Hammer Hoof stood at attention. His back was straight as he could make it, his head up with ears erect, his eyes forward. Not a sound escaped his lips. His body was so still he was certain that his old academy sergeant would have been able to build one of those ridiculous block structures he'd enjoyed creating right across his back without a single piece falling out of place.
Behind him stood one of the most secure doors in the entire kingdom, at least at the moment. It didn’t look like much, but he knew from experience that a pony couldn't always take things at face value in Equestria. Like the statue of Discord that had turned out to actually be the infamous draconequus. Or worse, the creature that had been impersonating Captain Armor’s now-wife at the wedding just two weeks earlier. He suppressed a shudder at the memory, his body still locked. That day had been a dark one for the Guard, even if things had turned out all right in the end.
It had also been a bit of an embarrassment, at least in hindsight. Despite being on high alert in preparation for the nameless threat, the changeling army’s invasion had caught them all by surprise. The Royal Guard had been hamstrung in the frantic opening minutes of the invasion by a series of crippling precision strikes. Amid the chaos at the time Hammer had assumed—like many—that the swarm had been attacking at random, simply seeking out large concentrations of ponies and subduing them. It wasn’t until later that he’d learned the attacks hadn’t been random at all, but carefully executed strikes specifically targeting lead or elite members of the Guard.
Like his old partner. Hammer’s eyes slid over to the pony currently standing at his side and then snapped back forward. It was still a bit odd to be serving with Cloudburst. The white pegasus was a lot quieter than Show Stopper had been. Although it was commonplace—and expected—that Guard serve and work with a variety of partners, he and Show Stopper had been working together for so long that it seemed strange to work next to anyone else.
Much like getting used to the Night Guard, Hammer thought as his eyes slid to the other side of the doorway. Two large, bat-winged pegasi stood there, still as statues. He still was in the dark along with most of the Guard about whether or not the strange new additions to the Night Guard were simply complex enchantments or a permanent change altogether. Star Shot probably knew, as she was the Captain of the Night Guard. But nopony had been able to get a straight answer from her regarding Princess Luna’s personal sentinels yet. Maybe they never would.
There was movement from down the hall, and he snapped his eyes to it, his body tensing as a servant approached and not relaxing again until she had passed them by. He almost hated how suspicious he was of the castle's staff while on duty; but since the events of the wedding, seeing ponies that he’d thought were comrades revealing themselves as black-carapaced impostors right in front of him ... This time his shoulders did quiver slightly. It was hard not to be suspicious of anypony after an event like that. He still had nightmares some nights.
His eyes slid towards one of the nearby hourglasses Luna had installed when she’d taken over this wing of the castle, searching for a distraction from his thoughts. Unless he’d missed one of the servants coming by and flipping it, it would be time for moon-rise soon, which meant that his shift was nearly over. He turned his eyes back towards the front, a worrying tingle of pain flaring in his stomach. Maybe Green Glade was right: this job, especially with what had happened in the last few weeks, was finally starting to get to him. Maybe he could use some of that vacation time he had stored up. Go on a trip with her and the kids. Maybe talk out his stress with a therapist.
Then again, he did love his job, recent narcosis aside. It wasn’t anypony in Equestria who had the honor of protecting Princess Celestia herself. The tingle in his stomach began to fade as his mind began to wander. What was going on behind those doors, inside Princess Luna’s study? Whatever it was, it had to be important. He’d felt the telltale tingle in his horn from multiple spells being cast as the Princess had entered the room; several sealed scrolls at her side. Not a sound had escaped since the door had been shut, a surefire sign that one of the spells had been a privacy ward.
He shifted his hooves, blood rushing back into his legs with faint pins and needles. Whatever it was that the Princesses deemed so important, he was there to protect it. And come Tartarus breaking free across Equestria, it was his duty to do so. No matter what, that fact would always make him proud.
Although ... sometimes he couldn’t help but wonder exactly what it was the Princesses were discussing behind such heavily warded doors.
“So then,” Celestia said, her grin barely contained, “she comes rushing to me to show me that she’s done it.”
“And you were in—”
“Holding the Day Court, yes,” Celestia said, smiling. “So Twilight rushes in, joyfully yelling that she’d 'done it' over and over and over again and completely derailing the little speech about his own birthday that Blueblood was giving.” The grin broke free as her sister let out a small snort.
“Oh, Tia, he must have been most furious!” Luna said, holding a hoof to her mouth.
“Wait, dear sister,” Celestia said, leaning forward. “It gets better. Twilight, being Twilight, didn’t even notice that she’d cut him off, nor that he was calling for her to remove her 'un-noble flank' from the court.” Luna’s face contorted in a brief exaggerated scowl, and Celestia laughed. “No, sister, he has not changed much over the years. Despite my many attempts.”
“The vain braggart,” Luna said, shaking her head in disgust. “I trust that this story includes some sort of comeuppance for our self-centered nephew?”
“Well,” Celestia said, ignoring her sister's question for the moment, “Twilight decides it’s not just enough to let me know that she’d finally succeeded at teleporting an inanimate object. She needs to show me...” She couldn't conceal her own reaction as her sister's eyes grew wide.
“She didn’t...” Luna breathed, jaw slightly agape. “Did she?”
Celestia nodded. “She decided to try and teleport the first thing that she saw. Which was—of course—the horribly tacky blue-and-pink monstrosity of a cake that Blueblood had brought in honor of his birthday. And prodigy or not, the predictable happened.”
“It exploded?” Luna asked in hope, the corners of her mouth turning upward.
“Ker-splat!” Celestia said, throwing her front hooves up. “All over Blueblood and his entire noble entourage!” Her voice shook as she fought to speak through her giggles. “And the rest of the court! Even I had some pink icing on me.”
“What—what did you do?” Luna asked between titters.
“Well,” Celestia said,“it was quiet enough that you could almost hear Blueblood’s self-control breaking. Here it is, his fifteenth birthday and he’s absolutely plastered in pink-and-blue icing—” Luna began giggling again, “—along with most of his friends. So, very carefully, I get Twilight’s attention, because she’s still staring at the remains of the cake with her jaw open—partially I think because she was almost as covered in it as Blueblood was.” Luna was rolling on her back now, her front legs kicking at the air, her wings knocking over the unopened rolls of parchment they'd brought in with them.
“So I get Twilight’s attention,” Celestia said, trying to keep her sister’s fun from breaking her flow, “and she starts to follow me out of the court with this wide-eyed look of panic on her face.” Celestia stopped, letting out her own snicker before continuing. “I had almost made it out of the hall when one of the nobles broke.”
Luna stopped laughing, looking up at her with the expression of a foal who’d just been told she could eat all her Nightmare Night candy. “You didn’t?” Her eyes grew even wider as Celestia nodded, squeezing her eyes shut as her grin grew out of control. “You did?” It was apparently too much to take for Luna, as she threw herself back on her study floor, howling with laughter and beating one hoof against the thick blue carpet. “You did!”
“I couldn’t help it!” Celestia said, her cheeks red. “One giggle from the nobles and it all came out! I broke down laughing right then and there! The perfect picture of a Princess: laughing so hard at Blueblood’s cake encrusted mane I couldn’t stand! And—and then—As soon as I lost it the entire hall started laughing, and ... Poor Twilight, she didn’t know whether she should be laughing or crying so she’s—she’s—” Celestia did her best impression of her student's panicked expression, Luna laughing harder as her sister flailed her limbs around, her eyes wide in mock terror.
“And of course—of course Blueblood saw the entire thing as a joke at his expense,” Celestia said. “The look of horror on his face as all the nobles broke down laughing—he just couldn’t take it!” For a moment she felt a pang of sadness for her stubborn “nephew,” souring her mirth somewhat. “Even wearing his own birthday cake like one of those gaudy suits, he couldn't see the humor in the situation,” she said, her voice tone mellowing slightly.
“We cannot change everyone, Tia,” Luna said, sitting up, her mirth abated somewhat. “Maybe our wayward relation simply needs more time. Until then however,” she said with a mischievous grin, “I at the very least shall enjoy the mental image of our uptight and obstinate young relation covered head-to-hoof in pink-and-blue frosting.” The midnight blue alicorn began laughing once more, Celestia joining in at the thought of Prince Blueblood’s crushed expression.
The two sisters continued for a few minutes, occasionally slowing, looking at one another, and bursting into laughter. Finally, after what had been so long that Celestia could feel her sides aching, the two began to quiet down. At some point they had both fallen to the floor, and Celestia rolled herself onto her side, looking over at her sister.
“Anyway,” she said, a smirk on her face. “That is why Prince Blueblood is afraid of cake—” Luna snorted once more, “—and why that story about the Galloping Gala keeps going around.” Luna nodded in understanding, a knowing look on her face.
Celestia smiled as she took another look around her sister's study, a warm feeling sinking into her heart. After a thousand years, to have her sister back—there was nothing greater. It was a lesson she’d tried to teach all her little ponies, the importance of friend and family. Something that she wanted each and every last one of them to learn. Some took more encouragement than others. And some, she reflected sadly, never did.
“Tia?” Luna asked, her voice shaking Celestia from her reverie. “What is it?”
“Oh, nothing much, Luna,” Celestia said, still running her eyes across her sister’s study, taking in the art on the walls and the open balcony at one end. The stars were just peeking out of the darkening western sky, the sun having made its leisurely descent past the horizon under her guidance just a short time ago. “I’m just so glad to have you back.”
Luna smiled back at her, pushing herself across the carpet and moving to nuzzle her. There was a sharp snap as a small spark of static electricity shot between them and they both pulled back, Luna letting out a little yelp of surprise. Celestia looked at her for a moment, and they both burst out laughing anew.
“And here I thought I was supposed to be the trickster of the two of us,” Celestia said, winking.
“Perhaps most would think so," Luna said with a smirk. "But only because like the sun, your tricks are flashy and apparent for all. Mine are like unto the night, silent and swift!” She tossed her head back with an exaggerated grin, throwing her starry mane into a flurry of motion.
“Oh, Luna,” Celestia said, inching forward and embracing her younger sister in a hug, her forelegs and wings wrapping around her. “I’m so glad we can have these moments together. To just be sisters and not to have to worry as much, for a brief moment, about the ponies under our care.”
Luna nodded, pushing into her embrace. “I’m—” she said, her voice faltering. “I’m glad I’m able to—”
“Shhh,” Celestia said, holding her sister tighter. “What’s done is done, no need to remember old regrets.” They stayed pressed together for a few moments longer, their bodies rocking back and forth as they held one another. Finally, after a few minutes of silence, the two pulled apart.
“Thank you, Tia,” Luna said, blinking a few tears from her eyes. “And for the—” she let out a faint laugh, a smile coming back to her face as well. “And for the story as well.” She shook her head. “I shall have to send Blueblood a blue-and-pink cake the next time his birthday arises.”
Celestia smirked, wondering if she should comment on her sister's plan or ignore it. “Thank you, Luna. It’s nice to relax with you after a long and trying day.”
Luna looked over at her. “So I hear. Another dispute among the nobles?”
Celestia ruffled her wings in distaste. “If only it was just that. Not only are Raspberry and Upper Crust at it again, each trying to outdo the other and dragging the Day Court down, but the new trade negotiations with the Griffins have reached a standstill for the time being. The Griffins want a higher tariff on the goods, and Canterlot Cloudrunners insist that it cannot be done without cutting expenses in other areas. And then there’s that group from the ERS board, still wasting everypony's time arguing against the rail line to the north...” She let out an exhausted sigh. "And we both know that we cannot let that be delayed. It could be too late as it is."
“You could refer some of them to the Night Court,” Luna suggested, giving her a thoughtful look. “I can shoulder some of your more bothersome burdens, as I should. Besides, I need to talk to the ERS board members about some strange theft reports.”
“I have suggested so, Luna,” Celestia said, smiling at her younger sister. “In fact, I’m considering making it a formal order, at least for those ponies from the ERS. The nobles I may just invite to settle things out of court.” She gave her head an exhausted shake, her multihued mane rolling around her.
She looked up at her sister, putting a soft smile on her face. “So thank you, Luna, for even this small amount of time together to not always be a Princess.” Then she frowned. “And what thefts?”
Luna shook her head. “Nothing important that you need to worry about, but ... Sister," she said, her voice brightening, "you could just take another day off. Go spend some time in Ponyville with your student, or better yet, relaxing somewhere. I can keep a close eye on things here.”
“I wish I could, Luna,” Celestia said, tilting her head to one side and giving it a small shake. “And I will, but not now. Right now there’s still too much to do in the wake of the changelings.” Luna nodded in understanding. Canterlot was still returning to normal, and they both knew it. It would be some time more before the city could erase the scars of the invasion.
“Even my own Guard have been jumpier than usual,” Celestia said, tipping her eyes towards the door. "Hammer in particular might need therapy."
“Mine have ... had some upsets,” Luna said, nodding. “Many of them are still ashamed that a simple soundproofing ward allowed so many of them to be caught asleep and unawares.” She paused for a moment, her eyes looking straight at Celestia’s, and she could see the coming question in her eyes. “Tia,” Luna began, “About that idea I had—”
Celestia smiled. “I looked over your proposal this morning, Luna, and I find it sound.”
Luna smiled. “You mean—”
“I think you should go forward with it,” Celestia said, rising to her hooves. It would be time for her sister to raise the moon soon. The last vestiges of dusk were giving away to night through the balcony doors, the sun now well past the horizon. “I’ve considered such a course of action before but never for more than a passing moment.” She gave her sister a warm smile. “You always were the one to see what I couldn’t.”
“And the member choices? What do you think?”
“Better and more thorough than anypony else, including myself, would have managed.” Celestia leaned forward, lowering her voice as if exchanging foalhood secrets. “And how did you ever manage to learn so much about Steel Song?”
Luna smiled. “One of my Night Guard is distantly related to him through his sister's marriage and speaks of him often, always highly. That, and I may have done a little sleuthing on my own,” she said with a mischievous grin.
“You—?” Celestia said, her eyes widening at her sisters expression. “You did! Is that why you were so tired last week?” Luna nodded, and Celestia narrowed her eyes, giving her sister a suspicious look. “Unicorn or pegasus?”
Luna snorted. “A pegasus of course, dear Tia. I could never give up my wings!” Celestia laughed as her sister snapped her deep blue wings out, looking at them with an enraptured gaze.
“Just as I could never go without my horn, dear Woona.” Celestia said, giggling as her sister rolled her eyes at the use of her old nickname. “Did you speak to him directly?” Celestia asked, jumping back on topic.
“Only a few times,” Luna said, shaking her head. “And not for long. Mostly I just spoke to his neighbors. They had nothing but respect for him and his deeds.”
Celestia smiled as she remembered the eager young Guard cadet from so many years ago. “And what of him?”
“He’s—” Luna paused for a moment, as if searching for the words, and then looked up at her. “He’s exactly who we need. And he needs it as well. Far more than he realizes, I think.”
“Very well then, Luna,” Celestia said. A knock rang through the room as one of the Guard reminded them of the soon-to-be-due moon-rise. “You’ve put a great deal of thought into this, and I agree with you. I approve of your idea, and give my own accordance to move forward.” It was an old law that required both of them to agree on something before certain actions could be taken, but it was one she had enjoyed applying to every ruling she had made since her sister had returned.
“Thank you, Tia,” Luna said, her muzzle pressing against Celestia’s in a warm nuzzle.
“No, Luna, thank you,” Celestia said, fighting back a yawn. “And may I say I'm most interested to see this all come together.” She smiled at her sister as they headed for door. “It’s been decades since I last saw Steel Song. It will be most interesting to see how he—” She paused for a moment, Luna at her side, one hoof on the study door. “What are you going to call this new division anyway?”
Luna shrugged. “I don’t really know, Tia,” she admitted as she opened the door, her Guard snapping to attention. “They’ll think of something, I’m sure.”
“If I might suggest,” Celestia said, pointing one hoof towards the twilight sky outside her sister's balcony. “What about the Dusk Guard?”
Luna stood for a minute, a thoughtful look on her face. “The Dusk Guard,” she said, smiling. “I like it. An excellent choice, dear sister. Dusk.” She turned back to the hall, walking away with a serene and yet powerful presence, her two Guard trailing behind her. “Good night, Tia!” she called.
“Good night, sister,” Celestia said, taking one last look out the balcony. “And good luck.” She could still hear her sister's hoofsteps, along with the unspoken word running through her sister’s mind.