Pine Needle gently placed his dirty breakfast plate into the kitchen sink to let it soak a bit before he got around to washing it. Looking out a window, he saw that the sun was already high in the sky; it had been very late when he and his friends had finally returned from Canterlot the night before. What had started out as small talk among the girls had turned into a lengthy discussion about fashion and what attending school had been like for them.
Before they knew it, Celestia was knocking on Luna's bedroom door- without the other ponies this time, thankfully- to inform them that, unless they planned on spending the night, they would have to leave soon to give the guards who would be pulling the chariots time to get home for bed themselves. Pine Needle was kind of glad that Feather Down had to work today, and that Dewdrop had her usual early shift at the inn. While he wouldn't have minded spending more time with his friends, he felt much more comfortable sleeping under his own roof.
The only downside was that a chariot ride through the night sky was even more unnerving to him than one during the day. At least when the sun was up, he could distract himself from how high up he was by looking at the distant mountains. In the dark, it had felt for all the world as if he was flying through the stars in the sky, with the ground so far below him that it might as well have not been there. He shuddered again at the thought. If only he was as fast as Feather Down, he would gladly spend the time and energy to gallop to and from Canterlot.
Instead, he had arrived back home strung out, and despite the how late it had been, it had taken him a couple of hours of simply lying down and staring intermittently at the ceiling and the back of his eyelids before he finally fell asleep. He was thankful that Haystack had told him that he wouldn't be needed until after lunch today. His friend had said that he had several chores to take care of in town during the morning, and Pine Needle suspected that Haystack had probably slept in too.
The soft sound of somepony knocking brought Pine Needle out of his reverie. "Coming!" he called out as he trotted to the front door of his house. Opening it, he saw a yellow pegasus mare with a pink mane standing next to a white rabbit. It only took him a second to recognize her from the recent advertisements he had seen for his favorite brand of carrot juice. "Fluttershy!" he cried out in surprise. "What brings you... to..."
He stood there blinking as Fluttershy disappeared from his doorstep, only to poke her head out cautiously from behind one of his pine trees a dozen paces away. The rabbit glared at him, shook his head, and then placed a paw in front of its mouth in a shushing motion. He then hopped over to the petrified pegasus, and after a few insistent tugs on her mane, was able to coax her back to Pine Needle's door.
"Sorry about that," she told him in a very soft voice. "It's just that I'm not very comfortable around loud noises, or ponies that I don't know that well, so, um," she trailed off, looking at the ground between them.
Pine Needle chuckled. "There is no need to apologize," he said in a much more subdued manner. "I am aware that sometimes I come across a bit too strongly, and I hope that you will forgive mine outburst?"
Fluttershy looked up from behind her mane and gave him a small smile. "Thank you. I'm sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if I could ask a favor?"
"But of course. What can I do for you?" Pine Needle asked, curious what the shy pegasus wanted from him.
"Well, winter is coming up very soon, and I'm trying to find places for all the woodland creatures to spend the winter. Me and a few other ponies have been working hard, finding burrows and trees and dens that would be appropriate, but we're having a hard time finding enough." As she spoke, her voice gained volume and confidence as she warmed to the subject. "I noticed the other day as I passed by that you have some very nice pine trees here, and I was wondering if you would mind if I took a look at them, to see if any of them might be suitable for some squirrels to spend the winter in?"
"Be mine guest," he said, making a sweeping motion with a foreleg. He watched as Fluttershy nodded in thanks, turned, and started flying around the trees that surrounded his home. Pine Needle smiled, glad to know that all of the hard work he had put into growing the saplings that he had brought with him from Stalliongrad was being noticed by other ponies in town.
After a few minutes of watching Fluttershy carefully examine each tree, he turned his attention to the small rabbit that had remained standing next to him. "So, how long do you think she will take?" he asked to fill the silence, wondering if the animal could understand him. The rabbit turned from watching Fluttershy briefly to give him an annoyed look. It then shrugged its shoulders, and returned to watching the yellow pegasus. Pine Needle blinked, and wondered how something so small could carry around so much attitude.
A short while later, Fluttershy finished her searching and returned to where Pine Needle and Angel waited. "I'm sorry, but it looks like there is only one place suitable for a squirrel in your trees. I was expecting there to be a lot more knotholes then there were."
"Ah, I am actually surprised that there is even one, to be honest. Mine trees are actually quite young, I planted them when I first arrived from Stalliongrad. I brought them with me, so they are only a couple of years old," he explained.
Fluttershy looked at the trees and then back at him. "Really? Wow, they sure grew fast. Do all tress from Stalliongrad grow so quickly?"
"No, it's just that caring for them is mine special talent," he said, pointing to his pine branch cutie mark."
"Oh, how wonderful," she said, giving him a smile. "So, would it be okay if we had a squirrel spend the winter in your trees? They don't hibernate, but they aren't very active either, so it shouldn't be a hassle."
"I would be honored to have mine trees help in such a way. I am only sorry that there is only room for one."
"Oh no, there's no need to apologize," she said. "Also, would it be a problem if I kept your place in mind for the future in case I have trouble finding places for all of the animals for winter again?"
Pine Needle smiled. "But of course!" he exclaimed, happy to be able to help her out, only to feel like an idiot as his latest outburst sent the skittish mare back to hiding behind one of his pine trees again. He sighed, and hung his head in embarrassment. "Sorry!" he called out to her, trying to ignore the angry glare coming from the rabbit.
Luna wandered the halls of Canterlot Castle, searching for her sister. She was trying to decide where to go next, having already looked in the throne room and Celestia's private quarters. There were still a couple of hours until lunch, so she didn't think the dining area would be likely, and the only times she ever saw her sister enter the library was when Celestia was looking for her. She had even asked several of the castle staff if they had seen Celestia, but none could recall having spotted her recently.
She was just about to check outside in the gardens when she heard her name being called out. Turning, she saw a page galloping up from behind. She stood and waited for the messenger to catch his breath after he had come to a stop before her. "Your Highness," the earth pony said in between tired breaths, "Princess Celestia is looking for you, and would like to speak with you in the throne room."
Luna blinked in surprised, and after a moment chuckled. "I've just spent the last fifteen minutes looking for her, and I even checked the throne room first," she said in an amused voice. "Thank you for letting me know where she is. I shall head there right away." She gave the young stallion who had given her the news a quick look over. "Are you going to be okay? Is the matter that Celestia wants to talk to me about so important that you needed to run yourself ragged to find me?"
"No, ma'am," he said, seeming to be finally regaining his wind. "It's just that Celestia sent four of us out, and said whoever was the first to find you would get a bonus added onto their pay for the week."
"Well then, come along, and I'll make sure that you don't get cheated out of your reward." She started walking towards the throne room slowly at first, to make sure that the page had fully recovered. Seeing that he had, she then broke into a brisk trot, equally eager to not only end her search but to also find out why Celestia was looking for her. A couple of minutes of traveling through the hallways later, and they had arrived at the entrance to the throne room. After taking a few seconds to compose herself she nodded at the guards, who opened the double doors for her.
Celestia looked up from a scroll she was reading when she heard the sound of hooves walking across marble. "Sister! There you are! And good work Fleet Hoof, I had a feeling you would be the one to find her." The page bowed, and then stepped back to stand along the wall, ready to once again head out if asked to.
Luna gave her sister a rueful smile. "Did you know I've been looking for you too? I even checked here first, but you weren't around. Let me guess, you were out looking for me?"
Her sister chuckled as she walked over to her. "Correct. I checked your rooms, and then I looked in the gardens. After talking to Mrs. Hardback and learning that you hadn't been in the library at all today, I sent out the pages. So, what were you wanting to talk to me about?"
"The Grand Galloping Gala. It's this weekend, and I was hoping to be able to attend."
Celestia smile faded, and her face took on a serious look. "Interesting. I was looking for you to talk to you about the Grand Galloping Gala too, but for the opposite reason. I was hoping to suggest an alternative for you, instead of attending."
"An alternative?" Luna was shocked to hear her sister say such a thing. "But things went so well at the dinner last night! I know that the odds were tilted in my favor, but I thought my friends and I handled ourselves wonderfully! Do you think we're not ready to handle something as big as the Gala, or...?" she trailed off, not wanting to voice the possibility that she still might not be welcome at such a large gathering.
"I agree, you all were wonderful last night. And no, that isn't the reason why I don't want you to attend the Gala at all." Celestia looked at her sister straight in the eyes. "I don't want you to attend because, frankly, it would be a giant waste of time for you. An experience that you would find tepid at best, and mind numbingly boring at the worst."
"R-really?" Luna was shocked. She remembered her sister saying in the past that she wasn't too fond of these events, but to hear her state it so bluntly left her reeling.
Celestia nodded. "Do you know what I get to do for the entire night? I greet ponies. I stand at the top of the stairs, and they all line up so that they can spend ten seconds with me." She sighed, and shook her head. "The queue stretches out of the room at times, and after everypony has had their turn, things are wrapping up. I'd like to just drop that part of the event, but for many it's the only time they get to meet me, and they're all so happy to have the chance, I just know they would be heartbroken if I didn't do it.
"But I certainly won't subject you to that if I can help it. And rest assured, if you were to attend, that is what would be expected of you. If not standing next to me, then wherever you happened to be, just like after the dinner last night." Celestia gave Luna an appraising look. "Unless I'm wrong? Do you want to spend an entire night talking to ponies, one after another, with no time for anything else? No chance to grab a bite to eat, enjoy a song played by the band, or a brief moment to walk through the gardens by yourself to regain your composure?"
Luna took a moment to consider. In a way, she wanted to attend even more now. If what she had accomplished last night really had helped improve her image, then doing the same at the Gala would only help things out more. Still, last night had been tiring. She hadn't been able to get a proper meal, and by the end, she could feel herself getting worn out. If that was only a small dinner, how draining would attending the biggest social event of the year be?
She sighed, and looked at Celestia. "No, I guess you're right. If this was later in the season, I might be willing to trying it. But I don't think I would be up to it right now." Her head drooped. "And I was hoping to surprise my friends with tickets to it too."
Celestia chuckled. "Actually, I have an idea that would be an even bigger surprise for them. I think it would be a marvelous alternative to attending the Gala."
"Oh?" Luna asked, curious as to what her sister had in mind.
"How would you like to visit them in Ponyville that night instead, and treat them to something that hasn't happened for a thousand years?"
Luna blinked, trying to figure out what her sister was referring to, when it hit her. "You, you want me to raise the moon again?" Seeing Celestia nod, she smiled. "You finally got approval from the rest of the nobility?" she asked excitedly.
"Well, about that," her sister replied hesitantly, "no."
Luna took a step backwards, stunned by what Celestia was suggesting. Defy the nobility? Sure, they didn't have that much power, and Celestia was so loved by the populace that she could ignore the protocol that the situation called for. They could get away with it, but with the care she had taken to improve how others perceived her, did she really want to take such a risk?
She drew in a deep breath, and gathered her resolve. "Then no, I don't want to do it. Not if we can't do it the right way."
"We don't even have to tell them, you know," Celestia said slyly, walking up close to her. "After all, it isn't like I'll make a big deal about it. They'll see the sun set and the moon rise, just like they always have, and nopony will be the wiser that it was you, and not me, who raised the moon for once."
Luna openly gawked in disbelief at Celestia. She couldn't believe that her sister would be so willing to do something like this in such an underhanded manner. It went against everything she knew about her to such an astonishing degree that it seemed like a terrible joke. It felt like it was what Celestia had done to her friends with the clothing yesterday, but on a much grander scale and with consequences that she wasn't comfortable with.
She turned and looked outside. The sun was still climbing in the sky, steadily making its way toward noon. "Celestia," she said, quickly arranging her thoughts as she realized how to explain things properly. "You're the sun, not just in duty and responsibility, but in how people see you. Bright, beloved, and warm. Not only that, the sun is always full. Unlike the moon which waxes and wanes as time goes by, the sun is always at its fullest, just as you are at the height of power and recognition.
"And I am the moon. Again, not just in what my duties used to be, but in how I am perceived. And right now, I'm a new moon, in more ways than one. I'm newly returned from my exile. I'm still finding out how different things have become since I was gone. And like a moon that isn't visible, that's how I am to most ponies. Without any real duties other than trying to catch up to the present, I'm out of their sight, and thus out of their thoughts.
"And I don't want to be a new moon any more, Celestia! Even if all I do is grow to be the slimmest of slivers, the thinnest of crescent moons in the sky, I want to be able to at least have the chance to get there. Regaining my duty to raise and lower the moon the right way, even if we could do it without the consent of the nobility, would let me grow in everypony's mind." She paused to catch her breath, surprised at how easily the words had come once she had started talking.
"I was hoping you felt that way," Celestia said, her voice filled with relief and with a proud look on her face. "I thought you did, but until you hear somepony speak their mind, you can never be certain. Very well, I will call for an assembly the day after tomorrow, and we'll bring the matter up then. Will that be enough time for you to prepare your case to them?"
"Honestly? I could probably take a month and still not be ready," Luna admitted. "But I want this. I really want to do this, so yes." She looked up at her sister. "And I'll gladly take any assistance you can provide too."
"Of course," replied Celestia. "After all, they'll be questioning me too." She smiled warmly at her younger sister. "You won't be alone in this, remember that. Even though all the questions will be directed at you, in a sense I will be the one they are truly questioning. Am I being deceived? Am I showing you too much favor, simply because you are my sister? Do I really have the best interests of the kingdom in mind?"
"Who would think that you didn't?" asked Luna. "After all these years, and with how far things have come over the centuries? If they could see what it was like in the early days, they-"
"That's just it," Celestia said, interrupting her younger sister. "They don't have the luxury of being immortal like us. They lack the long view. Even when we have a down year, where the harvest isn't as productive, or when some unforeseen illness sweeps the land, we know that it is only a temporary thing. That even at its worst things are still better than they were in the distant past, when ponies would have died from starvation instead of simply growing lean from smaller meals, or perished in the hundreds instead of just suffering for a few weeks due to our advanced medicine.
"Mind you, I don't hold that against them. With how short their lives are, compared to ours? They're like flowers, possessing a limited time to grow, to bloom, and to call attention to themselves. To make something worthy to pass along to their kin." She paused and sighed. "Listen to me, carrying on. Forgive me, Luna. It's just that it has been so long since I have had somepony who understands this, who can truly appreciate what I'm talking about. Please, forget about my whining. We have more important things to worry about. How can I help you prepare?"
"No," Luna said, sorrow in her eyes, "I don't want to forget about your complaints. You have every right, if not more, to share your concerns with others." She walked over to Celestia and nuzzled her. "I may not be able to help you with everything, but I'll always be glad to listen to your worries."
The two sisters stood there for a minute, leaning against each other. "Thank you," Celestia said, "I needed that." She stepped away from Luna. "Now, again, what can I do to help you?"
Luna considered things before answering. "I've come a long ways in my studies, but I'm still catching up. What I know about government proceedings is still several centuries behind where we currently are, and I'm sure it is quite outdated. If you could send me books or transcripts that show or describe what I'm about to face, that would be perfect."
Celestia nodded. "I'll ask around the various government archives, and see what I can dig up. We actually don't have too many sessions like what we're about to go through, but I'm sure I can find something. I assume you'll be in the library, looking through stuff there?" Seeing her sister nod she said, "I won't keep you then. I'll bring over what I find personally, okay?"
"Sounds good to me!" Luna smiled and then trotted out of the throne room, motivated and determined to put on the best showing she could.
Haystack knocked on the door to the Ponyville Library, and heard a familiar cry of "Coming!" from inside. A few seconds later, Spike the dragon opened the door. "Heya Haystack, c'mon in," he said, motioning with a wave of his arm as he turned and walked further inside.
The pegasus followed him, and found himself having to be careful of where he stepped; the floor was littered with dozens of books. "Wow, what happened in here?" he asked as he walked towards the desk in the corner where Spike was leafing through a short stack of papers.
"Oh, Twilight has been searching for some spells to use this weekend. So she'll pull down any and every book that looks like it might have something to help her out, and just put it off to the side if it doesn't. Of course, I get to be the one to put them all back," he said resignedly.
Haystack blinked, and looked around the room again. "That doesn't seem very fair to me," he said.
"Eh, it isn't fun, but really it isn't that hard of a job either. Just takes some time. My only complaint is how often I end up having to do it, really. Aha! Here we go," Spike said as he pulled out one form from the stack he had been looking through. "Are you returning the book, or did you want to keep it for another week?"
"I'll be returning it," he replied, and then reached into his saddlebags and pulled the book out. After Spike had taken it from him, he said, "Thank you again. It was quite helpful for me and my friends in getting ready for the dinner."
"Oh, that's right. How'd that go?" the dragon asked as he put the book down on the desk.
"It wasn't that bad, I guess. I'm not the most social of ponies, but I had an okay time. The girls sure seemed to enjoy it, especially getting to show off their new dresses."
"New dresses?" asked Spike. "Did they stop by the Carousel Boutique and have Rarity make them something?"
Haystack shook his head. "No, in fact, it was because of one of the most surreal things I've ever been a part of. We were getting ready in Luna's room when Celestia visited us. All of a sudden, it was chaos. A whole bunch of other ponies came in with racks of clothing, and before I knew it we were all dressed up in some admittedly very nice outfits." He sighed, and said, "I mean, it's obvious she had the whole thing set up ahead of time, but I could see that Luna was caught off guard by it all too. I don't understand why she had to go to such lengths to keep what she was doing a secret."
Spike shrugged. "Beats me. Although," he said thoughtfully, "that does remind me me of what Twilight told me about Princess Celestia's latest visit here to Ponyville."
"Oh?" asked Haystack.
"Yeah, I guess she brought her pet phoenix with her, but she didn't tell anypony what it was. So they all saw this sickly looking bird, sitting in its cage while it coughed and slowly lost its feathers. Then she got called away and left it behind, and none of the guards thought to keep watch over it either, so Fluttershy took it on herself to try to make the thing better."
"How'd that work out?" the pegasus asked, intrigued by the tale.
"Well, Twilight found out about it on accident when she went to visit Fluttershy at her place. By then the guards were starting to look for it too, and I guess all sorts of crazy things happened until the phoenix went through its renewal process and turned into a pile of ash right in front of everyone."
Haystack could only stare in disbelief, his jaw hanging loosely. Seeing his reaction, Spike nodded. "Yeah, I guess it drove Fluttershy to tears, until Celestia showed up and explained that was just part of what phoenixes do. Then the ash rose up and turned into a healthy flame colored bird."
"Wait a minute," Haystack said. "Celestia knew that was going to happen, but she didn't tell anypony? What was she trying to do, set up some sort of display for them to watch?"
Spike shrugged again. "I have no idea. I wasn't even there, I just heard about it from Twilight afterwards."
Haystack's face twisted in thought, and then sighed. "Well, thanks for sharing that with me Spike, and thanks again with the help in finding that book for us."
"Glad to help!" Spike said with a smile. "Stop on by anytime you need something, okay?"
"Will do." Haystack left the library and flew away. Instead of heading home though, he simply glided through the late autumn skies, trying to figure out how this latest piece of news fitted into everything else he had seen and heard already.