It was a sort of new tradition between the two sisters, one that they’d kept to ever since Luna returned. Canterlot was a busy, beautiful city with a rich theatre scene; not quite at the level of Manehattan, but there were many skilled Canterlot artists plying their craft onstage to see. Given their vaunted position, Celestia and Luna knew their presence would cause such a stir that it would defeat the point of unwinding from their royal duties. The ponies of Canterlot payed very close attention to every personal decision the Princesses made, and judged many artists’ work by whatever the Princesses’ standards appeared to be. Going to see one play might draw so many ponies to it that all other plays currently running opened to an empty house, and neither princess wanted anypony’s career to end because they’d felt like seeing a comedy that night instead of a drama. In the time before Nightmare, they’d never addressed this problem, and resigned themselves to missing out.
But in this new era, one in which they’d resolved to be closer and remember to relax wherever possible, they had come up with a solution. One night of every month they set aside to magically assume disguises of ordinary tourist ponies, and go see a show. For this one night, they shed the burden of being royalty and mingled with their citizens unnoticed. Celestia, with her odd sense of humor, insisted upon referring to it as their ‘date night’.
On one such night, Luna stood in front of the mirror in her bedchamber, half-heartedly appraising the purple pegasus disguise she had selected. She was not exactly excited about it, but it was no surprise: this part of date night didn’t matter much to her. Luna had never experienced, or could not remember experiencing, vanity. The feeling never came to her. She was never quite pleased with her appearance and so trying to find one that she liked was a wasted effort. As such, she did not expect that her disguises would make her happy, but hoped that at least Celestia would like them.
A hoof rapped upon her door, and though the voice was disguised, Luna recognized small affects in the pony’s speech as her sister’s. “Luna, are you ready? We should go now!” Her chosen pitch was unusually deep tonight. Celestia, unlike Luna, loved this part. She was always fussing over small details of her visage until she adored what she saw. Luna occasionally worried they’d be late for a show because her sister wasn’t done putting her disguise on, but the results couldn’t be argued with. Every date night, Tia was practically strutting down the street, her entire demeanor glowing. It felt good just to sit next to her when she was in such an uplifting mood.
Luna wondered sometimes if there was something wrong with her, that she could not feel that way.
“Oh … Yes, I am ready.” Luna turned away from her underwhelming reflection, considering if the name Purple Prose was realistic enough to be believed, and deciding it would be fine for the night. After all, she’d already put together a parchment cutie mark and they might be late already. Luna opened the door … and blinked, stopping in her tracks.
Her sister had made herself into a stallion. She was a faded blue unicorn, in a severe, silky black suit with a short-cropped white mane and tail. The suit was tailored to expose the diamond cutie mark on the flank. Celestia noticed Luna’s hesitation, and looked uncharacteristically self-conscious, her ears folding back a touch.
“Is this alright? I just felt like trying something different, but if you don’t like it, I can –”
“No, no, Tia, I –” What exactly was her reaction? Seeing this distinguished, well dressed stallion and knowing that her sister was under the magic illusion brought up an odd jumble of emotions that neither heads nor tails could be made of. The best Luna could do was call it ‘fascinating but painful’. It brought a tight ache, just a mild one, to the hollow between her ribs. It wasn’t a new pain; she’d felt it many times before. She didn’t have time to puzzle out why it was happening now, because her sister was still waiting for the rest of her sentence. “I was only surprised. You look … dashing.”
This brought Celestia back to her normal inner glow of pride, and she smiled, straightening to her full height. “Yes, I enjoy being the tall one.”
Luna broke into a grin. Celestia’s stallion character did stand about a half-head taller than Luna’s own pegasus mare – hardly anything compared to their usual difference in height.
“My name is Brilliant Cut, and I’ll be your escort for the evening.” She bowed like a gentlepony. “And your name?”
Mentally, Luna rolled her eyes in amused resignation. The Rising Sun Herself had such fun with the introductions, presenting their characters. Just like the process of picking a disguise, Luna tolerated it, only really finding happiness in how much Celestia enjoyed it. “Purple Prose. A pleasure, sir.”
Celestia leaned down, took Luna’s hoof and kissed it. “The pleasure is all mine, milady.” The ache got momentarily tighter at the word, as it always did, and Luna tried not to cringe. “Shall we depart?”
Luna smiled, keeping her confusing feelings to herself. “We shall.”
As they walked off down the hall, side by side, Celestia asked “What do you think? Does The Magic of Metal still sound good? We have time to change our minds.”
“No, no, I think a comedy would be just the thing. Resolving that land disagreement between the Bluebloods and the Forests was such a frustration.”
“Yes, I agree. I don’t normally indulge in such a predictable comedy of errors, but … oh, this month. I don’t have the energy for anything challenging.”
“I hope it isn’t another Halter and Bit. That was awful.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve read great reviews.”
They stepped out an unnoticeable back door of their palace, on the street level, and set off on their usual route. They would walk down Royal Street until they hit Rhyme Road, then turn a couple of laps around the entertainment district, until anypony who might’ve seen them had forgotten that they had come from the direction of the palace. Then, they would go along Thespian Way until they came to one of their preferred theatres, The Thespian’s House; so named, as one might infer, from its location.
Walking side by side ‘Brilliant Cut’ in the faded light, Luna couldn’t keep her eyes off her sister’s chosen male form. He appeared to be a jeweler by his mark. Though it was only an old ponytale that horn size or shape affected the quality of the magic, Celestia had chosen something shorter and sharper, suggesting that his levitation was a precision instrument. He had a little grey hair in his mane, and a thin streak in his tail, making him appear middle-aged. Her sister would only rarely choose a young pony as her character; she usually stuck with somepony who would not raise eyebrows if they ordered a specific year of wine.
They arrived at the theatre, paid for their tickets, and went in. As usual, Celestia had hurried them out well before the play was supposed to start, and most seats were empty, which allowed them to claim two in the top row. Sitting quietly in the dark, Luna kept sneaking glances at ‘Brilliant Cut’, hoping that Celestia didn’t notice. She still felt the same small turmoil every time she looked at her: fascinated with every detail, but with that familiar pain tugging at her insides. The little ache was a lifelong companion; it had come and gone for as long as she could remember, and she still didn’t know just what exactly it was. It wasn’t quite sadness, nor quite discomfort, nor quite anything; it just hurt. It felt particularly hard and sharp right now, because of Celestia’s handsome disguise.
Luna shut her eyes and lay her head on Celestia’s shoulder, putting one hoof over hers. Celestia returned the gesture, laying her head against Luna’s. “Wish I’d gone as a pegasus.” she whispered, her smooth male voice tweaking that pain in Luna’s chest. “I always forget how strange it feels not to put my wing around you.”
The purple mare breathed deep, hoping that nagging ache would go away if she just focussed on the pleasure of her sister’s company. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
When the show began, it was very shallow and light. Every character acted rather unrealistically, and only the protagonist and his dramatic best friend were somewhat likeable. Act one flew past with enjoyable hamminess, and though Luna seriously questioned the flimsy justification as to why the unicorn protagonist had to paint himself green and perpetrate the ruse that he was an earth pony blacksmith, she couldn’t deny that the ensuing ridiculousness was amusing. Laughter rolled through the theatre when he had to hold his hat on over his horn while being pelted with snowballs. At this, Celestia whispered to Luna “Why doesn’t he just tie the hat on? This has happened at least three times now.” When he tried to lift a suit of armor and succeeded only in sweating and collapsing, nearly everypony in the audience groaned; they may not have earth pony strength, but even a unicorn could lift things. Most of it was enjoyable enough to distract her, but during the boring stretches, that constant sadness sitting heavy in her chest was all Luna could think about.
When the play ended and they started for home, Celestia tried to make light conversation about the show, but Luna was having trouble participating. Every answer she gave was too short and too closed, and she kept promising herself that she’d say more. It was no use, and soon they were walking along in silence.
The quiet continued when they entered their palace, and as they climbed the stairs to their private chambers. They stopped at a fork in the hallway, where they’d have to part ways to go to their own bedrooms. Celestia, still looking like Brilliant Cut, leaned down to nuzzle Luna.
“That was fun.”
“Indeed.” Luna agreed, returning the gesture.
Celestia pulled away to look Luna in the face. “Was something bothering you tonight? I know you said you didn’t mind my character, but you didn’t seem … present.”
Luna privately cursed her sister’s perceptiveness. She’d so hoped she’d managed to act natural. “It’s nothing, Tia. You needn’t worry. I am tired, that’s all.”
Celestia did not look as though she believed her, but she let it rest. “Mmhmm. We should go to bed; I only have time for an hour-long nap before the sun needs raising. Good day, sister.”
That same little twist came again, deep inside. “Good day.”
Back in her bedroom, Luna shed the nondescript purple pegasus image, freeing her navy coat and starry mane. Her horn came into view gleaming with the effort of dismissing the illusion, and Luna caught sight of her restored self in her mirror. Meeting her own eyes out of habit, she stood and stared at herself as her horn dimmed and darkened, finished with its task. Many ponies had called her beautiful, but looking at this reflection, she could objectively see what they liked without being able to feel the same way. What she felt, if anything, was a barely noticeable touch of dismay and surprise every single time she met her reflection. It was as though she could never quite believe what she looked like, always expecting … something else, but she could not have said what. Minutes went by, and Luna now sat in front of the mirror, still staring and wondering. Something terribly familiar had been hurting her all night, was hurting her right now, and it had to do with this. She supposed seeing Celestia get so much joy out of making herself beautiful had always made her jealous. Tia seemed to have something Luna could not see herself ever having. That made sense.
But Luna was not satisfied with that explanation. It didn’t explain why her sister being a stallion had mattered so much. Luna herself hadn’t ever tried a stallion character, not once in the few years they’d been keeping their dates. She supposed that the reason was her worry about whether she was ‘normal enough’. The ponies seemed warmer toward her in this new era, and she was more accepted than she’d ever been, but she had a looming fear that the smallest thing could ruin that. She had been shunned for so long, part of her believed it was a natural state to which their society must eventually return. She was sure that terrible episode with the Tantabus –
Maybe best not to think about that right now.
Allowing herself any strange or potentially distasteful behaviour, even if nopony apart from her sister knew about it, felt like too big of a risk to take. If she kept letting herself act strangely, like speaking in the old dialect which she still preferred, or pretending to be a stallion, she’d never be thought of as normal. Given her nocturnal proclivities, she was strange enough as it was.
Celestia didn’t have that problem, or at least, she didn’t act like she had that problem. She was so at ease that she magically crossdressed, all night, just because she ‘liked being the tall one’. She did not worry about being different as Luna did.
Luna would bet that her sister did not have a constant, nagging sense of doubt and discomfort, an ache, that chose the strangest times to ruin her good mood. When she looked in the mirror, when she picked out something to wear, when anypony called her ‘lady’, ‘princess’, sometimes even when Celestia called her ‘sister’, like in the hallway just then. Her own name might set it off. Anything that made her think about herself, it seemed, and it didn’t answer to reason. Maybe that was why she so often felt like she wasn’t even Princess Luna at all. Was that possible? Could she somehow have no choice in being the Princess Luna, and yet not be herself? Could a pony be trapped in their identity while sometimes not even identifying with it?
A bird trilled loudly outside her window, and Luna started, flicking her head toward the sound. She was shocked to see grey dawn light coming through a crack in the curtains. How long had she spent staring at herself? Celestia had already raised the sun.
And Luna had forgotten to lower the moon. She cursed and illuminated her horn, reaching for the corner of the sky where her charge should be; true, she couldn’t see the sky from in here, but setting the moon could be done by feel in a pinch. Blindly, she grabbed hold of her misplaced light, which she’d left high in the west, and dragged it down. It set a little quicker than usual in her haste. Luna released it once it was below the horizon, and let out a frustrated sigh. How could she have almost neglected her duty just to worry about this? It was not as though it would ever go away, so she should not waste her energy dwelling on it.
“Just go to sleep.” Luna muttered to herself, standing up. She rifled through her record collection, much of it thoughtfully preserved through her long imprisonment on Celestia’s orders. The album she selected had been with her since the early days of their rule, and survived entire eras of Equestrian history; she put it on the player once more. It was quiet and soothing and sad, perfect for getting to sleep. She lay in her bed and listened to the cello.
In conjunction with the music, there was a soothing trick she often employed. She held perfectly still, softened her breath until she couldn’t feel or hear it, and worked to ‘ignore’ her physical form. If she just listened to the music and let that consume her attention, she could forget to feel any part of her, until she couldn’t feel where her body ended and the air began. After a few minutes of this, she couldn’t feel her body at all, as though it had ceased to exist, vanished into the ether. She used this trick almost every day, and she’d become very good at it. There was only cello music and thought, and nopony at all.
I am not Princess Luna.
There was no positive statement, no answer as to what was. There was only what was not.
And at this moment alone, the ache inside eased.