• Published 22nd Feb 2012
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My Little Alicorn - InsertAuthorHere



A magical prank backfires, leaving Celestia stuck as a filly and Luna having to take her place.

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Chapter Eleven: Of Parties, Smarties and the Game of Life...ties

Chapter Eleven

It was quite a while before Celestia could consider herself “okay.” She had never told anypony else about Kuchen, nor did she ever reveal to any pony alive some of the more horrible aspects of her past. Everypony in Equestria now knew about Nightmare Moon, and how Celestia banished her sister to save her subjects from certain death, but there were plenty of other mistakes she had made over the millennia. None of them were particularly happy things to talk about.

Even worse, she had humiliated herself in front of those closest to her yet again. Last night’s disastrous ending was still fresh in her mind, just another sign of her irrational childhood fears beating their way through her subconscious. Her guard was slipping, stripping away what remained of the Great and Powerful Princess Celestia and showcasing her as she presently was.

Her thoughts came to a sudden halt as a loud knock echoed from her door. The filly sprang into action almost immediately, throwing aside the tear-drenched pillows and covers, wiping her eyes to minimize any sign that she had actually been crying moments earlier, and only then opening the door.

Her eyes immediately met with Lofty’s. “Hello again!”

“Uh…Hello?” Celestia responded. “What are you doing here? I thought you got in trouble with my sister last time.”

It was only then that Celestia noticed the adult pony standing beside her. It was the same pegasus that Lofty had identified as her mother during their last meeting. The princess’ mind went blank as she tried to recall exactly who this was. “G-Good morning, Miss….Dream, was it?”

Ruby was slightly taken aback. “It’s Ruby Dream. Y-You know, one of the attendants you hired a short while ago?”

If Celestia felt short before, she now felt about two inches tall. The princess always made an effort to remember the names and faces of the palace staff, even as it changed and rotated from month to month. The fact that she could name almost everypony from her most trusted advisors to the simplest window washer was something of a matter of pride for her. The fact that the last few weeks had been mentally exhausting was no excuse in her own eyes. “Oh…I’m sorry.”

Ruby sensed the filly’s anxiety almost instantly. Her mood reflexively shifted from terror to comforting, as did the tone of her voice. “I-It’s all right, your Majesty. I’m Princess Luna’s attendant until a cure for your condition can be found.”

Celestia smiled back at the pegasus. “I see. Well, is there anything I can do to help you?”

“Princess Luna said we could hang out together again!” said Lofty. “She didn’t seem mad at all anymore!”

The tiny alicorn gasped in surprise. “You mean…Luna isn’t going to come back and throw you out or anything?”

“It’s only until the afternoon court is over,” Ruby added. She tilted her head down towards her waiting daughter. “I’ll be back in a few hours. Be on your best behavior, don’t do anything that will get us banished from Equestria, and remember our little talk this morning?”

Lofty sighed. “Yes, mom.”

Ruby gave her little filly one more reassuring pat on the head. Celestia, meanwhile, rubbed at the little bump she still had from her collision with Luna’s dresser. “All right. Have fun, girls!”

The pegasus ushered her daughter inside, shut the door, and went off down the hall. Once she was sure her mother was out of earshot, Lofty took a few more steps around the room, eyeing everything around her with a sense of wonder. “Wow, I’ve never been in a princess’ room before! This place is so…so…big!”

“Um…Ah…Yes, it is,” Celestia muttered. Her outwardly beaming expression soon filled in to cover her growing insecurity. This isn’t supposed to happen so soon. According to Twilight’s reports, friends are not supposed to come over to your home until the sixth or seventh week you’ve known them! But, that may be for sleepovers only. This isn’t a sleepover, right? I don’t have a bedroll or sleeping bag or whatever they call those things these days! Oh, what am I going to…

“Princess Celestia?”

Celestia snapped back to attention, only to see Lofty worriedly waving her hoof in front of her face. The princess blinked a few times before chuckling nervously. “Sorry about that. I’m just a little surprised Luna…” She groaned a little as her internal frustrations took hold. “Sorry. I just haven’t…”

Lofty rolled her eyes. Even at her young age, she could tell this was one of those times where a pony had to watch her words carefully, if only to keep herself and her mother from getting launched into the sun. “So, what do you want to do?”

Celestia’s eyes scanned from one end of her shelves to the next. Unfortunately, all she had accrued over her life was a massive collection of books, all of them far over the head of a pegasus pony. General Smashemup was still MIA, and she had no other toys to speak of. There was no way Luna would allow the two to run amuck around Canterlot Castle, they couldn’t go outside because of that contemptible party being set up below, and there was very little they could do in here without breaking something or somepony.

And then she saw it. A white cardboard box was sticking out from behind several volumes of the Encyclopedia Equestrica, just beckoning her to use it. She had not played the game in years, using it only once to help teach some of her school’s students lessons on life’s up and downs. And yet, here was the perfect opportunity…

----------

Twilight and Pinkie were in Luna’s office chambers within minutes, and would have been there even faster if Pinkie hadn’t stopped to sample the cranberry shortcake for tonight’s party. Luna was already waiting for them, a look of glaring disapproval across her face. Pinkie quickly ducked behind Twilight as they entered, not wishing to face that glare head-on yet again. As for the unicorn herself, terrified was hardly a powerful enough word for how unsettled she was with all this.

Luna’s eyes never wavered, never turned away from the two ponies before her. Her voice was low and commanding, with just a hint of motherly scolding. “Twilight Sparkle. Pinkie Pie. We have much to discuss.”

“I-I-I…” Twilight stammered.

“Be quiet!” Luna hissed. Both ponies immediately obliged, and Luna’s voice shifted back to normal. “Do either of you realize what has just transpired?”

“W-Well, I know we shouldn’t ask the princess about eeeeeevil ponies before lunchtime,” said Pinkie.

To her eternal credit, Luna managed to resist the urge to throttle the pony’s neck. “My sister is in a terrible state right now, all because a certain pony decided to cast Celestia as the most heartless monster in Equestrian history.”

Pinkie shuddered, her brow breaking into a freezing sweat. “I-I didn’t mean…that is, I…”

“Twilight Sparkle, you know Celestia better than anypony else in this room…besides myself, of course. In your years as her student, have you ever known my sister to do anything like what the Pie family has accused her of?”

Twilight tapped her chin with one hoof, her mind coming up a complete blank. Even with the self-imposed mental barriers that prevented her from thinking anything bad about Celestia, she was unable to come up with a single example of the sun princess cutting off heads or throwing ponies into the sun. “N-No, not that I can recall.”

Luna sighed, her eyes still locked on the two. “My sister has always been self-conscious about how different she is compared to the rest of ponykind. And now there’s an entire family that believes she wants to kill them because of something that happened five hundred years ago?!”

Pinkie shrank back behind Twilight’s rump. The unicorn, meanwhile, took a few steps towards the princess, her ears still pointed backwards. “Princess Luna, you can’t punish Pinkie for this. It’s my fault. I’m the one who made Princess Celestia tell that story. I just…needed to know who Kuchen was.”

Luna was quiet, her stare only intensifying. When she spoke again, her voice had softened, even if her face had not. “I do not wish to punish anypony, Twilight Sparkle. I can understand the fear the Pie family must face, living with an evil force inside their minds for generations. I was there once, too, and forces like that are very difficult to free oneself from. But this is more than just a simple misunderstanding. Your friend should never have tried to scare you like she did, or told the princess about her family’s grudge. She has made my sister very upset.” Her glare zoomed in on the little bits of Pinkie she could see. “And that makes me very upset.”

Pinkie crumpled herself into a little ball on the floor, her eyes burning from being closed so tight. “No! Please, I-I just wanted to protect my family!”

“Princess Luna!” Twilight shouted. “Pinkie never wanted anypony to be hurt! Can you please just let this go, just this one time?”

There was no trace of emotion on Luna’s body, only a cold stoicism that not even Celestia was capable of showing. The two ponies clung to each other, awaiting their inevitable end. It wasn’t until they saw a small smile creep across Luna’s face that they began to relax, if only a little bit. “Miss Pie, just how detailed are those memories you have?”

Pinkie raised an eyebrow. “Huh? They’re…kinda all there. I mean, most of them are a little hazy, and I don’t get all the magic mumbo-jumbo words and all that, but I…guess I have most of the nasty stuff he pumped into us Pies.”

Luna turned to Twilight. “I think I have an appropriate punishment. Twilight Sparkle, I want you and Miss Pie to work together on Celestia’s cure.”

The two friends looked at each other in utter bewilderment, before turning back to the princess with a simultaneous “Huh?”

“I am not an unfair ruler,” Luna continued. “I have no doubt that Pinkie Pie did not intend any harm to Celestia’s wellbeing, nor did she break into the castle without reason. Furthermore, she has a more personal connection to the spell’s development than anypony else alive. Combined with the materials you found yesterday, this should prove enough to finally get all of us a step closer towards curing my sister.”

Twilight took a cautious step forward and bowed her head. “Thank you, Princess Luna. We promise we won’t let you down. Isn’t that right, Pinkie?”

The self-appointed “Queen of Laughter” rolled her eyes. “Well, YEAH! Why do you think I went through all this trouble getting back in here?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“Miss Pie followed a tunnel through the old sewer system,” said Luna. “It was fortunate for her that she popped up in my office. Who knows what would have happened had the guards found her before I did?”

Pinkie chuckled. “Ah, it’s okay. I have plenty of practice running from other ponies.”

Luna cleared her throat, attracting the attention of both ponies. “Regardless of what might have happened, our task is clear. Princess Celestia needs our help, and the only way we are going to find a cure is to work together. Twilight Sparkle, I want you to combine your knowledge of magic with Pinkie’s memories of Kuchen’s actions. If he was able to reverse-engineer Nightmare Moon’s magic, I am certain we can do the same thing to his own.”

“And then we’ll have a cure!” Twilight exclaimed.

“Exactly!” Luna walked past the two, stopping by the office door. “If you will excuse me, I have other duties to attend to. In the meanwhile, I want you two to go to my chambers. I’ve hidden the Arcanus E Draconus under my bed. Start your work from there.”

And so, with the orders for the day given, Luna trotted down the hall and around a corner towards the throne room. Back in her office, the jubilant mood had melted into a festering pool of untold horror. Both Twilight and Pinkie looked at each other, a look of oncoming doom covering every inch of their being.

And meanwhile, back in Luna’s chambers, the Arcanus E Draconus beckoned for the two…

----------

“Your turn, Lofty.”

Lofty gripped the top of the wheel as best she could with hooves and gave it a spin. After a few times around, it finally landed on a 6. She then pushed her little orange cart along the board, stopping on a yellow space, showing a copy of the game’s logo. Sensing even more income incoming, the filly grabbed a cardboard tile and flipped it over, reading it out loud to the curious Celestia. “You win a bet on the Cloudsdale Grand Prix. Collect 5000 Bits.”

Sighing, Celestia scooped up and handed Lofty yet another pile of fake coins from the bank. Lofty could barely be seen behind the mountain of playing pieces in front of her; Celestia, meanwhile, was about as broke in the game as the palace treasury was in real life. Her sole pile of money barely reached the top of her fetlocks. Now I remember why I hid this thing for so long.

“Um…Princess Celestia?” Lofty inquired. “It’s your turn.”

Celestia snapped back to attention. “Oh…right.”

The princess spun the wheel, the infernal contraption stopping on a 10. Lofty’s eyes lit up like candles as she waved an expecting hoof. The princess visually cursed that blasted Police Officer card her opponent had. “Saaaay, a kind officer like you wouldn’t mind looking the other way this one time, would you?”

Lofty shook her head. “Nope. As a sworn police officer, I must uphold and protect the law at all times. If even one wrongdoer escapes from justice, then everything we have ever worked for will have been for naught!”

“Tch, fine,” Celestia grumbled. She bit down on a few bits and dumped them into her opponent’s hoof.

“Thank you very much,” Lofty said with no small bit of arrogance.

It was right about then, when the first burst of victory reached her nostrils, that the pegasus filly realized just who she was talking to. Celestia just sat there, staring the pony down like a disapproving adult. This was somewhat understandable, since before today the princess had always been a grown-up. Lofty quickly buried her lower face between her forelegs, sheepishly looking to the princess for forgiveness. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t want to win, I just…”

Celestia barely managed to stifle a laugh. “It’s no problem. I mean, do you know how many times I’ve won just because the other pony let me win?”

Lofty titled her head. “Huh? Is this one of those ‘princess things’ mom talks about?”

“Well, no. I mean, I don’t think it’s quite what you’re thinking of,” Celestia hastily corrected. “I mean…oh, forget it.”

Lofty shrugged. “Well, mom lets me win at Go Fish sometimes. Is it something like that?”

“Y-Yes,” Celestia muttered. “Well, I might be eighty thousand bits behind, but I’m sure I can catch up.” She pushed her little cart along the track with one hoof, stopping on a space that read, “Mid-Life Crisis. Start New Career.”

It took all of Celestia’s regal training to hold back the small, ancient curse on the tip of her tongue. Tossing aside her Teacher card with a huff, she drew her new direction in life from the card pile: a Hair Dresser.

----------

Twilight and Pinkie stared at the foreboding tome, their bodies frozen with fear. Twilight had only known of the Arcanus E Draconus’s existence for three days, and yet everything that had transpired because of it was enough to make her blood run cold. As for Pinkie, things were far worse. Her mind raced with terrible memories that were not her own, once again bringing back the terrible deeds of her ancestor. Were it not for her Pinkie Pie Swear to Princess Luna, she would have immediately galloped out of Canterlot and taken up refuge in that one grotto outside of Hoofington with her Uncle Dug.

“W-W-W-W-Well then, shall we…open it?” Twilight stammered.

“Y-You first,” Pinkie replied in kind.

Twilight took a big, loud gulp of air and started slowly walking towards the book. Each step felt heavier than the last, and it was only her indomitable will to help her princesses that kept her from turning tail like a chicken. After the longest five minutes in the history of Equestria, she was close enough to flick the book open with one hoof.

The book’s cover crashed to the ground, taking a few stuck pieces of parchment with it. With trembling eyes, she looked upon the open page…

And saw nothing more than a spell, written in a language she barely understood. She still remembered enough from Luna’s earlier translation notes to figure it had something to do with snakes or yogurt, but either way it wasn’t becoming very appealing.

Back on the other side of the room, Pinkie had laid herself upon the ground, hiding behind her trembling forelegs. “I-I-Is it safe?!”

Twilight cautiously let out a sigh of relief. “It’s all right, Pinkie. No demons came bursting from the pages, no windigoes howling past us, not even a long-dead unicorn mage trying to steal our bodies.” Pinkie whinnied in protest. “No offense.”

“Ah, it’s okay,” Pinkie said. The Earth pony appeared far more visibly relaxed than before. “I know you didn’t mean anything bad about it. Now, let’s get crackin’ on this-”

Their conversation came to a crashing halt as the doors burst open, revealing a quartet of tired, huffing ponies, plus a baby dragon. Rainbow Dash stood in the lead, her fur and feathers sticking out like she had just rolled out of bed. Fluttershy and Applejack stood at her sides, the pegasus looking about ten seconds away from total collapse, while the Earth pony was the only one of the group that didn’t look completely exhausted. Rarity stood at the far back of the group, eyeing Dash with something resembling either fear or constipation. On her back sat a tiny purple rider, his claws practically digging into Rarity’s body from his anxiety.

Spike ran into the room before anypony else could so much as breath, wrapping his arms around his surrogate sister’s neck in a worried-but-relieved hug. “Twilight! Thank goodness you’re all right!”

The purple unicorn wrapped a foreleg around her assistant, returning the hug as best she could without breaking eye contact with the rest of her exasperated friends. “H-Hi, girls. How is everything-”

“DON’T YOU ‘HI GIRLS’ US!” Rainbow shouted. “Do you have any idea how long we’ve been looking for you two?”

“One hour? No, TWO! Three, four, you gotta give me a clue here. Am I cold or what?” Pinkie quickly gabbed.

All the joking earned her was an orange, very irritated blur speeding towards her, passing Twilight so fast it sent the unicorn spinning in place. It would have slammed into the other pony in the room had Pinkie Pie not stepped to the side to pick a conveniently-placed caramel candy off the floor; instead, Applejack found herself crashing into the far wall.

Everypony broke into a quick canter, surrounding the dizzied farm pony with great concern. “Applejack, are you okay?” Fluttershy asked.

Slowly, Applejack pulled herself back onto her hooves. She adjusted her hat in frustration, muttering something about bulls and feathers under her breath, before turning back to Pinkie, her eyes still slanted from her built-up frustration. “Jus’ what the hay was THAT for?”

“What? What’d I do?” Pinkie stammered. “I was just kidding around right then! I know you guys were looking all over Canterlot for us! Why do you think I had to play all sneaky-sneak and go through the sewers?”

The moment the word “sewers” left her lips, a frankly unflattering scent struck the nostrils of everypony in the room, coming from Rainbow’s direction. Now the reason for Rarity’s distancing herself from Dash were more than apparent. “You…You mean you went in the sewers after her?” Twilight asked.

“Well, DUH!” Rainbow blurted, more than a little embarrassed about her current situation. “Do you know how bad it is down there? It’s all cramped, and smelly, and DARK! I crashed into a wall and tumbled into a river of…of….GAH I don’t even want to think about it!”

Pinkie couldn’t help but feel more than a little small next to her friends. All of them, save Twilight, eyed her with a mixture of anger, fear, and exasperation. There was only one way out of this. “All right, girl-pals. I know I haven’t been a straightforward pony with you guys, and that was wrong of me. The truth is…”

----------

With a small bit of effort, Celestia and Lofty packed up the game’s contents before shoving it under Celestia’s bed. “Well, that was fun,” Celestia said. “I’ve never been beaten that badly in anything. Well, anything that didn’t actually matter, anyway.”

“I…didn’t know you could lose by two hundred thousand bits,” Lofty added.

“It’s all a matter of luck, anyway.” None of which I’ve been having recently.

Their little chat stopped as yet another knock echoed from the door. Cursing the inevitable march of time, Celestia opened the wooden portal, revealing Ruby Dream herself. “Good afternoon, your Majesty. I’m sorry, but it’s time for Lofty to come back.”

“Awww,” Lofty whined.

Ruby took a few steps into the room, stopping in front of her daughter. “Now Lofty, I’m not going to take any backtalk today, all right? This was a very special occasion, but you still have a homework assignment to research. And if you want to go to the carnival tomorrow, you are going to get it done tonight. Understand?”

Celestia’s eyes went wide. Carnival?

Lofty scoffed. “Yes, mom.”

If Ruby had noticed her daughter’s backhoof of a response, she didn’t seem to care. She leaned her body forward, allowing Lofty to hop on before standing back up. The red pegasus then turned back to the princess. “If you will excuse us, we have to return to Princess Luna’s office. We still have a lot to get done today.”

Ruby was about two hoofsteps out the door when a little white blur suddenly popped up next to her. Celestia’s face was all a-grinin’ as Ruby and Lofty looked on in surprise. “You…don’t mind if I tag along, do you? We have so much to talk about…”

----------

“And that’s the whole story.”

The room was so quiet, a pin dropping would sound like an explosion. All color had drained from the faces of the four ponies, leaving the four looking like slightly dirtied snowponies. Spike clung to Twilight’s neck like a security blanket, eliciting more than a few pings of pain from the unicorn as his claws poked her skin. Pinkie’s face soured as she took in her friends’ reactions. “Sorry if I scared you gals, but Daddy Pie always told me to tell the truth. Well, unless it got the family killed, but that’s a moot point now.”

Rainbow Dash’s mouth flapped wordlessly a few times before she could find something to say. “You mean you have a sick, sick pony living in your brain?”

Pinkie shook her head negatively. “Not quite like that. I mean, yes, he’s back there sometimes. I can still remember stuff he did, places he saw, ponies he maimed…” Her natural cheerfulness quickly dropped into morose self-loathing at the last item. “But it’s almost all gone now.”

“Then what was that nonsense from earlier?” said Rarity. “You looked like you were ready to take poor Twilight’s head off!”

“And how’d you twist your head like that?” Spike added.

Pinkie took a few steps back, somehow appearing even more nervous than before. “Well, sometimes, I mean…when something really gets me nervous, or I get really angry, he kinda comes clawing out. Remember that time you guys were planning that surprise party, but I thought you all hated me? How I started looking different and acting like I hated you all back? Yeah, that’s kind of what he does.”

Fluttershy took a big gulp of air. “Um…I’m sorry, but…do you mind if I, well, go outside for a little bit? I’m not feeling too well…” Before anypony could respond, the yellow pegasus was out the door and just a small dot in the distance.

Applejack turned her attention back to the desperately apologetic Pinkie. “Alright, Ah suppose Ah can…accept yer apology. This is just gonna be a lot to take in.” She shrugged. “And…Ah’m sorry Ah yelled at ya like that.”

“And I as well,” added Rarity.

Rainbow was mum for a few seconds before finally speaking. “Oh, all right. I’m sorry I tried to chase you into the sewers.”

Pinkie smiled, wiping a small tear from her eye. “No, it’s all right. It’s all my fault anyway. I should have known that Princess Celestia wasn’t going to hold a grudge all this time. And you guys are the best pals a pony could ask for. You would have understood, even if it does seem a bit weird.”

The five remaining ponies (plus dragon) quickly pressed into a group hug. And even with Rarity hurling Applejack between herself and Rainbow Dash, for just a moment, the friends were reunited.

----------

“A carnival? Really?”

Lofty nodded from her vantage point on Ruby’s back. “Uh huh! The first one mom and I can go to since we moved to Canterlot!” The filly squeezed her mother’s neck with sudden excitement, eliciting a small squeak from the adult pegasus. “It’s the most awesomely exciting thing that’s ever happened in my entire life!”

Ruby gave a small cough before wrestling free of her own foal’s vise-like grip. “Really? I thought your last birthday was the greatest day of your life.”

Lofty paused for just a moment, just long enough for the filly to catch her thoughts. “Oh…that just got replaced.” Both Celestia and Ruby had to share a laugh at the foal’s naiveté, even if it only served to make the small pony more upset. “What? Did I say something funny?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Celestia giggled. She rolled her eyes a little before continuing. “So, Miss Dream, what else is my sister planning for today?”

Ruby glanced down at the regal filly beside her, her mind freezing as to how she should respond. She had never really spent a lot of time with Celestia prior to her recent affliction, having only actually spoken to her during one of her many interviews with the castle. She knew the princess could be trusted with anything, and certainly needed to know what was going on around Equestria. Something, however, was holding her back. The pegasus’ mind kept drifting back to that first awful day, watching the princess she had found herself attached to reduced to a wreck, and…

“Excuse me, Miss Dream. Is something wrong?”

The pegasus shook her head vigorously, little dots of light flashing before her eyes as they readjusted to reality. “My apologies, your Highness. Princess Luna has just finished the open court. That gives her and I about, oh, four hours or so to get things accomplished.” The pegasus gave a toothy grin. “Everything seems to be going quite…nicely.”

Celestia frowned at the pony’s evasiveness. “I see… Very well, Miss Dream. Still, if anything does happen…”

Lofty glanced back and forth between the two ponies. “Um…what’s going on?”

Ruby turned her head back towards her daughter, still bearing the same smile. “Oh, just big pony talk, honey. Nothing you need to worry about.”

“Oh, hello, Princess.”

The three travelers stopped in the hall as a yellow pegasus boldly approached the group. Ruby started to take a sidestep towards the princess, as if to hide her from the stranger in their midst, but a quick shake of Celestia’s head was all it took to convince her that this was not somepony to be feared. Lofty, on the other hoof, was staring at the approaching pony in a mixture of awe and astonishment. The yellow pegasus, for her part, looked like she was worried about something, but otherwise seemed quite friendly and cordial towards the three. “I’m sorry if I interrupted anything. Maybe I should just go. I mean…”

Celestia waved a hoof in response. “It’s no trouble at all, Fluttershy.”

Fluttershy took a deep breath, her nerves calming down as much as hers ever did. “Oh, thank goodness. I’m sorry to bother you, but I…I just had to get some fresh air. I mean, after finding out about Pinkie Pie, I…”

The pegasus stopped as Celestia shook her head, a smile still on her lips. “I know it’s a lot to take in, but believe me, she’s still your friend. A pony is not defined by what someone else in their family did. I have seen the descendants of saints become monsters, and the children of evil become the greatest of heroes. Pinkie Pie is no different. Every time I’ve met her, she’s brought so much laughter and joy to those around her, that I can see she is incapable of the monstrous actions of her ancestor.”

Fluttershy nodded in response. “I know all that. I mean, I think I do. But things today have been so crazy that…”

“Ex-Excuse me, Princess Celestia.”

Both ponies turned their heads towards Ruby, the yellow pegasus shrinking back a few steps while blushing at the sight of a new pony and accompanying filly. The red pegasus looked at the two in confusion, having lost track of their conversation about five rails back. The filly’s eyes were still locked on Fluttershy, her breath becoming more labored as she struggled to fight back some urge from within. Celestia glanced back to Fluttershy, grinning apologetically. “My apologies. Fluttershy, this is Ruby Dream and her daughter, Lofty. She’s filling in as Luna’s personal attendant.”

Slowly, Fluttershy extended a shaking leg. Her eyes never left a small spot on the floor. “Um…nice to meet you.”

Ruby took the other pegasi’s hoof in her own and gave it the smallest, slowest shake she could, just in case she startled the already nervous pony any more. “It’s…very nice to meet you.” Fluttershy squeaked something in response before withdrawing her leg. More than a little nervous, the redder of the pegasi returned her attention to the waiting filly. “I’m sorry, but Lofty and I really need to get back to work. We only have a few hours of daylight left.”

“F-F-Fl-Flu-”

Celestia looked up at the small pegasus on Ruby’s back. “Lofty? Is something wrong?”

“Fl-FLUTTERSHY!”

The filly leaped from Ruby’s back, almost somersaulting through the air in her excitement, before landing with a resounding crash in front of Fluttershy. All three adult/formerly adult mares recoiled in horror, only for the filly to hop back to her hooves completely unharmed. Indeed, she seemed more enthusiastic than ever. “Fluttershy Fluttershy FLUTTERSHY! Ohmygosh, I can’t believe it!”

Fluttershy broke into a cold sweat. She had never handled exorbitant public affection, as evidenced by her brief run as a fashion model. Even when the Cutie Mark Crusaders were praising her after the sleepover incident, they were mostly respectful and polite. This filly, however, seemed ready to tackle her to the ground at a moment’s notice. She wanted to bolt in the opposite direction, but her own fear had paralyzed her legs. All she could mutter was a weak, “Hello?”

Lofty gasped. “Wow! Fluttershy actually said hello to me! Oh, this is the new most awesomely amazing thing that’s ever happened to me!”

The filly’s unbridled enthusiasm and Fluttershy’s growing fear were interrupted only by the heavy clops of Ruby’s hoofsteps. “Lofty, what have I told you about upsetting ponies? Miss Fluttershy doesn’t seem to appreciate when you violate her personal space like that.”

“Awww, but it’s Fluttershy, mom!” Lofty moaned. “Don’t you remember?”

Fluttershy managed to dig up what little reserves of courage she had left. “Oh, you must remember me from my modeling days. That was such a long time ago, though. I really don’t work in that business anymore.”

Lofty shook her head. “Not from that! Remember when you took out that dragon that was trying to block out the sun? Or when you stared a cockatrice down until it released its hundreds of victims! Oh, and that time you defeated Discord and single-hoofedly chased down the fastest flier in Equestria?!”

“Oh! I…see…” Fluttershy groaned and tried to back away, even as Lofty continued to prattle on and on about the pegasi’s long list of achievements, even those that had been exaggerated either by the press or the filly’s imagination. Now she really wanted to leave, but in between her own shyness, her fear of appearing improper, and the filly’s hero worship, she couldn’t bring herself to run.

Fortunately, salvation came in the form of Ruby Dream. The filly’s prattle ended when her mother’s mouth clenched onto her back and flung the small pony onto her saddle area. “Now Lofty, I know you’re excited, but you can’t just run up to a pony like that. Now come on, we have a long day ahead.”

“Oh…okay!” said Lofty. She turned back to Fluttershy. “You’re awesome!” Fluttershy managed to squeak something that sounded like a “thank you.” The filly then returned to the rather left-out Celestia. “And thank you for letting me play with you, princess!”

“With your leave, Princess Celestia,” Ruby said. Before Celestia could actually answer, however, one of Lofty’s rear legs struck the side of Ruby’s saddlebags, dislodging a loose blue leaf.

Fluttershy’s eyes doubled in size when she saw the piece of plant. ”Th-That’s POISON JOKE!” she screamed, before diving behind Celestia.

The filly princess was similarly disturbed. “P-Poison Joke? Miss Dream, how did this get into your bags?”

Ruby glanced at the plant, and then back at the two ponies in confusion. “What do you mean? It’s just a piece of some of the decorations we’re using for tonight’s party. It’s not real, anyway.”

Both Celestia and Fluttershy looked back at the plant. Cautiously, Celestia leaned in closer, touching a small piece of the leaf with her hoof. Sure enough, it bore the same texture as silk. “A fake? But-”

“The florist said somepony in the palace requested these plants, claiming they were regular flowers from the Everfree Forest. She did some research, however, and found that they were actually highly poisonous. So, she worked up some artificial ones so we wouldn’t have to change the color scheme for tonight.”

Fluttershy nodded. “That’s…rather complicated.”

Celestia followed Fluttershy in nodding. “Very well. Miss Dream, you and your daughter are free to rejoin Luna. I should be returning to my chambers.”

Ruby bowed in response before trotting off, Lofty waving goodbye from her back. “Well…I should probably get back to the others,” Fluttershy said, accompanied by her own bow. “Thank you for listening, Princess.”

“Oh...it’s no problem, Fluttershy,” said Celestia. “Oh, and congratulations on your very own fan club!”

----------

Canterlot Station was bustling as usual, the latest batch of commuters preparing for the long trip back to Ponyville and the other surrounding communities. The train back to Ponyville had just pulled into the station as Twilight and company arrived, five of the seven prepared to head back to their regular lives in their small town. That is, save for the purple dragon resting on Twilight’s back, munching on a small bag of emeralds. “Are you sure you don’t need me, Twilight?” Spike asked between bites.

Twilight nodded. “I’ll be all right, Spike. I wasn’t in danger before you guys got here. I’m sure Pinkie and I will be fine now.”

Spike crunched down on another emerald. “But…”

The dragon’s eating spree stopped as a pink foreleg wrapped him in a tight hug. “There’s nothin’ to worry about, Spikey-Wikey! Twilight’s got the biggest brain in all of Equestria, and I’ve got that creepy voice in the back of my head. I’m sure we’ll have everything handled before you know it!”

“Ah’m sure ya’ll got it all figured out,” Applejack added. “Ah jus’ wish the Elements had worked. It woulda been nice ta be headin’ back together, ’s all.”

“I just wish we hadn’t played that game,” Rarity muttered. “Ugh, I can still taste that gunk on my breath.” The unicorn turned her attention to the nearby Rainbow Dash. “Rainbow, how could you make me do something like that?”

Dash sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s not like you had to pick dare, you know. And besides, I’ve drank worst things in my life.”

Rarity’s hoof clamped onto Rainbow’s mouth instantly. “Don’t you dare finish that thought! NOTHING was worse than that!”

“So, what are your plans for the night?” asked Fluttershy.

“We do have a lot of work to finish,” Twilight answered. “It’s just been one roadblock after another, but now that everything’s pretty much settled, it shouldn’t take that long to find something.”

A loud whistle rumbled through the entire station, alerting the ponies to the train’s oncoming departure. The herd on the platform began pushing and shoving towards the train doors, the sound of their hooves drumming up more noise than a thunderstorm. The seven ponies were no different, as they found themselves pulled and tugged until the departing five were on the train, their heads poking out the windows to face the remaining two.

The usual chorus of farewells and well-wishes followed, with ponies from all walks of life saying goodbye to their friends and loved ones before departing along the rail line. This was no different for the six Bearers of the Elements of Harmony; indeed, the separation was in many ways harder than before. Nopony on the train knew when they would see Twilight or Pinkie again, or how long their research would take. Likewise, Twilight and Pinkie had no inkling of what hurdles they would have to overcome to restore Celestia.

But there were still things to do. Not everypony could just drop everything and spend their time in Canterlot, as much as they wished. Applejack still had chores on the farm, and her workpile had no doubt exploded in size since she left for the capital. Rarity was in much the same boat, having to prepare large orders for important clients all over Equestria. Fluttershy couldn’t help but worry about her animal friends, or how Angel could possibly handle taking care of them all while she was gone, and Rainbow Dash still had dozens of routines to practice. Even Spike had found himself promoted to librarian during Twilight’s absence.

The goodbyes stopped as the train began to rattle down the tracks, heading through the mountains and back down into Ponyville. From their position on the platform, Twilight and Pinkie watched it clatter away, waiting until it had fully vanished from sight before starting back towards the palace.

----------

Celestia bounced in a circle around Luna, the blue alicorn telekinetically pulling out a copy of the proposed trade agreement with one of the nearby pony nations. “A carnival! Can you believe it? It’ll be so much fun!”

“I’m sure it is,” Luna said with not even a drop of enthusiasm. “But why are you so excited? You and I have been to thousands of festivals.”

Celestia scoffed. “First, it is a carnival, not a festival. And second, we have, but I never got to do anything at them besides look pretty and attract customers! Now’s the perfect chance to-”

“No.”

Celestia’s face fell almost immediately. “B-But you didn’t let me-”

“I know what you’re going to say, and the answer is no. You cannot leave the palace until things are back to normal. What if somepony recognizes you?” She sighed as her mind slipped back to her happy place, back in the days of yore. “And besides, this is just a tremendous waste of precious time. What is there to celebrate?”

Celestia cocked her head. If she had ever questioned this before, she had obviously forgotten. “Um…the joy of living, maybe?”

“What I mean is, remember when such things were held at the end of the harvest season? Or to keep up one’s spirit during the winter months? I hardly see how a slight change in temperature can prompt a celebration like this.”

“Which is all the more reason for me to go! I can be your first-hoof observer, keeping my big sister informed of all the goings-ons in Equestria!”

“No, you just want yet another reason to goof off,” Luna grumbled.

Celestia could feel that childish side well up inside her yet again. It was getting harder and harder to suppress yet another tantrum. “B-But I never got to do anything like this!”

Luna could feel her patience wearing dangerously thin. “It’s just too dangerous, Celestia. All it would take is one pony seeing you walk down the street, and soon everypony in Equestria will know what happened.”

“Wh-What about a disguise spell?”

“You already have several enchantments on you already, none of which we can remove, and you want another one?” Luna clicked her tongue in disapproval. “There is no telling how badly any additional magic will interact with the Youth Restoration Spell. It might make the curse impossible to dispel.”

“Then we’ll get some hair dye, and-”

Luna turned to the next page, still trying to feign ignorance to her sister’s whiny protests. “Would that happen to include something to remove your horn and wings? And we have tried dying your mane before. Or have you forgotten your pink hair phase?”

“But...”

Luna grunted in frustration at her little sister’s constant interruptions. “My answer is final. I’m sorry, but I cannot allow you to just run free like that.” Her attention returned to the paperwork floating in front of her. “Now if you will excuse me, I need to get this to our embassy before tomorrow morning. With luck, we might be able to trade for enough food to last Fillydelphia until the next harvest season.”

Celestia’s lips twisted into a small pout. “I would have let you go.”

“Well, I’m not you,” Luna grumbled. “And besides, are you not too old for those kinds of games?”

A quick jerk of her mane sent Luna’s face flying downward towards the rather peeved Celestia. The filly spat out the mass of swirling hair, coughing back a glittering bit of star magic. “Why yes, I was. And then you came along and changed all of that.” The filly flashed a smile, the same kind that spoke of impending death for all that gazed upon it. “Remember?”

Luna grunted, readjusting her mane with one hoof as she did so. “Vividly. And I have been trying to accommodate for your…decisions during this time. But this is a few steps beyond comfortable. Far too many things can go wrong.”

“B-B-BUT-”

Luna could take no more. She tore her eyes away from the parchment and towards the filly, her retinas burning with unbridled fury. Celestia was more than a little taken aback; she had not seen her sister this angry in a long time. “My answer is FINAL. You are NOT going to that carnival tomorrow. Today has been a small diversion, but starting tomorrow morning, I expect you to be working on finding that cure. Do. You. Understand. Me. Young. Filly?!”

Celestia couldn’t fight it back anymore. Her eyes began to water as her childish mind took over. “You-You’re the meanest big sister anypony ever had!”

Luna’s harsh gaze softened slightly, albeit not enough to make Celestia relax. “I am the worst big sister ever...because I am trying to protect you from more public humiliation?”

“No you’re not!” Celestia whined. “You just want to look out for yourself! The only pony you’ve ever cared about is you you YOU!

“That is a lie, and you know it!” Luna snapped. “I have bent to your every whim these last few days because, believe it or not, I feel responsible for what happened. But I never imagined that the same pony I have looked up to my entire life could be such a sniveling, spoiled brat!”

The office fell dangerously quiet, both ponies seemingly rooted to their spots on the ground. Neither sister conceded any ground in their argument, as all the tension from both Celestia’s pranking spree and Luna’s misguided revenge scheme seemed to start forcing its way out.

Finally, the filly alicorn’s resolve gave out. With a last angry growl, she stomped out of her now-bigger sister’s office and didn’t look back.

Luna watched the filly wander away until she rounded a corner, waiting until she was absolutely sure her sister was out of earshot before sighing in resignation. I’ll make it up to you somehow, Celestia. I promise.

----------

The hour was nigh, and the garden was looking perfect.

Two large banquet tables had been set up in perpendicular lines in the center of the garden, with a smaller one for Princess Luna herself was set at the end facing the palace. The performance stage was ready, with Octavia and the rest of her quartet practicing classic waltzes and traditional movements. Sure enough, they were indeed some of the best musicians in Canterlot; Luna may not have been around when the pieces were originally written, but she could tell they weren’t missing a beat.

The night’s appetizers were already set up for munching during the social part of tonight’s dinner, and even with the sudden introduction of cranberries into tonight’s menu, everything looked as close to perfection as was possible. The main course was still waiting by the kitchen’s garden doors, cooling to just the right temperature so as not to burn a noblepony’s tongue.

From her vantage point next to the garden doors, Princess Luna smiled at the sight before her. Her mane and coat had been shampooed, conditioned, straightened, curled, re-straightened, and finally combed through until they shined as bright as any of the stars in the night sky. The last hour had been spent prepping herself for the night’s festivities, ensuring that she would be more than pleasing to the upper levels of society.

Beside her stood Ruby Dream, the pegasus busying herself with finalizing the night’s schedule. “Let’s see here… The first guests should arrive at about 6:30, and the last at 7:05. The first official mingling phase will end at 8:00, where dinner will be served. At about 9:00 we enter the second mingling phase, which will last until around midnight. At that point, the guards will escort Baron Frazzleberry home after he tries to duel with Lord Huffy, which will kill the entire mood of the party and send everypony packing back to their estates.”

Luna eyed the pegasus skeptically. “And you are sure that is what is on Princess Celestia’s notes?”

Ruby took a few moments to clear her throat before speaking. “Well…that is, that’s what she had written down for every other one of these dinners. I mean, I do suppose she is embellishing a little…”

“I am certain it is more than ‘a little’ exaggerated,” Luna sighed. “Still, my sister does have her own way with some things.”

Ruby set the schedule aside. Next to her lay Lofty, the filly struggling not to fall asleep. “I should take her home. She’s had a long day.”

“I agree,” Luna said. “Enjoy your day off tomorrow. I shall see you first thing in the morning the day after.”

Ruby nodded, hoisted her daughter onto her back, and started on her way out of the palace. As soon as Luna was certain she was gone, she stepped out of the palace and into the garden proper.

There was no doubt about it. Everything was the very pinnacle of perfection. Twilight and Pinkie were working on a cure, and Celestia was free to spend time with them if she got bored. Any minute now, her guests would arrive, and her first formal function since returning to Equestria would begin.

Tonight is going to be the best night ever.

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