Once upon a time, there was a pony who loved to dance by the light of the moon...
The village was small, the house was smaller, the rear yard was smaller still, backing onto a dense, creeper-hung forest, which chirrupped and reeped with creatures of dusk and shadow. Yet the sky this night was open and clear, the stars shining in the deep purple immensity.
And the Moon... the Moon with its Mare shadow, huge and glowing, casting its silvery radiance over the night-dark yard...
Standing on her hind legs in the middle of the yard was a heavy-limbed, gray-coated earth pony with a cobalt blue mane. She held a small bundle in her forehooves. And under the light of the shining Moon... she danced.
She spun gently about, swayed this way and that, bobbed and dipped, to a tune only she could hear. On her flank, her cutie mark swept into and out of the shadows as she turned about: a pale silver disc, with shimmering rays streaming from it.
"Moon Light..." a voice gently scolded, from the doorstep behind her. "There's a chill out here! You're gonna catch your death."
"Shhh!" she called back. And twirled about mischievously.
Her husband, a dark brown unicorn with a graying mane and spectacles, shook his head and smiled. Then he ambled over to stand beside her, and both of them gazed down raptly at the tiny newborn filly in her forehooves.
"It's amazing to me," Dusty Pages finally said. "You always know just what will help her to calm down, and go right to sleep."
Moon Light shrugged gently. "Blue Moon danced in the moonlight with me, when I was a foal. Or so she tells me. And her mother before her. Maybe it's hereditary? I don't know. Don't fight what works, I say."
Dusty nodded. He tugged Moon Light close, and reached out a hoof to gently stroke his daughter's wispy mane. When he spoke, it was clear he was holding back tears of sheer joy.
"We still need to pick a name," he said, falling back on practicality as usual. "I know we said I'd choose if it was a filly, but..." He shook his head. "I'm an historian, I know too much about what names originally meant. I'd seriously overthink it..."
He smiled at Moon Light. "You choose."
Moon Light stared down at her daughter, comfortably slumbering under the soft glow of moonlight -- under the Moon, with its Mare shadow.
"Moondancer," she said, definitively.
Moon Light started awake at the scream. Then she thrashed out of the covers and raced across the room to the smaller bed. She frantically lit the lantern they kept on the table. And found her year-old daughter sitting bolt upright, eyes wide and staring, her mouth gaping in a noiseless shriek of panic, of sheer terror.
"Moon-Moon! What is it?" Desperately, she hugged her daughter. The beige filly was shivering and drenched in sweat. "Tell Mama! Tell Mama, please! Before Mama goes completely out of her mind!"
There was no reply. The filly was rigid and shivering, staring at something impossibly frightful, something that only she could see.
Moon Light heard movement behind her, a soft curse as Dusty stubbed a hoof on something in the dim lantern light. Then he finally remembered and cast a luminance spell with his horn, filling the room with a soft warm glow.
"What's the matter with her?" Moon Light gasped. "Should we get the doctor?"
Dusty stared worriedly at his daughter for a moment. And then he relaxed, and shook his head.
"No... It's just a night terror. It's normal for young foals, trust me."
"Are you sure? Look at her!"
"I'm sure." Dusty nodded. "It only looks scary. It's a side-effect of the brain working out the whole sleep-wake thing. My kid brother had 'em for a while. Scared the hay out of us every time it happened. But after a while, they went away on their own. And he turned out all right."
"Should we try to wake her?"
"Best to leave her be," he said. "You probably wouldn't be able to wake her anyway. If it's anything like my brother, it'll stop on its own after a few minutes, and then she won't even remember it in the morning."
True enough, Moondancer finally relaxed, her eyes sliding shut, her head drooping. Bonelessly, she flopped back into the pillow. And snored quietly.
Moon Light heaved a relieved sigh, then moved to pull up the covers.
And stopped. And stared.
"Dusty, look! Her cutie mark's appeared!"
He fetched his spectacles and looked with her, at the dark violet crescent moon and three purple stars. "Well, I'll be..." he said, both surprised and proud. "She's a chip off the old block! She's got your family's mark and everything: the Moon!"
"But it's a crescent Moon," she said, worried. "What does it mean?"
Dusty pursed his lips.
"My considered, erudite opinion is I don't have a clue. We can look it up in the morning, see if there's any historical precedent. It may just be her own special quirk." He grinned. "Five bits says she'll be an astronomer," he said, hugging Moon Light.
"Maybe..." Moon Light said, still worried. But then she smiled too. "Or maybe it means she'll carry on the tradition. That one day she'll dance under the moon, with a daughter of her own. That would be nice..."
"Mama, why do I have the Moon in my cutie mark?"
Moon Light sighed. Other parents only had to worry about having to explain where little foals came from. How do you explain to your daughter that her mark is... well, that Mark?
"Why do you ask, sweetie?" Moon Light said, playing for time, as she finished scraping the dried remnants from her potter's wheel.
"Well... kids around town have been calling me names."
"What sort of names?"
"Loony Moony," her daughter said, rolling her eyes. "Or Moonbutt. They call me that one a lot. I don't see why they think it's so funny."
Moon Light nodded. She pointed to her own mark. "Mares in my family have always had a Moon of some kind as part of their cutie-mark. No one knows why. It's just who we are... kind of like the Pear family, in the next valley over."
"But what does it mean?" Moondancer said, climbing up on the box beside the wheel. "What's my talent supposed to be, anyway?"
"Not every cutie mark is obvious right away," Moon Light said. "And some ponies get their marks long before they understand what they mean. But yours is kind of special, honey, which might be why the other kids tease you for it. Tell you what, let Mama tell you a special story, which might help you understand it."
Opening a nearby trunk, Moon Light fished out an old, battered book, with heavy metal clasps to hold it shut. Opening it, she paged through it, and showed her daughter a picture. It was an old woodcut, showing a rearing, fanged alicorn, wearing night-dark armor, surrounded on both land and in the sky by an army of dragon-winged, glowing-eyed nightmares.
"The Mare in the Moon," she explained. "It's a very old legend, which tells of how the Mare once ruled the land alongside Princess Celestia. And then, one day, she became jealous of her fellow Princess, then angry with her, and then --"
Moon Light paused, feeling every parent's natural hesitation in telling the whole ghastly truth to their child. Particularly the more grisly parts of the legend, which were detailed with almost indecent pride by the book's author.
"-- let's just say she and her army of nightmares fought Celestia for a while. She fought a final battle with Celestia, and tried to take over and rule the country on her own. So Celestia had to banish her to the Moon. And that's why there's an image of a mare's head on the Moon, to this very day."
"Nightmare Moon..." Moondancer read, looking at the name in block capital letters beneath the woodcut.
Moon Light nodded. "The name the Mare gave to herself. And her mark... well, you can see it in the picture, it was a crescent moon. So the crescent moon has an... unfortunate association for ponies. Even today, when we really ought to know better..."
"So... does that mean that Nightmare Moon was... evil?" Moondancer was looking from the moon on the Dark Mare's armor to her own cutie mark, with a worried look on her face.
Moon Light reached over and pulled her close.
"The Mare was angry, as I said. And probably misunderstood, too. It happens. And things got out of control, before anyone could talk about it and try to come up with a reasonable answer. Which is what we should always try to do."
Moon Light felt uncomfortable, having to find reasons to justify a monster like the Mare. But she loved her daughter too much to see Moondancer question herself, doubt herself, all because of a legend. All because of an innocent association with a figure of horror out of the distant past.
"According to legend," Moon Light went on, "before she became Nightmare Moon, the Mare was a kind and just ruler, just like Celestia. She was a fierce defender of the poor and the unjustly treated. So... I guess she couldn't really have been all bad, right?"
Moondancer looked up at her mother, holding her closely and caringly. And then down at the picture in the book. And smiled.
"I think she sounds really nice." She pointed a hoof at the picture. "I bet if Nightmare Moon was around today, she'd use her alicorn power and army of nightmares to scare the other kids, make them stop teasing me, huh?"
Moon Light smiled. And felt like she'd dodged a bullet.
"She might..." she allowed, hugging Moondancer. "She might, indeed."
One day, she reminded herself, I'm going to have to explain to my daughter that her mark, the Moon and its Shepherd Stars, is not merely a mark... but is The Mark, the sigil of ultimate evil...
... but, thank Celestia, not today...
Moondancer, dressed in black cape and night-dark helm, raced around the yard, forehooves waving, terrorizing the vegetable patch, the garden hose, the sundial, anything that presented a useful target.
"Moon-Moon!" her mother called. "Slow down and watch where you're going. Don't trip over that cape and hurt yourself!"
"Okay, Mama!" Moondancer called brightly. Then, spreading her cape dramatically, she bared her teeth and resumed terrorizing the watering can, demanding its absolute subjugation to her cause.
Dusty chuckled at her, as he came out of the house and sat down on the back steps beside his wife. "She just loves that Nightmare Night costume, doesn't she?"
Moon Light grimaced. "I'm beginning to regret reading her that book about Nightmare Moon. She idolizes the Mare now."
Dusty put a hoof around her shoulders. "It's normal. It's a phase kids go through. Did I ever tell you how, when I was a colt, I loved to dress up as a vampire batpony?" At her surprised look, he nodded. "True story! I just loved that silly old costume! Wore it everywhere, until it finally fell to pieces. And everyone told me it suited me, 'cause I had the ears for it." He wiggled his lightly tufted ears, making her laugh.
"You still do," Moon Light told him.
Then she looked at Moondancer again. The filly was organizing her captives now. She put the watering can next to her toy animals and the push-mower, making sure everyone had food and water and a place to sleep.
Moon Light sighed hopelessly.
Dusty looked at her, concerned. "What's wrong?"
"Things have changed," she said. "Around town I mean. I try to tell myself I'm imagining it, but I'm not. When I'm at the marketplace, or the community center, or helping with decorations for the Flower Festival... ponies keep giving us these strange looks, Moondancer and me. And I hear them whispering about us. They're not even trying to be subtle about it anymore."
"Don't ponies always whisper things, in small towns like this?"
"But the Moon family has lived here, in this town, for generations!" Moon Light demanded. "No one's said a word against us, in all that time. So why now? What's changed? Why's there this bad feeling all of a sudden?"
Dusty looked uncomfortable. "It's... probably this rash of unexplainable nightmares lately. When ponies have nightmares, they blame... you know. And since there's nothing they can do about her, they lash out at anything that reminds them of her. Which... unfortunately means us."
"Me, you mean," Moon Light said. "And my daughter. With our strange, oh-so-sinister Moon marks!"
"I mean us," Dusty told her firmly. "I knew what I was getting into, marrying a Moon daughter. We're in this together, all three of us. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
She leaned against him, smiling thankfully.
Then she sighed. "I just don't want her to have to grow up like this. Surrounded by suspicion, by hurtful gossip. All about something that has nothing to do with her. That's not the kind of life I want for my daughter. And her brother or sister, if we decide to have another. We can't raise our family properly like this!"
Dusty eyed her solemnly, at length.
"You know," he finally said, "there is that letter I got from my old colleagues at the Archives. They say there's an opening, now that the Head Researcher has passed on. And... if I ever did want to come back, they say they'd welcome me with open hooves."
"You mean... move to Canterlot?" Moon Light's face fell. "Leave my home town, to go live amongst the upper-crusty nobles and hurry-scurry urbanites? Urgh!" She slapped a knee with a forehoof. "Why does it have to come to this? Why are we forced to leave, just because other ponies don't understand?"
Dusty gritted his teeth. "I'm sorry. It was just an idea. We don't --"
A hoof pressed to his snout, silencing him.
"I want our daughter healthy and happy," Moon Light said, determinedly. "I want her to be comfortable with herself, and free to grow up as she likes. And... if moving to Canterlot is what it takes..."
She glanced at Moondancer. The costumed filly was busy introducing the watering can to her other captives, making sure that everyone was friendly with each other.
"... then that's what we'll do."
Moondancer nervously followed the other first-year fillies and colts into the classroom, gazing about in wide-eyed curiosity at the rows of desks, at the shelves filled with wooden bins, inside of which were books, paper, and project materials of all kinds. There was an alphabet running around the top wall of the room. There were signs everywhere with positive messages: "Be Kind", "Try Your Best", "Read A Book".
Moondancer had never seen a room filled with so many different colors before, so full of potential, so alive. It felt exciting just being there. And the other students, milling around her, equally amazed... it was just as her mother had said. They were all city ponies. Everyone was new here, everyone just as nervous as she was. They were all alike.
And the fillies and colts who had their cutie marks already, they had such a variety of icons and images, hers didn't stand out at all. No one stared at her moon-and-stars mark strangely, no one whispered about her behind her back. The fillies and colts were all commenting on each other's marks, happily and acceptingly -- even some of the weirder ones, like skulls or pirate hats.
Moondancer felt reassured. She was going to fit right in.
Stowing her carryall in a cubby the teacher pointed out to her, she took a seat at a desk close to the windows.
"Good morning, class!" the teacher called out. "I'm Ms. Term Paper, and I'd like to welcome you all to Canterlot Elementary. Now, before we begin, since we're all new here, let's write our names on these cards, and put them on our desks, just like mine here --" She indicated a long, folded card on her own desk at the front of the room. "That'll help us remember where we're all seated, and also help us learn to say hi to each other in the morning."
The students willingly set to work, and the teacher trotted up and down the rows, speaking to individual students, giving guidance on letter size and legibility. When she got to Moondancer, she smiled.
"Moondancer!" she said. "That's such a lovely name, dear! Is it your first or last name?"
"Um... it's just my name. Is... that okay?"
"Oh, perfectly, dear! I should introduce you to Ms. Huckleberry, who teaches agriculture and animal care here at the school. I can tell that you two would have a lot in common!"
Once the students' desks were all officially labeled, Ms. Paper suggested they go around the room, each of them introducing him or herself.
"And just to help us know a little bit about you," she added, "tell the class about some pony you really admire. It can be a family member, someone famous, someone from history... anypony who inspires you."
Moondancer listened eagerly as students each greeted the class, and told about royals like Princess Celestia, or nobles they were related to, or famous athletes or performing stars. One young colt in the back of the room even mentioned Star Swirl the Bearded. "I think he looks funny," he said, grinning broadly, "with that really long beard!"
So when it was her turn, Moondancer willingly stood up and addressed her new friends.
"My name is Moondancer -- oh, and it's one word, not two! And the pony I admire most is the Mare in the Moon. Because she's real powerful, and she lives way up there in the Moon. And she's got a moon in her cutie mark, just like mine, see?"
There was silence for a moment, the students staring at each other.
And then the entire class burst out laughing at her.
The colts and fillies sniggered and jeered as she passed along the halls heading for the second grade classroom. She'd been dreading this. It was exactly the same faces as last year, exactly the same thoughtless, tormenting voices.
"Dance for us, Moony! Why don't you dance for us?"
Moondancer kept her eyes facing forward. Don't look, she reminded herself. Don't react. Don't give them the satisfaction.
"How's it goin', Moonbutt?" called one particularly greasy-haired colt.
Moondancer rolled her eyes. Why do you jerks keep calling me that? If you're gonna be crude, at least be original!
"Hey, Moonie!" laughed one tow-headed colt. "Is the Princess gonna banish anyone else to the Moon? To keep your loony mommy company?"
Unable to control herself, Moondancer swung on him, enraged. "My mother lives in Canterlot Heights, for your information!"
And even as she spoke she knew it was a mistake.
"Yeah," he sneered, "that's what they told you! When you were left on their doorstep! And you know why? Because you're evil!"
"Oh, she totally is!" a gum-chewing auburn-maned filly said. "She must be evil, having the Moon in her cutie mark!"
"Evil Moony! Evil Moony!" the children chanted gleefully.
"Look!" Moondancer shouted desperately. "I don't know what the Moon in my mark is for! It has nothing to do with the Mare in the Moon, all right?"
"Wahhhh! I don't know what my cutie-mark means!" the auburn-maned filly echoed derisively, wiping imaginary tears from her eyes. "Sure, that's what you'd like us to think! While you and your loony mommy plot and scheme to take over Equestria!"
Moondancer stared at her, wordlessly, unable to believe that anyone could be that thoughtlessly, stupidly cruel.
In return, the filly feigned terror, held up her forehooves beseechingly.
"No, no! Don't look at me! Ahhh! The evil eye! The evil eye! It burns! It burns! Aughh! Hahahahahaha!"
All of them laughed, loudly and brayingly, as Moondancer turned and bolted away, utterly humiliated.
After school, Moondancer retreated to the one place in Canterlot that she felt truly safe. The Public Library wasn't quite as vast as the Archives, but it was far and away larger than any library Moondancer had ever been in before. It had so many books, she was almost certain she could never read them all.
But she was game to try...
Wandering the shelves, she found a number of interesting titles and slotted them into her carryall. Then she headed for her favorite spot to read: a comfortable old couch sitting beneath a window wall, with a magnificent view of the Royal Palace, high on the mountain's peak.
She shrugged out of the carryall, sat down, got comfortable, pulled out a book.
But for once, she didn't feel like reading.
Reaching into her carryall again, she pulled out a different book: a heavy hardbacked volume with a crescent moon on its cover.
This is a journal, Moon Light had told her. Many ponies find that when they're feeling down or stuck on something, it can help to write in a journal. You can spell out your feelings, put them into words in private, where no one else can read them. You can write about things that happen to you and how you feel about them. And since it's private, you can say whatever you need to say, however you need to say it, without worrying about what others might think.
You mean, like a diary? Moondancer had asked. I'd feel silly just writing stuff in a book that no one but me would ever read.
In a sense, Moon Light told her. If it helps you to feel comfortable, write as if you're talking to someone you trust, someone you feel would listen and guide you. You'd be surprised how often you can work things out, just by putting them in words on a page in front of you, rather than leaving them rattling around half-baked in the back of your head...
Moondancer hadn't been entirely convinced but she was willing to give anything a try.
She also wasn't certain why, from the very first page, she'd addressed her entries to Nightmare Moon. Perhaps it was the memory of sitting beside her mother, looking at the woodcut picture of Nightmare Moon... the comforting feeling that there was someone who understood her, who cared about how she felt, who would do anything to protect her...
She'd have felt really awkward, writing private journal entries to her own mother. But writing to Nightmare Moon instead...
... somehow that worked.
Dear Nightmare Moon, she wrote. I'm very sorry to tell you this, but I don't think I want to go to school any more -- ever...
She shook her head, anguished, then forced herself to keep writing.
I can't take another year of this. I love reading, I love learning! But the other students... they're horrible! I mean, if they don't want to be friends, fine! Why can't they just leave me alone! Why do they have to go out of their way to make me feel so miserable?
She gritted her teeth, holding back a sob.
Why does no one want to be friends with me? she wrote. Am I really that useless... that worthless?
She looked round, and then stared up for a while, through the window, at the grand spires and minarets of the Royal Palace of Canterlot.
Then she turned back to the journal, writing furiously.
Can you help me, please? Can you talk to Celestia? Have her make the other kids stop teasing me? Or if you can't do that, could you at least help me find a real friend? If I had one real friend, someone I could trust, I could ignore the things everyone else says. It would make such a difference...
She drew back, and stared at what she'd just written. And then shook her head. It was ridiculous, asking a journal for things. It wasn't like the thing could ever answer back.
Shutting the journal, she dropped it on the couch beside her and then picked up the book she'd pulled out to read.
At least I can spend a quiet hour or three, she thought, learning about the development of the compound wagon harness...
"Moon-Moon! Hey! Are you resting your eyes?"
Moondancer looked up, blinking fuzzily. She realized she must have nodded off. The sun had set, and the librarians had lit the lamps, giving the library's interior a warm, rich, flickering glow.
She saw her father standing in front of her, a scroll held tightly in his magic. He was smiling proudly. "I'm so glad I thought to check around the library for you before heading home. Here, have a look, honey... you're gonna love this!"
Moondancer took the scroll and unrolled it. And stared. "Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns?"
Dusty Pages nodded eagerly. "A friend at the Archives heard about your test scores, and suggested we try enrolling you in the School. So we did, Mama and I. We didn't tell you, because we wanted it to be a surprise. And they must have liked what they saw, because they accepted you! Provisionally, pending the usual entrance exam." He waved a hoof. "But with your test scores, I'm sure you'll ace that!"
"Wow, that's just... thanks, Dad!"
"Hey! You earned it, hon!" Then her father looked uneasy. "Of course... it does mean you'll be living at the School while you're there. It's how they run things, apparently. But Mama and I talked about it, and we think it's for the best. And, hey, the School's right here in Canterlot so it's not like you'll be far away or anything. We can always come visit, and we'll all be together for the holidays, just like usual. How's that grab you?"
She stared at him, uneasily.
"Do you think that... anyone else here... will be going to the School?"
Dusty smirked. "Doubt it, kiddo. According to your test results, you're one of a kind here!"
Moondancer looked at the journal, lying on the cushion beside her.
Thanks, she thought. She wasn't exactly clear on who she was thanking.
Then she looked at her father again. "That sounds great, Dad! How soon can I go?"
Ms. Flask, Science and Light Magic, Moondancer read. Well, this is it.
Moondancer cautiously inched through the doorway, into the classroom, and peered around. The fillies and colts were all taking their seats, laughing and chattering with each other.
Head lowered, Moondancer made her way over to a nearby student table.
"Hi," she said quietly to one of the students already sitting there. "Is this spot taken? Is it okay if I sit here?"
"Hey! Sure!" the cyan unicorn replied brightly. "I'm Minuette!" She pointed to the other two ponies at the table. "And that's Lemon Hearts. And that's Twin-kle-shine!"
The other ponies nodded pleasantly as she pointed to them.
Two ponies with single-word names, Moondancer thought. That's a good start already...
"Um, I'm... Moondancer," she muttered, cringing uncomfortably. "I'm new here. I just started."
"Hey, Moondancer!" Minuette replied, giggling. "Welcome to the crazy house!"
"Nice to meet you," Lemon Hearts said. "You just started? Woah! How about that entrance exam, huh?" She rolled her eyes.
"No kidding!" Twinkleshine agreed. "I was never so nervous in my life! How did you do, Moondancer?"
Moondancer scratched at her mane uncomfortably. As expected, she'd aced the exam... but she didn't want anyone thinking she was stuck up about it.
"Uhm... they told me I did really well... for a beginner."
"Wow!" Minuette goggled. "They actually said something to you? You know they usually just scribble something mysterious on those clipboards they have, and then call in the next student. You must've really wowed 'em, huh?"
Twinkleshine grinned. "Not as much as Twilight Sparkle, I bet!" She nodded her head, and when Moondancer turned to look, she saw seated at one of the front tables a lavender filly with a blue mane. There was a book spread open on the table before her. The filly had her elbows on the table, her hooves pressed to her cheeks, and she was staring down at the book intensely, as if she was trying to make it catch fire with her mind alone.
Twilight Sparkle! Moondancer was astounded. The Princess's personal student? She'd heard about Twilight, of course, but hadn't expected to see her anywhere nearly as mundane as a classroom.
"Oh yeah!" Minuette laughed. "Ol' Twilight nearly took the roof off the exam hall hatching a dragon's egg! She knows just about everything there is to know about magic, I bet!"
"She doesn't say much, though," Twinkleshine said. "You really have to prod her to say anything at all."
"Wait..." Moondancer said, "you've talked with her?"
"Oh, sure!" Minuette nodded. "We sometimes get together to study after school, actually."
Moondancer goggled. "Really?"
"Yep. But when we say study," Lemon Hearts added, "we mean study! Twilight doesn't say a word, just sits there and reads, the whole time."
"But when we quiz each other afterwards," Twinkleshine noted, "she never misses a question. Not once! And she's real patient with us when we mess stuff up. She just explains the right answer, and moves on."
"Word of advice, though," Minuette giggled. "Don't take her anywhere near a library, or you won't see her for hours! That pony really loves her books!"
Moondancer turned to stare at Twilight, who was still sitting there, by herself, trying to incinerate her book with her eyes, her magenta magic smoothly flicking the pages.
Now there's a pony, Moondancer thought, that I can relate to...
... a pony just like me.
She bit her lip, nervously. "Uhm... I know I only just got here but..."
"Hey!" Minutte interrupted. "I just had a great idea! You want to come study with all of us? We could introduce you to Twilight! You two would just totally get along, I can tell!"
"That... would be so nice of you!" Moondancer replied, amazed at her luck.
"No problem!" Minuette said. "The more the merrier, right girls?" The other two nodded agreeably.
And Moondancer sighed in relief.
Maybe, she thought, just maybe... I'll get it right this time. As long as I don't open my big mouth and spoil everything. Well, that can't happen if I just don't say anything. I'll just keep my mouth shut, and focus on studying...
... just like Twilight...
The next morning, Moondancer was in the School library, sitting on the window seat beneath the picture window. She had the blue journal open on her lap, and her quill scribbled industriously.
Dear Nightmare Moon --
Sorry I haven't written sooner. Things have been going so great! We all got together for a study session yesterday afternoon, and I was right! Twilight is just like me! She loves to read, and to study really hard subjects! And she can give the answer to any question at all, just like that! Maybe she'll want to be friends with me. That would be so great. Maybe even... maybe she'd even let me sit next to her in class. Then I'd finally have a really close friend, someone that I can really talk to, anytime at all, about anything and everything... except...
Moondancer winced. Her quill paused for a moment. She felt guilty.
Except for you, Nightmare Moon, she wrote. I hope you won't be upset, but I just can't risk talking with anypony about you anymore. It's just not worth the risk of them finding out, and laughing and calling me names again. Especially not Twilight! If she ever found out about you, I don't... I just don't know what I'd do!
Moondancer felt sad. She felt like she was betraying an old, trusted friend. Even if it was just words in a book...
I'm so sorry! I'll still write to you, obviously. But only in private, in secret. I hope you'll understand --
"Excuse me? Moondancer, right?"
Moondancer looked up, shocked. Her forehooves slapped the journal shut so fast that she trapped the quill, still quivering, between its pages.
Twilight Sparkle looked at her with a bemused smile. "Oh! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to startle you. I just wanted to ask... is that Star Swirl's comparative monograph on spell construction strategies?"
Moondancer looked at the volume she was pointing at. "Um... oh, yeah! It is."
"Do you need it right now? Could I have it? I'm writing an essay on iterative versus recursive spell construction, and I wanted to quote him as a source reference."
"Oh sure! Go right ahead," Moondancer grabbed the book in her hooves and nervously held it out. "I was only reading it for fun anyways."
"Really?" Twilight grinned, as she took the book with her magic. "I thought I was the only one who read these things for fun!" She rolled her eyes. "I mean... spell construction, right?"
Moondancer nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean. It gets a little boring sometimes, but..."
"... but when you see how all the pieces go together," Twilight said, her face lighting up, "and how spells are just structure, just a conduit for the magic..."
Moondancer nodded. "... and you're basically turning what you want the magic to do into a shape for the magic to flow through, it's like..." She hunted for words. "It's like every single one of these papers is suddenly a building block, that you can add to your collection!"
"Yeah!" Twilight nodded. "And then they're just like candy, almost! Suddenly you can't get enough of them! Ah, ahem." She coughed into her hoof. "Sorry! I get a little carried away when the topic is magic!"
"Oh, yeah," Moondancer said, nodding. "Me too."
Twilight smiled. "So... if you're reading Star Swirl," she went on, "have you read anything by Knuth? Or Hoofstadter?"
"Hoofstadter?" Moondancer said, puzzled.
"You know," Twilight said, "Hoofstadter's Law? Everything takes longer than you think, even when you take into account Hoofstadter's Law?"
Moondancer grinned. "I don't think I've read him!"
"I bet you'd like him! He's a fun read. And there's a bunch of other key authors in spellwork you'd like too, if you haven't read them. I could show you where they are, if you want."
"Well, sure!" Moondancer quickly shoved the journal and her other books into her carryall, then willingly followed along as Twilight led the way into the stacks.
And she was astonished by how lively and talkative Twilight was -- not at all like the quiet, serious-looking pony at the study session...
Then Moondancer looked around, realizing.
Of course... a library. A place where she feels comfortable just opening up and being herself...
... just like me.
A couple weeks later, after a particularly challenging pop test in history class, the group pooled their bits for an impromptu cupcake party at the café and sweet shop on Diamond Avenue.
Lemon Hearts, Twinkleshine, and Minuette were all munching their favorite cupcakes, and chattering a mile a minute. They'd even managed to rope in Minuette's friend Lyra Heartstrings. Just to be different, the pistachio-colored filly had a pistachio-frosted muffin sitting in front of her, as she gabbed and laughed with the others.
Moondancer herself had a white-frosted cupcake with small candies sprinkled on it. But she paid it no attention, looking instead at Twilight Sparkle, sitting next to her.
She'd just given Twilight a small book that she'd spent over an hour searching for in the used bookshop up the street. It was a copy of Principles of Magic, and while she half-suspected Twilight already had a copy, she hoped the fact it was a first edition would make it special.
There was even an inscription on the title page, which Moondancer had spent hours working out, on seemingly endless pieces of scrap paper:
To my friend, Twilight Sparkle.
Thanks for introducing me to the classics.
But she wasn't certain whether Twilight had even seen the inscription. The lavender unicorn had just flipped the book open and started reading it, right there at the table, completely tuning everyone out. None of the other ponies even seemed to notice -- they apparently took it as perfectly natural behavior, coming from Twilight.
Moondancer stared at Twilight, feeling anxious. This wasn't the reaction she'd been hoping for. Maybe she hates it, Moondancer thought. Maybe she's just pretending to read it, to be polite? She must have a copy already. But why's she making such a show of going through the whole thing, page by page? Ohhh... did I just mess up again? Was the inscription too much? Maybe I should have just given her the book, not made a big deal out of it. Or maybe...
Then Twilight looked up at her.
"Thanks, Moondancer... I always liked this one. I'd just about worn out my old copy, so it's great having a replacement that's in such good shape."
Moondancer hesitantly smiled.
"Oh, no problem, Twilight. Glad you like it..."
Okay..., she thought. Kind of a mixed message there. But at least she likes it. Maybe there's hope after all...
That evening, Moondancer sat by the window in the library, writing in her journal. The quill quivered with the tension in her magic.
Dear Nightmare Moon -- I'm going to do it. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to ask Twilight if I can sit with her in class. I hope she'll let me. Maybe... maybe she'll be my friend?
She thought anxiously for a moment.
I know that you once wrote, in The Way of the Night, that you don't really believe in luck. That the Stars are geometry, not portent. But... wish me luck all the same? I need all the help I can get...
And now... she was sitting there again, on the window seat, writing in the journal:
I was so close! I almost managed it. I almost got to sit next to Twilight Sparkle. And like usual, I wimped out. I missed my chance. What do I do now? How do I get Twilight to notice me, to see how much I want us to be friends? Why... why am I always so useless, so worthless?
Her quill paused. She stared out through the window. Then she stared at the blank section of the page, below what she'd written.
If only... she thought. If only I could get an answer back...
And then she kept on writing:
I don't really think I'm cut out to be friends with anyone.
She thought about it for a while, then nodded.
I'm just too nervous, she wrote. Too afraid of getting it wrong. It's so hard to know what to say. I keep messing things up. I think... I think I should just stick with my books. My books, my studies...
... and you, Nightmare Moon. You've always been here for me...
She shut her eyes, lowered her head.
And cried quietly, alone.