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Hedging Her Bets

by FanOfMostEverything

Summer turned Castle Canterlot’s palace gardens into a riot of colors and scents, filled with buzzing insects and flitting hummingbirds. Flowers of so many varieties came into bloom that one poet famously called it “Elysium for bees and Tartarus for the allergic.”

For Princess Luna, it was her sister writ across a landscape: Bright, warm, vibrant, and far more extravagant than her tastes preferred. But she knew there was a point to Celestia inviting her on a walk through the garden, far more so than the simple pleasant excursion her sister had claimed. After all, such was also Celestia’s way. Ponies rarely questioned her when she buried her true intentions, much as bees did not suspect why flowers lured them in with nectar.

“You have that face going,” Celestia said with a grin.

Luna put on the most neutral expression she could. “What face?”

“When you try to puzzle out my deeper motives, you get this little wrinkle across your muzzle.” Celestia gestured to her own with a wing.

The same iron will that guided the moon and felled nightmares kept Luna from crossing her eyes to try to see her own snout. “The fact that I have developed this alleged wrinkle often enough for you to notice says more about you than me, Sister.”

“I suppose,” Celestia said, as close to an admission of fault as she’d likely come. She turned into the hedge maze so abruptly Luna had to flare out her wings to keep from stumbling as she tried to match the turn.

Silence reigned for a few turns into the maze. “I’ve never seen the point in this curiosity. Even those ponies who could not fly over it could force their way through the walls with little difficulty.” Luna leaned close to a hedge and gave it a quick sniff. “Perhaps even eat their way through were they desperate enough.”

“The point is the same as any labyrinth,” Celestia said, moving at the same casual gait as before. “Solving the maze isn’t why you go through it. It’s to meditate on the twists and turns of a greater puzzle.”

“And so we come to the purpose of our little gadabout. What puzzles you so, Sister, and how may I assist?”

Celestia looked up into the dimming sky, horn glowing as she set the sun. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Twilight lately.”

“Ah.” Luna smirked. “I believe our niece may be better suited in these matters, but I will do my best in her stead.”

A white wing gently batted her about the head, like a love tap from an affectionate swan. “Not like that.”

“For the best. She has not dreamt of you in such a capacity in moons.” Luna’s grin widened. “Though I will not say how many.”

Celestia sighed. “This is serious, Luna,” she said in the sort of voice she usually used for lecturing disappointing students.

That got an eyeroll. “Were it truly serious, we would be discussing it in the throne room, not indulging in your habit of theatrical parables.” Luna spread both wings to take in the horticultural metaphor. “I get enough of these from ponies’ slumbering thoughts as it is.”

“This decision will affect the rest of my life, Sister. If I go through with it, I cannot possibly go back. So I turn to every aid I can to help me finalize my decision, whatever form they may take.”

“And I am glad you count me among them, truly. But I would be greater help if you had simply told me what so weighed on your mind from the start.”

Celestia shook her head. “The palace has ears. And many, many gossiping mouths. We needed to discuss this somewhere where I could be as sure as I could that we would not be overheard.”

“I see.” Luna looked up and considered the hedges writhing about overhead, forming impossible snarls of vegetation and negative space. “That would explain why you invited me into your dreams.”

After a few blinks, Celestia looked around the winding maze as it grew around them in all senses. “Oh. Yes. So I did.”

No will was strong enough to keep Luna from facehoofing. “You forgot.”

“We’re not all born lucid dreamers, Luna.” Celestia turned back onto the path with a toss of her mane. “And we’re getting off-topic.”

Luna followed. “So we are. Very well, enough beating around the hedges.”

“Bush.”

“Both.” She successfully kept this smirk internal. “What troubles you so, especially in regards to Twilight Sparkle?”

Celestia’s forehead creased. Her lips pressed against one another for a short time, as though struggling to form the words. Finally, as they came to a six-way intersection, she said, “I’m thinking about abdicating.”

Luna came to a stop. For a moment, so did the dream, all motion halting as triangular shards of the imagined reality flipped to opposing colors. She corrected the flaws with a thought once she’d collected herself.

“What.”

Mostly collected herself.

Celestia nodded, her mane still a stiff plank jutting out a ponylength from her head until Luna set it moving again. “And this is why I wanted to ease you into it more.”

“You. Abdicate.” Luna kept going, more to get her mind around the idea than gain further clarity. “Give up the throne we paid for in magic and blood and the ink of a dozen treaties that united the fractious warlords who tried to take Discord’s place. Abandon your immortal life’s work. Pass the crown to a mare who still has nightmares of wearing socks to her final exam.”

“In a word, yes.”

“In a word, why?

Celestia sighed and slumped, though her legs kept dragging her uphill. “I’m tired, Luna. I’m tired and it’s impacting my ability to rule the nation effectively.”

“Surely you don’t mean those mutters about how Twilight and the other Bearers’ activities somehow reflect poorly on you?” Luna snorted. “As though regularly saving the world were something to be ashamed of.”

“It does when so many of the things they’re saving us from were my fault to begin with.” Discord’s laughter briefly echoed through the hedges. “How many evils did I seal, only for them to address them permanently and positively? How many threats attacked from my blind spot, only for their ingenuity to strike them down?”

“How many times did your guidance prove pivotal in their winning the day, even if you weren’t able to aid them directly?” said Luna.

That coaxed a smile from her sister. “Oh I’m very proud of the legacy I’ll leave. Not just with Twilight, but with her friends, her students, my other students…” The sun rose behind them. Celestia smiled up at the sky again, her horn unlit. “Even Sunset Shimmer is becoming the mare I knew she could be. I’ve done a great deal of good in this world.”

“And you can yet do more.”

“I agree. But I don’t think it will be from a throne.”

“And if this is merely a coincidence?” Luna’s wings flapped away some of the shadows lingering around Celestia, the black smoke hissing in the light of dawn like oil on a skillet. “A spate of interesting times that will pass by, seeming interminable only because we know not when it will end? Surely you have had dark times in your reign before now.”

“I did, yes. But none where my direct efforts have proven so worthless time and time again. None where I feel I am holding us back more than guiding us forward.” Celestia still looked skyward. Stars still twinkled where she looked despite the sun’s rapid ascent. “Did I ever tell you I had a prophetic dream the night after I first met Twilight Sparkle?”

“You mentioned it shortly after the Crystal Empire’s return, while we contemplated whether to send her Star Swirl’s unfinished spell. Though you divulged few of the details.”

“At first, I wondered if I was seeing myself. She sits on the throne confident, wise, loving—”

“Enormous?” Celestia finally looked back at Luna, who shrugged her wings and pointed at the throne in the middle of the clearing. The maze had returned largely to normal, and they found themselves at its heart, with what appeared to be a purple-dyed copy of the elder sister. “I can certainly see how you mistook her for yourself.”

“She does seem to grow into the position,” Celestia allowed.

The grown Twilight raised an eyebrow in a way so eerily close to Celestia’s that Luna fought back a shudder.

The three alicorns traded nods of respect before Celestia led Luna back into the winding hedges and resumed her retelling. “Beyond that… it is a paradise. A world brought together through friendship and harmony that I have no idea how to bring about myself.” Phantom creatures of all kinds frolicked at their hooves for a few steps, some of which even Luna didn’t recognize. “I tried to temper my expectations of her, especially as she fell into antisocial seclusion, but she has proven herself time and time and again. As I wane, she waxes.”

“There was that incident with Queen Novo and the Pearl of the Deep.”

Celestia delivered that exact same eyebrow raise. “You mean the incident where the two of us had both been petrified, and Twilight was acting on my last desperate gambit rather than her own initiative?”

Luna dipped her head in acquiescence. “Fair. But do you truly have so little faith in yourself?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t hesitate as much as I am.” They paused at another intersection for a moment before pressing on to the left. “I have faith in Twilight, but I fear that dropping the whole nation on her withers will still break her. She has grown so much since she left Ponyville, but has she grown enough?”

“Had we, when we took up the reigns of a fledgling kingdom?”

Celestia sighed. “Those first years were hard, yes. I’d like to spare her that.”

“Those first years taught us some of our most important lessons. And we didn’t have ponies who actually knew what they were doing a dragon’s breath away.”

“There is that. But if she relies on us too much, it will be as if we never left. She needs to stand on her own four hooves, or ponies will never respect her as a leader in her own right.” Celestia’s tail lashed as she chewed her lip. “It’s just a matter of knowing if she can.”

Luna snorted. “As if there were some measurement one could take to tell? Some set of calipers for rulership, an alchemical test for confidence? I would say that at some point, she would need to be thrown out of the proverbial nest and challenged to fly, but circumstance has done so time and time again. And she has soared, Sister. Done loop-the-loops, even.” A purple shockwave burst across the sky, almost but not quite a rainboom.

Celestia tilted her head. “I thought you were against this.”

“I am against you throwing away everything you worked and strove for solely because of the whim of a moment. But you have thought through this, and I should have expected nothing less from you.” Luna nudged her sister with a wing. “Your student comes by her tendency to overthink all possibilities honestly.”

“She does, doesn’t she?” Celestia said with a rueful grin. They came to the entrance and exit of the maze. A few steps beyond it, the carefully maintained lawn of the palace grounds gave way to impenetrable fog. She stared out into the pale distance. “I suppose we’ve decided then.”

“Indeed.” Luna grinned. “So, did you have somewhere in mind our residence, or shall we see how long we can squat in the castle until somepony dares tell us to leave?”

Celestia boggled at her vacantly for a few moments. “What?”

“You didn’t think I would let you go on your own, did you? Not after letting you toil on the throne by your lonesome for a thousand years.”

“But you haven’t even had a decade on the throne since your return.”

“Bah.” Luna brushed aside the objection with a wave of a wing. “I am a mare out of time and everypony knows it. One need only look at that Starlight Glimmer mark-switching fiasco to see how little impact I have on the country’s waking hours, and how little I truly wish to.”

“You can learn, Luna.” Celestia pointed at the exit. “But if you follow me out the door, I doubt they’ll keep your crown warm for you.”

“So be it.” Luna flicked the crown off her head with a bare hoof, sending it flying into the depths of the maze. “I am better suited to forging a nation from chaos-scarred savagery, for I am not far removed from my days as a chaos-scarred savage. I have not had your time to mellow into herding bureaucrats and smiling for cameras, nor do I wish to.”

After a few moments, Celestia smirked and said, “You were looking for an excuse.”

“I would perform my duty to the end, Sister, and without hesitation. But I will take this opportunity when it presents itself.” Luna swept a foreleg over whatever awaited them in the mist. “We go together into that great unknown, as we always have.”

“I was planning on a charming little manor in a Bittish Columbia kelping village. It’s hardly the untamed wilderness.”

“With you at my side, Sister, I would charge into the mouth of banality itself.” Luna grinned, pawed at the ground, and snorted out a beige cloud.

Celestia laughed. Not the courtly titter that so rarely punctuated royal court, but the deep belly laugh only a mare of her size could produce, something Luna had hardly ever heard since her return. “So be it then. I can only imagine Twilight’s reaction.”

“Thrilled, I am sure. I have no doubt she has a dozen different checklists prepared for the transition.”

And together, they walked into the dream’s end.