"Where are we going, Princess?" asked Twilight. They were trotting along a narrow alleyway in a part of Canterlot she'd never been before, and she had no idea what Celestia had planned.
"Just a little out-of-the-way place I like to visit now and then, when the responsibilities of being Princess of Equestria get a bit too much," explained Celestia. "I think it should be especially quiet tonight with everypony out in the streets enjoying the festival. Oh, and here we are!"
The alley opened out into a tiny square with a number of little shops opening off of it. There was a tack-repair shop, with newly-worked bridles hanging near the door to dry; an apothecary, with its tell-tale sign of a winged-staff and the thick scent of medicines and ointments which Twilight could smell from where they were standing; and a charming little...
"Oh, a bookshop!" cried Twilight in delight. Towers of leather-bound books were piled up next to the door, and a ziggurat of yellowed vellum-scrolls as well. Oh, who knew what kind of rare books and documents they might have! "Is that where we're going, Princess?"
Celestia's mouth curved in bemused surprise, and then she laughed. It was the sort of laugh that Twilight had only ever heard her make when they were alone together in her study or walking the corridors of the castle when there were no guards around. In public, Celestia would produce a gentle laugh, like the tinkling of a bell - but this laugh was a boisterous one, a welling up of genuine amusement from deep within the alicorn's body. There were tears in her mauve eyes when it was finished.
"Oh, my darling Twilight," said Celestia, finally getting control of herself. "Although that bookshop is indeed a wonderful one, I was rather thinking of the little bar over there." She nodded with her horn in the direction of a run-down little place which Twilight hadn't even registered as being a shop when they'd first walked into the square. It had looked abandoned. But now, looking more closely, she saw that there was a board hanging on the outside with the name The Sage and Saddle written on it.
"A... bar?" Twilight looked back at Celestia, checking for any further sign that the Princess was joking with her. But Celestia merely cocked her head.
"We've never had a drink before?" asked Celestia. "Why is that, I wonder?"
"I've never even been to a bar before," protested Twilight. "Are you sure it's legal?"
Laughter threatened to burst out of her again, but somehow Celestia maintained her composure. "Oh, you haven't been a filly for years, Twilight Sparkle," she said, her eyes sparkling. "Besides, it's high time you started learning a thing or two about court etiquette. On certain occasions it's dreadfully impolite not to drink."
Twilight nodded. "Oh, of course! At the Cutting of the Vines for example..." Twilight started to recite from memory as often she did, and Celestia was struck by how adorable the little unicorn looked, her snout lifted in the air slightly, her eyes closed as she brought the information welling up from deep within her.
"...and then the Princess must drink three cups, one after the other, in honour of the Vine and the many uses it has in Equestrian society," finished Twilight at last.
"You have an impressive memory, Twilight," remarked Celestia with a smile. "Luckily, the ritual doesn't stipulate how big the cups have to be - I usually drink some tiny ones, or else I slur my words a little when making the Blessing afterwards."
Twilight blinked, but then she realised the Princess was joking, and she giggled.
"I think I would like to try a drink," said Twilight suddenly. "But maybe just something not too alcoholic."
"Oh, of course," said Celestia "I don't want to have to carry you home to the castle. I think you're too big to carry on my back anymore."
Celestia pushed the old wooden door open with a creak and they stepped inside.
The inside of the bar was exactly what the outside advertised: it was dim, and cramped, and smelled as if a hundred years of alcohol had seeped into the very wood of the building. The bar was edged with green felt that was fraying at its edges, and behind it was a series of bronze taps, clearly ancient but brightly gleaming as if they'd been painstakingly polished every day of their long existence. The walls on the other side of the bar were filled with a thousand bottles of different colours and shapes and ages, but all of them covered with a deep patina of dust.
And standing in front of them was the bartender of the little bar, a rather stout red-coated unicorn stallion with a shaggy brown mane. He appeared middle-aged, but it may have just been the rude health of his ruddy complexion that made him look younger. He was busy rubbing the top of the bar with a filthy rag when they entered, watching it slip back and forth much like a spectator at a tennis match, but as soon as he lifted his gaze to them, he broke into a huge, toothy grin, and his impressive eyebrows arched in surprise and delight.
"Upon my dishrag, if it isn't Tia! In my seedy little establishment on tonight o' all nights!" He leaned over the bar, shoving his face at them, and Twilight felt a sudden desire to shy away from the exuberant bartender. But Celestia was smiling in delight, so she stood her ground.
The stallion leaned back and looked them up and down. "And I was about to ask you why you didn't 'ave a date for the Spring Moon Festival, but I can see that you've brought her with you! Pleased ta meet you, miss..."
"S-Sparkle," replied Twilight, still taken aback. "But please, call me Twilight."
The stallion's eyes went wide. "So this is Twilight Sparkle? The Twilight Sparkle? Mighty pleased to meet you at last. The name's Suds." He returned to wiping the top of the bar with the dirty rag as he continued to look the little unicorn over. Twilight blushed under his gaze, and he laughed. "I can see now why you're always talking about her, Tia. She's absolutely adorable. Excuse me - you're adorable, miss."
Twilight glanced across at Celestia. "You're always talking about me?"
Celestia smiled, a little nervously. She had forgotten just how much she'd said to Suds about Twilight, and she was suddenly worried that some of it might have been indiscreet.
Suds chuckled. "Well, it's not just because of your good looks, of course, Miss Sparkle. You and your friends 'ave only saved Equestria, what... three times now?" He put his rag to one side and counted on his hoof. "First it was Nightmare Moon, then it was that crazy-looking feller, what's-'is-name, Disco- somethin'-"
"Discord," said Celestia.
"-and lastly, old Queen Cheese-legs," he concluded. He quickly took up his rag and returned to his polishing. "Quite a gallery of rogues you've put away, Miss Sparkle."
Twilight nodded, then looked down at the rag as it passed back and forth over the top of the bar. She was worried either Suds of Celestia might see how red her face had become.
"I'm very lucky to have such a famous friend," said Celestia, simply.
"So what'll you be 'aving?" asked Suds.
"The usual," replied the Princess. She turned to Twilight, her eyebrows raised. "And what would you like, Twilight?"
"I'll just have some watermelon juice," said the little unicorn softly, still feeling shy from the praise she'd received.
Suds snorted, but it wasn't an unkindly sound. "We call that stuff a 'mixer' 'round these parts," he said. "Why not try something with a lil' more buck to it?"
Twilight looked at the different bottles behind Suds's head. There were so many of them! She had no idea what to choose, but she didn't want to seem ignorant in front of Celestia.
The Princess soon came to her rescue. "I think Twilight might like something with a bit of sweetness to it, Suds," she said. "How about a little honeysuckle liqueur?"
As Suds busied himself mixing the drinks, Twilight turned to Celestia and smiled apologetically. "Oh, I'm so sorry. It's just... I guess I'm just not used to this kind of thing."
Celestia chuckled. "Oh, there's a first time for everything. I think you'll enjoy the drink I ordered for you."
"What's your 'usual'?" asked Twilight.
Celestia pursed her lips. "I'm afraid I'm rather partial to pomegranate martinis," she said. "There's something about the mixture of tartness and sweetness I enjoy."
Twilight took her purse from her saddlebags, but Celestia shook her head and said, "Put them on my tab, Sudsy."
"No need," said Suds. "They're on the house." He winked at Twilight. "For your services to our country, Miss Sparkle, and for you, Tia," He grinned at the Princess. "For bein' my most faithful customer all these years an' keepin' me in dishrags!"
"Oh, you really needn't..." said Celestia, but the drinks were already floating across the bar.
Suds shook his head. "It's already a done deal," he said. Then he looked at Celestia, and the look became a stare, and he furrowed his brow. "You know, come to think of it - how long 'ave you been coming to my bar anyway, Tia? I can't seem to remember straight."
Celestia lifted her eyes to the ceiling, as if deep in thought, but she soon looked back at Suds and shook her head. "I'm afraid I have no idea. I haven't been keeping count."
"It's funny," said the bartender, the furrowing on his wide, red forehead deepening. "I'm sure you've been coming here since I opened it, but that was nigh-on twenty years ago." He examined the Princess' face intently. "And I'd swear before a court o' law that you 'aven't aged a single day in all that time!"
Celestia brought a hoof to her lips and giggled. "Oh, I don't think I look that young," she said. "But now I remember why I keep coming here. It's all the lovely compliments I get!"
Suds chuckled. "Jus' an old barkeep trick to keep you comin' back," he said. "Now drink up, both of you!"
Celestia turned to Twilight and lifted her drink in the air. "Shall we make a toast?"
Twilight nodded. "What should we toast to?" She thought for a little while, and then smiled shyly. Her drink floated up next to Celestia's and she said, "To us."
Celestia clinked her glass against Twilight's and then brought it to her lips. As she took a sip, she felt the sudden warmth of the alcohol spread through her. But warmer still were her cheeks, which were flushing red behind the glass.
Rainbow Dash trotted along the line of pegasi arranged on the summit of a ridge overlooking Canterlot Castle, and as she scrutinised each of the Spring Moon Festival Amateur Performance Flying Team in turn, her frown deepened.
Each of them was dressed in a blue flight-suit, complete with goggles, and had a letter of the alphabet in electric lights strapped to their torsos. There were three Es, two apiece of As and Is, and a single O and U, along with a host of other consonants in various configurations.
"When I first laid eyes on you guys," said Rainbow fiercely. "I thought I'd never seen a worse bunch of wanna-be fliers in my whole life. Disorganised!" She stared down a purple-maned pegasus mare wearing the letter P, who gulped nervously under her gaze. "Uncoordinated!" She turned to glare at a black-maned stallion wearing the only Q in the team, who averted his face. "Disorganised AND uncoordinated!" She pounced right at Ditzy Doo, who was one of the three Es. The blonde-maned pegasus didn't flinch, but just smiled sweetly at her and bobbed her head up and down in agreement.
"Yes sir, ma'am!" shouted Ditzy, making a sloppy salute. "Discoordinated AND unorganised, ma'am, sir - er, I mean, ma'am!"
"Augh!" Rainbow shook her head. She turned and walked back along the line, but this time she was wearing a wide grin on her face. "But that was a few days ago. Now all I see is awesomeness, from 'A' all the way to..." She peered along the line at the illuminated letter that the pony at the far end of the line was wearing "...'V'. I know we've been pushing you hard, but you guys have been giving back a hundred and fifty percent, and it shows."
"Woohoo!" cried Ditzy, leaping into the air. "We're totally awesome! Yaaaay!"
"Augh!" muttered Rainbow Dash, slapping a forehoof to her face. "Take thirty, team, then we'll run through the program one final time." She left the pegasi talking excitedly among themselves and walked over to where Spitfire had been watching the whole time.
"Great pep-talk, D," said the flame-maned pegasus, smiling at the sight of the various pegasi chatting and slapping each other on the back. "After all your hard work, they really are a team."
"Aw, they wouldn't know a thing if you weren't such an awesome trainer," said Rainbow with a grin. But then she suddenly frowned. "They've really pulled together, and the rehearsals have gone off without a hitch, but I'm still worried that something will happen during the real thing."
Spitfire hopped off the crag she'd been perching on and slipped a forehoof around Rainbow's shoulder. "Aw, that's just the pre-game jitters," she said. "Everypony gets them."
"I'm just worried about Ditzy," said Rainbow. The gentle touch of Spitfire's coat against hers went some way to calming her nerves. "She's the one weak point of the entire operation."
"Now, Rainbow," said Spitfire. "The kid's got heart. You know, she reminds me of another pegasus that was totally nervous before a show not so long ago, but who still managed to save the day." She grinned. "Give her a chance. I think Ditzy'll surprise us all."
Rainbow blushed at the gorgeous mare's compliment. "I guess you're right, Spitfire." But deep inside her, there was still a little niggling doubt; the show demanded some real precision flying, and just a single pegasus not pulling her weight could turn the whole thing into a disaster!
Spitfire punched her in the shoulder. "Course I'm right. I was right about getting you to replace old Soarin', wasn't I?" She trotted over to the two training harnesses lying on the ground nearby. They were equipped with weights of the same heaviness as the fireworks that she and Rainbow would be carrying into the sky for the real show. "We're going to be pulling some serious Gs wearing all this stuff, so we should run through things a few more times to make sure we're not the ones who screw everything up!"
With Spitfire's help Rainbow slipped into the harness. No matter how many times she'd worn it, she was always surprised by how heavy it was - it felt like she'd be carrying half the fireworks in Equestria on her back! But it was totally worth all the hard work. When those things went off, there wouldn't be a single corner of Equestria unable to see them.
As long as there were no screw-ups, everypony was in for the best show ever!
Rarity and Applejack sat on the battlements, the unicorn's head in the earth pony's lap as she furrowed her brow and muttered. She still hadn't worked out a suitable plan, and time was quickly running out!
"Oh, I can't come up with a single thing!" cried Rarity.
"Now ain't that a cryin' shame," said Applejack, smiling down at the unicorn indulgently as she stroked her gorgeous plum-coloured mane. When she raised her eyes again, Applejack saw that the scattered sparkling of starlight had suddenly started to appear in the sky. "Hey, look up there! The stars've started to come out. Y' kin even see the River of the Night."
"Oh, the stars! Of course," Rarity slapped her forehead with a hoof. "The story of the Weaver and the Princess. That's the answer!"
Applejack's ears went back. "You still goin' on about tha' story?"
"Of course," said Rarity, looking up at her with a fierce expression on her face. "And not only because it's such a beautiful one. It also holds the secret to our bringing dear Rainbow and Twilight together."
"Ah guess hearin' a yarn might be nice," said Applejack. "Jus' try 'n keep the romantical stuff to a minimum, okay? We don't have long til the Raising of the Moon, after all."
"Very well," said Rarity with a sniff.
In this story, the part of the Weaver is played by Rarity, while the Princess is played by Applejack. The Prince is played by Blueblood, and the part of the treacherous maid-servant by Gilda Griffon.
"Once upon a time, back long before Celestia was the Princess of Equestria, there lived an honest unicorn who worked as a weaver. Her home was on the banks of a wide river which led down from the mountains, straight across from the lands of the Prince of Trottingham. The Weaver would sometimes cross the river to deliver the beautiful clothes that she had made to the Prince, but she could only do this before the winter snows melted, as the river would become too rough and dangerous to cross. She would float the clothes above her head to keep them dry, and ford the river herself. And by doing this, she made enough money to live a simple life.
One day, the Weaver heard from a neighbour that the Prince had taken a wife. Like everypony else, she was eager to see what the new Princess was like. So she packed some of her newly-made clothes in the trunk and forded the river. Even though it was already late winter, the water was still low and she could ford it without difficulty.
She was led into the castle by the Prince's men, who knew her well, and there, in the audience chamber, she saw her. The new Princess!
Never before had the Weaver seen a pony as beautiful as she was. The earth pony's long, blonde mane flowed about her shoulders like a wave of sunlight, and her green eyes glittered with humour and intelligence.
When the glances of the two ponies met across the room, it was if a bolt of lightning sprang between them. Both straight away felt the keen stabs of love in their hearts, although the Princess, being young and sheltered, still had no idea what they were. But she found herself looking again and again in the Weaver's direction, for the unicorn pony, despite her unassuming attire, was also not without her charms. Her coat was a most gorgeous shade of white, and her plum-coloured mane, though cut short so that it didn't get in the way of her work, was beautiful in its own simple way.
The Prince was in no mood to look at clothes that day, and with bored arrogance suggested that the Princess choose for herself whatever she liked. He was going hunting, and soon he departed, leaving the Weaver and the Princess alone except for the Princess' maidservant.
The Weaver was suddenly overcome with shyness, but the kindness of the Princess soon put her at ease. The unicorn showed her all that she had woven, and the Princess gasped at the loveliness of the work.
But her delight was far more than that of a girl for beautiful fashion. She wanted to know everything about the Weaver's art, how she turned such basic materials as cotton and wool into such wonderful things. The Weaver was happy to oblige her interest, and told her everything she wanted to know.
Soon the two became close friends. The Princess always awaited the Weaver's visits with a heavy heart, and the Weaver herself, too, felt keen pangs of loneliness like she had never felt before. She outdid herself in her art, creating more and more gorgeous and extravagant clothes, all just for the chance to see a smile on the Princess' lovely face.
Day after day the Weaver's pain grew. She had so much that she wished to say to the Princess, but she feared the Prince's dangerous anger, and the Princess was so seldom alone, for her griffon maidservant was almost always at her side. And so she wrote a note on a scroll of parchment and sewed it into a beautiful gown of silk she had just made. The dress' colour was the blue of water under spring sunshine, and it was trimmed with delicate white lace resembling the foam of wind-whipped wave-tops. The Weaver had no doubt that the Princess would choose it of all the clothes she offered her.
As planned, the Princess chose the gown and, after the Weaver had left to return to her home across the river, she hurried to put it on. Wearing these beautiful clothes made the Princess feel as if the Weaver was still there with her, and it made her heart feel lighter.
She twirled in front of the mirror, and the skirts of the gown billowed like waves about her hooves. And then, to her surprise, a scroll fell out of where it had been sewn into the material.
She snatched it up and read it, and she almost fell into a swoon. For in it, the Weaver had written all the secrets of her heart, her hopes, her fears, her desires. And the Princess knew that she, too, shared the unicorn's feelings. For her marriage was not a happy one - the Prince was melancholy and quick to anger, and so obsessed with himself that often the Princess felt as though she were a stranger in her own castle.
She quickly wrote her own note, telling the Weaver that her hopes were not in vain, and that she, too, was feeling the hard pangs of love. And this she sewed into the dress and waited patiently for the next time the Weaver should visit.
The day came, and the Princess made a great show of being angry with the Weaver, accusing her of selling her a gown whose stitching had already began to fall apart. She demanded she take it back, and the Weaver did, realising full well that the Princess' anger was all a sham. For in the gown she felt the heaviness of a hidden note.
And so the two learned of each other's love. But the ruse of the hidden notes was also the means by which their secret was discovered. For one day the Princess' nosey griffon maidservant, using the chance afforded to her by the Princess' absence at a ball with the Prince, amused herself by trying on the many dresses that the Weaver had made for her love. And it was then that she discovered the final hidden note that the Weaver had written to the Princess, and which the Princess, in her naïve trust, had left hidden in the dress.
It read that the Princess should wait for her on the banks of the river at sunrise the next day, where she would be waiting to carry her over, and the two of them would run away to start a life together someplace far away.
The maidservant took the note and, when the Prince and Princess returned from the Ball, revealed the secret plan to the Prince, hoping to curry favour with him.
The Prince seethed with anger at the revelation, but did not say anything to the Princess right away. For he wished to ensnare the Weaver as well, and have his revenge on both.
The next morning, the Princess snuck out of the castle before sunrise - but the Prince was waiting for her. He stood there with a group of his guards, dressed in their full battle array, and a cruel smile was on his lips.
'So you are going to see your lover,' he said to her, his face grim. 'Well, we shall visit her together and I shall have my fill of vengeance for this insult!'
The sun had already risen by this time, and the Weaver had been waiting for a long while on the Prince's side of the river. She had nervously watched the river growing ever stronger and wilder with the waters of the freshly melted snows, but still the Princess still did not appear.
Then there was a rumbling of hooves, and the Prince and his men arrived, with the Princess at his side, and the Weaver's blood ran suddenly cold.
'Your nefarious scheme has been uncovered, Weaver,' said the Prince, with barely controlled rage. 'And now the two of you shall pay the ultimate price for your treachery.'
'The fault lays wholly with me, oh Prince,' said the Weaver. 'It is I who led your wife astray. Do as you wish to me. Just promise me that you will pardon her.'
The Prince nodded. 'So be it,' he said. He raised a hoof, and his guards took hold of the Weaver, who made no attempt to resist.
The Princess cried out, and struggled, but her captors held her fast. "Do not harm her! I beg you," she cried to the Prince.
He looked across at her, and a cruel smile cut his lips. 'You have my word,' he said. He turned to his men. 'Throw her into the river. Let its raging waters exact vengeance on my behalf.'
The guards did as they were ordered, and straight away hurled the Weaver into the angry waters of the river. The violent current took hold of her at once. At the sight of her lover's predicament, the Princess' struggles grew more violent, and at last she broke free. She galloped down to the bank and without delay she leaped into the river after her lover.
The swirling waters swept both away, and wave upon wave crashed over them, threatening to suck them down to their demise. But with the strength that only love and desperation can give, the Weaver and the Princess both battled through the violent waters to reach each other. They managed to touch hooves one final time before a great foaming wave of water overwhelmed them, and they disappeared together under the churning surface of the swollen river.
From that day forth, never again were the two lovers seen in Equestria. But that evening, when the stars appeared in the clear spring sky, ponies were amazed to see two new stars appear beside the River of Night, one yellow and one purple. And even today, if you look up at the heavens, you can see them there, the Princess and the Weaver, together forever at last, where in life fate had kept them so cruelly apart..."
Rarity drew Applejack closer to her, and with a forehoof she pointed out the two stars, one yellow and one purple, twinkling high in the sky over the towers of Canterlot castle.
Applejack sniffed and wiped away at a tear. "Now that's the saddest story Ah've ever heard, and no mistakin'."
"Sad and beautiful, is it not?" Rarity's eyes were still brimming from telling it. She hugged Applejack to her. "Oh darling, now do you understand what's at stake?"
Applejack nodded. "So we're going ta do the same thing with Rainbow and Twilight? Get them to write notes to each other?"
Rarity shook her head. "Oh, I'm afraid that neither of them would be willing to risk being rejected," she said. "So we shall have to take the bull by the horns, as it were, and send them letters on their behalf."
Applejack frowned. "Ah guess that could work. But ain't it jus' a bit under-hoofed?"
Rarity snorted. "Oh, the only reason we've been forced to do this is because of how blind the two of them are. When they're firmly ensconced in each other's forelegs, they'll be so happy they won't care one little bit how we got them together."
Applejack shrugged. Rarity was the expert when it came to all this romance stuff, and as her pappy used ta say, 'Ya shouldn't go lecturin' a steer on how to wear horns'. She sighed in defeat.
"So how're we goin' ta do this thing?" she asked.
Rarity's eyes glittered in delight. "Well, first we must requisition the help of a certain friend of ours..."
"Oh, Spikey-wikey? Oh, Spiiiike!"
Rarity continued to call out for the little dragon as she and Applejack wandered throughout the Royal Kitchens, trotting here and there through the many tables of snacks. At last they came upon the gargantuan pile of desserts that Luna had prepared. Applejack's eyes followed the slope of the mountain up towards its peak, hidden somewhere far out of sight above them.
"Tha' mus' be the tallest pile o' treats ah've ever seen in all my years," she said, whistling.
Rarity would not be distracted from their goal. "I know they're around here somewhere," she said. "Oh, Spike? Oh, Spiiiiikey-wiiiiiikey?"
A sudden plaintive moan came from a nearby table, and Rarity drew the tablecloth aside to reveal the little purple dragon lying on his back underneath it. He was groaning and rubbing his belly, which was so full and round that it looked as though he'd swallowed a basketball.
Both Rarity and Applejack took a step back. "Spike?"
The little dragon propped himself up on an elbow and turned to look at the two ponies.
"Rarity? Applejack?" It was a struggle for him to talk, and he soon fell back, gasping.
"Wha' in Equestria have you done to yerself?" asked Applejack, eying his distended stomach.
"Well," said Spike. "First we ate some jello, then some danishes, oh, and after that some donuts, and then-"
Rarity shook her head. "Oh Spike, you know you'll stretch those darling scales of yours all out of shape if you eat too much," she tutted. "I'm sure it's all that Pinkie Pie's fault, leading you astray as usual."
"An jus' where is Pinkie?" Applejack's eyes darted back and forth, half-expecting the boisterous little pink pony to explode from behind one of the many piles of treats at any moment.
Spike leaned out from under the table with difficulty and pointed a claw into the air, drawing Rarity and Applejack's eyes up towards the top of the mountain of treats.
"Pinkie's making for the summit of Mount Snackmore," he explained.
"Mount Snackmore?" repeated Applejack, raising a single eyebrow.
Spike chuckled. "The name was Pinkie's idea."
"Ahoy there, climbers!" Pinkie's voice, floated down to them from somewhere on the mountain far above them. "Want me to throw you a rope? I've just discovered a whole rock-face made out of brownies up here!"
Rarity and Applejack looked at Spike, who shrugged.
"I don't know where she found it, but she's got climbing gear and everything," he said.
"No, thank you, darling," Rarity called back. "We're just going to borrow young Spike for a short while."
"Okay then, but it's your loss!" came the distant reply. "More fudge for me!" Soon the sound of thunderous munching travelled down to them, and the mountain began to shudder.
"Sometimes, dear Pinkie really does boggle the mind," said Rarity as she pulled Spike out from under the table.
"So what do you need, Rarity?" asked the little dragon, getting onto his feet with difficulty.
"We need to send some dragon-mail most urgently," said Rarity.
"Uh, I dunno," said Spike, suddenly cagey. "I'm really only supposed to use it for official Canterlot business..."
Rarity snorted in impatience. "One of the recipients is Twilight, so I suppose it is official Canterlot business... after a fashion."
"Twilight?" Spike scratched his head. "But she's just in the city with Princess Celestia. I can send the Princess a letter and..."
"That won't be necessary," said Rarity quickly. "Oh, Spikey-wikey, can't you be a dear and help me? I really am in a bind!" She rubbed her muzzle against the little purple dragon's cheek, putting the sweetest expression she could muster on her face.
Spike was almost toppled over by Rarity's vigorous nuzzling, and he began to blush fiercely. Overwhelmed, he pushed her away gently and said, "Oh, alright Rarity. Since it's urgent."
"Oh, Spike, you really are a most darling little dragon." The unicorn trotted over to a nearby counter, where she'd spotted a pile of parchment used for writing menus and borrowed two pieces. She grabbed a fresh quill and got to work, quickly scratching out two notes.
Applejack looked over her shoulder as she wrote. "Don't you reckon that hoof-writing's a bit too purty for our Rainbow?" she asked in a whisper. "An' as I recall, Twi's 'f's and 'g's've got big loops on 'em, an'..."
Rarity snorted in exasperation. "I don't think it really matters, darling. We're a little pressed for time as it is. Besides, I don't really want to misrepresent things too much. All we need to do is get the two girls to meet each other out in the open, away from all distractions. Once true love has taken hold, the letters will be totally forgotten. It's what we call a 'fait accompli' in the fashion business."
"Ah still say it sounds a might underhoofed," muttered Applejack. "Even in French."
Rarity ignored her, and finished the final note with a flourish. She rolled the two pieces of parchment up and flew them across to Spike. "Here you go, Spike. They're all properly addressed, so they should have no problem finding their proper recipients. Please send them off right away."
"Uh, sure thing, Rarity," replied the little dragon. He breathed green flames on first one and then the other, and they promptly dissolved away into nothing.
"And that is that," said Rarity, dusting off her hooves. "Now all that remains is to wait for love to take its course." She reached down and ruffled the little dragon's scales. "Thank you so much for your help, Spikey-wikey! But perhaps you should try and get Pinkie down from up there." She blinked up at the gleaming summit of Mount Snackmore. "If she eats too much, I fear she won't have any appetite left for the dinner tonight."
Applejack snorted. "Nah Rarity, this is Pinkie we're talkin' about, remember?"
"I'll try my best," said Spike, looking up at the top of the mountain and feeling suddenly dizzy.
"Well, ta-ta!" said Rarity. "We'll see you both at the festivities soon." She trotted away with Applejack at her side.
The earth pony frowned as they left the Royal Kitchens. Rarity seemed so sure of herself, but there was somethin' niggling Applejack at the back of her mind, like that final apple at the top of a tree that just refuses to fall down no matter how many times you buck it.
Fluttershy backed up against the hedgerow, shivering. In her blind panic, she'd ended up galloping into a dead end, and there was no way through the solid barrier of the hedge itself. She tried to get her wings to flap, but they remained clamped to her sides. There was no way out!
And then she heard the sounds of hoof-falls from the junction where she'd taken the wrong turn, and she knew she was trapped.
The black stallion's muzzle appeared at the corner of the hedge in front of her, and Fluttershy squeaked in alarm. She scrambled backwards, but with the hedge in their way, she had nowhere to go.
"Ha ha, my pretty!" cried the stallion, as he walked towards her. "You are at my mercy!"
He was so close now that Fluttershy could feel the heat of his breath on her coat, and she quailed in fear, closing her eyes, waiting for something dreadful to happen.
But then she felt the sudden wetness of a kiss on her forehead, and her eyes flashed open in surprise and bewilderment.
The stallion was gone, and in his place was Princess Luna!
"Ha ha!" laughed the Princess of the Moon, as she moved her face away from the kiss. She grinned widely at the pegasus. "Oh, you were utterly convinced I was Darkmane, were you not, dear Fluttershy?" She took a step forward. "After you said that he was just the sort of stallion that-"
"Keep... keep away from me!" cried Fluttershy, scrambling backwards. In her panic, her hind-legs started to climb the hedge until gravity forced her to stop. "Keep away!" she cried a second time.
"But... but it is only me, Princess Luna," said Luna, frowning. Surely, this was the point where one was expected to fall over laughing at the cleverness of her prank! So why wasn't Fluttershy doing so? Unless she was making some kind of joke as well...
"Oh, you can't be Princess Luna, you just can't!" sobbed Fluttershy. "She would never do something so mean to me. You're still that awful stallion, trying to trick me by making yourself look like the Princess. Stay away!"
"But I..." Mean? Luna felt a sudden heaviness in her heart. She wasn't mean - was she? It was all a little joke, some 'fun', merely!
Luna looked deeply into the pegasus pony's eyes, with a horrible sinking feeling she realised that Fluttershy was not playing a prank. She was genuinely frightened. She sat there, shivering under Luna's gaze for a few heartbeats, and then, in a gargantuan effort, her wings began to move and with a panicked fluttering she flew up and out of the hedge-maze.
Luna watched her go, and made no attempt to follow her. That awful feeling inside her had become colder, heavier, feeling for all the world as though she had an iceberg trapped inside her chest.
Those beautiful eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes! The horrified way that they'd looked at her, as if she were a monster!
Luna slumped to the ground and lay there, horrified at what she'd done. Perhaps she was a monster. She'd forgotten all those lessons she'd learned in Ponyville on Nightmare Night, and was once again that living embodiment of ponies' fear - the Night Mare.
It was a long while later that she finally slunk away herself, in the same direction Fluttershy had gone. As she flew, she looked up at the sky, and saw that it was now full of stars, but the advent of her beautiful night did little to allay the sadness in her heart. Maybe, once she'd raised the moon, she would feel a little....
"Oh, dear Celestia!" She was terribly, horribly late!
The two pegasi spiralled through the evening air over the Canterlot Mountains, each trying to outdo the other in aerobatic prowess. Rainbow flew past Spitfire and did an Immelmann, barrelling over her to come streaking just above her head.
"Nice one, D!" shouted the flame-maned pegasus. "But try this on for size!" She flew straight up into the air and began to spiral, and with each swift turn, the friction against her wings and coat grew stronger and stronger, until the air around her caught fire and she blasted straight out the end of the funnel of flames like a glorious phoenix.
Rainbow's mouth fell open. "The Fire Tornado?" She stopped in amazement at the sight of the great column of fire, forgetting even to flap her wings, and if Spitfire hadn't swooped down to scoop her up in her forehooves she might well have fallen out of the sky.
"So. Totally. Awesome!" muttered Rainbow, still dazed, as Spitfire carried her away.
The flame-maned pegasus blushed. "Aw, D. I thought you'd seen it before!"
She let Rainbow slip out from her embrace and together the two of them flew at a leisurely pace back towards the mountains.
They soon spotted a little mountain meadow and swooped down in approach. Rainbow landed first, coming to a skidding halt on the grass and slipping off her heavy harness as she did so.
"No matter how many times we run through the program, I always end up covered in sweat by the end of it," she muttered to Spitfire as the Wonderbolt came in to land beside her a few seconds later.
"You're not kidding," said Spitfire, panting. "This gear seems to get heavier each time we do this."
Rainbow had already tossed her harness to one side, and was about to throw herself belly-first onto the cool grass when Spitfire turned to her.
"Hey D, I'm having a bit of trouble taking this darn thing off," she said, struggling to get one of the leather belts past her wings. "Little help?"
Rainbow hopped up and with a bit of pushing and pulling, she soon had it off and threw it on top of her own gear. Now free, Spitfire began to beat her wings to cool herself, and Rainbow laughed as she was splashed with droplets of perspiration.
"Hey, quit it! You're getting sweat on me," she complained, grinning as she wiped the sheen from her own coat.
"Quit complaining," laughed Spitfire. "You're already sweaty yourself. A little more isn't going to make any difference." She flicked a wing-tip at Rainbow's flank, and the pegasus jumped at the sting.
"Hey!" she yelped, clutching her butt with her forehooves.
"No whining in the Wonderbolts, remember?" laughed Spitfire. "Just be glad there are no towels around, or I'd give you a flick you'd remember for a long time."
Rainbow grinned. "You only got me 'cause my guard was down," she said. "You better watch your own flank, 'cause first chance I get, it's getting a real flick."
She threw herself on her back on the grass, and Spitfire joined her.
"I guess you can have a few moments break," she said. "You do look pretty worn out."
Rainbow hopped right back up onto her hooves. "You saying I don't have anything left, Spitfire?" She nodded towards a distant mountaintop, the snowy cap of which was glowing pink in the dying light of the sunset. "Wanna race me over there and find out?"
Spitfire stayed on her back and shook her head. "You don't have anything to prove to me, D. I'm just teasing you." She patted the grass next to her. "C'mon. I need to catch my breath and I'm sure you do, too."
Rainbow lay back down gladly. She was ready to race, but a rest was exactly what she needed now. Only a last burst of effort for the show itself, and-
Spitfire eased herself up on an elbow to look at her. "You still nervous about the show?"
Rainbow shook her head. "Nah. I've got you here for moral support." She whistled. "You know, I knew I'd be flying with the Wonderbolts one day, but I didn't think it would happen so soon."
Spitfire chuckled. "You're only flying with one Wonderbolt, D. If you join us for real, every day is going to be like today's been." Her eyes considered the rainbow-maned pegasus thoughtfully. "You think you're up to it?"
Rainbow sighed. "I don't know," she said. "I love flying, but the stress of rehearsals is getting to me. I mean, joining the 'Bolts is my dream and all, but can I really do it? I'm not so sure anymore."
Spitfire lay back down. "You could handle it no problem," she said. "You've got huge heart, Rainbow. I totally respect that."
Rainbow's rose-coloured eyes glistened at the flame-maned pegasus' praise. Then suddenly she grimaced.
"What's wrong?" said Spitfire, alarmed.
"Augh! It's just a muscle in my left wing," said Rainbow. "I think I've popped it out or something." She swept the pinion forward and moved to squeeze at the spot with her hooves, but Spitfire immediately knocked them away.
"Hey!" yelped the rainbow-maned pegasus.
"Are you a trained masseuse?" asked Spitfire, fiercely.
Rainbow shook her head.
"Then you're just going to make things worse. And if you get knocked out of action, the whole show will be, too." Spitfire started to rub her hooves together. "Leave it to me."
Rainbow watched her as she rubbed faster and faster. "What are you doing?"
"Just an old mare's trick for when there's no liniment handy," replied Spitfire.
"You're no old mare," said Rainbow.
Spitfire chuckled. "No, but I learned it from one." She stopped rubbing and advanced on the rainbow-maned pegasus.
Rainbow shied back. "Look, Spitfire. You don't have to worry. It's fine now!" She tried to sweep her wing out, but it twinged again and she had to bite her lip to stop herself from crying out.
"No more buts!" Spitfire leaped on top of her and swiftly began to massage her wing. Rainbow had been determined to flee, but as soon as those warm hooves touched her coat and begun to work at
the knotted muscles along her pinion, she had no choice but to let the flame-maned pegasus have her way.
"See? It's not so bad, is it?" said Spitfire, working the tightness to suppleness.
"Uhhhhh..." It more than didn't hurt, it felt awesome! The twinge was gone, to be replaced by pleasure. Rainbow was taken aback by the intensity of the tingling sensations coursing along her wing and down her spine, and she slumped onto her belly on the ground.
Spitfire grinned, and redoubled her efforts. "There! I knew you'd like it if you gave it a chance."
Rainbow could only nod her head and pant a little. The Wonderbolt quickly moved to the other wing, squeezing and manipulating it just as skilfully, and Rainbow soon felt her circulation grow stronger, making the whole of her body flush. Her back leg began to twitch, and then thump up and down on the cool grass as even greater pleasure wracked her body.
Spitfire stifled a laugh at the sight, and moved her hooves down along Rainbow's back. The knots of tension she found there rapidly smoothed under the pegasus's agile hooves.
"You know, Rainbow," started Spitifre, suddenly uncharacteristically hesitant. She stopped, coughed, then continued. "I haven't asked you what your plans for after the show are..."
"Hmmmph?" grunted Rainbow, still deeply focussed on how much she was enjoying the massage.
Spitfire slackened off. She was finding it hard to concentrate. Why in Equestria was it so hard to talk all of a sudden? "It's just that, well, I happen to know this really nice little club. They've got an awesome DJ there who puts on some pretty gnarly sets and-"
Rainbow lifted her head. "A club? That sounds awe- "
But her words were cut off by a sudden flash of brilliant green flame as a scroll appeared in the air in front of them.
Spitfire stepped back, her eyes widening in surprise. "Is that... d-mail?"
"I think it is," said Rainbow. She plucked the scroll from the air. "And it's addressed to.... me!"
Spitfire frowned. "I wonder if it's some last minute changes to the program."
"I'll check it out," said Rainbow, quickly opening the scroll and reading it out loud.
"'My Dearest Rainbow,
We have an important matter we must discuss at once. Please meet me at the eastern battlements right away! Come alone."
"Who's it from?" asked Spitfire. The words 'My Dearest Rainbow' had felt like three icicles piercing her heart, and she felt suddenly sick.
Rainbow turned the scroll around 360 degrees, but didn't find anything. "They didn't sign it," she said. "That's weird."
"They must have expected you to know who it was from," said Spitfire, sitting back on her haunches and staring off in the direction of the castle.
"Well," said Rainbow. "Twilight is the only one I know who uses d-mail, so I guess it must be from her."
"You should go to her," said Spitfire. "She said it was something important, after all."
Rainbow frowned. If it was from Twilight, something must be wrong. It was really weird of little-miss-attention-to-detail not to sign it. She must have been in a rush or something.
She turned to Spitfire. "Look, I'll be right back. I just need to see if something's wrong. It should only take a jiffy."
"Take as long as you need," said Spitfire, her eyes still locked on the castle.
Rainbow smiled at her, then leaped into the air and flew away.
Spitfire watched her dwindle away into a tiny speck. Then she looked down towards the Amateur Performance Flying Team, but she didn't really see them. All she could see was her Rainbow Dash with another filly. With that filly, the one with the rose-streak in her mane, the same colour as Rainbow's eyes.
Spitfire got up. Maybe she had it all wrong. It wasn't the first time she'd overreacted about something. She was always quick to expect the worst. But there was only one way to make sure... only one way to ease the rapid, panicked beating of her heart that was making her feel so sick.
She galloped across the meadow to the edge of the cliff and leaped straight off into the open air, and with great sweeps of her powerful wings she flew off towards Canterlot Castle.
The one little glass of honeysuckle liqueur had quickly turned into two, then three, and the pomegranate martinis had done the same, and so it was a tipsy couple of ponies that slipped out of The Sage and Saddle a while later, laughing and giggling as they waved goodbye to Suds the bartender.
Twilight stifled her giggling as she tried to finish the joke. "And then, and then, and then I said, 'Porridge? Are you crazy?' The giggle she'd tried to hold back escaped, but after a while she stopped and frowned. "Wait, wait, wait - did I say 'porridge'?" Twilight slapped a hoof to her forehead. "It was supposed to be 'oatmeal'! Oh, I totally ruined the joke!"
Celestia suddenly burst out laughing, and again it was that boisterous laugh that welled up from deep inside her. She put a foreleg around Twilight's shoulders and leaned against her. "Oh Twilight Sparkle. That's probably the worst joke I've ever heard."
"Well, it is one of Pinkie Pie's," explained the little unicorn. She giggled. "And I totally muffed it up!"
"Oh no, no, no," said Celestia. "Your delivery was the funniest thing about it."
Twilight smiled up at her teacher. Seeing her so happy made her own heart fill to overflowing.
But hadn't Celestia always been happy? Twilight suddenly realised that, although Celestia was almost always smiling, she'd never really been as unreservedly happy as she seemed now, doubled over with laughter, a foreleg thrown around Twilight's shoulders to help her keep balance.
The touch of the Princess' coat against hers made her feel so safe, so warm, so happy. And just as suddenly Twilight realised that she herself had never been as happy as was right at this very instant, either.
She leaned her neck against Celestia's and nuzzled her, and the Princess nuzzled her back. And even long after their giggling had come to an end, they stayed close to each other, coat against coat, as they walked along the quiet streets.
They were almost back at the castle when Twilight looked up into the sky and gasped. "Look, Princess! The stars have come out."
"So they have," said Celestia. "I had no idea it had gotten so late. It mustn't be very long until Luna raises the moon." Oh, I do hope things go according to plan. It's the first Spring Moon raising since her return, after all. Well, everything was in her hooves, now.
"Oh, I can't wait to see it," said Twilight with a happy sigh.
Celestia looked down at the little unicorn, and the sight of her huge violet eyes glittering with such delight set the Princess' heart racing.
"You know, Twilight," she said. "I think we might have just enough time to visit another special little place of mine," she said.
Twilight giggled. "Another bar?"
Celestia chuckled. "Oh, I think you've had quite enough for one evening, my little unicorn." She shook her head. "No, it's a place I showed you a long time ago, when you were a filly. It's back in the castle, and if we hurry, we can make it before we have to go to supper."
Twilight closed her eyes and nuzzled up against Celestia's neck, and the alicorn felt her heart flutter. "But won't everypony wonder where we are if we're late?" she asked.
"We won't be late," replied Celestia.
The streets of Canterlot were quieter now that everypony had found their own little spot, ready for the raising of the moon and the spectacular show that would accompany it. All eyes were on the skies, and so few saw the alicorn and the unicorn as they made their way back to the castle.
At the western gate, Celestia suddenly dipped her horn and the glamour that had rendered her invisible disappeared, and the guards posted there started in alarm. As soon as they realised it was the Princess, however, they dropped their guard and bowed as Celestia and Twilight passed under the great whitewashed arch.
"You gave them such a scare!" giggled Twilight.
Celestia smiled. "It was a bit cheeky, wasn't it?" sh e said with a wink.
Soon the Princess was leading Twilight through corridors and rooms which she had never seen before, some of them decorated with strange and mystical carvings, some with great murals of historical events painted on the walls that seemed to move in the flickering of the torchlight. Twilight recognised the series of great wars with the griffons, the struggle against Darkmane, the reign of terror of the Four Priestesses of Nightmare Moon, and other events she'd read about in her history books.
"They're so beautiful," whispered Twilight, trotting from mural to mural as she tried to identify each of the scenes painted there. "Is this what you wanted to show me, Princess?"
"Oh, we're not quite there yet," said Celestia.
At the end of the hall there was a little archway, and Celestia soon disappeared through it. Twilight hurried to follow her, having lingered behind to look at the mural which portrayed the great battle between the dark priestess Eclipse and Lady Aurora.
The archway lead into a tiny little garden, nestled between several of the mighty towers of Canterlot castle. There was barely enough room for the two ponies to move, for a great tree stood in one corner, its boughs, gnarled and twisted with great age, reaching out across the garden. A multitude of little branches, green with fresh growth, had sprung from the dark, knotted wood, and on them clusters of delicate pink flowers had blossomed, as innumerable as the stars in the sky far above them.
Twilight stopped in her tracks and her eyes went wide. The sight was so arrestingly beautiful that she fell back onto her haunches and stared in silence for a long while.
At last Celestia turned to her and asked, "Do you remember me showing you this tree, Twilight? It was long ago, when you first came to live with me in the castle."
Twilight didn't turn her head. "The time... that time I dropped Smarty Pants?"
Celestia smiled. "Bingo," she said.
"But I thought that tree didn't bloom anymore," said Twilight, at last breaking her gaze from the tree to look at the Princess.
"So did I," said Celestia. "But just a few days ago, I noticed a few buds had appeared, and then, earlier today, just before you arrived, I was passing by and saw that it was already close to full bloom."
"It's... it's gorgeous!" said Twilight.
Celestia nodded. She drew closer to Twilight, and the little unicorn straight away rested her head against Celestia's neck.
The Princess closed her eyes, and for a moment, there in the garden before the ancient tree, everything stopped. She felt suddenly as if she was a little filly again, a feeling she only dimly remembered, and her heart beat rapidly at the sensation of Twilight's coat against hers. She leaned down and kissed the top of Twilight's head, where that little streak of rose began in her bangs. The little unicorn smelled of books and soap and lavender, the way she had always smelled, and Celestia's heart broke at how that scent made her feel.
She slipped a wing over Twilight and drew her closer, and the little unicorn sighed and snuggled against her.
Twilight looked up at her. "Princess," she began. But then a look of confusion passed across her face, and she began again. "Tia, I..."
"Yes, my darling?" Celestia's heart skipped a beat.
Twilight blushed hot. She lowered her eyes, but soon raised them again, a look of determination on her face. "Tia, I-"
Suddenly, a flash of green flame burst in the air before the two of them, and Celestia and Twilight both turned to stare at the little scroll that was now bobbing there.
"d-mail?" said Twilight, frowning. "But... who in Equestria can it be from?"
"Maybe it was misaddressed," said Celestia. The sudden appearance of the scroll had unnerved her. "It does happen sometimes."
Twilight plucked the scroll from the air with her magic. "But... it's addressed to me," she said. "Oh, but I-"
"I think you should read it straight away," said Celestia. "It must be something important."
Twilight opened it and began to read it silently. "It's... it's so strange," she said.
"What does it say?"
We've got stuff we need to talk about. Meet me at the eastern battlements right away. Come alone.'"
That first word 'dearest' had tolled in Celestia's ears like a mighty bell, and her mind was still ringing with the sound as Twilight finished the letter. Somehow she managed to keep her composure, and asked, softly, "Who is it from?"
Twilight shook her head. "I... I've got no idea."
"It sounds serious," said Celestia. She closed her eyes. "You should probably go right away and see what it's all about. One of your friends might be in trouble."
"But-" Twilight protested.
Celestia managed a weak smile. "Oh, Twilight Sparkle. Your friends are far more important than your silly old teacher. I've shown you what I wanted to show you." She inclined her head in the direction of the archway that led out of the little garden. "Go. Find your friend and see what they want."
Twilight stared at the Princess. Something had changed in her face, and for a moment the little unicorn had the strangest feeling that the entire world had tilted on its axis somehow, and that everything had been altered in some imperceptible but gigantic way.
"Go to her," said Celestia. "She's waiting for you."
Twilight nodded. "I- I'll be as quick as I can. So I'll see you at the supper?"
Celestia smiled. "Of course," she said.
Twilight turned, and quickly galloped through the little archway that had brought them into the tiny garden.
Celestia watched her go. When the sound of her hooves clicking on the stone floor of the hall finally dwindled away to nothing, the alicorn fell back onto her haunches, feeling as if a great weight had come crashing down on her back. She stared at the archway for a long time, praying that Twilight would reappear in it, and hating herself for wanting such a thing to happen. And so she didn't notice when first one, and then another, and finally a little shower of petals began to fall from the ancient tree at her back.