It was the night of the Grand Galloping Gala and Princess Luna was thoroughly flustered. She stood in front of her mirror, pouting at her own reflection. Celestia had gone to great lengths to set the evening up for her, lowering the sun early and helping her to raise the moon and coerce the stars out of hiding so she would have time to prepare herself. She had even taken the liberty of personally greeting every guest on her behalf so that Luna wouldn't have an excuse to escape from the party itself.
Luna adjusted her tiara and smoothed out the dress Celestia had picked out for her for the fifth time in as many minutes. She frowned a little at the puffy, lacy affair that now adorned her form, all ribbons and silk and crushed velvet with a large, elaborate skirt that made her feel uncomfortable about the size of her flank. When Celestia had told her no bit had been spared to prepare for the gala Luna had been shocked, even appalled by the flagrant misuse of the treasury to fund an event solely for the aristocracy. When Celestia had then added that the elements of harmony were invited and that Luna herself was to be the center of attention for the evening she had nearly fainted. Luna cursed that mischievous smirk her sister always wore when she was being a... a... Luna thought it over for a moment and decided that her sister was acting like one of the trolls of myth, creatures of deception, trickery and schadenfreude. She nodded to her reflection, who was wearing a smile of triumph at the shared discovery. She cursed that mischievous smirk her sister always wore when she was being a troll.
Her desire to gloat was quickly crushed when she remembered she was still in the dress and was still expected to head out into the ballroom to socialize. The realization of just how utterly unprepared she was hit her like a falling piano. As if socializing wasn't difficult enough with a millennium-wide culture gap, the fact that the elements of harmony would be there filled her with a mixture of fear and dread. Certainly after the defeat of Nightmare Moon they had been friendly with her, even going so far as throwing a party and celebrating with her, but were they in good spirits because of her or because she was no longer Nightmare Moon? She shivered at the loneliness of the thought and felt something like laughter in the back of her mind as the tiny sliver of her former self stirred among her memories.
Her eyes scanned the bare walls of her room as the mocking chuckles of Nightmare Moon ceased echoing through her mind. No one was glad she had returned. Celestia's room had pictures and letters adorning the walls, with many more forming neat piles in her study for her to peruse at her pleasure. After transforming into Nightmare Moon and blowing her old room up in the process all Luna had to line the walls of her new bedroom with were books on culture, history and law and an abacus that she had rescued from a museum. She walked over to it, idly clicking and clacking the beads.
Even with her magic still somewhat unstable after returning to what she supposed could be called normal she had been able to restore it completely, the wood shiny and polished with black wood-stain, the beads painted with silver and pale blues. It looked just like the night sky and she manipulated it just as freely. She smiled and quickly calculated just how long she'd be out among the crowds if she went along with Celestia's plan, taking into account the numerous excuses she had prepared to buy a few minutes here and there to herself. Her jaw dropped as the last bead hit home and she stared at the abacus as though it were telling her a most horrifying and obvious lie. But Abby wasn't lying and she knew it. Hours. Not brief periods where she could acclimate herself to the crowds punctuated with breaks, but huge stretches of time exposed to the general populace with nothing to defend herself from their prying eyes and silent disapproval. She did a quick calculation of how long she would have to be around the elements and was equally crestfallen.
She looked back in the mirror at the under-confident alicorn with worried, teary eyes. It just wasn't possible, not in the slightest. If she brought Abby and a book with her she might feel a bit better but she knew they would mock her for treating inanimate objects like companions like a filly with a security blanket. A sound startled her from her reverie and she looked out the window at the courtyard. Trumpets were blaring and horns announced the arrival of the first wave of guests for the evening. A carriage was pulling up to the castle, with many more behind it. Ponies slowly made their way out of it and the stallions pulling it carried it away to make room for the one behind it, and the one behind that. Soon a small crowd had gathered by the front gate and fireworks were being set off.
It was by the bright pink and blue glow that Luna saw them. The elements stood in a group, with the crowd and yet somehow apart from it. She strained her vision but found she could only barely make them out, unable to tell properly which was which from such a distance. But it was unmistakably them. Luna could see the faint aura of magic around them, remnants of the power they had gathered and used to cleanse her. And then she heard them sing.
She watched as they led the whole crowd in a huge, elaborate chorus number and could hardly believe her eyes. They each sang of their dreams and hopes for the evening and Luna could feel inside her the urge to help them welling up from nowhere at all. It was simply there, this compulsion, stemming perhaps from their song itself, perhaps from somewhere deep inside of her that wished to be appreciated. She nodded to no one at all and walked back over to the mirror to straighten her tiara and delicately wipe her eyes. She nodded in satisfaction and headed for the door. The party could wait, she was a princess on a mission.
As Luna strode purposefully, or at least as purposefully as she could while constantly glancing over her shoulder nervously, down the hallway her eyes landed on Prince Blue-Blood. The poor boy was fiddling with his bowtie and looking around for a helping hand. She recalled one of the elements talking about finding her prince charming at the gala and smiled. Objective one of six, she mentally noted, set the stage for true love to blossom. She fought back her apprehension and approached him. The moment he saw her he jumped ten feet in the air in surprise before looking around for an emergency escape route and bowing humbly. His smile did a very poor job of hiding his unease.
"P-Princess Luna, such a pleasant surprise. How good to see you again."
Luna's heart sunk a little but she suppressed her urge to run back to her room and sulk for the moment. She had a job to do, after all.
"Prince Blue-Blood, do you have a companion for this evening's event?"
His eyes widened and Luna's brain managed the same mental leap he had made right as he began stammering.
"W-What? I-I-I... I couldn't possibly- Not that I don't want- I mean, think of the scandal, not to mention-"
Luna cut him off by raising her hoof to silence him. Celestia would have reprimanded her for exuding an ice cold, regal air in that moment instead of loosening up or even using actual words, but Celly wasn't there and she needed him to be quiet for a moment so she could explain. Her mane and tail turned a shade darker and began to shimmer slightly as she unconsciously brought forth Nightmare Moon's influence little by little, her coy and commanding tone echoing through Luna's words as she spoke.
"That will be enough. I was not referring to myself, Blue-Blood, but to a young lady who wishes to spend the evening with you, a regal and royal prince. It was with the sole intent of discovering if you would be able to accompany this young lady tonight that I ask this question, not so that I could ask you for your time myself."
Blue-Blood's expression was one of pure fear and Luna realized what she was doing, fighting against the subtle hold the evil persona had on her mind. Her hair returned to its normal shade and she smiled shyly, turning her head away and trying not to die of sheer embarrassment on the spot.
"Unless of course you had other plans besides wooing a potential suitor, in which case I'm sorry to have bothered you."
He gulped. Grabbing his hoofkerchief from his pocket he wiped the sweat from his brow.
"I-It would be an honor to accompany her. I-I'll be sure to spend the whole evening with her."
Luna beamed, spirits lifted.
"Excellent! And be sure to be as regal as possible. She's expecting someone with refined tastes and a suitably royal personality."
Blue-Blood nodded dumbly. He folded his hoofkerchief and pocketed it.
"Regal," he said. "Got it. I'll be a true noblecolt the entire evening, chivalrous to the core."
Luna blinked, then thought for a moment. All her knowledge of culture and history told her something was off.
"But mares of this era don't expect chivalry, do they? Aren't they more akin to the mares of the 1600s who expected, and indeed accepted, horrible behavior from their lovers?"
"Are you telling me to be a snobby jerk to this filly?"
Luna didn't know how to respond, so she simply pretended the answer was obvious.
"It certainly wouldn't hurt to try, and she seems keen on nobility, famous throughout history for its many social foibles and mistreatment of others."
Luna walked away slowly, smiling to herself and leaving a very confused Prince Blue-Blood to figure out how to interpret her odd command. Despite briefly slipping up with her self-control under pressure she had already managed to arrange for the first of the elements to have a wonderful evening, with her every expectation fulfilled. It was a wonderful sensation, the feeling of having done a good deed with the promise of a reward. Her good deed would surely earn her a smile from the element of generosity. She mulled over what to do next and decided to head to the gardens to get all of the animals ready to make some new friends.
The gardens were lovely in the evening and Luna had made it a habit to stroll through them on lonely nights when there were no more decrees to sign and she needed a brief respite from her books. The animals knew her presence well by now and paid her no mind, which up until that point had been exactly as she liked it, but tonight was different and Luna needed them all in one place. She walked over to a small rabbit that was munching on some grass. It watched her, chewing slowly, and Luna had to admit that the little animal was charming, or more colloquially, cute. She smiled at it and the rabbit simply kept eating, its eyes always on her. She slowly walked closer.
"Excuse me, sir or madam hare, but if I might have a moment of your time I have a favor to ask of you."
The bunny turned around and hopped off into a bush leaving Luna to question just how good its manners were and whether or not it was intelligent enough to have any. In any case such a reaction to polite introductions was unacceptable. She followed after it, running around the bush and chasing after it.
"Come back! I merely wish to inquire about a simple task that I have need of your assistance with!"
The rabbit picked up speed and the sound of her voice and hoofs startled all the other creatures and critters in sight. She sighed, exasperated and annoyed. No, not annoyed. Never annoyed, she reminded herself. Never angry or furious or filled with rage or anything of the sort. Hassled, delayed even. Every obstacle was a chance to find a solution, not an excuse to give into petty wrath and destroy another perfectly good bedroom and frighten everyone and make everything worse and make everyone hate her all over again. Nightmare Moon stirred within her once more and provoked her emotions as she brought them under control again, making her more and more frustrated and upset. Her plan would be ruined if she didn't hurry and she still had so much preparation to complete. She had to help them, somehow, but when it came to animals she was just a useless filly. Hopeless. No hope. No light, only suffocating darkness that drove others away. She sniffled, pouted, scowled, shuddered, and then felt rather than heard the noise coming from her mouth, a sound usually reserved for calling dogs and frightening small animals.
The high-pitched wail of complete and utter sorrow echoed through the garden and sent shivers through every living thing that could hear it. Her shout slowly subsided as she heard someone coming close and heard a voice that was vaguely familiar. A yellow pegasus in a green dress was making her way through the gardens and Luna tensed with sudden fear as recognition hit her. The animals, she decided, would be perfectly fine on their own and didn't need her help finding the element and making friends with her. She scurried off back to the palace, not feeling a thin wisp of dark shadow and pent up unhappiness peeling off from her and taking with it some of her hidden pain, making its way to the element of kindness to corrupt and corrode her judgment and drive her more than a little insane.
As she made her way from the gardens she made her way through the terrace area and watched an orange pony kick her stand open, flags popping out and apple treats on display. She watched as she sold a pie to a passing member of the Wonderbolts and realized that not only was this an element of harmony, but she was already making her dream come true. Still, Luna felt compelled to help. She gathered up her courage and approached a pony on his way to the stand. He glanced her way and his monocle slid from his face, hanging from its chain just as low as his disengaged jaw.
She held up her hoof.
"Lovely night, wouldn't you agree?"
The pony nodded.
"Y-Yes, your finest one ye-"
"It's almost as lovely as those apple... fritters over there."
Luna wondered just what a fritter was as she read the label but she didn't let her curiosity stop her from making her best attempt at a sale pitch.
"What did you say?"
"Fritters. Apple fritters. You should go and buy one."
The pony looked around for a moment, unsure what to say.
"I was just about to, Princess, when-"
"Then hurry along, kind sir, and partake of as many as you desire. And spread the word of this stand and the quality of the products it sells."
The pony inched away from Luna little by little, hesitation spreading across his features.
"Yes, certainly, I'll... get right on that."
The pony took off at such high speed that Luna nearly believed that he had turned into smoke and vanished. She sighed and turned to the next pony in the vicinity, attempting to make her sales pitch to them. Again she was met with disappointment, fear and strange looks and one by one the ponies around her began to give the booth a wide berth simply to avoid having her come over and attempt to persuade them to make a purchase. Luna kicked the ground, feeling utterly defeated by her poor social skills. The element of honesty seem to be in high spirits though, confident in her stall. Luna decided to leave her be and trust that thing would be alright. She wandered off to see if she could find the Wonderbolts and assist one of the other elements with her goal of spending time with them.
The Wonderbolts, it turned out, were in the middle of an enormous crowd of ponies, all of them famous performers, aristocrats or businessponies. Luna gulped, walking towards the mob and trying to make out the less-than-subtle blue colors of the Wonderbolt uniform among the multicolored outfits. Ponies turned their heads to look at her, staring and gossiping. She lowered her head a little, trying not to meet anypony else's gaze. The gossip must have been contagious, because by the time she made it to the Wonderbolts they were each busily swapping stories and rumors about her. It was then she noticed the rainbow mane behind them, jumping up and down trying to get their attention. She walked over to them one by one, trying to talk to them and direct their attention where she wanted it, but every time she managed to pull one from their discussion the element of loyalty was already making a similar attempt elsewhere, too far away for her to call out to her without it feeling awkward, forced and frightening.
She cast her gaze around the room for an alternative when she saw a colorful blur do a flip and catch someone's falling glass. The element of loyalty looked around expectantly for the praise of her idols but Luna could see even from far away that she had failed to impress anyone besides her. As the rainbow-maned pegasus walked away, head hung, Luna felt her heart go out to her. The element might be brash, but they both wanted the same things; acceptance, praise and appreciation. Her head searched for ideas and Luna's gaze came to rest of a statue near the middle of the room. She smiled, her knowledge of physics and her keen eye for details quietly computing the weight of the alicorn sculpture and the force of its landing.
It would be just enough that a strong pegasus could easily catch it, but enough that the feat would be impressive, a perfectly tolerable amount. And an object that big would catch the attention of everyone in the room. Luna walked over to the refreshment table and poured herself a glass of punch, her horn glowing softly as it levitated in front of her. With her magic already flowing she discretely directed it to the statue, altering the distribution of its mass to make it top-heavy and easily tipped. Then she did the same to the base, creating a small but steadily growing crack that would result in total collapse right as the party was dying down and the Wonderbolts would be free to rush over to inspect the heroic act of the element. It was the perfect plan, and so long as the statue fell as the pedestal broke apart it wouldn't fall as quickly, minimizing potential damage. And really, who would knock it over before then?
As Luna made her way to the entrance hall she couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the sheer number on ponies gathered there, lining up to shake hoofs with Celestia. And there by her side was the Element of Magic herself. Luna dove behind a tapestry to hide while she figured out what to do next, but the element seemed to have already succeeded at spending time with Celly on her own, albeit not the time alone that she had sung about only hours before. Success was success though, and if... Luna's mind searched for a name to put to the face and remembered Celly had called her "Twilight Sparkle". Luna blinked, her eyes running along the folds of the unicorn's dress and taking in the star pattern. Twilight Sparkle. Stars. The evening sky adorned with the glittering jewels that heralded the night to come. She felt herself smiling.
If Twilight Sparkle was already happy with the evening then she felt it best not to interfere. Besides, she mused, what would she say? How could she approach the one who had freed her from her own darkness, this pony whose very name underlined their connection? Luna felt a warmth spread across her cheeks and a sudden wave of nervousness at the thought of talking to Twilight. Just as before a feeling entered her heart that seemed to well up from nowhere at all, but she knew that whatever the sensation was it was pleasant and warm like a candle in the dark.
She found herself staring a little longer than she had intended, her eyes locked on Twilight's. She took a step forwards, then another, moving from hiding place to hiding place. What felt like minutes rapidly became hours as she studied both the element and her own reactions, looking for words she hadn't used or heard in a thousand years and feeling things that she had thought she had lost forever. Joy. Longing. Envy. She realized that she was now only a few feet away, peering over a vase as she hid behind its pedestal with Celestia directly in her field of vision. She felt jealous of her sister once more, but it wasn't over the hearts of every living thing in Equestria. It was just one mare, one very special unicorn that she felt compelled to let her emotions run wild for. This new envy stemmed from Celly being the object of Twilight's affection, her beloved teacher. Luna fought it down with some difficulty. Logic. Rationalization.
She hadn't been part of Twilight's life up to this point, Celly had been there since she had been a child. Such distribution of Twilight's... Luna hesitated to call it love, but it felt like the emotion Twilight showed Celly was the love a child shows its parent. It was only natural. And despite being a student of the sun it was the stars that she was wearing, nestled in the deep blue hues of the night sky. Luna's smile grew little by little and she stopped paying attention to hiding her presence. As the last pony walked off to enter the main hall Celestia turned to Twilight, stepping between her and Luna almost on purpose. Suspiciously convenient, Luna mused, trying to inch around her sister and finding herself blocked at every turn as she spoke to her student.
"Now then, my star pupil, shall we head off to join your friends? With my duties complete I'm free for the rest of the evening and I want to hear all about your adventures firsthand. A letter can only tell so much, after all."
Twilight beamed, almost jumping for joy.
"Yes! I mean, yes, Princess Celestia. I've been wanting to have a chance to talk to you for so long."
Luna stopped in her tracks and remembered what her goal all along had been. Here she was trying to catch Twilight's attention to talk to her when the whole point of searching for her had been to ensure she had time alone with Celestia to catch up. And she still had yet to find the element of laughter to make her night complete as well. A loud crash echoed through the halls, followed by another, and another. The room shook with the force of an especially loud thud and all three mares stared at the door that led to the main hall.
"I think we should hurry along and see what that was, Twilight. If it's something your magic can fix perhaps you can demonstrate for me just how much your magic has progressed."
Twilight nodded, mildly concerned by the sound.
"I just hope nopony got hurt."
Celestia and Twilight headed off down the hall and Luna watched them go, unsure what to do. The hall was completely empty save for a pair of guards who were too busy staring out at the night sky and the rows of carriages to notice her presence. Well, she thought to herself, she had at least managed to try to help the elements have a good evening, even if it was difficult and filled with mistakes. The animals might have been a touch frightened by her, but the element of kindness would easily smooth over their fear and hesitation and make friends with them. She had certainly made a poor salesmare but the element of honesty clearly had a knack for business and didn't need a helping hoof to appeal to the party-goers. The element of generosity would be wooed by the prince, especially after the tips she had given him. And as for the element of loyalty, rigging the statue was a sure-fire way to make her a hero when it fell over.
She walked off back to her room, pondering the fate of the element of laughter. The pink party pony would be too hyperactive for a refined party, but this was the modern era and quite different from what she had grown up knowing. Perhaps in the thousand years she had been imprisoned parties had become more relaxed? Whatever the case, the element of laughter could certainly handle herself when it came to parties, even with her quirks.
Her thoughts turned back to Twilight and the feeling of connection she had felt when she saw her. Had she simply been too caught up in the excitement of having the darker part of herself driven away to notice it? Luna vowed to find out, her mind already working through the long list of books she'd need to read to figure out what was going on. Lore, myths, legends from generations before and after her banishment. Already she could feel the excitement of a new discovery upon her. It felt wonderful.