The Midsummer Moon gala was all moonlight and fireflies. Contrary to the Grand Galloping Gala, the Midsummer Moon gala was held outdoors in what almost seemed like a park. Various ponies strolled the grassy lanes while others ducked behind large shrubs which seemed conveniently placed for a romantic rendezvous. After the enormous entrance gates closed, all nearby conversation hushed at the sudden presence of the three ponies and one dragon. Eyes of every color of the rainbow narrowed as the gala's guests tried to decipher the identities of the newcomers.
"My word, is that-?"
"-been ages… Goodness, she must actually like mucking it up in that backwards little town… What was its name again?"
"-of course I know! After all, I've been close associates with Princess Celestia for years. In fact-"
"Oh my Luna! That big red guy's picture was on the back of my apple today!"
The four friends hesitated. Coming face to face with a capricious crowd of Equestria's elite could make anypony freeze in her or his tracks—especially when that crowd was suddenly joined by an ancient and powerful princess. The murmuring slowly ceased as a tall, dark, and slender figure parted through the herd of exquisitely dressed ponies all the while flanked by two more Lunar guards. Twilight, Big McIntosh, Spike, and Rarity shared a collective gasp before bowing before their Princess. The rest of the guests followed.
"Twilight Sparkle…" Princess Luna smiled. "We are overjoyed that thou hast come, and thou hast brought thy friends also! Young Spike… Rarity…" With each name the dark blue alicorn gave a courtly nod of recognition. "And… ah yes… Art thou the male sibling of friend Applejack?"
"Eeyup!" Big Mac answered proudly, which promptly resulted in a rush of snarky laughter throughout the crowd of nobles and a loud facehoof from Twilight.
"Excellent! We are certain that thy character is as admirable as thy sister's, but enough of this chit of the chat. Come. We have reserved a place for you beside us at the most high table." The princess gestured the quartet to follow before turning around to head back through the crowd. The four started to meekly follow, but a sudden thought held Twilight back. Biting her lower lip in nervousness, the purple unicorn stopped.
"Princess Luna, with all due respect, I need to talk with Spike in private for a minute. May we join you later?"
Luna halted her graceful stride. "Why of course Twilight Sparkle. We are always accommodating to our subjects. When the time is right, come join us at the most high table. In the meantime, we shall educate friends Rarity and Big McIntosh about the history behind one of our most cherished celebrations." Both Rarity and Big Mac winced at this—neither pony was eager to learn about Luna's "most cherished celebrations" and secretly gave Twilight pained looks behind their Princess's back.
Twilight repressed the urge to facehoof again and squeezed out a response appropriate for a princess. Then with a quick, hard tug with her teeth on his dinner jacket, she pulled Spike over to the side.
"Hey! Watch the threads!" the dragon yelled, wiggling his arm uncomfortably at the cold damp feeling of pony saliva. "What's the big deal?"
Twilight sighed. "Spike, we need to discuss what happened this morning. With all of the craziness today, we never had a chance to discuss the meaning of Zecora's words. I know that this isn't exactly the best place to do this…" They both looked around as she trailed off. A few ponies around them were still giving the two curious glances every now and then. "In fact, we probably shouldn't even be here…" The lavender unicorn let her words trail off again—an action she was not known for doing.
It took Spike a moment or two to decipher what she had intended to say. If he didn't know it before, thanks to Zecora he very well knew it now. Somewhere deep inside of him was something both innate and primal, and it had no reservations about making a surprise appearance. In a way, everypony around him now was in danger. Spike lowered his head to snatch a glance at Twilight whose face had hardened in a way he had rarely seen before. The dragon knew that if he had deduced his being a danger to all those around him, Twilight would have discovered the same fact ten times faster. How does one feel when one realizes that the harmless baby dragon one grew up alongside could now be considered a danger to everypony?
"So you think we shouldn't be here?" Spike replied softly.
"Well… To be perfectly honest, we shouldn't," answered Twilight. "Being here only subjects these ponies to possible danger. I know Princess Luna is able to handle anything well enough, but still, there is a possibility of trouble." She laid a hoof on his shoulder. Both couldn't help but to notice the slight difficulty; Spike was much taller than he used to be. "But I thought over it this morning, and it's just not fair to you. At Pinkie's party last night, you were so excited about coming here and about Rarity that I couldn't force myself to cancel this even though I knew that that was the logical thing to do."
Spike took a step back in surprise. Twilight Sparkle going against logic? He didn't know whether to feel appreciative or guilty. "Twi…" he began.
"If you start feeling…" The usually calm Twilight visibly struggled to find the right word. "-different, you will let me know, right?"
Spike nodded. There were no words to say. Twilight Sparkle was his boss, guardian, sister, first friend. He could never let her down.
By the time Twilight and Spike found their friends and the princess again, they were surprised to find two of the three in deep conversation.
"Twilight, are you seeing what I'm seeing?" Spike asked aloud.
"If our senses haven't been compromised in some way then… yes," Twilight answered. Suddenly, they were joined by a pair of finely dressed, but equally irritated mares.
"So you two notice this as well?" the unicorn mare to their left spat. "Some little upstart from nowhere comes along and suddenly gets all of the princess's attention! It's sickening! Do you know how long I've hung around the castle trying to score even a single greeting from either princess?"
The second mare stomped her hoof in both frustration and agreement. "I concur wholeheartedly, Sister. It's downright disgraceful. "
"Oh, do get your knickers out a twist you two…" scolded a new voice with a toss of her deep purple mane. "I must say, you sound terribly jealous."
The two mares immediately turned up their noses and gave the newcomer the stink eye. "Well, I never-" began one, but she was immediately interrupted by way of being accidentally knocked over by Twilight.
"Rarity!" Twilight cried, rushing over to the white unicorn. "What's going on here?"
Rarity blinked. "But darling, I thought you knew. I mean, well, you're the one who received the invitation to this little soiree and-"
Twilight growled in frustration. "No, Rarity, I mean, how in Equestria is Big McIntosh having a conversation with Princess Luna? He's barely said ten words during this whole trip. How has he suddenly become the chatterbox that everypony's envying?"
"It's a bit of a long story actually," Rarity admitted. "While you were gone, the princess kept going on and on about some random flowerpot or whatever that existed over a thousand years ago until she remarked upon something else and Big McIntosh responded. Hmm…" The fashionista tapped her chin in thought. "I believe what he said was something about…dirt."
"So Princess Luna and AJ's big brother are talking about dirt?" Spike questioned, nonplussed. Twilight in contrast looked as if she was almost in a panic.
"Y-yes…ugh…dirt…" Rarity shivered. "It was quite awful, you know. I know nothing about farming or….dirt, so you can imagine the awkwardness I felt standing up there without a thing to add to the conversation. I eventually had to excuse myself from further embarrassment saying that I was going off to find you two."
"But-" Spike started before he was cut off by a now fully flustered Twilight.
"Oh no, no, no!" Twilight panicked, her perfectly smooth bob beginning to fray. "He's talking about dirt? To the princess of all ponies? But he said he read the book on traditional etiquette! Spike, did you give him the book to read like I asked?"
Leaning back and sensing a potential Twilight manic episode at this sudden question, Spike gulped. "Yeah…"
"Then how? Just great... I should have gone over the book's finer details with him for a third time rather than quiz him on the history of Canterlot galas. Oh my Celestia, what have I done?"
"But I don't think you understand, darling. The princess wasn't-"
However, the Element of Magic shook her head. "No, Rarity, you don't understand! Princess Luna is more than likely feeling insulted by Big Mac talking to her about dirt of all things at her private gala that she only holds once a year! She's going to go back to the castle complaining about how Twilight Sparkle's escort insulted her in front of everypony, and then Princess Celestia is going to hear, and then the princess will summon me back to Canterlot, and-" Twilight paused to draw breath to continue her rambling. "And I have to stop him!" The purple pony twitched for a second before galloping off through the crowd.
"Wait. What?" Rarity gasped, but Spike only sighed.
"Come on… We have to stop her before it gets too bad."
Unfortunately, Twilight made it to Big Mac and the princess long before either Spike or Rarity could catch up.
"Ah, Twilight Sparkle, there thou art," Princess Luna declared after the unicorn suddenly showed up both sweaty and shaking. "We believe friend Rarity hath gone out to search for you and Young Spike." Twilight tried to speak, but her burning lungs refused to cooperate. "But now we are required to wait until everypony is gathered before we partake of the fun. Ah, well… However, let us state that your consort, friend Applejack's sibling, is-"
By now Twilight had finally found her voice. "Oh please, forgive-"
"-quite knowledgeable. Indeed, it was refreshing to-"
"Wait. Refreshing?" Twilight interrupted. "Knowledgeable?"
"Of course. We have received sound advice from him. Right, friend Mac?"
"Eeyup!" Big McIntosh replied.
"Indeed. But why the confusion we gather from your countenance, Twilight Sparkle? Surely thou know of his vast knowledge which is why thou desired him as thy consort?" The princess raised an eyebrow at Twilight's unusual behavior.
The lavender unicorn was taken aback. "Oh! Princess! Oh, um… sure. Of course, I knew that." This was one of the few times Twilight was glad that she wasn't the Element of Honesty. "But if you wouldn't mind…Can you tell me what you were talking about?" Since disaster had somehow been averted, the unicorn couldn't help but to feel a little curious now.
Luna's eyebrow rose even higher, if possible, but she did answer the question. "Certainly. You see, after our… absence… we…. I returned to an exceedingly different Equestria than the one I had left. Few things manage to survive unchanged for a millennium." The alicorn took a deep breath. "However, I was surprised when I learned that the royal garden no longer held luz de luna. Luz de luna is one of my favorite species of flora. In the past, it has always pleased the royal heart to look upon it. Luz de luna grows wild upon the mountainside and the fields surrounding Canterlot, but despite the gardeners' best efforts, we had not been successful in recultivating the flower in the royal gardens. However, there is hope for progress now thanks to Big McIntosh!"
"Aw, shucks, Your Highness…" the red workhorse blushed. "Ah just only put mah two bits in, nothin' more. Jus' remember to take note of the flower's natural habitat."
Twilight was following the story along in her head. It was rather remarkable that the royal gardeners hadn't figured this out themselves. Who tries to tame a new plant without studying its previous environment?
"That's pretty logical, Big Mac. Where did you learn that?" Twilight was definitely curious now.
"Well, Ah did grow up on a farm." The stallion looked down on her quizzically. "Ya tend to learn a few things growing up on a farm. Ah reckon many ponies don't know that."
At this Twilight let out a tiny "Oh" and said little for the next half hour. All were silent until Spike and Rarity came barrelling around the corner. Spike's eyes were wide open searching for any sign of disaster while Rarity's were wide shut cringing against the cool feeling of sweat that she was sure was raining down her legs at the moment. Both stopped short at the relatively peaceful scene in front of them. Had they witnessed Twilight overreacting earlier or not?
"Ah, Spike, Rarity, you have returned. Glorious!" Luna grinned widely. "At last, now we can partake of the fun!"
It was after seven when Davenport heard the first voice. Struggling to raise his head, the stallion tried to blink the bleariness out of his eyes. Inwardly, he cursed his decision to try the corn liquor rather than his usual Sweet Apple Acres cider. No matter how depressing one's situation may be, blackouts were no fun.
Abruptly, Davenport shot up from his splayed position upon the floor. There was that sound again—a new voice. Did it sound younger than the first one, or was that just his aching head? Placing a hoof on the wall to steady himself, the shopkeeper intended to find out.
"Yippie! This is fun!" Pound Cake grinned while jumping up and down on a fancy blue sofa.
"Wait. Pound? How did you get up there so fast?" Sweetie Belle hissed, looking around. "You were just behind us a second ago." The rest of the gang piled around the entrance, gazing at the eerily empty shop in apprehension.
Pound shrugged. "I don't know… I just saw something fun to do, and I just…started doing it I guess." The older members of the CMC looked at each other, but Pumpkin only sighed.
"Don't ask," she grumbled. "After Pinkie, we've all learned to not ask questions."
The rest of the group immediately understood. After Pinkie Pie, they'd all learned not to ask questions. Still, however, they had a job to do, and the owner of Quills and Sofas probably wouldn't like them jumping all over his merchandise.
"Hello? Quills and Sofas guy? Hellooo!" Scootaloo called out as she looked around the darkened shop. "It's kinda creepy in here." The only lumination available to the fillies and colt was a few candles that littered the walls, giving the store a shadowy air. "Are you guys sure that this place is still open?"
"Well, the front door was open, what place is s'posed to be closed, when the front door is open? Besides, ya ain't scared, are ya Scootaloo?" Apple Bloom teased. "Ya ain't chicken, are ya?"
"NO!" Scootaloo yelled, slightly incensed on hearing her foalhood nickname once again.
"Shh! Will you be quiet?" Sweetie Belle hushed. "We're on official cutie mark business here, guys."
THUMP! A sofa abruptly fell over.
"I'm okay!" Pound yelled. Everypony facehoofed.
"Alright, alright, maybe we do need to be more business-like," Apple Bloom conceded.
"Don't you mean maybe we need to be more professional?" corrected Sweetie Belle.
Apple Bloom answered that question with a scowl aimed at her unicorn friend's direction as she rang a bell on the front counter. Nothing happened. The teenaged filly rang the bell again.
The thump reached Davenport's ears as if the sound was travelling underwater. The tan earth pony shook his head. He had long since discarded the idea that the noises were a product of what he'd drunk earlier. The noises were much too real.
Leaning against the wall, Davenport's mind tried to guess exactly who had invaded his shop at this time of the day. He had closed early that day. He was certain he'd locked the door after three. Logically then, whoever had chosen to invade his place of business was doing so illegally—with evil intentions no doubt. The shopkeeper had to smile—even through a hammering foggy hangover, he still had the ability to think logically.
Grinning, Davenport staggered over to a corner where a smooth polished cane rested. It had been his grandfather's an age ago, but now it was suitable to serve as a brandishing weapon. Funny, in a town like Ponyville, Davenport had never imagined that he would need a weapon. However, the stallion also had never imagined his shop would be broken into one day.
"Are you sure this place isn't closed?" Scootaloo asked.
"Yep…" Apple Bloom replied, but the earth pony did not sound as certain as she was before. A little halfheartedly she sounded the bell again, but still there was silence. Everypony's enthusiasm sank like a stone. It was becoming obvious-the owner wasn't coming.
"S-so we won't be getting our cutie marks today?" Pumpkin sniffed sadly. Her tiny body sagged against the counter. Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle looked at each other but couldn't decide exactly what to say. What could they say? Quills and Sofas was clearly closed despite its unlocked door. They would have to leave and come back some other time.
On the other side of the door leading into the main showroom, Davenport hesitated. The voices had quieted. His heart fluttered inside his chest, and his teeth bit down upon the bitter wood.
A hoof rested upon the handle.