“Fillies and gentlecolts!” The PA system whined with a sudden burst of squealing static that made everypony wince. Mayor Mare, consummate politician, maintained her expression of delighted pride until the bevy of tech ponies had fixed the problem. She carried out without missing a beat. “I am delighted and proud to announce that Ponyville’s seventy-fifth annual Summer Fete is officially … open!”
On cue, Princess Luna opened her wings and fluttered from her place on the podium to the red ribbon strung across the spot designated the entrance to the meadow for today. She levitated a pair of absurdly oversized scissor and snipped with ribbon neatly in two. It whiffled to the ground amidst thunderous stamps and hoots from the assembled crowd. Luna smiled beatifically, nodded once and then hovered out of their way.
“Masterfully done, your highness.” Though she covered the microphone with a hoof, Mayor Mare’s whisper echoed through the speakers placed at intervals throughout the stalls and other activities. “Ack! Ponyfeathers.”
“I thank you for your graciousness in inviting me to open such a splendid occasion,” Luna replied. “Extremely large scissors, most amusing.”
“Uh. Yes. Quite.”
“Now, if you will excuse me, I wish to partake of the festivities with my companion.”
“Ahh … yes … your compan–” Mayor Mare frowned at the mic beneath her hoof. “Light Bright, is there some way to stop this blasted thing from broadcasting every single word I say?”
“The switch on the side, ma’am.”
“The one labelled ‘off’.”
Applejack knocked shoulders with Twilight. “Close your mouth, sugarcube, or else you’ll catch flies.”
Twilight snapped her lower jaw shut. “Please tell me this was a good idea.”
“The fete. Princess Luna. Him. Tell me it was a good idea.”
“You’re the pony of honesty, right? If you tell me I made the right decision by suggesting they come here today, that has to make it true.”
Applejack looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Sugarcube, I don’t –”
“Will you relax already, Twilight?” Ever the master of dramatically unexpected arrivals, Rainbow Dash landed between them, causing both ponies to stumble sideways a few steps. “It’ll be fine. Stop stressing so much and chill.”
A light tinkling of laughter heralded Rarity’s approach, Sweetie Belle in tow. “Stop stressing and chill? Darling, do remember to whom you’re talking.”
“To whom?” Rainbow Dash screwed up her nose.
“If you make faces like that, someday your face will stick.” Rarity patted Twilight on her wing. “She is correct though, darling. It’s a simple country fete. What could possibly go wrong?”
Twilight closed her eyes. “Where do I start? This simple country fete is in Ponyville. This town has a knack for attracting trouble when we least expect it.”
“Well … yes, I will concede that’s true, but that’s no reason to expect trouble.” Rarity endured Twilight’s gaze for a full three seconds before adding, “Well it’s no reason to expect it today at any rate.”
“Rarity, can I have some bits for the stalls please?” Sweetie Belle asked. “I said to Apple Bloom and Scootaloo that I’d meet them, Diamond Tiara, Silver Spoon and Twist by the coconut shy.”
“Goodness, you and your growing social entourage!” Rarity exclaimed. “My sister, the socialite. Oh, I’m so proud!” Delicately, she retrieved several coins from her saddlebag and presented them to her sister like they were the crown jewels of Canterlot Castle. As Sweetie accepted them into her own telekinesis, Rarity planted a kiss on top of her head.
“Rarityyyyyy! I thought we agreed you wouldn’t do that in public anymooooore!”
Rarity laughed and shooed her off.
“Oh, they grow up so fast, don’t they?” Shed wiped an invisible tear from her eye. “But back to the matter at hoof. Twilight, I absolutely insist you come with me and stop thinking about Princess Luna and her, ah … stallion friend.”
“Seems a mite more than a friend to me,” Applejack muttered. “Friends don’t go on dates, for one thing.”
Rarity rolled her eyes, grabbed Twilight’s hoof and dragged her away. “Come, darling, the tombola awaits!”
“Tombola? Boooooooooring. I’m going to hit the Whack-a-Rat stall!” Rainbow Dash took to the air, sparing Applejack a deprecating look. “You’re probably doing something epically boring too, huh?”
“Nah, Big Mac’s got first crack on our stall. I figured I’d take a turn or two around the meadow before I take over; see what’s what.” Applejack watched the departing unicorn and alicorn as she spoke.
A sly grin crept over Rainbow Dash’s face. “Bet I can whack more fake rats than you.”
A matching grin curled the corners of Applejack’s mouth. “You’re on, sugarcube.”
“He is different than he was.” Luna hung her head so low, her muzzle nearly dipped into the soup a servant had brought for her. “The doctor called it … some collection of letters I did not understand. Post-something.”
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?” Celestia ventured. “PTSD?”
“That sounds close enough that it may be correct.”
“He did undergo a great trauma, sister.”
“He has not spoken a word since we woke him.” Luna’s voice was a hoarse whisper that made Celestia’s heart clench. “Not one word in three days. Not … not even to … me.” A bead of moisture slipped off her nose and plopped into her soup. “All he does is stare. It is like he is not there behind his eyes anymore.”
Not since they were first reunited after Nightmare Moon had Celestia so wanted to take all the ills in her sister’s life and make them her own, just to bring Luna a little peace. It had taken months of carefully lavished love, care and encouragement to heal Luna that time. Yet even so, the issue with the Tantabus had proven that even then, her mental state had scarred over but not truly healed even years after her reintegration to Equestrian society.
“The doctors said to give it time.”
“I know what the physicians said!” In a sudden burst of explosive motion, Luna’s forehooves smashed down on the table-top. She leaned forward, snorting through flared nostrils and glaring at her sister with all the wrath of a ruler of the realm facing down a terrible foe.
For her part, Celestia calmly wiped pieces of vegetables from her face and blinked soup off her eyelashes. She used her hooves to remove the upended soup bowl from her horn. Her magic was still weak and she needed to conserve everything she could for raising and lowering the sun each day. She did not take her eyes off Luna.
Gradually, Luna’s expression eased into one of regret. She removed her hooves one at a time, staring wordlessly at the deep indentations she had left into the solid oak. Her expression was inscrutable, but she averted her face and muttered, “I … apologise, sister. I did not mean to do that.”
“It’s all right, Luna,” Celestia said softly. “And it’s all right to be upset, too.”
“When I get upset, bad things tend to happen.”
Celestia allowed herself a tiny frown. “So you intend to bottle up your true emotions and wear a mask for the rest of your life on the off chance that you turn into Nightmare Moon again? Is that it?”
“No.” Luna scowled at a nearby drape; a gift from the mayor of Glascow that they left up only because to take it down would be improper. “I was being somewhat facetious. Rainbow Dash informed me that in times of personal crisis, it is best to make some form of humorous quip to break the tension.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow. “That was a humorous quip?”
“Is self-deprecation not a form of humour?” Luna glowered at the drape as if its ugliness offended her. “I will never get the hang of modern customs.”
“Get the hang of? You seem to be fine with modern vernacular, at least.”
Luna turned to blink at her. Slowly, a smile graced her lips. It was a small, sickly thing, but it was better than nothing. It wavered after a few moments, however. “I … am scared, Tia. I thought that if … if we were able to wake him … to break him, from his crystal prison … that he … that everything would be … would b-be…”
“I know, Luna.” Celestia rose and trotted around the table to pull her into a hug. “It isn’t fair.”
“In the words of the populace, it s-sucks.”
Celestia rested her head against her sister’s. “We will find a way, Lu-Lu,” she murmured, letting the names from their long-ago foalhood bounce off each other, hoping they would reverberate comfort into her little sister’s poor battered soul. “Give him time and give him love. That’s all you can do for now. The rest is up to him and time.”
“I will.” Luna buried her face in Celestia’s limply wafting mane. “I will.”
“Roll up, roll up! Knock a coconut off its stand and win a prize! You, good sir! Would you like to win a plush toy for this lovely lucky lady you’re with?” The brown stallion in the pinstripe waistcoat bore a disturbing resemblance to Flim and Flam, Twilight noted with distaste. She hadn’t liked them out of loyalty to Applejack and her family, but her recent jaunt into a universe where their moneygrubbing destroyed Ponyville had left her with an even worse taste in her mouth. If she ever saw either brother again, it would be too soon.
The stallion running the Coconut Shy pushed a small beanbag into Caramel’s hesitant hoof.
“Um…” Caramel was clearly more flustered than his date. Sassasflash giggled behind a raised foreleg, though whether at his discomfort or being called ‘lovely’, Twilight couldn’t be sure. “Sure,” Caramel gulped.
He stepped up and hurled the beanbag at the long poles topped with coconuts lined against the far end of the stall. It flopped harmlessly two feet in front of him. His face flamed.
“Best two outta three?” offered the pinstriped stallion.
He held out a trio of beanbags and his other, empty hoof. “Only the first throw is free, sunshine. That’ll be a bit.”
Caramel fumbled in his saddlebag for a coin. His next two throws were equally ineffective. By this time, a couple of other ponies had gathered to watch. They all snickered at his failures.
“Now that’s just cruel,” said a voice in Twilight’s ear.
She turned. “Rarity!”
“You wandered off while I was choosing my prize, darling.” A beautifully decorated lemon meringue pie hovered next to her, its yellow colouring dimmed slightly by the darker aura of her magic. Rarity continued to frown at the display Twilight had been watching. “This is akin to bullying.” Her frown deepened. “I simply detest bullies.”
Caramel prepared for his final throw. A muscles in his jaw twitched. He drew back his foreleg and hurled the last beanbag. It travelled further than the others, but still flopped far short of the actual coconuts. Behind him, the collection of watchers hooted and applauded with anything but sincerity.
“Aren’t you an earth pony? I thought earth ponies were meant to be stronger than unicorns or pegasi!”
“Ol’ Caramel always was one for bucking trends.”
“That’s the only thing he can buck properly! Have you ever seen him try to buck apples? It’s priceless!”
Any other stallion might have rounded on them and yelled, or else gone with the joke and laughed too, but Caramel simply averted his gaze and tried to escape. Sassaflash turned blazing eyes on the group.
“You cretins made him miss!”
“Sure we did.” Thunderlane rolled his eyes. “Couldn’t possibly be because his throwing hoof sucks.”
“Impossible,” agreed Lucky.
“Totally.” Berry Punch rubbed at her nose in what might have been a nervous tick. “Show ‘em how it’s done, Luckster.”
“Don’t call me that,” Lucky protested. Still, he stepped forward and opened his mouth, clearly about to ask the pinstriped pony for a turn, when he was interrupted by an all too familiar voice.
“Verily, what is going on over here?”
Twilight’s blood froze. She had rather hoped she would be able to go the whole rest of the fete without running into Princess Luna. Instead there she was, trotting cheerfully out of the crowd towards the little group that had gathered. Luna looked over her shoulder and a moment later the tallest stallion Twilight had ever seen appeared too.
He was taller than Big Macintosh by far. Twilight knew from seeing them together that even Princess Celestia had no reason to look down if she wanted to meet his mismatching eyes. Given that no other pony in all of Equestria could boast these things, it made encountering him more than a little unnerving, even for an alicorn like herself. On the few occasions she had actually spoken to him, she had come away with the feeling of a flea under a microscope, pinned to an invisible slide by his gaze and reticence.
“Oh, what fun!” Princess Luna’s hooves made tiny metal clinks as she clapped them together in delight. “The object is to knock down the coconuts with the … what are these called?”
“Beanbags,” Twilight squeaked.
“I assume the object is physical prowess, not magical aptitude,” said the tall stallion. His voice was soft as a velveteen shadow. Despite herself, all the hairs along Twilight’s back stood straight.
“Uh … if you mean you can’t use no unicorn magic, then sure,” said the pinstriped stallion.
“Hmm.” The tall stallion blinked languidly. “Would you like a turn, my princess?”
Luna seemed to flinch a little at his words. Only a pony who had known her as long as Twilight would have noticed. Long days and nights in Canterlot learning how to be a princess had put herself and the ruler of the night in the same room a lot. Luna’s smile returned instantly, but the flinch had definitely been there. Twilight frowned, not understanding. She hated it when she didn’t understand things.
“Indeed I would!” Luna boomed. She trotted forward and held out an imperious hoof. The pinstriped pony placed a beanbag into it, hesitating only slightly. Luna took aim and threw the beanbag. It knocked lightly against one of the poles, causing the coconut atop it wobble but not fall off. “This is much harder than it looks!” she said, apparently with delight. “Again!”
“Uh … that’ll be … one bit … your majesty,” the pinstriped stallion gulped.
Rather than Luna giving him the coin, the tall stallion stepped up beside her and delicately placed it in the stallholder’s hoof. He had apparently already readied it and nodded as he back away again to stand behind Luna.
“Will you not stand beside me, Mystic?” she asked suddenly.
“I would be in the way, my princess,” he replied quietly. “You need room to draw back your hoof.”
There was that flinch again. Twilight stared hard at Luna’s face as she aimed and threw all the three beanbags in such quick succession that the pole bearing the wobbly coconut had given up its prize while the third was still in the air.
“A winner!” the pinstriped stallion announced, dashing out to fetch the coconut. He presented it to Luna with a brief bow. “Congratulations, your majesty!”
Luna accepted it and stared at her prize. “Hm. What to do with this, I wonder?”
“Applejack could probably put it into some sort of pie,” Rarity opined with a slight eye-roll. “Alongside her apples, of course. Can’t have any sort of pie without apples.”
“Then I shall award this coconut to friend Applejack!” Luna declared. “Mystic, will you not take a turn and see if you might also win a prize for her? I have tasted her pies and will vouch that they are delicious. Coconuts will surely only add to their flavour.”
“As you wish,” Mystic said softly. He stepped forward, paid the stallholder and prepared to make his own throw.
“I think you are leaning a little too far to–” Luna started.
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
CHAK! CHAK! CHAK!
Three poles barely moved as their coconuts were knocked off by three perfect hits.
“Uh, um…” The pinstriped pony gawped for a second before gathering himself. “Uh, a winner, everypony! And what a winner he is! Three for three by hoof alone!”
Mystic took the coconuts from him and brought them to Twilight and Rarity. “Do you think these will be enough for your friend’s needs?”
“Uh…” Rarity stared.
Mystic continued to stare implacably.
“Thank you.” Twilight accepted all three into her aura. “Mystic.” The name prised off her tongue like her saliva her turned to glue. Stop that. You’re being rude and … and overreacting! He’s harmless and nice and normal, normal, so normal, nothing abnormal about him. Nope. Nothing at all.
A coconut clonked her in the head. Twilight folded like a bad hand in cards. One moment the sky and grass were where they should be, the next they had reversed.
“Oh dear! Twilight!” Rarity cried out.
“I told her to catch it!” Luna sounded more anxious than annoyed.
Twilight’s ears rang. Had that been a coconut or a piece of concrete? A shrinking circle of darkness signaled it had been somewhere in between.
“Make room!” somepony shouted. No longer soft, Mystic boomed with the Royal Canterlot Voice. “Do not crowd around her so!”
The circle closed.
Twilight passed out.