It took a good few minutes for them to get up from where they landed, being as Joe was on his back screaming to the skies and all, but he soon rolled himself to his hooves, shaken but unhurt. He spat out a stray bit of gravel, shook himself off, and began moving again, heading in the direction of a nearby forest.
“Hold on!” Luna frowned, trotting after him on long, elegant, still-rubbery legs. “You can’t just act like nothing happened!”
“Alright, alright, thank you for savin’ me Lulu. I woulda been pony puddin’ if you hadn’t gotten me to safety back there.” he turned back to face her, still walking.
“No! Not that! I mean - the part where you called me Princess.”
Joe turned back to look at her, then rolled his eyes, twisting his head back towards the forest. “I was callin’ on a higher power to save me, don’t flatter yerself toots.”
But as he continued walking, he heard no answering hoofbeats behind him. “Toots, if ya don’t get movin’, Celestia’s gonna find you in the mornin’ standing out here.”
“And I’m not gonna feel bad or nothin’, cuz I’ll be in Griffonland! And yer gonna feel awful bad if you missed out on comin’ with me!”
Luna remained steadfast.
With a small, defeated huff, Joe turned around, walking back towards her on similarly rubbery limbs. “Alright, fine. I called you Princess cuz I was flyin’ over the edge of a cliff and I couldn’t remember the fake name! Happy? I’ll call you Lulu from now on, scout’s honor.”
“When did you find me out?” she asked, her voice low and deadly-cold.
“When did I - When you first smashed in my freakin’ display case! When else?”
“I was disguised!”
“Lady, if you think a disguise is enough to keep your royalty hidden from a bred-and-born Canterlot fella such as myself, then you are mistaken.” Joe whuffed, puffing his chest out a little bit.
“Your accent is clearly not one of Canterlot’s.” she sniffed, a little stung by how quickly he had been able to figure her out.
“I was born here, but then I moved to tha Broncs! Is that gonna be a problem?” Joe asked defiantly, frowning down - or rather, slightly up - at the taller princess.
“You certainly speak to me rudely, for someone who immediately knew I was a princess!” she snapped, ears flattening back against her braided mane.
“I call every filly ‘toots,’ it’s a term of endearment!”
“It’s offensive - especially to a princess!”
“You didn’t want me to think you were a princess, remember? You woulda gotten all huffy, like you are now!”
“I am not huffy!” Luna snapped, voice rising, before she suddenly cut herself off, eyes widening into frightened circles. Abruptly, she turned and walked away, and began to turn in small, tight circles, over and over again.
“... Toots?” Joe ventured, eyes wide and ears flat, watching the princess perform her odd ceremony. “... Princess?”
“You’re okay Luna, deep breaths, deep breaths, don’t get mad, deep breaths,” she intoned to herself in a low, subvocal mutter, eyes locked steadfastly on the ground, ears flat and jaw tight. She circled for several long, tense moments, then abruptly straightened up, heading towards the forest.
“Princess...?” Joe asked, eyes a little wide as she glided past him.
“We have to keep moving or we’ll never get far enough by dawn.” Luna said coldly, her voice flat and expressionless.
“Right you are, Majesty.” Joe murmured, one ear flicking forward as he followed her.
As they stepped into the forest, a sudden chill fell over them, and their hoofsteps began to crunch as they stepped into the light dusting of snow. Everywhere Luna looked, icicles hung from every bowed branch, rattling in the icy breeze that whistled through them. There were no trees but evergreens; what forest could survive such an icy winter otherwise, she mused.
“What forest is this, where it is always cold?” Luna asked at length, head tipped up as she stared into the trees they passed. No singing birds, or playful squirrels to throw nuts to them; all silence. “I thought I knew every realm within my kingdom.”
“The Evergreen Forest.” Joe answered her softly, some of his previous blustery good nature dampened. “You wouldn’t know it, because it only appeared after you were banished. It is said that this used to be a bright, warm forest, but that after you left, it withered from longing. What regrew were trees like these, and an ever-present chill fell over the forest, because it never stopped snowing. It is said that this is the only forest in the realm that is truly subservient to you.”
“How strange.” Luna murmured, her eyes still on the trees, blinking away the snowflakes when they began to fall. “But beautiful.”
“Agreed.” Joe murmured, his hoofsteps crunching softly behind her.
They continued in silence for a long time, even as the snow fell softly around them, coating their saddlebags and manes. When the snow began to fall in earnest, Joe broke away from Luna, searching for a tree.
“Where are you going? We have to keep moving.” Luna asked, far too tired to sound anything but weary.
“We won’t do ourselves any services by makin’ camp outside’a the forest. And besides, it’s stormin’ pretty bad; it’ll be better by tomorrow, I bet.” he said simply, ignoring her command in favor of unburdening himself, pulling the tarp from his pack. As she watched, Joe magicked the tarp over one of the low-hanging branches, then staked it to the ground, forming a tent. Then he cleared the snow, and gathered some sticks to build a fire. At last, he rolled out his bedroll - and, she couldn’t help but notice, one for her.
“I didn’t bring any bedding.” the princess said softly, slowly approaching the camp.
“I figured. Hard to smuggle yerself outta the castle with a big ol’ camping bag.” Joe rumbled, pulling out a few donuts from his saddlebag. “Hungry?”
“Ravenous.” she murmured, gorging herself on the proffered donuts.
Joe chuckled, and began to tuck himself into his bedroll, snuggling down into its warmth as he swallowed the last bite of donut. “Well, I’m going to get some shut-eye until the sun goes down again; can’t be too safe, bein’ on the run and all.”
“Sounds good.” Luna agreed quietly, her eyes locked on the fire, nibbling slowly on her last donut. At last, as the first beams of sunlight began to pierce the stormy gloom of the forest, she tucked herself into her bedroll, hiding her face under the blanket, as if she could hide from Celestia’s prying eyes simply by covering her own. For all that it was her forest, she couldn’t help but feel - alone. She had never been without Celestia for very long, aside from her exile, and this trip was starting to feel unsettlingly familiar. It was cold here, and snowy, and her bedroll wasn’t warm enough. She wanted to be back home, in her real bed, with hot stones to warm her hooves on cold winter nights like this. She wanted her sister to be happy again, instead of constantly anxious, afraid to upset the delicate balance of Luna’s mental state. She wanted to go back to how things used to be, before all of this - before the Nightmare, the marriage, and this betrothal nonsense happened. If only -
“‘M cold.” came a low, grumbly rumble, as Joe began to wriggle his way closer to her. He worked his bedroll across the few inches between them, only stopping when their backs touched. “Better.” he whuffed, and went back to sleep, apparently.
How pleasant to be a commoner, Luna thought darkly, to be able to fall asleep anywhere! But as much she hated to admit it, this commoner was a veritable hot-rock of warmth, and as she snuggled down against his side, she found herself quite comfortably warm, despite the snow and ice. They had the bedroll between them, she decided, so there wasn’t anything untoward about it. It was necessary for survival, that was all.
That day, Luna was too tired to have any bad dreams.