Together Forever

by Snake Staff

Chapter 1: The Beginning

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I should be dead.

Whoa there! It isn’t what you’re thinking! Yes, in most cases those words would be coming from the mouth of a suicidally depressed pony. But that’s not me. In my case, those words aren’t so much a declaration of lack of will to live as an objective observation. My body, the flesh I was born to, succumbed to the ravages of old age and crumbled to dust more than… three centuries ago, I think it was. Maybe four by this point. I’ll have to ask Twily, I’m sure she has an exact date, down to the second if I know that mare.

I suppose I should introduce myself. Tartarus’ gates, it’s been a long time since I’ve done that. Most everypony I see knows who I am, and for those few that don’t a long series of royal announcers have been there to clear that up.

My name is Shining Armor, Prince of the Crystal Empire, Husband to Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, Brother to Princess Twilight Sparkle, Captain of the Crystal Guard, Patriarch of the Royal House, and Celestia knows how many more titles and honors I could list. And I should be dead.

My hooves clatter loudly against the crystal steps of our tower-palace as I walk down the stairs beside my lovely wife. You know, on the day we were married, I was actually a bit taller than her. Funny, but true. Now she’s as big as Luna was all those years ago, and she can look down on me pretty easily. Alicron growth, as I’ve learned, slows dramatically as they age until it culminates in the beautiful, statuesque figures enjoyed by Celestia, and later, Luna. Cadence isn’t quite there yet, but give her a couple more centuries and she should be.

Her hooves still make that natural, soft clopping sound when she walks. Mine make the hard crack of rock slamming into rock. No other pony I’ve ever heard sounds quite like me when they trod the Crystal Empire. You might think this was a small thing, but to me it just serves as another daily reminder of what’s become of me. I’ve had most my regular haunts – the center of the throne room, our chambers, the more private staircases – carpeted, just so I don’t have to be reminded of it quite so often. On the public Grand Staircase, however, that just isn’t politic, so I grit my teeth and bare it.

As it always does, a small voice haunts the back of my mind as we descend.

This isn’t walking.

I glance up at my wife. Cadence – always so perceptive, so attuned to me after all these years – catches my glimpse in the corner of those wonderful violet eyes. She gives me a soft smile, as if to reassure me. Her left wing stretches out just a little bit and runs itself over my back for a few seconds. Maybe a bit informal for such a big event, but honestly after ruling for so many years a pony earns the right to violate a tiny bit of protocol every once in a while. The comforting gesture is appreciated, but as to the actual wings… there aren’t really words in our language to properly describe it. I can sense that she’s stroking me with those long, preened feathers of hers, but I can’t feel their soft touch. All I can perceive is that there’s a slight pressure on my back that moves back and forth for a short time, then lifts itself. In spite of her intentions, my wife’s sweet gesture only makes the damned voice speak up again.

This isn’t feeling.

Still, whatever I’m feeling, I’m a Prince, and this is an international summit. I have a duty to my ponies, my office, and my wife not to spoil it with my own sour mood. So it is that I push the thoughts away as our latest Royal Herald, Thundering Voice, announces our arrival to the hall full of guests.

“And finally, please welcome our esteemed hosts, their royal majesties Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and Prince Shining Armor of the Crystal Empire!”

The hall breaks out into the polite, refined, upper-class stamping I’ve heard so much of. I smile and wave with my wife, falling into a well-rehearsed routine. The lords and ladies of our land and many beyond are here, and it would be rude to disappoint them. Even as I do, my eyes scan the crowd for the delegates I really am excited to see. Thankfully, alicorns are rarely difficult to pick out in a crowd. Celestia and Luna, or “dear Aunties” as they’ve insisted I call them, are here, dressed up for the occasion and wearing those serene smiles they can always manage. My smile becomes a bit more genuine when I spy my Little Sister Best Friend Forever right next to them.

It feels a bit weird to call a mare your LSBFF when she’s a good head taller than you and still growing, but to me Twily will always be that adorable little filly I cuddled and whose closet I had to search for the boogie-mare. Her mane finally picked up that ethereal, flowing quality that marks an older alicorn about eighty years ago, while I was visiting Canterlot. For all that she’s grown and matured, I distinctly remember her squealing like a filly when somepony pointed it out to her. The pictures I took of her hopping around as if Starswirl the Bearded had come back to life and offered to personally tutor her may or may not have something to do with that particular memory. She’s smiling and, proving that she isn’t any more concerned about court protocol than she’s ever been, cheerfully waving back at Cadence and I.

Right beside “little” Twily is her ever-loyal assistant, Spike. My, how that one has grown. He’s around twice my LSBFF’s size now, with long green wings to match her pair. He never did enjoy these kind of events, so I wonder what she had promise him to convince him to come along. Whatever it is, he’s likely to get it – the crystal ponies’ outright worship of him may have faded a bit with the passing of generations, but that dragon is still very well regarded around these parts.

My smile slips just a fraction when I spy the two members of the Equestrian delegation that I’m not so happy to see. Prince Blueblood and Princess Bluebelle, the twin heirs to the legacy of House Blueblood and walking counterevidence to the theory of the superiority of noble blood. How the reigning Prince Blueblood that was around when I was born managed to convince a mare to wed him I’ll never know, but eventually he did. Centuries later, the twin brother and sister are his latest descendants. I’ll admit to having considered the possibility that they’re his reincarnations, but at the moment I’ve concluded that the condition is genetic.

But naturally, as I remember my unpleasant associations with Bluebloods past and present, that little voice comes back into my head.

This isn’t seeing.

It’s as if that thing is governed by a particularly malicious personal demon, determined to spoil my good times and make the bad ones worse. Perhaps it’s Discord. Wouldn’t be the first time that “reformed” chaos spirit decided to have a bit fun at a political gathering.

In a strict sense, of course, what I do is seeing. In fact, it’s 20-20 vision, better than I had in all but the very prime of my natural life. Everything is sharp and clear, and I can focus in or out at will to pick out the tiniest details or sweep a broad crowd. If I wanted to, I could even apply filters to the scene before me to see into the Aether and observe all the magic here. It has been helpful, I’m not afraid to confess, but these eyes aren’t mine. Imagine, if you will, seeing everything through a particularly high-quality camera. There’s just a perpetual sense of wrongness about the world.

The stamping slowly dies down, and Cadence and I make our way down the last of the stairs and into the crowd of visiting dignitaries. I can see delegates from Equestria, Zebrica, Bitaly, the Gryphon Empire, Minotauria, Prance, Canida, and many more. We have hundreds of guests here, all to endure – excuse me, “attend” – what’s become a generational ritual: the World Forum of Peace and Cooperation. For a solid week, guests will listen to speeches, attend balls and feasts, socialize, and fraternize, all for the purpose of building trust and friendship between our lands. Then they’ll go home, forget the whole thing, and do what they were going to do anyway.

Do I sound a bit cynical? Sorry, it’s hard to remain optimistic when you remember that many of these delegates are from nations with blood grudges against each other, land disputes, trade wars, religious tensions, and so on. On one particularly memorable occasion, two nations actually went to war over drunken insults exchanged between ambassadors during one of these conferences. I know Twily meant well when she started this whole tradition two centuries ago, but even as the Princess of Friendship she’s still a bit naïve about the power of violence.

After the first WFPC at Twily’s castle, it was decided to hold it in a different place every time, to symbolize the international nature of the event. This year, it’s the Crystal Empire’s turn to host. Lucky us.

My wife and I are forced to smile and spend the next few minutes shaking hooves with our honored guests. I try and put on my best face, ignoring the odd looks I get from those that haven’t seen me before and the disdain in the eyes of not a few that have. Cadence and I stick together – it’s more pleasant that way. Far fewer ponies are likely to call me “crystal freak” under their breath or otherwise insult me with an alicorn princess at my side. By Imperial tradition, I’m obliged to defend my honor in a ceremonial joust under certain conditions, and I’d rather not mar Twily’s event with an honor duel, whatever I may think of its effectiveness. She’s my LSBFF, after all, and she’s always happy when this goes off without a hitch.

“Shiny!” my ears pick out of the crowd’s ambient noise.

I turn to face the source of the sound. “Twily!”

This isn’t hearing.

That voice can shut it. My sister is here, and I won’t be the one to bring her down.

My little sister wraps her hoofs around me, in blatant violation of royal protocol. But I don’t give a toss and hug her right back. We both squeeze tight, but neither of us has any need of air in the first place. Besides, my body isn’t even soft enough to bend under her grip. My happiness at seeing her again is only somewhat disturbed by the fact that I still can only sense pressure – the warm feel of my little Twily’s legs around my neck is only a fond memory.

“It’s so good to see you again, BBBFF!” she squeals excitedly. “I-” Her eyes finally alert her to the fact that some ponies near us have broken conversation and are staring. There’s a light blush on her face before she assumes that unnatural court pose and gives me a ceremonial bow. “I humbly thank you for your hospitality, Prince Armor.”

I repress the sigh before replying as befits a princess of Equestria. “I bid you a warm welcome, Princess Sparkle,” I say, also ceremonially bowing to her.

Cadence and Twilight glance at each other, and it’s clear to me that both want to do that cute little dance they’ve had since foalhood. Still, both have other duties to see to now, so they indulge in a polite and restrained greeting that neither seems to truly enjoy.

So it goes for nearly three hours. Cadence and I greet guest after guest after guest, from Crystal Empire nobility to Zebrican ambassadors. If I’m being honest, I don’t remember most of their names. I may be blessed with an imitation of their longevity, but I have nothing near an alicorn’s memory. Or it may be that I simply don’t care. Most of these assorted ponies will be gone from the Empire soon. By the time of the next WFPC, almost all of them will be in a different position and won’t be back. Or else simply be dead.

A guest I do recognize presents herself. Frankly, I’d rather she hadn’t.

“Your majesties,” says Lady Rose Quartz, widow of the late Lord Topaz, as she bows her head. She looks to Cadence first, a smile on her face. “Princess Cadenza. It is an honor to be guests in your palace. I thank you sincerely, from the bottom of my heart.” Cadence offers her hoof, which Lady Quartz takes and shakes politely. She turns to me, and her smile fades. “My Prince,” she offers, simply. I take her hoof and shake it. It’s a slight thing, but I detect a brief alteration in pressure consistent with a shudder the moment our hooves meet.

A stallion is standing behind Lady Quartz, looking to be waiting politely. She gestures for him to come forwards. He bows ritually to each of us. Cadence first, of course. As he does so, I’m trying to place him, but coming up blank.

“My son,” the good Lady interrupts my thoughts to answer the question. “Gleaming Jewel.”

“Your majesties,” he says. “I thank you for your hospitality.”

Unusually, he looks to me first. I offer my hoof, and he shakes it. It’s polite, but firm, and if he is disgusted by me he does a good job of hiding it. He turns his attention to my wife, and she also offers her hoof. He bends his head down and kisses it lightly. Cadence’s face remains as serene as ever, but I can see her wings ruffle slightly, feathers standing on end. Though not forbidden, this method of greeting is… unorthodox, especially to a married mare.

“Again, my thanks, your highnesses,” Gleaming Jewel bows again before he and his mother fade back into the crowd around us.

“Let the feast begin!” says Thundering Voice, in his usual bombastic bass tone.

After the “excitement” that is the initial gathering, the welcoming feast forms the formal start of the WFPC. For all the delegates that have arrived, even our largest dining room is inadequate. Circumstances have forced us instead to hold the meal outdoors, dozens of tables arranged in neat rows underneath our towering palace. Cadence and I, as the hosts, are seated at the head of the central table, to be served first.

Or, at least, we would, if either of us were actually eating here.

This isn’t feasting.

Shut up already, damned voice.

As I look up and down the many dishes set out on the table for our guests, I feel a ghost of hunger. I know it’s a ghost because I don’t have a stomach anymore. I neither need nor can consume food. My throat is carved deeply enough into my neck to avoid disconcerting anypony, but that’s it. It connects to nothing, so any food I swallow simply stays back there until somepony removes it or else it rots. That does wonders for a stallion’s breath, let me tell you. In any case, I have no sense of taste, so there’s no point in even pretending to consume anything. Still, I can remember vividly all sorts of wonderful foods I used to eat. It’s enough to make a stallion’s mouth water.

If, you know, this mouth was capable of watering.

Cadence, sweet as always, can eat but never does so in front of me. She knows that it bothers me, and willingly sinks to my level to try and make me even a bit happier. It’s sweet, but what does it say about a pony when his very special somepony has to lower herself to make up for his weaknesses?

Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice in marrying her. Not for me, you understand – she’s been the most wonderful wife a stallion could ask for – but for her. I am, or was, a mortal; she, an immortal. My body withered and died after little more than a century of life, even with her best magical and medical care. Hers not only endures, but grows more beautiful and powerful with every passing year. Could another pony care for her better if I were out of the way, or had never been there in the first place? Perhaps, if she had waited and wed an alicorn male instead, she might be better off. I’ve never seen one, but Celestia’s told me that she and Luna’s father was such a stallion, so I know they must exist somewhere. I’m not a foal anymore - she shouldn’t need to take care of me like this.

It’s a bit late to ask questions like that, though. Cadence, my lovely princess, seems to have gotten quite attached to me. When I was on my deathbed, she was completely distraught. She refused to leave my bedside at the hospital and return to ruling, no matter what anypony said or did. Not even Celestia or Luna could get her to budge. I tried to convince her to let me go, but when she really wants something that mare can be damned stubborn. She even whispered to me one night that she was considering taking her own life if I passed, no matter what I or anypony else thought about it. Even joked that it was “motivation for you to get better”. I never knew she had a thing for gallows humor before that. Alicorns naturally live forever, but they can be killed; that much I knew. Sombra, after all, had accomplished that very feat in his coup.

In the end, Twily – sweet, sweet LSBFF – was the one who discovered a solution. She’d been desperately researching ways to stop death since the first her friends, the Elements of Harmony, began themselves to age and pass away. In the end, she found something in one of Sombra’s old labs. The tyrant king and I, for everything else that was different about us, shared the fact that we were mortal unicorns. He too had sought a method to preserve the lives of ponies throughout all the ages of the world – though only for himself, naturally. Twily came up with something based on his notes on the soul.

Cadence had to beg me for days before I agreed. I didn’t – and still don’t – particularly wish to live forever. Still, I’m a defender at heart. Not a very good one, by any measure I can think of, but a defender nonetheless. I couldn’t protect my wife from Chrysalis or Sombra as I had wished, but I could at least protect her from suicidal depression. In the end, I consented. My body died, but I lived on. At a price.

Listen to me, complaining even after having had centuries to get used to this. But how can a pony get used to life as a soul in an animated crystal statue of himself?

Cadence and I slip into bed together, after hour after tedious hour of enduring the ceremonial feast, speeches, and a quick dance. This bed is the same one where we made our twin foals, I remember. I’ll never forget those innocent little eyes looking up at their papa for the first time. I’ll also never forget the days I attended their funerals. And those of my grandfoals. And great-grandfoals. And great-great-grandfoals. Nopony should have to go through that. But we still have family here in the Crystal Empire, so barring miracles my wife and I will have to do it again. And again. And again. And again. Forever.

Obviously I’m not capable of… that sort of thing anymore. Probably for the best, all things considered. Though Cadence deserves a stallion who can, there’s no real point in bringing it up. Like I said, the mare is damned stubborn when she wants to be. She’d never agree to take a consort. Same damned alicorn martyrdom complex that afflicts her aunts, if you ask me.

Cadence nuzzles the back of my neck. She doesn’t say anything, just rubs her nose affectionately. I wish I could feel it. Really feel it, like I used to. But if I had a bit for every time I’d wished something similar…

I roll over and nuzzle her back. My carved crystal muzzle is smooth as glass, but nowhere near as soft as a coat. Still, it’s all I can really do. She smiles warmly at me and kisses me lightly on the nose.

“Goodnight, Shining,” she whispers to me as she slowly closes her eyes.

“Goodnight, Cadence,” I whisper back.

As I get ready to shut down for the night, the voice comes back, one more time.

This isn’t living.

Author's Notes:

I've seen quite a few fics where Cadence is attending Shining Armor's deathbead, or Twilight is doing the same to one of her friends, but I wanted to do something a little different with this one. Tell me what you think in the comments.

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