Pinwheel leaned over the edge of the chariot, watching as the Everfree Forest passed beneath them. The trees swayed back and forth in the night wind. From Pinwheel's perspective, it almost looked as though the forest was breathing. Deep, mournful cries echoed through the wilderness. Giant creatures trudged through the underbrush, shaking the branches of all the trees around them. Once upon a time, this forest shined brightly as the center of Equestrian government. So, once upon a time, this place had been as safe as Ponyville square. Pinwheel drew away from the edge and sank back into the plush upholstery. Princess Luna glanced over at her.
"The ride is only about twenty minutes." Luna reassured her, "Canterlot is directly north of here."
Pinwheel glanced sidelong at the Princess. "Oh, that's good, I guess." She tried to smile, but couldn't quite manage it. Luna nodded. She picked absently at the embroidery on the seat cushion. The Princess kept her long legs folded close to her body. The seat of the chariot had enough room to accommodate two normal sized ponies, but with the leggy princess next to her, Pinwheel felt more than a little bit cramped. The two of them tried desperately not to touch each other. Only a thin, two inch strip of space separated them in the seat.
Neither of them spoke for several minutes. Pinwheel kept her eyes fixed on the scenery passing below them. She listened for the swoop of Pale Hoof's wings behind them, but the wind in her ears drowned out all but the loudest noises. A tight knot of dread settled in Pinwheel's stomach as they drew closer to Canterlot. She couldn't help but picture Pale Hoof lying broken on the palace floor with Celestia's hoof planted on his chest. She shook her head, trying to clear the images. Luna said herself – Celestia only wanted to talk. And really, why wouldn't she? Three ponies, including two of her royal guards, now lay dead. To Pinwheel's knowledge, Pale Hoof hadn't even bothered reviving them yet. That was on top of the hundreds, if not thousands of deaths Pale Hoof caused after the gala. Pinwheel's throat went dry. She didn't want to admit it, but Celestia had every reason to want Pale Hoof banished. Any pony who threatened Equestria's well being in such a huge way should be sent away.
The thought of never seeing Pale Hoof again, though, made Pinwheel's eyes water. A few tears rolled down her cheeks. Luna turned, opening her mouth to say something, then paused when she saw Pinwheel crying. "Are…are you all right?" The princess asked. She hesitated a moment, then reached over and touched Pinwheel's shoulder, "Why are you crying?"
Pinwheel turned toward the princess. "Are you sure Celestia won't hurt Pale Hoof? Are you sure she won't banish him?"
Luna opened her mouth, and then closed it. She stared straight ahead. Pinwheel followed her gaze. She could see the white spires of Canterlot in the distance, glowing against the night sky. Luna took a deep breath. "I do not know." She replied, looking down at her hooves, "I…do not really know my sister anymore. So many things can change in one thousand years, including my sister. She still seems like the kind pony I knew, but I cannot say how much she's shifted since I last saw her. I've only been home for a year. A year isn't long enough to really know someone, especially someone like her."
Pinwheel wiped her eyes. "After the gala, she fought with him. I mean, she really fought him. And I was scared they were going to kill each other." She said, "What if they fight again? I'm not sure I could stop it this time."
Luna turned back toward Pinwheel. "If they fight, I'll stop them." She thumped her hoof against the seat cushion confidently. Pinwheel stared at her, "Equestria needs both of them. If they destroyed each other, things would be even worse than if Discord came back."
Pinwheel blinked. "Discord?"
Luna's cheeks turned bright red. "Oh, that's nothing. That doesn't matter." She laughed nervously. Then, all of a sudden, her expression turned serious again, "The point is, they both know about the awful things that would happen if either of them fell. And if they're foalish enough to fight in spite of that, well, that will be our call to step in."
Pinwheel smiled in spite of her tears, "Thank you, Princess."
"Please, you may call me Luna. There is no need to be formal." Luna replied, turning her head back toward the view of Canterlot, "They raised the three of us together, Pale Hoof, my sister, and me. So if you're his lover, that means you're practically family anyway."
Pinwheel blushed deeply, "I wouldn't say that. We're just dating. It's not as though we're getting married…"
Luna chuckled. "Give it time."
The two bat-pegasi began climbing higher into the air. Pinwheel looked over the side. They flew almost parallel with slope of a mountain. There, up above them, sat Canterlot. Although late in the night, the streets still glowed with warm lantern light. As they flew over the streets, Pinwheel could spot unicorn guards patrolling the quiet boulevards. The chariot sailed past the shopping and residential districts, though, and headed straight for the palace. Pinwheel looked ahead at the tall towers. Every window in Celestia's palace shone with a warm, friendly glow. No matter how late it was, no one in the palace would be sleeping tonight.
The guards began to descend. The touched down in front of the palace's main door. Unhitching themselves from the chariot harness, they rushed to help Princess Luna out of her seat. Pinwheel followed after the princess. Bowing, the two bat-pegasi hurried to open the front doors.
Silence swallowed the Canterlot palace. Pinwheel couldn't hear anything beside their hoof beats. Maybe the staff was sleeping after all. Luna led Pinwheel through the entrance hall and up the stairs into the main ballroom. Rubble from the Grand Galloping Gala disaster still littered the ballroom floor. The golden alicorn statue lay in pieces on the floor, surrounded by chunks of marble from the fallen columns. The staff had the rubble roped off with yellow tape. Signs proclaiming the area a "construction zone" sat all around the damaged areas. The rubble distracted Pinwheel so much that she didn't notice Princess Celestia until she bumped into her.
"Oof!" Pinwheel stumbled backward, rubbing her forehead with her hoof. Looking up, all the muscles in her body went tense. Princess Celestia stood in the middle of the ballroom with her back to Pinwheel. The princess peered over her shoulder, violet eyes wide, "Oh my goodness, I'm sorry, Princess! I didn't mean to disturb you!"
Celestia turned around, looking from Pinwheel to Luna. "I didn't know you were bringing them here, Luna."
"Pale Hoof agreed to negotiate with you personally." Luna replied, "Pinwheel and I came ahead."
Celestia nodded. "I see." Putting on a soft smile, Celestia extended her hoof to Pinwheel, "Pardon me for not greeting you properly, Miss Pinwheel. I was a little surprised to see you here."
Pinwheel took the princess's hoof and shook it stiffly, "I'm sorry if we messed up your plans, Princess."
"Of course not, Pinwheel." The princess replied, "I was waiting on Luna to return anyway. Until then, I was just surveying the damage here in the ball room."
Pinwheel felt her face growing hotter. "I'm sorry for that too."
"Nonsense. I don't think any of the damage in here was your fault, Pinwheel." Celestia laughed gently. Pinwheel cracked a nervous grin, "Do you mind talking in here? I know it's a little dirty, but I think most of the palace rooms have been locked up for the night."
"I don't mind, Princess." Pinwheel replied.
Celestia nodded. Still smiling, she looked up at Luna. "May I speak to Pinwheel for a moment alone, Luna?" Luna hesitated a moment, glancing uncertainly at Pinwheel, but then bowed her head and made for the door. Pinwheel opened her mouth to stop her, but Luna was already gone. Pinwheel looked up at the sun princess. In the middle of the huge, empty ballroom, standing next to the most powerful pony in Equestria, Pinwheel felt unbearably small and fragile. A charge of fear pulsed through all four of her limbs. Celestia's sweet smile faded. A strange, unfathomable sadness crept into the princess's expression. Pinwheel's muscles, tensed as if preparing to run, uncoiled, "Are you afraid of me?" The princess asked quietly, her voice no louder than a whisper.
"Afraid, Princess?" Pinwheel repeated.
"You've been tense ever sense you walked in here." Princess Celestia replied, "I understand how you must feel. You're afraid of what I'll do to Pale Hoof."
Pinwheel blinked, then nodded. "I don't want you to banish him. He and I, we're…"
"In love." Celestia finished.
Pinwheel nodded again. "Yeah."
Celestia let out a long, slow sigh. "He returned because of you. That much I understand. It hurts to be separated from the ponies you love." Celestia turned away from Pinwheel and stared toward the door where Luna left, "Actually, I probably understand that better than anypony."
Celestia looked back down at Pinwheel. "I've known that Pale Hoof was here for days, but I knew he was visiting you, so I let it slide." The princess continued, "That was foolish of me. When I heard ponies were dying in Ponyville, I realized he'd gone out of control again."
Pinwheel shook her head. "He's not out of control. He's not! The waiter's death was an accident and the guards…well…" Pinwheel closed her eyes, "He doesn't deserve to be banished. I know you said you would banish him, but he can bring those ponies back. He doesn't understand that you just can't kill ponies. Please, just please…"
Celestia put a hoof to Pinwheel's lips. "You have to understand that he's always been like this." She lowered her hoof, "He's stubborn. He's set in his ways and he never wants to change. No one can make him change. While you've definitely gotten him to warm up, you can't undo a thousand years of habit."
Pinwheel tried to think up a reply, but couldn't. She stared down at the reflective marble floor. Her own reflection, distorted slightly by the waves in the marble, stared back. Her mouth worked to find the right words. "Maybe you're right, but…" Pinwheel paused, taking a breath, "Actually, you're exactly right. He's dangerous. And I probably can't do anything to change him, but I still love him. He loves me too. It would kill me to lose him."
Celestia bowed her head. "I know." She replied, "It would be wrong of me to tear apart two ponies who love each other, but he must face some kind of punishment for his actions."
"But you can't banish him, you just can't!"
"I will try to take your feelings into account when I act." Celestia replied.
Pinwheel tried to say more, but the sudden slamming of a door interrupted her. She turned around. There, at the entrance to the ballroom, stood a panting grey stallion. He folded his bony wings down against his sides. Flecks of skin broke off his bone like chipping paint. "Pale Hoof…" Pinwheel murmured, smiling slightly at the sight of him. Pale Hoof shook his shoulders like a dog, dislodging more flakes. Black steam rose off his body in clouds. The steam trailed behind him as he entered the ballroom, leaving a stain on the air. Luna trailed after him, concern inlaid on her small, blue face.
"CELESTIA." Pale Hof rumbled. The eerie, resonant quality had returned to his voice. It echoed out of the caverns in his skull like a funeral dirge. "I REQUEST THAT YOU LEAVE MY MAREFRIEND ALONE."
Celestia stepped over Pinwheel and closed in on Pale Hoof. Pinwheel's heart beat against her ribcage. They stood less than five feet apart. "I want an explanation," The princess began, her voice as calm but still firm, "of why you returned to the mortal world after I forbade you. And why, within a week of returning, you have three murders to your name."
"IT WAS NECESSARY."
"Murder is never necessary!" Celestia shouted, her voice rising suddenly in pitch. Pinwheel took a step back in surprise. Even though she'd seen Celestia angry before, the sight still jarred her. Celestia's shoulders shook with anger. She let out a ragged sigh. Her fierce, violet eyes focused in on Pale Hoof, "I know you came back to see Pinwheel. If it were just that, I might have let you slide. But to kill three ponies…"
"THREE? THREE? ALL OF THIS NONSENSE OVER THREE PONIES? I CAN REVIVE THOSE THREE WITHOUT LIFTING A HOOF." Pale Hoof growled, "YOU WOULD TRULY BANISH ME OVER THREE INSIGNIFICANT LITTLE PONIES?"
"No life is insignificant!" Celestia retorted, "I would have hoped Pinwheel taught you that!"
Pale Hoof paused for a moment as if trying to think of what to say. "ANYONE WHO GETS BETWEEN PINWHEEL AND I," He hesitated a moment, pawing the ground with his hoof, "DESERVES WHAT THEY GET."
Celestia lunged forward. "How could you say that?" Her face hovered just inches away from Pale Hoof's. Pale Hoof remained unfazed. He didn't even flinch, "You were once mortal, just like those ponies. To think that you've grown so cold – that you don't even care about a pony's life anymore…" Celestia took a shuddering breath before continuing, "You have no place in this world anymore. You do nothing but bring destruction wherever you go. If I let you stay here, you'd kill and kill again without a second thought."
"THAT IS A LIE!" Pale Hoof roared. All around, the shadows in the ballroom trembled as though shook by an earthquake. Goosebumps prickled on Pinwheel's skin, "THEY WOULD NOT HAVE DIED IF THEY HAD NOT GOTTEN IN MY WAY! YOU ASSUME TOO MUCH, CELESTIA!"
"My patience is at its breaking point, Pale Hoof. How long until somepony else 'gets in your way'? What if that pony is a foal? What would you do then?" Celestia demanded, her eyes flaring. Her forehead wrinkled in fury, her lips peeling back to expose teeth. Pinwheel shivered, "As the leader of these ponies, I cannot—"
"Don't my feelings matter?" Celestia and Pale Hoof turned back to look at Pinwheel. The little blue pony stood alone on the ballroom floor, her knees trembling. Pinwheel opened and closed her mouth, not quite believing that she'd actually managed to speak. Swallowing, she continued, "Princess, you're talking about all of Equestria and…and I know it's important to protect ponies, but…but…he's not really a monster like you believe he is. He's not! I know you don't believe me, but…"
"Pinwheel," Celestia interrupted, but Pinwheel shoved a hoof in the air to silence her.
"He did something stupid! Everypony does stupid things!" Pinwheel shouted, voice hoarse, "The good thing about his mistake is that he can, mostly, undo it. He's got the power to fix everything. And…and when he came back to visit me, he even suppressed his powers so he could live among mortals without disturbing anypony. Doesn't that show he wants to improve?"
Celestia opened her mouth to continue, "Yes, but that doesn't change the fact that he…"
"Killed ponies?" Pinwheel finished, "He did, but he can undo it! I know you and he are enemies now, but can't you forgive him?" Pinwheel turned toward Luna. She pointed sharply at the small blue pony, "Princess Luna killed ponies too. Hundreds are dead because of her. But you still forgave her. You forgave her one hundred percent."
Luna recoiled. A dark blush rose up into her cheeks. "I…it wasn't…" The small princess stammered. Finally, she lowered her head in shame, "It's true. It breaks my heart every single day, but it is true. In my jealousy, I sent many ponies to their deaths."
Celestia turned toward her younger sister. "No, Luna. Don't say things like that. You weren't yourself."
"My jealousy was real, sister. Those ponies died because of it. I will never forget that as long as I live." Luna replied, lifting her head slightly, "If I can be forgiven for my transgressions, doesn't Pale Hoof deserve the same?"
"It's not the same, Luna. He'll kill again if we let him." Celestia replied, "He won't repent for what he's done."
"But is that entirely his fault?" Luna asked, "He's lived in a world filled with death for a thousand years. He couldn't even see time passing. How was he supposed to keep caring for ponies under those circumstances, sister? When he was locked up in the dark, just like I was?"
Pinwheel took a few shaky steps closer to Princess Celestia. "He's been trying, Princess." Pinwheel whispered, "Those deaths – they were accidents. He'll bring them back, I promise. Please don't banish him. Let him stay here with me. I'll keep teaching him."
Celestia did not speak for several moments. She gazed at Pinwheel, then back at Pale Hoof. Her stern expression chilled Pinwheel to the bone. Luna began to speak, but Celestia just as quickly silenced her. Finally, she spoke, "Will you do that, Pale Hoof?" Celestia asked, her voice deathly quiet, "Will you restore those ponies to life?"
Pale Hoof held his silence. He looked toward Pinwheel, who nodded. "I WILL DO IT."
"Now. Restore them now." Celestia demanded.
Once again, Pale Hoof looked toward Pinwheel for permission. Pinwheel nodded again. A curl of shadow materialized in Pale Hoof's teeth. It grew longer and darker, solidifying into his scythe. "STEP BACK." He ordered coldly. Celestia, Luna, and Pinwheel all retreated against the nearest wall. Rearing back, he swung his scythe in a wide arc. Reality tore in the path of his scythe, opening up a portal into the dark realm of the dead. Like marbles spilling out a plastic bag, three translucent ponies tumbled out onto the ballroom floor – two white pegasi and one earth pony. The translucent ponies blinked slowly, like newborns seeing light for the first time. The blade of Pale Hoof's scythe glowed as he pointed it toward the three ponies, "YOU THREE. RETURN TO YOUR BODIES." He ordered. A bright light enveloped the three spirits. When it faded, all three of them vanished. Pinwheel stared at Pale Hoof. When he'd revived her the first time, he'd made a huge spectacle. But now, he hadn't wasted a single moment on any pretense of 'trials' or 'earning your way back'. The change startled Pinwheel, almost. How different he was from when she'd first met him.
The portal to the realm of the dead closed up as soon as the spirits were gone. Celestia gazed at Pale Hoof critically. "You did as I asked." She began. Pinwheel gazed up at the princess hopefully, "But I still cannot let you stay here."
Pinwheel charged forward. "Wait! Wait, Princess! He did as you asked!" Pinwheel gasped, latching her front hooves around Celestia's leg, "You can't banish him! You just can't!"
Celestia gazed pityingly down at Pinwheel. She smoothed back Pinwheel's frazzled mane. "Pinwheel, I'm sorry. I don't expect you to understand." She replied, "He may be able to revive the people he killed, but even so, that will never erase the effects the murders had. And, while he may be learning, there's nothing stopping him from killing again in the meantime. It's too much to expect him to change in such a short time."
"You CAN'T!" Pinwheel's voice leapt an octave as she squeezed the princess's hoof, "It's not too much to expect! I've watched him changing. You haven't seen it, Princess, but I have."
Luna stepped forward. "Sister, Pinwheel needs Pale Hoof as much as he needs her." She began, "There has to be some way to resolve this for the best."
Celestia's eyes swept over the four ponies gathered in the ballroom. Pinwheel lay prone at her feet, still clinging desperately to her hoof. Pale Hoof stood yards away, still clutching his scythe in his teeth. Although his head was turned toward Celestia, he did not move. His freakish silhouette, with its exposed skull and jutting bones, stood out in sharp relief against the prettily decorated ballroom. Luna hovered beside her sister, frowning. She stared down at her young sister. "What would you have me do, Luna?" She asked, her voice soft.
"Visitation rights." Luna responded, "You said yourself that if Pale Hoof hadn't killed those three ponies, you would have let him slide. Well, this is something like that. It was wrong of Pale Hoof to kill those ponies, but it would be wrong of us to tear apart two ponies that love each other. We should not repay evil with evil."
Celestia lowered her head. She nudged Pinwheel with her hoof. Pinwheel scrambled to her feet. "I don't want to be thought of as a tyrant." She whispered, "Pinwheel, would that be all right with you? You and Pale Hoof can visit back and forth as you like, as long as you keep your visits short. If Pale Hoof really does improve like you've said then, perhaps, I will give him leave to stay in my realm permanently."
Pinwheel bowed her head. "I'll do my best, Princess. For both of us." Slowly, Pinwheel turned and looked at Pale Hoof, "…Is it all right with you, Chuckles?"
Pale Hoof stared off into the distance. "I WILL NOT BE TREATED LIKE A CRIMINAL," He began. Pinwheel sucked in her breath, "BUT IF THIS IS THE ONLY WAY WE FOUR CAN COEXIST, IT SEEMS I MUST ACCEPT. I WILL NOT GIVE UP PINWHEEL. NOT FOR ANYPONY."
"This way, you won't have to." Celestia replied, "We won't have to fight, either, as long as I don't hear any more news of mysterious murders by a grey colt."
Pale Hoof let go of his scythe. The blade evaporated back into mist. He walked forward toward Celestia, his stride slow and predatory. "THERE WILL BE A DAY WHEN YOU AND I MUST RESOLVE OUR DIFFERENCES, CELESTIA. BE IT THROUGH BATTLE OR SOME OTHER METHOD." He warned, "AND WHEN THAT DAY COMES, I WILL NOT HESITATE TO KILL YOU."
Celestia's gentle expression turned to a scowl. "It's not too late for me to change my mind about your visitation rights, Pale Hoof. Do not push me."
Pale Hoof stared her down for a good sixty seconds before turning away. Pinwheel smiled sheepishly at the two princesses and galloped off after Pale Hoof. The two of them made their way down the staircase to the entrance hall. They said nothing until they were out the door. The Canterlot Palace opened up into a long, winding walk lined by elegant marble statues and carefully manicured lawns. Pale Hoof paused as the massive palace doors creaked closed behind him. A low mist hung over the palace's dewy front lawn. Guards in plume-topped helmets patrolled the grounds, shining lights from the tips of their horns. A low mist hung over the grass, blurring the shapes of the statues and hedges. Pinwheel turned to look up at Pale Hoof.
"Pale Hoof…" Pinwheel whispered. He looked down at her, "It's…it's okay now, right? Things can go back to how they were before."
Pale Hoof lowered his head. "MANY MONTHS AGO, I MADE A PROMISE TO YOU. I SWORE THAT I WOULD NOT INTERFERE WITH YOUR LIFE. BUT IT SEEMS THAT I BROKE THAT PROMISE." He let out a chilly sigh. A thin layer of frost formed on every blade of grass within five feet of them, "LUNA WAS RIGHT WHEN SHE SAID YOU NEEDED ME AS MUCH AS I NEED YOU, WASN'T SHE?"
Pinwheel inched a little closer to Pale Hoof. "She was right." Pinwheel answered, "But, you know, I don't mind having you interfering in my life. My life was a lot less interesting before you got here. And you know what? I want you to keep interfering in my life, for the rest of my life, as long as I live and beyond."
Pale Hoof's ears perked up. He turned his head toward her. Pinwheel looked up at his skull face and her smile grew. She couldn't believe there was a time when she thought that face, with all its subtle cues of expression, was ugly. The ancient yellow bone held secrets and powers that nopony had ever seen before. All the small things Pale Hoof did – ear twitch, head tilt, nod – held annals of significance. She wanted to know it, as intimately as she knew her own face.
Pinwheel beamed. "I love you, Chuckles." She continued. A blush rose up into her cheeks. She rubbed her front hooves together, staring down at the grass, "You know, Luna said something else kind of interesting too."
"WHAT WAS THAT?"
"She said that if you and I got married, you and Celestia and I would be practically related." Pinwheel grinned, "If we got married, there's no way Celestia would ever banish you, right? What do you say we show mean old Auntie Celestia what's what?"
Pale Hoof didn't answer right away. Behind his head, the sun was beginning to rise. Pinks and oranges colored the horizon. The warm, orange light washed over his skull, highlighting all the tiny divots and hollows. Subtler than all the meaningful glances in the world, a faint flicker of something mysterious shone in the back of his skull. He turned his head slightly to the left, breaking eye contact and gazing somewhat shyly at the ground. Pinwheel laughed.
"Look at you, acting coy all of a sudden." She chuckled. Looking out at the sunrise, Pinwheel smiled. Warmth crept across the waking city. A ray of light fell across the garden. Pinwheel shielded her eyes, "I guess that's our cue to go home, Chuckles." Side by side, Pinwheel glanced up at Pale Hoof. He was looking at her now, his eyeless gaze filled with an intensity that she felt more than saw. Still shielding her eyes, she jerked her head toward the garden entrance.
Side by side, they walked into the streets of Canterlot.
-End Part 3-
"Til Death Do Us Part"
Thanks for Reading!