Twilight Sparkle blinks at my chalkboard. "Wait. How do you pronounce it again?"
With a sigh, Pinkie pushes her glasses further up her nose. "Both ways at once!"
I shake my head. "Truthfully, Twilight, we haven't time for semantics. We have but until dawn to create the perfect gift to show my sister how important she is to me. You were Celestia's student, so you should know—"
"Cake," Twilight says, her wings ruffling with her shrug. "You can't go wrong giving her cake."
"Mmmm..." Pinkie's whole face curves into a smile. "And the kitchen here is just the dreamiest. So...many...spatulas..."
Clearing my throat, I attempt to steer my co-conspirators back to a place that might be within shouting distance of the point. "Cake is, of course, always an option, but I just— I want to— I should somehow be able to show her—" My throat runs dry, and I try to find the words to explain the turmoil in my chest. After several sputtering seconds, however, all I can say is, "She's Celestia."
"I hear you." Twilight nods. "Talk about the mare who has everything! I mean—" Her gaze darts around the nearly empty room. "This doesn't leave these walls, but for her birthday every year, I still make these little drawings to give her the same way I have since I was a foal."
"Drawings?" Pinkie grins. "I didn't know you did any art stuff, Twilight!"
"Only for her." The plaintive note in her voice is so very, very familiar, it makes me swallow. "They're just silly little cartoons and not very good, but, well, they're about the only thing nopony else can give her."
More silence settles over us, but Pinkie breaks it quickly: chalk squeaking between her teeth, she puts a check mark next to the number two on the board. "Time for Phase Three, then." She writes the number three, and after it sketches a fairly good likeness of me in three-quarter profile with the label 'Luna' below it. "Be her little sister, Princess. 'Cause you're the only pony who can."
And as much as I want to grab hold of that simple and inarguable fact, sink my teeth into it and never let it go, I can't. Because I know the truth. "That...that's not good enough." Which is half the truth and as much of it as I was planning to speak out loud mere seconds ago. But suddenly, half the truth isn't enough. "I'm not good enough," I finish, my gaze fixed firmly on the floor.
Another instant of silence, then wings and hooves are embracing me, Twilight's voice in my right ear—"That's not true, Luna! Not true at all!"—and Pinkie's in my left—"It's the lyingest lie any pony ever made up!"
I don't know what startles me the most: the physical contact or the vehemence behind their words. My inability to choose between freezing and fleeing becomes itself a choice, but sitting there with the two of them warm and solid around me, I can at least choke out: "It was only due to you and your friends that I didn't complete my descent into utter degradation! Only because of you that I could finally see what I'd become and beg my sister's forgiveness!" Tightness clenches my throat, but I won't let it stop me. "Don't you see? When you gave me my life back, I gave it to her! And she...she returned it to me with her love! How can I...how can I ever repay her?"
That's when I lose the fight, lose the power of speech, lose the ability to see through the water welling up between my eyelids. Twilight and Pinkie never slacken their grips, never pull away from my face pressed to their shoulders, and after a time, I'm able to draw a full breath again. "Ah," is the first semi-intelligible sound to emerge from my mouth, but I follow it quickly with, "I could've used the two of you a thousand-odd years ago. The history of Equestria would likely have turned out a good deal differently." I pull back far enough to see their faces but not so far that they'll have to let me go.
Twilight's eyes are full of concern, but her smile is genuine enough. "You're all right now?" she asks.
"She is," Pinkie answers. She waves a hoof toward the chalkboard. "Phase Three's up on the big board, Missy, and you know better'n anypony that it's the only real option. So the question is: are you ready?"
I meet the unwavering gaze of the chalk-drawn me upon the big board, pull in a double lungful of air, and stretching my neck as far as I ever so possibly can, I puff that air out of myself once and for all.
Because I'm done with lies, I decide, sitting in this room with two of the dearest ponies I've ever known. And being done with lies includes acknowledging that the truth I declared mere moments ago is in fact a falsehood. I am now and always have been good enough.
Good enough to be number two.
Denying the truth of that statement has darkened my every thought and tainted my every breath for more centuries than I care to think about. Denying the truth of that statement engulfed me in madness and horror. Denying the truth of that statement will merely cause me to simper and whine about my place in Celestia's shadow for the rest of my days when what I should be doing is standing tall and proud beside her and doing my utmost to live the finest life I'm able to live.
A part of me bristles at the thought, of course, but I recognize it as the very part of me that led to my recent thousand-year sojourn on the moon. Curling a figurative lip at that shivering sliver of myself, I demand in thunderous silence that it vacate my premises at once! For do I not understand what a glorious life is mine? I am a princess of Equestria! The merest touch of my thought tickles the moon itself, every star that shines within the heavens, and the dreams of myriad sleepers across the length and breadth of the world! Countless lives are my nightly responsibility, and it is a responsibility I bear with gladness and joy!
Yes, I will never be number one. Not in Equestria, not in the hearts and minds of her inhabitants, not in this city, not in this castle, not anywhere. But I am number two, the second among equals. That is the truth, and returning my attention once more to the big board, I decide that I shall now and forevermore be okay with it.
"Yes," I repeat aloud to my friends. "I'm very nearly ready." I activate my horn to push the workroom door open and pull a box of facial tissues in from the lavatory, my damp face in sore need of them. "My plan is that we first contact Spike and our other Ponyville compatriots to see if they're available for breakfast here in the morning. Although I believe Fluttershy is already within these walls..."
Judicious inquiries not only turn up Fluttershy tucked away in a guest bedroom with two of her avian companions, but we also find Rainbow Dash in the room next door. "I got a note from Princess Celestia," she tells us all in my parlor once we've convened there. "She said she wasn't sure, but she thought she might need a Double Rainboom going off just after sunset tomorrow."
For the briefest of instants, my resolution quivers, and I'm tempted to ask Rainbow if she'd mind performing her stunt at dawn instead. But I let it go. As I was the only party involved in the war of the past few days, I can just as unilaterally declare a cease-fire.
Twilight volunteers to bear the breakfast invitations to Spike, Applejack, and Rarity, and I'm interested to see that her long-range teleportation skills have definitely improved during her tenure as a princess: she returns intact with smiles and positive acknowledgements. Pinkie sets to work assembling what she refers to as "one epically gigantic cinnamon streusel 'cause it's a cake you eat for breakfast!" And I send the others to bed with the warning that I shall be waking them a great deal earlier than they might like.
Performing my duties that night both in the waking world and the dreaming brings me a lightness I've not felt in quite some time—millennia, perhaps. The weight of the world balances exactly between my wings, and dispensing law, justice, and mercy with a stern but cheerful hope, I find that those who come under my purview are somehow taking that hope, amplifying it, and reflecting it back at me. And as much as I have always loved administering my realm, on this particular night, my every deed seems to resonate across Equestria more strongly than ever.
I'm in fact quite invigorated as I set into the last hour before dawn. I check on Pinkie, putting the final touches on a veritable rain barrel of a coffee cake with so buttery and magnificent an aroma, it's all I can do to drag myself away to awaken the others. Twilight pops into the spaces between space almost immediately to fetch the three members of our party still in Ponyville, and once Pinkie has sworn them all in as Funatics, I leave them discussing how the word should be pronounced and head for Sunny's balcony.
She's waiting there, of course, and the semi-startled look on her face makes me think she senses the change in me. "All's well, sister?" she asks.
"More than usual," I answer. I give her my report on how Equestria has fared during the night, and she replies with her usual thoughtful responses. We then turn to the east, and I nudge her with an elbow. "Fear not," I say, beginning the process of sloughing off the weight of the world. "No stunts this morning."
"Oh?" She gives me a sideways glance and grin. "Then the war's over?"
The phrase too clever by half, I've always thought, was coined specifically with my sister in mind. "Your victory breakfast awaits you within," I tell her, "along with the Princess of Friendship and our other friends from Ponyville. We don't see them enough, so I invited them to visit this morning." I can't stop a sigh. "I shan't say they're a gift since, like everything else in this world, they aren't mine to give you." We're standing side by side watching the sun come up, so I can't really meet her gaze. "But still, Sunny, I...I love you, and I hope we'll always be friends."
"I agree with every word." She leans into me, and the warmth of her touch loosens the last knots in my midsection. "Except for that one part."
"Oh?" The mantle of universal power shifts from my shoulders, and I'm once again left both fuller and emptier. "And which part is that?"
"The part where you say you don't have a gift to give me." Turning, Sunny bathes me in the radiance of her complete attention. "This whole half of the year, Starry, from the summer solstice to the first day of winter." Her smile is sweeter than any songbirds' melody, than the fragrance of any dozen flowers. "The way you let me have a few more seconds of sleep every morning? That's the most wonderful of all possible gifts." Stepping forward, she bends her neck to embrace mine. "And to have my sister with me again, now and forever," she mutters. "I don't mind that at all, either."
I can't help chuckling into her shoulder. "Glad to be of service," I tell her. "Now, our friends have a breakfast cake with your name on it awaiting you in the—"
Wheeling away, she leaps from the balcony. "I hope you made two!" she calls back, flapping with all her considerable might toward the dining room.
Blinking, I laugh and leap after her.