflower rambled inwardly about her flowers, as happy as a lark. Her voice was like Celestia's, but not hers. It didn't sound like the princess that ruled all the littler whispers and kept them in check either.

She was Sunflower, and she was simply noting suggestions for floral arrangements because purple and blue went together much better than red and blue, so here she was, a humble pegasus levitating a flower with—

Levitating.

Her horn ached, magic aura flickering so the gold deepened with a strange scarlet tone for a moment — it was really only suggestions of the hue. Sunflower's breath caught in her throat.

Sunflower stared at the purple violet.

Purple...

Twilight...

Her breath caught in her throat. She wasn't...

A momentary abyss overcame her thoughts and brought a dreadful and heavy quiet with it before stacking the weight of the world back upon the withers of whoever she was. She certainly wasn't Sunflower, as vivid as her flower talk was, that mare was merely an echo in the mind of the pale Alicorn.

Whispers hummed their thoughts above the static, always coming out in pieces. There was the beloved princess above them all, there was humble Sunflower, there was the Tia that Luna needed, there was Solara the wicked Sister-Foe, and there was sad Celestia who stood lonely with a flower in a sea of numerous lesser selves... except for the princess. She commanded all happiness. She commanded everything.

She commanded Celestia to smile because she should not let her instincts escape her over something as silly as flowers. It would be a long while before she would see Sunflower again.

Celestia smiled prettily. Her horn still hurt, but such was a common symptom of headaches for Alicorns and unicorns. As long as the aches were not regular, there was no issue. She tugged her breaking heart together with a lasso made of every braid of whispers that she wouldn't ever tell anypony about. She was Celestia and she was happy. She was Celestia and she was okay. She was Princess Celestia and the princess came before Celestia —and anypony else too.

She was the princess, and she couldn't let down ponies who loved her...

So she smiled and put her best hoof forward, tucking the little flower behind her ear — such a pretty violet it was! — and strolling toward where everypony else would be gathering, and thus where she should be too.

Only to see Sombra turning down a corner...

He looked like an utter disappointment. That caused Celestia's smile to slip into something much more polite in terms of a smile. He should not expect sincerity from her, nor would he receive it. He was a disappointment and a monster. Princess Celestia strived to not disappoint ponies. She was comfortable with her perfection, her undeniable wholeness compared to a mere shadow of a being like he was. A fractured mare she was not, a liar she was.

Sombra was a liar.

Sombra was honest.

Sombra could not be believed, no matter how one saw fit to describe him, and she did not have a shred of faith in him. He would find himself treated coolly by her for now, while heated pockets of resentment were welling under her serene exterior like magma at Sombra standing there like that...

She'd really have to keep it in check, no matter how much she loathed him, her experience would have to win. She had never truly hated anypony before, and certainly not like what she felt around and for Sombra. After thousands of years of keeping any improper emotions in check — thousands of years that had rarely faltered since she left the windigo-infested north — would win out in the end.

A sliver of pain shot through her horn, and felt something like a sudden sprain... in a place where there could be none, and yet it faded just as quickly. She gave no outward sign she felt it.

Celestia quietly watched Sombra. By the tone of his voice, he was cursing under his breath as he approached her. He approached her obviously knowing she was there — in the months since he had moved in, Celestia discovered he truly could sense and read magic — and he paid her no mind at all.

Still, from where she stood, Celestia was able to see that he was struggling with his tying his tie as he headed toward the main hall where his wedding was to be held... and she was to be the best mare.

She approached him as she would approach any member of the castle staff, which was something that held far more respect than Sombra could ever, and would ever, deserve. By the time they stood together, with her off to his side and the space of a pony dividing them, Sombra was already rudely staring at her.

"What is it?" he demanded, tail flicking with slight irritation and critical gaze glued to her. His horn was still lit with his crimson aura that clutched at a tie he obviously wasn't able to manage.

"That wasn't a very nice way to approach me," Celestia said, her eyes disapproving and her tone carrying a light sadness that could be expected from an adult lightly scolding a foal. "I have no ill will towards you."

He looked her up and down, thoroughly unconvinced. "You're quite the brazen liar, Celestia."

She never really liked the way he said her name.

"Sombra, everypony has lied at least once. It is usually only because of the aid and experience of an older pony, such as parents, that we can learn the basics of honesty. Though I know that this concept escapes you due to your lack of any natural upbringing, so I will refrain from rambling about the topic—"

"I'm sure you will," he interjected, narrowing his eyes, while his horn still flared his magic testily.

"That was very rude of you," Celestia went on, still speaking with a gentle, but clearly patronizing scolding tone that she used often around his type. "I approach you and we are already at this? Your bitterness is best when it is cast away, I'm not doing anything to offend you."

"You're existing in the same universe that I am."

Celestia just looked at him, struggling to contain her astonishment when eternal tact was required. "I find the level of pride you have in yourself sickening."

Sombra remained unfazed. Annoyed certainly, but not unfazed. "Your disgust in me and the pride I possess are two things as obvious as you raising the sun. Now, what is it you want?"

"Do you always have to be so hostile with me?"

"You know that this is hardly me being 'hostile' — that would be a definite escalation. Go sweep up your pretty little feelings and once you piece the wretched things back together then I'm sure you can talk to me. Who knows? Maybe I'll even stick around and wait for you to clean them up."

Her expression was impassive as she flicked her gaze elsewhere. Must his own always be so... discriminating? "That isn't what I approached you for, and you shouldn't be wasting time by arguing with me here when you are meant to be the groom of this wedding."

Sombra clearly took some offense by her words. "Me being the one to start arguing with you? And does Discord raise the sun?"

Celestia did not dignify him with an undeserved response.

"If you're going to even attempt to convince me that your presence could in any way benefit me presently, I strongly suggest that you actually cater to my ego and say something useful, as well as relevant to my esteemed self."

Ugh, Celestia's stomach felt ill as she looked down at him and his smug, condescending, and irritated smile that struck her as oh-so-false in every way — if it was a smile at all.

"I was going to offer to help you with your tie."

There. She had said it.

Sombra did not look grateful, he looked suspicious of her and his gaze grew even more scornful. "You 'help' me?" That testy tone was so immature to her. "I know that isn't what you really want, so why don't you just spit it out?"

She raised a forehoof. "You cannot attend your own wedding looking like that. Allow me to help you with your tie, please, since you are not managing it well."

"Fine," Sombra said, narrowing his eyes under his bangs and flipping his collar up via magic.

Celestia responded by looking at him coolly and flipping his collar back up with an oddly rough tug of her golden magic. He rolled his eyes, but she didn't dare acknowledge it. The silence between them was sharpened by his rude, flippant stare, and the exact way Sombra's eyes critically watched Celestia's magic weaving.

Celestia herself was giving little thought to the knots that she was tying with tugs infused with brisk, restrained frustration — when would she ever allow herself fury? — while her thoughts raced with anger that her mind squeezed behind her expression. The latter remained twisted with the imperfection of displeasure, and a slight coldness. Nothing more.

'Nothing more' did not begin to describe her thoughts, and how they turned, yanked from any other focus beyond what was in front of her.

Who was in front of her. She simply had to correct herself.

She wished so much that she could correct everything else. Why him? What was there in him that Luna saw that Celestia could truly believe? Why was the stallion who was going to take her daughter away from her standing in front of her, irritated as though she were what was wrong? How could a mare who loved helping and caring for youth, guiding the forsaken and frightened (in ways Celestia could not) ever look upon Sombra — who spilled the blood of those Luna vowed to treasure most — love a stallion who did that? How could she love anypony who did that? It was Luna who had been the cold force of justice in the days when Equestria was young, as well as the one who tried to bring hope for the few who were not within reach of Celestia's light.

Did Luna despise her, the mare she called 'sister' with an almost innocent reverence that was so heartbreaking? Did Luna wish to assert that she was all grown up in the only way she knew how, by running toward one she felt could whisk her away from the lovely life she had been given since her return? Did she loathe her mother, who had no shortage of sorrow over how she had treated Luna all those years ago? (Did Luna think that her mother bore no scars from this time? Or was Celestia simply that good at hiding the bulk of the iceberg?) Was this Luna's way of crying out for help?

What was it? What was it that Luna saw in evil's caricature, and one who could not even tie his own tie?

Why did she not slay this evil when he first stood before her? Why was his throat not cut, or his life not ended in any other multitude of ways when Luna and he stood on a stolen airship? Her daughter was a warrior, a soldier, and the mare of passion and justice who was swift to begin the path that would take her where she wanted to go. She would've slain the monster Celestia saw before her. She would've come home, proud and brave, having vanquished evil... and... and...

Luna would have come home okay. There were always multiple paths to victory if one had the patience to find it. She could've found another road to victory. She had friends in Cadance and Shining Armor.

Luna could open up. Celestia's proud daughter had the chance to return a changed mare, open and laughing with all who saw her, and not Sombra's coveted prize. Oh, Celestia yearned for Luna to be anything but what she was — still a hermit, still in need of all the good the world had to offer. She need not shed tears or lock herself away. What happiness could she find in isolation? None.

And of Celestia? Celestia knew herself, in part, and all of her felt like an off-kilter reflection sometimes. Princess Celestia did not open up, truly. Celestia was afraid that if she opened herself up, she would find a little filly crying all alone again. So, she didn't. She stayed serene.

If it weren't from the sudden coughs and gasps from Sombra, Celestia would have remained so. They were pained sounds, and she didn't know what or why or—

Her magic. Her cursed magic. Her monstrous magic; the power she buried under her skin with such skill she almost could forget the brutality of her own actions towards herself — if she didn't feel like such a lovely silk purse with globs of wet cement shoved within many fine, tortuously small pockets on many occasions. To experience peculiar burning feelings with the rare slips of power or sprains, only to stifle it all with a smile, laugh, or polite excuse — if it was noticed at all — when she must.

She must do a lot of things. Being kind had always been one of them — her ultimate duty, she always thought, the virtue she swore to defend, for had she not been a Bearer of Kindness once herself?

"I apologize," she said with a sudden sincerity as everything fluttered back to her mind. How dare she let herself show any furious behaviors? Had that really been what she was up to? Simply unacceptable. "I'm sorry. I meant no harm to you at all."

"That would be a first," came a sardonic, grumpy cough that made Celestia's stomach drop. Who was it that she had been...?

She looked into Sombra's eyes, a sharp anger in them that matched his biting tone. His breathing was off, and he had stepped away from her, but she could hear the last few choked breaths in die in the air between them. The front of his suit was a bit rumpled and his knotted tie that she had all but strangled him with when she tied it was gripped in his own crimson aura that shone like an accusation in front of the tall goddess. Celestia swallowed delicately. She hadn't meant to hurt Sombra at all — not this time — but she would not withdraw her apology, as much as she wanted to. Upon realizing it was him she offended, her heart held no sincerity now, though he could keep it.

She really, truly had not meant to harm him...

Later, after all this is over, she should modify her magic, and keep it tucked away more. Ideas were already stumbling through her mind. Her legs felt rooted to the ground and she couldn't say why. Sombra was staring at her. She had a dozen unimportant guesses as to why.

"Are you out to ruin everything about this day?"

"No," came the first word, level as always. "I really didn't—"

"You certainly looked like you wanted to hurt me." A growling edge shot through his words; Celestia's ears dropped a little. She humbly dipped her head.

"Please," Celestia said, quieter this time. "I didn't mean to hurt you. It was a tie, and my nerves are getting to me. This is such a big occasion, and you are to be the prince of my subjects soon."

"Our subjects," Sombra said sourly, though the bitterness was not for her. That was odd; in the years that Celestia and Sombra have known one another, if you could describe what they had as such, she had tried to behead Sombra at least twice. When she stood with him in the halls of a castle of crystal, wanting only to end the terror the crystal ponies endured — and lo and behold, the very injustice stood before her, then.

She tried something like forgiveness towards him the second time, when innocent and loving Cadance vouched for him. She allowed that risk, prying the choice from her mind like it was heavy steel being ripped from a Manehatten edifice with the weakest of magic. Then, she had waited. She sought to at least... keep tabs on him, and found him untrackable. That chance ended when he hurt Twilight. Quietly, she had plotted to have his head again. Her ponies would know no more harm.

He had escaped her.

She watched as he stalked off, though he did not go into the hall where his wedding was to occur, and she was left alone in the hallway again, after he so rudely turned away from her, cutting off their conversation with a gesture that held all the brutality of frostbite.

The suddenness too was not dissimilar.

When he had gone, Celestia still stood there for some time letting the silence squeeze her like a vise's grip and chill her legs. Her body swayed faintly with her mane and tail, in tune to her heartbeat before she steadies herself and stays statue-still.

"I'm sorry," she says to an empty hallway, and even the flower garlands do not rustle.

She doesn't know who she's apologizing to.

"I'm sorry," she repeats, far quieter than before, but she isn't sure who she is saying it to.

Sighing, she moves on with heavy hooves and the start of the most mild of polite smiles on her face, if she were to need it, and part of herself worked on trying to bury everything a little deeper. Soon. She would tell somepony soon. Soon enough. Eventually. She need only find somepony, and plan, and...

...

Celestia wasn't always sure how Sombra's sphere of focus could be so narrow, where everything tied back to him and had to revolve around him. How egotistical and backward such thinking was. If Sombra had lived among the tribes before their exodus, and as a real pony, she'd know exactly what he'd be: a little bit of everything. So many horrid faces of archetypes now extinct in Equestria could be found in him, if only somepony knew where to look: the cruel overseer, the arrogant advisor with words of poison upon his lips, the and heartless miser. Even rarities in Equestria could be reflected in him — an abusive husband Celestia knew he would be if she didn't watch him carefully and protect her daughter.

One face always lingered in Celestia's mind longer than others when she thought of Sombra. If he were a drawing upon a crisp white canvas, every dark blot of him in itself set him apart from every true creature.

She recalled the fading sight of a periwinkle coat, a long white beard, and two deep-set eyes under a belled cap that tingled with every little movement, and the leonine tail that flashed impatiently from under his cape. Celestia knew the ghost of Starswirl every time she looked at the demon who murdered him.

Murder.

It was such a horrid thing. Yet, she'd have never even wished it upon the monstrous stallion who beat her little daughter in front of young Celestia, and how well acquainted the young sun goddess' head had been with the hilt of his plain sword and canes. She wanted death to claim Starswirl in the form of an accident, or for him to have too much drink that his senses were lost. For all that stallion drank, it still wasn't usually enough to rob him of his senses entirely — but if one day he'd just had more than he could bear and went out into a storm. If she bothered to actively desire thinking about his death at all — it — she wanted it to be something like justice in a society that knew none. An execution, maybe. An accident, if she had any hope to wish for.

But never murder.

And now, while her blood ran cold and her whole form felt like a great white apparition detached from all at her daughter's wedding, Celestia stood as Luna would expect her to — a reserved, but still a kindly... sister.

Luna was marrying a murderer.

Celestia's history was an unforgiving one. She was like a thread pulled through some brutal machine throughout it, ending up frayed at the end of it — not that she'd unload that knowledge upon anypony, she just tried to move on, and quickly. In fact, she tried to 'move on' from everything so quickly and jump into the role as a princess — and why wouldn't she want to? — that she deserted all the fragments of herself that she brushed under her title and the daughter who she should've been there for at the time.

Celestia left herself behind to become Princess Celestia, whose history was free of the ugly truth nopony ever had to know. She could be their hero, their guide, and their ruler. She would protect them because she remembered what it was like when they were still cowering in dirt huts, and their ancestors slaughtered themselves in war after war. She had eliminated all of their villains, and her ponies lived in peace. Nopony alive knew Celestia from that awful era except Luna. Discord knew Celestia from far before, he knew Tia and her little sister. He didn't know of a mare called Solara who lived in an age of war, famine, poverty, tyranny, politics, slavery, where the fate of thousands could be transferred from cruel heir to heir as chattel. This was the time when land and ponies could be lost to usurpers, pony or monster, as Tirek was.

With Equestria, Celestia had wanted the life of all her old fairy tales brought back to reality, at least to some extent. She wanted ponies to be kind, generous, and friendly again — that was how everypony was made to be! Celestia wanted to build a safe place — one with resources aplenty and a common goal of Harmony, so foreign to the ponies that she had found, and differences could be put aside for the sake of the equinity they all shared. Pride and selfishness could be done away with for good. Celestia worked in the vile heart of it all: the Unicorn Court, where she was a walking freak show that was thought to be well-trained, but she did what she must, sometimes trusting, idealistic, and optimistic — they were still ponies she walked among! — and other times shrewd. If it was good to lie, then she did just that. She wanted no more death, no more pain.

Sombra was a literal villain from the past — archaic and wrong, standing here before her, marrying her daughter.

Were she not composed, Celestia would have sighed, and just unfurled her wings so that they could lie limp. She — or at least some part of her — wanted to cease this perfect disguise and painted-doll-face routine and let her whole body sag so she could sink to the floor and at least feel something. She wanted to draw something ugly out instead of stifling and smothering everything below the surface, as she did with her magic. Still, she clung to this normalcy because everypony was around, even if they felt a million miles away and cold prickled her coat and under her gown. Mostly, it was for Luna, who would cherish this day. Celestia was not a petty mare; she would not trash the wedding of her daughter. She would lie, lie, lie about how much she — ever so reluctantly — approved of the match because Luna was overjoyed and if Celestia took this away from her...

It took all Celestia's strength not to suck in a breath and remember an old wound in her side, a beam of magic's phantom pain from an ebony mare long gone... and...

This is Luna's day, and it has always been, Celestia chided herself. Would you really want to do anything to ruin it...?

She refused to answer herself and tried to direct her attention elsewhere, only to catch a glimpse of a more alert-looking Sombra prick his ears and turn his head in the direction of the doors.

After months of living with an entity that liked to shift into shadow and phase through walls, as well as teleport instead of using the bigger castle staircases whenever his horribly entitled self felt like it, Celestia had at least become adjusted enough to Sombra's strange senses. She was still suspicious of their encounters and the rather tame rumors the staff had about him so far, but she knew that expression.

It meant Luna was near. Celestia's daughter, her pride and joy, Luna Galaxia — a clan name that Celestia had no attachment to and Sombra was going to adopt as his own, though he had the chance to make his own — was about to enter...

...and Celestia was going to give her away just like that, wasn't she?

Celestia didn't know how her legs weren't shaking even a little at that thought.

At the door, was somepony Celestia knew all too well, his mortal guise purely to get fewer looks and 'get over with this quickly, and see Luna's demon all dressed up like a beloved pet' as he had admitted to her. That was the only reason King Neptune of Aquastria chose to attend the wedding of the younger cousin who had barely not invited him. He was extraordinarily picky when it came to being disguised as a pegasus — he loathed the air and preferred the best next thing to the bond he had with the ocean. Neptune bore a lovely look of restrained boredom and haughty disgust on his face had settled on being a pale, lanky earth pony stallion garbed in Aquastrian scaled armor, which hid his mark and enough of his expression that Sombra only shot him so many burning glares. Celestia would simply look on, watching how Neptune looked away from Sombra's gaze, as though he were a scolded child, before he began toying with a strand of his long aqua mane.

But this time, the doors were open, Neptune having done the one duty assigned to him, and they revealed...

...Two approaching equines, the first a stocky pegasus stallion that Celestia knew to be no pony, but a god. His grayish coat was spotted with dapples of white and the mark of a star upon his flank. His white mane was curly and cut short, and his eyes of purple-gray would never stop haunting Celestia. They looked upon Luna with parental pride — the same look that Celestia gave Luna every day and...

Celestia knew that Luna was her daughter, not his. He had left her, had left them both... and Luna still saw herself as Luna Galaxia. She had never stopped thinking that she was the daughter of that stallion and a broken goddess, whose form was just part of the remainder of Luna and Sombra's previous, ocean-spanning escapade — magical particles and soul wisps adrift in the form of the distant, but colossal magic impression of a tree far from Equestria's shores.

Every time he had written Celestia a letter, she had disposed of it. Every time he looked her in the eyes, she looked past his. She would call him nothing in conversation, not even his own name. She let her words drift around him, and part of him would pretend to understand, and oh, how he would tell her this. And he would apologize to her calm face and think she was earnest in her tranquility.

Liar, liar, her mind would say. Liar, liar — and a filly-deserter too. Liar, liar look at you. Noctus Galaxia, you look at me and don't know that I'm a liar too.

It was all they had in common.

He had tried to talk to her, and get her to visit. To explain. To do anything. She rebuked him all too passively for any conflict to spring up. Whenever she saw him, she felt her stomach ache as though it had been flipped, the first beads of a cold sweat mingle with her mane. Every time he looked at her, Celestia looked away while her body would burn under the gaze of an Alicorn who called himself her father and dared claim to be Luna's too. Celestia's mind would burn as well.

Liar, where were you when she was sick? Liar, where were you when I renounced both you and Lumina? Liar, where were you when I was scared? Liar, where were you when blood was spilled? Liar, where were you when Starswirl lorded over us with threats and mind-touching magic? Liar, where were you when she cried? Liar, where were you when the world was burning and the taint of mortal plagues thick in the airs of their castle? Liar, where were you when I sold myself to the crown? Liar, where were you every time I broke my promises?

So, when the wishing god walked Luna down the aisle, it wasn't him that Celestia looked at. Sombra certainly wasn't looking at him either — his eyes were upon his bride. For once his stare was that of an openly stunned creature. He was so clearly enchanted by the sight of her that it pained Celestia. At all other times, he was otherwise unreadable to the princess, but he always looked at Luna like she was the only mare in the world, all worlds, and had ever been.

Unlike all the mares in gowns and fine dresses around them, Luna was fitted with ceremonial military raiment, outfitted in the manner of a stallion. The dark fabric of her suit, decidedly somewhere between navy and dull black, was decorated with tasseled pads at the withers — each was gold in color to match the more richly colored cuffs of the garment. Medals were pinned to her chest in an assortment that greatly rivaled the decoration of a captain, the highest official of the Equestrian military under the princesses themselves. Luna's medals and badges gleamed in the light, the deeds behind each forgotten in the eyes of the public, though Luna was well deserving of every one.

While her garb was notably masculine for a mare, and especially one of her station, the cut of the cloth was not that of a stallion's resulting in a more androgynous presentation — yet another thing about Luna that separated her from her ruling peers. Celestia knew that in the eyes of her ponies, the role of a royal — though not a leader — was usually assumed to be held by a female in Equestria. For a royal, Luna did not fit the feminine ideal that many would have expected her to have as Celestia herself, Cadance, and Twilight all had. Even Blueblood was more feminine to most than Luna. Eliminating any further visibility of what ponies would have expected to see were the formal, matching dress pants to Luna's striking royal suit that covered her hindquarters, legs, and cutie mark. Silver shoes twinkled on her hooves, only outshone by the look in her eyes... they held Sombra in her gaze, as though he were worthy of that astonished, eager, and all-too-loving look of a wonderstruck mare. Did the egotistical brute need to be given any other reason to think himself the center of the world?

The way their eyes met made Celestia feel so insignificant and imaginary. Luna strode only toward him. If she did not look so vivid and hold such a clarity to her every movement, from her quiet, confident strides, Celestia would say her Luna was spellbound. Luna's feathers shifted silently under the cape Celestia thought more in the style of Sombra. A wreath of flowers was crowning her head and slipped from where they rested in her dark mane so that the floral ornament hung crooked

Celestia ducked her eyes when she felt too overwhelmed — Luna, Noctus, Sombra; it was all far too much, her heart felt squashed in her chest... and then cold, stagnant. Her breathing was controlled. She was controlled, a pretty and distant statue and now she felt like an apparition in her daughter's love story, doomed to fade and be erased as her own pale coat was in the northern winters, so that she couldn't have any hope of finding herself, only losing more and more, bit by bit to the snows...

When she knew Luna and Sombra weren't looking, Celestia dared to raise her eyes. She did so humbly, meekly, sadly. Those two were swept up the excitement and gravity of each other's presences and Noctus had departed to the audience with a quick look she didn't acknowledge.

She lost so much.

Her eyes lingered on Luna's color, her own daughter's back turned to her.

Do I have to lose you too?

Even if she could undo the invisible stitching on her lips and search for each little syllable where it lay, far down her throat, she could never say that to them. Not ever. Even if she wanted to dig up the most ugliest, malformed, twisted, dark, harsh, unkind, and... honest things, Celestia could never bear to tell the truth. Her blood was colder at the thought.

Looking at her daughter and a demon standing in front of her once-trusted niece, the epitome and expert of love, Celestia could not appreciate anything as wicked as irony. Cadance's own marriage was seen as an example of pure, true, and real love. But, here she was, sealing the deal of a relationship Celestia knew was anything but that.

Slowly, she let her gaze fall once again partially as Cadance's song-like voice rattling out words that made Celestia feel very small inside.

"Gentlemares and gentlecolts, gods and mortals alike — we are gathered here today to witness the unusual and rare union of the goddess, Princess Luna Galaxia, brave and wise, and her unexpected suitor. I consider him a dear friend, the god," Cadance tasted the word, asserting it as much as mare of her nature could.

It was as though she was trying to disguise the monstrous nature of the thing she called her 'friend' when everypony else knew better. The looks of those in attendance bored into Sombra, who cast a contemptuous glower in their direction without turning around at all. Cadance continues on, Sombra's gesture known to only Luna, Sombra's despicable self, and Celestia herself, who almost felt a sick sort of luck out of catching something so small. He'd act in such an accusatory way on his own wedding day! The very ponies who showed up to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event, and many who were courteous enough to hide any loathing for him, including a select few with the admirable skill to pretend to like him for politeness' sake.

How was it that a mare as sensitive and renewed as Luna attracted to an intolerant and blundering imbecile like Sombra? Celestia knew she wasn't the only one that thought about this and had it nag at her mind because she had to look away when Twilight Sparkle dabbed at her teary eyes with a hoofkerchief clasped in her aura. She watched how her most beloved Faithful Student bowed her head, shivering with the quietest of sobs, unable to watch as the vows continued. Did Celestia blame her? No, of course not. Were she not meant to hold herself rooted and still, she would extend a kind word and the comfort of wrapping a wing around her Faithful Student. Twilight Sparkle was her most successful project, above all else, and the young mare that was practically her second daughter too. Twilight deserved her happy ending, not all this pain. The very thought of it hurt Celestia like a thorn that she ached to remove.

And Luna didn't care it all. She was too observant not to notice Twilight... and she let her cry anyway. How... How cruel. Cadance was too caught up in her role. But Luna had to know.

And she ignored poor Twilight Sparkle.

Celestia's jaw clenched slightly.

"—the god and recently returned Prince Sombra the Enigma—"

Celestia resisted the urge to remind everypony he hadn't even been crowned yet. The only thing upon his head was the flower crown Luna had stealthily transferred to his head. Sombra cleared his throat in a manner that was hard not to see as entitled. Luna didn't mind, and Cadance certainly seemed used to it. Before any further interruptions could occur, Sombra gave Cadance a pointed look with those unnerving, unnatural crimson eyes.

"Sombra Galaxia," he said, staring at Cadance for far longer than was polite. His tone was nothing but condescending to Celestia, and that name. That horrid name. Luna had embraced it, eagerly reclaiming she thought lost.

Celestia did not address it, like a dying bout of fever, it was an illness well-contained. Celestia was Celestia only. Probably. She was just a pony.

She pretended that Sombra's words did not cause Luna to grab one of his forehooves and hold it in hers. Celestia heard no ever-so-faint murp die half-formed in his throat in the gesture, something nopony past Celestia could hear. His ears flicked forward, and the look between them was so...

Celestia's heart sank further than she thought it could.

...it was so trusting.

"I'm marrying into her family, aren't I?" Sombra asked, the sweeping, piercing look he gave a clear assertion that the question was rhetorical — and a dare, wrapped into one. "I'm sharing everything with her — my time, my secrets, my priceless presence. And she—"

Oh, that look he gave her...

Luna smiled at him, her pricked ears clearly anticipating something only she seemed to have a read on.

Celestia couldn't read the look in Sombra's other than it being some kind of warmth.

"—has been nothing but accommodating to me. If I'm going to be her husband, I'm going to share her name."

How pragmatic of him.

A few whispers died with a disdainful glare he gave everypony. Celestia knew two things. The first was that Blueblood probably was the start of them, being the gossip that he was. The second was that Sombra made no effort to hide how nopony in the audience meant anything to him. The princess could not help but pity her ponies. They did not deserve this treatment. But Cadance still spoke on after hiding a giggle poorly behind her forehoof.

"Heh, alright then. The union of Princess Luna and Prince Sombra Galaxia. Their love is true and undaunted. The devotion they have for one another, undeniable, because everypony here knows some of the various slanders their union has been up against. Even my treasured Crystalline subjects have made their disapproval for the wedding of my dear family clear, but they stay strong."

Sombra and Luna looked so proud to hear those words. Undaunted, indeed — all reasonable opposition and a lack of popular support had not deterred them from standing here today. Strength was not compatible with such insolence. There was even a bit of a smirk emerging on Sombra's muzzle, showing that it was just as haughty as can be. Really though, there were times in private when Celestia mused on what might have happened had they not been so steadfast, just to be less committed, less obsessed with one another. A little part of her would have liked that, and it wasn't the princess part. Or Celestia.

Whatever part it was, she hated that little bit of her.

And she wasn't all that fond of whatever other side of her thought it was right.

Because it was.

Vain attempts to distract herself from her own less than stellar thoughts only made small gestures rub their way into her mind even more. Luna's pure joy and her 'I do' that twisted Celestia's heart, the vows, and Cadance's words like white noise in her ears. Her whole body felt a nameless, numbing chill rising from the inside out. Really, it was as though she were being erased, cleanly and so very, very coldly. Every passing minute at this wedding made her feel more and more like a ghost.

A ghost that Luna had no need of, despite Celestia being something she desperately needed — that feeling and undeniable knowledge that came with knowing she was a true necessity in the lives of everypony, for they would not leave her.

If Luna's 'I do' was a twisting, ugly weight — a reminder that brought all feeling rushing back before dashing it all again, and bringing that slippery slope of thick, cold quiet back — that bruised her heart when her dear daughter spoke those words. It was followed by Sombra's indignant 'Of course, why in Tartarus' name do you think I bothered to show up in the first place?' and then accompanied by a truly generous eye roll that shattered her, no matter how much she refused to show her sorrow.

This was never her day.

And surely it was not just her who felt her heart drop when Sombra said that. Dare she even look at Twilight? And really, part of this felt like her fault — she, the very own cause of her student's tears, having robbed her of a well-deserved happily ever after. Now she stood unable to comfort the filly she had practically raised as the lovely unicorn mare beside her was doing. Thankfully, their foals wouldn't understand why the tears of one of their mothers might not really be 'tears of joy' as they were no doubt told. The ending of that brief exchange felt like it had occupied a much larger window of time. To feel as she felt now in any other scenario, she might need a whole bucket full of ice water dumped on her.

"May we have the rings, please?" Cadance asked sweetly, a soft smile on her face, even when she met Celestia's tranquil, relaxed expression.

With a measured nod and the light of her magic — a glittering bright gold for such a dreary occasion — Celestia probed young Spike, who stood cautiously beside her. He was clearly a bit hesitant to serve as the ringdrake at this occasion, as well as get too close to Sombra. He had grown a few inches since the wedding of Cadance and Shining Armor, but nevertheless, he still had to stretch the ring-cushion clutched in his claws quite high to reach a convenient place for Celestia's magic to lift the cursed things.

She smiled kindly at Spike. "Thank you," she said her voice low. Seeing him smile, however nervously, made the meaningless, purely polite, and conventional pleasantry worth it for her. But nothing else was returned, all those words were like rays of sunshine — bright, flashing, and gone too soon. They always were.

Once Cadance had the rings grasped in her own aura and levitated them over to the bride and groom, Celestia had herself look at the far wall and out the window. She willed herself to be even calmer, to just freeze utterly so that no part of her could thaw. To confront nothing. To tell no truths, to bear no hardship, and let everything inside just freeze away.

She did not want to register how starstruck Luna seemed, mouth in an excited 'O' of astonishment when the ring was slipped over her long, but perfectly normal horn. Her dark mane flowed a little more excitedly, and her tail swished perkily under her cape, and there was some quirky grace to all of her movements.

When Cadance attempted to fit Sombra's ring on his horn, she frowned, levitating the object Sombra was so possessive over awkwardly as she tried to figure out how to make it fit on the abnormally-shaped demon's horn. Looking at it made Celestia's own horn start to ache a little. She was just thinking of how a horn shape like that, so unlike a pony's and impossible in nature, must no doubt hurt too. Celestia knew that one of Twilight's old rivals-turned-friend-turned-pen-pal had acquired a dark magic amulet that was much of a foul object as Sombra himself was. If that mare had kept it long enough and abused it further, a demon is what she would have become.

Before Cadance could do anything else or Celestia could thaw herself enough to scold Sombra lightly for being so difficult and offer Cadance a suggestion, Sombra raised an eyebrow. There was an 'Are we really doing this look?' on his face — Celestia could at least read that much — and lit his horn with his usual, wretched aura. A split second later, Sombra rudely snatched his own ring from a slightly stunned Cadance with a small flash of crimson aura before fastening it onto its necklace home once more.

Luna looked unsurprised and Cadance recovered from Sombra's sudden movement soon after. The latter mare was soon smiling eagerly and finally resuming the last of the vows with a joyous shout:

"I now pronounce you husband and wife, bitches!"

Celestia blinked when they kissed.

It was a somewhat prolonged blink.

She had no idea who kissed whom first, obviously.

Over the blood rushing about in her ears, she heard a few gasps from those attending — and not good exactly ones, but quite a few barely-not-mortified ones. Perhaps it was the one form of relief that the princess could expect from this. Having so much say in the guest list and being able to invite those who would uphold the proper reputation of a royal wedding meant that Princess Celestia was able to invite many of Equestria's most respectable heroes, and Luna had no protest to most of the guests she selected. Heroes were just the type of ponies who would know that any sense of morality was rooted deeply in how one's self-image was interpreted by others, and how immaculate their public conduct and manners were. That was what cemented the ponies with humble spirits like her Twilight Sparkle as honorable. And with that type of company, Princess Celestia was acutely aware of the sympathy that these sorts of ponies would give her.

Rude, she thought, but knew that a reaction like that meant that it was likely Sombra who kissed Luna first.

"It's about time you two got hitched," she heard Cadance mutter. Princess Celestia creaked her eyelid open just enough to see the sparkle of Cadance's blue magic reach up and tease one of her own curls.

After so many centuries, it became easier for budding tears to never see the light of her day and let her heart clench in her chest than it was to cry. Her mask simply wouldn't crack, even if she wanted it to. And that was for the better. For Luna, Discord and, Qilin, Twilight, Cadance, and Raven. It was even what was best for Sombra — as if he was worth considering at all.

But most of all, it was what was best for Equestria.

...

As she walked through the party following the ceremony, Celestia had to curb her shock. The entire event was like some awful dream, and it wouldn't surprise her if she would find herself bolting up in a cold sweat in her own bed soon. Perhaps she would see only a few hours had passed from last night to now, and then she would find normalcy reclaimed with each instance her heartbeat slowed from a quaking drum's beat to a quiet, if eerie tick, tick, tick of a clock. Then, her utterly normal could begin, couldn't it? Paperwork, petitioners, and other everyday princess-duties would dominate her thoughts. Chess with Raven, lunch with Luna, and sipping tea as she went over Twilight's latest letters. If she was lucky, a visit with Cadance and Shining Armor would be on schedule, and the palace chefs would have a new flavor of cake to sample. Cadance would not speak of Sombra the entire time.

She'd been doing that a fair deal now...

Celestia could look forward to other things too — tennis, golf, or croquet with Blueblood, trying to have Qilin color in the lines in all her coloring books to make something prettier than scribbles while she minded the progress talks with the little filly's governess. Those would likely be over tea too. There was so much that a mare like her could look forward to. Tia could have dates with Discord, doing her best to roll with his most certainly chaotic ideas and play pranks on the gardeners together. Unlike most unplanned events, she generally enjoyed his, especially if it was intertwined with gala hi-jinks since that was Equestria's ultimate party to crash. She had him beat eight to five this year, so of course, she had an image to maintain, naturally. Especially if it involved mini-golf — her favorite, and a real, admirable sport as much as chess was the game of rulers.

That would not be all her routines consisted of, but that was where her thoughts stopped when she looked around at the ballroom that hosted the post-nuptial party, and really looked around at the guests.

Remaining guests, she corrected.

While her expression was as calm a mask as ever, she tried to glance at the shiny surface of the floor to make sure her rosy eyes did not look as sad as she thought they might. No relief coursed through her when she saw that they held a lukewarm sort of emotion. She had already brushed away a few tears expertly when nopony was looking — the only ones that she would shed tonight — but managed to retouch her makeup with a quick trip to one of the castle's numerous restrooms. Most of them were reserved for the inhabitants and staff, so she had little fear anypony might enter a mare's room while she peered into the mirror.

There was still this foggy numbness all about her. Princess Celestia held her head high and stepped quietly as she tried to find somepony to chat with; she ached for some meaningless conversation to dash the shiver-inducing melancholy overtaking her as gradually as vines wormed their way through the crack of a strong, maintained fortress wall. But who could she talk to? Raven, Celestia's dear friend, had no place showing up at Luna's wedding. She was not invited and had expressed no desire to come as politely as possible to Celestia when she had proposed to try and allow someone as dear to her as Raven to attend. Twilight Sparkle, the poor filly, and her family had left when the party started. They had not been given the invitation to stay for this part of the wedding anyway, which saddened Celestia, who had at least managed to secure an invite to the exchanging of the vows. She would have liked to hear how the second draft of The Lessons of Friendship: A Collection of Wisdom by Princess Twilight Sparkle was going. The princess would have liked to talk to Rarity too, since she heard that she had started a line of foal's clothing that was a trending topic in Canterlot's streets and fashion scene alike.

Celestia didn't have the skill with foals that Luna had, but she certainly wouldn't have minded seeing how much Gallant and Stellar had grown since she last saw them. Even listening to Blueblood prattle about who showed up at his last party would be a delight. Knowing which socialite did what and all the latest gossip was far more interesting than... all of this. At many times in her life, Celestia had come terribly close to admitting that there was something more sustaining in gossip and how it brought ponies together than there was nourishment in any broth.

Sighing softly, she noted that everypony else actually appeared to be enjoying themselves. Discord was enjoying his dictation of the event's gramophone, levitating a few record sleeves into the air, pondering which of Cadance's music suggestions would be best to play next compared to his own choices, tucked haphazardly under his other arm. Celestia was certain that Luna wouldn't want Dicord's undeniably elective harsh noise playing at her wedding party.

Celestia watched Discord's tail as it flicked. Then, she caught the sight of Cadance's newest bass leaning against the wall not far from where Discord was standing; Celestia hadn't quite caught what Cadance had named this one, its dark body leaning against its amp, patiently waiting for later that night. She smiled and waved to Discord though, who gave her his crooked snaggle-toothed smile that was so giddy and goofy she had couldn't help but feel just a little bit better.

Before anypony else noticed, he stuck his silly snake-like tongue out and she pantomimed an elaborate gasp of faux horror before politely slipping away to search for anypony who could make low-key small talk. As much as she loved Discord, she didn't want to immerse herself in any zany exchanges right now. Nearby Discord was Noctus, still in his mortal guise. He tugged at his suit's collar with a forehoof, and looked at it with a thin haze of confusion in his eyes that never once caught her; so many objects felt like shadows of what he knew like halfway shadows and lesser versions of things he used to know. How many times had Celestia seen that look before? On Luna, she most certainly had. Only Sombra seemed to keep those little looks at bay — and yet other times she shared it with Sombra or Luna, remembering things they would never share, some connection intertwined between them.

And always, Celestia couldn't fathom why any who have known what gods know would want to remember at all. At times, she wished she could not, and bordered on cursing her immortal mind and all that it had involuntarily bestowed upon her.

Next to him, there was that strange youth again, with a coat of bright green that made the poor colt look like a winged, walking lime. He was excitedly chattering to a half-listening Noctus and upon the teenager's back was... well, it was young Qilin, who gleefully smiled and tugged at his white mane with her little teeth, no doubt having learned such behavior from her attentive father, even if her own teeth were notably flat. The soft wave of her mane bounced in front of her eyes in a peek-a-boo dance, revealing how absorbed in fun, how utterly carefree and innocent they looked.

Quickly, she turned away, and with all the grace of her station stepped elegantly over to the table where she could smell warm treats just ready for sampling. She wasn't able to shake the crushing feeling of this event, and the emptiness that lingered, but she could try to forget.

A small noise startled her, and Celestia bit the edge of her lip as the odd warble faded. Odd, of course, but not unfamiliar.

Her stomach was empty too.

...

Basking in the soon-to-be evening sunlight was the food table. The lovely lavender tablecloth certainly had Celestia's approval (a white trim and a tasteful amount of satin-y ribbons certainly made it visually appealing) but what really had her attention were the contents waiting before her on their all-too-literal silver platters.

The table itself was very long in order to accommodate plenty of food, so Celestia only looked at the part closest to her, and how lavish the spread was! Celestia's mind did not need to drift to the uncomfortable subjects of her daughter, who had done away with the option of a proper and true royal wedding like Cadance had — something that deeply saddened Celestia — for a private white wedding that nopony outside of the room would ever be able to experience. Cadance had at least welcomed the curious ponies and gentry of Canterlot for her own celebration, in a generous gesture befitting an Equestrian princess. Twilight Sparkle showed the same kindness towards the residents of Ponyville. Nopony else seemed to mind, not even Cadance who was so giddy about being the officiant, even though Celestia thought that the whole 'celebration' was very lacking. There were no bridesmaids beyond herself, no groomscolts, no flower filly... how could it not feel incomplete?

Celestia had put plenty of effort into trying to help — organizing everything, sending most of the invitations, trying to help Luna pick out her dress... only for Luna to not want a dress. (She knew Luna was incredibly thankful for all of Celestia's help, as she'd only reminded Celestia a dozen times with a dozen hugs — but still! No dress for the bride! It was absurd!) For all that effort, she certainly felt that she deserved to have a nice break and some food.

Wine bottles lined the table, each cleaned and shining, boasting downright ancient dates when they were first stored in the Canterlot cellars. Sparkling wine glasses waited nearby, silently sitting between the wine selection and the very uncalled-for piece... a fountain of hard cider that Luna had shot a few eager looks at, even though the punch bowl was also quite nice. (The fountain was either a gift from Pinkie Pie or Discord, Celestia could not be sure.) The only drink that was suitable for any of the younger ponies present was crisp, fresh Sweet Apple Acres apple juice that Celestia had tasted herself, and of course, the punch, but Celestia doubted that would last as it was with Cadance around.

The food was thankfully largely traditional. Sweets sat all lined up on decorated platters, each made by the finest chefs in the castle kitchens. Cookies, fruits, and other sweet smells teased Celestia's muzzle. Some of them had already been touched, but plenty was left. Less sugary foods like gourmet salads were available, but none of those caught Celestia's eye.

The cake was what commanded her attention. At every celebration she attended, the cake was what made her knees weak and her stomach grumble. She loved the effort ponies put into designing them, into making sure every part blended into the perfect whole so that no one aspect of the cake stole the spotlight. Cake was something that could be shared with ponies and great with friends. So much could be put on a cake and they came in a wide variety of flavors.

No matter where she went and to what kind of event, Celestia could usually count on there being a cake. Visiting a foreign kingdom for a ball? A fancy cake is in order, no doubt in some exotic flavor she could hardly wait to sample. When she was having lunch with Twilight Sparkle in Ponyville? Sugarcube Corner is a must-visit for a couple of cute cupcakes. Inviting young Spike over to celebrate his hatchday? A simple cake decorated with a comic book hero or hoofball star and colorful candles for Spike to light himself while Twilight clapped her hooves and cheered.

Any sign of cake was the party and get-together equivalent of a friendly 'hello', and Celestia loved to say 'hello' to ponies.

Even if there were always some that never said 'hello' back...

Seeing the wedding cake made Celestia's stuck-fast smile feel a bit more sincere as she trotted towards the foods waiting for her. Her mouth opened in a silent 'O' of excitement as she looked at the wedding cake up close. The frosting was a soft blue that Celestia thought was decidedly like a robin's egg. Icing swirls in classic white and silver sprinkled with confectionery sugar crystals clung to the cake in an almost whimsical way, like sugary mist. Faint whirls had been etched in the frosting and expertly worked in to give the desert a frosty look that was complemented by the silver-colored sugar pearls that were indistinguishable from the real thing until they were tasted.

Celestia hummed faintly as she lit her horn to levitate a knife with a pearly handle and a pristine white plate so she could cut herself a slice as carefully as possible. Luna's wedding cake had such a fairy-tale feel to it despite it being barren of the more traditional motifs, like roses. Usually, a royal wedding would have miniature figures of those who were to be wedded perched atop the cake, but when Celestia tried to search for anypony willing to craft them when she managed the catering, nopony was willing to fashion any likeness of Sombra.

"I'm not sure if you've noticed, but this disgusting icing brick of a 'cake' has gross little beads all over it. While I have no strong opinion about if you were to choke, I know a very lovely mare who does."

Any shred of earnestness in the princess' smile was gone. She calmly levitated her modest helping of cake onto her plate, and selected the correct type of fork to taste the... she eyed the cake's interior quickly, dreading any acknowledgment of that voice, noting that it was unusual: butterscotch-pineapple flavored, of all things. What better way to make Luna's wedding cake than have it be her two favorite flavors of anything? Celestia was glad her cautious optimism had paid off, and that the unusual flavor had some merit.

"Would you like a slice?" Celestia asked, voice level and polite.

It was such a normal thing to say — in contrast to anything that came out of Sombra's mouth — and Celestia liked that. She had heard how Cadance usually brushed off some of what Sombra said with a chime of 'Typical Sombra' and Luna, too, chimed in on this. It was something that Sombra evidently allowed. Celestia simply did not like Typical Sombra... but perhaps Typical Sombra would not mind sharing some cake if she just... grinned and dealt with his antics?

"Absolutely not," he huffed, and Celestia did not look at him. There was no need to. He shattered her silent offer.

In the months that he had been living with Celestia and Luna, she'd hardly seen any bit of him, and what mannerisms he had were frustrating.

He refused to eat around most ponies entirely and only ate around Celestia, Luna, Skyla, Shining, and Cadance. He stared impolitely. He was rarely seen by anypony. He enjoyed pursuing archives without express permission from Princess Celestia herself. He didn't talk to anypony as though they mattered — other than Luna and Cadance. If he talked to anypony else at all, it was to order around a servant, bluntly and without courtesy.

He refused to let anypony cook for him. When Celestia inquired why — the palace staff were friendly, excellent ponies who only were paid to do so — he talked of how if something was to be done 'right' he had to do it himself. Now that was some rubbish he applied to everything else so casually. Though, more than once Celestia caught Sombra himself — and the confirming whispers of the staff — with something that he had cooked for somepony other than himself. 'For Luna' is what he had always declared with a scowl at everypony, and the trusty gossip of castle cooks always cemented this.

Yet never in her life had Celestia regarded freshly baked snickerdoodles with such a deep sense of suspicion. Not unless they came from Sombra.

Sombra allowed rare exceptions for the few that passed whatever ridiculous trust standards he had — the 'few' being Cadance, Luna, and absolutely nopony else. Well, Skyla too. Once again, there was no surprise in those names.

He refused to mail letters through normal services — by the wings of postal pegasi or allowing anything to be carried by the admirable earth post-ponies of Equestria. He slept in until afternoon, and when his ludicrous sleep schedule was followed, he would be up at night — a couple of the maids had reportedly been frightened by his shadow. He enchanted rooms so that only the 'right' ponies could enter them, and the enchantments were too complex for anypony to break them. He whapped Philomena with a newspaper more than once, claiming something along the lines of her startling him or spying on him. He built a pond for his fish, single-hoofed, in one of the castle gardens. His mane was disheveled. He frequently reminded the staff that he hated them. He teleported around instead of using the stairs. He phased through walls as a shadow-creature. He read while walking and didn't bump into anybody, and used this as a substitute for conversation. He wouldn't smile. He burned all the mail he deemed as 'junk' as well as a number of the topiaries.

He had the audacity to use her coffee maker without asking.

But Celestia had discovered that he really could not speak politely no matter what — and it was impossible to speak politely of his habits, too.

"A 'no thank you' would be much nicer." She still wouldn't look at him. She had tried.

"I'm not nice. If you want to call me a big jerk, or what-have-you I'm not going to complain, as long as you're honest. I can't exactly do the same, seeing as the only 'big' thing about you is your rear end."

He smirked. Sombra was hardly being cruel right now, but if she was to be a wallflower, then she would bear her fellow blossoms...

Celestia skillfully hid that she bit the tip of her tongue in disgust while tasting a nice forkful of cake. It was very good! "Insulting a mare's age and weight are both especially rude things to do, and while I am a very old mare—" she fills what would be a pause with a conversational laugh, "—I do not have weight problems. You can stop calling the few times I walk past you on our less-than-cheery encounters an eclipse, if you would please."

(Her various physicians had told her otherwise throughout the years, with a diversity of tone and approaches. None of them lasted very long if they continued to bring up the subject or suggest that they knew her health better than her.)

"Well, I'm not going to, you old nag. I just want to cut a slice of cake for somepony. Since your head is as full of shit as any sewer system, I'll explain this once out of the pure politeness that the Right-Honourable Lord Sombra radiates: me cutting cake isn't the same as me cutting up ponies. I know how terribly similar everything I do in your two-color mind is synonymous with genocide, so having a little reminder that me accessing food at my own wedding is, in fact — and I know this is going to come as a shock to you... but it isn't genocide! Isn't that just a radiant little miracle?"

She was ready to turn on him, and tell him as direly as possible that nothing he said was funny, weddings were supposed to be lovely times, and that genocide was in no way something for any good pony to joke about...or demon-monster, but a little voice made her swallow her cake abruptly:

"Kitty!"

It was the innocent, happy voice of a familiar little toddler. Celestia couldn't believe she had not looked for its owner among the rest of the wedding guests.

So, she finally looked at Sombra and caught him glancing at the little one sitting on his back with a curious expression, a faint trill of confusion in his throat, and his ears pricked forward. "Yes, yes, I'm here. The best grunkle in the history of the universe hasn't gone anywhere, but some nag isn't letting me get you a slice of cake."

So, that was why he wanted a slice...

Riding right on the back of the groom was an-almost-puffball of ruffly skirts. One with her own natural curls, she was the essential image of the sweet little toddler, as well as Celestia's own great-niece... and Sombra's too. Skyla cooed, her own little white forelegs trying to stretch impossibly far to Sombra's face as he looked back at her. Some demon had removed his tie and secured it around her forehead like a headband.

She wiggled her little legs again, fluttering her wings eagerly, pointing at Sombra. "Kitty! Kitty! Kitty!"

He scowled slightly in response. "Yeah, I've got it. I'm here. I exist. We've established this many times. Can't you use your damn words? I'd get you a little bit of cake if you could be patient."

Skyla smiled and pointed one foreleg extra-far, stretching it as much as she could and waving it. "Kitty?"

Rolling his eyes, Sombra levitated the little filly in front of him, almost cradling her in his aura while Skyla cooed and batted at the sparkles before she reached her destination: one of Sombra's forelegs.

Celestia eyed him a little warily, noting what was on his back, below the ruffly layers of Skyla's dress. "Why are you the one managing Skyla right now?"

Sombra looked for all the world that somepony had told him to explain how to breathe. "Cadance wanted me to." His eyes moved to indicate the small saddle bag on his back, crystal heart clasps shining in the light. "There's a couple of snacks and things in there, but Pink One said the kid can have some cake."

Celestia looked very calmly at him. "Oh. It will have to be in small pieces, then."

She also had no idea what a 'grunkle' was supposed to be, or if it was contagious. It certainly sounded like a rather dreadful ailment.

"Have you realized that you're capable of moving something other than your mouth yet so I can get the rugrat some cake?" He snorted, something like a semi-annoyed smirk on his muzzle. "That is, if she can ever tell me what size of a slice she wants."

Looking down at the curious toddler in his forelegs like she was an adult who could understand him, and that this was a typical scene to witness, he talked to Skyla again. "I know you can hear me, kiddo. Are you going to listen to your grunkle and give me the damn details here, or is it going to be apple slices for you, Skyla?"

"Do not swear in front of my grand-niece," Celestia hissed softly. The way she had looked at him on previous instances should have been an indication that he should cease. He did not.

Sombra didn't give any sign he heard her, not unless she was able to count an irritated ear flick.

She looked at him like he was a glittering orb of tinsel, and she a kitten who had never seen anything better. "Gah!" Skyla announced with pride.

Sombra looked down at her, one eye twitching faintly as he peered down at her, his muzzle right within nuzzling distance. "That's not a real word."

Making soft gurgles of wonder, Skyla reached out with a foreleg and began to pet Sombra with the clumsy affection of any filly her age when interacting with pets. "Kitty!" she squealed.

"We'll get you up to 'Sombra' one day, won't we?"

Skyla blinked. "Kitty?"

Sombra just looked at her, slightly confused. "One day."

Skyla patted his muzzle gently, cooing while Sombra purred softly, allowing the young filly to try and touch his ears.

Celestia just placed her slice of cake down and grabbed another plate. She began to cut another in a size that would be fit for Skyla since Sombra was clearly distracted. There was a bizarre confidence to how he acted now, the strange sounds he made — something rarely done in front of her — that only served to separate him from everypony else when he should be trying to blend in, and improve how he's seen. It wasn't like she hadn't given him a few pointers.

However, he would never be enough to fool her. Nothing about his conduct could deceive a mare like her, who knew ponies and the two sides of the board, the black and the white.

She just hummed as she cut a small slice, working quickly and without thought, to cut each piece into something fit for a toddler who would have no difficulty eating, placing any 'pearls' and similar hard-to-chew frills on her own plate. Those might as well be a well-deserved little extra, the perfect sweet reward for having to put up with talking to Sombra at all. Clearly, she was the one who knew how little fillies functioned between the two of them, and yet he was entrusted with Skyla instead?

Celestia looked up to see that Sombra had set Skyla down... right on the table. Ruffly skirts touched the edge of pastries and other delectable treats while the happy filly smiled giddily.

"Her dress is getting in the food," Celestia observed.

Sombra noted this, silently letting his horn glow brighter so that he was able to delicately levitate Skyla. This way, the hem of her dress wasn't brushing up against a tray of cookies and he could balance his plate in his aura as well.

Celestia simply stared at the contents of his plate, only just registering a warm aroma that did not match anything else.

"Did you really have to dictate that pizza be present?"

Sombra doesn't look at her, instead he continues to levitate another slice of pizza onto his plate. "Absolutely. If any event with custom catering is going to have me attending — and as a center of attention — I'm going to have some damned pizza around. If you were in my place, would you not want the same?"

"It would be nice to have a 'thank you' for acquiring vegan pizza for the celebration... it was an unusual request," she said, knowing he'd pick up on the light emphasis she put on the word.

Sombra looked like he might choke mid-bite of the slice he had been casually sampling before adding to his plate and actually turning to look directly at her.

"Vegan pizza exists?" he hissed, stunned.

Celestia contained herself expertly. Again. Must everything about him be so odd? "Yes, and I figured that was what you had always had. To select anything else made no sense, since you are supposedly vegan, aren't you? I made sure that nearly everything purchased was vegan specifically for you... except the cake, I'm afraid. It seems that vegan bakers are not easy to come by, even in my fine city of Canterlot."

She saw one of his eyebrows arch. "You don't have the faintest idea of what I eat, even though we live together."

Not wanting to meet his eyes, Celestia stared at his pizza slices. Green peppers stood out boldly, and pineapple dotted each slice. To her surprise, Sombra followed her gaze.

"Do you want a slice?" He meant it, to her surprise — he wasn't speaking nearly so testily, but yet, there was no friendly feeling at all to his words, merely a pragmatic invitation.

"No thank you," she said with a slight smile and the faintest glitter of disgust in her eyes, "I do not enjoy pineapple as Luna doesn't enjoy pizza. Enjoy your pizza."

She had lived long enough to make sure the last three words did not sound forced, even if they were as barren of sincerity as Queen Chrysalis had been devoid of love.

"Just tell me outright that you want me to choke on it," Sombra scoffed, carefully levitating a pineapple over to Skyla. The little filly's eyes shone with innocent love as she cooed and stretched her hooves out to accept the treat, chewing on it with soft 'nom' noises.

"Even if I thought that I would never say anything like in front of a child... or somepony you care about."

Scoffing, he indifferently returned to selecting another slice of pizza. Celestia stood by calmly observing Sombra chew it. She ignored him and helped situate Skyla briefly so that the little filly was able to sample her small pieces of cake while Celestia contentedly ate her own portion as if he were not there. Eventually, she allowed her mind to slip into the ambient thrall of the party, and Sombra was the one who procured a foal's fork from his bag for Skyla to use.

As she zoned out, further muting his presence from her thoughts, she watched, passed fleeting conversations she deemed irrelevant, to the couple dancing that certainly was a sight to behold.

A palate of bright pastels, snowy fabrics, and those dyed streaks of black that were an utter eyesore twirled elegantly and noticeable with all the enthusiasm as the rest of Cadance, whose joyous smile and energetic dancing was unforgettable. Purple-tipped feathers cut the air with the softness of dandelion fluff as Cadance moved, and her happy lilac eyes saw nopony but her dancing partner.

Celestia had always been a mare who was quick to jump at the chance to learn the latest dances that overtook her ponies and populated parties and other establishments. More than a few dancing tutors had had the 'honor' — that was how they always put it — of guiding her through each step and further instilling a rhythm from which she knew not to deviate from within her until she had taken to each with all the reflex of a heartbeat.

Luna, as ponies would be apt to put it, 'danced to the beat of her own drum' which was to say, with all the actual awe and heart that Celestia's techniques were missing. Where Celestia adopted the necessity of convention with ease, Luna's dark form and swift ways held a hypnotic magnetism like the push and pull of the tides. They could be just as soft or rough as the ocean's lull too, which were the opposite of how Celestia devoted herself to near-soundless grace and minding meters that no longer needed to be called to thought. Even Celestia's detached mind was able to snag onto the distinct movement that made Luna stand out, ever the different one... from everypony.

Could anything be sadder than that?

A sound next to her tugged Celestia's thoughts away from Luna, and she offered no resistance to reestablish her concentration. Now it fell on Sombra once more. He had gone out of the way to summon the sheath that contained one of his swords. Celestia remembered some of their names — Fate, Virtue, and Cacti — but that was because he named them after things that he claimed to be above. It had simply annoyed her too much not to recall such a frustratingly unusual detail.

Such arrogance. She knew only one that was close in levels of pride as Sombra, and he was a stallion with a belled hat who tried to conquer death. His very memory sent chills down Celestia's spine.

She waited until Sombra was done adjusting the sheath, not bother to point out he didn't need any such weapon, and especially not around a young filly who looked at it with such awe. Then she spoke, "Why is it that you aren't dancing?"

She spoke the words mildly, but he still looked annoyed that she even tried talking to him in the first place. "I can't dance."

"It is tradition for the bride to dance with her groom — at least, in this case, where we have one of each. Why don't you give it a try? It's lots of fun!" Celestia finished with a cheerful smile.

Sombra just looked at her flatly for a moment. "No."

Surprise showed on Celestia's face, but only a little. Thousand-year masks do not fall in seconds. Such a conversationalist, he was! What in Tartarus name was it that Luna and he talked about when he was so stubbornly reticent? He's so boring!

"You're the one missing out, then," Celestia said, watching as Sombra turned away, unaffected by her words.

Oblivious to the frosty demeanor of Sombra and Celestia's cool stare, Skyla reached out, pointing and wiggling her forehooves toward somepony other than the alabaster mare and disgruntled demon.

"Pretty!" she exclaimed. "Pretty, pretty!"

Sombra followed her movements with a curious gaze, which was a fairly odd contrast to his indifferent frown, and Celestia followed his eyes. The action was done discreetly, she'd never let him know that he was part of her cue.

Skyla was looking at Luna dancing, and her laughter followed, ringing across the room. That was what really snagged Sombra's attention quicker than the slowest of fish took the bait on a fish hook. He nearly reminded her of a startled (or intrigued, it was hard to tell with cats, which was just one of the many reasons she preferred birds) house cat. Plus, if she didn't know better, she might have thought the look in his eyes a little starstruck.

"She is," he mumbled. "She really is."

Odd, Celestia thought. Sombra was quick to hate most everypony, but oddly enough, he was always quick to compliment the strangest things about Luna. He proclaimed her extremely clever where it was best to deem her frighteningly esoteric. Her arcane skill was worth many of his words, none of which were the slightest bit wary. Her laughter had his ears perked quicker than Celestia questioning for the forty-sixth time why a pizza pony was in Canterlot Castle, asking about a pizza ordered in whatever absurd name Sombra and a less-than-sober Cadance had devised for the night. He found her fierce instead of temperamental, and to him, her prowess in combat was 'attractive' when the true nature of gods and the depths of their powers was more than enough to traumatize even most of the modern mortals.

It was enough for Celestia to almost want to demand that he just tell her daughter that she was the prettiest mare in the world like a normal lover would — or just a typical stallion of his, ah, temperament. Was it so hard for him to not know what a mare wants? Luna deserved to feel pretty too, and nothing that Sombra typically praised held a candle to what telling a mare about her true, outer beauty and feminine qualities could do.

Unlike Celestia, it was Luna who radiated... some elation, something... this breathtaking earnestness, and how ironic it was. Celestia was the princess of the sun, but she was also the princess of sunnier dispositions, something Luna had never taken to. And yet, all eyes were on her because Luna looked like a real goddess. She was strong, she was strange, her eyes held a mystery that even Celestia's pleas for understanding never managed to unlock in their lifetimes of kinship. She had subtle movements Celestia could not observe any point in, yet marked Luna's free, confident, and organic dancing — every single flow — as distinct in a way that was fitting for only the best self-taught dancers and the otherworldly grace of the divine. No skirt hindered her, but if Luna had worn one, Celestia thought it would be like something out of a breezie-fay tale.

Luna smiled, and Celestia saw her whirl excitedly with Cadance, mid-laugh saying something she couldn't hear. Or perhaps Luna singing some old and long-forgotten folk song that would only linger in the most rustic and out-of-the-way taverns. Those were the kind that Princess Celestia felt were best buried in the unseemly, kitschy grave that called itself folklore and allowed to be pruned from her memory without a second thought when they were no longer popular with her ponies.

An elephant — some creature to the West, near the Llamalayas, found only in pictures and dusty pages — may remember, for their prowess in memory had lent the fable to the Eastern continent long ago, long before Celestia had been born, but everypony knew that an Alicorn never forgets.

Jarred from thoughts by a tickle in her mind, one that just barely acknowledged Sombra was there, next to her, that he was real too, Celestia reluctantly amended herself, though she never would to his face.

An elephant may remember, but a god never forgets.

There, now it was all-inclusive for its sake. Just a bit.

...and when had I ever seen her happier than when she looked at him? When she talked to him?

She watched Luna dance with her dear friend, deliberately ignoring Sombra. Princess Celestia knew that if Luna had chosen almost any other creature as her spouse, then Celestia really would have been overflowing with pride and remarks of congratulations for Luna. Instead, she watched them, wilting internally at her temporary wallflower status, and pretended that Skyla wasn't delighting in mashing a small piece of cake into the fine plates.

Sombra wasn't withdrawing a flask from his suit. He absolutely wasn't pouring a more than adequate amount of Crystalline Empire vodka (the insignia on the flask told Celestia that it had been loaned to him by Cadance) into the otherwise perfect punch bowl.

It isn't like he's going to have any, and frankly, now that he's bothered with that, neither will I.

If it had been Cadance doing so, she would have not minded, because she was certain that Cadance would do no such thing in the presence of a child. She would do it out of mirth too, not the borderline schadenfreude and eccentric reasons that might prompt Sombra to do something so similar. The more upper-crust ponies at Galas had always complained about Cadance's behavior and various pranks at galas and other events when she was a teenager. Her niece had done such similar things then. Long ago, Celestia herself had partaken in similar actions back in the Unicorn Court, and here there was little harm — especially with her around; she'd ensure that everypony could have a fun time regardless of anypony's questionable taste in the fun.

Before Celestia had been put in charge of organizing the whole affair, she had to listen to Luna and Sombra. His compromise with her, his willingness to work with Luna — though Celestia knew when she talked to them that they hardly wanted anything serious in terms of a wedding. Sombra and Cadance's actions might as well be an indirect jab at what this had become.

This had been the final compromise, and Celestia had never stopped wishing it had been something more.

From her position, everypony felt much like a youth at times. She would simply ensure their fun didn't hurt anypony and guide them, regardless of Sombra's odd attitude toward weddings. Though, there were plenty of weddings that got far, far rowdier than a small group of divine and company would today. Trottish weddings were a very vivid example, and Celestia had seen far too many of those for her tastes.

One night of immaturity for this crowd wasn't going to change much. Even if she couldn't be particularly sure of what Sombra would do...

Though, nopony here was likely to mind the little scheme set up by the demon and the demigod. Celestia would politely refuse anything offered to her. Noctus would be eager to sample Crystalline vodka again, and she'd have very little reason to worry about anything with him. Discord would be eager to sample anything that's considered edible. Qilin and Skyla could be kept busy with nice things like cookies and party games, even though nopony would be indulging much while they were still around. The Sage too, was rather young, but did not seem to be a trouble-making type, and would be ushered off with the foals soon, as responsibility was not discarded entirely for the sake of celebration. The castle had more than enough guest rooms to accommodate him, Skyla, and everypony else who had to come. Clearly, whatever Sombra was setting up — and Cadance too — would not be occurring for some while. The dancing and music were clearly entertaining everypony thoroughly.

Luna would certainly see this as some charming little thing. She would no doubt bestow Sombra with some little gesture of affection, a strange burning brand at how this was all so final, every thread was twined from here, Sombra would be living with her and Luna, and starting his own journey to ruling Equestria. Princess Celestia would be setting him up with what would best be defined as the 'Royal Desk Job'. She predicted that he would loathe that, leave it to Sombra to be so obnoxious about everything because Sombra was...

"Kitty!" Skyla had a celery stick grasped in her forehoof, plucked from a gourmet platter filled with the freshest vegetable bits could buy. She waved it in his direction, no longer interested in her leftover cake.

Sombra looked quietly at her, the beginning of an instinctive trill sounding in his throat, a clear question of 'What?'.

"Kitty," Skyla repeated, "eat!" She clumsily but adamantly waved the celery stick while Celestia cast them a sideways glance.

She watched as Skyla's eyes lit up when Sombra turned around. He gave her his undivided attention, observing her quietly, head cocked to the side partway and a single eyebrow raised in what could be mistaken for the barest trace of amusement, his mane falling into his eyes. Without warning, he stretched his neck forward and gingerly accepted the celery stick, clutching it firmly once it was grasped between his teeth. Celestia caught the glimpse of his horn shine with a faint crimson and the subtle shift and movement of magic... and she saw the barest glimpse of Sombra's fangs, suddenly there where normal teeth had been, and the clutched the celery stick tightly.

That is all? Well, his behavior was unusual, but she observed no malicious intent with his magical usage. The God of Knowledge was trickier than Discord. Riddles could be anticipated, jokes, pranks... but the mind, manner, and magic was something spun far beyond the pages of Macavallo's The Prince, as ironic as the comparison was...

Oh, he's looking at me. Celestia gave the start of a calm expression. Utterly effortless.

...Sombra was still right next to her.

She looked at him with no particular amount of scrutiny, directed at his attire. "I would hope that you'll be wearing something more formal for your coronation. It will not be a friendly event like this. There will be ponies who will monitor your public image, which is something that you should start to take under far more consideration."

He crunched the celery in time with an eye roll and responded when he finished consuming the innocent vegetable.

"I'll be wearing something different from this." He spoke evenly, but without any distinct seriousness or nonchalance.

"This isn't a joke. The ponies of Equestria aren't a joke. Soon, they'll be your subjects too, and you shall learn to serve them—"

"—as a cog in a twisted dystopian machine painted with all the revolting colors of sunshine?"

Celestia narrowed her eyes but never denied any of the parts about 'the machine' because Equestria was indeed a machine. A sound, harmonious machine. She sought to keep it that way, running as it should. She would never pull herself away from doing so because she was more instrumental to this nation than the Fires of Friendship cast by Clover the Clever and the rest of the Founders. "Equestria is not a dystopia, and it will never be, not if you're kept under a crown and humbled."

He was unfazed and spoke with measured, but not unnatural confidence. "A tyrant is still a tyrant when she smiles, Celestia and a murder is still a murder regardless of who apologizes for it."

She didn't look at him. Not directly. "And with pride like yours, you shall crumble, like every other creature bearing it does. Mark my words, I would not even give you three hundred years at best. Ponies will make the right decisions, and you will find yourself in charge of none of them."

Demon.

He smirked. "A queen presiding over a nation composed almost entirely out of fools is still the queen of fools if she listens to them and caters to their will." He finished with a snide look and tugged his color in his magic.

Innocent to the venom being tossed between the god and goddess, Skyla crammed half a cookie in her face, drooling around it and watching everywhere and nowhere with wide eyes.

"It's kindness that matters, and showing it to those who are willing to show it in return. You certainly do not qualify. You are cruel, you lock yourself away, you are insolent and incredibly immature. Your intelligence is nonexistent, demon."

He scowled. "Eloquent and benevolent as ever, Celestia. With words like that, I'm thinking you're asleep on your hooves because you have the coherence of anypony who just dragged themselves out of a coma. The Tribal Era called, they want their pettiness back. That's coming from an egotist, but damn if I'm not a self-aware one."

She watched his eyes narrow, enjoying that she found the thread of his temper, silently giving it another tug. His words were laced with ambition, with danger, and a dozen other things that she hated to name. Yet, by watching him... that look in his eyes, the way he stood, how he carried himself was almost hypnotic. Though she watched flames, Celestia of anypony knew more than most to never touch them. And thankfully, while Sombra was fire, no one ever stood close enough to him to get burned, of that she was sure.

"All narcissists are nothing more than fools."

He smiled again, and how wicked it was — really just a smug, exaggerated smirk. "I'm patient, Celestia. You can throw a thousand pebbles at me, but that's all you'll ever do, isn't it? One day, I'll finally drop the boulder I've managed to hang over your head on you. But I won't have to use might or magic to do it. You'll pull it down right upon yourself instead. The ending will still be the same: I'll walk away, cursing the world and continuing with my life. Where did yours go?"

Half-baked responses felt like they worked her mouth open before she could stop herself, only nothing came out. A flurry of words she had itched to toss back at him for the sake of making a single scratch upon him died before they could be properly stoked.

A devilish look shines in Sombra's eyes as his stare pierces her directly and without remorse. "I appreciate a touch of rivalry, but here's a warning: I am patient beyond your knowing. You waited for the mere notion of a sister, didn't you? Celestia, you had the whole damn world all around you, distracting you the whole time, and your nation's history is littered with proof of it. Me? I had myself, nothing more. I have had nothing, and I will always know what it's like to have nothing, and I would never wish that on anypony I love. As patient as I will be, my ruthlessness is no rumor. However," he played with that word as a cat plays with a mouse held between their claws, "I have a question and some advice. Care for it?"

"I'll allow you to speak it," Celestia said, but when she let herself glance at Sombra she saw that his expression made it plain she wasn't 'allowing' him anything. How could he not realize such a generous gesture, even when she was in no mood for such a virtue? When she gave her subjects no such permissions, they clammed up. No egotistical gesture was spared with him if he was to shirk such a blessing from her.

"You consider yourself to be a 'good pony' don't you?"

"Compared to you? Absolutely. In all other circumstances? I have always tried to be." That is not even advice.

Sombra had the audacity to mouth 'liar' at her, anger and cruel delight cycling in those crimson eyes even if his mouth conformed to neither emotion.

She ignored him, porcelain demeanor unbroken. "Your advice would be?"

Sombra scoffed, drawing the tip of his tongues across his still-unconcealed fangs momentarily. "Wouldn't you just love to know the single flaw to your plan to expose me, expel me, topple me, humble me, and dare I say — exorcise me?"

Her rose eyes narrowed just enough that he'd notice, and not a little bit more. Composure was a mistress in its own right, one to be practiced until it was instinct. She would strive for it in the face of adversity always.

Sombra wasted no time with his reply as he plucked Skyla off the snack table, having her sit snugly on his back, and as he sauntered off he called to her, a plate of pizza gripped in his magic, delivering his answer without hesitance or humility:

"You think it will work."


"He who tells a lie is not sensible of how great a task he undertakes; for he must be forced to invent twenty more to maintain that one." --Alexander Pope

Interlude 3: Sombra

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I'm going to tell you a story.

Some of it is about me, the best creature there is.

Some of it is about my wife, the brightest one I have known.

And some of it is about Macavallo, who does not even have the decency to be alive anymore.

Macavallo was a stallion who lived far away from the Eastern continents where Equestria is situated; he was a mortal unicorn who lived centuries before Celestia was content to do more than trade with the Western nations across the vast Barren Sea in the time after my Luna was banished. An Istallion historian and philosopher, he witnessed the House of Maredici tear his nation apart with more cunning than Tribal Era ponies ever managed and an openness that Celestia is too passive to attempt. Istallia had no gods outside of its sky-reaching basilicas, no stability, and only mortals to bloody the throne — but Macavallo was rightly ambitious, something I can't cease to admire.

He was a writer and a reader too. I know there's little difference between the two, but Macavallo might as well have flaunted both in a time when having one of those abilities was already a luxury. If he did so, he has my intrigue — any who know me well enough are aware I'm not the sort to admire anyone.

Macavallo read the histories of the faraway East, where I'm from — if it could be said I'm from anywhere, in the conventional sense. Like many Westerners, the Istallions, the Neighponese, and other nations — equine and otherwise — were hooked on the history of the faraway lands filled with gods, foreign magic, and lost kingdoms. The residents of the West found themselves enthralled by the myth craze sweeping through them. These lands were caught between wars and feuding clans on a scale that the East wasn't, organizing great armies led by mortal rulers and dynasties that fell as easily as their borders and were replaced, who had little knowledge of ancient stirrings despite walking among the divine, and cities that had never reclaimed the full glory of pre-Collapse civilization.

The few middle-way islands thrown across the vast Barren Sea — the Kingdom of the Isle of Mares, Shetland Islands, Boara-Boara, the Isle of Albionian Mutant-Boar, Shirdal Island — were no longer of interest to the West's powerful, politically refined empires. The burros of Brayzil, Neighpon, yeti of Mirkaysia, minotaurs of Arcadia and its archipelagos, Qilin, Ibexian Caliphate all had reason to take up an interest in the pony-majority lands of the East for trade. Even the monstrously sized Sibearian Tsardom — the land of ursine creatures, ice orgs, lava orgs, and countless ancient dragons — was willing to consider communications with smaller nations, like Equestria. Macavallo's home nation was just one of many pony-dominated lands in the East — like Saddle Lanka, Andalusia, and Trampylvania — to be interested in contact without conquest.

While not dystopian in the darker sense, if you toss out things like Elements of Harmony, gods, magic of friendship, or even the notion that a nation could last as it is for centuries and prosper, you'd be telling most of the Western lands something that's barely fictional at best. The immaturity of the East had limited attraction once trade agreements were made and myths were exhausted. Talk of the most influential zebra traders, war elephant clans, and other traditions and creatures of the West would resume, all of which would be more believable than anything like the half-stability in Eastern nations.

The one-thousand-year reign of Celestia Galaxia, alone? To the creatures there, that would be unthinkable — and enviable, once the inconceivable facet was digested. Even to this day, the West knows nothing of stability like that of the Eastern empires and kingdoms. Most Western-born immigrants to Eastern nations fled from wars and were born in war — and the peace of nations over here is sweet and tempting to drink — as well as preserve at any cost.

One of the historical events that ponies like Macavallo read through was the disappearance of the most infamous dark magic user, a mortal who sealed an entire empire in time and stood up to some of the most powerful gods.

Yours truly.

The pony nations, zebra tribes, griffon homeland of Shirdal, and various other species found out about Celestia and Luna, who they accepted as distant gods. War may ravage and redraw these lands, but their texts survive and show how these creatures were even more awed at the celestial routine the Two Sisters maintained. Neptune — it's not what I'd like to call him, but Sombra forbid that anypony gets called what he sees fit — and Aquastria, with a particular fixation on the city of Atlantis, were each marveled at. Every word translated into their languages is one that exudes the excitement of unearthed secrets.

Most importantly, there was a story of three things among the hundreds that made their way across the seas. One that featured a king, a crystal kingdom, and Sombra — myself.

Even the West viewed the slaughter of the crystal ponies with horror; war may have been as bloody common for them as market gossip and general fools, but it wasn't particularly reveled in any more than anypony would revel in a damn plague.

Nopony censored war in the West, and it'd be hard to — all you had to do was wait a couple of generations and all those skirmishes would send ships sailing and blood to bathe streets and city walls again. You might as well bet money on how quickly it takes for violence to take a cousin, neighbor, friend — or to find a declaration printed in a headline. And maybe you did not bother to read something like that at all and tossed the paper into the cobblestone street, where it was carried on the deep songs of a war-horn from eyrie to eyrie — where you would fly after them.

The West is familiar with war. The standing armies of the East, meddling about in peace-times and border skirmishes aren't all that much to their legions, but they fear our gods — which I find quite flattering.

To Westerners, a mortal king with magic they knew nothing of staving off gods and warping time and shadows was something to make war over. It was not a war of blades and spells, of legions and the young recruits shaking in their uniforms and armor alike — this was deadly because it was a war of words. Philosophers gathered against the history they had been given, charging into battle against one another to rip the inky guts of these 'legends' and fling all the gore about in patterns sharp enough to shock one another like the stab of a bayonet or the burn of a spell.

This was writing at its best, and Macavallo was one such writer. He did not eye the history and writings of the goddess that was my sister-in-law with much regard, and the then-dubious existence of my wife was little to him. There were many in the Western lands who wrote of my Luna — speculating on her meanings and relation to the world, staining parchment with rows of cramped black writing of hoof, horn, and claw that were the dark feathers on wings of war. She was given a second existence as an enduring literary enigma, one that was never 'solved' despite lifetimes of effort. Though, looking over all those writings and how far from the truth every creature spiraled, I can't help but think that the whole body produced in this time is one of the most excellent microcosms for mortal folly possible.

He was one of the surprisingly many scholars who cared not for the king under the sea, or celestial sisters, and the divine rulers of the afterlife.

Macavallo developed a fascination with me as history knew me then — which was not much since I was not myself in any tale to fall in their hooves. Everypony knew exactly what Celestia wrote and not much more, since the armies to be marched against me never got to take their first hoofsteps. What exactly did Celestia write, you might ask? For a mare obsessed with moral purity, she managed to spin a detailed, harrowing account of events that never occurred during the eight years I spent in the Crystal Empire. I doubt she was without the help of a ghostwriter, but Celestia made what would have been the extinction of the crystal ponies — had I lasted as long as Onyx wanted — into something even grislier with a single-hoofed effort. Only I knew what went on in full there, so how did she get the facts to fill the history books that were distributed among the Equestrians and Westerners alike?

She didn't. Luna was the only soul able to scout the Crystal Empire only briefly before my banishment, and while she gathered facts, she gathered fantasy as well from the mouths of tortured liars who needed bigger monsters to make their victimhood greater than it already was. They had no other way to cope with how little they understood the world and what brought their lives to the point of fish in a barrel targetted by a cat and spear-clutching colt poised to kill. Luna has admitted she could not disprove all she was told in the time she had, but she did not willingly further the fantasies of angry, broken ponies. With my solar enemy at a loss to understanding her defeat, living in a nation of ponies whose Tribal Era roots still showed, and the truth buried in ice and shadow, would she dare try to tell a single shred of what really happened?

Never.

The image of a sadistic, bloodthirsty, cannibal — to repeat the least of the lies spoken about me — shocked Western readers. Unlike the creatures of the East, who accepted what they were fed uncritically, they jumped at the chance to examine a figure they believed so cruel and that a goddess condemned as a monster.

The mysterious king — I'll just call him that, since he is not me — was a cruel tyrant, and appeared to be a pony of great might but no intellect, and whose active politics across his land were a distinct lack of politics, but expertise in torture, bravado, and intent to harm all under his rule with great prejudice. The king's reign was a mystery in terms of mechanics and witnesses. How had he stayed so powerful — and for what purpose? The Western nations were no strangers to warlordism, but the localized and single-hoofed brutality of this tyrant was as unanticipated as his magic.

In an attempt to explain and shed light on the subject of this king and his ruling style, Macavallo wrote his magnum opus, The Prince. In its pages, he observed the actions that lead to the deaths of many and all that transpired within the Empire's borders. Nothing nearly so morbid to them as the systematic enslavement, torture, and murder of hundreds of crystal ponies had ever crossed their minds. Now, a detailed examination of it was sweeping nations and was able to sit in their hooves of anypony literate and able to spare a few coins. If the West was a stretch of snow, my story was tar that had irreversibly blotted out part of it, and the whole sequence of events was so foreign and bizarre... but unshakable in the public attention span. The whole damned kingdom of Andalusia was so fixated on my story that they mistranslated my name and gradually adopted it as a word — to them, Sombra came to mean 'shadow' and waxed and waned as a popular as mare's name.

What Macavallo read were the accounts of a brutal, merciless, and sadistic individual who was said to rule the Crystal Empire. In those pages, he observed the barbaric reputation that was tacked onto the figure who wore the crown; he was reminded of the tortures he experienced firsthoof in local wars, only magnified in malice and personal sadism. Then the power and skill the king had, as well as the magical feats that were attributed to him... well, Macavallo was one of the few who saw some kind of divergence here. He noted where things had to be more than meets the eye where generations both before, during, and since his lifetimes died without ever questioning what whispers left the Empire's borders.

Unfortunately, he never lived long enough to know he was right. However, his 'idea' led to a revolutionary philosophy — one not exactly found abundantly in Equestria's borders, even if the Sun allowed its power to flourish here.

The King was an entity that ruled through fear and brutality, the face to be met on the throne with an affinity for cruelty as ornate as any regalia or typical Crystalline decorations found throughout the palace halls. Strength and bloodshed got him his position, and helped keep him there regardless of what forces thought to challenge him and earn his ire. Friendship and likeability aren't exactly things that cause anypony to rise to a position of leadership — and maintain it, but that didn't make what was plain to everypony, that there was a genocide within the Empire's borders, acceptable in any way.

But Macavallo was not a fool, his mind was almost as sharp as my tongue, and I'm allowing the exaggeration of the former as a compliment only. There are only a few minds in each millennium that can see past strings and social currency as means to rise up in this world, that grander methods have always been waiting for use or in need of invention. Today, I suppose, I can be a little generous with any amount of praise because finally there is somepony worth mentioning who has earned it.

He recognized enough of what went unsaid in the Crystal Empire. Macavallo could spot things like the way the citizens were really controlled, the pattern of which demographics were targeted first in attacks, who was first to fall in the earliest of massacres among the crystal ponies, the way labor was done, and the great magic that kept so many blinded with awe and fear. Even Equestrian propaganda could never take something like that from me. My magic, like myself, is not quick to fade or be forgotten — not where it matters most. Even after all those who remembered those years of terror are dead and buried, nothing can revive the orchards of family trees that were rendered extinct by my powers or the strangling webs of generational trauma that will plague the crystal ponies as a race many hundreds of years into the future.

Macavallo saw something there. Even in the words that twisted and with the truth clawed from them, because I know firsthoof that the light of the Sun is for blinding. There were little of my magical exploits that were known in all the books that Macavallo would obtain, at least, compared to what actually happened — but only I know that. Onyx knows that far too well, and Luna knows much of it too. Cadance — if I wanted to count her, knows little in comparison to the previous two, but she knows something beyond the gold-wrapped lies and shining bile that the crystal ponies are so content with.

Macavallo knew something too: the King could have maintained no power through force alone, and his might meant nothing. In the course of history, as it is now and it will be, there will be few souls that can succeed in claiming power through force alone long enough to be remembered and fewer still who can maintain it with that particular method. The actions of the King were an even more elusive third position of the plethora available for securing sovereignty over one's inferiors, and this is primarily because they were done with so little support. Nopony could have known what really happened there, in the Crystal Empire. They had no idea about the dual minds that were there, the summoner and I, the demon. To them, the 'King Sombra' of history was just a single entity, and in the eyes of all those Western scholars, he — only as they knew him — was fascinating and revolting in equal measure.

Of all the actions that even I thought could be lost to shadow and shrouded in the passing of history, furthered only by the ignorance of ponies, it was a stallion named Macavallo who was the second to see the tip of some of the secrets that had been part of who I am, what I had been, and all that was around me before I had ice claim the Empire. He said that what really was able to keep one mortal on the throne of a secret empire that was no more than a shadow in a storm to the rest of the world was a brilliant mind, and absolutely nothing less. It wasn't social connections. It wasn't money. Tartarus knows it wasn't the military. The wants of working ponies and ordinary creatures are what rots empires, so it certainly was not the reason that the Crystal Empire stayed in the regime I kept it under. Macavallo dismissed every notion that there was some second pony — at the least — or network of underlings that even the gods couldn't see, and that shocked more than a few souls among his contemporaries.

Yet, why should it? I had nopony as a lover, or whatever bastardization of the concept — living or dead, willing or not — that Onyx could have wanted at the time. Luna's stars know that I couldn't have — wouldn't have — attempted to keep one of my own. I am without blood-kin. Friends were not possible, and even if they were, it is not friendship that the world depends on for accomplishments to make history, lasting or otherwise.

The thoughts of collectivism and other lies didn't permeate the minds of these creatures so strongly as they did Equestrians, so the idea wasn't set in stone, even if the hallowed, staunch individualism so strongly exemplified by Alicornkind was dormant. That didn't make Macavallo's idea any less terrifying. He struck three great fears with the picture he painted by telling the story of somepony powerful. Then, he made them an individual apart from the herd, and lastly, he made the 'King Sombra' in his vision smart.

It's flattering and terrifying, and I love it.

He wrote of a shadow — my words, not his — to the figure of the king. That was the role of an aggressor, the bloodthirsty, and brutal personality that ponies' eyes caught in bursts of face-to-face encounters, the kind marked by when Onyx spoke on the castle's balcony or when the crystal ponies met their violent ends. Following the king Macavallo described was the true ruler: a dangerous mind who knew to be ruthless, to be cunning, to be tricky, to work fear itself, and manipulate whatever was needed in order to achieve something admirable and selfish.

He called this ambitious part of a being 'the prince' not because he was genuinely lesser, only seen less, if the prince was somepony that could be seen at all.

It was his metaphor, and it was his bloody title too.

Long after I was banished, there was a book that was very nearly about me, about the Prince and what he stood for, and it was written by a stallion who wished to meet me with every word he wrote. I've seen it, as his work has floated in my magic, and honestly, I might have liked to see this stallion too. His voice lingers like a ghost in what he has left behind. There are times when I like to think that I can almost hear what he would have sounded like with how unusually earnest his writings were in an era that had been marked by the first gulps of Celestian saccharinity and deceit finally reaching foreign shores like Istallia. The balanced maturity of his welcome cynicism is only sulky and half-grown to those who crassly and ceaselessly force their isolated wants and delusions upon a wider world that has never reflected them, such as a certain nagging, blinding light.

He's dead.

I'm not surprised. I can't be. There was nothing else I could have expected with how much time has passed.

He's been dead for enough time to have become history. If he wasn't, then, I honestly would not have minded standing before him, looking him right in his brown eyes to see the exile written there, knowing it is something we have varying familiarity with. I would tell him that the Prince was far more real than he knew, that he was right enough, and most importantly, that it was me.

Why?

Today, and hereafter, I really am a prince.

...

I looked at Luna, trying to catch as much of her expression as possible in the night's light. Even in the dark, shadows of leaves still dappled her dark-coated body, and I could catch sight of them just enough in the dark. Her eyes were fixated solely on me, and rushing with a storm of emotions so clear in the blue. Worry danced in her eyes with pinpricks of moonlight and reflected the sparkles of her mane, letting me see the way that the night shifted her eyes, her feline pupils standing out in the varying shadows that colored the world. Even the flow of her mane was off, the long fluid strokes not constant with small signs only I knew how to spot beyond something as obvious as the nervous flicks of her tail and rustle of her feathers.

"This is so much..." she whispered, breathless. "Sombra... I..." Looking down at the ground and kicking at the grass, which was slightly slick with dew, Luna pinned her ears down nervously, clearly having too much on her mind.

I didn't blame her.

Drawing in a tired breath, I leaned over and nuzzled her wither. "Luna, do you want to talk about this another time?"

"No," she says with all the firmness I expect of her, "We need to talk about this now..." she gulps, "...because our future is important, beyond the light of stars and lives of mortals."

I stopped in silent acknowledgment and let the feel of her silky coat, warm body, and rich magical presence fill my senses.

"I didn't plan on staying in Canterlot forever."

"I know," she whispers back, standing against a cool night breeze.

"Only my Princess Charming has kept me here, for the most part." I nip one of her ears gently to lighten the mood, but even a few notes of my rumbling purr aren't comforting Luna right now.

But I stand with her, and it's enough, in a stubborn way — and I love that. The way she relaxes against me completely erases the distant note of stoicism she has when around mortal creatures. It has always made them look like washed-out figments of a half-ignored painting, and that they're somehow unable to see that despite the vague coldness she can't shake around them, Luna is the only light, all of the world, and the sole living being among their static. I don't know whether that is Luna being herself, her divinity, or the two of them mingling, but it's automatic — and gone around me.

"...I-I know... Sombra, is that really what you desire, though? Stars, it feels like your ambition has fallen on me."

Resting my neck across her back, I nosed through the thick locks of her mane when they flowed past, purring curiously and softly on the occasion where it might cheer her up. Even if it is just a little, and on the inside, I will always take the least I can do over nothing at all when it comes to Luna's happiness. I know she would do the same for me.

"We're beings of ambition and emotion surrounded by ponies who wrongly believe that they're anywhere near as great as I am."

"Ah," Luna murmured, "I see you only left out 'egotistical' since you only have that in excess?"

Experience tells me she might be choking back the tiniest of snorts, and the way her form tenses just right is in silent agreement with my observation.

"Correct." I nibble a bit of her mane for emphasis, sitting with Luna when I feel her move. "Undoubtedly, it was a lot to take in."

"...I am unsure."

Sitting up, I watch her ears twitch, leaning forward to nuzzle her cheek. Making sure our eyes meet and that she knows that it isn't Canterlot lit below — the citadel illuminated in the distance, or the endless sky all around us, the wind that she's always told me smells like stars and fallen leaves — it's her and I talking right here that matters.

"Staying in Canterlot like this was never going to be long-term, Luna. As for my job?" I make a disdainful tch noise and enjoy the feeling of autumn grass under me. "Being a mercenary is only as long-term as I want it to be..."

"...And you wish that my position as a Princess of Equestria was viewed as the same... as imminently and flexible as your own desire to live an adventurous life."

Another deep breath. "Yes, Luna."

She fiddles with her mane, forehooves I know to be blue combing through it in the dark. "Princesshood is really only so as long as I want it, and the same goes for my sister... if she would actually admit to such a truth. Were the want to become great enough, and I simply stepped onto my balcony and flew away, I would still be every bit a goddess, if not a rightful princess to a nation with no other truer heirs than her and I..." Her pause was all the signal I needed to know that her eyes were on the stars, and her voice plunged into wistfulness when she continued, "Suppose, one morning I strode out into Canterlot, no crown upon my head, walked the quieter roads until I found you, love, and we... went off into the world. No border could hold us, all solitude could be shared, and there would be no company we would have to bear but our own, to be with you, only you and nopony else— "

"Living off only the roads less traveled," I interject slyly.

"'Twould be like living among ghosts, for who would do much more than pass us by unless we were to let them?"

I lightly began to toy with a few of her feathers, letting the sound of our voices encourage her, waiting until she realizes how much I understand. "Our choices would be paramount in our survival, and all law our own... this love of ours was going to be 'us against the world' from the start, as much as I can only wish it wasn't, for your sake."

"Us against the world," Luna said, exhaling deeply and toying with each syllable in a familiar lively, thoughtful way, like when I eased her from one of her favorite novels or daydreams. Each word really danced upon her tongue, and hearing her speak so whimsically had the smallest hints of a smile working their way onto my muzzle. "Oh Sombra, I love that. I really do — the two of us! Life is an adventure, and only you wish to experience it with me, I-I..."

Nuzzling her neck again, I watched as she turned to me, eyes wide and nervous. "S-Sombra, I said all of that... and... oh..." She moved a forehoof to her mouth to stop a gasp that wasn't there.

"There's hardly anything keeping you a princess, and if you weren't a princess, I doubt you would travel as little as you do in comparison to if you were—"

"T-To elope with y-you?" Tears are starting to form in her eyes as if her voice catching wasn't enough, and she looks right at me.

"Do you really think that this situation is like that?" I ask levelly, resting one forehoof over hers.

She swallows slowly, and I feel her feathers rustling again.

"Luna, I want to share my life with you too," I begin, offering her a nuzzle that I want her to find even half as comforting as the ones she offers me. "Commitment hasn't been an issue."

A steady dip of her head is all the agreement that I need.

"I don't want to live in a pocket realm all the time, and living among ponies would be Tartarus for me, one with no exit. Staying in one place almost all of the time, year after year would be a non-issue if I could fully accept where I was living... I just don't have a real place to call my own, and..."

"You have never stopped wanting to see the world," comes the low, melodic whisper of the voice I've managed to lure back to me.

I hide nothing in my brusque nod and let Luna light her horn and toy with my bangs in her magic's grasp when I've completed the motion. Letting her adjust to having my steady gaze fall upon her when she's in such close proximity to me, I continue. "Waking up somewhere new would feel good. Traveling again, under the starry sky your night reveals or day in any corner foreign land would be invigorating to me, and I think it would be for you too. I'm not bored, lost, or restrained. Look at me. Do I look like I've been radiating ennui with every hour of my existence?"

Her expression softened just enough and Luna tilted her head to the side, eyes cloudy with thought as she carefully took in my expression through the shadows between us. "Perhaps not."

"Perhaps not," I said, narrowing my eyes to let her know just what I thought of her answer as if the agitation in my tone wasn't enough. "To give me an answer like that, you must be extremely upset."

She chuckled weakly.

I glared at her.

She bit her lip and pushed out a sigh. "Sombra, since knowing you I have been rather skeptical of how vanity could predate an entity as esteemed as yourself, for there was little to warrant such a quality, since the more foolishly vain think themselves good-looking when they have clearly never laid eyes upon you."

Chuckling dryly, I gave her a light headbutt and was rewarded with a real, soft whisper of a giggle that I had drawn out of her so very successfully."We'll keep talking, then? This is important, and I'm not just going to brush the matter of our future aside, but if you want to talk about it later..." I look at her carefully, "...unless this is something that is going to get to you... then, that is something I can accept."

If reluctantly, I leave unsaid, knowing my concern was enough to speak for what I have chosen not to tell her.

She clasps my hoof tighter and that is enough. I didn't need her tiny nod, but I'm glad for it. She knows I am.

"With your spirit, I can't imagine that you think that just staying in Canterlot until its time is done is what you want. You're Luna before you were ever a princess." Using my aura, I bat gently at her bangs a few times.

"Still, I want be a princess..." she looked like she wanted to say something else, but stopped.

I gave her a firm, concerned look. "You can always tell me what's on your mind," I reminded her because there were times when the look in her eyes made it clear she needed it.

"Y-You are right... I don't want to be a princess forever... though, for now, I want it to be my job, as that was all it was ever meant to be, at the end of things. Dreamwalking needs no crown to be done, wisdom no station... and every day I want to see Equestria be better than it was, full of magic and dreamers..." she poked at the ground with a forehoof, disturbing the grass. "The ponies in it feel cloudy, Sombra, like they have blocked some substance and are only content with cycling into one another, bleeding into a herd that should not be. When a pony has a nightmare, they want nothing more for it to stop, though that is rarely what is needed." Her gentle gaze rests on me, her eyes filled with understanding. "In sleep, even you fight battles, Sombra, and you are not alone in your ordeals. So many other creatures need assistance in unraveling and understanding their traumas through the mind as it is known only in sleep. That is needed more than any pure terror or waking start — what all of you need is an intervention that can offer insight, a highly individualistic trait that I fear dies more in this nation than anywhere else."

"Equestria doesn't know what it needs," I whisper into her coat as I nuzzle her again, taking in how warm her coat feels, "and that would be because it's not alive, which is hardly the case with an entity as fine as myself."

"Mmm," she sighed in enjoyment, "The princess that everypony would expect me to be is not the princess I shall strive and work toward being." I glanced up at her, watching as her gaze met mine in the dark, sparkling with an unspoken addition: You will help me, will you not?

My eyes said agreed, the smallest curl of a fond smirk tugging at the left corner of my mouth making it a clear 'As you wish' and that little gesture teased a silent 'Princess Charming' at the end.

She continued, the split-second exchanged absorbed by the both of us, understood, and leaving our conversation unbroken, and she sounded happier as I made myself comfortable, enjoying myself very much when Luna took the time to rest a wing around me, draping me in feathers and stroking my coat with them from time to time. With every word, she cuddled a little closer to me.

"Ponies think of princesses so foolishly, aye?"

I shift in acknowledgment.

"A princess is not an ornament to sit about—"

"Throne-warmer," I mumbled, and she snorts.

"Yes, yes, the throne-warmer. Though, I am no ornament, and neither are any of the princesses of Equestria. We are not to sit about, smile, and simply do our duties. Diplomacy is not the only weaker excuse for a defense that we ought to limit ourselves to, either. We are absolutely not going to live our lives purely as Equestrians see fit, treating hobbies, loves, family, passions, and all that is part of my life as though it is up to their dictation. Unfit rulers can be usurped or changed, but living my own life and shedding expectations are hardly things that constitute bad, they are all needed and the slights of measly mortals should not be of limitation if I stray from mere wants. My judgment is unconventional, but 'tyranny' is not a factor of it, these fools do not know a true and proper thing like autocracy from real tyranny."

Luna sighed. "An active, assertive ruler would do Equestria much good, and I think I can be that..." A forehoof tussles my mane where her voice grows quiet, picking up again when she was done stroking and teasing the locks and my bangs with her hoof. "I know you can help me. A strong second opinion from somepony I trust would be wonderful—"

"Luna," I interrupt clearly, moving her hoof away, "what are you getting at?" I shoot her a questioning sideways look, clear with the small amount of suspicion, pulling away and letting night shadows float between us.

Luna doesn't blink or swallow. There's a peculiar way to how she holds her jaw and the current clench of it that I know to be hesitation. Opening her mouth to say something doesn't even yield a sound; her eyes were focused on all the thoughts in her head. Behind those lovely blue eyes of hers, I knew all sorts of thoughts were brewing like a storm. Sometimes they just hung lazily and cast shadows, heavy and waiting — I know this because she has told me. Other times, I've seen the storms come out, and all the things that they can do.

"Luna?" I prod, waiting for an answer I know will come anyway. I just want to ease that nervous look in her eyes.

"...I want you to stay," she says quietly. "I have always wanted you to stay."

"I stay for you," I reminded her. My voice is low and steady. "I always stayed here for us."

Every way she looked at me told me that she never doubted that.

"I know," she affirmed softly, planting a kiss on one of my ears. "And Sombra? For what the words are worth to you, I am terribly sorry. To keep you from a life we both yearn to lead one day, and to have compelled you to stay in this citadel, where you have been slandered, mobbed, and..." She bites her lip. "I truly had no idea you felt this way."

Grumbling and lighting my horn, I give her mane a short tug, causing her to yelp. "You have absolutely nothing to be sorry for. Canterlot is far from the worst place I've been, and ponies aside, it's not a bad place to be. You're here, too, and that's why I remain. You know that if it had been a problem for me to stay here, I wouldn't have. Not unless I could have worked something out with you."

Having nothing she could decide upon saying, Luna nods, mane swaying in the cool cloak of shadows.

"And being the God of Knowledge that I am, I, the confident and concerned Right-Honourable Lord Sombra have noticed that you haven't really told me why it is you want me to stay." I meet her eyes again, and she doesn't hesitate to meet mine. "Or why you want to."

Mouth struggling not to dip into a pout, Luna gives me a stink-eye, huffing about the smug coltfriend that dares to worry about her when she's fretting. I don't even mind that she refers to me as a coltfriend, of every soul in the world, she is the only one I am comfortable hearing that from — and it's always been superior to something as robbed of depth and worthlessly ambiguous as partner is.

The only reason I'm restraining myself and not flashing her a smirk is because in this dark, she would know where to strike at the sight of it, no matter how feigned her shot. I can hear her voice crying 'insolent' already but she was never mad. I always loved it when she did that. Her laugh followed more often than not, and it was strong and hearty compared to other mares; utterly jubilant. Mine was dry in comparison. Sarcastic. Mocking. She told me it could be glamorous, and I believed her because I heard it too.

I'd dodge her every time, her forehoof still continued to seek me out, no matter what was in the sky. She punched as a form of affection, and sometimes I had a bruise on my withers my cloak would hide, and I've had far worse to mind as we chased one another around the mountain. Puddles could litter the grass, but it never stopped it, and snow would only fuel our battle. Even without the ability to sense magic, to know it in ways other creatures couldn't, I think I could still find her in the dark. She would always find me.

None of that was for today; I looked at her and I knew.

"History has never had a princess quite like me." Her hooves returned to fiddling with her mane. "There have been rulers whose philosophy was not all that convention dictates, who were memorable. I do not admire the passive, nor do I loathe them... I want to be a just ruler, Sombra. History is quite plain when it reminds gods that ponies cannot rule themselves competently. I never asked to be a princess, and here I am anyway; I think I shall try."

Whimpering, she rolls away from me and flops onto her back, breathing in and out with deep breaths that shake her chest a little. "I know not how else to say it to you. Staying here is hard, oh so hard for me too, and for you, it must be nothing short of treacherous at the worst of times. Always, Som, I have longed for you to be safe. You understand, do you not?"

I prick my ears to better hear both the nighttime sounds and her urgent words while Luna continues to splay her long limbs out on the damp grass, letting its shadows frame her darkened form. Reading my silence was simple for her, and a skill we both shared.

"Sombra... do you understand why I want to stay? While nopony is aware of how they tug their own strings and seek to push me down, I wish to do what they have no want of but every need of and continue ruling. More importantly, Canterlot is where Tia is and I want to spend so much more time with her. A thousand years without her still brings an ache to my chest... ugh, and sometimes a few days without you can be rather maddening! Send me more little scrawls of things as the provisions I must have in long meetings, will you? I swear, that this time, I might ration the precious sass you see fit to bestow upon me, for the sake of my own survival."

"Are faking modesty in an attempt to try and get me to write you more extremely insolent things out of spite?"

"Bah!" she spits, horn lighting up the dark as she pulls a few blades of grass to toss in the air, letting them rain back down on her. "Modesty is not worth faking! However, your most eloquent remarks about how I should deal with dignitaries and the amount of time I should spend implying intimate relations with their mothers and fathers are worth more than many of their words, though I have little in the way of love for the supposedly fairer gender, to begin with. Yet I wonder, Sombra, if you take me for a harlot of old, willing to jump into any bed for suggesting such a thing of me?"

With those eyes of her, Luna catches my withering look with ease. "It was a joke, Luna," I deadpan, catching the mischievous curl of her mouth just so.

"Ppht."

I continue offering a flat stare. "Now who's the insolent one?"

"Shh, Huffypants. That was a joke!" She giggles into her hooves and dares to throw grass at my unamused, disgusted, and shocked face.

"Never call me 'Huffypants' again." My stern tone would be a short threat to anypony else, but Luna is never, ever in any danger. As my lover, why would she be? I would never hurt her. The press of Equestria tries to tear her apart more than I ever could if I was a monster, and I'm the one deemed sadistic despite never so much as yelling at her.

"Ppht. Fine, Som. Your grumbling is noted."

I make an irritated huffing noise and roll my eyes. "Your words have truly wounded me so horribly that I'll be enacting revenge."

"Ah, so I shall expect you to cuddle me mercilessly?"

"...Maybe," I grumble, knowing my aura will never hide the smallest cracks in my stoicism while I play with a bit of my mane.

"Absolutely."

She snickers, so I rip up the grass and fling it at her to see how she likes it, while the splashes of water sound behind us with a certain fish jumping up to eat a few moths.

I feed the damn creature enough chips, pizza crusts, and other garbage that he shouldn't be trying to go for bugs so often — I've even been generous enough to pour a sack or two of spiders in there for him. Sometimes he won't even touch them, and I go through the trouble of stealing alchemical ingredients — bloody sacks of spiders — and the damned fish ignores them like that.

He's lucky that Luna coos over him like a child and gets Fish to jump through hoops.

"There's still something you haven't told me," I say, watching Luna as she stops laughing. "Are you ready to tell me now?"

"I..." She pauses and takes a deep breath. "Yes, Sombra, I am. There is much night left and I think I have a lot to tell you..."

Letting out a small chuckle, I give her a small smirk, one of the ones she calls 'warm', since I know that she will be able to see it. "I can't promise anything on how I react, but I promise to listen. What is it?"

"...Do you remember when I asked you what you thought about foals?"

...

'A monarch is supposed to rule, never should they be ruled. Though, I doubt you will have any difficulty remembering that, Sombra. You should repeat this and meld it into your will. My stars know that it is tougher than any material of this world. You shall need it as much as I.'

That was one of the many things she had told me on that particular night; we talked until dawn and she talked me through much more than I thought I would be hearing.

I never knew that she wanted a foal of her own. Tartarus, I didn't know if I could even have one — it wasn't like I had ever tried. I hadn't even cared — for most of my life, I had guessed I was infertile, and never had a reason to reconsider or doubt that or care until Luna and I began our relationship. It had never been a problem — before Luna, I was more than comfortable with the thought of remaining celibate my entire life. Not only did it have its own, extremely underrated merits, but the repulsiveness of other creatures was also more than enough to make it the only attractive option.

Every way she looked at me said 'I trust you' and 'I love you' because, from Luna, there was little difference between those words. She wanted a foal of hers to be our foal more than anything, a half-breed with our eternal lifespan to raise... the part about raising sounded interesting. Would a foal like reading? Could I teach them if they didn't know how? What if they already did?

Teaching another what I always wished I had always known was something that was difficult not to look forward to. I wanted to be the one who held a book in front of my spawn — could there really be any other names for half-demon creatures that were born? — and helped them through every paragraph and guided them through the letters that spelled out magic, jokes, and journeys.

Luna told me that was wonderful and then tried to break most of my ribs. As revenge, I told her that if she hugged our child like that — sometimes those words are frightening on my tongue, once you get past how terrible they sound whenever I say them — I would not 'let' her steal the pineapple off my pizza any longer. She pouted, in her infinite cruelty, knowing I couldn't ever resist the damned gesture.

For her, I would do so much, and for her, in Canterlot I would remain. We had an eternity to an adventure, and if I really must point it out, an eternity to start a family as well.

She consoled me every time I admitted I was worried, and every time that I had something on my mind. Whenever there was doubt, second guesses, dozens of questions, and anything else I could think to articulate, she would be there with the reassurance that I struggled to even realize I may have needed. Luna would answer every single one of those. Every doubt she managed to lessen enough with discussions that were equal parts clever and caring; she was always telling me that it didn't have to be now, I still had to learn things, that I wouldn't be an abusive or bad parent, and should never think that I would. Or, she would be there to tell me that it was fine if it took me a while to love a creature that took a long time to grow and had the nerve to not talk to me for years like an entitled brat, just as long as I was patient. Luna even told me how there were ponies who could answer my darker thoughts on the matter.

Those kinds of ponies could tell me that any spawn of mine wouldn't be guaranteed to have my temper, that anxiety wasn't going to damn my line as I thought, and most importantly: any child of mine would be unlikely to have to go through the panic attacks that gripped me, and none were likely to be bad as mine just because of the predisposition I was created never knowing that I had. After that, I could threaten those professionals into secrecy even though Luna's oaths and talk of patient confidentiality were 'enough' as she was quick to put it. But she never stopped me during any of those confrontations — she just stayed behind for a few minutes longer to say some things I never felt the need to stick around and listen to. I trust her too much to think she would be saying anything negative, too.

After that, all I had to do was substitute sleep with staring up at the ceiling of our bedroom and try to map out an answer to the hardest question to work its way into my mind: Would any child of mine even love me? Could they?

I never had to say that question. She had asked me, eventually. It wasn't direct. That didn't do anything to change how the weight of the world was displaced from my withers before I had to be tasked with figuring out how to ask something like that. Luna told me I didn't have to explain the Crystal Empire to them. I never had to tell any spawn of mine why I was a bloody madpony, why the world as I knew it seemed to disappear sometimes, why I would be waking up screaming for a long, long time, or how above all, that I would have to tell them two things: Somepony abused me and I am not innocent.

I tried to practice for this whole notion of having a family, as bizarre as such a concept is, and it was admittedly fairly fun. Pink One liked having me as a foalsitter for Skyla. Luna and her could always offer up advice. Skyla was worth the trouble and is surprisingly patient when it comes to listening to me try to explain the complexities of Luna's affinity for realpolitik and other theories the kid ought to brush up on. When she starts crying, I bit back growls and tried to pry my way through familiar sudden waves of dread and searing agitation so I could brusquely dump the wailing brat into their hooves. Then, I could find a cool corner and try to get myself under control and my mind feeling less fractured.

Pink One and Shiny Sprinkle barely talk to Skyla, but they both coo over her often. Luna's eyes light up in a way I haven't quite seen them do whenever she got to hold Skyla. The filly doesn't have any friends. She's always excited to see me. I'm the one who reads her something that isn't made up of pictures. Mac keeps telling me that Skyla is 'too young' to understand any of the books I'm reading her — every time, I dismiss her. She's never too young to get a headstart on politics instead of ending up functionally lobotomized.

Skyla is one of the few ponies who looks at me like I'm anything but a demon. Of course I would keep reading to her! Does Mac think I've been reading one of my damned philosophy books to her? No, even I know she's too young for those. Studies in Pessimism isn't for fillies. I've been reading Skyla foal's books instead. They barely have any pictures and are about this unicorn colt with a slight chip in his horn, who goes to a fantastical all-unicorn magic school, and the adventures he and his two friends have. Skyla hasn't told me her favorite character yet, and she's not very good at guiding me through what kind of voices she wants for the characters, but I think that I do a great impression of what the potions professor sounds like.

Maybe my son or daughter would like these books too.

My son... or daughter... I...

Whenever I ask Mac about how I've been handling Skyla, she's mostly pure smiles to my stoicism, chirping away what I did well. She'll then add this and that about foals until I can manage to get some criticism out of her. This was the mare that had Skyla inside of her for eleven months and did nothing but act grouchy, tired, devouring ice cream and pickles in bizarre and decently unnerving ways. I knew she should know something about what I should be expecting when Luna goes through this.

...Eventually.

I have to say, her throwing beauty magazines in my vague direction and shrieking that I'm a 'typical male incapable of the slightest flattery' had been a new development. And what was it over? All of it was for calling her a variety of things largely about her noticeable weight gain, which I helpfully reminded her about. Her prodigious size was solely because of the little filly growing inside her, one whose magic and soul I could start sensing towards the first moments of brain activity beginning. I felt those, even as I backed away from her fits of poor attempts at insults and rapid-fire Istallion curses I couldn't understand. I was always rolling my eyes and hiding a wicked grin behind my annoyed frown.

Luckily, the way to any pregnant mare's heart and stomach is to get her ice cream, sorbet, and pickles while offering a noncommital shrug in reply to any question about the gesture being remotely apologetic. Of course, I only got her some after she had sobbed out how tragic this incident is to her husband. All I had to do was wait, and watch her disgustingly ravenous cravings prove to be her downfall, and the feedback loop resume. It was absolutely and totally worth it. Does she think her habit of dancercise can save her even now? Admittedly, chasing after Skyla is enough of a struggle for Glimmer Spangle and Pink One; she's getting slimmer each time I see her.

She's still the same demigod princess with an Equestrian colony to rule and a nationally admired 'good' husband at her side, though I still have plenty of disagreement on what about him is good. (I'm not speaking from jealousy, either, it's a foreign emotion to me and pretty-boy types are rarely as pretty as they look and are less of my type than other stallions — and saying that I have types is the only way I can crush how I work into something oversimplified enough.) When ponies talk about love, and who they feel embodies it, Pink One and Spangle Shine come to mind, and not just because they're Equestria's first married royals. Or they might think of Purple Eyesore and her wife as another example of the ideal Equestrian family, and the picturesque, naive idea of 'goodness' pulled from their collective illusions. All of them are such good ponies after all — the latter pair are good fodder for my gag reflex. None of them really know what it's about, anyway.

Scoffing, I look out over the side of the balcony, where some five years prior, little Purple Eyesore stood gleefully waving as she flapped her purple chicken wings about. I have seen the newspaper archives of how her smile was bright and sunshiny as Luna stood by her with only a faint, not-at-all earnest crescent touch of her real smiles. The photograph is still plastered as a reprint in newspapers from time to time. All I can focus on in those is knowing that Luna didn't pick that dress out, that her eyes were light that day, but she told me where her thoughts really were — elsewhere — while Celestia stood next to her little purple pet project.

Whenever ponies decide to tell their foals to 'marry right' they told them to do as Pink One and Purple Eyesore did. Every time they wanted to caution a foal against 'the wrong pony' or anything of the sort, there were whispers of how they needed to avoid being like 'Sombra's wife' — because Luna apparently can't have her own name anymore. All these damned ponies see her as 'Sombra's wife' and before that, she was 'Celestia's sister' — as if that captures anything meaningful about her.

In front of me, Luna tutted and her horn flared testily as I let her tug at the lapels and sash of my reddish coronation suit. Every bit of it was dull reds, golds, and silver. The silvery cape was the only say I had gotten in the design of this absolutely ridiculous overly formal and expensive piece of garbage, other than how it had been designed so that there was a pair of trousers to hide my scarred, blank flank. Celestia had ordered it and presided over the design against my every protest. I wanted something far simpler, more alluring, and green and silver. She ignored me other than to 'remind' me about being 'stately' and that she has been the decider of every coronation's clothing choices as long as her nation has stood.

I'm going to try to be a prince for Luna's sake, not mine. Being a prince is only one way of having power. Celestia doesn't believe me when I say that. She would never believe the way Luna looked at me, how despondent she had been as she told me she needed me to be a prince and that she craved my equality in every way — as her spouse and as a prince of Equestria. A ruling prince for a reigning couple.

I hadn't even wanted the ceremonial role of a typical consort that dresses nicely and gets a spot in the history books and family trees, neat and tidy beside their spouse. I only wanted to marry Luna.

Months after our wedding and being plummeted into the debates of Luna and her sister, who are both for me and against me taking on this role, respectively... it became clear things would not play out that way. Luna is far too persuasive for her own good — otherwise, I would have sided with her sister, if Luna hadn't poured her heart out on the matter over and over... until I agreed. Celestia eventually relented, making me the future Prince — Equestria's one and only — of paperwork until further notice. Many of the talks with Celestia were private, with Luna pulling her older sister behind doors and warding rooms because she knew I was pacing right outside. Like an illusionist's sleight of hoof tricks, Celestia would step out each time with something in her eyes softened just a bit, and whatever wall she was made of — the one I saw in her face so much — was chipped away just enough by Luna's determination to get such an unexpected reaction from the mare who might as well try to snap my legs by looking at them.

Tartarus knows I might make Celestia's every fear come true — dog-eared pages and crease marks brought about my wicked and oh-so-evil dark magic that will plague all of Equestria. Jaywalking will reign across the nation. Smiling will happen less. Worst of all, somepony might dare to say something slightly sarcastic. Royal or not, I'll still be doing what appears to be office work, something that's still as foreign to me as subtlety is to the draconequus, but at least I'll put my best effort into being properly condescending while doing so.

Luna picks up on my ragged sigh and pulls the balcony's curtain in front of us as an obvious, silent taunt to he— our subjects. As if I needed a blatant reminder that I was always their superior. Our subjects, who will not be able to see from where they are below me that I'm about to receive a gesture of her affection behind this momentary wall of privacy. Two forelegs wrap around my neck and pull me into a strong embrace. Magic plays with little strands of my mane, twirling the locks whose style I refused to have altered in any way, and I meet Luna halfway as she offers me a comforting nuzzle that softens some of my worries. Purring softly into her wonderful hug, I try to indirectly convince her not to break our shared contact; to have her hold onto me as long as possible.

Just outside is the circlet I did have a say in. The piece is resting on a pillow while Celestia prepares for a speech that most of Equestria is waiting for. Far more ponies showed up than the coronation of a lavender demigod from years ago, and many of them are angry in a stony, pointless way not unlike the brattiness better suited to school-foals. Following Celestia's speech is one from me that everypony but Luna waits fearfully for.

Those ponies are a sea of indistinct pastel washing against the castle's courtyard, distinguished only by names that I have no care of ever knowing. I caught enough glimpses of them to know that they swell and chatter mindlessly. Even though they are distant in comparison to the tower's high balcony, I can see that even the pegasi are grounded. Mares will be twisting with their fancy necklaces, stallions will have their jaws set somberly, and every smile will be nervous and forced as gossip is flung like manure in the herd-mind. Nopony brought their foals, and the Royal Guards sternly walk sternly among everypony to quell what might even look like a disturbance.

The whole lot of them form a tense and unsteady, relying on the fragmented whispers of heresy to try and piece together anything that has a fraction of the confirmations they seek to cement in their ceaseless chatter. The majority are ever unaware of how futile their every effort is, and that even the reek of their magical presences largely blends together into a muddy and intangible mess of sensations that has to be unraveled like a bundle of yarn: one weak strand at a time.

That is what lurks below, clogging up the castle grounds, and it reminds me of the ocean. If I closed my eyes as I stood out there in the swirling summer air, what would I be able to unravel if I were patient enough, focusing on their many different impressions? Would anything be different if there wasn't repulsion crawling through my coat at even this proximity? I'd be so above it all that it would feel like there's no end to them.

I didn't know where the ocean ended when I first looked out at its waters, examining the distance for any hint of another shore. Only, that was at a period in my life where I was between two well-blended contradictions — having never been much of anywhere at all, and yet, I'd traveled a fair deal within the more remote parts of Equestria and its southern borders. The ocean was far more desolate on the surface. No matter how much of a second world was teeming below, I was always alone there. All the emptiness aside, I miss that. I've only ever missed Luna before; in all other times, the heavy sense of life offered by remote places is downright addicting.

I hear the sound of somepony I don't need to bother naming clearing her throat and rustling her feathers. This is obviously in an attempt to disturb Luna without creating awkwardness that fails miserably. Luna and I loosen our embrace. My purring had already ceased when she began to approach us.

Glaring at the mare of shorter stature, I pierce a question in her direction — What do you want? — with my hawkish stare until she ducks her purple eyes, magenta horn lighting to tuck a strand of pink-striped mane back into her bun. That manestyle has become her signature and the pointy little crown that sits there. Bangs bobbing, she sighs quietly and shuffles faintly. Her dress looks like evening candlelight is soft and flimsy, following her movements.

"Princess Luna?" her voice still oozes this insufferable overall inexperience in something I almost want to guess at. Purple Eyesore not looking directly at Luna only makes it very obvious as to who she finds awkward.

Me.

She twists the diamond pendant at her neck. The little mare is unable to hide sneaking glances at my wife as Luna gracefully unwinds herself fully from how well we fit together, the contours of our bodies no longer touching.

"Ah," Luna says with the flatness of the Mustangian plains. "What is it that you require my attention for, Princess Twilight Sparkle?" Every word is spoken without kindness, ill will, and without malice. Luna is ever able to pull off a cadence that is neutral and dignified in every way, while her tone is chilly as wind over the Trottish highlands. "Might it be something important?" She looks directly at Purple Eyesore, stance unfriendly but without any kind of cruelty — it was purely professional, and Luna hasn't called her anything but 'Princess Twilight Sparkle' since before we began our relationship.

Purple Eyesore readjusted the collar of her dress awkwardly. "It's almost time for him to be c-crowned." She clearly couldn't believe the words she was saying, leading to an extra boost of bitter ego for me.

She looked at Luna's dress more closely, flushing faintly. Whether because of the sight of Luna in her dress or because of my unrelenting glare that followed her every movement, I'm not sure.

My eyes followed hers and looked at Luna's dress for the nth time today. The extremely generous mare who had ordered all this attire from Purple Eyesore's absent dressmaker wife decided that the dusky dress of deep oranges, yellows, and some wine-colored hue that clung in some very eye-catching places for a young mare would look alluring on her little former student. Many other ponies were sure to ogle and admire this clash of sunrise shades. I just grumbled and rolled my eyes.

There wasn't a problem with that. Yes, fashion that dress just a bit differently with the needed alterations and I would clearly look much better in it — I'm talented like that. Androgyny isn't something that I'm entirely incapable of, and honestly, if more ponies paid the right types attention to me, they would see I had been putting some effort into that the entire time. Celestia has some vendetta against my clothing choices, since she didn't let me wear a dress to my own wedding. Luna hadn't wanted to wear one, so what would be the problem with me wearing one and Luna wearing the suit? I looked majestic in them, and Luna's whole face lights up in the most gorgeous way when she's given a sleek mare's suit, tailcoat, and all.

I ended up stuck in a suit anyway. I still have it, packed away in my old pocket realm.

The problem was that Luna was wearing a dress that matched the Eyesore's.

Disgust was obvious in my eyes, watching how Luna was poised with discomfort. Celestia never forced her to wear these things, but Luna's huffy dislike for any formal wear that wasn't a crisp suit couldn't be more apparent. Sticking salmon in a pillowcase and tossing it out onto a ballroom floor to flop about in its dying moments would look more natural — and of course, I told Luna this earlier, she's my wife. For that very reason, I also half-expected her to chase after me with lightning bolts for saying that. Instead, she just sighed and told me she felt that out of place in her gown too.

Luna's skirt swayed solemnly around her and her usual thoughtful, neutral expression adorned her face. I watched her eyes and how they glistened mysteriously with all the emotions that I read best.

"That is true, and Sombra will have plenty of time to give his speech when my sister is through with hers. However, I need no reminder from you. As... thoughtful as it was, perhaps you might want to seat yourself next to your wife and the fellow Element Bearers within the crowd. I am certain there is still time for you to join them." Sighing, she added something far more earnest. "It is a shame that Cadance and Shining Armor are not here too. The Crystal Ponies have proved extremely vocal on the matter of my husband's coronation, hmm?"

Purple Eyesore swallowed visibly. Few clearer ways to communicate 'We are not friends' came to mind.

Shooting the demigod a cool look, Luna offered Purple Eyesore one last frosty glance. "Is that all?"

"Yes," she whispered, ducking her head slightly and avoiding eye contact as she trotted away, wings folded tightly at her sides.

Letting out a relieved sigh, Luna wasted no time in pulling me into another hug and her muzzle met mine in a kiss I gladly returned. Her right forehoof wove its way into my mane, toying with it and curling around a lock of my mane and clutching it tightly.

And at the edge of where the hall turned, I felt the waver of magic I needed no guess to know who was lingering. Cracking open one eye momentarily, I watched as two purple eyes stopped just long enough to watch Luna and I, growing visibly frightened when they saw me. Before she would let any tears fall, Purple Eyesore was already gone, her steps surprisingly quiet.

Is this spiteful of me? Maybe. Spite is under-utilized and well worth a silent serving here. Even if I had the barest trace of sympathy for the immature little blight, Celestia always managed to find that little purple scrap, since they were drawn to one another like magnets. Once she did that, Purple Eyesore could have her tears all mopped up in time for her favorite teacher's non-stop twittering to crowd her skull. She smiles at Celestia with a fraction of the way that she wishes that she could look at Luna... and wishes that Luna would look at her.

Purring into Luna's kiss, I let the thought of anypony but her and I melt away, for just a short while. As long as Luna was with me, nearly anywhere would be better than here.

Equestria can wait just a bit; they're lucky I showed up to my own coronation at all.

...

"Five years ago, I stood beside my dear student, your Princess Twilight Sparkle, and you welcomed her. My little ponies, what none of you know is that the Princess of Friendship once spent so much of her time with barely any friends. She had me, she had her brother, and Twilight had Cadance. Few fillies wished to speak with a filly who always had her muzzle buried in the pages of the latest book, whether my private student was given one for study or leisure alike!" Celestia flashed a practiced smile, chiseled into her face just enough to be natural, but not so that it looked truly earnest to my eyes or was in any way too attention-grabbing.

With that smile on her face and her gaze sweeping over everpony that stood below her, she waved a bit mechanically and stared down too severely at them. A crown that was far more ornate than I was used to seeing on her sat on Celestia's head, and a dress of pink and yellow fabric that was inferior to my formal wear cloaked her. The languid flow of her mane and tail obscured enough of her smile and expression to give her some deceitful look with how she unintentionally hid herself from my view. A good many steps from where Celestia stood, I was slightly behind her. My gaze flicked to the horizon, to Celestia herself, and to nowhere at all.

Almost entirely hidden by Celestia's tail was a white unicorn mare with a name I haven't learned to date. Her coat was a fragile white and in her unremarkable magic, she levitated the red velvet pillow that had my circlet resting on it.

Luna never called her by name, at least not that I had ever heard. She held a faint disregard and casual distrust for the mare, offering her little attention or serious consideration. Despite how this mare reduced herself to something of a living end table, she followed Celestia almost everywhere she went with unsubtle eagerness, like a damned obedient dog. 'Celestia's dog' is exactly how I've been thinking of her since they're rarely apart and I have no better name for a creature that is ever at the heels of another so thoughtlessly. With her pale coat, oversized glasses, and a pen and inkwell mark that is hidden by her light blue dress, she could pass for a duller figure in a classical painting — the ones that always struck me as a painter's afterthought when they might only want space to fill.

Her dark mane was the closest thing she had to a feature that helped her with standing out, or it would have been if it weren't so mousy. That was really the only word to describe anything about this mare who somehow made submission and humility into even more repulsive traits than they already were. The little secretary who shivered when my gaze fell on her avoided me in the most obvious ways, and she was always whispering this or that in Celestia's ear. More often than not, she hid her brown eyes behind a scroll.

She was a little sneaky in the sense that her magic was weak and she wasn't often noticed.

Aside from being a well-groomed mare that was a bit of a nuisance and one of the few ponies around here that knew how to manage Celestia's phoenix, this mare was on the young side — far too young to hold the position she did. The little dog had to be around Cadance's age. All the records and portraits of her predecessors that hung in one of the many corridors of this castle depicted mares and stallions who were middle-aged at the least upon being hired and their customary portraits painted.

What this one did to be so special is beyond me.

She must sense me giving her a bit of a glare, though, because my pricked ears catch a faint squeak escaping her, and she shuffles closer toward Celestia. Doing so has her flushing almost as red as the pillow she is levitating when she finally does so. Before she begins the next part of her speech, Celestia meets her secretary's gaze and smiles just a little. Then, she continues, her voice carrying down toward the crowd of ponies gathered.

Her subjects.

Luna's subjects.

...And my subjects.

"From me, Twilight Sparkle learned of math, studied magic, and was taught the values of Harmony that every one of you, my little ponies, have held close to you from your first breaths. Before she was your princess, Twilight Sparkle was a mare who knew Harmony but never lived it." Celestia sighed happily. "And then she moved to Ponyville."

Just barely teary-eyed, Celestia smiles and gives a quick glance to Luna, who lingers in the threshold of the balcony's doorway. My wife was lurking near a curtain and cloaked in midday shadows that dance across her form while she frowned and tugged at her dress. I know she wished she was in anything else. Luna saw her sister looking at her for a split second, and a lopsided little smile flashed on her face. Her bluish eyes met Celestia's in cool acknowledgment.

Bored, I shifted my gaze back to Celestia, my horn glowing softly as I fidgeted with Fate's pommel idly, liking the small noises of the movements made by the sword and sheath. My wedding band rested warmly against my chest. Usually, I would pass it around in my aura when I sought a trinket to toy with, but Fate was equally familiar to me, as were the magical presences of both.

She continued her speech. I know that she wants it to be some kind of jab that she's holding off with mentioning me, who this day is meant to be about. Her efforts to undermine are transparent.

Though, I'm flattered that she'll be saving the best for last.

"Because of the efforts of the magnificent mare that is your Princess Twilight Sparkle, the Elements of Harmony are once again known to ponykind. With them, and through the efforts of their Bearers, Equestria is truly at peace. Your Princess Luna has returned, and is ready to be your friend and ruler."

Behind me, I heard a snort and wasted no time in rolling my eyes as the Equestrians below hung on every word. The whole mass of them was utterly worthless, but a few notable names were among their ranks: Purple Eyesore and Company, Discord, the families of the Bearers, and Duke Blueblood. I was informed that even a few of Equestria's allies — Prance, Maretonia, Saddle Arabia, all sent a representative to sit among the ponies of Equestria and witness me. Aquastria reluctantly sent somepony — or more accurately King Fishcakes caved into enough passive-aggressive requests from his cousin — and even the griffin colony of Griffonstone had elected somepony to come.

None of them are Pink One...

They will only be attending the initial crowning; I won't have to come face to face with revolting carnivores.

"Tirek has been sealed in Tartarus once in for all, an evil with no more chances for escape in the course of eternity. The Crystal Empire has miraculously been returned to the world. Discord—"

Narrowing my eyes, I watch a small burst of dranconequus magic from the endling of that particular species shoot up from the crowd. Bright bits of paper and glittery things — now those had my attention — are just barely visible above the mosaic of coats, manes, and grass. He's around there somewhere. Canterlot, Ponyville, and a few other regional areas are frequented by the draconequus, but his presence comes in fickle bursts. His visits could be just as frequent. I didn't talk to him much — he was hyperactive and easy to trick, but never did anything that concerned me. I kept more distance than usual. Celestia and Discord certainly got along, so I let them.

To my mild surprise, Celestia smiles something other than that polite, pasted-on look that always plucked some irritated thing in me when I saw it. She hides it with her hoof quickly, and then that usual pasted look is back for the speech and her tone is measured as she speaks to ponies that I'm not sure could ever be anything but hers.

While she busies herself with that, my gaze traces the runes carefully concealed by the balcony, carved just under it and preserved in the marble for many centuries. The pulse of the magic tells me that this is meant to amplify the voice of whoever probes the crevices with a spell prior to giving a speech like this. Despite this addition, her voice sounded unaltered to me. Purple Eyesore no doubt used this to speak at her own coronation. Obviously, Celestia's magic are the most recent traces that I can sense there.

Stoically, I concentrate on the magic flows, musing over the traces that hang in the air, and note that Celestia's isn't particularly strong. No surprise there. She's not one to frequent her magic for anything beyond Celestia manipulation and basic tasks, and while I've never witnessed her moving the sun up close, I know full well that she charges things very weakly compared to most magic-users — immortal or mortal. She also doesn't practice, study, or really immerse herself in the arcane like Luna and I do. Lately, it's been even harder than usual to forgo any of the tomes and grimoires tucked away from public eyes in the castle's many archives. Even Luna has to put a little bit of effort into pulling me away from the latest artifact that she's introduced to me. I've long grown accustomed to the irony in a mare famed for being a teacher not practicing what she preaches to the students she grooms.

When I'm among all those texts, in a shady part of the numerous archive-wings with a mug of coffee, I get more than some peace and quiet. Everything is far too vivid and important to be some cheap escapism — the familiarity of history and knowledge all around me is an authentic, addictive setting. Adding to that is the promise of learning something new... and, of course, the company of my lovely wife... how was it that I could not want to stay?

Before all of this unnecessary grandeur, Celestia had looked at me and told me that she would do the opening speech for me. I know it's because of something that Luna must have told her; a hint and nothing more than that. Celestia simply decided to heed, to an extent. I told her I didn't want to make both the opening and my own speech. I didn't tell her why. I was surprised when she agreed to rearrange at least one aspect of this mess.

"Discord who was once another shade of legend in your minds has embraced Friendship and Love. He stands among all of you, and he was able to see that he too, is as good as you are, my little ponies. While he has created chaos in the past, and ponies have been harmed by his actions, everypony — Discord especially — and I have learned that not all who have stormed Equestria in these recent years, like legends awoken, are wholly unforgivable."

Her words fill my ears, but my mind still stays on magic. Everyone and everything is surrounded by it, but to be what I am — made from magic — and to walk among all the divine, to see tomes stashed away, and histories tucked out of sight, that is something well beyond anything mortals could ever achieve. Experiments tease themselves into the forefront of my thoughts, and to have a mind like mine — it becomes difficult to think of other things, at least for now, when I'm surrounded by Celestia's moralistic droning.

Stifling, smothering, and otherwise binding magic in any way was never a good thing to do. At worst, the effort was dangerous, and in a mortal, fatal. Even as she adjusts her wings right now, the entirety of her feels so thick, static, and dull. Trying to get a reading on what her magic tells me for a long time is fairly difficult.

Celestia did just that. She did it like the archaic subculture of pegasus-earth pony mixed-bloods I read about recently. Centuries, ago when Equestria was young, they tied the wings of those who expressed pegasus traits dominantly in place for everything except exercise and ceremonies. Physically, they were far from fine, but they were not goddesses. Their muscles were atrophied and their limbs were generally malformed. Celestia is actually physically fine — for the most part. Alicorns aren't pegasi, and they're certainly not ponies. No matter how much stronger they are, there's a far different magic to them, and magic is more deeply entwined with their being beyond being a mere necessity like it is for all mortal creatures. Mentally, those mixed ponies weren't sound; their adherence to tradition resulted in unfounded superstitions crippling them. They deprived themselves of something, and their little cult collapsed. The mind and soul without the right magic are worse than lungs without air or a heart without blood.

Why Celestia does this to herself isn't concrete to me. If I prick and pry in all the right places, I can build an answer...

I loathe her in every way, but she's always been Luna's sister, and that only means something to me because she means something to Luna. She is not guaranteed to injure herself, but lessening things would do her good — to the extent that I can feel, her mental state shouldn't be too compromised beyond her being her usual unbearable self. I'll warn her and wait. Give her some advice, even.

She could hurt Luna, I think, letting my glare bore into her from where I stand.

Fate clinks under the idle movements of my aura. I toy with thoughts of the hilt, knowing just how quickly I could whip it from its sheath and have a blade gleaming and soaring in the air. What a morbid spectacle that would be — a parallel to how often she looks at me with thoughts of an axe dancing quickly above my neck. I know she looks at me so. I live with her, and she always looks at me like I am the lesser of us, and I am a monster — sometimes worse. She tucks razors in her every polite syllable and in her cheek when she maintains that plaster smile, occasionally tossing out little things that Luna won't be bothered by, the types of cues that she knows her younger sister won't pick up on. In private, she always has more open disgust for me and I have the tempers she tries to twist out of me. I admit, it nearly works sometimes; she rubs me all of the wrong ways and 'suggests' so many things about me. When nopony is around we'll pull out darker things to say to one another.

Sometimes I have to be angry with whoever is shuffled among the deck of my foes. It bubbles up. If my intelligence is a shadow, it can stretch to many dark places — I have known this and lived this well before being sealed in ice. I'm not wanton with my loathing; I sort my vendettas well, and this is a mare that has tried to murder me twice, at the very least. Who knows what else she could have done that I don't already know of? Harsh words are a mercy compared to the more extreme things I am capable of, and it isn't like they aren't true.

I don't call her tyrant any longer. I've called her plenty of similar terms right under it because there are still those undeniable qualities of hers. Some things I don't dig for or try for in our sparring matches. She's closer to telling Luna about these things when she thinks she has me in her wrong, glaring light. But I hold so much back because she matters so much to Luna... and I do have tact in me. Enough of it. I suppose it's as selective as compassion is with me, not that I would alter that about myself, or that I even want to.

Celestia is a spotlight that casts wrong shadows upon you and thrusts her hideous distortion of you to the world. All the while, she loathes how your crooked shadows will not dissolve in her light. You panic, you writhe inside, and her audience jeers at you. This result is purely because she's the one who looks at you as though you're the villain. She needs her hero-queen image — and her colonies and cronies — to rest on you being beaten... she wants to dig up everything about me, too.

Deep down her eyes will tell me that I won't tell Luna, and I don't — I've been through far worse. Why would this matter in the grand scheme of things? The bits of verbal venom Celestia and I trade is a secret.

If this were my usual cloak, the proper pocket-sigils would be right under it too... My thought trails off to the last couple of books that I had been reading, all stashed in the pockets those hidden sigils reached into. Had that cloak been on my back, I could yank my hood over my head to shadow some of this abominable sunlight with some comfort. Then I could whip out something smart to pass the time, flicking through pages until she gets to the important part — me — and her subjects no longer need to be buttered up for the occasion.

Her subjects. Luna's subjects.

My subjects...

"Of all you might note about the nature of good, it is that good stands together. I stand by my sister's side—"

You didn't always.

"—and she, by mine. The princesses of Equestria are all friends with one another."

Luna's snort is louder this time, not that anypony other than Celestia and I could hear it.

"While there are the lonely, and there are the lost; nopony should ever have to be misunderstood so greatly that they are mistaken for evil. Of the two natures we all know, as black and white as the classic chessboard, there have been mistakes. You all thought that Nightmare Moon was wholly evil. Now, all of Equestria knows the truth: Princess Luna was under that dark guise. Discord too, you all thought a monster, but he stands now as Equestria's friend..." she smiles warmly, "and somepony very dear to me."

"What does this mean?" she asks rhetorically, and more loudly than before, resting a gold-clad hoof on the balcony's edge. "It means that the workings of those that are evil are always the product of those who are alone, and they always will be in the end. Harmony and good are powerful because they are united like the collective links of the finest chainmail, and because friendship is the most powerful magic there is."

Gritting my teeth, I draw an angry breath and allow my gaze to reduce Celestia's backside to tatters with my glare. She shifts, just a little, under it. She knows. The damn mare knows. Of the many lies and few truths of Equestria, one of the greatest is the 'friendship is magic' craze across all of Equestria and how appalling the misinterpretations of it are. Is it powerful? Almost. ‘Friendship magic’ isn’t actually real, not in the woefully way she does it — a way not even worthy of being described as reductionist. Instead, it is one of the grossest possible misunderstandings of light magic. To insist on what Celestia has pushed for generations would be on par with the highest legal officials in the plant to assert that the so-called Golden Rule was an actual law one could be charged with breaking.

The Elements of Harmony are what should really be praised, but ponies must have their heroes, and so it became 'friendship' without any of the nuances that should be. All footnotes have been swept under a saccharine and ignorant claim so unbearably false that every magic user that ever was should be writhing in their resting place. How Luna sits through all this with a straight face, I don't know. A minor cultural fallacy she isn't immune to, perhaps? Ponies of the Tribal Age were as good with magic as fish are with drowning, but to have this mindset trickling into so many facets of this country... and that it ended up being seriously applied to many societal and cultural keystones long before Purple Eyesore ever moved to Ponyville is hardly good news.

What I do know is that saying 'friendship is magic' is like claiming that green — even better, that a single shade of green — is the only color, shall be the only color, and has been the only color that ever existed. 'Friendship' can be magic... sometimes.

Love can be magic, too, and is wonderfully powerful when this is true — it doesn't take Pink One being my friend to know that. Wrath can be devastating. Despair is more than potent enough for magic. Certain emotions are always inherently corrupting when applied to magic — lust, envy, dishonesty, for example — and others can fail because of circumstance. Love will not always win, nor will anger. Friendship can fail. Spells without emotional basis aren't any likelier to do better just because of things like good intentions or...

Sighing raggedly, I bite back a growl. Things won't be like that forever. Real magic and outstanding magical education across this nation could cause so much to flourish. Knowledge surpasses power, and to witness a proper revival instead of what is little more than a lies-to-foals catchphrase at best slapped onto everywhere it need not be is a depressing grate on me.

With everything I've seen and known in life, being crowned the prince of a nation of utter fools says far too much about the state of the world. I've lived through so much. Yet, all Celestia, Purple Eyesore, and these Equestrians do is slather black and white onto everything, and then call me their monster...

He called me his monster, his creation, his slave-of-slaves, his damned pet... I hide a swallow and feel panic inching into my mind... and anger too. He still managed worse things. Worse names.

G-Gods.

It slips into my mind as a leftover instinct. A mortal one, and I know it will fade eventually.

These ponies... they hang falsehoods like garlands, smother things with sweetness, cast aside all who don't align, and lock everything into their happy ending. Their happy ending. Those words burn into my mind like a brand with memories flashing in every ember because I have seen their damned happy endings! 'Happy' in an artificial sense. 'Happy' for them. Always for them. Happy but never better.

Happyhappyhappy.

Celestia wrote my speech because she said my words were cruel and controversial. I can feel the burning weight of its paper in my breast pocket.

"Equestria, I have seen you grow from the frontier, and as your princess, I love all of my good little ponies."

Equestria, I loathe you.

I want magic to be magic again. With my efforts and Luna's support, that could happen. I'm stubborn and an improved result from the present is nearly inevitable. If I were to close my eyes, I would see the crisp pages of a new magic textbook bursting with classical and modern knowledge made new once more — all part of the gradual progress to having magic as it should be taught.

A sun-shaped obstacle, her little purple pet, and the parasitic anocracy made to bow to the will of the former are all of the things that try to bar me.

"Today, I want you all to witness that good will always triumph. A living example is standing here today."

To say I didn't feel slightly humiliated would be a lie.

"Once known to all as King Sombra of the Crystal Empire, who thought himself better than anything..."

I'm certainly better than you.

"...is the recently-returned Sombra. In the past, he has been given the title of a duke, though without any land or claim, for aiding Princess Cadance in the protection of the Crystal Empire. How could such an event be treated without some optimism and caution on my part?"

You sent spies after me when I went to see the world... and admittedly, 'live off the land' as I would prefer to call it. There is still a bandit problem around the southern borders and prairie, O Laughable Sun Goddess.

Chase shadows, and you will find them. Attempt to catch shadows, and they will always escape you, Celestia.

It is really no wonder that you and your ponies couldn't find me. Especially your ponies.

"His path is a crooked one, and it is still in him today. Yet, my little ponies, we have all struggled with such things. Pride and stubbornness can be transformed into greater things. When we cannot guide ourselves, there are heroes there for us, and those heroes can be six brave mares, one very special dragon, or one of you."

She coddles these damned blokes far too much.

"To be a true ruler instead of a tyrant doomed to fail, one must know the obligation of kindness, to give instead of take, and that strength comes from allies and principles." Celestia surprised me somewhat with a sudden, big smile. "Camaraderie has brought the greatest of us together, steered the most splendid of changes, and shone a light into some of the most dreadful kinds of darkness. Sombra has now been pulled away from that darkness by none other than my sister, who knows of its painful lure herself."

My horn lights up, and I toy with my bangs boredly. Is she ever going to stop rubbing salt in Luna's wounds?

"Sombra is a pony who has yet to learn these things. His road to being a true member of Equestria's royal family is a long one, and it shall be marked by the service, humility, and herd-values that this nation prizes. All the things that you, my little ponies, take for granted are lessons that Sombra will learn over time as your prince. He is now divine, but his magic will be used for the unselfish."

No, it won't. Never would I let something so horrible happen; my magic is mine and mine alone, to be used as selfishly as I please.

And I will never be used again.

'Your actions are undeniable, your reputation cannot be erased, and what went on in the Crystal Empire is beyond all atonement.'

Those words echoed in my mind. They were one of the most direct things I had ever gotten Celestia to say to me during our fights... and they stuck with me when my nerves were like this, sometimes. To Equestria, she will say that I can learn differently, but inside I know she doesn't believe it.

And those words stay long enough to chill me after a while, an unneeded and redundant 'reminder' of something I've always tried to distance myself from.

'Your actions are undeniable, your reputation cannot be erased, and what went on in the Crystal Empire is beyond all atonement.'

Shutupshutupshutupshutup, my mind offered as I choked back a shuddering breath. Behind me, I could feel Luna become a bit colder, a bit less readable to all those who would never know her well.

Luna knew her sister in ways that I could not. She would have seen the drafts of Celestia's speeches and heard of her every black-and-white thought before she spoke them. I can only imagine how uncomfortable that was, to be the stranger in everything and to watch everypony eat shit this up with a spoon and... she's told me a lot, and yet that's never enough to make some part of Celestia feel any more lost in a crowd and stone-cold than how she already is. Luna would have gotten a speech of her own, like this one, upon her return. I never asked what it was like; she certainly didn't seem like she wanted to talk about it.

Once she told me, in a teary and nervous moment, the words whispered into my ear and pulled out between pauses and dripping with nerves, that sometimes Celestia was just 'a little bit' of a stranger to Luna. She wasn't talking about her uptight morals either. I don't think she's ever known Celestia to act any differently in that regard. Luna says she was a terrible sister before, but knowing Celestia, I don't know how much it hurts Luna to look at her sister sometimes and have to see the idol everypony else does cement over the mare drowning in a thick fossil-case of glue. She's tried to tell me, and I've tried to understand.

Whispers in Canterlot, in Equestria, and on the tongues of ponies is how the humble, remarkable, and heroic little mare known to them as Twilight Sparkle lived up to her name: the twilight to unite the day and night. The whole deal was as simple and insipid as any fairytale devised primarily from the gutter-waters of cultural tropes along with myths and truths, washed out to the point of being uninspiring.

I don't think anypony has yet realized that the twilight is also what divides them.

"Sombra is going to change," Celestia says with the assurance of a fool.

I am not.

Here she goes with the 'ponies change' concept again, though none of us ever do.

I blink away a memory of the Book that was such a key in bringing me into this world, and how its pages still flick behind my eyes. Nopony and nothing changes. Nopony can. Not without darker devices...

"Despite his past actions, Sombra is here to start on a very different road. He stands before you today, not as a tyrant, a criminal, or anything that might come to mind so quickly. Please, banish the thoughts, my little ponies, because they will never come to pass. He has been granted a chance, of sorts, to start from the bottom, where he has been — no matter the deeds that have tainted his name. With Cadance's efforts and my dear sister's great kindness, Sombra has learned to love. He is imperfect, but plenty willing to show you all that his work will maintain Harmony, and will help you all. Things have been near catastrophic these past few years, and Equestria has seen much change. My nation has seen the redeemable and the irredeemable. It has seen reformation and heroes. Most importantly, it has seen good, and how it will always beat back the evil that threatens us."

I let it echo in my mind, that falsehood she had just spoken that stands out so sharply, like the frog of one's hoof stepping on a blade.

She needs how many other ways to think that I'm a monster incapable of love, at this point?

I loved Luna first.

I...

Honestly... Honestly, it hurts just as much as any blade would, too, to be called a loveless monster in Celestia's extra-special way. Luna just feels used to this, regarding it with a weighty apathy, hearing a truth pruned into something 'more fitting for ponies' ears' or whatever Celestia sees fit to call it when she says these things, I don't know...

Anger and a sharp spark of anguish cut through my thoughts and dance about — loveless, she thinks me — and echo through the rest of me.

I think of my papers, specifically the dozens and dozens that I had written my own versions of my speech on. All that I could say was how every word would feel as it sizzled in my mind, and how it would taste when the last syllable of every single word left my mouth. Each one was so utterly me. As I sat, writing furiously in my incomplete study by the light of my magic alone, I was awash in my own rich narcissism and adored it. Writing is meant to be a selfish thing, and I wrote across varying hours of the day, noon, and night just absolutely basking in myself, each scraped and crumpled piece alone containing more wealth than what something as pathetic as a king could ever have.

Luna would interrupt often. Her eyes lit up when she saw me and stayed like that when I asked her to read over what I had written. In between my lovely wife being my lovely partner in speech writing, we always managed either a wealth of conversation or a treasure of silence, where we would have the chance to exchange affections peacefully in one another's company. Her magic scratching behind my ears and under my chin got me through particularly stressful revisions. Chats about things I wanted to have in my study, and I saw how carefully Luna watched when I boasted about the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and large work tables that I just had to have. She told me I was animated and — I'll always protest this — adorable with every way those gorgeous turquoise eyes followed me.

Celestia was a snake, and she slithered around any time I argued that I wanted to speak my own words. We agreed on this: I am controversial. But I didn't win, even though I never lose, not as long as I've learned something. Everything I wanted to say was too much of everything she loathed. She told me the words were too selfish, too proud, too rebellious, too rude, and too likely to induce violence...

Too bad.

...I ended up not being able to have a speech at all. Celestia wrote something abominable for me and stuck it in my pocket with a smile that I never struck off her face as I pleased for the sole reason of Luna loving Celestia.

I end up missing a part of her speech, hearing only:

"...and it is with that same caution, and all-too-prevalent optimism—" Curse her smile. "—that I would like to welcome Equestria's newest royal; Prince Sombra, please step forward!"

A few brusque steps of my usual, often unshakable saunter later, and I looked out at Equestria in full with unmasked disdain clear on my face.

Celestia smiled and waved at her subjects. Truthfully, I wasn't sure if she meant it, or was doing it for the sake of ceremony and all the conventions she chained herself in. She looked happy, and while nothing about her was particularly sincere, I didn't doubt the smile she was giving her ponies as much.

Nopony knows that I am supposed to speak, except Luna, Celestia, and I. What a trio we make.

The Goddess of Hope — she's so much more than the moon goddess now — and the God of Knowledge. We work remarkably well together and are still finding ways that we complement one another that I hadn't expected. Then, there is the Goddess of the Sun, whose existence begins and ends with what few scraps she has to build something approaching an identity. She's tried so little, hasn't she? I can't even say she has plateaued in divine development attempts because I do not know if she has ever tried at all. In our pair, she's the odd one out, and we the outcasts fit together — the whole of it is rather lovely, actually.

Nopony knows.

I wear my current stoicism better than my usual cloak. My disdain softens to the apathy that is equally familiar to me — and those who often behold me. I light my horn with a moderate amount of my usual crimson aura.

Celestia's discreet look is too easy for me to read: do not disobey.

Her eyes make it plain that she wants to read me before she finds the brief interlocking of our gazes to be too uncomfortable and averts her eyes almost submissively. I feel her own magic fade from the balcony's spell with it. She joins her little dog, beckons her forward, and that small mare gulps. My glare of undisguised scrutiny falls upon her casually, and while she gulps and sees the glow of my aura as I tease the balcony's spellwork; she's a few shades paler and looks like she wants to scream. Celestia manages a competent defensive look and aims at my esteemed and unmoved self.

I lift an eyebrow, and she no doubt spots sass in the gesture. It's me, isn't it? How is she surprised? She is fully aware that if I open my undeniably smart mouth, the matrice I'm toying with could backfire terribly, and we don't need all of Equestria hearing ear-aching distortions of our fighting. Luna is here too; I refuse to do anything like that with her around.

And yes, sometimes there's guilt all tied up in the aftermath of temper from my fights with her sister...

Don't hurt her is what Celestia's face says, or maybe Don't scare her and I am doing nothing threatening that would warrant such a reaction from this coward, or why Celestia acts like she is of any worth.

The particular matrice that I weave my own magic through is tricky only in the sense that it is clunky. While Canterlot Castle has many astounding instances of magic about it that impress me, some are ill-maintained and in need of work.

As a prince, I would want to remedy this.

As a prince... My stomach twists.

My aura dies down. Celestia takes this as a sign for my speech to begin soon. I do not confirm it.

With a closed-mouth smile that might as well have been cut out of a photograph and taped over her muzzle for how thoroughly convincing I found it, Celestia stands above me, at her full height. The sunlight catches her form. Her white coat becomes too bright and stands out too much. Her dress is an attack on my eyes. Her size feels more obstructive than anything else. The very act of standing next to her is displeasing.

Celestia's horn glows softly, she grasps the circlet meant for me in her magic as her little dog presents it to her.

I am resolute and silent. After I am crowned, they will want my speech to begin.

The small piece is a sort of dark gold and does not have the warmth or luster of Celestia's regalia, and while striking, the piece does not look cold. At the center is a large emerald, with its own proud gleam. To the side of it are two smaller vibrant bits of green. The ring of it, which most of my mane will mask, is braided, and the only touch or anything ornate I allowed. This would really be mine. I wanted to give myself just a couple of reasons to hate it a little less. In many respects, a crown was hardly different than a slave's collar. I just don't want this coronation to hurt as much as I think it will...

I'm doing this for Luna, too. We're to be equals in every way. I am without peers, aside from her... and we talked this over so much...

I agreed.

Celestia finally sits the circlet upon my head. My ears swivel back at the feeling of it. I swallow the breath I had been holding, and my chest remains tight.

I want the earth under my hooves. I want the wind in my mane, and for snow to get caught in it because I love the look. I want to wake up somewhere new each day.

I want Luna to know it all with me.

If the circlet's metal is cold, I do not feel it. My ears remained pinned back, and I do not conceal how sullen I look. Horn lit, I reach into my suit's breast pocket and Celestia steps back. Everypony is waiting for my speech. Wordlessly, with only my fierce red eyes to stare out at everypony, I toss the ashes of the paper containing the speech Celestia had written for me down below. Before anypony else has the chance to react, I turn and gallop away at full speed, my magic disconnecting from the balcony and my cape cutting the air behind me.

It feels like I am running for my life. My hooves know enough of this castle that I can let them find their way; the barest bits of my magic sensing guide them along the turns. The castle corridors bleed by me, until I find an empty room, my vision shaking as I let it adjust and my breaths coming in anxious heaves.

Celestia took away my words, and I would not let something like that slide without at least some vindictive reaction against a mare who falsely believes she is my superior.

Everypony heard Celestia's words, but it is my silence that they will remember.

A distant thought springs to the forefront of my mind momentarily; Luna will be trying to find me soon, and Celestia will want control if the situation got out of hoof.

My crimson aura sheds a light in this shady room that I know to be some meeting chamber. All the lights are off, and the cool shadows are soothing. A large table and chairs of polished wood and other materials expected from such prosperous royalty make themselves known in the dark. The ghosts of paintings are on the walls as dark spots that I can't glimpse the contents of.

Seizing my brand new circlet, still new and unenchanted, from its skewed position, I rip it from where it sits on my head and fling it against the far wall. One loud impact later, there is a hideous gash of a dent in the wall, the echo of it in my ears, and my circlet clatters to the ground with a loud din.

I slump against the wall unceremoniously, tug my cape around me and work my magic, hurriedly ripping open the topmost buttons of this unbearable suit. It brings further disarray to my appearance, but I don't feel nearly as strangled. I bring my forehooves to my face, covering everything in an attempt to plunge myself into shadow. Every bit of my body is shaking and I can't make it stop.

Strangled noises somewhere close to sobs sound in my throat, and because I am alone, I let them. My throat is wet and mucus-y, my eyes are damp, and I want nothing more than to have the sky over my head instead of these cold walls. I want to feel the grass under my body and the wind against my coat. I wish that Luna could be there too. I wish I could be sharing ketchup chips with Pink One and reading to Skyla, or teaching my bubbly pink niece about magic. I wish I had something to read, something to prevent my hooves from quivering and pages to flip, and enough words to keep some of my mind busy.

The sound of my circlet hitting the wall won't leave my ears.

My eyes are wet but I cannot cry.

Being caught up in this is terrible. I am a prince and it is terrible. I wake up a prince tomorrow. I start being a prince tomorrow.

The two redeeming things in all this are that I will always be Luna's husband too, and that above all else, I can always be Sombra.

'All this' I have yet to unravel, but there is dread in my stomach. I can only predict that somepony will be hurt in this horrid sequence of things that Luna and I are so tangled up in. I can never stay caught forever, but the bloody string's going to be a pain to unravel. A mess of a story is what this will be. As the God of Knowledge, I know that though I will play this game, and Luna will drag me along — sometimes I need it — as our mutual stubbornness leads us somewhere. In the center of this is an ivory mare with a mask she will not discard.

One mare who I will always be able to say is an enemy of mine.

Chapter 4: Husband of Hers, Part 1

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Celestia tied a maroon curtain in place so that the light of her sun could pour through and warm her office. The rich floral print fabric was neatly tucked into a golden ring to keep it in place. She closed her eyes and savored the pleasant sensation of the warmth caressing her coat, not needing her eyes to be open to see her elegant office. The colors of the Solar Wing vanished, and Celestia was transported somewhere peaceful. No white and gold walls, oranges, and reds evaporated from her mind. Magentas winked into shadow and the more friendly shades of blue that she preferred followed.

She liked to imagine that she was flying and that the wind tickled her soft feathers. She envied the pegasi, who flew about unbound with their magical speed trails chasing after them with each plummet. The plush carpet under her hooves did not let her mind leave the castle.

The warm aroma of her breakfast tea, Prancian toast, and a few scraps of pancakes soaked in a tasty syrup of the Neighagra region greeted her nostrils again.

She was not flying.

Without even a sigh, she opened her eyes and sufficiently smashed whatever semblance of a daydream that she had crafted before slipping her hooves back into her golden shoes. It was early, and she would still rather be wearing her ladybug slippers. Her large ivory-colored desk greeted her, piled high with papers and butterfly-shaped sticky notes reminding her of all sorts of little things for morning duties.

The desk was spacious, despite mostly having been dominated by paperwork, and still had room for her abandoned breakfast tray, a glass vase of fresh-cut flowers (sunflowers, asters, and azaleas) shone happily on its surface. The coffee mug of the day was a hoof-painted mess of magenta with only '#1 Teacher' even slightly readable on it, especially under all the glittery stickers of wizards and teacher-themed objects, like rulers and apples, that had been carefully sealed with magic so they wouldn't come off. An orange and yellow striped handle was squished onto it by a very young Twilight Sparkle, whose magical exercises still hadn't exceeded making deformed coffee mugs.

Celestia adored it with all her being and refused to ever get rid of the old thing. It sat next to a cluster of objects: the lollipop bowl that was bursting with small candies that used to be reserved for rewards for Twilight when she good grades on her tests. Now, they for anypony who desired one at Celestia's insistence. Also on her desk was a small vase of red stuffed with a few daffodils plucked spitefully from the gardens by Celestia herself; a photo of her and Cadance at the latter's high-school graduation from the Canterlot school she had been moved to; a smaller photo of her and Raven at Raven's first chess tournament with an old good-luck amulet obscuring her own face; and a pet rock that Discord had given her before their daughter was hatched.

She pursed her lips and looked up at the far wall. Where many ponies would keep a bookcase, Celestia had a portrait of her and Luna, and it was hard to believe that it was nearly five years old already.

Centuries of dealings with master painters had led to Celestia being able to maintain the perfect goofy grin for so long, while Luna sat throughout the entire thing with only the slightest curve of a smile hidden under her cornflower mane and an ever-startled expression as she carefully remained under her mother's wing. It did not matter how much their informal poses clashed with the gilded frame and ornate decor of the Solar Wing, it stayed on the wall. Always.

Portraits were timeless, classical things. Celestia simply had to have one of her and Luna other than the official portrait of them as Equestria's sovereigns, the one that everypony saw once Luna's divinity was truly recovered after her return. Any such position would require such a portrait as opposed to a photograph.

Celestia liked to think of this room as her Success Room rather than her office. Instead of dusty old books littering what would be little else but some stuffy study, photos and paintings smiled at her from nearly every wall.

Spike across his many hatchdays flexed an arm and looked into the camera with innocent pride on his most recent one, the wingless drake having grown notably taller. Twilight and Rarity celebrated their wedding, looking in awe at the cake. Applejack posed with her first bushel of Crystal Apples, her Crystalline husband at her side. A young Shining Armor graduated military school. Rainbow Dash embraced her one true love — the sky — by being caught mid-soar, her Wonderbolts uniform new.

And the more Celestia looked on, the more she saw photos she had carefully snapped and collected. Each of them showed the world as she wanted to — or perhaps needed to — see it. Not everything made it into her scrapbooks, but her friends among the staff could find themselves on the castle walls. Maids, guards, and cooks smiled back at her, a clear difference from the lonely castle in the Everfree, where she and Luna lived alone with a festering relationship all those years ago.

Now, she was surrounded by ponies across many generations — some photos were quite aged — and more contemporary ponies she had helped. She only need to look at them again to see herself chatting with a Prancian cafe owner about his mouth-watering selection of pastries, fresh from the oven, as she hoped to obtain a secret recipe… even if she no longer cooked. Or, when she first re-discovered Aquastria and wrapped her cousin in a firm hug with teary eyes (he hated that) and told him how she thought he was gone... only to realize he was the same buffoon as before, with no kind words for her. She played friendly chess with the active Reapers, Scorpan and Thōdan, in Mustainia. She signed a peace treaty with Germaneigh. In another, she contained her shaking, heaving breaths and tears at her first and last meeting with the Great Spider Tribe of the rain forests of Maretonia, utterly petrified by how 'great' was supposed to sufficiently describe talking spiders that were the size of cottages at their smallest. During her first visit, she had to stress how their ancient Emperor Ahgg absolutely could not give her any ritual hugs please please she was fine, really.

Just outside her office were the official portraits of her Faithful Students that lined the halls. The bright smiles of young unicorns across the ages were always ready to welcome anypony into her office.

Only two portraits were absent, and one of them was Sunset Shimmer's image, back when Celestia still saw her make real smiles.

Celestia tapped her hoof softly as she waited and sighed at the sound of feathers and the creak of a birdcage door.

"Philomena, I do not have to be a big scary magic demon to know that you are examining the remains of my breakfast."

A guilty chirp sounded behind her.

"You know the rule about mama sharing her food with you."

A squawk ensued. She must not have been feeling very talkative today.

"You still haven't asked nicely." She heard the rustle of tail-feathers and talons grasping something-

Celestia turned around with a single fluid movement and fixed the mightiest of scolding mother stares upon the lively bird, who burned with embarrassment quite literally as her 'mama' confronted her, a fork in her beak and... Just as I thought.

"Philomena, please remove my Royal Seal from your talons." She eyes the phoenix with the cool and practiced look of a princess of her status. "It is not a snack, and I shall be needing it for my..." What word to use beyond 'unpleasant encounter'? "...meeting with Sombra. I know I have had very little time to spend with you lately, but I cannot be playing games right now." Her expression softened. "Please understand, he's going to be here—"

A knock at the door disturbed her.

"Sombra...?" Celestia asked, pulling his name from her mouth as though it were something lodged in her throat.

The muffled growl she heard through the door caused the mane at the back of her neck to stand up and her body to feel chilled. The maids were more afraid of Sombra than she, but that unnatural sound never failed to disturb her. And yet, when Sombra was mocked for such a frightening trait, he was the one who acted like he was being hurt or frightened... or...

"The one and only," came that sullen voice. "Will you be getting the door, then?"

She sighed and lit her horn, mouthing the words 'good morning' before he entered. It was a small way of getting around having to say it to him, or preparing to do just that. She was not entirely sure which that would be yet.

Apparently, those were incredibly difficult words to for him say. Philomena's bright feathers puffed out, and for a moment their golden glow increased too. Her eyes widened at the sound of Sombra's voice and when she saw that Celestia was about to open the door. Celestia looked at her with a bit of pity as she flew off, having nudged open a window with her beak. If she had the choice, Celestia would certainly fly off too. Celestia caught herself sighing and nearly bit down on her lip. She inwardly chastised herself, not because Sombra could hear it — he couldn't — but because she let such a behavior slip.

It did not suit the princess.

The door was pushed open by Sombra's own distinct crimson aura, and in he stepped. She was surprised — though she did not show it — to see that his cloak was not the dull crimson traveler's cloak in the plain, hooded style she recalled. Yes, it was still very much that, but it fell a bit beyond his knees now, and an embellishment of bright gold thread wound its way boastfully about the hem. Clearly, he had altered it with his magic, which was not a skill she had ever expected him to possess. The usual metal boots gleamed on his hooves and protected his legs, giving the stallion a far less peaceful appearance than Celestia had. His dark mane and tail were forever the same with how unkempt they looked, only this time, Sombra had half-heartedly pulled his mane back.

If he was trying to subtly draw a bit more attention to his circlet, he did a fine job. The only other feature on his face that normally drew any attention were those eyes of his because no matter how his bangs always spilled across them, the way he looked at everypony unsettled her. At least now one's eyes could be drawn to the dent in his circlet. Some fit after his coronation had produced that, and Celestia hadn't been pleased in the slightest at the damage, and she had begun the impossible duty of lecturing Sombra in taking care of something as important as one's regalia in the aftermath. He had been agitated then, and with a flash of his horn that even managed to be equally brusque, he had rudely left her mid-word.

Now, she saw that the chipped emeralds shone a bit brighter, no doubt a byproduct of whatever enchantments he had placed upon it since they last... chatted. Yes, chatted was the word she was going to use.

"Good morning," she said, her smile tight and painted. "Did you sleep well?"

She didn't add any inquiry to if the 'excitement' of his coronation and the following two days had worn off; Sombra had refused any party at all, even though they were customary for any such event. Twilight had a celebration, and Cadance too, but Equestria's newest and only prince was creating quite the image for himself: that of a pony who wanted no fun.

He was sullen and gloomy, and had run off to heavens knows where to spend time as he dictated, and without a hint of merriment. Celestia didn't even know if he immersed himself in the archives or secluded himself in his study. She didn't even know if he had been in the castle then. Luna had acted no different, and whenever Sombra wasn't talking he reminded Celestia of the unbearable savage isolation of the far corners of the wilds. He punctuated such intense silences with only gestures, and could she really be blamed for forgetting about him?

He was like a shadow, and right now, that shadow was giving her a curt nod to acknowledge her words.

A curt nod.

That was it.

Not the customary verbal reply to such a plain question. Just more silence.

She really would try to talk to him — maybe just a little, he was still quite dreadful — if she could get the feeling that talking to him was different from talking to a wall. Or a corpse.

"...Well, isn't that good!" Celestia tried to smile less awkwardly and respond with convincing false enthusiasm. He wasn't exactly giving her anything to work with.

She waited for him to give the proper counter question, of asking how she was. This was the dance of centuries, the ball of manners passed from pony to pony in long-reigning tradition. Steps and graciousness were paramount. And it was in this dance, that Sombra was somehow more spastic than Twilight Sparkle was with actual dancing. It wasn't that she hadn't tried these past two days, to lure this creature from the depths of gloom. After all, his running from his own coronation speech had created less than desirable headlines, news articles, and gossip in the press, mouth, and ears of nearly every Equestrian. It was discontent in its mildest form, but hardly an outcry. But in a nation where she could apply her control of the press as directly or indirectly (which she preferred) as she wished, it was still notable.

To Celestia's ears, it was all the same — and it was fixable, too! And how? With a smile and a wave! Or five!

(Really, was there a medical condition for virtually never lightening up because Sombra simply had to have such an affliction.)

For two days, Celestia had encouraged Sombra to go out in public, to talk to some of his subjects, to appear in the city, to perhaps kiss a baby (this got a rather strange look from him), and to have a party. She had already been suggesting guest lists, attire, entertainment, and the proper drinks for whatever level of occasion he picked. She desperately wanted to decorate the palace — that always made her feel better, and it would give her the perfect chance to pick up on the exact gossip with her subjects.

He had nearly slammed a door in her face.

She had a terrible feeling that such a rude gesture was going to be quite common. It was hopeless. She needed to be able to peel away at whatever stinky onion outer rings that Sombra had about him to get him down to something that was passable to the Equestrian public, and more conforming.

He needed to change.

Sombra leaned in the doorway, horn lit as he toyed with his mane. The gesture was a vain one that was carried out with such a casual air; something she didn't associate with him. "I don't appreciate you of all ponies staring at me like that."

She stopped, it was as simple as that. Her eyes flicked to the desk stacked with paperwork.

"We're only here to talk."

He just sighed and raised an eyebrow. "Go ahead. Talk."

The princess forced a smile. "I only wish to welcome you, since you are such a record-breaker! Equestria's first prince!" She felt a touch queasy.

"Yes, how exciting," Sombra said in one of the flattest tones Celestia had heard in over three thousand years.

She ignored it and watched him carefully as he stepped inside and the door shut behind him. Her horn glowed dimly and Sombra showed only acknowledgment in his keen eyes, easily able to read against the soundproofing she had just cast.

Just in case, said her eyes, but Sombra never looked like he trusted her anyway.

"Now we won't be disturbed. May I continue?"

An eye roll and shrug was her confirmation.

"The last time Equestria had anything close to a pony in the position you are in, was Princess Cadance before the return of my sister. Yet, even her duties were slight compared to yours. I know that you are... easily informed of things, but we need to talk." She stressed the last four words with a touch of sternness. "Equestria expects you to move mountains, if you will. I'm afraid the other Pantheon members tend to have little fondness for the idea of you in power as well."

"I really don't think anypony does." Sombra's stoicism didn't crack, but his tone sounded almost honest to her.

"Yes..." Celestia said carefully, feeling like she had to verbally tippy-hoof around everything with Sombra to say what was needed, otherwise, he would play a conversation like it was a game of cards. Things were oddly well so far, and she wished to preserve that. "You are here for more than me simply giving you your duties — you will be learning their limits too."

Sombra sat on the floor with a vaguely dignified plop, stubbornly planting himself where he wanted. "I suppose that this means I'll have to tuck all those dear little schemes to take over the world, push all existing nations to join me, and reign everlasting across this planet with an iron hoof. If that is our situation, when exactly, would you say I can engage in such activities as tame as total word domination without the slightest bat of an eye from anypony else?"

Celestia paused, wishing only to move on. "...Preferably never."

"Oh my," a few of his teeth flashed in a manipulator's smile, "that's a dreary prospect. Restrictive, even."

"Most of the limitations you'll be facing will be. Unlike Luna and I, until you earn the powers, in any way, you will find yourself unable to pass laws, reject them, carry out justice, pardon exiles—"

"Exiles?" Sombra questioned, his tail swishing across the floor and head cocked curiously.

"Yes, they aren't common, but the legal precedent for banishment and exile are within the law and used in my nation even to this day. If it weren't for my generosity and the combined efforts of Luna, Cadance, and myself, it would likely be your fate. In Equestria, an exile is any pony who previously held citizenship that is well, expelled, from Equestrian borders and forbidden from re-entry for their crimes. The duration of an exile varies, but can be the extent of a pony's entire life — those, of course, are rarer still. Sunset Shimmer is a pony who has received a lifetime exile, but I doubt you have heard of her."

She paused again, awaiting the littlest confirmation or refutation of this. Sombra's tail swished again.

"His name sounds a little familiar, so I swore that I've heard a rumor or two about him around the castle, perhaps?" A reddish light in his irises flickered, something she found odd. "Purple Eyesore knows them..." Sombra's tone balanced between certainty and doubt. Celestia had to put in extra effort to not reprimand Sombra for his insulting name of her dear Twilight.

Instead, she whispered, unable to control her tone: "Her; Sunset Shimmer is a mare... her portrait used to hang outside." She lowered her ears a little at memories.

Sombra remained unreadable. "And what else am I forbidden from?"

She forced herself to retreat from thoughts of a teenage pyromancer in a fake leather jacket — 'it's like something a griffon would wear' she had said when the princess had asked why such a sweet young lady would want even a reminder of a practice so barbaric to ponies.

(Sunset, apparently, wished to have it for the thrill, and for her love of the screaming metal music that only Luna played in the castle now, ignoring strange looks from the staff. Luna did learn to dance so wildly at Cadance's wedding from somewhere, after all.)

Yes, that was Sunset. A filly who toyed with others like the strands of her mane, faced the princess with a smile — most of the time — and caked her eyes in enough dark eyeshadow to rival a raccoon.

She had been caught in that phase when many fillies thought any respectable adult was a stand-in for a parent, and that 'parent' was Sunset's grandmother, a soft and sunny mare who had raised a city filly full of ambitions and other dangerous sparks. Sunset had only known Celestia as the princess, and the princess quelled a coming sigh. Being the princess was a necessary barrier in many relationships and one that kept any possibility of fractures contained. She no longer cared whether it was a voluntary way of conducting herself.

She remembered in the years after Sunset left, how she had to write to her grandmother, Warm Hearth, and how terrible that had been, to admit helplessness as politely as possible: her Sunnybun wasn't coming home.

Ms. Hearth moved into a retirement home shortly after; Celestia would peer through the cracks of the princess and wonder if she had anything to do with that instead of just Sunset's disappearance. Then, a few years later, the castle started receiving birthday and Hearth's Warming gifts again. Vinyl records of Sunset's favorite bands, and books of magic legends, among other things. All of them came with cards from a... deeply forgetful... Ms. Hearth. A few years later, they stopped entirely.

Princess Celestia knew what that second silence meant.

Sombra calling the name — "Celestia? What in Tartarus' name are you staring off into space like that for?" — summoned her back from the momentary spell while the sound of that name kicked at something within her, and guilt prodded her stomach.

"Oh," she murmured until realization pattered on her head like water drops, "Oh, I did not mean to do that — I'm afraid it's a bit of an early morning for me too, coffee was not plentiful today. As a fellow non-morning pony—" calling him that made her mouth feel sour "—I trust you sympathize. Now, where was I — oh, yes. Exiling. If you do not know Sunset Shimmer, you might know Starlight Glimmer. She is another exile, one who ran a terrible village of ponies that she near-kidnapped and lured with wicked brainwashing. Aside from her particularly wicked brand of republican politics, the ponies that were in her cult have seen much trauma from their ordeal. The village thankfully is no more, and I wish Starlight's crimes could have stopped there, especially with all the resources that have been expended on her former herd. Dear Twilight Sparkle has dealt with her more than I and tried to extend a hoof, but the mare refused her goodness. Both Sunset and this Mrs. Glimmer — she's married, Twilight has mentioned a Lulamoon wife in her letters — have been granted contact with any remaining family and Twilight Sparkle. As the Princess of Friendship, she is right for the job of correspondence."

She looked at Sombra, who now looked a touch bored. Or, at least he looked border than usual. It was ever so hard to tell with him. "Unlike the three princesses of Equestria, you cannot exile ponies or restore an exile's citizenship. You cannot declare war, thank goodness. However, you are able to fire castle employees, provided you consult with my sister and I... for a start, at least. Access to any file and archive of Equestria is yours—"

Celestia blinked and hopped back a step at just how much Sombra — again, Sombra — came to life at the latter statement. His ears perked up and his eyes widened. In a single rush, he was so animated. Though he was on the floor, he was at the edge of his seat in how he held himself. Admittedly, she was a tad startled. He was still a rather imposing stallion, and such a gesture could be seen as threatening otherwise.

"Everything is available to me?" There was a hunger in his voice with that bursting, wild excitement that sent flutters of fear through her chest every time she saw it in him.

"...Yes," she said quietly. "Almost," she clarified, swallowing at the burning, vibrant ambition in those eyes — how demonic their hue was — and what they might be seeing because right now it wasn't her. "Anything within the personal possession of another, obviously would not be included."

She narrowed her eyes at him, and gave one swish of her tail to make her disapproval of any of his thieving plans known. He scoffed and waited for her to go on, observing her intently all the while.

"You must understand, that there are a fair deal of duties that will be restricted to you, and also among them is that you shall not be able to bestow land, titles, and a variety of similar things—"

"Do you have this written down?" he half-asked, and half-demanded, looking over her with a kind of critical disgust.

"Yes," she replied calmly, dignifying him with no emotion, "and while you can see it all later, wouldn't you like it reviewed now?" Each word was drawn from her mouth with a standard, civil tone she would show most ponies, only drained of every hint of friendliness. Yet, it was not cold. She did not manage that well.

"At this point, I would like you to humor me with what I can do."

Those eyes bored into her again — those monster eyes. She looked to her desk and extended a wing towards it, while swallowing carefully. "Half of that paperwork is yours. Every day, you will arrive here to pick up your morning work—"

"Morning?!" Sombra exclaimed incredulously, eyes wide and startled. "Can't you at least have the promise of coffee, if you're going to be so cruel as to impose mornings upon me? Do you even know how long it took Luna to get me up on this morning?"

Each time the word was emphasized, his expression soured just a little more. Celestia gave one long swish of her tail, knowing that it was only around Sombra that she could let even a little irritation slip. Her tone bordered on clipped, and she spoke before she could regret how, to any other pony who knew her, those words would be icy: "Yes. An extra carafe of coffee will be brought for you. But, you must understand that you are to be doing your duty to Equestria above all else."

He smirked facetiously from the floor. "Fine, Filly Scout. We'll see how that works out," he shot her a sharp glare, "won't we?"

Celestia kept her expression calm. "We will," her voice lost all attempts at severity. "You have so much to learn." She didn't hide how deep her sigh was. "So very much."

No matter how much Celestia repeated that, internally or externally, it never really felt like Sombra absorbed it the way she wanted him to. Even when her crown was new, the forms of resistance to her rule that she encountered were different, and in time they were dealt with. He could do all the work in the world — and she doubted he would put effort into anything — and nopony would accept him. Not truly.

He would have to break before anypony so much as did more than simply acknowledge him as a prince.

With every passing century she had ruled alone, Canterlot grew. That was what everypony knew. What they might not have stopped to observe was how, as every bit of time passed, and a new brick was laid somewhere in the city, Celestia built every bit of what was left of her into this city, this nation, and these city walls. In the present, she felt the weight of this; how seamless and suffocating this choice was. She thought of a marionette tangled by her own strings, finding it impossible to divorce herself from the imagery and give any separation between it and herself. To become was so much easier than to be.

Sombra was not going to have that luck. Acceptance, credit, dignity, and even the slightest bit of respect... he would have to toil. He was unlikely to have anything in his future where he was even remotely better off. To become anything less than the world's own absolute slave to bureaucracies and any social labors with every bit of his mind, magic, body, and soul would make it unlikely for him to add a dent in the cursed name and existence he held. Nothing short of a miracle would offer any hope of altering this. She truly almost pitied him, had he deserved it. Here before her was the one few creatures who would be forever unforgiven.

"Are you pretending to be a statue to see what your ridiculous boyfriend felt like, or do you really think this poor attempt to avoid conversation will work?"

Inhaling quietly, Celestia spread a tiny smile across her face. "I apologize."

A headache could be felt below her horn again. She ignored it, finding that she had already been distracted enough, and she wasn't going to let a petty remark about her Dissy get to her, if it was meant to at all. He had a habit of speaking that way about everypony, and plenty of others had called Discord ridiculous without any intent to offend.

"But, surely, you understand something of your position?"

Sombra gave her a hard look. "More than you could. What of it?"

She looked calmly at his circlet, avoiding his gaze. "You've spoken nothing on what it is you wish to do for Equestria. Is it really so difficult for you to find a cause to dedicate yourself to and serve? Our subjects are all around us, and it is a prince's duty to—"

"I know you would love to stand there and berate me all day, but there are far more pressing matters. You haven't finished informing me on what I'm meant to do, and keeping stepping around things and going on about 'duty' without telling me what that will actually be. Unlike your silly little students who can't find it in themselves to question you, and need you to hold their hoof every step of the way, I would like to know what my job does and does not consists of, so I can at least begin to perform it adequately," Sombra snapped, harshness imbued in both his stare and voice.

Celestia was quiet for a moment, looking as deep into the shine of those emeralds as she would allow herself. Her headache was flaring once more. She decided against scolding Sombra for his insolence, since she did not wish to be here much longer than she had to.

She bit her lip impatiently, speaking quietly, as though this were some grand secret. "The sooner you can make yourself appear as a supporter of a cause, the less rocky this road might seem for you. Ponies will find you relatable if you pick something important to them and act as a patron for it. The public will is something that lies both above and below the crown, controlling what it ought to. Most of my bits, including a fraction of my personal sums, go to charity. You are to serve the wants of the populace humbly, as I do."

Sombra watched her in slightly less grouchy silence. Maybe he didn't believe her, though such a thing was as obvious as raindrops in a summer storm, and if he didn't, she simply did not care. Sombra being wrong was no oddity to her.

"I cannot help everypony who lives within my kingdom, and even outside of it, but with donations, I can ensure that resources for ponies who need them and can use them better than I can. Gestures of generosity are able to truly aid others in ways that might cannot. You would be wise to do the same, and at least try to remake your image as a champion of ponies."

"However," her tone grew cautious, "you can just as easily waste your resources and efforts by supporting something held to be unpopular. Luna tried supporting artists, playwrights, and crafts-ponies in the age after Discord—" Celestia still had a hard time saying 'banishment', especially around Luna's husband, "—in an age when soldiers were needed. She was seen as frivolous by the masses. Her talk of useful skills, consolation offered by the arts, maintaining the health of magic, healing generations, and the like were all talk to them."

She was thought of as neglectful, weighed three leaden words in an unwanted whisper in Celestia's mind, even by me. Sour regret was tasted upon her tongue, though she spoke not a word. To her surprise, Sombra only nodded curtly. Celestia shoved the hint of regret away with a bit more ease when a distraction like that was presented.

"That is something you can't afford. Your public image is going to be paramount, and you must be careful not to tarnish it. Your standoffish behavior will pass, but no cruelty will. A herd's demands outweigh all things."

She waited, debating whether or not she should tell him that a small part of the reason why he was to have the job she assigned him, a Secretary of Secretaries, if she desired to jokingly simplify it, was because she knew how he detested ponies. Sombra, however, was drawn to tomes, artifacts, and anything he felt he could challenge or learn from. Celestia thought it would be best to take advantage of that quietly, giving him a job that he might have just a shred of tolerance for. Something to keep him out of her way.

And she quickly decided against such a thing. Sombra was not Twilight Sparkle, and she shouldn't assume that he had any true desire to learn as she did, or the curiosity of an innocent soul. Unlike Twilight Sparkle, he certainly was not going to lecture himself, which was something that Twilight had settled into quite adorably in mimicry of her teacher's behavior after she had spent some time in Canterlot Castle.

"I will be certain to make sure you understand the extent of your duties some other time, for now, I would think that you are completely capable of beginning them. There are hardly any breaks so long as Equestria still sits united under my sun."

"What about vacation arrangements?"

That gave Celestia pause. "Vacation arrangements?"

She felt terribly confused. Such words were only used to refer to other ponies, obviously. The staff certainly had vacation days and sick days. They came back with tales of rest, relaxation, and resorts — or more — and were rejuvenated for their job. All things were happy and normal in that sphere. Mares had maternity leaves. Stallions had paternity leaves. Other 'vacations' could be given to a pony going through loss. That must be what Sombra was referring to.

"Yes, Sombra. The staff are not bound here." She gave him a stern look. "They are not slaves."

He remained unflinching. "I wasn't talking about those dolts; I was talking about ponies of our station." The word 'ponies' always sounded fairly deliberate when he said it.

You aren't a pony. That was what her look at him said. She wished she could still speak to him that way.

Neither are you, a frail shred of a whisper nagged her, floating softly around her mind. She ignored it.

"Vacations for the royals of Equestria?" She still said it as a question. How could it be anything else? Blueblood's face came to mind first. He had little in the way of duty and was simply born into the luxury he bathed in, so perhaps Sombra was jealous of what he perceived as the Duke's eternal vacation. It wasn't as though he was without obligations, but one could not mistake those for duties.

Sombra promptly shot her a skeptical look. "Have you ever even considered one yourself?"

Me, on vacation? Celestia blinked in succession, before shaking her head gently in order to clear her mind.

"N-No...? I've not been on vacation since..." she trailed off and her brow creased deeply the more she sunk into thought, "...ever, really. I don't need them. I shouldn't expect them. I wouldn't want them. Though..." Celestia swallowed, her voice uneven and quiet when she spoke next, "...once, I did leave. I told you, didn't I? Shortly after I lost Luna I flew north." Her stomach was a labyrinth of painful, dark twists when she finished and the dull stab of memory ebbed through her.

I died there.

Sombra's jaw clenched. "Yes," he hissed through clenched teeth, "I remember."

Celestia's gaze lowered to find the floor, relieved that at least one eye was shielded by her mane and gesture. She shuddered slightly. There was something about him whenever he was hostile that made her afraid, and never ceased to elicit those creeping, unwelcome feelings. From how everypony about the castle, save Luna, avoided contact with Sombra as much as possible — as though he were a plague of old — and gossiped about him in hushed whispers, she could see why they were right to fear them. She allowed them their rumors and hearsay, for it was a natural element of their species. Dishonesty about terrible things and creatures were always permissible. To make fabrications on one's enemies was a necessity and form of cultural catharsis. To believe the results of that process was to understand something vital, an equal or superior reality. They were a defense against this imposing shadow of a creature, and she was no tyrant.

She was no tyrant.

Her throat tightened. Those slick words slipped about the knots of her stomach like sticky, wet slugs. Hadn't it been warm in the room mere moments before? She was certain it had.

Flipping through her mind were half a dozen possible attempts to revive what she felt was a dying conversation, when there was still much more to be said. As best a distraction as she could, Celestia picked one train of thought and trotted with it.

"Have you selected a seal for yourself?" Her voice came out smaller than it should have. Her stomach clenched at such a foolish mistake. Were it made in front of any other pony, could it have been thought of as a warning sign? Of something? Of anything? The slightest imperfection was meant to be clipped, pulled under perfection, and disguised. She'd been slipping just a bit more than usual lately, hadn't she?

"Seal?" There was something curious in his tone, and a bit confused. An honesty she held a quiet, immediate dislike for found his way into her words.

"A royal seal," she clarified, "for when you sign a document. You'll find that all of the ones in use bear traces of minor enchantments that cannot be forged. I know that you have, ah, detected them before? Or at least, you have seen my own."

He was quick to nod, and any confusion vanished... she supposed he could be considered a quick learner, or something close to it. That might ease his transition somewhat, and give her one less difficulty with him. Or, many more might spring in place, for did she really want a creature like him to be a quick learner? And how could she say that to him, knowing it would come across as a compliment? She didn't want to do something like that to Sombra unless she had to.

"Felt," he says, direct tone sweeping her moment of silence away. "I feel magic, and your seals are no different. I suppose I'm to decide upon an insignia for myself?"

The princess looked down upon him. "It will have to go past my approval. Should you behave yourself for a week or two as your duties begin, I might be lenient and allow you to choose what you select for yourself, and suggest no modifications."

Sombra no longer looked at her, his eyes became lost in thought, and yet they still bore an intimidating sharpness. Choosing to wait instead of pointing out that Sombra running his forehoof through his mane and mussing it up, Celestia taps her hoof and listens to the soft measured sounds.

"Just remember, your seal will have to appear alongside my Eternal Crown, Twilight's Spark, and Luna's Twin Lightning Bolts. It had best be something respectable. Your image is certainly going to be under my microscope. You had best be sure to prioritize the work you're given too. If I can conclude in any way that you aren't taking your duty to our subjects seriously, we will sorely be in need of a very strong talking-to with Luna about your place in Equestria."

Celestia had to witness Sombra teasing his mane with his magic in an expression of pure boredom. "Don't you ever think that all this disdain is just a waste of time?" she muttered, allowing a golden glow to bloom on her horn. "I do expect you to pay attention to what you're told, as you're just as much a wheel in the machine of Equestria as I am. Seeing how much you enjoy, ah, 'running your mouth' if you will excuse such harsh language on my part, I know you will likely desire to be attending meetings soon, alongside Luna."

She paused, eyeing him with the veiled critical look usually reserved for a Faithful Student. It was a lighter version than what she gave in the past, for she was not eyeing a youth modeled in her teachings as clay was sculpted by steady, orderly hooves in times when she had been doubting who might really be the Spark, if any of them could. Instead, she was looking at this abrasive personality and trying to determine what reaction he might have when faced with a petitioner or attending a meeting. How would this stallion treat a diplomat? Or any guest? She did not know. This stallion was not a piece in her game so much as he was the wild card in another, and that frightened her. The welfare of her ponies depended on the actions of this enigmatic god.

He looked back at her steadily, thoughts hiding behind his vibrant gaze. She was, admittedly, a bit nervous to know them. Something about him always struck her as malicious, and it was a quality he did not quite shed in whatever he did. Was it any wonder she took her ponies' concerns over him so seriously? He was raven among the little sparrows that were her ponies, a pariah, and a threat to them. Celestia supposed that if a comparison of birds were to be continued, she would be the swan to Sombra's raven, protecting those plain little sparrows like a dragon did their hoard. Sometimes, she knew she could certainly be as mean as one. But she always did wish that she was only 'mean' — if that was really the best descriptor — out of necessity, seeing the extent of what the crown and princess could demand of her.

All the stories I hear from my little birdies about how loving you are will never fool me, she thought. The canary that was Cadance and the unfortunate duckling that was Luna had much to say on his behalf. Cadance even tried to play all sides in games that demanded the reality of sticking with one, mediating between Twilight, Sombra, Luna, and others. Luna spoke of feeling cared for and having an unprecedented love in her life, but Celestia nodded along to those things. She had the wisdom of knowing nothing like Sombra, be it his deeds or schizoid temperament, was compatible with the very concept of love.

"Every aspect of life as a ruler you must earn. Your place giving consul to my sister and me, as well as us to you will not likely be easy."

"I never would have guessed," he drawled, aura flicking a lock of his bangs out of his face. He showed only apathy when it fell back into place, but that could also only be because it was all she could discern; his eyes never left her. Celestia had no more words to say. She discreetly bit the inside of her cheek, and no words sprung to mind still.

"That is all, you may rise."

Sombra had to make a show of the permission he was given, and made a sound between a small scoff and an amused snort of some kind in the back of his throat before he rose.

Finally shaping her magic, Celestia picked up a hefty chunk of the paperwork from the piles on her desk and made sure to give them a double check via passing glance that they were the stack she needed. A single softened clearing of her throat and flick of her feather-tips later, Sombra stood up. His eyes were elsewhere for once, and his horn softly pulsing with the ghostly glint of crimson aura, each movement of the light only accenting his curiosity.

There was something always just the slightest bit unsettling about him when he was silent. Celestia's gold aura flared a little, the light rising with her headache as she hurriedly passed him the stack of papers. His aura encircled them wordlessly. Even if no winter tufts adorned them, two gray ears poked out above the mighty amount of paperwork he had just been saddled with.

She bit her lip, thoughts and gaze straying to the vase of bright yellow flowers still upon her desk. Would she really do this?

"Do you have anything else you feel the need to discuss with me before I dismiss you?" she asked, voice restrained and clear. It sounded far surer than she felt, and was more polite.

The part of her that had urged 'just a little bit longer' throughout this exchange was now all too eager for Sombra to leave.

Paperwork could be in disarray and utterly ruin all Celestia wished to compare to flowers. She was careful to levitate the vase as delicately as possible, like a young filly who had just learned to master magic... or with the control of somepony who did not nearly trust their power. Her headache might as well have leaped at that, eliciting the barest beginnings of a gasp from her. Flowers were reminders of what she could do.

Everypony was a flower. She was fire, warming them from a distance and managing them with care. No flower bloomed close to the sun. Even those that turned to face her sun had to be far away to thrive...

"I do," came Sombra's interruption from behind those papers, his voice still distinct, "and I've been thinking on it for a while."

With pragmatic movements of his telekinesis, Sombra set his papers down on the floor. The floor. A frown tugged at Celestia's lips. She looked at those papers instead of him. "Tell me, then."

"Do you remember what one of the first things I said to you was, when you learned that Luna and I were partners?"

Celestia didn't need to know what he said. There were a few things he could be referring to, but she did not like where this conversation was heading. Her headache didn't either. Though, at this point, it might be nearing a hornache, and a physician would have to be hearing about it, depending on how that developed. "I think we both know that you will need to be more specific. You and I had quite a bit to chat about."

His deadpan stare was unwavering. "If you mean we insulted one other with increasing savagery and decreasing maturity with every attempt to push the other down, content only for me to provoke you, and you to belittle me — then yes. We certainly had plenty to 'chat' about. I was hardly at my best then, even if I was relentless and, admittedly, felt like I was at the top of the world... but only at the time." With what had to be a degree of faux shame, Sombra laid his ears down and looked at his hooves.

"Mhm, yes," Celestia said, keeping her voice light, "that was quite the discussion, having to hear you bloat your own ego and imply my sister was only your carnal pawn... and just as I had even begun to consider she ensured no harm on her journey! It is quite clear that you would have little problem with objectifying her then, and that—"

"Stop it," Sombra growled firmly, tail lashing. The edges of it were curling with traces of shadow as he kept himself from transitioning to shadow with... well, Celestia supposed it was an effort. "Right here, and right now it's you who is making me sound so much worse than I am. Did I go for low blows? Yes, I did. Should I ever have involved Luna in them? No. I understand that she got put through more than one awkward conversation because of how you took what was little more than a cruel joke from me..." making a sound somewhere between a growl and a frustrated sigh, Sombra brought a forehoof to his face, "...and you know how much I deceive you. You took what was said at face value, without a thought to thinking about how tricky I can be, even though I barely have those desires. When have I ever shown that I treat others that way? So, part of me is certainly thinking about whether that says you'll do nearly anything to make me the guilty party in anything or if you really trust Luna that little—"

"Enough," Celestia said, unable to keep her tone free from the sternness that marked how she spoke toward any enemy, one that was so stark from how her ponies spoke of her as their goddess-matriarch. It fueled the side of her that her subjects held as the Unconquered Sun.

And it was at times like these, when her tail began to flick just so with impatience she couldn't help but show somepony like Sombra, that she was the Unconquered Sun, even in tone only. Even when this impatience was something she hated and felt so unlike her. Part of her that she had been trying so hard to sweep under the rug just enough always felt like it was slithering back out when these things happened, where it would whisper how justified she was doing treating Luna's precious murderer like this. They floated up amid the sea of doubts, mundane reminders, and whatever other little whispers were all caught up in the hurricane in her head, behind her practiced smile.

But Sombra did stop — or rather, he stopped all but that red-hot gaze that tried to pierce her like iron-seared flesh. She looked at his gift of flowers instead. She had to. "Just what is it that you really want to say? You're not the only one with work to do. I do really wish to be spending my time with somepony a little less prone to digging up past slights of no importance in an attempt to irritate me."

"That's not what I aimed for," he said, voice quieter and steady, with a calculating, measured edge buried somewhere in it, "and I'm certain we both know that."

"I see," she murmured, voice clear of the rather overwhelming disinterest she felt within. Century after century of practiced smiles, perfect waves, and words clipped of truth and other things were a recipe for that, she supposed.

"I'm telling you this because I want you to know that I'm... almost sorry."

Celestia was simply thankful she wasn't drinking anything, or she would have to spit it out against all her better instinct, manners, and simple decency she had practically poured all over herself like syrup on pancakes. How was it that one could be 'almost sorry'? It simply did not make any sense. Sombra had a habit of doing that. Luna looked at him like his every movement was the key to the simplest code, and that emotions could be gleaned from somepony whose expressions consisted mostly of looking bored, aloof, or irritated.

Really, he was prime husband material, for anypony who wanted an atrocious, glowering reverse hen-pecker. The way he looked at her indicated that he could, and likely would, explain himself. Against what she felt could only be her better judgment, she let him.

"I regret that I went for low blows. I don't regret hurting you with anything I said, for one reason and one reason alone. Why?" He shot her a sharp look. "I knew you meant every word of what you said to me. I can't be wholly sorry when I know you aren't."

She offered no response beyond watching him calmly. Confirmation was a bit of a waste on beings like him. Really, the sooner he got to work, the better. If only he were as mechanical as a construct and not an unruly demon.

"Apologizing to me right here, right now, with the only requirement being its sincerity, and regardless of how little I give out apologies, I will make this time an exception. If we can both offer the other an apology for one utterly stupid thing we did, then maybe we can work towards being a bit more bearable in the other's company."

The princess blinked with just a touch of surprise. "...Are you suggesting that you will swallow your pride to acknowledge at least one of your wrongdoings?" Horn lighting as he began to gather all he had placed aside, Sombra gave made a sound too bitter for Celestia to consider a laugh, a sardonic gleam in those red eyes.

"Hardly! If we're to bring my pride into this at all, then I'm doing the opposite. My pride dictates I learn from my mistakes, so here I am, offering you a deal, if you want to call it that... I'm not very good at apologizing myself. Dammit, I'm trying."

I'm to assume that is all out of the sincerity of his demon heart, then? Celestia's brow creased ever so slightly. Do demons even have hearts? I know he bleeds, but... I suppose the semantics aren't worth it. And such morbid ones are really left best unthought of...

Expression collected and calm, the princess found herself in every inch of Sombra's presentation. He lingered about with something in his eyes that said he'd rather be elsewhere — that she could see. But was it only because he let her?

One foreleg raised, one golden shoe pointed, and one horn lit with soft golden magic. One door opened. Sombra's left eye twitched, no doubt in irritation.

The glow of his aura grew brighter, glowing a more sinister crimson briefly, though he was only using telekinesis.

Glancing at him briefly, Celestia was unsure if there was a spark in his eyes too. He was already in a foul enough mood that such a thing could be her imagination as well, and she thought little of it. She smiled at Sombra. A big, kind smile. Certainly not an earnest one. "The door is that way, in case this little display is causing you to see a little too much red. Please depart, since I have plenty of work to do." She even waved.

Sombra broke his intense hot-iron stare and stormed out brusquely, carrying everything with him. Oh, and the terribly moody way he slammed the door. Hadn't he been trying to convince her that he was sorry?

Celestia pursed her lips, leaning forward to listen to him leave. The sound of hoofsteps storming away from her little office was delightful! Finally, she let out a relieved gasp, rocking back and forth on the tips of her hooves with all the momentary excitement that was quickly vanishing.

...What if she had accepted his apology? nagged an unwanted whisper, too innocent to last, to be trusted... it faded easily, leaving just a little echo.

What if...?

What if...?

One headache tightened its hold on her.

One smile slipped away behind closed doors, and Princess Celestia swallowed sharply.

One day had begun.

Chapter 5: Husband of Hers, Part 2

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If the princess could speak any desire for the life she envisioned and labored for both her ponies, there was only one phrase she could think of, to sum up the core of it all.

That was 'back to normalcy'.

Every bit of her was desperate for it, with a numbed yearning she didn't dare dissect too much. It was something other than peace or solace, beyond victory and above happiness, was it not? No fear, no worry, no surprises. Just one normal day, one normal night, and then another. All would be well. Always. Even the antics of Dissy had a type of charming normalcy to them, and held something to look forward to with their outrageous silliness. How could she not have any adoration for silly, innocent antics? To laugh and be merry?

(She certainly thought she was merry. She did not doubt this. Not at all. And really, might even just a little doubt, were she to have any, be natural? Purely, hypothetically, that is...)

But the latest private ills that she felt boding about her did not feel normal. Still, they ought to all be quite natural. A headache when frustrating things (or individuals) that sprung and lingered after they left certainly wasn't unusual to her. And really, it wasn't as if she needed to be worrying about that on its own. Maybe she ate just a little more, but the straw didn't really break the camel's back (how morbid!) any more than an extra piece of toast for breakfast ruined her figure. Yet, she had never minded an extra helping of comfort foods here or there. So how was that such a horrible thing?

It simply wasn't.

So headaches were no problem, either. Her eating was fine. She was not unfit. So what if her stomach felt a sort of sour grip of... a malaise (one that was obviously wholly unjustified) at some of the truly strangest times? Or some nights she just... missed a little bit of sleep? There was always the beckon of another letter, a warm cup of tea, paperwork that needed sorting, and some other bit of work. And then another bit... or perhaps a bit more. And then there were the nights she slept without disturbance, hiding her head away under blankets, pillows, and the tail of a faithful boyfriend in order to hold back the dawn for just a bit longer, for the eldest princess was no morning pony.

She was fine. Healthy. It wasn't as though she could blame this all on the prince.

(She might've liked to.)

(Maybe just a bit too much.)

(It made her feel better, and oh goodness did it make so much sense.)

(And in the end, didn't everypony?)

(He could claim no innocence.)

Six months of peculiar, fickle feelings of on-and-off uneasiness had come to no fruition. Carefully and kindly asking a guard to look a certain way to glimpse any of Sombra's activities had not yielded much, and that should have made her worry less, shouldn't it have?

She could only describe what more of his habits she had learned of as thus:

Sombra liked to be inside and outside in his spare time, so long as he was away from ponies, for the most part. He had an odd fondness for foalsitting the Crystal Heir whenever she visited. He liked to go on dates with Luna whenever he could manage. Any time he could spend not doing royal duties appeared to be his favorite (and again, how hard it was to tell!) and was often spent with Celestia's daughter. He quickly became the most notable inhabitant of any of the castle's many archives. She never knew exactly what he was looking for, and Luna did not keep track of his browsing habits either strictly or at all — not unless she was curious or thought he needed help, she had said.

(Yes, inhabitant, he was there that often, and somehow still managed to spend time with his wife... how, exactly?)

...He was a hard worker. And productive. He communicated problems easily, but Celestia hated how he communicated.

He actually tried.

Maybe that's what worried Celestia. (Other than the fact that his coffee intake was rather alarming, and there was something twitchy about him once he had had enough of it. Though, his tastes there weren't as evil as the rest of him. That was bearable.)

...Bearable. Sombra.

Celestia bit her lip and took a shaky breath, trying to keep her smile calm. It was a good-afternoon smile, because only a few short moments ago, one of the maids — and her friend — Flighty Feather had just passed, and Celestia had said hello.

In six months, Sombra hadn't done anything that was... inherently wrong, Celestia supposed. But really, he obviously couldn't have done too much right. Within that time, he picked up his paperwork late twice, only ever made non-verbal greetings, made zero friends, proved himself incapable of distinguishing a dessert spoon from a soup spoon, snuck up on her nine times, and accused poor, poor Philomena of almost attacking him.

And even after having to have this stallion appear in her office as part of her routine, as part of her schedule as much as long shadows were part of noon, Celestia honestly knew any more about him than she did before. The most absolute and undeniable thing that could be said about Sombra by anypony was that he sometimes wore his mane differently, oh, and that nearly everywhere he went he had a notebook. It was rarely the same notebook twice, too, but each volume tended to be standard faux leather, neither slim nor thick, and he wrote in them both furiously and casually with every chance he had. Every day. They were pragmatic, no-nonsense volumes that still seemed more elegant than their owner.

As little bureaucracy as there was when it came to the chain of ponies (really, 'princesses' would be more accurate) that made all the decisions in Equestria, it was still incredibly awkward when Sombra proved he was capable of sitting through private meetings among his royal peers. Even Raven had never attended one, nor had any secretary before her, and Celestia would have rather had her there instead. Now, he essentially took the place of Cadance, and maybe that was one change Celestia wasn't eager for. In so little time she had gone from being a monarch to having a small herd of royalty from multiple generations with vastly different opinions on almost everything (she had to hold it all together with a smile), a vast new northern colony, and yet another generation of high-born foals... and maybe more to come.

Sombra still wrote non-stop in one of his numerous notebooks at such meetings, eyeing everpony and sitting stoically by the side of Luna or on his own. His words could not impact the kingdom, but he did speak up sometimes. Surprisingly, he proved to be the quietest member of the little congregation, once again taking on a role that was formerly Cadance's, and Twilight ended up being his vocal counterpart. The stoic stallion certainly did have... opinions... if she were to put things a touch lightly, on those rare occasions. He had never even been that angry, nor disorganized or rude. Blunt, yes, and to Celestia that was just the same as any vulgarity. She still preferred these encounters to the meetings with the rest of the world's gods at the divine Pantheon. They had opinions on Equestria that were not to be trusted, and their politics were to devoid of mortal wants and norms, as well as history as she knew it.

Luna, thankfully, was skillful at managing him. Sombra and Twilight Sparkle (and by extension, Cadance and Shining Armor) all had one thing in common, and that was that neither had any real experience with ruling... which was certainly odd, considering Sombra's past position. While Twilight's regular correspondence with Celestia helped her peer-mentor the younger mare in the art of princesshood, Luna had a way with Sombra that enabled her to mentor her partner when she could. Other times, Celestia had to deal with the silly Prince of Paperwork. He was undesirable as a student. Though he never interrupted her, he asked questions frequently, had a hooves-on approach that frustrated her, and tried to discuss her tersely given 'lessons' with her as though they were equal beings. That was unacceptable — almost as much as his disturbing magic and dark powers.

Celestia's many mental reminders of the day still in progress were both a blessing and a burden, urging her to make haste and quicken her pace, even if her speed was just fine. The halls of the castle felt like blinders urging her to an inevitable horror: Sombra's study. It was the mysterious room he had taken such loathsome pride in establishing as his own, furnishing, and working out of the section that brought back a now-soured memory to Celestia.

It had been a vast art studio, ages ago, belonging to one of her old lovers, but was far removed from the Solar Wing. It was old, forsaken, and the only room available to Sombra (because she said so). She had little idea what he had done with it, only that he used his own bits to shape it as he pleased. Today would be the first time Celestia had given the once-grand studio more than a glance, but she still knew that if her dear Dapple Daub knew a demon was occupying the studio she gifted him, he would be heartbroken and outraged. Whatever fury Celestia couldn't seem to dredge up was occupied instead by a heavy sense of uncaring, an apathy that pained her, and the overwhelming and familiar princess urgency to work.

But Celestia couldn't blink away an old face that she had long ago gotten over the absence of. She always did. Daub would be disappointed, certainly. Yet, it was greater things that mattered. She didn't want Sombra in his studio, yes, but she didn't want Sombra in Canterlot at all.

Such a great wave of disappointment swept over herself that she couldn't stop herself from pausing just a bit to passively wait out the strange gloom. Her wings drooped a bit and her ears pricked forward only because she had allowed them to.

The corners of her mouth hurt. Had she really been smiling that long?

For exactly fifteen dreadfully long seconds that she chided herself for wasting, Celestia stood alone listening to what was little else than the rippling of her own mane.

Maybe she was a silly mare, because she clogged up a thousand years of utter hopelessness — for she always knew the silly fancy was an unrealistic, cruel waste — with wishing and air-headed whims for a family once again. Wishes were things that needed no commitment, ambition, or disclosure, so perhaps they were perfect. Like motes of dust, they were barely there. She could make mountains of them with no impact on anypony, couldn't she? She trusted that they would eventually vanish, and they did, making wishes the inverse of regrets.

And for that she was thankful.

'Family' had an unclear meaning even to her in those times. She had never wanted any children, but adored teaching those not her own. She entertained the affections of many stallions, and called ten her lover in that course of time, but never married. She still was happy enough and found herself content, though loneliness left scars. For so long, she never thought she would have Luna back...

As the silence pressed down on Celestia uncomfortably, she knew that the worst part about her wish might have been that it came true, in ways both terrible and wonderful.

Swallowing, she hurried down the hall. Sombra had to be paid a visit, since nopony else would be there to explain to Sombra what it meant to be in the royal portrait. The likeness of that portrait was copied and distributed throughout Equestria, in every mayor's hall, courthouse, and bank. The image of her and Luna... and now Sombra, too. He had to be instructed in what was proper and alerted of expectations, something that fell squarely upon her withers.

...

The large door that led to Sombra's study was just like most in the castle, and yet Celestia hesitated anyway. She knew nothing of what Sombra did with Daub's old studio, with its large, panel-like windows, and sunny interior. She wasn't quite sure she wanted to. Stepping in there after so many years suddenly felt unexpected and personal, when she had never treated the room as such. It would not make entering this now-changed room any less different than entering an unknown country. She was a touch scared, deep down.

Celestia swallowed gracefully. Her hoof was hovering in mid-air, unwilling to knock.

She felt atypical unease in her stomach. She had to talk to Sombra. It was duty, it was an expectation, and those were two things she did with little difficulty. Those two words formed something of a mantra, just like many of the whispers stuck in her never-quiet skull.

Duty. Expectation. Normalcy. Modesty. Kindness. Morality. Ivory. Ebony. Absolute. Liar. Greater Good.

Click, click, click...

That was their melody, and those many regulations her gears. They spun about day and night, dictating she lowered herself. That she was a machine, and it was the only mental kindness she was willing to allow herself. If she could just remind herself of what such things stood for, everything could be okay, and it had been for a long time. Not primarily for her, but for everypony.

Sombra was... a complication.

If Celestia were to adhere to any simplicity in this moment of swaying hesitance, to try to feel like she was not floating about when she was very clearly in a hallway, anchored to her own body, it would be that even her ears, which she fought to keep perked up and not folded with that bitter unease, heard no sound but the soft thumps of her heart: all a clear indication that Sombra had used his magic to soundproof his study.

It wasn't like he needed it for anything... did he?

Was she swallowing again? No, she wasn't. She shouldn't be.

She quite literally did not immediately realize that the door had been opened for her until Sombra was staring right back at her.

Celestia hoped the hint of a smile on her face was not a nervous one, though it was only done out of instinct.

"Hello," she offered quickly, eagerly grabbing onto the chance to bring any normal start to this dreaded interaction.

Sombra eyed her grumpily. "Hello yourself," he finally mumbled, after taking a long sip from the coffee mug he clutched within his magic.

Of course, his tone had to be unfriendly still. Of course, the coffee mug had his face on it.

Celestia eyed it with disdain. Sombra's tired eyes followed her gaze to the offensive object. "It's only my smug mug, why it has to be a problem to you is beyond me. I imagine you wouldn't bother me unless you absolutely felt you had to."

"That would be correct," she said, watching Sombra's aura wind around the end of his long, loose side-braid. He twirled it thoughtfully and how his possibly-brushed bangs spilled over his face, making the morning's dark circles under his eyes look even darker.

Sombra shrugged, gulping down more hot coffee with ease. He lounged in the half-revealed doorway of his study, circlet sitting crooked on his head as the epitome of utter nonchalance. His usual cloak had been shifted into some kind of new guise, that of a long crimson housecoat or robe — the form was too general to place. It only just revealed the legs of his pale green-striped pajama pants and the large, loose shirt, which boasted the big text of 'PRETTY TIRED' spelled out entirely in rhinestones.

Celestia didn't really know what to say about knowing Sombra bought his sleepwear at Canterlot Carousel. There was really only so much she cared to take in about him, and that included his oddly feminine qualities. There was no way she could explain them, aside from the fact that in any other stallion, she would take it as an indication of... romantic unavailability, or mixed preferences. However, Celestia was certain that Sombra was too antiquated to know what those cues meant, and he was certainly too judgmental to not be prejudiced. (In other words, how Cadance tolerated him, she was unsure, and Blueblood certainly had to be protected from him.) Wearing what Celestia was quite certain was oversized mare's pajama tops didn't erase that.

He stopped toying with his mane as a schoolfilly would, and looked her up and down, kicking an unshod hoof at the castle's fine tiles with casual, but not forceful frustration. "Do you want to get whatever this is over with quicker?"

Celestia bit the edge of her lip and sighed. "Yes, that would be lovely."

Another gulp of coffee. "Fine, then come in. Just don't touch anything." He gave her a withering look and turned around. His robe — yes, she decided it was a simple robe — flared behind him with a moody, dramatic air. It seemed he'd already mastered that royal quirk.

Celestia was glad she faced his back so he would not see her swallow. Then, she forced herself to take one step forward and enter the monster's lair.

...

The door closed behind Celestia and she shivered. Sombra was already fairly at ease in his own expansive study, walking further into the room. The princess, however, stood close to the door, meditating upon the decision to leave, for the room had changed.

To her far left was what had once been a wall of glass — large windows that stretched from the floor and nearly reached the ceiling, all to let in the most of her sunlight. They were once the envy of any artist, and now only shafts of sunlight made their way through, illuminating motes of dust that swirled about them. It was the only golden light in the room, and it came through the thick, dark curtains that now obscured nearly every glimpse of glass. And between shadows and the slightest flicker of her sunlight lingering was the sinister red glow that cast peculiar shadows across every surface: the pale walls, the royal purple carpet, Sombra himself, and her own ivory coat. Above her head, clustered and floating near the dome of the ceiling was a foggy, shimmering mass of red aura, slowly turning in on itself and drifting about. There was no need to doubt that the magic simply sitting there and pulsing like a silent heartbeat was Sombra's doing.

Her heart pounded a little faster. There was always that one sorcerer, one who sought to chip a status quo and centuries of tradition that needed no damage, who saw no need to tuck away and restrain their power, their talent. It was not even a modesty issue, but Celestia supposed that could play a part in such things. What it was an issue of was how it was flaunted and woven into every aspect of life, how personal it was to liberally extend enchantment so. Magic was a part of life, but Celestia need not be reminded so.

She had Luna, who honed enchantments great and small and debated spellcraft with ease, much like the sour old stallions who called themselves mages in centuries past had, and she held an equally ancient temperament. How that was appealing, Celestia did not know, but she did know that the natural power Luna wanted to master instead of ignore was frightening.

Her thoughts need only drift to the moon resting below the horizon for the ultimate reminder of her daughter's magical capabilities. With draconequui, at least the magic had something childlike about it. There was something so innocent about a conjured bunch of sweet flowers that lightning, runes, and spell tomes did not have. Cotton candy had a sweet whimsy and a sweeter taste.

Sombra tilted his head back to give one long look to the aura, lighting his horn and pulling something from the mysterious, misty depths: a scroll. Giving the thing a quick look, Celestia could now glimpse the dark blurs that were the shifting shadows of objects among its depths. He appeared to be scanning it before guiding the aura down, what was concentrated on his horn flared more brightly for a moment before the scroll was returned to its unnatural storage.

No painting, however faded the old things would've been, hung on the walls. Instead, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stuffed with a wide array of volumes were installed. Most were bound with fake leather, as true leather was illegal, and had their titles printed with gold leaf that shone with preservation enchantments that gave the spines and covers an unworn look. Nearly every space was crammed with row after row of these books, some of which were visibly secondhoof and had seen better days. Any variety of tome found its way onto Sombra's endless shelves, and Celestia felt as though she stood at the heart of a labyrinth of knowledge.

Cold air touched her coat, making her feel small as it worked its way under her pale hair, and seemed to stroke her mind like a fog. Must he always keep it so chilly within this chamber?

With disguised reluctance, Celestia cautiously slunk forward, her steps kept careful. She saw Sombra levitate a few volumes, their thick pages stuffed with notes and bookmarks. He tried to find their home among this vast and strangely dignified space. He looked from shelf to shelf, to find the exceptions where everything was packed tightly. Eventually, he found such spots amid makeshift bookends in the form of globes, crystal artifacts, and other instruments heavy enough in weight to manage such a task of keeping them from falling over, but small enough in size to fit where Sombra pleased.

Celestia tried to busy herself by lowering her eyes to the earthy-colored whorls of the thick carpet. It was a habit she broke long ago. Yet, when the stallion before her struck her so like Starswirl with his foul disposition, regardless of whatever differences they might have, she thought it would be best to behave so; it might make things easier to endure.

Sombra proved to be quite agile with the glimpses she caught of him and how his shadow moved — even as he rushed about, there was a skill to it. Still, that was probably to be expected from a warrior. With her daughter's status as an Alicorn taken out of consideration, Luna was still frighteningly nimble in ways that many of the dafter (of course Celestia would never say this) and common among the Royal Guard would think to be unnatural. Celestia never corrected them, even if such thinking was technically backward.

The sound of file cabinets of metal and fine, heavy wood slammed as Sombra withdrew a folder from here, a stack of papers from this one. The princess kept her expression serene and acted as though some fascination might be found with the garbage can nearby as the sound filled her ears. The pragmatic metal can was uncovered, and before she had even slowly stepped toward it, she could smell some of the contents already. There was the scent of spearmint, many used coffee grounds, an inky odor, and a mixture of foodstuffs — salad dressing, hayburger wrappers, and even more recent ones. Celestia peered deeper into the trash can and tried to block out everything that wasn't the astounding sight of leftover falafel and avocado pits.

"If you plan to eat out of my garbage, please, don't let me stop you. Though, I thought you might want something else instead."

Keeping her facade calm, the princess turned so that she looked upon the insolent little royal. She never called him anything that wasn't true herself, though he was all the fuel any rumor mill could ever desire on legs. However, certain complaints from her neighbors always proved to be bothersome. Her cousin Neptune had seen her at some of her worst manners in letters she wrote in fits of anger before she had any knowledge of Luna and Sombra... as a couple. She was desperate, yes, and hardly proud of what she wrote, but Neptune seemed to reflect upon her words. He thought of Sombra as a beast of some sort, and that his relationship with Luna was hardly different from the crime of zoophilia (Celestia felt she must disagree there, for she would have never let Luna near him if she thought that was their bond). Neptune enjoyed referring to Sombra as a 'runt' and 'small god' because of his differences from the other divine, and because he no doubt enjoyed thinking the monster to be non-sapient.

She did not totally disagree with some of his jeers, and now she looked at Sombra, wishing that a few more of them might be true. He held a pile of folders and a few volumes of books in a stack that nearly obscured his face. A non-sapient would not do that, would they? His ears flicked and perked forward while his horn still glowed, cramming papers into place and trying to rein in a book that was attempting to fly away.

The princess' eyes found the noisy ensorcelled object easily. How could they not? The faint glow of crimson clung to the pages and covers, which were opened and flapping wildly like the wings of a bird. Sombra eyed the peculiar distraction with annoyance as his own magic, and pulled the literally flighty book back into place. His telekinesis snapped it shut and the strange runes on the cover ceased their bright scarlet glow. They settled instead on a soft pulse that one would not recognize unless they eyed the cover carefully, for the outline was not clear, even from where she was.

She ducked her eyes away again, trying to shake the sight of the eldritch alphabet, the one that matched none she knew and looked positively nefarious. Had he cursed his books?

"That one," Sombra grumbled, his tone nearly scolding the object, "has proved to be a bit troublesome. The enchantment is only supposed to activate remotely if hostile magic is around. A whole shelf of them will flutter somewhere else in this great cacophony like a flock of bloody pigeons. I didn't get the work quite right on this one."

She said nothing as he fitted the stack of papers, folders, and books on the surface of a heavy work table of dark oak, the corners and surface not free from a touch of Canterlotian carvings. His rude silence was counted silently within her mind as she watched his magic ignite once more, to shuffle more papers stained with coffee rings, inkwells, mane ties, arcane diagrams, mugs in various states of coffee depletion, paper clips, and book after book away from his latest tower.

Once contact was made with the new supplies, some of the enchanted tomes revealed they too had glowing runes and became enveloped with remote enchantments. They flapped their pages to the nearest free location. Some of them even 'perched' on äerint — yes, that's what he called the unnatural crystalline substance his dark magic made — clusters that spiraled up the decorative columns of the room, clinging to the fine material of the castle.

"Would you like some coffee?" Sombra asked, brushing a bit of dust off his robe with a flicker of aura.

"Yes, please. Coffee would be nice. I trust you have sugar too?" She looked calmly towards the kitchenette Sombra had established for himself.

Everything was tucked towards a sitting area, where a dark coffee table was surrounded by two large, sturdy chairs that looked surprisingly comfortable; Celestia recognized them as what the minotaurs called armchairs. Behind them, the thick curtain could be pulled away more easily and sunlight could actually be let in. This created a fine reading area that had a view overlooking Canterlot's mountain dropoff and straight into the wilds of Equestria spread in every direction without limit. An unused firefly lantern rested among a few thick, unlabeled books on the low table.

For Celestia, it was a bit of an overwhelming thing. All of this was in such contrast with the small food preparation area, coffee maker, and miniature icebox that were pushed into a small, tidy corner from the rest of the vast room's erudite and solitary atmosphere.

Sombra's muzzle crinkled slightly. "I don't have any sugar. It will be black coffee or no coffee for you. Just sit down and I can figure something out," he finished with a dismissive wave of his forehoof before trotting over to his tiny kitchenette, as though the soft, frosty pulse of the cooling runes on his ice box called him there.

Celestia felt herself frown. "You don't have any sugar?"

"No." His muttering rose above the sound of him levitating objects once more.

"Do you have any sugar substitutes?"

"No." There was the burble of a coffee maker responding to Sombra's magic.

"...Any creamer?" she tried.

"No." He wouldn't even look at her when he was talking, instead busying himself with preparations. Some host he was.

"At least tell me that you have a little bit of milk."

Sombra finally gave her a quick look. "I have soy milk. That will have to do."

Celestia nodded, and trotted over to one of the chairs, past Sombra's book-laden work tables. Thank goodness he had something normal in here. "Can I let in some light?"

"You can sit down and wait for a few moments, can't you?" he groused.

Celestia sank into a chair quietly and sighed softly. "I merely wish to alleviate this sour atmosphere."

"Listen," he called from the kitchenette, sounding a touch exasperated, "I have no need to. Stop acting like a spoiled child just because I don't want to be distracted by the temptation that is sunbeams, and refused an unneeded request. Even Skyla is more patient than this when I let her in here, and no, I'm not bribing you with fruit snacks to keep quiet as I do with her. If you're eager to see whatever airship is flying by, you'll have to miss them for now. Read a book instead."

Celestia lowered her ears and relented, suppressing her only complaints as she levitated one of the thick books to her. She flipped open the cover and expected some magical texts that would have her asleep within a few moments, and that the contents were most likely just the arcane discussion sections that took up half of every Canterlot newspaper, or some sorcerer-professors' essays from the latest newsletters. The chill of his study was also doing Celestia's urge to nap no favors.

Instead, Celestia was greeted with the crooked, clumsy photograph of a stallion's startling red eyes, and the endless intrigue that stared back at her. Confusion at the nature of the device was there too, probably because the sharp flash of whatever camera this was taken with had caught Sombra in a moment of wild-eyed shock. What really drew Celestia into the sight of this startling photograph was the reflection that managed to reveal a partial glimpse of stars and sand dunes.

The date scribbled beneath it was recent enough, making the photo only around four years old.

Chills still ran throughout Celestia upon glancing back, but enough of her was intrigued enough to keep flipping through the pages, past the single introductory photograph.

There were only so many clues as to who took all the photographs. The clumsy grip of a toddler securing a shot of familiar metal boots towards the end was clear. Some were clearly taken by Luna, Cadance, and Shining Armor. Stray curls of Cadance's windswept mane were the giveaway for hers, but dozens of these photographs were taken by Sombra or complete strangers. Only a look of recognition in Sombra's eye made it clear that he knew them enough to take pictures of himself undisguised, or that something about them meant they would not speak of his identity.

There were dozens of photos of Sombra, clearly taken by himself, flashing smug smiles, arranging his mane just so, staring aloofly into the camera, and even caught mid-laugh towards something that was never said. Among those were haunting pictures with locations that were more distinct than most ordinary abandoned buildings. These were followed by images of train tracks stretching off into the unknown, or a meadow that could be anywhere in Equestria, dotted with vivid wildflowers. There was Sombra and Cadance standing in front of a graffiti-covered wall in what had to be Manehatten. While Sombra rolled his eyes grumpily, Cadance grinned broadly at something he must have said.

She saw a picture of Sombra, with his back to the viewer, in a windswept trench coat as he stood on the deck of an airship, looking to Celestia like the loneliest creature in the world as he stared up at distant ships in the sky. That one had to be taken by Luna. He smiled in some, and that was startling. An image of Sombra with an almost bashful half-smile was an odd sight to her, though the softer look in his eyes as he watched Luna feather-comb locks of his mane wasn't entirely new to her. She never thought much of it though, and Luna had a habit of doing such things regardless of who was around.

Another had Sombra and Luna in some green space — a lush Canterlot park, the mountain, or a spot on a neighboring peak — with their backs toward Cadance. Celestia knew her to be the photographer by the sight of a telltale curl, and Luna's wing wrapped around Sombra as she pulled him close. Sombra scowled when Luna eagerly took pineapple from a slice of pizza he was just about to bite into, his eyes on her all the while, but he never stopped her. Celestia thought that he would desire to hurt any who stole from him, and why would a spouse be any different?

There was another curious image Luna had taken, because the way Sombra looked past the camera made it clear Luna was the only one who could be the photographer, that, and how the horizon was as crooked as Sombra's roguish smile. There was a cut on his cheek, and a scrape here and there where his cloak allowed it to show, with something brash and distinctly young in his eyes as sweat showed beneath his mane. There was a sword behind Sombra stuck into the springy soil beside him so he could lean against it. Magic aura in a storm of colors somewhere between scarlet and his dark aura was still crackling on his horn and touched the hilt of the sword.

That was how Sombra found her too, looking intently at the many photographs stored within such plain-looking albums.

He wordlessly tugged the book from her grip and set it down so that the coffee tray could be set atop it. But he didn't look offended. Enigmatic and relaxed, yes, but not offended.

"Thank you," Celestia said the automatic words as she folded her wings behind her and brought the coffee to her muzzle where she could blow on the steam with ease.

She nearly choked on her breath when she saw the mug that she had been given. The design flickered and changed like any properly done illusion of its nature, but the design was still clear. She had become used to seeing it stamped into wax: the Eye of Fire, Sombra's chosen seal.

As quickly as she could, she recovered and composed herself. "Why are you watching me so intently?"

From where Sombra had sprawled himself across the other chair like some glamorous model, an eyebrow was arched in unspoken acknowledgment. "You shouldn't be thanking me for things unless you mean it. To do otherwise is foolish, and irritating too."

He looked her over again, trying to find something she didn't know of. "Unless, of course, you aim to be insincere to me."

Wasn't she usually? To most ponies, at least? But it was really only at certain times. Truly.

Why should he be any different?

"Ah, so that would be why the only thing you have only thanked me for was helping with your wedding?" Her tone was tranquil, but her words were not meant to be.

"Pretty much," Sombra said with a shrug. He gulped down some more coffee from his own 'smug mug', watching her with a relaxed, quiet demeanor. To Celestia, it was odd. Too odd. "I do a lot of things, but I won't lie to you. I don't have much of a reason to."

She did believe that for a minute. Nothing he said did him any favors, and soy milk certainly wasn't doing her coffee any, either. It just didn't taste quite right.

"I see."

Sombra slumped back into his chair, staring up at the dome of the ceiling and the magic there, watching it move with an almost worried look on his face. "You're never going to believe anything I say, and... I'm not entirely surprised. For what it's worth, I know that sometimes I'm terrible."

She pretended her coffee was still warm when she drank it, and tried not to think of Twilight Sparkle. Instinct, however, won in the end. "Are you sorry for how you have treated Twilight Sparkle at any point in her life?"

His eyes drifted over toward her, absent of anything smug, but no more readable than before. "No. That is something I can't say I have remorse for. Still, I'm no more perfect than you." He laughed, but not happily. "There's certainly a side to me that I'm not terribly proud of, but it's me all the same. I could never loathe myself, and I would break my own heart if I did. My regrets are few... and personal; I try to live without them. Do you think I don't notice how quiet you've been today? Has something happened?"

Celestia looked at the stack of papers and books he had arranged. They still sat on one of his worktables, or at least, one of the ones that were not cluttered with tools and restored Old World crystal projectors (Celestia wasn't sure she wanted to know what he went through to get such relics). They were displaying sights not seen by any common creature in ages: light maps, not unlike the Old World map crystal she had of the Crystal Empire, showing off designs for thaumic engines far exceeding anything in the present, airships with models out of stories from Celestia's early foalhood, magical readings too far away to be clearly legible, and other things that made a feeling of cold unease spread through Celestia's stomach. Suddenly, Sombra's study was feeling quite toasty.

"No, I'm here to discuss something that has come up with you. I'm not certain why you assumed you would need that." She gestured with a foreleg to the materials he gathered.

Sombra blinked, clearing most of the distant look in his eyes. "That..." he tugged at his braid in thought. "You came here for something else?"

"Yes, I came to discuss matters involving your inclusion in the Royal Portrait. I can't say I have any idea where your, ah, choice of conversation and need to gather things comes from."

Celestia thought that demons must be terribly fast, because Sombra sat right up, wide-eyed and alert like a cat that had heard their dinner bowl being filled. His ears perked to catch something that might not be there. Or maybe it was only something demons heard? Celestia did not know if demons had hearing that was any better or worse than a pony's or an Alicorn's.

He snatched up his circlet and set it crookedly on his head, scrambling out of the chair with only slightly more elegance than Celestia imagined him to be capable of, and his eyes were on her once more, and then on his materials.

What were they for? Why was he looking at them that way, with a shifty red gaze?

"Would you be able to stay longer?"

That's exactly what Celestia did not want, even if she could certainly spare the time. "And what," Celestia said with a smile she disliked giving him, "would you want me to stay and discuss?"

She wished it would be none of his existential queries.

Sombra snatched the top folder up in his magic. "My project for Equestria." He cocked his head to the side, blinking and watching her. "Would 'project' be an appropriate name? Luna's proposition to use her newly discovered dreamwalking to guide the youth of Equestria wasn't exactly a multi-step project, and since my idea is far more secular, I thought it would be better to refer to it as such."

It really matters little to me what you call it. "Call it what you wish... and yes, I suppose I can stay for that."

Sombra's tail swished with all the giddiness the rest of him lacked, but he managed to look quite attentive too. "Should we get started, then?"

Celestia combed through her mane with a slow sweep of her aura. "Yes... but first: why did you make such a strange effort to converse?"

Sombra's magic pulled their mugs back onto the tray he had carried them with. Celestia's ears caught him mumbling that he would get more before his words were spoken clearly. "I was only trying to talk with you, Celestia. Is that such a crime?"

"And why did you feel you must? It seems unlike you."

He scoffed, and she caught a glimpse of his teeth. In his photos with Cadance and Luna, they were fangs, but here they were not. He did disguise them, then. Why was that? "You're the mare who was just browsing my photographs. I'm more than a little standoffish, but do you really think that I don't talk to ponies at all? Complete strangers have been comfortable enough taking pictures of me because I ask them to. I enjoy intelligent conversation and spending time with my friends." He paused, tail swishing with thought. "My friends and Glitter Sprinkle. He's not bad for teasing, so I'll be generous with allowing him in there."

"...You call Shining Armor 'Glitter Sprinkle'?"

He actually chuckled! "Among other things. And yet you still think that because I'm a dreaded introvert I'm incapable of talking with you? I may not like you, but I'm still the one who comes to your office every day to wave and pick up a pile of papers, so forgive me if I have the nerve to speak in your presence."

He finished by rolling his eyes. That, at least, was entirely expected.

...

When the princess imagined Sombra's project, she did not expect the answer she was given. A political endeavor was anticipated, something to secure more power than he already had. It took one look around at the numerous personal weapons hung upon the ceiling, there was the impression that half of his personal armory hung just below the shifting red fog of aura that held whatever trinket he wished. Could she really think herself presumptuous for looking at him and anticipating the wants of a warlord? To hear 'education reforms' instead had her quiet. Surprise was clear on her face, confusion in her eyes, and mouth in a tiny, astonished 'o'.

Where might this go?

She sipped her coffee steadily and watched the stallion, poised and and standing before her with a determination clear in his eyes.

"Are you going to gawk at me all day, or will I get to continue?"

Sombra's even tone wasn't the usual biting one she often anticipated from him, and she took his words to be his own version of asking if it would be appropriate to keep speaking.

She cleared her throat politely. "Y-You may. Please, go on. What is it about education reforms that you feel must be discussed?"

Yes, what indeed? she wondered as she looked over the vast amount of books within Sombra's study one last time. He even had wheeled Archive carts in to hold all the materials he viewed, and he had certainly put plenty on them — more than even Archive-guards allowed Faithful Students to borrow at once. So clearly, he had immersed himself among those shelves all alone, browsing dusty artifacts, scrolls, and books to wheel back to his own shut-off world for far too long. What else could such productivity mean other than passions best clipped away?

The little butterflies of doubt and nerve flared up again, reminding her of the peace that everypony but her and Sombra knew.

She and Sombra... having something in common. The thought was mortifying.

For a moment, her mind convinced itself that she was dizzy with something. Fear, maybe? Whatever it was, it made her coffee taste sour quite suddenly (and no, it was not the soy milk). Her vision swam just a bit.

What could he possibly think is wrong with the schools of Equestria? she thought as she took in all of Sombra's journals, laying open on his work tables, tucked among proud spellbooks, and dominating their own shelves, row after row of them...

Her stomach clenched. There was a strange photograph on a wall, one that called to her sudden bout of ill worry. Within it was a place that seemed to have no light, no ground, and no sky. There was only a building of magnificent light, and a grand one, with the shadow of what could have been a pony visible before it. It stuck in her mind because she thought it might be a metaphor or still from a film. She knew no place such as that, so it must be false, and later she might ask Sombra about it...

The breaking of something sounded in her ears, ringing out to the point where it sounded like it was in her ancient bones too.

She heard a growl, a yelp, something of the sort. A deep yowl that had to have come from the biggest feline there was.

The princess then realized that she had dropped her coffee mug; it splintered on the ground. She looked at its remains and felt so cold, even as Sombra's red eyes seemed to be brighter with the pain, for hot coffee had been spilled upon him.

Hot coffee had been spilled upon him...

An icy feeling struck Celestia, she lept up, magic lit anew, though she did not trust its strength as she pulled Sombra towards her. She kept her grip upon his foreleg tight and firm because she knew it was a wild, foul beast she brought near to her, and it was the leg of a violent untamed thing she held in her magic's fragile grip. The pieces of the coffee mug would have to wait.

Sombra said nothing now, and just looked on with what might have been distrust as she stroked his coat roughly with the worn, unfamiliar quilt she had pulled from the back of the chair. She heard herself, over and over again, saying:

"I am so sorry, I am so sorry, I am so sorry... so sorry..."

Their talk would have one more delay, it seemed.

What really was at the forefront of her mind, though, was how Sombra was positively petrified and statue-stiff at every instance of contact between them. He stood utterly still in the sense that he made no effort to pry himself from her grip, and though he was the wrathful one between them, it was Sombra who was shaking in her grip.

...

Sombra's confidence was not brought down by the cloth bandages obtained for his legs — he would not let Celestia heal any of the minor burns that lurked under his coat. He looked for all the world like he wanted to scream at her or shove her away every moment she hadn't let him go.

She looked at the spot on the floor where his broken mug had been, even though she did not feel his eyes on her.

"Learning you had a school after all these years surprised me, Celestia. You never struck me as the type to be a teacher. Whatever paladin phase that you were going through when the Empire, Onyx, and myself were sealed away just seems to have evaporated, hm?"

"Yes," Celestia replied cautiously, watching him carefully from the corner of her eye, "I suppose you could put it like that."

Sombra levitated a folder from his pile, aloofly using his magic to play with the tab Celestia wasn't able to read. He flicked it back and forth with whatever fragment of interest he had concentrated only on its movements. "Your image has changed considerably in ways since I last recall. Harmony's own fiery and foolhardy paladin who purged the land of the draconequus-god hides her plans and shadier movements with more than fire now, doesn't she?"

He shot her a sharp look. "What is it they call you now, 'the Matron of Equestria'? The differing reputation is still so alike at the core: a force that attempts to create order, a peacemaker at any cost, only now through words instead of might, a mare of the unimportant everypony. More than that, you're the most obvious origin of nearly everything in Equestria's culture, if you dig deep enough and look at the roots of everything. Still, I would not have ever taken you to be actively involved in doing anything more than dictating what is allowed and forbidden within any institution dedicated to educating anypony. Actual instruction and cultivation of minds is not anything I can see you as inclined to — now, generation farming, that is far more expected from you."

"...And?" Celestia said, tilting her head slightly and trying to make the tightening of her jaw appear to blend naturally into a small smile. She would give him none of the inevitable confirmation to his words that he sought, not from her own mouth, at least. Though... why did he speak of this so-called 'generation farming' as though it were something sinister? It certainly didn't sound all that horrid, or even clear in what it was supposed to be.

"Celestia," he looked straight at her, now carrying himself with ease as he spoke that name. She really wished he were still in a position to call her 'princess', though he really never had, "what you have done is no different from using a torch to light a candle and claiming some spontaneous transformation has taken place, and that you have changed as if anypony could. It only amuses me. I'm a stallion of my word, and take it from a stallion with regrets: if you can butcher my history, I can dust off some of yours for a bit of discussion here and there."

You are wrong. I've most certainly changed. Do you look upon me and think that I would repeat all my mistakes and that my differing image is no indicator of a transformation of spirit? I think you look at me and think that all the time. It is such a great falsehood to claim that we never change. I know I have only ever done that. Luna did too with the light of the Elements. I have seen so much change, and I know that while evil may only ever fall to good, you beast, no evil could ever do the reverse. Don't think that I would hesitate to protect any from you.

She wanted the depths of her eyes to say that to him, even if her smile was still polite.

You cannot sit there and tell me that what I have seen is anything except change. If it isn't change, then what could it be? What could you ever know of such things? He was so insolent! And still, there was a grace that burned in her and would demand that she add: You have no destiny, and for that, I’m deeply sorry that you can never know anything but the parody of life your dark, tainted existence holds. You simply do not know your place, and I’m not sure if a faux-creature like you can. It simply isn’t the way things are destined to be.

But she held back any fire where only embers could prove to be of use.

She could think of no real reply against a stallion that always liked to twist many of her steps backward and watch her back into a corner that would not lead to an argument against his lies. Those would eventually erupt in a fight that would ensnare her and destroy the purpose of this meeting, and break so much she had to maintain of herself as others saw her. Especially for Luna's sake.

"I see," she said, nodding to his folder, "now what is it that you have in there? Is that what we shall be starting with?"

His answer was to flip it open brusquely and wave out an unexpected surprise, but one not unfamiliar to her eyes: an ancient document, with the faint glimmer of preservation magics on it and keeping her very own seal intact, as writing from ages and ages ago met her eyes once more.

In the aftermath of Discord's hold on the young nation she and Luna came to possess, and the mysterious death of Platinum that had brought him there, the city then known as Canterlote was in upheaval. War had been halted, but the stately stone city of mines, markets, magic, and might was not prosperous in all this. It had been Canterlote that served as a stronghold and refuge against the chaos magic that flew from naive Discord himself. Such power practically had a will of its own.

Food ran low, and worry high. The need for great magic to serve others and the growing kingdom was clear. Property from the war was turned over Celestia, their new absolute ruler, and here was the deed that she had written for herself and organized so her claims would not be disputed. It was the deed for her School of Gifted Unicorns, which in the time following Discord's banishment was almost a code, 'gifted' being any unicorn who could be trained for a life of great service, with a great lean towards military life. That aspect was long gone, as she soon needed the establishment to net her something else once Luna was banished. Military school became separate from the private academy's vision, but service never was.

And now Sombra was holding the ancient deed right in front of her, his magic an odd caress to the document she never would have wanted it to have. "We will be starting with this."

She nodded mutely, still rather entranced by the spell of memory.

With that affirmation, Sombra finally sat himself down, eyeing the paper. "You are not just the owner of the School, but the Headmistress and highest authority of it, are you? Not even a paperclip could be dropped without your approval."

He looked at her with sharp curiosity, not asking for an answer he already knew — this stallion had done his research — but to see how she replied.

The princess lowered her eyes modestly and dipped her head into a nod. "That would be correct. I do not own it in name only; I am faculty as well," she chuckled conversationally, in hopes of lightening the tension she felt as magical instruments ticked on in the background and the pages of books flapped about, "and to the oldest and finest boarding school and university in all Equestria, no less! Dear me, I do feel a bit ancient now. Even that school is our junior, and every tree on the campus too! Did you know that the only school in Equestria older than my own is an old earth pony grove-and-schoolhouse establishment in Hoofington?"

Sombra nodded calmly, and Celestia felt distrust grow in her stomach. "I learned that in my research. I went there, as well. The museum's staff..." his gaze nearly fell "...were hardly welcoming to me. Luna had to tell me all about it instead, which only reminded me how glad I am to have married a mare who loves info-dumping about history as much as she does." And it was when he spoke her name that a kinder-looking light returned to his eyes, softer than what Luna called his 'fierce intellect' shining there. "As far as honeymoons go, visiting a historical site is far from a bad choice for a destination."

Celestia blinked. Sombra skipped a proper honeymoon in order to go on a research trip for his project? That was incredibly inconsiderate. With how Luna had been so jolly and all the packing she had remembered Sombra doing, she had imagined the trip to Hoofington they had taken so shortly after their wedding was one of pleasure and leisure, a genuine honeymoon on Sombra's part, in an attempt to impress the bride he coveted so much.

"Not a single decision can be made without your approval, behind those four walls. Would you agree?"

He already knew the answer. She did not need to confirm it. The shrewd look in Sombra's eyes was back, and the left corner of his mouth was curled just so. He held himself with force and ease. She sat across from a snake, but just like any other snake, she would not know if his bite contained venom until he bit her. Until then, all Celestia knew was that over a thousand years had told her that Sombra was a snake, like many others.

But she could still never read those eyes.

"You write and dictate the entire curricula for almost every single class..." Those last three words were three flicks of the folder's tab, once he had slipped the deed back inside and withdrawn a few more papers, flipping them between his hooves with ease. There was a knowing look in his eye as he watched the papers' movements, as though thinking he had found gold.

Really, he probably had, with most everything he had access to being beyond public knowledge. "...and even when you don't, everything has to go past you first. The same is true for every other school in Equestria. Everything taught in this nation was approved by you at some point... or written by you." He stopped playing with his papers and looked at her quietly and directly, with something she could not discern.

"I see," the princess said sweetly, "Is this truly what you want to spend your time talking about? Throwing such baseless accusations of anything against the history that I lived through? Where were you then? Why, something tells me that you weren't there."

Sombra scowled immediately and his jaw clenched. This time, his eyes said everything his silence didn't: anger burned there.

"I think we both know that you were sealed in ice while history was being made. So, please, take care not to lecture me on history of all things. Especially, when you did not live through a single bit of it."

Outwardly, she maintained her calm shell, a sweet smile across her face. Inwardly, her stomach was doing flips on itself at the sight of Sombra's baleful glare, and just how angry he looked. The aura on his horn was looping about the odd curve of it with a painfully slow pace, a silent taunt to all the ways he could form his magic... all the things he could do. It was idle and practiced, like the strokes of a knife, and even the sparks working their way through light were quiet, there was something so poised about them. His pose was strangely looming.

He was nearly dismembering her with just his gaze.

Celestia concealed a swallow.

"I think," Sombra began, his tone like tracing the very edge of a blade slowly across her throat, "that you know better than to anger me by now." Ever so slowly, he tilted his head to the side, and she could see how obvious the curl of purple eye-smoke was, and the shift that was starting. "Don't you?"

The back of Celestia's neck was freezing. "Yes," she said but her voice was stuck in a near-whisper, "You might hurt somepony else... and I cannot have that."

Dark aura lept to his horn, and Celestia felt a sudden spike of moderate pain as he gripped a chunk of her mane, with a skill that told her that he had to have handled Luna's mane in some way before, for Alicorn manes did not respond to ordinary arcane grips. He tugged at it roughly, something that Luna could never tolerate. Tia had spent far too many centuries brushing Luna's mane. She knew even half the harshness Sombra showed her now would produce only tears and pouts from Luna.

Celestia gasped, not in pain — because truthfully it was the shock that got to her more.

Seeing her reaction caused all Sombra's magic to dim, and that little corner of his mouth to turn upward even more... but his eyes still looked so angry. All the coldness had fallen from his eyes, infused with how he moved his mouth. Whatever attempt at a smile or smirk he was making right now was just as fake as most of hers were; at least right now they could both be frauds.

"I did not allow you here so you could belittle me, nor do I think that was your intention. Why are you starting now? Our conversation wasn't in dire straits until you started acting like a brat."

Celestia's mouth moves before her mind does. "That is such a silly accusation, I was most certainly not acting like—"

His horn lights quickly. A lock of her mane finds itself in his grip once more, and Celestia is utterly frozen at the suddenness. Though his grip is light and it gives her no pain this time, it does not help her rising nerves.

"Starswirl practically programmed you," Sombra muttered, but more to himself than her, "here you are an untouchable idol to all our subjects, and behind all of it you're... something even I don't know..."

His horn dims and she didn't realize she could hear her own heartbeat again, but her mind was sliding back from the cold place it went, far, far away from what was happening. Her expression felt unreadable as ever, and that was good. Then she felt her again, the fact that she was Celestia as well as the princess, and what a millstone around her neck it was! She always loathed that part, the shroud of identity thrown atop her.

...And it's all your fault. That was what her eyes said to Sombra.

He was simply stoic. "You were acting like a brat... as for what I did?" She felt the hair of her coat prickling at the base of her mane again as he looked her over coolly. This display of stark disinterest was just as sudden as his aggression had been.

Such unsettling red eyes... monster eyes...

"I shouldn't have done it. If you want to leave, I won't protest." He levitated his folder about again. "This can wait another day... and I won't do that again, ever. I promise."

He's promising something... to me? Celestia blinked quickly. What exactly makes such a thing from him remotely trustworthy? He's a demon and a murderer. It seems even Luna has forgotten this... and yet, I am left here, having to live under the same roof as this stallion. I wake up every day to wonder what it is that might be going through his head that makes him think any of his disrespectful actions are acceptable. It has become my duty to mind him as he stumbles about, and I carry the sole burden of managing a beast.

She stares at the floor for a moment, her own snippy thoughts falling like pebbles into a well once formed: their echoes soft and passive in a mind that could only seethe so much, and tried so hard to allow itself no anger. Such emotions carried all the value of pulp in a pumpkin set to be a jack-o-lantern — they were best unacknowledged, smothered, and eviscerated.

He has the nerve to promise anything to me... I think that all this is surely ridiculous now, that any of this is happening. He may be powerful, but he is still a monster, and one on thin ice at that. There is nothing he could possibly get away with... I'm safe.

The last part felt like a lie...

Celestia pressed her forehooves together. Doing so allowed her to feel the cold soles of her gold shoes pressing against each other. The sensation carried from the frogs of her hooves to her patterns within their confines, each hoof so neatly separated from its twin by that chilly metal. "I shall stay, provided you have more than such silly accusations against me."

A frown. Of course, that was what she got from him. "You'll be staying?" He tilted his head downward, his bangs slipping into his eyes, and when he spoke again his voice was lower, "I only mean to intimidate, Celestia... not to pull anything terrible into the light."

About Starswirl, his eyes seemed to say, all too knowingly.

As was typical, there seemed to be much more that those eyes were hiding. Previously nervous wavers of her mane had resumed to a steady, sluggish ripple — one that was often unfortunate when ponies stood next to her — as she tilted her head gently to the side. The curl that clung forever to the side of her cheek tapped gently against her skin.

She smiled slowly. It was a disarming smile, or at least, it was meant to be to most who saw it. A flash of kindness to stun a little pony who thought they did wrong, to reassure them they stood before a soft, motherly, sunbeam of a mare, and that her feelings weren't hurt. In distant ages now past, she used it as part of a to say that there was nothing remotely disturbing about the image or name of Nightmare Moon — her short silence was merely the product of some other thoughts, what could her little pony possibly be thinking?

That sort of thing.

It was a lying smile, and she was never sure if Sombra could see past it. Most couldn't.

Luna usually couldn't, but family had ways, whether she liked it or not.

"I said that I shall be staying, so that is what I shall do... and I think it will be more than important for me to stay and hear what it is that you might do for Equestria, since your priorities tend to be, ah, 'misplaced'. "

If Celestia's words had been a window she had fitted between her and Sombra so she could wave from the other side, safe and secure, then Sombra's glare was a sledgehammer against the glass.

"I trust that I can begin, then?" There was a terse edge to his words.

"Of course," Celestia wrung her hooves a little nervously, "I'm sure we have much to discuss! You see, I'm more than curious as to why you would want to make any changes to the schools of Equestria. This nation has an extremely high literacy rate. There are few problems with the schools in our kingdom that I have ever had to address."

Sombra raising an eyebrow at her statement felt so utterly disrespectful, though he said nothing, and did nothing other than listening quietly and keeping the folder he clutched close.

"Why, in fact, the curricula of all education establishments in Equestria, which you show such disdain for—"

"—is only taught in schools once it is approved by you," Sombra interjected swiftly. "Only home-schooled foals are able to get past this barrier — one that makes teaching royalty-approved curricula..."

"As if any country had curricula that wasn't approved in some similar fashion," Celestia said with a tiny snort, especially upon realizing she had interrupted him this time around. Oops!

"...with credentials that are not only suspicious upon second glance, but nearly as strict as the code placed on those comic-novels," Sombra grumbled, shooting her another sharp look. "That is what destroys your 'everypony else does it' nonsense. Of course, it is standard for any competent ruler to know what goes on within their schools. What isn't a standard is for a ruler with no experience in the relevant fields to author so damn much of it when delegating that task to education's respective technocrats is the more responsible method to getting accurate, effective material."

"Excuse me for wishing there to be some moral sensibility among ponies. This nation was founded on Harmony, after all, and I find that this favor of technocrats, as you call them, do nothing to enrich society or understand how to return the kindness of a populace. Something about the society that has been established should reflect that, don't you think?" She smiled.

Sombra brought his hooves to his face, sighed heavily, and began anew. "The history books of Equestria have most of their content from something that you have said, written, or have an established connection to, meaning that even if you didn't have your hoof in the matter, your influence and 'edits' are present and observable. If overreliance on you wasn't enough, this carries over to the accounts of events and cultures that you were irrelevant to. The content of this country's education system is frequently subject to ridicule and dissected in numerous foreign reports throughout the ages, many authored by and contributed to or involving Equestrian emigrants, all of perfectly credible backgrounds. This isn't a secret, but there's nothing of it brought to or discussed by the common pony of the era. The results of these publishings are ignored by willful ignorance rather than actually being pulled from ponies — except for the full versions, which are illegal for commoners to possess here. There isn't a single report that's been remotely accepted by any domestic Equestrian scholar's publicly circulated works works."

And he doesn't think that is for a reason? He had some nerve falsely calling the ponies of Equestria 'ignorant' as well.

She watched how confident he was, how assured, and how there suddenly was a notable air of dark charisma to this stallion — dark, at least, to her — as ambition lit up his eyes and he continued to speak.

"I found that drop-outs of the Equestrian school systems tend to have the most easily corrected issues upon re-examination. Instead are quietly swept away, and I have everything you might require here, if you would like to see what I have to back up my words." To indicate this, he gave a small nod in the direction of his books before flipping through another paper. "Your legal drop-out age is twelve, which is five full years before graduation. Even the Element Bearers show common cultural patterns. I found the proof that the Bearer of Generosity graduated from the finishing school she was boarded at. The Bearer of Laughter had her homeschooling discontinued alongside what looks to be two of her sisters, all of them citing 'earth pony tradition' — as if that should be an accepted excuse — with the intent to put their future in farm labor, roam-springas, with possible apprenticeships. In that order."

"I do not see what is wrong with respecting their culture," muttered Celestia.

There was the sound of magic gripping paper quite furiously, yet Sombra did not tear the results from all of his snooping. "Your earth ponies have a culture filled with so many echoes of ignorance as a clear and defined foundation! That's what's wrong! They make up the majority of the population, and from the most oh-so-traditional Old Order Puddinites to the most garish and upward Manehattanite, this trend gallops like a heart ready for cardiac arrest. No nation can be considered fit when the citizens are so damn lacking — and not every tradition is worth keeping! Your job is one that implicitly carries the responsibility of you getting your populace to overcome itself, especially its most fatal traditions and ignorance of the past. Your schools need to re-emerge from something other than a legacy of ex-tribal earth ponies' first pastoral one-room shacks. Then you don't have to have pegasus fillies who work menial gardening, sewing, and pet care jobs as soon as they're emancipated from foster homes. You have all the power to do away with the concept of a filly of twelve pushed to drop out and into a Junior Weather Trade program because your pegasus camps and classrooms are so uniquely useless at handling attention disorders. Only half of your Element Bearers have a high school diploma — and this isn't considered surprising by any publishing a mailpony could plop onto your porch. How in Tartarus' name does anything function?"

"It functions," Celestia said, voice soft, "on many important traditions that my ponies are deeply humbled to call their own. My ponies need different truths to thrive. All the learning you propose is going to keep them from living. It only serves to blind them to their communities and the importance of the most democratic elements of this nation. Of course, I would not expect you to appreciate such diverse opportunities or understand the value of life and what my ponies do in the brief time they have compared to you and me."

Sombra glared flatly at her. "Yes," he began, his tone completely mirthless, "I suppose it was in poor taste for me to try and divorce ignorance from democracy. Now, may I continue, or are you going to be a passive-aggressive hindrance for the rest of this meeting?"

For once, Princess Celestia said nothing, and Sombra evidently took that as enough of a reason to continue.

"There is a notable increase in Equestrian young adults who failed in school environments becoming mercenaries and other similar subcultures made up of transients and vagabonds like myself. I know you hate the existence of it terribly, and I could pull out all relevant materials — including some interesting domestic reports about said drop-outs, interviewed criminals, information from criminal investigations, and other abnormalities over the years. While they are admittedly not a large percentage of the population in any way, I still think that what you have is a system you keep broken and irrationally biased on purpose, but that doesn't mean it's not a cruel system as it currently stands. I can prove it."

"I trust you obtained this 'information' through your research entirely devoted to... Equestrian sources? I would like to be able to take what you say seriously." Will he believe that? "So, please, allow me a perspective that deserves authority on the matter. A blacksmith should not lecture a painter on her craft, nor should the painter act as though she has any authority at the forge."

He actually laughed at her, and such a dry sound it was! "Hardly! All those trips I've been taking recently were much-needed research trips. Do you think I would limit myself to domestic resources?"

Her smile shrank a little. It was the same smile for when a Faithful Student mentioned their homework being late, among other similar occasions. "Oh my... that is a little concerning to hear that you have been obtaining such a needless amount of information on a subject that few would have such authority on... except Equestrians. Now, I would gladly like to offer you extra resources, all entirely Equestrian, that treat the school system here with the dignity it deserves and the positive light you cruelly chose to steal from it in an attempt to get at me. I highly suggest you memorize that word too, Sombra. 'Dignity' is something you will need in your rule. But, please, continue."

Now she saw how he narrowed his eyes, and how sharp he seemed, how his tone struck harder, but was as precise in its strength as a blacksmith's hammer was against an anvil. There was such a stubborn way with how he held himself and how he shaped his words, one that caused something deep in her to tremble just a bit, because even staring into Tirek's eyes had been a challenge. This was a dangerous stallion.

"I refuse your request. I have read through, investigated, gathered, and made note of sources from multiple nations — including this one, so don't you dare look at me like that. Each is from across hundreds of years, and that does not exclude obtaining information from Equestria's willing allies. You can slap that own sweet little smile off your face because I certainly won't be — even if you were worth that much."

She couldn't even tell if he took enjoyment in how she let out one of the tiniest of offended gasps.

"You will also speak nothing to me of the subject of dignity," he said firmly. "Since you have been invited into my study, you have done nothing but behave as a child does. Not once have you removed your crown, or ripped that disgusting facade away so I could even pretend to get along with you. You feign interest in something that's important to me solely so you can make terrible rebuttals against it."

The chuckle he gave was almost sinister, and sent chills down the princess' spine. "You have not even realized that I'm not sitting here in fantastic pajamas so I can ask you to change the cancerous infestation that is primarily the Equestrian concept of 'history' and your monopoly over numerous artifacts and other items of historical importance, never to see anything outside of Equestria, and the Archives that royalty like the two of us can access. No, that's hardly what I want from this."

A cold smile played across his lips, and there was a ruthless light in his eyes. "Do you know what terrible, wicked things I want to do to your schools, Celestia? Can you bear to hear the malice that school-foals will face because of the wrath of the eldritch god that I, the Right-Honourable God-Prince Sombra Galaxia the Mad demand be my horrifyingly altruistic reign of terror?" He flashed his fangs just barely, and somehow that was more terrible than the full sight of them to Celestia.

"N-no, what is it? What is it that you really want?" She was terribly confused now, but concerned as well, for why would Sombra sound triumphant and boastful? Such a thing could only happen if he were planning something bad, for he was not able to win at anything without her losing.

And then, with a gesture dripping with a false sense of coyness and smug self-awareness, Sombra raised a forehoof in a feigned attempt to hide how malicious his smile was. There was a dance of fire in his eyes, framed by those roguish bangs, and a tilt to his head as he sat still half-sprawled. The movement only made his smile all the more crooked.

"I would like to introduce three core concepts to fix the atrocious system in place without touching the content in it that you consider to be such an excellent curriculum. Though, I think I've done a good enough job suggesting why foreign students rarely attend Equestrian schools, but only a fair fraction of your young populace is willing to be educated outside of the borders when situations that permit that arise. I can't say much of the adults and magical university students."

Celestia drew a deep, even breath. "And what would these three things happen to be? What makes you think that any of them would truly be great services to the creatures of Equestria? This, I would like to know."

Sombra sat up straight, unflappable, and focused, yet how he looked at her told her that he was doubtful of her questions. The look he gave her picked her apart in so little time, almost asking her why she bothered.

"There absolutely must be a complete overhaul of how students are accepted into magic schools, particularly because nearly all of them follow some kind of example that your school uses... and your school has the absolute worst acceptance system there is. And yes, I get to say that. I was the one who had to look over what every school remotely like yours in the whole Eastern Continent did to be able to say that."

Celestia simply gawked at him. What was it that he thought gave him such a right to speak of the best institution for magical and moral values in all of Equestria, one that still held the whisper of prestige in foreign lands?

"And what," she said sternly, "are these other two 'reforms' going to be about?"

If both are even a quarter as outrageous as his first accusation, then he'll be lucky if he can still have his little desk job when this discussion is over.

Maybe she did mean it as an empty threat: he was useful, among other things that kept him in his position, but did she not get to offer herself some consolation for dealing with him?

Sombra simply ignored her tone and fetches a considerable stack of papers from his pile, and shuffles them accordingly with levitation. His eyes scanned their surface, and he really paid her little mind, as though the contents were more important to him than the conversation. "The second is a cause that I had to bring up with you, regarding the lack of proper facilities to provide for non-pony students at camps and schools for colts and fillies."

There is absolutely no way that he is being truthful in such a matter. Equestria is such a loving place, and my ponies have one of the highest standards of living in the known nations. To call such important social centers inadequate is not likely to amount to much at all, no matter the value that we place on absolute assimilation.

"The third matter would be?" Celestia asked, resisting the un-princess-like urge to force her words through clenched teeth like a serpent's hiss.

Sombra looked up from the documents floating in his aura to give her a look. It was a raised eyebrow, and almost parental look, with a small slyness to it. This look begged for an explanation as to why it perceived her behavior as juvenile.

Her, foalish? How mistaken such a look was, and she was able to present it with a statue facade.

"The last matter I wanted to discuss with you was the quality of education that differs drastically from every city. A simple example of these situations is that unicorns in Tall Tale will have a better education than unicorn foals in towns like Ponyville, simply because of the school structure and Tall Tale's status primarily as a unicorn town. They have the resources to properly teach unicorns, just as Appleloosa won't have a flight or magic school." He shuffled a few of his papers, adding in a lighter tone than she had heard from him since she overheard how he spoke to Luna at Hearth's Warming. "Tall Tale does have a very large earth pony community, seeing as documents here in Canterlot prove the local rumors true: the pegasus minority there doesn't work outside of weather tasks, which is surprising for this nation and era. There's such an earth pony fascination with folklore there too; I certainly would like to return..." He trailed off, eyes clear with some recollection she deemed trivial.

What was he attempting to do with this... tangent? she thought as she ducked her gaze toward the curtain, longing for a bit of sunshine on her coat. "Ah. You've been there before, then?"

He didn't look at her, but he nodded with an enthusiasm she thought was startling for such a dour stallion... and normal for anypony else. "I have! Trips from old errands have taken me there. You were looking through my photos, were you not? Did you get to any of the airship festivals they have? I took Luna there once. They have five entire post-secondary schools dedicated to the craft of a bard. Seeing the evolution of trades traditional to particular pony races is quite the subject, isn't it?"

Celestia nodded idly when she heard his question finally end. "Yes, they are such a rich part of the equinities," she added so that it would be less obvious she was looking for a clock... only to see he didn't appear to have one.

Crabapples.

She saw instead, his expression falling a little. Why? What was he expecting her to do?

He didn't actually want her to... banter with him... did he? Celestia's calm expression stretched into a small smile that she thought would prove sufficient and help her swallow all the lovely mixed feelings that just crawled within her whenever Sombra got like... this.

"Tall Tale does have some lovely little bed and breakfast establishments. Very sensible, though such places rarely have royal suites."

Shuffling papers and turning pages of books ceased. "I like the parks," he said, ears perking forward. "They have just the right mix of northern conifers and southern willows to feel so... isolated," he spoke the last word with a breath of relief and wonder that Celestia would never associate with the word. "A fall trip would be fun. I'm sure everything would look like something out of the little breezie stories Pink One has me read to Skyla." Suddenly, Sombra's expression was grumpy once more. "I really don't see what she thinks is 'too challenging' about what I read her. Sorcerer foals at boarding school are fine for her age," he harrumphed.

Reading such scary stories to a baby is a tad more than 'challenging'. Why Cadance allows you to is not something I would like to ponder. "I feel we might not be spending our time very wisely, hmm? If the two of us have any desire to keep any resemblance of a proper schedule throughout the day, don't you think it would be best not to waste time on other talks?"

Though he raised a skeptical eyebrow, Sombra appeared to do as she wished. A few folders from those he clutched were floated over towards her, and she eyed the insignia of her school printed so clearly on it...

What is it that he finds so wrong with a respectable establishment?

She read nothing else on the surface before she flipped the file folder open, and found herself staring into familiar eyes.

Sombra noted her reaction with an odd gleam in his. "I thought you might recognize the image of this particular filly. Because the process secret to the guardians of these foals is never revealed, when they are accepted, it's 'like magic', for lack of a better phrase. There's hardly much of a reason to look into reports of parents claiming they thought their foals 'would never get in' at most institutions. With what I found, it does give an interesting angle to the results."

Celestia gawked at the photograph of the bright-eyed filly staring back at her. Official preservation enchantments kept it clean and un-aged. "Her name is Minuette and she's a clockmaker's daughter... why am I looking at one of her old transcripts? You have every possible file on her!"

Instead of a polite explanation, Celestia received a flat stare and a grumble. "She was a student from your school, was she not?"

The princess blinked. "Yes, yes. Minuette was part of the class of 998 and entered her studies on the elementary campus as most students do, but she works at the castle now. Surely you've seen her around? She had an internship at the school for a while. Such a lovely young mare, too. She always kept up with all her friends." Slowly, she smiled. "Her family still sends cards on the holidays. If my thoughts are clear, she was aiming to be a tinker of magical devices in her studies. She wanted to travel everywhere and meet everypony, you see! Fillies' dreams are often like that..."

"For a tinker under such a prestigious program, her work was amateur at best."

Sombra's words rendered Celestia utterly flabbergasted. "How... How is it that you can say such a thing about one of the castle's tinkers? They're hardly anypony off the street. That would be unacceptable."

Sombra scoffed. "I have had to call in more experienced and capable ponies of the same profession and with actual talent to fix numerous mistakes made by her, though I'm sure you don't pay attention to that. There's even been a few I've had to mend things myself, but I'm afraid that my ability to tinker has a rather limited extent in many areas. I do find this all somewhat surprising, seeing that your school has fixed standards in Arcane Evaluation Reports and requires proof that accepted students score within the gifted range in multiple tests of intelligence that yield surprising credibility but are never discussed with families. Both of which are absolutely non-negotiable standards of your school." He flashed a thin, condescending smile in Celestia's direction. "It is supposed to be the School of Gifted Unicorns, isn't it?"

She did give him any reaction, but unfortunately, Sombra had done his research. "All of that is true," she said with the utmost calm.

His eyes told her that he was going as far as to toy with her, pushing her in and out of where he wanted her in this conversation. "And would it also be true that the graduates of this school of yours have access to careers and other opportunities specially reserved for prodigies of the highest merit, talent, intellect, and ability? That this is 'the school for the gifted'? Or that these students were used as the pool you fished all your 'Faithful Students' from, with one Purple Eyesore as the only exception? Is it a mere rumor that graduates from your school practically have the opportunity to shape the future thrust in their hooves, and that they are presented with such chances reserved purely for those who have impressive and cultivated magical abilities and high intelligence upon graduation?"

Her magic plucked at the edge of Minuette's papers. "Y-yes? All this would be true, we hardly need much in the way of brochures and slogans when history has humbly bestowed us with such a fine reputation. Why must you persist with such questions? I truly am struggling to see how they are relevant here."

There was that narrowed-eyed look that he gave her that bordered on dangerous. "The answer, or at least part of it, is right in front of you. I want you to look at those records and tell me what the AERs — the unchanging, tragically and wholly accurate brand of any unicorn's magical ability — and intelligence tests said of little miss Minuette. What are her ranges?"

With careful calm, Celestia read the familiar results from the papers that Sombra passed to her. "Minuette scores only a few points short of a perfectly average normal score on her AER and an exact average on all intelligence tests she was given. Tests were done before she was set to perform her entrance exam at the customary application age of ten, and again when she reached the age of majority at sixteen. She was noted for being an incredibly extroverted and talkative filly who was disliked by none of the staff and other applicants."

Why does he insist on presenting me with her information? It wasn't as though he could publish any of it or make it public. Celestia, Luna, and Sombra could access any record on anypony, but they could not make any of the information public or share it outside of those able to view it. So... what could he want with it?

"Oh yes, and that last part is so terribly important, Celestia?" He chuckled for a reason she could not discern. "That aside, is it also true that examinations are set up to be impossible to succeed at based on reports gathered on the applicant's personality?"

Celestia said nothing.

Sombra ignored this and picked a few papers that he deemed important and read his findings. "According to all these results, applicants reported displaying shyer, anxious, more withdrawn, and any antisocial traits at all are given tests they cannot possibly complete, or aren't expected to. This would include things like dragon-quickening, adept light magic displays, interaction with complex magitech systems — or at least, what this era deems 'complex' — and interactions with magical crystals, among other things. This is in sharp contrast with ponies who are reported to be like Minuette, where unicorns who were more hyper, talkative, and seemingly less studious based on firsthoof examiner opinions were given tests more in line with submitted reports from guardians on their charge's abilities. These top-secret examinations which no little unicorn may legally speak of to others once they occurred also have documentation of other Minuette-types being tested in 'more friendly' atmospheres."

There was the stare that tried to fray her again. "So, Celestia, why is it that this unremarkable filly, with no documented learning disability, whose secret scores make it clear it was forbidden for her to be at your school, based upon your rules and education standards, allowed to complete her education at an establishment where she struggled in all her most important magical classes? Everything here says she really only succeeded in oral presentations. Why was such an advanced education wasted on her while more talented or neuroatypical peers were refused admission under false pretenses? Why is she now working a job meant for a pony with twice her skill at the very least... or any graduate of your school? Either you are a school for truly gifted unicorns, or an institution that places the mediocre in high places, going against the very core of your school and creating dangerous outcomes that come with giving the unprepared and unskilled specialist opportunities, while filtering out the real talent of each generation... among other things."

Luna does not bother me about my school, so why must he?

Celestia drew her posture up and fixed a cool stare on Sombra, one that was a sign that her sternness would inspire a sort of involuntary fear in ponies as her mane swayed with an almost calculating air. Only Sombra was not afraid. "That is enough," she said as evenly as she could, "you are merely picking at lines and webs that are not there, and I shall not sit here—"

"Actually," came Sombra's snide tone, "you shall." Crimson aura swept up another folder and thrust it below her muzzle. "This is your school, Celestia, and aren't you supposed to be involved in it? One little filly is hardly proof of anything, but thankfully, your school has such a rich example of samples. I've selected a few others that you and a certain demigod know quite well as a fairly typical model group for your school's demographics."

A pink-maned, white unicorn filly with braces stared up at Celestia from her first-year photograph with a file.

"This scrap of ponyflesh goes by the name of 'Glittertwinkle', or something of the sort. She has no magical background other than being Canterlot-born and going to your school, which adds something to it, in a very cosmetic and shallow way. Her family makes telescope equipment. That's all. Even the terrible little tinker had a more magical background than this one if that detail matters to you. However, little Sparkleshimmer here got some nicer marks on her schoolwork, even if she still had rollercoaster grades between passing and success throughout her years at your school."

"She was in Twilight's friend group," Celestia murmured, lost in the eyes of the photograph.

"Yes, yes, according to these papers, she was among her 'assigned friends' for the few classes Purple took at your school, even if friends don't work that way. While her intelligence tests all report her as being decent, she can't make the requirements, though she's quite normal for a filly her age, as far as I can tell from everything supplied here. Her AER reports her as being very average, if at least competent in what she was capable of. Reported as neither strongly introverted nor extroverted, she had not been subjected to biased testing. If it weren't for the fact that she still shouldn't have been at your school, I might be able to say that she was fairly tested. The only remarkable thing she managed to do was a few astronomy projects."

Twinkleshine's photo was exchanged for another familiar photo of a filly, who had her mane in a similar, popular style. Only, this filly had a blue mane and a bright yellow coat.

"Lemon Liver here is almost an interesting character. On examination, she was noted for her extroverted behavior. Her AER reports her as below average, so she's already missing half of the required qualifications to get into your school, if you would like it to follow its own criteria, that is. She was able to provide proof that she was above average in intelligence, even if it didn't extend very well into the classroom. She is the cause of exactly sixty-three percent of all accidents that occurred in the labs during the years she lived on the premises. All this is certainly astounding since she's reported to be a chef's daughter, though she's a walking kitchen and lab hazard."

Lemon Heart's photograph was replaced by another: a creamy unicorn who had just begun styling her mane with another filly's distinct bangs in an act of imitation of a certain all-too-obvious crush> It was impossible to miss the glasses perched crookedly on her muzzle as she managed to look away from the camera.

"This," Sombra began, "is Moon Pie. Her manestyle taste is terrible, I know, but she's very important. At age twelve, she applied to your school with proof that she was gifted and had AER scores in the required range. However, she also brought along a lovely diagnosis of early onset Avoidant Personality Disorder... and I have to say, I'm impressed that she managed to pass a rigged exam and get in. Water-walking is a fine party trick for older unicorns, but for a filly without instruction?"

He shrugged. "Some problems aside, she excelled in all her classes and was by all means what a model student of the school should have looked like... and then she dropped out shortly after Luna's return, even when she was set to graduate in 1002." Suddenly, Sombra's eyes turned to Celestia. "What year is it now?"

She could only blink. What kind of a question was that? "It would be the year 1007. Everypony knows this."

"And yet Moon Pie still hasn't graduated. Curious, isn't that? Shortly after the Summer Sun Celebration, she started to withdraw without a clear reason. Her grades start to get shaky, but when the time comes for the customary intervention and offerings of tutoring to see why she's failing and the required counseling, none happens. I found no record of any effort being made to do so when it is mandatory at your school to keep a record of practically everything. This wouldn't be as much of a problem if her location had been unknown. Instead, it was apparent the whole time and known to the staff at your school. Moon Pie was a local, and one who lived in the area with her family; she walked and teleported to all her classes. This means at a time when Moon Pie was so shockingly invisible, she couldn't have been more surrounded by ponies."

With deliberate slowness, Sombra withdrew Moondancer's image and papers from her. "Since I was genuinely curious as to what could have possibly happened to this mare between the Summer Sun Celebration and her dropping out, I did some personal research into the matter. I certainly didn't uncover anything doing your school any favors: as soon as this young mare began to withdraw, and display increasing signs of alienation and problems, any help that was required to be offered was discouraged. Discouraged."

"Such a shame," Celestia whispered with a slow, disapproving shake of her head, "that such promising talent to help others would go to waste."

Sombra had such an eerie stare fixed on her. "Only staff could have started withholding resources from Moon Pie. Whoever she socialized with simply followed their example, or ended up with other ideas as to what was going on. You're staff."

Celestia looked at the curtains again.

"Even if you didn't start the fire, Celestia, you undeniably smelled the smoke."

She said nothing.

"There wasn't a way you could not have known that this young mare was in trouble at your school, even if Luna had returned. I don't care one bit about this mare, but I do care about problems, and having this student be at risk of suicide was a problem."

"This is a very bold claim for you to dare to put forth," Celestia said quietly.

Sombra only looked at her sternly. "What do you think that I'm supposed to think as I pore over all the test results I can find on the rigorous psychological examination that you have Faithful Students go through? Do you think I'm not going to ask questions, to put together what is in front of me and just what that says about you, then and now? Celestia, if you gave me any kind of reason to see you as anything but what I have known and learned of you, then I'll have to learn something new, won't I? A reason will get you a reaction. But this is what you've built, and what you've made ponies think is normal when they know anything at all."

She had put each Faithful Student through such extensive testing beforehoof, it was true. So much had to be learned about a prospective Faithful Student, and there were key traits she needed to know about. Susceptibility had to be measured and considered, as it was one such trait. It mattered to her. Twilight Sparkle had scored above average in that area, it was Sunset Shimmer who had been the lowest-scoring in the area of susceptibility. She had no doubt Sombra had drawn some parallel among those things. Leave it to the unwelcome God of Knowledge to go about and be so nosy.

Of all the gods that could be, a God of Knowledge was needed the least.

And I wish that you would simply stop learning anything. It's rather troubling. "Curiosity is not such a thing to praise so quickly. Have you not heard that it killed the cat?"

Tilting his head to the side, Sombra looked at her with momentary confusion. "I'm not a cat."

From what Luna tells me, I have some doubts. Of course such an expression so rooted in pony culture would escape him. "I still would like it if you would do more than present me with papers—"

"Papers that contain everything you need to know about what I've told you, and more," Sombra finished.

She exhaled quietly when she realized he looked like he was going to speak again.

"All of this has to stop. The examinations are rigged. The acceptance process is... it's its own disgusting matter I can't begin to describe briefly. Your school prunes the personalities of the students it wants by withholding mandatory resources and allowing unfit, docile..." he trailed off into a chilling growl that felt so devoid of real emotion to Celestia, "...peasants of the soul," he nearly spat those words through gritted teeth, "to take the place where plenty of capable, truly intelligent and gifted young unicorns could be, ones who will work, excel, and shape futures that matter. This 'graduation' is a gift certificate to castle jobs and to plaster on a layer of false accomplishment, for the most part. If somepony really wanted a piece of paper that makes them feel special that badly, all they have to do is get some glitter glue and pretty stationery. That is certainly far cheaper than your school. Forget the curricula, forget your own breezie tale version of history, just have honest examinations and help. That is my first 'proposition'."

Oh.

Yes... that was true, this was only his first. Of three.

"Please," she said quietly, but with the cold of following snow, "I would love nothing more than for you to get on with it."

They both knew that she was lying.

...

Celestia ever so carefully rubbed her golden shoes together as she waited for Sombra to fetch the next round of papers. Her cheek muscles felt a bit strained, and her head was more than sore. Instead of letting the worm of worry over Sombra and his mad ramblings burrow into her head, she tried to imagine what her afternoon break in the garden would be like, and the sweet smell of flowers from the many royal gardens drifting past her muzzle. It all sounded so much better than a meeting with Sombra... and at least her horn didn't hurt this time.

Still, she thought about whether today was a tea day or a coffee day. That was the truly important thing on her mind. Of course, she did see Sombra having his papers and things all in neat stacks. She caught him saying something to her, about obtaining proper copies of things for her so she could look over any information he gathered, all delivered to her accordingly, whenever she possibly could or needed to. He asked if that would work out for her, and she did not bother to glance at his eyes to tell if he meant it or not. She nodded when she was supposed to, like a good princess.

...Did he really think that she would really think anything of what he said? That she would tear down something, expose, gut, and mutilate a good and thorough system that had been so well-crafted? There was just such an audacity that he had, to hunt for Fate's red thread, roll it up and use it as he pleased, to curl it around his hoof, and call it his as he tied it all the ways he wanted, something as red as his eyes.

He didn't know how good this was. No other pony or god hunted for these things and dug them up any more than they would try and chase their own shadow. Not Twilight, not Luna, not Raven, not Discord. There was normalcy in this that didn't sit with Sombra, and why would any normalcy? It was like hiding, was it not, just a bit more perfect? Celestia had a string she must conceal just a touch — all for the greater good, or she would not attempt it — so she put it in a sweater. Who would dare look for it there?

Necessity weighed heavily into this. If it were not for how much Celestia knew that as a princess — and as a princess first and foremost — there were such great things to put above herself, above things. She may doubt Harmony with what life has dealt her, and she may toss it out like seeds to those who she grew to believe it without feeling it herself, but there was always a greater good. It was worth upholding more than anything, worth fighting great evil for.

The faint push of telekinesis prodded Celestia's nearest wither, and something about the poke felt so foul to her, because like a spark flying from a fire, she knew exactly who had done it, and she stiffened. Her coat felt unclean.

"I called your name two times. Is that curtain so eye-catching that you're tempted to zone out? I do like to think that I'm a bit better with interior design than anypony gives me credit for."

Was that meant to be his type of joke? "I was only lost in thought." She didn't want to look at him, she didn't want to think about how yes, she had actually been touched by a demon's magic. On her flesh.

"If that is how you want to say that you were ignoring me, we can always do this another time."

Should she lie and say she was ignoring him to make her masked but strange slip into her thoughts seem more normal? It certainly felt like a good thing to do. "I was merely distracted by my own thoughts, though I must say my mind is most often occupied by thoughts of others, hmm? Silly me!"

There, a perfect, expected, and easily digestible bloated non-answer.

...And a pause before Sombra added: "Pushing through this could be for the best." He sounded so exasperated. Maybe this didn't matter to him.

"I'm merely a bit surprised at how secular your project is." Distract him. "Cadance's was to give advice via letter on romantic relationships to increase the happiness of ponies. I don't know if you know that she still does that."

He coughed slightly, and things felt right when she didn't look at him. Or see him. There was the small sound of a muted chuckle that died quickly. "I know, Celestia." Stop calling me that. "She helped me start my own relationship."

As ill-matched as you two are... and yes, sadly, she did and you do strike me as on the romantically impaired side. No wonder I have heard such jokes about you being a hopeless romantic. It is no different from the joking that Dissy is the paragon of order and such, and honestly, it is a bit funny.

"You know about Luna's dreamwalking," Celestia continued, "and Twilight's 'project' is her usage of her map that the Tree of Harmony uses to send her and the rest of the Bearers to aid in the affairs of mortals alongside her duties as a princess, though there can be limited scope to both, I'm afraid. Seeing you desire something so... obtainable through non-magical means is... new." The word sounded so forced, she had to admit.

"...I try and can be brief, then. Just pretend you can look me in the eye, won't you?"

Ah. So he was grumbling again. A ray of sunshine indeed.

Celestia sighed and relented.

...

Another file folder she only offered a glance at, stuffed with documents, and post-it notes, and mostly held closed via the use of a few smartly applied paperclips found its way into her gold aura. Sombra looked at her in a way that suggested some kind of reaction, but what he wanted her to do with his research, she wasn't quite sure. The title was carefully written on it in Sombra's distinctive hornwriting making it clear this pertained to his second 'issue' of alleged inadequacy of Equestrian facilities. She couldn't imagine he thought she was going to pore over this as though he were correct, so she slipped it under one of her wings.

How to get through this? She inwardly chided herself for any negative thinking, lathering optimism over her thoughts: she could quickly get through this still, she was in the home stretch. She gave the trash one more glance, thinking of the food lying in there, along with a crumpled issue of the day's edition of The Canterlot Chronicle.

She could do this.

"Alright, what was it that you thought was not adequate about the treatment of non-ponies? You do know that Equestria is an incredibly diverse land-"

"For ponies," Sombra interjected strongly. "There's no strong prejudice or bias towards most—" When he spoke that word and gave her the look a hammer would give glass, "—species, but Equestria is home to a variation of ponies, and more than any other kingdom. However, it still has a bias towards ponies when you examine cultural beliefs and how many objects and buildings are designed, and the facilities they offer. All are intended to provide purely for ponies. This isn't terribly unreasonable for the most part. Non-pony species make up only thirty-six percent of your population. However, most of them still live fairly separately — breezie grottoes, buffalo tribes, bears, minotaurs, and a low population of Eastern griffons live as Equestrians. Other creatures like zebra, dragons, deer, horses, qilin, and sea serpents don't live so far removed from ponies."

"Changelings," said Celestia as he cut in smoothly, "and diamond dogs inhabit some underground regions below many of these territories. Is there any reason you neglected to mention them?"

Sombra blinked in confusion. "...I've never met a diamond dog, and changelings are parasites that only interact with the fringes of pony society at best. Now, may I continue?"

"Yes," she said, even though she really didn't desire it. She also ignored his more liberal usage of 'parasite'. While changelings were parasites, many neutral hive queens on decent terms with Equestria would look twice at the newest member of Equestria's royal family for saying it with hints of a less favorable tone he used so honestly. It was just another species he wouldn't be able to negotiate with during his future duties, just as any omnivorous creature could not be in Sombra's presence because of his clear revulsion to meat-eating.

"Alicorns aren't ponies, but you've tried to convince this culture that they're not so different. I admit, I'm equine too, but being an Alicorn in Equestria and being like me in Equestria offer two very different perspectives, one of which is not available to the other." He frowned slightly and looked at her with a calm, enigmatic gaze Celestia couldn't help but feel a little unsettled. "If you ever wanted to hear what it's like as a non-pony living within Equestria's borders, I have plenty to relate—"

"I will be passing on that, you did mention that you would be keeping things as brief as you could, didn't you? No rambling, please."

"It was an offer," he grumbled, gaze falling to the floor momentarily.

She smiled calmly. "And no mumbling, please."

"No interrupting, please," he hissed, angry stare upon her once more, and the familiar caustic quality to his tone clear.

She lowered her gaze as a cue for him, and those detail-hungry eyes of his snapped it up instantly. But Celestia listened, minding the folder she tucked under her wing.

"Equestria simply doesn't have a culture that's used to blending different shapes so much as it's willing to mix different colors. The condition of griffons among pegasus ponies is the most common example that I encountered." He pointed a forehoof to the folder he lent her. "Everything you need is in there, though I suppose your apparent attempt at... whatever I'm supposed to see this display as... is just going to leave me to explain things, isn't it?"

"Do what you please," she muttered as quietly as her small exhale would allow, but the breath that betrayed it and Sombra's pricked ears caught her words regardless. Her heart sank.

"Fine," he snapped."Tartarus knows I have my moments of poor judgment, but this is so absolutely juvenile of you. Wrapping up things as quickly as you're likely imagining things is not what I had in mind..." Whatever he wanted to say devolved into an exasperated sigh, because oh yes, she was such a dreadful inconvenience to him. Sombra brought his forehoof down from where he had run it through his mane, somehow managing to give what looked like an annoyed little smirk at something on his mind. "I'll manage."

He deserves much more to be simply 'bothered' anyway...

The princess kept her facade intact, dutifully refusing to let laughter slip. Maybe her eyes showed it, but were they not usually merry? There was just something so undeniably funny about the stallion who was not once a child calling her immature. Or perhaps it was that he was a slaughterer of the innocent, and yet he clearly seemed to think pulling apart her dear utopia would get him anywhere.

"Actually," she began with the same superior tone that was sometimes required of a princess like her to use against the defiant and unruly little subject who took such enjoyment in disturbing peace and 'forgetting' there was such a great difference in status between them, and she was the ruler, not they. It was a cool tone reserved for those horribly entitled and arrogant sorts. "What you will be doing is finishing up your little presentation after this 'part two'. I will not be hearing the third part. What you will be hearing, however, is a little word on how you have behaved towards a certain Twilight Sparkle in a recent meeting."

Sombra's eyes widened, his jaw clenched, and then he opened his mouth and closed it quickly. "...You won't hear the third part? Every day since you have explained my duties to me, I have had you badgering me about what it is I'm going to do. It goes from something about public service that changes each time you throw the words at me, and then to when I'm going to have something done as I've worked for months to put together something thorough when you did nothing but pester me more than the little filly I foalsit ever could. All that time you must have thought I was off gallivanting around between the workloads I like to think I'm at least decent at, and you had to think I was just taking little vacations for every research trip. Every time I've alerted that dog of a secretary I had to miss out on this and that because I was writing to this professor and that scholar about travel..." He brought both his forehooves to his face and slumped against the back of his chair in frustration.

"Celestia, you've refused to look at any papers and notes I've gathered unless I so much as thrust them in your face. I'll deal with whatever petty complaints you have about Purple Eyesore... Sometimes I wish I couldn't believe you, and that any of this would be a surprise to me. I could try and speculate on why you do what you do and judge them to all be for at least remotely reasonable justifications, and whatever else it is you like to hurl around with all the grace of minotaurs wrestling in a china shop. Instead, I know it's because you loathe me."

Celestia levitated Sombra's folder back towards the pile he had drawn it all from. She urged herself to relax and that the distant creep of a headache could be kept at bay by filtering out Sombra. "You decided to present all of this to me in pajamas."

"Everything is on short notice, and for better or worse, you are somepony I live with. A degree of informality around one another is something I expected. Yet, I have yet to get a conversation out of you that isn't in some way about royal duties, anything accusation against me, or attempts at filler chat about the weather, and cookies. Everything you say to me is mostly about your work or my work... or somepony else's. Luna says you take your crown off sometimes. I've never seen you do it. And do forgive me if I have other things to do that would prevent me from accomplishing your every ridiculous whim, co-ruler."

Feathers brushed the arm of the chair she occupied and the princess drew one deep breath in and inwardly told herself: don't crack, don't crack, don't crack...

"Your snide tone nearly grates on my ears. Just do what I asked."

The second part was the hardest. She had learned many times, and terribly, that she could not control this stallion. He was not a piece on her chessboard so much as he was the other player. That confirmation was an ugly thought process, but one that cemented Sombra's place in a game, life, and world of black and white. This was the one who opposed her, not quite a king piece she could simply catch. His ugly eyes and foul knowings managed to pick up on all the little holes in herself she sought to conceal, though he must be the only one who really saw them at this point.

This awful truth — if such a phrase could not be redundant — meant that she knew Sombra would only do something if Sombra wished. In part, it was also because he was selfish. She would not yield anything if she could not ensure the greater good could safely be the justification above all means. Sombra was just selfish. The lives of everypony around him could be threatened — Skyla, Luna, Cadance, and most importantly, his subjects — and unless he himself were to come to harm, he would sacrifice them all.

But he was an unnatural and elusive thing wrapped up in the body of a pony as well. Such an eldritch creature was not to be trifled with, even if everypony around her thought him either aptly horrifying for his deeds, or was mistaken that he could be a friend... and husband.

So when Sombra nodded, she still felt an icy pit at the bottom of her stomach because she knew not what his machinations were.

"You were talking about griffons within my kingdom," she said quietly, like something she said so carefully could appease this gray entity.

His magic flicked a few strands of his bangs aside. "Yes. The Eastern griffons that live in Equestrian cities as a minority, or come from Griffonstone to get better schooling in pegasus classrooms and flight camps don't do as well as other students overall. Their grades are significantly lower than those of pony students, and not because they miss out on weather-magic aspects of the curriculum. Reports make it clear that they suffer from homesickness, feeling left out, and lower moods more than the ponies they live alongside do."

He twirled his braid a few times, slowly waiting for anything beyond an indication that she heard him, patience Celestia found almost startling lurking in his eyes.

Those quiet moments ticked by quickly, and the princess found it laughable that he would suggest the flight camps of fluffy clouds and soaring dreams for the winged youth of Equestria housed any kind of inequality did not sit well with her, just as the folder tucked under her wing itched a little. She was starting to suspect that the contents would not be as truthful as she would like.

"Continue," she said, speaking the word softly. "I must hear if there's any merit in this."

Sombra scowled slightly but continued with composure. Though, the princess had seen quite a few ponies simply quit at the first hint of her disapproval of hers, something she rarely showed her subjects. There were always the sorts that managed to weasel their way into her court, which, while no longer a purely open court anypony could appear at, still heard the voices of her ponies.

"There has been very little study of this that's cooperative or really recognized. Considering your position, I wouldn't blame you for being ignorant of something that happens on a far lower level within your nation."

Our nation, she wanted to say even though there was something sad about saying so.

"This place—" Could Equestria really be called such a thing so casually? "—might not be the Tartaus on Midgard that the tribes tried to make, and yet it hardly has a clean slate. What had to surprise me most was that many griffon foals—"

"Chicks. They're called chicks."

Sombra tilts his head. "...Chicks it is then. Griffon chicks in Equestrian flight camps often are poorly adjusted. There's little to nothing to really prepare them for the vast differences pony culture, especially Equestrian culture, is from their own. Malnutrition is a surprisingly common issue, not because it is terribly severe, but because if you bothered to look at what I collected at all, you would see. Young griffons in Equestria, despite being omnivores, are frequently unable or decide against obtaining anything other than what ponies around them eat. This leads to lower grades and other issues that shouldn't have occurred in the first place."

Celestia looked at him carefully. He certainly wasn't implying what she thought he was... or could he be? "You are not suggesting that the laws against carnivorous behavior among non-carnivorous species, meat consumption by equines, poaching, distribution of meat within Equestrian borders, and everything else that such ancient laws stand for?"

"Absolutely not!" Sombra looked offended by the suggestion, though it was he who was the fanged menace. "Those laws are more than reasonable. Many griffons report being ashamed of being an omnivore..." Sombra trailed off awkwardly, lapsing into silence. "Malnutrition, and just any of the deficiencies that are commonly reported by the griffons, most of whom technically cannot access proper food. They don't do well in the schools they are sent to strive in. I outlined a few ideas for reforms that could help with resources and ensure that-"

Celestia held up a forehoof and he looked at it, confused. She smiled. Now he looked even more confused. "This," Celestia said with a silk-smooth tone and the sunniest, thin smile she could make, "is where I will be stopping you."

Sombra only blinked, and she thought it nice, that at least this time she was able to cut him off. She prodded him in the chest with his own file folder and dimmed her horn promptly.

"It is good to see that you have such energy to bring about social change, but I feel that you must know it is being squandered with this..." She gestured to all his study with her foreleg and let it linger on him. "There are so many more things you could do. Gathering accurate research would be one thing."

And lo and behold, Sombra stared at her with disbelief in those fiery eyes and his mouth open just barely to voice a question that would not come.

"I think now would be a good time to discuss Twilight Sparkle, and what you said to her."

Sombra stared at her with that frustratingly unreadable stare again.

"I'm sure you'll recall the last meeting we all had together. It was only you, Luna, Twilight, and myself, after all. When discussing improvements to be made to the knowledge my ponies have."

There was a mocking gleam in Sombra's eyes at the word 'knowledge' and yet she was permitted by him to continue.

"I must admit, it is one of the rarer times I've seen you fold away your scribblings to pay attention to somepony, and to Twilight Sparkle no less! I know you don't recognize what a bright, deserving young mare she is, so I'm sure you must've known I would notice you focus on anything she had to say."

He rolled his eyes, and one of his forehooves, in a facetious gesture for her to go on. But there was still something dangerous in his looks and in his silence. His anger hadn't faded; that silence was grating on her a bit, even if she did not show it.

"And it was dear Twilight who had stated her excellent idea to have textbooks on the magic of friendship distributed to little fillies and colts at schools all across Equestria."

Sombra's eyes widened with recollection. "Yes, I recall that—"

"And you disgraced her idea."

"I did no such thing! What I did do was explain to her that what is called 'the magic of friendship' isn't something that can be broken down like that and written about. You could go so far as to say that it isn't real—"

"That's absurd, Sombra. Modern Equestrian history is against such a notion."

"That's the truth," he said with a stern edge to his words. "What is called 'friendship magic' isn't a happy-go-lucky ideal that can just be slapped onto anypony. Friendship isn't even the direct source of the magic you speak of — the light magic of the Elements of Harmony. Those are a different matter entirely, and the spirit that guards them is a tricky one."

Celestia was unfortunately familiar with that last part.

"Because the Elements of Harmony are selective, from what I have been able to learn about them, and are more complex than 'having a friendship can give you magic' it isn't anything that could be realistically studied. However, you could create information about the study and magic of the Elements with the undeniable correlating sociology to their function. That is an entirely doable project, but one that still would only be advanced enough that it would make sense to distribute to scholars of the niche. I can't say I've ever dealt with the Elements personally, but research is hardly anything I'd forgo on such important artifacts, even if there's more inaccurate information on them than factual."

Celestia sighed. "As a former Bearer myself, what I can say of the Elements is thus: they are as fickle as their spirit, are impossible for any everyday pony to bear, have their connection revoked once severed, depend on the Spark to work... and much of what you said. They can go thousands of years without choosing anypony... and that is frustrating. What you told Twilight was inexcusable."

Sombra did appear quite interested in what she had to say, but curiosity gave way to frustration. "I explained to her that her idea wasn't feasible even remotely in a way that was not much different than I did just now. I'm aware she's a magic student, but not every bit of information you've fed that creature is truthful... and she's clearly got much to learn as well. Has she been slacking in certain areas of study lately, it certainly seems so. Ancient artifacts understandably aren't everypony's cup of coffee, but as a former Bearer, and what sounds to be a much more learned one about the subject than I am, aside from the 'friendship power' inaccuracy. You really should be offering more advice on the matter."

"You didn't approve of her idea. With support, she could have had so much put forward by now."

There was the return of the narrowed eyes. "Just what are you asking of me? I often speak with bluntness equal to being hit by a train, and yet that day I did nothing that should be observed as remotely antagonistic towards your former student."

"You disagreed with her."

"And Luna did too! I explained to her what was unrealistic and impossible with her proposition, and even suggested alternatives. Luna was the one who went farther than that."

Luna had been the one to appear insulted by what Twilight wanted, something that wounded Celestia, who had to watch her daughter lecture the demigod about the arcane.

If Cadance had been there, Celestia knew that with enough gentle pressure on her part and her sisterly connection with her beloved former student, Twilight would have gotten support, surely. Without Sombra, the presence of Cadance would have created three in favor of her great idea, and Luna as the sole one against it. With opposition that easy to brush aside, it would take nothing to have Twilight's plan put into action if she kept trying. Luna may be resistant to pressure, and as stubborn as her awful husband, but something could've been done.

Instead, royal meetings were not going quite in Celestia's favor. Luna had support. Everything was fairly fractured in many kinds of decisions. Twilight had become unpopular behind closed doors, and that was a treatment that the young mare was not familiar with. Her nation adored her... but she and Luna could agree on nothing.

"Luna has her own issues," Celestia said simply. "It's a shame that she can't see eye to eye with a mare so like herself."

"Those two are as alike as a plague is to its cure."

It wasn't supposed to be that way! She cried at your wedding.

The princess took a deep breath. "If you are going to help Equestria, you should put your effort where it matters. I'm afraid your suggestions are best described as dubious, and while I'm absolutely certain your effort into them, it was unfocused, poorly researched, and without clear thought. Instead, a proper plan to support Equestria's education would be with Twilight. Please consider supporting her efforts to better the lives of our subjects, and how positive they are! It is a much more worthy goal than the more... negative... plans you have suggested. Nopony wants those, but everypony would love to see what information has been gathered by a celebrated hero after years!"

His plans seem purely self-serving as well...

If Sombra had been angry before, he looked like he was absolutely seething now, and as a contained, focused inferno of ambition before her. The purest disgust was upon his face, and shock was evident as well.

"Sometimes I really can't believe you." While he sounded resentful and fed up, he was not careless with how he spoke to her. She had expected some kind of an outburst, and instead, she had gotten a strange... sharpness to Sombra, something that the princess couldn't say she saw in many ponies throughout her life.

"And why is that?"

"I don't think I should have to explain why the education of your subjects is important. What I will say is that I feel that you're content with letting these things happen in an effort to preserve something that doesn't exist. What I did think was that such issues would grab your interest just as much as they grabbed mine."

"Why would they? What is it that you could possibly want with this matter that isn't something purely for your benefit?"

Sombra suddenly looked at her quite coolly, his anger forged into judgment. "You heard what Luna and I discussed at Hearth's Warming, didn't you?" He looked at her like he already knew the answer. "I'm sure you can understand why I would be interested in schools from a perspective not relating to me being the God of Knowledge."

Once she was over the initial surprise of the monster ever bringing up that dreaded day, the answer seemed to leap out at her, and her eyes widened. "You discussed... having a foal..." she managed to whisper, wishing the recollection wasn't real.

"She..." Celestia couldn't look at Sombra, "Luna's not... expecting... is she...?" She felt so cold prying those words out but could almost feel the disgust she saw in Sombra's eyes, glimpsed from the corner of her own, at her hesitance.

"She isn't," he said coldly, but his sudden frostiness slipped away when he spoke again. "Her and I... we have a lot of personal things to sort out before I'm read—" She looked at him briefly, ears pricked hopefully to catch any news of ill feelings her daughter might have for her husband, only to see Sombra's eyes widen just so and his ears flick lower momentarily as he retracted something he said, "Before we're ready to really begin expanding our family."

Is he impotent...? He certainly speaks as though there's some difficulty he's encountering. I truly can't imagine what it's like to have to deal with that along with his overall mental deficiencies. Luna, what have you gotten yourself into?

Sombra quickly looked down, taking a great interest in something he saw there, and sighed tiredly. "It's... quite the ordeal, to say the least. I don't want to bring a foal into a problem I've done nothing to correct, and I have nearly all the power to do so. The old mantra of knowledge being power is thrown around often..."

Yes, it is, and by those without proper compassion, for the most part. It's such a cold phrase, especially from a stallion who thinks he can call the world a 'problem'.

"...and I have to say, it is one of the few that is true if you disregard that knowledge is ultimately better than power."

As if you have any right to speak on the matter.

"So, what I really want is for any..." he swallowed noticeably, "...any foal of mine to be able to learn. As a mother, I'm sure you have the same wish for your daughter," he said with an oddly nonchalant shrug, eyeing her again. "And I can't imagine that I'm the only one who worries about the numerous issues in the society you have built, regardless of what partial information those in question would have. Maybe Moon Pie's family wonders if her former school could have done more to help her, no matter the optimism that they carelessly splashed on everything that leads them to believe anything might have been done at all... and if they don't? Celestia, do you really think there isn't one lone, isolated creature who holds these thoughts inside them, even if they are never acted upon?"

His aloofness had largely reconstructed itself, as had a nagging at the back of Celestia's mind.

Back to normalcy, it said. Back to normalcy...

"I think your efforts remain misplaced."

His scowl was aimed at her again, the focused anger in his eyes like arrows blaming her for something, or that was what she made of it. "You wanting me to support Purple Eyesore goes against everything that my efforts for Equestria are supposed to be, and you've made that clear yourself. Putting all my work into a particular idea beyond all repair for something I shouldn't and will not have anything to do with is no different than having me write open love letters to a world I hate. Purple can obtain criticism from me if she wishes to deal with me at all, and that's it."

Selfish, Celestia's thoughts probed into her attention with a sharp hiss, every whisper a dart to her. So selfish, so selfish... can't you do anything about this? So selfish...

"May your next suggestion be less self-absorbed and hinged on falsehoods. If you are to help Equestria, think of Equestrian values, and aid this land as an Equestrian would, because you will need to start presenting such in your propositions to a true ruler of Equestria if you hope to ever move up. Even as you sit before me now, you can't be much more than an enemy of mine after all... this." She waved a forehoof about clumsily with frustration, not even entirely certain what she wanted 'this' to constitute.

These are the words that she would speak harshly to the few who saw the princess and managed to pull such a tone out of her. She would heap her frustration on them as she wished and split their will to go on speaking as an ax cleaved flesh and split past bone with grisly, heavy swings. Who could imagine their eldest and lightest princess dissatisfied? Who could ever anticipate her ever being annoyed?

None of them could. She was the mare of gentle light and smiles, who protected all from evil and scum, eradicating the immoral, and humble in disposition. To see a pony who displeased her was a little different from seeing a criminal, in a way. Those that were scorned by her and scolded, that made her dare reach into herself to hurl out of what vile feelings clogged her so she could watch them stick on such repulsive ponies and mark them as unapproved of, was noted by those in her great herd of subjects. They looked upon the scorned, they stepped away from them and against them, leaving such a pony to face silent, passive ostracism.

In all the years that Celestia brought out such ugly pieces to communicate disdain at those who were selfish, attempting to weasel their way to status, greedy, determined to waste her time, and whatever else required a touch of venom in how they were treated, she had never seen the face of any of those ponies again. She heard their names die in quiet shrouds of whispers, and she knew they were pointed at and used as examples of poor behavior and were never seen again. Still, she had not heard of any that made it to great success and ever lived out their dreams. When she thought of them, she thought of how their flickering presence and how abruptly the light in their eyes was snuffed when her passivity crumbled.

Sombra was not one to have such a response. His jaw clenched and his magic wrung his wedding ring about and he glowered at her from under his mane, gears of thought whirling even more than before.

"Leave, then," he said with a clear edge to his tone, and one that few would dare to cross. "We're certainly done for the day, so take your leave... unless my presence is somehow required for something else." He raised one eyebrow skeptically, eyes still looking like he'd rather tear her apart with his gaze alone. "I'm hardly in the mood to deal with you right now."

His ears were pinned back in a clear warning of his mood, and he was holding back a strange curl to his lip that Celestia had seen enough of to recognize as belonging to an angry predator.

But could she really back off now?

Just now?

And should she?

More importantly, could she?

She was still the princess, first and foremost, and she would not forsake her duties as though she were not obligated to dedicate her entire self to them. One such duty was to be the one to pull the rug out from the malicious and fallacious like Sombra just as much as she was meant to shield the peaceful and soothe them with smiles and words of praise, kindness, and everything that opposed the thought of those who were so foul and low.

As that shield, she had long learned it was not up to her only to shadow the eyes of her subject from that which could taint them and was certainly unlawful, but to bash those that were on the despicable side of the eternal binary of good and evil. She was not simply to bludgeon such creatures violently and condemn them and banish them, as she had in the days when she bore the Elements, but to bar them from any contact with those they deserved no association with — the normal, good creatures that lived pleasant lives — and ensure that such beings, pony or otherwise, were edged into isolation and set towards the path that urged them toward their destined downfall. Of course, it was not with a bang or violence that this should be done — not ever — but with a whimper, a word, and a barrier.

The refusal was passive, but powerful, and rarely brought any unneeded harm. It was a safe thing, just as much as Sombra was dangerous... and she was not going to let such danger slither about so smugly, a spirit without even the hint of a crack. It would be downright irresponsible of her to not do her part as the princess and offer up words to play her part. He needed a lesson thrust into his face, and the princess knew just what would suffice.

Despite how he was dressed, Sombra was no less intimidating. A cragodile was no less dangerous if somepony placed a flower upon its head, and a demon was the same. Parts of his mane were already starting to shift to shadow, and traces of purple smoke lingered in his eyes. Combined with his pinned-down ears and expression of restrained fury and so many other emotions she could not manage to read, she knew he was holding back vitriol as he bristled with the temper he was holding back.

In contrast, the princess held a calm that bordered on blithe at its very most, even if no smile was present. She rose with her mandatory, and let the momentary tension between them only extend briefly so that her legs could feel at ease. Did anypony actually find her height enviable? She and Luna both rose above anything ponies could ever hope to achieve, but only one of them was a giantess in comparison. If she were not so out of shape — at least by Alicorn standards — then she knew her leg cramps would be much less frequent.

Between them, silence rotted.

The last few threads of her small plan quietly fell into their places. Now that she had risen, Sombra's glower only left her to drag towards his study's exit: a clear sign demanding her leave.

However, he was to get no last word in any of this. With a quick spark, a thin layer of gold aura sparkled to life on the princess' horn.

Sombra sensed this, and the distrust in his eyes was brighter. Truly, the prince would hardly ever progress unless he trusted her, for it was she who should not trust him. Must his views always be so fallacious? He had opened his mouth to say something against her, or perhaps scream at her. It was no secret around the castle that he had a terrible temper. The poor maids had certainly been treated to some of his verbal abuse.

Sombra. Abuse.

For once, the princess managed to wipe the emotion those words brought to mind, and all the horrible 'what-ifs' that sprung from those two words away for later.

Later. That particular word left its sick resonance of terrible thoughts to come before fading away.

The trash can erupted its contents across the creature's study as she fished out what she was looking for.

Sombra's eyes now turned to look at the trash scattered all over his study with something like surprise. "What in Tartarus' name did you do that for? Just leave!"

He nearly seemed hurt that now garbage was scattered across his work here and there, eyes roaming in a currently futile attempt to note all that he would have to clean up. Old foodstuff dripped here and there. His ears drooped while his muzzle bore the start of a mess between a frown, shock, and a snarl.

His tone carried a growl, but before he could do or say anything else, the princess thrust the front page of the The Canterlot Chronicle right into his face, aiming towards his left as she clutched it firmly in her aura. It too was still covered with garbage, and though it was in plain sight, Sombra still jumped backward considerably, stumbling in a rare example of clumsiness from him.

"Do you see what this is?" she hissed.

Though the paper was in his face, Celestia was able to see him swallow. Why were his eyes so wide?

He only nodded in a sloppy gesture of acknowledgment.

"This is generosity," she said carefully, displeasure ringing in her voice. "This is kindness. This is loving your fellow pony and you buried it in the trash like it was nothing. I know kindness, and I know mercy. You certainly do not. If you approved of Twilight Sparkle's plan, you would have a chance. If you paint Equestria and its fine system as terrible? Never."

Sombra fell backward, slumped haphazardly in his chair again. There was something intense in his expression she did not know. Everything had bled together to her, leaving the tricky demon who was barely understandable as it was a mess of emotion before her with his forehooves clutching at the hoofrest of his chair far too tightly and desperately, red eyes glued to the headline. From his eyes were the budding wisps of anxious purple smoke that vanished just as quickly and awkwardly as they had arrived.

She imagined them like bubbles. Pop, pop, pop!

"Never," she repeated. "It is never Equestria that is wrong, but there can be many monsters. For every good subject in my good country, I sleep and rise knowing that there are evil ones and that my ponies will be hurt. We may not live in the Tartarus on Midgard that was the despair of the Tribesponies, know that." You beast. "And yet, unjust and evil things still happen in Equestria, and always will, if never on the horrible scale that it was, there will be thieves, there will be rapists, and there will be those who take lives. You hardly seem to grasp this, so let me tell you now: the greatest problem that I face is the greatest problem there is: it is the problem of evil existing, how horribly inevitable it is, and that it must be combated."

And you are part of that problem. Those words ran in her mind like fire, urging her onward. Was this not her purpose? Was she not enforcing the greatest good? Was he not trembling before her, or was it the intoxication that each firmly spoken word made her think so?

Was this not perfect?

"My ponies live in a blissfully happy world, each of them wholly good and to be revered as you are feared. Every day, I have always tried to keep them safe as a precious heirloom is guarded and wisely locked away. All of this is a noble cause, and I would encourage anypony to rise to do the same and strive for such selflessness, not that you would understand why it is ideal. We have a wonderful system in Equestria to take care of the good around us. When tragedy happens — and any innocent life lost is the greatest tragedy — no matter what kind, many of my subjects are almost ignorant of it. They do not know murder, they do not know rape, they hardly know violence, and they do not know depression and melancholy of the spirit or how it can impact others, beyond it being wrong, because they live so happily and safely."

She paused for a quick swallow and shook the paper once, noticing the beat start slightly when she did, his eyes glued to the headline.

Good.

"My heart aches for those who suffer under my sun, even if I cannot understand all their plight. Their tragedy isolates them from their peers, and they no longer fit into the system and cannot lead their lives. Instead, they are shattered, hurt, and confused. You do not know what it is like to suffer." Though, you claim to love somepony who has suffered much and remains so alone...

"In my kingdom, where all is well and good, there are always places meant to help those who have suffered where the bulk of society cannot aid them because there are few who could understand these losses. There are therapists, clinics, and so many wonderful establishments that you cannot even begin to dream of to help soak the wounds of evil away and offer as much understanding as possible. You say Equestira is in some way undesirable when it is not, and we have a low crime rate, much lower than many other lands can claim."

Taking one last deep breath, she pulled the article away just enough to get a larger glimpse of where the beast was frozen and tongue-tied, searching the front page with wide eyes still. Benevolence of any kind must be so foreign to him that he could only muster this kind of reaction.

"Today, a shelter in Manehatten that offers all its aid and compassion towards helping those who have suffered any kind of sexual abuse and assault recover and heal received the startling donation of two-hundred thousand and fifty bits — a massive fortune, as you would know, and the biggest donation any such establishment in Equestria has ever gotten, second only to some of the donations Luna and I make to other locations. And instead of having whatever celebrity or massively wealthy patron give their name, in an extreme gesture of humility, this donation was given anonymously and without a trace! This is kindness! This is empathy, and you would do well to learn anything from it!"

Celestia looked down upon the demon, who had an oddly anxious air about him. Though that was to be expected. Her mane was curled with small hints of smoke she had carelessly allowed to slip, a faint leak of magic that was not as fearsome as mortals found it to be, and she had nearly slipped into the Royal Voice of Alicorns, something he might not have much exposure to with the solitude he preferred.

Within the gleam of the emeralds on his circlet, she was able to see the faint impression of how her eyes smoldered with a brief intensity she rarely had for anything.

To have such a maleficent being sitting in her shadow was such an enormous relief. No, he wouldn't look at her, and maybe that was peculiar for him, but here she was. This was a kind of progress, after all the trouble she had with having to have him as a prince.

"It is not by what you think constitutes as the effort that will bring success."

And this, jabbed a whisper, is coming from you, the serpent of a mare who climbed the stairway to the crown by slithering through the Unicorn's Court bearing venom as well as smile. Hypocrite.

She allowed her rush to wash the ugly critique away.

"No crown of Equestria, not my crown, nor Luna's tiara, or your circlet shall ever be made to represent anything less than Harmony and its ways. And do you know something?" She fixed her gaze on him as directly as she dared.

Sombra finally had shaken most of whatever spell had overcome him, but he was breathing quite raggedly as the look in his eyes cleared. His mouth opened slightly again, but hardly enough for him to do much more than exhale, but it was clear he aimed to move shortly.

Voice as swift as a whip's lash, swift as she desired, and with more of a deadly calm than she had used to speak with him in the past few moments, she put in her final word. "With your ways, you will not soar to the heights you want. Why, with all your behaviors it would almost be fit to make a wager of sorts, but I am no gambling mare. Instead, I would beg you to think of our interactions much like chess. I know we utterly oppose one another, but in the end, one of us will not get what we want. I have so many ponies around me, and yet you have none. So, I ask you this: which of us will be standing here in three hundred years' time?"

A hoof connected with her chest in a rough shove with a strength she should've expected from this stallion, whether he was armor-clad or not.

She made something that sounded like a gasp or a yelp to her ears, but even after the surprise faded could not decide. A brief bit of dizziness had overtaken her, because his movements had caused her to step backward, and her composure to fall over her like a sheet thrown over her head.

His touch was repulsive and sent a wave of alarm through her, and she felt her wings unfold slightly. The thought to flee whipped through the rest of her thoughts like a gale's wind, but she fought them until she felt they were properly suppressed.

But Sombra stood before her again. His breathing had an odd unsteadiness, and he was clearly gritting his teeth. There was a stormy look in his eyes that kept a feeling of fear in her, even if she was not what he looked at. The purple smoke ebbing from the corners of his eyes was considerably more steady.

Reddish aura mingled with that of dark magic clutched the crumpled newspaper, and she could see sparks of dark fire dancing there, singeing the words.

His tail waved with faint traces of shadow, and a low growl echoed through his study. It was not a thunderous sound, but a chilling one.

There was still something newer about Sombra that Celestia found disturbing, but could not properly place beyond the quick, frantic guess that such effects were part of his divinity: the crimson hue of his aura a touch more intense, the start of a quick flash of the color in his iris, and a fierce presence in the room seizing her senses so there was such an intangible aura of foreboding that touched her she felt her wings drop suddenly and heard herself inhale sharply.

It was dread.

"Get out," the monster said with a growl in his words, and it was the same growl that could still tease fear into her.

This time, she listened, and her thoughts fell to nothing but the single urge to leave until she gripped the door of the monster's lair in her magic, knowing he stood where she had left him, surrounded by his machines, his books, and the garbage that had been strewn about.

She had said what she needed to, and when her eyes found a hall clock outside, she saw she had not really wasted any time or thrown off her schedule. Good. She had managed to push back his efforts with her refusal to, which was the one other thing that she could congratulate herself on.

She had just about slammed the door with her magic before she heard the sound of something being thrown violently, and the distinct noise of something breaking. Barely escaping through the last crack of the door, before the noise-canceling barriers worked their literal magic again was the sound of a scream.

It was a distraught, guttural, angry sound. Frustration and pain were evident in the feral cry that sent a stab of fear through Celestia again.

Even after the door was slammed, it was the sound of the scream that lasted.

The hallway felt colder every time the sound of that monster's bizarre cry of torment and savagery rang in her ears. Her own breaths came with quick shapes until she began to force a normal, drastically less emotional expression to overcome her features.

All the little whispers of her mind, her doubts, her worries, her mumbling crashed into her mind as she lingered, frozen for just a moment longer.

That had not been the noise of any natural creature, not to Celestia's ears. There was no pony, Alicorn, griffon, changeling, seapony... any kind of...

Her throat felt tight.

She had places to be. The gears of normalcy did not run with idle cogs. One step after another took her father away from that door, but the sound still stuck with her. Even that cursed, eldritch feeling that Sombra's divinity — or the glimpse of it — brought was cut away as soon as she had closed the door.

The princess thought of redemption. It was not something that was passed out freely, nor was forgiveness. Never in Equestria had such a thing be true. There were always punishments for deeds and condemnations, never was there anywhere where mercy existed without the prospect of punishment.

Luna liked to say — to hear and to anypony, and she imagined that Sombra would have heard his wife's adage as well — that forgiveness did not mean anything if the prospect of punishment was not equally possible, but those words came from the mouth of a mare who believed in more than ivory and ebony and spoke fiercely of justice over kindness.

Of good and evil, only one side would ever come out forgiven. Luna was a good mare, and Celestia pitied her in all ways, and for all the troubles she had known. She had married a monster and stood alone in the world of her own accord. Her future held no love, and she was not properly assimilated to duty in the ways that Celestia was; Luna thought she could wear a crown instead of letting the crown wear her, as Celestia thought of it. She was an intense being... and sometimes...

Celestia couldn't stop herself from thinking of fangs and a nightmarish helm...

Sometimes still, she is absolutely frightening... and I will never, ever tell her such.

Spirit was a dangerous thing, and impurity to be tempered out of anypony with time. Luna's only grew with the ages.

As more halls of the castle passed Celestia's view, she thought of Discord. Like Luna, he had done things landing him in places out of the light, but Celestia knew him better. For the appearance ponies always thought strange, Celestia found a snaggle-toothed smile and the fun and levity she never had anywhere else but so craved above all else, when she allowed it. He was not a cruel soul, but he had been misguided.

Never had they been monstrous. Both had her welcome, her friendship, and her forgiveness in spades. Dissy had her love as Luna had her kinship. It was a simple, blissful thing.

Had anypony really stopped to think about things, to pry into the dark corners of history all but lost, they would know there was evil other than the likes of Tirek, windigos, Sombra, and the more fantastical entities of the world... something she begrudgingly grouped the demon into; she wasn't that picky with analysis.

The princess had encountered all this evil. As soon as the crown was first on her head, it was not a choice to fight evil and eradicate it from the lives of those who did not deserve his cruelty. With those first years, before she stood without Luna any longer, she had fought with all the fire of the sun and the mob cries of her subjects against such forces.

But after Luna, the quiet affairs began. There were monsters shaped like ponies. They violated and brought violence. They killed and reaped woe and fear. Not a single one deserved life, that much was clear and absolute. Even Luna had always agreed with her on that, though they reached the same destination through different paths. She never cast her agreement with Celestia's wisdom on all being in absolutes, sadly.

...That knowledge never eased anything, though. Not in one thousand years. It did not mean that the princess never had to chase these ponies, to see their work, to mourn their dead, to console the victims that she could save, and when they were caught... she was the one who had to delve into their existence. She was the world's filter, and never had she been cleaned. For all the work the local guard did, the obsessions and lusts of these monsters and what must be done to catch them fell upon her the hardest. It was she who had to pull away the festering layers of her psyche about them, to be exposed and immersed in their foulness in something terrifyingly intimate that left her forever feeling tainted.

She would always be the last to see them alive, after all.

She would have to hear everything.

Taking a life was never an absolvable offense. Such violence spelled out the evil within the soul. Evil was a brand, and after a while, it didn't matter what exactly she said about the brand, so long as evil was evil.

Forgiveness was for the injured, the accused, the misguided, the misunderstood, and all those who need be under her sun when their lives should have been filled with innocence and gaiety rather than the tangles of emotions, traumas, and so much more that Celestia and her mask alike could never untangle, understand, or become personal with.

So she beat on the monsters instead. They tired her in all the worst ways, leaving her more empty and alone than she usually felt.

It wasn't like they didn't deserve it.

Everything fell down to one real truth in Equestria, the shadow of the kindness and nation of peace she slaved to create. It was a rule about monsters, something the demon assuredly was.

No monsters would be forgiven.

Chapter 6: Husband of Hers, Part 3

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There were times when Celestia thought she was much like a little jam jar filled with bits. The glass was clean and clear, shining from a fresh wash and her little metal lid was popped off, allowing ponies to come and see the bright golden coins and look at them with the glee of school-foals who searched for candy money. And sometimes her friends did feel like foals, mostly because very few were nearly as old as she and not much more. Yet, because of this so many ponies did feel young after a while. They had not seen the things she had, lived through them, or been drained by them.

She might not even be the jar of bits, but when all was said and done, Celestia certainly felt like the jar. She might be the little sign instead. The one propped beside the jar, it clearly read 'TAKE ONE' and had a little smiley drawn next to it. There was no reason not to be nice. Ponies did take one. They needed a bit here, they wanted a bit there. Every time ponies left her presence with a smile, Celestia would smile too. She had given something away, tangible or intangible. She would be generous. Even when it hurt.

Maybe especially then.

Everypony would take a 'bit' eventually, regardless of what it was. She would smile in return, and say something too.

Generosity was such a good thing, and she would give so selflessly.

But nopony ever put a bit back. Bit by bit. That's how things went. Every day there would be a little less to have, and she would sit. It could be time. It could be energy. Anything.

Feeling, perhaps, was one such thing. She didn't like to think about that one.

Bit by bit.

Anypony could have something. They could be a simple subject, an acquaintance, a student, or a friend and a subject. A lover would apply to, but they were all her subjects in the end. And all took a bit.

Sometimes, she would even smile and wait for somepony to put anything back. Nopony ever did.

The jar of bits was always finite.

And she always gave.

Sometimes, this would nag her often. It was the many thoughts of a weary ruler oozed into foal-like imagery, but for some reason, it stuck with her.

Or maybe it haunted her. There was something creepily timeless about it.

Oftentimes, she would throw Luna into her little bit-jar thought. Were Celestia was open and appropriately given to everypony... Luna was not so. She would represent Luna with a jar with the lid screwed on so tightly that no coins could be seen. The only pony she ever shared anything important with or really seemed interested in cultivating any relationship with was the one she had been unfortunate enough to marry.

Luna shared something private and Celestia gave everything away.

She was empty now and maybe had been for some time. She still wanted desperately to be given something in return, and to give even more, regardless of if there was nothing left to give.

Unlike Luna, she had many subjects who had been elevated to the status of friend, and no matter how diminished she felt, there was always a friend within Canterlot. Her friendships were light affairs, with the tight illusion of extreme closeness that was in all her non-familial relationships, bending the impersonal to look truly personal. She confided nothing serious or dire in friends but spent so much wonderful time with them. She cared for them, really, but impersonal was always the best kind of personal.

She confided little of her troubles in her lovers too, letting each stallion get to know something just between the princess and Celestia herself. She never refused their reverent treatment of her, allowing every one of them to nearly worship the mare they loved. She loved them, too, and that was why they did not really know her. It was only with Discord could she really claim to have somepony know her, and to see something beyond her royal presence, and could still peer past it. He had known her long before the crown had claimed her head. Most of the time, that was a good thing.

Friends, too, were a good thing, and Celestia would never say otherwise.

Especially when she had Raven.

...

Celestia's levitation spell died down when her teacup came to rest on the marble surface of the table. A soft wind carrying the dulled crispness of February air against the soft bubble of golden aura that kept two mares warm in what was little more than a reversed snow globe. The steam from her tea drifted up and managed to slip past the barrier.

While it was not simple magic by the standards of a normal unicorn, it was certainly simple to the point of being nothing for Alicorn magic — a simple bubble to regulate the temperature in a designated area, nothing more! Godly feats of magic aside from the daily management of the sun were rare from her, as she liked it... even if it was far from natural.

She flicked one of her ears, feeling it brush against the cold metal of her crown. "After everything that you and I have seen together, and all the time we spent together, will this truly be how you treat me?"

There was the crisp chill leaking through her blasted bubble again before she heard anything from the petite mare across from her.

"Y-Yes, princess! This is how I shall fall!"

"Mortal," Celestia said, unable to imitate a properly grave voice, "is this really the hill you chose to die on? One that will make you my enemy for all time?"

The mousy mare across from her nervously wiped a few drops of sweat away from her cheek. "Y-Yes, of course, Your Highness!"

Pulling her faint smile just a touch tighter, Celestia nudged the ivory king in Raven's direction. "A game well played, then."

It was a rare thing for Celestia to lose games. She beat Luna frequently because Luna got bored halfway through games and didn't care, and she found more fun in swapping the pieces and between-move bantering than in the actual game.

Raven could best her on occasion. Celestia had first become acquainted with the maid's daughter years ago, when she found her as a distraught filly hiding in the gardens and played a few games of makeshift chess with her, eventually deciding to throw one in order to finally get the young one to smile and dissolve her worries.

Now, the filly was all grown up and the youngest secretary the princess had ever had. Dutiful and without pride, Raven was easy company, if often on the anxious side. These days, she could even manage to claim a game of her own in an honest victory from time to time, which was no doubt a product of their many years together.

Though, she managed less straightforward victories whenever Celestia's mind wandered, stumbling into the edges of its own shadow...

"Princess Celestia? Is something wrong?" Raven looked at her innocently with large, dark eyes through equally large, dark glasses. Her own forehoof accidentally came in contact with Celestia's to claim the ivory piece. An abrupt blush spread across Raven's face and she quickly recoiled, the piece in hoof, when she realized what she had done, murmuring an apology.

Celestia flicked a forehoof in a rare gesture of anything resembling dismissiveness. "Nothing at all, Raven. Or at least, nothing to really worry about... just some trouble with holiday preparation."

Raven wrung her forehooves and ducked her gaze to the game board and tea set perched on the table between them. She appeared quite interested in the remaining crumbs of her watercress sandwich, or maybe the dainty pattern on the plate that had held them.

"Is it anything I can help with?" she offered shyly.

Celestia smiled, knowing that of anypony who would be quick to help, it would be a friend. "I'm afraid that unless you have spare princesses lying around, not much can be done."

Folding her own forehooves politely on their table, Celestia let her gaze roam past swirls of steam from tea, crumbs from her scones and flower salad occupying their own fine plate, and the gloomy skeleton of the castle gardens that surrounded her. Frost crept across the bones of her favorite flower bushes and the other remains of once lush plants.

The streams of the many mountain waterfalls that wound through the castle grounds were frozen over and silent. Snow littered all that was left.

Sighing, Celestia turned back to Raven. She did not even wish to see the fog of her breath today. Winter was a season for feeling close to ponies, not for being miserable and alone, no matter how dull everything looked. Something about this barren time always gave Celestia such an unshakably bad feeling that tainted even lunch breaks like this just so.

"The last two seasons of holidays have not been going as I had wished, Raven." And lately, Celestia had been doing a lot of wishing. "Everything has been rather disorganized that I fear for the Palooza." And her smile dropped because once the warm feelings of Hearts and Hooves day had ebbed away into nothing, she didn't have much else to really look forward to as exciting other than the Palooza and Canterlot's grand, magical Winter Wrap-Up.

Raven offered a passive sigh of 'oh', before beginning to slowly reset the pieces with her magic.

Black and white. Celestia blinked. The promise of any holiday or party, no matter how many months away usually had her sincerely giddy under her sticky mask of forever-cheer, thrilled at any chance to be twirled into a conversation, and even forget all her problems with the intoxication of company. She had even begun to look forward to Summer Sun Celebrations in earnest now.

Family Appreciation brought the promise of a good season of holidays when she had finally convinced Discord that, though they were not wed, a proper family portrait to commemorate the occasion and be gifted to young Qilin would be a fantastic idea. And it had been, once the young kirin had stopped crying.

But on Nightmare Night, when her fine costume was picked out perfectly and she wanted to laugh with Luna and Dissy with pranks and treats in the spirit of their youth, she found out that Luna had been whisked away from the main celebrations on the castle grounds and streets by a stallion dressed as a plague doctor of old and passing out caramel onions before they both slipped into the city shadows, only for Luna and Sombra to reappear in the morning.

Hearth's Warming Eve had made Celestia barely refrain from the undignified behavior of leaping about like a little filly when Cadance and her family finally arrived. She nearly swarmed Cadance for the chance to hear any tips to get tips to lessen the infant's crying and see her dear great-niece Skyla, only to find the young one had been picked up by Luna and Sombra for doting, presents, and story time. Nothing had improved with Sombra, either. He still had no gifts to give to anypony and even acknowledging him was twice as awkward as last year.

She hadn't even had a chance to see Luna or Sombra on Hearts and Hooves Day, the closest she had come to catching sight of even their shadows was knowing that the moon was raised and lowered on time.

"Is it... because of him?" Raven ventured meekly.

"I..." Celestia paused, "I do not think that the Princess Pen Pal Palooza is anything he will enjoy, but no holidays are. Still, he's not actually going to be able to interfere with anything so much as he can just be a sullen, negative presence."

Raven snorted softly. "Isn't he always? Head Maid Moth Ball was telling me all about how any maid who can manage to get their hooves on a Sundrop Talisman has been scrambling to do so." She quickly tucked a dark strand of her mane back into her neat bun before her gossip resumed. "I don't blame them either. He's a beast, an arrogant, unbearable beast. He's yelling at them for wearing the Talismans of all things! Can you believe it? Just yesterday, Dusty Feather was going on about how she was yelled at for getting too close to him with one about her uniform like a brooch, all a-glow. And he yelled at her!"

"Oh goodness," Celestia whispered, a forehoof raised to her mouth. "Has he done anything else... or, said anything other than what he usually tells the poor mares?"

What she was uncertain of was why Sombra would be so angered about being in close proximity to a Sundrop Talisman.

They were small, inoffensive things meant to combat monsters. When the number of pioneers in Equestria was far greater, and many alliances not yet forged, those granted land by herself — such as Ponyville's Apple family — often needed aid to combat the wild beasts that could harm them. With no guard, no employed mercenary, and no magical arts, Sundrop Talismans were the key. Each a blessing from Celestia before she bit her little ponies good luck, watching them go with invocable traces of her magic and diluted with a touch of light magic to be held against the untamable.

He had to know that such magic was hers, no matter how many hooves such heirlooms were passed down to, or how many were acquired as antiques. Did her altruistic work anger him so? Was he repulsed by the good deed, by any display or connection of her power?

She did not know, but she did not worry. She looked to Raven instead, the latter's face was a bit flushed.

"No, Princess Celestia. He still calls me a submissive cur sometimes, or growls at the other staff, and dares to speak bluntly with them... that's not exactly irregular for the prince." She bit her lip. "The prince still won't let me look at any of his financial records. He absolutely insists on doing everything himself."

"Ah, yes. That does sound like him," Celestia muttered, idly stirring her tea.

"Isn't it just our luck he's a backward individualist?" Raven huffed, fidgeting with her glasses.

"Mhm, indeed. Just know that you're lucky you don't have to live with him. He's unbearable."

Raven blinked. "...Isn't he a recluse?"

"Yes, and it's horrid."

"Hmm, yes, that is certainly horrid on reputation. Still, I really would like to get a look at his finances. At least with your sister's, I get a taste of what she does with her bits, but with him, it's such a mystery. Don't you think it would really shed some insight into what wicked things he does? He's a dark sorcerer, but there is something tricky about less-than-magical things about him... I-I'm not really at the level to tangle with the magical things. It's not my place."

Celestia snorted mid-sip of her tea and hurriedly put the cup down and managed to avoid having the warm liquid squirt through her nostrils. "Oh, you have no idea! I'm convinced that his air of mystery is the only reason Luna fancies him."

"Oh no, not that. I apologize for any discourtesy, princess, but I was once again on the topic of his finances. It is very clear to me that he has some kind of steady income beyond what is expected of royalty, and I just find that odd. Why, even Blueblood has a clearer income than him, beyond inheritances."

Yes, Bluey has to get his rather extravagant allowances from his Auntie in order to secure necessities for parties, and whatever else tickles his impulses when he wants to write to me at all.

"And that stallion is bathing in derby bets, fine wine, and more parties than my father and his country club friends have thrown in all their lifetimes. But the prince? He may be far from extravagant, and nowhere near as refined as your nephew..."

Celestia was quite glad that she wasn't drinking her tea still, else she would've found it hard to resist a spit take. Maybe her friendships were not the horribly emotional affairs or particularly personal ones held by many ponies, but Raven was a friend as much as a servant, and part of a small group that could make Celestia really, truly laugh in ways beyond conversational titters.

"...and not even remotely willing to indulge in any luxury, as far as I can tell, he manages to acquire a lot more than I know he should. I simply must know where all those bits come from; he does not have the chance to engage in anything illegal, and he can't be in two places at once... but he's getting it from somewhere, and somewhere I could never know unless he allows me to see his finances. So, ponyfeathers to that."

"Oh dear, that is such harsh language, Raven," Celestia said with the barest hints of laughter, raising a forehoof to politely muffle her faint giggle, as was the gracious thing to do. "So profane."

"Oh..." Raven flushed, ducking her eyes instantly. "Oh gods, I do apologize, princess."

"I meant that in jest, Rae."

With their great divide in status, and Celestia's unwavering manner of mildness — at least, as far as Raven knew — there were always times like these. Raven befriended a mask, and below that mask, Celestia was fond of Raven. Between them were a thousand separations, and still, Celestia felt fond of the mare who managed to dance more closely to the edge of natural, tumultuous bonds of emotion than any other friend had in some time. They were united by duty, familiarity, and cheer. That was all Celestia needed, and she refused anypony undeserved disappointment.

With a sheepish nod, Raven took up her own tea to stave the awkwardness she so clearly felt for a few moments. The clink of a cup against a plate reached Celestia's ears, as did another chilly breeze, and Raven spoke once more.

"...Do you really think that there will be problems with the Palooza?"

Not wanting to risk a frown, all Celestia could do was sigh. "Yes, I think so. With only Luna, Twilight, and myself within Equestria, now there won't be as many princesses to write to, especially when I thought that Equestria would have four princesses..."

...for a very long time.

"Raven, I don't know if this year is going to be a good year. Ever since her ascension, Twilight has been flooded with letters. Colts and fillies always adored writing to Cadance, and now... I just wish we could still have four princesses."

Of course, Raven looked so surprised to hear even a hint of sadness in Celestia's voice. She was supposed to be a bright, ever-optimistic figure, and oh of course she faked it... but Raven had only heard worry from Celestia at most, and such a display was few and far between from her. There was a worry for everypony at some point — and nearly always for Luna — but it was not something she dumped upon her friends, and rarely revealed the depth of to them if she did it at all. Friends were not for such a selfish thing, especially when such troublesome things could be so neatly contained.

"Regardless, there's no halting a national holiday..."

"Well," Raven interjected, "you could... you're a princess."

Celestia shook her head, letting her rippling mane hide just enough of how much this troubled her. "I refuse to disappoint so many young ponies with an undeserved cancellation. The Palooza is what gives every foal a chance to write to royalty and get to know something about them and to be guaranteed an answer. The Palooza began four hundred and thirty-six ago..."

...because I was lonely and needed to talk to somepony.

"...so that young ponies could look forward to something in the dead of winter and come to understand their ruler."

One of Raven's forelegs shot up. "Wouldn't it be 'rulers' now?"

"Yes, thank you, Raven."

The other mare flushed slightly and once again focused on the remains of their lunch, and Celestia paid Raven's passivity no mind. She tended to enjoy the company of those who had this docility about them, for it was good and peaceful.

Assertive personalities absolutely exhausted her, and exceptions to this were few and far between.

Those that minded themselves and carried this admirable obedience, whether in general or to a fine cause, was something she could appreciate and relate to in a friend. It also meant that more often than not, she could drink her tea with ease around such types, saving chaos for where cotton candy clouds were most welcome.

"Princess...?" Raven ventured after some time, caution and worry both clear in her tone.

"Yes?" Celestia responded absently, feeling whatever spirits she might have had left slowly begin to dampen. It just... wasn't going to be a good year, was it?

But wouldn't next year hold... something?

She couldn't even offer herself some much-craved platitude. Things boded poorly.

"M-May I speak freely?"

"Oh," the princess said softly, blinking. "Of course?"

Raven swallowed nervously, then asked, "Are things well with the prince?"

Celestia blinked. "Whatever do you mean?"

"Is he not... terrible?"

Celestia looked away from Raven and tried her hardest to restrain her emotions. The terrible things were always better off concealed in times like these, but that didn't stop slip-ups from being an unfortunate occurrence. "I don't like him, Raven, but I do have to live with him."

Raven bit her lip. "...What's that like?"

"Hm? What is what like, Raven?"

Raven ducked her eyes so obviously that for a moment Celestia was worried her dear secretary was having a fit of some sort. "Living with..."

A monster. "...with a not-quite reformed pony?"

There, she thought, that is a good way to refer to him. It's quite soft and inoffensive.

It would be quite useful in the future, too.

"Yes, that is what I meant, princess."

"Ah!" Celestia exclaimed, forcing a small smile she knew Raven wouldn't see past. "Well, it is quite the experience. He's, well, he's a vegan!" Or allegedly one, I really can't be sure.

Raven blinked, clearly perplexed. "A vegan? The prince?"

"Yes, or so I'm told."

"...Is that something special about him, princess?"

"...Oh, no, I don't think so. A quarter of Equestrians are vegans, but it just seems unusual for him. A real shocker, yes?"

"I-I'm not so sure," Raven said meekly. "I just... you're so gracious to put up with him... and..."

"And what?" Celestia prompted kindly. "Is there something wrong?"

Raven squeaked.

"Did he hurt you?"

"N-No, he just calls me a dog and such, sometimes. But he is scary."

I know, I'm afraid of him too. "There's no need to be afraid of Prince Sombra, he cannot harm you in any way. I have no fear of him, and if I feared that any of my little ponies would be hurt by him, he would have no circlet upon his head."

Only one of those things was true.

Nodding, dutifully, Raven poked at the game board in front of her. "I remember your speech at his coronation. As always, I found your words to be so uplifting and ..." Raven trailed off, sighing. "You have a way of making everything seem like it will be okay, and all your words sound righteous... it makes me feel like such a fool for ever worrying."

Emotion had to be let out, and Celestia allowed her expression to soften greatly with concern. "What is it that bothers you?"

"Isn't Sombra still evil?"

Celestia paused and looked toward her secretary calmly. Would this prove a tricky question? Or could she work her way through it with ease? "Raven, I know that you know better than to suggest that anypony who is evil would ever sit upon the throne of Equestria, or even work for it. Perhaps you should consider rephrasing your question, and I'll be pleased to answer it."

"I apologize, princess," Raven all but whispered. "What I meant was something like... even though you made a noble choice to have him crowned, a matter in which Princess Luna contributed, do you think that it is right he is all but pardoned? You do not like him, and he is so different from how you rose to the crown, princess." Swallowing quickly, she added: "I-Is that any better?"

Celestia nodded absentmindedly, having been distracted by the sight of neat rows of chess pieces to have properly react to Raven's ramblings. "Yes, that is a bit better." She paused, and peered wordlessly at Raven, watching the younger mare compose herself to appear quiet and more mild-mannered than she already was. "Though, I would like to hear how it is you feel our paths to the crown are so different."

Raven's aura flicked to life so she could push her glasses back up her muzzle, and one of her ears flicked. "You... Well, it would be just like every history book and pony-tale ever said before, princess. All the things you've lived through and already know. I don't have a unique view of things, nor do I think one beyond the normal one is needed. You... helped ponies."

Celestia dipped her head a certain way so that she might look out at the gardens. Philomena often liked to roost, regardless of the weather. A few fish ponds were in each of the castle gardens too and were enchanted so their waters remained unfrozen and heated. In them was a variety of fish, including the present of koi from Neighpon. Sombra kept his own fish in one of them, and though Celestia had not seen it ever, she heard it liked to jump out of the water often. Any such stirring and sounds from the direction of the pond complex always caught her attention, and Raven must have taken the 'nod' of Celestia as a cue to go on.

"Every little colt and filly in Equestria learns about how you came to the Tribes as a wanderer from over the mountains, and that you brought light to the land."

Many ponies were prone to saying 'our ancestors' over 'the Tribes' but Celestia knew that if you lived as long as she had, and were nearly rooted to Canterlot as she had always been, you would find some very similar shapes in the leaves that rained down upon you over the years. She knew Raven unknowingly was prone to such word choice because she had been the one to approve the passage of some of Raven's Prancian ancestors into Equestria. Those papers were not fresh in her mind, but they were there. Little things like that always stuck with her, even if she did not find them to be of importance.

"The dark and cold land soon was exposed to you, and how you spoke of unity and Harmony to ponies that were hungry strangers and need only to learn to get along. You've... you've changed more than anypony ever could, princess, before you ever were one. I... It's something I admire." Blushing slightly, Raven continued. "Exposed to poverty, you spoke of better things and aided the peasants of the three Tribes, and met figures like the great Starswirl the Bearded in your travels."

Celestia's heart didn't sink so much after hearing 'great' and 'Starswirl' intertwined together after so long. Things felt eased by it, actually, and it soothed something in her to have something so innocent and good over the scar of the truth.

Starswirl got to be a completely different pony, one who was good and noble and had never hurt anypony.

So really, much of how she thought of things, and all the shadows of her memory and a periwinkle stallion that knew how to work his way into the edges of her thoughts was just quite silly.

And maybe it hadn't been real, too. Holding a confused and crying Twilight Sparkle while feeling so cold and far away had been real, but maybe the story — yes, the story — she had worked together with a few patches of memory, delivered impersonally and free of many details and information could be nothing more than fantasy.

And if it had been real? If those sensations of phantom bruises and the echo of a drunk stallion's screams and strikes had actually happened...

They simply didn't have to be.

"Luna was there as well," Celestia chimed in, looking upon Raven softly now that she no longer rambled so, and Celestia had managed to hoist her thoughts out of the dangerous edge of memory.

"Oh!" Raven exclaimed, adjusting her glasses again. "I'm sure she was! I'm truly sorry for any offense, I didn't mean to exclude your younger sister... she's just not in any of the books I had growing up. The stories about you, and how you heroically defeated Discord and... and when Equestria began... they've always been my favorite, and I'm just not used to the new versions, with Princess Luna in them."

'New versions'. Celestia held back cringing but ended up feeling worse for it.

"And you feel that Luna's husband is different, though he has had his own exploits that have aided Cadance in the past?"

Here she was, bordering on a demon's literal advocate. It made her feel sick.

"No, no it's not that. I just... because of everything he did in the Crystal Empire, does he deserve to be happy?"

Suddenly rapt with attention, Celestia gave Raven one long look. "I see you have listened to me as much as a Faithful Student would. Tell me, what lessons have you learned?"

"I learned a lot about happiness," Raven began delicately, hooves folded politely in front of her. She was not able to hide how her brown eyes darted about from the other side of her glasses. "Happiness isn't something a pony has, it is something that is earned by being good to others, and if you have been good as well, then there is happiness in store for a pony." Smiling, Raven went on. "Because it is a reward, seeing undeserved happiness is... I'm not the one who gets to decide these things, I'm a secretary, not a princess. Yet, I know that when I see somepony who has gotten what they want through means they should have, that it isn't right."

With the weight of the season and Raven's clear sadness, Celestia could not help but appear a touch somber as well, watching as the younger mare's expression crumpled. She had never had a way with words, but Raven was a delicate creature who could hide little, and Celestia knew that Raven knew that she disliked Sombra, even if most other ponies could never hope to guess at anything past her mask of sweetness and properity. Raven knew how to find the tip of the iceberg of sour thoughts Celestia had, at least sometimes, even if she was too naive to know there was anything else to them.

"He was supposed to change, wasn't he? The prince was supposed to be reformed and, oh..." Raven nearly whimpered, "how was it that you had put it?"

"Humbled," murmured Celestia between another sip of tea. Though her aura-bubble certainly kept the cold of winter away, it did nothing to reduce overall gloom or to keep her tea warm.

"He's still so proud and mean."

Celestia did not wish to speak of how she loathed Sombra's stubbornness so. She too had been expecting a breakthrough and instead was faced with a Sombra hardly any different than from any of their past encounters. She was faced with the same mysterious stallion and his incurably apathetic attitude.

She just nodded once she had drained her teacup of its contents.

"I don't want to see that any longer if it means I have to see you upset."

Raven finally looked into Celestia's eyes, a gesture so highly atypical that Celestia was too stunned to blink. There was something foggy to those brown eyes like they were trying to give Celestia an answer she did not know how to read.

Or perhaps that was exactly what they showed the princess.

And all Celestia knew was that the reflection of her own rosy eyes in Raven's glasses held the same absence of clarity. Even she could not discern what emotion was reflected back at her.

This was her friend, and every conversation between them was like the link in a chain pulled tight around them both.

She waited for the awkward feeling to diminish, the next cue to come, and the sense of feeling that came upon confiding anything in a friend.

Celestia felt lost instead.

...

Celestia and Raven had an arrangement. It was composed of three simple things and a routine built around these foundations. First, there was a door. This was no grand door, merely the door to one of Celestia's informal 'reading rooms' around the castle. They were out-of-the-way places, often with large sunny windows, plush pillows, tea trays, and all things plain and soothing.

Outside the door was where Raven stood, as she was asked by her princess. It was a duty Raven took on all too willingly, something that had initially surprised Celestia. No other secretary had been quite so apt to serve and stand like a guard would.

There was something touching about that aspect of things, and perhaps almost dangerously so.

Next came the spell. As uncommon as it was, such an enchantment was standard in high places. Noise-canceling spells were an expectation in any situation that called for discretion: from royal meetings, and interrogations of criminals, to encounters between lovers. So as long as one was an educated unicorn the spell would be present.

Celestia found them necessary to mask things. Loud sounds were problematic, especially when one had a reputation for particular things to come up in the whispers of conversation.

'She's beauty.'

'She's grace.'

So who could hear inelegant emotional responses from the mare who must always know restraint?

It was a simple understanding between two friends: one would stand outside a door and hear nothing, and the other would shave off just a hint of her mask, only to build up a wall again before stepping outside.

Celestia let the silence weigh down on her uncomfortably and the clogged feeling in her throat grow. With nopony around, she trembled faintly and told herself she was cold. A delicate fear sat quietly in her stomach, and she knew it showed in her eyes as well.

Of this entire ritual, it was the third and final thing that troubled her the most.

The modest pile of envelopes waited for her, as did cold tea.

Celestia hated cold tea.

Sighing shakily, Celestia pulled an envelope toward her with a forehoof. She was relieved that the sensation of manila was not one she actually felt, and the gold of her regalia offered her protection against something she could not name every time.

With Luna, there had not even been a few dozen letters, and they certainly were not like...

When Discord's reformation had first been known, there had been uncertainty, but no letters. By then, ponies were as optimistic as she was.

Her exhale was not practiced, graceful, and perfected. That troubled her.

Faint golden magic hesitated at the fastener. She had already glimpsed the stamps on the side, falling into the familiar pattern of snowflakes, Cadance silhouettes, and images of the Crystal Heart. On rare occasions, there would be Trottish stamps too, but she was not so lucky to have anything new to add to her stamp collection.

And maybe she shouldn't, not when it was these letters.

Tearing the letter open was painstakingly slow, and the sound lingered in her ears long after she discarded the envelope neatly into the wastepaper basket.

She didn't need to know the letter was from the Crystal Empire. They all were.

And maybe how they never told her to do anything was the worst part of them. Yet, there were so many other things that contended for that attribute.

Out fell a creased, folded parchment. Plainer papers were still quite uncommon in the Empire, and to Celestia they never felt any different. There were often ink dribbles, ring imprints from beverages, and the inevitable spots that marked where clear moisture had dried.

Celestia had seen too many of these to recall any distinction with needless details. Her stomach was no longer clenched at the words. Fear no longer struggled through her at the things these terrible words spelled out, it ebbed dully and was driven through the shattered bits of her resolve, wherever it may lay.

Most often, it was the words of a mother that was presented in each. Their ages always varied, and some were quite ailing and their pleas and recollections showed it.

They wrote about how their hearts broke, how their children only exist in their heads, and of violence. These were the ponies that lived in a world without anypony connected to them, in pockets of mourning and marked by violence that nopony in Equestria understood, not like they did, if at all.

Each letter had the same ghost story, written by somepony so desperate, haunted, and fraught with loss.

There were two nicely cut things to take away from this, a quiet black and white, as should be expected.

The first was that Celestia knew loss and much of her life was filled with it. However, she grew used to it, and some grief passed. It was quite nice, in the way you told the one whom you love dearly and trust most that you are doing quite nicely and so wonderful when you could not be more devastated, for to burden and personalize is a terrible thing.

That was a nice kind of loss. Neat, restricted, and contained.

But it was not all loss. There was better and there was worse. Celestia told herself she was content with that, and she wasn't always lying.

The second thing was that with all the loss, intensity, and devastation the crystal ponies knew, and how terribly familiar most of it was to Celestia, she still didn't understand them at all. Something so fundamental was missing from this. From her.

For that, she thought she might be terribly graceful. How good she was not so affected by such emotions, and yet not know the apathy of Sombra.

Celestia's throat clenched at that name. She put the letter down soundlessly and sucked in as elegant as a gasping, teary breath as she could manage.

She wanted to not care that she was going to have to spin a charm to restore all her makeup for the rest of the day and force some composure in all the right places. Perhaps the experience would simply take over, as it had in the past, and she would find the most tranquil white Alicorn mare staring back at her.

The fact that was the first thought to spear her haze of grief made her feel downright nasty. That was what came first to her, and it was so self-centered and stupid. Her kindness would flood in second, or maybe third when she wished to just drown it first and foremost. She would be a good mare in this if she could.

Allowing the mask to encase her again, the princess levitated the envelope at an angle so that the small object causing the notable bulge she had spotted fell out.

A trinket clattered onto the table. Celestia found that this was what sealed the awfulness of her feeling. Each of these objects had a ghost still anchored to it in her mind. Something about them was so extremely Crystalline as if their distinct cultural association was deliberate in the mind that selected them.

She did not find the usual sort of things like mane-snippets, miniature portraits, photographs, favored amulets, feathers, horseshoes, or cutie mark carvings sent to her. No, shuffled among letters that could span a dozen pages were jewelry, cutie marks assembled from gems, first crystals from crystallokinesis, and other curious things. There was a bizarre tradition of 'birthstones' in the Crystal Empire and often trinkets like lockets were embedded with those.

When a pony wasn't named for a gem or mineral, they always seemed to have a birthstone, or so Celestia guessed. Frankly, she had done little to delve into Crystalline culture. Such a thing was the duty of Cadance.

Few ponies sent birth records to Celestia, even though those still didn't 'help' with anything, but there was one very similar item she was sent that was quite similar.

It lay right in front of her. The smallest slap of sapphire had been polished, but not smoothed out. Imprinted on the surface were the prints of two rear hooves. For the popular keepsake was made when a foal's early burst of innate crystallokinesis was harnessed, and their hooves were pressed into the crystal, melding it.

Sometimes it was all that was left for the poorest of parents. It mattered not how prosperous the Empire was now, time could not be turned back, and certainly not to collect one more memento of a pony doomed to be murdered.

Violence. Murder. All these things could jump out at her with the hunger of phantom memories. Those hoofprints had belonged to a pony. No monster had made those; they were the mark of an innocent child stolen by somepony who cut against the calm flow of an undisturbed kingdom.

It was terrifying to think of all the things individuals could do.

When she was done staring at the shimmering piece, Celestia unfurled her wings and wrapped them around herself. The barrier of feathers made it easier for her to believe that she was protected. Her own breaths were made louder, and she felt pinpricks of dislike in her mind of how she did not like the sound. Something uncontrolled was in these sobs.

She was sobbing again. They were not dramatic things, or deep and woeful. She did not brim with feelings or get any catharsis from these tears. They wet her cheeks coldly, and she endured each awkward motion of her chest as best as she could. There was no unattractive element and antithesis to being a welcoming, benevolent presence like the fool who cried so openly and grossly.

Three steps led up to this routine that was little more than a transference of misery via mail to mare that let all of these things trespass into her contained and well-sorted being.

When Celestia was sure she could disconnect herself properly again, and appear relaxed and how she ought to, her wings fell away. She folded them quietly and rose. One thorough browsing later, she was sure that the rest of the letters were just the same as the first. Even if most of them weren't, there were ways to deal with mail.

She wiped at her tears with the insides of her feather, knowing that any smudges of makeup on them would be washed away with some extra mid-day preening and personal grooming.

Her mind was still foggy with the familiar pain of reading such sorrowful things, and she instead dragged her attention to adjusting her regalia, putting on a winning smile, and to where all things started: the door.

Her hoof moved with the clockwork grace of habit and gripped the handle. Out into the hallway she went, where Raven stood bearing the pallor of a ghost.

"I have reviewed my mail, Raven. Please be sure to write out the proper responses to each, and I shall add my signature over noon tea," the princess said warmly. "And do let the chefs know that I think today calls for a brew of passion flower, don't you? I shall take it in my office, undisturbed."

Celestia did not see what warranted the wide-eyed look of disbelief Raven was giving her for what was protocol between them. Yes, the last part wasn't common for her to request, but it wasn't it wasn't rare either.

Standing in the shadow of her princess, Raven nearly looked scared out of her horseshoes.

"My dear, what has upset you?" Celestia asked, calmly trying to find what could be troubling the smaller mare. Her eyes revealed little to be disturbed about, just that they were alone in the hallway, save for the guards Celestia knew to be around the next corner.

Raven swallowed and dipped her head in the effort of typical prostration. "Nothing, princess. I'll be sure your tea is sent right away."

"Oh, Rave. I'm an old mare. I can stand to wait a bit for some tea. Besides, if the tea arrives before me, I will most likely find it has already gone cold. There is little worse than cold tea. Have the chefs take their time. However, I still would like to know what is wrong."

Please tell me.

"...I-Is that an order, princess?"

Princess Celestia allowed her teeth to rest in a manner as close to allowing them to clench as one of her stations would.

"No, of course not."

It is what any friend would say.

Raven's withers sagged weakly. "All is well, princess. I'm just worried about things." She swallowed sharply as if she didn't understand she was being observed. "T-Things at chess club have been getting very intense, that's all."

Celestia blinked, unsure of what exactly could be said beyond awkward assurance. "Well, I'm sure things will sort themselves out."

Nodding far too quickly, Raven turned away and trotted toward the kitchens in a hurry. For that Celestia was glad, it meant her secretary didn't have to see the suspicion in the look her princess gave her. If there was one thing Celestia was thankful for, it was that Raven did not have eyes in the back of her head like the last one. Celestia could not so much blame a sneeze on Philomena jokingly with that stallion around.

With her gaze sharpened, she finally saw what spooked Raven in the form of a reflection in a minor gilded accent on the door.

Her reflection.

A bold imperfection faced Celestia, and she found the image of criminal disarray back at her: around her right away was the unmistakable smudge of mascara and evidence of tear stains still around her cheek.

The white mare who gaped back at Celestia had forgotten to maintain perfection and restore the finest touches of her mask.

There were three parts to his plan. The spell was dissolved with her exit.

And Raven?

Celestia couldn't even bite her lip now that she was alone.

Raven had learned something that shattered her beloved world and goddess.

Princess Celestia cried too.

The only worse than that information was what Raven might do with it.

...

The day of February twenty-second arrived with a morning full of promise. Celestia had risen before Discord, and though her mind yearned for coffee, it was a rare day she felt grounded within herself in a way that didn't feel terrible.

She put on a little gold eyeshadow. She watered the violets that she had propped around in little vases in her opulent chambers. She brushed her teeth three times instead of two.

This time, she felt her smile just a bit more than normal.

There was a minimal amount of comfort behind being the princess today, and the dawn came a bit lightly today. She was quick about it, for an efficient dawn was her kind of dawn. Luna was the one who dragged forth the night with this need to linger and insistence on 'craft'.

After so long pushing celestial bodies on their course around the planet, it was downright narcissistic to actually watch the same thing over and over again for centuries when it was you who made that phenomenon happen daily.

She fell into further routine after that and was thankful she never had to rouse her partner like Luna had to. Swift morning routines dominated her early hours, and she swept her Dissy into as many conversations about the Princess Pen Pal Palooza as she could. It was only days away, and a fragile eagerness rested in her. With Luna and Sombra taking different morning duties, all felt quite bright. She had been able to pass off young Qilin to her nurse with no chaos-magic outbursts or confused tantrums too! What a day this was shaping up to be!

There were preparations to be made, and purpose and order were clear.

Her path was set, and there was a buzz of sunny feelings at a holiday soon-to-be and usefulness found. Even the pastel colors of her mane did not look so faded.

She was optimistic. Nothing could prevail over timeless good cheer.

...

"We're going to try doing this without Cadance?" Luna asked, the skepticism in her tone clear, one eyebrow arched coolly.

There was a sinking feeling in Celestia's chest. "Well, yes—"

From Equestria's throne, Celestia looked down on Luna, who stood calmly at its base. Their roles were only thus because Luna and Sombra had arrived late. Philomena did dawdle when it came to ferrying scrolls around the castle. Otherwise, Luna might have staked her claim on the shared throne.

(Though, Celestia did have to admit that with Twilight and Sombra as less-adjusted and new additions to the Royal Family, there was something nervous and intense about having only one throne. She felt a possessive nature over the beautiful millennium-old structure, and truthfully still had a hard time feeling well about anypony but Luna sitting in it. As long as Sombra had no chance to lounge in the revered status symbol, she felt safe. That was what mattered most.)

Usually, the throne gave Celestia an extra boost of all authoritative feelings. From her mouth, the most gentle of words could come, or even the silliest if she was in the mood, and yet who would doubt the mare on the throne?

Luna did. She always had, and there was no way quite like hers and how she pushed over Celestia's creations with plain questions. Her efforts were a stick unfurling all the threads of effort Celestia wanted to spin.

Sombra did. Or, Celestia knew that behind his sharp eyes, he did. There was no need to second guess his nature, but it was hard to think he was currently doubting her when had not done much to acknowledge her when he showed up. If it were not for his dark coat, height, the scent of coffee, and the eerie presence that came with the stallion, she would have no idea that he was even in the throne room.

These were some of the things that made Celestia with many more Twilight Sparkles and Ravens in the world.

"Sister, she was the most popular of us to write to for your holiday, was she not?" Even the rippling of Luna's mane found a steady, quizzical way to flow that matched her tone.

And you have always been the least written-to... is this a matter of envy? Or will your attitude towards my holiday be constant?

"Yes, she was, and I'm afraid that because of how things have changed she won't be included. However, I'm sure that we can all pull this off with three princesses!" Celestia offered a smile of good nature to go against Luna's thoughtful frown because somepony had to be the one to look on the bright side.

"We could put the holiday on hiatus, Tia. There is no crime in giving our problem more thought."

Celestia let out a small, measured gasp and kept her back straight. "Cancel a national holiday? Luna, what makes you think that should ever be done?"

Celestia watched her daughter look at her with what could be the vaguest bit of boredom. She was certainly frustratingly introverted today, which did not make discussing a holiday centered around communication and the abolition of such needless asocial traits any easier. "Because we have the authority to? I think that would not need to be elaborated upon. Holidays have been done away with before, and you and I need no input to be rid of such a thing. I nearly got rid of Nightmare Night. You could have ended the Summer Sun Celebration if it troubled you so."

And endure the social backlash of such a thing? Or have confronted everything about your absence so long ago? Luna clearly did not realize that just because the Summer Sun Celebration had been a grim, saddening affair that the princess always forced her best smile for until recently did not mean she could do what she wanted. No, generations of ponies wanted the Summer Sun Celebration, so Celestia endured.

If there was any lesson that Luna had never learned and Celestia had, it was that it wasn't about you. Nothing was.

"That's selfish and impractical."

Luna's frown looked more striking, and she stood taller. "Celestia, how is doing something we can manage with less difficulty than attempting to do something well halfway impractical? It would save much time and effort, and we have days to do so. I think it would be a good idea, and the best one we have."

"And why can't we just make ponies happy? This is a centuries-old tradition, why must we do away with it this once when it has worked with different amounts of princesses in the past?"

"Celestia," Luna said with faint exasperation. "This worked with you alone because you founded this event. This worked with you and Cady because Cady was young, could be managed, and everypony wanted to write to the young mare who was unanimously declared the biggest celebrity of that millennium. Of course, little fillies and colts would have no difficulty writing to her! With Twilight Sparkle, I think you can explain. From there, everything has been needlessly complicated. Perhaps Equestria needs a rest, for it has had much news to get used to and an expanding royal family. We could spend the day together instead!"

Celestia bit her lip. She and Luna had not been spending nearly as much time together lately, and Celestia wasn't sure she wanted to. Lately, Luna was lively and busy herself, and Celestia was much keener on being the princess than having to do anything that required her to be 'Celestia' as of late.

It was true that Twilight always had a sizable outpouring of letters in each Palooza, whereas Luna only did in the year of her return. Like a seasonal fad, she soon became the one who came squarely in fourth place in all future Paloozas. Maybe it wasn't unexpected. Luna was hardly the sociable, modern, cutesy, and open princess that Equestria's populace would have fawned over. She hardly even seemed to enjoy the holiday. Celestia had to remind her to answer letters like she had to remind her to smile in public.

There was also the matter of the 'expanding royal family'. Luna's plans to have a foal by Sombra were sadly still in place. Perhaps they were halted. Celestia was not sure, and she dreaded inquiring about it, but from time to time she would hear Luna mention something so clearly related to the matter, or how Cadance already spoke to her of baby tips. (Once, she had even caught a distressed-looking Sombra eye a parenting book Cadance had left out.)

The royal family was expanding, though, and there was no way to deny that. It was so sensible for Twilight, Shining Armor, and Cadance to all have their foals. It was too late to do anything about the Matter of Qilin that Celestia's thoughts often skillfully combated, along with the Related Stress that stemmed from such a thing.

But Celestia and Luna (and, by extension, Sombra too) lived an heir-optional life. Unlike the dynasties of mortals and their inevitable heir requirements, politics, expectations, and the general necessity of offspring, one of the great efficiencies of being an immortal royal was how unneeded it was for children to be had. A loving partner for the eternal who wished it could be had, but no other family had to be. Such a thing meant that superior devotion to the welfare of one's kingdom and subjects could be had.

So, for Luna to try and have a child — and a biological one at that — when there was every reason for her not to, and solely because she 'wanted' to was so astonishingly selfish.

And Celestia wanted to dodge that matter more than she ever wanted to dodge thoughts of Qilin Stress.

"I know, Luna, but the Princess Pen Pal Palooza shall see no cancellation this year. We'll simply find a way around our problem."

Luna's ears flicked in protest. "But Celestia—"

In response, Celestia calmly held up a hoof. "Luna, I don't want to hear any more 'buts'. You are a princess of Equestria, and I expect you to play your part just as much as anypony else has to. Aside from this issue, what is it that you cannot let rest?"

Luna lowered her ears slightly, and her bright eyes looked to the side. A sudden sulkiness crept into how she presented herself. "It is just that this has always felt like a terribly inauthentic way of communicating with our subjects... and I feel it does not give the best implications to young ones. This day is too stressed in the minds of young ponies, and can communication not be achieved in much better ways?"

This, again? Celestia saw how Luna's downcast eyes followed the alternating patterns of light from the stained glass windows. Such details about the castle were never lost on Luna, but Celestia was not a mare for such things, and that included the odd remarks of Luna. She loved her dearly, but they had so little to agree on. "You say these sorts of things every Palooza."

"I know, sister," Luna said softly. She dipped her head slightly so that her forelock spilled over her eyes even more. "The feeling doesn't go away."

"Do you think that we should strip ourselves of our regalia, go into the streets, and walk among our subjects, pretending we are exactly like them, and chat with them?"

Sombra snorted from where he was, muzzle buried in the pages of the notebook he levitated and scribbled so furiously in.

Luna's retort was a flummoxed, immediate thing. "No, no! Of course not! That's absolutely ridiculous! It isn't what I meant, either, and that is perhaps even more inauthentic," Luna huffed. "Is it wrong that I wish we could improve upon things that might need it?"

Ah, somepony had to be the complainer. "Luna," Celestia said kindly, "why do you tell me how to run my holidays?"

Luna's muzzle scrunched ever-so-slightly. "I thought this would be our holiday, as I see no Summer Sun banners about, and all of us participate."

"Yes, we do all participate. Twilight lives in Ponyville and she participates, despite the distance between us. I am the founder of this holiday, though—"

"Tia, you founded most holidays in Equestria," Luna corrects brightly.

Celestia holds back a sigh perfectly. "Yes, I did, and I wouldn't tell you how to run Nightmare Night, would I?"

Luna drags one forehoof lightly over the floor. "No, of course not. However, I also didn't found Nightmare Night. Ponies did. I may be its sovereign, and I love it dearly, but I did not establish it. In fact, since I have returned, I have not established a single holiday, and especially not one for myself..." Luna trailed off sadly.

"...Do you not like the addition of the moon at the Celebration Platform? Is that what this is about?"

"No, sister," Luna said quietly, and that was when Celestia noticed that Sombra actually looked quite attentive by how his ears were pricked. "It is not about that..."

From where he was in the shadow of one of the throne room's pillars, Sombra quietly closed his notebook and watched Luna carefully. Celestia thought he might be annoyed.

Celestia looked at Luna and regretted that she had not been able to get dear, perky Twilight Sparkle to come. With two foals and an entire village in need of her attention, Celestia was without a fellow princess and friend for this meeting.

Luna's tail swished apathetically, and Celestia saw that she couldn't hide the disappointment in her blue eyes, even if her expression was neutral.

"Luna, could you please do this?"

Luna looked down at her hooves, thinking. "Can next year be different?"

"Maybe," Celestia said quickly and nicely, watching as Luna's noncommittal demeanor burst. Blue eyes sparkled as hopefully as though they had heard a 'yes', and even if she didn't smile, there was some exuberance back in her poise.

And I do mean maybe...

"Then this year I shall bear the event, and not even a thousand paper cuts shall stop me!"

And is that all you have been doing? Have you just been bearing things?

"That's good to hear," Celestia said instead, though all the morning's optimism had since crumbled. She saw how Luna didn't look forward to the holiday, too. She looked forward to it being different next year. It was only Celestia who wanted the Princess Pen Pal Palooza to go on in this room.

"Though, sister, we still have the problem of only three princesses. Everypony will be expecting four this year, and yet you've certainly stressed that nothing will be canceled. How are we to do things this year?"

And so the princess felt the tables turn back to her. There was the expectancy that she faced so often. Countless ponies needed her, after all.

She had an idea.

Her necklace felt much, much heavier.

She definitely had an idea.

"Well, I think it would be good—"

"—idea if we asked ourselves if further substitutes can be made for the fallen Pink One?"

Celestia looked toward Sombra, surprised that he had spoken at all, or that he had been listening to anything that had been going on. Luna smiled at the sound of his voice and turned her head to see him.

From the shadows, there was not much that could be seen of his expression, but the gleam of the emeralds on his circlet and the red of his eyes were noticeable. He did not look particularly irate and waved to Luna after slipping his notebook under his cloak, and Celestia did not see it again, nor did she see his coffee mug again once his magic had done away with it.

"I'm surprised you're still awake, Som."

Luna's warm, playful tone earned one teasing eye roll from Sombra. The princess sat in silence as Sombra rose and trotted over to Luna.

She let her gaze fall when it became clear he wanted to nuzzle his wife.

"That I am, and I think now would be the best time to get my two bits in."

Luna's ears perked forward. "Oh? And what is your idea? Do you think we should have some sort of special guest as this 'substitute' for Cady?"

Sombra shook his head.

"Skyla is much too young to be expecting hundreds of letters," Celestia said, giving Sombra a clear no-means-no look to strike off his possible princess replacement. "I'm afraid that we will also get complaints from the crystal ponies about 'claiming' their True Heir, as Skyla is born on their land from Cadance. If they see such a thing being done, they shall bite."

Sombra tilted his head to the side. "I never said anything about Skyla."

Luna's ears flicked and she gave Celestia a puzzled look before returning her attention to Sombra. "What Tia said is true, but did you plan to suggest Skyla?"

"No."

"Miss Rarity?"

"No."

"Then who will be the fourth princess?" Celestia cut in.

"I would like to be," Sombra said.

And he said it with a straight face.

Celestia opened her mouth a little. When she thought of nothing to say, she closed it quietly but was nevertheless very surprised to hear this.

Luna gave Sombra what Celestia took to be a look of concern. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Why did Luna make the holiday sound like some terrible risk? Why is she just accepting that he wants something and not questioning what he just said?

Sombra only shrugged. "It interests me enough to try."

"You aren't exactly princess material."

Luna and Sombra shared one of their looks, and Celestia watched as Sombra smiled slyly and Luna giggled at whatever passed between them.

"Tia, I think that Sombra can be a fine princess."

"He isn't exactly a princess, though, Luna."

Sombra's smile vanished. "The only reason that 'Princess' is in the name of this event is that this nation has never had any kind of ruler other than princesses, or am I wrong?"

Celestia hid a wince. "That would be correct, yes..." There had really never been anything to stop Equestria from having a prince before, or at least having a prince different from Shining Armor. Now, Celestia was not a mare for little things, but when it came to her nation she noticed the small complications, nitpicks, and corrections that had to be done now that Equestria had a ruling prince. There had never been any objection to Sombra being male, but Celestia felt like something personal she had with the others was lost now that she couldn't say Equestria was ruled by mares alone. She had felt it once before, but not as strongly, when Cadance married Shining Armor. Such weepy, peculiar notions subsided easily then, but...

Sombra narrowed his eyes. "Then either call me a princess or change the name if there's nothing sexist about your holiday."

...it really did feel like something was missing, and she had no idea what exactly it was.

Celestia nodded. "That can be done... but only if you can manage one thing."

Sombra looked unfazed. "What would that be?"

Luna still shot Sombra a skeptical look, a silent 'why' in her steady gaze. Sombra's response was to give her a sideways glance. "It could be fun," he told her quickly.

(Celestia wasn't sure how to feel about him saying that.)

The princess cleared her throat carefully. "In order for you to prove you can participate, I need you to write down a little information about yourself. Luna, Twilight, and I have always done this to offer potential topics for foals who have a hard time thinking of a subject for their letters, but this is your first year and nopony really knows anything about you."

Maybe she could have phrased that last part better. There was nothing wrong about the statement, nor was it offensive, but the truth was that could describe any of the royals quite easily. Save for Cadance, Shining, and Twilight, very little information about any of them was public. It was not as though ponies could find things like her birth date, for example, in their public library. Nothing went public about Equestria's royal family unless the information was intentionally released, and with their private lives quite guarded and personality rights beginning with Celestia and Luna it became part of the holiday subconscious to continue to foster a bond with one's leaders.

"That's all?" Sombra asked. "I can definitely do that—"

"Whatever you write must be fit for the eyes of colts and fillies. This means no references to immoral and illegal activities and you must supply the same information that Luna, Twilight, and I do," Celestia interrupted quickly, watching him scowl in response.

Luna certainly didn't look pleased when Celestia interrupted Sombra, but Celestia only looked innocently back at Luna.

"Please try and help Sombra if he has any difficulty with this task, and have him send it to my office afterward."

Luna didn't say anything. She didn't even nod. What was she looking at Celestia for?

"Sombra is right here and can hear everything you say," Sombra grumbled, flicking an ear in annoyance.

"Good," the princess said with clear composure, "I think that this little meeting can certainly be dismissed, then."

As collected as she appeared, distant as she was, and all her loathing of Sombra considered... Celestia had to admit that she actually was quite happy and eager for something to finally go smoothly.

With four royals cooperating — or coming close to it — she could finally feel optimistic again.

...

From the Desk of Princess Celestia:

Enclosed with this note is the sample I would like you to fill out. These questions will have their results printed and sent to schools throughout Equestria. Your answers must be clean, legal, and something that can be easily understood by a young student and stay fairly on-topic with the general interests of the fillies and colts. Avoid jargon, as these are nationally distributed. Do not be rude and write clearly. If you write anything potentially offensive, scandalous, or revealing you will not get to participate and be the recipient of a very strong lecture. This is practice for cultivating the royal image you must start to maintain.

I think of this much as a lesson I've given many of my Faithful Students and one you should keep in mind too. How you look is always going to matter more than how you feel. What ponies see when they look at you, at first glance, and on paper are what is going to stick in your minds. One must be tidy, polite, and modest in presentation, among other things. It matters not what you think, who you are within, or your feelings on the matter. The kindest little filly will make no friends on her first day of school if she shows up black-clad and frowning.

Be prepared to get letters on many topics, too. I did tell you that this will only be a guideline for those who want to reply, so be prepared for that. The last two questions change every year, so please do not ask why they look different. This is done to add something new to each year and to reflect how everypony changes. For example, when it was Twilight's first year, one of the questions was friendship lesson themed. However, because you are a prince, I've taken care of editing yours to make sure it reads accordingly and pick questions I'm sure you are capable of answering.

Give Philomena a reward for delivering this to you.

H.R.H. Princess Celestia

...

Princess: Twilight Sparkle

What are your hobbies? Reading, spending time with my friends, organizing, letter writing, and teaching ponies to better understand each other.

What is your favorite food? Pancakes! As a filly, my mother made the best blueberry pancakes, but I've been going through an oat-burger phase again.

What is your favorite color? Normally I just say purple, or something similar, but I don't think I've ever actually thought about this.

What is your favorite book? I can't chose just one!

What is something about being a princess that ponies might not know about? One thing I asked when I first earned my wings was if there were books about being a princess. It turns out there are! There's books on how to be good at almost any other occupation, but when it comes to being a princess, you have to read up on a wide array of things.

What do you have to say about your pet? Owlowiscious is my pet owl! He helps out around the castle, but sometimes he can make a bit of a mess because he is farsighted, so he'll sometimes knock over my inkwells. He can be very vocal, and I'll sometimes hear him calling to nearby parliaments of his kind when night falls on Ponyville.

What is the best vacation you ever had? As a filly, my parents used to take my brother and Ito Tall Tale. We rented a nice cottage not too far from the city. As a filly, the Whitetail Woods were no place for fun, and they scared me at night and made my anxiety act up. I didn't want to go in them at all! Because of this, my mom would walk with me to the nearest library every day of vacation. We would bring a wagon and check out just enough books to last me through the night. Eventually, my mother was able to get me to sit around the campfire for s'mores and stargazing on the last few nights of our trips there.

...

Princess: Celestia

What are your hobbies? Gardening, scrap-booking, properly maintaining a sensible diary, spending time with others, being helpful, collecting coffee mugs/jewelry/seashells, cooking, swimming, chess, sampling tea from around the world, flying, aerial sports, dancing, letter-writing, cloud-sculpting, bird watching, and mane-styling. I am a very busy mare!

What is your favorite food? Scrumptious, fresh banana bread. I am big on any sort of comfort food.

What is your favorite color? Orange is by far the loveliest of colors.

What is your favorite book? The Tomato Soup for the Soul series is something I continue to enjoy.

What is something about being a princess that ponies might not know about? While it is not something most ponies would think about, having access to royalty suites allows me to see the effort ponies put into impressing somepony. It goes to show that even the face value of something has merit, and if something looks quite nice, it shall be.

What do you have to say about your pet? She is quite the little stinker! While that can be true, I do write in jest. She has been my faithful companion through many years, both bright and dark, thankfully. I don't know where I would be without my wonderful Philomena.

What is the best vacation you ever had? I've never been on vacation but have had my chances to see so much of the world as a princess. My visits to Prance have been some of my favorites, with many tranquil sights to see and delicious things to eat and drink.

...

Princess: Luna Galaxia

What are your hobbies? Hiking, sorcery, sparring, spending time with my husband, painting, storytelling, astronomy, cartography, and adventure. I also adore anything to do with airships and am fond of photography, and visits to the theater, symphony, and similar establishments. I find myself dabbling in music and classical art frequently.

What is your favorite food? Sheperdess pie is timeless! I will never turn it down!

What is your favorite color? I cannot choose a favorite, too many are so stunning and calming.

What is your favorite book? In recent years, it has been my collection of Saddlespeare's plays because it was one of the first gifts my sister gave to me when we were reunited and because I've been able to share them with my husband.

What is something about being a princess of Equestria that ponies might not know about? Being a princess and a prodigy of the arcane arts are, in fact, mutually exclusive. One cannot expect to lead a country and lack any understanding of one of the most basic aspects of the world. While there is no exact 'test' to determine this, each of us is greatly skilled in some form of magic. Though, I must admit that not everypony who wears the crown is as up for discussions on sorcery as others are.

What do you have to say about your pet? I have no pet but am quite fond of the various creatures around the castle grounds and in the woods of my kingdom.

What is the best vacation you ever had? I think most outings can be considered a vacation if you put your mind to it, and have enjoyed many respites from the presence of others when I need it.

...

Prince: Princess Sombra Galaxia

What are your hobbies? Travelling, magical arts, mathematics, reading, cooking/baking, sewing, and spending time with Luna. I'm also very interested in collecting, enchanting, and mastering weaponry. I'm not horrid at photography, either. Overall, I just love to learn.

What is your favorite food? Pizza is an extremely easy go-to, but I've gone on pasta binges before. Anything with pasta works for a while.

What is your favorite color? Green would be my favorite. It reminds me of some of my favorite places.

What is your favorite book? This is a loaded question that I refuse to dignify with a proper answer.

What is something about being a princess that ponies might not know about? I have access to all the genealogical records in Equestria. I can know more about a pony's ancestry than most of my subjects. After all, very few ponies keep extremely extensive records past the first few 'greats' and degrees of cousins. Learning about obscure connections is something that fascinates me.

What do you have to say about your pet? My pet is a fickle entity known as Fish. No amount of enhanced assertiveness will get him to jump through a hoop. Yet. I actually can't get him to do much of anything, but we have this begrudging tolerance toward one another.

What is the best vacation you ever had? My first trip to Canterlot is a surprisingly pleasant memory.

...

Luna—

I would like you to tone down the language of your paper, please. It is far above what I would expect most school ponies to read and is alienating. We went over this last year. Perhaps you should also consider a more positive answer to the last question. It could send the wrong message to foals, or at least it feels so when I read it.

From,

Celestia

...

Tia,

Must I have to dumb down my own natural thoughts carefully transcribed for your holiday? These are young minds, not feeble ones. If there is something that they do not understand, I have no doubt that a teacher can help them too. I will certainly reconsider a few of my word-choices, but there is nothing to 'correct' in my last question.

I answered it honestly and concisely. It is not as though I would be permitted to write of how we saw the world in our youth, or how Sombra and I began our relationship outside of Equestria. Anything else would have similar problems, so I shall leave it as it is. Solitude is a fine vacation and experience for ponies, regardless of how queer many find it.

Grumpily,

Luna

...

From the Desk of Princess Celestia:

That qualifies as printable. Do not modify anything like this I send you in the future, and reward Philomena sufficiently if you please.

H.R.H. Princess Celestia

...

Your damned bird doesn't get rewards for defecating in my study, and I think that at this point you can stand to write out my name instead of just having a middle-phoenix pass these 'from the desk of' notes to me.

-Sombra

P.S. A floral print stationery is just like you, too.

...

The princess nodded her head as the last of the guards saluted and took their leave of the throne room. The day of the Palooza had arrived, and with magic and flight, the proper banners were hung about the castle halls. She could still hear the echo of the tolling of bells from earlier this morning, when Canterlot streets rang with the melody of the city's various bell towers that signaled a national holiday, albeit one that signaled more fun than work in schools. Light snow fell outside, dusting the mountain city in a dazzling coat

Any lingering evidence of Hearts and Hooves Day was completely out of sight. Not even a single rose garland remained strung up and preserved with botanical magics, as the staff had properly managed the castle's appearance, guards and servants alike working in a unit to perfect things for their princess once again. Celestia felt a soft, kind, and wholly pleasant feeling at observing their naturally obsequious attitude and behaviors.

She liked to think that she could feel the excitement of every school-foal in Canterlot, too. February twenty-sixth, the great Princess Pen Pal Palooza, was a favorite of the young, and the princess had centuries of letters to prove it.

Rows of tables had been set up parallel to the carpet in the throne room for sorting through incoming letters, and the doors to the throne room were wide upon and ready for a pegasus guard to swoop in with a sack full of scrolls and envelopes.

Though the throne sat empty, there was still much activity to be seen in the great hall. The post-dawn sunlight filtered brightly through the shining glass of the windows, illuminating Luna.

Her daughter's horn was illuminated with her teal aura that twirled and combed through her mane in idle thought. She stared thoughtfully at the blank scroll unfurled before her and the letter resting next to it, near her silver inkwells. One hoof was propped under her muzzle in a decidedly un-princess-like way and a quill sat untouched. one sack of letters was already open, and it was from where Luna had drawn the first that she had opened.

Celestia hummed and looked at the clipboard she had clutched in her own magic. The itch of Philomena's little talons against her back made her coat twitch faintly, regardless of how familiar the sensation was, and Celestia's ear flicked at the sound of something clinking. She turned to see its source, for it was certainly not in the throne room's isle, where she stood.

Sombra was fiddling with his typewriter again. The plain black binary typewriter was not a terribly uncommon thing, though hoof, mouth, and horn writing was drastically more common, but many ponies could read the code without too much trouble, and it made an excellent shorthoof any competent secretary would know. She imagined he would use it to draft any of his letters, but refrained from dwelling too much on that sight when there was something much more notable near Sombra.

A rather large box, of the sort, that one would get from ordering furniture was placed prominently on the table, next to Sombra, with a slot at the top for inserting letters. And that was hard all that was prominent about it. The entire cardboard surface was drowned in many thorough coats of multicolored glitter that clashed so much with the overall aesthetic of the dark stallion that the princess would have suspected such a sight was Luna's doing. However, she was easily proven wrong by this ridiculous, flamboyant box that boasted green rhinestone letters spelling out two words: PRINCESS SOMBRA.

She gave no effort to ridicule the silly display and took her own seat at one of the tables where she could continue to passively observe things from behind a humble name card surrounded with many letter bags. Many more were still being brought in, and Celestia had to bite into her lip delicately to fight off the impulse to converse. If only faithful Raven had not volunteered to help elsewhere in the castle today for holiday preparation, and Celestia had no reason not to let her do so.

Even Philomena quickly flew off once Celestia had seated herself, chirping eagerly at the prospect of more excitement elsewhere. Perhaps she was off to find Dissy so that they might stir up a silly surprise for her later, or just keep themselves amused. She might even seek out the endless admiration of Qilin, who loved her mother's birdie just as much as that birdie loved her attention.

But Celestia would not know until later if anything fun had happened.

Luna and Sombra were unbearably quiet, making little in the way of noise as they busied themselves with their letter writing. Well, Luna worked on going through her letters. She smiled at some, laughed at others, and so on, and frequently hummed little melodies while she wrote patiently, though she often had large spans of what Celestia took to be boredom where she did nothing.

It was only odd, slight things that were hard to pick up that ended up being exchanged: couple's-looks, waves of paper, motions, and whispers Celestia couldn't possibly hear during the moments she glanced at them. She had figured that the reason they had been sitting apart from one another might have been because of a couple's spat or some other martial issue.

The longer the princess sat quietly writing her letters, the more she noticed that if that was the case, they were remarkably good at not showing that anything was wrong.

Maybe she would need to talk with Luna about that. Though, the knots that formed in Celestia's stomach at the thought thought 'maybe' should be 'definitely'.

...

Hours passed, and Luna had surrendered by the time evening neared. She had groaned, a sound that caught Sombra's attention before it had Celestia's, and the two of them looked up to watch as she flung her face to the table, her mane flipping forward and spilling over her so that she was buried under a mound of glittering blue and purple.

One tiara fell to the ground with a clink, and from underneath the thick canopy of mane, two forelegs shoved inkwells and paper away.

"Dinner calls, so I must be through with these for the day."

Sombra eyed the door. "Do you want me to sort your letters for you?"

"No, Som. I'll manage them tomorrow, but thank you," came Luna's muffled response from under her mane, and Celestia kept quiet about the unseemliness of presenting herself so.

While Luna adjusted herself and teleported over to Sombra, looking worn in ways that dull, sluggish days can manage to bring upon a pony, Celestia didn't comment that Luna looked bored on her holiday, and was so obvious about it when she couldn't bother to be franker about other things Celestia struggled to read, like the martial machinations her and Sombra had. No, instead Celestia focused on writing a letter to a schoolfilly who wanted to know what sunrise felt like to the mare who made them happen, and the nearby plate with a smattering of crumbs from a simple lunch Celestia had positioned near her writing materials.

Maybe Twilight is having a better time in Ponyville, Celestia thought for the ninth time today.

She tried to ignore that tiara-less Luna leaned over to nuzzle Sombra. "Do you want anything from the kitchens?" she asked with that lilting warmth Celestia had never heard her use for anypony before, her daughter's eyes sweeping over the many-times-used coffee mug as part of her question.

Sombra simply shook his head. "I can't say I'm hungry, so I'm going to refuse that offer."

Celestia especially didn't like their language of familiar, intimate looks.

She scribbled away, flourishes of horn-writing unfolding before her somewhat sleepy eyes.

"Not even if I have something brought up to our chambers for you?"

Sombra must've shaken his head because this time Celestia didn't hear anything. She did, however, feel the slight onset of a headache close to her horn.

"If that is what you wish. Try to get yourself something, though, you look rather tired." She spoke so softly to him, with a fondness that always made something in Celestia feel small, scared, and very far away.

"I'll have something, then, but it will be later. I doubt I look as tired as you think because I most certainly am not too tired for a movie tonight."

"Oh!" For the first time that day, Celestia heard genuine excitement in Luna's voice. "That will be lovely, Som! We can finally get through all the reels Cady sent us. I'll fetch us some popcorn—"

"No, you'll burn it, like always. Leave that to me."

"...And what if I start without you because you and the popcorn showed up late?"

"You know I'll find a way to exact revenge on you for your crimes."

The princess kept trying to naturally disconnect herself, to make their laughter, and the sight of them nuzzling and—

"I love you."

"I love you too, Luna."

—sound as far away as possible, and to tidily shut the door on whatever part of herself had dared to focus on them in the first place.

"Tia?"

Look at her.

Celestia did, and from the tiny corner of her mind where she had shuffled herself in so quickly, she looked at Luna.

Respond.

"Yes, Luna?"

"Would you like me to lower the sun for you today?"

"Yes, Luna, that would be very helpful." She really did intend the smile she gave her, even if she wasn't feeling the best anymore. "Thank you."

Luna smiled back. Her bond with the sun was better than any mortal's, of course, but she still had to wrestle with it, and her dawns and dusks were prolonged and horribly imperfect. They would suffice, though.

Luna left.

She opened up her focus again and found that a letter was in front of her. That was no surprise, given the day, and no surprise given how her headache had flared. She could zone out like this often... even when she didn't want to.

And no, it wasn't that she was on a different letter that surprised her, or that the one about sunrises was neatly in its envelope and finished now. That was normal.

She finally turned her full attention to Sombra. He did look a bit tired, and Celestia always wondered why. He was beyond adjusting to how different life functions changed with becoming an everlasting being, and from snippets of this and that with Luna, she knew that he slept. Still, she knew that he was exactly well-rested, regardless of how hard ponies like him and Luna could be to read. He had it in his eyes.

Luna was either spoiling him or suspected something today, he did not look so tired.

Sombra raised an eyebrow, having noticed she was looking at him. "Are you out of ink? I don't exactly have any." He nodded to his typewriter.

Celestia frowned. "You didn't get any letters."

Sombra's ears swiveled back somewhat. "Yes, I can see that. I'm not too surprised."

No, he wasn't. This must have been a likely outcome for him, and it wasn't a hard prediction to make. Maybe he had other ones, too. Maybe he didn't. What Celestia knew was that there shouldn't be a maybe to this. There were millions of ponies in Equestria, and many of them were young and full of questions. Not all of those questions were very well thought out, and not all of them were very nice.

Sombra should have at least gotten hate mail; there should have been one angry parent, powerless but oblivious, who scribbled in fury that Sombra was never to contact their foal and that he should also consider not showing up at their extracurricular activities for whatever reason. That was something these sorts of ponies placed great importance on.

Celestia did not mean to think that Sombra deserved hate mail (certainly not this time), but the total absence of any kind of mail was... suspicious, and incredibly so.

She was beginning to sense potential trouble, however vague, because she did not rule ponies correctly by ignoring her hunches.

"Participation still matters," Celestia said quickly, the fog of her headache receding. She knew that maybe Luna didn't just mean Sombra was tired, maybe she meant something else when she spoke to him so kindly, and mixed it in with her look and such a plain truth. Attempting to unravel that would be useless, and Celestia had not the mind for it, to see such meanings or to immerse herself in needless, fruitless wordplay.

What she did see was how Sombra frowned slightly, and the kind of frown it was. "That's a hollow thing to say."

"I think it does, and you did make yourself seem like a nearly pleasant figure with what you listed. You should consider that a good exercise in presentation. So, yes, your participation does matter."

Sombra looked at her with a pointed, flinty remark, but did not say it, and it died unknown.

What could have happened to his letters?

"You look like you had lots of fun," Celestia said sweetly. "Perhaps your letters are only a little late."

Extremely unlikely to the point of being a lie, but possible.

Liar.

"I'm not bothered by it," Sombra said, shrugging and typing away a few letters of nonsense absentmindedly.

Startled, Celestia stared directly at Sombra, all thoughts of her headache gone. She nearly felt the pinch of her serenity on her face from the realization threatening to burst behind it.

Liar liar.

Never had she had any sort of less-than-loathsome feeling towards this stallion, but there was something... something rather pathetic if some of her suspicions were correct. Had this been anypony other than Sombra... No, there was still something about the situation that did have a piteous streak to it. Who would hurt anypony on a national holiday? Such a deed was... why, it was hardly any different than hurting a foal, surely.

Sombra looked out one of the windows, aloof and even a bit glum.

"I think I'll be going as well," the princess said quickly, her mind still skipping in surprise at the fact that she caught Sombra lying...

Maybe Raven knows what happened to the letters.

But she did not let that show. She rose with grace and carried herself well, her gait normal as she left the throne room.

Unexpected lightness entered Celestia's mind and breast, she felt a whole breeze of rather confusing thoughts come with it, too. There was now something kindling in her slowly, and she knew not what exactly it was, or if it was good or bad, only what it was tied to, and the bizarre, unknown connection she felt was established.

I didn't know you could be a liar too...

...

The mind of the princess was troubled by thoughts of meddling hooves. Even as dusk came to Canterlot and she walked through the halls of the castle, her thoughts lingered on the edge of their usual shadows. She thought not of how obvious it would be to ponies that this night's evening would not be brought by her, or the unexpected crestfallen state of Sombra that stirred such malaise in her. What weighed so heavily upon her thoughts was that a pony would, could, and might have meddled with something on such an innocent occasion... among a few other things.

The soft glow of the magic that was in the castle hallway's lights felt more distant than Celestia would have liked.

She had asked each guardsmare and stallion that she saw vague, nice little questions loaded with pleasantries of the usual sort to draw out any information. Who had been seen where, when, and why? What had everpony been doing, and all the things that came across as nothing more than check-ins done out of courtesy? There was no need to cause anypony to worry or entice suspicion, and she knew everypony that was within the castle's walls today, so it was not as if anypony suspicious or unfamiliar would be in the castle.

She pushed the door open to her small writing room, exhaling calmly. She could already feel the warmth of the fireplace!

Thoughts of darker thoughts were pushed toward the back of her mind at thought of doing something more relaxing.

Her writing room had seen some of the direst letters in history and thousands of less-than-grim exchanges sent through the enchanted fireplace but never lost its soothing presence. It was the only dark-colored room in the castle that really felt calming and inviting to Celestia, with its warm atmosphere, cushy pillows, and the absence of clutter.

Some part of her was always welcomed with rare nostalgia when she set hoof in that room, and the recollection of all the Faithful Students of the past she had spent time with in there.

Her smile felt a touch less fake when she saw the pale backside of a petite mare sitting next to the fire. "Oh, hello, Raven. I've been wondering what you've been up to today. Lieutenant Swift Strike told me you would be here."

"Princess!" Raven said a bit too cheerfully to the point her voice almost squeaked. "How did everything go?"

Celestia paused and tilted her head ever-so-slightly to the side, feeling her muzzle scrunch delicately. "Is something wrong?" she asked cautiously, noting the slight appearance of sweat on Raven's brow. "You look a bit unsettled, Rae."

"I'm well," Raven replied very quickly. "Really, I'm doing just fine."

Celestia's inkling of doubt was not entirely quelled. "Well, I hope you're 'fine' enough to make room for me. I think something might have gone wrong with the Palooza, but nopony has come forward about anything. Oh, Raven, I can feel it in my bones that something just... it's not right. Can you feel it? Might it just be me that senses something?"

Raven flicked an ear in a gesture somewhere between confusion and nervousness. There was a pinkish flush to her cheeks, but that was not an unusual sight on Raven. "Umm..." Raven murmured, trailing off into inaudible noises.

"Goodness me," Celestia said as she took her seat next to the younger mare. "You're going to have to be a bit louder than that."

"...Might this be one of your premonitions, princess?" Raven offered with a sheepish grimace of a smile.

She paused, hearing herself sigh faintly, and almost wished she could take back the gesture. Did it make her sound too dreary? "No, I'm just worried. Nothing has ever gone wrong like this before."

"O-Oh... what happened? Was somepony misbehaving?"

"No," Celestia said, shaking her head slowly. "Not at all. There was a problem with the letters."

"Really?" Raven asked, her horn glowing with her soft pink aura as she scooped a nearby fire iron to prod at the logs. "Then what happened?"

"Sombra didn't get a single letter."

Sparks sounded and Raven's horn fizzled abruptly, and the poker fell from her grip with a sharp clang causing Celestia's heart to skip at the sudden tension and Raven to squeak.

When the echo had left her ears, Celestia's golden magic replaced the item to its proper place next to the fireplace, but something in her still felt shaken.

"Please," she whispered, "try to be more careful."

"I..." Raven swallowed, "...yes, princess."

Her expression was mostly composed, only showing a tasteful trace of worry, but for all the princess knew her eyes might've betrayed her. Surely something could've. "Out of all the ponies in Equestria, not a single colt or filly penned him a single letter. It simply isn't right!"

"It isn't...?" Raven echoed, the flames and her lingering wide-eyed nerve casting a ghostly look on her face.

"No. He should have gotten something, Rae. Anything. An angry parent was bound to write to him in their dear child's place, an innocent question could be asked, some little one might have lost a playground bet when they heard Sombra could be written to this year, and perhaps there is some silly, sweet little child who wants to know if their prince is related to the monster under their bed. I don't know, Raven, what would be said to him, but I know that there would be something."

"Really? Don't you think that maybe nopony wanted to write to him?"

"Out of millions of ponies? Rave, that's improbable to the point of impossible in this context, wouldn't you agree?"

"Well..."

What must she be so dodgy today? A mouse would be less hesitant in the shadow of my hoof sometimes. Though, maybe something is wrong. Poor Rave is acting a bit odd...

"What is it? I struggle to see how his letters have not been interfered with."

One white forehoof rubbed at the leg of its twin awkwardly, and Celestia felt a brief, almost oppressive warmth from the fire and her headache stir once more. "W-Would it matter if he didn't get his letters?"

Celestia froze, her eyes locked onto the small fire flickering in front of her. She didn't feel warm anymore. "Raven, what happened to Sombra's letters? Where did they go?"

Raven's whole body was trembling, and she still looked the princess straight in the eye, a startling gesture in its own right. Without regarding her own movements and with her dark eyes wide to the point of looking feral, Raven extended one foreleg towards the fire.

"T-There," she rasped. "Each one of them is in there."

"W-Who did this?" Celestia stammered, a hissing edge to her tone and her mind swarming with angry, panicked thoughts. Even her dreaded headache had dived into the mental brew, bringing pain to go with her alarm.

"Me," Raven said, and her eyes went even wider with the intensity she gave the word.

Between them, the roar of blood in the princess' ears and the soft sounds of flame were like screams to the ears of the goddess, whose mask fell to show off a fraction of how petrified she looked. "You..."

Raven nodded, a tiny smile on her muzzle. "I-I did it! I finally did something... I stepped up and did what my heart told me. This..." She exhaled with a wild, throaty puff, looking like a porcelain doll who shook and sweated in the firelight as she breathed so audibly. "This felt so good, and all I had to do was take them."

"H-How many were there?" Celestia asked, her mind screaming for her to scoot away and for the warmth of panic to leave her, and the nightmare she found herself in to end.

"Twelve," Raven whispered spookily. "I just... snuck them away, tore them open, and brought them here. Ponies did write to him, princess... and the letters... only two of them were like you said they would be, with a parent demanding no contact. But the rest?" Raven's eyes grew damp. "You should have seen them... and how angry they made me."

Celestia swallowed and tried to force her thoughts to ground themselves, for her mind to not want to curl up in on itself and to not want to curl up every bit of her in the dark head she had and just vanish, nodding, smiling, and letting things flow by...

"Why did they make you so angry?" She regretted not being able to keep some emotion from her voice.

"None of them denounced him, at least as much as children may denounce things. One letter requested his help, and it was from the family of an Element Bearer, no less. W-What else was I s-supposed to f-feel when I s-saw that the sister of the Element of Honesty wrote to the prince, asking if he knew a crystal pony ancestor she learned about? If her name meant anything to him, and what her heritage meant?"

Apple Bloom wrote to Sombra?

"But Raven..." Control yourself. Control yourself. You must have control. This is not about you, do not be so shocked. It is her that is wrapped up in this matter. Confront her! Question her! "What brought you to do this?"

Slowly, Raven tilted her head and shadows claimed her face as it was angled away from the light. "W-Why do you act like this was wrong?"

"Rae, I—"

"Princess, I did this for you."

There was a gross, heavy, rapid thump in Celestia's chest that made her feel so terribly present and horrid with how out of control she found herself, and what a grotesque sensation it was to her!

"Why?"

Is that all I can bear to ask her?

"You cried, princess," Raven said, sniffling. "I-I heard you crying. I didn't even know you could cry! Don't you know how that sound is... how it destroys me? I wrote to my grandmother when I went home if Princess Celestia could cry because the world was flipped on its back after I heard that. She told me you did not, and I knew that sounded familiar. You are Princess Celestia, our most calm ruler, that is what she told my mother. That is what my mother told me, and what most of my neighbors knew. I read of ponies who attended the funeral of your last lover, and they spoke of your bowed head and g-graceful presence like anypony else would, but you did not cry! Twilight Sparkle said you wept when you reunited with Princess Luna, but how could that not be an exaggeration? There was no proof, was there?"

...That was true. All of it was, that there were many who did not believe she had shed a tear in her eternity, for when you saw nothing, and ponies said there was nothing, and told their sons and daughters there was nothing, then came nothing. Details faded too, and nopony ever thought to mention some of the simplest things, so, of course, Twilight would not say Celestia cried or think much of it, and when she said such a thing? There would be plenty of ponies who would react with quiet disbelief.

Celestia stopped crying at any funeral in mortal memory, but she grieved. She wept when Luna was her daughter once more, and she had bawled when Twilight left her to go to Ponyville, not that she ever told her that. Every horrific letter of murder and woe from the Crystal Empire caused something in her to fall apart when there was nopony who saw her. There were not even modern statues of Celestia weeping. There were many of her mourning or somber, but always her eyes were as dry as the stone of the statue.

She was only careful about crying and did not burden others, but a legend burst from the body of this and wove its way in with true tales. Yet, Celestia often found that truth was just another product of ponies, or so it felt.

Luna cried more than Celestia ever could, regardless of how much Celestia hid her tears, but other than that? Other than those who paid no mind to doubts or speculations, other than Twilight, Luna, Discord, and a few others?

Who was to say that Celestia cried?

"Y-Yes, Raven. I can cry, and—"

"Then why didn't you tell me?" Raven's doe-eyes were dark, wet, and filled with the betrayal that hurt Celestia even if it was an irrational emotion to have to see in the other mare's eyes.

"When have I ever denied such a thing? Has it not been ponies who have fashioned such a tale about me? I have not lied about this, Raven, so I swear upon the sun I guide—"

"Princess, if you cried every time I locked that door, I..."

"You what?" Celestia asked so softly that she was surprised even she heard her own voice, as far-off as it sounded from herself. "You would have not done what I kindly asked of you? Must you quarrel with an old mare?"

"I-I... I don't know!" Raven squealed, her cries high and broken with a terrible grief Celestia had only ever seen in a mortal who learned something that hurt them when they saw a glimpse of what scared them, and all that lurked outside of Celestia's light. "I... I think disobeying an order... oh, gods! I couldn't do such a thing!"

"Raven, what is it that has brought you to such a thing?" With those pleading words, and Celestia's own obvious dismay.

"We spoke of happiness." Raven's voice was hoarse.

"We have on quite a few occasions," Celestia replied with an eerie calm, one she was surprised to have pulled from herself. It chilled the air in her room with the smooth, maternal sound.

"You told me the prince had seemed happy to participate."

Well, as happy as Sombra could be. "That I did, Rae."

"The prince shouldn't be happy."

Celestia turned her head away from the unbearable presentation of Raven. "...You find our conversations led to this?"

"Of course. Princess, you always talk about doing what is good and thwarting the actions and individuals opposite of this. The prince made you cry, a-and just look at everything else he's done!" There was no denying that Raven looked scared. "Is he a good pony? A decent pony, even?"

Celestia was never could to silence. It was like loneliness, and it leeched at something in her that should be buried when it was prolonged. She could not tame it, and if offered her no peace.

"...How are you any different?" Celestia asked, tone steely. Such was a sound that begged to be obeyed, though it was not wholly intimidating, when Celestia sounded so she invited a fraction of coldness reserved only for foes to be measured out to the recipient.

"W-What do you mean?" Raven squeaked, meek and simpering. Did she think Celestia did not see how she trembled in the firelight and the shaking of her delicate form?

Celestia wished that she wasn't so hurt by this sight, but if she wasn't, she knew that would be monstrous. This was her dear friend, how could she not feel broken up by this sight?

"You're crying again," Raven observed. Her eyes were moist and teary, and her whole pale body looked like snippets of paper swallowed up in darkness and flame. The hoof she pointed at the cracked mask of the princess was shaking faintly.

"So I am."

Raven sniffled again, and her voice wound up in regret... and yet it was not the regret that Celestia needed to hear. "...You think he deserves to have happiness?"

Never. He should not be happy in anything.

"You committed mail theft, and not just any mail theft, mind you. Raven, you stole from royalty, and that puts such a dire weight on what would usually be a less grievous offense."

"I-I did it to right a wrong! Is stealing from Sombra of all ponies really so criminal?"

Think, came that unruly slither of a whisper in Celestia's mind, the wiggling insecurities to seep where they pleased and at the worst of times, that in another circumstance, she would be praised quite mightily. Even by you, who have worked in ways similar to this...

And maybe she had. Maybe Solara had, any part of the lesser parts of her she locked up for centuries because she was a changed mare, princess and Celestia both had had their hoof caught in such deeds and then washed of them, and all would be done and quite justified.

This was not one of those times.

"He is an Equestrian prince, so it most certainly is. Do you think he will not suspect something eventually?" This, truthfully, was something she had asked herself to. She hadn't the faintest idea if the monster would draw no conclusions, and go about things without complaint. Unfortunately, he was a soul prone to skepticism. "There is most certainly a chance that he will uncover what has been done, and I will do all in my power to protect you, but Raven, do you not know that he is a god too?"

"O-Of course!"

"Do you think he will be pleased if such a thing is made known to him? Or that he will be kind?"

Raven's breathing was starting to become uneven under the princess' look, and one she could only bear to give her secretary from the corner of her own eyes.

"Have you forgotten that to be a good pony is to do good things? This is the action of a lesser pony, Raven, and not one who is above what you want to surpass. When you want to do something good, you surpass evil, and you do it by being good."

"Oh gods, oh gods... Princess, what are you going to d-do to me? Will I be banished?"

The greatest discomfort knotted up Celestia, making her feel soured and pressing the suffocating hopelessness she felt down on her. Even her mane flowed sluggishly and felt like a weight upon her, and whose colors did not feel as bright.

"No, I would never do such a thing to you over this, but what you have done... it is still a crime, and you knew this. None of this can spare you from a consequence."

At this point, Raven was on the verge of hyperventilating. Sweat was visibly budding under her dark mane. "Am I going to be arrested?" she asked hoarsely. "W-What's going to happen to m-me?"

"Raven, you will not be hurt, and I will not let Sombra know."

"Oh..." Raven exhaled raggedly, wringing her hooves together. "Oh, oh, princess t-thank you, I don't know what I would h-have done-"

The princess cut her off by simply raising one forehoof, letting her golden shoe catch the light of the flame and glow with a light that matched her imperial presence, one that persisted despite her fractured composure. "How is your cousin?"

Blinking and stunned, Raven only wrung her own hooves tighter. "C-Colombe?"

"Yes. You said she had a fever and she likely couldn't write a letter for the holiday because she wasn't at school. Is she doing any better?"

Raven nodded, confusion heavy in her eyes, and did so with mute obedience. Celestia had no doubt Raven was quite puzzled at how the subject of daily chatter and lunchtime discussions was brought up now.

"Did she ever manage to write a letter?"

"N-No," Raven mumbled. "She's still rather ill."

"I'm sorry to hear that," the princess murmured, letting a shadow of worry fall over the darkness and raw look upon her face. "Is she able to write?"

"Umm, yes," Raven said, muffling her voice by lowering her head close to her folded forehooves. "Colombe is in the soup and sniffles while r-reading her Foalsitter Club books on the couch, as Aunt Ivory said. She can certainly write... w-why, though?"

"Well, Rave, I'm sure she's disappointed in missing out on the holiday. Have her write a letter to Sombra for the Palooza."

Raven's jaw hung slack and she let loose a whimper.

"This," Celestia said with all the sternness she could bear, "is your punishment. Have her write a letter to him, and send it to me so that I may see that he gets it."

Eventually, Raven found a way to lower her ears even further, and she gave a nod of resignation. "Will that be all?" she asked in a raspy post-tear tone that the princess had to strain to hear.

Celestia knew it wouldn't be. This encounter had drained her, had beat her heart to bits, and she could not manage to break free from her horrid limbo of visible grief and her desperate attempts to cling to any ruins of composure.

She didn't ever want to say these words, but she would drag them through all the sickeningly sweet shreds of a maternal tone to cloy them with as much kindness as possible to make the poison they would exchange be any more bearable.

Orders would be wrapped up as options, as she often presented them as.

And she absolutely could not say it like she was still crying.

"Raven... I think it's about time you've taken a vacation. Don't you agree?"

...

Pleasant. Presentable. Perfect.

All three were the things she had to be, even when Raven was gone. Two days already felt like months, loneliness and emotions the princess wished would just disappear heaping on top of themselves.

She hated that she was able to explain everything to Luna and the rest of the castle so easily, pulling the strings to make sure she said the right thing when she watched this dignified exterior and her ivory mask obey every jerk and tug from the hollow inside where Celestia was quietly mourning.

Saying she was sad over Raven's departure was one thing, but actually being sad about seeing Raven leave for 'vacation' and her office cleared was to be a burden. Telling ponies what a shame it was, how she was going to miss her, and how good Raven had been were all extremely acceptable things too, but anything more was to set a bad example and to be negative. She would engage in so much unacceptable interaction when such social 'musts' were so obvious. The strings would be pulled, and the rein about her emotions would be drawn tighter, and who was she to complain about how the bit cut into her mouth?

Celestia was going to miss their chess games so much.

Now, the main memento she had of their time together was a few folders of paper regarding the royals' finances that had fallen into Raven's possession that she would have to go through eventually. The monotony of even more paperwork than the princess usually had to manage was not exactly desirable, but she would certainly get around to looking at whatever mundane things could be within papers on how she spent her personal funds.

Perhaps there were a few documents that still hadn't been transferred to the Crystal Empire for Cadance and Shining Armor because of some setback. She didn't really want to look through anything of Raven's yet, partly because of all the letters she still had to answer. They were just as good of a distraction as she hoped.

With a relaxed and perfectly normal smile intact, the princess knocked upon the door to Sombra's dreaded study.

Moments later, the door opened and a crimson-cloaked, circlet-clad, coffee-clutched-in-one-hoof prince stood. His expression was reserved, but he looked grumpy beneath it. Since the Princess Pen Pal Palooza had ended, there had been a faint disappointment lingering in his eyes that Celestia didn't know if anypony else saw.

He saw her, looked at her frankly, and sighed. "What is it that you think I've been doing wrong this time?"

He usually said that, or anything like it, whenever the princess had to speak with him about any unplanned matters where she had to fetch and summon him.

"There is some mail for you that I have."

Sombra looked at her skeptically after a long sip from his coffee. "...Nothing else?"

"No, just some mail. Were you expecting anything else?"

Sombra lit his horn, and Celestia heard the unmistakable sound of magic claiming something from within. Seconds later, a wastepaper basket was clutched in his aura. Quite a few crumpled papers were in it, as Celestia expected from the silly thing. A sign with 'Complaints Department' was attached to the side, where it was clear for anypony to see.

Most of the papers were not little notes but scrolls with a broken Eternal Crown wax seal upon them.

(She was honestly surprised he read them at all.)

"Only the usual, Celestia," he said, shrugging. "...Is it from you?" One of his ears flicked in a way that Celestia would have easily called anxious on a less boastful pon— thing.

"No, it is not."

Another burst of crimson later, and the trash can was gone. "May I see it, then?"

Celestia passed it to him with a wave of her magic and was careful to withdraw her glimmering gold light quickly before Sombra's aura snatched it up. Who knew if there were possible side effects from coming in contact with such energies, and from the kind of creature that he was?

Sombra tore the envelope open and flicked away the stray shreds of paper. They still remained within the grip of his magic, and his magic flared again, this time with a familiar dark aura. To Celestia's clear shock, purple and green fire consumed them in a rapid flash, and no ashes fell to the ground. She yelped and jumped back a little, and in response, Sombra made the faintest sound of annoyance in the back of his throat.

Still a bit nervous after the abrupt, flippant display of power, Celestia watched as he looked at the envelope quizzically, and then how his eyes read through the letter eagerly.

"I can't believe it..." he breathed, perhaps unaware that she was still there.

"Yes, this was misplaced on the day of the Palooza, though I was not informed of by who. Perhaps it was one of the mail pegasi, and maybe it was one of the castle staff. Either way, you have a letter."

"That was careless of them."

"They're ponies, and they make mistakes."

Sombra's tail swished with the attitude of a response he didn't give, and whatever he didn't say, Celestia was glad he didn't.

"...Are you just going to keep standing there all day?" Sombra asked upon finishing, his ears looking extra perky. In fact, after reading there was something about him that was much perkier overall.

"No, I shall not. Be sure to pen a reply quickly, and keep it within the guidelines of the celebration. Then, get back to work, if you please." A buried edge to her tone reserved just for him made it clear that the last three words were not added sincerely.

He opened the letter again. Nodded. Scanned it. Folded it.

Then, Sombra swiftly stood taller, lit his horn, and was gone in a flash of magic, letter and all.

She knew she wasn't that bright little jar any longer, and certainly not an intact one, for seeing how his eyes lit up at that letter did not feel worth it.

Chapter 7: Husband of Hers, Part 4

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Celestia loved the spring, because it was when Canterlot was between the old and the new. The more peaceful bones of the city had not been pushed away fully by winter's end, though all snow and weighty chills had passed. Life and magic were in the air. Many new foals were born in the spring, something that many thousands of years had not altered in ponies. Smiles were crisp and new, and made her own feel encouraged. The little everyday gesture became even easier when everypony else was doing it in abundance, too. As friendly as most ponies were, nopony could deny that winter had a gloom to it that got to nearly everypony at some point.

That was when the pale sights of Canterlot reminded her of memory's many ghosts. Now that the heart of winter had passed, she saw the beautiful in-between, when her city was pushed to live. This was when she thought she could see something nopony else could from more than just the reaches of memory. Between spring and winter, she was reminded of Canterlote.

There were still hints of the old First Equestrian city, and elements from ancient days, even if the stone city was no more than ruins upon which the present Canterlot stood. Ancient Dragonsneeze trees were a remnant of Platinum's time, when dragons challenged a unicorn fortress city that thrived on crystal mines, and Alicorn sisters lived in the distant Everfree, unable to protect the city. Long-forgotten mines and quarries were empty and cold, pressed under two cities. There was the odd construction of a modern street that overlapped with an old one, or somepony who had unearthed a piece of the past in their own backyard.

While none were exactly visible from her high tower balcony, when Celestia stood overlooking the city, she felt she could still see the one great lasting tradition of pre-modern Equestrian culture: the crypts below the city. The classical burial tradition of the unicorns and the earth pony one of the cemeteries were both present in Canterlot, but there were much more ancient crypts that lay abandoned within the mountain.

There were no airship docks in those days, and obviously no airships. Even hot air balloons were farther down the path of time's arrow. The walls of the city were thick, but not as high or grandly constructed as they were now. Those walls had been gray and all-encircling of the much smaller city.

Here in her tower, Celestia thought that there were times when she could still see them, and if the clouds rolled in just right, she was surer of this than she ever liked to be. In those times, the great ballistae and harpago along the walls were numerous and largely exposed.

They saw somewhat frequent use, too. Such violent implements in plain sight were a clear message to the other creatures, like dragons, who sought to threaten the city. Those had been the days when Harmony was reserved only for ponies, and ponies outside of one's own country if they were feeling extremely hospitable. Celestia was a stranger in Canterlote then, who came for court events, parties, and other such things. The widespread notions of empathy, charity, and the modern Equestrian spirit rose from the ashes of First Equestria because of her efforts.

She wasn't usually a mare to watch the sky, but there was something about this evening that called for it. The balcony air was absolutely perfect, and she was all alone. There was an expected trace of loneliness deep in the back of her mind, and yet tonight it was not unwelcome.

The taste of some wine from earlier was still on her tongue, and there was something a bit pleasant about the stagnant feeling of the evening, or perhaps it was only boredom she did not bother to resist. Her horn's light finally died, and the sky bled blue and dark orange.

There was the faintest ache in the back of her head, one that was hardly rare these days. Tonight, she did not mind it so much, knowing that it could have come from a number of things, so who was she to complain? Qilin was asleep at last, so she had more than earned the right to indulge herself just a bit this evening and recall the echo of her days as a rising young visionary.

She sighed a bit, but it came out much more like a yawn. Maybe it was a yawn, too. She was tired, and the air was sweet. She could rarely enjoy any time alone — yes, she was an old mare, but not some doddering little fruitcake who did puzzles, art projects, or some other fruitless and silly thing. Why, she couldn't stand reading for leisure much either, not when she spent most of her day faced with words, words, words. And, if she were to have the company of anypony, they would be real. What good came from sitting about peering at the life of somepony made-up spelled out for you?

She was not like her Faithful Students, who were all studious sorts. If she did not have to burrow herself in a book or study, she would not.

With Philomena in search of snacks and playtime throughout the castle and Dissy off at some lovely-sounding Ponyville party with Fluttershy and her friends, she really had some time to herself she didn't mind. Not when she felt so relaxed. Her white coat was soft from a recent bath, and the smell of various mane products and bath oils. Her mane and tail had slowed their flow considerably because of this. Droplets of water still shone in the pastel streaks, which Celestia had to admit looked a bit faded. A fuzzy, plush robe of yellow and gold clung comfortably to her form.

The pale moon was beginning to rise, and Celestia's mind thought of all the things she might do in the few hours before sleep called to her. She certainly wanted some peppermint tea, and maybe a few treats to go with it, but how to spend her time? She could flip through a few travel magazines with stunning destinations, something she was quite fond of... or maybe pen a few personal letters to keep up with dear friends. Celestia certainly wished to hear from Raven about her new office job and tell her more about how the 'sick days' and late mornings that Sombra seemed apt on taking. Or maybe she would leave that detail — and any detail about the prince — out in order to keep things from stirring up unwanted feelings.

Perhaps she could start a new scrapbook. There were plenty of ideas for new ones: Wonderbolt derbies, Qilin's baby pictures, or lunch visits in Twilight's castle. She was sorely tempted to begin one... as long as she could keep it a secret from Luna. She didn't want to have to come up with any more excuses as to why she hadn't finished the promised scrapbook of the wedding, especially when she knew Luna was still looking forward to it so excitedly. How could she admit she hadn't even started it? Or that she didn't want to when she had promised it to her with a kindly smile?

Celestia yawned and allowed herself to slouch in the open doorway to her balcony. Night claimed the world now, and stars winked from behind the cover of clouds. Each one of them came with the call to sleep.

Eyes already weary, Celestia decided that tea, snacks, and retiring early would be wise.

...

Celestia dreamed in murk and echoes. There were no rare foredreams tonight, only the usual fog of memory that lulled her further into its depths. Thousands of years of life let many ghosts and flashes of places spill into her mind's weary eye. It was here in the wild haze of slumber she found murky faces, murmurs of voices, and all the nonsense from a mind with all its doors flung wide open.

Tonight, she heard the harsh and wordless voice of a wizard, but it was too far away to fear. She tasted a sundae overloaded with distinct toppings and the clear flavor of Prancian vanilla beneath it all. With that came the recollection of a shared laugh and a sweet kiss with a lover long-dead. The burst of feeling was gone just as quickly as she called it as a wave of a different sensation rolled in. She smelled the salty air of the sea somewhere her mind didn't bother to share the location of, and the memory popped into a cascade of white. One lacy gown, its hem stained with mud was snagged in a rope and swung until it dissolved in the maw of darkness.

Her mind shook once, the whole of her dream and sleep-drugged senses shaking with a stab of hollow realization, and the sensation of snow under hooves her dream did not present to her. Dollops of frosty white drizzled onto the pages of a diary with words Celestia could not read, and only face starkly as herself, not as the princess. Only her dream did not even present her with form, she knew only that this diary loomed and she was in front of it because there she felt herself.

The world shook with the laughter of children, hers and Discord's over and over again, and a bubbly warmth that washed out everything else. Her mind quaked with the sensation of an empty belly when the laughs fell away, and Celestia heard them crash like thunder. Cold rain dripped through a coat she could not see, drip-drip-dripping into her blood as she was sure, and the cold grew...

Everything roared into another sight, one more defined and familiar than the others. She felt something start under hooves she did not have, and the world oozed the sensation of serenity and magic. There were swirls of blue as far as the eye could see, and a world made of lights so that you could feel this place of clear divinity.

There, on the bridge of a million magic lights was a pink pegasus. Her lavender eyes are wide with fear that could swallow the world and her slim-legged body. There is what remains of a blue bow in her mane. She wobbles a little, feathers shaking, and her wings are unfolded out of reflex, but Celestia can see her new cutie mark so clearly. Around her neck is a shining gem, the center of a gorgeous amulet that hangs around her neck with a lovely ring of rope burn and bruises. The white dress she wears is delicate less, with a long hem that falls to the stars under her hooves. The hem is muddy.

Celestia can hear the world shaking, but her dream has glued her sights to the little one before her, who she will see for years and years to come. The pink pegasus opens her mouth, and she says:

"Sister, wake up," with the warmth of a yawning grave.

Celestia bolts up with a racing heart and a cold sweat along her neck. Thunder booms and a barrage of rain drums violently outside. Through the glass of the balcony door, Celestia can see the sizable swell of a storm outside. Her thoughts immediately went to how there was no scheduled storm that night, and how this did not look like a wild storm...

...then she looked to the foot of her bed as lightning flashed, and she saw whose words had permeated the end of her dream.

Sitting at the foot of her bed like a grim gargoyle was Luna, her eyes flashing with the lightning. She was perched with her wings ready to flare and leaning towards Celestia with frightful, angry eyes. Her lip was curled slightly, showing the barest glimpse of fangs. Despite her dark shadow, the flash of lightning did more than starkly showcase her silhouette, it showed her mane flashing too.

There was such anger in Luna's eyes, and without her usual eye shadow, the eyes of Celestia's daughter were slit, cat-like, and...

Nightmare Moon.

Celestia stared back at Her, wide-eyed and shivering. "Luna?" she said, voice a thin whisper and all her pleas wrapped into a single name.

She felt so naked in front of this imposing sight, and her forehooves shook even as she clutched her blankets. Her chest shook with quick little breaths and her fickle mind fed her memories of a different dark mare.

Nightmare Moon...

Celestia swallowed clumsily, yearning desperately that she had no face before Her, but the mask she took such care have at all other times. Bare before Her with a hammering heart, she was Celestia and not the princess.

"I should think that you know why I am here," Luna said with the biting cold that held all Her a wave of anger, something so rare from Her, regardless of how passionate and emotional She was. It was Luna who did not reject all aspects of Herself that was a goddess, who dared to keep magic free and close to who She was, too...

Truthfully, Celestia was petrified, and behind her wide eyes, every murmur of insecurity and whisper of fear she did not wish to hear formed a chorus of panic alongside the drumming of the rain. They reminded her of her daughter's beast, of all She could do, and how the mare of whimsy and romanticism could end the world with the anger She hid. Behind the face of a charming, quiet, and playful young mare was a dread goddess who had shattered the world of Celestia before. Luna was a mare beyond Celestia's power, but the dark mantle of Nightmare Moon... that was when such power was apparent in the worst of all ways.

All Celestia could do was search the expression of Luna, the one that burst with fury and disbelief as her own showcased her naked terror. "Luna, I don't—"

"Yes, you do." Luna cut in with her voice dropped to a chilling hiss that reminded Celestia, trembling and pale, of a serpent.

"I-I do?" Celestia stammered in the shadow of Luna's clear and cold fury.

"Tell me about Sombra," Luna said, eyes searching Celestia's face. Her tone had all the compassion of resting a knife upon somepony's jugular vein. "How have things been between you two?"

Oh... Even Celestia's own thoughts came to her in a whisper. I do think I know where this is going now.

"He hasn't been on his best behavior, and I have been trying to fix that. Otherwise, we have been alright, and I feel we are progressing acceptably." She spoke rather quietly, but it was all she could do to keep the full extent of how terrified she was out of her voice.

Celestia reluctantly lifted her gaze to look at Luna's face. She watched as Luna's mane flicked aggressively, almost to the point of thrashing, and how She sucked in a sharp gasp of shock. Only, Celestia could not hear her gasp. A great clap of thunder shook the castle, and Celestia let out a soft, timid whinny that died in the booming crackle of lightning that followed.

They both had to blink in the aftermath of the powerful flash, Luna especially because of the sensitivity of Her eyes when Her night's vision was exposed to such a spectacle. Celestia now knew the cause of the storm, and her stomach felt like she would lose her tea and cookies from earlier. Her only relief was that Qilin's nursery, which was in a different part of the castle, was warded against the sound of such storms, and close to her assigned nurse was only a few doors away. She was also certain that Luna did not want to bring her harm, and hated herself for having any part of her being assured by such a thing.

Luna's face twisted into an expression even angrier than before, but also one of shock. Her eyes overflowed with disbelief above any other emotion in the superstorm of her current mood. "How could you say such a thing...?" Luna whispered, Her own tone shaky.

"Luna," Celestia said, forcing something appropriately motherly and a false calm into her nervous words, "How could I say what?"

She was quickly faced with a snarling expression from Luna, who was quick to expose Her fangs. "HOW DARE YOU LIE!"

Luna's shout rang in Celestia's ears, as did the roar of blood. Thunder rumbled again. "Luna, I—"

"NO! ENOUGH! HOW COULD YOU LIE TO ME?!" Luna's chest heaved and Her mane snapped with each word, while her tail curled around her legs threateningly.

Bottom lip quivering, Celestia nodded quickly, and no longer shook. Instead, she was petrified by the presence and anger of Luna. Her only shield from the wrath of her daughter was how her mane fell into her face because of how severely she lowered her head.

"He told me enough of what has been transpiring between you two."

Sombra did what?!

It took all Celestia's strength to not perk her lowered ears up in shock or to exclaim anything aloud.

He did not strike me as a rat, and what could he possibly gain from admitting to any of this? Sombra wasn't right in any of his actions. Doesn't Luna know of my good intentions, and how they matter more than his behavior? Had I known he was going to do this... I...

"I asked him how you two have been getting along. Celestia, do you know that the first thing Sombra said to me was?"

He no doubt made this look like it was my fault. "N-No, I do not. However, I think it would be wise to mention that what he says about me is bound to be—"

"Before he said anything else, he said to me," Luna interrupted swiftly, "'Luna, I'm sorry.' Do you not see how differently he handled this already?"

Celestia couldn't think of anything to say, and just nervously clutched at the blankets, begging herself for any shred of composure when Luna was chipping further into the heart of things, and would only expose more of what was happening. She nodded mutely, biting her lip, knowing that she appeared before Luna earnestly. That was something that made her just as afraid as her daughter's wrath.

"How could you do this to somepony you know I love above all others? You are treating him very much like how you used to treat me..." Celestia watches Luna swallow. "You said you learned... that you missed me. Celestia, all the things you told me about how you learned too... were those true? Are all your promises fraudulent? Do you even love me as your kin, or am I somehow still a monster to you?"

"No!" Celestia pushed the word out desperately. "I meant everything I said to you, about how I missed you and that we were meant to rule together. Oh, Luna, I meant every last word. I am a changed mare, no matter how much you say ponies cannot change, I swear to you that I have! Please, if you are ever to believe anything, believe that I never want to lose you again and that we are a family."

Please, pick me over Sombra. If you are to speak of frauds, surely you will learn that he is. Any relationship without familial approval is a doomed one... and I don't want to see you go through that. I tried to be independent once, and I threw you away... I... I will never let you go. I won't hurt you. Oh, Luna, I...

We need each other, and we had to learn that the hard way.

"Luna..." Celestia said softly. "Aren't you mad at Sombra too?"

Luna's jaw dropped. "Of course I am! He is not free of consequences in this, but he was honest to me! I still struggle to get any honesty from you, but it always used to be in little things. Never did I think you would abuse my own husband!"

'Abuse' is certainly a very drastic term for what I did, which was to address his poor behavior on multiple occasions. I'm not an abusive mare. I'm not...

There was the distant rumble of thunder, and Luna sighed. Her heartbroken gaze fell heavily upon Celestia, who was beginning to feel so uncomfortable under such a look. She even felt guilty, though she didn't know why. What did she have to feel guilty about?

"I chose you to help me... to be my best mare, to hear be a part of all this..." Luna stopped, floundering for words, clearly overcome with shock.

"'This'?" Celestia pried carefully.

"You know exactly what I speak of! Sombra's princehood, this next chapter of my life... I let you be a part of these things..."

'Let me'? How am I not entitled to be part of your life? Does she truly not understand how helpless she is? How those words hurt me? I am not somepony she can just 'let' into her life. With all her recent instability, does she think she will not be without me? I know my daughter like I know my own mind, and I know that she would wilt without me... she still deserves better.

"...because you are my beloved sister. We don't agree on everything, but I know you're a kind mare. You bore Kindness because you sprinkle it upon everypony rather indiscriminately."

Celestia couldn't meet Luna's eyes. That's hardly a bad thing! Why does she always use that tone for matters of kindness?

...More importantly, does she not realize how long ago it was that either of us was an Element Bearer...? I am kind because it is necessary for everypony... but I am not Kindness. Not anymore.

One thing Celestia knew was that Luna was aware of how Celestia was not the same pony She knew a thousand years ago, even if she didn't quite see it in the same way as Celestia. What Luna did not know was just what a thousand years on her own did to Celestia, and the extent of its toll, and that she really, really was far from in tune with any of her old Elements and had been for a long, long time.

"I thought you would be kind to Sombra, or at the very least you would tolerate the love of my life. How could that be too much to ask from you? Do you realize what you've done instead?"

"Luna," Celestia ventured delicately, "don't you think you're getting carried away?"

"NO, I DO NOT!" Luna screamed, and Celestia watched in horror as hot, angry tears started to fall down Luna's cheeks. "I told you that I would explain to him what his duties as a prince were and help him, as I am good at working with him. You summoned him straight to your office against my orders and you two ended up fighting. You couldn't respect me when I told you that I was going to do something."

There was no response Celestia could think to give.

"You drive him to panic even when I have confided in you that he has panic attacks. You try to tear him apart over the most pointless things. You harass him, degrade him, go out of your way to annoy him, are downright venomous to him, and allow him to work in a harmful environment. He has no chance to properly refute you, is confined to a desk job, and you treat him like filth. He gets so little chance to contribute to anything. I told you that he doesn't speak out when he is treated cruelly because he is used to it! I told you that he will often take abuse because he was in an abusive relationship, and cannot recognize certain limits in others' behavior! You saw fit to torment him because you thought he wouldn't tell me!"

Celestia didn't bother to mask her trembling. She was too busy trying to figure out how Luna was able to make her feel so ashamed.

"He showed me some of the notes you send him. He told me about the things you said to him the Hearth's Warming I proposed, simply because you knew I was out of the room. Your behavior is so poor around him, and you only seek to 'push his buttons', as the saying goes. I know you regard him in such a grossly impersonal way and have no level of patience for him on purpose. Simple beginner's mistakes are unforgivable coming from him. He feels anxious around you, upset by you, and like you will invade his privacy. None of those things are okay! I expected so much better from you, Celestia!" Luna sniffled furiously, and Celestia listened to Luna try and swallow a sob before She went on.

And Celestia watched, stunned at everything, only staring at Luna with speechless sorrow.

"I can see that you've plainly put forth no effort to try and get to know him. Sombra isn't the best at getting to know you, either, but I know that he has at least tried and have attempted to bring this up with you before. You lie to his face, and that is... i-immensely frustrating to have learned. He has been scolded over nothing, simply because you see fit to be nothing short of a petty bitch towards him."

Celestia felt like Luna had hit her with those words. During the dawn of Luna's return, one of the things Celestia had apologized for countless was for how much of a 'bitch' she had been. She was hardly a mare for such crude language, but she had told Luna over and over again that, yes, she had been a colossal bitch.

Admittedly, she used to privately think of herself as one, in her younger days. She hadn't told Luna that, but 'bitch' stung coming from her own daughter, and without her mask, she could not hide how it hurt.

"There is no reason for you to hurt him, and yet, you do. I have told you many times of my love for this stallion, and you know this... and still torment him. What is the root of this? D-Did you really think this wouldn't hurt me? Do you even know how much it does?"

"I'm sorry," Celestia whispered, raw and scared.

"I..." Luna drew a shaking breath, and so many more tears were welling up. She looked like she was having a hard time controlling them, and every bit of her emotion was spilling everywhere Celestia could look. "I don't know if you are telling the truth. All I can really say is that you hurt Sombra, somepony I love, cherish, and strive to protect..."

What could Sombra even need protection from?

"...and that you, my favorite sister and the mare who had faith in reforming Discord when I doubted you, could not offer a w-wonderful stallion a bit of tolerance and safety. You forgave me too, and everything I did was worse than Sombra's misdeeds. He does not feel the least bit at home outside of our wing of the castle. Y-You lied in your speech. Stars, it wasn't even a very good speech, but I thought you were trying. Instead, you were lying. Your actions since then, and even before, make you a liar, Celestia."

Being a liar is not such a bad thing to be, and how is it you can believe what you did was worse than Sombra, a slaughterer? Oh, Luna... I really do wonder about what I'm going to do with you.

"Sister, you keep catering to ponies instead of listening to those you should really trust."

One of Celestia's ears raised with confusion. How can she think those are two different things?

Luna sighed, still plainly irritated. "Sundrop Talismans are not good for Sombra, for one. Part of the reason he can get so sick in the mornings is because of all the light magic. I informed you of Sombra's magic sense, and I am aware that he mentioned a few things about it as well. You are not some lowly, slow-witted magic kindergartner that is oblivious to the obvious correlation of light magic being bad for Sombra. I've done what I can, but the staff hasn't been respectful of me in some time. Ultimately, you've still ignored and enabled Sombra to work in an environment that is physically toxic for him, thus endangering the welfare of my beloved."

Celestia was very quiet, though she had always suspected some of Sombra's 'sick days' came from him not wanting to work. No lowly drifter is enthusiastic about the fact that jobs must be done, and Celestia knew that Sombra was no exception.

"Are you suggesting I forbid the staff from bringing something that they feel keeps them safe?"

"Yes, sister!" Luna said, trying fruitlessly to wipe tear stains from Her muzzle with a foreleg. "They directly endanger Sombra because of his origin and because they possess light magic flows that have bad health effects on him!"

Well, then aren't they doing their job?

"I... I'll look into it."

She noted Luna's betrayed skepticism.

"I promise, Luna. A real Big Sis Promise," she assured her daughter, even if speaking words of sisterhood hurt her. "What is this about the staff, though? How is it that you have not ordered them to stop bringing their trinkets?"

"They do not exactly listen to me," Luna muttered sullenly, eyes still wet and unbelievably teary. "Thus my limited success. You are their perfect princess, and you expect the rest of us who bear the crown to bear the same misconceptions about being down-to-earth, something none of us really is, and how you erroneously slip your notions of public servitude over being a true ruler. Ponies devour this endlessly, sister, but it is a crippling thing. I become odd not because I am, but still, there is something about me that they outcast beyond my choice of a spouse, too."

"W-What, why?" Celestia blinked, bewildered.

Sniffling, Luna looked straight at Celestia, night-touched eyes piercing her with a frightening stare. "Oh, have you not heard? I am no longer 'Celestia's sister'."

Celestia blinked again. What could she possibly mean?

"These ponies do not approve of my partner any more than you do." Lightning streaked across the sky once more, and Celestia shivered. To think that if her magic had developed naturally and unbridled. Would some other aspect of nature be as malleable to her as storms were to Luna?

Then divorce him, Luna. Your family and your nation do not approve, so there is no reason you should have continued your relationship when everything you should value is pointed against it. Sombra has little hope of surviving a divorce court, and I would not expect his funds to survive, either.

"It might've helped if you had my blessing," Celestia pointed out.

Luna's response was a scowl, and a deep boom of thunder came with the moody flick of her tail. "I truly mean no disrespect, sister, but I think that, as a grown mare, I do not need to seek parental blessing from you, and especially not in this day and age. I did not seek Father's blessing, and he has no problem with Sombra. 'Tis, not some required thing."

Celestia was lucky that the next roll of thunder hid her whimper. "...What is it the staff do?"

Luna sobbed loudly before She managed to say anything. "I am not 'Celestia's sister' to these ponies, as I told you. They resurrect some of the foulest words in this language to refer to me now — I am 'Sombra's w-whore' and 'Sombra's slut', a-and other similar things." Luna couldn't hide that She was trembling with small sobs or how She shook with both tears and anger. The sky crackled, roared, and shrieked with chain lightning that caused every window to rattle and the whole room to flash the brightest white.

"I—"

"Of course, you haven't seen anything! They don't say anything in front of you! All of them a sweet, humble little ponies who only wish to be your obedient subjects. You are only their Boss of Bosses and Royal Among Royals, Celestia. Many of them do play favorites, and it is you adore most often, and who the gossipy ones are the best-behaved for. And I? I am the mad sister, the eccentric one, so even if I do not stroll into the throng of the rumor mill, I stumble into its fringes. I hear things, Celestia, and I do not speak of the perverted tales Private This and Lieutenant That has to go in so much detail about. These ponies know I am not widely believed, and they may speak of matters that skirt just below treasonous and criminal speech, particularly when it is I who is near them."

That... That can't be true... can it? Everypony has always been so nice...

Luna judged Celestia's expression coldly. "Printing anything about Sombra, and speaking without care about the latest rumors regarding him maybe treasonous and illegal, and yet ponies are not good at discretion. You hardly discourage such behavior, and there is still a societal stigma, though you do not have to bear it. This does not mean nothing is said."

Before Celestia could even begin to figure out what to say, she watched as Luna's anger transformed. The pounding of rain outside doubled in intensity, though the lightning abated.

Luna now lay crumpled on Celestia's bed, sobbing with abandon. Guilt plagued Celestia, and she knew that though she felt as though she had been smashed to pieces, Luna was so obviously devastated. Between the two of them, it had been Luna who cried easily.

Celestia knew that by Luna's heaving chest that she still wanted to draw on anger, but she had none left. She only looked scared and sounded so wounded... something that physically hurt Celestia to hear. And to think that Luna had this much raw feeling to expend. Now the only thing frightening about her was the depths at which she could feel and how easily she could. Neither of those things was unfamiliar to Celestia, and it was a trait of Luna's she envied and feared almost equally.

These were the sights that broke Celestia, and her own eyes were damp. She lit her horn, not caring that Luna would see her bare emotion with not a single tatter of composure if she so much as looked up. Soft golden light wove its way through Luna's mane, and Celestia's magic teased strands of it in the gentlest, most motherly fashion possible. With careful movements, she moved strands back into place as Luna's sobs continued, slowly lifting away a cascade of dark hair in a gradual effort to reveal as much of Luna's face as she could.

Each gentle touch showed her shadowed, tear-stained cheeks and creases in the blankets where Luna had buried her face.

The gesture between them was an old one. As emotional as Luna was, Celestia knew she was poor at reading what Luna felt, and knowing when she was hurt, but a long time ago she could comfort a sad little filly when she was little more than a child herself.

When all Luna was little and her imagination ran wild, she would pour out an exhausting amount of it upon Celestia. Those were the years that Celestia had not yet learned Luna's chatter only described a fraction of what went on in her mind. Those were the years when Celestia knew she was the light in Luna's world, for Luna was a child, and no matter how brave or odd any child may be, they are never without fear.

There was a time when Luna came to Celestia when she cried, without hesitation. Perhaps that was something innocence had lent her. Then, it had been Celestia who learned all the best ways to do Luna's mane, hug her after bad dreams, cobble together the most adequate of bedtime stories, and bandage all the boo-boos she could see. Celestia knew that even as a filly, Luna hated hearing Celestia say that.

Now, she was a young mare weeping over her marriage, and despite Celestia's best efforts her crying had only lessened rather than ceased.

Celestia's headache had returned as a fuzzy, faint, and weary feeling. Nervous fluttering dominated her chest, and in between the sensations she was only surprised she wasn't shaking.

"Luna...?" Celestia prompted, voice hushed and tone maternal.

"M-Mhm?"

"...I never thought you would be married, and certainly not before me." She moved her forehoof to where one of Luna's forelegs rested, patting it carefully. "This has been incredibly hard on me... I... I'm having a very h-har—" Celestia coughed, the motions of her hoof faltering, "I'm having a hard time adjusting."

Even offering a fraction of the truth to Luna could only be done with great difficulty on Celestia's part. How was it that ponies could bear the weight of their emotions and share them with others? Who was to say that anypony would really understand the other? What enabled them to share them without crushing another under all the burdens they had best keep to themselves?

...Hadn't that worked for her century after century?

"Sister," Luna said, lifting her head. "This is no easier for me."

Celestia reluctantly perked her ears forward just enough to listen to Luna's hoarse post-sobbing voice and look into her daughter's tear-matted face.

She already knew some of Luna's lasting frustrations with ponies, even if she was not quick to voice her deepest frustrations. Celestia knew there were still ponies who saw Luna as frivolous and unneeded. Numerous gossip never reached Celestia, and doubly so when it could be seen as dancing within the distance of treason, but she knew that many an ignorant pony thought Luna useless, for what was she but a dream-diving recluse? They were the sort who even Celestia could say was unbearable (though, never to their faces) for their words and the distress they put Luna through, who heard their words in full.

These were the ponies who would not look to the night sky and realize that it was now a thing of beauty and awe; where Celestia could merely raise the moon quickly and hide the difficulty of such a task, Luna could perfect the night entirely and bring the sky to life. Nearly everypony else in Equestria had noticed the splendor now that the moon's true goddess had returned, and how Celestia's nights were but imitations. They did not think that just because Celestia could raise the moon, she should.

How were they to know that Luna was the one who helped those Celestia knew nothing about, and somehow slipped past the light? Insecure children, yearnings for death, hidden traumas, and nightmarish cases of abuses not fit for the polite ears of society were what Luna dealt with on a daily basis. Yet, she did not break. Somehow it was Luna who was able to unravel all the worst of ponies — domestic distress, incest, assault, predators of foals, and all terrible things — and still see such delight in life. That was always baffling to Celestia, and in ways she would not like to admit, especially considering how Luna did not see life and ponies as mutually exclusive.

How could such ponies grasp that Luna uncovered crimes in dream-walking that would have been lost to time? Though history had been edited, and all Luna's efforts re-credited, it had been Luna who had worked much on the justice system's foundations, though Celestia had draped much of her own alterations over Luna's core contributions. It was Luna who used to bring up the vilest crimes to the old public and shock them in attempts to bring awareness to them and speedily outlaw them with what little power she had then. Silent Luna was the mare who had founded what would be considered the original 'vice squad' of the guard, and aside from its absorption into the main guard, the laws, principles, and basis of this division had remained unchanged in its mission to rid Equestrian streets of ponies most foul.

Luna worked in shadows. She peered into the petrifying darkness. When she said something was not easy for her, it was time for Celestia to worry.

"Whatever do you mean?" Celestia asked quickly, her voice filled with soft, sincere concern.

Luna bit her lip, drew herself up, and rubbed one bare forehoof at her chest. "Well," she croaked, "'tis nothing you need to worry about. I made an enormous commitment, and I am overjoyed with it." There, in the dark, is the ghost of a smile on Luna's face. "I did not use to believe in love like other ponies. Not like you, or Cadance, or anypony. Romance used to be... for everypony else, if I am to spare you rambling. All those things about understanding, cherishing, and respecting somepony at any level exceeding a friendship were fancy of some kind. Any feelings of love, the marriage of true minds... Tia, it all seemed fake, in some way. I never told anypony, but I used to think that maybe there was some sort of fake qualities to Shining and Cady, too. I was lonely..." Luna blinked, looking to Celestia to understand something that hid in the vibrant teal of her eyes and in her tired, far too personal words. "Sometimes it crossed my mind... but solitude was so advantageous and fulfilling."

"And you learned otherwise... because of the magic of love?" Celestia offered, guessing at the conclusion of Luna's thoughts. Privately, she wondered how anypony could ever think to doubt the love of Shining Armor and Cadance, even in their most vile thoughts. She watched as Luna still rubbed nervously at her own coat.

"No, it is still fulfilling... but I'm grateful I found Sombra. Getting to share so many things with him... I..." Something sprang into Luna's mind; her eyes lit up, and she sighed. That pale smile — too real and emotional for Celestia to look at for long — graced her muzzle briefly and boldly before vanishing. "Still, marriage is... I love it, but Tia, if you are to ever consider it—"

She never had.

"—know that it is lovely, but there are so many difficulties, though I know Sombra was the right pony."

The nervous rubbing and the mention of 'difficulties' in a martial context had Celestia at sudden, rapt attention. Her eyes were alert and astonished, and some of the haze from slumber and earlier that night had vanished.

"Difficulties?" Celestia repeated.

Luna's bottom lip quivered, sparks of rapid thoughts struggling to be made into words shining in her eyes. "I-It's nothing like what you think! I—"

Celestia lit her horn quickly and held the scratching foreleg. "If that is so, then why have I been seeing these on you?"

In the light of Celestia's magic, a few faded bruises stood out in the soft light. Celestia could not bear to hold Luna's leg in her own hooves, because then her trembling would be all the more apparent. There was something so bewitching about those bruises that Celestia was unable to look away.

She knew that when these bruises were present, they were like some sort of afterthought against Luna's dark coat alongside the dapples of her cutie mark. They were in rumors too and had to be one of the reason Luna's eyes lit up. Right before a heart-rattling crack of lightning drowned out her whole room like a flash-bang spell, Celestia saw that Luna's eyes were fearful and heard her daughter whimper.

Celestia's heart leaped painfully and the echo of the crackling lightning still stung her ears. She was not entirely sure that her room was still, but she was certain of the sight before her.

Luna had broken down in tears again, and her imposing form had splintered entirely. She had wrenched her foreleg from Celestia's magic, and now only clouds and rain still lasted. Even the relentless wind had lessened its might to make way for the incessant battering of the rain.

"Luna, why didn't you tell me—"

"It's not what you think! I just forget to heal them! You know these are minor bruises!" Luna interrupted so emotionally, teary eyes desperate for her to listen. Instead of the intimidating figure of divinity, now Celestia saw Luna at a level of fear and upset rarely even to her. Even her stance was an unusual level of vulnerability. Celestia thought Luna's position sprawled across her bed sheets was like some pleading pilgrim.

She wanted to defend her obscene union. That had Celestia reaching for thoughts of the mask that was currently beyond her. Heavens knew she needed it.

"In no circumstances should he ever hit you!" Celestia asserted, but her voice deceived her. It came out clogged with anxiousness and trembling.

"I know! Sister, this is an accident, and it always is!"

"At the rate, these marks are appearing, how can they possibly be an accident?!"

"Tia, must I beg for you to listen to m-me? N-None of this is what you think, I swear upon the stars!" Her breathing quickens, and she looks to her leg, at the small bruise upon it with the clear trace of a hoofprint in it. Luna was right about them being minor. Celestia had to squint at them fiercely in the dark. "They are not as frequent as you think, that is all but a cruel rumor. There are some I do not think to heal because of how slight they are, and others I miss... I... I'm sorry."

"That doesn't tell me how you get those."

Celestia saw Luna swallow and rub at her leg's bruises in the dark. "Sometimes, Sombra fights the things he sees in his nightmares. He screams and argues with those who are not there. During them, there are times when he'll lash out. He w-would never do this intentionally. Stars know I can't convince him enough that it isn't his fault."

Celestia blinked, stunned and confused in equal measure. "He has night terrors...?" 'From what?' she left unsaid.

Luna nodded. "Being called to the nightmares of somepony familiar saddens me, yet being called to the nightmares of my husband..." She sniffles. "Tia, do you know what seeing his traumas can feel like? I wish he would let me help him through all of them."

All dread had dissipated from Celestia, but uncertainty and apprehension had not. There was a grim relief that came with the knowledge Sombra did not batter Luna about and all rumors were truly just that. Though, to think of Sombra in such a vulnerable state was unimaginable. Luna had married a basket case unable to deal with his own darkness. What other way was there to put it? He was a dark product's aftermath, a violent sort of vileness, and he brought whatever happened on himself, didn't he?

Heavens know that anything that happened to Sombra now was something that he deserved, for such a struggle was unbelievable. He was a byproduct of dark sorcery, not a victim. Still, she listened because not even Sombra could stop her from caring about her family.

"Can't you find your own way into his dreams? Luna, that sounds quite easily fixed."

"No, things are far more complicated than that. He also has not given me consent to view all his nightmares. I do not all that they contain, only most of them."

Isn't that a good thing? Celestia thought, a concerned furrow spreading across her brow and a hazy ache in her head.

Luna must've read the question right on Celestia's naked face because her withers drooped. "That makes it no better for me. Som tells me nearly everything, and I still think that the real nightmare is when he wakes up, sister. Why else would he wake up unsettled and staring at something that isn't there? I give him enough space, and he spends an hour taking a cold shower and speaking only in pragmatic near-whispers to me. Those are his sick mornings, Celestia. He is not lazy, his mind needs care so that on those mornings we can decide if he is fit for performing his duties."

That was what Sombra did with its 'sick days'? Just what was wrong with it, and what had disturbed it so? She did recall that there were days when she could remember Sombra collecting paperwork late because of those days and that something had been doubly distant behavior-wise, and there had felt like less than silence was exchanged between them.

"Luna," Celestia whispered, "is Sombra ill?"

Luna reached up towards her mane and nervously ran her forehooves through it. "I would use no such words for him, but if you mean what I think you do, aye. He is. His diagnoses are not given out lightly."

Diagnoses? Celestia's ears perked up. "...What does he have?"

Luna's eyes narrowed just a bit, and she rubbed at the tear stains on her cheeks. "They are private... and as I suspected. I wish I had anything new to say about his health, but I am afraid all we received was a confirmation. Some conditions are still being ruled out."

Luna was an insistent mare, and while not disagreeable like Sombra she was not agreeable as Celestia was. She did not react with tolerance to situations where ponies would want her to, and Celestia would see fit to lather something with the stuff. Celestia allowed substandard to pass where it should with smiles, head-pats, and such. Luna was not one to permit mediocrity, whereas Celestia was skeptical of eccentricities past a certain threshold.

Thus Celestia had not fought with her when Luna had proclaimed that she wanted to find a professional to 'help' Sombra. Celestia had not even bothered to remind herself that 'help' is not the word she would use for what Sombra needed, or the obvious issue: trying to get effective treatment for an immortal was an experimental endeavor not guaranteed to work.

(Celestia knew all too well, and of course, Luna did too. She would have given close to anything for Luna to have been able to access help once she had learned of the woe of the Tantabus.)

(How would things have been different then? Would Luna be a normal and socially-adjusted mare? Would she have met Sombra at all...?)

Instead, She had only expressed skepticism that going outside the country discreetly every few months to take Sombra to appointments with royal errands as a cover might be too costly, especially when it came to negotiating with whatever leader was going to have to permit this.

Luna had been disappointed to hear such a thing, and that meant Celestia had to sit through Luna's sharp words regarding the mental health system. Of course, she was right: the Equestrian mental health system would be a bad fit for Sombra. Though, maybe Luna had different reasons for thinking so than Celestia. Her thoughts lingered on what would really be done with him. Upon learning he was a demon, no self-respecting practitioner would let Sombra continue to seek treatment. Whatever professionals Luna took Sombra to when it came to matters of their future foal likely had ties to her private health staff, and would have no need to 'betray' Sombra's nature. To any other who 'treated' him, with Sombra being so clear a threat to society there would be a legal obligation to out him to the guard, especially if he admitted to a crime.

And if they didn't? Aside from how treasonous such a thing was, there would be little that could be done for him if he were kept as a patient. As an immortal, therapy could easily prove ineffective if it was done wrong, and medications could end up with disastrous results given his unique chemistry and magical powers, which were important to factor into any prescription. An individual like Sombra — violent, angry, moody, and so on — would not be given many legitimate dosages either. Even a treasonous practitioner who did not out him would recognize what should be done and prescribe him enough of anything to lower his functionality and put his mind in a fog, lest he act upon his nature as a clear aberration... or worse.

Celestia frowned, mind whirring with the pulse of worry. She remembered how happy Luna had looked when she confided that she found somepony in Germaneigh who was willing to see Sombra and Sombra was willing to interact with. Luna thought the latter was very important, but Celestia did not bother to externally express how she disagreed. She really just hoped that investing in long-distance teleportation to that degree was worth it.

"Will he be dangerous to ponies?" Celestia asked, unable to keep a faint edge of sternness from her tone. How could she when the safety of her subjects might be on the line? Fine, Luna could keep her pet project of a prince and spouse until she was tired of him, but Celestia would not allow any part of it if it hurt those who mattered more.

"Ponies are more likely to be a danger to him than he is to them, especially if it is you and you keep doing what you're doing."

Offended and hurt, Celestia gasped. "Luna!"

Luna scowled, rubbing away the last of her tears. "If you think that I will allow you to do any more of that you are wrong."

Celestia ducked her gaze shamefully and modestly. "I'm sorry."

In response, Luna fidgeted nervously, her own eyes now downcast as she played with her mane. There was something in her eyes that Celestia had seen enough to recognize, or that was what she hoped.

Often, there were times she wished she was mortal. She desired this partly because then she would have some god to pray to who might grant the wish that she might one day be able to understand Luna.

"Luna?" Celestia prompted gently, a hesitant and motherly quality in her voice.

She peered into the light of her horn and the edge of the shadows where Luna had retreated. Luna had flinched at Celestia's voice, still so obviously upset regardless of how obscured she was.

"Is there something else bothering you?"

Silence.

Knowing Luna, that might be some kind of confirmation, but she had no chance to ask.

"Tia, since I have returned you have told me many times how you promise to support me. In all that I am most sure of, devoted to, and love you have not supported me in the slightest. Or..." She turned even further away from Celestia, mane spilling into her face, "...you have lied to me. Do you really intend to support me? Have you actually cared about what matters to me?"

"L-Luna, I..."

"No, don't you 'Luna' me in this! Have you meant anything you've said to me? Do really care about me as a sister?"

I care about you as my daughter and would do anything to not lose you again. How could you think that I didn't care?

"Of course I do! Luna, what has gotten into you?"

Luna whimpered faintly, and that's when Celestia knew that her frantic tone was far more demanding than it should have been and that she had spoken wrong.

"Luna, what are you afraid of?" She lowered her voice even further, reaching out a hoof and wanting Luna to take it.

"Please, tell me."

Now Luna had her wings brought up to her face and was hiding, as she often had when she was young and heard heated arguments. At her youngest, Tia had always rushed to comfort the little one, thinking in her own youthful ignorance that Luna's heart was too big for her body and some other host of poorly cobbled-together notions. When she had grown older and lived under Starswirl's roof, Solara knew Luna was a crybaby...

"Please don't cry again," Celestia said, though she heard no tears.

Slowly, the barrier of dark feathers was peeled away. Layer by layer went away until Celestia could see Luna's face again. Luna winced at Celestia's horn-light and was slouched forward morosely. How was it that their fights always fell into such awful patterns, and Luna was so prone to ending up in Celestia's shadow time after time?

Did Luna feel horrified by this dynamic too? Was she just as scared as Celestia felt herself to be, knowing some worm of doubt was buried in her breast?

"I..."

At the sound of Luna's melodic ears, Celestia's ears were perked and ready to hear every word. "Yes?" she said, whisper-soft and trying to let the tiniest encouraging smile stick on her bare face. How awkward her muzzle felt!

"I-I'm asexual."

"...What?" Had she heard that right? Did she remember to listen? Were her ears clean?

"Asexual," Luna repeated, wincing. The poor baby. This wasn't the reaction Luna wanted, was it? "I... It means I d-don't—"

"Luna, I know what it means. I'm just..."

Asexual? While not anything Celestia was very familiar with, it was impossible not to be aware of, even if it was a minority. She was over three thousand years old, and Celestia had seen nearly everything, for better or worse. This was nothing to bat an eye at in itself.

But Luna? Luna was asexual? Celestia couldn't even say that 'asexual' was the last thing she had guessed Luna was, because she hadn't even considered it in the first place. How could Luna be asexual? What was there that could have given her away? Even the idea of Luna being straight was mind-boggling!

"Is something wrong, sister?" Luna asked fearfully.

"No," Celestia assured her immediately. "Nothing is wrong... I'm just very surprised to hear this."

"Really?" Luna whispered, cocking her head to the side. "Why is that?"

Oh, Celestia thought, noting Luna's expression, she actually expects an answer.

"I... Luna, how long have you known?" Could this be a recent discovery Luna made?

Luna frowned thoughtfully. "I think I might have always known. Spending time at the Unicorn Court made it so apparent to me, even if I did not consider there might be some name for what I felt. I think that was when I really knew."

That's... That's over eleven centuries! "Why didn't you tell me?" Celestia asked hurriedly, lest her flabbergasted thoughts keep rolling.

Luna looked down shyly. The question had quite a few easy answers, and those that they both knew were uncomfortable, but had thankfully been acknowledged before.

"Sister, I never had a reason to disclose something so private to you. Every time I thought I might tell you, or tried to, you never really listened."

"Luna, I'm sorry... So, you are asexual, but...?" Celestia's thoughts felt like fuzz inside her head. This whole subject was a perplexing one, and she found her forehooves getting all wound up in her blankets as she failed to string words together.

"But what, Celestia?" Luna asked, tilting her head to the side.

"...You love stallions?"

Luna flicked an ear. "I love Sombra, and though it is complicated, I can say I feel such affection towards stallions."

Celestia felt her whole form, and even the rippling of her mane sag slightly. "I see... may I ask you something else?"

Luna nodded, shadows playing across her face.

Did Twilight ever stand a chance?

"Do you like mares too?"

Luna's muzzle wrinkled, a perplexed glint in her eyes. "Stallions are immensely preferable to them, but I suppose mares are okay."

"So... when Twilight came calling did you turn away because she was a mare?"

Two blue eyes blinked back at Celestia with astonishment. "Aye, I think that certainly influenced it. I've never felt an iota of attraction for her, and we have frustratingly little to agree about and next to nothing in common. Though, I find it impossible to love somepony who sees me as a history project. I think she looks at the world like one of her little reports for you, or as fuel for some scientific-arcane discovery. Sister, I know you love her so much, but she's never made me feel like anything short of an unwilling social pet project for the studies you've assigned her. Am I truly to feel anything for the plain little student who looks at me like I am supposed to be some sultry temptress, whether she'll admit that she wants that of me or not?"

"Luna, I don't think—"

"No, sister, you do not see. The mare is not as innocent as you think she is. Twilight Sparkle is like a daughter to you, is she not? Aside from her not respecting me, I cannot help but feel ill at her past attempts to date me, for that would be like attempting relations with my own niece had anything ever been mutual between us. She reminds me too much of a child; I simply couldn't hurt somepony like that."

Celestia's heart plummeted in her chest. "Luna, that's rather rude."

Luna frowned disapprovingly in her direction. "It is rude to think that respect should be in the foundations of one's relationship, for one? She is not particularly rude, but that mare has been far from respectful toward me. I will not lie and say that she understands me remotely and my annoyances, or that she has accepted a refusal I have given her."

"You don't think that you owed Twilight the little date that I helped you two have some time ago?"

Luna's displeased expression was all too apparent, despite the darkness. "Sister, I was in a fragile place then and felt guilt-tripped. Disagreeing with you is nigh impossible. As grateful as I am for her enabling our reunion, I do not owe her anything. Thinking that would be unhealthy."

"B-But Luna! What about the Tantabus—" Celestia could not say that name without wanting to throw up, "—when Twilight said such kind things to you about forgiveness and letting go of guilt?"

"Oh sister," Luna said, a touch of frustration buried deep in her tone, "those were the words that I needed to hear at the time, regardless of who told them to me. What mattered not was who looked me in the eye to say such a thing, for Tirek himself could have spoken those words, and what followed would have still been my first step towards forgiving myself."

Dumbfounded, Celestia swallowed the growing lump in her throat and wished that she could bury herself in the guise of a princess again. Her head felt too light without her crown. "...Does Sombra support this?" she asked tentatively, "Your asexual identity?"

Her heartbeat had a nervous tempo to it; what answer could she expect?

Luna exhaled in relief and nodded eagerly. "More than anypony else. I'm not sure I could have adjusted to things so well without him and Cadance."

"He's been supportive of you?"

"In nearly everything, Tia. Stars, that stallion loves me even when I don't love myself."

One of Celestia's ears flicked nervously, and she inwardly chided herself for allowing such a gesture. "What could possibly be the exception to his support?"

Luna gave a sigh so dreary in sound that Celestia nearly flinched hearing it. "I desperately want to be a ruler who is just and active."

Whatever happened to being a ruler that was good and adored? Celestia thought sourly.

"The treatment of ponies grates upon me. I know that to make the world a better place, I must endure them and all their follies. Yet, my mind strays to what this could cost my husband, myself, and my future child. Could I bear to have a family in such brewing toxicity, regardless of the authority I hold over these ponies? They harm my beloved, though he is strong and knows far worse things, and my own subjects could seek to do ill to my child. I am not their mere public servant, I am their princess, and the greatest difference lies between such ranks. They do not hold me here, and if my well-being and that of my family call for it, why should I not cast off this crown and live as I wish? That thought, and so many more like it, have been plaguing my mind and invading my thoughts terribly recently."

"L-Leave!" Celestia sputtered. "Leave Equestria? I...!" Dozens of half-formed protests flooded Celestia's mind and clogged her. She wanted to urge Luna to do no such thing and remind her of every duty that the crown demands. She could not shirk such a thing! How was it that such a thought could have ever entered Luna's mind and not made her feel crippled by guilt? What was this madness, and who could Luna possibly be if she was not a princess of Equestria? Who and what could either of them be if they were not princesses?

Luna's gaze roamed somewhere Celestia's frantic mind could not ascertain. Her hooves were shaking, and her heart trembled with it. Her baby was going to abandon her. If she didn't do something her baby was going to leave...

"I have thought of this and pondered plans. This became more rooted in reality than I would have ever wanted the idea to become, and I have discussed such a thing with Sombra on multiple occasions. He has talked me out of this every single time, Celestia. Sometimes, I wish he didn't. I know he doesn't like it here, and he never does so for his own sake. Curse that clever stallion for coming up with reasons to stay, because he does. I married an intellectual and a stubborn one at that! I suppose this is how I pay for such a thing." Luna laughed so grimly that Celestia's stomach flip-flopped at the sound.

"Luna..." Celestia croaked. "W-Why didn't you say anything?"

"I was going to, but that wasn't going to stop anything. I am not bound to live with my sister in her pretty mountainside city forever and play princess with her. Need I remind you that though I can stand within your shadow easily, I am a grown mare? I'm not sure I should have let him talk me out of things too, not when I found out about what you were doing to him. Knowing that he still tried to get me to stay in Equestria with you when you tormented him is downright abominable."

"Yes," Celestia whispered, throat aching, "I know it is. Are you still going to l-leave me?"

"Stars, Celestia. I will do no such thing, but there are always plans. Can we discuss matters reasonably together and make things better? I know we are... not always the sisters we should be, but you are still my sister, Tia. That means more to me than any kingdom could, and if I can accept your relationship with Discord, you can come to terms with my marriage to Sombra."

One indigo foreleg was stretched in her direction, offering forgiveness and familial love. Nervous sweat droplets gathered under Celestia's mane, towards the base of her neck. Her throat was tight with guilt. Against any shred of composure that lingered in her mind, her face burned with a fraction of the shame that she was starting to feel so overwhelmed with.

Even the pinpricks of thought — nagging whispers with their flurries of worry, self-scorn, and Luna is making this out to be so much worse than it is and overreacting again — were pushed to the shadowy borders of her mind. She felt the involuntary tears welling up in the corners of her eyes begin to trickle down her face.

"Luna, I am so sorry. I will be polite with him—"

"That will not be enough, sister."

"I will be kind to him—"

"Kindness is never enough. Sister, those words are empty."

"Luna, p-please! What is it that I can do?" Her hooves gripped bunches of blankets, and Celestia was surprised to realize that it was she who was shaking and not the world.

There was still rain.

"Listen to me. That is what you can do. What you did was terrible, and I am appalled at what you've done. Sombra did something wrong, too."

"What is it that you want then? Luna, I will do—"

"I want you to try and befriend Sombra. Whether you succeed or fail, I care not. I do want you to really try. That means really getting to know him as Sombra, and not what your idea of him is, or as the prince, you work with. I want you to start taking your noon breaks with him for coffee and lunch. Now that Raven has resigned, I do not think that will be much of a problem. Any miscommunications you have with him can likely be solved with communication. I know I am poor with such a thing, but I know that you aren't."

Celestia looked back to Luna with wide, pleading eyes. "Why must you ask this of me?"

She already felt guilty knowing that some of her actions had contributed to Luna wanting to leave Equestria and negatively impacted what little support she had, as saddening as that source could be.

"I think that the greatest punishment for you would be to be kind to him, and the greatest for him would be to spend time around you."

A chill ran down Celestia's spine. That was quite the punishment, even if she would not admit it. Perhaps Luna already saw it in her eyes.

"Provided you and Sombra are willing to learn anything, this will be no punishment. Celestia, can you agree to try this? Sombra already has, though he is far from pleased."

Together, Celestia and Luna sat in silence. Celestia felt her skin itch peculiarly where Luna let her stern stare fall.

There were many times when Celestia knew that Luna was the young one she expected, ingenuous, quiet, and moody in a way all too typical of a child. Then there were the times when Luna had another face she presented to the world, and to Celestia. Her reserved, often stern, and pervasive asocial state could easily give way to a state both intimidating and striking in her bouts of authoritative behavior.

In the cracks of the latter, Celestia knew that the same extreme frustrations and despair could hide the spirit from which Nightmare Moon had grown.

Celestia could see it, even if she did not ever want to, especially not in the pony who was her closest family.

In over three thousand years, Luna was the one who remained full of surprises. Celestia resented this when the notion marched into the forefront of her mind and squatted there, for every unexpected thing was just proof that in all those years she didn't understand this mare, or that she was understanding her less than she must've at some point. Luna — the mare who proclaimed that she did not change or believe in such a thing while laughing — was more a riddle to Celestia than she could have ever been.

What was she to do? Could she continue to sit so before Luna and be the only one to know her heart was trembling? Was she to remain with the absence of words clogging her throat and offering no helpful answer?

"Of course, I agree," she said. Her pale face still felt naked, so she knew her mask had not returned, but Celestia really wished that those words could at least sound as she had spoken to them. Her body did not seem to recognize them, and her mind knew that they were hers, but why couldn't she really feel like she said them?

Even Luna's look of relief did not ease her the way she wished it would. All she found herself doing was marveling at how light her head was starting to feel as Luna lit her horn with such a subtle glow and managed to fade into the shadows with her light to teleport without even a pop. She was usually unnerved by such gestures of stealth from Luna because being startled was no pleasant surprise, but there were times when she let her attention stray to how Luna wove her magic.

When Celestia was certain Luna lingered not, she realized that the rain's racket was now a gentle pitter-patter... and that she was alone.

Alone.

A sigh jabbed at her throat. Frustrated whispers bubbled up at the edge of her mind and prodded at her focus, and a wave of shame persisted with it.

Whatever happened, she could not lose Luna. That was why she agreed. Following the path of least resistance yielded far fewer consequences and catastrophes. Negotiation won over ambition, and unity over division. If she must apply basic princess lessons to Luna, then so be it.

None of this absolved her of the choice that Celestia knew she would have to make. No matter how dire or varied the situation, she was not ever free of the two-fold path and the absolutes she always had to pick between.

While she was gifted with them being specially clear in her mind, that made no option less wretched in what the outcomes could promise.

Celestia could choose to do the good thing and uphold the eternal and unwavering principles she knew to be higher than herself. All she would have to do would be to go back upon her word and condemn what she knew was wrong, and more similar deeds. She would have her nation's approval, of that she was reasonably certain. Any remaining frustrations could be successfully vented upon Sombra, too, though she found that admission to be vile, no matter how conscious of it she was. Inevitably, she would break Luna's heart, not support her as she should, and be exposing all under her own mask once and for all, if things were to proceed as she anticipated. Only the knowledge that she had the moral high ground could survive.

The thought of that had her stomach quake with gut-wrenching terror. She might as well strip off her own skin and go strolling in the gardens if she wanted to even attempt to replicate even a fraction of how painful the fallout and process of the dutiful option would be.

Or, if she went against everything moral, she could forge a bond with Sombra that would be false to the core, and she had no doubt that there would be insincerity on his side too. This loathsome choice would make Luna happier than anything, preserve all secrets, and... be going along with something completely wrong, that's what she would be doing.

She would be sacrificing something in either option if she knew which to choose in the first place.

Interlude 4: Letters

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My Dearest Twilight,

I'm afraid it's been a while since I last wrote to you. Keeping up a regular correspondence and holding one's duties in the other hoof at all times can be quite the challenge sometimes, can it not? Still, it is mandatory as well as familiar to me. Your wings may still feel new to you, my Faithful Student, but my crown has never felt like it has been anything but an extension of my very bones!

I trust Gallant and Stellar Streak, as well as the rest of your family, are more than well? Gallant and Stellar Streak must have had such a fine time at school with so many exciting holidays to partake in with their classmates. I trust they still are making good marks? And that you and Rarity had a lovely Hearts and Hooves Day? No troublesome surprises?

Dissy and I had a lovely time gardening in Chaosville. His little god's dimension has quite the plant life. There are fly traps that refuse to have anything but beetles, roses that spew forth multicolored fog from their bud, yodeling lilies, and much other exotic flora that I could fill a whole other letter about. I'm not sure that all of it — and certainly not most of it — would be found in the books in your castle library. Perhaps the Everfree Forest could provide you with some examples of flora in Discord's world. I know that some plants of his were no doubt pulled from the Forest's outskirts, and while it may still be a dangerous place, no matter your skill, I trust that you of all ponies would be alert and not careless.

Has anything changed around Ponyville this season? I'm sure all the decorations for Hearts and Hooves Day and banners for the Princess Pen Pal Palooza will be a breeze to take down, and Winter Wrap Up must feel as though it is on the horizon, no? I still miss you at the Wrap-Ups in my citadel... and your home city, my Twilight of Canterlot... and how you watched, mystified as sorcerers and other unicorns of every class and trade pulled away all the dreariness of winter and give life to the world again, so raw from how it slept. You watched weather deliveries with as much care as I arranged them. In all my years, I never bothered to stay and observe what the earth pony and pegasus way was like so much as I simply nodded and approved of them, officiating this and that. It never struck me as anything to fixate on.

I was able to find the letters of almost all the foals from Ponyville that wrote to me. Gallant and Stellar certainly have much better penmanship than many foals their ages. Now, was it you or Rarity who taught them that, I wonder? It was such a dear thing to get one last letter from young Sweetie Belle before she heads off to Manehattan. I'm sure she'll make a fine music teacher one day, such an optimistic and innocent young mare. It is good to see she wishes to give back to others, instead of using her talents on something more frivolous. I hear that there are plans of organizing the Cutie Mark Crusaders into a youth organization all across Equestria in the future, from what she has written of Apple Bloom and Scootaroll's discussions with her.

All of them are grown up now, sixteen years old, all three of them. I know I have little knowledge of them as you do, but I still remember them as young fillies standing in my shadow. To think that Scootaroll was still a filly then! Each needed to be told about how their actions as 'Gabby Gums' and publishing anything about royalty was, especially gossip, was far from legal and had serious consequences to any adult who did it knowingly. Knowing they've been on their best behavior since then is good news, too.

I understand that the map of the Tree of Harmony has been more steady in how it dictates things, no longer leading you on any wild, horrendously out of control adventures. For that, I can be nothing but glad. I have never forgotten the stress that you have endured from such chaotic events, and how unneeded they are. Oh, I certainly have grown used to chaos, as I'm sure you know! You have always been a different story, one for routine, organization, and normalcy. It is always something to respect, and in a silly sort of way, I think the map almost does too, though the Tree of Harmony obeys none, choosing to send you only to things that are more respectable for a princess show what is important.

Grand travels are not so grand, and it is service that is paramount, and you serve Equestria well, Twilight. There is stability in Equestria, something that can not be obtained when you are called to other dimensions to defeat ancient evils via blaring, nonsensical rock music as Harmonia herself manifests around you. She's fickle in such things, is she not? You have never talked with her personally, and may you never have anything to do with the spirit of the World Tree. Every night, I see the newest feature of the starscape that is my sister's domain, 'Nova's Tree' as she has mysteriously declared it, and I feel it has marked something terrible.

Canterlot is odd without Raven, and odder still with Sombra. I dislike this greatly, for I still cannot fully understand this stallion. His private finances must be truly a strange sight, for he frequently orders artifacts and mechanical things to be holed away in his study. I greatly suspect he hoards some of these things within his god's world, something that is absolutely unheard of beyond my Dissy's mess of this and that within his own, but I can think of little else to keep frighteningly organized, mad arrangements of everything from airship parts to crystal balls and scrying stones. Unfortunately, I can only say that I can discern little else of his purchases. It is simply that I can't imagine where he has such a steady cycle of funds that would be needed to fuel his insanity so well. He may be an eccentric tinker, but he is not one who can exist in multiple locations, can he? That simply cannot be within his power, and he is no changeling queen, who rules over nearly thoughtless drones with an inherited hivemind.

Any theory of yours would be one I like to know, yet this is not why I write to you. I write to you to discuss the news of... drama, silly drama within the castle surrounding two ponies, and the tiny trifles about these discoveries.

The first is that I learned somepony I am aware of is asexual, or so I learned recently. This likely sounds simple, but I have no experience and little knowledge on the matter, other than simply knowing what it was. I have not personally known anypony who was asexual before, and I am not sure this has ever explained all of their behaviors properly. If you have any words or particularly helpful books in your library, it would be a pleasure to be able to borrow one. I try to think of anypony I have known to be so, I can think of absolutely nopony and no creature, or at least, none that I ever suspected or knew for certain. I have never been involved in anything related such as this in all my years of ruling Equestria; it simply is not a subject that comes up. And of the many friends I have had over centuries, there was none who could relate such an experience to me, or had this condition, so I am vastly inexperienced with it.

The second is an issue much more within your experience as a princess and a friend. You see, a silly foal's trifle has occurred recently... and I have been encouraged to befriend a pony who is without a particularly good reputation, and a few foul antisocial behaviors. I am not sure if it would simply be appropriate for me to be an insincere 'friend' and keep their company, for an insincere companion is better than none at all, or if it would be best to actually attempt to be genuinely kind with them, as opposed to merely civil. What I know of this pony isn't pleasant, nor are they, and I know and can say safely that this pony is one of the few who is absolutely undeserving of any friendship, something I know that you will understand. However, somepony who matters immensely to me will be devastated if I do not put forth an effort to be more tolerant of this pony. It would feel wrong to befriend this pony, but if it hurts somepony I care for, should I still try? None of my meditations over tea have made this choice any easier, and as always I simply seek to do what is good.

Sincerely,

H.R.H. Princess Celestia

...

Dear Princess Celestia,

Things in Ponyville have been going great. I can't wait for this year's Winter Wrap Up, and I'm still looking through letters from the Palooza. It's great to see how many little colts and fillies are interested in friendship, and I still get many about my adventures, but that's in the past. Lately, the most adventurous thing that I have been happening with me is trying to raise two foals. Okay, maybe that's not true. I've had to keep some tourists away from the Everfree Forest, and a couple of little fillies searching for herbs got too close to the outskirts and were almost attacked by timberwolves. Thankfully, nopony was hurt, but Fluttershy says she's been seeing more will-o'-wisps collecting around the outskirts lately as well.

Rarity and I went to a wonderful local spot for a fantastic dinner on Hearts and Hooves Day. I got many compliments about the new blonde streak that's showing up in my mane; it seems to be an emerging sign of some lingering magical imprint that's no longer latent, and clearly leftover from when my friends and I used the Rainbow of Light against Tirek.

I've never really understood how the Elements of Harmony work, and lately I've dealt with them directly less and less, simply going where the map has been telling my friends and me. Last week we had to work out land agreements with the buffalo tribes. Appleloosa certainly isn't the only frontier town with problems, but lately, they've been an example of friendship I think others could learn from.

I can't imagine Gallant with a fillyfriend or a coltfriend already! He's far too young! Instead, he's been going on non-stop about this and that about the Royal Guard even more than normal, and all the stories Shining Armor has been telling him all the tall tales of the EUP. Now he thinks he's a grand hero and can run around the town going on 'adventures' just like a grown stallion can. I always hope that he won't want to go on real ones, these ones are problematic enough.

Stella has been a mess of questions lately now that she's really gotten used to being in grade school. I'm so proud she was able to skip kindergarten! Cheerilee finds her to be such a well-behaved filly, compared to some of her peers. Because of my rigorous tutoring, she's never turned in homework that's less than perfect! Isn't that just fantastic? She's been using her mandatory after-school study hours so productively, I can't help but skip about with glee! To have such a studious daughter is something to beam about, no matter how many times she comes home with her blouses muddy and torn from recess, now that she's finally graduated kindergarten. That has been a bit of a problem.

Her mom goes through such a hard time making sure her clothes are respectable (and trendy for a foal) and she gets paint and food all over them, and dirt from playing outside. I have to keep giving her Lecture #27 — Just Because the Other Foals Don't Wear the Nice Things You Have Does Not Mean You get to Ruin Them, mixed in with a bit of the classic Number #8 Set an Example for Others, since she's a little filly, not a ruffian. As an adult, these things will have sculpted her into a model citizen, if Rarity doesn't have to scrub paint out of plaid skirts every other day.

Maybe when she gets to the grade level that Cheerilee teaches, I can trust that some of her habits will be straightened out. Even though I may be a demigod, she's the real miracle worker.

Having Spike around would have made things much better, even if he just rolled his eyes and said I was having a 'Twilight moment'. He's still such a young drake, and I can't help but be worried about him as he follows the dragon sightings and migrations of Equestria, looking to find his way, because he'll still always be my little brother. He writes often, sends presents and postcards, but Stella and Gal loved having their Uncle Spike around the castle. I loved having him around the castle. Now, sometimes I'm forgetting to write grocery lists. Hayburger dinners are going to my hips, and Rarity will never let me wear mom jeans!

Gods, I never realized how lucky ponies are, having pants as an option and not a requirement for our species. I would be doomed, since this household has a 'no-fashion crimes' policy.

I think I'm lucky Spike is a gem-eating ground dragon, too. An omnivore he may be, but if he was a winged breed, I can't imagine all the trouble he'd be getting into right now. I keep flipping through the limited bestiaries in the library here, scanning for anything about dragons that would be helpful to write to Spike about, as well as making sure he's still polishing his scales and filing his talons. There's such a limited amount in the books, but with how nomadic dragons tend to be, and potentially dangerous to ponies, I still don't blame anypony for not researching them. I certainly wouldn't want to, and I still know more about dragons than most.

All these things take less and less time away from magical pursuits. Motherhood, princesshood, and being a demigoddess... and everything, really, means so much more than old experiments and sorcery. I like getting to see Ponyville foals smile at Twilight Time more than I want to be reading scroll after scroll of magical theory any more. I definitely don't want to step near any more political theory than I've already been saddled with, especially not if it will take away from time with Rarity, Gallant, and Stella.

I'll always be introverted, princess, and very much so, and I love curling up with a good book — or a stack of them — just as much as I have before. But now, I found out can't be the student I was... and it feels strange. It's like every day I fix a nutritious, perfectly balanced meal instead of delving into the arcane arts, I'm losing something I don't know how to describe. I write about interpersonal relationships and what I've learned in Ponyville more than I'll ever do so about the truest of techno-magical advancements and raw, academic topics of magehood. Yet, it's a trade I'm more than happy to make, even if sometimes I think I feel something in me that's empty, I'm always too busy, or ignoring it, or anything.

But it worries me that the void where Equestria's intellectual voice should be isn't filled by me any longer... I hear about Sombra's work. Like the scepter and orb that mark royalty, he's held the attention of too many ponies as he writes of subjects of magic and philosophy. I can't stand it. The 'existentialism' that has no place in an optimistic land like Equestria is abhorrent, and so much more is...

Aren't the things that he writes getting a teeny bit close to being heresy? At this point, I'm just really surprised that nothing he writes has landed his whole works on the Solar Index.

Oh, I apologize, princess. I started scribbling away with my quill so ferociously that I let myself get carried away by my own thoughts instead of minding the purpose of my letter.

It is always good to hear that you are doing good. I can't imagine a day when you're unhappy. One of the things that inspires me as a princess is your tireless work to be upbeat and do what's good, and how good it feels to be around you. You're such a happy, extroverted pony, and I can only be one of those things. I still want to be just like you, and make the choices you make. I feel that by following your example, and your heroics, Equestria can be a better place.

On the subject of the two ponies you mentioned, I think I can help! I learned a lot about asexuality through Rainbow Dash, who has been a great friend in teaching me about it — as well as flight magic. Since she's asexual herself, she has been able to give me a lot of interesting information that I hadn't been able to glean from any books in Golden Oaks or my castle library. I may never understand it as personally as I could, but I know that it isn't really a 'condition'. Rainbow was who she was, just like I am how I am. What it means is that somepony has no physical attraction to anypony — and yes, that's hard to imagine for anypony who isn't asexual — and not because of any pre-existing medical problems or conditions, such as a pony who previously wasn't asexual now starting to seem different. If that's the case with your friend, then he or she might have a medical problem.

If that's not the case, your friend is just asexual. He or she is still might feel romantic attraction, but Rainbow doesn't. She always talks about it as feeling passionate about other things, like flying and being in the Wonderbolts reserve instead of pursuing a relationship or even thinking about one. Many asexual ponies — they're often called 'aces' — can find it very hard to be in relationships according to all the books I've read and what Cadance has told me. I can understand why, because many choose to forgo physical intimacy, since it's not something they can feel the desire for. Personally, I don't think I would get along with an asexual partner, but I could always use some more friends!

While I don't have any books specifically on asexuality, I do have some that have entire chapters devoted to it, and will happily send some via dragon-fire, since it works best for larger packages.

Ponyville has so much change on the horizon, and not just spring. Many familiar faces are leaving, and there are new things around the town. The first troop of the Royal Guard ever to be stationed in Ponyville received a warm welcome, and the schoolhouse is seeking more teachers. Now that Applejack has moved to the Crystal Empire and is managing Crystal Apple Acres, it's still hard to remember that she's not down in Ponyville, bucking apples over at Sweet Apple Acres or selling her family's wares in the market. With Apple Bloom and Sweetie heading off to school in Manehattan as fillyfriends and fellow Crusaders, only Scootaroll will be left living in Ponyville.

Big Mac is now the head of the family, with Granny Smith's health becoming increasingly... notable. She's retired to an easy life to let her son and daughter-in-law manage the farm, and their colt is an absolute pleasure at Twilight Time. Mac and Fluttershy have been thinking about officially combining their properties so that the Acres has well, more acres, and an amazing nature preserve as well. I'm absolutely thrilled at the possibility!

Rainbow has been traveling a lot more lately, with Reserve shows taking priority over Ponyville. If she continues to work hard and succeed at her shows, she really has such a great chance of becoming an official Wonderbolt! I still miss having her napping on clouds around town.

I have opened my castle library to Ponyville's public entirely, and am more focused on obtaining reading materials that the community would find optimal than personal projects. I may miss everypony who isn't here, but I don't have to bear quiet times; there are too many other lives to be involved in as a princess and a mother that I really don't think I should be focusing on my own. Plenty of friends still live in Ponyville. Cheerilee, Pinkie Pie, Zecora, the Cakes, Lyra and her wife are all still here. I have so many friends to write to, and newer friends that there's really no point in missing the old ones, no matter how much closer they are to me.

My cutie mark is the Spark of Magic, and will always be the Spark of Magic just as yours will always be the sun, but sometimes I like to think that they are stars. Wouldn't that be something if they were? I mean, you, Luna, and I are a bit of a perfect trio, in a way: sun, moon, and stars. All my friends are like stars, they may not be as close to me anymore, but we still share the same sky. I don't think they would like it if I was wasting stray, unorganized thoughts on them when I can just look forward to visits and letters instead.

There are rare times, if I'm not exhausted or busy, when I still remember to stargaze for a for moments. I see Nova's Tree too, and think often about how abnormal it is, and the starry purple branches and truck splatter Princess Luna's night. I know that you said Luna told you it was called Nova's Tree, but you never told me anything of its magical nature, and a projection like that is undoubtedly magical. No reports from astronomers or weather crews have reported anything on it beyond confirming it to be from some great divine magic and having originated somewhere very remote around the Barren Sea, in the year that Luna and Sombra disappeared together. As a goddess yourself, do you have anything to tell me about it?

Your Hearth's Warming presents have really been useful too, so thank you again for the calendars and bookmarks. Rarity and I hope that you are making good use of the wineglasses that we got you! Did Princess Luna like the necklace I sent her? What did she say when she opened it? She didn't say anything to me the last time I saw her, but I'm sure she was listening, since she's just such a quiet pony. It's very hard to say anything to her that isn't at our Princess gatherings or for any official events, and I'm sure that isn't her attention, since we are friends. Healthy communication between friends is important, and it does seem like she's still considerably unaware of how to properly manage relationships and what are normal social cues.

About the second pony you mentioned, the antisocial one that you are meant to befriend, I would certainly call this a problem fit for a princess like myself. I think what you should do is go to your other friend, who has asked you to do this, and tell them that their desire to spread friendship is understood, but they are not going about it the right way. As you said, the pony that was discussed is one of the few who manages to be undeserving of friendship, like a villain is... or somepony equally warped and monstrous. This is something that you taught me and I never reflected on it until I stood in front of those who didn't.

I fought Tirek as best as I could when I was given the magic of you, Cadance, and Luna. Though I could not manage it with the skill you could and put it to its full potential because of how unskilled I am with powers great and foreign, and I saw him. I saw how heartless he is, and that he will not get friendship, forgiveness, redemption, and anything he never deserves. He will spend eternity imprisoned and alone for his unspeakable crimes. Chrysalis is another being of evil I have tackled with, who kidnapped Cadance and did unspeakable things, like mind control and worse, to my own brother. I am relieved to know that she has ended up in Tartarus, her soul tormented for all eternity, knowing she lost to good and love and spent the rest of her life trying knowing she led to the death of her own hive.

I think of Sombra, but only with great difficulty. I still have nightmares about shadowed bookshelves in a place I do not know from time to time, and I feel that he has something to do with him. I'm afraid of him, princess. He's powerful and terrible. Being with him in the Arctic that one time, cut off from everypony I loved and played like a piano by an evil maestro's evil schemes was a trying, frightening experience. But I know that he is evil, and that all of them are. Among all the good ponies that I am now princess of too, I know that there are those who are evil, and that this is Equestria, and evil never wins. It's such a disgusting way to be, and it is doomed. This is Equestria, and it is a good place and my home. To be evil is to be wrong; it is to be cruel, sadistic, arrogant, selfish, stubborn, cynical, blunt, crude, pessimistic, cold, antisocial, wicked, scheming, solitary, abnormal, dark, insane, abusive, miserable, outspoken, resistant, untouchable, unbelievable, undeserving, mocking, withdrawn, and a whole landslide of descriptors that are ultimately wrong. Nothing can be won like this.

I know that something has or has yet to befall everypony above, and that it will. I know that you have spent so much time, more time than I'll ever be alive, trying to rectify, purge, and perfect this. So, thank you, princess. You deserve it so much! Anypony who sits down and wonders why Equestria is such a good, optimistic place should know that they have you to thank. Maybe one day they'll thank me, too!

Your friend should realize this too. I don't believe in no-win situations. They absolutely do not, cannot, and will not happen. Your friend is not being a good friend by asking you to do this, and making you of all ponies fit into the 'lose' when only the other two will gain anything. That's selfish and unacceptable. No-win situations are not wheels that crush good ponies, they simply don't exist, so you should not be cast under it. They can't ask this of you, when here you have written to me that you know what is right, and offering friendship towards this pony is the wrong choice. You may be his or her friend, but you're still Princess Celestia, and they cannot order and request these kinds of things of you. Are they blind to how your duties are more important than their single desire, that you've always acted as an example to everypony and can't waste something undeserved on a bad pony?

Princess, you don't need this pressure and I'm sorry that somepony decided to dump it on you. You need to talk with your friend about what it means to be true and kind. If a minor conflict between you, the bad pony, and your friend happened, it should not be your responsibility to be held accountable for something that clearly wasn't your fault, but instead, somepony else's. You should ignore the pony who is at fault, because as you said, they aren't deserving of your attention.

May things turn out well for you, and as always, I eagerly await your next letter!

Sincerely,

Twilight Sparkle

...

My Dearest Twilight,

Hearing such good is happening in Ponyville makes me smile as I read it. Seeing you learn about the changes time can bring firsthoof is a valuable one to learn as the path you and your friends and subjects take, now that Harmony has been restored and the period of turmoil that opened this millennium has begun to know. I dread any more escaped prisoners of Tartarus, nation-shaking events, and adventurous upheaval. It seems as though recently somepony thought Equestria was like a tree they could simply uproot, shaking dirt that was better left where it was upon my little ponies.

I see that you have been finding that life is winding into a hazy, normal stretch. To never have much to worry about than what type of tea to have on each occasion. Raven and I have been having more than a few exciting games of chess, and I think that is all the excitement I shall ever need: the muffled shuffling of pawns and the warmth of sunshine, this coming spring.

I do not know of Luna wearing a necklace, nor did I see any package from you. Luna has made alterations to her regalia's necklace so that the moon on it is inlaid with her wedding ring, which is certainly a highly nontraditional display, to for both partners to openly wear such bands for so long is unheard of, as far as my memory knows. She told me that her Hearth's Warming gifts were airship models from myself, an exquisite custom snow globe from Cadance and her family, a new sword from Sombra. The last one is something I find to be a gruesome and highly inappropriate gift for any occasion. Regardless of how she loved it, such a thing is not right. Still, beyond these ones, I saw no others. Outside of personal gifts, she received a fine amount from our subjects, and many donations to foal's mental health organizations were made with her name invoked by the donors as their inspiration for such charity. Yet, in all this, I cannot imagine where your necklace is. Could you please describe it for me, and I shall see where it might be found? I certainly hope it isn't lost.

Sombra proves difficult, sadly. He is a stone among marbles, and I find even his appearance to be rough. He overflows with ideas, and I wish he would mind the behaviors of others, muting himself and flowing into the status quo. He has recently enjoyed participating in events around the castle, but he cannot do as others do. For the Princess Pen Pal Palooza, he an outrageous and unneeded letterbox. Still, despite all the difficulty I have with him, may he absolutely adore the furniture polish I gifted to him this past Hearth's Warming.

And I'm afraid he is still a subject I must discuss further with you. Twilight, the two ponies that I mentioned as 'friends' were not those I can simply give a reminder of my rightful rule by saying that I cannot be expected to deal with these particular troubles at their level when my greater priority is the safety of my subjects overall. These are those who are closer to me in a greater degree, and I know that the outcome of my choice would impact Equestria by how it impacts them.

The asexual pony I mentioned was Luna. I fear my relationship with her has always been complicated, and ask you to never inquire into an explanation on that statement, instead, be content with what you already know. It is wrong of me to lavish such unneeded complaint with this subject when there are always more pressing issues, but Sombra is like a wedge between Luna and I. Or maybe there was already one there, I do not know. Her newfound asexuality is just a pebble on the mountain of things about her I cannot fathom. Though, perhaps I do not know as much about the topic as I should, regardless of how unrelated it is to any of my fields of expertise.

You see, I thought that Luna taking an interest in a stallion — even a terrible one — could have been a sign that she and I would be able to gossip so on the subject, or engage in some sisterly ribbing. Instead, there is a distance I know but cannot name between us, and she is apathetic to my attempts at jokes.

I've also always regretted that Luna wed a stallion she knew for two years. Such hastiness, don't you think? Forget his identity, she had eternity ahead of her to lose her heart to stallions. But instead, she picks the first one she fancies, as though something about them is eternal, other than their lifespan. It's such a shame, because you see, she still has so much to experience, as I certainly did. Regardless of this unexpected revelation, I will not refuse her support for who she is, I only am unsure how to give it to her.

At least before she confessed her orientation to me, I was able to guess what fueled their peculiar arrangement, now I am uncertain why it is that they are together. I felt that was the most acceptable conclusion to have as to why their courtship was quite short and Luna never sought my blessing for her union. Could she not have sought her sister for advice about which sort of stallion is a keeper? Did she truly fear that nopony would love her and snatch up the first stallion who seemed to? With this new information available to me, I find it more likely that they are much more like friends than anything else, because wedding a supposed partner she cannot even feel attracted to makes that possibility seem more clear than ever.

Twilight, as the mare closest to Luna, and the one who has always tried to be there for her, I always have lingering worry about my little sister. It is a burden that never leaves me, and I mourn knowing of her inner demons, and the apparent insecurities that sculpt her relationship with the one she calls her husband. Do you think that I am wrong to do so, when even talking to her causes my doubt to be nurtured?

I do not think I should say any more on this particular matter, and I already regret writing it. Twilight, I do not know who else but you it is that I can confide in, even if I do not enjoy revealing such needlessly negative things when our letters are so filled with positivity and real problems. I greatly apologize for spilling such much ill ramblings and gross imperfections within this letter. My quill flies ahead of my mind, and though I nearly wish to scrap the whole thing at this point, sunset draws near and tomorrow shall be busier than usual. I would rather write something to you than nothing at all.

Sombra is not the problem in this, which is astounding, for he is to blame for most things. Or, he is not the kind of problem you think of, but an insect upon the foul spider web that I find my poor self entangled in. Ech!

You see, Luna and I... we had a fight. Or perhaps a few. I can't quite call this a tiff. The subject of it was Sombra, and you know how I loathe him more than you could ever fear him. She made it clear I am to treat him differently. It's a radically unfair request.

What I want more than anything right now is change. Equestria is built on positive change, and lately, there have been too many negative surprises with the whole dour affair of Sombra & Luna. I have always taught you that change is a great thing, and for things to endure as they are reeks of stagnation, and I feel that is no different here.

So, I really am not left with any choice beyond two options, I am sure you realize that. Is it not so great a thing that when things matter most, and the greatest of our choices are to be made, we are left with absolutes at the end of all things? I too, am not immune to this.

But Twilight, I want to make the choice that will bring about the most good for all.

If you have anything to share, I await it eagerly.

Sincerely,

H.R.H. Princess Celestia

...

Dear Princess Celestia,

I found myself in disbelief as I read through many parts of this letter. To hear that Luna is fighting with you and causing you problems is terrible. This is definitely beyond a friendship problem, or anything I could figure out. Yikes! You and she really are as different as night and day, I think. It makes me think about how lucky I am to have a sibling I can get along with and find shared interests in, instead of one who is different. One of the most common problems young ponies write to me about is family problems, and mostly with siblings. None of them are at this level. Plus, asking for family blessings for spousal choices is something that's so common in Equestria! I don't understand why Luna thought that this should be a surprise.

Hearing that Luna is asexual is a shock. In previous years, you told me that she was having a hard time coming out as a lesbian, and needed ponies to be there for her. You helped set us off on what was supposed to be a fantastic date when Rarity and I went through a break-up period years ago, and always encouraged me to pursue her. Hearing that she told you this does feel a bit like taking a horseshoe to the face, and it came out of nowhere. Your letters to me are always so cheery, but I still feel sour from the previous one.

Things about how I've felt towards Luna are so complicated, Princess. With Rarity being the romantic, I still have to borrow some of the clichés from her romance novels now and then, when my own voice of reason fails me. To use one, Luna has always been the one who got away for me. I shouldn't be writing about her, not like this. That's the subject for another letter, but I still think about how before she became Sombra's wife, and they were dating, he never used to come by the castle. I'm sure you forbade him from doing so, and that always was a good choice. It made me feel safe, too.

But before then, I used to think about how you had me over for tea and treats, and we would sit across one another at a table and talk one another's ear off, while Luna sat between us, but with enough space separating us to make her feel so alien. She always looked liked she was dragged to each tea time, but I always chalked that up to her being rude. She would look absolutely and impolitely bored as you told me about Discord and I talked to you about Rarity. When subjects turned to your friends or my friends, we laughed and continued to talk and she frowned, I think, the few times I looked aside to her, when I did. I loved sneaking glances at her because if I squint past the imperfections of character, she's quite the beautiful mare. Rejection can't wash away that, because as a princess, I feel that sometimes I am taunted with the company of her, even if she's cold. Sometimes, I just had to look.

(I used to think I could be the one to melt all that gloom away, and pull the real her out of the ice and that we could have a Luna without darkness and moods, and she would be like you: light and happy.)

She looked so bored, and barely got a word in. You and I were lucky that we were able to turn the conversation away from Sombra whenever she tried to mention him and join in. That was always cause for an internal sigh of relief, wasn't it? When Cady came by, having to listen to her want to hear about Sombra and manage to draw a few words out of Luna about him when it came to significant other talk was hard to sit through. I know it was for you too; I saw it in the slight way you set her jaw. Before Sombra, I realized that she never used to talk at all.

I may be an egghead, too, but I can at least participate in mare talk, even if you and Cady are the queens of that, and Rarity too. Luna just couldn't manage at all. She kept trying to talk about airships or something, didn't she? I forget. I do remember even after Sombra that she was apathetic or non-responsive to a lot of innuendo and gossip, but after so many years and fun times being with you and Cadance, I forget if she had any other reactions because I wasn't always paying attention. We were four mares, and three of us had a blast.

I think that when Luna says anything at all to me, it is a shock. She has that effect, because she is still as unfamiliar to me as the first and only Nightmare Night I saw her. My words fail me around her, and I can only say things are complicated.

Things with her are clearly complicated for you too, princess. Though, for different reasons. I'm sorry for rambling, but you said it yourself: the quill flies. Our letters have always been personal, I don't think I could forgo that just for one.

I don't know how deep Luna's problems are, not anymore. You make her sound so miserable and unhappy. I'm reminded of when Shiny went off to military school. All his letters came back telling us how much he missed us, and that other than being, well, a magical prodigy he felt like he didn't fit in with the other colts his age. So, he was homesick and he didn't have any friends, while I was anxious and lonely. My father noticed just how much I missed him, and the whole family knew how bad things were seeming for my BBBFF at first that my dad knew he had to teach us a lesson.

That lesson was to 'fake it until we made it'. It sounded cheesy and dumb at first, but he explained to us what he meant. For Shiny, it meant that he would salute as the other colts did, and march as they did. Everything they did to fit in, and the body language they would use, he would too. For me, it meant I had to stay busy and pretend I wasn't lonely or sad that my big brother was gone so that one day, I wouldn't have to pretend I wasn't having a bad day, because I would be having a good one. It worked, too! Shiny found friends at school that loved sports and joking around just as much as he did, and I started having really good days again.

What you should do for Luna and yourself is similar. Keep trying to have a good day when you think you might be having a bad one by telling yourself that you are. What you need is for Luna to talk to you, so instead of always trying to understand somepony who is so purposefully difficult, just pretend that you do, and she'll be talking to you more than ever in no time.

I think this could help you solve your big problem with Sombra, too. You don't actually have to be his friend, but instead, pretend you are. That way, Luna will be happy again, and you two won't have to be divided over him. If you had to choose between having a fake friend, or no friend at all, chose the fake friend. A fake friend is still a step above isolation and antisocial behavior, and it doesn't mean that they can't be a real friend one day. I know that in the case of Sombra, you wouldn't want him to ever be your actual friend, but for me, what comes to mind is my old study group from your school. I always knew that you assigned them to be my friends, and while I never considered them my friends at the time, or at least not real friends, they ended up becoming my real friends later in life. Even though we're nowhere nearly as close as I am with the girls here in Ponyville, I wouldn't trade them for the world.

I've been faking it until I made it a long time now, I think. When I 'smile and wave' like a princess in difficult situations, I don't really know what I'm doing. Leading Sombra on like that won't be any different, and it will be just as okay if you're doing it for a really good reason like this. I'm just trying for the best when it comes to appearances like that. When I fought Tirek with divine magic, all I knew to do was to be angry and to use what little combat I knew from the things Shiny taught me if I was to have any hope of protecting Equestria. I used to do it when Rarity was explaining her craft and designer culture to me, when I wasn't able to research everything at the moment, that way I could still be a considerate listener, even if I didn't know what she was talking about. I would eventually, and at the time I was being a good girlfriend. Now, I don't need to.

Faking things can help with my anxiety, too. Using Cady's relaxation technique doesn't help me right away all the time, but I can pretend it does. This probably sounds bad to somepony, but don't you think that we fake far more things than we let on? Or at least, most ponies do. The only ponies I know who would disagree with me are you and Applejack. I don't think that you would lie to me, or to anypony, Princess. At least, not without good reason. Applejack has moved away, and without her around, and with how duties and motherhood can pile up all at once sometimes, I've found myself faced with many opportunities where fake things can do, and at times even work far better than the truth.

Among friends and loved ones, I can think of a few reasons for any dishonesty, though you and Luna might have to be a special case. I wouldn't lie to my family or my friends. Sometimes, I have to lie to my foals or the foals at Twilight TIme and tell them that things are okay when they are absolutely not. There are so many everyday reasons to let a lie settle things instead, and a little white lie is like a bandage. When harm comes to Equestria, it's best to say that things are okay even when they are not. All the little reasons keep piling up.

Ponyville has its share of lies too. That is something I've come to learn during my time here. Maybe without Applejack and there being time to be idle on my hooves lately, it's no wonder the musings would strike me. I've been a bit of a lie detective, looking for them about the town.

Caramel finally worked up the amazing courage to come out to his family, and Pinkie threw him the biggest and most rainbow-decorated party. Now, he's finally looking for a coltfriend, and Big Mac and Fluttershy have been asking to borrow books on polyamory. It definitely doesn't take a Faithful Student to unravel what's going on there. Mayor Mare dyes her mane because she thinks it makes her look more mature. Pound Cake did in fact push his sister in a mud puddle last Thursday. Now that Diamond Tiara is all grown up, the Riches don't have to 'stay together' for her any longer. It was the first divorce I ever had to preside over, and as a married mare, it does make me feel uneasy having to go through that experience. I couldn't even bother to tell Rarity I was okay, even though I wasn't.

Maybe I think so much about lying lately because of Starswirl the Bearded. And adoption.

Adoption was the easy part of all this. Stella knows that my parents are Canterlot-born unicorns, and have been as far back as the Tribal Exodus and all through first Equestria. I can say that I come from a purebred line that only blurs as the bloodline stretches into the Tribelands, and the family history too. While this is impressive, it's not uncommon for families to exist without any intermarriage with the other races in certain cities. But it hardly means anything. Most ponies tend to marry into their race, as statistics have shown, even if most ponies are all a little mixed-race, there are just as many exceptions. The Cakes are honestly a wonderful example of the average Equestrian family — heavily mixed ancestry — though, with double the surprise!

It means something to Stella, though, because she knows that Rarity's parents are unicorns, and her family tree is mostly unicorns too.

She's a pegasus. She knows she's adopted, and at such a young age too. It's far sooner than I could have anticipated. One of the first assignments she had for school was learning about family, and cutting and pasting and making a mess of glue to assemble a family tree to hang up. Gallant had to do the same thing in kindergarten (and I still wish that I could have sent him to a magic kindergarten, but Ponyville is an earth pony town that is sorely lacking in one) and he put Rarity and me on his tree, even though he knew that two mares can't have a foal and he is, in fact, adopted as well.

But Stella keeps asking. She actually failed her assignment because she wanted pictures of her birth mother and father, and those were pictures I could not give, and I would not give them to her when she's this young. Both her and Gallant were to wait until they were older, then Rarity and I would tell them about their respective birth families. I ended up lying and telling her about closed adoption because I knew she was too young to remember either of her parents. I'm not about to have such a lovely young filly think that she wasn't wanted.

Gods, she's just far too young. How in the name of the heavens could I possibly tell a foal that the reason I have them is that somepony else didn't want them?

With the Starswirl predicament, it was worse. I've been having to tutor Gallant in magic myself because of the lack of any magical education resources in Ponyville that would be needed at his age or present beyond a certain level. He does show healthy development, but not the inborn talent I had at his age, or the self-taught skill that Rarity managed, but that is obviously expected. We were reading about famous figures in magic, right from a young reader's textbook and I saw him, right there: a white-coated, normal-tailed illustration of a familiar wizard in a belled cap. It only just occurred to me that it wasn't just in Gallant's book, but there was a little about this famous but mysterious stallion in my old junior spellbooks that Gallant was using too.

He wasn't a mystery to me. I knew about Starswirl. I knew that his coat was periwinkle, that his leonine tail indicated ancestry from the Prancian area that he would never have known about, that he was a horrible pony. I remember everything about that awful trip where I learned the truth, that Starswirl was not my hero, and how that made my heart break. I know that he did terrible things to you and Luna.

I don't want to write more of what he did.

When I saw him on that page, I was very good at pretending that I didn't see him. But Gallant asked about Starswirl, because he is a child and he finds his mother to be smart. Since my trip to the Arctic, and our conversation afterward about the real nature of the wizard, I had told nopony about Starswirl and what he was really like, even if it was the truth. It was such an ugly truth, and it goes against everything I ever knew about him. That last statement is so, so obvious, princess, but I can't ever shake it and I live with it every time the Starswirl the Bearded Traveling Museum comes to town, I hear his name in Canterlot, that a book in my library has it, and so much more. My breath catches, I feel a sudden sadness, and I just have to ask myself over and over: why?

When Gallant asked me what he was like, I found myself faced with the two absolute choices that you wrote to me about. I realized that this wasn't just a young foal asking me about a famous conjurer either, but my son looking to me for an important answer. I could tell the truth, or at least enough for a child to understand. I could turn history on its head gradually, simply by telling a young foal that history as he knew it was a lie, and it was built on the fragmented skeleton of evidence and artifacts that nopony knew how to put together.

Or, I could lie. Every young colt and filly would have their hero, no upheaval would occur, no light would be cast on anypony accusing them of lying, no abuse would be uncovered, and history would go unraveled. No domino would fall. And I did the latter. I told him the same things about Starswirl, most of which I learned from you when I was a filly. I told them he was a hero, and a good pony, and absolutely everything I knew before I ever set hoof in the Arctic.

I know now that I made the right choice because I had a duty as a mother and princess. The truth couldn't matter if the truth was downright awful. Bad ponies do not need to be remembered, no plague, or war, or anything terrible should ever get the spotlight like that. Equestria isn't a place about the negative, and its history is to be full of heroes. Starswirl doesn't exist so that the truth about him, and by extension the tribes and more, can be shown and everypony can know that things were awful, and so awful that they weren't things I would learn about. History and Starswirl exist to teach ponies, and that can't be done if anything tragic and dark is to be remembered.

Starswirl doesn't get to exist as an abusive and cruel stallion anymore, but as a tale of heroics, Harmony, and a positive example that matters more to ponies than any truth ever could. Awful ponies don't get to be remembered, or to be awful. Their memory is purged, and instead, each new generation gets examples of good ponies. Starswirl was a good pony, and now, he will always be a good pony. I will tell Stella this, and may Gallant tell this to his own foals. I want to tell my grandfoals and my great-great-great-great grandfoals that Starswirl was a good pony as well, and to see their eyes light up when I recount his heroics and efforts to contribute to the development of ponykind.

I think that I know why you did what you did now, Princess, when it comes to the problem of Starswirl. You didn't want ponies to know that such awful things were possible, and that the world could be a dark place, and so much more. It was a very wise choice, and thank you for showing me a side to history that renews my love for it.

In your previous letter, you wrote about 'ill ramblings' and 'gross imperfections'. None of that is true. You weren't ill and you didn't ramble. I always love to write to you and to get a letter from you, even if I no longer pen friendship reports. You have helped me change more than anypony else in my life. Without you, I wouldn't have met my friends, taken steps to become a princess, or be where I am today. Princess Celestia, you are a kind, amazing, fun, humble, bright, and the best and most flawless pony I have known, who I could always come to for advice and who has taught me great lessons that I use every day.

Don't let anypony think or call you imperfect.

Every day that goes by and I spend more time as a princess, I look to your example more and more. You are selfless, and I try to be. You are calm, and that gives an anxious pony like me something to aspire to. When I think about who knows how to make good choices and can be counted on to make them, I think of you. That's why I know you won't befriend Sombra because he hasn't been a friend to anypony. As a little filly, I wanted to be just like Starswirl. Now, I'd take almost anything else. Being Twilight Sparkle has its perks, but I've learned about imperfections, misery, and dark sides that lurk within ponies. I know that only you have none these.

I want to be just like you!

Sincerely,

Twilight Sparkle

P.S. How is Qilin doing? You rarely write about her, but Gallant and Stella are eager for a play date, and I'm trying to see who is going to be available soon.

Chapter 8: Husband of Hers, Part 5

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For all the things that continued to be strange to her, Celestia had never been a stranger to loss. As a princess, she had known many of its more unrelenting facets, and had to make its impact on her appear as though it had not been profound every single time. There could be no exceptions.

Sadly, personal losses proved to be the more troublesome and ferocious. They would worm their way into her and remain. Theirs was an ache unsavory and untrustworthy, and she put her every effort into working beyond them. Those that did not dull with time had her unvoiced frustrations piled against them. Such vexations grew with the march of time, too.

Some things she could not bear to lose even once.

Twilight Sparkle was at the top of that list.

Everypony else she had lost once before, in some way. For every unexpected loss, like that of Luna and Discord, there were those that were natural. Mortal lovers were claimed by time, and left her to assemble her own peace again. She could manage that. She had.

If there was anything she wanted, it was for all her desires for Twilight to come true. They were all selfless things: wishes of happiness, fidelity, and health to Twilight. In the course of eternity, she wanted Twilight to be in her life for a long, long time. Every adventure that Twilight used to go on only played her every fear like the the keys of a piano. When they came to an end, Celestia couldn't — and didn't dare — articulate her relief.

'I want to be just like you!'

Those were some of the most terrifying words that Celestia had read, and every thought of them absolutely destroyed her. Each sight of those words behind her eyes brought back the same terror that possessed her when she sent Twilight off to Ponyville for the first time, and was not sure if the young mare would live or die, or if they would ever see one another again. The world itself had rested in the hooves of Twilight Sparkle then, even if she did not know it.

In Celestia's world, Twilight was her brightest star just as Luna was the delicate, shining moon. Those two were Celestia's whole sky.

Twilight did not know what she meant when she wrote those words. She did not want to be like Celestia, not if she knew the mare below the mask... and Celestia was going to make sure Twilight did not end up like her.

She was going to disappoint Twilight Sparkle.

She was going to give Luna one less thing to worry about.

She was going to make a deeply regrettable choice.

Celestia was going to make a friend.

...

The garden was lonely without Raven and the familiar weathered chessboard that used to crown the table. When she looked closely, she could still see the outline of where it had been before she had stored it away, feeling ill the whole time. When hadn't the game she shared with her close companions been there, waiting for the next round?

The fragrances of spring where in the air, and the chills of winter were fading. The staff were not just changing out of scarves, but out of Sundrop Talismans and other amulets as well. Only Luna and Sombra would know why she had really declared something so normal to be forbidden on the castle grounds.

Ever since then, she had noticed the bags that had been forming under Sombra's eyes had cleared up considerably. Such a thing was quite notable now that she was sitting right across from him.

Here was to day one of these nonsense lunch breaks. Her forehooves were folded politely upon the table, in perfect arrangement with her simple fare of rice pudding and daisy salad. She had already picked at a considerable portion of it, too. The steam from her cinnamon tea acted as a much-needed veil between her and Sombra.

He had no silverware, no food, and made no eye contact with her. Still, he had to see the occasional glances she made to him between dainty bites of her own meal, even if his head was turned to her. Whatever captured Sombra's focus that he had to look away from her so sharply was to the farther side of the garden, past the trickling of the fountains. She did not care to know what. Instead, she was content to see the occasional glint of annoyance in his eyes through the steam from his single mug of black coffee.

No words were exchanged between them, and their silent contempt wore on until duties parted them.

...

On day two, Celestia tried to find something to do beyond continuing to refuse conversation with Sombra, who still only brought coffee with him. Something about the songs of distant birds was too loud without anypony talking, and Celestia busied herself with trying to see how many calls she could recognize.

Fifteen minutes after she had finished her raspberry tea, she had already named every single one.

...

Day three consisted of Celestia chiding herself internally over and over again about misplacing her latest book of crossword puzzles just so it would feel like she was talking to somepony. She was prone to misplacing it, anyway, which was no good for location-based teleportations.

Sombra continued to only bring coffee, but ignored her entirely. Between them, he had kept a sewing kit and busied himself with repairing the sleeve on a worn stallion's aviator's jacket that Celestia could nearly smell the wind and dust on. It looked like something from his photo albums.

He wasn't even half bad at sewing. His stitches were neat and strong-looking, but he also did not make any attempt to hide them.

In the midst of her boredom, Celestia caught herself thinking about how when he put 'sewing' down as a hobby for the Palooza that she thought he had been joking.

...

The fourth day passed painfully. Sombra was exceptional at making somepony feel ignored, invisible, and unimportant, especially when his muzzle was buried in the latest book from the stack of seven that nearly hid even his ears from her.

She was missing Raven again. Even the most awkward conversations with her had really been lovely. She would have to write to her more, and ask for more stories about what working for the Mayor of Baltimare was like.

Sombra finished five of his seven books.

Celestia had one headache and one frown that she kept holding back.

...

Sombra had a new stack of books on the fifth day. The stack reached past his ear.

Something about having this unbearably slow period of her day was aggravating.

She burned her tongue on her own cup of coffee, but that wasn't what made her want to scream.

At least she had remembered her crossword book.

...

On the sixth day, Celestia realized that something subtle about Sombra's presence was causing the birds to avoid her, and now she didn't even have someone to share the crusts of her sandwiches with.

Sombra was too absorbed in one of his notebooks and a brand-new stack of reading materials. A careful glance at the spines revealed that they were about engineering and the interactions and properties that resulted from magical and metal interactions.

She dragged what could have been one of her usual 'hellos' to the guards patrolling around the garden's borders into a fifteen-minute conversation about how Steel Feather and Stoic Bulwark were doing, how things were going for them, and what a lovely day it was.

Sombra had to be intentionally treating her like she was invisible. How else could he be finding the enchanted paper gliders he got his magic to steer so fun?

...

By the end of the week, Celestia was contemplating eating less at lunch to see if she could use it as an excuse not to show up at all.

She had utterly refused any conversation with Sombra, not that she had made any effort to talk with him in the first place.

But seven days of this was tiring. She was a mare with social needs, and if she had to maintain the illusion of friendship with this stallion, she had to start somewhere... didn't she?

She looked up from the last remains of her lunch that she had been picking at. Shoving around bits of radish and lemon with a fork was more appealing than talking to Sombra at the moment, but another day of silence to test her patience was going to be much worse.

Still, nopony said she ever had to do anything today.

She continued to let Sombra flip through the page of another grimoire that had no doubt been found in one of Canterlot's higher-end magic bookshops by the look of the fine binding. It appeared that he didn't even risk bringing a coffee, or anything that could spill on his stack of spell books.

Celestia privately wondered if he ever actually ate lunch.

Each tiny clink of her fork against her plate was all she could do to stave off the silence of the sunny spring day.

...

Their eighth lunch together began with the usual divide. An invisible boundary had begun to form, dividing the table in half. Sombra claimed his half, and Celestia hers. No words were exchanged between them, and every afternoon increased Celestia's growing irritation at this factor.

His coffee was missing again, and the quirky mugs he filled with the typical black brew he favored. One foreleg propped Sombra's head, his forehoof pressed to his cheek. Two tired-looking crimson eyes and the crimson glow of his magic followed each movement of his solitaire game.

Celestia returned her efforts to try to call garden birds to her once more. Her soft whistles and songs went unanswered, and the scraps of her poppy seed bagel were unclaimed. Generations of the castle's wildlife had been known to answer Celestia's calls, especially the songbirds.

She knew that dark magic corruption could make some other creatures wary, even if they lacked the magic-sense such cruel magics could eventually lend to their demon-riddled users, but only if such creatures were already rather meek. Few apex creatures would bother with a demon, and the majority of feral creatures would be bothered by another predator, even if it was an unnatural one.

In the long history of her rule, she had dealt with ponies whose meddling in corruptive magics led to pets behaving oddly, even if wildlife's behavior remained unaltered. She supposed that was another reason to flee into solitude as a dark sorcerer, lest domestic creatures give you away by telltale habits. Luna had taught her that years ago, for she taught Celestia much of the wilds, but Celestia remembered this old warning best because in the weeks before and after the First Longest Night, the Everfree Forest had been totally quiet. Only in its aftermath had Celestia known why that was, when druids she had requested to examine the ruins of her home had confirmed what she never asked.

The animals closest to their old castle had been used to Luna and Celestia, and especially Luna. She had loved the star-beasts and the timberwolves like little fillies loved kittens and hamsters. The birds here loved Celestia. Now that Sombra lived with Celestia, the jays, swans, finches, and other birds known to frequent the gardens had grown shy.

Celestia minded that lunch was drawing to an end and looked to the remains of her bagel again. The birds had changed, and Celestia and Luna had changed homes, but Luna had not stopped loving beasts and wanted Celestia to love her latest beast too. That had remained a constant, and a worrying one. There was nothing that worried Celestia quite like persistence, which like silence had never ceased to trouble her.

...

Celestia could not bear to have a ninth day of silence. When she sat down across from Sombra that day, she did it with purpose. Sombra sat had sat down before her, and his head was resting on the table. His ears were drooping to the side quite glumly. As Celestia had to come to expect from him, Sombra had placed his circlet on his side of the table. Apparently, wearing a sign of his station regularly was too difficult for him to manage. Whether he was tired or dejected, she did not know. He would at least be able to listen to her.

"Why did you tell Luna what was going on?" asked the princess, pointing a forkful of lettuce in his direction.

Sombra yanked the hood of his cloak as far over his head as his horn would allow him to without him damaging it. Then, he groaned. "Is this really going to be the first thing you're going to say to me?"

"I would like an answer."

"We were far past the point of getting out of hoof, and Luna did ask me how I was getting along with you. Did you think I was going to lie to her?"

"Yes, I certainly did."

Under the hood, Celestia heard him snort, and watched a few locks of his black mane move where they spilled outward. "I'm not a liar. Even if I was, I would never lie to Luna."

Celestia doubted this and speared her salad delicately once more. "Is there any reason you are moping today?"

Sombra sighed and his horn lit up crimson, pulling away his hood and he finally sat up and looked at her. Celestia had the urge to point out that his mane still had a bed head look to it and could use some smoothing. "Do I look like I've been moping?"

"You look very grouchy."

One of his ears flicked. "I had to quit drinking coffee."

"Quit?" Celestia asked, blinking in confusion. "Why would you have to quit drinking coffee?"

Sombra frowned and conjured a mane-band, grumbling as he indifferently pulled his mane back before returning his attention to her. She didn't bother to tell him that the work was sloppy and he had neglected to do anything with his bangs. "Does it matter why? I had to quit recently, and that's been what's bothering me."

Chewing thoughtfully, Celestia's brow furrowed and she swallowed. "Yes, I think it does matter. The only ponies I've known who had to quit drinking coffee were those with an anxious condition. Considering how much you've been poking into records, I'm sure you've learned that many of my Faithful Students were anxiety-prone, among other things. I had to steer them towards much more healthy habits. You, on the other hoof, are not what I would consider to be somepony with anxiety."

Sombra narrowed his eyes and searched hers for something. "You shouldn't be prying into this anymore. I told you what was wrong."

"And I think I should know if this will impact how you work. If you tell me what the reason is—"

"Stop," Sombra snapped.

Celestia's amiable, neutral expression vanished and she set her fork down. "What is it that's wrong with you? I'm asking a simple question, and the least you could do is answer it politely. Who even told you to stop drinking coffee?"

After giving her a sharp glare for a few moments, Sombra finally gave her a partial answer. "...Luna and I decided that it would be best for me to stop."

Celestia's magic stirred faintly, and the salad fork clutched in her aura tapped at the edge of her plate with gentle clink-clink-clinks. "I see."

What exactly was coffee doing to him? The only thing she had ever noticed for certain was how twitchy he appeared, and that his eyes followed ponies around more. Aside from that single freakishly paranoid thing, she could not say she had picked up on anything else.

Sombra's left eye twitched, and the left half of his mouth pulled upward in a brief, peculiar grimace. "Now Luna won't be complaining about me smelling like coffee anymore."

She looked away, still recalling his strange expression before she returned to her meal. "That's... very nice."

Why was it that Luna would want him to stop? That wasn't a real reason, and Sombra wasn't anypony who could be hen-pecked, nor was Luna one to do so. Luna was the one that claimed Sombra had some illness, and that his bizarre reactions to things were panic attacks...

Celestia blinked and bit down on a tomato. Panic attacks. Quitting coffee. Celestia was convinced that this stallion had anxiety levels that were equal to the distance that Qilin could throw a cottage, but she would be a fool to admit there wasn't anything wrong with his head. Whatever was wrong with him might mean he had to quit coffee, who was she to know?

Admittedly, she would like to have it before her in clear Equestrian, but knowing she had a piece to a puzzle that she might actually be able to assemble one day was just fine too.

Sombra had conjured his deck of cards again and was starting to pull them out when he bothered to acknowledge that she was looking at him again. "Yes, Celestia? Did you want to play?"

"Oh no, I'm not a mare for cards. I..."

If I don't think of something to say, won't we just lapse into silence again?

"I am absolutely loving the weather today. Aren't you?"

In response, Sombra brought one of his forehooves to his face and sighed loudly.

...

Celestia put her spoonful of jello down and looked at Sombra. "Doesn't reading so obsessively ever get boring to you?"

Sombra peered over his large copy of Equestria on Rails: Travels by Train and other Tantalizing Train Tales. He had fetched it from the stack next to him that also contained From Edinbridle to the Germane Coast: Railways of the World and Lots and Lots of Trains. "No. Why would you ask that?"

"I think this is the twelfth book about transportation I've seen you read. I'm aware of the recent allure of the railway phenomena, but why do you feel so compelled to read about niche forms of transportation? Airships and trains are an unusual subject for a sorcerer."

Sombra marked his page and closed the book. "To elaborate on your first question, no. I can learn anything I want, and have a wealth of knowledge at my disposal. I'm going to use it. I love learning, and reading is one of the best and my favorite way to do that. I prefer pages to ponies."

"I just can't see why you do it constantly. Even my students took breaks. I've had to tell them that they cannot devote themselves to dusty old books past a certain point, though none got that talk nearly as much as Twilight. The amount of lonely scholars I've seen over the years has never been particularly good, either. Don't you think that it is important to not neglect the company of ponies too?"

"No. This isn't exactly a chore for me. As for my 'compulsion'? I like magical engineering and traveling. This is new technology, isn't it?" Sombra tugs at his cloak. "Well, the trains are new. Airships are an ancient revival. Both are fascinating. You're surrounded by so many spectacular things in Canterlot, and there's so much to travel and see..." His expression falters. "I miss getting to travel constantly. Doesn't staying in Canterlot the way you do bother you? Yes, most ponies travel by cart, hot air balloon, or by river but Canterlot has one of the biggest train stations in the world!"

Celestia laughed, not sure how she was to take his ramblings but letting them be. "No, not at all. I'm a homebody, and leaving my city on a whim feels wrong."

Sombra shrugged, and he pulled a folded piece of parchment from where it was tucked somewhere under his cloak. "I'll never understand ponies that don't have a mind that's starving. I can't even begin to fathom rooting yourself in one place and living with yourself. However, I do have this."

With a flick of magic, the paper was unfolded before Celestia. Drawn carefully upon the surface was a rugged, gorgeous mansion with stunning conifers surrounding its lone grounds. The way the land tilted told her that this stately building was perched up in the mountains, even if all the artist had drawn was a forest. Through the dense trees, she could see that the artist had been skillful enough to give the hint that a mountain stream was nearby the grounds. Something about the aesthetic of the location looked vaguely familiar, but she could not say why that was.

"Oh my! That's a very lovely drawing, and I must commend the ink-work. The trees came out very well. Where did you get this?"

"I bought it in Germaneigh."

"This must be the Black Forest, then. All my favorite cuckoo clocks came from there. Tell me, why did you purchase a drawing of a Holzfachwerk-style mansion? Oh, I remember when that was all the rage down there! You never struck me as an art-lover, though."

Sombra shrugged again. "I can't say I'm partial to it, but I didn't buy the picture."

Celestia looked at Sombra, and then at her jello plate. Even the treat seemed to wiggle with the same confusion she did. "You just said you bought the picture in Germaneigh."

He smirked and shook his head. "I said I bought 'it'. I did not say picture. This is my house."

"Your... house?"

"My 'vacation house', as I'm aware this kind of residence is called." Sombra flipped the picture around and stared at the image proudly. "I know that getting attached to a building isn't exactly understandable. However, this place was worth it. The nearest village is an entire day away, and there have been no photographs taken of it. When I visited, I was only able to get my hooves on this. It was painted a century ago, but it's still accurate."

"Why would you want to buy a place so far from ponies? How would there even be energy in this home?"

"The entire estate runs off arcane-hydropower that has progressed with the times, not that it was ever going to be too much of a problem. I don't think I need to answer your first question." He arched one eyebrow before tucking the picture under his cloak again.

Celestia hummed and treated herself to a few spoonfuls of her jello. "How did the Kaiser take you wishing to have an international home?"

"I was informed that it wouldn't matter what I did, as long as I don't dump bodies there."

The princess frowned. "Yes, that kind of distasteful remark sounds like something I would expect from him. This sort of thing is exactly why I preferred to negotiate with ponies who are more pleasant and think it is better to manage more civilized estates. Just what are you going to do with it when you aren't there? Are you planning on assembling your own staff?"

"Of course not."

Celestia's spoon clinked. "Why not? It would be an excellent way to offer jobs to ponies."

"This is my property, I'm not going to have ponies be where they should not. There's a wide array of enchantments and other magic that can easily, efficiently, and expertly serve any purpose I'll need when it comes to maintaining the property. Considering how secluded it is, there's no reason to even try and bring ponies there."

Allowing herself to scowl, the princess looks at Sombra with disgust. "I... I just don't have the words for that kind of behavior."

"Then don't try and say anything about it. I didn't share something with you so you could play the selfless, foolish martyr in our every conversation."

"At least I am selfless. I wouldn't close off my own home to ponies and create the image of a recluse like you have!"

"I want a retreat for myself and my wife that is safe from ponies, and you are trying to belittle me for it. You really are selfless, Celestia. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word — I don't think you could live for yourself if you tried. That's more despicable than anything I've done recently."

Sombra glowered at her and grabbed his books. Contempt burned in his eyes and he clearly wished to end things early.

Celestia certainly wouldn't mind having him gone so that she could have some true peace. They both had facades to maintain in this, did they not? So, she coolly observed Sombra as he moved, waiting for when she could at least pretend that the garden would feel fine when she was alone. "I really doubt that you simply purchased a woodsy retreat for the sake of it."

Sombra stopped and brought his angry stare to her. Only now, she saw that it had shifted. As somepony who pressed her whole essence into a mask every single day, Celestia had to admit Sombra's confusion looked good enough to be genuine.

"What do you mean this time?" he asked, sounding aggravated and confused in equal measure.

"I think there's a specific reason you chose Germaneigh for your home."

Sombra's horn glowed a bit more furiously and he pressed his books to his chest, but said nothing. Why was he still maintaining that look of confusion?

"Luna told me that you've been seeing a psychologist there, on occasion. Perhaps they are a therapist, I don't know—"

Sombra's jaw clenched and now he simply looked angry. "What did she tell you?"

"That you have been seeing somepony of that kind of profession for whatever is wrong with you."

Sombra's breathing was as angry as the rest of him looked. The way his lip was positioned told her that he wanted to snarl at her, or that he was gritting his teeth. Different hues of magic — green, purple, and red — flickered in his eyes. She tried to hide how she tensed up at the exact moment his eyes bored into hers.

Instead of saying anything, he stormed off looking positively furious, and only after he left her line of sight did Celestia realize that he had forgotten to bring his books with him.

...

Sombra was there the next day, looking quite sullen. Confusion sparked in his eye when he saw two plates already set out. Each had a few chocolate chip cookies on them, all warm and fresh. New books were in the saddlebags at his side, the ones from yesterday having been safely returned to him this morning, with only a dirty look exchanged between them.

His ears perked forward at the sight of the treats, but not out of eagerness. Celestia could not say what caused such a reaction in him, but there was no need to guess why he still looked wary.

He sat down before she asked him to and removed his circlet.

Celestia smiled awkwardly and adjusted the vase of a freshly-picked bunch of snowdrops that she had set out. "I think we need to talk about how these little luncheons are going to go, hm?"

Admittedly, she hadn't initially thought of attempting any diplomacy on him. Being a princess had taught her to keep sweet for ponies who were absolutely obnoxious and forge bonds that started with a painted smile for centuries. She had never thought of attempting anything quite like that with Sombra, but she had also had not ever had to act so around anypony she had ever had as a nemesis. Perhaps it was about time she tried.

Celestia inhaled calmly and steadily, letting the sweet breeze graze over her.

Sombra levitated a cookie closer to his face and scrutinized it. "Did you make these?"

"No, I did not. I'm afraid I haven't made anything with my own hooves in quite some time. They're from the kitchens. I thought that you could use some lunch for once, though. Even immortals need to eat."

Sombra let the cookie fall from his magic with disinterest. "I've been eating fine."

"...You have? I don't exactly see you—"

"I don't like eating around others, especially ponies I don't like." He folded his forehooves nonchalantly and looked straight at her. "Can you just get to the point?"

Her smile grew thinner. "Please explain."

One forehoof moved up and scratched behind his right ear. "I get it. I'm not sure how much, but I do get it, Celestia. I'm caustic and you're incredibly disingenuous, but only one of those is as terrible as it sounds. We have nothing in common beyond hating each other and being Luna's family. We push each other into all the exact same situations. Part of me thinks you want these kinds of cycles too. Does it make it easier to blame me? Do you get to be under the delusion of some bizarre self-sacrifice all over again? I'll be damned if I know, because I can't be sure of much with you."

The painted princess smile wavered momentarily. "And how is that so? I would like you to elaborate on this 'cycle' you think we have."

"We are both absolutely terrible in some way."

Celestia nearly choked on the cookie she had been nibbling on. "I beg your pardon?"

"Honestly? It isn't as bad as it sounds. I know that I'm not the kind of terrible you and everypony else thinks I am," Sombra said, smirking faintly. "That's not what you want to hear, or what you're going to listen to, though."

Celestia swallowed the cookie fragment with a cough. "N-No, not at all. Please tell me about what is it that makes me so terrible."

"Everything that you think makes you so great," he went on flippantly, transferring his cookies to her plate. "You can't even try to not call me a lunatic for one day, for example."

Celestia bit down on another cookie. "I see, and for that—"

"Cut the fake apology. Celestia, that isn't the worse thing I've heard about me."

Celestia swallowed abruptly and her mane rippled with confusion. "Then why is it that you got so mad?"

Sombra raised one eyebrow and looked at her all too knowingly. "That never makes hearing those things any easier."

There was something especially bitter buried in those words.

"I am to assume that by this, you wish for me to stop saying these things?"

"I've always wanted you to, that never meant you were going to." With an apathetic wave of one forehoof, Sombra continued. "I'm not one to waste my effort on pointless things."

Shuffling cookies around with her magic, Celestia picked up the warmest one she could fine and nibbled thoughtfully on in. "You haven't told me what makes you so terrible in all this."

Sombra's gaze drifted off to the side, but not nervously. There was nothing waiting there. What could be on his mind?

"...I like hurting you. Many of my actions toward you have stemmed from this, and I don't have any justification worth mentioning for this other than how I feel about you. There is no secret that I can be violent and that I have a terrible temper; when anypony manages to antagonize me at the level you do, they do not survive. I do like seeing you upset, and I'm guilty of making it happen sometimes because that is what happens to my enemies."

Tense with vigilance, Celestia drew up her posture and reminded herself of the location of the nearest guards.

Sombra recognized the look in her eye with a look of stoic acknowledgment. "Don't get so riled up; you're safe, whether you believe it or not. I've never physically hurt you for a multitude of reasons, and chiefly among them is that Luna cares about you. I may be vengeful, but that doesn't make me unwise. I'm no monster who would hurt you when I know how much it could impact Luna. I annoy you. I get under your skin. You go beyond frustrating me and this is all I am able to do. And you know what? I don't think it's right... this isn't anything I would call wrong, either. I've entertained homicidal ideation fondly more times than I care to count in my life — not about you, about others. But I've still liked it — the one-and-done thought of somepony else's death doesn't compare to much else."

Celestia narrowed her eyes and was ready to flare her wings. The whole atmosphere of a tranquil, slightly overcast day of sweet spring serenity was now something much darker. "What are you trying to say to me?"

"Celestia, I'm not going to do this anymore. In all this, what sickens me the most is how you want to drag me backward in this mess. I'm willing to stop, and you should be too."

There was that usual stubborn look in his eyes. What was she to make of it this time? How was she to handle his defiance? What reaction did he want from her?

"Are you saying that you forgive me?"

He chuckled bitterly and let a cool breeze ruffle his mane. "Far from it. I'm not the forgiving type, and there isn't anything 'higher' that would come from letting anything go, not that there usually is. I'm going to give you a chance."

The princess lowered her wings, and let a fraction of how dumbstruck she was bleed past her mask.

"A chance," she echoed, unsure if she had even heard him right.

Sombra nodded earnestly. When the princess tried to find even a hint of deception or some other emotion in his gesture, she could find none. He was either lying quite expertly... or he really meant this.

Celestia wasn't sure which would be worse. "...What do you have to seal your promise?"

Sombra's horn lit with a brief swirl of magic that plucked at the necklace his wedding ring hung from. "My word and nothing more."

"Why would you give me this, ah, chance?"

To her surprise, he didn't say anything for a few moments. She watched Sombra lean back with a private anxiousness swelling in her. He looked at the sky. Whether he actually saw what he thought about in the silvery hues, she wasn't sure.

"I met Luna when she tried to kill me. My niece blew me up before I really got to know her. I'm good at judging others, and I'm even better at being right about them. Perhaps we should see if I am really right about you. Those closest to me often start out as those who oppose me. Maybe there is a pattern, and you and I can tolerate one another. Or maybe there isn't, and I was right about you all along."

Celestia adjusted her wings a touch nervously. "I... I think I follow," she said carefully.

"I'm saying that you might be worth it."

Might.

Celestia bit her lip and let her mind submerge itself in a wash of whispery doubts. Would she, or won't she?

For a reason she could not immediately gather, when she realized that the 'she' of her thoughts was herself Celestia felt like she had been kicked.

"A chance," she murmured again.

"Just one," Sombra confirmed. Did he sound bored, or was that just her imagination?

"I suppose that there is some condition to go with this?" The vaguest detail of demons with riddles and conditions on the fringes of old memories and older legends seeped into Celestia's recollections.

Sombra's mouth curled into the faintest of smirks. "Just one," he repeated with a brief, teasing tone she was not sure that she had heard him use before. "Don't pry."

"Pry how?"

Every bit of mischief vanished from Sombra, and he was utterly somber for but a moment. "You do not pry into my life and history, and I don't pry into yours. When a question grazes anything too personal, we let the other know."

Celestia hummed. "A mutual condition, then. I must say that is quite unexpected. Now, for your idea of 'tolerance'? Is it the same as mine?"

"Unlikely. I use it in the most literal, broadest sense. There is a reason 'tolerance' and 'acceptance' are not the same words, nor do they mean the same thing. We bear one another, disagree, and endure. All are considerably different from what we have been doing." The explanatory, condescending edge to his tone quieted when he did, but there was still a harder look in his eyes. That look questioned her. 'Well?' it seemed to say.

It was not her favored definition, but a definition.

Experience reminded her that she stood at a forked in two again. The right path was down one road, and the wrong its twin. She wished that she had even a hint of what was down each this time around. She could hesitate, and pass this opportunity by, whatever it may be, or be ruled by a single odd step.

"Alright, then. May our 'tolerance' begin."

One twist of impulse it would be.

...

Celestia sat down gracefully, taking her customary seat across from Sombra, her usual smile on her face. In her magic, she levitated a quiche and a mug. While the former was neatly arranged on a plate, the latter was another trinket from a past Faithful Student, and it was crammed with popsicle sticks. Had she brought a beverage with her, she would have ensured it was in fine porcelain, or a proper mug, especially when she had appearances to maintain.

"Up, up!" she said, wasting no time prodding Sombra as soon as she was seated. Just because he was here before her oftentimes did not mean he could bury his head in his forelegs so often. "I have something for us to do."

Sombra groaned and nuzzled further into the sanctuary of his forelegs.

"Please stop doing that. You can't use 'caffeine withdrawal' as a justification for being so tired."

Did Celestia's ears deceive her or was Sombra really trying to scream in frustration into his forelegs and the table? The sound was terribly muffled so she wasn't sure.

Nudging Sombra with another prod of her magic — she didn't dare touch him — Celestia waited for him to lift his head. "Oh please, you don't have to be so morose. I brought a little game."

Two fuzzy gray ears flicked. "What kind of game?" he mumbled.

"It is a game of ice-breakers," Celestia said, cheerily stirring the sticks around. "I played this with many of my Faithful Students to help some of them overcome their shyness."

"...Fine. I suppose I'll bother with this." He shifted himself so that his muzzle and head were propped on top of his folded forelegs curiously while his bright, grumpy eyes were mostly covered by his bangs. "How do you play?"

The edges of Celestia's smile tightened just a bit. The warm sunshine and sweet winds of the new season caused her mane to swirl with something between extra enthusiasm and impatience. "All you have to do is draw a stick, read the question on it, and then we both discuss what is on it."

Sombra eyed the malformed mug boredly. "I'm not sure that's a traditional game, then."

"Ah, yes. I suppose that is because in your mind so bent on judgment one must either win or lose?" Celestia's expression slipped into one of mild disapproval, and her mane flicked on, as lively as her own reactions were controlled.

The response she was treated was the faintest twitch of Sombra's eye. "I was speaking of a game usually having a clearer objective or something that can be learned."

"I'm surprised that you're so unfamiliar with different types of games. I suppose your adjustment to the modern world has not gone so well in all ways, if you cannot even recognize conversational aids as a form of entertainment."

Sombra's eyes showed the sharp annoyance he was unwilling to convey otherwise. "Do you have to berate me already?"

"You do realize that you are already difficult to converse with as you are? Playing a foal's game should do you some good, seeing as the only game I know you to frequent would be cards and other similar skill-less schemes." Celestia smiled at Sombra, her gesture thin and containing buried venom below the overt kindly looks.

She saw Sombra grit his teeth, though he looked like he wanted to hide it.

"Please draw a stick," Celestia ordered, voice oozing sweetness, "and let us begin."

With a rough gesture, Sombra snatched up a decorated stick in his magic and glared at it. "What is your favorite kind of movie?"

While he still looked faintly confused, the movement of Sombra's ears told her that he might actually be just a little interested in the conversation topics she had carefully written in thin marker lines.

She fixed the smile on her face so that it was beamed entirely at Sombra, and kept her tone extra polite. "I like anything with a happy ending. Sweet, silly films meant for watching with friends and smiles. Don't you agree?"

There were three truths to her words that went unsaid. The first was that she imagined Sombra enjoyed much more improper, ghastly genres of film. Secondly, she rarely saw anything alone because then it wasn't very fun. These questions helped her learn what to take her young, more recent Faithful Students to see when their marks were high, or more often she would send them off on their own. She would never let them see anything that wasn't age-appropriate, especially if she knew her student would not enjoy it. The last truth was that anything that wasn't lighthearted tended to sour her mood or made her want to cry.

Sombra shook his head. "I can't say I do; I like mysteries and action."

Well, that is somewhat surprise, Celestia thought as she savored a forkful of quiche. "Is that so? I always imagined you were an enthusiast of bloodier works."

Without a word, she watched his expression fall into a tiny frown. "Not really. If I'm going to be sitting anywhere for hours and simply watching something, I want my mind to be kept busy." A soft noise rumbles in Sombra's throat, but Celestia could not ascertain exactly what it was. "Especially if I'm paying for it."

"Oh," Celestia murmured, "you like heavier themes and such?"

Another nod, and Sombra set the stick down. "Is it your turn now?"

Celestia heard herself say 'yes' and withdrew her own slim stick, eyeing both the words and the ladybug sticker affixed to it. "Who do you think are the most successful ponies?"

"Hmm." Sombra ran a sweep of telekinesis so he tugged at the throat of his cloak. He arched one eyebrow in thought, and it didn't feel especially creepy with how he looked at her. "The most successful ponies are ambitious, assertive, honest, and intelligent."

The princess pursed her lips in one thin line.

Sombra tapped the table's surface. Once. Twice. His eyes were shining with thought. "Did you mean to ask about a specific pony I find successful? Was my answer to the wrong question?"

"No," Celestia replied tersely, "I am only disappointed."

One look full of annoyance was directed to the side, and Sombra scowled. "I should have expected as much."

This was one of the questions that prompted the most varied answers, and one the princess was sure to have each of her Faithful Students asked. Much of their character could be showcased in such a simple answer. Sunset Shimmer had said that royalty were the most successful ponies. Twilight Sparkle had answered with heroes, citing that they were only heroic if society deemed them so. Most of her Faithful Students named a personal hero, like an old teacher, family member, or somepony in their community.

"Well, maybe you'll learn something. In all my years, I've found that ponies who are successful are the ones who claim to know nothing, are kind beyond belief, sacrifice much, devote themselves to others entirely, and—"

"How many centuries worth of fortune cookies have you raided to give me the answers you do?" Sombra interrupted, his expression oddly teasing.

Celestia sighed and let her smile slide into something more plain. "You never seemed like the type to enjoy cheap take out."

After he shrugged, Sombra pushed the little mug back towards her. "'Enjoy' is a bit of a stretch."

The first stick that caught Celestia's eye was one with a tulip sticker on it. She wished that at least she had a young foal or colt before her, that way putting on the appearance of excitement would be less inauthentic. Still, trying to talk with Sombra on her own was better than having Luna learn they weren't communicating and having to be there with them.

"What is an important lesson you have learned?" Celestia did not allow herself to betray any emotion, and held her serenity perfectly. This was one of her favorite questions; she wanted to have no intentional influence on his answer. Words toppled through Celestia's mind eye, all possible replies. Whether he would mock her, answer poorly, or do something else was exactly what Celestia couldn't anticipate.

For once, Sombra's expressions was relaxed and entirely thoughtful. "Telling somepony you love that you trust them was hard for me to learn."

"But it was important?" Celestia added. Knowing you, I'm certain it was hard.

Sombra looks at his hooves and nods without paying attention to her. "What about you?"

He had not even acknowledged the quiche, but Celestia realized he had nothing to eat or drink when she had plenty. Already, her appetite was starting to falter. Normally, she wouldn't eat around somepony unless they had something too. Being ill-mannered was inexcusable in such a situation.

"I am the most inconsequential pony in my life. Ruling a nation correctly teaches one that."

Sombra's expression said only one thing: I could not disagree more.

To distract him, Celestia first accepted the little mug of questions when he pushed it back toward her. Then, she tilted her head back slightly. Along her horn, golden light ignited and let her mind recall some of the snacks in the castle, letting her memory guide how her magic probed the castle kitchens. Her eyelashes fluttered; when she focused again a plain bagel and apple glimmered in her magic and with a breezy gesture, she floated both over to Sombra.

"You must eat sometimes," she chided him, knowing that if she was going to play her part in this game of friendship she had to play her part. Gestures rooted in being polite would more than suffice.

Sombra eyed the food with confusion and she saw how his eyes widened somewhat with his look of hesitance. Such an expression was oddly innocent on Sombra's face. Levitating the apple to his mouth was done with the utmost reluctance. Fangs that sent nervous chills down Celestia's spine nibbled at the fruit's skin. Nothing more.

Celestia remained seated tentatively and tried to draw her focus away from the sight. Today was undeniably lovely — and so lovely that letting the silence mounting between them wasn't as stifling when she let herself bask in springtime sunshine for a few moments. Sombra might need more time to absorb the act of kindness and nibble at that apple. Did he not think she saw how he hid the bagel away in his cloak like a madpony?

Luna was right. Being kind to somepony you loathed was no act of benevolence except in the words of liars. Punishment accurately summed up this ordeal. Why else would Celestia feel sick to her stomach because she was kind to Sombra?

...

One last tug finished the job. A perfect garland of begonia and anemone was strung about the little table. A plate of daffodil sandwiches was neatly arranged on its surface, boasting a little pyramid of the sandwiches. Birdsong rang throughout the gardens, and the princess looked out at the castle garden. Upon her muzzle was a small, pleased smile that came from knowing all the bird feeders were full and she had managed to pull a few extra weeds when she wove her way through the familiar paths.

Under her breath, Celestia hummed a catchy refrain from an older Countess Coloratura song. She rewarded her efforts with a few bites from one of the sandwiches. Her stomach growled for more when the first had vanished, but she did not allow herself another. Some of these were meant for the hideous maw of Sombra too, were he to bother to show up. She really shouldn't have sampled anything herself until her guest had eaten. Silently, she wished he would not notice.

Crimson flashed suddenly, and one teleportation spell finished. Sombra sat aloofly in his usual spot, giving Celestia a plain look of acknowledgment. Obviously, he noted how her wings had unfurled slightly. Ringing in Celestia's head was the instinct urging her to flex them completely and take flight, knowing he was a threat.

"Ah!" Celestia gasped. "Do be more careful with such displays!"

There was the way he arched his eyebrows again, and the steady, almost bored way he regarded her. "That was basic teleportation, Celestia."

She held back the slightest huff and offered him a sandwich.

"Is this your new way of saying 'hello'?" he asked, pointing at the snack as if it might bite him.

Every time she did something nice for this stallion, Celestia was positive she was on the verge of vomiting. None of that stopped the princess from speaking to this monst— Sombra with the pleasant tone reserved for normal matters. "Do you not like daffodils?"

The reply she received was in the form of a clear headshake: no. "I would bring my own food if I wanted any."

"Picking up the habits of a regular pony regardless of whether you must helps your image," she reminded him, nibbling at the crust-less bread. "You should also accept food when others offer it to you. Imagine if you had done this at an important event."

Lectures and words of reprimand were effective ways to establish discipline in any setting. One needs only to mind the situation, severity, and subject who was receiving the lecture. At some point, everypony did.

Sombra took the lecture like water slid off the back of a duck. "Is there some sort of Equestrian holiday I wasn't aware of today? Would that be why you're offering me these?" One metal boot pointed at the platter, the owner of the limb entirely unfazed. The owner of that limb also still had a habit of calling holidays 'Equestrian holidays', much to her frustration.

"I'm afraid that there isn't one, merely something I want to talk to you about."

Sombra's slight slouch vanished. Blinking, the princess watched the demon draw himself to his full height. The silence he offered was concerning.

"I... I learned something about Luna recently." Her voice was so obviously hesitant, even to her own ears.

Sombra scratched at one of his ears with a forehoof. Was the gesture meant to hide the mild concern on his face? Celestia could not be certain.

"Has she been alright? Should I talk to her?"

Hearing plain, understandable amounts of concern for another knowing that it was Sombra who made the inquiries was jarring.

"No, no, that won't be needed. This was when she brought up the... issue of how you conducted yourself around me. There was something else she said..." Celestia brought a hoof to her necklace, feeling tentative. "She came out to me."

Sombra perked notably at her reply. "Luna was talking about doing that for the longest time..."

Celestia used how he trailed off as an opportunity to claim another sandwich. "She finally did, then. I... I was astonished, to say the least."

"No way. That came as a surprise to you?"

"Ah... y-yes?" Celestia admitted sheepishly, still sensing the nervous aftertaste of her sandwich even though she had swallowed the last of the third one some time ago. "Didn't she have to come out to you too?"

Sombra's muzzle crinkled. "Sort of. I never knew for certain what she was until she told me. Ever since she and I started dating, I did notice something about her that was almost like the way I am." He tilted his head nonchalantly. "I never thought to mind it as anything beyond disinterest, and there wasn't a problem with that."

The afternoon felt sharper the longer Celestia sat, chatting and taking things in. Sitting here like this made her realize that even though she had never been fond of him, this was the first time she had conversed with him as anything other than a goalkeeping matriarch and a fickle-tempered fiancé. That private revelation aside, what really stood out in Celestia's thoughts was her own confusion.

Twilight's books had explained more and cleared up some of the questions she had — the ones that she wanted to spare Luna, knowing that they probably would embarrass her or be seen as condescending. She didn't want to hurt Luna's feelings by having to be a meandering goalkeeper again. Worst of all was that none of those books had helped Celestia understand Luna the way Celestia wanted to.

"You weren't surprised, were you?" Celestia asked, her voice soft and a pang of envy already claiming its place in her chest.

"Not at all." When Sombra gave another head-shake Celestia felt the familiar trickle of envy seep into her own disappointment with herself and tangle things up. Wasn't she the one who loved and protected Luna the most?

"She told me something else too," Celestia added, floating another sandwich in her own direction. Somepony had to have some. "Luna tells me that you have supported her identity immensely."

Sombra was absolutely silent. He did not claim this credit, correct her by adding Cadance supported Luna too, or do anything but give her one steady, enigmatic look. Only birdsong and soft puffs of wind above floated between them.

"I... I haven't cooked much of anything in centuries," Celestia began. The weight of her necklace in its familiar place felt strangely awkward. "You can see quite easily that I have little need to... I made you these sandwiches, though!" Up went the corners of her mouth into one nicely pinched smile. Was this how to deal with a demon?

"For me," Sombra echoed flatly, prodding at one with his hoof. Two reddish eyes took in the sight of the platter with renewed curiosity.

"Yes, I suppose you can eat them in your study if you are so odd to refuse them in proper company."

Sombra did not look away from the sandwiches, which he now looked at even more intently. As she watched the bizarre little sight, she could swear on exactly two things, no more, no less. Sombra looked nearly cross-eyed observing the plate, and she was certain the tiniest portion of his tongue's tip was sticking out.

"I'll be taking that as a compliment."

"Good," Celestia said evenly, clearing her throat as politely as possible. "I would also like to add that for supporting Luna..."

No, no, no not like that, she chided herself. The voice of her critical little 'inner princess' cut through her usual inkling of doubt and into the forefront of her mind. That sounds all wrong.

Rubbing two her two forehooves together with delicate motions, Celestia started anew. "If you really do support Luna... that is something not wholly terrible, and I thought you should know so."

Celestia counted exactly three somewhat surprised blinks from the stallion.

"That's nearly a compliment."

She supposed it was, much to her regret.

...

Regardless of their now-frequent conversations, there were still times Sombra just did not seem to get a hint. As voracious of readers as some of her Faithful Students had been, none had ever absolutely barricaded themselves from her. Especially not behind a wall of Daring Do books.

She had grown rather used to her own private idea of Sombra enjoying nonfiction over fiction. Why else would he so frequently have the books he did? Subjects like spellcraft, sewing, maths, and history were his typical fare, and this sudden change had a very fishy air about it. Why, she had even caught him reading materials authored by her, though it couldn't have been for anything good.

"Why are you reading those so avidly?" Celestia asked, taking a dainty bite of a few grapes plucked from her plate. "They hardly appear to be in your usual taste."

"And I must conform to whatever narrow view of taste you have for me?" he asked, turning a page.

"I never took you as a fan of trendy fiction, that is all."

One of his ears swiveled with acknowledgment. "To be fair, I'm usually not. I'm partial to The Adventures of Shadow Spade, though. Good mysteries that I haven't already solved by the first act are uncommon, and ones that I am still invested in even when I already know the end are rarer."

Celestia couldn't believe her ears — he actually was speaking to her conversationally! He had even put down his book!

"Do you know just how predictable the murder mystery genre is to an actual murderer? That's more despicable than any crime I've ever committed." His eyes may have boasted his usual grumpiness and his tone did match, but he was showing her a thin, silly, and very sardonic little smile.

Celestia let out a small snort. "Oh, I think I know that feeling — ah, without the murder." A tiny sneer of distaste crept into the last word. "You live for long enough, and swear you've read the same three romance plots at least two hundred and thirty-three times in one century. I counted, you know! At least adventure stories have reasons to conform to certain rules."

One eyebrow raised with all the questions Sombra had, and he watched expectantly. "There are rules to adventure novels?" The way he spoke made it very clear he did not believe her at all.

"Well," Celestia began, and she popped a few more grapes into her mouth, " I think these could easily apply to any kind of story. If your hero fails, you do not have a good story. That takes away the happy ending ponies were needing. When you show any kind of true evil with any ounce of charisma, sophistication, or intellectual habits, you are a liar and a poor writer. When I see something that attempts to give pain depth and purpose instead of banality, I cannot be more displeased at such an inaccurate representation of life."

Sombra looked at her coldly now, and without his circlet, he had this much lonelier, unrefined quality to him. It was one that still made something in Celestia feel overshadowed, not that she would ever admit it. She could not even name it. "I couldn't disagree more with every bit of that."

His usual glare was creeping in, and his magic and fetched his book again. This was the God of Knowledge, a demon who looked against the grain to everypony else's frustration, and was frustrated by the field around him. It was the silliest thing to be the demon who did what he did, so focused on magical arts in the most peculiar way when he lived in a country renowned for agriculture, weather-manufacturing, publishing, and trade. When he did little worth noting, what ground did his criticisms hold?

None.

"That is no surprise to hear. You tend to disagree with everypony, hm?" Celestia paused to take a sip of jasmine tea. "If I may suggest something to correct that, I would advise you to take a look at any of Twilight Sparkle's published works. Her contributions to sociology have been a light in the dark to Equestria."

Admittedly, the last part was a private little way to rub in something to Sombra: he was not highly approved. Oh yes, sure he was tolerated very well and there was a sizable niche of ponies who did in fact take him quite seriously and circulate his essays and treatises about this and that. But he was no Twilight Sparkle, the glittering idol, hero, accomplished mare, and all-around good mare. No one told their foals to be like him, or spoke of his good name and family at dinner events. He was only just enough to be a prince and remain a prince.

"I've already read them," he grumbled.

"All of them?" Celestia gasped, blinking in astonishment.

"Every. Single. One." Sombra emphasized each word with a page flip.

"I'm puzzled as to why you would put such effort into reading something you so obviously disagree with."

"I wouldn't be able to accurately argue against anything in my own writing if I didn't review what I was against. When it comes to regular friendship material and memoirs her work isn't that bad. How do you think I found out about these?" The magic around his book intensified into a momentary glow of much more sinister crimson.

At the sight, Celestia's magic nearly faltered. Thankfully, she maintained her nervous grip on her teacup. "I see. You browse Twilight's work for... book recommendations?"

Sombra chuckled and brushed a few petals off of his cloak, not minding the wilting table garland with the delicacy the princess would have liked. "I'm guilty there. I wanted to find some books that might suitable for Skyla whenever she visits again."

As Celestia recalled, she had not seen Twilight Sparkle with a Daring Do box set until she was at least ten. They weren't novels marketed to foals as young as Skyla at all. Sometimes, she did worry that Cadance was too permissive of a parent in regard to what she let Sombra do and how often Skyla got to see him.

"Mhm, that's very thoughtful of you, but don't you think that they are a bit above her level?" Could she ever compliment this stallion purely out of politeness and not experience the kick of queasiness in her gut?

"Not when I read them to her. She can still enjoy a story regardless of her current lack of literacy."

Swallowing the putrid emotion growing in her, Celestia kept her calm and nodded. Perhaps a few more sips of tea would ease the feeling? "That is true," she said softly, her mind having strayed from her words long after she spoke them. "Is there anything that prompts you to hunt for books so actively instead of just reading whatever you have at hoof to her?"

"I think the answer to that is simple. I aim to be a powerful babysitter."

Drinking tea while Sombra said that was a terrible mistake, but not for her ill sensation. The way he said that made her giggle-snort. Lukewarm tea shooting out her nostrils and the coughing that followed was a far worse thing than Sombra's company.

...

Neither of them knew what to do when it rained in the gardens. Celestia did not know what to do when Sombra's mood was sour, either. As reasonable as she felt it was for her not to expect the latter, she could at least treat it like most other cases of gloom, by letting it be until it went away. Managing the rain only took one weather bubble casting its luminous gold glow into the overcast world.

Initially, Sombra could not stop staring at the soft light. That had been sudden. One moment he had been sitting at the table, looking listless and sullen, then he had been captivated by the sight before returning to gloom. Of course, she had expected one of those things from him, but listless? For a stallion determined to be busy with something, seeing him appear quiet in a way that wasn't looming or lurking and just... almost dejected-looking was something she did not know her feelings on. That could be worrying.

She was not a mare who wanted ponies to appear dejected. Smiles were made for spreading, and happiness was the only 'infection' worth having. Twilight Sparkle and Discord were not the ones she admired most because they were quiet and melancholy, but because they were bursting with cheer and a sense of fun that made the sky that was her life feel cloud-free.

The princess was a mare of standards. Seeing Sombra happy did not align with those, or all of her wants. There was a part of her that felt that creeping infestation of regret twisting painfully in her chest knowing that there was enough of her that wanted Luna's husband to be miserable. Or, that there was some terrible intersection were 'Sombra' and 'Luna's husband' were not mutually exclusive thoughts.

Somehow, the shadows dancing on the contours of his face were made darker by the presence of light. Sparks danced in Celestia's mind, and outshone the thought of every link in the chains of life that she felt so tangled by. An idea had taken root, and it was not one made with the worries of a weary ruler or the doubtful whispers of her littlier selves.

Celestia thought Sombra was like a cat in his less intimidating moments. He was stressful to deal with, mean, sneaky, and a picky eater. One could not play with cats like most creatures. Much like Blueblood, as soon as they were grown, they were quick to neglect those around them. She had heard every other pony in the castle give a real laugh at some point when they were in her company.

Luna agreed with this conclusion regarding Blueblood and feline natures, if nothing else. In the recollections of Celestia, she knew the ghosts of Luna's words. Sombra was reserved, she said. He made growls both playful (though Celestia had only heard abominable noises from him) and threatening. There was a rumbly purr he could make.

Who knew what other non-pony traits he might have?

Gentle gold aura sprung to life on Celestia's horn and spun itself into something riddled with flecks of fire. Sharp sunfire skipped across the surface of the table's surface as a harmless shaft. She had it whorl about and dance rapidly, making its presence known with fluctuating brightness.

At first, Sombra just made a muffled growl not unlike the sound of an annoyed groan. He kept his head buried in his forelegs without looking at her. She did understand why he wouldn't bother to tell her if something was bothering him, but couldn't he sense magic? Why didn't he just look at her?

Frowning, Celestia called the beam of light back to her horn, though she kept it flaring with light. Reaching out, she tapped him lightly. Privately, she did regret actually touching him. Sombra's immediate reaction was to draw back, growling irritably, and glowering at Celestia.

The last two things he did from the edge of his seat; nearly jumping back had caused him to lose balance. "Don't touch me."

Must he be so hostile? It wasn't as though she had wanted to. "I wanted to show you something."

The light of her weather bubble reflected in his eyes only accented Sombra's unamused expression. "What magical trick was worth mentioning?"

Oh, so he was able to tell that it was magic. "Just something I thought would make you look a bit less miserable. Frowning so much can't be good for you. Just what has gotten you so down in the first place?" She didn't actually want to know his problem, and she was sure that he knew that too. However, asking was polite. That was a game she could never step away from.

Sombra looked sideways, posture drooping just enough to be notable. "Rejection letters came back for the essay compilations the papers here have been fine with publishing. But actual Canterlot publishing companies? They're Tartarus-bent on not letting anything with my name on it get past them."

Celestia disagreed with anything that came out of his mouth, and by extension, all his written works. Sombra was not a poor writer, though. He knew how to debate, and his rhetoric was astounding even if he was so... disagreeable. She had been near-unpopular once, though, and could almost understand his frustrations. He had a bias against him and nopony in a respectable place would likely listen to him. There would be no other reason his work would be rejected beyond that when it was simple to silence controversy.

"As royalty, haven't you considered the option of paying them to take your work in order to get past this? It's entirely do-able. I've had things published that way. This is a good opportunity for you, isn't it?"

"Certainly, I just would rather save more bits for experiments."

So that's why he buys all those things! "Looking outside of Canterlot might help, though I would avoid self-publishing."

Sombra looked at her questioningly. "If I keep getting rejections, do you realize that is a reasonable option for me to consider?"

Not if you want to be taken seriously. Twilight Sparkle does not stand alone and you do. What bigger weakness do you need to be pointed out to you? "Putting the effort into that will surely cut into your duties. Personal projects shouldn't be taking so much priority in your life."

There was the sharp look of disagreement in his eye again. "Celestia?"

"Mhm?"

"Just show me what you wanted to and I'll figure this out."

By impulse, she smiled. Warmth overrode the quiet nausea that came from another act of kindness towards Sombra. (Later, she knew that a single shot of nagging that what she was doing was wrong would manage to slip past mental walls.) "You really wish to see it?"

"Go ahead," he conceded.

Finally, she let the magic she had been restraining flow. The sunfire shaft flickered across the table again. Sombra eyed it hungrily, wringing his forehooves once. She caught him fidgeting, once, twice, three times. Every movement was followed by his quick gaze.

It seems that she had gotten one thing about Sombra right.

...

"You actually can cook," Celestia breathed.

Sombra had little reaction to her astonishment and stuck a fork in his falafel again. "Did you think I had been joking about that?"

Celestia looked down at her own lunch of a large garden salad. Unlike the little plastic bee plates Sombra had brought with him, hers was upon a proper plate. "I did think you might be exaggerating to make yourself more relatable to ponies, not that's a bad thing. I haven't cooked anything properly in ages, but I still appreciate the art."

Sombra chewed at his falafel thoughtfully. "How exactly does that work?"

Celestia shrugged. "After a while... I just stopped. I have a properly staffed kitchen, so there really wasn't the need to continue. I used to make excellent pancakes, though."

"I'm not sure I would consider it an art, but it is surprisingly enjoyable." He took another stab at the falafel. "Why did you stop?"

"I really can't say," Celestia said, idly picking at lettuce. "Cooking was better when there was somepony to cook with. Vanilla Bean, Crème Brûlée, and—"

"Who?"

Celestia blinked. "They were old flames. More than a few of mine have been chefs..." Celestia's voice grew quiet as she traced a hoof along the edge of her plate, thoughts slipping into the past. "I realize that you and Luna know next to nothing about them, which feels a bit silly of me. History is quick to forget who these stallions were beyond being ponies I loved. It's such a shame."

"Luna has actually mentioned them before, when I was asking about some of the pictures in the Solar Wing." Sombra took a long look at the clouds. Knowing him, there was something else on his mind. "If you enjoyed something like cooking so much, why did you stop?"

"I..." Tomatoes were the last thing on Celestia's mind, but she couldn't figure out what else to focus on, and let her gaze droop with her mood. "It just happened, that's all. Without somepony to share things with, I think there's a lot that has been better to give up... so I have. I'm not a batty old mare who wants to lock myself away spending quiet time with books and puzzles, you know."

"You're extroverted," Sombra concluded.

Celestia nodded absentmindedly, her thoughts floating about. Or, perhaps it was just the weight of her crown prompting her to shift a certain way. She didn't give it much thought, though she knew that a long time ago she had been open and extroverted, as Sombra had put it. Now, she wasn't really sure what she was.

"Do you really think that giving up the things you love is good for you?"

Celestia did not like the question, though his tone was more inquisitive than disapproving. "I've hardly given up all leisure, but if it can help somepony, then it is always worth doing. I've never been my priority." One hoof reached up to tap at her crown. "This is, and it's such a shame you don't wear your circlet." She didn't add that if he could wear his wedding ring every day about his neck and have the time to let Luna style his mane on some days, he should have the time to put effort into keeping the only piece of regalia he had on.

His pause told her that he acknowledged her answer and that he disagreed with her, though it was less offensive than she expected, but watching him spear another bit of falafel so viciously was concerning.

For a moment, Celestia's thoughts strayed to the crown and its weight upon her. She knew that Sombra and Luna could not afford to be themselves as rulers. They would have to change, and to that there would be no exception. She couldn't say that she was the same mare that had first started the Solar Millennium.

"Celestia, do you think we could start working on things outside of lunches together?"

Celestia let her fork click against her plate. "I beg your pardon?"

He swallowed the last bite of his food as if he hadn't said anything outrageous. "Social interaction. Can't we do it outside of these lunches? We were just able to have a conversation that didn't leave me tempted to yell at you for something, and it was about something we both like doing. How much more do you need me to explain?"

"Well, I... Maybe a bit more?" Celestia said sheepishly, straightening her fork a few times until it looked satisfactory.

Sombra rolled his eyes with the defiance she had come to expect from him. "At this rate, am I going to have to burn that I will tolerate familial time with you outside of these lunches into the hedge maze?"

"Familial...?" Celestia echoed, horribly dumbfounded and feeling very far away. The demon hadn't actually been referring to her as his family, had he?

A deep churr rumbled in Sombra's throat and he looked just as confused as she did, flicking his ears and tilting his head to the side. "I thought you would be considered my lawful sister."

Lawful sister? Does he mean...?

"Sister-in-law?" Celestia prompted, hearing how uncertain and nervous her tone sounded. "Is that what you mean?"

"Yes, that!" Sombra's magic flared an even more vivid shade of crimson, and the small surge assisted in flinging his fork far into the gardens, much to Celestia's dismay. "I only found out about the tradition after the wedding. Apparently, there's no blood oath for these kinds of pacts."

In all the time she had known Sombra and Luna were together, never had it occurred to her that Sombra would be connected to her through marriage in that way. She wasn't sure what she should feel: worry, disgust, shame, or something else?

"You think of us as family?" Maybe the fork wasn't as nicely arranged as I thought. "Do you understand what family is?" Knowing she still had the rest of the day to bear, Celestia resumed nibbling at her salad.

"Not like you do." Ah, he's getting snippy now. "Rejecting you as family is pointless if you are declared by law as family. I can't pretend to understand why this is done. If I had to guess, I would say that it is a superficial remnant of an obscure pony tradition."

"You don't feel that thinking that way is strange?" Or insane? Goodness, he was still proving to be quite the piece of work, especially when it came to the non-conformity. Couldn't he at least act like a pony?

All Sombra did was arch an eyebrow and use his magic to sweep his plastic dishes into an organized stack and look at her slyly. "Should you really be talking about 'strange' when you're now related to a spell book?"

Celestia let loose a few hacking coughs to dislodge a tomato from the wrong pipe. "E-Excuse me?"

"I married your biological sister. I am the product of a spellbook, and your family through marriage. You are related to a book almost as much as I am now."

Celestia sighed and bobbed her head just enough for Sombra to see. That would be all she did to acknowledge that statement. "What is it that you wanted to ask of me when it came to spending time together?"

"You know more about cooking than me. I'd like to get better. While both of us in a kitchen at the same time is a potential cataclysm waiting to happen, I will accept cookbook and recipe loans if you have any to share."

There were far worse things she could do. Truthfully, this didn't sound entirely terrible either.

"Perhaps I would be willing to try this if you could do something for me."

Sombra shot her an icy glare. "Name the conditions and I'll consider it."

"Please go pick up your fork. That is all."

...

The air beside the garden table parted. In the middle of the air was a pulse of crimson that appeared to come from nowhere and cling to nowhere all the same. Sombra simply stepped out of thin air the next moment, from a tear that emerged when he did. The edges of the 'rip' looked quite crystalline, in a fantastical sort of way. She even caught a faint glimpse of whatever tunnel his magic had woven in-between the world and something about it showed the world differently from the inside. There, she saw the faint flashes of a fantastical, but fractured kaleidoscope sight and thought of how strange it would be to see the world like that, through a tunnel where every sight gleamed like ice.

Sombra promptly sat himself down, and the magic tear was gone just as quickly, like it had never been there in the first place. As Celestia expected, he had nothing to eat with him, just a couple of books held in his aura. He promptly opened one of them and casually began to read. The covers told her that these were among the cook books she had lent him last week.

The banana bread she had been chewing suddenly tasted quite sour. "Was that a display of divinity?" she asked as coolly as she could, swallowing with unexpected difficulty.

His displays of power were always unnerving, but his divinity was especially so. Being known as the God of Knowledge was not something that could be taken lightly. For one like herself, or like Discord, the extent of their divine magical capabilities can be guessed at with ease. In the case of her decidedly hybristophilic daughter, Luna's powers were more abstract. Still, they were non-threatening most of the time.

"Just something I worked out," Sombra mumbled between page flips and not looking at her. "The points between teleportation can be fascinating to travel through."

The brow of the princess crinkled. Messing with teleportation was something unheard of. Theoretically, much could be done with it, but to tamper with the process was not something Celestia and many other ponies understood or ever bothered to expand upon. Celestia still remembered the days when it was considered high magic to know how to teleport because of all the freak accidents that used to happen. Now, those only lurked in the rumors and fancies of the tiniest foals and old news archives.

"I see. Forgive me for my assumptions, then. I've just been a bit curious as to what way it manifests."

Sombra gave Celestia a look she couldn't read entirely. He looked skeptical. "My magic manifests in a variety of different ways. I'm certain you've seen flashes of it before." He eyed the fruit Celestia had near her delicious bread. "Other than that, I don't think you'll have noticed anything. I like exploring all this magic; the power is invigorating." He paused and looked idly to her folded puzzle book and lunch plate again. "Mind passing me one of those?"

Celestia reluctantly nudged an orange in his direction, since he had been eyeing the fruit. She gave the sky a quick glance, minding the silver hues in the clouds. Would it rain today?

The next thing she heard was a growl. When she turned to see what it was, she looked at Sombra and found his teeth stuck in the skin of the orange. He looked immensely displeased, to say the least, making little grumbles and growls at the fruit he had hooked his fangs into.

Celestia simply pursed her lips. "Why did you bite into an orange like that?"

Sombra tore it from his mouth with a surprising lack of brutality that left the little orange rather intact, except for the gaping tear to one side. One glare of displeasure speared the poor little thing. "I've never had one before."

"But you didn't think to peel it first, like everypony else would?"

Sombra repeated himself, his magic peeling away a shred of the orange's skin with brusque motions. Idly, he examined the damage his fangs caused to the fruit. "I've also never seen anypony eat one of these. The thing is about the same size as a pear or apple, and this skin is soft. How was I to know that you peel these?"

Celestia shrugged after a moment and nibbled at a few apple slices. The idea that the God of Knowledge was not endowed with magic-born knowledge or some similar thing as a result of his divinity was curious indeed. Celestia felt such a thing would be more of a curse than a blessing. She was weary of learning and bearing, and if Sombra was Knowledge of all things, would he not be too? There would really only be one way to find out.

"Is there nothing you regret about divinity?" Her thoughts reached around, straying deeper than she would have liked. She thought of god's worlds. Plains of magic were drawn to the new gods that emerged within them, and to these divines, they gifted their names and selves entirely over to the more powerful being, though there was no life, no sapience that could be gleaned from these worlds as far as Celestia knew, they had a Knowing somehow. That was how Celestia heard it was for others, but she remembered things in splinters and rather differently.

Her world was called Radiance and was forged of the heart of a great metaphysical clock, as big as any city as far as she recalled. It moved like a city and formed itself like one in all her memories, and it was always aglow and bright. Radiance was determined to bend itself away from all shadows. All of it was brimming with a bright power, and dull recollection prompted Celestia to think that there was something Matching in that time when it came to the Celestia of ages ago and the world that sought her.

God-worlds were bound and intertwined with the god in ways that Celestia knew not in full, and what she did know frightened her, though she spoke nothing of it. To have something like this feel as though it was connected and below her skin and haunting her rang bells of alarm only she could hear. She had long since started binding her abilities, and though she knew Radiance was there, it was distant. She lacked access to it, and noted the shifts in her magic that were likely a result of that action.

She was curious about Sombra's regrets, though. When he said he was a stallion with regrets and yet acted so differently, he must've assumed such a thing wouldn't stick with her. How many might be tied to his divinity?

"I can't do word searches anymore," Sombra said nonchalantly after he popped a properly peeled orange slice in his mouth.

Celestia opened her mouth a tiny bit, and found no words came out. Closing it again, she let her expression fall back into composure and peered at Sombra doubtfully once her mind was as in order. "Are you taking this seriously?"

"Yes, and I told you what you needed to know. My only regret in godhood is that I can't do word searches now. They were one of my favorite ways to past the time on train rides. Did you expect me to regret something else?"

Of course I did. Why else would I ask him that so seriously? "I... did, yes." Celestia offered a modest painted smile. "What I fail to see is why you cannot do word searches. My book here has a few, and I would like to see what it is you mean by this."

Perhaps what he meant was that he thought he was too good for such common puzzles. She nudged her puzzle book towards him, making sure it was flipped open to a word search. The particular one she had selected was of middling difficulty, so she was sure Sombra would have no problem with the travel-themed puzzle. She had already found a few names of distant cities and countries with ease.

Sombra squeezed his eyes shut before he even looked at it, something Celestia found quite odd. When the book was levitated at a normal reading distance, Sombra opened his eyes abruptly. The light on his horn suddenly went out with the crack of a few crimson sparks. Her puzzle book fell onto their table, askew but still open. His orange and the rest of its peeled scraps fell nearby.

Sombra recoiled from something, growling with his forehooves brought over his eyes and pinning his ears back.

"What did you do?!" Celestia asked, gasping. There was more panic in her voice than she would've liked.

To Celestia's horror, her word search book was burning up. No, not with flame, with magic. Vibrant crimson flashed and when Celestia got a closer look at her book, she saw how each word was glowing. Not each letter, nor any specific row. Horror clear on her face, she saw how every one of the words in both the word bank and the puzzle itself was glowing the same color as Sombra's aura. She looked up to Sombra, and through his hooves and peeked at the little bits of crimson light that were visible despite his effort to shield his eyes.

Then she recalled how crimson light sometimes flashed in Sombra's irises.

Oh!

With one quick motion, Celestia flipped her book shut and pulled it close to her again. The glow instantly ceased, first in the book, and then how Sombra looked like he was recovering from a headache.

Sombra rubbed at his eyes, and moved his hooves away just enough to peer at her, wary and confused. He didn't appear to be hurt beyond the sudden spike of pain a headache might bring, and was so obviously being careful about how he kept himself guarded. Dull light flickers of crimson that reminded Celestia of embers were still there in his irises, until even their glows ceased with a few blinks.

The pause between them carried on with a weighty awkwardness that made Celestia distinctly uncomfortable. Tired of rustling her feathers and averting her gaze, she cleared her throat.

"...Does this happen with crossword puzzles too?"

...

Celestia cut the last bit of unneeded paper away from her picture. Once the single snip had freed the image from the magazine she had so carefully snipped it from. Tiny crabs and shells dotted a beachy border that would be reused excellently in her latest scrapbook. The pages in progress were laid out before her, awaiting borders, backgrounds, and the like.

In each photograph pocket were no photographs at all. Aged charcoal drawings resided behind clear barriers, the slight gloss of preservation enchantments were visible on them. In each image were the sights of rocky shores, sand castles, and muted figures of mortal beach-goers dwarfed by the gray strokes used to form Celestia, her wavy mane kept under control with as many mane clips as could work alongside her regalia.

From across the table, Sombra peered over his latest pile of books, flicking an ear as a nearby bit of dandelion fluff grazed it. The plain pictures with their lonely, boxy, and prominent sketchy lines somehow caught his attention. Perhaps he focused on them because of recognition. No matter how loose the style was, Celestia knew that her image within each picture was clear.

"Those aren't recent." Sombra's observation could've been chalked up to a good eye for detail, or the more obvious dated look of the clothing other ponies wore, even if Celestia herself remained. "Where did you get them?"

Celestia stared down at her pictures; she didn't like how Sombra looked at them, not that there was anything malicious or annoying about how he eyed them. She just didn't like it. She spotted herself easily in one picture. The artist had made sure Celestia was the center of every single drawing. In this particular one, she was like a swan in a duck pond, only she was an Alicorn on the seashore. Ponies frolicking on the beach were not captured in as much detail the farther they strayed from her. A smudge of regalia graced her body even in leisure, for who would she be without it?

The Celestia of the past turned back towards the artist, and to her subjects around her wearing an expression of vacant sweetness that the ponies of the period wanted her to have. The Celestia of the present tried to will some kind of connection with the image or herself. She had the ability to look at all sorts of representations in herself in statues, photographs, and all forms of artwork across the ages, and never once had she recognized them as herself.

"From Sea Biscuit," she murmured, pushing away the fork from her nearby salad. Then, she realized Sombra was waiting for an explanation. Of course, he was. Anypony would be. "He and I were lovers just about six centuries ago. He was a chef and aspiring artist from the coasts of Baltimare."

"Are these from Baltimare?" Sombra asked, twirling a fork against the spaghetti lunch piled on his silly plastic bee plates. She never understood how he could eat it without even a bit of butter or cheese. Pasta was made for toppings.

"Yes, these scenes are some of his sketches from when my duties brought me to his home city. Traveling was much more fun with him, you see. That stallion knew how to make a mare laugh." She patted one of the pockets with delicate fondness. "The poor things needed a new book to call home."

And that was simply what she loved in a stallion — or a draconequus — was the ability to make her feel like she was soaring with light, happy feelings no matter what came with life and routine's roulette.

Sombra looked to one image where Celestia had been raising the sun from the beach shore. Monochrome rays blurred into most of the drawing's background, giving the appearance of a visibly hot day captured in the loose strokes of charcoal. "Why does the sun look like it's melting everywhere in that picture?"

"Bisky had a love of capturing my sun in some... notably abstract ways. I suppose that was why he never surpassed the 'aspiring' rank; his style was not one that sat well with the popular looks of the time." Celestia carefully applied the last touches of paste to the back of a nice umbrella cutout. "Thankfully, he gave up the pursuit after some time. We always disagreed about his art and its reception. Bisky had many other talents, you must understand. I always told him of all the things he could be, and that I loved him. He listened." She hummed, affixing an elegant seashell sticker onto the page. "I've always kept every piece he ever made, though. You won't believe the auctions I've had to frequent to find a few of these."

To every stallion she had loved that had tried their hoof at art, she had been the Muse of Muses, more than she was to any who simply knew her as their princess-goddess. When such words were showered on her without restraint, it would have been cruel for her to allow any of her lovers' works to be sold off as antiques.

She brought one forehoof to rest on the two pages she had before her. The paste would have to dry before she could turn them to work on the next ones. Until then, she could look at each aged piece from Bisky. He had always drawn the sun so prominently, more so than was natural. In each picture, it was her halo, her curtain, and its light always had the look of wavering water, no matter the lack of color. "There were just so many more sensible things to be, and his own cutie mark called him elsewhere."

Sombra chewed at his pasta thoughtfully. "Have you ever wanted to be anything else?"

"Anything other than what?" Celestia asked, resting a hoof upon her necklace for some imagined reassurance. Truth be told, she felt rather safe, or at least as safe as one could feel around Sombra.

Sombra nodded to her crown. "You talked a lover out of something they enjoyed, not that there's any problem I have with that. I wasn't there; I don't particularly care. I hear about different things in life that ponies have wanted to be or have a calling for. I never wanted to be a prince, but here I am. Luna has wanted to be all sorts of different things, like a pirate, a drifter, an artist, and a psychologist. Part of me is surprised she still bothers with being a princess."

An ill feeling grew in her stomach with his last statement; only her refinement kept it from showing. She didn't want to doubt anything, not now. Let those feelings strike her when she was not on her lunch break, for she really wished that this would remain a break.

"Yes, I've always wanted to lead. As a little filly, I knew I had been born a princess and that it was something to live up to. I've had no reason to aspire for anything else when I've always been needed as a ruler."

Sombra's fork twirled through the pasta with a few flicks of his magic. As it wound around the teeth, Celestia wondered if it was from one of the recipe books she had lent him. "Have you really wanted this, though?"

"Yes," she said quickly, "of course, I do, not that something like that dictates what must be done."

For once, Sombra's eyes were showing something clearly. They said she spoke too quickly.

"I see," he mumbled between bits of pasta. The answer was a curt one given to a reply he did not agree with but cast nothing against. At least, not aloud. "Do you have any more personal pictures like this?"

Celestia tensed up as soon as he said that. "Personal how?" she prodded, voice hiding a steely edge.

Sombra calmly arched an eyebrow in response, horn glowing almost teasingly, not that Sombra seemed aware of that. "Something that doesn't involve royal duties, perhaps in in the vein of a vacation?"

"No, I have nothing of the sort." Celestia picked at her salad, truly feeling a bit confused. Though, what exactly she felt it for, she did not know. Call it a general malaise, and one she was accustomed to with Sombra. "I may travel the world and Equestria frequently, but I cannot neglect business. Can you not see how irresponsible that would be?"

"Have you ever just gone anywhere for the sake of it, Celestia?" He tapped one metal-clad forehoof along the edge of the table.

"Again, my answer is 'no'. Why are you so preoccupied with thoughts of travel when Canterlot is such a fine place to be? Goodness me, there's no purpose in galavanting about when all is quite cozy at home." The sound of her purely conversational laughter drifted through the air with the light wind. "There isn't a single bone in my body that begs for such a thing! I'd loathe to remove myself from anypony who needs me."

Cutting past her expected noise was the faint clinking of Sombra's fork against plastic. He eyed his food with a look Celestia found was too close to apathy for polite company. "Don't you ever long to be anywhere, ever? Or like seeing something different?"

She chewed at a piece of lettuce, and admittedly most of her thoughts were drifting to meetings and what the weather might turn to. "I am pleased with where I am. Though, I do like seeing neat little nooks in new cities. There's always a wonderful eatery anywhere you can look! Oh, and nice parks! Seeing what makes every city the same is always so sweet."

The sound of a fork clinking was heard again. Sombra looked at Celestia with startling intrigue. She could only purse her lips, straighten her posture, and look to the side to hide her own flightiness at how sudden he was. She hoped that there were no guards walking about too closely that they could see her talking to Sombra. Oh, yes, she knew that it was obvious she was here, but it never sat well with her. Being visibly nervous around Sombra wasn't anything she wanted anypony to know. Just being seen having these lunches with the demon was already punishment enough.

They didn't see anything, did they?

"Celestia?"

Oh. He was still looking at her. "Yes, was there something on your mind?"

While he offered no smile, he eyed her in a decidedly normal way that bordered on... friendliness, maybe? She could never be certain about him.

"If you could go anywhere in the world, where would that be?" he asked, still looking at her so calmly. "The chance to go anywhere arrives at her your hooves. Where would you pick?"

Oh, she wasn't fond of silly games of fancy. They ended up being rather wasteful, and were hardly much fun. Still, there was no harm in playing along with one or two questions. Heavens knew she humored nearly everypony at some point in her life when image and service depended on it. "Is this for a summit? Have I been called somewhere?"

He simply shrugged, adding, "If that's how you want to see it."

"I'm at least respecting border laws in this hypothetical, aren't I?"

Sombra's left eye twitched in momentary irritation and his magic moved in a way so that his fork scraped against his plate. The brief noise proved rather dreadful. "Only if you want to."

"Laws are laws," she chided, "so of course I shall. I think that I would head to Maris. The city is always filled with such a bustle and so many agreeable ponies."

"I've always wanted to see a fjord," Sombra chimed in, with a tone far more enthusiastic than the princess was used to hearing from him. "One with no yaks, ponies, or another sapient mind." He paused, minding another forkful of pasta. "Actually, I might want to take Luna, too. She would love it. I would love it — nothing but remote seaside, snow, and wilderness."

Celestia could not help but laugh. "With the chance to go anywhere in the whole world, you would pick some desolate old cliffside? Oh, that is a good one! You can find nearly any place like that, so why not go somewhere a bit less dreary? Or cold?" She wished to add 'civilized' but did not.

The constant small frown she expected from him returned. "I've never seen the moon rise over the ocean before, not like that at least. The skies would be so clear—"

"There is hardly any pollution in Equestria, you know. Luna's efforts can be seen quite easily from the Manehatten skyline now that she is the one managing the night again."

"The experience wouldn't be the same. Tartarus' flames, one of the few places you can find a midnight sun is past Yakyakistan and you're telling me you wouldn't want to see it?"

"I've never seen my sun at midnight," Celestia murmured just loud enough for him to hear. "But are the only reasons you can think of to go galavanting around the wilderness?"

"Certainly not." Sombra was looking past her now, wearing what she considered his trademark 'thinking scowl' that made him look far too gloomy and brooding, in her opinion. "Taking a long train ride and all the hiking would make it much more enjoyable than flinging myself in a metropolitan area as soon as an airship landed. I think a fjord would be a very peaceful location."

And you are such a peaceful beast?

He wasn't touching what was left of his food, which was almost as awkward as how he ate: little, thoughtful bites where he 'snuck' forkfuls in his mouth as soon as she did not eye him directly, with discreet chewing and swallowing. You would think he hated chewing, or some other crazy thing. "I think," Sombra said slowly, "that if I were still mortal, and I was ever willing, I would have wanted to die by a fjord."

"That is absolutely ghastly," Celestia said sternly, "and I shall be hearing no more of that terrible talk from you. Death is not a subject that I shall hear approached so directly and with such morbidness—"

"Hold on," Sombra cut in, fork no longer in his magic and his forehooves folded stoically to match his cold looks, "I'm not going to point out how hypocritical it is for the mare who has made multiple attempts on my life and is surrounded by death to say that to me. I don't expect a being born with a nature like you to understand the feeling, either. Leaving me any time to explain myself would have let me tell you that I didn't mean whatever you probably thought I did."

...Surrounded by death. Those three words created a cold pit in Celestia's stomach and sent her headaches and whispers scurrying about her mind. Little naggings popped up quickly when she didn't want them to. She hated those words. Hated that they were true. Hated the fascination she used to hold for them. There was so much hate buried in deep things about those words, and the bizarre invasive musings of mortality she had known over something she never could.

(Had death not always been something that happened to everyone else?)

"What," she said with a low, scolding voice, "did you mean?"

"Have you ever been in a waiting room?"

"Of course I have." Unfortunately, part of her added.

"I've heard about more than I've been in," Sombra began, "I've still seen that the ponies setting them up an attempt to create an environment with minimal stressors. While it doesn't always work, it can be used to soothe or to manipulate somepony indirectly."

She did not give a single sign that she agreed or displayed recognition with such tactics, nor did she scold him for being cynical. All she did was motion for him to continue.

"Somepony dying doesn't want to die on a battlefield, or in a hospital. They want to be somewhere they don't feel threatened and can feel any satisfaction remaining at when they do die."

What bothered her most was that Sombra could not say 'pass away' or 'depart' like nearly every civilized pony.

"Cemeteries and crypts are terrible to me. Had I met a mortal end, I would have wanted there to be nothing left of me, and I would have wanted to be left somewhere like a fjord, whether I was a restless soul or not."

They said nothing to one another as they began to clean up their presence, it simply began. Celestia was surrounded by all Bisky's drawings, alone in the garden with sunshine, loud birdsong, and all the senses of spring raining down on her in all life's glory. Suddenly, it all felt quite putrid. All the creeping reminders that came from thousands of years of the inability to feel this bizarre mortality her ponies had danced about the edge of her mind.

Each one of Bisky's sweet sketches reminded her that at his funereal, she had not cried in public, though in private she bawled. No, she was reminded of how she stood alone for hours after he was buried as she stood by the graves of many she held dear, and that among the things she had tippy-hoofing about her mind as the fixation of what it could be like to know that with every motion of a shovel, you would be buried far from the sun.

How did that feel? How did living knowing that your life was not limitless feel as it weighed upon somepony every day, invisible or not? One day, the blade would simply fall on a mortal. How did they manage? Was it enviable? Terrible? Centuries ago, this had eaten at her until there was nothing left to eat, but no inquiries were ever answered. They were terrible things to think, she knew she should feel guilty for ever letting them cross her mind. Luna's inability to even bother with such things and see her eternity as pure delight was more terrifying than facing the judgment of the dead worlds to Celestia.

The fact that Sombra lived every day as he could still die was one of the most frightening things about him. If she were to venture that any bit of him could actually be of interest, it was not Sombra himself. It was that he was the only immortal that had any experience with mortality, rather than just knowledge of it. He may not be able to die or even feel a longing for death and act upon such a thing, but if he ever had that would stay with him.

Sombra himself was not what prodded such a buried fixation, then. She really did want to ask him what dying felt like, if only because she could not understand it and had made the mistake of dwelling for it. And it was because she had the tiniest part of her that wanted this was all she needed to know that no part of her would ever permit herself such a thing.

...

Celestia only woke up because she had to. She was sure that was why everypony else woke up, too. Everypony had somepony else they needed to be there for, and something required of them. Maybe nopony else thought about how she had to wrangle a kingdom, a draconequus, a kirin, and a gaggle of other royals not limited to her peculiar daughter. Time might as well not begin until a clock ticked away the first seconds of one's schedule, and there could be no day until she raised her sun. (And, perhaps, fueled her brain with a caffeine haze and affixed a smile to her face.)

She needed the bustle of the castle, that she could say with certainly. It existed as its own miniature city, which she preferred to it existing as merely her home, as some drafty old manor could might be. Noise took the place of introspection, and the beat of conversation lulled her senses somewhere nice and bright. Somewhere outside her own head, and its mustier shadows. She knew Sombra would grumble that she was an old nag with some regularity, like how Dissy conjured tiny umbrellas in her beverages regardless of what they were, simply because he knew it could pull a chortle out of her.

(Was she an old nag? At least, in the literal sense?)

The gardens were not just a place for cultivating beauteous blossoms, but for growing the right thoughts and reinforcing the right mindset. Yesterday's rain and gloom was clearing up perfectly, a result of the efforts of Cloudsdale weather pegasi and Canterlot's magical weather arrangers. Puddles still gleamed and gathered where the light had yet to reach them.

One little table of stone, where she now sat, still bore marks and the cool feeling of moisture. One familiar demon had a modest pile of books, whose spines boasted content on the subjects of cartography, sewing, enchanting weapons, and archaeology. His reading choices wouldn't have stood out to her today if the combination had been less unusual. There were days when she simply didn't note exactly what book he was burrowing his muzzle into.

He had a newspaper out, too with a considerable amount of the crossword in the Galloping Gazette filled in. She had been mildly surprised to learn that his magic sight did not impact those particular puzzles. Still, she liked looking up from her own little project to catch a glimpse or two of the bizarre ability in action.

Magic without lighting one's horn was something that could be done among unicorns and other horned magic users. Though, it wasn't anything traditionally common, to say the least. With time came control, and Sombra clearly had some control of his magic sight. Crimson light would flicker in his irises faintly as he read, something that wasn't immediately noticeable. She liked to think the flickering made a sound, like a camera's shutter when a photograph was taken. That was likely due to the nature of when he did this.

He had told her about how he used his sight to further his dabblings into memory magic and 'capture' the moments he read, and the content he was reading. While he was not one to go into detail about his magic to her, he did tell her that the reason his irises would flash at some times was that he was 'retrieving' such 'instances' from within his augmented memory.

Clearly, it was some sort of demon thing clashing with divinity.

Yes, the whole concept and process was baffling and completely unheard of to her, but she liked to think it was a little bit like scrapbooking. Storing away memories was not unusual to her, even if she knew that Sombra's method was one of a kind and absolutely insane, but she did know that the pastel pink paper she chose for backgrounds was as fantastic as this ability of Sombra's was likely to be mostly harmless.

From the cloth bag next to her, she retrieve a piece of lightly colored ribbon and carefully tied it. Once a bit of paste was applied to the tiny bow, she found the right place to put it above one of Qilin's hatchling pictures. She recognized her smile in the photo as one of a nervous, wounded animal hastily managed for the sake of normalcy, publicity, and reassurance more than they usually were. Just looking at it now made her feel an echo of the terror she knew she was choosing to bury then. Discord, on the other hoof, was overflowing with genuine excitement. He clutched their little kirin like a birthday filly showed off her favorite new toy. And yes, she did mean 'birthday filly'. Dissy's eyes were visibly sparkly and held an overtly girlish quality.

One half-muffled trill rumbled momentarily. The faint murr reached her ears and she fidgeted with uncertainty, looking to see the source.

Sombra was looking at her scrapbook without any of his usual stoicism. The semi-usual and practical braid he had to his side gave him a more inquisitive appearance. She was never sure how to react to his vocalizations. Luna gushed over them and adored them utterly and unsubtly, much like how she was around little foals. He refrained from all but the shortest of little unhappy noises and grumbles around most ponies, but when it came to Cadance, Shining Armor, Skyla, and Celestia he was a bit more liberal with them. It was chilling, in some distant way, when she realized that he was actually fairly quiet around ponies. She could've sworn he was more vocal outside of her interactions with him with the same certainty she could use to say that his noises troubled her.

But she said no such thing. She kept to herself how bizarre it was to hear his distinct warbles, growls, trills, and more from a beast as big and threatening as he was, and how made otherwise innocent noises from any other animal suddenly be a quick trigger for a nervous clench in her stomach. On top of her general unease, she was still sickened with the most kind gestures she made towards him.

"Yes?" Celestia prompted. Her own calm tone was a fine mask for any hint of imperfection in her voice, but the disparity with her voice and what she knew in her heart caused hollow feelings to tug at her. She was used to them. "May I help you with something?"

"You and Discord have been involved before I returned, and I still don't know much about the two of you the way you know about Luna and me. This is despite that we are..." He waved one forehoof in a circle, the look in his eyes sharpened and his book forgotten as he clearly tried to find the right words. "...lawfully-bound siblings?"

"Um," was all Celestia had to murmur. Both her forehooves rested across her family scrapbook for the kind of needed assurance that came with dealing with Sombra's... whatever this was.

"We're attempting socially engaging like family?" he suggested earnestly. His magic swirled about with thought, stroking his braid as he searched for the right wording. "Does that sound any better?"

"Ah..."

"Conversing with lesser degrees of suicidal intent than ever before? Come on, Celestia, you're more of a polyglot than I am. There's got to be something in your lexicon to describe whatever kind of behavior we try to accomplish with these lunches in some language because my Equestrian isn't doing me any favors right now."

"...Talking?" Celestia ventured with the utmost awkwardness. "About my crafts? I'm afraid that I too lack any idea for a grand term... Oh my goodness, did you neglect to bring lunch again? What did I say about that?"

"You lent me cookbooks and lectures, and I only accepted one of those things," Sombra said crossly.

"You have to start eating like a pony. I didn't lend you A Cunning Casserole Codex so that you could keep being sneaky about nutrition. If you keep this behavior up, I'll make you sandwiches again!"

"See, what kind of a threat is that?" Sombra's exasperation through gesture was as obvious as his critical tone was to her ears; his forelegs were held somewhere between what she was supposed to take as an innocent shrug and a loose, open gesture. "If you're going to argue with me, at least threaten me right. I'm nearing the point of concern, and neither of us wants that."

"I want you to eat properly and quit being such a spoiled brat about 'I'll eat when I want to'. That is nonsense, and if you keep acting like a brat, I will cut the crusts off just for you. Again."

Pure disgust and confusion overtook Sombra's features quickly enough to startle her. His forelegs flailed angrily and she saw his eye twitch. "WHAT COWARD CUTS THE CRUSTS OFF SANDWICHES?"

'Cowards' was not the word she would use for somepony who favored their food so, but Celestia couldn't use any words when she was choking on her own chortles.

That was enough to snap Sombra back to his senses. He looked at her with astonishment for both of them, having realized she was close to laughing because of something that he said.

"Forgive me for getting carried away there, but I am serious about you starting to eat. I have vegan books I'd allow you to borrow if you take good care of them. You seem to be doing fine with the ones you're already using, but why don't you eat? I know you don't have to, but you should try."

Sombra murred again. This time, the sound was more worried in pitch. He still looked at her, but fidgeted under his cloak. For all his habits of infrequent manestyle changes, the cloak was always the same. Nopony had whispered about it, thankfully. While clothing was optional for anypony, Sombra had to wear something any time he might be seen.

"I don't like eating in front of others."

That... had not been the answer she expected. However, it was supported by his behavior.

She did not let any surprise show. Such a thing was especially done for such a minor remark. Sombra had no allergy known to her, nor did such a behavior align with anything Celestia could call neurotypical. Twilight Sparkle and quite a few other Faithful Students had been more than picky about food textures and other things. Who was to say Sombra was not the same? Truthfully, it might even explain a few things about him, especially with what Luna had told her.

"Surely eating in front of Luna is no problem?"

He nodded absentmindedly. Was Sombra bored?

"Is the same true for Cadance?"

He frowned, tilting one hoof in a 'so-so' gesture. Celestia could not quite recall them both eating in the same room at the same time. Or maybe it was that Sombra always had coffee and she mistook it for food?

"How about Skyla? Do you eat around her? She's certainly at an age where I'm sure you've had to show her that snacks are meant to be eaten, not played with, through demonstration?"

"Sometimes," he mumbled. The more she tried to get a clear answer out of him, the more he just shut himself away.

Sombra's refusal to eat around ponies started to strike her as uncannily as how there was no living memory of her crying. They both refused something.

"Why do you do this to only some ponies?" She stretched her wings and was already tidying up the littlest bits she had used for scrap-booking when she asked him.

She could see him grit his teeth slightly with the lightness of somepony more reticent than angry with her.

"Celestia, ponies don't do the majority of their bodily functions around others, and especially not without provoking disgust. This one is far from foul, and yet that doesn't make it any less like bathing or..." Sombra's muzzle crinkles suddenly. "...other things."

"Oh yes, that makes sense," she chirped, watching Sombra only look more distant in response. Did he realize she was just saying that? Was she too obvious?

"I only eat around the ponies I trust; it doesn't feel as gross then. I don't know how I can make that any clearer to you."

After how they treated one another, how was it still a surprise to Celestia that he did not trust her?

...

"You were asking about me and Discord," Celestia said. One finished scrapbook was tucked under her wing and the sun was high on a new afternoon.

"I did," Sombra said levelly. His eyes had already found her book. "You want to show it to me...?

She was wearing her normal princess smile when she nodded. It was rare she showed off her sketchbooks so personally. Normally, she would just submit copies of photographs that were to end up in her finished projects to newspapers when they asked to do an article on her. She'd give them winning smiles, Princess Celestia-isms, a glimpse into a life polished for sight, and she told another chapter of the life of Princess Celestia to that mare's adoring subjects that would last until she returned to the castle feeling like a complete stranger and...

...and...

She wasn't always sure what followed. She did know that the ponies in her life were Luna, Dissy, Twilight, Cadance, Shining Armor, their foals, and Blueblood. Everypony in Equestria knew that she cared for each one of them dearly, what they did not know were the complications and every word beyond the outline in the story of her life.

Once she had sat down, she opened her book to a random page. The faces of herself, Dissy, and Qilin all smiled back from page after page of photographs gracefully framed with bows and countless little appliqués worked into soft fabrics bordering each clear pocket.

"He and I have been together since Twilight was gifted her castle." She smiled more in spite of her desire for polite moderation.

The warmth that came with talking about somepony so beloved was delightful. Some weight she had been bearing today was dissolved so as long as this conversation continued she could feel the warm echo of love and the particular light fuzziness hers brought her. She loved Discord for his general inability to be serious but was still far from Sombra's flavor of facetiousness. Where did ponies think she got some of her best jokes from?

Sombra's gaze drifted to a picture of her and Dissy on one of her trips to Ponyville years ago. A bunch of lilies was gripped in his paw and the tentacles of an octopus, along with a few streamers, were poking out of the all-purpose basket that he had selected for that picnic.

"There's no way that's all to your story."

"Oh, it isn't," she assured him, flipping a page. Discord was dressed up in this photograph, clad in an inverness cape, galoshes, and cap while clutching a magnifying glass. Though his conjured garb was the sort of thing that the infamous detective in one of Sombra's favorite mystery series might wear, on that day she had been given only a bubble pipe and bow tie as Dissy went about 'investigating' the statues that had been added since his time in the gardens.

"I had been planning to... make an effort to arrange a reformation for him after Twilight and her