Princess Luna entered her bedroom and closed the door behind her with a sigh. It had been over a month since she had, as Nightmare Moon, freed herself from her imprisonment in the moon and returned to Canterlot, shedding her evil persona along the way. Still, even though her older sister Princess Celestia had welcomed her back with an open heart, not everybody else seemed ready or willing to do the same.
Climbing into her bed, she knew that she couldn't really blame them. After all, she had done some pretty dastardly things, the greatest of which was her recent attempt to overthrow her sister and bring night eternal to the land of Equestria. But still, it was hard to face nothing but looks of contempt and disdain from everyone else all the time. She was trying to earn their trust, she really was. But how was she supposed to make any progress when nopony would give her a chance? With one last, soft sigh, she used her magic to close the drapes and douse the lights. Getting comfortable, she closed her eyes, and hoped that tomorrow would be better.
Luna looked around her. In every direction but down was the night sky, filled with a thousand stars shining like diamonds of every color. Beneath her hooves wasn't the grass of a field, or even the floors of Canterlot, but a white, rocky glowing terrain that she instantly knew was the moon. She turned her gaze upward again, taking in the night sky, and slowly realizing that, although she was obviously dreaming, this was too real to be just an ordinary dream. At the sound of a throat being cleared behind her, she turned around and froze in shock at the sight; Nightmare Moon was standing behind her!
"Hello there, Luna," the larger, black mare sneered with contempt. "Still trying to fit into society, I see. And just how is that working out for you?"
"How… how are you…" Luna stammered in fright, wondering how this could be happening.
Nightmare Moon rolled her eyes. "The only question I have is, how am I not the one who is still in control? We were me for a millennium! Compared to how long you've lived as Princess Luna," Luna flinched at the venom her dark side put into speaking her name, "why, I'm the one who has lived the majority of her time in control!"
Princess Luna took a deep breath and tried to regain her composure. "Yes, yes you did. But that's behind me now! No more being feared, being evil! I just want to live a happy life! One filled with friends, and smiles, and…"
Nightmare Moon cut her off with a sharp laugh. "Ha! Again I ask, how's that working out for you? No, don't try to cover up the details, I'm you after all. I saw it all! How even though the only word you said to those two unicorns in the halls after breakfast was a friendly 'Hello', what did they do? They turned tail and ran in fear! Or how about those guards you passed after lunch? Did you see how they just stared at you? And trust me, Luna darling, those weren't the good kind of stares from a stallion, oh no. Those were eyes filled with wariness. Distrust." Nightmare Moon leaned close to whisper into Luna's ear. "Hatred."
"NO!" Luna surprised herself with the fierceness she used to deny the accusations levied at her. Nightmare Moon chuckled at her, but she shook her head in disagreement. "Maybe distrust, but not hate! And I can understand why too! After all you did to them! And, and I'm not the best at trying to talk to others either. I'm sure if I just keep trying, I'll get the hang of it eventually."
"Yes, I'll agree with you on that one, Luna. A thousand years trapped in a celestial object did stunt our interpony skills, didn't it? However, I simply think you're going about it all the wrong way." Nightmare Moon slowly walked around the smaller Luna, who turned her head from one side to the other to keep her darker self in view. "Think, Luna. What is it that we have that they don't? Magic. POWER. We were strong enough to keep the moon in the sky, and stop the sun from rising! They should not be looking at you in fear, no! They should be loving you! Worshiping you! Bowing down before your majestic might!"
"No! No no no no no!" Luna jumped away from Nightmare Moon, shaking her head in an effort to make the words from her dark half go away. "Enough! Stop! I don't want to hear this! Didn't being locked away for our actions so long ago show us that they were wrong? We don't need worshipers, or followers! What we need is…" Luna trailed off, and looked down to the ground. In a whisper, she finished, "…what we need are friends."
Gasping loudly, Princess Luna woke up to find her body and the sheets of her bed drenched in sweat. Still not entirely certain of where she was, she clumsily rolled out of her bed and landed on the floor with a thud. Even through the closed curtains, the waning moon, still three quarters full, lit up her room with an eerie white light. Not wanting to bother anyone for new sheets, or have to explain to her sister why her bedding and her fur were soaked, she magicked a smaller blanket over from her closet and curled up on the floor and tried to go to sleep.
Sleep wouldn't come, however. She was afraid of ending up back in the weird, too real dream world. The words of her darker side still echoed in her head, and kept her from finding any solace in looking at the night sky, one of her favorite things to do usually. Just when she thought she might start to chew her own tail off in frustration, certain words that Nightmare Moon had spoken to her meshed with a different train of thought, and the epiphany had her standing up in excitement.
"Magic!" she said to herself. "Like Nightmare Moon said, I have that and then some to spare! Surely there can be some way that I can use that to help me make friends!" Nodding to herself, she walked around the confines of her bedroom. "Not to meddle with anyone thoughts, of course, but maybe I can do things to help others out! Or maybe even find a way to settle the scales of my actions, to start over from scratch…"
With a sharp intake of breath, she squealed in glee. "That's it! A disguise! Everypony can't help but see my evil side when they look at me as Princess Luna, but what if what they saw was a different pony? I bet they would give a stranger at least the benefit of the doubt. Then I could make some friends, and after they got to know me, I could then let them know who I am! It's brilliant! Oh, I can't wait for morning now, so I can go look for some spells to help me out!" Finally feeling like she had a reachable goal, and a course to follow, Luna curled back up on the carpet next to the bed, magicked the blanket back over her, and drifted off into a thankfully dreamless sleep.
The next morning, Princess Luna was up early, excited by the prospect of having something new to do. With a small spring to her canter, she joined her sister for breakfast, and started chowing down on her food at a rapid pace.
"My goodness!" Princess Celestia said with a cheery voice. "Somebody sure seems to be in a hurry to do something today!"
Luna paused, and with a blush on her face meekly replied "I'm sorry sister, it's just that I got an idea last night, and I want to go do some research and study on it before anything slips from my mind!"
"Oh my!" Celestia chuckled. "I don't think I've seen anybody want to study so badly since Twilight Sparkle still resided in these halls!" Motioning for her younger sister to resume eating, she continued, "Then by all means, please don't let me slow you down! I'm just happy to see you in such a good mood."
Luna nodded her head in thanks as she hastily slurped up the last of the apple slices on her plate. Washing it down with a small cup of water levitated to her by her magic, she gave a small sigh of contentment from the delicious meal. "Thank you, Celestia, and please excuse me. I'm off to the Royal Library." Celestia watched as her sister practically galloped out the door and down the hall.
After a couple of corners taken at high speed, and one collision barely evaded, Luna slowed down as she approached the door to the library. She knew that the librarian, while quite strict with her rules, was also very fair and was one of the few ponies that didn't show her any prejudice. She didn't want to cause her any trouble if she could help it. Entering, she saw a couple of other ponies in the library, but for the most part because of the early hour the aisles between the shelves were much emptier than they would be in an hour or two. Luna paused for a second, wondering where to look, when something her sister had said back at the breakfast table made her curious.
Seeing the librarian free for the moment Luna walked over to her. "Hello, Mrs. Hardback. Do you have a spare moment or two?"
The librarian looked up at Luna and smiled. "Of course I do, dear. What can I help you with? Oh!" Mrs. Hardback said to a cream colored stallion that had just walked up with a book to check out. "I'll be with you in just a moment, sir."
"Well, this may be a bit of a strange question, but what was Twilight Sparkle like before she left Canterlot?"
This brought a snort from the stallion waiting behind her. "Why do you want to know? Looking for secrets to help you get revenge?"
Luna shrank at the snide tone of the stallion's voice, but Mrs. Hardback in turn seemed to grow a foot taller as her face filled with rage. "Listen here, you!" she said in a loud voice that, had it come from any other pony in the library, would have been cause for a quick eviction from the area. "You have no right to judge her so! I will NOT have anypony in my library be badgered in such an unseemly manner!" With a wave of her horn, Mrs. Hardback levitated the book the stallion had brought forward, and started hitting him on the head with it. "Now, get out! Get! And don't come back here anytime soon!"
Luna stared in awe at the display put forth by the librarian as the bruised stallion fled the area. It felt good to have someone stand up for her so vocally. "Thank you very much, Mrs. Hardback," Luna said to the librarian. "It isn't often that anypony is willing to do something like that for me."
"Oh, pishposh!" huffed Mrs. Hardback. "He has no right to say such a thing. Oh dear, I'm sorry, I'm so flustered by that stallion's lack of manners that I have quite forgotten what your question was."
"Well, at breakfast today, I told Celestia that I was eager to come down here and do some studying, and she told me she hadn't seen anybody quite so eager to research anything since Twilight Sparkle was still here. I was just wondering what she was like, for me to be compared to her in such a manner."
Mrs. Hardback chuckled. "Oh, dearie me, was she ever a book worm! Why, probably half of her time was spent in here looking through one book or another. Then Celestia finally got tired of her turning into such a recluse and tossed her out to Ponyville to learn some social skills. That mare needed them too, let me tell you." With a final sigh at the memory, she returned her focus back to Luna. "Now then, can I help you find any book in particular, or would you rather search the shelves on your own?"
"I think I know where to look, ma'am. Thank you though for the answer, and again for your kindness." Luna wandered off into the portion of the library that housed books with spells. As she started to scan the titles of various volumes, another inspiration struck her. 'If Twilight Sparkle was able to make friends by relocating to someplace else, maybe that will work for me too!' In a rush, a plan formed. 'Okay, so I need to find a spell to help me with a disguise. Then, make sure I take some money with me, and head off to Ponyville, that's close enough for me to reach without too much trouble. Maybe stay a week or so, see how people treat me as somepony else. Worst comes to worst, maybe I can ask Twilight to help me out. I'll leave a note for Celestia so she won't worry! Oh, this is going to work out so great, I just know it!'
After an hour of looking through book after book, Luna's hopes were slowly dwindling. While there were many a book about using magic for disguises, none of them seemed to fit her purposes. "If they aren't easily seen through," she muttered to herself as she replaced yet another book back onto the shelves, "they don't last long, or can fall apart at the slightest touch. I need a disguise that will hold up under scrutiny, and one I won't have to worry about slipping at the worst possible time. Oh, well now, this looks promising. Teakettle's Tome of Transformations? What does this book have in it?" Using magic to carry the book over to a reading stand, Luna flipped through the pages. Having long ago lost the patience to read every word, she instead scanned for certain phrases that she knew indicated that the instructions for a spell were about to be described.
"Ah ha!" she whispered. "Here we go. 'Teakettle's Earth Pony Transmogrification. This incantation will render the caster, and only the caster, indistinguishable from an earth pony through any means of detection'. Exactly what I need!" Luna took the book and checked it out, and then headed back to her chambers. 'Now all I have to do is figure out how I'm going to get out of Cantelot unseen. Oh, and pack! I need to get supplies for a week's stay out with me too. And a note, oh so much to do, so much!'
After an afternoon of slowly gathering some sundries and equipment, Luna looked up to see everypony heading towards the feast hall. "That late already? I might as well go join all of them for some…" Luna paused, and quickly scanned the area again. "All of them are going to go eat right now! If I can just hurry up and get the rest of my stuff packed quickly enough, this would be the perfect time to get out of Canterlot unnoticed!"
Luna scanned the items she had gathered. Some apples and carrots, and the small blanket she had worn last night. A portable telescope, some parchment, a quill and a vial of ink. A small pouch filled with some coins and a couple of gems in case she needed to make a large purchase for some reason. Better safe than sorry, she reasoned. And most importantly, the book with the disguise spell. With a wave of her horn, she gathered all the items into a pair of saddlebags she had taken from a dusty storage room. She had wanted a set that didn't look too fancy, or have the royal crest on it. It had, looking back on it all, been the hardest item to find, even more difficult to come across than the book she had spent over an hour searching for that morning. She turned to leave, when she found herself stopping at the door.
"The note!" Looking around, she saw that she had indeed left some writing materials on a desk in the corner of the room. Horn glowing, she quickly penned a message for her sister. 'Dearest sister Celestia. Please forgive my sudden disappearance, but I have an experiment that I need to undertake, and I have no time to waste in order for it to be made correctly. Do not worry, I have taken great pains to be adequately supplied for my sojourn, and I look forward to talking with you afterword about what I learned. Your loving sister, Luna.'
Nodding in satisfaction, she levitated the message to lie on the pillow of her bed. Poking her head out of her bedroom, she saw the hallway was empty, and coming through the open window, the sounds of many ponies starting their evening meal wafted up. Luna cautiously trotted down hallways and passed through some rooms, occasionally turning back to avoid the rare pony still out and about during dinner, and finally found her way to ground level. Wasting no time, Luna galloped a ways away, not wanting to risk being seen as she flew off, until a hill was between her and the castle. Finally she took wing, flying towards Ponyville.
Travel went well, until the sun went down. Worn out from flying farther than she had ever remembered doing so before, Luna found a small clearing a short ways from the road and settled down for the night. She was nervous being alone, out in the wilderness, but the steady chirping of crickets in the area helped her to fall asleep much faster than she thought she would have. A ray of the morning sun, shining through a gap between branches to fall across her eyes, woke her up. Magicking some breakfast from her saddlebags, she pondered what her next step would be.
'I could keep on flying, but I risk being spotted from farther away by doing that,' she thought as she nibbled on some carrots. 'Of course, I still face a decent risk of being noticed just by walking down the road too. Ponies must go up and down it everyday. I guess my best bet is to walk off to the side of the road, keeping an eye out for others so I can hide from them. If anybody sees that Princess Luna is on her way to Ponyville, it will ruin my chances of my disguise succeeding. It may take some extra time, but my wings are still sore from yesterday.' Luna stretched her wings once again at the thought of how much flying she had done previously. 'Getting carried everywhere on those cloud chariots sure got my wings out of shape!'
Luna spent the rest of the morning trotting towards Ponyville. While she managed to hide from the groups of ponies that used the road, she was really starting to hate briar patches that seemed to take up acres, and walls of branches that could have been used to build a house. Thanks for her magic, she was able to clear a path without too much hassle, but the time it was taking was starting to annoy her. Finally, a couple hours after a lunch of some apples and oats, she crested a hill, only to quickly withdraw back behind it. Just past the crest of the hill was Ponyville.
"Finally!" Luna muttered as she removed her saddlebags. "If I had known just how heavy that telescope was going to be, I would have left it back in Canterlot! Well, no time to waste, it took me much longer to get here than I thought it would. I guess tonight I'll just buy a meal somewhere, get a room at an inn, and start looking for some friends tomorrow. Easy as pie. Now, where's that spell?" Using her magic, she pulled the book from her bags, and opened it to where the spell was. Luna read through the instructions again quickly. "This will be harder than I thought," she said to herself out loud. "It looks like it takes almost a minute to cast! That must mean it really is a great disguise!" she proclaimed with a smile on her face. "Okay, let's get this started!"
Using her pouch of gems to help keep the book open to the correct page as it lay on the ground, Luna began to cast the spell. The first few seconds were simply an exercise in gathering up energy, and soon a large ball of white magical energy surrounded her horn. Then she manipulated the magic just so, and the ball flew from her horn, circled around her a few times, and then cocooned her in a giant sphere of energy, lifting her a foot off the ground in the process. Luna's mouth opened in a silent cry of surprise… and pain.
In the Everfree forest, Zecora the Zebra looked up from the book she was reading. "Who could be casting such a spell," she wondered, "that I can feel it here where I dwell?"
Luna's wings started to come apart, one feather at a time. Trapped inside the nimbus of magic, they flew around her, clouding her vision even more than the tears that filled her eyes.
In the newly planted orchards of Appleloosa a unicorn looked up from the basket of fruit she had just harvested, distracted by something she couldn't quite place. All she knew was that this sensation she was feeling made her uncomfortable.
Luna's wings were finally gone, now only existing as a swirling cloud of feathers that orbited her. Now her body was starting to pale, turning from a dark, night time blue into a pale grey. Luna felt her grip on the spell shatter, and could do nothing but ride it out. 'Why does this hurt?' she silently asked to whoever might be able to hear her thoughts of panic and agony.
Pulling her cart down the road to Hoofington, a blue pony wearing a wizard's hat paused in wonder. Shivering in fear at the powerful display of magic happening… somewhere, she said in awe, "Even one as wonderful as I, The Great And Powerful Trixie, could never hope to accomplish such a feat of prestidigitation!"
Luna's mane and tail shifted from their light blue hue to a pale silver, and her cutie mark morphed from a crescent moon in a night sky to a full moon, shining a single ray of moonlight onto a hill below.
Twilight Sparkle froze in the middle of her conversation with Fluttershy as she felt the magic in the area become very agitated. Fluttershy looked at her in worry, as all Twilight could do was stand in place, mouth wide open and eyes staring into the distance.
Finally, Luna's horn unwound, becoming a long streamer that joined the feathers in flight. Then, as a long moan of pain escaped from Luna's mouth, the magic rose above Luna and shrank into a small orb no bigger than an acorn. With one final flash of magical might, Luna collapsed to the ground and rolled onto her saddlebags in agony. The ball of magic descended to land gently before her, a small gemstone looking for all the world like the moon in its full glory.
In Canterlot, Princess Celestia rushed to her sister's chambers. She had easily dismissed her sister's absence last night as her still studying, but when she missed breakfast the next day, she had started to worry. Then, lunch passed with still no sign of her, and asking discreetly around hadn't turned up anything either. But this! This flux in the air, it could only be caused by a spell being cast, one of great power! Abandoning all efforts of hiding her anxiety, she burst into Luna's bedroom, only to find it empty. She was about to dash out again to look elsewhere when, at the last second, the sight of a letter on a pillow caught her eye. She quickly levitated it over and read its contents, her eyes widening in shock.
"Oh, Luna, what have you done?"
Luna lay on the ground, not trusting herself to open her eyes. Pain still coursed through every fiber of her being, but it was slowly dissipating. What had happened to her? Had she miscast the spell? She felt… incomplete, like she was missing something. Finally unable to go any longer without knowing what she had managed to do to herself, Luna opened an eye and looked herself over.
The first thing she noticed was the absence of her wings. Then her new shade of hair, a light grey that tuned to silver for her tail. Finally she saw that her cutie mark had turned into a full moon shining a ray of light down onto a hill. With fear, she took one of her front hooves and reached to her forehead. Just as she feared, her horn was gone just like her wings. The shock of such a complete change finally sunk in, and a long moan of despair escaped from her mouth.
"Oh! What was that? Is somepony hurt?" From above her Luna heard a voice cry out, followed by the sound of hooves galloping. "Hello! Anypony? Hello, are you okay?" Luna turned her head enough to look to the top of the hill, and saw an orange unicorn mare with a brown mane appear. "Oh, OH! Oh my, hold on hun, I'll be right down!"
Luna watched as the newcomer carefully made her way down towards her. "What happened? Oh, silly me, it's obvious what happened, you tripped at the worst possible moment, and now look at you." Finally the unicorn was next to Luna. As she looked Luna over, the princess saw that the stranger had a cutie mark of three water droplets. "Tell me, does it hurt anywhere? Is anything broken?"
Luna blinked as she realized she hadn't even thought along those lines. "I, I don't think so…" she trailed off, as she realized her voice sounded different than it had before. She couldn't be sure, but she thought it was a note or two lower in pitch now. She was in no shape to give it any serious consideration, however. Cautiously moving each of her legs, she discovered one of the sources of her pain: she was lying on top of her saddlebags. Slowly, tentatively, Luna placed one hoof on the ground at a time, and then slowly stood up to face the other mare eye to eye. "I seem to be okay. I just… hurt an awful lot."
"I would think so, taking a crash like that and landing on your gear. Oh my, your stuff has scattered everywhere! You have a book over here, a telescope there… and look at this stone, this must have fallen out of your pouch next to the book, and…" The unicorn paused, and then lightly rapped a hoof against her forehead. "Listen to me, being so rude, not even bothering to introduce myself. My name is Dewdrop. What's yours, hun?"
Luna opened her mouth, and almost said her real name before she quickly shut her mouth again. 'Foal!' she mentally berated herself. 'I can't blow this disguise by telling her my real name! But what should I call myself? Think Luna, think!' Her eyes darted around quickly, looking for something, anything to use. Seeing her new cutie mark, she came up with a reply.
"Moonbeam," she replied. "My name is Moonbeam. Thank you for your help, Dewdrop. I'm a bit sore, but I think I'll be able to manage. I just need to pick up my stuff and I should be okay." Luna stared intently at the book. Without thinking about her current state, she tried to levitate it into her saddlebags. Nothing happened. Dewdrop, for her part, blinked a few times as the grey pony in front her simply stared harder and harder at the items that were littering the hillside.
"Hmm, I don't know. I'm no doctor, but you sure seem to be a bit under the weather there. Let me help you, please." Dewdrop's horn glowed. Beginning with the larger items first she picked up Luna's belongings one by one. Finishing by floating the moonstone back into the pouch, and demonstrating it was cinched up tightly, she placed it on top of the pile. She latched the saddlebags shut, and lifted them onto her own back. "I insist," she said as Luna started to protest. "You still look a bit woozy right now, and I won't have you suffer any undue stress. Come on, let's head back to town. I'll be happy to carry your belongings back to where you live… Where do you live, if I may ask?"
"I, actually, I don't have a place to stay yet. I'm, um, moving to Ponyville, so I was just going to stay at the inn for tonight. Could you please show me the way?"
"A newcomer! Oh, goodness me, I can't let you stay at the inn when you're hurting like this! No, you're coming home to stay with me. You simply must!"
'Too fast, things are happening too fast! I can't keep up.' Luna thought, panicking. "No, thank you kindly, but I wouldn't want to impose on you like that."
To Luna's surprise, Dewdrop actually laughed. "Oh hun, I work at the inn! So you'll be 'imposing' on me either way. And if I'm to make sure you get a healthy dinner to help you recover, as well as a comfortable bed for a good night's sleep, well, I'd rather do it underneath my own roof! Besides, this way my roommate can help you out too!" And with that Dewdrop moved slightly ahead, humming happily to herself - and, Luna thought wryly, forcing her to follow her in order to stay with her possessions.
Princess Celestia read the letter from her younger sister again, hoping to find some hint as to what Luna had in mind. Where had she gone? What could she have been up to? Celestia only had a couple of clues to work with. First, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that the disturbance she had felt had been caused by somepony somewhere casting a powerful spell. Luna was the first pony with such power that came to mind. Also, Luna had been gone for a day at most—she couldn't have gone far. In fact, Ponyville was the only village she could possibly have reached in that time.
There was still unused ink and parchment on the desk. Celestia levitated the quill, dipped it into the ink, and started to write a letter.
In the Ponyville library, Twilight Sparkle was searching through her books one by one and then dropping them on the floor in disgust as each one failed to provide the information she was looking for. "Augh! Spike, I can't find anything about what might have caused that disturbance. It had to have been magical in nature, the only others I found who felt it besides me were all unicorns."
"Gee, Twilight," Spike replied, running about as he tried to keep the books in neat stacks as they fell to the ground, "I honestly don't know. I didn't feel anything, and I know some magic."
Twilight turned to look at the baby dragon. "You do, huh? Such as?"
"Well, I can... oh boy, do this!" With a burp, a message popped from his mouth and hovered in the air. He took hold of it and said, "Wow, talk about good timing!"
"A letter from Princess Celestia? What does it say, Spike?" Twilight magicked the book she had been perusing onto a reading stand, and gave her dragon companion her full attention.
Clearing his throat, Spike opened the letter, and started to read aloud. "'Dearest Twilight Sparkle, I have some potentially dangerous news to share with you. I ask that you do not share this with anybody else'… Twilight, is this okay for me to be reading?"
"I'm sure it's fine Spike. She knows you quite often read these to me, and if I'm going to respond I'll have you take dictation anyways, so you'll find out at that point regardless. Please, continue."
"Okay. 'I ask that you do not share this with anybody else. Princess Luna has gone missing, and I fear that she caused the magical disturbance earlier today. I have not seen her since yesterday, so if you could please keep an eye out for her I would be very grateful. I will send you any other information that I discover as I learn of it. Thank you for your time, Princess Celestia.' Gosh! Princess Luna is missing?"
Twilight nodded slowly. "And Ponyville is the only place close enough for her to have gotten to by this time if she left yesterday from Canterlot. Assuming she headed this way, that is." Twilight frowned, "Well, it should be easy to figure out if she showed up here. She does have a very distinctive appearance to her. Stay here, Spike, in case Celestia sends any more messages. This way, I won't have to hide them from my friends. I'm going to go search around, see if anypony has noticed any newcomers to town."
Spike gave her a salute. "Will do! Good luck, Twilight!"
"Thanks, Spike! I'll try not to be gone too long."
As the door closed behind the purple unicorn as she left the library, Spike looked around. "Well, now that she's gone, I can start putting books back onto the shelves without worrying about her tossing them back off again." With a sigh, he grabbed the nearest tome and headed to a ladder. "And why are they always from the top shelves? Would it kill her to start from the bottom for a change?" he grumbled.
Luna slowly followed Dewdrop through the outskirts of Ponyville, becoming more and more relieved that the talkative orange unicorn had come across her lying on the ground. The fatigue from her travels, plus the after-effects of the spell, were leaving her barely able to follow Dewdrop around. 'All I need is a good night's sleep. I'm just tired, that's all.' Luna kept repeating those words in her thoughts, hoping to make them the truth if only by pure repetition.
After what felt like a dozen miles, but was more likely only half a mile at most, Dewdrop stopped in front of a two-story cottage. "Here we are, Moonbeam. Let's get you inside, get some grains in you, and then see what a good night's sleep does for you. I'm warning you though, if you're not feeling better come tomorrow, I'm going to insist we go and see a doctor!"
Luna nodded after she realized that Dewdrop was in fact talking to her. "I will, Dewdrop. Although I am pretty sure I'm just sore, that's all…" Luna was cut off when the door opened from the inside to reveal another pony.
"Dewdrop! Welcome back from your flower gathering expedition! How did it…? Hello! Who's this, Dewdrop?" The earth pony, pink with an apple-red mane, turned to look at Luna.
"Oops! Hehe, I completely forgot about the flowers! But I have a good reason for it, Feather Down. There was this strange, I don't know how to describe it, but I guess I would call it a sensation? It made my horn itch like you wouldn't believe! Then right after that, I heard somepony crying out in pain! So of course, I went to see what the matter was, and I found… Oh, I am being such a impolite pony today!" Turning to Luna, she continued, "Moonbeam, this is my roommate, Feather Down. Feather Down, this is Moonbeam. She's moving here to Ponyville, but had a terrible fall outside of town. I volunteered the use of our house for tonight so she can recover."
Feather Down backed out of the door to make room for the other two to enter. "Pleased to meet you, Moonbeam. Sorry it isn't under better circumstances." As Luna entered the cottage, she saw that Feather Down had a cutie mark of three white puffy feathers on her flank. Feather Down stared into Luna's eyes for a second, and then nodded. "You look like you can barely stand! Tell you what, you can use my bed tonight. We can share the other bed, right Dewdrop?" After seeing a nod of agreement from Dewdrop, Feather Down exited the room into what looked from where Luna stood to be a kitchen.
"Oh, there's no need for that!" Luna weakly protested. "I don't want to impose any more than I already have."
"None of that, my dear," said Dewdrop as she levitated Luna's possessions into a corner of the room. "Trust me, Feather Down is offering you one of the most comfortable beds in all of Equestria to use tonight, I wouldn't turn it down if I were you."
"That's right!" chimed in Feather Down from the kitchen. "That's how I got my name, after all. I knew from a very early age what made the most comfortable pillows and mattresses. If a night on that doesn't get you back in shape, nothing will!" Feather Down returned to the room with a plate of some grains and a sliced apple on it, and placed it down on a table. "Eat up, and then we'll get you to bed."
Although she didn't feel all that hungry, Luna soon found herself picking up the pace of her eating. As she chowed down, Dewdrop motioned Feather Down to follow her off to one side. "I'm a bit worried," Dewdrop whispered to her friend. "She has been really out of it. I'm afraid she might have hit her head or something in that fall. Could you do me the favor of going to talk with a nurse, just to make sure we shouldn't seek some medical attention for her right away? I'll tuck her in, and thank you ever so much for the offer to use your bed. I know how much you love it."
"No problem," Feather Down whispered back. The pink pony walked back over to Luna, who was licking the last crumbs off of the plate. "Whoa there! Someone sure had the hungries! Want any more?" Seeing Luna nod as she swallowed the last mouthful, she chuckled. "All right then, let me go get you some seconds." Grasping the edge of the plate with her teeth, Feather Down cantered back into the kitchen. Just a few seconds later, she returned with another full serving. "There you go!"
"Thank you very much," Luna said before starting to eat her way through the second helping.
Feather Down headed to the door. "Dewdrop!" she said in a sing song voice, "We're running low on apples again! I'm going to run down to the market real quick and pick up some more before all the sellers go home for the day! Could you please…" A set of saddlebags flew over to land on her back. "Thanks a bunch! I'll be back soon!"
Luna guiltily watched as Feather Down left at a gallop. "Oh, I'm sorry Dewdrop! I didn't mean to eat up all the food in the house, I…"
"Now now. None of that, Moonbeam! We're always running a bit on the thin side when it comes to food, it isn't your fault. Feather Down insists that the fresher the food is, the better it tastes. She works as a waitress in town, so she would know. That's why she won't let me go and build up any sort of a larder. Except for wintertime, of course, but that's to be expected. Now, you eat what you can, and I'll go make sure that your bed for the night is all ready."
Luna watched as the unicorn trotted up the steps to the cottage's second floor, and then returned to eating. 'They sure are kind,' Luna thought, 'but it looks like I'm going to have to wait a while before I can get some time alone to do some reading on that spell and find out what I did wrong.'
Outside, Feather Down galloped into town as fast as she could, narrowly avoiding running into several other ponies in her haste. Finally she saw another pony too late to safely dodge - a white unicorn with a stylish purple mane and tail - and she chose the nobler route of crashing into a bush instead. Startled, the unicorn gasped in surprise before she saw who was picking herself out of the shrubbery.
"Feather Down!" admonished Rarity. "Haven't I told you before not to go running through town like that? Now hold still, let me get those twigs out of your hair. It will only take a minute, and then you can be on your way."
"Sorry, Rarity, and thank you. But I have a really good reason this time!" Feather Down gasped, winded from her sprinting.
"Oh, and what's that, darling? Out of food again?"
"No - well yes - but that's just part of it!" Feather Down said in an excited voice, regaining her breath. "Dewdrop was out looking for flowers today for the inn when she found another pony in pain on the ground! Her name is Moonbeam, and she's moving here to Ponyville, but she had a nasty fall. So I'm getting some more food for us, and Dewdrop wants me to go ask a nurse if we should bring her in or not."
"My goodness!" exclaimed Rarity as she carefully removed broken bits of brush from Feather Down's coat and mane with her magic. "That's quite a tale. Well, I know for a fact that the doctor's office is still open, I guess they had quite the rush earlier today. It seems that most if not all of us unicorns felt something in the air earlier. Gave me quite a startle, to be honest. I talked to the doctor, just for safety's sake of course. He said that it wasn't anything that he had heard of before, but to come back if I felt it return." With a couple of final bursts of magic, Rarity stepped back to look over her work. "There you go, now be careful, you hear?"
"Thanks again Rarity!" Feather Down said gratefully. "Oh yeah, Dewdrop said she felt something too, now that you mention it. I'll pass along to her that a lot of unicorns felt something, although I sure didn't." With a wave, Feather Down trotted off to the doctor's office. Rarity smiled at the energetic pony, and then continued on her way to visit Twilight at the library.
Meanwhile, Luna slowly climbed up the stairs to where her hosts slept. Reaching the top, she saw two beds. One was a normal looking bed, or at least one that reminded her of what she had seen in the rooms of the servants and guards that she had glanced into at the castle. The other bed, however, looked like something that would give her own bed back in Canterlot a run for its money. "Quite the thing, isn't it?" inquired Dewdrop as she came up behind Luna. With a wink, she added, "I think you can guess which one you're sleeping in."
"I, I feel bad, making the two of you share the other bed," Luna stammered. "Maybe I should sleep in that one and the two of you would fit better in the bigger bed?"
"Oh nonsense! When we first moved in here, all we had was that bed of mine. It served us well enough until Feather Down could afford that giant hulk of a thing. You should have seen it! It took four stallions to get it up here, and it barely fit through the door!" Dewdrop chuckled at the memory. "Now go on, I'll help tuck you in. Just like when you were a filly I imagine."
As she got under the covers that Dewdrop had raised with her magic, Luna tried to recall back to when she was just a little filly. Searching her memories, she couldn't really remember anything except an indistinct feeling of being loved. "So, how long have the two of you been friends?" Luna asked in a drowsy voice.
"Oh, my goodness, all the way back. We were born the same year, and she lived right next door to me. We were inseparable growing up." Dewdrop gave Luna a smile. "I can't imagine what life would have been like without her at my side. All the pranks we pulled on others, the parties we attended, helping each other with our homework from school… I'm lucky to have had a friend like her in my life."
With her eyes closing against her will, Luna sleepily replied, "That sounds… nice." Dewdrop waited a couple of minutes, and when she heard a small, soft snore starting to regularly come from the other pony, she quietly headed back down the stairs.
Luna found herself once again in the too real dream world, standing on the moon. Glancing at her side, she saw she was back in her normal shape. Stretching her wings, she looked around, and standing off to one side was Nightmare Moon. She could tell from a single glance that her dark side was very angry.
"You idiotic foal! What have you done?" The first words from Nightmare's Moon mouth confirmed Luna's thoughts and then some. "Our magic is gone! With no wings, we can't fly! With no horn, the only way we're getting even a leaf off of the ground is to pick it up with our teeth! What were you thinking?"
Luna started to shrink back, then paused and stood up straight. "I'll tell you what I did!" she proclaimed proudly. "I put my plan into action, and it's working! Not even a day has passed since I put on my disguise, and already I'm being treated as something other than somepony to be feared!"
"You, you did all this… just so that people would like you?" Nightmare Moon sputtered. "Is that all you aspire towards? Being one of the herd?" Nightmare Moon lowered her head and stared directly into Luna's eyes. "WE ARE DIVINITY! We do not need, nor should we even want, the acceptance of the common pony. We are so far above them, not just in ability, but in everything! Look at me, see how much I tower over everyone? We've lived for over a millennium! Dozens of generations of those peons have come and gone, while we haven't aged a year physically! And you want to be with them?" Her fury and disbelief consuming her, Nightmare Moon turned her back on Luna. "Then be gone! I'll speak to you again later, when you've realized your mistake!"
Luna felt an invisible shove and the dream moonscape faded away, to be replaced with a deep, dreamless sleep.
In Canterlot, Princess Celestia was getting ready to turn in for the night. She had sent notes to her friends and agents all over Equestria, asking them to keep an eye out for her sister discreetly. As much as she wanted to go off and search the land high and low on her own, she knew she couldn't. She had a responsibility, not only to her realm, but also to try to cover up for her errant sister. She was about to extinguish the lights when someone knocked at her door.
"Princess? It's Mrs. Hardback. I just found something regarding Princess Luna, and I thought I should tell you right away, your highness."
Celestia open the door with her magic, and beckoned her librarian in. "Please, come in. Any news at this point will be welcome, no matter how good or bad it may be. Just not knowing anything is starting to wear me down."
Entering and bowing briefly, Mrs. Hardback levitated a piece of paper over to Celestia. "It took me a bit to find it, it became a busy day at the library with everyone searching through the books trying to figure out what had happened with that disturbance in the magic. But I found this receipt of the book that Princess Luna checked out."
"Teakettle's Book of Transformations?" read Celestia. "I can't say that I've heard of it before. Do you happen to have another copy in the library?"
"No, your highness, I'm sorry. I looked before coming, hoping to bring it to you if we did. Maybe you have one here, in your private collection?" Mrs. Hardback asked as she looked at the collection of books sitting on shelves on one side of the room.
"I don't think so, but let me check." Celestia walked over to her tomes and scanned the spines of the volumes. "Teakettle, Teakettle… no, it appears I do not have it. I'll ask around in the morning. Maybe there is one in a library elsewhere. Thank you very much, Mrs. Hardback. I'll be able to sleep better tonight because of this. While I may be no closer to knowing where Luna has gone, at least I have something to work off from now."
"I'm glad to have been able to help, your Highness. And if possible, could you please let me know if you find anything out? I miss the girl too."
"Certainly, Mrs. Hardback." Celestia smiled as the librarian left her room, glad to know that Luna had made at least one other friend in Canterlot over the past month. Writing a quick note to remind herself to ask other libraries if they had a copy of the book that Luna had taken, Celestia finally turned off the lights and slowly fell asleep.
Luna was awakened by a beam of sunlight that had poked its way through a gap in the curtains to fall across her face. She was relieved to find that, although a bit stiff in her legs, she was free of pain. Looking over to the other bed, she saw that it was already made, and only then did Luna wonder just how much of the morning she had slept away. Getting out of bed, Luna started to stretch, then froze when she saw a mirror on the door. Walking over to it, Luna stared at the strange pony it showed. She knew she was seeing herself in the looking glass, but she still felt compelled to try to fake out her reflection. Starting with opening and closing one eye, she moved on to waving a hoof in front of her face, and then finally resorted to sticking out her tongue and waving her head back and forth. There was no doubt about it, she was the pony in the reflection.
The hardest part to accept, for her to come to grips with, was that there was no horn on her head. She missed her wings too, but she hadn't used them all that often. Most of the time she had been in the royal castle where it was considered rude to fly through the hallways. If she went out with her sister, they usually took a cloud chariot. But her horn? She had used her magic all the time. Just manipulating and carrying small objects was something she had done without thinking constantly. She had brought a telescope and writing materials with her - but without the fine control magic allowed her, she would at best be a clumsy operator, and at the worst be a complete klutz.
"Oh, good! You're up and about! Tell me, do you feel dizzy or have any sort of a headache?"
Luna jumped slightly in surprise. She had been so deep in thought, she hadn't heard Feather Down come up the stairs.
"No, I feel much better, and I'm not dizzy at all. Why do you ask?" Luna inquired as she turned to face the other pony.
"That's what the doctor told me we should be wary of when you woke up. Those are signs that your head might have been hurt. I think the word he used was concussed?" Feather Down shrugged. "Anyway, you should let us know if you start to feel like that, okay?"
Luna nodded. "I most certainly will. I don't think we'll have to worry about that. I'm feeling much better today. Nothing that stretching my legs some won't fix, I'm sure." Luna looked around the room. "By the way, what time is it? Just how long did I sleep?"
Feather Down chuckled. "It's a little past eight right now, so close to fourteen hours? C'mon down when you're ready, we have some breakfast waiting on you. After you've eaten we can make some plans and figure out what to do now that we've got you feeling like a pony again."
Spike the dragon teetered precariously at the top of a ladder, looking at various books. "Kettledrum's Collection of Conjured Costumes? Is this it, Twilight?" he called down to his unicorn friend, who was looking through a different shelf of volumes.
"Sorry Spike, but no. It's Teakettle's Tome of Transformations we're looking for. Pull that one aside anyways, would you? It might give us some insight into magical disguises." Twilight looked around in frustration. The two of them had spent most of the morning searching for the book that Princess Celestia had written about in the letter they had received just after breakfast. "I'm certain I saw that book around here somewhere before. If only the shelves didn't seem to throw every book onto the floor twice a week, we'd have a better chance to keep things organized. Okay, let's take a break for a moment, give our eyes a chance to rest."
"You don't have to tell me twice," Spike said as he climbed down the ladder. He took the book he had just found and put it on top of a small stack in the middle of the room. "That gives us five books to look through to learn about magical disguises, at least. Are you sure that's what Princess Luna is using?"
Twilight shook her head. "At best, it's just an educated guess. It would cause too much of a commotion if she went somewhere without one, I think. And there's no way to easily hide yourself using just a cloth and thread disguise. Magic just makes more sense, at least to me."
"Are we sure she's even here in town, though? It seems like we could be doing a bunch of extra work for no reason at all."
"I know, Spike, I know. It's just that there are so many small things that add up to Princess Luna hiding here in town right now that I can't leave it be. The travel time between here and Canterlot. That strange disturbance we unicorns felt. And shortly after that, a new pony moved into Ponyville, according to Rarity. I'd like to go meet this newcomer, but if it is Luna, I'm afraid she'd figure out that I've figured her out, and that may make her run elsewhere. At least if she is here in Ponyville, we can keep an eye on her from afar and watch out for her while Princess Celestia decides what to do."
"If she is Princess Luna," Spike emphasized. "For all we know, this other pony is just who she says she is, and would probably feel really put off by this kind of attention. What we need is some way to determine if the newcomer is using a disguise."
Twilight nodded. "Okay, let's split up our work then. I'll keep on looking for the book that Princess Celestia mentioned. You start reading through that stack there, and see what you can learn about magical disguises. Find out how they work, and how they can be seen through." With that, the two of them went back to their work.
After breakfast, Luna, Dewdrop and Feather Down went outside and started walking towards the center of town. "When Dewdrop and I bought our place," explained Feather Down to Luna, "we first had to go to the mayor. She keeps a list of all the available properties, and who to talk to about buying or renting them from if you're interested in doing so."
"Sounds pretty straightforward," Luna commented.
"It is," replied Dewdrop. "We're not exactly a large enough place for a realtor to make a full time job of it, and since the Mayor takes care of all of the deeds anyway, it makes it easier all around for her to have that list. Gives her a heads up that she might have some paperwork coming her way."
"So, what you are you looking for?" asked Feather Down.
"Well, nothing too large, obviously. I could make do just fine with a single story place, but I sure would like some sort of an attic, or a way to get on the roof to set up my telescope. Other than that, I really haven't given it too much thought."
Dewdrop and Feather Down shared a look. "Let me get this straight. You moved from one city to another without any sort of concrete plan on what you were looking for in your new house?" Dewdrop asked, disbelief audible in her voice.
Luna hung her head. "I know it sounds rather silly when you put it that way. I just meant that I'm not too fussy about where I live. One place is as good as another, as long as it keeps me dry in the rain and warm in the winter."
"Fair enough," conceded Feather Down. "So, do you have any furniture?"
"I didn't see any when I found her," said Dewdrop, grinning at Luna, "but then I don't think anypony in their right mind would carry it with them when traveling alone. Is it boxed up at a United Pony Service somewhere, or…?"
"No," replied Luna, thinking on her hooves. "I sold it all, with plans to just buy some replacements down here once I had found a place. No shipping costs that way." Luna felt her gut wrench in guilt. She had never wanted to have to lie like this. But she was coming to realize just how many details she had skipped over or hadn't known of until it was too late. Luna was saved from inventing further falsehoods when Dewdrop and Feather Down came to a stop in front of a tall, circular building with rose tinted windows.
"Here's the town hall. It doubles as our meeting place," explained Feather Down. "Unless she's been called away on business of some sort, this is where the Mayor will be." As the door swung open, Luna heard a small bell ring to announce their arrival. Inside, a large room dominated the ground floor with the ceiling way above their heads. Several ponies were slowly walking across the floor of this chamber, with one mare clearly being the pony at the center of the discussion. This beige earth pony with a grey mane wore glasses and a collar that gave her not only a look of importance, but also a matronly aura. Seeing the newcomers, she broke off her conversation with the other ponies and walked over to meet them.
"Hello Dewdrop, Feather Down. Who's this, and how can I help you girls today?" the Mayor asked with a kind smile on her face.
"Hello, Mayor!" Dewdrop replied. "This here is Moonbeam. She's looking to move here to Ponyville!" Luna nodded when the Mayor looked at her for confirmation.
"Then let me say welcome to our town, Moonbeam. I'm sure you'll love it here. So, how can I help you?"
"Well, Mayor, I'm hoping to find someplace that I can rent for right now. I was told that you had a list of places available?" Luna asked a little nervously.
"Of course! You said to rent?" After another nod from Luna, the Mayor continued, "Well then, please wait right here. I'll go get you a copy of the list from my office, Moonbeam. It shouldn't take me more than a minute or two. You and your friends just wait right here."
Luna watched the Mayor walk off in a mild state of shock. Friends? Had she already picked up two friends without even realizing it? She looked over at Dewdrop and Feather Down, who were idly conversing with each other as they waited for the Mayor to return. Luna had thought that they were just being kind to someone in need, doing it as a kind of charity. But looking back over the time she had been with them, she realized that there was a kindness, a warmth that went past anything that a simple good deed required. They had shown her genuine compassion and loving care.
Her train of thought was brought to a halt when the mayor returned with a couple pieces of paper in her mouth. Dewdrop used her magic to float them in the air so they could all look at them. "Thank you, Dewdrop. Now I can talk without mumbling my words," the Mayor chuckled. "First off, here is a map of Ponyville. We started as a little place many years ago, and have slowly grown outward from that over time, so we don't really have any sort of urban planning. I would imagine that a newcomer like you could easily get lost without this, so please take it." The Mayor then pointed to the other piece of paper. "And this is the listing of currently available rentals in Ponyville. If you find one that suits you, please return here with the owner so we can get the contracts signed, okay dear?"
"Thank you very much, Mayor, I will." Luna looked back and forth at the list and the map a couple of times, and then looked at her friends. "I'm sorry, but I can't make heads or tails out of these yet. Would you please help me out for at least a little bit more?"
Feather Down laughed. "What, did you think we were going to leave you at this point? Relax, Moonbeam, we both have the day off from work. We'll get through this list in a flash, just you watch." Turning to Dewdrop, she asked, "What do you think? Any of those places stand out to you?"
Dewdrop was still studying the list. "Actually… yes. This one here," she pointed at an address with a hoof. "I think it could be the one we want, but there's a couple of others on the way and it won't hurt to look at them too."
"Oh?" asked Luna. "What is it about that one?"
"You'll see," Dewdrop replied coyly, a small smile on her face that only made Luna even more curious to know. "But for now, let's stop by this other one first. It isn't too far from here."
During the next couple of hours, the three of them looked at several available houses. While they weren't terrible, they didn't make Luna want to move in either. One of them was a bit bigger than she was comfortable with, and another might have been perfect if it hadn't been surrounded by large trees on all sides. After all the trouble of carrying that telescope, Luna wasn't going to let her use of it be hampered by an obscured view if she could help it. The sun was now high in the sky, and Luna's stomach was telling her that it was hungry. "I don't suppose we could go someplace to get some lunch?" she asked, with a growl from her stomach emphasizing her question.
"Hang in just a couple more minutes, hun," Dewdrop answered. "See those trees just up ahead? We'll introduce you to one of our friends, who just happens to live a couple of houses down from that one place on the list I pointed out."
Luna looked at the trees that Dewdrop had pointed out. Even from a distance, she could tell that they didn't look like the other ones that grew around town. For one thing, they were a bit taller and narrower at the top than the others, and were also a much darker shade of green. "Oh, duh!" said Feather Down in an annoyed voice. "I should have recognized that we were near Pine Needle's place. You should get along with him just fine, Moonbeam. He just moved here a few years ago, so you already have that in common."
"Oh?" asked Luna. "Where from?" They were now close enough that she could see that the trees didn't seem to have leaves, but instead bunches of long green spindles. She hadn't even met the aforementioned pony, but she could already see where his name had come from.
"Stalliongrad," replied Dewdrop. "Try not to make fun of his accent, by the way, he's still a little sensitive about it. Mind you, most of it has gone away, but he still talks a little bit… let's just say different."
Feather Down galloped up on ahead to knock on the door. "Hey! Pine Needle!" she yelled through the door. "Care to treat some lovely mares to a quick lunch while we look for a place to move into?"
The door opened to show a grass green earth pony stallion with a light brown mane. Sticking his head out of the door he looked around. "What is this? Mine friend speaks of lovely mares, but I don't see any around here. Hmm."
Dewdrop and Luna chuckled at Feather Down's miffed look. With an exaggerated huff, Feather Down shot back, "I was referring to us, thank you very much! We've been searching for a place to rent all morning, and now find ourselves about ready to collapse from starvation!"
"What is this? Has your bed finally grown so huge that Dewdrop has to throw you out, before it eats her in her sleep? Oh, no, I see you refer to this pony I have not yet had the honor of meeting!" Stepping all the way out to meet Dewdrop and Luna as they finally arrived at his door, he took an exaggerated bow. "It is a pleasure to meet you. Mine name is Pine Needle."
Luna gave him a smile. "Nice to meet you, Pine Needle, my name is Moonbeam. Dewdrop and Feather Down have been amazing, helping me out so much. You're lucky to have them as friends."
"Ah, you speak the truth, very much so!" Pine Needle turned around, revealing that his cutie mark was a small pine branch, and led the way into his house. "Now, come! I happen to have some apples that I would love to share with the three of you, and we can talk as we eat."
During a quick meal, the girls got Pine Needle caught up on what had happened since Dewdrop had found Luna outside of town. At the end of the retelling, Pine Needle ended up joining them on their search. "I too have the day free of work, with no plans for the rest of the day, I can not think of a better way to spend the time than to help mine friends, both old and new."
Luna was a bit taken aback by Pine Needle's quick labeling of her as a friend. "A friend? But we've just barely met, I mean…"
Pine Needle let loose a loud, hearty laugh. "But how can we not be friends? We share the bond that all transplants have, still trying to figure our way out in a strange new place. Not to mention that you had the great sense to be found by Dewdrop, instead of some other pony." He finished with a wink to show he was partly joking. "Now, where is the next place to look at?"
"Just a couple of houses down, actually," Feather Down said.
"Ah! I think I know the place you speak of. Let us go then!" Pine Needle led the way out, with Feather Down right behind him. Dewdrop was about to follow, when she saw that Luna was standing still in a bit of a daze.
"He sure is something, isn't he?" Dewdrop said as she nudged Luna to help bring her back to Equestria. "Don't let him fool you though. He's quite the softie when he isn't trying to impress somepony."
Luna slowly walked outside. "I… Was he hitting on me?"
Dewdrop laughed. "Oh, goodness no, hun. He's just a bit over the top at times, that's all. And besides, he has a monster crush on 'She Who Must Not Be Named'. Me and Feather Down have tried to hook him up with other mares, but he only has eyes for her."
"She Who Must Not Be Named? Hunh?" For every thing Dewdrop cleared up, it seemed to Luna that she introduced another to replace it.
"Trust me, it's better if you don't know who he turns into a love sick idiot over. The very mention of her name is enough to get him started, and I'd rather avoid that today. So don't worry hun, he won't try asking you out on any dates or the like." Dewdrop looked ahead to the other two of their group. "Now let's go catch up with them before they they get too far ahead of us."
A short gallop later, the group was reunited. Checking the list, Luna saw that the building Pine Needle was walking up to was the correct one. Just from the outside, Luna already liked it much more than their previous stops that day. It was a small two-story house, but the upper floor was only half the size of the bottom story. From where she was standing outside by the front door, the right half of the top story was a deck with a railing around it. Dewdrop was looking at her with a proud smile. "I knew from what you said earlier that this was the kind of thing you were looking for. C'mon, lets go make sure the inside isn't falling apart."
The inside was quite dusty, and the group left hoofprints wherever they walked, but it did have a small smattering of furniture already in place. A table was in the room next to the kitchen, and they found a slightly sagging bed upstairs that made Feather Down turn her nose up in disdain, but Luna didn't think was all that terrible. Adjacent to the small bathroom next to the bedroom, Luna found a door that led out to the deck. While her friends talked about where they should look next, (and she was briefly surprised that she had already placed Pine Needle into that group), Luna stepped outside to admire the view. She could easily see the pine trees from up here, and she had a great, unobstructed view of the sky, save for the small part that was blocked by the bedroom behind her.
"Moonbeam! You about ready to check out the next place?" Feather Down called from inside.
With a smile, Luna turned to face the others. "Actually, no. I want this place."
"You sure about that?" asked Feather Down. "I'll admit this place isn't that bad, besides all the dust. But there are still plenty more places to check out if you want. There's no need to settle for something that isn't completely to your satisfaction."
Luna shook her head. "There's still plenty of time left in the day, so I can get the paperwork done, not to mention cleaning up some of the dust too. It's close to a friend's place, the deck is perfect…" Luna turned around in a circle, taking it all in with a bright smile. "This is it. This is my new home."
"Alright!" cheered Dewdrop. "I knew it! Moonbeam, I'll take you to meet the owner, he's an acquaintance of mine. Feather Down, could you please go and get my cleaning supplies from our place?"
"Oh, and my gem pouch too, please?" Luna asked. "I'll need it to pay the rent."
"You betcha! One Feather Down express run, coming right up!" With that, she took her leave of them and headed downstairs and outside.
Dewdrop turned her attention to the stallion. "Pine Needle, you have any other friends who might be willing to help us out with some house cleaning in a short bit?"
"Hmm." Pine Needle considered the question for a moment. "You know, Haystack's farm isn't too far away, I should have enough time to go find him and ask."
Dewdrop made a sour face. "Him? Well, better than nopony I suppose. Okay then, you go and find him, and me and Moonbeam will head off together. See you back here shortly." With that, they all exited the house and split up to go their separate ways.
Feather Down managed to catch up with them just before they reached the Mayor's place, and gave Luna her gem pouch before dashing off again. Luna marveled at how much the other pony liked to run, and commented as such to Dewdrop. "She's always been a good runner," Dewdrop explained. "I'd say she's one of the faster earth ponies in town. Of course, a pegasus pony could beat her easily in a race since they can fly, but still. I think she gets her energy from all the naps she takes whenever she has the chance. Two speeds for my friend, I always like to say. Fast and stop."
The paperwork and paying the owner took just a short amount of time. Luna was a bit annoyed at how terrible her writing looked, but nobody commented on it, so she figured that she wasn't making too big of a mess of it. 'Just another reminder of how much I used my magic in everyday life in the past.' Luna silently mused as she paid for a month's rent. 'A full month! I guess that's how it is usually done, but I was planning on staying a week at the most. Do I want to stretch it out that long?' Frowning at how complicated things just seemed to keep on getting, she wondered when she might start catching up on the chaos that her life seemed to have descended into.
"Should we stop by your place on the way back to grab my stuff?" Luna asked Dewdrop.
"No, we don't want your stuff taken there until we get that place cleaned out. I can't believe how little the owner did to keep it in shape," replied Dewdrop. "No need for your stuff to get dirty if it doesn't has too."
Luna nodded. "Sounds good to me." After a short distance, she turned her head towards Dewdrop. "Say, I just remembered. You didn't seem too thrilled about this Haystack pony. You could have said no if you thought he wasn't going to be able to help."
Dewdrop sighed. "It isn't that Haystack is a bad pony. Like Pine Needle mentioned, he has a small farm, which is rare for a pegasus…"
"Wait, a pegasus farmer? I though they all worked with the weather, and not that much else?"
"For the most part, they do, but not all of them. Fluttershy works with animals after all, and several pegasi help with the mail. Oh, we'll have to set you up at the post office too, thanks for reminding me. But yeah, Haystack inherited a small patch of land that's dominated by a hill. Not the greatest land to farm at all, from what I hear. But he takes extra special care with the clouds to make sure his crops get just the right amount of water so they don't dry up, or don't ruin the hill with erosion from too much rain."
Luna looked confused. "So, what's your problem with him then?"
"Well, let's just say that, for a pony who spends so much time in the sky, he has his feet planted way too firmly on the ground. I think I've seen him smile once in all the time I've known him." Dewdrop shook her head in a bit of frustration. "It isn't that he's a grouch or the like. He's just very serious."
Luna silently took in that bit of news. To her this Haystack sounded a lot like the Royal Guards at the castle in Canterlot. Soon, they were once again passing Pine Needle's place and his distinctive trees. "So, how comes Pine Needle is the only pony with trees like that?"
"I guess he brought down some seedlings from Stalliongrad with him when he moved here. I'm a bit surprised they've grown so tall so fast, but maybe he has a green hoof? Anyway, ask him for the full story. I'm sure he'll be glad to tell it to you if you're interested."
As they rounded the corner and passed Pine Needle's house, they heard the galloping of hooves from behind them. Turning around, they saw Feather Down running towards them with a loaded set of saddlebags on her back, and a broom being carried in her mouth. Luna did her best to hide her giggling behind a hoof in front of her mouth, and Dewdrop used her magic to relieve Feather Down of the broom.
"Pfah! Thanks Dewdrop, I'm going to need some water at Moonbeam's place to wash the taste of broom out." Feather Down stuck out her tongue to and made a sound of disgust.
Luna's giggling froze as Feather Down's words registered. 'Moonbeam's place.' She had a place of her own now. It wasn't a castle that she had a single (albeit plush) room to herself in, or a bedroom that she was sharing with friends. It was her very own place, all to herself. "I'll be glad to let you drink the first cup of water from my place, Feather Down! Let's go!"
As they arrived at the front door, they heard a voice call down from above. "Greetings!" Looking up, Luna saw a light brown pegasus pony with a black mane and tail glide down from the deck to meet them. On his flank was a cutie mark of a haystack with a pitchfork stuck in it near the bottom on the tail side of it. "You must be Moonbeam?" he asked. When she nodded, he continued, "As I'm sure you've guessed by now, my name is Haystack. Welcome to Ponyville, Moonbeam."
"Thank you, Haystack." Luna replied. "And not just for the greeting, but for being willing to help out a stranger you haven't met before with something like this."
"Nonsense." Haystack said in a tone that didn't leave any room for argument. "Not only is it the Ponyville way, I'm always glad to help out my friends." He gave Dewdrop a look with half closed eyes. "Yes, even you, Dewdrop." Dewdrop answered with a sniff and entered into the house without a word in reply.
Luna blinked at the cold mood between Haystack and Dewdrop, then followed the other ponies inside. "Well, what do you guys want me to do?" Luna asked, hoping to defuse things before they got too tense.
"Well…" Dewdrop started and then trailed off, as she pondered the tasks ahead of them. "Okay, how does this sound. Haystack, we'll start with you using your wings to try to blow out as much dust as we can through the open doors and windows first. That should help make the rest of it that much easier. After that, I'll tackle the kitchen, and Pine Needle will get the rest of the lower floor. Feather Down, you work on the bathroom upstairs, and Moonbeam can work on the bedroom. Haystack, I'd appreciate it if you gave the roof a good look over, see if any of the shingles need replacing, then after that you get the deck clean. Sound good?" When nopony raised any objections, Dewdrop smiled. "Okay then, let's do this!"
Luna hadn't really grasped the amount of dust that had been in the house until Haystack, with a mask over his mouth, went inside and started flapping his wings as hard as he could. From where the rest of them stood on the road out front, the house quickly became hidden from sight as the cloud of dirt slowly expanded and kept on growing. Finally, it faded away, and the flapping sound became replaced with a loud coughing. Luna raced in when she heard the sound to find Haystack hunched over with with his mask on the floor. "I flapped just a bit harder than I should have," he explained after he got his lungs cleared out. "Blew my own mask right off. I'm all right now though, thank you for your concern."
The ponies all went to their assigned tasks. Luna waited until she could hear the sounds of cleaning going on below before heading over to Feather Down. "Hey, can I ask you a question?"
"Sure thing, Moonbeam. What is it?" Feather Down put down the scrub brush she was using on the bathtub.
"Do you know why Dewdrop and Haystack seem to…" Luna paused to gather her thoughts better. "I don't want to say 'hate', but they haven't been all that friendly to each other."
Feather Down sighed. "If you ask me, they're both just being stupid. Neither of them has told me straight up why they act like they do to each other. My best guess would be that they're both used to being the 'mature' one in a group, and they don't like competition for that spot. That, or they just don't know how to handle each other is all. Try not to let it get you down, Moonbeam. They're both good ponies, and I'm sure they'll figure out a way to coexist someday."
"That's kind of sad, I guess." Luna stared at the floor in thought for a second, only to hear Feather Down start giggling. "What? It's not funny at all!"
Feather Down tried to wave aside Luna's protests with a hoof. "Oh, sorry Moonbeam, you misunderstand me. I'm not laughing at them, I'm just thinking how you already want to help them out, even though you've only known us all for just a day or so." She gave Luna a big smile. "You're a good friend, Moonbeam. I'm glad to have gotten to know you!"
Blushing at the compliment, Luna returned to her work by dragging the mattress out to the deck and giving it a few good kicks with her hind legs to shake the dust out. For the next couple of hours the group worked hard on their tasks until they were finally finished. Luna looked around, amazed to see the place sparkle so. Feather Down dashed off to grab Luna's possessions, and Haystack flew off to grab some food for everyone. "I'll make sure we have a proper housewarming feast for you today," he promised before taking off.
As the remaining ponies waited for them to return, Luna went back out onto the deck to look around again. She couldn't help but smile at what had happened today. Even more new friends, a house of her own to stay in… surely, this had to be one of the best days she had had since returning to Canterlot with her sister a month ago.
As the sun set, Twilight Sparkle collapsed on the floor of the library in exhaustion. She still hadn't managed to find that book, but by herself she had only managed to get through about half of all the books that were housed in the multi-story library she lived in.
"Well, Spike, how's that list coming?" she asked her dragon friend.
"I think I'm done, Twilight." Spike held up a clipboard with a couple of sheets filled with writing. "Some of these should be easy to enough to use to check a pony over without them noticing, but some of the others are just a bit too obvious."
"Don't worry about that, Spike. I think I've got that all figured out. We're going to do it Pinkie Pie-style."
Spike gave Twilight a look of confusion. "Pinkie Pie-style? Are we going to dress up as clowns and do the tests like that?"
"Then… you want us make her eat so many cupcakes that she can't run away from us?"
"No, Spike, I…"
"Oh! I know, you're going to break into a long song and dance routine, using that as a cover while I, hiding behind a cake, do the tests while disguised as a lamp!"
"No, I… what? No!" Twilight gave Spike a serious look. "Pinkie Pie-style, Spike. We're going to throw a party!
Luna woke, once again finding herself sleeping later than she was used to. Her new friends had stayed over almost until sunset celebrating the fact that she was now officially a citizen of Ponyville. By the time she finally had some time alone, she was finding it too dark to read, and decided to watch the night sky from her deck for a bit before turning in. Sleep had been fast in coming, and for once had been uneventful, with no Nightmare Moon dream to creep her out.
Now, after a quick bath and a breakfast of most of the last of the food she had brought with her from Canterlot, Luna was once again on the deck of her house, just watching the rest of the village go about it's morning routine. After a few minutes, she decided to head into town and do some exploring. She had marked on the map where she and her friends all lived, and now she hoped to add some other important spots to her knowledge of the town. She went to empty her saddlebags so she could use them for shopping, and stopped when she saw the spell book fall out.
'That's right!' she thought as she picked up the book carefully and carried it to her table. 'I can't believe that I forgot to read up on just exactly what that spell did. I know the last day or two has been a whirlwind, but wow…' Luna found flipping through the book harder without her magic, but she was still able to find the right page without too much hassle.
Luna had just started to read when she heard a knock at her door. "Coming! One second please!" she called out as she closed the book and placed it back in her bags. She was still feeling a bit paranoid about others seeing the tome and wondering why an earth pony had a spell book. Opening the front door, she saw a pink earth pony mare with a fluffy magenta mane and a giant smile on her face. "Um, hello…" Luna started, but seeing the smile and eyes of the visiting pony getting larger froze her up.
"Hello! Are you Moonbeam?" the other pony asked excitedly. Seeing Luna nod slowly, the pink pony gave out a squeal of joy and then stepped back a couple of paces. Her demeanor becoming somewhat serious, she cleared her throat, and then started to sing while doing a little dance.
"Welcome, to Ponyville, the land of cake and sun
We hope you enjoy your stay here, and have a ton of fun!
To help you get things started off, on the right horseshoe
We're hosting a party tonight, one that's just for you!
A party for Moonbeam, it's gonna be a blast
A party for Moonbeam, the whole night it will last
So bring your friends and family, it's sure to be a sight
A party for Moonbeam, it's happening tonight!
It's being held at the library, hope you don't mind books
We would have done it elsewhere, but Twilight's such a kook!
It starting right at suppertime, food and drinks we'll provide
Just come down when you're ready, knock and come inside!
A party for Moonbeam, it's gonna be a blast
A party for Moonbeam, the whole night it will last
So bring your friends and family, it's sure to be a sight
A party for Moonbeam, it's happening tonight!
A party for Moonbeam, it hap-pen-ning to-niiiiight!"
By the end of the song, Luna was smiling as wide as the other pony was, and clapped her hooves together enthusiastically. "Wow! Well done! Thank you very much!"
"Thanks! My name is Pinkie Pie, by the way. I'm glad Twilight suggested that I sing the invitation, it sure worked out a lot better than my first idea of dressing up like a clown and giving you the invitation on a cupcake, because I would have probably eaten it then! The cupcake I mean, not the invitation. Hmm, maybe that's why Twilight gave me such a weird look when I suggested I do that. Oh well! Anyway, will you be able to make it? I hope you can, it would be weird to have a welcome party and have the pony it's for not show up, although I guess we could go out and search the town for you and then throw the party wherever you're at, but having it at the library will be much easier I think, don't you?"
Luna was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic onslaught of words. "Uh, yes, of course I'll be there, thank you so…"
A loud cheer from Pinkie Pie cut Luna off. "Yippee! Okay then, I gotta go tell Twilight that the party is a go, get to Mr. and Mrs. Cake's to get the food ready, oh, so much to do! See you and your friends there Moonbeam!" With that, Pinkie Pie hopped away down the road, humming to herself.
Luna stood in her doorway for another minute, blinking and trying to sort out what had just happened. Giving up on trying to make sense of all of it, she instead decided to focus on the important pieces: there was a party at the library being held in her honor, it was at suppertime, and she was supposed to bring her friends and family. "Well, that pretty much fills up my itinerary for the day" She said to herself. "First, read that spell book, then go visit my friends and invite them to the party, and finally get some food bought for tomorrow."
Dragging the spell book out of her saddlebags again, she flipped through the pages until she found the spell description. After reading through several pages, she frowned upon reaching the end. "Well, that wasn't very enlightening!" she cried out in frustration. "It doesn't mention anything about pain at all, just how it changes a unicorn into an earth pony. At least I now know how to break the disguise. I just need to break the moonstone. But if casting the spell hurt that much, I don't want to do it again anytime soon. So, I guess I'm stuck in this form unless an emergency comes up. Well, I better go put this book someplace safe." Looking around at her barely furnished room, she sighed. "Which means either I keep it in my saddlebags, or leave it here on the table? Oh, wait, I know!" Luna grabbed the book in her mouth, ran up the stairs and slid the book under her bed.
"Not the best place, but that will have to do for now." Going back downstairs, she started gathering things for her saddlebags. Her map, a bottle of ink, and a quill went in. She wasn't liking the prospect of looking like an idiot when it came time to mark something down, but it was the only way open to her. Last, she grabbed her gem pouch, to find it containing only a couple of small stones besides the moonstone the spell had created. "Either I'm going to have to leave in a week after all, or find some way to earn some money. It cost a lot more to rent a place then I thought it was going to." Slinging the saddlebags onto her back took a couple of tries, but she finally got them on properly and headed outside.
Luna's first stop was to head to Haystack's farm at the edge of town. A small side road branched off of the main route, and led to a gate with the sign 'Haystack's Hill' above it. Past it, she saw a small house next to a tall barn. Behind both buildings, a large hill rose sharply a couple of hundred feet. The hill was covered with some sort of grain. Luna couldn't tell what kind from this far out. Noticing that the gate had no lock, she cautiously opened it up and walked in. Looking around, she didn't see anypony anywhere, and started to get nervous about what she should do next. Finally, she spotted a bell with a rope hanging next to the door of the house. With nothing else to try, besides leaving and trying to figure out which inn Dewdrop worked at, she grabbed the rope with her teeth and gave the bell a good ring.
A few seconds later, she heard flapping wings, and looking up see Haystack flying in to meet her. "Moonbeam! This is a pleasant surprise. How can I help you?"
Luna smiled. "Hello Haystack! I need help with a couple of things, if you don't mind? It shouldn't take too long, I promise."
"I'll do what I can, of course. What do you need?"
"Well, first off, I guess they're holding a big welcoming party for me this evening in town at the library. I was told to bring my friends, so I would like for you to come."
Haystack shuffled his hooves and looked around nervously. "Well, um, if you really want me to, I will, Moonbeam. But it's only fair to warn you, parties and I just don't seem to get along all that well." Seeing Luna's crestfallen look, he waved a hoof at her. "No! Don't misunderstand, I'll go. I just want to warn you that I may not be the best pony to be hanging out with there."
Luna brightened up. "Thanks, Haystack! I plan to invite all my friends, so you can hang out with them at the worst, right? Which leads me to my second favor. I got you guys to mark on the map where you all lived, but you're the only one who lives where they work. Could you spare a second to mark where Dewdrop, Feather Down, and Pine Needle work for me, please?"
"I'll be glad to do that, and even do you one better, Moonbeam. Follow me for a short way." With that, Haystack turned and trotted around his house towards the hill. Wondering what her friend had in mind, Luna followed. Soon they were walking in grain shoots that came almost up to Luna's belly. She was worried that Haystack was going to have her climb the steep hill and point things out from up there, when instead he stopped at the base and yelled up, "Hey! Pine Needle! We have a guest! Get down here!"
"Wait, Pine Needle works here too? I'm surprised you guys didn't bring that up last night!"
Haystack shrugged. "It just didn't come up. After all, you were the focus last night, not us or where we worked. But this is how Pine Needle and I met. He was new in town and needed a job, and I always need more hooves to do stuff than I have available to me." The sound of galloping hooves coming from the left made the two of them turn to see Pine Needle come running up to them.
"Moonbeam!" he yelled in a happy voice as he pulled up next to them. "What brings you out here?"
"Well, they're throwing a welcoming party for me tonight. They told me to bring my friends, so I'm here to invite you to come," Luna explained.
"It would be mine pleasure to be there," Pine Needle solemnly replied.
"Great! That's two of you then, only two more to go!"
Pine Needle stared at Luna in amazement. "What is this? Did you already invite Haystack?" Looking at the pegasus pony, and getting a drooped head as confirmation, he turned back to Luna. "You have just pulled off a rare feat indeed, Moonbeam! Why, I imagine that this party will be remembered almost as much for Haystack appearing as it will be for what it is intended for."
"Me going to a party isn't that rare of an event!" Haystack paused, and then looked at Pine Needle pleadingly. "Right?"
Pine Needle tilted his head in thought for a moment. "If mine memory is correct, the last time you went to a party was another welcome party. Mine. Which was almost two years ago."
Haystack sighed in defeat as Luna giggled. "Very well, I guess it is. Well, shall I mark down on your map where Dewdrop and Feather Down work? I'll make sure the two of us get done with our work in plenty of time for the party."
Pine Needle gave a quick wave goodbye to Luna, and then left to resume his work while Haystack led Luna towards his house again.
"By the way," Haystack said as they entered his house, "I don't know what you plan on doing for work, but if you have trouble finding a job, let me know. Not everything around here is back-breaking labor, but you will get dirty by the end of the day. So, just let me know whenever you may need it."
Luna was a bit taken aback. As a princess, she had never imagined getting her hooves dirty with manual labor. Furthermore, she still had no idea what she was going to do for money. Putting those concerns aside, she pulled the map out of her saddlebags and placed it on the table as Haystack brought a pencil over and started marking down spots on it.
"Thank you, Haystack. I'll definitely keep that in mind. That's very generous of you!"
Haystack did his best not to look too embarrassed over the praise. "You may not be thanking me after your first shift if you do decide to try it. Anyway, this here," he pointed at a mark he had made, "is the inn where Dewdrop works. Anytime should be a good time to visit her, as she'll most likely just be cleaning up and making beds. This," he pointed at another mark, "is where Feather Down works. I'd either go there next, before the lunch rush hits or she'll be up to her mane in work, or go an hour after that. Finally, this spot over here near the middle of town is the library. If you find yourself running late, that's where to go, but Pine Needle and I will stop by your place on the way in to walk you there if you want."
"I'd like that! If nothing else, just so I don't walk all by myself into a room full of ponies who I know nothing about," Luna said. She committed the marks to her memory as best as she could, then put the map back in her saddlebags.
"Very well then, Moonbeam. I'll see you later tonight!"
Luna spent the rest of the morning finding and telling Dewdrop and Feather Down about the party. Both mares were eager to go, especially after hearing that Haystack was going to be going too.
Luna remembered Dewdrop's expression when she had heard that especially. Dewdrop's jaw had fallen wide open, and after a few seconds she had turned her back to Luna, and quietly, but not quietly enough, muttered "Next thing you know, pianos will be falling from the sky."
Luna still giggled at the thought hours later.
After that, she had gone to the farmer's market. Spending most of her remaining funds, she purchased enough food to last her several days. After returning home, she spent the afternoon practicing setting up her telescope inside. Getting it upright was easy, she found. Gently adjusting where it was pointed, however, was an exercise in frustration without being able to use magic to minutely adjust the dials and knobs.
Eventually, she put the telescope away in her closet and did a quick wash up to make herself presentable for the party. Finding herself done before Haystack and Pine Needle showed up, and not having much else to do, she pulled out the spell book to do some reading to pass the time. Or, at least she tried to, but she found herself too excited about the party to be able to concentrate on it.
Finally, there was a knock at her door. Shoving the book back under the bed, Luna trotted downstairs to meet her two stallion friends. "Ready to go?" asked Haystack.
"Yes! Both Feather Down and Dewdrop said they will be there too, and asked us to stop by their place on the way so we could all arrive together," Luna answered as she closed the door. Pine Needle stepped to one side and motioned for Luna to walk between him and Haystack, and they walked to Dewdrop's and Feather Down's house.
Luna knocked on the door, and Feather Down opened it. "Hello Moonbeam! Hey guys!" Feather Down then turned around and yelled back into the house, "Ha! He DID show up! You have to do the dishes for the rest of the week!"
Luna was surprised to hear Dewdrop squawk in protest, and shocked when some unladylike words followed that up. She never would have expected to hear such things come come from her friend's mouth!
A disbelieving Dewdrop stuck her head out the door. With a sigh and a small smile, she shrugged. "Oh well, the extra chores will be worth it just to see Haystack actually being sociable." For his part, Haystack tried to take it all in stride but still had a little bit of a droop to his posture.
"Ah, don't worry, Haystack," consoled Feather Down as she and Dewdrop joined the others and they started to walk towards the library. "At the worst, think of it as the price to pay for what's sure to be an excellent spread of food, right?"
Haystack slowly nodded. "That's a good way to look at it. I mean, it's just a bunch of ponies that I don't know all that well, right? What's the worst that can happen?"
"Twilight!" yelled Spike from upstairs. "I see them coming now, they should be here in just a minute!"
"Great!" Twilight called back up. She looked around the main floor of the library. There were already a couple dozen ponies present, and the rest of her friends hadn't shown up yet either. 'It'll be a bit crowded,' she thought as she walked towards the door, 'but that should actually help me pull off my tests without arousing any suspicions.' She heard Spike yelp in surprise, and then a crashing noise from upstairs. 'What's he doing up there?' she wondered before a knock at the door returned her attention back downstairs.
The door opened, and Luna and her friends entered the library. "Welcome!" said Twilight. "I'm glad you could make it. You must be Moonbeam?" she asked, holding out a hoof to shake. 'Test number one,' she thought, 'physical contact can often disrupt weak illusions. It's a long shot, especially for someone to use at a party, but better safe than sorry.' A quick hoofshake later, Twilight motioned for them to wait a moment.
Twilight climbed up on a stool to get a view of the room and used her magic to ring a bell to get everyone's attention. "Attention, everypony!" she said, as conversation died down. "The mare of honor has arrived! Let's all give a big Ponyville welcome to Moonbeam!" The room erupted into a chorus of cheers and joyful clops of hooves hitting the floor in applause. For her part, Luna blushed, not used to being the center of so much positive attention. "Now," continued Twilight after the noise once again quieted, "don't everypony rush her at once, but sometime tonight make sure to at least say 'Hello'!"
'Now, time for test number two,' Twilight thought as she levitated a party hat over to Luna's head. 'Coming in contact with another spell can disrupt some illusions. I'll find out if that's what she is using when I put this hat on her.'
Luna smiled at the red and white party hat as it was placed gently on her head and then patiently stood still while Twilight tied it off. "I didn't get that too tight, did I?" Twilight asked.
"Oh, no, not at all! And thank you very much for the party! I was looking forward to it all day today." Luna looked around. Many of the ponies were in small circles of conversations, and a few looked like they were waiting for her to finish with Twilight before coming up to introduce themselves. "I don't see the pony that sang me the invitation. I wanted to thank her again for going to the trouble of doing that."
Twilight chuckled. "Oh, she'll be here soon. I believe she and some other ponies are bringing in the last of the food. We put this together on a bit of short notice, I'm afraid, but they should be along any moment now." Some motion out of the corner of her eye caught Twilight's attention. Spike was standing at the top of the stairs, gesturing for her to come up. "Well, I have to go take care of something really quick, I'll be back down shortly. You go ahead and mingle and have some fun!"
"I will, thank you!" Luna watched as the purple unicorn walked up the stairs, and then turned to greet several ponies who came up to her to offer introductions.
Twilight got to the top of the stairs to find Spike with a bump on his head, holding a book. "What happened, Spike, and why aren't you down there helping me with the tests?"
"I was on my way, but I fell off the ladder. But while I was down on the ground, look what I found under your dresser!" In Spike's hand was the book 'Teakettle's Tome of Transformations.'
Twilight blinked in surprise. "Under my dresser? Why was it there? Oh well, that will have to wait until after the party, I'm afraid. She's passed the first two tests, but I didn't think they would work anyway. Time to get through the rest of the list!"
Luna and her friends had dispersed throughout the crowd, and she was already having trouble remembering the name of everypony who had already come up to her to say hello. The door opened again, and another group of ponies entered, carrying baskets filled with apples and a couple of cakes too. 'Those must be the ponies Twilight mentioned.' Sure enough, the last one to enter was the pink pony from that morning. 'What did she say her name was again…' Luna tried to remember.
A short ways away, Haystack gasped. "Oh burrs and nettles," he swore, "it's Pinkie Pie!"
'Pinkie Pie, that's it!' Luna thought triumphantly. 'Wait, why does Haystack seem so upset by her being here?' Luna watched as Haystack tried edging away from the door without calling too much attention to himself, but after just a few seconds, Pinkie Pie's eye fell on the pegasus pony. Luna watched as Pinkie Pie's face went through a very visible series of emotions, from shock to disbelief to joy, all in a matter of a couple of seconds.
"HAYSTACK!" Pinkie Pie yelled as she leaped across the crowded room in just a couple of bounds. "Oh my gosh! Did Moonbeam actually drag you in here? I can't believe it, I've been trying to get you to show up to parties for AGES, you really need to get out more, have a chance to meet some mare, oh this is the greatest party ever!" Haystack slowly tried to back away from the hyperactive pink pony, only to feel his rear end hit the wall behind him. He looked back and forth, looking for a way free, only to have his eyes start to glaze over when he discovered there was no escape.
"Oh dear." Dewdrop walked over to Luna to get a better view of what was happening. "This was my biggest worry about Haystack showing up. I guess they grew up across the street from each other, and Pinkie Pie has always found Haystack to be a prime target for her pranks and schemes. Quite the duo, when you think about it. The earth pony who always has her head in the clouds, and the pegasus pony who always has his hooves on the ground. By the way, have you seen Feather Down anywhere, Moonbeam?"
Meanwhile, Spike carried a tall mirror past Luna and into the kitchen, as Twilight watched from the stairs. 'Test number three,' she thought, 'Many illusions affect the eyes directly, but if you look at the subject indirectly the spell loses its power. A mirror is an excellent tool for this test!' Spike paused a few seconds to give Twilight a chance to examine Luna's reflection in the mirror before he moved into the next room. 'Nope, that test didn't work out either.'
The other ponies that had just walked in carried the food to various tables. Pine Needle helped them unburden an orange earth pony with a cowboy hat of the many boxes she had carried on her back. When he was done, the orange pony said to him, "Thanks, sugar, that was quite a load, glad ta be free of it." She turned around and started talking to another pony, not noticing that behind her, as she stood and chatted away, Pine Needle's eyes had changed into little pink hearts and a small trail of drool was starting to trickle from his mouth.
"I don't believe it!" Dewdrop exclaimed. "She Who Must Not Be Named! Right next to Pine Needle! Can this get any worse?"
"Umm, just who is that?" asked Luna.
Dewdrop sighed. "That's Applejack. Her family owns a large apple farm outside of town, and Pine Needle has a monster crush on her like you wouldn't believe. I still don't know if Applejack is oblivious to it, or just does her best to ignore it. But Pine Needle will be happy to talk about how wonderful her mane is, or how cute her freckles are, or how she's the epitome of earth pony beauty for hours if you really want to hear it. Ugh!" Dewdrop stuck a hoof into her mouth in a gag motion. "The only thing left now is for us to find Feather Down taking a nap somewhere and refusing to wake up!"
Luna felt a trickle of sweat start to form as she saw Feather Down curled up in what looked like a pet basket near the base of the stairs. "You mean, like over there?" she pointed out to Dewdrop.
Dewdrop smacked her forehead with a hoof several times in a row with more force than Luna thought was healthy. Muttering to herself something about tempting the fates by speaking of bad things, she stomped over to her roommate and tried unsuccessfully to wake Feather Down up.
Twilight still stood at the top of the stairs watching with worry as, one by one, Moonbeam's friends were rendered incompetent. Twilight was just about to head down the stairs to help out, tests forgotten, but something made her stop and keep watching instead.
Luna took in the scenes one last time. Pinkie Pie was still talking and hopping around a paralyzed Haystack, Dewdrop was trying in vain to prod Feather Down awake with a hoof, and Pine Needle was still mooning over Applejack. 'What do I do?' She asked herself, feeling completely unable to influence things as they stood. She walked over to Pine Needle and waved a hoof in front of his eyes to no visible effect. 'What I need is some way to move Applejack out of his sight, but I don't want to embarrass him too much either. Maybe Feather Down could do that?' She walked over to her dozing friend, and added her efforts to Dewdrop's to try to wake Feather Down without actually hurting her. 'No, she's out like a light! How can a pony fall asleep at a time and place like this anyways?'
Luna walked back to the middle of the room, and greeted some other ponies that had come up to her. She could only pay them half a mind though, and soon they drifted away, leaving her alone again. 'This is terrible! I just wish that, after all they've done for me, that I could somehow return the favor. But how?' She looked back and forth between her friends a few times, drawing a blank. She was about to give up in despair when suddenly, inspiration struck and a plan fell into place. Quickly double-checking it in her head, she smiled and trotted over to Haystack.
"Pinkie Pie!" Luna exclaimed, getting the pink pony's attention. "I just wanted to thank you again for the wonderful invitation. It sure was a wonderful way to wake up and start the day."
"Why, thank you Moonbeam!" Pinkie Pie turned to her as she replied. "Do you want me to do that for you again tomorrow? Not that we would be throwing another party, but it sure is fun to have a good reason to go and sing."
"Actually, I was thinking that there's another pony here who could use a wake up call from you." She pointed over at Dewdrop and Feather Down.
"Ooooh! I know just the thing too! Watch!" Pinkie Pie headed over to the dessert table. Instead of watching, Luna turned to Haystack, who was quickly recovering now that Pinkie Pie had left his immediate vicinity.
"Thank you ever so much Moonbeam, I owe you big for that." Haystack said, his voice filled with relief. "Now, time for me to get out of here!"
"Actually," said Luna, "I think if you just talked to the right pony, you might have a much more enjoyable time." She pointed over to the area where Pine Needle was. "I was told that Applejack was a farmer too. Maybe you two could compare notes and stories?"
Haystack slowly nodded. "You know, I've been wanting to ask her how she manages to keep up such a good yield year after year. I think I'll do that, thanks for the suggestion Moonbeam." Luna watched as Haystack went and introduced himself, and the two broke away from the food tables, leaving Pine Needle behind. She switched her view to the other side of the room, and saw Pinkie Pie shove a pastry covered in something red into Feather Down's mouth. Luna guessed it might be hot sauce from the bottle with a red pepper now lying empty on the food table Pinkie Pie had just left.
Well, that and the fact that Feather Down levitated several feet in the air, turning bright red as a small stream of flame flew out of her mouth and smoke erupted from her ears and nostrils. "It's all in the timing," Pinkie Pie explained to Dewdrop. "Just wait for them to be inhale, that's when you put in in their mouth."
Luna then walked over to Pine Needle, and gave him a nudge to break him from his reverie. Wiping his chin free of drool, he apologized to Luna. "I am so terribly sorry. I have acted like a fool! I hope I did not ruin the party for you"
"Don't worry about it, Pine Needle. I was wondering, since you've had one of these held for you a short while ago, if you could help me with getting through the rest of the night without coming across like a silly filly?"
Pine Needle smiled. "It would be mine honor, Moonbeam. Have you met Rainbow Dash yet? She's over this way." The two wandered over to talk to the blue pegasus.
From her vantage point at the top of the stairs, Twilight beamed with pride. "I still don't know whether you're Luna or really are Moonbeam, but either way, job well done!" She looked at the remaining tests on her list. A couple of them, such as getting the subject wet, seemed like buzzkill now. "I'll go tell Spike we're done for tonight. We'll look through that book after this party is done if it isn't too late, but for now?" she said as she descended down the stairs, "That cake sure looks good, I'm going to have a piece!"
A couple of hours later, the party was finished. Twilight was cleaning up the last of the mess, using her magic, while Spike read through the newly found book. "Um, Twilight? I've read through this whole thing, and this may just be what she used. It actually turns the unicorn casting the spell into an earth pony."
"Any way to test if that actually is the spell that was used, Spike?" Twilight asked, focusing on levitating a pile of apple cores into a garbage bag.
"No. The spell takes away all of their unicorn properties and seals it away into a gemstone. The spell is broken by breaking the gemstone."
Twilight paused, then lowered the garbage bag to the floor. Turning towards Spike, she asked, "Wait. Unicorn properties? What about pegasus properties, like wings and being able to walk on clouds?"
Spike shook his head. "It doesn't say."
Twilight came over and started to read over Spike's shoulder. "I see, the spell only works on the caster, it can't be used on other ponies." Twilight's eyes widened in shock. "Oh my gosh, Spike! That disturbance a couple of days ago! That had to have been the spell somehow trying to work Luna's wings into the effect! Teakettle only had unicorns in mind when he made this spell, he probably didn't think an alicorn like Princess Celestia, a unicorn with wings, would ever want to cast it, and when he wrote this, he probably wasn't even considering Luna either, because she was still trapped in the moon! Well, at least we can write to Princess Celestia and give her some good news, that we found the book and are pretty sure that we know where Luna is."
"It's not all good news though, Twilight." Spike flipped back to a page near the beginning of the book. "Teakettle talks a lot about how his spells work in the first part. It's a really boring read, but this part really stuck out at me."
Twilight read the words aloud. "The danger inherent in using any kind of complete transformation spell, like the ones I outline later in this volume, is that the body can forget its original shape over time. I have discovered that after a year and a day, even if the spell is canceled, the target of the spell will not be able to change back! Oh no, Spike, we need to get this news to Celestia right away!" Spike ran upstairs to grab a pen and a piece of parchment, while Twilight wondered how to present it all to the Princess. 'No sugar coating at all would be the best. It may be a bit harsh, but she needs to know all of it.'
Happy and full, Luna slipped under the covers in her bed and fell promptly asleep. Once again, she found herself in the strange moonscape dream, with Nightmare Moon waiting for her.
"Well, well, well. So, did you have fun telling lies to the entire town tonight?" Nightmare Moon chuckled at the pained grimace that came over Luna's face. "That's right, don't forget, every day you stay like this, the longer you go on, the deeper the hole will be for you to dig out of. I imagine that if you were to reveal yourself tomorrow, you might be able to not have them all hate you forever."
Luna started to shrink before her dark half, when suddenly she stopped, and slowly stood back up. "You know what, Nightmare Moon? I think I'm on to you."
"Oh, pray tell, just what exactly are you talking about?"
Luna stared Nightmare Moon right in the eye. "I think you want to take control again."
Oh, please." Nightmare Moon rolled her eyes. "Why would I? The moment I show myself, Celestia and her pet Elements of Harmony will just come rushing in again. No, what I really want to do is guide you into making the right choices. Be the power behind the throne, so to speak." She leaned down so she could whisper into Luna's ear. "Think of what we could do together."
"No." Luna stated. "In fact, while my memory isn't the best, I seem to recall that this is how it started a thousand years ago. So, you know what? I'm going to make sure you never get a chance to abuse my magic again!"
Nightmare Moon laughed. "Oh, and how can you do that?"
Luna smiled, and then closed her eyes and concentrated. 'This is a dream,' she thought, 'all in my mind. All I should have to do is concentrate and…' A loud gasp of shock let her know that she had succeeded. Opening her eyes again, she looked at herself to make certain. Sure enough, she was now looking just like she did awake, a grey earth pony with a silver mane and tail.
"I can do this!" She proclaimed loudly. "I can stay as an earth pony, and make it so there is no magic for you to steal and corrupt! I have a place of my own here now! Friends, a possible job waiting for me… I don't need magic anymore! I'll just stay like this, and be happy for the rest of my life!" With that, Luna closed her eyes again, and willed herself to wake up.
Luna lay there for a while, happy to have a plan in place now. She was happy, she kept on telling herself over and over. "But if things are going my way, and I'm happy," she quietly wondered, "where are these tears coming from?"
Twilight Sparkle awoke to a pale nimbus of light and a soft voice gently calling her name over and over. Slowly opening her eyes, it took her a few seconds to realize that the light came not from a lamp or the moon but a unicorn's horn. And the voice that was calling her was…
"Princess Celestia!" Gasping, Twilight sat up, suddenly very awake. "Your Highness, I'm sorry, I didn't know that you would be…"
Shaking her head, Celestia brought Twilight's apology to an end. "There is no need to be sorry. It is I who should apologize to you, and not just for entering your house and waking you up at such an early hour." The princess paused to look at Spike the dragon, still soundly asleep. "Let us move downstairs, so that we don't wake him up." At Twilight's nod, the two silently walked down to the main floor.
The area was still in the half-cleaned state that Twilight had left it following the party. The discoveries that Spike had made in the book after everyone had left had brought all of Twilight's cleaning efforts for the night to a halt. Twilight waited for Princess Celestia to continue, but instead the regal alicorn simply stood, gazing at the room with a look that Twilight couldn't decipher. "Your Highness, what… what can I do for you?" she asked, hoping to spur her ruler into talking.
Celestia magicked a party party streamer to float in front of her face. "Twilight Sparkle, I need to ask you a favor. I need to talk to somepony about all of this." Celestia turned to face Twilight. "I need your help, your advice. Very few know that Princess Luna is missing. And you are the only one who has found a copy of the spellbook. Add to that the fact that you have actually seen her, I feel that only you can help me decide what I am going to do."
"Are you here to take her back to Canterlot?" asked Twilight, astonished that Princess Celestia was coming to her for help.
"I don't know." Celestia started to pace about the room slowly. "When I received your message earlier tonight, that was my first thought. Finding out that she had cast such a dangerous spell, that she had failed to tell me what she was doing outside of a vague letter… I was flying as fast as I could to get here, wanting to scold her, yell at her. Also, to comfort her and hug her tight so that she couldn't run off again."
"But now?" asked Twilight.
"But now that I have had time to consider my actions, I don't know. To say that Princess Luna's time back in Canterlot since Nightmare Moon's defeat has been difficult would be to put it mildly." Celestia sighed. "I've been forced to watch her try time and time again to help others, attempt to make friends, to try to do anything of assistance for any pony and always be rebuffed. The specter of Nightmare Moon is something that can't be forgotten or overcome so quickly, it seems. And there is only so much I can do without becoming a tyrant. I can't force them to like her. Telling others that they MUST forgive her, that they HAVE to be nice to her would in the end only make things worse." Tears started to well up in Celestia's eyes. "I love her so very much, but if things were so bad that she felt she had to go these extremes, to run away from everything and try to start over from practically nothing… Do I have the right to force her to come back to that kind of abuse, that level of hatred?"
'Whoa, what have I gotten myself into?' Twilight thought as she absorbed her ruler's words. Seeing that Celestia was waiting on her, she hemmed and hawed while she tried to come up with something. "Well, I guess it comes down to several factors. First of all, is she needed for anything? Does she have any roles in the government that she has to fill?" Gasping, she asked, "Are you still able to raise the moon for her? I haven't even thought to look at the night sky!"
Celestia nodded. "I am still responsible for raising both the sun and the moon. Luna did not feel ready to resume that responsibility yet. If the truth is to be told, there is still a lot of resistance to her taking over that task again by much of the nobility. For them, it is still too soon after the events of the Summer Sun Festival, and they do not wish to risk a repeat of that happening again. As for other roles, no. During the thousand years she spent on the moon, any other tasks that were her responsibility were quickly filled by others. I doubt that any of the ponies currently doing those jobs are even aware of where those duties originated."
Twilight nodded. "Okay then. During the past couple of days, has Luna's absence caused any problems?"
Celestia shook her head. "No. Besides one or two other ponies that Luna had managed to win over, the rest are just going about things business as usual. The simple declaration that I made, that Luna was away studying, was sufficient. In fact, it worked too well, too easily for my liking."
Twilight paused to consider her next question, and then cautiously asked, "Besides the possibility of Luna remaining as an earth pony forever, is there any other danger to her staying in her disguise for now?"
Celestia considered the query. "In your letter, you were incorrect about one thing. I missed it at first too, although what you wrote led me to figure out the truth. The disturbance that we felt, which was caused by the spell that she cast, was not because she had the wings of a pegasus. Or, rather, it would not have caused the disturbance to have been felt over the entirety of Equestria, and…"
"Wait, it was felt everywhere? Not just here in our area?" interrupted Twilight.
"Correct. In order for something to cause such a disturbance, it had to have been something of a much greater magnitude. You were on the right track, you just failed to realize that there was something else that Luna possessed that an earth pony does not." Celestia waited to see if her prized pupil could puzzle it out.
And after a few seconds, Twilight did. "Do, do you mean, the spell stripped her of her IMMORTALITY? Is that even possible?"
"Yes. If she should stay as an earth pony under that spell, she will age and die just like any other earth pony. Also, should she choose to have children, they too will have no trace of divinity in them. That, the removal of something so primal from her essence, is what caused unicorns in every corner of Equestria to notice her casting that spell."
Twilight's hindquarters hit the floor with a thud. "I'm, I'm going to need a moment to let that sink in, I think," her voice sounding as if it came from across a large chasm, registering in echoes to her reeling mind.
"Take as much time as you need." Celestia turned to look around the room. Spying a balloon hiding in the corner, she slowly walked over to it. After a while, she asked, "Tell me, is Luna… is she happy?"
Still stunned speechless from the previous revelation, Twilight could only answer with a nod of her head at first. After a few seconds, she spoke, softly but with growing conviction. "Yes. She already has some friends too. They came to the party with her, and… And you should have seen it. Things starting going downhill for her, and her friends were getting into problems they couldn't get out of on their own. And yet she found a way through it. She helped them all out. You would have been proud of her." Finally regaining her full composure, Twilight stood back up, her decision made. "Princess Celestia, is there any other information that I need to know?"
Pausing to consider, Celestia said, "No. I have shared everything with you that I can think of."
"Then I think it comes down to one thing. What is best for Luna?" Twilight asked. "Is it more important that she be brought back to Canterlot and continue to try to fit in there, or would her being here in Ponyville for a time be better for her?"
Celestia considered the question for a while. "I don't know. I honestly don't know." The Princess's voice was raw, filled with anguish.
"Then, consider this," Twilight took a deep breath. "If neither option is obviously better than the other, why eliminate either path? The choice for Luna to return to Canterlot is always there. If she leaves Ponyville now, will she ever have the chance to return to her current situation?"
"So, you advise me to wait then?"
"Why not? It isn't like this hasn't happened before." Twilight stated.
"Oh?" Celestia gave Twilight a questioning look.
"I seem to recall, a short while ago, a certain unicorn who had no friends and was sent to Ponyville to make some." Twilight gave her ruler a small grin. "I think she did all right for herself."
Celestia sank to her knees, and tears streaked her face. "I, I just wish that I could have done better for her!" she cried. "I did everything that I could, and still, and still…" Twilight moved over and nuzzled the Princess, doing what little she could to comfort her. "Was there anything I could have done different? Is this my fault?" Celestia asked, her voice wracked with grief.
"I don't think it is anypony's fault," Twilight replied softly. "I think the whole thing is just one terrible situation, and I don't see any easy answers. It seems like every option is a bad one in some way. I wish I could tell you what the right choice was, but I can't. I don't know if anypony can." The two of them stayed there, leaning into each other, for quite some time. Finally, Princess Celestia stood, her composure mostly regained.
"Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. Thank you. For now, I will do as you suggest and let things stand. I fear what could happen. I dread what will happen should she decide to reveal herself. But at least here, for now, she has made friends. And there is always time for her to change her mind. She must know this too; I can't see her choosing to stay as an earth pony forever. I have to trust that she has a plan. I just wish that she had shared it with me. That's the part that hurts the most.
"I have two favors to ask of you, Twilight." Celestia continued. "The first is that you keep her identity a secret, and keep me updated on her. Let me know if things get too rough for her. I will drop everything to come to her aid should she need it."
"Of course, your Highness."
"The second is a selfish one. Could you please show me where she is? I don't want her to know I was here, I… I just want to see her, so I can know that she is doing okay." Seeing Twilight nod, Celestia led the way out of the library.
It was still a few hours before sunrise, and Ponyville was silent. No other ponies were about at this hour, and the two moved through town without being seen or heard. Finally, Twilight pointed at the house where Luna was. Thanking her pupil one last time, Celestia waited for Twilight to leave before flying up to a window to look inside. She could only make out a shadowy outline of a pony in bed, under the covers except for a head turned away from her, but apparently sleeping soundly.
It reminded Celestia of their first night back in Canterlot. It had been a whirlwind of a day in Ponyville, and by the time the two of them had returned to the royal castle, Luna looked ready to fall asleep standing up. Guiding her to Celestia's own bedroom, there hadn't been time to make one up for Luna yet, Celestia had tucked her in. She had watched as Luna sleepily thanked her, and then promptly fell asleep. Celestia had stood there for almost an hour, just looking at her, happy to finally have her back in her life.
And now, after such a short time together, they were once again apart. Not as far as they had been, she thought, but the distance still felt almost insurmountable. Celestia still wasn't certain if this was the right choice, or even a wise one. But for every doubt, every flaw small and large she saw, one reason trumped them and made them, at least for tonight, inconsequential. 'She's happy here,' she thought. 'I know she was in Canterlot when she was with me, but I couldn't be there for her nearly as much as I wanted to. As I needed to, it seems.'
Celestia flew around the house once, and then started the journey back to Canterlot. 'Goodbye, Luna. I'll do my best to stop into town as much as I can. So that I can look in and see how you are doing. So I can remember the good times we had, and think on the ones we will have again when you decide to return. So I won't forget you.'
'So you won't forget me.'
It was a long flight home.
Luna woke up early the next morning, ready to put her new-found resolve to the test. She ate her breakfast quickly, and then went to her deck to keep a lookout for Pine Needle heading to work. After what seemed like hours, even though the sun barely moved in the sky, her patience was finally rewarded when she saw her friend come into view. Rushing down the stairs and out her front door, she stood at the side of the road and waited for him.
"Moonbeam!" Pine Needle happily called upon seeing his friend. "You came to say hi to me as I head off to work?"
"Actually," Luna said, falling in beside him, "I thought I would try taking Haystack up on his offer."
Pine needle stopped in surprise. "Really?"
Luna walked a couple more steps, then stopped and turned to face Pine Needle. "Um, yeah. I mean, I still don't really know what I'm going to do, to be honest. So, I might as well try out farming for today. If it doesn't work out, well, then at least I know, right?" she asked, worried.
Pine Needle nodded, and then started walking again. "It sounds good to me," he reassured Luna. "I had it in mine thoughts that you would try this last, though, and not first. But what you say makes sense. And I am sure that Haystack will be glad to see you too."
The pair crossed over a bridge, and soon were walking through the outskirts of Ponyville. The trees along the road became more numerous, although she could still see past them to various homesteads that were set back a ways from the path proper. Soon they were once again at the gate that read 'Haystack's Hill'. They were almost to the house when Haystack finally noticed that Pine Needle had not come alone.
"Moonbeam! Is there another party in the works somewhere, or…?" he asked as he came out to meet them.
Luna shook her head. "Nope. I'm here to take you up on your offer of work. Like I told Pine Needle, I still don't know what I want to do, so I might as well try out the one option that is already there for me."
Haystack nodded. "Pine Needle, there's a patch of weeds that I found on the south side, near the old gate. Would you mind getting started on pulling them out while I show Moonbeam what I want her to do?" Pine Needle nodded, and trotted off. "I was actually thinking about this last night, and I came up with a list of stuff I'd like for you to try. First though, how much experience do you have with farming?"
"None, actually." Luna admitted, blushing a bit in embarrassment.
"Don't worry about it. We'll start off with some easy things, and work from there." Haystack led Luna around to the side of the barn, where there was a vegetable patch. "Wheat might be our primary crop, but I try to grow some of everything, just so we have something to eat without having to go all the way back into town to get stuff." Haystack pointed off to the side. "That's our well, it's served this farm well for a couple of generations now. We're close enough to the river that it probably gets the water from there in some manner." The well was a two-foot-tall pipe rising out of the ground, with a small pointed roof that reminded Luna of the party hat she had worn at last night's party. Half way up the pipe, there was an opening with a small slanted piece of metal in the shape of a V under it, and on the other side was a pump. "Nothing too fancy, but it's easy to use."
"For now, I'd like for you to water the vegetable patch. Let me show you how it's done." Trotting over to the side of the barn, he grabbed a watering can and placed it under the V, where Luna noted some stones had been set in the ground to provide a level spot. Then he went around and placed his hooves on top of the pump handle. He pulled down, took his hooves off the pump, waited for it to rise, and then repeated the process a few more times until water started to pour down the V and into the watering can. He then picked up the can with his teeth and carried it over to the vegetable garden. There, he poured some out some water on a line of carrots. "You want to get it so the ground stays damp," he said after emptying the can and placing it on the ground, "but not so wet that puddles of water are left on the top of the soil. Think you can handle it?"
Luna nodded slowly. "It looks straightforward. Let me give it a go." She grabbed the watering can and placed it in the same spot that Haystack had under the V. Then she walked around and put her hooves on the pump and pushed down. She was surprised by just how hard it was to get the handle to move at all, but after putting some effort into it, she got it to descend. It took several repetitions of the process to get a small stream of water to start flowing into the can, but she finally got it full. "Wow, that was harder than it looked!"
Haystack nodded. "A lot of the stuff on a farm is," he commented as Luna carried the watering can over and starting emptying it on some radishes. "Good, good! Just like that. This should probably take you a couple of hours. Once you're done, just ring the bell, and I'll come and give you your next task. Any questions?"
Luna shook her head. "No, none that I can think of." With that, Haystack flew off toward the hill, and Luna picked up the watering can and carried it back to the well.
After she had finished watering the vegetable garden, she helped Haystack and Pine Needle carry the weeds to a drop-off point next to the road. "They aren't of any use to us," Haystack explained, "but they make excellent feed for the cattle that live in the area. Not only do we not have to worry about transporting the weeds, we get paid for it too!" After that was done, it was time for lunch.
"Wow," said Luna as they entered Haystack's house after washing their legs. "I can't believe it's already midday."
"Indeed! Time goes by fast when you're working hard," Pine Needle said as he took a break from his lunch. "Work will be a bit easier for the second part for us at least."
"Oh?" asked Luna.
"Haystack will be watering the wheat, so I'll be giving you a tour of the barn, and we'll be doing maintenance on it and the grounds out here near the house. Nothing too fancy, mostly weeding and looking things over, trying to catch something before it breaks down." He turned to face Haystack. "Anything after that?"
Haystack shook his head. "Nope, we're in a pretty routine time of the season, to be honest. Mind you, this is also the easiest time too. Planting in the spring has more to it, but harvest time in a few months puts even that to shame. I'm not trying to scare you, Moonbeam, I'm just trying to give you fair warning."
"I understand, Haystack," Luna said. "And I thank you. And let me know, please, if I'm not doing a good job either, or if I'm taking way too long to finish something, okay? I don't want the farm to suffer because I'm not doing things right."
"There is no need for you to worry about that," said Haystack in a sincere voice. "To be blunt, of course you're not going as fast as Pine Needle or I would be doing the same things, but it's your first day. The fact that I didn't have to come help you once I got you started on the garden was wonderful. The time that I would have spent doing that job myself meant that we got those weeds not only pulled, but also moved before lunch, whereas without you, we might not even have finished pulling them yet." Luna looked over at Pine Needle for confirmation, who nodded in agreement.
"Quite often," Pine Needle elaborated, "work for the two of us is not a matter of getting everything finished, but trying to figure out what to finish, and hoping that what we put off doesn't come back to bite us in our cutie marks. It feels good to be ahead of the schedule for a change."
Luna felt herself swell with pride. She was making a difference! And to know that her work was helping two of her friends just made it better. With a smile, she said, "Thank you both then for the encouragement. I didn't know what to expect coming into this, and it's going to take a lot of work getting all the dirt out of my mane when I get home, but it feels worth it."
After lunch, Luna paused for a bit to watch Haystack start the watering. The pegasus flew up to grab a smaller-sized rain cloud, and then slowly guided it around the hill, first up and down, then back and forth, as it gently spilled rain over the growing wheat. She recalled Haystack's comment earlier about how nothing on a farm was as easy as it looked, and wondered just how difficult it was to actually keep a cloud raining such a steady amount, or how fragile it might be. It was almost a common sight to see a pegasus pony fly up to a cloud and disperse it into nothing with a swift buck. To keep a cloud constantly on the move, without it breaking up, or disturbing its rain flow? Luna shook her head at all the hidden difficulties and followed Pine Needle into the barn.
Luna was astonished to see that one end of the building housed a giant device. Pine Needle watched her as she slowly examined it. It was two stories tall, and looked like a giant pillar. On the wall, a ramp led up to the upper story and from the ground a smaller ramp led up to a platform, three or four feet off the ground which circled around the middle of the device. On that platform, there were a couple of bars that stuck straight out, parallel to the ground. At the bottom of the device was an opening, reminding her of the well outside with its V-like funnel underneath a hole that was a foot off the ground at its base.
"So, mine friend, do you have any guesses as to what that is?" Pine Needle asked as she finished walking around the base of the device.
"I'm not entirely sure, but I think I can make some guesses," she said, still piecing things together. "That platform with the poles, the way the platform goes all the way around, I'm guessing that the poles are pushed, to power the thing?"
"Very good!" said Pine Needle. "What else?"
"Hmmm, well the bottom reminds me of the well, as if something is supposed to come out of it. But I don't know what. Is this some sort of giant well?"
"No, no. But you are right, that is where something comes out. Here is a hint. What do we grow here on this farm?"
"Wheat." Luna answered. "But that's all out on the hill, and you don't pump for wheat anyway." She gave Pine Needle a puzzled look. "I'm on the wrong path, aren't I?"
Her friend nodded. "Come, follow me. Perhaps if I show you something more, it will all make sense then." Pine Needle led her up the ramp. At the top, not visible from the ground below, was a door in the side of the barn. "This opens up to the outside," he said. "And this," he pointed a hoof at a pulley system attached to the wall, "can swing outside through there."
Luna thought about this for a moment. "Okay, so the wheat get harvested, and brought here? And then hauled up here…" Looking around, she saw a panel on the side of the pillar. When she nudged it with her nose, it swung open to reveal an empty area that led down. "I guess the wheat gets put in there, and then… I just don't know, Pine Needle."
"Ah, you are so close to having it figured out too! I cannot bear to tell you, I don't want to ruin the joy of your discovery."
Luna frowned in thought. "Okay then, give me time to think on it some more while you show me the rest of the stuff here in the barn." After heading back to ground level, Pine Needle showed her where they stored the tools. The sheer number of different implements amazed Luna. "Do you really use every single one of these?"
Pine Needle shrugged. "To be honest, I don't even know what some of these are for, but quite a few of these have only one use. Take that long metal coil there, with the spikes at the end. Haystack calls it a snake, and he says it can be used to remove things blocking the well if needed."
In a different room of the barn, several different kinds of harnesses were stored. Also, there were many lengths of rope, and several piles of something bundled up in a corner. Luna moved closer to examine them, and saw that it was a stack of woven bags with the word 'FLOUR' stamped on them. "That's it!" she cried, turning to face Pine Needle. "That must be some sort of mill, for turning the wheat into flour!" Luna hopped in excitement as Pine Needle confirmed her guess.
As they finished with the inside of the barn and moved to the area between the house and the road for basic lawns-keeping, Luna came up short. "Actually," she asked Pine Needle, "why does he have his own mill? I saw the town has a much larger one elsewhere, and it's powered by the wind and the river, so I would think it would be much easier to take the wheat there to get processed."
"Easier, yes." Pine Needle agreed. "Or, at the least, that part of the process. But there are several other things to consider. First is the task of moving all the wheat from the field to that mill. While Haystack may have a lot of tools, he is lacking a wagon large enough to make the transport of such a large amount of wheat feasible. And there is also the extra cost too. That mill charges a fee for its services, after all. And in this business, profit margins aren't always the greatest. Finally, Haystack is able to make a small bit of money on the side by renting out the use of his mill to his neighbors for a fee, although he usually just asks them to help him bring in his crop when the times comes." Luna considered all of this as they continued to work on the grounds.
Finally, Haystack flew over to them, having finished his watering duties. "So, Moonbeam, what do you think? Is this something you want to keep on doing, or do you want to try finding something else to do?" he asked after landing next to his friends.
"It was work all right, but I think I'm up to trying another day at least," she replied.
"Glad to hear it! Let me warn you though, it's not going to be the same thing every day, and there will be some much harder tasks down the line. Like I said before, I'm not trying to scare you off, but I don't want you to think that this is all there is to it either." Haystack warned.
"I understand. But I like this. It feels good to do this, in a way." Luna admitted.
Pine Needle nodded. "As it should! Are we not earth ponies? Working with the earth should feel right."
"Well, some of us aren't earth ponies," commented Haystack dryly. With a chuckle and a rare grin, he motioned to the house. "C'mon, let's go inside after we wash off again, and we'll discuss your pay."
And so, summer passed, and after a month or so the leaves on the trees changed color. To Luna, this was a magical time. After being trapped in the moon for the last thousand years, she had forgotten just how colorful a season autumn was. Yellow, red, brown and gold, the countryside seemed to change into a hundred different shades of color. And even better, it all changed just a little bit each day, making every walk to and from work a slightly different experience.
One day, instead of starting their work right away, Haystack called a meeting. "We're getting very close to harvest time," he said, "so I'll be hiring some temporary help so we can get everything harvested. And of course the day after tomorrow is the Running of the Leaves, I think we'll be okay taking the day off so you two can participate…"
"The Running of the Leaves?" asked Luna, interrupting Haystack. "What's that?"
Haystack blinked at the question. "Of course, I keep on forgetting that you're still relatively new here in Ponyville. Would you care to explain, Pine Needle?"
"Most certainly, mine friend!" Pine Needle turned to face Luna. "I know not how it was done where you come from, and in Stalliongrad, being farther north, we did not have so many trees with leaves, so this may just be a Ponyville thing. But every year, in order to help get the leaves down from the trees, a race is held. Well," Pine Needle cautioned, "it is not so much of a race, although the top finishers do get medals. It is more of a community thing, where the ponies run through the lands close to Ponyville."
Luna nodded. "And what, just by having a lot of ponies run through, the leaves all fall off? That sounds rather convenient. Couldn't a strong wind generated by pegasus ponies to the same job, only faster?"
Pine Needle gave Luna a searching look. Then, he slowly nodded. "I will explain, but I think that the meaning of it all will come across better during the run itself. So, I will give you mine explanation then. If you will pardon me, I need to go check on something." Having excused himself, Pine Needle trotted off.
After watching him leave, Luna turned to Haystack. "Did I say something wrong? He seemed almost upset about something."
Motioning to Luna to follow, he started heading to the barn. "No, he's just thinking something over. He takes stuff like this very seriously."
"He's a race fan? I thought that would be more in line with Feather Down," Luna said, getting more confused by the moment.
Haystack shook his head. "No, I'm sorry. Nature stuff. He says he has some sort of 'deeper earth pony link' to the land than most. I've always put it off as something he made up. But then, my farm has been more productive since he started working here, and everyone is amazed at how fast he got those pine trees at his house to grow." He shrugged. "Maybe that's just his take on him having a green hoof or whatever you want to call it. Anyway, I won't be running myself, I'll be taking care of the bare essentials of the farm, and then I'll head down to watch as everyone finishes."
With that, they returned to their jobs. Curious whether her other friends would be running, after work Luna took a quick bath and headed over to Dewdrop and Feather Down's house. Dewdrop answered the door. "Moonbeam!" she said, opening the door to let her friend in. "How was work?"
"Good, thanks!" Luna replied as she entered. "It's getting close to harvest time, which I have been warned will make the usual hard work pale in comparison, but at least after that winter is supposed to be pretty simple, just maintaining the place and taking it easy. How about you?"
"Oh, you know. The same old, same old. Serve some breakfast to the guests, and once they're out and about, get their rooms all tidied up. I'm just thankful as always that my boss isn't a whip-cracker. So, what brings you out here today? Anything special?"
"Actually, I was just told about the Running of the Leaves. I was wondering, are the two of you going to participate? Where is Feather Down, anyway?"
"She's running a bit behind at work today. I passed by the restaurant she works at on the way home, and they were still really busy." The sound of galloping hooves steadily grew from outside. "Sounds like she's here now though, watch the door, hun."
The sounds of hooves skidding were followed by the door opening to reveal Feather Down. "I'm home! Ugh, what a day! Oh, heya Moonbeam! I tell you, I was about ready to come join you guys on the farm, would have been less work than what I had to do at my job today. A tour group was in town from Canterlot, taking in all the fall scenery. I'm surprised you aren't still at the inn, Dewdrop!"
"Huh. It must be a here and back kind of thing then. Canterlot is close enough for that, after all. Shall we go visit some other eatery then, save you the trouble at having to serve yourself for once?" Dewdrop asked.
"That, would be wonderful." Feather Down said. "Let me go get cleaned up real quick. Have you eaten yet, Moonbeam?"
"No, I haven't." Luna replied.
"Care to join us then? It's a been a few days since we last had a good chat." Feather Down asked as she slowly climbed the stairs to the bedroom above.
"I'd love to!"
After a short wait, the three mares headed out and soon were enjoying some fresh salads at a place called 'The Other Side of the Fence'. "So, you two," Luna asked between bites, "are you going to be participating in the Running of the Leaves?"
"I won't," said Dewdrop. "I couldn't get the day off from work, although I should be able to catch the finish on my lunch break."
"How about you, Feather Down?" Luna asked.
The pink earth pony looked a bit uncomfortable. "Well, I don't know if I should or not. After last year and all…" Luna blinked as Dewdrop sighed.
"Listen, hun," Dewdrop said, placing a hoof on her roommate's shoulder. "You just have to forget about that. Everybody else did after a week or two!"
"And they're all remembering it again, now that the race is coming up!" Feather Down complained. "I'll probably be better off just staying away from the whole thing."
"Um, pardon my asking," said Luna, "but just what happened last year?"
"While waiting in the starting area," explained Dewdrop, "she fell asleep. And then the race started without her, and she missed the entire thing."
"They make you wait so long at the starting line, it's ridiculous!" Feather Down wailed. "I was stretching, trying to keep my legs loose, and then my stretch turned into a yawn, and the next thing I remember they're dragging me off the course so I wouldn't get trampled as the runners finished! If I show up, I just know I'm going to be made fun of." With a melodramatic sigh, she laid her head down on the table.
Taking it all in, Luna fought back a giggle. "Well, one sure way to get them to forget about that would be to run a really good race this year. I mean, you're one of the faster ponies I know, I don't see why you wouldn't want to run."
"Well, that's kind of you to say, Moonbeam," Feather Down said. "But there are some pretty athletic ponies out there. Applejack comes to mind right away, and there are several others that I just don't know if I could beat in a race. Make it close? Sure, but this is a lengthy course with lots of turns to it also." She paused to take a sip form her drink. "But this isn't something many ponies go into trying to win either. It's more of a group thing first, and then in the last bit it turns into a mad dash for the finish, out of those who still have some spring in their stride after all the prior running. How about you, Moonbeam? Are you going to be running in it?"
Luna smiled at her two friends. "Yes! It sounds like fun! I'll be running with Pine Needle, so I'll…" Luna trailed off seeing her friends get an uncomfortable look on their faces. "What? What is it?"
Dewdrop sighed. "Look hun, Pine Needle means well, and is a great guy and all, but…" she paused, looking for the right words.
"But he's got some screwy notions too," supplied Feather Down. "Always talking about earth ponies and their bond with nature and that junk. Puh-lease! Just because he can make things grow well, doesn't mean he has to go and attach some mumbo jumbo stuff to it."
"What we're trying to say," Dewdrop continued, "is that you should take anything he says during the race about that kind of stuff with a grain of salt." Feather Down nodded in agreement to her roommate's words.
"Oh, okay, I'll do that then," Luna said, feeling a bit surprised by the severity of the tone coming from her friends. "Thanks for the warning, I guess."
"Ah, it won't be that bad, I suppose," conceded Feather Down, seeing Luna get a bit discouraged. "After all, you'll be running! It isn't like he'll have too much extra energy to be talking for that long. If he gets to be too annoying, just pick up the pace a little, put it down to the thrill of being in the run if he asks later."
Luna nodded. "That's sounds like a good idea, thanks. So, are you going to run or not, Feather Down?" she asked in an effort to change the subject.
"Okay, okay, I will! Yeesh!" Feather Down threw her hooves above head in mock surrender. "I guess I did ask for the day off from work anyway, might as well do that instead of getting some extra shut eye." Dewdrop rolled her eyes at her roommate hamming it up, while Luna giggled behind a hoof. "And I'll do my best to finish at the front, if you promise to stay near me in the starting area so I don't pull a repeat of last year."
"Will do!" agreed Luna.
Feather Down looked at her with a seriousness that Luna hadn't recalled seeing too often before. "I'm dead serious, Moonbeam. If I even so much as yawn, or look like I'm about to lie down, you and Pine Needle do whatever it takes, even kicking me, you hear?"
Luna was taken aback by Feather Down's vehemence. "I—I will!"
Feather Down leaned over the table, staring Luna in the face from point blank range. "Swear it!"
"Uh, uh, Cross my heart, hope to fly!" Luna stammered.
"Stick a cupcake in your eye." Feather Down finished solemnly and then sat down.
Dewdrop signaled to the waiter. "All this talk of cupcakes made me realize something. We haven't had dessert yet!" With that, the trio started laughing as they looked over the dessert menu.
The day of the race came, and Luna and Pine Needle went to meet Feather Down at her house. "She insisted," Luna explained, "that we go to her just to be extra sure that nothing would cause her to miss the run." They found Feather Down ready to go, even dressed for the occasion with a white headband to keep her red mane out of her eyes.
"Look at you!" Pine Needle said. "Somepony is ready to do their part!"
"Moonbeam explained what I need you guys to do for me, right?" Feather Down asked as she closed the door behind her.
Pine Needle nodded. "I am always ready to kick mine friends when called upon to," he answered in mock seriousness.
The three earth ponies meandered to the starting area, still a good twenty minutes or so early according to the clock tower in the middle of town. As they mingled in the starting area, Luna heard some snickering come from behind her. Turning, she saw a couple of younger stallions toss a pillow at Feather Down's feet and start laughing raucously. Luna turned and stared at them, mouth open in shock. Pine Needle started to step forward, looking ready to take matters into his own hooves, when Feather Down said, "No need to worry, guys." She prodded the pillow with a hoof, and then turned her nose up in disdain. "I'm much stronger than that!" She then walked away, towards the front of the starting area, her two friends following and other ponies chuckling at the would be pranksters instead.
"Good job, Feather Down!" Luna gushed.
Feather Down chuckled. "It takes more than a lousy straw filled pillow to make me want to lay down! Ha ha!"
Pine Needle leaned close to whisper into Luna's ear. "Does that mean she would have laid down if it was a high-quality pillow?"
Soon the three of them were just behind the front row of runners, and saw something that made them all pause in bewilderment. "Am I, am I actually seeing Applejack tie Rainbow Dash up?" asked Luna in wonderment. "Pine Needle, are you seeing this too? Pine… oh for the love of, Feather Down, help me drag Pine Needle back a ways please? He saw Applejack again." The two girls each grabbed a mouthful of Pine Needle's tail and dragged him back a few feet. Soon, the crowd filled in the the gap, and Applejack was blocked from view.
"You snap lover stallion out of his daze, and I'll go find out what the heck that was all about." Feather Down said, and left for the front. Luna waved a hoof in front of Pine Needle's eyes, and then lightly tapped on his forehead until he returned to his senses.
"Yes, yes, I have come back. Mine apologies, Moonbeam." With a sigh, he whispered something that Luna couldn't quite make out, but she thought it sounded like "Lucky Rainbow Dash." A few minutes passed, and Luna was just about to go looking for Feather Down by herself, just in case the other mare actually had fallen asleep somewhere, when she saw her friend return with her head hanging low.
"Feather Down! What's wrong?" Luna asked, her voice filled with concern. 'She was looking all fired up and ready to go just a moment ago, and now she looks like somebody she knew died!'
"Well, you can count out any hope of me winning the race this year." Feather Down moped. "Turns out the best two athletes in town are using the race as a grudge match. If they're going to go at this full out, I have no chance."
"Oh, come now!" protested Pine Needle. "Rainbow Dash is just a pegasus. Sure, she's fast, but she'll be out of her element, so to speak. I think you should have no trouble beating her in a foot race."
Feather Down glared at Pine Needle and tapped a hoof for a few seconds. "I notice you don't say anything about my chances of beating Applejack," she stated sourly.
"Well, um, er…" Pine Needle stammered.
"Oh, look!" Luna interjected, both with her words and her body in between her two friends. "Pinkie Pie and Spike are up in a balloon! I think I just heard Pinkie Pie announce that it's almost time to start!"
Feather Down was having none of it though. "You. Just. Watch. I'll beat your precious Applejack! Mark my words!" She spat her words right into Pine Needle's face, and then turned and stomped up towards the front of the pack.
Luna watched anxiously back and forth between her two friends until Feather Down was out of sight. Turning to look at Pine Needle, she tried to come up with something to say to apologize when she saw Pine Needle fall to his knees and laugh so hard that tears were running down his face. "What the…" Luna said, feeling like she was losing a grasp not only on the situation, but also on reality itself.
"Oh, forgive me Moonbeam, but mine plan worked perfectly! I was hoping to get her motivated to do her best, but even I am impressed by what I did there! If she isn't in the top three now, it will be because of some sort of injury." Luna stared in amazement at Pine Needle, having trouble comprehending that he, of all ponies, might be capable of such subterfuge. Finally, she broke into laughter too, until Pinkie Pie's words to get ready echoed across the ground.
And then, they were off! Luna lagged near the back of the pack, taking in the sight of all the trees losing their leaves in a multi-hued blizzard. "Oh, Pine Needle, this is amazing! Is this what you were talking about?"
Pine Needle shook his head. "No, although this is certainly a fine sight to take in. What I was referring to was…"
"Hello! I see I'm not the only pony taking a slightly leisurely pace at the start!" Twilight Sparkle moved up to the two of them. "Hello, Moonbeam! Enjoying the run so far?"
"Hiya Twilight! Yes, it sure is something. Nothing like it where I come from." Luna turned to Pine Needle. "Twilight is the one who hosted the welcome party for me, remember? She's been kind enough to keep in touch with me, checking in to make sure I'm doing okay."
"That is very nice of you." Pine Needle said.
"Well, you know," said Twilight, looking a bit embarrassed by it. "I've only been here a couple of months longer than she has. We newcomers need to stick together, right?" The purple unicorn gave off a nervous chuckle. "So, why are the two of you hanging near the back?"
"Well," Pine Needle explained, "I was just about to help Moonbeam try to use her earth pony magic." This declaration brought a brief silence between the two mares, who looked at each other questioningly.
"Well, not to be much of a neighsayer, but earth ponies don't have magic. I should know,' said Twilight, "I've studied it pretty extensively."
With a knowing smile on his face, Pine Needle shook his head. "Twilight Sparkle, it would be mine honor if you would listen to me then as I explain it to Moonbeam here. To know that I have taught one of the best magicians of our time something along these lines would indeed make my day."
"Uh, sure. As long as we keep on running at close to this pace, I really don't have anything else to be doing, I guess."
"Excellent! I will need your help too in a bit, now that I think on it, so I am in your debt." Pine Needle cleared his throat. "Now, everyone knows that unicorns, such as you Twilight, are the strongest in magic, capable of doing feats with it that the rest of us can only dream of doing. Pegasus ponies have some magic too, but it is of a more subtle nature. They can fly, obviously, and they can also walk on clouds and move them around to control the weather. Feats that shouldn't be possible, except for magic."
"Okay, I can see that," said Luna. "So what exactly is earth pony magic then?"
"Ours is an even more subtle thing. More of a bond with the earth itself. Notice how all the leaves fall off the trees, every single one, just by the lot of us running past? Doesn't that seem just a bit convenient?"
Twilight nodded slowly. "Now that you mention, it does a bit. Still, there are lots of unicorns and pegasi running in this too."
"Yes, but remember that Ponyville was settled by earth ponies. This race was an event before unicorns and pegasi lived here in large numbers. While they help with their numbers to shake the ground, it is the earth ponies who help make such a complete success of this endeavor."
"Okay then, so just what is this bond then? How does it work?" Luna asked.
"It is a subconscious thing. All earth ponies do it without even thinking of it. By their passing, they help make the land more capable of sustaining plants, they help the trees bloom and shed their leaves." Pine Needle paused. "Here's another way to think of it. Imagine a stream going through a forest. That stream is how healthy the land is. Earth pony magic would be akin to seeing that a log has fallen into the stream, and is partly blocking its flow. We move it out of the way so that the stream can once again flow like it should."
Luna considered this as they rounded a turn. "So, what then, ponies skilled in earth magic can help dig a better way for the river, then?"
Pine Needle shook his head. "No, not even anything that grand. To continue the example, we cannot directly change the river itself. At best, I can sense where the best place to take advantage of the river is. You could say that I know where the best spots to take a bath are, for example. Using that, I knew where to plant mine pine trees so they could grow quickly. It is a hard thing to do though. Most earth ponies go about their whole lives not knowing about it. However, it does not hurt to try, and this race I think would be a good chance to try it out if you want to, and if Twilight is willing to lend us her help for a minute or so more?"
"I'm willing if you are," Twilight said.
Luna nodded. "Sure, what do you need me to do?"
Pine Needle smiled. "Excellent! Do you see that turn a short ways ahead?" Waiting for both of the mares to nod, he continued, "After we go around that, there will be along straightaway that will be perfect. I want us to all line up abreast, with Moonbeam in the middle, and Twilight and I will be on each side of you, just next to you but not touching."
They rounded the turn, and lined up as Pine Needle had instructed. "Good! Now, Moonbeam, I want you to close your eyes. That is why we are right here, so you need not worry about veering off the course." He waited until Luna had done so, and he started talking in a soothing voice. "Good, good. Now feel your hooves, feel them strike the ground in their steady rhythm."
Luna did as she was asked, and slowly she felt herself relaxing. The beat of her gallop was a bit hypnotic in a way, and soon, all she heard were Pine Needle's words and the cl-cl-clop, cl-cl-clop of herself running down the trail.
"Now, feel not just your hooves striking the ground, but yourself actually striking through your hooves down into the earth itself."
Luna could barely hear hear her friend's instructions anymore, but still they registered. And soon, even though her eyes were closed, she could see little ripples of light in her mind, echoing the beat of her hooves hitting the ground. They were small ripples at first, but then they slowly grew from her, and she could feel them come up against other ripples off to one side of her. 'Pine Needle,' she thought to herself, 'those are Pine Needle's ripples'. Suddenly, she felt in herself a rush of energy, and found that her ripples could spread wide indeed…
Twilight's attention was grabbed as Pine Needle's droning stopped with a gasp. "By the sun and the moon!" he whispered, and Twilight's mind quickly figured things out as she too felt a small tingle go down her spine.
'Oh boy! Just my luck that she still has the magical strength of an alicorn for earth pony magic even as an earth pony!' she realized, wondering how to cover this up if Pine Needle started to ask funny questions.
Luna's ripples now spread out far enough she could feel the ripples coming from all of the other ponies running the race. It was like watching a rain shower come down on the surface of a pond. Then she could feel where each of the trees had their roots sink into the ground, where proud rocks had withstood the erosion of the wind and the rain. It felt glorious. Unbeknownst to her, trees a hundred feet away from the road were spontaneously losing their leaves.
Suddenly, she felt herself pulled abruptly back into her body when a sharp pain flared on her shin. "Sorry about that!" apologized Twilight. "I stumbled, and I ended up clipping you. Are you okay?"
"I, um, yeah," Luna stammered, still a bit thrown off by what she had experienced. Suddenly, the enormity of what she had been doing caught up to her. 'Dang it, I can't share that with anyone! Then they'll know something is up with me! I'm very lucky Twilight stumbled when she did, or who knows what I might have done!' She turned to face Pine Needle. "I think I actually felt a little something there. Like a small ripple, extending from my hooves as I was running."
Pine Needle nodded slowly. "That you could feel even that much is quite amazing, Moonbeam. Very few ponies can do even that much, and for you to do it on your first try… I am astounded."
Luna blushed at the compliment, while secretly feeling very relieved. 'Thank goodness he didn't feel me stretching out all the way like I did! That would have been impossible to explain away!' "Come on," Luna said aloud, "let's get back into the pack again, it feels a bit harder to keep up from back here." She then charged ahead.
Twilight held back Pine Needle by cutting in front of him before he could follow Luna. "Thank you for sharing that with her, and with me. While it isn't anything that I can really use, it has brought me a greater understanding of how things work, and I appreciate that a lot."
"It was mine pleasure. Did you, um, feel anything while she was doing that?" Pine Needle asked nervously.
"Nope, not a thing," lied Twilight. "Was I supposed to?"
"Ha ha! No, no of course not!" Pine Needle chuckled. "Well, I had better get moving if I'm to keep up with Moonbeam. I don't think Haystack will let me live it down if she was to beat me this handily at the end." Twilight let him move off, breathing a sigh of relief over the possible disaster that was averted. 'If nothing else,' she thought, 'this should make for an interesting letter to Princess Celestia.'
Over the next forty five minutes, the pack wound its way through the neighboring woods surrounding Ponyville, with the notable exception of the Everfree Forest, and soon the pack was working its way back towards the town itself. Feather Down had managed to stay near the front of the pack, but as she had predicted, Rainbow Dash and Applejack were simply putting the rest of them to shame. Even if one of them tripped or stumbled, they were still quickly able to charge back to their place a good hundred yards ahead of the rest of the pack without showing any concern for saving energy.
'Face it, Feather Down, you're just not in the same league as they are.' She looked around at the other ponies around her. 'Still, the top five get medals. All I have to do is finish third or better in this group, and that should erase my embarrassment from last year completely.'
That was when Feather Down started noticing things getting a bit weird. It took her a bit to realize what was happening, but it seemed like the two leaders were spending more time going back and forth from ahead of the pack to behind it and then back to the front again. Then she saw a look of anger on Applejack's face, and she knew what was going on. 'They're actually fighting!' she thought in amazement. 'I can see them being cocky, but still!'
Slowly, amazement turned into anger as she watched them blatantly start to use cheaper and nastier tricks on each other. But what really took the cake for her was when Applejack actually rode to the front of the pack by hitching a ride on Pinkie Pie's balloon. "All right, that's IT!" she yelled out loud, startling several ponies next to her. "Someone has to show those two they can't get away with stuff like like that, and that pony is gonna be…."
Feather Down's rant was cut short as Applejack and Rainbow Dash collided and actually spun some distance up the side of a hill before coming to a stop, dazed and splayed out on their backs. Feather Down watched in amazement as the pack passed by both of them, and then started the final turn into the long home stretch to Ponyville.
'Well then,' she thought, 'everypony for themselves!'
Dewdrop waved to Haystack as he glided in towards the crowd at the finish area. "I saved you a spot," she said coolly to the pegasus.
"My thanks," Haystack replied plainly. "Tell me, any idea how far away they are?"
Dewdrop made a face. "Well, Pinkie Pie has been broadcasting from that balloon of hers, and she has that dragon with her, but if you ignore all the random ramblings, you'd think the only two ponies actually out there are Rainbow Dash and Applejack."
Haystack made a face. "Ugh. I can understand about wanting to cheer and promote your friends, but still, what a disservice to the rest of the runners! Not very fair if you ask me."
"Exactly! Get something balanced in coverage up there. Might as well get a vulpine to announce if that's how you're going to call the race," Dewdrop griped.
Their complaints were brought to a halt as a cloud of dust could be seen rising up in the distance. "Here they come!" cried Dewdrop. "Can you see anything, Haystack?"
Haystack quickly soared up, then dived back down to his spot before some other pony could claim it. "I think Feather Down is near the front!" The two of them started stomping their hooves and cheering loudly for their friend as the pack closed in on the finish line…
"Look at that!" cheered Dewdrop. "Third place! She took third place! Way to go Feather Down!"
"Yee-haw!" yelled Haystack. "High hoof, Dewdrop!" The two ponies each raised a hoof and smacked them together above their heads before realizing just who they were celebrating with. With a sudden silence, they quickly turned their backs on each other. "Ahem. Well, I guess we should go get some good spots for the medal ceremony?" asked Haystack.
"Yes, yes, a good idea," agreed Dewdrop. The two of them moved off, ignoring the chuckles from the ponies who had watched their celebration. On their way, Luna and Pine Needle caught up with them.
"Heya guys! Wow, you sure look exhausted, Moonbeam. You going to be okay?" Dewdrop asked.
Luna nodded. "Yeah… Just give me... a few seconds to catch… my breath. Whew!"
Pine Needle grinned. "How did Feather Down do? We were back in the middle of the pack, and could not see much beyond the pony in front of us, I fear."
"Feather Down got third!" gushed Dewdrop. "Can you believe it?"
"Really?" exclaimed Luna. "So the only ponies she didn't beat were Applejack and Rainbow Dash? That's amazing!"
"Actually…" Haystack pointed back to the finish line, where a cloud of dust slowly rolled past the white line marking the end of the course to reveal a very ragged pair of ponies who had been tussling with each other. Luna could only boggle at the sight of a beat up Rainbow Dash and Applejack, and then she started laughing.
"What's so funny?" asked Dewdrop.
"Well, Feather Down was saying that she didn't think she could beat the two of them. And yet, in my first race, even I beat them! That ought to keep her from getting too big of a head on her neck!" The other ponies laughed along with her. "So, where are we headed?"
"To the award ceremony to watch Feather Down get her medal. They have a special guest presenter this year too!" said Haystack.
"Oh, who's that?" Luna asked.
Luna froze, fear filling her suddenly and making her forget about everything else.
"Moonbeam? Moonbeam? Hun? What's wrong?" Dewdrop asked, walking back to her as her friends walked ahead to save some room in the rapidly filling up area near the podium.
"I, ah, I, nothing Dewdrop! Ha ha! What could be wrong? I'm just surprised that the ruler of the land would come out here for something like this. It seems a bit, I don't know, beneath her?" Luna said as she forced herself to walk up to where her friends had found a spot. 'Dang it! Front row too! What are the odds?'
Dewdrop shrugged. "Now that you mention it, it does seem a bit strange for her to be here. Maybe she just wanted a reason to get out of Canterlot for the day?"
Luna took a seat, and watched as Princess Celestia placed the medals around the necks of the first five finishers. Then Celestia turned and looked over the crowd, thanking everyone who had raced and everyone else who had also taken the time to cheer them on. Luna couldn't be sure, but she had a nagging feeling that Celestia was keeping her in the corner of her eye. Trying her best not to squirm, she stomped and cheered along with the rest of the crowd, and when the presentation ceremony came to an end, she excused herself and headed back to her home.
In her bathtub, soaking away the exhaustion of the race, Luna found herself shaking, although she couldn't figure out exactly why. Was it fear of being discovered? Guilt at how large the lie had become? She had been doing so well the past month, too. In fact, she realized with a small knot of fear, she had been playing the role almost too well. It hadn't been until the race itself, when Pine Needle had helped her try to use earth pony magic…
"That's why I'm shaking," she whispered, "I'm afraid of losing myself."
Luna spent the rest of the afternoon after her bath resting and trying not to think what Princess Celestia's arrival in town earlier in the day portended. Had she slipped up somewhere? Did her sister actually know where she was hiding? Was she simply letting paranoia get the better of her? She found herself with no easy answers, and nopony to talk about them with. Eventually, she gave in to the exhaustion from running for over an hour and took a nap.
The moment her eyes had closed and her head had hit the pillow, she was asleep. Instead of the peaceful slumber she had hoped for, however, Luna found herself back in that too-real dream on the moon, with Nightmare Moon waiting for her. She braced herself, staring at her evil incarnation, trying to figure out what she wanted. Was she going to taunt her again, pointing out all the flaws in her plan? Or was this another round of 'Let's Tempt Luna'? After a short while, Luna just wished that she would say or do something other than just look at her intently! Luna was about to just cut loose with a scream of aggravation when Nightmare Moon walked slowly up to her…
And bowed down? Luna cringed back a bit, eyes wide in shock. "Wha, what are you doing?"
Keeping herself prostrate, Nightmare Moon answered in a humble tone, "Princess Luna, I have come to see the genius of your plan. Please, forgive me my earlier recalcitrance. Today was an eye-opener for me, a day which I will remember fondly centuries from now."
Luna scowled at Nightmare Moon. "Stop it! You're just making fun of me, aren't you?"
"No!" Nightmare Moon protested. "I can see how you might think that, due to our previous talks, but I'm being honest with you. I am sincere when I say that I fully agree with your plan, and I want to do everything I can to help with its implementation."
Luna gaped at Midnight Moon. "You, you want to help me make friends?" she stammered.
Nightmare Moon looked up at her. "If that helps you keep your disguise going, then yes. Anything to help you stay here, as Moonbeam."
A wicked smile opened up on Nightmare Moon's face. "Did you not see the pain Celestia was in at the ceremony? Oh, she tried to hide it, but I could tell. She couldn't take her eyes off of you!" Slowly, she stood up. "Every day that you are here, every hour that you are away from her, is causing her torment. We owe her a millennium's worth, Luna. We're one month of the way there now, but we still have a long ways to go just to get even."
Luna could only stare in horror as the truth of Nightmare's Moon's words struck home. 'No! I'm not doing this to hurt my sister!' She wanted to scream this for Nightmare Moon, for all of Equestria to hear, but couldn't find her voice.
"In fact, I've taken the liberty to think some things over, and I have a few suggestions for you. First off, you need to keep being friends with Twilight Sparkle. It's obvious she's being used by Celestia to watch over us. Let her! The more she can report back, the more Celestia suffers."
Luna felt tears running down her face. "Maybe, maybe Celestia doesn't know…" The protest sounded false as soon as it left her lips. Nightmare Moon's words, she realized, explained why the magical prodigy of a unicorn had spent so much time with her over the last month.
"Ha! Oh, she knows. Just think of all the resources she has available to her. I'd be surprised if she hadn't figured out where we were by the end of the first week. I'll admit, I was worried when she showed up at the medal presentation. But after that initial moment, when she didn't call in the guards or even come up to say hello, that's when I knew we were safe. Indeed, I suspect you could even drop the disguise, and she wouldn't do a thing to come get you." Nightmare Moon paused to consider what she had suggested. "I don't think you should, though. I can see that backfiring all too easily right now, and then where are we? Forced to go back to Canterlot and Celestia, that's where."
Unwilling to listen anymore to how wicked and twisted her plan could be turned, Luna closed her eyes and screamed in an effort to block out the words of Nightmare Moon. By the time her lungs were empty, she realized she was awake. Looking outside, she saw that it was still early in the evening, an hour or two before sunset. Part of her wanted to go back into town and join her friends, who were most likely still celebrating Feather Down's third place finish in the race. But she didn't know if Princess Celestia was still around, and seeing her was the last thing Luna wanted to do at the moment. 'Besides,' she thought as she absently reached up to wipe a tear off of her cheek, 'if anypony saw me right now, there would be questions. I don't think I could handle those right now.'
'But what else can I do?' she wondered, looking around her still barely-furnished house. After budgeting money for food and rent, she found that what was left wasn't enough to buy much in the way of furniture. Oh, sure, she had bought some new sheets for her bed, but she still felt embarrassed by the lack of items in her house.
'Hold on, I do have something I could do!' Trotting upstairs, Luna pulled out her spell book. 'I keep putting off reading this stupid thing, but not today!' She had tried several times before, but even when lack of daylight or the sudden arrival of friends hadn't kept her from perusing the tome, boredom usually did. 'Today's the day when I read it from front to back! All my friends are busy, and there is still time left before the sun sets. If I go outside, the way I look after having cried is going to raise concerns, too. So, let's do this, Luna! You can do it!'
Dragging the book to the middle of the room, and away from the temptations that a bed might offer after a few paragraphs of overly-wordy, academian writing, Luna knelt down and started to read. She almost ignored the first few pages. She had read those opening passages enough in her previous efforts that she knew a couple of the lines by heart now, but she resisted the urge. 'If I skip one now, I'm likely to skip another down the road.' Slowly, she worked her way through the book until she reached a passage that made her stop and reread it several times to make sure she was reading it correctly.
"'The danger inherent in using any kind of complete transformation spell, like the ones I outline later in this volume, is that the body can forget its original shape over time. I have discovered that after a year and a day, even if the spell is canceled, the target of the spell will not be able to change back'?" she exclaimed. Luna found herself started to hyperventilate, and her heart was beating in her chest faster than a galloping pony. In a panic, Luna rushed over to her closet, and dug through her saddlebags. Shoving the dried husk of... something that might have been edible when she had first left Canterlot, but now was just waiting to attract ants, she found her gem pouch. Her hooves trembling, she opened it up. Carefully grabbing the bottom fringe with her teeth, she gently shook the pouch in order to empty it.
After a couple of seconds, the moonstone that had been created when she had cast her disguise spell fell out and landed on the floor. It bounced once, then rolled a short distance before coming to a halt. Dropping the pouch, Luna walked over to the moonstone, knelt down next to it, and examined it from point blank range. It didn't look like much to her, except for its uncanny resemblance to the moon.
Suddenly, she felt an impulse wash over her—an urge to raise her hoof and bring it down hard on the gemstone. 'Now would be the perfect time to do it,' she thought, slowly lifting a hoof above the stone. 'Nopony else around to see it happen. My friends are all celebrating, so my sudden disappearance shouldn't hurt them as much. I could just go back to Canterlot, and beg my sister for forgiveness. I'm sure she'd welcome me back with an open heart...' Luna stood there for a while, and then slowly brought her hoof back down to the floor. "No," she whispered to herself. "Not now, and not like this. But I will do it soon. And it will be on my terms. Not on Nightmare Moon's, and not on Celestia's. My terms, my way. I owe my friends that much, at the very least." Carefully placing the moonstone back in its bag, she went out onto her deck to simply watch the world move by as she tried to calm her emotions and misgivings.
Sleep took a long time coming that night, but was thankfully devoid of any dreams, conversational ones with evil personae or otherwise. Luna still felt a bit sore from the previous day's running, but she was still ready for the day ahead of her. When Pine Needle passed by her house, she joined him on their walk to work as she usually did.
Luna was worried her friend would ask her where she had been yesterday, but Pine Needle was strangely quiet for a change. She noticed that he kept on looking at her when he thought she wasn't looking. A couple of times he seemed ready to say something, but then visibly reconsidered and kept quiet instead. It was, Luna decided, a very uncomfortable way to start the day. Finally, as the two of them came within sight of the gate to Haystack's farm, Luna decided she had had enough. She trotted in front of Pine Needle, turned to face him, and stopped. "What's wrong?" she asked him, hoping her voice didn't sound as strained as she was feeling at the moment.
Pine Needle froze. To Luna's surprise, he not only refused to respond, but just looked at the ground and tried to walk around her. Luna quickly sidestepped to keep in front of him. "You look like you've been wanting to say something to me all the way here. What is it?" she asked her friend. "Have I made you mad or something?"
"No!" Pine Needle protested. "No, I'm..." He sighed. "Moonbeam, I am sorry, I am not mad with you at all. I am just trying to come to grips with something, and I don't know how to do it."
"Well, if you're not mad at me, tell me then! Maybe I can help!" Luna said, exasperated that Pine Needle was being so close-mouthed.
Pine Needle's face turned a bit red and drooped. "Fine," he said resignedly. "You are right, it is something I need to get off of mine chest anyways. Something I realized during the Running of the Leaves. Something involving you."
'Oh, no!' thought Luna. 'He's figured out who I am!'
"When you used your earth pony magic, I swear that I was able to feel you doing so. And that made me realize something, something that I'm afraid to say..." Pine Needle was blushing so much that his face was almost as red as an apple.
'Wait a second!' Luna thought, panicking as her trail of thought went into uncharted territory. 'Is he going to admit... THAT?'
"Because if I say it, I'm afraid that our relationship as friends may be over, and I don't want to lose that..." All of a sudden, Pine Needle stood up straight and stared Luna in the eye. "But it needs to be said!"
Luna felt herself blush a little under the fierceness of Pine Needle's stern look.
"Moonbeam... I am..."
Luna's heart was beating so fast, she thought it would burst from her chest.
"I am jealous of you, and I'm sorry!"
Luna blinked a few times, and had to resist the urge to fall over onto her side in shock. "You're... jealous of me?" she weakly got out.
"Yes! It took me many years of practice with mine parents to be able to do anything close to what you did! And yet, on your first time trying, you seem to have mastered it! I know it is terrible for me to think this way, but I can't... help..." Pine Needle trailed off, and tilted his head at Luna. "Actually, I can't help but wonder why you are now lying on the ground laughing at me!"
Luna could tell her friend was rapidly turning angry, and waved a hoof to try to calm him down. "No! I'm sorry, I just... I thought, he he, that you were going to say something completely else! And when you didn't, ow, I think I hurt my side there from laughing... Wait! Come back Pine Needle! Please wait up a second!" Seeing her friend stomping past her, Luna scrambled back onto her hooves and ran back in front of her friend. "This is going to sound stupid, especially now that I remember how big of a crush you have on Applejack. But the way you were talking, and how red your face was turning, it just seemed like you were about to, you know, admit a different kind of feeling for me." Luna felt herself blush a bit in embarrassment at her misunderstanding.
It was now Pine Needle's turn to look confused, until, "What? No! You know mine heart is for Applejack and Applejack only!" He paused and then chuckled. "Although, I can see how, with the way I came around to the subject... heh heh!" Soon, both of them were laughing loudly, and after a minute they both finally found themselves gasping for breath over the whole mix up.
Finally, after they had both settled down, Luna turned to Pine Needle. "Pine Needle, I'm not mad that you're jealous. I can understand, in a way." All of a sudden, Luna realized she did know exactly how Pine Needle felt. After all, hadn't it been jealousy that had led to her becoming Nightmare Moon and trying to keep the sun from rising all those years ago? Suddenly somber, she said, "It isn't fun, is it? It tears you up inside, and makes you consider doing things you normally wouldn't think yourself capable of attempting. I'm so sorry I made you feel like that. But it wasn't anything I wanted to do—make you jealous I mean. I just did what you told me. You're just that good of a teacher, I guess?"
Right in front of the gate to Haystack's property, Pine Needle froze. "That's it! You are a genius, Moonbeam! I shouldn't be upset at the fact that I am no longer the best at what I consider to be mine personal talent! No, I need to help train you! What we can do is so rare, after all! What do you say, will you let me help you?"
"Well, I, um, will we even have time, with the harvest coming up?" Luna asked, realizing that she would have a hard time of keeping her true level of power secret from Pine Needle if they actually did start working together like he wanted to.
"Oh, not now. You are correct. Harvest will take up all of the time we will have and then some! But during the winter will be perfect! Please, at least consider it for now?"
"Deal!" said Luna. "Okay, let's see what Haystack needs us to do today." She held the gate open for her friend, and the two walked up to Haystack's house. As they reached the door, Haystack came out to meet them.
"Hello Pine Needle, Moonbeam. I have some bad news." Haystack looked stressed to Luna.
"What's wrong?" Luna asked.
"We're not going to be able to get the neighboring farmers to help us out this year in getting the crop in." Haystack looked weary. "I went around yesterday, after the Running of the Leaves, and they all told me no."
"Why not?" Pine Needle demanded.
Haystack sighed. "The parasprites."
"The what?" Luna asked.
"Earlier in the summer, Moonbeam, I'd say it was a week or so after the Summer Sun Festival, so before you arrived here in Ponyville, right?" Seeing Luna nod in confirmation, Haystack continued. "These little things swarmed all over Ponyville. Cute little buggers, but they ended up eating almost everything. And I'm not talking just food either. They were devouring buildings before they were made to leave town. I don't know what made them come, or why they left, but all that matters is that everypony's crops were hurt in one way or another. Mind you, we had time to replant what was lost. But instead of being able to coordinate and figure out a schedule of who would harvest when, making it so we could all help out each other, well, the time table got pushed way back. Everypony is putting off things as long as they can to get the most growth out of their crops.
"But I just received word today. Winter has been scheduled to begin next week. Mind you, there won't be any snow right away, but it's the frost that's the real problem." Haystack sighed. "We sent a petition to Canterlot, asking for an extension, but it got voted down. Which I guess I can understand. Seasons are something that shouldn't be messed around with except in dire emergencies, but one more week would have made things so much easier!" Haystack's face was filled with frustration. "Anyway, not only do we not have the help of the other farmers, it also means that there is going to be a lot of competition to try to hire any other help. Every other farmer is going to be looking for extra hooves too. So, I've already inspected the farm this morning, and we'll be okay letting things sit for now. Any extra watering at this stage isn't going to change things. What we need to do is head into town, and try to get some help for tomorrow. I'm sorry to make the two of you walk all the way in, but I didn't want to risk have us taking different routes and end up missing each other."
"Not a worry, Haystack!" Pine Needle assured his friend.
In town, Haystack's fears were confirmed. They stopped by Town Hall, but the Mayor sadly informed them that there were no ponies currently seeking employment. "Well then," Haystack told them, "we'll have to split up. Don't be afraid to ask anypony. Tell them that they'll be paid well for a day's work, and that their efforts will also help to make sure nopony goes hungry this winter." Luna wandered off from the other two, wondering just who she could ask.
'Twilight Sparkle? She's been very friendly to me...' she froze when she considered Nightmare Moon's words from yesterday. 'But, do I want this reported back to Celestia? That would be a terrible thing to pass on to my sister, that I'm being reduced to begging for help from others that I barely know." Luna resumed walking, and found herself approaching the inn where Dewdrop worked. 'It's a long shot, but even if she can't help, maybe she could recommend somepony who could.'
It took a few minutes for Dewdrop to have some time to spare from her busy schedule to talk to her. "I'm sorry, Moonbeam," Dewdrop said, "but this has been a crazily busy and taxing week. Apparently, Rarity is hosting a fashion show in a few days, and some hot-shot fashion pony is going to be staying here at the inn, so my boss has us all working twice as hard to try to impress him when he shows up."
"Can you think of anypony else who might be able to help?" Luna asked. "Would it be a waste of time for me to ask Feather Down?"
"It's probably a bit late for her to get the time off, but it can't hurt to ask her. Good luck hun, and again I'm sorry that I can't be of help." Dewdrop waved at her as she left.
Luna was glad it was still fairly early in the day, so she didn't have to worry about dealing with the lunch rush as she arrived at the restaurant. Just as Dewdrop had guessed though, Feather Down told her that she wouldn't be able to get the day off. "I'm sorry, Moonbeam, but I need to know at least a week in advance for me to be able to guarantee that I get a certain day off. I wish I could help you, Haystack pays well for harvest help. I'd make more doing that than I would here for the day!"
After that, Luna found herself aimlessly wandering about town, trying to think if there was any other pony she could ask. 'I've met most everyone else at one point or another, but I just can't bring myself to go up to some pony whose name I can barely recall and ask them to come work on the harvest!' Discouraged at not being of any help, she sat down under a tree to sulk for a bit.
"Hey, what's wrong?"
Luna had been so lost in her thoughts, she hadn't even noticed the other pony walk up to her. "Oh, hi Pinkie Pie. I'm sorry, I'm just upset that I can't help out my friends any."
"Why not? Were they all kidnapped by a colossal stone creature?" Pinkie Pie sat down next to Luna.
"No, nothing so grand or exciting as that," she replied with a grin.
Luna explained the situation. "So, we need to get some help for tomorrow, but there's so few ponies that I know well enough to ask that I've already asked everypony that I can think of!"
"Oh, I can think of at least one pony you haven't asked yet who would be willing to help you out!" Pinkie Pie jumped to her feet, and started hopping around Luna. "Go on, guess! Guess!"
Luna stared at the hyperactive pony for a moment, before it dawned on her what was happening. "Pinkie Pie! Are you saying you'll help us out?"
"Yup! I still haven't seen that much of Haystack since way back. This will be a good chance for me to get caught up on what he's been up to since then! And I have some experience farming too, although it has been a while. But I know that there's going to be hard work—it won't scare me off!"
Luna stood up and gave Pinkie Pie a big hug. "Oh, thank you, thank you! You have no idea how much this means to me! Now I can go tell Pine Needle and Haystack that I found somepony to help! And if they both found some others, things should be easy. Just show up at my place tomorrow morning, okay? We can walk to the farm together."
"Sounds good! I'll see you then, Moonbeam!" Pinkie Pie wandered off, and Luna started searching for her friends. It took her a little while, but after trotting through what felt like half the town, she finally caught sight of Haystack talking with a couple of other stallions. Waiting a short distance away so as to not interrupt, she went to her friend after he was done talking.
"How's it going, Haystack? Any luck so far?" Luna asked.
Haystack shook his head morosely. "No luck at all! It's just as I feared, everypony else with a farm is out and about right now looking for help. I just saw Pine Needle a short while ago, and he's come up against the same things I have. Everypony who might be willing to help has already committed to helping out somepony else. We got a late jump on this, it seems." He sighed, then looked at Luna. "I don't suppose you have any good news to report?"
Luna stood up straight, her chest sticking out in pride. "As a matter of fact, I have managed to find a pony who was willing to lend a hoof!"
Haystack's mood noticeably improved. "Really? That's great! Who is it?"
"Well, I got..."
Pine Needle was near his house, deciding he would try asking all of his neighbors in one last desperate attempt to find some help, when he heard Haystack yell, "PINKIE PIE?"
'Impressive! If he is even close to where I left him a short while ago, that's over halfway across town that I am hearing him from!' Pine Needle thought as he approached another door to ask for help.
Luna was taken aback by the sheer volume of disbelief that Haystack had voiced. "But, you said we could use anypony's help!" she said, fearing she had made a terrible mistake. "And, and she was the only pony who would do it! Everypony else that I know is already busy, and I don't know all that many ponies, and..." she trailed off, not knowing what else to say.
Haystack hung his head. "No, you're right, Moonbeam, and I'm sorry that I yelled at you like that." He motioned for Luna to follow him as he started walking. "It's just that Pinkie Pie and I have a bit of a history, you could say."
Luna fell into step besides Haystack. "You know, I think Dewdrop told me that before, but I don't remember much of what she said. Something about you and Pinkie Pie growing up near each other?"
"Yes. My family lived close to Ponyville, and the Pies were neighbors of ours. They were farmers. A very serious family, if I recall correctly. Then, one day, Pinkie Pie seemed to completely change. Gone was the silent filly, and in her place was, well, the Pinkie Pie you see today. Except without any of the experience, I guess you could say. She was always trying to come up with new ways to make people laugh, or different ways to throw parties, or thinking up new pranks to try out. And since my family was the closest to hers, that made me the main target for all of her experiments." Haystack sighed. "After a year of being her first choice to try out new jokes and pranks, my uncle and aunt moved away, and offered up their property to me if I wanted to farm it. I probably accepted just as much to get away from Pinkie Pie than I did for any real desire to farm. I've come to like the farming life very much since then, however, so I don't regret the decision at all."
Haystack stopped and looked around. "Well, I'm going to stop by the Mayor's place one last time, but I don't think we're going to find any other ponies that can help us. Take the rest of the day off; the only things left to do right now are get the equipment ready and make sure the mill didn't fall apart during the summer. Tomorrow is going to be hard work. We'll be starting as early as we can, and I can't guarantee that we'll be done at a reasonable hour either. The only consolation I can offer you is that after tomorrow's work, we get it easy for several months."
"Thanks, Haystack. I'll make sure to get plenty of sleep." Luna waved to her friend as he walked off towards the center of town. After Haystack had disappeared around a corner, Luna turned and walked towards the market. 'I better get a good dinner and breakfast ready too. I sure would hate to be unable to do my share of the work because I got weak from hunger,' Luna thought.
The sun had barely risen above the horizon when Luna woke up. She found herself strangely excited by the day ahead. In a way, it felt like a personal challenge. 'If I can do this,' she thought, 'then I can do anything!'
She had just finished eating her breakfast when a knock came from her door. Luna grabbed her saddlebags and tossed them on her back. (She was impressed at how quickly she had learned to do that without magic.) She opened the door to see Pine Needle and Pinkie Pie waiting for her. "Good morning Moonbeam!" Pinkie Pie said to her. "Ready to go?"
"You bet!" Luna answered with a smile on her face. The three of them headed down the road, pretty much the only things moving in town at this early hour. On the way there, Luna noticed that Pinkie Pie didn't seem to be her usual, bouncy self. As they crossed over a bridge, she asked her, "Are you feeling okay, Pinkie Pie?"
"Of course I am! Why wouldn't I be?"
"Well, you just seem a bit quieter than normal is all. I don't want to think I dragged you into a bunch of work if you are feeling sick or something."
"Oh, no, I perfectly fine. I'm just trying to think about what might happen today. It's going to be a doozy of a day, after all."
Pine Needle nodded. "That it will! So much work for so few hooves."
Pinkie Pie turned to Pine Needle. "No, not that kind of a doozy, but I guess it will be too. But that's not what I meant. Sometimes, I just get these feelings about when something amazing is going to happen. And the moment I woke up and stepped outside to come here, that's when the shudders hit me. Something today is going to happen that even I'm not expecting."
Luna considered Pinkie Pie's words. 'Something that even Pinkie Pie wouldn't expect? I've heard stories about her from others here and there. That sounds like it could be really weird, dangerous, or both!'
Pine Needle asked, "So, I am a bit surprised that you actually came to help us out. I am not complaining at all, mind you, but what made you decide to come?"
"Well, ever since Moonbeam's party," Pinkie Pie began, seeming unusually subdued, "I've been thinking a bit about the time that I knew Haystack from when we were growing up. And I've come to realize that I may be partially responsible for him having turned into such a gloomy and serious pony. I was really going overboard, even for me, in trying to figure out all of the best ways to make people smile and laugh, and what things worked and didn't at parties. I was really hit or miss for a while, and I didn't have too many friends back then either. So I ended up dragging Haystack into a lot of my experiments, and while we had some really fun times, it wasn't until right before he moved away that I really started to get the hang of what I was doing."
Pinkie Pie paused to look up at the sky. "So, this is my way to try to make it up to him. To try to get him to smile. If I can do that in what seems to be one of the toughest of days for him, I think I'll have pulled off something worthwhile." Pinkie Pie then brightened up. "That, and Mr. and Mrs. Cake buy his flour, so if he can't get his crop in, we won't be able to bake as many things this winter as we usually do. So helping with this helps a lot of ponies, myself included!"
The three of them walked the rest of the way in silence. At Haystack's farm they found him already outside, getting the last of the preparations done. Luna thought she saw Haystack tense up a little at his first sight of Pinkie Pie, but he quickly seemed to relax again. "Welcome. Pinkie Pie, thank you very much for your help." He gestured towards the barn. Near one end of it, a large tarp covered the ground, below the open second story door of the barn. Luna could see that the pulley system was trailing a rope down to the tarp, which also had several sharp looking tools laying off to one side.
"Okay, here's the best division of labor that I could come up with. I'll be using the mower to cut down the wheat," Haystack pointed to a strange-looking device. From what Luna could see, a harness was used to push a wheeled device that had several blades a few inches above the ground. "Pinkie Pie, Moonbeam, I want the two of you to gather up the wheat that I cut and bring it over to Pine Needle at the tarp. His job will be to trim off the stalks so there is less chaff when it comes time to mill it later on."
"Are you sure that I shouldn't be the one to use the mower?" Pine Needle asked. "I have more experience with it than you do."
Haystack shook his head. "I want to keep you fresh. You're going to have to do most of the work in powering the mill later on today. Any other questions?" Seeing that nobody had any, he walked towards the mower. "Let's get started then." Stepping into the harness, he started to move forward at a slow but steady pace and after a dozen steps or so was already mowing down the first lengths of grain. Luna and Pinkie Pie took turns gathering up a mouthful of cut crop, and carried it over to Pine Needle. Using a longer blade that looked to Luna like an over-sized kitchen knife, he would line up the stalks as best as he could, then cut them off with one powerful swing of the blade. Next, he picked up the stalks and carried them off to one side. After that, he returned to sweep the ready to milled wheat into a pile near where the pulley rope came down, and then repeated the process for the next load carried to him.
After an hour, Haystack had finished with the wheat that was on level ground, and all that was left was the crop on the steep hill that took up a large portion of the farm. Luna wondered just how Haystack was going to push an obviously heavy contraption up the steep incline. But all became clear when she saw him start to circle the base of the hill instead of going straight up the slope. 'Oh, that makes sense!' she thought. 'He'll just go around and around it, slowly climbing it a little bit at a time.'
But watching Pinkie Pie had been even more interesting to Luna. Every time she came up to Haystack to gather up some more wheat to carry to Pine Needle, she would stop, open her mouth, and pause with a frustrated expression on her face. After only a moment, she would gather a mouthful of wheat stalks and head back toward the barn instead. Luna waited near Pine Needle for Pinkie Pie to drop off another load, then walked back towards Haystack with her.
"What's wrong, Pinkie Pie?" Luna asked. "I don't think I can ever recall you being at a loss for words before!"
"I need to wait, I think." Pinkie Pie replied after a brief pause. "Getting a smile from Haystack today will be a gigantic challenge, and I think I need to do it in a roundabout way. Lull him into complacency at the start. And then, once he lets down his guard... BAM!" Pinkie Pie mimed a punch with a foreleg.
The rest of the morning was spent in a similar fashion. The sun had almost reached its zenith when Haystack finally crested the summit of the hill. Haystack called Pine Needle to come help him, and both stallions slowly descended from the top, doing their best to not let the mower pull them down too quickly and risk an injury to anypony or damage to the tool or the property. Luna, busy gathering wheat as fast as she could, had not been able to see how much of a toll using the mower had been on her friend. She could now see that he was covered in a lather of sweat, and he could barely hold his head up from exhaustion.
They were about to move the mower back into the barn when the bell at the house started to ring loudly and urgently. The four ponies exchanged glances and, as one, trotted off to see who was paying them a a call. They were pleasantly surprised to see Feather Down waving at them by the front door of the house. She was wearing a set of saddlebags that looked stuffed full.
"Lunch time!" Feather Down yelled. "I have a feast for a set of hard working ponies! Who wants some lunch?" Feather Down opened the flaps on her saddlebags to reveal a plethora of sandwiches and fruits, all ready for eating.
"Thank you very much!" Haystack said as he and the others came up to Feather Down. "I honestly wasn't expecting anything like this at all. This is fantastic!"
"Hey, just because I couldn't get the day off from work doesn't mean that I'm going to leave my friends hanging! I can't stay long, I'm on my lunch break right now and I had to pull some strings to be able to take it at this hour. But this is the least I can do for my friends! Now, sit, sit! Let the waitress do what she knows best and serve, and give you tired ponies a break!" Feather Down expertly grabbed item after item from her saddlebags, and in short order a tasty spread had been laid out before them.
Luna was amazed at how fast she devoured the dandelion sandwich that had been placed in front of her. 'All that work kept my mind off of how hungry I was getting, I guess.' When Feather Down finally pulled out an apple for herself and sat down, Luna turned to her and said, "Thank you so much! Perfect timing too, Haystack just got done cutting down all the wheat."
Luna was surprised when Feather Down frowned. "He's only now finished with cutting down the wheat?" Feather Down asked softly.
Luna nodded slowly. "Yeah," she replied, feeling the bottom of her stomach drop away for some reason.
"Wow, not having the other farmers to help him is really slowing him down then. I helped out last year, and they had that done in maybe an hour. Of course, when you have several ponies doing the cutting, and not just one, it's going to take a lot less time." Feather Down swallowed the last of her apple. "Okay guys, I have to gallop if I'm going to get back to work on time. See you later!" One quick round of thanks and a hug from Luna later, Feather Down was speeding away down the road, back into Ponyville proper.
Luna felt a bit of trepidation. 'If what took them just an hour or two before took us almost half the day this time...' She looked back at the field, still covered with cut wheat to be gathered. 'Oh dear.'
After they had finished eating, they returned to their tasks with Haystack helping carry in the cut wheat. Pinkie Pie found she could gather up a lot of wheat from the hill quickly simply by sliding down the hill, pushing the cut grain in front of her like a plow. Luna giggled as she watched Pinkie Pie yelling in glee, and joined her. Haystack quickly caught on and waited at the base of the hill to transport the gathered crop over to Pine Needle. After an hour of this, the wheat was all down at the bottom, and Haystack called everyone together again by the barn.
"Okay, we've got enough wheat ready to go that I think we should start milling it. Pinkie Pie, you have experience working with knives, right?"
"Yup! Nobody cuts a cake faster and better than me!" Pinkie Pie said with pride.
Haystack nodded. "Okay then, I want you to take over Pine Needle's job. Also, I'll be lowering and raising that bucket there, I'll need you to fill it with grain when you can please."
"Will do!" Pinkie Pie headed over to get herself situated with her new assignment area.
"Moonbeam," Haystack turned to Luna, "I'll need you at the bottom of the mill to catch the flour in bags. You'll see that there is a tarp on the ground there. Don't worry if some spills out, but do try to keep your hooves as clean as possible. There's a tub there for you to wash off with."
"What do I do with the bags when they get full?" Luna asked.
"There will a drawstring on the top. Once it gets most of the way full, and the bag is able to stand up mostly on its own, give it a good tug. It won't be perfectly sealed, but that's something we can work on in the next few days. Once you get the top closed, drag the bag off to the side. I should be able to make time every now and then during the breaks to help make room." Haystack explained. He then turned to Pine Needle. "I'm sorry that I'm asking you to do this alone. The moment you need a break, let me know! I would feel terrible if you hurt yourself doing this for me."
"Worry not, mine friend!" Pine Needle declared. "I will not be doing anything stupid." He turned to Luna, and in a stage whisper said, "Besides showing up here today, that is."
Haystack gave a small snort. "Okay guys. The wheat won't mill itself, sadly. Let's get to work."
Luna headed into the barn and found things were laid out just as Haystack had said. Washing her hooves in the tub, she saw Pine Needle walk up the shorter ramp to the platform that wrapped around the mill pillar. On one of the bars was a padded harness, and after stretching, Pine Needle got himself situated. "Give me the word when to start, and I shall!" He called up to Haystack.
Haystack didn't reply right away, as his mouth was busy turning the crank to raise a bucket full of wheat from outside. Once the bucket was high enough, he used a hoof to flip a latch to keep the rope from dropping back down, and then brought the bucket over to the opening in the mill. Nudging open a door on the side of the mill by him, he emptied the bucket through it. "Okay, Pine Needle, start whenever you're ready!" Haystack undid the latch on the crank, alerted Pinkie Pie to the soon-to-be-falling bucket, and nudged it back outside, letting gravity do the work of carrying it down for him.
Luna took the first woven bag from a pile near the mill's spout and set it up to catch the flour when it came out. She watched as Pine Needle seemed to struggle in vain to get the bar to move, but finally, with a grinding sound coming from inside the mill, it finally budged, and he started to push the bar around the mill slowly. As he came around to where he could see Luna, he gave her a smile. "Do not worry," he called to her, "getting it started is the hardest thing to do. Kind of like trying to wake up Feather Down." Luna smiled back, but she could sense that Pine Needle was struggling all the same.
Steadily, the first bag filled with milled flour, and Luna found herself faced with her first real test so far. She had seen that there were ebbs and flows in how the flour came out. 'Probably has to do with when the buckets of wheat get dumped in.' She realized. Waiting for a slower trickle of flour to come pouring out, she balanced the bag in place with her front legs and then grabbed the drawstring with her teeth and pulled it tight. She found the hardest part was trying to move the full bag of flour aside so she could get the next bag in place. A full bag was very heavy, and in her first attempt at moving it, not suspecting how much weight the bag would have to it, she did nothing to budge it. Not wanting to let too much flour spill onto the tarp, she put her entire body into her next attempt, and managed to drag the bag a few feet before her momentum died. Deciding that was far enough for now, she dashed over to the pile of empty bags and got the next one in place as quickly as she could.
After watching Haystack expertly operate the winch and pulley system a few times, a thought occurred to her. "Hey, Haystack," she yelled up to the pegasus pony, "I'm guessing there's a simple answer, but I'm curious, why don't you just fly up and down with the bucket yourself instead of using a pulley?"
"If it was just a couple dozen, or even a hundred or so trips up and down, it would be easier and faster." Haystack called back when his mouth was free. "But for what will be well over a thousand loads by the time we're done, it would wear me out before we even got halfway through. Even though it would be in small loads, it adds up. Think about how heavy that full bag of flour was. All that weight had to come up first before we can mill it back down to you."
Luna nodded. "That makes sense. Thank you for explaining it to me." She split her attention between watching the bags that were her responsibility and keeping an eye on her friends. Pine Needle continued to worry her. 'There are three bars, which means that the mill should have triple the pony power pushing it right now. He can't keep this up long enough by himself to do the large number of loads Haystack was talking about! If only there was some way I could make it easier for him.'
After a moment, Luna realized that there was—theoretically. 'If I had my magic back, I could do all of this by myself! But...' her thoughts turned dark. 'Who knows how they would react to that. Not well, likely.'
And then something else occurred to her. "I didn't even think of using my magic right away. It was like I had... forgotten it.' The revelation stunned her to the point that she almost let the bag she was holding overflow. 'Focus, Luna!' she berated herself, pulling the string tight and pulling the bag to one side. 'You've got the easiest job of anypony here, you can't be messing up now! If you do, it will mean the work of the others was wasted!' With renewed vigor and determination, she got the next bag in place. Still, she couldn't keep her thoughts from wandering as she stood there. 'Have I really become so used to being without my magic, after just over a month, that I'm already forgetting about it?' She felt a cold shiver travel down her back that had nothing to do with the autumn air.
The afternoon slowly passed. Once an hour, Haystack would make them all stop and take a break. Stretching her legs, Luna was amazed by the pile of straw that had been accumulated from all the cut wheat stalks outside. And then she saw how many still had to be cut. 'We're not even halfway done yet. Maybe not even a quarter of the way done, and we're getting close to dinner time!' Luna realized as she checked the sun. The realization hit her hard, and she felt tears of frustration start to well up. Shaking her head, she started to walk back to the barn when a whoop from the road made her look toward the house.
"Better late than never, right?" Dewdrop yelled as she trotted up to everyone, still wearing the apron she used at work. She took a look around, and a confident look came across her face that chased away Luna's frustration. Using her magic to take off her apron, she walked over to Haystack. "What can I do to help?"
Haystack looked around. "Where couldn't you help?" he muttered as he thought about where to use Dewdrop. "Okay. Everypony, change of plans!" He pointed to the pile of wheat that still had their stalks attached. "Let's get that taken care of as fast as we can." He turned to Dewdrop. "Don't use your magic for this part. Save that for later."
Dewdrop took a look at the pulley, and nodded. "I think I see what your plan is. Sounds good to me, let's get started." Soon, stalks were being removed at a furious pace, and Luna and Pine Needle found themselves hard pressed just to move the stalks away from the cutters at a fast enough clip. The sun was barely above the horizon by the time they finished when more hooves could be heard coming from the road.
"Sorry I'm late, supper rush was a big one!" Feather Down yelled, once again carrying saddlebags full of food. "Hiya Dewdrop!" The roommates hugged briefly, then both of them got to work serving a late supper.
While they ate, Pinkie Pie came up to Luna. "Remember when I said I felt a doozy for today?" Luna nodded as she ate a radish. "It hasn't happened yet, and I just felt it hit me again. It's going to be soon, I think."
Luna considered that for a moment. "Do you think it will be because of him smiling at getting everything done, now that all of his friends are here to help?"
"I don't know," Pinkie Pie answered. "Actually, I'm a bit excited by it all. Doozies don't happen all that often, so I'm looking forward to seeing what it might be!"
As they finished their meal, the sun started to set behind the hills. Haystack lit some lanterns. "Sorry I don't have electricity way out here, but I need it so rarely, it just isn't worth the cost to get it installed." He looked at everyone. "Okay, here's the plan. I'll join Pine Needle in powering the mill. Pinkie Pie, you'll join Moonbeam and help her with the bags at the bottom. Dewdrop, will you be able to use your magic to carry the grain all the way from down below up to the top of the mill?"
Dewdrop walked over and examined the area. "I hate to say it, but no. I've never been that strong with my magic, and while I could do some, I don't think I could lift that much, or at least, with any appreciable speed."
"That's okay." Haystack said. "I'll have you be up top then. Your magic should be able to handle the crank without too many problems at least?"
Dewdrop nodded slowly. "A lot shorter distance for me to use my magic over. That will make it much easier."
"Okay then. Feather Down, your job will be to fill up the bucket when Dewdrop lowers it to you." Haystack looked them all over. "As before, if any one of you needs to take a break, speak up! I would rather let grain sit out and get ruined by frost and flocks of birds than have any of you hurt yourselves. Is that understood?" When everyone nodded, he said, "Okay then, let's just do our best, and if we finish by some miracle, all the better!"
The next few hours, chatter was at a minimum. Luna watched anxiously as all of her friends worked hard. Nobody seemed willing to call a break, though. She was about to do it, just to give others a breather when Pinkie Pie nudged her into silence. "Not for me," Luna silently protested to Pinkie Pie, "but for the guys. They look like they're about to collapse!"
Pinkie Pie nodded. "I'm pretty sure though, that if we take a break now, they won't be able to get started again. It's just too late to be doing this."
Luna could feel despair build up inside her again. "This isn't right. Maybe I could fill in for one of them, or..." She swallowed a scream of frustration. "If only there was something I could do!"
Pinkie Pie smiled at Luna. "There is. Watch."
Pinkie Pie started to hum a tune, and then started tapping a hoof in time with it. Luna soon found herself tapping a hoof along in time, and only then did Pinkie Pie start to sing.
"When work get hard, becomes a trial
You've dragged your hooves for many miles
And you find it very hard to do your part
Don't let the workload get you down
Don't buckle under, mope or frown
Instead just let a song enter your heart!"
Luna started to smile as Pinkie Pie's words filled the barn. 'This is more like the Pinkie Pie I know!' Dewdrop looked down at them, wondering what was happening, while Haystack scowled, but lacked the energy to tell her to keep quiet.
"You need to smile and sing!
That's the only thing
Just open up your heart and smile and sing!
It doesn't matter how it goes
Or if you're the only one who knows
The words or rhythm to your special tune
Just sing away, and do it loud
Don't be bashful, be brave and proud
And in the end you will receive its boon!
You need to smile and sing!
That's the only thing
Just open up your heart and smile and sing!"
Luna recognized the chorus as Pinkie Pie started it the second time and joined in, and their two voices echoed with a joyful noise. Glancing around, Luna saw that Pine Needle saw actually grinning and bobbing his head in time with the beat. Dewdrop was confirming to Feather Down outside that, yes, there really was singing going on in the barn. Haystack for his part silently suffered.
"Okay, Moonbeam, your turn!" Pinkie Pie yelled out cheerfully.
"What, me?" Luna asked, surprised that Pinkie Pie wanted to her to contribute beyond joining in on the chorus. "What do I sing?"
"Anything! Just keep the song going!"
Swallowing down her nervousness, Luna wracked her brain for something to start with, hoping that those words would lead to more, and finally, tentatively, started her verse.
"When I look here upon my friends
I worry that we're at our end
That we have come as far as we can go
But now I find myself singing
And I think it may be just the thing
To keep me fast, to stop my being slow
You need to smile and sing!
That's the only thing
Just open up your heart and smile and sing!"
This time, Pine Needle joined in on the chorus, and Dewdrop was smiling down at them all from where she stood at the crank. Luna looked at Haystack, and her eyes widened in shock.
'Is he... tapping his hoof?' she wondered, not trusting her eyes at this weary time.
"Pine Needle, GO!" Pinkie Pie yelled.
Without missing a beat, Pine Needle raised his voice to sing a verse.
"When I first came from Stalliongrad
There was little that I had
Besides what I did carry in mine packs
But Haystack he became mine friend
I then met more and in the end
Friends in my life is something I don't lack!
You need to smile and sing!
That's the only thing
Just open up your heart and smile and sing!"
This time, everyone except Haystack sang along on the chorus, and Luna could tell that everyone's spirits had been raised. Even...
Not stopping to think, Luna put a hoof up to Pinkie Pie's mouth to silence her. Luna could see she was looking up at Dewdrop, but for some reason, Luna didn't think Dewdrop was the one who should sing at the moment.
"Last verse!" Luna hollered. "HAYSTACK, SING!"
Luna felt Pinkie Pie freeze up, and then start to shudder violently. Haystack, who had been bobbing his head along with Pine Needle's singing, was caught off guard, and almost tripped. He then looked at Luna, puzzled. Luna nodded at him encouragingly, and then Haystack raised his voice.
"It's come to the end of the day
We've milled the flour, stacked the hay
And the harvesting is now mostly complete
Pinkie Pie, without your aid
This progress we would not have made
All of my reservations you did defeat!"
While Haystack was singing his verse, Pinkie Pie had sprinted up as close to Haystack as she could while on the ground below the platform, and danced along, pure surprise on her face.
"You just need to smile and sing!
That's the only thing."
"Just open up your heart and smile!" sang Pinkie Pie.
"Even if it takes awhile!" replied Haystack
"Just open up your heart, and, SING!" Everyone finished together.
Pinkie Pie dashed back to Luna. "Look! Lookie look look!" She said, pointing at Haystack.
Luna beamed at Pinkie Pie. "I see it. A first for me too, now that I think on it. Quite a doozy, isn't it?"
Haystack's face wore a giant smile of joy as he laughed with everyone else.
Outside, Feather Down grumbled, "Sure, guys, have all the fun in there why don't you? Hmmph."
It was well past midnight by the time they had finished milling all of the wheat. Each of the ponies was tired beyond belief, but there was a triumphant air about them. They had faced the job in front of them and had come out on top, victorious. Haystack told Pine Needle and Luna to take tomorrow off, and he profusely thanked everyone else. "It will be a week or so until I get some of the flour sold," he said, "but I'll deliver your pay personally." They left as a group, too tired for chatter, they peeled off as they arrived at their various homes. Sleep came quickly for them all, the peaceful rest of the honestly tired.
The next day found Dewdrop at work at her usual early start time. It had been harder than usual to get out of bed because of the busy night before, but her sense of responsibility had her up and about despite mutters from her roommate asking for five more minutes. The inn's manager looked at her weary face with concern, but she waved it off, explaining about the harvest that she had helped with last night.
"Ah," the manager reminisced, "I used to help with a few of those back in my youth too. Fun in its way, although I must admit I don't feel the urge to go out and help with them anymore. However, I do have some important news for you, Dewdrop!"
"Oh, what's that?" she asked, her interest piqued.
"I leave town tomorrow, and will be gone for the next few days," her manager said. "There is a convention of hoteliers in Canterlot coming up. Personally, I think it's more of an excuse to fill up some rooms somewhere, but then the contacts I make at these gatherings always seem to pay off in the long run. So, who knows? Anyway, while I'm gone, I would like for you to be the one in charge."
"Me?" Dewdrop was startled by the announcement.
"Most certainly! I have always been impressed by your work ethic. And I've talked with Lilypad and Hazelnut already, and they're fine with you being in charge. I can leave for the convention feeling secure about my inn with you in charge, especially with Hoity-Toity arriving the day after tomorrow."
Dewdrop had felt herself fill with pride until Hoity-Toity had been mentioned. 'I hope that I can do a good job!' she worried. 'If I mess this up, it might lead to bad press for the inn!' She spent the rest of the morning with half her mind occupied worrying about what might go wrong with her in charge.
On her break, Dewdrop went to the restaurant that Feather Down worked to have lunch. Her roommate got approval from her boss and joined Dewdrop for the meal. While they ate, Dewdrop shared her news and concerns with Feather Down. "Don't worry about it," Feather Down said. "It isn't like you'll have to do too much extra work, right? The other girls will do their part, and everything will go fine, just watch!"
Dewdrop nodded. "I think you're right. I'm just nervous, that's all. This is the first time he's ever left me in charge, so I guess I'm just worried about what could go wrong."
"That's understandable. Just don't obsess over it, okay? You have a tendency to do that at times, you know. I'm sure you'll do just fine." After some more small talk, the two friends finished their lunch and returned to their jobs.
It was around mid afternoon when the bell on the door of the inn rang, announcing a guest. From the back room where she was folding sheets, Dewdrop heard the manager talking to somepony else. Wondering who it might be, Dewdrop walked to the front of the inn. There, she saw Rarity talking with the manager.
"Dewdrop!" The manager waved her over to them. "This is the mare I was talking about, Rarity. Dewdrop will be the pony I leave in charge while I am gone, starting tomorrow. I am sure she will do everything in her power to make sure Hoity-Toity has an excellent stay."
Rarity smiled when she first saw Dewdrop, but after a few seconds began to frown. When Rarity started to circle her, shaking her head and making small sounds of disapproval, Dewdrop and her manager shared confused looks. Rarity finished her circuit around Dewdrop and shook her head. "No, no. Not like this." Rarity turned to the manager. "If you will excuse us?" Without waiting for an answer, Rarity herded Dewdrop towards the door. Dewdrop could only shrug at her confused manager, who stood and watched as they left.
"I'm sorry for the rudeness of our departure," Rarity told Dewdrop as they walked away from the inn, "but I don't think he would have understood my intentions."
"To be honest, I don't fully understand your intentions either," Dewdrop said, following Rarity more out of confusion than any other reason.
"Oh darling, you must forgive me. I'm in a terrible state right now. Hoity-Toity is coming to see my work on some dresses, and this could make or break my career going forward. So I'm doing everything that I can to make sure that he has a pleasant stay here in Ponyville. And seeing you there, and knowing that you'll be the face of the inn where Hoity-Toity will be staying, made me remember something I have packed away. We must simply see if it fits you."
Intrigued, Dewdrop followed Rarity into her shop. Dewdrop had never been inside Rarity's store, never having cared much about fancy dresses. She was amazed by what she saw. Close to a dozen dummies stood around the room, around half of them with dresses in various states of completion on them. Reams and bolts of cloth filled a closet, displaying an entire rainbow of colors. Rarity excused herself and left Dewdrop to gape while she went into the back room. A couple of minutes later, she returned with a dress box carried by her magic.
"Try this on, and let me know what you think!" Rarity opened the box to reveal a black and white outfit inside. Using her magic, Dewdrop put it on without too much trouble. The front part consisted of a white, lacy collar and apron with black stitching and pockets. The back part covered her flanks with a black dress that had more white lace on its edges. Rarity nodded in approval. "Just one moment, let me take it in really quick here and there…" A few more minutes passed, and Rarity smiled at Dewdrop. "Perfect! Of course, the important question is, do you like it?" she asked, levitating a mirror around to help Dewdrop take a good look at herself.
Dewdrop was amazed by what she was wearing. She regularly wore aprons as part of her job, but had never worn one so fancy, or even had a reason to dress up before. "It's amazing! I barely recognize myself!" Dewdrop exclaimed, her voice filled with honest wonder and delight.
"Then I insist that you wear it while Hoity-Toity is at the inn. No, even better, if you promise to wear it for him, you can have it. I can't think of a better use, or a more perfect pony, for it to be seen on!" Rarity declared.
Dewdrop was stunned by the sudden generosity. "I—I can't accept this!" she feebly protested. "I really don't know how much these things cost, but I can't believe that this is inexpensive in the least!"
"No, no!" Rarity said. "If anything, think of it as an investment. The better time that Hoity-Toity has before the show, the more likely he will be to view my work in a favorable light. And I've had that thing just sitting around in back gathering dust for months. This way, it gets a home that will appreciate it too!"
"Well then," Dewdrop said, "I don't know what to say, except for thank you very much! I'll make sure to wear it while Hoity-Toity is at the inn, and I'll do my best to make sure he has a pleasant stay."
Rarity smiled at Dewdrop. "Oh, I know you would have regardless, I could tell from first sight you value hard work as much as I do. Here, let me get that back in its box for you." Soon the dress was neatly folded and placed back inside of its container. Dewdrop thanked Rarity profusely, and returned back to the inn, the box balanced on her back with her magic. The rest of the day, Dewdrop was in a happy mood, humming to herself as she went about her tasks. She decided to leave the box at the inn for the night, so she wouldn't risk forgetting it at home or getting it dirty carrying it around.
The next day, Dewdrop was up early and at the inn full of energy. She waved goodbye to the night shift pony, a dark orange mare named Sunset, and cheerily served breakfast to the two sets of guests that had spent the night. The other two mares who worked days with her, Lilypad and Hazelnut, showed up shortly afterwards, and they focused their attentions to cleaning up the rooms. Looking around, the girls decided that the inn could use some new flowers in the rooms, and so Dewdrop had the two of them go out to try to find some while she watched the place.
'I hope they can find some, with it being so late in the year.' Dewdrop thought as she dusted off the furniture in the lobby. 'I know I saw some growing in a couple of flower beds on my way to work though, so there might still be a chance for them to locate some.' It was a quiet time of day, and Dewdrop stared out the window for a bit in a daydream. 'I remember the last time I went out looking for flowers. That was when I found Moonbeam. I would never have guessed when I left the inn that I would find such a great friend.' Dewdrop was brought back to the present when the clock in the lobby chimed four.
'Is it really that late? Lilypad and Hazelnut have been gone for hours! I hope nothing happened to them!' Dewdrop looked about in worry. 'And I can't leave to go find them either. If I do, there will be nobody to watch the inn.' Time continued to pass slowly, and Dewdrop swore that the seconds were growing longer and longer. She paced about, and finally got out the broom and swept the outside area, just to be able to look around outside to see the other two returning sooner.
It was getting close to when Dewdrop would normally take a short break, when a grey stallion came trotting up to her. "Excuse me, miss, but do you know where I can find the pony named Dewdrop?"
"That would be me. How can I help you?"
"Hello, my name is Doctor Fetlock. I just got done helping take care of two young mares who work here, and…"
"Oh no! Lilypad and Hazelnut? What happened? Did they hurt themselves? Are they okay?"
"Oh, yes, yes." Dr. Fetlock reassured Dewdrop. "They just had the misfortune of running into a giant patch of poison ivy earlier today while in the woods. I'm here to let you know that they will be unable to work for the next week. I have prescribed bed rest and lots of lotion to help with the rash and itching they are currently experiencing."
"A whole week? Oh no! To be forced to itch for that long, I would go crazy!" Dewdrop exclaimed.
"True, it isn't fun at all, but it is important to remember that it will pass in time. Anyway, they asked me to pass the news to you so you wouldn't worry any longer, and they both wanted to apologize very much for not being able to help in the coming days." The doctor said farewell and then walked off.
'Oh no!' Dewdrop thought as the realization settled in. 'I'm the only day shift pony left now!' She trotted back inside. 'Well, it shouldn't be too difficult. We only have twelve rooms, I can get them all cleaned up by myself in a few hours by myself, nothing I can't handle.'
Dewdrop looked at the reservation list. She was astonished to see that every single room was full, all from Hoity-Toity and apparently his entourage. 'And I promised Rarity that I would do my very best to make sure he has a pleasant stay! I won't be at my best all by myself and that many guests staying here!' Then she also saw a note saying that the inn was serving the guests dinner on the first night of their stay.
'What do I do? There's no way I can handle all of this by myself! But where can I find help on such short notice?'
Luna was cleaning up from her dinner when she heard a knock at her door. "Coming!" she hollered, wondering who was paying her a visit. Opening the door, she saw Dewdrop, who looked stressed and ragged. "Dewdrop! What's wrong? Come in!"
Dewdrop stepped in, worry plain on her face. "Oh Moonbeam, I'm sorry to intrude on you like this, but I need to ask a giant favor of you!"
"Well, I can't guarantee that I can help you, but at least tell me what the problem is." Luna looked around at her still-empty house, wishing she could offer her friend a place to sit down besides the floor. 'Pillows! I need to get some pillows!' she thought.
"Well, my manager at the inn has left town, and the other girls who I work with have fallen ill, so I'm the only pony left working the day shift." Dewdrop explained. "Which normally wouldn't be that big of a problem. It would be extra work for me, but nothing too onerous. However, we have an important guest showing up tomorrow! There's simply too much work for me to handle by myself. Please, Moonbeam, could you please lend me a hoof at the inn for a couple of days? It will be easy work."
Luna couldn't bear to see her friend in such distress. "Of course I'll help! I'll need to talk to Haystack, but we spent all of today cleaning up the barn and getting the flour ready to be transported. There isn't all that much to do now, to be honest, so I don't think he'll have a problem with me helping you out."
"Oh, thank you, thank you! Let me come with you, please. I need to know as soon as I can, just so I have an idea of what tomorrow will be like." Dewdrop pleaded.
"Uh, sure. Let's go now then?" Luna was starting to feel a little pressed by her friend, but she passed it off as stress.
'Yes, let's!" The two ponies headed out and a short walk later, arrived at Haystack's farm. Dewdrop had been silent on the way out, but as they approached the front door to Haystack's house, Dewdrop said, "Do you want to ask him, or do you want me to?"
Luna considered for a moment, and then replied, "I think I will. It would sound better if I asked, don't you think?"
Dewdrop nodded. "You're right, of course. I can't believe how out of shape this is making me. Please do, hun, you work with him most days anyways, so you know how to approach him better. I'll just stand back and try not to get in your way." Dewdrop gave Luna an embarrassed smile.
A ring of the bell later, and Haystack opened the door. "Well, this is a surprise! Moonbeam, Dewdrop, how are you two? Please, come in." Haystack held the door open for them, and soon they were gathered around a table. "What brings you two out here at this time?"
"Well," Luna said, "Dewdrop is in a bit of a bind at the inn where she works. She's the only available pony left for the next few days, and she asked if I could come fill in, give her a helping hoof. I told her I'd be glad to help her out, but that I needed to check with you if it was okay. I've only been doing this for a short time, after all, but it looks like to me we're at a point where I wouldn't be missed for a few days while Dewdrop's coworkers recover?"
Haystack pursed his lips in thought, and was silent for a minute. "You're right, Moonbeam. We have everything done for the most part. I'm just wondering..." Haystack turned to Dewdrop. "What kind of work are we talking about here? Having to move furniture around, serving meals, what?"
Dewdrop blinked at the unexpected question. "Um, nothing too hard at all. Carrying baggage to rooms, cleaning up the rooms during the day while the guests are out, and answering the occasional room service request. Breakfast has to be served, but that's an informal thing, mainly handing out a simple meal whenever the guests are finally awake. Oh, the first night the group is in town, we're serving them dinner, but the cooking is all being handled by another group, all we'll have to do is serve it to the guests."
"Sounds easy enough. All right then. Moonbeam, you may have the time off." He turned to Dewdrop. "How much help do you need? If it is only for a day or two, I would be willing to help too, and I could probably get Pine Needle to help also. After all, if Moonbeam and I aren't here, he'd be all by himself."
"Oh, Haystack, that's so nice of you, but I don't want you to think I'm forcing this on you."
"Nonsense! You came out to help me with the harvest, it would be downright rude of me to not return the favor and help you out in return!" Haystack insisted.
Relief filled Dewdrop's face. "Oh, thank you so much then, both of you! You know where the inn is, correct?" Seeing them both nod, Dewdrop continued, "Show up in the morning then. I'll be there early since the manager is out of town, but I won't be needing your help until after breakfast." Dewdrop shook both Luna's and Haystack's hooves vigorously. After a small amount of chatter, the mares left Haystack's house.
As they arrived at Luna's house, Dewdrop thanked her one last time before returning to her own home. She found Feather Down waiting for her. "Where have you been?" she asked. "I came home late, and there was no sign of you!"
Dewdrop sighed and apologized. "I'm sorry, Feather Down. This afternoon just went all to pieces!" Dewdrop explained all that had happened since she had last seen her roommate at lunch. By the time Dewdrop was done with her story, Feather Down had a thoughtful look on her face.
"You know," Feather Down said in a sly voice, "I've always wondered just how comfortable those beds at the inn were. I've got tomorrow off, I may just have to stop by and find out. I'll help you keep the others in line too." She gave Dewdrop a wink.
Dewdrop felt tears start to well up in her eyes. "Oh, I have the best friends in the world!" she said as she hugged Feather Down tightly. "With all of you guys helping me, I know things are just going to go fine!"
The next morning, Dewdrop got up early and headed to the inn. The night shift pony smiled as she came in. "It was an easy night, there's only one family currently staying, although the next few nights sure look packed. Good luck in getting them all checked in."
"Thank you, Sunset! Do you work tomorrow, or is that one of your days off?"
"I'll be in tomorrow, but I have the next two nights after that off."
"Okay then, see you later!" Dewdrop watched her leave, and then focused her attention on breakfast preparations. She made sure that the bowls of fruit were filled, and then checked on the pitchers of water and juice. 'Okay, everything is ready to go.' Helping herself to an orange, she kept watch at the front desk until the guests, a family of four, came down. Greeting them with a cheery welcome, she served them their morning meal. They returned to their room to depart again a short while later, luggage in tow.
Wishing them a safe trip home, Dewdrop waited for them to be down the street before heading up to their room to clean up after them. She was pleasantly surprised to see that, even with two colts in their family, the room hadn't been messed up beyond belief. She was about to get to work cleaning it up when she realized that she should leave it for when her friends were here. 'This will be the perfect chance for me to show them what I want from them!' As she left the room, she heard the bell attached to the front door ring. Trotting downstairs, she saw Feather Down in the lobby.
"Hello, Dewdrop!" Feather Down looked around her. "So, what's the plan?"
"Well, I'm hoping the rest show up soon. Then I can show you guys the basics of cleaning up the rooms. After that..." Dewdrop was interrupted as the opening door once again rang the bell, and in walked Haystack, Moonbeam, and Pine Needle. "Perfect timing! Again, thank you all so much for helping me out!"
"It is our pleasure, Dewdrop!" Pine Needle said. "I may not have done this before, bu I like to think that I keep mine own house in good order, so hopefully this won't be too hard."
"Well, we're in luck for starting out. There was only one family that stayed last night, since Hoity-Toity has the entire place booked for the next few days. So, I'll give you guys a quick demonstration of what I expect you to do to help me out." Dewdrop led them upstairs. "Now, I'm not expecting you to get things looking perfect like this," she opened up the door to another room to reveal a tidily made bed with wrinkle free sheets and pillows placed perfectly. "I'll be able to go around and finish up all the little details with no problems if you guys can take care of the easy grunt work." She gave her friends a chance to look at and admire the room before leading them to the dirty one.
"Now, this is about average for what a room will look like after guests have spent a day in it." The room she led them into had its beds unmade and a couple of pillows on the floor. The bathroom looked used, with some small puddles of water on the floor and damp towels hung from hooks on the wall. "It's all pretty simple. First, we gather up all the dirty bedding and towels, and take them downstairs to the basement. We have a big industrial-sized washer and dryer set up there. During the warmer months, we would hang up things to dry outside, but that won't work in this milder weather. After that, we clean up the bathroom, and then the bedroom. I'll show you where the rags and stuff are shortly. After that, the last step is to put fresh sheets on the bed. Just try your best, and I'll go around afterwards with my magic to give it that final touch."
Dewdrop looked around at her friends. "This is the only room that needs to be cleaned today, but tomorrow and the day after that they'll all have been used, so this is pretty much our one chance at a test run before it gets busy." For the next half an hour, Dewdrop walked them through the process, pointing out things and making corrections when needed. Her friends got the room looking clean without any major hassles. "Good job! Okay, let's head downstairs, and I'll go over some of the stuff we'll have to do later today."
After they were all assembled in the lobby, Dewdrop explained the checking-in process. "I'll be handling the paperwork and taking their money. I'll need you to help them get their bags up to their rooms. Now, I know this will sound obvious, but please do your best to always smile when in the presence of a guest." She grinned at Haystack. "You too, Haystack. You blew your cover during the harvest. I know you're capable of smiling now, so I expect even you to do so." Haystack only rolled his eyes a little at the gentle barb. "And later tonight, we'll be serving them dinner. Feather Down, is there anything you want to share with the others on what will be needed from them? I'll be right back."
"Serving food isn't too difficult," Feather Down said as her roommate walked into the room behind the front desk. "Just take things slow, the last thing you want to do is spill food on the table or, even worse, on the guest themselves. If we have the chance, I'll show you a few specifics on how to do it easily, but it's the same as what Dewdrop said about greeting the customers when they arrive. Always be smiling."
Dewdrop returned with a box and placed it on the ground. "Here are our uniforms. If you'll stand still for a minute, I'll put them on you with my magic." White aprons with lace were given to Luna and Feather Down, and white collars with black bow ties were wrapped around the necks of Pine Needle and Haystack. Dewdrop then put on Rarity's outfit, and her friends were all in awe of how good it looked.
"Look at you!" Feather Down exclaimed. "You wear that to the next party we go to, you won't be able to keep the stallions away!"
Dewdrop blushed. "Rarity gave it to me to help us impress Hoity-Toity," she explained. "Anyway, let me show you the dining area." She led them down a hall from the lobby, to a set of double doors that opened to reveal a long table in a well lit room. Off to one side were a couple of other doors. "Those doors lead to the kitchen. Since we have caterers bringing in the meal all ready to go, our job will be to help them get it set up, serve it, bring them back the dishes and help them clean up after the meal."
For the rest of the morning, Feather Down showed them how she wanted them to serve the meal ("Always serve the pony from their left"), and Dewdrop showed them where everything else was. They enjoyed a simple lunch, and then waited for the guests to arrive. The clock in the lobby had just chimed a quarter past three in the afternoon, when Pine Needle, who had been outside examining the landscaping, came inside in a hurry.
"There is a large group headed this way, with a cart full of luggage. I am certain that they are the ponies we are waiting for!" he said in an excited voice.
"Okay, places everypony!" Dewdrop yelled, checking over the others one last time. "Haystack, Pine Needle, get ready to carry luggage. Moonbeam, Feather Down, you two will escort them to their rooms after I hand out the keys. Any questions?"
There were none. Just a few seconds later, a crowd of ponies entered the lobby, filling it almost to bursting. At the front of the queue was a dark grey stallion with an elaborately-coiffed white mane, wearing a fancy collar. "That must be Hoity-Toity,' Dewdrop thought. She resisted the urge to straighten out her apron one last time. "Hello, sir! Welcome to the Ponyville Inn! My name is Dewdrop, and I'll be more than happy to assist you in any way possible."
"Thank you, miss. I need to go check out the site of the showing. If you could please help my assistant handle all the details, I would be ever so grateful." Hoity-Toity made a small gesture, and a pale green earth pony mare wearing wire-rimmed glasses zipped up to the front. "Checklist, this is Dewdrop, the manager of the inn."
"How do you do?" Checklist greeted Dewdrop, and then turned back to Hoity Toity. "I'm sure we'll have everything taken care of by the time you return, sir. Please feel free to leave things in my hooves."
"You always have done so admirably before, Checklist. It's why I keep you around despite those awful looking glasses you wear!" Hoity-Toity turned to leave, followed by a small group of assistants.
Working together, Dewdrop and Checklist got the various groups of ponies to their rooms. After ten minutes, Feather Down led the final group upstairs, and Pine Needle and Haystack brought in the last load of suitcases.
"And here are the keys for you to pass on to Hoity-Toity's group when they return," Dewdrop said while floating them to Checklist. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Checklist looked over her list briefly. "Nope, looks like we're good until dinner. That starts at six o'clock?" When Dewdrop nodded, Checklist said, "Thank you so much then. We just had an awful time at the place we stayed in when we visited Manehattan last month. I'm glad to see that everything is so well organized here, despite this being such a smaller town." Checklist left to go to her room and get settled in. As she exited the lobby, Feather Down came stomping in, an angry look on her face.
"Dewdrop!" Feather Down hissed as she came up to her friend at the front desk. "I need your help! Keep me away from the second floor for a bit, would you?"
"What's wrong?" Dewdrop asked.
Feather Down shot a glare towards the stairs. "One of those idiots thought he could try smooth talking me into spending some time with him, walk him around the village."
"Well, you certainly don't have to do that if you don't want to," Dewdrop said. "I don't see why you have to keep away from half of the inn though just to avoid him?"
"Well, the problem is, he has the first room by the stairs, so every time I walk past, he calls out another pick up line to me. 'Hey babe, I must be in the Fillydelphia Derby, because you make my heart race!' 'I love your hair, it's your mane attraction!' 'After work, want me to give you a personal showing of my own?' And the way he says those awful things too, it just makes my skin feel slimy! Ugh!" Feather Down shuddered again at the thought.
"Not a problem, Feather Down. I'll have the guys handle any room service call to the second floor then. Oh, even better, the caterers should be showing up soon, why don't you go check in the kitchen, make sure everything is looking good? Maybe help them set up if they need it?"
Feather Down gave her roommate a brief hug. "Thank you, Dewdrop! I'll go and do that right now!" As Feather Down trotted off, a buzzer on Dewdrop's desk started to go off.
"A room service call already? Oh dear, I hope we didn't miss something when we were checking everything over earlier today!" Glad that it was on the bottom floor, she waved Luna over to her. "Moonbeam, could you please go and see what the ponies in room twelve need?"
"Will do!" Luna replied cheerfully. She trotted down the hallway and knocked on the first door to the left. "Room service!" she called through the closed door. "How can I help you?"
"We need some more towels, please!" a voice replied from inside the room. "Could you just leave them by the door, I can grab them from there."
"Certainly! I'll be back real quick!" Luna ran to the linen closet that Dewdrop had pointed out earlier in the day, grabbed a couple of fresh towels, and placed them on the floor in front of the door. She then knocked on the door and called in, "Here they are sir! Have a good day!" She heard the occupant call out thanks as she headed back to the lobby. She trotted back up to Dewdrop and reported, "All taken care of, just somebody needing a couple more towels."
Dewdrop blinked. "Towels? Already? They've barely been here for twenty minutes! Oh well, if that's the worst..." Another buzzer went off. "Hmm, room twenty one, I bet that's the one with the idiot who was annoying Feather Down, could you go get Haystack to..." Another buzzer went off, and then another two. Luna and Dewdrop stared at each other, eyes growing large in unison.
"Oh, dear," Dewdrop finally said in a small voice.
The next hour was one of confusion and bedlam for Dewdrop and her friends. Haystack had to disappoint Feather Down's 'fan' several times. Room twelve needed more towels. A young mare wanted a quick snack, and Pine Needle had to run across the street to the market to get her one. A bee in room twenty five caused one of the biggest stallions Dewdrop could ever recall meeting to hide under his bed until it had been removed. Room twelve needed more towels again. Haystack returned to Dewdrop, telling him he was afraid that the one pony was now starting to make passes at him since Feather Down refused to show up. Room twelve called again, needing even more towels.
Finally, five thirty came around. Hoity-Toity returned to the inn, and as if by magic the abundance of calls to the front desk stopped. Breathing a sigh of relief, Dewdrop and her friends went to check on things in the kitchen area. Feather Down met them at the door to the dining room, and motioned for them to stop. "Dewdrop, we need to talk," she said as she pulled her roommate to the side.
When they were a few steps away from the others, Feather Down leaned close to Dewdrop and whispered to her, "We have a problem."
Dewdrop resisted the urge to bang her head repeatedly against the wall next to her. Taking a deep breath, she whispered back, "What is it?"
"The caterers," Feather Down replied. "They're, well..." With a sigh, she motioned at the door. "It would be easier for you to just see for yourself."
Steeling herself for the worst, Dewdrop strode past her friends and entered the dining room. She saw that the table was already made up, with the place settings all lined up neatly. A couple of candles strategically placed gave the room a comfortable ambiance. Dewdrop looked around again, not understanding what she was looking for. Feather Down and the rest of her friends walked in behind her. "Oh, they must have gone back into the kitchen, you should stick your head in there." Feather Down said.
Dewdrop walked over to the kitchen door and did as Feather Down suggested. Peering inside, she saw dozens of dishes laid out and being kept warm, ready to be served at a moment's notice. There were two ponies moving about, keeping an eye on things. One of them was the biggest pony Dewdrop could ever recall seeing. He was a red earth pony with an orange mane and was wearing what looked to be a heavy harness without it slowing him down in any manner. The other pony was one that Dewdrop recognized right away. "Oh, hello Applejack! I should have known from the name of the catering group that you would be here. Is everything going good for the two of you?" Dewdrop hoped there wasn't any panic showing in her voice.
The red pony answered with an enthusiastic "E-yup!"
"Howdy, Dewdrop!" Applejack replied in her country twang. "Things are going as smoothly as can be. We just need to be here to hand over the dishes to your ponies, right? At least that's what I told Rarity when she found out I was serving the food, and she started freaking out about how me and Big Macintosh wouldn't be properly dressed for this thing."
"That's right!" Dewdrop said, inspiration coming over her in a flash. "I'll send people in as we need to, no need for you to even stick your nose out the door if you don't want to. Besides, after all the work you have done getting the food ready, no need for you to do anything extra, right?"
Applejack smiled and nodded her head. "That's mighty nice of you to say so. How long have we got until the meal starts?"
Dewdrop glanced around and was glad to see a clock on the wall in the kitchen. "Six o'clock is when we're supposed to begin, so very soon now. I'll have somepony poke their head in to give you a heads up when the guests arrive."
"Much obliged, sugar!"
Dewdrop returned to her friends. "Pine Needle, could you please go check and make sure that there haven't been any more room service calls while we were away from the lobby? I don't think there will have been any, but I sure would feel better having some confirmation about that."
"Will do, Dewdrop!" Pine Needle said and trotted out of the dining room towards the lobby.
After Dewdrop thought he was out of hearing range, she drew the rest close to her. "Okay, nobody panic. It shouldn't be too big of a deal, but Applejack is in the kitchen." The others slowly digested that information with varying degrees of disbelief. "We're not sunk though. Applejack will be staying in the kitchen, so we just have to keep Pine Needle out of there, and things should run smoothly. What can we have him do though?"
"Have him serve drinks," Feather Down answered. "I'll show him how when he gets back."
"Thank you very much," Dewdrop replied.
About that time, Pine Needle returned from the lobby. "Just as you thought, there were no buzzers going off at the front desk. We are in the clear."
"Good to hear. Feather Down is going to show you how to pour drinks for the guests, okay?" Dewdrop asked.
"Sounds good to me!" Pine Needle walked over to a side table where Feather Down had a pitcher of water and a couple of empty glasses to demonstrate to him what she expected of him.
Finally, the clock chimed six times, and they heard their guests start coming towards the dining room. "Okay guys, this is it! We get through this, our work is done. We'll get to hand things over to Sunset and the night crew, and we'll get to take home some leftovers for an easy and tasty dinner. Are we good to go?" Hearing her friends enthusiastically respond in the affirmative, Dewdrop smiled. "All right then, let's do this!"
Just as Dewdrop finished her declaration, Hoity-Toity and his ensemble entered the dining room. The mares showed them to their seats, while Pine Needle started to pour drinks. Haystack stuck his head inside the kitchen. "They're here!" he called in, and watched as Applejack and Big Macintosh started to uncover plates, revealing a set of delicious looking salads for the first course. As Haystack left the kitchen though, he let the door swing open too widely, just as Pine Needle was looking in that direction. Catching sight of Applejack, he froze up until the door swung close again, but managed to break free of his distraction on his own. He gave Dewdrop an apologetic look, and returned to serving drinks.
'Please don't let that happen while he's pouring a drink!' Dewdrop prayed. Haystack walked up to her.
"Sorry about that, Dewdrop. Also, over there is that stallion who won't stop trying to make a move on Feather Down." He pointed to a dark yellow unicorn with a light orange mane and tail.
Sure enough, he had specifically chosen a seat where Feather Down would be the one to help seat him, and as she pushed in his chair, he commented, "They must be serving dessert early, because something here sure looks delicious!" Feather Down shot him a look that promised violence, and several of the other diners also gave the unicorn disapproving glances, but he was either oblivious to them or, more likely, just didn't care.
Dewdrop sighed again. "Let's get those salads served now, get them eating. The sooner they get done, the sooner we're free from all of this." Haystack nodded and went into the kitchen, returning shortly with a large platter of salads balanced carefully on his back. Luna helped Feather Down serve them, and then watched anxiously for ponies who finished so she could clear the dirty dishes away. The first few were easy, but then several ponies were finishing up at the same time, and Luna started to worry she wouldn't get them all taken care of fast enough. Dewdrop came over to her. "Don't worry hun, that's what I'm here for, to help out when things get too busy for one pony to do alone." With a reassuring smile that she didn't feel that comfortable giving with how worried she felt, Dewdrop helped carry away empty salad bowls to the kitchen area.
Soon they started handing out the main courses. The yellow unicorn kept on making advances on Feather Down. "Hey, I would like to share a meal with you. What are you doing after dinner?" Feather Down looked about ready to yell at him, but Dewdrop intervened, giving Feather Down a begging look to walk away. "Ah, come on! Don't be so stubborn!" the unicorn called out with a chuckle.
Soon, all the ponies seated at the table were working on various apple dishes with gusto. Pine Needle did his best not to think about who was in the kitchen, but he still froze for a second whenever he saw the door to the kitchen open. Luna continued to show signs of panic over every task, and Haystack was having to field one whole half of the table just to keep Feather Down away from the flirtatious unicorn. 'We're hanging on somehow,' Dewdrop thought to herself, 'but it feels like we're just barely keeping our heads above water.' She could feel sweat starting to run down her neck, and did her best to ignore it.
They finally got to the dessert course. Feather Down was taking some some dirty dishes back to the kitchen when she saw the yellow unicorn wink at her. She shuddered, and after dropping off her dirty plates she brought out some apple pie. Dewdrop and Haystack helped pass it out. Sensing that his time to try to impress Feather Down was running out, the yellow unicorn kept on trying line after cheesy and terrible line. It was enough to make several other diners, including Hoity-Toity, excuse themselves and leave early. Finally, Feather Down had had enough.
"Pine Needle!" She called to her friend. The green earth pony walked over to her. "Could you do me a favor? It seems our guest needs a refill on his drink." Pine Needle nodded and went to go fill the unicorn's empty glass as Feather Down wandered away. Just as Pine Needle started to fill up his glass, she opened the door to the kitchen, then turned to watch the fun. Pine Needle froze, and since the yellow unicorn had his eyes on the mare he was trying to woo, didn't notice the overfilling cup until it was spilling into his lap.
Dewdrop was escorting several other ponies back to the hallway, and before she realized what was happening, she was too late to stop it. She ran toward the growing disaster as fast as she could to try to limit the damage.
Applejack stared blankly from the kitchen. "Um, is something wrong with that one pony? Every time I see him, he's just staring over here. Is he all right in the head?"
The yellow unicorn stood up in anger and shoved Pine Needle roughly aside. The water in Pine Needle's pitcher sloshed onto several other diners, causing cries of alarm. This also knocked Luna aside and caused her to spill her empty dishes into the laps of even more diners… and onto Dewdrop's fancy dress, giving it a giant stain across the front. Haystack looked at her for directions, anger at the yellow unicorn plainly showing on his face.
"I am thoroughly insulted!" the unicorn announced. "I demand that in repayment that I be given a date with that stubborn pony! Tonight! And I…"
Finally, Dewdrop snapped. "No! You, sir, have been purposefully rude and antagonistic to my staff. I did my best to let it slide, but I can abide by it no more! Not only are you being a distraction to me and my friends, you have ruined the meals of others around you! I am asking you to leave to your room now, and stay there!"
The yellow unicorn sniffed in disdain. "Very well, but the owner shall hear of this! I will make sure you are all fired!" With that, he stomped out.
Dewdrop could feel tears starting to well up. "I worked so hard at this," she whispered quietly as an uncomfortable silence filled the room. The remaining diners, hastily excused themselves, appetites lost from the scene they had witnessed. "And despite all my best efforts, things are still going bad. Oh, Rarity will be so disappointed, and the owner will be too."
"Knock that off." Dewdrop turned around to see Haystack staring at her angrily. "You have nothing to be upset about! That unicorn got what he deserved. No, in fact, he's still owed some. Nobody is going to fault you for this!"
"I will," Dewdrop replied quietly.
"Stop it!" Haystack loudly yelled at her, as their friends and the few remaining diners looked at them. "Stop blaming yourself for everything that happened tonight!" He stepped in front of her. "So many things happened that were beyond your control! It's not your fault the manager is in Canterlot for a convention! You're not the one who was dumb enough to walk into a giant patch of poison ivy! You fully understand that when someone says they aren't interested, they mean it!" Haystack was now mere inches away from Dewdrop, trying to make sure she couldn't hide her eyes from him. "You did every possible thing you could think of! Most other ponies would have failed to do even half as good a job at recovering from all these obstacles as you did. Stop beating yourself up, Dewdrop, you are better than this!"
Suddenly, Dewdrop realized just how close the two of them were to each other, and blushed. Caught off guard, Haystack froze in shock, which gave Dewdrop time to smile and softly say, "Thank you." She planted a quick kiss on his cheek and then she leaned into him, neck against neck. "Please, just stand here for a few moments, okay?"
Feather Down, Luna, and Pine Needle all stood in shock as a group by the door. Finally, their attention was caught by a throat clearing behind them. Checklist motioned for them to follow her out through the door, and on the other side told them, "Don't worry. I'll make sure that nothing bad gets back to the management. For now though, let's give those two some alone time, she looks like she really needs it." With that, the mare turned and headed back to her room.
The three friends peeked back inside one last time to see Dewdrop still leaning against Haystack, tears running down from closed eyes but with a smile on her face. As one, they turned and walked back towards the lobby.
"Well, it's about time," Feather Down commented as they walked.
Luna looked at Feather Down in disbelief. "What are you saying? Those two have always been lukewarm to each other at best! When I first came here, you said you didn't know why they acted that way! When did you figure this out?"
Feather Down chuckled. "Well, just now, I guess. But looking back, it seems obvious. I mean, if they really disliked each other as much as they said they did, why did they keep on hanging out together?"
Pine Needle nodded slowly. "That makes sense. I always did wonder why they kept meeting up despite how they acted. They were together when they watched us finish the Running of the Leaves, after all. She came to help him with the harvest when she didn't have to, and Haystack volunteered to help out tonight. I guess, no matter how much they thought otherwise, the truth still came through in the end."
"Yeah." Feather Down agreed. "Who knows where things might end up now that they're being open with each other? Amazing how hard the truth can be in some cases, huh?"
Luna not only heard the comments of her friends, but felt them rip into her in pain. '…truth came through in the end…' '… how hard the truth can be…' She felt her legs wobble, and then she fell against the wall with a loud thud and then slid to the floor.
"Moonbeam!" Feather Down cried out. "Are you okay?" Luna looked up to see her two friends look at her with worry in their eyes. Luna tried to stand up, but the effort made her head swim. She soon found herself sinking into darkness, the voices of her friends crying out in barely-heard panic.
Luna woke up with a start, not entirely sure where she was but noticing it seemed a lot darker outside. "She's awake!" she heard Feather Down call out, and soon all her friends were around her.
"Are you all right, Moonbeam?" Dewdrop asked.
Luna still felt a little fuzzy in her thoughts, but she could feel them slowly but surely clearing up. "I, I'm not sure what happened. Maybe it was the excitement of the whole thing?" she feebly asked.
"Well, we talked to the doctor, and all he can think is that you may have been simply stressed out by the situation, so maybe you're right. Anyway, you rest here at the inn tonight, okay? Hoity-Toity heard about what happened, and was scandalized. He's made that unicorn head back to Canterlot, and is giving you that unicorn's room to sleep in to recover." Dewdrop grinned at her. "Seems like that fashion big wig has a soft spot in his heart after all."
Luna blinked at this news. She supposed it was just another reminder that you couldn't always judge others by appearances. There seemed to be a lot of that going around tonight.
Dewdrop motioned to a covered plate on the table next to the bed. "There's some dinner for you. You must be starving, and I'm sure some food in you will help. Just get better and rest, okay? I don't want to think I talked you into helping only to have you work yourself to collapse!"
Luna smiled at Dewdrop. "I don't blame you for one bit of this, Dewdrop. I'd do it all over again if I had the choice." She smiled at her friends. "I probably just overstressed myself is all. Just give me time to rest, and I'm sure I'll be okay to help tomorrow," she reassured them. She took some playful teasing from Feather Down about how she was supposed to be the one to test out the beds at the inn, and then watched as they left.
Later, Luna sat up, and slowly ate her supper. A glance out the window told her that the moon was close to full again.
'I need to tell them,' she thought. 'This can't go on any longer.' She stared out at the night sky for a while, wondering how to do so. Finally, she smiled.
"Of course," she whispered to herself. "A moon party. It will be full in just three more days. I'll invite them over, break the ice by letting them see the moon with the telescope, and then…" she paused. Even the mere act of saying it was hard to do for her, even now.
"And then I show them the truth, and hope for the best."
The next two days at the inn were easier than the first. With the trouble making unicorn no longer in town, work proceeded smoothly. Dewdrop was able to use her magic to keep the dress that Rarity had given her free of any stains. "It helps that my specialty is water based, I can use my magic to help clean up even the nastiest of messes," Dewdrop confided to Luna. For her part, Luna was feeling much better after having come to grips with what she felt she needed to do.
On the second evening, just as the group was about to head back home, Luna called her friends together in the lobby. She had practiced in her head what she wanted to say dozens of times during the day. But now that she was faced with actually having to speak the words, she found that she was having trouble opening her mouth. Her friends waited patiently, and finally Luna found her nerve.
"Tomorrow night, the moon will be full. If the skies stay clear like they have been, it will be a perfect night for looking at the moon up close. So, I want to hold a moon watching party. You're all invited. I want…" She trailed off for a second, then looked at the ground. "I want to share more about myself with you guys, and I think this will be a good way to do that."
"We would love to come, Moonbeam!" Pine Needle said enthusiastically. The other ponies all nodded in agreement. "I have to be honest, I have always wondered what it would be like to look through your telescope, so I will not miss this for anything."
"We'll be more than happy to be there," Feather Down said. "What time do you want us to show up?"
"I would like to have us start at sunset," Luna replied. "I'll serve some snacks, and explain some things as the light of the sun fades away. After that, the moon will be up and the sky should be dark enough that I can start showing you some specific things." She looked around at all of them. "This means an awful lot to me, so thank you very much."
"And thank you, Moonbeam," Haystack said. "It's never easy to host something like this, even for a small group like us. We appreciate the effort you're putting forth."
Luna blushed, slightly embarrassed. "Okay then, tomorrow's the last day we need to come in, right Dewdrop?"
Dewdrop nodded. "Yes. The manager is returning tomorrow. It should be an easy shift of cleaning and straightening up. I think we have a couple of groups scheduled to arrive, but compared to the packed house we've been watching over for the last couple of days, it will seem extremely easy."
After some more small talk, the group left the inn and went their separate ways. Luna stopped by the market on the way home to pick up some food for the party. 'I could get it on the way home tomorrow,' she thought as she left with a full bag carried in her mouth by is handles, 'but I want to save as much time as I can then for setting things up and getting ready.'
The thought of what she was going to do, finally reveal her true identity, had been making her nervous ever since she had decided to go through with it. And yet, at the same time she was surprised by how calm she felt. 'Maybe its because I know that, just a little later than this time tomorrow, the worst lie of my life will be revealed. I'll no longer have to hide. From them, or myself.' Arriving at her house, she paused just inside the front door. "Depending on how things go tomorrow," she whispered, "this might be my last night here ever." She put away the food she had bought, and then went upstairs to give her telescope another look over. She had practiced using it nightly, and now felt comfortable enough with manipulating it with just her teeth and hooves that she felt sure she wouldn't make a fool of herself tomorrow while setting it up and changing what it was looking at during the party. Finally, she laid down in her bed. Even though her emotions were still in flux, she still managed to fall asleep rather easily.
Luna stared at moon landscape with frustration. "How did I know I was going to end up here tonight?" she complained.
"Well, some might say that coming here is your way to think things over, to talk with yourself. In more ways than one, I suppose," Nightmare Moon said with amusement from behind her.
Luna turned around. "I've been trying to avoid showing up here as much as I could. I thought I had it figured out, until tonight anyways."
Nightmare Moon looked at her gravely. "It's never wise to ignore what you're telling yourself. After all, if you can't trust yourself, who can you trust?"
"What do you want? I'm not in the mood for this," Luna griped, looking at the white, rocky soil under her hooves.
"Well, boo hoo hoo. But somepony has to talk some sense into you. If you go ahead and break the disguise tomorrow, you are aware of how bad things are going to be, right? Do you honestly believe that they will all simply forgive and forget that you've been lying to them for such a long period of time? Look, I've been thinking." Nightmare Moon slowly walked around Luna. "You're worried about being stuck as earth pony forever, aren't you? Consider, if somepony made a spell to change a unicorn into an earth pony, I don't see why it can't be done the other way around too. It isn't like we won't have eternity to work on it, and then find somepony to cast it for us down the road. If worst comes to worst, I'm sure we could get our sister to do the deed for us, although I'd rather save that as a last resort."
"So," Luna said softly, still staring at the ground, "you think the best path is to stay in our disguise, and not show my friends?"
"Without a doubt!" Nightmare Moon proclaimed.
Luna raised her head, and flashed a gigantic smile at Nightmare Moon. "Thanks. Hearing you say that, it means that my plan to reveal myself is the best thing for me to do." Luna wavered for a brief moment, and then disappeared from the moon dream.
Nightmare Moon waited for a moment, to make sure Luna wasn't returning, and then started laughing maniacally.
"Sometimes," the black mare said after calming down, "it's almost too easy."
The next day passed in a nervous blur for Luna. She, Haystack, and Pine Needle were at the inn, while Feather Down was back at her regular job. Luna and her friends were busy getting the rooms all cleaned up. Pine Needle and Haystack were carrying loads on bedsheets and towels down to the basement, where Dewdrop, with the use of her magic, was doing her best to get as many cleaned as she could. Luna, meanwhile, was working on scrubbing out the bathrooms. They had finished with the lower floor when the front door opened, accompanied by the ringing of the bell attached to it. Dewdrop rushed up to see that the hotel manager had finally returned from Canterlot.
"Welcome back, sir!" she said. "Look! The inn is still standing! Hooray!"
The manager chuckled. "How did everything go?"
"Well, that's a long story, sir." Over the next ten minutes, Dewdrop filled in her boss about Lilypad and Hazelnut being ill, getting her friends to help cover on really short notice, and the near disaster that was the dinner of the first night. "We're getting everything cleaned up now, sir, I'm pretty sure we'll be done come lunch time."
"Well, I'm mightily impressed by your resourcefulness then, Dewdrop! If you don't mind, I'll head out and visit Hazelnut and Lilypad, see how they're holding up."
"Thank you, sir! Tell the girls I said hi and that I miss them, would you? I've been too busy to go visit them myself, and I feel a little bad about that."
"I'll be sure to do that." With a wave, the manager left again. Dewdrop watched him leave, then returned to her work. After an hour, Luna called for her to come put the finishing touches on the rooms. Her horn aglow, she flattened the sheets, got the towels all perfectly placed on the shelves, and cleaned those hard to reach corners with a feather duster. They all gathered back downstairs for lunch just as the manager returned from visiting the ill employees.
"Ah! You must be Dewdrop's friends!" he said, going around and shaking each pony's hoof in turn. "Dewdrop told me all about what happened, and I can't thank you enough for your help. Please, let me know if there is anything I can do to help you out in the future!"
Haystack looked a little embarrassed by the praise. "We were happy to sir, especially after Dewdrop went out of her way to help us just before this when we were trying to bring in the harvest on time. That isn't the only reason why we came, of course. She's our friend. That's all that matters, really." He gave Dewdrop a smile.
"Still!" the hotel manager said. "I owe you on top of the pay you'll be receiving. Have any of you had lunch yet?" Seeing them shake their heads no, he said, "Well then, this will be my treat! I'll take you all to the fanciest restaurant in town!"
"But sir! What about the inn? There will be nopony here to watch the place!" Dewdrop protested.
The manager chuckled. "Ah, Dewdrop, it pleases me that there are still things you do not know, so I don't have to worry about you opening your own establishment anytime soon and driving me out of business. I don't know if I could compete against a place called the 'Dewdrop Inn'. So! Let me show you a trick I have." He walked behind the front desk. "Back here, I have a mysterious device that I use in times of dire emergencies. Where did I hide that thing?" the manager muttered as he dug around in the nooks of the desk. "Aha! I have… this!" He lifted up a sign that read 'Closed – We'll Be Back Soon!'
Dewdrop put a hoof to her head and moaned as Pine Needle laughed. "Excuse me, sir?" Luna softly spoke up. "One of our friends helped out for most of the days, but had to go back to her job today. Could we stop by on the way and see if we can get Feather Down to join us for this meal?"
"Feather Down! I know her, that's your roommate that you talk about all the time, right Dewdrop?" Seeing Dewdrop nod in confirmation, he added, "We'll stop by to pick her up on the way then. I know her boss, so I'll pull some strings if I have to." The manager then hung the closed sign in the window, and held the door open for the others. Locking the door on the way out, they headed over to Feather Down's restaurant and, after a small amount of talk between the two bosses, Feather Down was free to join the group for lunch.
For Luna, the meal was another reminder of all that she had left behind over a month ago. The decor and expertly dressed wait staff reminded her of the servants and dining area back in the castle in Canterlot. Also, it was easily the best tasting meal she had eaten since arriving in Ponyville. It made her realize that while anypony can choose good looking pieces of fruit or vegetation to eat for a meal, it takes a master of the cooking profession using just the right methods of preparation and the exact proportions of spices and seasonings to bring out the best in a meal.
Done with lunch, they returned to the inn. After an easy afternoon, the manager let them leave a few hours early, and the friends went their separate ways. "We'll see you later tonight, Moonbeam!" Haystack said as he left, and the others echoed his words. Luna headed home, suddenly unsure as to what she wanted to do.
At home, she double checked that she had all the snacks that she wanted to serve that night ready, and soon found herself with hours to go before having anything planned. With nothing planned, she left her house and just started to wander randomly. Soon, she was walking through the outskirts of town, in an area that she knew she hadn't spent much time in, but yet seemed familiar to her. Looking around, she gasped in recognition. She galloped up a hill, and upon reaching the top, looked back at where she had come from.
'This is where I first saw Ponyville. Right before I cast that spell.' For a while, she just stood there taking it all in, reminiscing over all that had happened since then. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
"In a way," Luna whispered, "it has been a lifetime. Moonbeam's lifetime." Suddenly, she found her legs could no longer support her, and she was curling up on the ground, sobbing. 'Why am I crying?' she thought. And then it hit her. She was mourning. Mourning what was to be the end of everything that she had come to know over the past weeks. 'It could end up better. It may result in something worse. But while it lasted, it was fun.'
'I just wish it didn't have to end.'
Luna lost track of time, but knew that as long as she got home before the sun started to sink below the horizon, she would be fine. So she just rested there for a while, crying until no more tears came. Finally, a rumble in her stomach let her know she was getting hungry, and she picked herself up from the grass and headed home. After eating, she took a long bath, doing her best to get rid of any signs of her earlier breakdown. Looking outside, she saw that there was maybe an hour left until sunset. She decided it was late enough, and started to get everything ready.
First, she drug her telescope out onto the deck, and set it up roughly where the moon would be in a short while. Next, she went and got the plate of snacks she had prepared and placed them on her table. Then, she went and got her pouch with the moonstone in it, and placed it on the pillow of her bed. 'I'll just have to make sure Feather Down doesn't break my spell early,' Luna thought to herself, a small chuckle escaping from her throat at the thought.
Finally, she ran out of things to do. She walked out onto her deck and watched the sun set, glancing constantly at the road below, looking for her friends. Time dragged on, and doubts started to fill her. 'I don't have to reveal myself,' she thought to herself. 'There are other ways I could do this! I could say I had a family emergency come up, and leave town and break the spell when nopony is close by. Then they'll never have to know!'
As soon as she finished the thought, she knew that wasn't what she wanted. 'No. After everything they've done, I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror without despising myself. After all the risks they took on me, for me to just run away, without even saying goodbye?' Her train of though was interrupted from a holler down below. Turning, she saw that her friends had finally arrived. "One second!" Luna called down to them as they turned off the road to approach her front door.
Dashing downstairs, she got to the door before her friends did and held it open for them. "Thank you all for coming!" she said with enthusiasm that she didn't quite feel.
"We thank you for having us!" Pine Needle proclaimed.
"Yes, I've been looking forward to this ever since you told us about it," Dewdrop said. "I've never been to a moon party before, what exactly do we do?"
"Well, there really isn't anything official about this. It's something I've made up," Luna admitted. "But there are a few things that I thought of, so hopefully this won't be a complete flop."
"Moonbeam, don't stress yourself out," Haystack said. "Unless the moon somehow manages to disappear on us, I think we'll be entertained by what we do tonight."
"Well," Luna said, gesturing with a foreleg at the table, "first, help yourself. While you snack on those, I'll do my best to explain what we'll be doing in a short bit, after it gets dark enough to be able to view the moon properly." The other ponies all crowded around the table, and soon, they were all nibbling on various crackers and slices of fruit.
When everypony had their attention focused on her again, Luna started to speak. "First off, one thing I want all of you to understand through this is just how big the moon really is. Most ponies, when they look up into the night sky, the idea of what size the moon is never crosses their mind. If you were to ask them, they would most likely say that it is the size of an apple. Which is what it looks like in a way."
Luna started to walk around the room, getting into her explanation as she started using gestures to emphasize certain points. "But consider the mountains on the horizon all around us. They look no bigger than a house from far away, but we know that the closer we get, the taller they grow, until we find ourselves at their base, and having to lay on our back to be able to take in their towering heights without spraining our necks. Consider then, that while we can walk to those far off mountains, that no pegasus has ever been able to fly high enough to reach the moon. That's how far away it is. For it to still be visible in the sky as it is, it is literally its own world above us. I know you won't be able to really appreciate this until you see it through the telescope, but trust me, it's amazing when it finally sinks in just what you are looking at.
"There will be a couple of different features I will be pointing out to you that will help get this across. My personal favorites are what are called seas, or in the older languages that researchers and astronomers from long ago used, mares. It may be pronounced as mah-ray, but it is spelled just like a female pony, or a mare."
Feather Down raised a hoof. "So, there's water on the moon then? For there to be seas?"
Luna shook her head. "No. That was what they thought those dark areas on the moon were long ago, but once telescopes were developed, ponies could see that there wasn't any water on the moon. However, the name stuck around." Luna looked out through a window. The sun had set, and the sky was turning dark. "Okay, I think we can head on up when you're all done. I'll need a minute or so to get the telescope properly set for what I want to show you first, so please bear with me."
Her friends finished with their snacks, and they all headed up the stairs and then outside onto Luna's deck. The nights of practice that Luna had put in with the telescope were finally paying off. She was able to align it quickly, and without any fumbling. "First up, we'll be looking at one of the larger craters on the moon. Astronomers believe this was created when a falling star landed on the moon long ago, creating a giant impact. Pay attention to how high the crater wall goes up."
One by one, her friends all took their turn. And one by one, they all had to be almost forcibly pushed aside by the next in line, they became so enraptured by the sight. Finally, Luna was able to get Haystack to give up his spot at the telescope, and she started to adjust where it was aimed. "Next up," she said when her teeth weren't busy turning knobs on the telescope to change where it was aimed, "we will look at one of the mares I was talking about. This one has the name 'Mare Tranquillitatis', which in the ancient tongue means 'Sea of Tranquility'."
Haystack insisted they reverse their order from the last go around, and after they all agreed, he got to look first at the lunar sea. As before, ponies had to be almost dragged away from the telescope so the next could have a turn. Luna had been worried that this portion of the night would go by too quickly, but she was starting to realize that she could probably spend the entire night just changing where the telescope was pointing, and never have to reveal herself. Again, she forced such thoughts out of her head. 'I can't back out now!'
Over the next hour, she showcased a couple more craters and another mare. She could see that her friends, while still greatly enjoying themselves, were also starting to feel the effects of the late hour. 'This is it,' she thought, 'I need to do it now, before they get too tired to understand what I'm doing.' Suddenly, without warning, she felt herself starting to cry again.
"Moonbeam, what is wrong?" Pine Needle asked. "Those do not look like tears of joy."
Luna took a deep, ragged breath which quickly got everypony's attention focused on her. "I'm, I'm so happy you all enjoyed this part of the night. But, I have something…" she took another deep breath, trying to ignore the alarmed looks on the faces of her friends. "I have to tell you something, before it eats me away from inside!" She blurted out in one big rush.
Concern and worry showed on the faces of her friends, and Luna motioned for them to follow her into her bedroom. Once they were all inside, she looked at her bed and said, "I've been a terrible friend to all of you, and I'm so very, very sorry."
A silence hung in the room, and finally Dewdrop spoke up. "Hun, you're scaring us, talking like this. I don't know what you think you have to apologize for, but you have not been a terrible friend to us at all!"
"That's right!" Feather Down chimed in. "Please, tell us what's wrong, so we can help you, Moonbeam."
"That, that is the problem. My name isn't Moonbeam." Luna walked over to the bed, picked up the pouch with her teeth, and shook the moonstone onto the floor.
Seeing all her friends staring at her in complete confusion, she dropped the bag to one side and bowed her head deeply. "Dewdrop, the pony you found all those weeks ago on the edge of town, was not the pony who was there even minutes before. Moonbeam has been a cover, a disguise…" Another deep breath filled the silence. "It has all been a lie," she whispered.
Finally, Pine Needle broke the silence. "I can not even pretend to understand what you are saying. What do you mean, disguise?"
"I cast a spell. A disguise spell."
"Wait a minute," Dewdrop interrupted. "Earth ponies can't cast spells!"
"I'm not an earth pony," Luna whispered. "I'm not Moonbeam. I really am…" She raised her hoof above the moonstone. After a brief wait, a short delay not so much born of hesitation but of savoring what she had been for one last instance, she brought her hoof down onto the moonstone, shattering it with a stomp.
From underneath Luna's hoof, light erupted, filling the room with a dazzling array of streams of light. Luna again found herself being lifted off of the ground, but instead of experiencing pain, she felt joy and comfort. She could feel her wings and horn slowly reappear, and only then did she truly understand just how incomplete she had felt without them. She looked around the room, and saw her friends all staring at her, mouths wide open, eyes filled with shock and awe. Her coat and cutie mark returned to their proper shades and shape, and then Luna felt something else start to enter her. 'It must be my magic returning,' she thought.
Suddenly, a giant boom shook her house. The light exploded from her, leaving Luna to collapse to the ground like an overripe apple finally becoming too heavy for its stem. The windows were blown out, turning into small clouds of shattered glass to fall onto the lawn outside. Her friends were picked up by the wave of force and slammed into the walls, hard.
Luna got to her feet shakily, staring in horror at how the spell had finished. Her friends were all splayed out on the floor, moaning in pain. Her bed had even been tossed onto its side. 'No!' she thought, 'It wasn't supposed to hurt them like this! This shouldn't have happened! Why? Why?'
In her head, another voice replied, 'They will hate you for this.'
"No." Luna protested softly, as the other ponies groaned and slowly tried to get upright.
'Yes,' replied the other voice. 'Look in their eyes. I see shock. Fear. Pain.'
Luna moaned in despair. Indeed, the eyes of her friends were wide open, full of shock, unable to focus on anything but her.
'Run,' said the voice. 'Run now, before they turn on you out of fear. You don't want to hurt them anymore, do you?'
Luna, eyes filled with tears, did as the voice told her, and fled down the stairs and out the door. Blindly, she felt herself being gently guided away from town, and let herself be taken away from the disaster she had caused.
Back in the house, Feather Down was the first to regain her senses enough to ask out loud, "What just happened? Was that really Princess Luna?"
"Princess Luna?" Haystack asked groggily. "Are you sure?"
"It had to have been," Dewdrop replied. "Even if I hadn't seen her at the Summer Sun Celebration a couple of months ago, just the fact that she had both wings and a horn narrows the options down to two. And that wasn't Princess Celestia."
Haystack nodded slowly in agreement. "Okay then, so one of the two royal princesses was somehow Moonbeam? I mean, I guess there is no denying it, but I just can't grasp it at all!" He looked around at the others. "What are we even supposed to do about this?"
Pine Needle finally stood up, the last to do so, and looked around. "We need to go after her. That's what we do." The others turned to look at him. "Only one pony can explain to us why Princess Luna did what she did, and I would like to hear it from her own mouth. It was obvious she was hurting." He looked each of the others in the eye. "She is our friend. To not do at least that much for her would be criminal." The others all nodded slowly in agreement.
Dewdrop stepped forward. "Okay then. Haystack, quick, get in the sky, try to track her down from above. She left on hoof, and not on wing. I don't know why, but that gives us a chance to catch up to her. We'll follow behind." Haystack ran out onto the deck and took off, while the others ran down the stairs and out the front door, hoping to be able to somehow track down and catch the fleeing princess.
In Canterlot, Celestia was just about to turn in for the night when she felt the spell on Luna break. She quickly headed over to her desk and, using her magic, wrote a letter. 'Twilight Sparkle, it seems that Luna has finally decided to break the disguise spell. Could you please go over to her house and make sure that she is all right? Thank you very much, Princess Celestia.' She sent the scroll away with a spell and waited for a reply. A minute later, another scroll appeared in front of her. With her horn glowing, she opened it up and read it out loud to herself.
"Princess Celestia, I am happy to hear that princess Luna has finally decided to stop hiding behind that terrible spell. However, since me and my friends are currently on our way to Appleloosa to deliver an apple tree, and won't be arriving until the day after tomorrow, I am unable to check in on how Princess Luna is doing…" Celestia stared at the letter for a short while, then let it drop to the floor. She suddenly recalled Twilight mentioning something about a trip to the frontier village in her previous letter, but hadn't paid it much attention. Finally, her shock wore off, and she galloped out of her room.
"Guards! To me!" Two armored pegasi stallions quickly arrived in front of her. "With all haste, get a cloud chariot, and follow me to Ponyville! I don't know what awaits us there, but prepare for the worst. I will go on ahead." Without even waiting to see if they understood, Celestia rushed to the nearest open window and dove through it, taking wing and flying towards Ponyville as fast as she could.
'Hold tight sister, I'm coming as fast as I can!'
After waking up, her first thought had been, 'I'm still alive?' The end had seemed inescapable, in the form of a prismatic whirlwind bearing down on her. It had enveloped her, blinded her with its literal rainbow of colors. And then, only blackness. No, less than that. Emptiness.
But she had woken up, and it looked like she was right back where she had been for the last thousand years. The moon, in all of its barren glory. 'So, is it another millennium here for me then?' she thought, despair overwhelming her in her failure. At that point, she had wanted to simply lie down, and never move again. Her plan had worked perfectly! Her sister, Celestia, had been removed from the equation with no problem. Her freedom had been gained. And still, the Elements of Harmony had somehow been there, waiting to banish her again.
What was an incarnation of darkness to do?
To her amazement, however, a sliver of hope appeared. However strong those little ponies Celestia had rounded up to be her surrogate Elements of Harmony had been, they had lacked experience in using that power. While they had been able to dispatch her with ease, the seal they had left on her imprisonment was weak, and full of holes for her to exploit. In a matter of a few weeks, she was already able to reach across the void and influence things from afar. Small things, such as making matters hard for Luna. Keeping her off balance by speaking to her in her dreams, and creating a a sense of unease in those around her when Celestia wasn't close enough to notice.
That was what irked Nightmare Moon the most. That somehow, while she was banished away, the other part of her, the fragment that really had no business being out and about, was free to do what she wanted. That simpering and bashful little waif! If the positions were reversed, Nightmare Moon had no doubt she would be in charge of Equestria by now, and her other half would still be crying, coming close to flooding a crater with her tears most likely.
Finally, she had been able to take advantage of the gift dropped into her saddlebags. She had maneuvered Luna into making an grievous error. She kept on filling her head with dark thoughts, manipulating her. It wouldn't be long now, until Nightmare Moon would be able to force her way back into control again. This time, she knew what to do, and how to stop those Elements of Harmony.
This time, she was going to win!
Dewdrop, Pine Needle, and Feather Down ran through the outskirts of Ponyville, doing their best to keep Haystack in view above them. The late hour both helped and hindered them. With it bedtime for most of the inhabitants of town, there were no other ponies on the roads and paths to get in their way. However, the night sky made it harder to see their pegasus friend. If the moon hadn't been full in the sky, their pursuit would likely have been doomed from the start.
Soon, they found themselves leaving Ponyville behind, and the flora around them grew thicker. Finally, they reached a bridge, and the road beyond it quickly degenerated into nothing more than a rough outline of a trail. Despite their urgency to keep pushing forward, they found themselves stopping. In front of them stood the Everfree Forest, a land where things simply worked differently. Where instead of rabbits and birds, creatures fantastic and often carnivorous lived. Haystack came swooping back after seeing them pull up short, and landed next to them.
"We're closing the gap, but whatever progress we've made we're letting slip away right now," Haystack said, taking the chance to catch his breath.
Dewdrop grimaced. "I know, I know. It's just… I've heard stories about this place. And none of them the happy kind either."
Pine Needle shifted his balance back and forth, from one hoof to another. "I don't like it. It feels different. Nothing at all like your farm, or the rest of Ponyville for that matter."
Feather Down let out a scream of frustration. "No! I'm not going to stop here, not after coming this far. If we were going to stop the moment it got difficult, we should never have started out in the first place." With that, she dashed off into the woods.
Haystack looked at his other two friends. "I won't blame you if you stay behind."
Dewdrop shook her head. "No. I'm going. I just needed to gather myself. Feather Down is right."
Pine Needle nodded in agreement. As one, they took off, galloping into the forest, and Haystack flew back into the sky.
A short ways in, Feather Down rejoined her two friends on the ground, relief plain on her face. "Oh, thank the sun and the moon you guys came. I don't know how far in I could have gone by myself. Especially during the night, it just seems ten times scarier in the dark. I'm sorry I yelled at you like that!"
"That's all right, hun," Dewdrop said. "We needed it to keep us going."
Despite their fears, the biggest danger they faced over the next hour was losing their way. The thick canopy above made it hard to keep Haystack in sight, and the ill defined path made it difficult for the ponies to keep going in the right direction. Occasionally, Haystack had to return to the group to have them backtrack and take a different branch than the one they were following. Eventually the path became more of a regular road again, arriving at a rope bridge that stretched across a cavernous gap, shrouded in fog. Haystack flew across first, checking to make sure that there were no gaps in the bridge that couldn't be seen from the edge, and then, one by one, they crossed to see a large stone ruin up ahead. The moon was high in the sky now, and illuminated the area with an eerie white light.
"She went in there a while ago," Haystack said once they were all together on the far side of the chasm. As one, the walked forward to the keep.
Nightmare Moon looked around. She had managed to drag Luna all the way out here, and had the alicorn curled up in a ball in the room where she had been brought down before by the Elements of Harmony. Extending her senses, Nightmare Moon could feel the strands of power that had been torn from her, that had been stolen from the magnificent body she had once had. Without it, she had been forced to assume the form of the younger shape the body was currently in. She had started to slowly gather in the threads and weave them back together when she felt the presence of others enter the abandoned keep.
She left Luna alone for a moment, trusting that the princess wouldn't fully escape from her influence right away. Using the small dregs of power she had already reclaimed, she flew as a near invisible spirit to investigate. Doubts began to fill her head; had Celestia actually anticipated this happening? Were the Elements of Harmony already here?
Nightmare Moon struggled not to break out in relieved laughter when she saw who the trespassers were. 'It's only Luna's friends! Nothing for me to worry about at all. I doubt they'll even be able to get past this!' Using the limited magic she had at her disposal, she shattered the rusted remains of a lock that had been holding a portcullis up for hundreds of years. With a loud crash, the pitted, vine wrapped gate dropped, blocking the entrance to the inner keep from the outside. 'That should stop them, or at least keep those feeble foals busy long enough for me to finish my work.'
Luna's friends slowly proceeded into the outer courtyard of the ruins. The loud crashing sound a moment ago had brought them all up short, and they were now advancing slowly, watching for one of the feared creatures of the Everfree Forest to suddenly show itself. Haystack frowned when he saw the lowered portcullis. "That wasn't lowered before. I know I saw Luna run up through that gate before I turned back to meet up with you guys again. That has to be what we just heard."
The ponies walked up to the portcullis and peered through. Dewdrop frowned. "I only see one set of hoofprints, and they go upward. This doesn't add up. If Luna had closed the gate on her way through, it should have been lowered a while ago, not just now." She turned to Haystack. "Are there any other ways into this place?"
"I don't know. Let me check." Haystack took off, flying around the keep and quickly out of sight. Feather Down tried sticking her head through one of the gaps in the portcullis, but could only stick the front part of her muzzle through one of the small gaps. She then tried pushing up on it with her forelegs, but saw no discernible effect for her efforts. Pine Needle kept a watch over the area, and Dewdrop peered through the gate.
"You know," Dewdrop muttered, "I think I can see how this is supposed to work. That chain there is connected to the gate," she pointed with a hoof to Feather Down, who had given up on trying to lift the portcullis by herself, "and it then runs over there, to that pulley, and down to the crank. That's how it's raised."
Feather Down nodded. "I think you're right. Look on the ground over by the crank there, something is broken, although I can't make out what it is." Haystack returned from his scouting, cutting short their discussion.
"It's no good. The only other ways in that I could see were some windows. I could get in, but that still leaves all of you out here."
Feather Down pointed at the crank. "Any way you can get to that and turn it? We think that will open the gate."
Haystack took off, and landed again shortly. "There's no way to get into that room directly. I could try another way in, and try to work my way back to here, but…" Haystack looked uncomfortable at the thought. "There's something else. When I was flying around, I saw some flashes of light from near the top of the keep. Something is happening up there."
"Stand back." Dewdrop walked up next to the gate. "Let's see if all that practice I got at the harvest will pay off." Taking a few moments to focus her magic, Dewdrop focused on the crank, and a ray of magic flew from her horn and through the portcullis. The crank glowed briefly, but other than that there was no visible effect from Dewdrop's magic.
Haystack spoke up. "Look, I'll go find another way in, work my way back here, maybe with my help, we can…"
"No," Dewdrop interrupted. "You said something is happening. We might not have time. I know I can do this!" Dewdrop turned to face the crank again, and built up as much power as she could before unleashing it upon the crank. This time, she kept on pushing past the first moment of nothing happening, and just when it looked like she was about to collapse, the gate shook, and slowly crept up a couple of inches.
"Yes!" Pine Needle cheered. "Quick, everypony help!" Putting action to his words, Pine Needle quickly got his nose under the bottom rung of the gate and did his best to help lift it up. Soon, Feather Down and Haystack were aiding too, and the gate climbed over a foot off the ground. Feather Down dropped onto her belly, shimmied under the portcullis, and ran to the crank where she added her strength to turning it. Soon, the portcullis was a couple of feet off the ground.
Pine Needle looked at Haystack. "How do we get Dewdrop through?"
"I'll take care of that. Help Feather Down with the crank, try to keep it from winding back down as long as you can." Pine Needle did as instructed, and Haystack turned to Dewdrop. "Just a few more seconds! Hold on!"
Taking to the air, Haystack flew out, and then circled back in towards Dewdrop, building up as much speed as he could. Crashing into her, he knocked the pair of them under the gate. Doing so disrupted Dewdrop's concentration, but Feather Down and Pine Needle were able to halt the movement of the crank long enough to allow their friends to tumble under the iron barrier before it came crashing down again behind them.
Dewdrop moaned in pain. "I don't suppose you could have found an easier, less painful way to do that?" she asked as she slowly stood back up.
Haystack gave her a sheepish grin. "It was the only thing that came to my mind at the moment. I'm sorry." He turned to look at the portcullis, once again closed. "Well, there's no turning back now. Let's head on up and try to find Luna."
Nightmare Moon continued to slowly gather strands of power. It was a slow and tedious process, made even longer by having to keep Luna under her hoof. The stupid mare just wouldn't be content to let her do as she please! She kept trying to ask where she was, and what she was doing here. It was becoming a hassle to have to keep on reminding her of all of the wrongs she had committed. Still, the fact that she was being given the time to do so, to keep rubbing salt in the wounds, so to speak, of the depressed princess meant she really had all the time she needed at this point. After a wait of over a thousand years, a few more minutes didn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.
Her train of thought was brought to a stop when she heard a crashing sound come from down below. Checking to make sure that Luna wasn't about to go anywhere, Nightmare Moon flew back down through several passageways to see what was going on. Now a small cloud of dark energy, she had to be careful to avoid being seen by others. She still had no problem stealthily looking down at the courtyard from above to see that Luna's friends had somehow gotten through the gateway.
"I tried to be nice to them, I really did," she muttered as she retreated a short ways. "I figured I owed them that much for making it possible for me to do this. But no! They just won't leave well enough alone." She flew most of the ways back to where Luna was, stopping in a chamber just a flight of stairs down from where she was doing her work.
"I might not have the magical strength yet to create a real monster to defeat them," she said as she spent some of the energy she had collected to cast a spell, "but all I need is time. This illusion should keep them from moving forward until I'm strong enough to take care of them personally, once and for all."
A dark flash of magical energy lit the room, and a large, bipedal form appeared, dominating the area next to the stairs leading up. It had a tan, chitinous covering, and a face that looked like it belonged on an insect. At the end of its massive arms were two giant, crab like pincers. From its back several dark tendrils of energy waved menacingly. With a loud bellow, the hulking form flexed and then planted its feet, staring at the far side of the room. Nightmare Moon nodded in approval. "That should do the trick. And now, back to work!" She flew back to where Luna was, and seeing her start to stir, Nightmare Moon once again swooped in to torment her. 'Can't have her leaving now, not when I'm so close to success!'
Princess Celestia glided around the house where Luna had lived for the past month. All of the second story windows had been destroyed, and now laid as patches of broken glass on the lawn surrounding the building. Spying the front door ajar, she landed and walked in. Glancing around the sparsely furnished room, she saw a mostly empty plate of snacks sitting on the lone table on the bottom floor. A quick glance inside the kitchen revealed nothing out of the ordinary, and so she climbed the stairs. On the upper floor, she saw that the bedroom was a mess, despite having so little in it. A bed had been tossed onto its side and leaned against a wall, and the walls showed several small indentations in them. She poked her head into the bathroom, and seeing no clues to anypony's whereabouts, opened the closet. Inside, she found a set of saddlebags, and the spellbook Teakettle's Tome of Transformations.
Celestia paused, the sight of the tome a minor shock. This was the book that had put everything into motion, that had enabled Luna to leave Canterlot and embark of this journey. Seeing the mess it had now made, she wished that she had taken Luna back home when she had first discovered where she was staying. 'I could have prevented this,' she thought, trying to keep up a stoic front as her stomach wrenched in guilt. 'I should have prevented this.'
Somberly, she resumed her search. Poking her head outside, she saw a telescope lying on its side. No clues at all. She wasn't sure what she would find, if anything, but she had been hoping that Luna would still be in the area. Instead, she was at a dead end. The best she could do would be to search the area, and hope to stumble upon her sister. 'Where would she go though?' Celestia wondered as she headed back downstairs. 'Does she even have a destination in mind? For all I know, she might have gone back to Canterlot, and I'm just wasting my time here.'
Outside, she watched the two pegasus guards land with a cloud chariot outside on the road. She was impressed by how quickly they had gotten the conveyance hitched up and then followed after her. They stood at attention, and awaited her orders.
Celestia went out to meet them. "I don't know where Luna is. She was here a short while ago, but has since left. Leave the chariot here for now. We'll spread out and try to find her. Please try to avoid waking or troubling any of the residents if you can. I don't want to alarm them. If anyone sees something, fly up high and the head back here as fast as you can, and circle tightly. That will be the signal for us to regroup here, and then decide on a course of action." She sighed. "I wish I had a better plan."
The pegasi guards saluted her, and they all flew away, slowly fanning out and scanning the area for any signs of the other princess.
What had started out as randomly searching through the ruins for a way up was soon made easier by flashes of light erupting from elsewhere in the keep. Without a plan, Luna's friends followed the display until they came to a set of stairs that led upwards. Climbing to the top, they came to a large chamber with several other doors down the sides. On the far end, they saw another set of stairs heading up, from which the flashes seemed to emanating. They were brought up short when they saw that their way was blocked by some sort of monstrosity.
On the far side of the room, the hulking beast roared loudly, and brought its two pincer like claws together with a loud crash. Tentacles from its back waved fearsomely and slowly around it, making it seem even bigger than it already was. The only solace the ponies had was the fact that the thing seemed more than comfortable just standing where it was.
"So, what is that thing? A guard?" Feather Down asked, trying to break the uncomfortable silence that had settled over their group.
"That's what it looks like to me," Haystack replied. "Whatever it is. What do we do? None of us are the fighting type, I can't see us battling it out with it."
Dewdrop shook her head. "Luna is pulling out all of the stops to keep us away, isn't she? This is so frustrating"
"I'm not turning back." Feather Down said, staring at the creature, who in turn simply looked impassively at the group conferring across the room from it. "Look, its just one thing, right? There's four of us. We just need to split up, get it to chase one of us. Then the rest of us can get past it and ask Luna to call it off. Shoot, if one of us can do that, get past it and up to Luna, that would be enough. I can't believe that she wants to hurt us, even now. She probably doesn't know we're here is all, and is afraid of... well I don't know what, but something else."
"Let's try all shouting then," Haystack suggested. "If she hears us, and knows we're here, maybe she'll tell that thing to stand down?"
They all lined up and started hollering. "Luna! It's us! Your friends! Let us up! We just want to talk!"
Upstairs, Luna was still curled up in a ball on a small dais near the far end of the room. Nightmare Moon hovered around her, slowly becoming more and more visible and whole. Hearing the voices of her friends, Luna slowly opened her eyes, and peered around. Seeing her interest, Nightmare Moon flew down. "They are angry at you," she whispered into Luna's ear. "They want to yell at you, accuse you of being a terrible friend. All they want to do is tell you off, and then leave, feeling better about themselves for doing so. I've put up a barrier to keep them from getting here, so just ignore them. Don't worry, I'll make sure they don't bother you. I'll take care of you. Just lay back down, and get some rest. You're tired, after all. I'll watch out for you."
The hypnotic words lulled Luna, and she put her head back down and closed her eyes again.
Down below, after a few minutes, her friends gave up yelling. "Either we're not loud enough, or she's ignoring us." Dewdrop said.
"So, let's try getting past that thing, make her respond to us!" Feather Down said, her frustration at the situation starting to show on her face. "Haystack, you go high and approach it from the left, I'll come in from the right. Dewdrop, toss a rock or two at that thing with your magic, try to distract it some."
"What about me?" Pine Needle asked.
"I don't know," Feather Down admitted. "Keep an eye open, we may need you to pull our cutie marks out of the fire. Or maybe an opening will show up for you to get through. Just be ready, I guess?" Seeing Pine Needle nod, she turned to Haystack. "Let's go!"
Haystack took to the air, a good ten feet up in the cavernous room they were in, as Feather Down dashed off to the side. The creature, which had been content to stand there and let them deliberate, suddenly let out a roar. The tentacles on his back became agitated, swaying about with increased activity. Without moving from where it stood, it swung its tentacles at Haystack, while at the same time sweeping one of it pincers in a wide arc close to the ground in an effort to slam Feather Down. Haystack managed to pull up short, out of the reach of the tentacles. Feather Down however had to throw herself to one side to avoid being clobbered, and in the process tripped on a piece of debris and tumbled into the far wall.
Pine Needle ran forward to check on Feather Down, and a couple of rocks launched by Dewdrop filled the gap between the monster and her fallen friend. Still, the creature didn't seem to be interested in pursuing the fallen earth pony, and kept its guard on the stairs heading up. Haystack tried swooping in from several different angles, but the tentacles always filled in any gaps before he could even get close enough to risk dashing through.
Feather Down finally got back on her hooves, and shook her head to clear it. "I'm okay!" she yelled at Pine Needle, who had been unsure on how to get close enough to help her without getting in reach of the monster. "Dewdrop, aim at the thing's head!" Haystack continued his efforts as Dewdrop flung a few rocks at the creature's face. In response, the beast simply dodged the hurled projectiles, maintaining it position. Haystack found himself a little too close, and had to dive to the side quickly as a tentacle almost clipped him. Forced to land, he retreated back to where Pine Needle stood. Feather Down ran back to the others as Dewdrop came up.
"I'm running out of rocks," Dewdrop said. "And ideas, for that matter."
"One more try then," Feather Down said. "We need to be able to make it move!"
Again, Haystack and Feather Down charged from differing heights and sides, and Dewdrop flung more stones at the beast. Once more, the ponies found their paths easily blocked. Dewdrop threw several rocks at once, and made the beast duck down as several almost hit it in the head. Seeing a chance, Haystack flew forward, but the tentacles were too fast. Pulling hard to the side, Haystack found himself barreling into a wall to avoid being entangled by the wicked looking appendages.
Pine Needle frowned. "Something isn't right," he muttered.
"How so, hun?" Dewdrop asked gathering together a few more stones with her magic for another barrage.
"If it's so big and strong, why is it dodging those small rooks you toss at it? Why does it always miss when it swings at them? It seems fast enough it should be able to connect."
Dewdrop glared at Pine Needle. "Let's not be wishing ill fortune on our friends, okay?"
Pine Needle growled. "That is not what I meant, and you know it. That thing looks like it could take on and defeat all of us without any effort, and yet it is okay with just keeping us at bay? And why here, and not say at the top of the last stairs we just came up? Wouldn't that be a better position for it to defend from?"
Dewdrop shook her head. "I don't know what to tell you except to be thankful? We need to get a feeling for how it acts, find a way past it somehow!" She flung several more stones at it, forcing the creature to twist to one side to let the rocks pass it.
With a thoughtful look at Dewdrop, Pine Needle nodded. "You may be on to something." With that, he closed his eyes.
"Um, hun, now isn't the best of times to be pulling a Feather Down impersonation!" Dewdrop said, trying to hit the creature but only to watch as it dodged or ducked from her attacks.
Pine Needle ignored her, and tried to calm himself. It took a lot of effort to ignore the instructions being yelled back and forth between his friends, and the danger of the situation. He managed to do so, and soon he found himself centered enough to reach out with his earth pony magic and try to feel what was around him. Right away, he felt where Dewdrop was standing, just off to his side. Further ahead, he could sense Feather Down, moving about here and there. Briefly, Haystack landed on the ground, leaving a quick ripple, like a frog jumping into a pond.
He then reached out as far as he could go. At his limit, at the edge of what he could perceive, he felt something else without actually seeing it, in the same manner that the light of the sun brightens the morning sky even before it breaks the horizon. 'That must be Luna, by how strong it is,' he thought, scanning around, trying to pick up signs of anything else.
But he felt nothing but his friends.
Opening his eyes, he bent his head down, scraped a hoof on the ground, and charged straight at the beast, yelling incoherently. Haystack stared in surprise at his friend's sudden suicidal action. "Pine Needle! NO!" he yelled, trying to swoop in to stop him, but unable to because of of a tentacle placing itself between him and his friend. Feather Down and Dewdrop just stared at Pine Needle in shock. The beast raised its pincers above its head and swung them down at him, right on target, ready to cave the charging pony's head in.
Only to have them pass right through him, followed by Pine Needle leaping straight through the creature's chest. A roar of frustration came from the monster, and Pine Needle stopped on the bottom of the stairs heading up. Turning around and looking back he said, "It is not real. I could not sense any life coming from it at all. Close your eyes if you have to, but come on. It can do nothing to stop us other than to scare us from moving forward." Seeing that his friends were still stunned, he walked back through the illusion again, and gently started pushing Dewdrop towards the stairs up.
"Okay, okay!" Dewdrop protested, finally walking forward herself. She flinched when she saw the monster take a swipe at her, but when the pincer passed harmlessly through her, she straightened up. "Well, how about that! How did you know?"
Pine Needle gave a small shrug. "Like I told you before, it just didn't seem right, the way that it was acting. And then you told me to get a feel for what it was doing, which gave me the idea to try using mine magic. I could sense all of us, but nothing from it." He smiled. "Luna is up ahead." As a group, the ponies walked up the final set of stairs.
Upon reaching the top, they were brought to a halt by a sight that was hard to comprehend. At the far end of the smaller room, on a raised area of the floor, Luna laid on the ground, eyes closed and motionless. All around her, a dark, menacing aura swirled, clinging and wrapping itself around her. A hiss of aggravation emanated from the miasma, and it then formed itself into the shape of a tall mare, dark as the night. Lightning flashed around Luna and lit the night sky, which could be seen through a large hole in roof. The full moon was starting to peek in from above.
"You meddlesome foals! Why did you persist in coming here? There is nothing you can do to stop me!" Nightmare Moon yelled at them, hoping to intimidate them.
The ponies cringed in fear at the apparition. Haystack fell to his knees, and whispered, "That, is that actually Nightmare Moon? They said she was defeated by the Elements of Harmony!"
Nightmare Moon laughed. "That's right, there is nothing that you friends" the word was spoken with such malice and disdain that it made them flinch, "can do for Luna. Soon, I will be whole again, and I can have my revenge on Princess Celestia and those Elements of Harmony. Leave now, and I won't go out of my way to make you suffer."
"Luna, wake up!" Dewdrop yelled, trying her best to ignore the histrionics of the evil mare. "What are you doing, just lying there? Get up and away from that… that thing!"
Luna slowly stirred, and opened her eyes enough to see who was speaking. Nightmare Moon lowered her head down next to Luna's. "See? Those no good, supposed friends of yours are here to taunt you. Tell them to go away."
"Why did you follow me?" Luna asked, softly and weakly. "All I ever did was hurt you, and take advantage of you." Nightmare Moon turned and grinned wickedly at the ponies.
"What are you talking about?" Haystack asked. "What do you mean, take advantage of us?"
Nightmare Moon cackled. "Oh, it's all so obvious. She took advantage of the mares when she first arrived to Ponyville, after all. Mooching off of them for shelter and succor. And you two stallions, using you as a mean to have a job. She never really cared about you all!"
"Lies!" Feather Down yelled.
"Ah, yes, lies." Nightmare Moon replied. "How many did she tell you? How often did she do so, just by answering to the name of Moonbeam, and not Luna? Think of how she hid behind a fake image, a false pretext. Was anything she said or did while you knew her the truth?"
The four ponies all fell silent for a moment. "You are correct, in that she did hide who she was," Pine Needle stated slowly. "But I know you are wrong on the premise that all she did was lie. I can not know what her reasons were, or why she did as she did. But to say that everything she did was false is something I can not believe."
"That's right!" Dewdrop said. "I would love to hear her story! I can't imagine, after how well I got to know her, that she did what she did for a frivolous or petty reason. And you ignore one huge fact. While we may have been led to believe she was a different pony on the outside, I know for certain that, after all we went through together, we got to know the pony on the inside very well. And that pony would never do as you claim!"
Hearing words spoke in her defense made Luna raise her head and start to cry. "But, I betrayed all of you! I was such a terrible friend, I don't deserve such kind words spoken about me. I hurt you all so much!"
Haystack took a step forward. "You hurt us, yes. We did feel betrayed some. But would we have come all this way if we didn't still care for you, and want to be your friend?"
"And what do you mean, a terrible friend?" Feather Down asked. "You were a great friend, a pony I considered to be one of my best friends of all!"
"All I did was take though…" Luna started, but was cut off angrily by Dewdrop.
"Nonsense! How were you taking from me, when in a time of crisis, I came to you for help at the inn? If all you were doing was taking, you wouldn't have helped me, let alone get the rest of our friends to chip in too!" Dewdrop stomped the ground hard. "Without your help, I would have been a complete mess, a wreck, a failure!"
Pine Needle stepped forward, next to Haystack. "So many other ponies are too quick to disregard anything I say, because they think I talk funny, or because I believe in some things that they do not. But you always took the time to listen, to help me out! At the welcoming party, you not only helped me stop making an idiot of myself, but took the effort to keep me away from Applejack so I wouldn't relapse into the love struck idiot I was behaving as!"
"And the Running of the Leaves!" Feather Down added. "If you hadn't convinced me to run, instead of just trying to avoid the whole situation, I would still be hiding from a mistake of my past! You gave me the confidence and the encouragement I needed to go and do my best! Because of you, I can now be proud about my running abilities, instead of trying to hide from an earlier embarrassment caused by them!"
"Like Dewdrop," Haystack said, "you saw how big of a bind I was in with getting the harvest in. If you hadn't found Pinkie Pie, I don't even think we would have been able to do even a small portion of what we did. With just the three of us, it would have simply been too much. You helped not only keep me in my house, and make the entire year before that not be a wasted effort on my part, you helped feed many ponies by what you did. Not only I, but the entire town of Ponyville owes you!"
"What we're saying," Dewdrop concluded, "is that for everything you may have gained from us, we easily gained back from you and then some. That's what friends do, help each other when they can. They share not only the good times, but also the bad times, to help each other shoulder the load and get past them. Were we startled and shocked to find out who you really are? Yes. But we're your friends, Luna! We want to help you through this!"
Luna felt tears streaming down her cheeks, but this time, they were not ones of sorrow. "Really? You don't hate me for what I did?" she asked, emotions choking her words.
"NO!" her friends replied in unison.
"Now get away from whatever it is that Nightmare Moon is doing to you!" Feather Down yelled.
Luna stood, and started to walk to her friends. "Not so fast!" Nightmare Moon yelled. She had stayed quiet during the previous conversation, doing her best to gather in as much energy as fast as she could. When Luna tried to walk away, Nightmare Moon pulled back, and kept her from leaving the raised part of the room. "All I need is just a little more time!" she yelled in frustration. As if to match her displeasure at the turn of events, the sky lit up with a furious volley of lightning, illuminating sky for miles around.
Back in Ponyville, the sudden surge of power did not go unnoticed. Princes Celestia and the guards quickly regrouped. "For there to be such storm like effects on a cloudless night like tonight, magic must be involved. Bring the chariot there, it may be needed yet. I'll go on ahead!" Pushing herself to the limit, Celestia flew to where the storm continued to erupt. As she drew closer, recognition crept in. 'I've been there before! That's where Luna was freed from being Nightmare Moon! It can't be a coincidence!' Every ounce of her will was channeled into flying as fast as she could.
Luna's friends leaped into action. As Nightmare Moon tried to literally drag Luna up and away, even against the struggles of the alicorn herself, Haystack flew up and wrapped his forelegs around Luna's neck, adding his weight to hers. Luna reached out and in turn grabbed Haystack. Feather Down jumped up next, grabbing Haystack's tail in her mouth as she tried to wrap her forelegs around Haystack hind legs. Pine Needle and Dewdrop didn't even need to jump at this point, instead simply grabbing Feather Down's tail with their teeth, and soon the chain of ponies had stopped Nightmare Moon's progress in stealing away the princess, and began to slowly pull her back towards the ground.
The struggle lasted for a couple of minutes, and Haystack feared he was starting to lose his grip when the five of them fell free even as Nightmare Moon let out a loud yell of anguish. Their momentum ended up having them all tumble back a ways, and they ended up in a giant pile in the middle of the room. Luna found herself hugging Haystack still, and she was laughing. "Thank you all! Thank you so much, I…" She found herself coming to a halt with her thanks as she saw that her friends weren't looking at her, but instead behind her and above.
Turning around, her mouth dropped open in horror as she saw Nightmare Moon still hovering in midair, surrounded by the glow of the full moon shining down from above. Nightmare Moon seemed to be as shocked as everyone else, but finally tilted her head back and laughed loudly. "Well, well, well, what do you know?" She cackled, staring down at the others. "I don't know how this happened, but I'll take it! Maybe I gathered enough energy, maybe it's something to do with this place and my earlier defeat at the hooves of the Elements of Harmony. It doesn't matter though, because I am finally my own mare!"
Luna and her friends slowly backed away. "What do we do?" whispered Dewdrop.
"You can die, that's what you can do!" Nightmare Moon yelled, dark energy coalescing at the end of her horn.
"NO!" yelled a voice from above. Everyone looked up to see princes Celestia streaking in as fast as she could, building up magical energy of her own. "You leave my sister alone!"
Nightmare Moon turned upwards, and shot her blast at the arriving alicorn. "Oh, how I've dreamed of doing this!" she said as her dark bolt of magic hammered into Celestia's side and sent her tumbling to the floor, where she bounced twice before sliding up against a wall. "Even better! I can kill both of you, claim all of your powers, and be the uncontested ruler of all of Equestria!"
Feather Down raced to stand between Celestia and Nightmare Moon. She stared defiantly at the evil alicorn, even though her legs were shaking in fear.
"Child, no!" Celestia choked out, trying to regain her strength. "She will destroy you without even noticing. Run! Find Twilight Sparkle, and tell her what has happened here!"
Nightmare Moon laughed. "Yes, where are your pet Elements of Harmony? Why aren't they here to stop me, hmm? Why, I do believe that you may have misplaced them!" Her jibes were cut off by a small rock flying up and bouncing off of her flank. Turning in amusement, she saw Dewdrop standing off to one side lifting another stone with her magic. "Really? Is that all you can do? Mildly annoy me? I think I will make your death a most unpleasant one for interrupting me!"
Haystack flew up and tried to kick her, but she ably dodged. "What is this?" she screeched, her amusement turning to annoyance. "Most ponies would just flee and try to save their lives!" She saw Pine Needle carrying more rocks over to Dewdrop. "What compels you do such suicidal acts? You know they can not have any effect on me!"
"They do so because I asked them to!" Luna cried out from below Nightmare Moon. The dark mare cursed, having forgotten about Luna in her glee at having knocked Celestia from the air. Energy was building up around Luna's horn, and the moonlight from above seemed to almost warp and bend to be gathered in by her. "I needed a chance to get into place, and they all risked their lives to help me out by distracting you." She smiled, and now it looked like a pillar of light was coming down, straight from the moon itself to land on Luna's horn. "They are the best friends I could ever hope for, and I will repay them for their bravery and their trust in me!" Nightmare Moon tried to flee, but seemed held in place, trapped in the silvery lunar light.
A massive column of light erupted from Luna's horn, slammed into Nightmare Moon and reached higher and higher, lifting the dark mare high into the sky. From afar, those few who happened to be looking up at that time saw the bolt of magical energy climb higher and higher, until it seemed to merge with the moon itself, a single pillar of light reaching from the moon to the ground below. Finally, it died away, blinking out, and the night sky returned to normal.
Luna, exhausted and spent, collapsed to the ground and fell on her side. Celestia and her friends all rushed to her, relieved to see that she was still awake, and not in pain. Pine Needle stared straight up, through the hole in the ceiling. "Do we need to be watching for when she falls back down?" he asked apprehensively.
"No," Luna whispered. "I sent her back to where we were before. She is trapped once again on the moon. I can no longer feel her in my head. I am free."
"How did you do that?" Dewdrop asked, her voice filled with awe.
"I'm not entirely sure," Luna admitted, slowly standing up. "It just felt right, using the lunar light like that."
Feather Down chuckled, and then broke out laughing. The others stared at her, wondering if she was all right as she finally was so overcome with her laughing fit she ended up on the ground rolling about. "What is so funny?" Celestia asked, a smile on her face from the antics of the pink earth pony.
"Don't you see?" Feather Down said, catching her breath for a moment. "She zapped Nightmare Moon with a moon beam! How fitting is that?"
The others all joined in the laughter for a bit, and finally wound down as the two pegaus guards brought the cloud chariot in through the hole in the roof. "Sorry, your Highness," one said. "We wanted to make sure it was okay to come through first, what with that light show and all."
"I fully understand, and I thank you for your caution." Celestia turned to Luna, who was surrounded by her friends again. "Luna, I'm sorry, but I think you need to come back to Canterlot with me. It will be too hard to explain why one of the royal sisters is living by herself in Ponyville."
Luna nodded slowly. "I know. I understand now, how hasty and foolish I was. It was wrong of me to go and do what I did without confiding in you. If there has been anypony I should have been able to trust, it was you. I'm so sorry for what I did, sister. Please forgive me!" She smiled when Celestia silently nodded at her. She turned to her friends. "I just hope that after all of this, we can still be friends. Please say that you will!"
"Of course we will hun." Dewdrop said. "We're going to miss you though. I just wish that we could still be with you like we were. Things just aren't going to be the same with you not around."
"You know," Celestia said, her head looking upward thoughtfully, "I can think of an easy way for all of you to keep in touch with each other..."
One week later...
"Dewdrop! Wake up! Wake up!"
Dewdrop slowly cracked her eyes open. She could see through the bedroom window that the first rays of the sun were barely peeking over the hills. "Who are you," she asked in a tired voice, "and what have you done with Feather Down?"
"I am Feather Down silly, and I'm telling you to wake up! I don't want us to be late, not today! Today's the day!"
"What do you mean, today…" finally, Dewdrop's mind woke up enough to register what was happening. "Oh my! Today!" Suddenly awake, she fell out of bed with a crash, and shook herself awake. "Time for breakfast and a quick bath, then off to the library!"
"I already took my bath!" Feather Down said. "I left the tub full for you! I'll get some food ready, you get clean!"
A short while later, the two roommates were finished with their morning routines, and were getting ready to leave their house. Dewdrop used her magic to levitate Feather Down's saddlebags onto her friend's back. "Are we forgetting anything?"
"Nope! Let's get going! I don't want to be late!" With that the two ponies left their home and headed on into town at a gallop.
At his house, Pine Needle was in a bind. He had a set of saddlebags of his own, but they looked overpacked, and he seemed unable to figure out how to get them onto his back without upsetting the contents. He approached it from various angles, and even tried crawling underneath the back strap, but just couldn't get himself low enough to the ground. He looked about ready to have a nervous breakdown when a voice from above called down. "Looks like you could use some help there!"
Pine Needle looked up, relief visible on his face. "Haystack! It is good to see you, mine friend! If you could assist me with getting these onto mine back, I will be ready to head into town with you!"
Haystack landed and grabbed the back strap of the saddlebags with his teeth. After visibly struggling to lift the bags off of the ground, he was able to get them high enough for Pine Needle to slip underneath them, and with a gasp Haystack let them drop onto his friend's back. "What do you have in there? Rocks?"
"Close! Ha ha, I will show you later, but for now we must make haste, or risk being late!"
Haystack nodded and the two headed off into Ponyville.
Twilight Sparkle stepped outside of the Ponyville library with a smile on her face. She and her friends had just returned from Appleloosa, successful in helping the ponies and the buffalo come to an agreement. She had just woke up an hour ago, but was now ready to head out for another day of travel. Looking into the sky, she saw arriving in the distance from Canterlot two cloud chariots being pulled by pegasi from the royal guards. "That's funny," she said to Spike, who had joined her outside, "where are the others? Oh! Here they come!" She saw Luna's friends come galloping up to her. "Hello, everypony!" Twilight said. "Are you ready to spend the day in Canterlot?"
"Oh, you can not know how excited I am by this!" Feather Down gushed. "To see the capital in person, to get to ride in a cloud chariot and actually enjoy the experience, and of course, to get to see Luna!"
Dewdrop chuckled. "She could barely sleep last night. Neither could I, to tell the truth. We haven't had the chance to see Luna since that crazy night, but at least we'll get to see her regularly from now on!"
"Indeed!" Pine Needle enthused. "For Princess Celestia to arrange this weekly get together for us, I am honored and amazed at such preferential treatment!"
"Are you coming to visit Luna too?" Haystack asked Twilight.
Twilight shook her head. "No, while you ponies entertain Luna and get caught up, I'll be keeping Celestia company. It's been quite a while since we've had the chance to be together, the two of us. I think she'll be a bit lonely too, to be honest. Her and Luna have been getting along really well since whatever happened. Celestia still won't talk to me about it, she just says to wait till we see each other face to face."
"I imagine it would be too much for her to share simply or effectively in a letter." Dewdrop said.
"So," Twilight asked, looking at the heavy load that Pine Needle was carrying. "What's in the bags?"
"Well, since we will only get to see Luna once a week, we thought we should bring her some souvenirs for when we are not there. I am bringing something that I value greatly." With that, he lifted up the flaps of one the bags with his teeth to reveal a pine sapling sitting in a bed of dirt. "It is the first one that has sprouted from my trees, it would make me the happiest pony alive to know that Princess Luna was taking care of it!"
Haystack chuckled. "His other bag has her copy of the city map that she was given when she moved here. I thought it would be nice for her to look at it and remember all the good times we had. Also, there is a small bag of the flour she helped mill, as a memento of the time we spent working together on the farm."
Dewdrop nodded. "I couldn't think of much, but I made sure to bring her telescope back with us, and I thought she might like a towel from the hotel. She carried enough of them around, I figure she should get to have one for herself." She turned to her roommate. "You never did tell me what you were giving her."
Feather Down blushed. "I'm giving her my race medal. I wouldn't have it without her anyways, and it isn't like I go around wearing it."
Finally, the cloud chariots landed in the area outside the library, and the ponies got on board. Pine Needle and Feather Down got in one, and Twilight Sparkle and Dewdrop got in the other. "I'll be more than happy to fly alongside to balance out the loads." Haystack said, and with that they all took off towards Canterlot as Spike waved goodbye to them.
The flight there was uneventful. Haystack smiled the whole way, and just a few minutes after leaving the ground, Pine Needle pointed out to his friends that Feather Down's early morning burst of energy had worn out, and she was now taking a nap. For his part, Pine Needle refused to look down over the side of the chariot, having learned previously that flying was something he did not enjoy, no matter how much the pegasi pulling the chariots assured him that he was perfectly safe.
Finally, the spires of Canterlot came into focus, and the chariots came in for a landing. Standing there in a courtyard, so excited that she couldn't stand still, Luna watched as her friends landed, and they all rushed together to meet in a group hug. Twilight watched them slowly wander off together, and them waited as Celestia walked over to her.
"Things are going better for her," Celestia said as she stood next to Twilight, watching Luna and her friends walk away. "She's more confident now, more sure of herself, and it shows. Ponies are less able to simply shrug her off, and she has a renewed optimism about everything she does."
"And how are you doing, Princess Celestia?" Twilight asked her mentor.
"Much better. We had a very long talk, and she has promised not only to never do what she did again, but to be more open in coming to me for help if she needs it. We still have a tough road ahead of us, but I think we're going to be okay. Now, how have your studies been coming along?" With that, Celestia and Twilight headed off in a different direction. Before heading inside, Celestia turned around one last time to take in the sight of her younger sister, laughing and playing with her friends.
Author's Notes -- FimFiction version
Hello, and thank you for reading all the way through! I've been asked been a couple of people why I only had my stories on fanfiction.net, and not here too, and after thinking about it some I couldn't come up with a good reason. So, I'll be steadily copying my stories over to this site one by one.
If you've read this story before, I'm sure you didn't notice any changes to the story itself, but that the spelling and grammar have greatly improved since I first wrote it in April of 2011. Thanks go to Robotech_Master for helping me out with that. Also, I've been fortunate enough that someone was willing to do a piece of fanart for my story. Done by Zonra, you can find it at http://www.furaffinity.net/view/5962328/
Thank you again for taking the time to read all the way through. Please don't hesitate to leave any feedback, positive or negative, that you may have. Until later, and may the magic of friendship be in all your lives as well!