Her city celebrated.
Pegasus ponies danced among fireworks in the sky while their earthbound cousins twirled around lights both magical and mundane below. Music and song flowed from every quarter, and while it clashed at times, a current of harmony made even the most different of styles work to a common beat on this night. Voices called out in joy and laughter, and everywhere, absolutely everywhere, the magic of friendship sparkled in the eyes of her people.
Princess Celestia, ruler of the nation of Equestria, Shepherd of the Sun, looked down from the balcony of her personal chambers and smiled. Her gaze specifically lingered on the gardens of her castle. There the party had gotten off to a late start but was all the more intense for it and showed no signs of slowing down. Her little ponies danced and laughed and shared together with such fervour, such untainted joy that she felt her heart swell with pride. It had been a trying time, and they had all been so strong in finding their way through it.
Her eyes sought out one particular pony. Twilight Sparkle. The unicorn whom she had taken on as a student so many years ago was just as involved in the festivities as any other. She had even sang earlier, in front of the crowd no less! It was something the ancient monarch could not imagine the young mare she sent to Ponyville two years ago doing. Watching her now - confident, outgoing, making and enjoying friendships - in her secret heart Celestia delighted more in that image than in the joy of all the rest of her little ponies combined.
Celestia watched her student strut out onto the dance floor with two of her friends, then winced and sucked in a long, hissing breath. It was an amazing thing that Twilight had grown enough to actually participate in a party like this, but someone still needed to teach that filly how to dance.
A shadow fell over her, and Celestia looked up in time to see her sister glide down to the balcony. Luna, Princess of the Night, fellow ruler of Equestria, looked more than a little tipsy. She was clearly enjoying the celebrations a lot more than Celestia allowed herself to. Her uphill battle to improve her image with the populace had, ironically, given her much more freedom to interact with the ponies she ruled than her universally-beloved sister. Celestia had an image to maintain; Luna had an image to destroy. It was enough to make Celestia jealous of her younger sibling, a reversal of situation that she was absolutely overjoyed to accept as the payment for her sister's healing and safe return.
Luna touched down lightly, her silver shoes making little chiming sounds as she sidled up to Celestia and sat down. "It hath dawned on us, sister, that when Pinkie Pie throws a party she does not, as we have been informed our subjects are wont to say, 'buck around'."
"Luna," Celestia said, a warm admonishment in her tone.
"What, sister?" Luna asked, drawing herself into a regal pose. "Dost thou not appreciate such a fine turn of phrase? Or is it mayhap the festivities themselves that have in some way gained thy ire? Seeing as thou has planted thyself here, gazing down upon all from a perch high above, instead of joining thy subjects in merriment, one could be forgiven in thinking that thou has seen fit to spurn the celebration entire to play host to a fell mood."
Celestia snorted back a laugh. "No, Luna. Your elocution is slipping."
"What slander! We have not seen fit to give any of our subjects a taste of lightning in many a day!"
Celestia just smiled and shook her head. "Seriously, Luna? Elocution as electrocution?"
Luna shrugged. "What matter that my quips are suffering? I have taken many a mighty draught of the Griffin mead this night, I find it encouraging that I can carry a conversation at all."
"At least you've dropped the royal 'we'."
"Yes," Luna said, turning pensive for a moment. "When we began that tradition we spoke in the plural because the word of one of us was the word of both. I had not thought that such a practice would have been so ... forgotten."
"It wasn't right," Celestia said. "When you were gone, it wasn't my place to continue speaking for you. And a thousand years and a lot of hardship makes us all forget things that were important once upon a time." She nuzzled the smaller princess. "If you'd like we can re-start the tradition at court. Explain the reasoning behind it and I'm sure my little ponies will adapt to it in no time at all."
Luna shook her head. "No. It is a tradition that died for a reason, and I must move beyond it so as to become the Princess Equestria needs today, instead of the Princess it once shunned an eon past."
Celestia favoured her sister with one of her best smiles, then returned her gaze to the party below. "To answer your question, Luna, I am not spurning the party. Nor am I in any sort of dark mood. I just wanted to come up here and see it all, all the happiness my little ponies are feeling. It's always after times of hardship that they come together most strongly. While the Changeling invasion lasted only a few hours, it scared so many of them so badly. To see them now, unafraid and unfettered, it is a wonder and a delight."
"To make no mention of the royal wedding that has just occurred!" Luna said. "A matter for grand celebration beyond the survival of another attack on our fair nation."
"Indeed you are right," Celestia said. "I'm so sorry you weren't there."
"As am I, dear sister. Though that business you did have me watch over was of great import to our nation, I am greatly saddened that I was not there to see the grand wedding of our dear... what is she to us again, sister?" Luna asked with a sly look.
"Niece," Celestia replied.
"Ah, yes. Our dear niece. Prithee, sister, tell us which of our beloved siblings begat young Cadance? I am ashamed to admit that perhaps the mead has gone more to my head than I realized, for I am quite unable to remember having any siblings besides thyself at all."
Celestia laughed this time. "Oh Luna, you couldn't have asked this when you first met her?"
"Perhaps I should have," Luna said. "But there is much about this world of which I am wholly ignorant after my banishment. I had always intended to ask, but the thought would slip from my mind whenever I had the chance to, crowded out by more pressing and immediate concerns. Now, please, what is the girl to us?"
"She is a direct descendant of the Unicorn King," Celestia replied, memories of a time far more than a millennium gone bringing a wistful smile to her lips.
"Ah, and so many questions are answered and new ones arise." Luna said, contemplating similar recollections. "Did they finally succeed, then? Is she like us? She seems so much more... complete than their first attempts."
"They did succeed, in a way. But no, she's not like us," Celestia said. "She is a unicorn of great power, but she lacks much of the Pegasus magic beyond cloudwalking and a little bit to help her fly, and she has no Earth Pony magic at all."
"And yet you refer to it as a success?" Luna asked, frowning. "That is no more than the wretched experiments were capable of a thousand years past."
"Please, Luna, they were wonderful ponies," Celestia held Luna's glare only for a few moments before relenting. "Okay, some of them were wonderful ponies. You liked Electrum Dream, at least." Luna finally broke her glare and snorted derisively. As her sister stared out over the city, Celestia couldn’t help but think she was remembering the unicorn princess she had once been friendly rivals with, long before the Nightmare found her. "Cadance is special,” Celestia continued. “There are a few others like her around, winged unicorn throwbacks to the experiments the unicorn royals did to insinuate themselves into our rule. The actual experimentation, the quest to become like us, ended not long after you... left."
Luna's eyes turned downcast. "It always comes back to that, doesn't it?"
"It was the end of an era," Celestia said. "So many things ended or were changed because of it. For the Unicorn Royals, I told them that their attempts would create another Nightmare before it could ever result in a success, and after the devastation of Nightmare Moon the only response they could have was to abandon what they were doing. In recompense for giving up their dream I integrated them officially into the court. All direct descendants of the Unicorn King are princes and princesses of Equestria now, officially as my nieces and nephews. And yours, now, as well. Every few generations one of the family lines produces a winged unicorn."
"Such as Mi Amore Cadenza."
"Yes," Celestia confirmed. "But as I said, Cadance is special. She may not have all the magic of the three tribes as we do, but what she does have is a piece of the Deep Power."
"Does she?" Luna asked, impressed enough to forget her momentary melancholy. "I have never felt it in her."
"It isn't nearly as much as you or I have, Luna, but the fact that it's there at all is incredible. She can only call upon it sometimes. Such as when she and Shining Armor repelled the Changeling invasion."
"I have heard it was quite the feat of magic," Luna said, an excited smile gracing her features. "A great wave of pink light that washed away all the vile changelings from our fair capitol. I have no doubt that stories will be told of this day for centuries! Although, I did hear some of the guards making light of Shining Armor's barrier, especially its grand hue. Sister, tell me in truth, is pink no longer a proper stallion's color?"
Celestia choked back another laugh. "No, Luna. It's been taken by the fillies I'm afraid."
"Oh. I must confess that I had been assuming much about the sexual preferences of our subjects simply by the fashions and colors they chose to employ. So many mares in pink. Now I perhaps understand better the reaction I got when inviting them all to a rousing game of hoofball."
Celestia couldn't hold it back this time, letting out a long and hearty laugh. "Oh, Luna, sister, thank you. I might have poked fun at it earlier, but your sense of humor is as strong as ever."
"A-ha-ha. Yes. Humor," Luna said, perfectly straight face marred only by the way her eyes darted from side to side. "In any case, Cadance has demonstrated a sliver of the Deep Power, you say. I would assume from the way in which recent events have played that it manifests only in response to a great need in her Talent."
"Yes, and Cadance's Talent has always been Love. Encouraging it in others and experiencing it in herself." It had been one of the reasons Celestia had encouraged her to foalsit. Her caring personality and Special Talent could only have positive effects on a certain young Unicorn who was going to need to know as much about caring and friendship as possible.
"A strong power to have," Luna mused. "As great, some might say, as the Elements of Harmony themselves."
Celestia looked back down at the party where the bearers of those items were watching as two of their number engaged in a hoof-wrestling match. "Yes, some might say that." And they would be wrong, she silently added.
"The Elements of Harmony," Luna said, following her sister's gaze. "And with true bearers to match. It is quite lucky that Cadance so wished them to be a part of her wedding that, despite having never met five of them before, she had made solid plans for their attendance long before Chrysalis took her place."
"They are quite famous in some circles," Celestia pointed out. "And famously led by my own personal student Twilight Sparkle, whom Cadance had met and formed quite a bond with. As a Princess of Equestria it was only right that such celebrated personages attend her nuptials."
"Of course,” Luna said, unamused with Celestia’s thinly-veiled bragging. “And so wonderful that they each had something important to contribute directly to the wedding itself, other than their presence."
"They are immensely talented ponies," Celestia said.
"That is a certainty. I'm told that they fought off nearly a hundred Changelings while making their way to the Tower of Harmony, before they were overwhelmed," Luna said, dramatically throwing up a hoof as if imagining a great battle.
"An exaggeration. There was likely no more than fifty Changelings. Probably closer to thirty," Celestia said.
"Ah, Rainbow Dash does appear to have something of the braggart to her," Luna mused, looking down at the pony in question, who had lost the wrestling match and was apparently badgering Applejack for another try.
"Only something?" Celestia asked, eyebrow raised.
"Am I mistaken again?" Luna asked, looking back to her sister. "I was under the impression that it was not arrogance to claim ability where one actually possesses it."
"Still true, Luna, but it's become less socially acceptable to rub everypony else's face in it."
"Was that a criticism?" Luna smiled mischievously. "By Celestia? Of one of her subjects? Why, I have barely heard such from you in the two years I have been free. I had begun to think that perhaps you had transcended such things in my long absence."
"No, Luna, I've simply learned to hide some of my less pleasant opinions more securely." Celestia sighed. She knew where this conversation was going, and as much as she was delaying the inevitable a part of her wished her sister would just hurry up and get there. It was hard enough to know what was coming, this slow drawing out truly grated on her nerves.
"Very well, but braggart or not, Rainbow Dash has regaled me with all the myriad goings-on that I missed due to my daily tasks outside of the city. She can be quite the storyteller when she is wont to be. The descriptions of their flight through the city to the Tower of Harmony and the battle with the thirty-or-hundred Changelings were quite exhilarating. I felt their despair as they were captured so close to their goal, and their triumph as Cadance and Shining Armor used their love to blast away Chrysalis and her brood."
"It is a wonderful tale," Celestia said, watching as the festivities had switched to some sort of karaoke event with Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy in a duet.
"Indeed it is. Though I found myself glad that the bearers failed to gain the Elements. Can you imagine it? The power of Harmony unleashed three times in two years?" Luna was closing in on her goal now. The smile vanished from her face and her stare bore down on Celestia, made heavier with the rising anger that tightened Luna's musical voice. "And this time, not for an otherwise unconquerable foe, but for a meagre beast such as Chrysalis? 'Twas a shame I was not there, else I would have made short work of the so-called queen and her retinue, and spared the bearers the burden that nearly fell to them."
"Yes," Celestia agreed in a dead voice. "You would have."
"Oh, but there is one curious part of the tale that I had to be told thrice before I could accept it," Luna said. The obviously forced joviality in her tone stung Celestia like a slap. "You fought her, that Changeling queen, in all your majesty, and were defeated by main strength. Then you told the bearers to seek the Elements, as they were their only hope. Quite curious."
"Well, Luna, it's been a while since I've had to fight anything, and I've been extremely out of practice," Celestia said, but her words lacked conviction. "Also, Changelings gain power from love, and she was feeding from both Shining Armor and Cadance, who, you'll recall, has Love as her Talent as well as access to the Deep Power. Is it so strange that I, a Princess of a long-peaceful nation, might fail in such a circumstance? And am I so removed from Ponydom that I would not have a moment of panic on that occasion and perhaps make a foolish request?"
Luna fell silent for a long moment, thinking deeply. "Yes," she finally allowed. "Under such circumstances, I suppose, as you say a Princess of a long-peaceful nation might falter, and panic. I would accept this but for one fact."
Here it comes, Celestia thought, closing her eyes and waiting for the inevitable blade to fall.
"You have been raising the sun and moon for the past thousand years, and she bested you in a contest of main strength!" Luna snarled as she rose to her hooves, her wings snapping open in her rage. Her volume reached close to Royal Canterlot Voice levels and Celestia winced, hoping the music in the garden would be loud enough to cover the shouting. "She did not use war magics or trickery or indirect means or some will-sapping power! You blasted raw magic at each other, and she won out! How can this be?"
"Luna," Celestia said, trying to be soothing and placate her furious sister.
"No, sister!" Luna snapped, stepping away from Celestia and pacing back and forth across the balcony as she talked. "I have drunk a barrel of mead to gain the courage to confront you on this! I will say my peace before you claim yours! You let her win! It would have been a trifle to overmatch her, even strong with Love as she was! We have known it since the early days of our reign, no being, pony or not, can match us in direct power. We can be defeated by cleverness, and deceit, and unknown magics, but only one force we have ever faced has been able to overwhelm our power completely! And equal to the Elements of Harmony Chrysalis is not."
"The Elements aren't the only thing stronger than us," Celestia said, remaining seated by the railing as she watched her sister stalk around her.
"Pfah! He does not count!" Luna stamped one hoof, the silver shoe ringing a clear tone against the marbled floor. "You let her win, and then you commanded the bearers seek out the Elements. Not in panic, but with purpose! As I recall the events of the past several weeks, I find that I was called to be away during the day just at the point Chrysalis would have made her switch. Then I could return only at night, to watch for the threatened attack, and could spend no time with our 'niece'. Yet you did spend time with her, and knowing her as well as you seem to, would have been aware of the change in attitude completely at odds with her normal character. Yet you were not suspicious, yet you ignored your own faithful student, who is perhaps the most intelligent mare I have ever met, when she was warning everypony about what she discovered! You knew!" Luna stopped her pacing and shoved an accusing hoof at Celestia's face. "You knew that Chrysalis had taken Cadance's place, and you set her up! You were planning to have the bearers wield the Elements against her all along!"
"Luna!" Celestia shouted, cutting off her sister's tirade. The two Princesses stared at each other in silence for a minute, gathering themselves. Then Celestia dropped her gaze, her wings fluttering restlessly in her guilt. "Yes. I knew. I recognized the disguised Changeling within minutes of being in her presence. I almost revealed her then, but then I considered alternative options. Yes, the bearers of the Elements were planned to be part of the celebrations, but that was Cadance's idea, not mine. Cadance was close with Twilight since before she was my student, and marrying her brother. Of course Twilight was going to be there, and with the rest of the bearers and their individual skills, it only seemed right to invite them all to do what they do best for Cadance's big day. That was all decided long before I ever knew of Chrysalis."
"I see," Luna said, voice cold. Her wings were once more furled at her sides, but Celestia did not mistake that for an end to her anger. "Continue."
"With our spies learning of the imminent attack and Chrysalis taking Cadance's place, I knew it was all connected, and I knew when it would all come to a head," Celestia said. The words were leaving Celestia in a rush, as if she were a balloon filled with secrets that Luna had poked a hole in. "I let Chrysalis think she had me fooled. She was never foolish enough to use mind-controlling magic on me, but she kept up the act far better around me than she ever did around everypony else. I played oblivious and let her go on, waiting for the moment when she revealed herself and I could make the bearers take up the Elements once more. You're completely right about that. I threw the fight. I made Twilight and the others think Chrysalis was a real threat, then sent them for the Elements. I hadn't quite realized how many Changelings Chrysalis had brought with her, otherwise I would have made the battle a little more spectacular in order to injure enough Changelings that they would have made it. After they were captured I was just about to step in before Cadance and Shining Armor saved the day. That's the truth."
Luna just looked at her sister, expression unreadable, before responding with one whispered question. "Why?"
"Because I didn't want to be the one to save the day again," Celestia said, sighing. "My little ponies are so precious to me, but they love the idea of me so much that they forget I'm not an omnipotent god. I am, at best, a pony of a god. Flawed, imperfect, sometimes careless, and unable to always be there to save them if they fall too far. The more my little ponies rely on themselves, the happier a world this will be. On the day when they no longer need me as their Princess, I think I will sing with more joy than I have since we first used the Elements of Harmony. It's been a painfully slow process, but I've been working on it for a couple centuries now, and I take every opportunity to move it along."
"No," Luna said. Her voice was quiet now, as cold and distant as the moon she commanded. "Thy personal fatigue with thy rule is not what I was asking for. To encourage our subjects to rely upon themselves and the relationships they build together is a noble thing, and while I would suggest that thou needst not tear thyself down to build them up, I find it utterly besides the point. That to which my question pertained was the matter of the bearers of the Elements, which thou didst knowingly send to use those weapons once again!"
"They aren't weapons!" Celestia protested, locking gazes once more with her sister.
"Have we ever used them otherwise?" Luna demanded. "Sister! Such power is too great to be used in any but the most dire of needs! Even for us the power of the Elements was overwhelming, for mortal ponies the damage can only be catastrophic!"
"The Elements don't injure them," Celestia said.
"Not in body, perhaps, but in spirit?"
"Not in spirit either. Do you think I would subject them to such danger?"
"I think thou dost not know what the Elements truly are," Luna accused. Celestia stayed silent, she had no response to that. "Did you ever find the truth about them?" Luna asked, making an effort to speak in modern Equestrian as she resumed her pacing. "Who made them? For what purpose? What we do not know about the Elements far outweighs what we know. And they do cause damage to the spirit, sister. I have had them turned against me twice now, and I know. Even to the wielder they do damage. I saw what they did to you when you turned them on me, and I cannot help but feel the Nightmare would not have found me had we been less free in our use of that power."
"We just found them, Luna," Celestia replied, trying not to slump against the balcony's railing. This was their first real argument since Luna's return, and it was draining her reserves of control faster than she would have thought possible. "We could use them because of what we are. The others who bore them for us were the same. These six? They were destined to bear them. I think the Elements themselves chose these ponies to wield them. Our severed connection with them is evidence enough. We were just temporary guardians, waiting to pass them along to their true owners."
"And does that make a difference?" Luna demanded. "They are still mortal ponies."
"Yes, I believe it does," Celestia said, conviction filling her and stilling her restless wings. "What I did today was wrong. I will admit that to you. But getting them to become more comfortable with using the Elements? That I think is necessary."
"Why? What have you foreseen that would require such facility with those weapons?"
"They aren't weapons, Luna," Celestia gently insisted. "That power, it's not meant to destroy. No matter how we used them in the past. You're right, when I turned them on you, it hurt. Not just because of how I was forced to hurt my own sister, but in a way that felt like something was being torn out of me in a very real, very literal sense."
"Your mane changed," Luna said. It was as much a question as a statement of fact.
"Yes," Celestia said, turning introspective as she remembered the long hours over the centuries spent trying to find the reason for that change. "I didn't understand what it was. I still don't. I was still connected to the Elements, I was until Twilight and the others took them up against Nightmare Moon. I searched my heart and my soul, and while it ached for your loss, it was otherwise whole. They do not hurt their bearers, Luna. They perhaps do something else, but they do not cause damage."
Celestia looked down again, at the six friends who took up so much of her thoughts in the last few years. They sat around a table now, laughing quietly so as not to disturb the young dragon who had fallen asleep and wrapped himself in the table-cloth. "I had hoped that the Elements had chosen bearers because you were due to return. When I realized Twilight was chosen by the Element of Magic I knew that I was not going to have to use them against you again myself. I knew that the Elements had chosen bearers to free you from the Nightmare, not just banish you for a millennium. I searched high and low for the other bearers, found them, and gathered them all in the place I had prepared to meet your return."
"Hah, I was sensing far too much contrivance in that," Luna snorted.
"Contrived or not, I think all I was doing was speeding up the process. Those six would have found each other one way or another, and taken up their Elements with or without my guidance," Celestia said, watching the friends in question talk, almost envious of their camaraderie. "Twilight was the worst in that regard. So very anti-social. You have no idea how many nights I stayed up fretting about how she was going to forge the bonds necessary to use the Elements. I couldn't be overt on that, of course. False friendship pretended to for necessity would never have worked. But every manipulation I made to get her to open up to others failed utterly. On the eve of the Summer Sun Celebration I was such a nervous wreck I couldn't even go out among my little ponies and join in the all-night party."
"I remember. I was much disappointed when you didn't fight or scream or beg. You just seemed relieved," Luna mused on that for a moment. "I suppose in a way that contributed greatly to my freedom. I was so disturbed by your lack of resistance I could not focus my all upon the ponies seeking the Elements. I am in the confusing position of thanking you for being more worried about your student's hermitic nature than my own imminent return. Is my pride pricked, or am I grateful?"
"Be grateful, Luna. You are free."
Luna nodded smartly. "Grateful then. Yet you were coming to a point about the Elements and their bearers, continue."
"The point is they came together, and they freed you. I was overjoyed, and I locked away the Elements, secure in the knowledge that their work was done. With my sister at my side there was nothing that we couldn't handle together. Twilight and her friends could live out their lives as the heroes they were, celebrated or unknown as was their choice. I resolved to spend more time among my little ponies and with a few minor Dragon and Parasprite related snags, everything was running smoothly," Celestia smiled, but that smile quickly fell away. "Then Discord returned."
In an instant the temperature plummeted to far below freezing. Frost grew like white moss out from the hooves of the Princess of the Night, crackling like fire in the sudden stillness. Her eyes glowed, burning white with anger far greater than that which she had directed towards Celestia earlier. "Do not say his name," she hissed. "He should not be given the honor of such recognition."
"His name is a concept, Luna. I can't very well ban it," Celestia chided, careful to keep her voice neutral.
The rage in Luna's eyes faded away, and the temperature began its slow climb back to normal. "Forgive me, sister. The thought of him, it does me ill."
"There is nothing to forgive, Luna. It disturbs me as well." Celestia favored her sister with as comforting a smile as she could manage before she continued. "More so in that only the Elements could defeat him. This has always been true. Yet with our connection to the Elements severed, only Twilight and her friends could defeat him, and I was unable to help them fight. I had to watch as they were twisted by his games, one by one. I was reduced to trying anything in a desperate attempt to bring them back to themselves. Fortunately, my student has never been able to resist the written word and tends to throw herself completely into what she's reading. All those wonderful friendship reports, one a week, every week, perfect for jogging memories of better times."
"And so they defeated him," Luna said, once more coming over to sit beside her fellow Princess. "A sound and great victory, made a great deal more quickly than our own victory over the monster. Sent him back to his granite prison for eternity."
"The very fact that they had to use the Elements again made me start thinking. Thinking that your return was not the reason the Elements chose bearers, or at least not the only one. They were chosen, Luna, for a purpose. Just like the Elements were made for a purpose, and in the same way we don't know what that purpose is. My assumption that it was for you was arrogant, and I see that know. However, because I do not know why they were chosen, and because I cannot simply make assumptions about it anymore, I must instead help them to be ready to face whatever challenge it was that they were chosen for."
"And you think that by having them use the Elements at every opportunity they will be so prepared?" Luna asked, incredulous.
"Well, there is a learning curve with them, you remember?" Celestia said, glancing at her sister before letting her gaze drift off into the night sky. "Those six have a natural affinity for their Elements, but they still need experience with them to be able to control the power, to direct it. The Elements aren't a weapon, to be primed and fired like a cannon. They require understanding, finesse, confidence. They need not only their bearers to be harmonious with each other, but also for each bearer to be harmonious with their Element. They need to experience them more, or they might not be ready for whatever comes next."
"And what does come next, sister?" Luna asked, her own eyes watching the Sun Princess, searching for answers.
"I don't know," Celestia shook her head, shivering. "And it terrifies me. The only foes that ever required the use of the Elements were Nightmare Moon and ... him. Every other enemy we used them against could likely have been defeated another way. It was just easier and more efficient to use the biggest power we had, and we can't have been using them properly when we did that."
"And is that different from sending them against Chrysalis?" Luna asked.
Celestia cringed. "Not at all. Of course. I am not perfect, and sometimes my own fear blinds me as much as it does anypony." The explanation felt hollow, but it was still the truth. Celestia returned her gaze to the gardens, her features tight with worry. "Yet still it remains. They are going to need to use the Elements again. I can feel it, in the part of me that is the Deep Power, in the moment before sunrise when everything is potential and nothing is made certain yet. Those ponies have yet to face their greatest challenge, and when it comes I will not be there to protect them."
Luna joined her in gazing down at the bearers, still talking and laughing but making their way back to the dance floor. "You must not manipulate them like that again. I will not stand for it. They are my friends, and my saviours. I cannot countenance such a violation of their trust."
"I promise, Luna," Celestia said without hesitation. "I cannot say I will curtail all my meddling, but I will not try to force them to take up the Elements again. On that you have my word."
"Good," Luna sagged against the railing, sighing miserably. "Yet now my thoughts are much like your own, and I find that your certainty has been shared. I, too, believe their use of the Elements, and the challenges that come with it, are not over for them. Huzzah, the angst has been doubled."
"No, Luna," Celestia said, raising her sister's chin with a gentle hoof. "This isn't a multiplication of worry, but the sharing of a burden. I know it will be lighter with you here to carry it with me. I should have remembered that, we are always stronger together than we are alone."
"Ah, the lesson of Harmony. How easily do we forget," Luna said, then smiled at her big sister, leaning over to nuzzle her softly. "There must be a better way to allow them to become more familiar with their Elements. One that doesn't involve lying to them or letting threats to the nation go through with their evil plan."
Celestia stared down at those girls. At Fluttershy swanning gracefully about the dance floor, her shyness forgotten in the warm glow of the cider she'd been drinking. At Applejack, bouncing back and forth in an energetic rodeo routine adapted for the steady beat coming out of DJ PON-3's magical speakers. At Pinkie Pie, who seemed to be in ten places at once, some of them physically impossible for her to get to. At Rarity, who was doing her best to match Fluttershy's grace without mussing up her dress too much. At Rainbow Dash, who was proving that breakdancing had never lost its awesomeness, it just needed the right pony to rediscover it.
Finally, she looked at Twilight Sparkle, the most powerful unicorn she'd ever seen in all her incredibly long life, her personal student and treasured friend. Twilight Sparkle, who at times felt almost like a daughter to the Princess. The bearer of the Element of Magic, the one who brought the others together, who faced Nightmare Moon, who defeated the spirit of Chaos and Disharmony. Twilight Sparkle, who even now was...
"Sister, is your student having some sort of fit?" Luna asked.
Celestia sighed. "No, Luna, that's just the way she dances. Now, hush, I was following a train of thought."
Twilight Sparkle, who even now was dancing like... no, skip that thought. Twilight Sparkle, who was diligently researching the endless font of wonder that is the Magic of Friendship. Twilight Sparkle who would... research diligently and thoroughly absolutely anything the Princess told her to.
"Luna," Celestia said with building excitement. "I think I know how to do it."
"No tricks?" Luna asked, eyes narrowed warily. "No manipulations or lies?"
"No. I'll be as straightforward as possible," Celestia promised.
"Very well then, sister," Luna said, pulling away. "I shall take my leave."
Celestia frowned at that. "Oh? I was hoping you would stay with me a while. I do so love spending as much time with you as I can, and now that my greatest burden is off my back I would like to talk with you some more."
"Ah, yes. As would I, dear sister," Luna assured her. "However, as I have told you, my courage to face you in accusation and debate is somewhat lacking when I am in my clearest head. Hence I didst drink far more than my measure, and now do I pay the cost. My bladder is fit to burst and there are foreboding rumblings that stir within my stomach. Thus I depart to the water closet. I might be some time. Best continue without me," she stood, trotting back into the castle.
"Oh. Well. Uh. That's my bathroom you’re heading towards. Don't make too much of a mess, please."
"Fear not, I shall be as conscientious as befits a Princess of the Night," Luna gave her sister a smile. "But please, dear sister. Thy subjects wish to see thee amongst them, not simply watching from above. Thou art their rock and their guide, and I know thou feel they depend upon thee too greatly, but thou art yet their Princess. Be with them, be among them as you and they both wish. This is a night of celebration! As such it is my domain, and I give thee permission to cease for a time to be the one set above and become instead the one set beside."
Celestia grinned at that, it was just like Luna to get poetic as a parting shot. "I will, Luna. I promise."
"Excellent. Now, turn away so as my unprincessly gallop may go unwitnessed."
Celestia snorted with laughter, but turned her head back to the party. Her thoughts burned with an idea. It was elegant, simple, easy, and far, far too obvious. She was forced to wonder if she had become so used to thinking four layers deep that she was missing the golden insights that lay only on the surface. That thought bore some consideration, but for another time. Now she summoned up a scroll, quill and ink. She need not send this as a letter, Twilight was going to be in Canterlot for the next few days and would need to know about her new assignment, and have the tools to complete it, before she left. Yet the form of their communication had become so ingrained it didn't feel right to start this any other way. With a shrug she gave in to the impulse and began her letter.
Twilight put down the letter she had been hoof-delivered. They would be leaving for Ponyville in a couple of days, and she looked forward to spending the intervening time with her parents and the Princesses, but this threw her for a loop. Her, studying the Elements of Harmony? The most powerful magic known to Ponykind? A mystery even to the Princesses?
She jumped around her room shouting "Yes!" over and over again for a good ten minutes before she was calm enough to actually process what the Princess was asking her to do. This was a whole new area of research. New frontiers, new boundaries, new rules. The books on the Elements of Harmony talked about what they had been used to do, and even that was thousand-year-old knowledge that may or may not have been lost, misremembered or just plain lied about. Even the Elements of Harmony Reference Guide blatantly stated that no one knew how the Elements did whatever they did, worse yet it didn't even know about the Element of Magic. She would be the first pony in a thousand years to be able to study the Elements properly, and with so little information even from the Princesses she might be the first to study them properly ever!
How was she going to begin? Jump right into experimentation, or collect all the periphery data from those thousand-year-old books first? What sort of tests could she even devise for them? Oh, there were just too many ideas!
Twilight pulled a scroll from her traveling desk, grabbing the quill and poising it above the page. She would start with the first thing that she always started with. A checklist! But what should be the first item on the checklist, and what, really, was the checklist about? Should she make a checklist for what she needed to do in order to make this checklist?
No. She needed to back off. Think about this differently. This wasn't like her usual research efforts. This was serious business. She couldn't be goofing off with checklists about checklists. That was fun, but this was the big leagues. This was a personal request for actual, serious research from the Princess herself! She needed to take a whole new approach this time.
She spent a long time staring at the blank page, turning it all over in her thoughts. Finally, with a slow, even smoothness that her writing usually didn't possess, she inked her quill and began to write.
Twilight raised the quill, staring at the questions she had laid out. Well, it was no checklist, but it was a start. She would have to think about this a lot more before she could even begin to answer any of those questions. She had a feeling it was going to take a long, long time to work through this. The Princess might just have given her the project of a lifetime.
Twilight Sparkle smiled. She was very, very okay with that idea.
She started to put the quill down, but stopped, staring at the page with its burst of possibly-unanswerable questions. She wanted to share this enthusiasm with her friends. She was sure they'd be as interested as her to find out the truth about the Elements they had all been chosen to wield. It was going to be an exciting time. She just couldn’t tear herself away yet. The page felt unfinished, somehow. As if a stream-of-consciousness assortment of questions and ideas could ever be finished or unfinished. With a grin Twilight realized what was holding her there. The page was missing something, and she knew exactly what that was. With a laugh she scribbled a few words as a heading to the page before magically drying the ink and bounding towards the door.