• Published 22nd Nov 2019
  • 899 Views, 65 Comments

By The Light of the Moon - Lets Do This



Faced with Nightmare Moon's approaching return, Twilight, Tempest, and their classmates need help from an expert... a pony named Moondancer. But it's the last thing Moondancer wants to talk about...

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II: We Need An Expert...

In the Grand Audience Hall of the Royal Palace of Canterlot, there was a lengthy, echoing stillness as the Captain of the Guard considered what he'd just heard. Seated tall and regal on the Sun Throne, Princess Celestia patiently waited for the proud, stolid stallion to collect his thoughts.

"Forgive me, Highness," he said at last. "It's... a lot to take in."

"Understandable. It is also of the utmost secrecy. You will speak of this to no one, until given leave to do so."

"Of course, Your Highness."

"As of this moment, only yourself and a few other key ponies have been informed. And shortly, five more will be told. And they are the crucial ones."

"Given their importance, Your Highness, as well as the disturbing reports I've been hearing -- nightmares amongst the populace, rumors of Nightmare cults meeting in secret in some of the smaller villages -- should we not assign some of the Guard to, well... guard them?"

"That is precisely what I do not want." The alicorn shook her head. "Twilight and her friends will have more than enough on their minds with the work they're doing. I don't want them distracted, to feel they're under surveillance -- or worse, house arrest. I want them to feel able to follow their instincts, wherever that might lead them."

"We can be discreet, Your Highness," the Captain offered, diffidently. "Keep them under observation, from a distance?"

"No doubt you might try. However, I suspect you'd find it difficult to hide anything from these ponies... in particular, from Tempest Shadow."

The Captain grimaced. Even after all this time, he and his officers were still smarting from the roughhousing they had unexpectedly received from the moody unicorn when they'd first brought her in.

"With respect, Highness, that one is trouble. Insolent, shifty, and aggressive -- unreliable, in my view."

"There you're quite wrong," Celestia gently reproved him. "Tempest is highly intelligent, observant, and of necessity self-sufficient. She has a practiced, intuitive understanding of security and its weaknesses, and how they might be exploited."

"A thief, in plain language, Highness. And very likely worse -- or so we might discover, if we were permitted to investigate her further...?"

Celestia blandly ignored the hint. "As the saying goes, set a thief to catch one, hmm? But Tempest also brings two other important qualities. First, she is fiercely -- one might almost say fanatically -- loyal to those she considers friends, in particular to Twilight. She is strongly motivated to see to the group's safety, and she has an insider's perspective on how best to do so. And secondly..."

Celestia smiled, amusedly.

"Twilight herself trusts Tempest, implicitly. She feels comfortable under Tempest's watchful eye. And the others, they all follow Twilight's example. Even Sunset Shimmer defers to Twilight, to my great surprise. So we shall make use of this fortunate circumstance. Captain, I want you and your guards to support Tempest in this. Allow her to set the tone, provide any assistance she may require. Otherwise, stay firmly in the background, unless called upon."

"Highness..." the Captain began, ready to object. Then he saw the look in her eye. And came to attention. "Understood, Your Highness."

Celestia smiled understandingly. "It is an unusual arrangement, to be sure," she agreed. "But these are unusual times. We must make use of every opportunity fate puts before us."

"As you say, Highness."

Further conversation was forestalled by a rap at the door. "Princess Celestia?" the Chief Steward said, looking in. "Your students are here."

"Good. Send them in."

The doors swept open, and the group walked in. Leading them was Twilight Sparkle, with Spike trotting along beside her. The lavender unicorn was compulsively sifting through a pack of index cards held in her magic, barely looking where she was going.

Stalking along beside her was Tempest Shadow. Tall, stern, and ever-watchful, the maroon pony missed nothing, even going so far as to gently nudge Twilight a hair to the right so she avoided a wrinkle in the otherwise smooth red carpet. And trotting along beside Tempest was her white-maned hedgehog assistant, Grubber. His eyes wide, he stared up and around at the immense chamber, looking both awed and humbled.

Behind them was Starlight Glimmer, carrying a bundle of equipment and scrolls in her magic. She had the nervous-yet-capable air of a general's aide, toting the map-case and battle plans. And strolling along beside her was Trixie Lulamoon, wearing her star-spangled magician's hat and cape, the focus gem clipped to her collar. Her hat was tilted to a jaunty angle, there was a proud smile on her face. The showpony gave every impression of having graciously acceded to a royal summons, in order to present a dazzling spectacle of légerdesabot...

... which wasn't all that far from the truth, actually, so Celestia made allowances for the pony's overinflated ego.

And lastly, trailing at the back of the group, came Sunset Shimmer. The flame-maned pony was looking uncommonly downcast and somber. She'd often looked that way whenever she'd felt she'd failed to achieve a perfect score on a test. Celestia dearly wanted to call her former student over, to reassure her and to compliment her on her progress since her return. Yet Celestia had a feeling she might soon have more than one student to comfort.

"Princess!" Twilight said, hurriedly putting away the cards and coming to attention before the throne. "You asked to see us? If it's about our refractive magic project, I'm happy to report that with Sunset's help we've made a lot of progress. We're now able to split off any chosen stream of magic, and the pony directing the flow can apply it to any target. If you'd like, we can provide a demonstration?"

Celestia smiled fondly at Twilight's anxious eagerness.

"Thank you, Twilight. I shall, as always, be pleased to see it. But that is not why I summoned you." She paused, gathering her thoughts, then went on. "I have decided, based on your progress, and based on the advice of a pony I trust --" She added a glance and a smile at Sunset, who only looked more uncomfortable. "-- that the time has come to reveal something to all of you. Something I should have perhaps told you long before this. Something that explains the vital importance of you and your friends, and of the work that you have all been doing... both for me, and for all of Equestria."

Twilight glanced around at the others. Then she worriedly faced Celestia again. "Of course, Princess!"

Celestia looked at them all herself: five young unicorns, a baby dragon, a scruffy hedgehog... perhaps the oddest group of heroes Equestria had ever had to call upon.

"For nearly a millenia," Celestia began, "our land of Equestria has known peace, prosperity, and the reasonable certainty that both will continue. However, there are dark times ahead, and we must prepare for them. You are familiar, I am sure, with the legend of Nightmare Moon?"

Twilight and the others nodded.

"It is no legend," Celestia said flatly. "It is fact. The Mare shadow on the Moon? It is Nightmare Moon. She is real, as real as any of us."

She gave the startled group a few moments to consider that, then went on, placidly and directly. She spoke of the imprisonment of the Nightmare, by use of the Elements of Harmony; of the approaching end of the spell's thousand-year span; of the impending release and return of the Nightmare...

And more than once she almost came to a halt, seeing the look on Twilight's face. The unicorn's jaw hung open, her eyes grew wider and wider.

"For the longest time," Celestia said, "I had assumed that as the containment spell faded, and Nightmare Moon's release approached, a new bearer might arise, who would assume control of the Elements, and wield them once more in my place. When Sunset Shimmer appeared, I naturally assumed that it might be she who would discover a means to reawaken the Elements. And Sunset, I am sorry," she added, "for having unfairly placed that burden on you. I know how hard you tried, how much it meant to you. I am most grateful to you for all you did, and are continuing to do even now."

Sunset nodded sadly, managing a faint smile.

"But Twilight," Celestia said, turning to her, "having observed your group's project coming together, I now suspect that you are creating something new here, something that recreates the power of the Elements... perhaps even replacing them altogether. It has been nearly a thousand years, but even so, seeing the forces you are able to unleash and wield together, I find them strikingly familar. If memory serves, I recall seeing something similar myself, when I used the Elements that one last time, so many long years ago."

Celestia smiled, a little sadly.

"We are, after all, at the end of an era. It would be appropriate that there be a new type of magic now to defend Equestria. And new bearers of that magic, such as yourselves..." She smiled proudly at the group before her.

"Us?" Twilight said, utterly floored.

"Well, of course us, Twilight!" Trixie said smugly, ignoring Starlight's attempts to shush her. "You know anypony else around here who's as Great and Powerful as we are? With the exception of Your Highness, of course!" she added hastily, bowing to the Throne.

Celestia eyed Trixie in tolerant amusement.

"But, Princess..." Twilight objected, "we're just students!"

"As I have said, Twilight, you and your friends are more than mere students. You each have gifts, skills, and magic potential, such has rarely been seen in Equestria in a thousand years. This cannot be mere coincidence, that such a group of ponies would arise, exactly when needed."

Celestia smiled reassuringly down at her wide-eyed student.

"The road ahead will not be an easy one. It will be a challenge, to be sure. But I feel certain that together you and your friends will be up to it. And you will not be alone, Twilight. You will have all of Equestria behind you. But Twilight, we will rely on you, and your friends, to lead the way... to show us what must be done."

Twilight shut her mouth, swallowed nervously. She looked up at her mentor, looking very small, and frightened.

And also, very determined.

"We'll do our very best, Princess... all of us."

"Of that I have no doubt," Celestia replied. "And to that end, I have a task for each of you. Tempest Shadow!"

Tempest had been looking at Twilight, watching her with increasing concern. Her gaze snapped up, focusing intently on Celestia. "Highness?"

"Up to now I have been relying on you, informally, to watch over Twilight and your other friends and keep them safe. I feel we should formalize that responsibility. I am placing the safety and security of this group in your capable hooves. If there is anything you need, let me or the Captain of the Guard know." She indicated the Captain, who reluctantly saluted. "We will make it happen."

Tempest considered it, then nodded.

"Understood, Your Highness." Then she looked thoughtful for a moment. "I don't suppose... that I might request a suit of armor, to begin with? The way this group has been flinging magic around, I feel I might need one."

"Done," Celestia replied swiftly. "The Captain will see to it."

Then Celestia turned to Starlight and Trixie. "The two of you," she said, "are highly skilled in magic, each in your own way. I would like you to focus on that, and train each other, so that each of you can serve as the other's backup. Trixie, I wish you to learn everything that Starlight can teach you about thaumic magic. And Starlight, I want you to learn everything that Trixie can teach you about stage magic. After all, one never knows when a well-timed illusion may make all the difference, hmm?"

"Of course, Your Highness!" Starlight agreed.

"Oh! It will be a long, weary struggle, to be sure!" Trixie settled a hoof around Starlight's shoulders. "Nevertheless I'm certain my Great and Powerful assistant will pull through, proving herself worthy of such awesome responsibility!"

"Thanks a lot, Trixie!" Starlight muttered.

"Not at all, bestie! Just building up your confidence!"

Starlight rolled her eyes.

"Twilight," Celestia said, smiling down at her. "Every group needs a leader. In addition to your skills with magic, you have a knack for guiding and encouraging your friends. So I would like you to continue doing so, continue doing the excellent job you've been doing so far."

Twilight nodded. "Of course, Princess." Her shoulders were hunched, her teeth gritted. She looked positively terrified.

Unable to stand seeing her like that any longer, Tempest edged closer to put a comforting hoof around her shoulders. Twilight smiled up at her, thankfully.

"Sunset --" Celestia began, turning to her.

But Sunset spoke up quickly, interrupting her.

"Don't worry, Your Highness," she said, "I'll be Twilight's backup." She strode quickly forward to sit on Twilight's other side, putting a hoof around her shoulders as well. "I'll do everything I can to help and support her. We'll make this project work, and keep Equestria safe. I promise!"

She glanced over Twilight's head at Tempest, and the two of them nodded to each other, in silent accord.

Celestia sighed, relieved. Bless you, Sunset! she thought. I am so glad you've returned to us.

"We'll all help, Twilight!" Spike said, hugging her from the front.

"And don't forget us," said Starlight, as she and Trixie put their own hooves on Twilight's shoulders. "We've got your back, too."

Twilight glanced around at all of them, clearly still anxious, yet grateful for the show of support. She looked up at Celestia, and managed a brave, wordless smile.

Grubber, standing off to the side, peered up at Tempest.

"Me too, boss?"

Tempest eyed him narrowly. "You hug me," she muttered, "you'll regret it..."

------------------------------

Later that day, in Twilight's tower room at the Library, the atmosphere might best have been described as... intensely focused.

Twilight herself sat at the worktable in the center of the room. There were stacks of books and scrolls all around her, and Spike was just adding the latest arrivals from the Archives to the pile beside her. With her elbows on the table, her face pressed into her forehooves, Twilight stared fixedly at the book spread open before her. Every now and then her magic anxiously flicked a page with a sharp snap.

To her left was Trixie, a book open in front of her, equally focused on reading. Every now and then the showpony leaned toward Twilight to ask a question, or to whisper excitedly about something she'd just read that she'd never really grasped before. And Twilight would mutter back, softly and distractedly, not allowing her gaze to waver from her book for a moment.

Across the table from both of them sat Starlight. There were numerous scrolls and fragments of parchment spread out before her, plus a large blank scroll on which she was sketching out a spell design. Her quill hung poised in the air briefly as she stared worriedly at her two friends. Then she reluctantly turned back to her own studies. Setting the quill aside, she faced a top-hat sitting on the table beside her. Beside it was a small plush rabbit toy, which she grabbed with her magic and dumped into the hat. Just for the look of the thing, she waved her hooves mystically over the hat. Then she picked the hat up and tipped it over... revealing that the rabbit had vanished.

Then she put the hat back on the table and sat there, her forehooves crossed, frowning at it.

"Trixie, how do I do this part again?"

Trixie looked up in mock surprise.

"Why, Starlight! It's so simple." Trotting around, Trixie grabbed up the hat in her forehooves. She examined it closely inside and out, then determinedly felt around inside it with a hoof.

Then she put it down and glanced sideways at Starlight, a mischievous look in her eyes.

"You know what your problem is, bestie?"

With a quick swipe of her hoof, she brushed Starlight's mane... and there was the rabbit, sitting on her hoof.

"You keep forgetting, and leaving it behind your ear," she scolded.

Despite herself, Starlight giggled. "How do you do that, Trixie? You make it look so easy!"

"Misdirection, my humble assistant!" Trixie intoned proudly. "Keep the audience distracted, keep them looking the wrong way, so they never see what you're really up to." She grinned happily. "And timing, too... that's so important!"

Starlight nodded, and sighed. "That's the hard part about all this! I'm not used to having to do things on the spot, as a performance. With structured spellwork, as long as I've written and invoked the spell properly, it just... well, works! But stage magic... it's a whole different ball game."

"Lucky for you then, that you have such an experienced and proficient teacher, eh?" She looked across the table. "Am I right, Twilight?"

"Uh huh," Twilight muttered. Not crossly, not disapprovingly. Just not really paying attention. Her eyes never left the book before her.

Trixie and Starlight looked at each other uncomfortably. And then got back to their respective tasks.

Over by the window wall, Tempest was standing before a trio of mirrors, being fitted for the suit of armor she'd requested. She shrugged her shoulders uneasily, trying to get used to the heavy, gilded plate. She doubtfully inspected the golden shoe on one forehoof, then let the hoof fall to the floor with a heavy thump.

"I don't know..." she muttered.

"It... looks good on ya, boss," Grubber offered doubtfully. "Though it's kinda, how do I put it, uh... bling for you. Ya know what I mean?"

She frowned at him. "I hope you've been taking notes, Grubber," she warned. "You're going to be doing this a lot." Then she turned her scowl on the palace armorer, who was adjusting the straps and jotting down measurements. "You wouldn't have anything lighter weight would you? And maybe something in plain old basic black? The whole idea here is to not to stand out."

"Well... there is battlemage armor," the gray-haired pony offered. "Designed for casters. Though it won't have nearly the same stopping power--"

"Someone fires a crossbow at me," Tempest replied testily, "they're going to get me, even through this getup." She eyed her glittering image in the mirror. "And, if it comes to that, my job isn't to stop an army anyways. It's to be there in time, buy a few extra seconds if that's what it takes."

"Hmmm... I'll check what we have in the armory," the armorer said. "And I should also talk to the Archives, see what they might have down in the deep storerooms. It's been a while since the Mage Wars, but do I seem to recall they had far better battlemage armor back then -- even compared with the best bespoke armor today."

Tempest nodded. "I don't mind hoof-me-downs," she said mildly. "As long as it gets the job done."

"Of course. I'll get right on it."

"Thanks." Turning, Tempest crossed back over to the table. For a moment, she stood next to Twilight, looking over her shoulder at the book the pony was reading.

Then she shrugged out of an armored shoe, and gently put a hoof around the lavender pony's shoulders.

"How are you doing, Twilight?"

"Urghh! Not great. I really wish we'd known about Nightmare Moon sooner. I don't know nearly as much as I should about that era. I've always been so focused on magic in my studies. I haven't spent as much time in the history section. I don't have a good feel for who the really reliable historical sources are. I'm having to go through them myself, one by one."

"Well..." Starlight suggested, "why not ask the best source of all? Princess Celestia herself?"

Twilight shook her head. "You saw how she looked whenever Nightmare Moon's name came up. It's an unpleasant memory for her, even after all this time. I don't think we should hassle her with it, if we can avoid it. We just need to keep at this, find out all we can -- from history, from legend, whatever! Anything we uncover might help us."

"How about this one, Twilight?" Trixie said, plopping an open book in front of her.

Twilight glanced at it. "No, that's Equistotle again -- he's no help. He had a bad habit of writing down anything that seemed like a good idea at the time and calling it the truth."

She stared around forlornly at the piles of books and scrolls. "There's just so much to get through here, even just to get started! You know, what we really need is an expert on all this. That would save so much time."

"Oh, who needs an expert, Twilight? When you have the Grrreat and Powerful Trrrixie!" The blue pony lofted her hooves dramatically. "And Trixie shall not rest until we've researched everything there is to know!" So saying, she grabbed another book, and began paging through it intently.

Grimacing, Twilight pulled over another book herself, and dove back in.

And Tempest remained seated beside her, hoof around her shoulders, keeping her company. "Don't worry, Twilight," she whispered soothingly. "You'll get there, I know you will. And I'll do everything I can to help -- and to keep you safe." She scowled angrily. "I'll even go up against Nightmare Moon myself if I have to, to buy you the time you need."

"Thanks," Twilight said, in a small voice. Then her head dropped back onto her hooves, and she stared at the book in front of her, anxious and sad.

Across the room, Sunset Shimmer was seated by herself next to a smaller worktable, staring morosely at a table-top model of the storage loop project. The shimmering ring of stored magic cycled round and round through the focus gem without any appreciable loss. That, and being able to split off a chosen stream of magic, were Sunset's main contributions to the group thus far... and that was really starting to bother her.

She looked up as Starlight came over, clipboard in hoof, to note down readings from the measuring devices placed around the loop. "Fat lot of good I've done so far," Sunset muttered. "I've helped with our project a little bit, but really? It's nothing all of you couldn't have done on your own."

"Every little bit helps," Starlight replied. "The more of us working on this, the better our chances, right?"

"But... over on the other side of the mirror," Sunset objected, "we were able to do so much more! And I still can't explain why!"

Starlight shrugged. "It's new magic. You make it work first, then you figure out how to explain it. We'll get there!"

"Maybe," Sunset allowed. She thumped the table with a hoof -- gently, so as not to disturb the model. "You know, I honestly thought I was doing the right thing, asking Celestia to clue you all in about what we were facing, about Nightmare Moon's return? Now... I'm not so sure."

"It is better that we know. At least I think so!" Starlight smiled sympathetically. "We all understand how important this is now."

"But look what it's done to Twilight!" Sunset gestured with a hoof. "She used to be the brightest, happiest one in our group. And now look at her! I've driven her right back into her shell, right back into the books!"

"Yeah." Starlight herself turned to look at Twilight, and nodded. "That worries me, too." Then she shrugged. "But... it's not really my place to say, right? Twilight's in charge of the group. And like Celestia said, there are dark times ahead. It's better for us to be prepared..." She looked at Twilight again. "... isn't it?"

"Well," Sunset said, standing up. "If I can do nothing else here, I'm not going to let her keep doing this to herself."

"Oh? What are you going to do?" Starlight asked, surprised.

Sunset smiled wryly. "Looks like I'm going to teach Twilight the lesson that Celestia tried to teach me..."

Trotting over to the main worktable, she waited patiently until Twilight had reached the end of a chapter.

Then she reached across and gently hoofed the book shut.

"Sunset!"

"Time to take a break, Twilight," she said firmly. "You've been at this for hours."

"I can't take a break! There's too much to get through here!"

"And it'll be there later," Sunset replied. "But as a very wise pony once told me, there's more to this than study. You need to get out more, spend time with others. You need to stay open to what they can show you and teach you..."

"Sunset, we don't have time for that right now!"

Twilight started to reach for the book again.

And Sunset rammed a hoof down on it, keeping it shut.

"Twilight!" she said angrily, "don't do this to yourself! You're starting to look just like me! Just like I did before..." She grimaced. "Before I lost it, and ran off through the mirror. Don't make the same mistake I did!" Sunset's face fell. "Just... don't be me, okay?" she whispered sadly.

After a moment, Twilight put out a hoof to touch hers. "Okay. So what should I do?"

Sunset blinked in surprise. Then she shrugged.

"Honestly? I'm not sure. Hadn't really thought it out this far ahead. But... spend some time with friends. I mean, other than us. You need to get away from the books, away from all this for a while. Didn't you say you had some friends here at the School, before we all came along?"

"Well, yeah... I did. Other students in class." Twilight looked uneasy. "I... kind of lost touch with them. We weren't all that close to begin with."

"Okay..." Sunset said. "So, how about inviting them to get together again? Like for donuts or something? And you can introduce me to them. That'd help me -- pretty much everyone I knew from class has grown up and moved on by now."

"All right," Twilight said. "I'd like that!"

And she finally smiled again. And Sunset smiled back, relieved.

------------------------------

Twilight looked across the table in Pony Joe's, at the three fillies sitting opposite her.

"Before, when we were all studying together," she said, " I know I wasn't really a very good friend to all of you. And what with the work I've been doing lately for Princess Celestia, I've kind of... let our friendship fall by the wayside. And that's my fault. Since then, I've learned how valuable it is to have good friends who'll be there for you. And how much I wasn't like that for all of you. And I just wanted to say, for any pain I might have caused you... I'm really sorry!"

The three ponies looked at each other... and then laughed out loud.

"Oh, come on, Twilight!" Minuette finally said. "Sure, it stung a little when you stopped hanging around with us, but it's not like we weren't used to that from you."

"Yeah." Twinkleshine nodded. "We didn't take it personally. Like you said, Princess Celestia's kept you busy, and nopony could hold that against you."

"But it's great spending time with you again," Lemon Hearts said, "And your new friends, too." She smiled at Tempest, who was sitting quietly to Twilight's left. And at Starlight and Trixie, who were sitting next to Tempest. Starlight kept covertly kicking Trixie under the table, whenever she looked about to butt into the conversation. The point of all this was to let Twilight do the talking...

Then Lemon Hearts looked at Sunset, sitting on Twilight's right. "So, uh... who's the new pony?"

"Hi, I'm Sunset Shimmer." Sunset shook hooves with her, and exchanged nods with the others. "I, uh... just transferred in. It's nice to meet all of you!"

"Hey, Sunset!" Minuette chirped. "Great to meet you too! Any ol' friend of Twilight's, and all that!"

"Wasn't there a Sunset here a few years ago?" Twinkleshine asked. "She was a student of Celestia's, too, right?"

"Eeeyeah," Sunset said, scuffing her mane nervously. "No relation..."

"Oh, by the way!" Minuette went on, "Lyra asked me to say she would have been here, but she's helping Bon Bon... with an 'extra credit assignment'," she added, with hoof-quotes.

The three ponies exchanged knowing grins. "More like an excuse for the two of them to hang out together," Twinkleshine said.

"No kidding!" Lemon Hearts nodded. "You know, Bon Bon's been talking about moving to Ponyville when she graduates? If she does, I'll betcha Lyra goes with her!"

They all laughed at that.

"So!" Minuette asked Twilight, "what's Princess Celestia got ya working on? I mean, if it's not some kinda super-duper state secret or somethin'?"

"Well..." Twilight began uneasily.

"Twilight!" Sunset scolded her. "Don't be modest! We've been working on an in-depth research study," she explained breezily. "Following up on sources for the old legend of the Mare in the Moon."

Twilight stared at her, shocked and worried. But the three fillies just grinned in amusement.

"That old pony's tale?" Twinkleshine said, amazed.

"Yeah!" Lemon Hearts said. "Like, no one around here takes that seriously. 'Cept around Nightmare Night of course. Oh sure, folks living in the smaller villages have their superstitions and all, but we're a little more sophisticated here in Canterlot!"

"I'll bet it runs to a lot of reading, huh?" Minuette gave Twilight a wink. "No wonder Celestia picked you for the job!"

"Uhm... yeah," Twilight agreed, relaxing a little. "You should see the number of books and scrolls I've been plowing through lately. Which... normally would be great. Except I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by it all. It's hard to know where to begin!"

"You know what you should do?" Twinkleshine said. "Talk to Moondancer."

"Moondancer?" Twilight blinked. "Really?"

"Yeah!" Minuette beamed. "The Mare in the Moon is kinda her pet subject. She doesn't say anything about it, of course. But she's always got a book, or scroll, or something with her about the Mare. And she's got this cool journal with a crescent moon on the cover, that she writes in sometimes. And then there's her mark, too!"

"Her mark..." Twilight blinked. Then her eyes went wide. "The Moon and the Stars! Omigosh, I never really noticed that before..."

"Yeah! I mean, right?" Minuette giggled. "Real oogy-boogy, huh? Always wanted to ask her about it, like how she got it and all. But, well..." She shrugged. "Moondancer's always been kinda private about personal stuff like that. Didn't wanna be nosey."

Lemon Hearts nodded. "But if there's anypony around here who'd be an expert on the Mare legend, it'd be Moondancer!"

"O-kay..." Twilight exchanged a look with Sunset. Who shrugged, with an I told you so look on her face. "Do you know where we might find her?"

"Well..." Twinkleshine looked troubled. "Honestly, we haven't seen all that much of her lately ourselves. She pretty much keeps to herself. When she's not in class she's usually studying over at the School library, or at the Archives."

"Or holed up in her dorm room," Lemon Hearts said. "With her books."

Minuette giggled. "Just like you, huh, Twilight?"

Twilight was shaking her head, amazed at how little attention she'd paid to one of her closest friends.

"Exactly like me..."

------------------------------

Knocking at Moondancer's dorm room door produced nothing, and a quick search of the School library and the Canterlot public library likewise came up empty. Which left only one alternative...

"Okay," Trixie summed it up. "We're looking for one pony, who likes books... somewhere in the Canterlot Archives. No problem! This should only take what, a few weeks at most?"

"Trixie..." Starlight scolded. Then she looked at Twilight. "Should we split up? We can cover more ground that way."

"Uh huh." Twilight pointed. "You two head that way, check out the research annex. Tempest and I will scout around the open stacks here in front. And Sunset, you check the reference stacks." Twilight thought about it for a moment. "And try the museum wing too, just in case. There's some nice quiet spots for reading there. I've used it before myself."

"You got it, Twilight," Sunset replied. "Wanna meet back here in, let's say an hour? Unless we come across her sooner?"

"Sounds like a plan!"

The ponies all set off, scouting around through the various stacks, the study carrels, the workrooms and reading halls.

Sunset, on a hunch, headed for the museum first. She wandered among its exhibits and display cases, checking alcoves, nooks, any other quiet spots that might be good for reading.

Luckily, her hunch paid off. After only about twenty minutes of searching she came across a pony, sitting on a bench in front of a picture window, through which the spires and minarets of the Royal Palace loomed tall and massive. The filly was beige, with red-and-blue striped hair, and a moon-and-stars cutie mark.

And had her snout buried in a book.

Like I need any more hints, Sunset thought, grinning.

"Hi! It's Moondancer, right?"

The pony didn't even look up from her book. "Um... yeah?"

"Nice to meet you! I'm Sunset Shimmer."

"Oh." A page turned in the pony's pale-pink magic field.

Sunset chewed her lip. This was going to be harder than she'd thought.

She carefully sat down on the bench herself. "Look, I know I'm disturbing you, and I'm sorry about that, but it's real important. A mutual friend is looking for you... Twilight Sparkle?"

"Twilight?" That got Moondancer to look up from her book. "Really?"

"Really. She's been trying to reconnect with her old friends from class. We found Minuette and the others, but we missed you. If you have a minute, Twilight really wanted to chat with you."

"Me? Woah!" Moondancer looked doubtful, then hopeful...

... and then rounded on Sunset, loudly and angrily:

"This had better not be some kind of prank! All right?"

Sunset drew back, her eyes wide. "Absolutely not. Twilight asked me to find you. That's the truth of it."

"Oh. Sorry." Moondancer hunched unhappily. "It's just... some ponies think it's funny, yanking my chain like that..."

"Well, I'm not one of 'em, okay?" Sunset smiled. "C'mon, let's go see if we can find Twilight now. I mean, library, right? Probably be harder than finding you!"

Moondancer smiled at that. "Yeah, probably. Knowing Twilight."

She packed up her carryall, put it on, and then followed along with Sunset, back toward the open stacks.

Looking around, Sunset sighed in relief when she spotted Twilight and Tempest standing near the information desk. "Twilight!" she called, in as loud a whisper as she dared in the library hush. "I found her!"

"Moondancer!" Twilight replied, and came over to meet them. "I'm so glad we found you. How've you been?"

"Uh, fine... thanks." Moondancer smiled. "What's this all about? Sunset said you wanted to chat?"

"Oh, you have no idea! Look, this is really important. We're working on a project for Princess Celestia, and we could really use your help. And from talking with the others, it sounds like this would be right up your alley!"

"Really? Well, sure!" Moondancer beamed. "I'd be glad to help, Twilight! What is it?"

"We need to find out everything we can about the Mare in the Moon."

Moondancer's eyes went wide.

"The Mare in the Moon?" Twilight repeated, puzzled. "Nightmare Moon?"

"No..." Moondancer whispered, shaking her head, her eyes brimming with tears. "No... no no no no no!"

She covered her face with her hooves.

"Uaaauugh!"

Then she whirled about, the carryall flying off her back, and bolted away, crying in heartbroken anguish.

Leaving Twilight, Sunset, and Tempest standing in wordless shock as they watched her run off.

"Well..." Tempest finally said. "That was... unexpected."

"What the...?" Sunset whispered. "What the hay did we just do?"

"Oh great!" Twilight's hoof thunked into her head. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! I try to reach out to an old friend, and what do I do? Right off the bat, I ask about something personal and private, without even thinking about how it might affect her. Why am I such a horrible friend?"

"Don't beat yourself up," Sunset said. "At least you have the excuse of having known her before. Look, you two wait here, in case Starlight or Trixie come back. I'll go find Moondancer, try to find out what got her so upset."

She set off, frowning. "Because I'm tired of ruining everypony's day around here..."

------------------------------

Sunset rapidly quartered the museum again, and then the reference wing beyond. But there was no sign of Moondancer anywhere.

Pausing for a moment, Sunset considered the problem. If I wanted to hide somewhere no one would find me, she thought, where would I go?

And she immediately had an idea. After all, I can't be the only student who knows about the Restricted Section, right?

Happily, the spell she'd used before to gain access still worked. In the main room, surrounded by artifacts and forbidden texts and black books...

... she found one beige pony, lying on the floor, her face buried in her forehooves, sobbing.

"Moondancer?"

"Go away!" Moondancer yelled. "Just go away! All of you... just go away and stop hurting me! Why can't you all just go away and leave me alone!"

Uneasily, Sunset wandered over and sat down beside her.

"I'm sorry," Sunset said. "I'm sorry I barged in and made such a mess of things. I'm sorry I've hurt you so much, because clearly I have. And I'm sorry... because I just didn't know how badly this would affect you."

Moondancer said nothing. She just lay there, silently.

Sunset shrugged. "I'm new here. I know that's no excuse, but it's the truth. I never meant to hurt you. I just wish I knew why it hurt so much, so I could do something about it..."

So saying, she put a comforting hoof on Moondancer's shoulder...

And unexpectedly, in a blinding flash of recollection, she got a lifetime's worth of misunderstanding and loneliness, right between the eyes...

------------------------------

Sunset gradually came to. She found herself lying on the floor, staring dazedly up at the ceiling. With Moondancer looking down at her, worried.

"Are you okay? You just... yelled, and then passed out."

Sunset put a hoof to her forehead.

"Ow. You know what? Some days I actually believe that understanding is better than a kick in the head? And then there's days like this..."

She hauled herself up, and stared at Moondancer.

She writes to Nightmare Moon, Sunset thought, as a way of coping. Because she feels she can't make friends. And making friends matters to her. Not like Twilight, who's perfectly happy just reading for reading's sake. For Moondancer, having friends means everything. Studying is just a way of shutting out the pain, the loneliness...

"I am so sorry, Moondancer," Sunset said. "I get it now. Don't ask me how, I just do! I get how much Nightmare Moon means to you. I know how much it hurts when ponies make fun of you for that, about things that mean so much to you. And I promise, Moondancer, we are not here to make fun of you. None of us are! We really, honestly want your help."

Cautiously, she put a hoof on Moondancer's shoulder. This time, it landed without incident.

"We need an expert on Nightmare Moon. I can't tell you why, that's for Twilight to say. But... I can't think of any pony who'd be better for this than you. And if you want, we won't say a thing to anypony else, about you and Nightmare Moon. We'll keep it private, just amongst us, okay? Look, just... trust us. Please? Give us a chance, let us show you we're worth it. Let us be the friends that you've always wanted and needed. Okay?"

Moondancer stared at her, utterly astonished. Then she nodded.

"Okay."

Sunset stared back at her, just as surprised.

"Wow. Two for two. Uhh... I've really got to start planning these things further ahead. Okay, look, let's go find Twilight and the others. I'll explain everything, and we'll... kinda take it from there. All right?"

"All right." Moondancer managed a small smile. "And thanks, Sunset."

"Hey, not a problem." Sunset returned the smile. And then she glanced around at the darkened shelves, filled with even darker tomes.

"You know, we really should get out of here. If the Princess caught me down here again, it would be really difficult to explain..."

------------------------------

Starlight and Trixie had just come back from searching the research annex when Sunset and Moondancer returned. The group found a quiet corner where they could have some privacy, Sunset made introductions all round, and then briefly explained things.

And Twilight wordlessly pulled Moondancer into a long, warm hug.

"I'm sorry, Moondancer," she finally whispered. "I didn't know how much being friends with me meant to you. And I'm sorry if I hurt you by not paying attention, and by just appearing out of the blue like this, asking you about stuff that's personal to you. That's not the only reason I'm here, you know."

She drew back, looking Moondancer in the eyes.

"You're my friend, Moondancer. That's what matters! If you can help us learn more about Nightmare Moon, that would be a great help, but even if you couldn't... you'd still be my friend. All right?"

Moondancer wiped her eyes.

"You don't know how much I've needed to hear you say that, Twilight."

"I do," Sunset said quietly, with feeling.

"And," Moondancer went on, "if I really can help you, Twilight, I want to help. What do you need to know?"

"Thanks, Moondancer! But let's not discuss it here," Twilight said. "This is all really kinda sorta top secret, you know? Let's go back to our workroom at the School. We can put all our cards on the table there."

"Wow... you know, I always wondered what that tower room of yours was like."

"I'll give you a guided tour," Twilight said. "How about that?"

"It'd be awesome! Oh, wait a sec... there's a couple books back at my dorm room that'd be good to start with. I mean, if you really want the whole picture. Let me go grab those. I'll meet you all over there. Is that okay?"

"That's perfect! We'll see you there, Moondancer."

"And here's your carryall," Starlight said, offering it. "I think Trixie and I found all the books that were in it. They kinda spilled all over the place."

"Thanks!" Moondancer smiled around at them, almost too choked up for words. "I just want you all to know, this is the best day of my life!"

She turned and set off at once, heading for the School's dorm wing. And Twilight and Sunset watched her go.

"You know, Twilight," Sunset said, "I used to think that being The Best was all that really mattered."

"And now?"

"Helping other ponies be their best... yeah, that's definitely better!"

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