Sitting by a hallway window in Canterlot Castle, Starswirl the Bearded watched life pass him by. Hearth’s Warming Eve was very different now than it was back then, before his thousand year long self-exile.
A small celebration meant to honor the recent unification of pony races was now a kingdom-wide event where the holiday’s history did not matter quite as much as how many presents one received.
“Quickly now! It’s already night-time! The feast won’t be ready!” cried a cook, rushing past the spot where the elderly unicorn sat.
“The costumes! Where is Perfect Stitch!?” yelled a mare, practically tripping over the Hearth’s Warming outfits held in her hooves.
He had returned from his travels across the kingdom to spend the holiday in Canterlot, but…
If being stuck in limbo for a thousand years had taught him anything, it was that life went on. While he and the other pillars had once been the heroes of Equestria, now they were hoofnotes compared to Twilight Sparkle and her friends. While he had once been a mentor to two young and restless alicorns, he now found they did not need him at all.
Life went on. It was the natural and proper course of life, and though he accepted and even encouraged it, it was still…
“Something wrong, Master Starswirl?”
His ears twitched and a smile swept across his lips. He turned to his side and acknowledged the midnight-blue alicorn peering down at him, a cup of what he expected to be coffee floating behind her. He remembered her as a constantly pouting filly, always upset that Tia was always getting the advanced lessons.
And now there she was, tall and grown-up and nearly a thousand years older than him.
“It is strange,” he said.
“What is?” she asked, and he derived some amount of comfort in recognizing a curious filly in her eyes.
“To see you nearly eye-to-eye without the need for you to sit on crates,” he remarked, and a laugh left his lips at the faint blush that brushed her cheeks. “Three crates to be twice as tall as Celestia, if I remember correctly.”
“I was not trying to be taller than Tia!” she protested, the immediacy of it betraying the truth. It was just like a little filly insisting she was not peeking at her sister’s scrolls and notes. “I was trying to see you equally!”
“And now it is I who looks up to you,” he replied, and a laugh left his lips at the pleased smile that pushed itself onto hers. “Strange times, indeed.”
“Tia and I were hoping you would come for the holiday,” she said, taking a sip of her drink and eyeing the ponies rushing around. “It…” She paused, measured. “It is most different than back then, is it not?” A pause, almost imperceptible, and then she quickly added with a perceptible tinge of hasty shame, “For you, I mean.”
He stayed silent for a moment. A slip of the tongue, perhaps, but he knew what she had truly meant. He hadn’t asked her yet, even if he knew what had happened. It was a conflicting emotion, to find out that his young pupil had turned to evil during his absence.
And it was, perhaps, even more conflicting to realize she had been no different than the insecure pony he and the others had quickly and unflinchingly cast into limbo.
What difference was there between Nightmare Moon and the Pony of Shadows?
Would he have cast her away as easily as he had Stygian?
The mere thought of it was ridiculous, and yet…
“Master Starswirl?” she prompted, and he realized he had drifted away.
“It is very different, yes,” he replied, dismissing the thought as quickly as he had Stygian’s innocent pleas. He was not proud of it. “But! You will guide me through it, I expect?”
She opened her mouth, intent on speaking, but another pony spoke before her.
“Princess Luna!” said a guard, rushing to the Princess and not even sparing him a glance.
Time ago, ponies would treat him with utmost respect. Now? He was simply a street name in Canterlot, and an author mentioned only in advanced magic lessons. He’d been told that at best he was a party costume.
“Princess, you’re needed in the armory,” the guard said, saluting the alicorn. “Captain Rift Shield wants to discuss security protocol for tonight.”
Princess Luna nodded gravely, which was something Starswirl hadn’t expected. He had half-expected her to complain about it, to pout about having to be in a meeting, and he then had to remind himself that the young filly he’d taught was long gone.
“How much time does he need?” she asked.
“About two hours,” the guard replied, and when the Princess groaned in horror, then did Starwirl see his student once again.
She turned to her old teacher and offered him an apologetic look. “Master Starswirl, I—”
“You are a princess of Equestria, Luna,” he said, and there was as much a hint of pride in the fact as there was a tinge of sadness knowing he had not been there to see her become the political figure he’d trained her into. “I hope you have not forgotten my most important lesson.”
She wrinkled her nose. “My duty lies with Equestria and the needs of its ponies,” she recited.
“And not with what an old stallion wants,” he added.
She smiled brightly at him, as she did long ago, and then followed after the guard, missing the torn expression that shadowed his face.
Life moved on, and time did not wait for those in limbo.
His eventual meanderings led him further into the castle, away from the hall and towards what he’d been told was the direction of the throne room. It was strange, just as Luna’s height was, that this was the castle of the Two Sisters and yet it was not. The building itself—tall and imposing and towering over Equestria—was just as foreign to him as the kingdom and its rulers.
All around him, castle staff continued to work on the celebration, the smiles decorating their faces as bright as the festive lights hung from rafters, around windows, and wherever light was needed.
For as long as he’d lived, Starswirl the Bearded had been an observer. He observed the effects of magic, he observed life, and politics, and then he taught about it, expositioned about it, and that had been his way of life. To put in scrolls and in the hearts of others the lesson he derived from observing life from an external point of view.
And now, now that he was well and truly an external point of view, detached from this Equestria and the ponies in it, he could not help but admit there was a certain solitude to be found in his way of life.
As he approached the throne room, he noticed a plethora of ponies going in and out, and peeking inside the room revealed Celestia sitting atop her throne, eyebrows knitted together as she listened and advised the many ponies who sought her wisdom. Gone was the adolescent alicorn who played at being wise, and there was the adult alicorn who truly was.
Wiser than even him, perhaps. It was another strange thought, to know his student was now a thousand years the teacher he ever was.
He stepped into the grand room and stood in line with the others, engaging a nearby mare and stallion in small talk. In truth, he mostly listened. If his little debacle with Stygian and Twilight Sparkle had taught him anything, it was that he’d forgotten that wisdom comes from listening and learning, not from assuming one knows best.
“Who are you supposed to be?” the stallion asked, trying to make tails or heads of Starswirl’s outdated getup. He lifted a hoof and tapped it against one of the bells hanging from the unicorn’s hat, an action which drew a delighted laugh out of both his companion and the wizard himself.
To think that a thousand years ago, ponies would exile themselves over addressing him improperly! Strange, strange, strange, and yet delightful too for once.
Starswirl stroked his beard, donning the air of severity that came naturally to him. “Who am I supposed to be?” he asked, and with complete sincerity replied, “An old fool.”
The mare laughed. “Aren’t we all, a bit?” she asked.
“Perhaps,” Starswirl replied, stroking his beard. “Perhaps.”
As the conversation continued, the line of ponies before Celestia moved and waned, and it wasn’t long before he found himself at the front.
The monarch blinked at him for a moment, as if she’d forgotten he had indeed returned from limbo, but a delighted smile soon bloomed on her lips.
“Master Starswirl,” she greeted, sitting up straight, as she once used to do whenever addressing him. She arched an eyebrow, and with all the cheekiness to be had from years of experience, playfully asked, “Do you have a concern that needs to be addressed?”
He cleared his throat and frowned. “Many, indeed, Your Highness,” he said with severity, and held back a smile when her playfulness vanished nigh immediately.
She did not stammer, as she did as a young one when called out by her teacher, but she did seem concerned.
“Many? That is troubling indeed,” she said, clearing her own throat and taking the stance of a monarch ready to listen and serve. “What concerns are these?”
“Well! The first is that you and your sister still address me by ‘Master’ when I am hardly that anymore,” he complained, and finally smiled when relief washed her face.
“Oh, and here I was worried!” she chastised, yet she still offered him a fond look. “It’s a force of habit, Mas—” She caught herself in her mistake, and laughed when he arched an eyebrow. A clearing of her throat, and she spoke anew, “It was a force of habit, Starswirl.”
She paused. Her nose scrunched up. “That was strange,” she confessed.
“But necessary. Now more than ever we are equals, Your Highness,” he reminded, and he nearly rolled her eyes at the almost ridiculously pleased expression that decorated her face. “I do hope your own pupil wasn’t nearly as pleased by your praise as you still seem to be by mine.”
Her cheeks tinted red. “Point taken,” she conceded. “But it is hard not to fall back on old habits when you are still the same as ever, Mas—Starswirl! Goodness, Twilight makes foregoing honorifics seem so easy!” She sighed. “Regardless, you are still the same as ever.”
“I should hope so! Perhaps a bit smarter now, too,” he replied. He looked around, towards the ponies surrounding him in this foreign castle. “I am also out of my time.”
Her ears lowered, and he wondered if she saw her sister in him. “It is… different,” she noted. “A lot has changed in a thousand years, Starswirl, but I believe you will find it has changed for the better.”
A hum left Starswirl’s lips. “Well, I—”
“Your Highness…” a nearby guard interrupted, and only when said guard gestured behind the elder unicorn did Starswirl notice the extraordinary long line of ponies that had formed behind him.
Celestia offered him a pained expression. “Ah… May we perhaps continue this conversation later in the night?”
“Of course, Princess,” he said at once, bowing his head to whom he was now reminded was the ruler and true wise pony of Equestria. It was heartening and painful at the same time.
Without another word, Starswirl trotted off, barely listening to Celestia kindly greet the next in line. He made his way across the throne room, past the doors, and it was until he was outside that he realized he did not know anypony else in the castle. The two mares he’d been interested in speaking with had long outgrown a necessity for a mentor, and…
Well, he certainly wasn’t going to interfere with the duties he once prepared them for.
So, with that in mind…
“Excuse me, young miss,” he asked, stopping a nearby mare. “Do you know where I might find the carriages?”
The Castle of the Two Sisters was empty.
The wind howled through the abandoned halls, through the cracks in the walls, the shattered windows, and the remains of a battle he’d not lived through. Shadows of a life long gone, whispers of a past that was only yesterday for him.
It was the first time he’d been home since he and the other Pillars had returned, and it was as strange as everything else to see his once bright home sunk in shadow, darkness, and decay. His hoofsteps echoed as he walked, eyes observing as ever the passing of time. Armor on the wall, crooked and dirty. Paintings of the great heroes of the past, faded and torn.
What a time to be melancholic, but was Hearth’s Warming not an occasion to honor the past? To remember it and treasure it?
“Master Starswirl! Will I be learning teleportation today?”
“Tia is learning teleportation? I wish to learn as well! I wish to learn first!”
“Now, now, fillies, all in due time.”
His horn flashed, and rusty torches crackled back to life, the bright flames illuminating his path to the old library and what had once been his old study. Rather than finding it decrepit and empty as he’d expected, he found it was perhaps the only room in the entire castle that looked… well, not perfectly kept, but tended to, at least. The pillows on the floor hardly looked thousand of years old, and the blanket, though dusty, was in perfect condition.
He had an inkling Twilight Sparkle was responsible.
He stepped into the room, lighting up the torches scattered around, and moved towards the bookshelves. A surge of pride coursed through him at the discovery that they were all still in perfect condition, a sign of his ancient preservation spell having been a resounding success.
He picked one at random, a book from his dearly departed friend Sage Scroll, and after dusting off the pillows, he sat down and contented himself with spending the holiday reading books. He read and read and read, losing himself in the words, and the nitpicks, and the sad discovery that, a thousand years later, the book wasn’t as good as he remembered.
But, he was determined to finish it up until distant voices distracted him.
How long had he been there? Two guards from the castle had been kind enough to offer carriage transport to the castle, and he clearly remembered telling them not to wait for him. He put the book down, the flames of the torches flickering off with a crackle of magic, and hoping there was nothing to worry about, he cautiously made his way out of the room and towards the intruders.
As he got closer, an exasperated voice sounded off.
“Really! You were supposed to make sure he was entertained!”
“Me?! It is always I that is at fault to you! I was busy with the guards! And considering how you crave his attention so much, I expected you would entertain him while I was gone!”
“For goodness’s sake, Luna, it’s been a thousand years! I don’t mean to sound crass, but get over it!”
Stepping into the main hall with a grin on his face, Starswirl was never more pleased to find his two former students arguing their heads off.
“It has been a thousand years, yes,” he said loudly, and what a sight to see two extraordinary alicorns jump back in fear, “but I am delighted to see some things never change.”
Luna spoke first, aghast. “A-ah! Here you are, Maste—!”
“Luna! Remember!” Celestia whispered urgently, receiving a very insolent eye-roll in return.
Before they could resume their bickering, the elder spoke first. “Well, this is a surprise! What are you two doing here? I didn’t think you’d notice I left.”
“Of course we did,” Celestia said almost immediately, and it was strange to hear her almost motherly-tone.
“We were hoping to spend time with you once our duties were done,” Luna added.
He stroked his beard. “Really? I remember a filly complaining about having to spend Hearth’s Warming Eve studying with her teacher rather than playing with the other children,” he teased, laughing at the grimace that twisted Luna’s face, and how it clashed with the delighted grin on Celestia’s.
Luna stepped forwards, almost timidly so. “Maste—” She cut herself off. “I mean, Starswirl.”
“Strange, isn’t it?” Celestia commented.
“Starswirl,” Luna continued, “Why did you leave? Did you not like the festivities?”
“Oh, I did! They are very much different than our—mine, but…” he drifted off, and looked around. “I believe I needed some time to think about the past before I move forward. I’m sure you can understand that feeling, Luna.”
Luna nodded, subdued. “I do.”
“But!” He stepped up to them. “I think I have pondered the past enough for today. Shall we return to the castle? I imagine the realm must need its two rulers.”
“Actually…” Celestia began, signaling for Luna to join her, “Luna and I aren’t needed at the castle immediately. We were hoping to spend time with you here without, well…”
“Interruptions,” Luna finished. “If that is all right with you.”
He laughed. “Your Highnesses, I am the one who should ask that of you. I don’t want this old fool to interrupt your duties to the realm, after all. It would be against every lesson I ever taught you!”
Celestia laughed. “But you are not our teacher any longer, Starswirl,” she gently reminded. “Though you remain our family. Another thing that, I believe, has not changed.”
It had been a while since tears last wet the stallion’s eyes.
“Well! I would hope it hasn’t,” he admitted. Rather than wipe away his tears, he gestured towards the path from whence he came. “Shall we head to my study?”
Luna laughed, grimacing slightly as she stepped towards her former teacher. “Those words… They bring bad memories…”
Celestia giggled, striding ahead of Luna in a brisk trot. “Well, if you hadn’t been so misbehaved as a filly…”
“Now, Celestia, I don’t remember Luna being the only one to misbehave,” Starswirl pointed out, walking besides his family. “Why, I remember our trip to Trottingham…”
“I do not remember that at all.”
“I do! I do! ‘Tis my fondest memory!”
Their laughter echoed through the halls, and as two sisters argued over the past, an old fool found himself looking forward to the future.