Celestia and Discord were flying.
It wasn't like it had been at home, with sun, and wind, and the flight sphere was much more crowded than anything except perhaps the skies over a cloud city. But it was still flying. Discord was disguised as a pegasus; Celestia was using her real wings, but had cast a disguise spell on them to make them look like they were artificial, so she could pass for a unicorn.
The air of the flight sphere was filled with ponies. Most were pegasi, but there were more than a few unicorns using magic-powered artificial wings, and more than a few base ponies using the hoof-powered ones, their forelegs pumping away in the stirrups and the wings flapping in response. Celestia was laughing as Discord did or said something ridiculous. She didn't remember what. It wasn't important what.
For a few moments, her cares had fallen away. She wasn't a refugee on a desperate quest for a home. She wasn't a princess-in-exile. She wasn't an orphan whose only relative was a sister, lightyears away. She was just Celestia, flying with her friend Discord, having fun.
For just a few moments.
The pegasi in the ship security uniform brought him down with some kind of shock weapon, and he reverted to his true form and fell, twitching and writhing. Celestia dove to catch him, but ship security blocked her, kept her in the air, unable to land. Below, she saw unicorn security cast some sort of spell on Discord, and he went still.
"What are you doing?" she'd screamed. "Why are you attacking my friend?"
"He's the source of the chaos magic the engineers detected," one of the pegasus guards said. "It screws with the navigation computers." Below her, she saw the unicorns dragging Discord off.
"Where are they taking him?"
"Detention. The captain's going to have to decide what happens next." With Discord gone, they dispersed, no longer blocking her. They didn't apologize. They didn't explain any further than they had. They just left.
Celestia landed. She was a princess. In exile, yes, of a world that didn't exist anymore, yes, and technically she was still a child, although alicorns were so much larger than regular ponies that nopony on the ship had ever figured that out. But she'd been trained in peaceful negotiations. Surely she could talk to the captain. This must all be a misunderstanding. Discord knew how dangerous chaos magic was in space; all he'd been using was his disguise spell.
Celestia would talk to the captain and straighten everything out and it would all be okay.
It had never been okay again.
She sat on her bed, dull pink mane lank around her head, tears rolling down her cheeks. She made no attempt to wipe the tears away. Her chest heaved with sobs, but she kept them silent.
She didn't deserve to have her pain heard. She didn't deserve anything.
Discord wasn't there with her. He usually got up before she did, because he hardly ever slept. But most mornings he was there. He wasn't there now.
Memories played behind her eyes, over and over, and she wanted to curl into a ball so tight that it imploded and took her out of existence.
Discord was humming as he pushed the door open, carrying plates of waffles in a telekinetic field that he'd calibrated very carefully to look just like a unicorn's field. "Oh, Celestia! Rise and shine! I've brought – oh no."
She looked up at him from the mattress, purple eyes impossibly hollow, the coat on her face streaked with tears. "Make it stop," she pleaded with him. "Discord, please. Make it stop."
The waffles went to the table as Discord himself shifted to his true form and plopped down on the bed next to Celestia, pulling her more or less onto his lap where he could both hold her tightly and stroke her mane. She was shaking with the sobs she wouldn't vocalize. "It's all right, Celestia. It's going to be all right."
"It's not all right. It'll never be all right." Her head bowed low. "I want to die. I want to not exist. Discord, make it stop. Please. Take it away."
He had so hoped this wouldn't happen. He'd wanted to come back with breakfast before she had a chance to wake up, and then he'd get her up and feed her while she was still groggy and tell funny jokes and pull a silly prank or two or maybe a sleight-of-hand trick, and then she'd be awake and laughing and maybe she wouldn't need it. Maybe today she could be normal.
"I will," he said gently. "But I want you to focus on the positive."
"What positive?" Her voice was dull. "Our planet is dead. Our parents are dead. Our people are dead. We don't have a home. We don't—"
He craned his head around to look into her eyes, and took her head by the chin. "Stop it," he growled. "We're going to have a home. A beautiful home, that we're on our way to right now. Don't you trust Luna?"
Those were the magic words. "I – I do, but—"
"No buts. We're going home. We'll be there in less than a year, probably." If there were no setbacks. If they didn't have to change ships again. "Would you like me to read you her letter?"
"I – yes..." The last was mumbled.
He'd been in space so long he wasn't even tempted to snap. He rummaged through the drawer of the small nightstand in their cabin, and pulled out the well-worn piece of paper.
"To my dearest, most beloved royal sister, Princess Celestia of the Sun, and to Discord, who is obviously chopped liver," he read.
Celestia smiled at that. A tiny, wan smile, but it was a smile. "She didn't say that."
"Probably not, but now I've forgotten what it said, so how will we ever know?" The salutation had actually used Discord's title, and Celestia had blacked that out with an ink blot after they'd left the last ship. They couldn't take the risk of ship security searching their room, reading the letter, and seeing "Lord of Chaos". It wasn't Discord's real title anyway, it was the joke title the princesses had bestowed upon him on the logic that they were princesses and therefore could bestow titles. Draconequui didn't use titles.
Hadn't. Hadn't used titles.
Discord took that thought and did with it what he'd always done with any similar thought, and flung it in a trash heap hidden at the bottom of a bottomless pit in his mind. "I have found us a new world to make our home! 'Tis a lush and verdant world, teeming with life. There are many intelligent races here, including ponies! No alicorns, 'tis true, but there are unicorns and pegasi and base ponies. And oh, such wondrous things upon this world! I should like to explore the crystalline mountain ranges with you both, when you arrive..."
He continued to read, occasionally interjecting a joke but mostly concentrating on spinning the words into an image in Celestia's mind. So much easier to do with his magic, but he'd have to make do. Occasionally he glanced up from the letter – which he wasn't actually reading so much as reciting from memory, he'd read it so many times – to check the emplacement of the harmony crystals all around the edges of the cabin, where the floor met the wall and then again up where the wall met the ceiling. Nothing had dislodged any of them. Good. Any chaos he used within the room would be contained, invisible to the ship's sensors. He hoped. It had always worked before, anyway.
When he finished the letter and set it down, she was no longer crying, at least. He looked into her eyes. "Tell me, Celestia, do you still want me to do this?"
She nodded. "I can feel... moments of brightness, but then... but then it comes back, and..."
"Shh," he said before she could start crying again. He could see the reflection of his own eyes in hers... could see them spinning with rings of color. A moment later, Celestia's eyes began to spin as well. "Don't feel any remorse. No guilt. No sadness. We're alive, and we're heading to the world Luna found for us, our new home, and it will be beautiful, and we'll be free. We can use as much of our magic as we like." She was nodding slightly, deep under his spell. "Nothing matters but you, me and Luna. The past can't hurt you, and you can do anything you need to do to keep us alive. Do you understand?"
"Nothing matters," Celestia repeated, "but you and me and Luna. I can do anything. I don't feel anything."
He wished that wasn't so. He didn't want her to feel nothing. He wanted her to feel happy, but disharmony magic couldn't do that. He wished she could be like him and take everything she might feel guilty over or sad about and throw it away in a place in her head where she never had to see it again. Why did he have to be the strong one? It had never been like that at home. Celestia had been a rock. No, a star. A shining star that could warm you and light your path, or blaze hot and burn everything, but someone you could depend on no matter what. He'd been the irresponsible one, the flighty one, the silly one.
You know why you have to be strong. It's your fault.
Like every other such similar thought, Discord threw that one away too.
"Then wake up," he said, and she did, blinking, the colors in her eyes fading. All of the colors. What had been purple eyes were brown now, purple dimmed and grayed.
Strands of pink mane and tail were gray. Her coat, no longer shining white, was gray. Even her cutie mark, the golden sun, had faded, graying to a much duller shade of yellow.
"How do you feel?" Discord asked her.
"I don't," she said, and smiled slightly. It was a smile of cool and mild amusement, not the broad happy smile he'd never seen on her since—
"That's better?" It was a question. He'd never understood it. How could she want this? How could she want to not be able to feel anything? At least when he threw the bad thoughts in the trash heap in his head, it left him able to be happy. Well, to be amused or excited or entertained, which was the closest he was going to get as long as they were trapped in space and he couldn't use his magic and Celestia was –
"It is better," she said. "Thank you, Discord." She rose to her hooves, telekinesis already working on her appearance. Tie up the lank, filthy once-pink gray mane and replace it with a fluffy, long, flowing wig in a variety of bright pastel colors. Tie up her tail into a twist and cover it with a tailwig to match the one on her head. Brush out the coat of her face and wash it to hide the tears, with a little bit of pink powder mixed in to give the illusion that her face was a normal pony shade of gray and not a magically drained shade.
"I brought us some breakfast."
"Thank you, but no." Her smile was porcelain and empty. "You know I never have much appetite after you do that for me."
"Yes, but you've got to eat. Celestia, you're getting much too thin." When she was in the throes of anguish, she didn't want to eat – even if she felt pangs of hunger, she wanted to punish herself or something. When he took her feelings away, she couldn't feel hunger. The moments when she was normal, when she was the real Celestia but not yet broken by the grief and guilt again, were far too rare.
"Hmm. I suppose you're right, but it all seems tasteless."
"I got hot sauce..."
"Oh, all right. I can try."
Gray Celestia was nothing if not pragmatic. Her emotions weren't truly and completely gone; she could still feel a sense of self-preservation, and the desire to protect him. He made sure of that, every time.
"They have in a new shipment of books and entertainment vids from one of the mini couriers," he tried. "We could go to the main theater and watch whatever they've got playing, or we could download something to watch it here..."
"Pointless," Celestia said coolly.
"Not necessarily! Remember last month when we watched that horror movie? You felt something then."
"I'd never seen anything so funny," Celestia said, smiling slightly as she remembered. "But no. That drew attention to us." The movie had been gory and horrifying and if Discord had had any idea how much blood there would be in it he'd never have taken her to see it. He wasn't squeamish – he'd seen too much real blood spilled to be horrified by the sight of it – but parts of that movie had sickened even him. Those had been the parts where Gray Celestia had laughed the loudest, and ponies in the theater had stared. "Besides, on the rare occasions when I'm myself, I have enough guilt to endure without having to remember finding the dismemberment of a living, conscious pregnant mare funny."
"Why was it funny?" The moment the words were out of his mouth, Discord wasn't sure he wanted an answer.
"Because it was trying so hard. It was so over-the-top. A chainsaw? Really? What planet do they even use them on? And the writers must have been thinking to themselves, 'Aha, we'll maximize the feelings of horror by making this victim a pregnant mare! And we'll be sure to include graphic, gory images of the foal after it's pulled out of her, and she should be dead of blood loss by then or at least unconscious from shock, but no, of course she's conscious enough to beg for her baby's life. And then we'll have the villain rev up the chainsaw again!' It's all so calculated. So artificial." She shrugged. "The whole movie was like that. You and I have seen real horror. That movie was just a festival of gore."
It was true, and when he'd seen similar movies Discord had even agreed with her, but that one... maybe it was because he'd seen so much actual blood that that one had bothered him.
"In any case. I would like to go out. This room is dull and I can't think of anything in it I could possibly want to do," Celestia said.
"Sure! You want to go to the promontory? The gardens? Maybe the arcade?"
She fluffed her wings. "I was actually thinking of going flying." She smirked.
Discord's mood sank. Celestia knew why he didn't dare go flying. "So what, I come in here, fix your head for you and then you abandon me? You know I can't fly."
"I don't see why I should have to deny myself one of the only things I can imagine enjoying simply because you can't accompany me." She wasn't even looking at him, as if he was that insignificant. She was looking in a hand mirror at her flank as she used yellow makeup to touch up her cutie mark and brighten it.
She wasn't really like this. He'd done this to her. He had to remember that. He enjoyed watching Gray Celestia eviscerate waiters, and cleaning staff, and other ponies who got nosy, but he didn't like it when she turned it on him. "I don't see why you need to be such a cat to your only friend."
"Possibly because all of this is your fault."
"Oh, are we going to go there? Maybe if somepony had learned a little self-control back home—"
"Maybe if someone had managed to not use chaos magic in public—"
"And now we're back to the flying thing, because you know I can't—"
"Did it ever occur to you that all of this is your fault?" Celestia said. "That if you hadn't obeyed orders for the first and only time in your life, maybe we could have stopped THEM? Maybe we could have saved the world?"
Discord took a deep breath. Yes, that thought occurred to him. Often. Then he threw it in the trash heap. "Celestia. One alicorn and one draconequus, both of whom happen to be children, were not going to succeed where an army of alicorns and draconequui failed. They told me to protect you, so I did."
In the chaos of the bombardment and the constant attacks, the first chaos he'd found that he didn't like, he'd wanted to fight. He'd been a child. He was technically still a child but back then he'd been a naïve child. He'd begged his uncle to let him go out and fight alongside his parents. He hadn't known then that his parents were already dead. His uncle had told him, no, the priority was to get Celestia to the escape ship. She was the crown princess. THEY would surely kill her, or worse. (He thought of ponies turned to crystal and the crystal was marching, their magic making them glow from within, as they dispassionately turned their horns against their home city. Then he threw it out.) She'd wanted to stay and fight, too, so he'd told her about Luna's letter and gotten her into the escape ship. She'd fought him, demanding the right to fight by her own parents' side. As if he hadn't wanted that too. As if it wouldn't have been equally stupid for her.
He'd gotten her to stop crying and using her magic to try to escape him by reminding her that Luna needed her. Luna, whose letter he held. Luna, who'd found them a world to escape to. They didn't have to stay on the overcrowded, unsafe refugee ships where their people (her people. Ponies. Alicorns. Not his. Draconequui weren't allowed in space) huddled. They could pay with gems, charter a courier off the refugee rafts, and get aboard one of the great starliners, headed toward the world Luna's letter promised them.
Later, when it sank in how dangerous it was for him out here, she'd decided she was his protector and not the other way around.
And now here it was, reversed again, and he was taking care of her.
He didn't want this. He was an irresponsible joker who mostly cared only for magic and his art, the constant remixing of the world that was his chaos. He wasn't a caretaker. He wasn't careful. He wasn't one to disguise himself as a pony when he walked through the world, nor one to restrain his magic.
(But he'd tried. He'd tried so hard, because of the fate he'd suffer if he didn't, and it hadn't mattered and it had come for him anyway.)
Once they reached the planet, he told himself. Once they got there he'd be safe to use his magic as much as he liked, and he'd never stop. He'd never let anything restrain him again. Once they were on the planet.
But here they were in space, and Celestia was taunting him with the freedom he couldn't have.
"You know what? Fine. Be that way. Go flying, see if I care. When we get to Luna's world, I'll fly as much as I want, and I'll use magic every day, all the time, and no one will stop me. I can be patient and wait until then. You go do what you want."
"All right," she said. She pushed back from the table, tossed her head to make sure the wig was on securely, and left.
Discord stared morosely at the plate of waffles with hot sauce he'd given her. She'd taken only two bites.
Celestia didn't feel guilty for her cruelty to Discord. She knew that she probably should feel guilty, but that didn't make her feel guilty either. After he used his magic on her, nothing made her feel guilty. However, she was pragmatic – she needed him. And she needed him to be willing to listen to her, for his own sake. What had happened all those months ago had made him much more responsible and careful than he'd ever been since she'd met him, when they were both very, very little, but she knew Discord. Sooner or later he'd slip up, and the consequences would be terrible, if she allowed it. So she'd have to do something to make this up to him. Go back and apologize after she'd gone flying. Perhaps bring him a present. His unicorn form was painfully dull-looking, because he didn't want to draw attention, but she knew how much it hurt him to look so dull. Perhaps a nice, strikingly colored hat as a gift. Or a shawl in horrible clashing colors. He'd love that.
It hadn't been the best idea ever to upset him and make him feel as if she were abandoning him, but right now, the only thing she could imagine actually enjoying was flight.
She'd hate this if she could care enough to hate anything. Everything felt empty, hollow. She still had a very powerful desire to protect Discord and herself and to find Luna and reach their new home... but it was more of an intellectual desire than a visceral one. An ambition, a drive to achieve, not a passion in her heart. And there was nothing else. It was so, so much better than kneeling on her bed wanting to die and feeling as if she didn't deserve anything that might make her happy, even for a moment... but that didn't mean it was good, just that it was the least awful alternative.
Food had no flavor. Beauty had no meaning. Material objects had no value. But there was still flight.
Every pony spaceliner had a flight sphere, because the corridors were too low and narrow for pegasi to fly. They needed to have a place to exercise their wings. The gravity was at its lowest in the flight sphere, making it easy for unicorns and earth ponies to use artificial wings to fly. Also, the construction of the starliners made it easy to have a flight sphere, and made that sphere a convenient place for ponies to go when they wanted to travel to other sectors of the starliner.
The starliner was huge and roughly spherical, made up of concentric interior spheres connected by large platform elevators. The harmonic engines on the hull, at the east, west, port and starboard poles, created a magically generated gravitational field, strongest at the equator on the hull, powered by the twin fusion reactors at the north and south poles. This divided the ship into eight octants, and the spheres within, each separated by about 20 heads, further divided the ship into sectors. Because the gravity was generated at the hull, "down" was hullward and "up" was centerward. Base pony crew lived and worked on the eight octants of the bottom sphere, under nearly 2gs of Pony Standard Gravitation, where their great physical strength let them stand up against the heavy gravity and it in turn further enhanced their strength. A lot of unicorn and pegasus crew had to work down there, of course, but they lived in higher sectors where the gravity wasn't so extreme. Poor ponies lived on the lower spheres where the gravity was high; wealthy ponies and middle-class ponies mostly lived in the middle around 1g; elderly ponies tended to live on the uppermost spheres, at .3 or .2g, where the gravity was so low that ponies who spent too much time there wouldn't have the strength to withstand planetary gravity ever again, but for ponies who already had damaged joints or heart conditions, the low gravity could prolong their lives. The center sphere was the flight sphere, thousands of heads in diameter, where the pull from the hull was at its absolute weakest, and the closer you flew to the center of the flight dome, the weaker the gravity got. At the very center, a pony could float, though of course the air currents created by so many ponies flying would make a pony in the center drift toward an area with gravity, and then they would start to fall, slowly at first in very weak gravity, but faster as they came closer to the edge of the sphere and deeper into the ship's artificial gravity. Even on the floor of the flight sphere, though, the gravity was at most a sixth of PSG, so a pony whose wings failed and who fell all the way from center would likely survive it with few injuries.
(It hadn't been the fall that had hurt Discord, it had been the shock attacks they kept zapping him with until he stopped moving, and Celestia had beaten her wings frantically to try to push past the pegasi blocking her, to no avail...)
Once she was in the flight sphere, Celestia dutifully rented artificial wings. Then in the bathroom, in a private stall, she cast an illusion spell to make her own wings look like the artificial ones. She trotted out of the bathroom with her fake wings stashed in a locker, looking like a bag of clothing, and her real wings disguised. And then she leapt into the air.
She had to play unicorn on the ship. Alicorns were just as accustomed to using their horns as unicorns; if she tried to impersonate a pegasus and do everything with her hooves and wings, she'd be too clumsy. (For a moment she thought of Discord, who'd been accustomed to having hands and magic both, who had to hide his hands under a shapeshifter spell into unicorn form, and had to restrain his magic so tightly and keep it so focused to make it look like unicorn magic, and it gave him migraines all the time. Then she put him out of her head again in the joy of flight.)
It had been so long since she'd exercised her wings. The weak gravitational pull of the flight sphere wasn't as thrilling as pulling against a planet's gravity, but it was better than nothing. She soared, and dove, and swooped, and didn't think once about Discord, left behind in her room. When she pulled her wings back and let herself plummet, spreading them at the last second to save herself from impact, the adrenaline made her feel alive. Almost nothing else did, when she was like this.
By the time she was done flying, she'd worked up enough of an appetite from exertion to actually be interested in eating. Food might be tasteless, but it would end the growling in her belly.
The sphere immediately below the flight sphere was much like an airline or spaceplane concourse on their homeworld had been; fast-moving conveyor belts served as ponymovers, tall and wide hallways supported enormous amounts of pony traffic, flying or trotting or in self-moving carts, and there were shops and eating establishments and lounges along the walls everywhere. It was usually a lot faster to use this sphere to get to a different octant than it would be to walk through your home sector, even if the sector you were going to was on the same sphere; ponies would take elevators up to this, the travel sphere, and walk, fly or ride a relatively short distance to a different octant, then take an elevator down to the sector they wanted to go to. Celestia had no trouble finding a place to eat.
Breakfast was soup and cheap meal rations, the kind Discord would never eat or bring back to their room for her because of how boring they were, but right now a fancy gourmet meal would be equally as boring, so why spend money? They didn't have a whole lot of money. When they'd left home (bombs whistling through the air and the sound of explosions everywhere, ponies turned to crystals and advancing with weapons at the ready, crystal fletchettes flying everywhere and if her shield faltered for a second, she would be joining them) they'd brought plenty of currency, but they'd lost it when they'd left the first ship (behind them a blossom of light and fire). Discord had done something for currency. Celestia didn't know what, because he wouldn't tell her, but she was fairly certain it was illegal and probably had involved unsafe levels of chaos magic. It was important to her to keep him from ever feeling like he needed to do that again.
He needed to leave that to her.
In general, most ponies stayed in the sector near their own cabins, or traveled rarely; the ponies up here, using the travel sphere to get to other octants, were a rare few among the hundreds of thousands of ponies on the starliner. Celestia used the ponymovers to bring her to an octant on the opposite side of the liner from her cabin, and then took the elevator down to a sector where she'd been, many times, when she was like this, and headed for a neighborhood she knew well. She'd set things up a while ago. A friendly chat with a stallion who always looked at her much too closely. A casual remark in which she revealed her age to be much younger than her size implied, and noting the dilating of pupils, suggesting greater interest after the revelation rather than lesser. Batted eyelashes. It was all entirely meaningless. Celestia felt nothing at all as she flirted, every move she made calculated. Now the stallion in question was eager to buy her nice things, pretty things, things that had value that she could trade in her own sector. She demanded tribute that was unique, brought in by the merchants' couriers, not the common fare that was found in so many kiosks and shops all over the starliner. The stallion was wealthy. He treated her like the princess she was in truth, buying her expensive jewelry and unusual, expensive accessories, such as dragon-leather saddlebags (she didn't ask about the dead dragon who'd supplied the leather, because she didn't care) or stunning cashmere scarves from alpaca weavers. Because ponies never recognized how young she really was, none of them would look at the older, wealthy stallion showering a young mare with expensive gifts in obvious hopes of a romantic return in kind and recoil in horror when they realized it was a child he was wooing. And in exchange, she went to his private cabin with him and gave him what he craved.
When she was herself, sometimes the memories of doing this sort of thing were exactly what triggered the spiral into self-hatred and despair. But not often. This was just distasteful. Some of the things Celestia had done... well. One of the things Celestia had done. Anything she could do paled in comparison to that.
She never let the stallion do anything to her that would compromise the appearance of her virginity. Someday she might need that to trade with, if it was her own or Discord's lives on the line. Or she might give it to Discord, and she didn't want him ever suspecting what she was doing to keep their funds supplied. He wasn't good at math and he wasn't good at frugality; he tried, but he'd always prioritize trying to make her happy over trying to stay in budget. Or himself happy. She didn't begrudge him; he deserved to have nice things to bring his spirits up. He had to take care of her; Celestia knew well that she was in no position to support his emotional needs. Not now, when she felt nothing, and not when the depression caused her to fall inside herself and implode. And Discord was under a great deal of stress, especially for someone who had no emotional support. He was denied his magic, including what he'd normally use to fly, had to impersonate a pony constantly in public, and if anyone found out what he was, they'd kill him.
Well. They'd try, anyway.
With that transaction out of the way, she went back, via elevators and the travel sphere and then elevators again, down very low. Her alicorn strength bolstered her against the weight. The thought occurred to her that perhaps she should be going to a gym down here on a regular basis; she might get some visceral pleasure out of bucking a heavy hanging bag in nearly 2g until it felt as if her legs were falling off. In this area, there were pawn shops, consignment shops, and other places that would take her new gifts off her hooves in exchange for bits. They were ripping her off, she knew, but there wasn't much she could do about it – selling companionship and pleasure for money was against the starliner's policies, but giving gifts to your fillyfriend most certainly was not. The stallion couldn't give her the money directly, and probably wouldn't if he could – a lot of what he enjoyed was the illusion that she was an innocent, ignorant little filly who was doing this because she enjoyed it and she liked him. Taking money directly would most certainly ruin that illusion.
In yet a third sector, she went to her bank to deposit the bits. The bank had branches all throughout the starliner, but by depositing at one far from her home sector, Celestia minimized the chances that Discord, who was on the same account and therefore went to the same bank, would hear from somepony at the local branch about all the bits Celestia had been depositing. If he ever bothered to check the accounts for anything other than the current balance, or if he ever bothered to compare the current balance to the last balance he'd seen, he'd notice that there was money coming in that he wouldn't be able to account for... but Discord never did those things. Responsibility with money began and ended, for him, with making sure there was enough in the account to cover what he wanted to spend.
She was browsing the shops in this sector, looking for something garish and bright to buy for Discord, when two ship security officers found her. "Ma'am? A moment of your time, please?"
Celestia turned and smiled at them brilliantly, without fear, because she couldn't feel fear unless something was happening right at that moment. She possessed cold knowledge of what these guards might do, and an even colder awareness of what she'd have to do if they tried. "Of course, officers. What can I help you with?"
One of them brought out a triad of crystals balanced on the ends of an upside-down golden tripod, and using a hoof, began to run it over her body. The other one said, "We had a report that you may have an excess of chaos contamination, so we need to check. It's just a formality."
"Goodness!" Celestia said. They were both unicorns. If it came to it, the most efficient way would be two laser-thin beams to the base of each horn, very, very quickly. "What does that mean, chaos contamination? I'm certain I haven't been near anything any more chaotic than the flight sphere!" She giggled deliberately.
"Not chaos as in ponies flying around at random; we're talking about chaos magic," the officer said. "Chaos magic is forbidden in space; it plays holy hay with the nav computers and runs the risk of stranding us all in null-space, and the harmonic engines that bring us into and out of the nullgates can be deharmonized and fail."
They certainly did sound like terrible fates. Celestia happened to know that they wouldn't happen. Discord at full power had brought down nav computers, yes, but the crew had reloaded from backup. It had been harmonic magic attuned to fusion, overloading the fusion reactors that gave the ship its power, that they should have feared.
"How awful! But how could I have been exposed to such a thing?"
"Well, ma'am, if you have been, we'll have to question you to find out, because we suspect that there's a chaos magic user aboard and we need to find him before he destroys us all."
"Oh, no!" Celestia clapped one hoof to her mouth. Her mind was racing, still cool and deliberate but faster than usual, adrenaline granting her speed alongside her normal precision. A memory spell was too risky, against two subjects in the middle of an open thoroughfare. If it came to it, she'd have to lure them back to a private place, somewhere nowhere near Discord, and a final solution would be safer than trusting to a memory spell. Perhaps back to that stallion. He was a child molester; framing him for the murder of two law enforcers, and making it look as if he'd died at their hooves as well in a last spasm of heroic effort from one of them, would hardly be a loss to ponykind. She was sure he probably had foal porn somewhere in that room, or at least, underage filly porn. She'd regret the loss of a source of bits, but if it kept Discord safe –
-But the unicorn with the chaos-sensing device drew away from her. "Sir, she's clean. I don't know why she'd have tripped anyone's sensors."
Because what the crew feared would damage the ship was chaos magic, but what ponies feared most was disharmony magic, and she'd never met a pony who knew the difference without having learned it from a draconequus. They used crude disharmony detectors and thought they were detecting chaos magic. Of course a ship crew needed to specifically identify chaos – disharmony magic, by itself, wasn't a threat to the ship – but they didn't know disharmony was a separate thing, so they didn't realize that the commercial, consumer-grade detectors that ordinary ponies used weren't even sensing the same magic that they were. Or they did, but thought it was a matter of degree, and false positives.
"Well. We're sorry to disturb you, ma'am. We'll be on our way."
"Wait!" Celestia made her eyes as wide as she could. "Please, you have to tell me – there's a chaos user aboard, and their magic could destroy the ship? This is terrible! Why hasn't the captain made an announcement?"
"Ma'am, calm down. It's nowhere near that bad yet. We picked up a brief spike this morning in Percheron Sector, so we spun up the harmonics; the engines are currently putting out point eight."
"What does that mean?" Celestia knew what that meant. The role she was playing wouldn't have.
"For the harmonic blanket over the ship, it's double power. Chaos magic will be dampened; whoever he is he won't have a chance to do anything."
"'He?' Do you actually have a suspect?"
"No, ma'am, it's... just an expression. Most chaos mages are male."
She didn't know if they were telling the truth or not. Had there been any survivors, the last time? Or any last minute message going out to let other captains know there was a male draconequus somewhere in space? Percheron Sector was where she and Discord lived. Either he'd been careless, or the harmonic crystals hadn't fully prevented his power leaking out when he'd taken her feelings away, or something.
She felt a sudden spike of rage, cutting through the gray fog blocking her emotions, for just a moment. The alicorns of her homeworld (her people. Her parents.) hadn't thought their world needed spacecraft of their own, aside from couriers and freight ships. None of the great starliners. If they had – if the homeworld of draconequui had had their own ships, using the techniques their own homeworld had developed to restrain chaos magic – maybe the crews of the other starliners wouldn't be so fearful. Or they'd have had their own ships to escape on, and wouldn't have to use the ones from pony worlds where there were no natural chaos mages and the ones who took it up were often insane or power-hungry and they had no experience of chaos being controllable, or useful.
And she and Discord wouldn't have to live in fear. And the rest of his kind wouldn't have been left behind on their world to die.
But the emotion passed. No point to it. She had to warn him, but it wasn't that urgent. He was good enough to recognize if his power was fading in time to get back to the cabin, if he was out and the harmonics started interfering with his disguise. It was more important to stay calm – which seemed slightly harder than it had a minute or two ago – and keep up the act. "Oh, well, that's a relief! I'm glad you crew are taking care of it! Will we find out if you ever catch the fellow?"
"I'm sure it'll be posted in the newsbriefs," the more senior unicorn said, which Celestia suspected meant "no."
They left her then. She continued to browse for a few minutes, waiting until she was absolutely sure they weren't around anymore. Casually she strolled to one of the elevator platforms to head for the flight sphere, to go home. Well. To her cabin. Not "home".
It was a good thing they were gone, she thought. She wouldn't have liked to have to deal with them the way she would have needed to if it had come to it—
-screaming, pleading with them, please let him go, please, we'll take a lifeboat, just leave us in space, but they wouldn't listen—
-Discord in a cage that blocked his magic, paws reaching through the bars, crying, begging her to help him—
-the airlock doors beginning to close—
Celestia sat down and put her hooves to her head, beginning to hyperventilate. Why were these images coming back now? Yes, she'd just had a run-in with ship security; yes, she had bad news to take back to Discord. But nothing bad had happened yet, and she should still be under the influence of his magic. She shouldn't be able to feel, and if a memory came back, it shouldn't be able to trigger her with the emotions it evoked into remembering all the others.
She got to her feet. There was only one explanation. The harmonics. The treatment Discord had given her was disharmony-based. His spell was breaking down, far sooner than it should, leaving her stranded here in a different sector at least half an hour from her cabin.
She had to stay calm. She had to get back to Discord, but she couldn't let herself break down, not out here, not in public. She couldn't let herself—
-"they're well known to be users of chaos magic—"
-"releasing him in a lifeboat would just be dooming some other ship—"
-"he's a draconequus, we know what they are, we know what they do—"
-"no one on this ship or any other will be safe as long as he's alive—"
-"for what it's worth, my dear girl, I'm sorry—"
No. No. She couldn't remember this. She couldn't let these images come back. Not here. She couldn't. She was trotting for the elevator as fast as she could because she didn't dare gallop, didn't dare draw that kind of attention to herself—
-"Tia, they're going to kill me, please, please don't let them kill me, please, help me—"
No no not now—
The tears were beginning to well up in her eyes, her heart beating faster, as explosions went off behind her eyes. She passed two little fillies, a big sister and a little sister like she and Luna had been, talking to each other animatedly about some pretend game they were playing, and her breath caught in her chest. Starliners had families aboard. Fillies, colts, infant foals. For the love of Harmony, how could she – how could she have ever – but how could she have not?
Discord. She had to get back to Discord. Had to have his help, to stop thinking, stop feeling, stop remembering. Stop, stop, stop.
It was too fast, too sudden. The artificial equanimity of feeling nothing was breaking down faster than she could compensate. The images played back in her mind, and she couldn't make them stop.
"Why are you doing this? He's a person! A sapient being! Please, he didn't know!"
"The use of chaos magic is forbidden on starliners. It's in the documentation you both signed when you boarded, and ignorance of the law isn't a sufficient excuse here, anyway."
"But gravity manipulation is just part of how he flies! He didn't know that was part of his chaos magic! Telekinesis isn't, why would gravity manipulation be? He didn't know he was using chaos!" She didn't even know if that was true; she'd just say anything to make them let him out of that cage, to stop pushing the cage toward the airlock. Discord was clinging to the bars, his eyes full of tears, fixed on her. She had to fix this. She had to save him. Until they reached the world Luna had found, he was all she had. "Please, just let us leave your ship. We'll take a lifeboat. No more chaos magic, we won't harm anything, I swear. Please just let him go and we'll leave."
"I'm afraid we can't do that," the captain had said. "He's a draconequus. They're well-known users of chaos magic. No other ship would take him in; you'd both just die of suffocation. We're too far from a planet." He had scowled. "And if he impersonates a pony, the way he's being doing, then releasing him in a lifeboat would just be dooming some other ship. Any ship that takes him aboard would be affected by his chaos magic."
"But he won't use that anymore! I know he won't! Right, Discord?"
"I won't, I won't use it ever again, I promise, I promise, please, please don't kill me, please..."
"It doesn't matter. He's a draconequus. We know what they are, we know what they do. They can't restrain their need for chaos."
"That's not true!" Discord screamed. "I've been on your ship for months! This is the only time – the only time – I can restrain it, I can, I promise, please—"
"He can! I know he can! You just have to give him a chance!"
"A chance? A chance to leave four hundred thousand ponies stranded in space forever? A chance to inflict that fate on other ponies? No, I'm sorry. No one on this ship or any other will be safe as long as he's alive." The captain shook his head. "For what it's worth, my dear girl, I'm sorry."
"No!" Celestia screamed. "No, you can't do this, please, he's only 14! He's a child! Please!"
"I'm sorry." The captain nodded at his crew members. "Space him."
They pushed the cage toward the airlock. Discord's arms were all the way through the bars, reaching toward her, as he pleaded. "Tia! Tia, they're going to kill me! Please, please don't let them kill me, please, help me, do something, please! Please!"
"Stop it, stop it, don't do this, don't, please, let him go—"
The guards held her back as Discord's cage disappeared into the maw of the airlock. "TIA! Please, help me!" he screamed, and she heard the voices of dying ponies fallen to THEM, screaming and pleading, and she was a helpless child again being bundled off by ponies more powerful than she was because she was the Princess and she wasn't to be harmed by the fighting and they wanted her to get to safety and just one alicorn couldn't win where thousands of them had failed –
- But just one alicorn was vastly more powerful than every other pony in this room –
- they were taking from her her only friend, practically family, until they reached Luna's world all she had left, he had saved her from THEM and they were going to kill him—
She saw red.
She saw red because every pony in the room had heated, instantly, to thousands of degrees on the inside, their blood boiling and vaporizing and the steam making their bodies explode, and there was nothing anywhere but red, red everywhere, because they wanted to kill her only friend and he was screaming and begging and she had to save him and she hated them and her magic lanced out at every one of them at once, a spell of heat and fire like the sun her cutie mark bound her to and they exploded and everywhere was red—
"Tia? Let me out, please!"
The cage had been designed to be impervious to magic, from the inside. From the outside, there was a lock, inaccessible from the inside. Celestia smashed it, and Discord shoved the door open and ran to her, hugging her tightly, unmindful of the blood all over her. "Thank you, thank you, dear gods of chaos thank you, Celestia, I was – they were going to kill me—"
"I've - I've just murdered the captain. Security will find us. They'll—"
"No. No they won't. We're getting out of here." Discord's eyes glowed, and then his fist, and then a bubble of light appeared throughout the room, and faded. "They don't like chaos magic? They think it'll mess up their navigation computers? Oh, I'll give them some chaos. They're never leaving this region of space."
The bay door opened on shipside. Three stallions in the uniforms of security entered. "What the—" Horns lowered, weapons raised. Discord gestured, and there were three potted plants instead.
"Celestia. Come on. We need to get to the docking bay. I can't just turn everypony who comes after us into a cactus."
Celestia shook her head, forcing down the panic, the horror. She'd feel them later. Survival first. "You're right. Let's go."
They ran through the bay doors. Both of them were still covered in blood, but Discord cast an illusion to hide it. "We can take a lifeboat—"
"No," she said, interrupting him. "We're going to steal a fast-courier, if there's one available. Or a yacht, if there isn't."
Discord grinned. "Why, Princess! And here I thought you were so law-abiding!"
How could he smile at a time like this? How could he make jokes? "My being a princess wasn't going to save you," she said harshly. "And it's not going to get us off the ship, either."
They ran. Celestia galloped; Discord dropped to four legs and ran as fast as he could, his pony disguise long gone. Security converged on them, in larger and larger groups. Discord disposed of them, nonlethally, with transformations that would wear off eventually. But a starliner running on harmonic engines had far, far less chaos magic to draw from than a planet did. He was tiring.
With a great effort, Celestia oriented herself to the harmonic energies and then teleported the two of them to the hangar bay. Teleportation on a ship traveling faster than the speed of light was supremely dangerous; in the instant of moving between planes, one wouldn't be caught within the ship's relative movement anymore, and could end up emerging in space, or a bulkhead, no matter how clearly one held the destination in mind. But she didn't see that they had much to lose.
It wasn't until they'd broken into the fast-courier and prepared for departure that the security officers who'd been outside the bay, guarding it from them, realized they had already gotten inside. They ran in and trained magic and guns on them. "You can't get out into space," a mare's voice on the radio insisted. "Surrender now and we'll be merciful."
"What she means is that she'll have her goons vaporize us instead of throwing us out the airlock," Discord said with a sardonic smile.
"Yes. Do you have the strength to handle the doors?"
"I will always have the strength to handle doors," Discord said, and then the doors were strings of spaghetti and rice on wires, hanging down – no barrier to space at all. The security ponies screamed as vacuum sucked them toward the gaping hole that used to be a hangar lock, and then Celestia got the fast-courier's engine online and several security ponies no longer had to worry about being sucked into space as they were turned to ash by the propulsion burners on the fast-courier. And then they were in space, already in null-space since the starliner was there, and Celestia was programming the nav computer to get them out of the area as fast as she could, after Discord broke the security.
The same mare's voice on the radio. Perhaps she was the first officer – captain now, then. Neither of them had paid enough attention, before it had mattered. "Don't think you're getting away, murderers! You thought your chaos magic would leave us without navigation and stranded? We've brought nav up again from our backups. We will follow you." Celestia watched through the fast-courier's camera screens as the great guns of the starliner pivoted toward their tiny fast-courier.
"Celestia, we need a course, now," Discord whimpered. "Come on, don't space out on me now..."
But she wasn't spacing out. She was seeing red again. Because they'd just admitted that they could repair the damage chaos magic did to their navigation systems. Which meant that their sole justification for trying to murder her only living friend was convenience. Better to throw the draconequus teen out the airlock while he screamed and begged for his life than to have to restore from backup! Better to murder an innocent colt than to be inconvenienced! She toggled the radio. "You can bring your navigation back? Then why did you need to try to kill my friend?" she screamed into the microphone. "I tried to negotiate! I didn't want anyone to be hurt!"
"Your friend is a draconequus," the mare's voice spat. "Their only magic is chaos magic. They'll strand any ship they touch. You'll never go anywhere in that courier, not with a draconequus aboard; his magic will leave you drifting in null-space forever! Don't make us chase you through nowhere; surrender, and we'll make it quick."
"If we're going to end up drifting in space, why shoot at us? Why chase us? If we're dooming ourselves then why would you need to follow us to make sure we die?"
'You murdered the captain and a lot of good ponies."
"They were going to kill my friend!"
"Your friend is poison to any spaceship he's on. If he didn't want to be killed he should have stayed on your homeworld. A chaos mage in space deserves to die."
The bombs falling on their homeworld, and the palace in ruins, and her entire extended family, aunts and uncles and cousins, and all of her friends, dead or critically injured or transformed by THEM into crystalline zomponies, and Discord dragging her onto a lifeship as she struggled and screamed because she wanted to fight alongside her parents, and it wasn't until she was in space already and Discord had calmed her down with the letter from Luna that she found out they'd already been dead...
Their homeworld was destroyed. Any alicorn, any draconequus, any other creature left behind on that world was dead or worse than dead, now. All the draconequui but Discord were dead because of this prohibition on chaos mages in space, and it wasn't even real. The fast-courier that had taken them from the refugee liferaft archipelago to this very starliner hadn't had its navs affected by Discord at all. And they wanted him to have stayed behind and died on their homeworld rather than let him into space even if he didn't use magic.
"Celestia! Do something! The guns—"
"Yes," Celestia said, as if in a trance, but it was cold, cold rage and hate like she'd never felt hate before that consumed her attention now. "The guns. Powered by the fusion reactors, right?"
Luna's affinity with their world's moon had been linked to other affinities as well – dreams, shadows, illusion magic. Celestia's affinity with a star far, far behind her now had given her powers focused on things related to stars. Light. Heat. Fusion.
The two reactors at the north and south poles of the starliner blossomed into brilliant expanding novas, and the starliner turned to shrapnel, a cloud of metal blooming rapidly in null-space. Discord reached over her shoulder with his flexible body and wrenched control away from her, hitting the launch on their only partially programmed route, and the fast-courier sped away at several times lightspeed, outrunning the explosion.
But the afterimage of the explosion was burned forever on Celestia's mind, as it sank in what she had just done.
Celestia sobbed, galloping for her cabin as if her life depended on it, and perhaps it did. She'd murdered. So. Many. Ponies. Mares. Stallions. Foals. All those ponies that had been in the flight sphere with them, laughing and enjoying themselves as they flew, and Celestia had ended them all.
Discord tried to tell her, it had been them, or him and her. It had been self-defense. No choice. Her affinity for fusion had let her reach out to the reactors, which had no protection from what an alicorn with a fusion affinity could do. Any unicorn could use telekinesis, so the guns had been hardened against that. She couldn't have just redirected the guns. She had to use fusion; nothing else would have reached.
But she could have hit the launch herself. She'd wanted to finish programming the route, so they'd be on a safe path, a path she knew, not the path to the middle of nowhere they'd ended up taking. Discord had had the courage to hit the launch when neither he nor she had any idea where it would take them, only that it would take them far away from the exploding starliner. She could have done that first, if she hadn't engaged the mare on the radio, if she hadn't been trying to make things perfect, if she hadn't let the rage take her over. She hadn't had to blow the reactors. She could have run.
It didn't matter what Discord said to her. He was either morally compromised himself, or lying for her sake. She was a horrible, horrible pony who had murdered countless thousands of innocents and all she could hear when she was herself was the voice of her guilt, screaming in her mind that she needed to die, that nothing would wash her sin away but her own blood. She could do it now. She could go into a restaurant, grab a knife with her telekinesis and cut her own throat. But then she'd be leaving Discord alone, and even in the maelstrom of her guilt and overwhelming compulsion to destroy herself, some part of her clung to the fact that Discord needed her. He'd be all alone, without allies, in a place where they'd kill him if they found out what he was. And now it was even more important, now that they knew there was a chaos mage aboard and they'd jacked up the harmonics. She had to live. But she didn't deserve to live. But she had to, for Discord. But she should die.
Discord. I need Discord. He'll help me, she thought, as her hooves rang out against the metal bulkhead of the floors, tubalup tubalup tubalup, faster, faster, back to Discord, back to safety. He'll make this go away again.
The moment Discord stepped out of the room, angry and frustrated and bored because their tiny cabin, without Celestia in it, had literally nothing to hold his attention, he felt the harmonics.
His eyes went wide. I can't hold my disguise against this. Not for long. Of course, being Discord, he pushed his luck... but being someone who'd lived through one devastating attempt to kill him already, he didn't do it stupidly. He paced back and forth in front of his cabin door until he felt as if the effort of holding his disguise was too much, then went back in and checked the time. 2 hours.
Longer than he'd feared, then, but too short a time to actually do things that were fun. He couldn't go to a movie anymore. He could go swimming, but not for hours like he usually did. Any time he took Celestia out to eat he'd have to make sure they got served and fed and they paid the bill within a two hour window. And it was painful to hold it that long, so strictly speaking, if his goal was to have fun, he probably had less time than that.
It wasn't as if taking back his true form was a magical reset button, either. Once he was back in his cabin it was a full fifteen minutes before he could endure holding his disguise for even a second, and within the cabin, he was safe from the effect of the outside harmonics by the bubble of harmony crystals arranged around the cabin, tuned by Celestia to radiate outward rather than in, picking up the currents of harmony magic throughout the ship and gracefully bending them around the area thus protected. It ended up being over an hour before he could stand going back out.
He was getting increasingly antsy. Where was Celestia? He had to talk to her about this. What had changed? Were they going to have to leave this starliner again and find another one? Could they? He doubted they had enough money to charter another fast-courier, and if they got off at a planet, who knew when there would be another starliner going toward the coordinates they were trying to get to?
Not that that would particularly bother him. But the only thing holding Celestia together was the belief that Luna was waiting for them at their destination. He didn't know how long he could manage her mental problems if they were stuck on a planet, stalled out, with no idea when they'd be able to get back to their journey.
No. He just had to hold out. Whatever reason they'd intensified the harmonics, it'd burn through their fuel faster, and the gossamer telekinetic ramscoops that picked up hydrogen in space and funneled it into the reactors could only gather so much hydrogen from vacuum; they'd end up running out and having to feed helium or other heavier elements through the reactor, which would use more of the energy because those wouldn't fuse unless the temperature was higher. Celestia had told him all about it. They couldn't maintain high harmonics forever. He'd just have to endure it until they toned them back down, whenever they got around to doing that.
Ugh. But there wasn't a choice. He had to keep Celestia's mental health as his highest priority until they got where they were going. And then –
Well. After that there were no guarantees. But he pushed that thought into the pit he kept all the bad thoughts in.
And then Celestia came back, crying hysterically, her coat white and vivid again. His magic had worn off.
"Please, it's back, you have to help me, please, Discord, please take it away..."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." He held up both paws. "How long have you been like this?"
"It wore off," she whimpered. "I don't know... I came here as fast as I could? Ship security checked me for chaos magic, but I was clean, but then they told me they'd amplified the harmonics because they think there's a chaos mage, and oh! Discord, they're looking for you—"
"Yeah." He swallowed. "I guessed that." Because why else would they amplify the harmonics? "They must have detected the treatment I did this morning. It used a lot more magic than the disguise does."
"Then what are we going to do?" she wailed. "I can't live like this, I can't, but if they're going to find you – I should just turn myself in. Let them execute me. Then you wouldn't have protecting me to worry about and you can protect yourself."
"With all due respect, Celestia, that is the stupidest idea I've ever heard," Discord said, rolling his eyes dramatically. "You're obviously not a chaos mage, but if you turn yourself in for blowing up a starliner to protect a chaos mage, don't you think that maybe they're going to take a good hard look at the companion you live with?"
"Then I should just die!" she screamed. "I can't live with myself, Discord, I can't. I don't know how you can. We killed – I killed – so many ponies..." She began to sob too hard to speak, hard enough that she could barely breathe, and she doubled over as if trying to shrink into herself. Discord caught her and hugged her, tightly, as she wept hysterically against his fur.
"You can't die," he whispered in her ear, roughly, his own voice on the verge of breaking. "You're all I've got. What do I have to hold on for, if the only pony I can be myself with, the only pony who can accept me, is gone?"
"You could find Luna..."
He stiffened. "No." And then elaborated. "How would I ever find her without your help?" Which was true enough, even though it wasn't the main problem.
"But how can we do this? I can't live like this! Literally, Discord, it's like all those ponies are in my head, screaming at me to die, and I know it's what I deserve and I can't fight them, but if you can't make it stop—"
"I can. Shh. I'm not a one-trick draconequus. If they're looking for my magic, well, I don't have to use as much as I've been using." He kissed her forehead, minding the horn, then pushed her back slightly so he could look into her eyes. "I have other spells that don't take as much disharmony as wiping out your emotions does."
As soon as he saw hope in her eyes, he cast the spell. "I do. Sleep, Celestia." Her eyelids drooped. "Sleep, and... and I'll take care of you. I won't let you have to live with all that guilt. Just sleep. It's going to be all right."
He lowered her onto the bed and tucked her in. She was already deeply asleep, her chest rising and falling evenly, the face that had been tormented and tear-streaked a moment ago relaxing in slumber. Though it was still tear-streaked, technically. He used a cloth napkin from the meal he'd brought, hours ago, to wipe away her tears.
And then he sat down heavily on the other bed, head in hands, because he had no idea what he was going to do. If he couldn't let Celestia wake up for longer than it took to feed her and get her a bathroom visit, then he was still alone, and he could barely leave the room. He could go get food. That was about it. He couldn't use his magic to entertain himself and without someone to share it with, no entertainment he could consume could hold his interest. Well, unless there was something really interesting, like a riot on the ship or a failure of the gravity generators. But no books or videos or games would amuse him if he had no one to share them with.
Plus, when he didn't have Celestia awake and present to continue the lie for, the knowledge that all of this could be for nothing crawled back up out of the pit he kept throwing it in, and wrapped octopus tentacles around his brain.
Celestia had never questioned... how had Luna ever sent a letter to the refugee ships? When she'd left, they hadn't existed. And wasn't it convenient that the letter had come to him, not to Celestia herself? He had excuses prepared, for the day she might ask those questions, but she never had. She'd never asked why he'd apparently been carrying Luna's letter around in his pocket when he'd been arrested and nearly thrown out the airlock, either.
The truth was, they'd stripped everything from him, and scanned all of his clothes before letting him put them back on, an infinitesimal mercy toward someone they'd planned to kill. If he'd had the letter in his pocket he would have lost it then. The reason he still had it was the reason he'd had it in the first place. He'd written it. Twice, now. It was good work, he thought distantly, looking it over. The impersonation of Luna's hoofwriting hadn't been hard, given how little she was and how clumsy a foal's hoofwriting looked. If there were any discrepancies between this version and the one that had been lost on the starliner, Celestia hadn't noticed.
He pulled it out of the drawer and looked at the coordinates. All of the actual information that had come back from Luna's ship was that there was a planet at those coordinates that seemed to support pony life, and might even already have ponies on it, and they were going to investigate. The message had gone to his uncle, the castle seneschal – not Celestia or her parents, because it had come from the captain who'd taken Luna to that world, not from Luna herself. There was no guarantee there was a safe world there. There was no guarantee Luna had ever even landed. Or that if she had landed, that she had survived. Luna was fierce, and powerful for her age, and she had her cutie mark already, but she was a tiny filly – it was why she'd been evacuated early. So many things could have befallen a tiny alicorn filly, out there in the stars.
There might be no Luna at their destination. There might be no planet. There probably was a planet, and it probably did have life, but the life might not be pony life and the world might not support ponies. Or it could have savage, tribalistic ponies who would murder strangers. Or it could have ponies under constant attack by intelligent predators. Everything "Luna" had supposedly written about how wonderful the world was had been written to catch Celestia's attention and entice her, because she'd been crippled with survivor's guilt –not as bad as the guilt she felt now, but bad enough – and he'd had to give her something to live for.
But he knew the truth. So he couldn't cling to the same hope Celestia did, even though, when she was awake, he could pretend hard enough that most of the time he couldn't tell the difference.
He put the letter away and lay down next to Celestia on her bed, his tail coiling around her middle to pull her close and one arm around her withers, but he didn't turn toward her. He looked up at the ceiling, her warm weight nestled against his body, and let tears well up in his eyes. Silently, despite his preference for being loud about everything, because he didn't dare wake her and even more, he didn't dare show her the despair he felt.
Where there was life there was hope, and Discord was a survivor. He would struggle to keep them both alive, no matter what, until they got to the new world. Which might or might not have Luna on it. Which might or might not be a place they could survive, let alone thrive. And once they got there... well, he'd cross that bridge when he came to it. Or burn it. Either one.
Discord lay next to Celestia and tried to stuff his own feelings of grief and fear and hopelessness into the pit in his head where he threw the dark thoughts. But right now it was too full.