The front door was locked and Luna felt awkward standing there in the long silence between knocking and Twilight finally opening the door. Luna ached all over and smelled vaguely of sweat, blood and dirt. She could still feel the chill along her horn from the black fire, and although she supposed it was keeping a splitting headache from forming it was uncomfortable in its own way. She smoothed out her mane and tail as best she could and was in the process of wiping her horn down a second time when the handle turned.
"Welcome back, Luna."
Twilight was absolutely beaming and Luna momentarily forgot where her hoof was rubbing until Twilight's cheeks began to turn pink, then light red. Luna's face lit up scarlet as she released her horn and her hoof made an audible thud as it struck the ground. Both of them attempted smiles that did little to make the situation any less embarrassing for either of them. The silence dragged on and Twilight gave a small cough. Luna faltered for a moment before speaking.
"Twilight, would you happen to have a bath or other bathing facility that I could make use of?"
As if some spell had been broken, Twilight immediately appeared less tense.
"Of course, Princess. Come on in, I'll give you a tour and show you where the shower is. I got your bags here safe and sound as well, but I decided that I'd move them into the room once you got here in case you wanted them a certain way or something."
Twilight gave Luna a smile that the moon princess had given to her older sister many times before, one of appeasement and uncertainty. The purple mare obviously didn't want to offend her, either out of fear or respect. Luna nodded and followed Twilight inside, closing and locking the door behind herself and leaving that particular negative thought outside. She turned around and came face to face with a particularly charming owl.
Luna smiled softly.
"I am Princess Luna of Equestria, and it is an honor to meet you."
"Surely you've heard of me. The princess of the night, who raises the moon and stars?"
The owl nodded appreciatively and Luna opened her mouth to speak before Twilight tapped her on the shoulder and motioned away.
"Maybe trying to talk to Owlowicious isn't such a good idea, princess. He's just an owl."
Luna glanced back and forth between Twilight and the owl, smiling.
"And a very clever one at that. I've never met one with such a grasp of language before."
Luna chuckled softly.
"He certainly is intelligent, it's no wonder that he chose to make his roost here in the library with a like-minded individual such as yourself."
Twilight looked confused for a moment, and Luna felt slightly concerned before she remembered that not everypony understood Owlish as well as she did. She contemplated mentioning it and decided against boring Twilight with needless details. Luna moved past Twilight to look at the rest of the library. The walls were covered in books, as were sections of the floor. Her luggage formed a neat pile in the middle of the library and she turned back around to face Twilight.
Just as she was about to thank her properly something stopped her, makings its presence known with as much suddenness as one of Celestia's trapdoors. There was a certain scent in the air, one of musty tomes and aged wood mixed with subtle floral notes. Luna blinked and chuckled softly to herself at the realization that the unicorn was close enough that Luna could almost work out extracts she used in her soap. She was tempted to try but her heart was already racing just thinking about it and she could feel her cheeks heating up.
"Thank you, Twilight Sparkle, for taking care of me on such short notice and for all that you've done for me so far."
Luna bowed and smiled.
"I shall try to be less troublesome in the future, barring another encounter with Pinkie Pie."
They both laughed softly.
"Well, as long as she doesn't pull you into something too extreme not even Pinkie's shenanigans will be problematic, princess. It's no trouble at all."
Luna nodded and turned back to her luggage, lifting the bags off the floor with her magic. Her horn suddenly stopped glowing and the suitcases hit the floor, the stack toppling over. She grimaced slightly and her horn provided her with a jolt of fresh pain. Twilight's expression quickly became one of concern.
"Luna? Are you alright?"
Luna waved her hoof dismissively.
"I'll be perfectly fine, I just appear to have... overexerted myself and my magic this evening. Too many new stars, not enough patience."
She attempted to laugh but it came out far more forced than she expected it to be. It was starting to become increasingly apparent that the power of laughter and its ability to diminish fear was still beyond her grasp.
"I suppose having a prolonged respite in the shower would do me a world of good. Could I trouble you to direct me there first and give me the tour once I've cleaned myself up and taken, to use the colloquial term, a breather?"
Twilight let out a barely suppressed giggle at her words and Luna attempted to piece together just which phrase had been funny, both to avoid seeming foolish and to make use of it later to get her to laugh again.
"Of course, princess. Take as long as you need to. I was just finishing up my reading for the night when you knocked so I'll go wrap that up while I wait. Right this way."
Twilight walked over to a set of stairs leading down under the library and Luna followed closely behind her. The basement may as well have been another building in and of itself, carved out of the root structure and the surrounding earth. The central room held an assortment of large contraptions that Luna supposed were either highly specialized scientific instruments or mundane, common devices like water heaters and earthquake detectors.
Branching off from it were several chambers with large, almost imposing doors that rivaled the sturdiest of Canterlot palace's in their needless expansiveness. Twilight reached the bottom of the stairs and pushed one of them open. Luna moved past her and peered into a simple but elegant room with a mirror, tub and several shelves of bath supplies.
"Well, here we are."
Luna smiled softly and walked inside.
"I think it's lovely, Twilight. Pretty, understated and organized. It really reflects its owner."
Twilight smirked slightly and started heading for the stairs.
"Just shout if you need anything."
Luna closed the door and looked around for a moment before slidding off her tiara and slippers and reaching for her necklace. Her hoof slid through the air where it was supposed to be and she looked down. It was gone. The dangling moon pendant and the balloon charm had vanished along with the chain they had hung from. She rested her hoof against her chest for a moment, trying to remember when the warmth had left her but the way Twilight made her heart flutter made it hard to distinguish the presence of the silver charm from the feeling of safety that radiated from the purple unicorn.
She unclasped her mantle and set it aside with the rest of her belongings. After a moment more of thought she walked over to one of the shelves, pulling down a bottle with bubbles on the label. Luna took hold of the shampoo with her hooves and with a click opened the top. She eyed it with suspicion for a moment, wary of repeating her last experience with liquid soap. Celestia still refused to let her live down her first attempt at a modern shower and her private bath still had a perfectly preserved outline of Luna's body from when the container had exploded.
She took aim at her hoof and poured some of the gel onto her hoof. It was Twilight's scent, or at least part of it. She sniffed at it, taking in the hints of lavender and violets. The thought of coating herself in it suddenly became charged with a sensation not unlike her first attempts at plugging in her lamp, but the tingling was much more pleasant, and although it made her mane stand on end it didn't frazzle or singe it.
She stepped into the shower and began to smear the soap along her form, wincing at every little bruise or cut that decided to take that particular moment to let her know that shampoo on a wound was not fun and not appreciated. She took a moment to breathe, trying to brace herself for the initial blast of icy water and instead finding her mind clouded once more by the pleasing smell that now filled the shower. She shivered a little and reached out to grab hold of something to support herself, her hoof landing on the shower knob and turning it. She gave a small yelp as the water hit her and shuddered. As the shock wore off she giggled a bit and sighed, shaking her head.
The water was cool and soothing. Modern bathing facilities always ended up reminding Luna of the great storm, the droplets striking her face like cold pebbles. That was the last night she remembered clearly before her transformation and it was incredibly bittersweet to think about. Celestia had been busy arguing with a team of pegasi, the predecessors to the modern Wonderbolts, about the heavy winds and rain that were starting to cause floods. The sun was due to slip below the horizon any minute and even though nopony would be able to see it behind the clouds Luna had wanted to raise the moon.
Looking back Luna knew her sister was just trying to be practical. Celestia had told her to be patient so that she could get the storm cleared up and Luna had taken it the wrong way. It had hurt so badly thinking her sister didn't care an ounce for her beautiful moon or her duties as the princess of the night. That had been the tipping point, Luna thought to herself. That was when all the pranks and jokes, all of Celestia's exhausting duties and her own impatience boiled over, coming together to give rise to Nightmare Moon.
Luna didn't know when the tears had began but she wiped them away and got her breathing under control so Twilight wouldn't hear her sobbing. She took a moment to compose herself and rinsed the last of the soap from her mane and coat. Despite her melancholy memories Luna felt a bit better. Her tired muscles were relaxed and didn't feel as heavy as before, and the pain in her horn and face were reduced to faint tingling sensations. She turned off the water and stepped out of the shower.
Twilight's towel rack held an unsurprisingly large number of purple towels and a much smaller quantity of various other colors. She pulled down a particularly fluffy blue towel and wiped off as much of the remaining water as she could before wrapping it around her mane, grabbing a smaller one for her tail. She gave each a firm squeeze to wring them out and walked out of the bathroom. The sudden coolness of the air made her pull the towel from her tail and drape it over her back for warmth.
The library was pleasingly quiet as Luna made her way back up the stairs. She moved as silently as possible, watching Twilight read for a moment. The tome was ancient Equestrian, and the pages certainly showed their age. Luna inched closer, trying to work out what the book was about. She spotted her name but before she could finish the line Twilight slid a bookmark carefully into place and closed the cover.
"Huh, the water stopped. Luna must be done."
Twilight glanced over at Owlowicious, who was staring at Luna.
Luna's eyes went wide at the owl's statement and she flailed her hooves at the him. Twilight looked in the direction Owlowicious was facing and Luna had her hooves back on the ground just in time to not make a fool of herself once again.
"Good evening. I'm all done with my shower now, as you can see."
Twilight raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, I certainly can."
Luna gestured to her tail.
"Shall we proceed with the tour? I'd like very much to get my brush from my bag once everything is where it is supposed to be. My mane and tail have a dreadful habit of frizzing and knotting if I don't attend to them before they curl up."
Twilight blinked as Luna pulled the towel from her mane and Luna felt a sudden urge to run to a mirror, especially as Twilight's lips curled into a smile. Celestia's smile, the one she wore when Luna tripped down stairs and landed with a squeak or gazed longingly at a particularly delicious-looking stack of pancakes. She knew that the only word going through Twilight's head was "cute" and she wasn't really sure how to feel about it. She ran a hoof through her wet mane. Already the ends were beginning to twist ever so slightly and her tail was in essentially the same state. Twilight chuckled a little.
"Of course, princess. You already know where the bathroom is, so I'll just go over everything else quickly."
Twilight motioned to the stairway leading to the second floor.
"Up there is the bedroom. It's nothing too fancy, but there's a patio and a little observatory on top of the library."
If Luna wasn't certain she was mistaken she would almost have believed Twilight was blushing.
"I keep my telescope up there and look up at the stars when the pegasus ponies leave the night sky clear. I don't think I've moved it except for that meteor shower I went to watch with my friends. I guess stargazing is kind of a big hobby of mine."
Luna smiled softly until she realized two small but related facts.
"Twilight, have you had a chance to look outside since I raised the moon?"
Twilight shook her head and Luna's smile widened.
"What say we go and have a look at that telescope of yours? I do believe you'll be pleasantly surprised."
Luna took hold of one of her bags and began hauling it towards the stairs before it suddenly lifted off the ground, wrapped in a sheathe of lavender magic. Luna peered around her bag at Twilight who was busying herself levitating the other bags. She smiled at her and Luna released the handle to speak, the bag moving aside.
"Really, Twilight, I am a full grown mare and I am quite capable of carrying my own luggage, with or without magic. I don't wish to impose upon you any more than I must."
Twilight smirked a bit and shook her head.
"Don't think that it's any trouble, princess. It's no trouble at all, really."
"But Twilight, I simply must insist-"
Twilight's horn glowed a bit brighter and Luna's luggage began to encircle the moon princess, spiraling around her like dancers before making their way, single-file, up the stairs.
"I'm being literal, it's nothing at all for me. When I first came to Ponyville my magic was... not out of control exactly, but I didn't have such a good grasp of it. But now I can lift things like suitcases without much trouble, or clear entire apple orchards in seconds. Doing something like that is like holding the door open, or saying 'bless you' if you sneeze. Courtesy."
Luna's eyes went from amazed to awed and she looked back and forth between the floating procession and the unicorn conducting it several times before following the suitcases upstairs. They bobbed only slightly and if any of them strayed from Twilight's intended path Luna didn't notice at all. She stepped up into the bedroom and checked the stack of bags. Perfectly organized by size and weight, the larger and heavier bags at the bottom and the lightest resting on a broad, level surface. Luna smiled and turned to Twilight, bowing slightly.
"Thank you very much, Twilight. Your assistance is greatly appreciated, and your skilled use of magic is quite impressive."
Twilight crossed her forelegs and glanced sideways, apparently embarrassed by the compliment.
"Really, it's nothing."
Luna chuckled softly.
"I can see why my sister boasts about you so much. A unicorn with talent like yours only comes along once in... Actually, I don't think I've ever met a mare with magic like yours. Certainly Marelin was a skilled and powerful colt but he only truly came into his own in his later years. And even then it was only thanks to his study of the craft, not that my sister will ever admit he learned more as a journeycolt than as her student. You are well on your way to surpassing a legend, Ms Sparkle, and that is a fact."
Twilight's jaw hung open in such a manner that Luna was reminded of taffy, in particular how it stretched down low enough to brush against the carpet.
"You think I'm as powerful as Marelin? Wait, Marelin was Princess Celestia's student too? Wait, Princess Celestia is proud of me? She... brags about me?"
"She's proud of all of her students, and throughout the ages every truly noteworthy unicorn has at some point learned under her. You are joining what I suppose is a long legacy of mighty and powerful mares and colts doing good deeds, righting wrongs and giving my sister yet another excuse to brag to me about her accomplishments."
Twilight seemed too preoccupied bouncing up and down like school-filly who just got everything she ever wanted to notice the sad note with which Luna spoke the last few words but she couldn't help smiling at the purple mare as she leaped around the room, eyes closed and cheeks taut in the biggest, happiest smile her face could hold. Twilight's eyes fluttered open and she descended back to the ground. She turned to face Luna, cheeks tinged pink.
"Really enjoy having my sister think highly of you?"
Twilight nodded and Luna rolled her eyes, smiling softly.
"Heaven forbid I should see the day that all a pony craves is my approval for once."
Twilight stammered for a moment, hooves flailing.
"It's not like that, princess. It's just..."
Twilight paused, trying to find the right words.
"Celestia was the mare I looked up to as a filly. I saw her once at the Summer Sun Celebration when I was just a little filly, and when she raised the sun I was in awe. I had never seen anything like it before, such majestic power. At the time I wasn't allowed out at night, and my bedtime was too early to see much of the stars anyway. All I knew was the light of the sun, its warmth, and Celestia was the one who gave it to me, to everypony in Equestria. And then I became her pupil, her personal apprentice. I left home and stayed at the castle and I guess in a way Celestia became my second mother. It probably sounds really silly that I see her that way, now that I'm hearing how it sounds out loud."
Luna shook her head softly, wiping her eyes.
"It's not silly at all. Celly truly is a majestic mare, with a big heart and fierce power that she uses for the sake of others. I envy how you can look up to her without feeling jealous, and her because of how she made you feel so special without having to lift a hoof."
Twilight looked down at the ground and Luna walked over to a suitcase, pulling out a small hoofkerchief and using it to dry her eyes one last time as she composed herself.
"Let's head to the observatory, shall we? I think at this rate I'll have stalled our little tour so many times that it'll have become nearly absurd."
Luna grabbed her brush and walked up the stairs to the second level of the bedroom. She glanced at the beds, one surrounded by books and slightly disheveled, and the other much wider and laid out as neatly as possible without the peculiar magical spell created specifically for fussy mares tired of fitted sheets that refused to wrap around the mattress properly. She supposed that Twilight had set aside the more expansive one just for her and she wondered if it was because of the luxury or because she had accurately guessed that the little bit of extra height required a little bit of extra leg room.
Twilight followed behind her as she stepped outside and onto the patio. Luna looked around for a moment before walking up the steps leading to a platform on top of the library and halted as she heard Twilight gasp. The unicorn had her eyes fixed on the night sky and Luna smiled softly, wondering if it was the same expression she had worn during that first Summer Sun Celebration.
"See something you like, Ms Sparkle?"
Twilight nodded dumbly, mouth slowly falling agape.
"Come and take a closer look then."
Luna giggled a little at the double-meaning of her words as she made her way towards the telescope and sat down, getting comfortable. Twilight followed behind, stumbling up the stairs and unable to tear her gaze away from the stars. She waved her hoof in the direction of the telescope and grabbed hold of it, pulling it closer and angling it at a particularly colorful patch of dust and young stars.
Luna felt a compulsion to say something and hesitated. Twilight seemed utterly consumed in watching the night sky as it turned above her and any innuendo she could supply would only break her concentration, or worse, be ignored entirely. She felt like she was forgetting something and it nagged at her. It nagged and fussed and meddled with her thought process until finally the joy of being around Twilight faded into the background and she recalled what had happened only hours prior.
Twilight didn't look up but made a vague noise of affirmation as she adjusted the telescope, zooming in on something that had caught her interest.
"I need to tell you something important."
Twilight blinked, raising her head and glancing at her.
Luna stood up and looked out at Ponyville from the observatory. The commotion, or what little there had been, had died down. It was almost as if everypony in town was used to random, nearly catastrophic events coming and going.
"I suppose a little background information is required. Do you know why my sister sent me here?"
Twilight nodded and smiled.
"You wanted to pay a visit to Ponyville and meet with your subjects. Princess Celestia said you were lonely at the castle all by yourself."
Luna shook her head and glanced over her shoulder.
"That was a lie. I'm not here because I'm lonely, although that certainly was true, and a perfectly adequate reason."
"What do you mean?"
Luna turned to face Twilight.
"I'm the reason that the Grand Galloping Gala was such a disaster."
"And because of me Nightmare Moon has taken control of Fluttershy."
"And the only thing that I can think of that might have any chance of saving her is the Elements of Harmony, which seem to be manifesting in response to the sudden arrival of this dark presence. I... Equestria needs your help. I need your help, Twilight Sparkle."
Twilight's eyes went wide.