Chapter Twenty Two - Aftermath

“Mortal life is such a cruel joke. We’re born. We grow. We maybe reproduce. We fade. Then when the biological or magical damage becomes too much, we die. That’s it. There’s no divine allotment of time, no destined end, no anything. Just the long accumulation of unrecoverable errors. Pathetic, isn’t it?”

The slumbering dragon curled up beside her in bed had no response, but that was okay. It wasn’t something he was old enough yet to truly understand anyway. She idly nuzzled him, too awake to sleep yet too weary to work, and wished things were different.

It was well over an hour past midnight when the last movie finished. Their chatter lingered for a short while longer, but the eclectic group of friends and family called it a night before too long.

The foals, obviously exhausted despite their protests, they sent off to Sweetie Belle’s apartment in the castle for a sleepover. Rarity and Cadance went with to supervise. Hopefully, they wouldn’t burn the castle to the ground.

Night Light and Velvet rose to leave next. They first extracted their parental tribute in the form of a hug and nuzzle respectively. While the latter was at it, she whispered, “It’s good to see you’ve made such a beautiful friend.”

Flushed and properly mortified – Twilight had not missed the quiet suggestion – she hissed, “Mom!” as she pushed the mare away in protest, not that it had any effect other than making Velvet grin. It would seem somepony had kissed and told. Twilight should have sworn Rarity to absolute secrecy on pain of death and enforced with a geas, not given her permission to brag. Honestly, she would never hear the end of this!

Moon Dancer begged off next, citing a new academic paper she wished to read before heading to bed. From how tonight had gone, it seemed she’d adapted well to a demanding schedule requiring less sleep than most ponies took for granted.

Chrysalis and Sunset left together shortly thereafter, off to do who knew what. The middle of the night after a long day wasn’t really the time to continue their negotiations over the Crystal Empire. Perhaps Sunset just wanted to celebrate or brag about her heist with a relatively neutral party. Chrysalis did know Eclipse’s real identity.

On their way out, Twilight briefly excused herself from Celestia’s company and caught the pair just outside the theater. “Hey, lunch tomorrow, Big Sister?”

A weird expression emerged on Sunset’s face. “I’m going to regret springing that on you, aren’t I?”

Most definitely. Revenge would be sweet. Twilight didn’t bother to reply aloud. Her answer was obvious.

“Fine. You know where to find me.”

With that, Sunset set off again. Chrysalis, disguised as an unremarkable pony, lingered behind just long enough to direct a contemplative look at Twilight before rejoining her.

That left Twilight alone with Celestia when she returned to the theater. As neither of them were particularly tired yet, they stayed right where they were and threw on a bad movie to ignore while they enjoyed one another’s company. It’d been what felt like forever since circumstance had allowed them any real private time with one another to just talk, and they weren’t going to miss this opportunity.

Twilight threw herself onto Celestia’s floor cushion and indulgently nuzzled up against her beloved mentor. Celestia draped a wing over her in return, and it was just like old times. Their conversation roamed everywhere from the regular drudgery of running a government to her experiences in Ponyville. She certainly had a lot of stories to tell even from just her short stay there. This might very well have been the best possible way to end the night.

Eventually, the conversation turned to a subject Twilight had expected to come up much sooner.

“Would you like me to give you my old lecture notes for your own use?”

“Oh yes, that would–” A sudden feeling of danger struck Twilight. “Wait. They’re not covered in embarrassing annotations about me, are they?”

Celestia’s far too innocent smile as she twisted her neck to make momentary eye contact betrayed the truth.

“You’re the worst,” Twilight said with no real heart in it.

Some light laughter met the response. “Think of it as my version of baby pictures.”

“Definitely the worst,” Twilight muttered.

More serious now, Celestia said, “My dearest Twilight, I want you to have them. As you transition into this new role in your life, I thought I might offer my own experiences as an example.”

Despite the earlier teasing, Twilight couldn’t help the warm feeling in her chest. “Still mentoring me, eh?”

“Whenever you let me.”

Twilight grinned. All these years later, she still took pride in managing to outpace even Celestia’s expectations of her. “I suppose I could take them off your hooves.” Then, slightly nervous, she asked, “I guess this means you approve?” Twilight had seen Celestia dote on Sweetie Belle early on, but it was in her own best interest to keep Generosity’s bearer happy. Then again, she hadn’t exactly been in the most self-preserving mood lately. On the other hoof, she–

Celestia booped Twilight on the nose with a hoof, drawing her out of her spiraling thoughts before they could really get going. She scrunched up her nose in protest, not quite willing to thank Celestia for the save in that particular manner. Nonetheless, she listened when Celestia spoke.

“You need nopony’s approval to take on a student of your own, Twilight. But for what little my opinion is worth, I found Sweetie Belle both aptly named and very gifted. Whether or not she ever ascends to the same extraordinary heights you have, I think you two will be good for one another.”

“Thank you,” Twilight said sincerely. “It means a lot to me to have your…” – not approval – “enthusiastic support.”

Celestia shook her head in a way Twilight knew meant she was rolling her eyes. “You both have my approval.”

Once again, Twilight offered her gratitude, if perhaps a bit flippantly this time.

“Knowing how your early years studying magic went, I hesitate to ask, but how do you intend to begin Sweetie Belle’s lessons?”

“Well,” Twilight began, not sure how Celestia would take this approach, “I planned to start with changing the way she thinks. You know, start with puzzles that require her to actually use her brain rather than just apply what she knows. Problem solving is an important skill to develop young.

“After that, I want to subtly push her toward spell decomposition. I know that’s usually graduate work, but I’m proof enough that you can pick it up at the beginning of your education. She’ll be better off learning how magic works first rather than memorizing some arbitrary number of known spells and then trying to unlearn bad habits. I’m hoping to give her a real eureka moment. I remember when I first noticed the similarities between disparate magics. Once I saw it, I couldn’t stop seeing it. Spellcrafting followed naturally thereafter.”

Celestia pointedly cleared her throat.

“Even if my technique needed a little refinement under your guidance.”

Celestia bumped her hips against Twilight’s.

“Okay, a lot of refinement.”

“I do recall spending far too many nights at your bedside in the hospital wing. Perhaps the coming years will teach you why I worry about you so.”

Twilight couldn’t stop the sheepish grin from pulling at her lips. She’d been a terrible troublemaker as a foal in her own way, she had to admit, and she expected Sweetie Belle to be even worse considering her reputation.

“Be careful not to try to recreate your own education too hard,” Celestia added in warning. “Sweetie Belle is not you. If she requires more traditional instruction, I expect you to deliver it with a smile regardless of your private opinions.”

Given Twilight’s past behavior on guest lecturing, she considered that a fair admonition. “I know,” she said without protest. “I already promised Rarity I would adapt as necessary.” Not that it meant she would like it. “Honestly, I think Sweetie Belle would do all right on her own if provided with access to a library with a proper selection of magical texts.” Ponyville’s was, unsurprisingly, lacking. “I wouldn’t do that to her, but absolute worst-case scenario, she should be okay. She’s bright, and I’ve already imparted more advice to her than what got me started.”

“Yes…” Celestia said with an odd hesitance. “Eventide.” All things considered, Twilight had expected either a lecture about bad influences or an apology for acting so uncouthly tonight. Instead, she received a carefully neutral, “I can count on my hooves the number of ponies who have ever managed to work me up so.”

A nervous chuckle escaped Twilight. “Yes, she can be a bit…” She faked a cough and changed tact. “Who are they?”

Celestia snorted. “My father, Lulu, and Sunset.”

Ah, that made sense. Family did tend to know best how to get on one’s nerves, although Twilight wondered what it meant that Sunset–

“Wait, what?” Had Twilight heard her correctly? “Your father?” Celestia never talked about her origins, and Twilight had learned not to pry years ago when she’d unknowingly asked about Luna.

Pressed up against one another as they were, Twilight felt Celestia shake with silent laughter. “Is it so strange that I have one?”

“Well, no, but I mean – it’s just…”

Celestia laughed more openly when Twilight faltered for words.

Well fine then. If that was how things were going to be, so be it. “Was he an alicorn too?”

The question sobered Celestia immediately. “I suspect so.”

“You…suspect so?” Twilight asked hesitantly. There were few reasons she could think of for Celestia not knowing, and none of them were good.

As expected, Celestia tone darkened. “Forgive me, but Luna and I happily imprisoned him forever before he could bother himself to teach us the facts of life.”

“Oh…” Twilight rolled the dice and tried for a safer topic. “And your mother?”

A heavy silence fell.

“I must have had one once,” Celestia mused, her voice very far away.

Before they could continue, the sound of hoofsteps broke the mood. It was a very somber and solemn Shining who strode through the theater with his head held high but his eyes downcast and unable to meet his sovereign’s. When he stood only a few hoofsteps away, he slipped into a full formal salute. “Your Highness, I come bearing…news.”

Celestia commanded, “Rise, Captain, and tell me what troubles you,” with her usual serene smile as though they’d not just been dredging up a dark past. Twilight took the moment to shift gears, logging away what she’d learned, and then opted to solve this mystery for Celestia.

“He lost your crown.”

Shining’s eyes narrowed at her bluntness, but Twilight just stuck her tongue out at him in return.

While this turn of events clearly surprised her, Celestia remained relaxed and completely unconcerned as she asked, “Is this true, Captain?”

Angry with somepony, probably himself, Shining visibly grit his teeth. But soon enough, he slumped in place as he admitted both defeat and the truth with that one act. He sighed in resignation and then said, “It is, Your Highness. It was Eclipse, the thief. I take full responsibility for this failure.”

With a nod of understanding, Celestia said simply, “Very well. Catch her, then.”

Shining’s head snapped up. “That’s it?” he asked incredulously.

“That’s it,” Celestia confirmed. “Do coordinate with the EIS. I know they have an open investigation on her. Be sure not to neglect security in the castle, however.”

“I…see.” After taking a few moments to process it, Shining snapped to attention and delivered a sharp salute. “Thank you for giving me another chance, Your Highness.”

“Is that all, Captain?”

“Ah, not quite.” Shining turned to Twilight. “I’d appreciate the notes from whatever personal investigation you’ve been running. Eclipse mentioned you were ‘a fan’.”

Smiling widely, Twilight enthusiastically clapped her forehooves. “Ooh, yes! She does good work. Granted, it’s not exactly above board, but it frees up a lot of my time and resources to turn a blind eye and just let her rob the corrupt.”

Shining facehoofed, and Celestia groaned, “Twilight…”

“What? It’s not like I’m enabling her.” This most recent heist excluded, that was. Sure, she’d interfered with the EIS’s investigation on multiple occasions, but knowing Eclipse’s real identity wouldn’t help them catch her. Sunset was far beyond their ability to deal with.

“Why are you like this?” Shining muttered. He shook his head. “One of these days, Twily, this is going to get you in trouble. You’re always too willing to work with the scum of society.”

Celestia, of course, would have none of that. “Captain, such comments are unbecoming of you. Ponies are allowed to realize their mistakes and redeem themselves.” In hindsight, it was kind of obvious why she’d always approved of Twilight giving out second chances to those who deserved them. The situation with Nightmare Moon might have changed, but she’d certainly wanted Luna to have one, and she herself no doubt wanted one with her sister. “Unless you have something else to report, leave us.”

Shining cringed at the abrupt dismissal, a very rare sign of Celestia’s open displeasure, but collected himself quickly. “No, Your Highness, that’s all. My apologies.” After a shallow bow, he departed as bidden in stoic silence.

Once they were alone, Celestia dryly said, “Eclipse robs the corrupt?”

Twilight first weighed Celestia’s mood, finding her settling down, before responding lightheartedly. “Oh yes, she’s really very selective with her targets. As a case study, she’s fascinating. I actually thought I’d have Sweetie Belle deduce how she pulled off some of her more elaborate heists in the future. She usually uses a very minimal amount of magic, but there are occasional signs which expose her as a sorceress for those who know what to look for.”

Celestia hummed along at all the right points. Then once Twilight finished, she made one additional observation. “And she robbed me.”

Twilight froze. “Uh…”

This reaction, of course, resulted in a mischievous smile growing on Celestia’s face. She suggested, “Perhaps our thief is foreign to Equestria? Perhaps she knows me as the Sun Tyrant?”

It was as good of an explanation as any and one Twilight happily latched onto to escape her self-inflicted logical quandary.

“Regardless,” Celestia said, “I suppose I should recover my…” Her amusement rapidly faded into a frown. She withdrew her wing from Twilight and rose to her hooves. “One moment.”

Celestia dissolved into a flash of light, her own mysterious modified version of teleportation. Twilight so wished she would explain how it worked; it went through all wards including a full dimensional anchor! It defied all known principles of magic as much as alicorns themselves did, both of which meant Twilight misunderstood something about them.

Only moments later, certainly in far less time than it would take to gather her things, Celestia returned with all of her regalia adorning her except her crown. Twilight hadn’t known she could do that, but it would nonetheless appear that Sunset’s spell really did work to keep her from finding what was hers.

“This is bad,” Celestia mumbled with far too much seriousness. Then for the first time ever, Twilight witnessed her pace back and forth through a narrow strip of the theater in oddly tiny steps. Her brow furrowed in thought, and her lips moved in silent words as she spoke to herself.

Now nervous, not having expected even half this level of reaction to the loss of the crown, Twilight asked, “What’s wrong? We can make another crown for you.” Just to prove her point, she conjured a replica into existence with little effort and offered it as a replacement.

Celestia smiled for a brief moment when she noticed the crown. “Thank you, Twilight, but I need the original.”

“We can tell the public Eclipse stole a fake,” Twilight suggested, but she now strongly suspected Celestia’s crown was more than just a royal accessory or an interesting magical artifact. Indeed, when Celestia shook her head, Twilight asked, “What am I missing?”

The question silenced Celestia for the longest time. Some internal battle waged and showed itself only in the minute changes of expression playing out across her face. Her eyes lingered on Twilight as though poring through her very being for some answer to a question only Celestia knew. Her eyes closed. If she’d found what she’d been looking for, she wasn’t sharing.

Then Celestia’s eye snapped open, her expression resolute. She’d made her decision.

“We must not be overheard.”

With a brief surge of power, Celestia teleported them both to the middle of nowhere in the sky. Gravity barely had time to take effect before a truly massive swell of magic like a tidal wave carried them away. So far from civilization, nopony would notice and nothing important would break.

“And this,” Rarity proclaimed, “is where we’ll be living. It’s a bit bare at the moment, but–”

The fillies all ran past Rarity and went into the apartment Princess Celestia had arranged for Sweetie Belle and her sister, although Ocellus had the courtesy to offer a polite, “Excuse us,” as she went by. Like cats, they spread out and explored the new space. No door was left unopened. No furnishing was left unturned. No wall was left unexamined for secret passages.

To be perfectly fair, one of the bookcases in the study slid aside to reveal a secret entrance into the tunnels below the castle if done properly, but Spike wasn’t about to tell them that. He didn’t think Twilight knew he knew about them, and while that remained so, she couldn’t forbid him from using them. The quickest way for her to find out, however, would be to inform Flurry or…

Sweetie Belle had stopped moving and turned to stare directly at Spike. When he finally noticed, she winked at him and made a motion of zipping her lips when nopony else was looking before going back to exploring.

Spike buried his face in his hands. They were going to get caught.

“Is something wrong?”

Heaving a sigh, Spike let his hands fall back to his sides. “No, Aunt Cadance, just revealing more state secrets to Sweetie Belle.”

“Oh dear,” Rarity said. “I’m going to have to sit her down and have a talk soon.”

From further off in the apartment, Sweetie Belle poked her head out of a door and said, “Archmage Twilight already did!”

Rarity, with nothing better to say in response, simply uttered, “Well.”

Living with a telepath was certainly going to change things. It wouldn’t be too long before she no longer had to keep herself to the less populous areas of the castle, and then there would be no hiding.

A thoughtful hum caught Spike’s attention, and when he turned to its source, Rarity said, “I do believe we haven’t had the opportunity to speak tonight.”

There might have been a reason or two for that. Spike tried his best not to blush or otherwise embarrass himself. Things could be awkward enough at times already around Sweetie Belle without constantly reminding her that her older sister was the most beautiful mare he’d ever met.

“I heard you’ve been keeping my sister company. I hope she’s not been a bother.”

“No. No, I – uh, we’ve been getting along. She’s…fun.” In the privacy of his own mind, Spike practiced thinking nothing at all. Then when that failed after less than a second, he tried not to think anything coherent using words and saw far more success. “A bit magic obsessed, but I’m used to that.”

With a very lovely chuckle, Rarity said, “Yes, I can imagine.”

“You should have seen her as a filly,” Cadance added. “No responsibilities. Just magic.”

“Would that we could all be so blessed our whole lives. Ah, but it’s late, and we should all be getting to sleep. We mares do need our beauty sleep. Spike, dear, would you keep an eye on the fillies for us while we arrange for a few extra beds?”

Without really even thinking about it, Spike said, “Sure,” a bit too eagerly. It was only after Rarity and Cadance left that he realized he’d promised to watch three fillies with what had to be twenty pounds of sugar in them who’d all caught their second wind and very much did not want to go to bed.

The vision took Twilight’s breath away. All of Equus sprawled out above her, a riot of greens and blues and browns and fluffy white even at night. Millions upon millions of lights dotted the land in an interconnected web of civilization. She could pinpoint the cluster that represented Canterlot, and not too far northeast lay Manehattan. Los Pegasus sat in the southwest corner, and that great blackness with only the slightest hint of green had to be the sprawling Everfree Forest.

The other continents Twilight possessed less familiarity with, but she could pick out most of the world’s major nations and capitals. Prance was easy enough to find, and the warm red glow far to the south had to be the Dragon Lands. Between them lay Saddle Arabia, and off to the east was Zebrica. Her eyes flitted to the Griffon Kingdom next, jumped to Mount Aris, and then landed on where she knew Aquestria slumbered beneath the sea. She kept at it until she thought to turn her attention to the planet as a whole.

From the moon’s current position, Equestria sat comfortably near the center of Equus above. It was a strange sight to see duplicate land masses, distorted though they became at the edges, as her gaze trailed east or west across the world. Such was, however, the nature of their universe. It wasn’t something most ponies gave much thought to, but the moon and sun rose and set on the entire planet at once. One could see them from anywhere on the world, and the converse held true as well. Somepony on the moon could see anywhere on Equus. At the right spot, at the right time, even, a pony on Equus could see a second image of the moon, although it would be so small as to seem like nothing more than a dim star.

It was wonderful growing up with an astronomer for a father. The mathematics of reality were a thing of beauty.


The voice was gentle but still startling. Twilight jumped in surprise, having forgotten she wasn’t alone. Rather than fall back to the ground, however, she floated gently along through a far too large arc until her hooves settled back onto the glowing gray rock below and kicked up a bit of dust.

A giddy laugh escaped Twilight. She was on the moon. “A – a little overkill, don’t you think,” she choked out. She knew ponies who would die just for the chance to be here. Her father was one of them.

“Perhaps,” Celestia allowed, patiently giving Twilight time to collect herself, “but we avoid the risk of Generosity overhearing us or Loyalty jumping to you without our knowing.”

“Somepony could spy on us with a telescope.”

Celestia looked about to laugh.

“A really big one,” Twilight insisted in an embarrassing effort to save face.

Celestia rolled her eyes but nodded to the shield about them. Now that she’d pointed it out, Twilight noticed that she’d taken the time to provide them with a miniature atmosphere, a magical barrier to hold it in, and an illusion to keep them hidden.


“Indeed.” Celestia’s voice grew nostalgic as the mirth faded. “Lulu built a palace up here when… Oh, I can’t remember when. It was ages ago, and it never meant as much to me as it should have given her enthusiasm for it. I believe we were somewhere in our two hundreds. She’d planned to colonize the moon, but I talked her out of it. It was too soon for our little ponies. It still is. I would take you there for this conversation, but I would rather not rob her of the chance to show off her own work.”

It was at rare times like these that Twilight truly recalled how vastly different alicorns were from regular ponies. The sheer power and both depth and breadth of experience wasn’t something to which she could properly relate. Someday she would change that, but that someday would take years and years to arrive.

Celestia’s expression grew serious as she returned to the present. “Twilight, we must catch this thief. She knows too much to let her run around freely.”

“Uh-huh…” Twilight lacked the information necessary to understand why this was so important. She could make a few educated guesses, of course, but she much preferred answers to speculation.

Twilight’s curiosity didn’t pass unnoticed. As this was what Celestia had brought them to the moon to discuss, she spoke remarkably directly – for her – on a subject she’d always kept quiet about, one which Twilight had quickly learned to dance around. “Alicorns are…different. My regalia is literally part of me.”

That confession drew a soft gasp from Twilight. Her thoughts shifted to the crown sitting innocently in her subspace storage. If that’s true, then – oh, this could be very, very bad.

Celestia saw the stricken look upon Twilight’s face, and her tone turned reassuring. “A small part of no consequence to lose, not a vulnerability. But a part nonetheless.”

That wasn’t it at all! Twilight shook her head. “Luna’s dreamwalking…” How could she say this without making a mess of everything?

With a nod, Celestia spoke before Twilight could form the proper words. “Whether intentionally on her part, by mistake on mine, or from the Elements granting her a window to the world, her crown, that one tiny piece of her, escaped banishment. The significance never occurred to me until she introduced herself to you.”

That confirmed it. Twilight had to know to plan accordingly, and she had to ask now while Celestia was feeling talkative. “If it’s only part of her, what happens when the vast majority of her is free and subsumes it?” Had she been making bargains with – and admittedly grown attached to – the sliver of sanity in Nightmare Moon?

“Ah, a worry I tested only last week. Banishing myself was…an interesting experience. More so without my crown. Fortunately, although divided, I remained whole. It is thus all of Luna who visits you in your dreams.”

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. That was one bolt dodged. Better yet, in hindsight, perhaps letting Sunset steal Celestia’s crown was a stroke of genius. If Luna couldn’t find it, she couldn’t put all of Celestia beyond reach. That opened up many possibilities, especially if she followed through on her promise to try to teach Twilight how to dreamwalk.

With that out of the way, Twilight asked, “So what exactly is the problem here? I mean, I wouldn’t want somepony to steal my leg or something either, but that’s kinda your fault for having a detachable body part.”

Celestia chuckled despite how serious she found the situation. “Close your eyes.”

Curious, Twilight shrugged and did so. She felt Celestia’s magic grasp her right forehoof and moved it up and a bit to the right. Her magic released it, and nothing more happened.

“Where is your hoof?”

Bemused, for what kind of question was that, Twilight opened her eyes, wiggled her hoof, nodded toward it without looking, and said, “It’s right…” The point of this little demonstration hit her. “Oh. You have proprioception with your crown?”

“Indeed.” For the purpose of demonstration, Celestia casually tossed one of her shoes off behind her. It floated along in a long arc under the lower gravity until, without the assistance of any divination magic, she accurately teleported it back to her. “This is what worries me about our thief,” she said as she slipped her shoe back on. “To interfere with my kinesthesia requires knowledge of alicorns Luna and I have kept private our entire lives.”

“Ah.” Twilight understood Celestia’s motivation now in full. “What solution are you hoping for, then? Memory wipe? Official employment? Imprisonment? A geas? Something more…permanent?”

A terribly long sigh met the question, and Celestia turned her gaze away from Twilight toward Equus above. “I don’t know,” she confessed. “Eclipse’s real identity rather complicates matters.”

Twilight did her absolute best not to let the nervous laughter pushing at her lips escape that barrier. Instead, she forced herself to ask, “Oh, you know who she is?” Somehow, she didn’t stutter.

“Of course,” Celestia replied matter-of-factly. “It’s obvious. Who has possession of Luna’s crown and has had decades to study it?”

That did make it obvious. “Sunset Shimmer,” Twilight answered with a perfectly straight face. “Yes, complicated indeed.”

Celestia’s eyes left Equus and landed squarely on Twilight. They narrowed, suspicious, and she slowly crumbled under the weight of that gaze. “You knew,” Celestia declared.

“No, I – that is – well…yes.” Twilight could keep secrets well enough, but she’d never claimed to have much skill at outright lying to Celestia straight to her face. Babbling nervously now, she continued, “I mean ‘Eclipse’? Overshadowing the sun? Obviously a fake name. It’s such an esoteric term. Most ponies don’t even know what it means, and there are even fewer who’d take it for their own. Cross-reference it with a list of known sorceresses, and there’s really only one possibility. It’s simple deduction.”

“How long have you known?”

Sheepishly, Twilight admitted, “Years.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Celestia pressed. There was some hurt in her voice, but mostly she just sounded lost.

This was what it felt like to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Twilight didn’t want to lie or attempt misdirection, but she didn’t want to betray Sunset’s trust, either. She suspected Sunset might actually like her at least a little bit now, and she didn’t want to ruin what progress she’d made. What was she supposed to do?

While Twilight agonized over what to say, Celestia didn’t sit idle. She drew her own conclusions from Twilight’s reticence, and they were the right ones. “Oh, how blind am I?” she said as a curse upon herself. “A thousand years, a rude awakening from the mare herself, every attempt to change my pattern of behavior, and even now I couldn’t see what was right in front of me. ‘Eventide’? Was that your idea or hers?”

Busted, Twilight hung her head. Yet she saw no reason not to answer in full and from the heart now. “Both, I suppose. I looked up to Eventide more than anypony until I met you. She was brilliant and everything I wanted to be. When we parted, I promised not to mention her to anypony.” She snorted. “The silly word of a foal, but I kept my promise. It was only after you gave me the resources to look for her in our records that I discovered her real name.

“I’ve been trying to convince Sunset to return to the fold, but she’s…not exactly eager to make peace with you. Even knowing about Luna.” Twilight mentally shoved away the gloomy thoughts that brought up and pressed on. “She’s been helping me with the Elements, though! Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done about Trixie if she hadn’t stepped in. We had this big fight, but she sorted it out for me. She still cares. She’s just…angry and bad at expressing it.”

Celestia laughed, but it had a melancholic air about it. “Sunset has never been bad at expressing her anger.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Twilight said flatly, and they both knew it.

“So I should take her theft as an expression of affection?” Celestia laughed once more, this time with just a bit more heart to it. “Such love I feel. Perhaps now she can sleep soundly with me in her hooves.”

That mental image forced a snicker from Twilight. If Sunset ever heard it, she might very well toss Celestia’s crown aside in a fit and leave it where it landed.

“I suppose you have no intention of telling me where Sunset is.”

Twilight bit her lip. “I…would rather not.”

“Or what interest she has in Queen Chrysalis?”

Twilight was quick to answer this time. “Nothing harmful to Equestria. I’d prefer not to betray their trust on the matter.”

“Then perhaps what she intends to do with the enormous fortune in her possession?”

Twilight easily replied, “Something altruistic for selfish reasons.”

That drew a snort, one of both clear annoyance and amusement, from Celestia. “Yes, that sounds like her.”

No more questions came. Celestia, apparently done with conversation for now, sat on her haunches and let herself grow absorbed in reflection. Twilight, in turn, let the silence stretch. She didn’t want to be the one to break it after their little tête-à-tête, and besides, she had a magnificent view to appreciate. For once in her life, she could just sit and enjoy the beauty of nature. It wasn’t every day one got to see the true geometry of the universe on display.

So Twilight settled into place beside Celestia. She positioned herself close enough to make her presence known but far enough away so as not to be a bother if tonight’s events had left them more distant.

As it happened, however, she needn’t have worried. Almost as soon as Twilight sat down, Celestia wordlessly unfurled a wing in invitation and, finding no protest on her end, drew her in close. They snuggled together there on the moon, as comfortable and assured in one another’s presence as ever, and gazed up upon Equus as the night slowly slipped away.

Before she knew it, Twilight began to nod off. The moment was too tranquil, too serene, to disturb with a bit of magic just to keep her awake. Her restraint came at the cost of the occasional sleepy noise, but it was worth it. Of course, neither they nor her occasional lapse of consciousness passed unnoticed.

A smile in her voice as surely as there must have been one on her face, Celestia said, “It seems somepony needs to head to bed.”

“I’m fine,” Twilight mumbled, though she couldn’t quite manage to open her eyes. “One more page…”

“Oh, Twilight, you silly filly. Whatever will I do with you?”

It wasn’t worth the effort to protest.

“Is Sunset well?”

Twilight hummed in sleepy confusion before waking herself just enough to process the question. She mumbled back, “As well as can be expected. She’s got a large chip on her shoulder.”

“Did she speak with Cadance?”

“Mm-hmm.” A long yawn forced its way out of Twilight. She smacked her lips and then added, “They reconciled.” She wasn’t sure if that was the right word to describe whatever had happened between those two, but she didn’t much care right now.

In jest, Celestia said, “Alas, betrayal upon all sides.”

Twilight’s lips briefly formed into a smile before her muscles fell lax once more.

“Did you trade my crown for Luna’s?”

For a moment, Twilight’s breath stopped. She hadn’t, but she might as well have. She had it, but should she admit it?

Now that she knew the truth, Twilight had a perhaps irreplaceable opportunity to study an alicorn. The more she learned of them, the more alien they became despite their obvious pony roots. If she turned this chance down, her path to ascension might close on her forever. And really, what would it cost but a massive betrayal of her beloved mentor’s and frenemy’s trust?

Then again, Sunset probably had all of the data Twilight needed. She wasn’t so naive as to believe Sunset had willingly parted with Luna’s crown for free nor before finishing its analysis. That Celestia couldn’t recover her own crown lent credence to that theory. Surely Twilight could negotiate access to that research data, especially with Sunset’s recent surprise induction into the family.

But that would still be a violation of trust, one in some ways worse for the deception. She should tell Celestia the truth. It would be the right thing to do. She might even get to hold onto it. One pony was as good as any other to look after it until then, after all, and of the two of them, she was the one who’d never lost it.

On the other hoof, maybe it was time to just ask Celestia about alicorns. She had been freer with such information lately, and she’d all but said she wouldn’t stand in the way of Twilight attempting ascension. Maybe a little show of trust on Twilight’s end would go a long way.


Twilight really didn’t want to gamble with eternity at stake.

In the end, Twilight just let herself fall asleep.

Well used to living wherever life took her, Sunset had set up an identity for herself in Ponyville easily enough and bought a cottage on the edge of town. Sure, some would call it a frivolous waste of bits, but it wasn’t like she didn’t have more than enough to throw around. If purchasing one little rural building caused even a tiny blip in her finances, she could hardly expect to prop up the entire Crystal Empire.

Moving about the minimally furnished house, old habits she’d thought herself past resurfaced as Sunset made Chrysalis welcome in what she called home for now. It was hard to forget the little rituals of Equestrian etiquette for greeting foreign royalty when she’d uselessly practiced them so many times. Everything had to be just so, and her horn and muscles danced to memories ingrained into them by rote long ago.

Sunset set a kettle on the stove, slowly warming it as she’d been taught with a careful infusion of emulated pegasus magic. It never turned out as well as the real thing, but the results nonetheless stemmed from over a thousand years of perfecting the brewing process. As far as she knew, only one pony could brew a better cup of tea.

At the exact right temperature, Sunset removed the kettle from the stove. She poured the hot water into a tea pot and left it to steep while she prepared a few of her own favorite light snacks to add something solid to the mix. It didn’t really matter what she fed Chrysalis so long as it was made with love. How that worked was something she would study later. For the moment, she imagined she was finally, truly home. At her table sat Cadance, who’d come over to complain about the tribalist idiots standing in the way of her reforms. She did this practically every day, but Sunset always lent her a sympathetic ear. What else were big sisters for?

It would have been a good life.

While she put the final touches on the food and tea, Sunset set the table for two with only the best tableware. She’d gone out of her way to retrieve the good silver and porcelain from her primary residence after Twilight had introduced her to Chrysalis. As anticipated, this wouldn’t be the first time she’d entertained royalty here nor would it likely be the last.

Sunset poured her sugar and added a dash of tea, as Cadance would put it. When prompted, Chrysalis asked for hers with only milk. Some people had no sense of taste.

“So,” Sunset began as she finally took her seat, “what did you want to talk about?”

Apparently not interested in rushing into this, Chrysalis answered with a mere hum and opted to sip from her tea. She pronounced it ‘good’ when she finally set the cup back down. Sunset rolled her eyes, but it was too late in the night for her to care.

“One of my hive” – from how she said that, he or she was obviously one of Chrysalis’s least favored subjects – “watched your performance tonight. If it was your intention to impress me with your magic, well done.”

She appreciated the recognition, truly, but Sunset still scoffed. “I’d be hard-pressed to believe I needed to.” As she understood it, Chrysalis’s hive had spent years keeping tabs on her for Twilight. If they hadn’t already known her by reputation, they’d have learned along the way. “But if you could come to the point? I have a few matters I need to think upon tonight.”

Chrysalis considered Sunset for some time with a mask of stone before finally acceding to the request. “Very well. I largely stay out of the personal lives of Equestria’s royal family, but times are changing. Your relationship with them is…variable.”

A snort escaped Sunset. That’s as good a word as any.

“As one ruler to an aspiring one, you must know Equestria is not an ally one casually slights even for access to the Crystal Heart.”

Sunset took no offense. If things had been different for her personally, she would have supported Equestria outright annexing the empire for its own good. She was honest enough with herself to acknowledge she just wanted a crown. Technically speaking, she had one now, but there was much to be said for spite as a motivational force.

“Let me guess,” Sunset began. “You want to hear how we got to where we are?”

Nodding, Chrysalis admitted, “It’s surprisingly difficult to find accurate information about your past.”

“Yeah, well, unlike Sparkles, I was Sunbutt’s dirty little secret.”

“How so?”

Sunset shook her head. She’d already said more than she wanted to. “It doesn’t matter. We started poorly, we ended poorly, and there were some good bits in between. If she’s even around when the empire returns, that’s all you need to know. She’ll bow to her niece’s wishes, and we both know Sparkles is happy to throw the empire to me.” It would be interesting to see if her opinion on that changed now that they were technically related. She strongly suspected Twilight only wanted to keep her family together and disliked the added complication of a distant throne.

“And what are Princess Cadance’s wishes?” Chrysalis inquired. “In your absence, the throne would fall to her, would it not?”

Such an ironic question made Sunset fall into a fit of laughter. “That’s more true than you know,” she managed as she petered off into the occasional giggle. “The fool adopted me as her sister.” She brushed the tears from her eyes with a fetlock. “Even gave me full rights to inherit before her.”

For a few long moments, Chrysalis weighed the response with an unreadable look upon her face. She soon spoke, but not with any condemnation or approval. No, instead, she made a mere observation. “Your guilt weighs upon my trust.”

Sunset clicked her tongue. Stupid emotivores. She bought herself a bit of time by sipping from her tea. With how busy the night had been, she’d not yet even had the time to process those emotions herself.

Really, what was she supposed to say? That she’d sought out Cadance when they were young because the poor filly had been so vulnerable to emotional exploitation? That Celestia had been right to try to scare her away from Cadance? That Cadance had figured her out and forgiven her because who else even pretended to care about the unwanted pegasus princess? That she’d abandoned Cadance in her anger at Celestia instead of doing the smart thing and cleaving together? That she’d never even sent a postcard for basically no reason? That she’d only come back tonight to leverage their past together in order to ensure she had no credible contesting claim to the Crystal Empire’s throne?

In hindsight, Cadance was too good for this chaotic world.

Sunset heaved a sigh as she set her teacup upon its saucer. “The day before I made my grand exit, Celestia and I went through the argument. The one that finally broke whatever we had left. We tore into each other, assassinating each other’s character for all and sundry to hear.” Not that anypony had cared what she’d had to say.

“In the end,” Sunset continued bitterly, “we were both right.” The admission stung. “She made the effort to change” – and that hurt worse for so many reasons – “while I spent the last few decades going out of my way to prove her wrong. In the process, I only accomplished the opposite. I haven’t exactly treated my little sister well.” A rueful chuckled escaped her. “I truly learned from the best.”

Chrysalis sat in patient silence, probably learning far more from that minor confession than Sunset wanted. Empaths were not something she’d trained herself to beguile, deceive, or manipulate. Why would she have? As far as she’d known until recently, they existed purely in the realm of myth and science fiction.

With no interest in giving any further explanation, Sunset shoved aside her memories and adopted a more stately countenance. “If you have any further concerns about my legitimacy on that front, I suggest you direct them toward Sparkles. I expect she’ll conduct a thorough investigation at the slightest hint of foul play against her sister. Cadey has surprisingly tight lips about this sort of thing, but you could also ask her yourself, if you wish.”

“Hmm…” Chrysalis reached for a teacake and experimentally nibbled on it. When it met her approval, she took a larger bite. Upon finishing, she declared, “Very well,” and then cleared her palate with a sip of tea. “However, if all that’s true, why not return to the castle and make peace?”

The teacup in Sunset’s magic nearly shattered under the strength of her grip. She forced a serene smile onto her face, however useless a facade it was in Chrysalis’s presence to hide her resentment, and fired back with an equally revealing question. “Why wait until the last minute to send someone to find me?”

An argument could be made that Celestia had never closed the investigation into Sunset nor taken her off the list of most wanted fugitives, but Chrysalis was the first person sent to find her who’d actually had a chance of success. Even Twilight had leaned on the changelings to keep track of her, and that had only worked to begin with because she’d been sloppy and let Twilight peg her as Eclipse. Leaving the search to regular law enforcement was a token effort on Celestia’s end at best.

Chrysalis considered the matter for a few moments before nodding and accepting the question as an answer. Whatever meaning she took from it was fine by Sunset. The matter was closed as far as she was concerned.

“I trust any resentment you feel for Twilight will cause no problems?”

Sunset snorted. Who did Chrysalis take her for, Trixie? “No, Sparkles is cool in my book.” She wasn’t about to mess up everything going right in her life by taking out some misplaced aggression on her other new little sister. Twilight was the linchpin holding everything together. There had been no exaggeration or deception when Sunset had named her Equestria’s princessmaker. If anything, it’d been an understatement, but Trixie hadn’t needed to hear that.

“If you say so,” Chrysalis allowed.

It was unlike her, but this was hardly a usual situation. Through the skies of her dreamscape, Twilight flew to forget. She let her mind focus entirely on finding and riding thermals to maintain altitude. It wasn’t a skill she had much practice in, but it felt like something she should know how to do. It was sort of a rite of passage, she supposed, for winged species. Most pegasi, at least, used thermals to provide the lift necessary to soar during their foalhood when their flight muscles were underdeveloped and their burgeoning magic couldn’t withstand heavy loads for long.

Twilight’s momentum abruptly zeroed as somepony’s magic latched onto her tail and refused to let go. She fell out of her zen state with a shriek of surprised pain. Then as gravity took hold, she reflexively teleported to the ground rather than flap her wings to maintain height. Her tail screamed in protest of its abuse until she found the presence of mind to disable pain in her dream, something she should have done ages ago anyway.

An icy voice on the edge of a breakdown cut through the air. “What have you done to me?”

Twilight spun on her hooves to find Luna not two steps away. Her wings were desperately in need of preening, her starry mane hung limp at her side, and her pupils had dilated. The magic within her roiled in wait, ready for a call to action. This was far more akin to the Luna Twilight had expected to meet at the outset of her quest.

“Nothing knowingly,” Twilight said slowly and gently, hoping not to set Luna off. “What happened?”

Luna reached out with a trembling hoof and jabbed Twilight in the chest. As she did, she said, “Thy dream is the only one I can reach or even find! Do not claim this as coincidence.”

And just like that, Twilight was thrust back into the same situation she’d run away from with Celestia. Given the timing and the symptom of Luna’s problem, there could be but one cause: Twilight had taken her to the moon far away from every other dreamer. Admitting so much as an expectation for the situation to resolve itself shortly, however, would be tantamount to admitting who had her crown. Sure, Twilight could pin the blame on Celestia by only revealing half the story, but that would only buy her a little time.

As Twilight patted her coat back into place with a hoof, another option occurred to her. She had the unique qualifications necessary to lie through her teeth and maybe not get called out on it. And even if she got caught or decided to relinquish the piece of Luna she held, she could believably claim ignorance. She’d honestly never once suspected Luna’s crown of being anything more than that until tonight. It was a safe, neutral course of action.

She certainly wouldn’t want to make an actual decision or something crazy like that.

“I think I know what happened. Celestia brought me to the moon so I could poke at your banishment. I must have nudged something I shouldn’t have. Sorry about that. If it doesn’t fix itself soon” – that was if Celestia decided to rest on the moon – “I’ll take care of it when I awaken.” There was little harm in letting Luna dreamwalk these last couple weeks. The damage was already done.

Luna visibly calmed as Twilight spun her tale. If Luna caught the lie – or had even been in a fit state to do so – she didn’t call Twilight out on it. When Twilight finished, she fell heavily onto her rear. She tried not to, of course, but her hindlegs gave out on her first. Exhaustion and relief passed over her face, apparently seeing no point to thin masks any longer.

“Autophobia?” Twilight asked.

“I…do not profess certainty of that word’s meaning.”

It did require one to jump through a mental hoop or two, especially for somepony who grew up speaking the root language. “Fear of isolation.”

“Ah.” Luna took one last long breath before heaving herself back onto all fours. “I greatly enjoy my alone time, but I prefer it to occur upon my own initiative.”

Twilight nodded her understanding. Before she fell asleep, Luna would have been completely cut off from everypony without warning or reason. That couldn’t have been fun.

“Well, shall we head inside?” Twilight suggested. “I think you’ll enjoy hearing how my night went.”

That caught Luna’s attention. She stood just a little bit taller and a bit more energy and life returned to her bearing. “I suppose I could use a stiff drink. Do lead the way, dear Twilight.”

“Hey, Scoots, you still awake?”

Scootaloo turned over in bed beneath the covers to face Apple Bloom’s back. “What’s up?” They were both having a hard time sleeping, it seemed.

“Well, I just got to thinking, is all, and, well, you and Sweetie Belle are going off to Canterlot and all. Then there’s the princesses and Spike there.”

So that was what had been on Apple Bloom’s mind since watching the Great and Powerful Trixie’s performance today. Scootaloo had wondered, but just asking had felt weird. Feelings and junk were Sweetie Belle’s thing. Now that she knew, though, well, it still felt weird. But she had to say something, right?

“Hey, didn’t Applejack move to Manehattan or something when she was your age?”

Morose, Apple Bloom said, “Yeah. She stayed with our cousins and came home when she decided city life wasn’t for her.” From the sound of it, she’d already asked if she could move to Canterlot and had been shot down. “Scoots, you and Sweetie Belle won’t forget me, right?”

“What! Of course not! We’re the Cutie Mark Crusaders. That’ll never change.”

Despite her heavy sigh, Apple Bloom said, “Thanks.”

“You could try to get into one of those fancy agriculture schools.”

Apple Bloom blew out a puff of air. “Have you met my family? Do ya think any of them are gonna let somepony else tell them how to run their farm?”

“Well…no.” It was actually kind of a problem. Scootaloo still remembered the ‘baked bads’ incident years ago. Applejack was the worst of the lot, but as far as she knew, Granny Smith and Big Mac could be just as stubborn and stuck in their ways. The only consolation she could offer wasn’t much. “Sweetie Belle and I will eventually be able to make the trip here and back pretty fast.”

“Yeah, years from now. That’s like forever.”

Scootaloo didn’t know what else to say.

“Guess I’ll just brew potions with Zecora and tinker with circuits in the clubhouse.”

“Maybe if you invent something really awesome, you’ll be able to afford to live in Canterlot on your own.” It wasn’t much of a suggestion, but it was all Scootaloo had.

“Yeah, maybe.” Apple Bloom didn’t sound much like she believed it. “Goodnight, Scoots.”

Lacking any better option, Scootaloo merely wished Apple Bloom goodnight.

Luna erupted into uproarious laughter. The hoof she slammed against the table in concert sent droplets of cider flying everywhere. That earth pony strength of hers might very well have broken real wood, enchanted or no. Worse yet, she managed to send their cards flying every which way across the table. Twilight had finally been about to win a game of Spit thanks to the distraction, but now they’d have to start over. Somehow, between gasps for air, she managed to get out, “Sister lost her crown!”

Personally, Twilight didn’t think it was that funny, but she could appreciate the symbolism from Luna’s perspective.

Once Luna finally managed to gain a semblance of control over herself while Twilight collected their displaced cards, she confessed, “I thought the punchline would be casually reclaiming it, but no! Amazing. Simply amazing. I must make time to meet Sunset Shimmer after my return. I like her already.”

Yeah, so about your crown. Twilight opted not to mention that this was Sunset’s second theft from Celestia as she shuffled the deck. Luna probably didn’t even know what had happened to her own crown anyway. If she did, she probably would have called Twilight out on her lie earlier. “Are you done?”

“For now,” Luna claimed, but a giggle from her put paid to the lie. “What happened next? How did she take the news?”

Twilight shrugged and split the deck, passing one half from her magic to Luna’s. “My brother showed up after everyone else left to report the theft. Celestia figured everything out pretty quickly. Who Eclipse is. Who let her into the castle. What all she got up to. It’s like she has centuries of experience at that sort of thing or something.”

“Or something,” Luna echoed with a roll of her eyes. They both finished setting up their side of the game and, on her count, turned over a card to create a discard pile. Play then proceeded in a flurry of cards and magic. “Good thing you’re her only hope. I can’t imagine she was very happy with you.”

Upon reflection, Twilight actually didn’t know how Celestia felt when all was said and done. She’d need to correct that once she returned to the waking world. Tonight had turned out vastly more complicated than she’d expected going into it. Everything had worked out for the best, more or less, but only through the sheer dumb luck of coincidence, not by any design on her part. She’d meant well, but she probably owed Celestia an apology nonetheless.

Luna shed the last card of her half of the deck. Distracted, Twilight reacted a split second too slowly to steal the victory. Luna teleported the smaller discard pile away to use as her deck for the next round, leaving Twilight with the slightly larger one and all of her remaining cards. It wasn’t exactly the traditional way to end the round, but teleportation offered a more definitive result than slapping a pile.

Grumbling just a little, Twilight scooped up her cards and began shuffling them. It was entirely her own fault she’d lost this round, but Luna was otherwise altogether too good at this game. They dealt out the next round and began.

“You know,” Twilight finally replied, “I really don’t know. There’s too much noise from everything else going on. She didn’t seem that upset after the initial surprise subsided, and it’s not like I would have turned on her if she said she was disappointed in me or something.” That would be absurd, and she doubted Celestia had even invested enough hope in the Elements to consider such things anyway. “She didn’t press for information, either.”

“Perhaps she’s sulking. You, our niece, and Chrysalis all knew Sunset was there and said nothing.”

Twilight focused on finishing the round and managed to snag the smaller discard pile this time. At a rough guess, she’d taken the lead! Only slightly, perhaps, but that wasn’t the point. Thus satisfied, only then did she reply, “Maybe. She hasn’t much been herself lately with you on her mind.”

Luna made an equivocal grunt but otherwise merely shuffled and dealt her cards in silence. They began the next round.

“By the way, I’m fairly certain I can end your banishment early.”

That got Luna’s ears to perk up but, sadly, didn’t distract her much from the game. “Oh?”

Twilight hummed in answer as she rapidly piled card atop card. Since inspecting Discord’s eternal prison, she’d been thinking about the possibility on occasion. She didn’t actually know if she could, but the Elements didn’t seem like the kind of artifacts that made irreversible prisons.

“I would count it as a favor if you did.” They both ran out of moves to make and, briefly meeting one another’s eye, flipped over a new card onto the discard piles to resume play. “But why bother?”

Twilight let an evil smirk play out across her face even though Luna probably wouldn’t see it. “Will you be ready every second of every day for your freedom from now until the solstice?”

A click of the tongue met the question. “Thy mind games shall not win thee the day.” Nonetheless, Luna wore a troubled frown upon her face. It could be a bluff, but she tended to be more straightforward than that in Twilight’s experience. “And rest assured, you may forget that favor.”

It was a fine morning in Canterlot for an early cup of tea to start the day, especially with good company who knew how to make the single finest brew in Equestria. The foals were all still asleep, thankfully, leaving the mares currently responsible for them free to take a quiet moment for themselves.

Rarity was glad the apartment she and Sweetie Belle were to share had a balcony large enough to entertain upon comfortably. The view of the city was simply to die for. She could see much of the city, including the central plaza, before it spiraled down off behind the mountain. Ponies moved to and fro about their business, and she could even see her Canterlot Carousel from here. The little pastel dots moving about its outer walls she assumed were the painters she’d hired to help redecorate at work.

That thought of entertaining important ponies here brought to mind darker subjects. Would it be harmless networking and friendly chatter or would it be intelligence gathering and conspiracies? The idea of helping Twilight rule Equestria from the shadows, she had to admit, excited her. The drama, the wordplay, the intrigue! It was almost enough to make her hope Princess Luna won her little sibling spat with Princess Celestia.

On the other hoof, did she have the qualifications to work as a spy? Certainly not as a field agent, of course, but would she ever have the influence to control high society even just a little bit? It would take wealth, fame, and no small amount of charm. The task daunted as much as it enticed, but it would be a lie to say she didn’t want to try. It would be just like something out of a Shadow Spade novel.

“The air’s not getting to you, is it?”

It took a moment or two for Rarity to realize that had been directed at her. “Ah, forgive me, but my mind was elsewhere. What did you say?”

“I asked if the air was getting to you,” Princess Cadance said. “If you’re not born here or a pegasus, the altitude can be difficult to adapt to.”

“Oh, no. No, not at all. It is a bit brisk for this time of year, but nothing off-putting. I have been wondering something, however. Do you know what’s happening down there?” Rarity pointed toward the castle gates where the Royal Guard had cordoned off a wide area in the city. Security was tight, and they appeared to be investigating something with a passion. She wasn’t sure, but it looked like the EIS might have become involved as well.

“Oh, that.” Princess Cadance sipped long from her tea. “There was an incident last night. I imagine half of Canterlot knows already that Eclipse appeared.”

Rarity’s eyes widened. “The thief?” Getting a nod, she asked, “What did she steal?”

“Auntie’s crown.”

“Oh. Oh my. That’s…”

Princess Cadance suggested, “Audacious? Temerarious? Ludicrous?”

“All fitting choices,” Rarity allowed. She would have went with something a bit more along the lines of ‘completely mad’, but those worked just as well. “Is this why your husband declined to join us last night?”

With a nod, Princess Cadance said, “True to form, she sent out an advance notice. Shining decided to give us our night off, but Eclipse turned out to be more magically gifted than he expected.”

That was more than a little alarming. Captain Armor had earned his position beyond question. It would take a combat capable sorceress to escape him under normal circumstances. Inside the castle, Eclipse should have been easy to catch. That she’d gotten away meant something had gone horribly wrong. “Nopony got hurt, I hope.”

“Mostly just their pride. A few broken bones. Cuts and scrapes. Bruises on most everypony involved. Starlight put herself back in the hospital, but she’ll recover. If you want to hear the whole story, you should ask her, Tempest, or Shining.” After a pause, Princess Cadance amended that last statement. “Well, perhaps not Shining. He’s not in the best mood right now.”

“Understandable.” No matter how skilled the thief, this had to be terribly humiliating. “How is Princess Celestia?”

Princess Cadance shrugged. “The sun is up and the courtiers aren’t screaming about the end of the world, so I assume she’s going about business as usual.”

Despite the oddly familiar soft, fluffy sensation surrounding her, Twilight groaned as she awoke. She would never be a morning pony without magical assistance, and sometimes not even then. In the absence of any pressing matter requiring her to get up and get moving, she turned over and snuggled closer into her blankets. The world could wait for her to doze off and on for another hour or so.

When Twilight at last deigned to open her eyes, she found herself in her own bed in her tower. Celestia must have brought her home sometime after Luna showed up in her dreams. Considering that they weren’t sharing a bed, it’d probably been at sunrise with Celestia only managing to catch a hour or two of sleep, if even that.

The chime of a clock caught Twilight’s attention. It was nearly noon. With how late these movie nights usually ran, Celestia tended to keep her following morning’s work light and flexible. She would have some free time for a private lunch between just the two of them.

Thus Twilight summoned a scrap of paper and, lacking any ink or lead source within casual sight, magicked a simple, ‘Lunch?’ onto it. The flame sending spell quickly formed under her direction, the destination set to Celestia, but she held its ultimate execution on the tip of her horn.

What exactly was she going to tell Celestia about, well, a lot of things? She’d gone behind Celestia’s back with Sunset, to say the least, and her other secrets must have attracted Celestia’s attention after last night, not just her curiosity. There was a limit to how unsupervised she could leave her archmage. Sure, Twilight had claimed to have a secret contingency plan for Luna’s victory, but she couldn’t hoofwave everything away under the guise of a clandestine operation.

Then again, Celestia had dumped enough titles and positions onto her to make Twilight one tiny step short of a political equal. It made sense in hindsight with Nightmare Moon in the picture for Celestia to push her to act independently and largely unchecked. It set a long precedent that would be hard for Nightmare Moon to unravel in the day-to-day functioning of Equestria due to simple bureaucratic inertia. Luna was another beast entirely, of course, but perhaps Celestia saw no need to change what worked.

Or maybe that was mere wishful thinking. Maybe Celestia had grown too depressed to care. Maybe she knew everything and had decided to give her tacit approval. Maybe she was just waiting for a confession.

It wouldn’t be the first time Celestia had opted for option three. Twilight shrank into herself as she recalled the last time that’d happened. She really hated the ‘I’m not mad, just disappointed’ routine.

Regardless, if Twilight told Celestia she had Luna’s crown, she’d have to explain why she hadn’t at least notified Celestia she’d acquired it. If she tried, she’d have to lean on her desire to protect Sunset. But if she did that, she’d have to explain why she’d dodged the question last night when it no longer mattered. Celestia wouldn’t even need her to say a word to conclude that she wanted to study alicorns, which would in turn expose her ascension plans. If Celestia didn’t just warn her off of a futile quest too many ponies had wasted their lives chasing as Luna had and pressed further, the how would follow.

Twilight…didn’t want that information to exist outside of her control. True agelessness was one thing, a possible byproduct of her research, but only one pony could become an immortal alicorn with all the powers therein for the next who knew how many centuries. The amount of magic required to fuel the process would drain Equus dry of its ambient magic. Even Celestia and Luna working together would fall short! She didn’t want to die waiting. She didn’t want to stack the odds against herself anymore than they already were. What if Celestia changed her mind about trusting Twilight with the power of an alicorn before she finished her work? What if they fell out with each other as Celestia had with Sunset and Luna? What if Celestia found somepony else she’d prefer to ascend? Hadn’t Twilight done enough for the world to be a little selfish? Hadn’t she saved enough lives to save her own forever?

Biting her lip, Twilight sent off her message to Celestia in a burst of fire. She would just have to lie. There was nothing else for it. Whether or not she gave the crown back to Luna, whether or not Luna even knew her crown had escaped banishment, whether or not she would want it back badly enough to go looking for it personally, Twilight would have to point her hoof at Sunset for now. With any luck, Celestia wouldn’t pass that lie on to Luna or have the chance to ask Sunset for it herself.

So many lies. So many betrayals. So many places for this to go wrong. Twilight was under no illusion that she’d be able to maintain the ruse until she managed to crack ascension. She might not even be able to keep it going for the short nine days before Luna’s return. The crown couldn’t stay with her for any longer than absolutely necessary. She’d need to make its study a priority if she wanted to avoid relying upon Sunset’s dubious goodwill.

Twilight breathed deeply, in and out, as Cadance had taught her. She was calm. She could do this.

This was going to be a disaster. She’d never been any good at lying to Celestia. The only way this would work was if Celestia trusted her and didn’t ask questions as she callously abused that trust. She should just trust Celestia, be brave, and tell the truth. She had no reason to doubt Celestia but her own paranoia.

But tiny probability densities integrated to high probabilities over centuries! Celestia and Luna had fought, and they’d loved each other dearly. It’d been over a misunderstanding, sure, but what stopped the same thing from happening between Twilight and Celestia? Nothing whatsoever!

Twilight, startled from her thoughts, shrieked. A flash of fire brought the scrap paper she’d sent off back with an answering message. Scribbled into the margins in Celestia’s elegant script, it read, ‘Sure. Free now?’

After replying that she was, Twilight quickly made herself look a little less like she’d just rolled out of bed. She had, of course, but nopony needed to know that. Once finished, she made to teleport down to the private dining room, but she couldn’t. Not yet. It was too soon. She needed more time to prepare herself for…whatever she was going to do. As such, she decided to take the long way to lunch and descended the stairs of her tower like some two-bit hedge mage.

I should just tell Celestia everything. She’s not going to turn on me. It’d be the brave thing to do. I’m trying to work on that, you know.

Oh, but every little information leak is another opportunity for something to go wrong. This is the worst thing to get scooped on, especially if it stemmed from a slip of the tongue.

Celestia could help, though. Imagine if I had her willing assistance! The research would move so much faster.

Yeah, because she’s going to break over a thousand years of silence on alicorns for you.

She already has!

Uh-huh. A tiny piece of nothing when she strongly suspects Sunset knows far more.

That stung with unexpected force. It was true. The information was already out there. Whatever great secret Celestia protected was no longer wholly her own. It might be hard to talk about for her, but she could have been more forthright about–

Twilight paused, bemused, and sniffed the air near the end of her descent. Is that…chocolate? A stronger inhale confirmed it. She proceeded with trepidation, half expecting to find Celestia at the base of the stairs with cake fresh out of the oven, but her worry proved unfounded. It seemed the source of the smell had eluded her.

How odd. Now where was I? After a brief moment, it came to Twilight. Oh, yes. Panic, indecision, and wildly swinging emotions.

It was entirely too soon later when Twilight walked past the guards through the door into the private dining room. Celestia was already there and greeted Twilight with a brief nuzzle and an accurate good morning. She casually brushed her magic over Twilight’s mane, gently tucking away a few hairs that must have sprung up during the trip down from the tower. Humming some short, nameless tune, she worked with a practiced ease developed from years and years of such doting.

Twilight absorbed the affection without a fuss as her conscience gnawed at her heart. She was allowed to have her secrets, sure, but why was she so afraid to show Celestia the same trust she received? She could do this. It wasn’t right to keep Celestia from her sister, even if it was just a shiny, rigid, inanimate part of Luna.

“My dear Twilight,” Celestia said. One of her hooves rose to cup Twilight’s cheek. “Do you remember your first public address as the archmage? How much tension you carried in your shoulders? How stiff your legs were?”

A nervous chuckle escaped Twilight, yet she felt almost relieved to have been caught. “Is it that obvious?”

“As plain as day.”

Twilight felt her cheeks warm. Her eyes fell as she shifted a step back out of Celestia’s reach. She might as well have been caught stealing cookies from the kitchens again. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad.” Celestia paused a moment, letting the ominous weight of her next words grow. “Or disappointed.”

Surprised, Twilight risked a glance up only to behold a mischievous smirk. Celestia was teasing her!

The mare in question dared to giggle. She booped Twilight on the nose and said, “Gotcha!” before moving to take her seat. She mentioned that lunch would arrive soon on her way to do so. Then as she sat, she nodded toward the chair across from her, and Twilight, more annoyed now than nervous, which had probably been the whole point, took the hint.

“In all seriousness, Twilight,” Celestia began once they were both seated, “while I do urge you to proceed with the utmost caution, if you consider it wise to build a friendship with Sunset, I will not stand in your way.”

“Oh. Um…” That wasn’t exactly what Twilight had been fretting over. “But… Well…why?” Eloquent.

Celestia’s smile pressed into a thin frown. “Once upon a time, she had the potential to become Equestria’s brightest star. If you could…”

“Leash her?” Twilight offered.

Despite the accuracy of the suggestion, Celestia went with, “–smooth her rough edges, she would prove invaluable to you. Just…be careful how much trust you invest into her.”

“I know. I promise.” That said, Twilight doubted it would be much of a risk. Cadance wouldn’t be happy if Sunset made too much trouble in the family. That wasn’t her news to share, however. She would leave that to the mare responsible.

Celestia heaved a soft sigh, and her smile returned with an air of silent gratitude. “Beyond that,” she continued, “it warms my heart to see you reaching out and making friends. Perhaps not the ones I expected–”

Between the seamstress, the enemy princess, Equestria’s most wanted mare, and, she supposed, the pink anomaly, Twilight thought that something of an understatement. At least her student seemed a fit match.

“–but friends nonetheless.”

After a few moments to choose the right words, Twilight said, “Yes, it’s…nice. I don’t regret how I got here, but maybe if I’d given Moon Dancer more of my time…” She shrugged. Who knew if library buddies would have developed into something more? “Or if Luna had somehow pushed through my youthful adoration of you.”

Celestia adopted a look of feigned hurt. “Do you not still adore me?”

In turn, Twilight didn’t bother to dignify that with a response. She really wished she could go back in time and tell her younger self to relax. Maybe she could get through to Sweetie Belle with a few embarrassing stories of her own past with Celestia. Rarity had instilled far too many courtly mannerisms in that filly.

“Speaking of whom,” Celestia said, “do try to retrieve Luna’s crown from Sunset.”

Twilight’s thoughts ground to a halt.

“She’s likely to be far less magnanimous than me about her loss.”

“Ah. Yes. Of course. I” – already have it – “don’t think she knows she left it behind.” Coward. Twilight’s voice grew small. “Just something she said.”

Celestia made a concerned hum but ultimately didn’t press when Twilight didn’t volunteer any more information. “Well, in any case, if the opportunity arises, please do steal it from her. I am not so forgiving as to be above petty revenge.”

Twilight’s lips parted as she tried to force out the truth. The words were there, but they stuck to her throat and sent tremors through her limbs. “I…” She fought not to swallow. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.” She couldn’t do it. “Not so soon, at least.” When was the last time she’d taken a real risk? Even dreamwalking with Luna hadn’t worried her that much. “But I’ll keep it in mind.”