The night was one for quiet contemplation; silent and still, the air itself frozen, every breath Twilight Sparkle took left to hang in a cloud of white before her. The sleek, icy winter landscape - vast snowdrifts glittering in the moonlight - stretched far and wide before her. The pegasi had done their jobs well that year. Only the first day, and winter was already off to a promisingly shivery start.
Trying to avoid shivering herself, Twilight sighed and magically tightened the woollen scarf that she'd wrapped around her neck, attempting to tuck herself even further into the warm folds.
She could've easily cast a protective shield against the cold, but Princess Luna didn't seem to notice it. Unlike the small purple unicorn beside her, she wore no scarf or boots, yet didn't appear bothered in the slightest - perhaps one of the side effects of divinity. Although she knew it was silly, Twilight couldn't help but worry that it would mean she'd somehow lose the princess's respect if she gave in to the chilly weather.
And so she continued to follow the princess as they walked through Whitetail Woods together, accompanied only by the sound of their hooves crunching through the snow.
A night like this hadn't been seen in Equestria for centuries. Tonight, the moon would fall into the planet's shadow, resulting in a lunar eclipse taking place on the eve of the winter solstice. For a period of approximately seventy-five minutes, starting at two-thirty in the morning, the moon would be completely hidden from view. Because of the solstice, this night would truly be the longest night of the year, and for those seventy-five precious little minutes, the moon would be stolen, hidden from view by the totality of night.
Such a phenomenon hadn't occurred for nearly five hundred years, and it promised to be spectacular. Twilight Sparkle had been preparing for months, until she'd grown confident that there was nothing she wouldn't be able to handle; for an amateur astronomer, she liked to believe that she knew quite a bit about the science of the eclipse itself - perhaps even as much as a professional would. She'd promised herself that her countless sleepless nights of research and study wouldn't have been in vain, and she was determined to make the most of such an important meteorological event.
A request to accompany Luna hadn't been a part of her original plans, true ... but so what? Twilight could be accommodating. Especially since the princess had promised to guide her to a choice observation point to view the eclipse from.
Originally, her plan had been to go alone, knowing that her friends all either had no interest in the eclipse (despite her attempts to convince them of the worthiness of such an event) or were too busy to join her. That hadn't bothered the unicorn in the slightest. It felt as though her life had begun to revolve around others lately, and though that was a pleasant change of pace, compared to the way things used to be, it had been a long time since Twilight Sparkle had had any time to herself. A calm, tranquil night of stargazing alone seemed promising, and not only because of her inner scholar's compulsion to witness and record such a once-in-a-lifetime event.
But then she'd written to Princess Celestia to tell of her intentions, and had received a reply from Luna instead. The letter had been short, saying only that she, too, had plans to watch the eclipse and wanting to know whether or not Twilight would like to keep her company that night.
At first, Twilight had been hesitant to agree. After all, she hadn't seen the younger princess since Nightmare Night all those weeks ago. They'd parted on friendly enough terms, but after that, it was as though Luna had gone back into hiding.
According to Celestia, she was nocturnal, meaning that she slept during the day and rarely had the opportunity to meet others. As a result, her sister had grown aloof, choosing to distance herself intentionally rather than confess to her loneliness.
But after some consideration, Twilight Sparkle had decided to say yes. It would be a chance to get to know her better, after all. It would be nice to make a new friend. And in a way, she almost felt guilty about the distance that had been between her and Luna since Nightmare Night. As though she should've tried harder to stay connected, rather than let the apparently lonely Luna drift away, pulling back into herself. As though she'd let somepony down.
In the past, Twilight might have been thrown into a panic at the slightest change of plans; but she liked to believe that she'd grown more relaxed during her time in Ponyville. She could handle a little unexpected company. She could handle anything. Tonight wasn't a night for unwanted surprises or unpleasant twists. Tonight was a night for peace.
They continued to walk in silence.
Strangely enough, despite the time and distance between them, the silence didn't feel awkward. Rather, it was almost companionable. As though neither of them felt the need to speak, and that was fine.
Twilight tilted her head back to gaze at the shimmering sky.
They were surrounded by stars. The sky was a blanket of deep blue and points of light, dancing with the late hour. All around them were trees, towering overhead and covered in a dusting of powdery snow.
Smiling to herself, the unicorn sighed once more. Not from the cold this time, but from the pleasant anticipation of what was to come.
It was then that she noticed that Luna was watching her.
Before, she hadn't seemed shy or awkward at all, instead carrying an air of stern authority about her - but now, it was much easier to believe Celestia's interpretation of her sister. She almost looked a little nervous; but then, when she caught Twilight's eye, her mouth curved into a tiny smile.
"Thank you for coming with me tonight, Twilight Sparkle," the princess said, breaking the silence at last.
"Huh? Oh, no, it's no trouble at all!" Twilight was quick to say, suddenly feeling flustered. "I've been looking forward to this night for a while. I'm actually pretty excited."
"Yes. That's why I asked you to come with me," Luna replied. A little stiffly, like she wasn't sure of her own words. "My sister regards you highly, and often speaks fondly of you. She'd mentioned once that you enjoyed stargazing."
"Of course I do! It's one of my favorite hobbies! I mean, aside from reading, of course, and studying. But still, I love astronomy."
Oh, geez, I'm babbling.
"Yeah. Astronomy's the science and study of the moon, stars, and planets, you know. Well, of course you know - sorry."
This time, the sigh came from Luna.
For centuries, Princess Celestia had been honored by the yearly Summer Sun Celebration; a festival held every solstice in order to commemorate her long-ago triumph over Nightmare Moon. And for centuries, Princess Luna had been imprisoned, her memory honored by nothing and her legacy forgotten by all.
Her sister – her dear, dear sister – had the Summer Sun Celebration every year. But there was no Winter Moon Celebration, was there? She had no annual celebrations in her honor. There was only Nightmare Night, a joke of a holiday that had never been intended to be anything more than a way to demote the fearsome Nightmare Moon from monster to a character who populated the bedtime stories parents told their foals at night.
Nothing about Luna or her night was sacred anymore. Long ago, she had been the elegant and dignified Mare of the Moon - the patroness of art, of love, of dreams and myths. Now, she was either the enemy or a total laughingstock. A harmless creature of fairytales, or a dangerous creature of nightmares. There was no in-between, and the ponies of Equestria had had a thousand years to become set in their ways.
To change their opinions about her would take at least another thousand years; a thousand years of trial and error, of promises and feeble efforts to convince the populace that she wasn’t nearly as horrible as they had been lead to believe over the course of centuries of misunderstandings and confusion.
A single night was in no way enough. Luna knew that now. Especially not a night that had been specifically reserved for the purpose of making a mockery of her and her imprisonment. She had been a foal to think so.
The truth was, it wasn’t the concept of Nightmare Night itself that had bothered her so much. It was the night that was to come only a little over a month later afterwards - the winter solstice. That had been her true concern.
But she understood now. It had been too much for her to hope that she could improve her image in time for the eclipse on such short notice.
Luna had no followers anymore. No worshippers, no temples, no prayers or offerings to receive, nopony with any desire to view the eclipse with her at all. And why should there have been any of those things? Times had changed, after all. The last time Luna had been in Equestria, she had been feared and seen as a sign of the end times. Now, she was seen as icy and aloof. Unapproachable. Whereas mystery had once been seen as appealing, it was now seen as unfriendly.
The world had had time to change. She, on the other hoof, had not. For the duration of her banishment, it had been like she'd been in slumber, held in suspension and only awoken once her body and soul had been purged of Nightmare's influence - could she really be blamed for being unfamiliar with modern customs? It was as though she'd gone to sleep one morning and awoke later that night on a completely different planet.
Her once-adoring public had had a thousand years in which to forget her, to come to hate her, to laugh at her, while she had had a thousand years of solitude and desolation in which to reflect on her sins in her dreams. And then she had returned, abruptly pulled away from her isolation and thrust into a completely new world – a world of subtle political games and fearfully casual monarchs who felt no need to use the Royal We when addressing their subjects. Subjects who were no longer in awe of their rulers and who no longer saw them as gods or as the incarnations of the Sun and Moon themselves, but rather as fellow ponies who simply happened to carry greater responsibilities.
Luna couldn’t have said for sure whether or not this was a bad thing; that was yet another task that would require more time and preparation. But it was certainly different. Overwhelmingly so.
So she had spent a year in recovery, regaining her strength, studying, reading all that she could in an attempt to better herself and improve her understanding of the modern world. And on that day, Nightmare Night, she had made her return, prepared to win back her followers, only for her plan to fail spectacularly.
But Luna understood now.
The mocking nature of Nightmare Night had stemmed from her sister’s attempts to improve Luna’s image however she could, and nopony could argue the fact that being viewed by the public as a cartoonish villain was certainly an improvement over being viewed as a horrific demon come to steal the sun. Sometimes it was okay to play along and laugh with the others, and sometimes it was fun to be a little scared. And a single day was nowhere near enough to rewrite a millennium of fear, during which whatever virtues she had possessed had quietly faded from the memories of the public.
But she wasn’t angry about any of this.
There was no resentment. No bitterness. No lingering hostilities.
Just quiet disappointment and resignation.
For Luna was a child of the night, and loneliness had been what drove her to despair in the first place. The thought of spending what promised to simultaneously be the most glorious and most painful night of the year on her own had been difficult.
The lunar eclipse would be when she was at her most fragile, and she was in no way strong enough to brave it alone. It would've been impossible for her to have faced the cold and distant moon that had held her captive for so long alone; especially when all she wanted was for somepony to be at her side.
"The science of the night sky, then," she asked, sneaking another glance down at her companion. Twilight Sparkle nodded, beaming, apparently oblivious to the note of bitterness in Luna's voice.
"Exactly!" the unicorn said proudly. "Like I said, it's one of my favorite hobbies."
On nights like this, Luna's mind swirled with unwanted memories and hidden resentments that she no longer wanted to carry but had no control over, and all it took was a trigger. A trigger like Twilight Sparkle's claim to love astronomy, and suddenly, her thoughts were overtaken by some kind of creeping darkness.
You claim to love my night, but what do you even KNOW of my night?!
No. She would never go back to being that way. Never again.
There had been a time, once, when her night had been cherished. The appeal of the moon had come from the very mystery of its nature, and the few followers she'd had had seen her as the embodiment of that mystery. What distance there had been between them had been expected from one of her noble stature.
But then the interest in that mystery had faded as the progress of civilization marched ever-forward.
Once you understood a thing, there was little to draw you back. If the appeal had been in the enigma, solving that enigma was the surest way to lose interest. And when it became apparent that the moon was little more than a cold rock hanging in the sky, it no longer seemed so wondrous or lovely.
The night had been beautiful, once. But now that the world understood it, it no longer seemed quite so lovely; it was like a poem analyzed into submission, for now they understood the lies behind its mythology.
The moon was little more than a reflection of the sun, offering no true light or warmth of its own, and on nights like tonight, the sun overshadowed it completely.
Luna abruptly stopped.
"We're here," she said softly.
They stood before a lake in a clearing in the woods. The water was frozen over in white, illuminated by the reflection of the moon overhead. The moon was now edge in red from the coming eclipse, hanging in the empty sky with an eerie glow.
"This used to be called Moonrise Lake," Luna explained as she approached the shore, hooves crunching lightly as she went. "It has no name anymore, apparently; but this was once where my followers would gather monthly in honor of the full moon, to hold their feasts and celebrations in my name. It was named for the way the water perfectly reflects the moon, as though the moon rises twice here. The ice may not reflect, but this is still a place of nostalgia for me."
What a strange thought; that a centuries-old immortal, who had and would continue to have eternity, would ever long for the past. As if she didn't already have forever to find whatever it was she longed to reclaim at this lake.
But Luna was fairly young, in a way. Celestia had had a thousand years to grow accustomed to the truth of a never-ending existence. Of course Luna would feel both more keenly - she'd been absent for all those centuries, and hadn't had the time to grow used to them.
"It's beautiful," was all Twilight Sparkle could say. And it was. How could a place as still and perfect as this have fallen aside?
Luna looked pleased for a moment, a tiny smile crossing her features. Then she sighed and shook her head. "Beautiful?" she repeated. "It was, once. Perhaps time has changed that, and my old eyes simply see things the way they once were, rather than as they now actually are."
Twilight swallowed, unsure how to answer that. Whatever melancholy had overtaken the princess this night had nothing to do with her, she decided, even as she felt a pang of guilt at her easy dismissal of whatever mood had seize the princess so suddenly. Best not to dwell on it, the unicorn thought, and she shrugged off her saddlebag to begin digging through it.
Princess Luna strolled over, watching her do so with curiosity in her dark eyes, until the small telescope was set up on a tripod in the snow.
"There!" Twilight announced proudly. "I've been preparing for tonight for such a long time," she chatted brightly, glancing up to meet Luna's gleaming, teal-blue eyes. "But today, I didn't really do anything. I just slept all day so that I could stay awake long enough tonight. We'll be out here for hours, but I don't want to miss a single second!"
"Do you truly love the stars, Twilight Sparkle?" Luna asked absently, still eyeing the telescope with something like admiration.
"Of course I do!" Twilight replied instantly, pulling a thermos from her bag. Applejack had made her bring a pack of food, insisting that she be well-fed, lest the strain of watching the sky prove to be too much for her - or something. She hadn't been expecting to have anypony to share with, but she was pleased to see that reliable AJ had once again prepared far too much and that she'd have more than enough.
"May I ask why?"
"What ... do I love about the stars?" she clarified. Luna didn't correct her, leaving Twilight no choice but to assume that she'd heard correctly. The way that the princess had asked the question - not the phrasing, but her tone - had made it almost sound like some kind of secret test, even though it would've been harmless enough in any other context. But what reason would the princess have to test her? "I suppose ... well, they're beautiful, aren't they? Stargazing is such a tranquil hobby. I always feel so calm when I'm out here, no matter how stressed I am during the day."
Luna still didn't speak, so Twilight took a sip from her thermos of hot chocolate and glanced up at the sky. The moon above was already partially shaded. Soon, it would pass completely into the planet's shadow, causing it to glow amber in the sky.
"I've met very few mortals who've ever claimed to love the stars for the same reason I do," the alicorn said after a moment. She had taken a seat beside Twilight, kneeling in the snow. Briefly, she wondered whether she should offer the princess any of her hot chocolate; but then Luna continued, going on to say, "To me, the stars are mystery embodied."
"Huh?" Twilight Sparkle asked, her thermos floating beside her in a glow of magic.
"Before, the beauty of my night stemmed from the mystery of it," Luna explained, eyes fixed on the moon. "Night was a time of the unknown, and the moon lit the way through the shadows, offering illumination and guidance. It fascinated because ponies could only see the wonder of it, as it was once too distant to ever reach or understand."
"It still does."
"No, it doesn't. Because now, equinity does understand. Scientific research and study unveiled the moon for all to see, exposing it for what it was - cold and barren and offering no light except that which it reflected from the sun. The stars are all that's left. They're still distant enough to be mysterious and magical, even if they are just as cold and barren as the moon is, and so they remain beautiful. It's our understanding them that makes them frightening or ugly, for it's only when we understand that we see the flaws."
"That's kind of cynical," the unicorn answered. There was none of the intimidation or awkwardness that she'd displayed in Luna's presence before, as though she'd let go of her hesitance. "Couldn't the same be said of the sun, or flowers, or music, or any other beautiful thing in the world?"
"But those things are all beautiful on their own merits," Luna replied curtly. "The moon is nothing but a lifeless rock, it seems, and any light it emanates is reflected from the sun. It has no grandeur of its own."
She closed her eyes.
"I apologize," she said carefully after a moment's pause, opening them once more. "I always get a little emotional during eclipses."
"Really?" Twilight asked, seemingly unable to contain her eager curiosity. "Do you have some kind of emotional bond with the moon? It's probably a pretty huge shock. I think I remember Princess Celestia saying something like that once about solar eclipses - "
Luna gave a funny little smile. "That's the entire trouble, Twilight Sparkle. The bond I have."
That was the key difference between them and ordinary ponies, and the difference that most didn't recognize right away. They were bound to the sun and moon. Irrevocably so.
Those who saw the two royal sisters were invariably drawn to the elder. Like moths to flame, but on a much larger scale. Celestia truly was the embodiment of the day, and she was flocked to, much the way that sunny weather drew ponies out of doors. They saw her and felt warmth and nurturing just from being in her presence.
Luna, on the other hoof, was the embodiment of night. Ponies once used to see her as ethereal and mystic, but now they saw her as a cold shadow, empty of anything with life.
That was why the bitterness had begun.
She had always been the passionate sister. That was why she had been the one to fall to Nightmare, rather than the dignified Celestia. Young and feckless, painting her sky with stars. Crafting art. But her masterpiece had been cast aside in favor of logic and composure, rejected for the simplicity that was the day - too complex to be properly appreciated on its own. Seen only for what it wasn't.
"My sister and I are the day and night. Ponies are drawn naturally to the sun, seeking light, so to draw them to me, I created the stars. I created beauty and mystery. My sister is compelling for her practicality, and I had nothing to offer but enticement itself," she explained hollowly. "But then, ponies rejected its beauty in favor of the comfort of the sun. Even now, all appreciation for my night is born from scientific curiosity. There are none who see it for the magnificent tapestry it once was."
"But the only reason anypony feels curious is because it is beautiful!" Twilight protested, her thermos now lying forgotten in the snow as she turned to face the princess. "They love it for that, and that's why they want to understand! So they can know it better!"
"It's not about the night, Twilight Sparkle," Luna answered. "It's about me. I told you, I am the night. I've been overshadowed by my sister all my life, and I've lived a very, very long time."
Before, she had been watching the moon, only taking the occasional side glance at Twilight. Now, she turned as well, so that she was face-to-face with the unicorn.
"I will tell you something, Twilight Sparkle," she declared, trying to keep her voice steady. "Something you will not read in your textbooks or histories. The night is cold. The landscape of the moon is vast in its emptiness, and there is no comfort anywhere to be found. The stars offer light to see by, but they offer no warmth; their light is a cold, hard, unloving light. I'm an immortal, and I should feel no such cold. Yet I did. I felt it, and it was painful. That is what I fear I am - so distant and insignificant as to appear cold and tiny in comparison to the brilliance of my sister's sun. She has had a thousand years in which to grow numb to mortal cares such as loneliness, but I have not, and ... I'm lonely, Twilight."
"As long as my night is seen as the darker half of the day and nothing more, I'm being rejected; and I feel that rejection, that isolation, deep inside. All I ever had to draw in companions has been brushed aside in favor of the truth - that I'm not as loving or welcoming as my sister. I don't know how to form connections or make friends. The moon has no light of its own; it is a cold and lifeless rock. I know, for I've been there - so perhaps I'm just as cold and distant as they say."
Twilight listened in wide-eyed silence as Luna spoke, confessing her fears and uncertainties. She'd once carried herself with an air of regal dignity and authority, but now she seemed almost vulnerable. Even her voice trembled. Her eyes, once so steely with power and confidence, shone with what may have been tears.
She called me Twilight, she suddenly realized. Not Twilight Sparkle, but just Twilight.
"Why are you telling me this?" she asked at last.
"You helped me, once," Luna answered. "On Nightmare Night. You helped me change my image, so that the villagers weren't so afraid of me - but there's a difference between being loved and not being feared. Barely being tolerated isn't enough. I need a friend, Twilight Sparkle."
I need a friend.
It sounded so helpless and needy, but it was so, so true. She needed a friend. She needed to know that she wasn't completely void. That she was capable of love to the same extent that her sister was.
An expression of dawning comprehension crossed Twilight Sparkle's face, and when it did, her eyes took on a hard glint of determination before she seized the hooves of the princess.
"You're not just the moon," she said firmly. "You're the entire night. That means you're also the stars and galaxies and mysteries. And the sun is really just a star, you know; so even if the moon is cold, that's not all you are. You ... you're also all of those thousands of suns."
Twilight released her hold on Luna's hoof and made a grand, sweeping gesture indicating the sky above.
"You said that the light of the stars is cold, too, but that's just because you're too far away from them to feel their warmth. You just need to go closer, and then they'll shine as bright as the sun."
Twilight tried to smile as encouragingly as she could.
At last, Luna smiled back.
"Thousands of suns?" she asked. "I never thought of it like that before, Twilight Sparkle."
"It's true," Twilight insisted.
"Yes, I know that," Luna murmured. She bowed her head slightly, as if in thought. "Perhaps it's too much to ask you," she said when she lifted it again to once more meet Twilight Sparkle's eyes. "But ... my sister speaks so highly of you, and you say you love the stars, too, so ... I wanted to ask if you'd allow me to be your friend. I've never had one before, and I don't really know where to begin, but I wanted to at least try."
Grinning, Twilight once more seized Luna's hoof with her own.
"I'll be your friend, Luna."
This time, the alicorn's smile wasn't tiny or uncertain. It was a grin to match Twilight's.
"Thank you ... Twilight."
It was then that Luna noticed the moon glowing red.
"The eclipse!" she cried, pointing at it with the hoof that she abruptly pulled from Twilight. "It begins!"
"Well, technically, it's been beginning for a while. This is just the beginning of the totality period," the unicorn corrected primly.
In response, Luna magically seized the thermos she'd been going to pick up and unscrewed the cap, taking a long, deep drink of the hot chocolate inside. Twilight giggled before yanking it back and taking a drink herself.
Only now did Luna notice the way she shivered, in spite of the way she'd dressed for the weather.
"Are you cold?" she asked, cocking her head curiously. She herself felt nothing strange, but now that she thought about it, it was winter.
"Not really," Twilight Sparkle answered.
Ignoring her reply, Luna leaned forward, touching her horn against Twilight's forehead before she could protest. All at once, a blanket of magical warmth passed over the two of them.
The shivering ceased, but Luna remained where she was, so that they were sitting close enough to touch.
That's just because you're too far away from them to feel their warmth. You just need to go closer, and then they'll shine as bright as the sun.
Again, she grinned. Beside her, Twilight Sparkle was smiling as well.
The moon hung in the sky, bathed in the red of the eclipse. The stars shimmered and danced. Two friends sat together beneath the quiet poetry of the night sky, and all was calm.