The streets of Canterlot were quiet. That is not to say they were empty, or that Canterlot did not have an active nightlife. But Twilight Sparkle was leading the way to the castle, and given the choice she vastly preferred streets where she could enjoy the company of her own thoughts. Trixie lost count of how many libraries and bookstores they passed, all closed for the night.
Before she knew what she was doing, Twilight opened the door to a familiar lit building. A familiar voice rang out, “Twilight Sparkle! I haven’t seen you since the Gala! Back in Canterlot again, eh?”
Twilight froze, only now realizing she had waltzed into Pony Joe’s purely out of a habit born from years of late-night studying fueled by caffeine and donuts. The brightly lit cafe made her squint her eyes a bit, but she knew it well enough that she could make it to the counter blindfolded. “Hi Pony Joe! Um...” At the smell of the baked goods behind the counter, she rationalized that she was hungry and it wouldn’t do to meet the Princesses on an empty stomach. She looked over the selection. “Chocolate-glazed custard and a cocoa.” She felt Trixie’s glare on the back of her head. “To go, please. My all-nighters now involve me running around all over Equestria, apparently.”
“You got it.” Pony Joe said. He turned to the unicorn that had followed Twilight in. “And what can I get for you?”
“Coffee, I suppose. Cream and sugar as well.” Trixie exhaled as Pony Joe turned to the coffee maker, muttering, “And so our heroines stopped in their glorious quest so that they could get donuts.”
“Hey,” Twilight protested, “Even Star Swirl the Bearded had to eat.” Pony Joe came by with their drinks and Twilight’s donut. Twilight thanked and paid him before leaving, donut in mouth and cocoa floating by her side. “Although I will admit,” she said between bites, “I stopped by completely without thinking about it. I almost sat down and took out my books to study."
“That’s because you still think like a student,” Trixie observed.
“Because I still am a student,” Twilight countered, “And I’m going to keep being a student until I run out of things to learn.”
The two continued their trek through Canterlot. They approached Neighouse Square, the second-biggest theater complex in Equestria. As the building came into view, Twilight’s eyes were immediately drawn to a poster proudly displaying a familiar pattern of stars - her own cutie mark. Rushing over to take a closer look, she saw another familiar sight adorning the advertisement - the moon as it had been seen for one thousand years, with Nightmare Moon’s stylized features clearly visible on its surface. In flowing script the play’s title was declared, The Mare in the Moon.
“Wow,” Twilight breathed, “I had hoped you were kidding about that.”
“Would the Great and Powerful Trixie lie to you?”
Before Twilight could craft an appropriately depreciating response, the theater doors swung open and a herd of ponies streamed out of the exits, chatting amicably and each going their own way. Twilight recognized a tall frilly hat standing out among the crowd and trotted over to greet its owner.
“Rarity!” Twilight called.
The white unicorn let out a startled, “Twilight?”, but quickly regained her composure when she saw her smiling friend, but it quickly morphed to concern as she got a better look. "Dear, your mane is an absolute mess. Here, allow me..." Pulling a small brush out of her dress, Rarity began work on the stray hairs sticking up out of her friend's mane. “It’s good to see you, but if you wanted to come to Canterlot you should have come with me when I left Ponyville yesterday.”
Twilight flattened her ears, embarrassed. “Sorry, this was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. Princess Celestia isn’t answering my letters, so I’m.. kind of a little worried. I'm heading over to the castle to see what's up.”
Rarity frowned a bit. “Well, I won’t tell you not to worry about it. I’ve certainly learned my lesson about that.” She gave a small smile at the memory. “But I did catch a glimpse of the Princess this morning, and if anything she looked positively radiant. Moreso than usual, anyway. But what’s...” Rarity froze once she caught sight of Trixie, who had walked up next to Twilight as if it was the most natural thing to do. Trixie's expression was oddly neutral. The crowd coming out of the theatre had dispersed entirely, leaving the three unicorns effectively alone on the side of the street.
After carefully regarding the magician, Rarity returned her focus to her friend. "Twilight, you wouldn't happened to have seen Rainbow Dash on your way here, did you?"
"I did. How did you know?"
"Because, there's 'windswept' and then there's what Rainbow Dash does to long manes when she wants to show off." Satisfied with making sure Twilight was presentable, Rarity addressed Trixie for the first time, "And how about you, hm? You're sporting the same hairstyle, so either you're here with Twilight or you're waiting for me to club you over the head with this brush."
Twilight spoke up first, "Please don't, Rarity, I already had to break up one fight today."
"Our purpose here is quite simple, really,” Trixie stated, “We are on a grand quest, which has brought us here to Canterlot. As it has to do with the Princesses’ domain, we are on our way to the castle to request an audience.”
"The Princesses' domain? That would be..." Rarity looked skyward. Almost immediately her jaw dropped. “Oh my,” she breathed, “I never noticed...”
“I know, right!” Twilight’s eyes shone.
“What?!” Trixie and Twilight shrieked in unison.
“It’s the most beautiful night sky I ever laid eyes on!” Rarity gushed, “The composition! The way the moon hangs low gives deference to the stars above, letting them shine!” She began gesturing wildly to the west. “Each direction has its own theme and highlights! To the west, blues and whites sparkle like snowflakes in the winter. To the north floats orange and red autumn leaves. East, yellow summer suns and pale blues make the sky glow like daylight even at night. The Milky Way in the south flows like a spring river. Twilight, this is no mere night sky. This is art!”
“But... But...” Twilight stammered, “But Orion’s belt has four stars! It’s supposed to only have three!”
“As well he should change out his old belt for something new. Fashion is hardly eternal, after all.”
The two other unicorns were too stunned to respond. Rarity chuckled, bemused at their matching expressions. “Hm, twins. No wonder you two are together.” As soon as the words left her mouth she gasped, bringing a hoof up to cover her mouth. Her eyes darted back and forth between Twilight and Trixie.
“Huh?” Was all Twilight could think to say to her friend’s odd mood shift.
“Nothing, nothing! Ha ha. Just an odd thought that struck me.” Rarity tried to wave it off as if it were an errant fly. “You’re heading to the castle, right?" She turned her attention back to Trixie. "Well, it just won't do to subject the Princesses to the sight of a bedraggled mane such as yours, so please allow me..." Rarity advanced, brush at the ready. Trixie gave the fashionista a strange look before reluctantly removing her hat and allowing herself to be fussed over.
Twilight Sparkle, satisfied the other two unicorns weren't actively trying to antagonize each other, returned her gaze to the sky, bewildered. For the first time tonight she actually looked at the sky as a whole, not just the individual stars or constellations she knew so well. As her eyes wandered the heavens, she could, objectively, see the themes and beauty Rarity had described.
And yet, it was an unfamiliar beauty, like the mares in the fashion magazines Rarity kept in her storefront. Twilight pined for the old night sky, the one she had spent so much time studying and familiarizing herself with. Twilight couldn't fathom the idea that it was simply gone, never to be seen again, without fanfare or warning. Had that time spent studying, making star charts, and watching the Horsehead Nebula, all been wasted? Twilight didn't want to think about it.
Returning her gaze to the ground, Twilight saw that Rarity was still fussing over Trixie's mane, and making small talk at the same time. "Why, of course the costuming was excellent, they were patterned after the dresses I debuted at the Grand Galloping Gala." Catching Twilight's eye, Rarity paused before addressing her, "Welcome back to reality, dear." Rarity gave her friend a smile. "I was just discussing with Trixie the play I just saw: The Mare in the Moon." Rarity tittered. "I must say, it was something of an experience to see myself portrayed upon the stage like that. I highly recommend you see it if you get the chance."
"Er, no thanks. If Trixie's version of that story is any indication," Twilight said, giving a sidelong glance at the mare in question. "I may have to write my own account of that night to set the record straight."
"Oh?" Rarity looked intrigued, turning to the magician as if she were an old friend. "You're going on tour again?"
"Of course! The Great and Powerful Trixie tells only the greatest stories in the land! And no story beguiles audiences more than that of Fabulous Rarity and the Manticore!"
"Uh, what?" Twilight interjected, "Don't you mean Fluttershy and the Manticore?"
"Hm?" Trixie asked, "I thought it was Fluttershy and the Dragon?"
"Er, no. I mean, yes, there was that, but that wasn't the night of the Summer Sun Celebration." Twilight grumbled, "See, that's what I'm talking about. I should just get my letters to the Princess published as a memoir. That way everybody will know the truth."
"Oh, Twilight," Rarity chastised her friend, "Don't take it too hard. It's what happens to a living legend like yourself." She tucked the brush back into the folds of her dress. "There! Perfect. What do you think, Twilight?"
"Huh?" Twilight looked at Trixie, who looked much the same as she always did. "It looks fine, I guess. Why are you asking me?"
"Oh good," Trixie said, returning her hat to her head. "For a moment I was wondering if you were turning my mane green back there."
"That's true," Twilight recalled, "Rarity did say the next time she saw you she was going to shave your coat off."
"Oh no no no!" Rarity exclaimed, "I couldn't! After all, I knew you would be very cross with me, Twilight, if I did that. And friendship is the better part of valor. Or something like that. In any case, let us be off, to the castle!"
As the trio of unicorns walked down the street, an idea occurred to Twilight. "Oh, that's right. Rarity, we saw your sister on the way here."
"Oh? And how is dear Sweetie Belle doing?"
"Well, when we saw her she was looking for a pet phoenix."
Rarity's face hardened, becoming unreadable for a moment. Eventually she simply sighed. "You know, I specifically made Sweetie Belle promise not to burn down the Boutique while I was gone. Ah well, c'est la vie."
"If it's any consolation to you," Trixie put in, "She was not having much success."
The three passed through the outer gate to the castle grounds without any issue. Rarity turned to the other two unicorns. "Well, I must be off to my suite. As always, I do need my beauty sleep. Oh, and Twilight?" Rarity dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned in close. "Stargazing is a good choice for a first date, but I think it's a little soon to be introducing her to the Princesses." She backed off to a normal distance and brightened. "In any case, ta for now!"
Twilight stammered, "What? Hey wait, Rarity!" but it was too late. Rarity turned and practically galloped away, giggling the whole way. Twilight fumed for a moment, before resigning herself and just rolling her eyes.
Trixie watched the exchange with interest, and met Twilight's glare with a smirk. Twilight trudged onward, leading the way through the grounds to the castle.