Celestia giggled to herself as she lowered the last doll into place and tied a rope around it, attaching the other end to the large metal spring. With a flick of her horn she levitated pigments from their pots and gave the blank face the scariest expression she could think of. It ended up somewhere between terrifying and shocking, and she smiled as she examined her work. Silver Verve would be coming back any minute now, and when his hooves caught the thin tripwire in the doorway it would spring the trap, locking him in a wicker cage and dangling the hoof-crafted horrors over him.
Celestia smirked. It would serve him right for the stunt he pulled with the mane gel. Addressing the court at Canterlot with an afro was anything but dignified, especially when everypony was too intimidated to mention it. She wondered if Luna had put him up to it, or if he simply felt inclined to continue the prank war on her behalf while she was away.
The sound of hoofsteps from the hallway caught her attention and she ducked behind a plant, using her magic to make it grow taller and the leaves broader to conceal her form completely. She brought her hoof to her mouth, already on the verge of bursting into peals of laughter. Any second now and the prank would be complete. She could already see the expression on Silver's face, sheer terror followed by nervous quivering. It would be absolutely priceless.
The hoofsteps stopped at the doorway for a moment before resuming. There was a yelp, a snapping sound, and several loud crashing noises followed by a scream. Celestia jumped out from behind the plant and shouted in triumph.
Silver Verve lay in a tangled heap on the floor, the cage having fallen sideways on top of him. Celestia looked up and saw that she had forgotten to make sure the lines would all release at the same time. Glancing back at the colt, she noted that he also appeared to have tripped over the line before it released the trap. Some refinements would be necessary, and a repeat performance on Luna an absolute must. She lifted the cage off of Silver and set it aside, pulling him out from under a doll made to look like the child of an Ursa Major and a dragon. The attendant groaned and staggered to his hooves, swaying slightly.
"Ow... That hit me like a ton of bricks..."
He opened his eyes and blinked, waiting for them to focus properly on the pony before him. Gold, white and blue colorations filled his vision and he froze up. As his sight finally cleared he gulped. Celestia gave him a wry smile.
"Sorry about that, Silver. It was my first time using that particular design and it seems it needs a bit more work before I can use it to properly scare somepony. Are you alright?"
Silver nodded slowly. Celestia's smile grew ever so slightly.
"Excellent news. I take it you found it alright?"
With another nod Silver reached back and pulled out a small scroll. Celestia took hold of it with her magic and examined it carefully. The parchment had been enchanted to renew itself constantly in order to preserve it. Luna's ancient magics were still strong, soaked deeply into the fibers and ink. She pulled the ribbon off and discarded it before unfurling the page. Silver shivered slightly.
"Princess... I'm sure you know what you're doing, but this still feels wrong to me. This scroll... I mean, the wards and the locks on it were extensive..."
Celestia peered over the top of the scroll at him and blinked.
"Are you saying you don't want to read it?"
The colt shook his head so rapidly Celestia thought it might fall off. Luna always ended up with the best assistants, or at the very least the most amusing, and Celestia considered reassigning him for the sake of her own entertainment.
"Of course I want to read it, anypony would kill for a chance to read those hidden secrets. But..."
His cheeks turned rosy and he looked down at the floor.
"...Is it really alright for you to be reading your sister's diary?"
Celestia smiled and turned her attention back to the scroll.
"I'm just looking into a few things, and making sure of a few hunches. It's not like she ever wrote anything incriminating in her diary anyway."
Her eyes narrowed as she scanned the last lines.
Silver inched closer, eyebrow raised, trying to sneak a peek. Celestia either didn't notice or didn't care, her thoughts obviously elsewhere.
Today Celly was so mean! Just because we're princesses now doesn't mean she can be a jerky-jerk jerk-face. Discord threw the land into such chaos that we have to rebuild everything from scratch, including the heavens themselves. Celly decided that the day and the night should be a set length so that everypony knows when there'll be light and darkness, but then she decided that the day should be twice as long as the night! It's not fair! Sometimes I wish Celly would stop treating me like a little filly. "When you're older you can have a longer night, when you're more responsible." And that's gonna be never! And to top it all off, ever since we beat Discord I keep getting these weird headaches. Celly says she's gonna find out what that spell he put on me was, but I don't think she even knows where to begin with it. His magic is strange and unnatural, and even now it's constantly changing inside of me. I'm scared, and I think Celly is too, but she'll never admit to it. I just wish we still had the stone spheres that flew out of me. Then we might have a clue. Until then, I have to put up with Celly's constant fussing and meddling and jerk-face-ness.
Celestia rolled the scroll up and secured it with its ribbon. Silver leaned back and straightened up slightly, watching the parchment hover through the air before sliding into the case at his side. The princess turned and walked over to a window, opening it and looking out upon Canterlot.
The colt stood up a little straighter, trying to keep his nervousness out of his voice.
"Yes, Princess Celestia?"
"Come and sit with me a little while."
He walked over to her, glancing back and forth between her and the view. Celestia's expression was unusually grim. After a moment she sat down and sighed, gesturing for him to do the same. Silver made himself comfortable and looked up at her. Celestia's eyes seemed fixed on a spot somewhere near the center of the castle gardens. He didn't dare ask why, and Celestia was thankful that he had opted to remain silent. It gave her a moment to think.
"Let me tell you a little story, Silver, about the Elements of Harmony and a creature known as Discord."
The ponies of Ponyville were used to the occasional royal visit. It wasn't uncommon for Princess Celestia to conduct the holiday celebrations in person, and over the course of a millennium they had perfected the graceful air with which they bowed in her presence, the polite tone of speech with which they greeted her and the respect with which they tended to her needs. Which is precisely what made it so difficult for them to know how to act around Luna.
The alicorn glanced down a side road and saw a group of ponies bow down. She chuckled slightly and returned the gesture, her wings flaring and the tips of her feathers brushing against the ground. Straightening up, she turned to catch up to Twilight and glanced back at the confused and smiling faces of the group.
Luna turned back towards Twilight and nodded, smiling.
"Very much so. I've decided that prostrating myself before my subjects every time they bow before me will get the point across that I don't wish to be treated as their superior, only as their equal. It's also remarkably amusing to see their reactions."
She looked up at the sky as they walked. Her mind refused to stay settled on anything except Nightmare Moon, but she knew if she brooded for too long it would cloud her judgment. It was much better, she thought, to let her mind wander and to focus on happier thoughts while she still could so that stress wouldn't plague her the way it was obviously plaguing the librarian beside her.
Luna looked at Twilight again. Despite getting plenty of sleep she looked completely worn out, but that likely had more to do with the fact that she had the most adorable case of bed-head and so focused on the task at hand that she didn't seem to notice or care. If they weren't on a mission to eradicate a force of darkness before it seized control of an innocent mare for diabolical purposes, Luna would have gladly invited Twilight to let her return the favor and brushed her mane with as much affection as the unicorn had the night before. Twilight looked at Luna out of the corner of her eye and blinked, facing her.
"Is something wrong?"
Luna smirked slightly.
"You didn't hear a word I just said, did you? You were so wrapped up in thought that you went into... I believe the phrase is 'auto-pilot'. I could have been trying to tell you something important and you'd never have known."
Twilight's face turned rosy and she looked down at the ground.
"Sorry, Luna. I just... I have a lot on my mind. Nightmare Moon, the planning, and... you. And then there's everything else that I have to keep up with, the checklists to complete, the schedules to maintain... I'm doing my best not to panic by trying to sort it all out in my head."
Luna nodded and sighed.
"I understand. I was trying to lift your spirits by joking around, but it seems I'm still not particularly good at it."
Twilight gave her a soft smile.
"Well, I certainly appreciate the effort. I think I just need some time to process all of this. So feel free to keep trying, I just don't think I can relax until this is all over."
Luna smiled and extended her wing, brushing the tips of her feather's against Twilight's cheek.
"I'll do my best, Twilight."
They passed by the last collection of buildings wordlessly, stepping onto the path that led to Sweet Apple Acres. Luna could recall the day that Ponyville had been founded and the land divided up. Nopony had wanted the spacious farmland because it was made up of rolling hills instead of level plains, until a colt named Johnny Applesteed came striding into town with a satchel of supplies slung across his back and a mission in his mind to start an apple orchard.
The crop was an instant hit, and it wasn't long before he had enough money to pay off the loans on the land and court the lovely Amber Drops, the mead maker's daughter. Together they perfected a recipe for apple cider so crisp and refreshing that barrels made their way into the court kitchens of Canterlot to be poured for royal guests and unscrupulous kitchen staff who weren't above sneaking a sip. Luna savored the memory, imagining what new treats they had added to their roster. She glanced at Twilight. A refreshing cup of cider might do the worried unicorn a world of good.
She cast her gaze westwards, towards the bright, clear skies. The sun hung in the air , balanced on a golden thread that only her sister could see, tugged along like an obedient dog on a leash. It was nothing like the stars and the moon. The sun was simple and powerful, its light granting life or searing it away as Celestia willed it. The only ponies who could influence it were the weather patrol, their clouds and storms closely monitored and supervised by Canterlot. Luna smirked as a peculiarly bright set of wings attached to a regal-looking unicorn mare fluttered towards the lone cloud that was drifting towards Ponyville. Perhaps there was one pony who could also influence the hold of the sun freely besides her sister after all, albeit not by much.
"Tell me, Twilight, do you report to my sister about the progress of your studies?"
Twilight shook her head.
"Only when it applies to a lesson I've learned. I kinda prefer keeping it a secret so I can impress her when I see her."
Luna nodded and grinned.
"Is that so. So my sister has no idea that you have such a spectacular flight spell mastered to the point where you can cast it and not be absolutely exhausted by it?"
The unicorn raised an eyebrow.
"Not that I know of, Luna. Why do you ask?"
Luna gestured towards Rarity's retreating form.
"Let's just say I have a new prank in mind for my sister, one involving a sudden unexpected shower during her morning walk in the gardens. Can you imagine her, stooping low to sniff a flower, when all of a sudden a cascade of water falls from the sky and douses her? The look on her face..."
They both smiled, giggling softly. Silence fell about them as they approached the farm. They rounded the last few hills, and as the orchard came into view they could almost make out the sounds of Applejack working; the thudding noise of hay bales being slung from the loft to the barn floor. Luna looked around at the fields for a moment, taking in the scenery. It was not entirely unlike the farms she had seen centuries ago, though modern conveniences surely made the jobs easier and the lifestyle a bit more relaxed. There was another loud thud from the barn, followed shortly by a shout.
"Hey! Watch it, Applejack! That one nearly took my head off!"
Luna and Twilight exchanged confused glances.
"Was that... the Element of Loyalty? I thought this farm belonged to the Element of Honesty."
Twilight shrugged, barely able to hear Applejack's retort. It was something about silly fillies needing to mind where they were standing.
"Maybe Rainbow Dash is helping Applejack out? Let's go take a look."
As they approached the barn door they could clearly make out the sound of Rainbow Dash's voice as she and Applejack engaged in a few rounds of verbal jousting. Twilight couldn't help but chuckle a little; the pair of them always seemed to be competing or arguing with each other, but anypony who knew them could see that they were actually good friends.
"I don't care where they're normally supposed to go, Applejack, you didn't look and you didn't warn me!"
"I didn't think it'd be necessary, little miss Iron Pony. I figured you'd be light enough on your hooves to avoid it if you had to."
There was a rustling sound of something landing on straw and Twilight poked her head in through the doorway just in time to see Applejack leap from atop a hay bale at Rainbow Dash, tackling her to the floor. Twilight was about to say something in protest, remembering Rainbow Dash's injury, when she froze up. Applejack was kissing Rainbow Dash, who was kissing back. A bit forcefully, as well. Twilight blinked as Luna leaned around her to see what the commotion was. The princess hesitated before whispering.
"Were they always this close?"
Applejack broke the kiss and sat up, her hooves sliding away from Rainbow Dash's as she released her. She smiled, panting a little, and stared into her eyes for a moment.
"Though apparently not light enough to avoid me."
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and stopped midway, her gaze focused on the doorway and the two confused ponies standing there. It was hard to tell at first glance who they were with the sun behind them, but the horns, crown and mane colors gave them away fairly easily.
"Uh... Hey, Twilight. And Princess Luna."
Applejack's head spun around and she looked out the door, eyes wide.
"Twilight! What a, uh... pleasant surprise!"
Twilight's jaw hung open in a prolonged, silent gasp. Luna gently prodded her shoulder, her gaze moving from the two mares disentangling themselves on the barn floor to the scholar and back.
"I do believe you've incapacitated Twilight. I think I'm going to have to commend you, if only because you've demonstrated a capacity to completely blindside her."
Applejack and Rainbow Dash gave her confused stares and Luna sighed softly.
"Was that not clear? Let me try this then: Well done. You broke her."
Twilight closed her eyes and shook her head, blinking. After a moment's pause she finally spoke.
"Well, I can't say it's a complete surprise, but... How long have you two been a couple for?"
Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow.
"Not much of a surprise? What the hay is that supposed to-"
Applejack pressed a hoof to Rainbow Dash's lips.
"Since yesterday. We both admitted to things we've been hidin' for a long time and it just sorta happened all at once."
Twilight nodded slowly. After a moment she sighed.
"I don't have time to make a big deal out of this, so I'm just going to accept it and move on and potentially flip out later when we're not completely doomed. We have an emergency, girls."
"A very serious one at that. Nightmare Moon has returned. A portion of the darkness that plagued me broke off and escaped, and is presently attempting to use Fluttershy as a vessel."
Rainbow Dash and Applejack exchanged worried glances. Applejack adjusted her hat and bowed.
"We're at your service, Princess Luna."
Applejack loaded up her saddlebags with everything she could think of, choosing quickly and carefully. She tied the flaps closed and tossed it onto her back, fastening the buckle. She glanced in the direction of the shifting noises beside her and scowled.
"Dashie, you're not coming with us."
Rainbow Dash dropped the bag she was filling and stamped her hoof.
"Yeah right! There's no way I'm letting Twilight run off to fight Nightmare Moon on her own, and that goes double for you! I don't care if I'm hurt, I'm coming with you. I have to."
Applejack shook her head.
"No, you don't. Twilight already explained that she only needs one of us, and if you think for one minute that I won't tie you up and leave you here in the barn until I get back you've got another thing comin', missy. You promised me you'd stay out of trouble, and correct me if I'm wrong but didn't I just make that clear to Twilight while she was explainin' everythin'?"
The pegasus opened her mouth to protest, and Applejack could read the look of "who cares about promises?" on her face, but Rainbow Dash simply sighed and lowered her head.
"I guess now I know how you feel all the time, huh. I'm scared, AJ. Not a lot, I'm not some stupid filly afraid of the dark or anything, but... just a little bit. I feel like something really bad is going to happen to you if I don't follow you. And Fluttershy... I mean, she's my oldest friend and all I can do is stay here in the barn? I just can't... sit here and do nothing about it..."
Applejack brushed her hoof against Rainbow Dash's cheek and the blue mare jumped forwards and embraced her in a crushingly tight hug. Applejack held her close, giving her a soft squeeze. Rainbow Dash sniffled.
"Not so tight, Applejack, you'll squeeze all my tears out... You're gonna make me look like a great big sissy or something. Not cool"
With a chuckle Applejack ruffled Rainbow Dash's mane and kissed her cheek, letting the other mare bury her face against her chest.
"I'll just have to come back in one piece and make it up to you then, won't I."
Rainbow Dash nodded and nuzzled her gently.
"You'd better, because I'm not gonna let you get away with making me cry. Jerk."
She kissed Applejack and held her for a few moments longer before releasing her. Applejack smiled.
Applejack adjusted the straps on her bag as she walked towards Luna and Twilight. The unicorn looked her up and down for a moment before nodding.
"Got everything you need?"
Applejack chuckled a little and flipped one of the flaps up, revealing stacks of rope, several harnesses and a variety of other tools.
"And the other side has the rest of my gear. I think we're about ready to head out."
Twilight smiled and adjusted her own pack.
"Alright then. Let's get going."
They headed for the door, walking down the path towards the main road. Rainbow Dash watched them from the doorway, cursing her injured back and uttering a silent prayer for Applejack in the same breath.