And a Princess in a Pear Tree

by TheBandBrony

Chapter 1: Don't Forget the Candy Canes

A piece of chalk, worn down to a nub from overuse, slammed into the wall and exploded into a bright ball of dust.

"No, no, no. This won't work at all."

The shadowy outline of a stallion paced the floor of the darkened room frustratedly, his eyes locked on a beaten up chalkboard that functioned as the room's centerpiece. Its green face was covered top to bottom in barely-readable scrawl, accompanied by several astutely accurate diagrams.

The pony paused, scanning over the painfully incomprehensible text. The gears in his head started to gain momentum, painfully grinding against each other in turn. Slowly, the words and numbers began to shuffle themselves around the board, forming an entirely new sequence that the darkened pony drank in with eager anticipation.

"That's it... that's it!"

A maniacal smile plastered on his face, he galloped to the chalkboard and began completing the equations he saw so vividly in his mind's eye, piecing together an entirely new plan of attack, this one all but guaranteeing success.

"Yes, yes," he giggled sadistically, "this is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I can't possibly fail with this." With a final flourish, he slashed a broad circle around a single hoofdrawn sketch of a pony burdened by a massive saddlebag overstuffed with hastily drawn toys and presents. Nodding self-assuredly, he about-faced away from his newest creation and trotted towards the door, a devilish cackle on his lips.

"With this plan, Lunushka will be mine... and she will pay for—"

"Dearie! Dinner's ready, come eat!"

The mysterious pony flinched against the shout, his face bursting into a ripe shape of red that practically glowed through the darkened haze. "N-not now, mother! Can't you see I'm trying to plot my enemy's demise here?"

"Alright, your loss. Don't come crying to me when your food gets cold."

Rolling his eyes, he huffed exasperatedly as he attempted to regain his derailed momentum. "As I was saying... With this plan, Lunushka will soon be mine. And she will pay for what she has done."

There weren’t many things that Luna enjoyed about the holidays.

The incessant racket of the castle staff putting up obnoxiously bright lights and ornaments only gave her migraines. The smell of pine needles and tree sap from all the wreaths hung around the halls refused to leave her coat, no matter how many times she tried scalding it off with ridiculously hot showers. Some all-foal choir from out of town had decided to plop themselves outside the castle every day, singing carols to the passerby and turning the night diarch’s every move into a musical number.

She frowned. It sufficed to say that she didn’t really like this time of year.

She could have just barricaded herself in her room like she always did this time of year before her little excursion to the moon so long ago, sipping cocoa, reading books, and riding out the snowstorm of irritation and woe that was the holiday season in peace as the rest of the world succumbed to mistletoe fever outside.

But she didn’t.

No, there was one reason and one reason alone why she bothered to drag herself out of the blissful warmth of her bed sheets every day, slip into her chilling metal attire, and face the infamous Canterlot winter like the princess she was.

Candy canes.

Candy canes.”

The Princess of the Night stiffened, her snout twitching as she sniffed at the air. Her tongue slowly dragged across her lips, imagining the cool, minty-sweet taste of her favorite holiday treat. The book she had been so engrossed in only a moment ago fell to the floor, forgotten.

Her bed, her last bastion of warmth, whined in protest as she flung its bulging blue bed sheets aside and abandoned it as if it was a sinking ship, ignoring the wails of the coiled springs and creeping, catlike, towards the door.

Despite the animalistic side of her mind roaring at her to teleport to the nearest dining hall and snatch up all the red and white-striped pieces of crunchy heaven, she forced herself to take slow, measured breaths and calm herself.

“Celestia has never brought out the... candy canes,” she shivered as the word left her mouth, “until Hearth’s Warming day. Why in My good name would she bring them out a day early?” The older sister had always maintained that the sacred sweets would be forever spoiled if they were served at any other time than Hearth’s Warming, defending her actions by saying that they would both grow sick of the taste in a month if they were to eat them every day. All of Luna's arguments to the contrary were met by deaf ears and thinly-stifled giggles.

She paused, digging through the remaining rational side of her brain for an answer. Perhaps it was merely bait, used to lure her into some disgustingly holiday-themed shenanigan. Maybe what she smelled was merely a scented air-freshener, thrown by Celestia into her air ducts as part of some elaborate prank. Maybe, she thought with a smile, it was Celestia’s way of making her sister’s first Hearth’s Warming back from her imprisonment on the moon a little cheerier.

As interesting as all these thoughts were, they still left her just as clueless as before. She let out a weak huff.

“Well then,” she muttered, “it looks like I will just have to find out for myself.” However annoyed she was at having to leave the comforting (but mostly warm) embrace of her bed, the prospect of finding the small motherload of candy-colored confections that her sister stashed somewhere in the castle was simply too enticing to pass up.

She smiled. Whatever you’re up to, Tia, I’m going to find out. And then steal your candy canes. Devilish glee pulling the corners of her mouth up, she tip-hoofed to the door with the ease of a professional cat burglar (just in case Celestia had decided to bug her room for some insidious, prankful purposes) and tapped it open with the utmost of ease. Easing her slender form out into the hallway, she swung her head left and right, scanning the path ahead to make sure it was clear—

“Your majesty.”

And then violently attached herself to the ceiling.

“Intruder in the gates! Guards, to arms, to arms!” Warrior’s instinct taking control, Luna shook the halls with a thunderous battle cry that would have undoubtedly made any would-be bandits tremble in fear, had she not made the proclamation while still firmly adhered to the ceiling.

“Urhm—your majesty, we are the guards.”

We shall smite thee with the force of a thousand falling meteorites—pardon me?” The gears in Luna’s head grinded together furiously, ‘vicious warrior mode’ colliding with ‘shocked and embarrassment mode’ to bring her mind to a complete standstill.

“Your majesty, we are the guards.”

Finally bothering to look down at the alleged villains, Luna snorted with self-disgust. Below her did not stand any terrible murderers or rogue wanderers bent on ill-intent, but two slightly bemused guardsponies, clad in shining golden armor, staring back up at her with a look of unbridled confusion.

For a split second, she thought she heard one of them stifle a chuckle. “You can come down your majesty, there is no threat here.”

“Oh—why, uhm, yes. That—is a g-good idea, captian.” Babbling in near-incoherent agreement, Luna shakily flexed her wings and glided back to earth, settling in front of the two guards with the tiniest hint of a blush on her indigo cheeks.

While her outside appearance radiated nothing but the ever-present poise and neutral dignity it always did , the same could not be said for her mind. Having sufficiently sputtered and stalled, it floundered in a pathetic attempt to coherently address the two in front of her. The stress generated a small twitch just under her left eye.

“Ah—yes. Quite. At ease, guards. I was just...” Think Luna, think. This isn’t the worst thing the guards have caught you doing. In the most dictatorial, authoritative tone she could muster, she hastily stuttered out, “...making sure the ceiling was on straight.”

The guards, renowned throughout Equestria for their stoicism and poise, blinked. “The, ceiling, your majesty?”

Luna nodded. “Yes. The ceiling.”

Confused, the guards looked up in tandem. “Seems straight to me, your highness.”

“Yes, I just wanted to make sure. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” she continued, snapping back into her regal pose and turning sharply on her hooves, “I must be off. Official business to tend to. Continue your duties.”

Without another word, she dug her hooves into the carpet with excessive force and stomped away, leaving two addled guards in her wake. Only once the hesitant reply of, “Yes, your majesty,” left the pony’s lips did Luna allow herself a small, panicked gasp of relief. Thankfully, her quick strides carried her away before the armor-clad stallions could notice her shaking legs, quivering like branches in a hurricane.

With the element of surprise thoroughly obliterated, Luna took up a much more efficient pace, trotting through the castle halls as the last dose of adrenaline faded from her veins. Breathing evenly, she murmured a harsh, “I hate the holidays,” to the floor.

Thankfully, the hypnotizing scent of candy canes sat thick in the air, easily allowing Luna to sniff out a trail leading to her sugary Shangri-la. Like a bloodhound on the scent, she diligently followed the whims of her nose, leading her through the winding corridors, all the way into—

“Oh, hello Luna. I’m so glad you made it.”

The dining hall. Of course Celestia would lead her right to the royal dining hall. With its high, vaulted ceilings and wide open walls, it provided a three hundred and sixty-degree view of the entire room and all its entrances and exits. It would be impossible for anypony to enter or exit without being seen. It was obvious that Celestia wanted whatever she had planned to go undisturbed. This eased approximately none of Luna’s fears.

“I take it you smelled the candy canes?” The older princess smiled from her seat behind the single oak table situated in the middle of the massive room. Her voice echoed ever so slightly off the vaulted ceiling as she spoke. “They’re fresh out of the rollers, I know you like them when they’re still a little gooey.” She gestured innocently at the candy. “Go ahead, take some. I know how much you love these little things.”

Thankfully, Luna was smarter than to simply waltz up to the table and take them. Celestia of all ponies knew how much she cherished the minty treats, and wouldn't go out of her way to let a perfect opportunity to playfully antagonize her slip through her alabaster hooves without due cause. Even the sun princess's regal smile dripped of ulterior motives.

"I heard you shouting just a moment ago."

Luna allowed herself to blush. "Yes, you know I can get rather high-strung during the holidays."

Her wings still fluttering as if some other new threat might jump out of the shadows and re-acquaint her with the ceiling, Luna shuffled closer to the table, gravitating towards the sweets despite the repulsive leer of her sister's grin. "Well?" Celestia motioned to the candy. "If you're looking out for pranks, let me assure you that I have none. I've been far too tired finding a new location for this year's Hearth's Warming Eve pageant to devise some outlandish hijinx."

Now that she mentioned it, Celestia did seem rather out of sorts. The closer to her sweet goal Luna got, the more the darkened bags under her sister's eyes pronounced themselves. "Luna, I assure you, I'm too worn out from all this political dribble to do anything related to pranks." Her eyes, ever so bloodshot, drifted down to the massive mahogany table. "I just need to talk to you—mare to mare, as all the young fillies are saying."

Luna sighed. She knew when her sister was trying put away the mask of formality and talk from the heart. Despite all the silliness and panic-inducing pranks that the bright alicorn managed to fit into the span of the day, Luna couldn't help but empathize with her haggard look. It seemed as if the holidays were proving just as stressful, if not more, to her.

"Oh... alright sister, you have me tied." Tossing her hooves up as a sign of sovereignty, she surrendered her defences and took a bold step forward, plopping down next to her sister and cringing ever so slightly. When a few torturous seconds passed and no rubber chickens came flying towards her head, she night alicorn slumped her shoulders in relief and turned her gaze to her sugar-sweet prize.

"Ooh yes, that is delightful." Not waiting for an invitation, Luna unceremoniously grabbed a hooffull of candy canes in her magical grasp and shoving them into her mouth all at once, letting out a muffled moan of delight. Celestia let out a tired but satisfied giggle as she watched her sister stuff herself. "Enjoying yourself, Lulu?"

'Lulu' would have shot Celestia a pointed glare, had she not been busy turning the sizable batch of goodies into a small pile of crumbs on her lap.

"Mhmm... sho, Shishter." As the pile of sweets at Luna's hooves thinned, she turned her attention back to her weary sibling. "What posheshed you to bring out theshe candy canshes early?" She swallowed hard. "The world isn't going to end like those ancient Mareyans predicted, is it? I always assumed that the story was just a load of heresy created by a bunch of paranoid conspiracy theorists with too much time on their hooves." She shoved another sweet into her mouth, slowly whittling it into a fine point. "I would hope it's not ending. I mean, we are omnipotent. One would think we would be aware of such a grave prediction, but—"


Luna nearly stabbed herself in the throat with the tiny blade she had honed from the candy cane.

A harsh moment of silence slammed into the two with all the force of the Friendship Express at full throttle. Save for the occasional gag from the younger sister, not a sound echoed off the curving buttresses above them. Killed by candy canes. What irony. Only once Luna was absolutely sure that she hadn't just accidentally lacerated her throat did she dare make a sound.

"Excuse me?"

"Lunushka." Celestia placed her forelegs on the table and rested her head on top of them, gauging Luna's initial reaction with a curious glance. "It's why I called you here. I'm afraid I haven't been quite so honest with you about all this—but it's not without warrant, I assure you."

Luna had already stiffened, preparing to grab the surviving confections and make a mad dash for the door. "So, you lured me down here with my favorite sweets so you could talk to me about—about, that," she stuttered, clumsily dodging the foreign-sounding name with barely concealed angst.

Celestia nodded. "And why, might I ask, would you deceive me like that?"

The elder mare's head sagged, and she buried her face in her hooves. Just barely, Luna heard a faint voice mumbling, "Because you wouldn't have come down here otherwise."

Celestia had hardly finished when she heard the sharp scraping of wooden chair legs against hardwood. She looked up just in time to see a clearly agitated Luna, candy canes parading jauntily behind her, stand and make for the door. "Lulu, wait. Don't be like this."

Luna turned. Anger flashed in her eyes. "Don't 'Lulu' me, sister, you know how I despise that silly pet-name. This entire holiday season is nothing but a pain to me, a big awful thorn in my side. You know very what the ponies out there," she spat, gesturing to the snow-framed portrait of Canterlot litting beyond the frost-veiled window pane, "have turned this day into."

Abruptly, she turned on her hooves. "I don't want any part of it. It's a mockery, is what it is."

"And what makes you think I believe any different?"

Now that, Luna was not expecting.

Faltering, she stumbled over her forelegs, twisting her head towards her sister. "Yes, Luna, I don't like the pollution of it any more than you do. It pains me to see such a great holiday devolve into a gift-driven free for all. You think I enjoy watching grown ponies fight over children's toys?"

The younger sister's face contorted. “They fight over toys now?”

"But it makes ponies happy, even if it has some less-than pleasant side effects. As their leader, I'm obligated to put their wants before my own." Her face finally devoid of its normal life, she allowed her head to flop back down onto the table with a weak thud. "That is why I called you here."

"You... called me here to explain that you put the needs of others before your own? That's rather narcissistic, Tia."

The day alicorn chuckled weakly. "No, no." Her voice rang out louder now, free from its furry mute. "The venue I had selected to hold this year's Hearth's Warming Eve pageant has fallen through. Something about their insurance premiums not being high enough to cover all six elements of harmony attending, I won't bore you with the details. Unfortunately, this means that I'll have to go out and scour Canterlot for a new location. I don't know how long that task will take. Because of this, I won't be around to cover for you and play Lunushka for another year."

Luna was already backing towards the door. She knew where this conversation was heading, and she wanted no part in it. "I'm sorry to hear that, sister. But you can't expect me to just pick up the reigns after a thousand years of absence and—"

"Luna, we don't have a choice." For the first time in their conversation, Celestia's voice hardened. "I simply can not be in two places at once, you of all ponies know that. This Hearth's Warming Eve pageant is just as important as the holiday itself. If either of them are tossed to the wayside, the other will be completely ruined."

Luna moved to speak, but she was cut off by a cursory wave of her sister's hoof. "I know you don't want to do this sister, but please, listen to me. The customs have changed since you last celebrated this holiday. Gift-giving has become a cornerstone ritual, and nopony exemplifies the spirit of selfless giving more than Lunushka. Ponies look up to her as a symbol of the Hearth's Warming spirit, flying through the night and delivering presents to all the good little fillies and colts while they sleep. Without her, the entire day will lose its luster.

"Ponies' love for their dear Lunushka has only grown since the last time you donned that moniker. I've filled in for you in your absence, but I need you to step back into the saddle, pardon the pun, and do this for me now. Help me make this day a success—not for me or for you, but for Equestria. We are here to serve our subjects, and what better way can we serve them than this?" She shifted. "think of this as a way to reconnect with the old Luna, the one that ponies revered instead of feared—the one they based holiday icons around."

Still hesitant, Luna muttered a string of incomprehensible groans. "For heaven's sake, they named the patron pony of the holiday after you, Luna. Are you really going to put a national holiday to death just because you question its morals? Think of all the foals that would be crushed if their favorite holiday just vanished into mid air."

Luna's face was a mask of heavy, biting anger, though the candyfloss coloring that stained her lips an off-shade of inky white made her appearance as a whole a bit less intimidating. "So... if I do this, it will curry favor with the common ponies?"

A thin, taut smile was all Celestia could offer. "I know it."

“And it will help re-acquaint me with the dear subjects that I love?”


“And I will get all the candy canes I want through New Year’s day, no exceptions.”

The way that Luna forced her last request through her teeth made it clear that it was not up for debate. Celestia giggled. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

With all her demands met, Luna allowed her imposing figure to slump, matching her sister's unregal posture. "Mind you, though—I still don't approve of this at all. I hardly even know what I'm supposed to do."

Celestia breathed a sigh of contentment. "Oh Lulu, don't tell me you haven't already read up on all the nuances of modern Equestrian holidays." Noting the skittish look that came across her sister's face, she added, "Don't look so surprised. I saw the book on your nightstand."

"T-that was strictly for Nightmare Night!"

"Sure it was. Even if that book didn't already tell you more than you'll ever need to know about modern Hearth's Warming, believe me when I say that your duties haven't really changed since you last did it. The presents are already wrapped, the list is already finalized—all you have to do is deliver them. It'll be just like the old days, only with a slightly larger payload."

"At least something about this blasted holiday has stood the test of consumerism."

Snickering at her sister's snarky comments, Celestia nodded her head weakly in agreement. "Yes, thank goodness for small favors. But Lulu, know that your sacrifice won't go unappreciated. You're doing me a huge favor."

"Yes... I know. And I would do anything for you, Tia, if if helped to make your days a little less stressful." The younger sister stretched a hoof across the table to lay it on Celestia's. "I just hope this doesn't turn into another out of control culture shock."

Through the stress weighing the corners of her lips down, Celestia managed a small smile. "Just let me guide you through the duties you will perform tonight. Do you trust me?"

"More than anypony."

She smiled. "Then nothing will go wrong."

With a delicious (and cold, though he would never admit that it bothered him) dinner sitting in his belly, the mysterious rogue draped a cloak over his shoulders and pulled up the hood, hiding his face in a darkened shadow as he strode to the front door of his house.

"Dearie, where are you going?"

He paused, rolling his eyes under the cover of their hood. "Mom, I'm going out to get supplies to I can finally conquer my age-old nemesis. That's where I'm going." He hissed the last word out in a sorry imitation of his oblivious matriarch.

"Okay then, just don't stay out too long or you'll catch a cold."

He was already out the door by the time the sheer embarrassment overwhelmed him. "Yeah yeah..."

Luna, eternal pillar of stoic neutrality, blinked dumbly against the wind.

"Celly... remember when I said that I trusted you?"

"Yes, I do."

"I'm not so sure I do anymore."

The two alicorn sisters stood on a thick, double-braced balcony jutting out of the pegasi Guards barracks. Massive, knotted support cables stretching from several of the more sturdy buildings closer to the ground connected the outcropping to the earth a good distance below, swaying in gracefully slow arcs as they were buffeted by the wind.

The reason for the platform's gratuitous bulk, as well as for Luna's disbelieving stare, sat square in its center, taking up an alarming amount of its space. "And... you expect me to fly around with that strapped to my back. All night. In the middle of winter." Receiving a cursory nod in confirmation, Luna's already-dark scowl turned as black as the void of space.

"Oh, come on! It's like every foal in Equestria asked for an entire toy store!"

Exasperatedly, she gave the giant double-sided saddlebag filled with her cheer-bringing payload a disgruntled kick. Several of the pre-wrapped presents near the top shook unnervingly, but thankfully stayed put. Any major disruption in the well-balanced equilibrium might trigger a toy-avalanche that would surely swallow half of Canterlot whole.

"Calm down Luna, there is nothing to worry about." Seeing her sister's shock, Celestia took to her side with a comforting embrace. "The bags are magically enhanced, they won't weigh more than any normal bags." Snickering, she added, "Did you really think I carried this burden alone for a thousand years without assistance?"

"Still... it's the principle that counts." Still smoldering, Luna turned her back to the massive bag, as if just looking at it made her physically ill. "Don't foals know that the best gifts to give during the holidays are those of companionship and love? If they cherished those as much as they should, then they wouldn't want all of this."

"I know. But times change. These gifts have become central to the holiday itself. Giving physical gifts as displays of emotional confidence has become a cornerstone of the entire day. If they don't get delivered, then a lot of ponies are going to get very unhappy."

In the indecipherable mumbling from her sister that followed, Celestia was only able to understand a muddled, "Ungrateful brats."

"Now now, it's not their fault. To them, it's just the normal way of going about celebrating. They don't know anything about millennia-old traditions."

"Yes, but if they were to get their heads out of the coupon clippings and see that gifts aren't nearly as important as togetherness and harmony, maybe they would stop asking for such an insane amount of worthless things. You are seeing the sack in front of us, right? You are seeing the volume of one country's wanton desire—"

Tired of hearing her sister's negative train of thought, Celestia unceremoniously shoved a hoof into her mouth. "Luna, I'm very tired, and I don't want to spend what precious little time I have left listening to you complain about it."

Using her golden hoof-turned muzzle, she turned Luna's fiery stare towards herself. "I know you don't want to do this, but nopony else can. Could you find it in you to put aside your own feelings and do this for the greater happiness of the country?" She already knew what the answer would be, but she still waited until Luna nodded begrudgingly to continue.

"I have to go now and continue my search. You have about an hour until I lower the sun. Traditionally, Lunushka doesn't come out until nightfall, so you have until then to relax and get ready for your journey." Extending a hoof to the snow-swept horizon beyond, she continued, "You can start with Ponyville, since it's the closest town to here. Once you're done there, you can just keep flying southwest to hit the next couple of towns."

Luna tried to get her sister to pause, but she was far too engrossed in the fine details to realize it. "Once you hit the jet stream, glide on it all the way down to Appleoosa. When that's done, follow the north star back up towards Baltimare. If you follow the big dipper west after that, you'll be able to hit all the major cities right in a row without having to deviate much from a straight line. From there, just follow a basic spiral pattern, turning thirty degrees east after Manehatten, tightening your circles until you arrive back here at Canterlot." She took a breath. "Nothing to it."

Luna blinked again as her brain attempted to soak up all this new information. "Goodness," she finally sputtered, "you really have this Lunushka business down to a "T," don't you?"

Celestia shrugged. "When you do it for a thousand years, you pick up on a few things. Now, I have to go if I don't want to be up all night looking for a theatre with low insurance premiums. I trust that everything will turn out alright, alright?"

Bringing her sister in for a warm hug, she added in a hushed whisper that nearly blended in with the wind, "Don't fret Luna, it's Ponyville for goodness sake. Everything that goes on in that town is either too dull to mention or a national disaster. I have every confidence that it won't be the latter."

Luna's faltering reply was lost in the wind.

"At least one of us does."

The sun seemed to fall in slow motion, postponing Luna's dreaded duty by tortuous seconds.

"Mrhmm... come on already," the dark princess muttered to the massive light as it was slowly swallowed by the horizon. "Just hurry up and set to I can end this train wreck of an ancient holiday once and for all."

Turning her head, she eyed the massive saddlebag with a deadly look of malice. The contents of the bulging bags squeezed against the sides of the aged burlap and pressed gift-shaped indents into the fabric, through from her perspective they looked more like leering smiles, grinning at her like miniature Cheshire cats promising a night of absolute misery.

She grunted noisily, tapping her hoof as she turned her gaze to the last of the sun's rays as they cycled over the towers of Canterlot. It was a beautiful sight to behold, with wind-swept snow banks sharing the sun's orange glaze with the equally majestic spires of the castle. Under the light, the powder sparkled with just as much radiance as the gold next to it.

It would have been great, if every ray of sunlight disappearing hadn't meant one less second of freedom for Luna.

A look of hardly-veiled scorn on her face, she silently willed the dazzling display to continue, if not just to postpone the inevitable. But time stopped for no pony, not even a princess, and before she could even begin to contemplate on the temporary nature of time she found the final, fleeting rays of sun rolling off the towers, falling into oblivion as the sun was consumed entirely by the darkness.

With a breathy sigh, she grumbled, "Oh where, oh where has the time..." Her verse faded off into nothing, as if finishing it would leave her too winded to pick up the sack of gifts. Leaving her unfinished sentence out to freeze in the creeping cold that slunk out of the shadows on the backs of shadows, she begrudgingly turned her attention to the massive pile of presents in front of her.

"Okay then... let us begin."

Sucking up her apprehension and worry with a deep breath, she flared her wings and propelled herself to the top of the stack. Balancing precariously on the ever-shifting tower of gifts, she focused in on the messy snarl of straps that connected the two sides of the sack, taking a few teetering steps before reaching in and grabbing the tangle at its roots.

Now for the fun part. Legs wobbling under unsure hooves, Luna tugged at the chords in a base attempt to loosen them. When she only succeeded in tightening the knots into unrecognizable clumps of string and leather, she began to get angry. She found out in a hurry that hooves weren't exactly the greatest appendages to use for untying things, and despite all her tugging and straining, she managed to untangle a whopping zero percent of the newly-formed monstrosity that new hung before her.

Pleading with the rope Gods proved just as useless.

"Fine then!" she called up to the non-existant diarchs of string. "I'm going to have you all replaced with synthetics before you can say 'heresy'—" Frustrated beyond belief, she drove a hoof into the mound of ever-shifting presents below her.

This would prove to be a bad idea.

Aaaand let us end, let us end!" The mountain rumbled softly as her leg sunk thigh-deep into wrapping paper and shiny bows. Her center of gravity about as stable as a one-legged desk, she tipped forward and fell headlong into her demon-bundle of rope, who waited with outstretched arms to catch her. They seemed to take on a mind of their own, wrapping around her with surprising strength.

By the time she came to rest, her every appendage had been spectacularly detained by the demonic chords. Snarling like an animal trapped in a snare, Luna flailed about wildly, her instinct to fight back against her tangled enemy only making the knots tighter.

After a moment of struggle, she forced herself to calm down and assess the situation. She wasn't able to move her head around much, but it was clear that trying to get out of this accidental trap would only waste time that she didn't have. The last traces of the sun were gone by now, leaving an eerily black, moonless twilight.

That's right. She still had to raise the moon.

Heaving a sigh, she fired up her horn and burned through the straps, turning them into dust with a simple incineration spell. Free from her devious holder, she flopped to the ground and dusted herself off, looking around to make sure that nopony was around to see her less-than-regal reentry to earth.

One moon-raising spell later, and she was ready to go again. For a second time, she hopped up onto the top of Present Mountain, leaned down to connect herself to the straps, and—

"Oh yes, I incinerated the straps. Great." A groan of frustration leaving her lips, she forcefully summoned a chord of thick, braided rope to her side and strapped herself in, making sure to knot the makeshift harness properly this time. The rope scratched at her skin and irritated her coat whenever she tried to move, but it would certainly be easier than lifting the bags manually.

Looking at the sky again, she breathed one last breath of thick, low-altitude air. All of the frivolous, needless distractions had already put her far behind schedule—she would have to be quick if she wanted to get to all of her stops before dawn. Training her keen eyes upwards, she picked out a current of rising air that she could use to boost her speed.

"Well, here goes nothing, I suppose." Thankfully, Celestia had not lied when she said that the bags were enchanted. A few hesitant flaps of her midnight-blue wings was all it took to propel herself and the giant sacks into the air. Testing the weight, she found it bearable, if not a bit constricting. "At least that part hadn't gone horribly wrong yet," she half-heartedly reassured herself.

Turning the massive blimp cleverly disguised as a saddlebag filled with presents, however, turned out to be a much more difficult ordeal. Two demolished support cables, four lost presents, and one frustrated curse in ancient Equus later, Luna had finally managed to align herself with her intended route, starting with—

"Ponyville, Ponyville... where could it be." Scanning the horizon to the south of the castle, her trained eyes picked out a miniscule blip of light in the distance, giving off a tiny light against the white blanket of snow like a candle in a darkened room. As she followed the flickering glow beyond the great expanse of farmland, her sister’s words echoed in her head.

Everything that goes on in that town is either too dull to mention or a national disaster. I have every confidence that it won't be the latter.

Her lips were suddenly too dry. The ropes were too taut to bear, tightening around her ribs and squeezing the breath out of her. For the first time in far too long, she doubted that Celestia knew what she had gotten her poor sister into.

Oh well, the time to try and worm her way out of this one was long gone. These presents just had to get delivered, and by Her own beard, she was going to do it. With a hearty fire of disgruntled apathy burning inside of her keeping her warm, she squared herself away with the guiding light in the distance and shot forward into the night.

The bushes shook as the hooded outline of a pony tramped his way through them, bending and snapping branches until he carved away a suitable clearing for himself to sit and wait for their target to appear. The robed figure plopped himself down amongst the snow and branches and trained his eyes on the skies above, focusing in particular on the faint lights of distant Canterlot.

Minutes dragged into hours. Beneath the cloak, the wanderer's vision began to blur. His eyelids seemed to gain weight with each blink, making it harder and harder to keep them open. Perhaps just a little nap wouldn't hurt—after all, they had been out all day readying themselves for the arrival of—


His eyes shot open. There in the distance, a solitary blip of color soared against the starry void of night. Even from this distance, it was easy to pick out the massive bundle of presents hurtling through the sky at speeds only attainable by an alicorn.

He smiled. Everything was falling into place. As long as no new calamity wrapped in mistletoe decided to rear its ugly head, the pony's plan would come to fruition.

And, almost exactly on cue...

"What in the world is that?"

"What in the world is that?"

Luna squinted against the wind at the four tiny blobs of color that screamed towards her, blotting out the still-distant lights of Ponyville far ahead. Flying in a near-perfect "V" formation, these cosmic curveballs rose and fell in time with the wind, shooting through the night perpendicular to her with militarized precision. In fact, if memory served her correctly, the only Avian Force that flew with the fourth pony on the left like that was—

"Attention, unidentified object!"

—The Shadowbolts.

"This sovereign airspace of the Great Land of Equestria is under guard on this night!" Their leader, a larger pegasus sporting traditional night-armor and a voice loud enough to be heard over the wind, held his team at a cautious distance to the princess. Continuing, he bellowed, "Nopony is allowed to fly over three hundred feet on the grounds of Greater Equestrian law Article 18, Section 6, Subsection 34—"

"Page 55,753,310 Line 4, yes," Luna finished to herself, hardly impressed with the Captain's knowledge of Equestrian law.

"Identify yourself, or prepare to be apprehended!" The leader of the group waved his hoof around in the air in some obscure gesture. Luna watched with an annoyed glowel as the four pegasi broke off from their tight ‘V’ formation and encircled her, boxing her in should she try to make an escape attempt. "Identify yourself!" boomed the captain once more.

Frustratedly, Luna shouted in reply, "It is your Princess of the Night, foolish guards. I come not to ignite conflict, only give gifts to the foals who so generously want them." Her voice was thick with sarcasm. "Allow me to pass, officer, I am late enough as it is, and I am still have a good ways to go until I get to Ponyville."

Unfortunately, the pegasus was unimpressed. "I liar and a hippie, eh? Well, we'll teach you to disobey our laws. Let's see if those trees you're always hugging will save you now—princess?"

His free hoof, poised in mid-air and ready to give the sign to attack, faltered and shook. Too late, he saw the regally pointy horn jutting out of his quarry's forehead, the signature moon-and-spots on her flank, and the terrifying stare of a mildly annoyed alicorn.

That fiery gaze alone was enough to knock the flier out of formation for a moment, though he quickly recovered and double-timed their pace towards the flying gift-giver. "Your Majesty! I am so sorry, I didn't think it was you—well, uh, I didn't know it was you. The wind was in my eyes, and I was tearing up, and I thought you were just another pony protesting the new logging bills—"

"Captain." Luna's mild use of the Royal Canterlot Voice stunned the Shadowbolt into silence. "I am willing to disregard your horrific blunder, as I am running short on time to spend on imbeciles. But please, answer me this: what in the high heavens are you doing flying out here at this hour?" Her eyes shifted nervously. "Did my sister send you to spy on me?"

"What? No, your Majesty—we're up here every year. Our orders are to keep the skies clear of any potential threats to Lunushka as she flies over. It's mostly just to entertain the foals topside, though it does help the brass sleep a little bit better knowing that the princess has an escort. It's just..." he paused, unsure of his next words. "We were expecting your sister, Your Highness—no disrespect."

She sighed, though the straps on the saddlebags made it come out as more of a pained snort. "Some complications arose and rendered Princess Celestia unable to perform this task, so I took her place. Now, are you going to let me continue on my way or must I fly all the way back to Canterlot with this—" she gestured to the saddlebags, "—strapped to my back and file a report with the Lieutenant Commander about how four unruly ex-Shadowbolts derailed Equestria's most beloved holiday?"

Any pretense of resolve that hadn't already been obliterated by the icy stare crumbled. "No, Your Majesty, Go right ahead. We'll be here if you need us." His quivering hoof pointed a straight shot to the town beyond.

"Thank you," the princess replied. "At least somepony here seems to be able to listen to me."

Without another moment's hesitation, Luna snapped her wings and pushed herself forward into the night, leaving four stunned Shadowbolts to be buffeted in her wake.

"Well," one of the underlings finally muttered, blinking furiously as if he was trying to wake up from a bad dream. "I guess that solves the 'best princess' debate once and for all."

"Blast..." The cloaked shadow glared madly at the four smaller specks of light as their quarry separated from their formation and flew off into the night. "This puts my entire operation behind by nearly six minutes!"

He coughed bitterly into his sleeve. "No matter. Plans can be adjusted. The course of revenge can not be."

Thankfully, no new natural disasters or maniacal villains decided to make a dramatic entrance for the duration of Luna's flight. In fact, aside from the occasional hearty bird or stray goose who finally found it cold enough to migrate south, the skies were completely devoid of life—not so much as a drunken pegasus shakily gliding home from their bar of choice to distract her.

Though, Luna really couldn't blame them for wanting to stay inside. Up high in the atmosphere in the dead of night, in hindsight, was not the best place to be looking for warmth. Thankfully, the giant saddlebags spared her from the brunt of the biting wind.

"A-at least t-they're good for something," the princess stammered. Despite the ever-present wind howling in her ears like a tone-deaf ape and the look of cold hatred she would surely receive once the royal dentist saw what twenty minutes of constant chattering had done to her pearly whites, she had made great time to her first destination. The almost non-extant light of Ponyville had slowly but surely grown into a cozy little town, complete with houses decked out in twinkling Hearth's Warming lights, cobblestone streets lined with pine wreaths, and—not surprisingly—no ponies out on the streets.

All the better for Luna, though. "Lunushka" had a reputation of being about as noticeable as a ninja, and Celestia wouldn't let her live it down if, while she could keep her pasty white flank hidden for a thousand years, Luna couldn't even keep hers out of the public eye for one night. No, she was going to do this right if it killed her.

She would later look back and realize what a poor choice of words that was.

Angling her wings, she swooped over the outer edges of town, maintaining a safe space between her and the thatched roofs rising up to meet her. An old, almost forgotten feeling of nostalgia rippled its way through her. If it weren't for the streetlights and modernized Hearth's Warming decorations that coated everything in a glistening layer of candyfloss color, she could have easily mistaken this for any one of the hundreds of towns that dotted the landscape a millennia ago. She smiled at the old memories.

The moment became difficult to savor, though, as she spotted a life sized inflatable Celestia-bot violating some poor pony's front lawn, slowly waving a mechanical hoof and blinking with unseeing, soulless eyes. An eerie, roboticized call of, "Merry Hearth's Warming!" played on a loop from a speaker jammed into her plastic snout.

"Eugh." The princess shuddered at the abomination. "That house is getting coal."

Attempting to ignore the demonic cackle of the holiday-themed robolestia, she took a shaky, steadying breath and tore her eyes away from the... thing still waving innocently at her. With her mind sufficiently scarred forever, she awkwardly skittered onto a nearby rooftop and pulled out a thickly bound roll of parchment in a vain attempt to refocus her mind on work. The roof bowed and creaked under the strain of Luna's payload, but held firm (much to Luna's delight—it would be a bit of a shock to find a mythical holiday hero turning one's house into an indoor snow atrium).

"Now... let's see who's been naughty and who's been nice." With a casual flick of the hoof, Luna snapped the parchment open. Her eyes scanned the never-ending list of names and numbers, blinking hard to adjust to the tiny script. Her free hoof scrolled down the list, pausing midway down the cannon.

Spring Wind


18 Derby Lane


Luna's cold, cracked lips smiled at the tiny green lettering. It warmed her heart to see that, despite all this madness surrounding her new least-favorite holiday, the young ones of Equestria still found time to be good little fillies and colts—unlike the bratty demon-babies that she usually tended to meet when dealing with upper-crust households.

First delivery of the night. Let us begin. Turning, she lit up her horn and rummaged through her massive bags resting behind her, finally pulling out a bundle of similarly-wrapped presents. Taking one last furtive glance around to be sure nopony would be around to notice the duplex-sized bag of soon to be unguarded toys, she launched herself down the chimney.

The first detail about the house that surprised Luna was its color. Nearly everything, from the walls to the floor to the Hearth's Warming tree tucked in the corner, was a surprisingly stark shade of ash-grey. It almost looked as if the entire house had been covered in a choking layer of soot. The chimney, on the other hand, seemed remarkably clean, as if somepony had power-blasted its brick insides clean.

Luna just shrugged as she perched the presents under the blackened tree, assuming that the family living there was a collection of colorblind chimney sweeps.

She didn’t put the two together until she was flying off to the next house. Cursing silently under the cover of another gust of wind, she passed a strained glance at the home as it retreated into the night. Given enough time, she wouldn’t have hesitated to rush back and clean up after herself.

But, the cold, calculating side of her brain spoke up, I’m already running late on my route. If I stop to help this one family, ten others might not get their presents. Her wings beat at odd times, pushing and pulling her like unseen entities in opposite directions.

Forcing out a pained grunt, she snapped both her wings back into time and shot away from the sooty scene of the accident. For the greater good, she attempted to assure herself, even though it was abundantly clear that she wasn’t even fooling herself.

In a futile attempt to remove the disastrous blunder from her mind, she whipped out her list and gave it another once-over, using her magic to steady it in flight.

Frosty Chill


465 Trailblazer Street


Thankfully, the streets in town were tightly interwoven, allowing her to find Trailblazer Street without a hassle. Descending onto her next target’s roof, she found herself being extra careful to avoid any and all possible hazards that might lead to another holiday-ruining accident.

Untying the frayed strings around her withers, she once again stocked up on presents and hopped down the chimney, being extra careful not to dislodge the thin layer of dust that caked its insides.

This time, though, the threat didn’t come from any of her actions.

Rather, it came in the form of a tiny filly standing in the middle of the room, staring at the alicorn with eyes as big as dinner plates.

"Oh." Luna's shocked look mirrored the foal's for a moment before she shook it away. All of the tortuously bland protocol that she had drilled herself on fizzled and combusted in her brain uselessly. What protocol could have possibly prepared her for this? "Err—hello, little one. I am... Lunushka, bringer of gif—"

"I know that!"

The filly's sudden shout made the night princess jump. The surprised stare on her miniscule features began to morph into an unnervingly knowing smile. "I know all about you. You reward all the good foals with presents and treats, and make the bad ones suffer." She shuffled excitedly on her hooves, unable to stay in one place for more than a second. Her antics reminded Luna of another pink pony that lived in this town.

"I've read all the books about you that they have in the library—you're just so cool! I go there every day during winter to learn more about you. All the myths, all the legends, they're just like fairy tales that my parents read to me at bedtime." Beaming proudly, she added, "My daddy says that I'm an egghead."

Though Luna adored all the borderline worship that this filly was heaping on her, she couldn't risk staying here any longer, lest she fall even farther behind her already-decimated schedule.

Though... a little bit of idol-worship was always good for bolstering the spirits on a cold winter's night. Prying the filly off of her leg with her magic, she set her gently onto the carpet in front of her. With a wry smile, she gently tousled her mane, sending the poor filly into a fit of giggling hysterics. "Then I suppose you know why I'm here—"

"To give me presents?" The filly turned into a darkened blur, latching onto Luna's leg like a leech. "Oh, I'm so happy—you don't even know how great it is to hear that! My parents said that you weren't real, that you were just Princess Celestia all dressed up. They said you were just a story that mommies and daddies told their foals to justify blackening their hearts with the debtuous burden of consumerism! But I knew that you were real, I just knew it!”

Luna recoiled at the filly's impressive (if not soul-crushingly blunt) vocabulary. She must have been raised by one of those 'progressive' families I keep hearing about. "My, you really are a studious one, aren't you?" She received only a spastic nod in reply. "Good for you, the fountain of knowledge is a most tranquil of pools." Her smile slowly fading, she continued, "I hate to be curt now, but I must continue on my route now. It has been a pleasure to meet you, child."

"Oh, but you can't go."

"Be a good filly, and next year I'll be—" Luna halted. "Excuse me?"

Giving her a look insinuating that her brain was made of rocks, she replied matter-of-factly, "Well duh, you can't just leave like that. Now that I know you're real, I can finally show my mommy and daddy how right I was. Then I can show all my friends, and all my teachers—Ooh, I can bring you into class for show and tell! You'll be with me forever, and ever, and ever. And you won't ever have to leave my side again."

Well, that escalated quickly, thought Luna as she backed away from the filly, who now flashed a carnivorous smile. The eyes of the maddened pony seemed to explode like a volcano, inflaming lava-like veins against her white pupils. "Well—err, young one, it has been quite the experience meeting you—really, it has. But I'm afraid that I must be off now so go back to bed here's your presents Happy Hearth's Warming goodnight."

Fight or flight instincts choosing the latter of the two, Luna haphazardly tossed the presents under the tree and dashed back up into the chimney just as the deranged filly lunged for her mane. Thankfully, the princess was quicker, and she took off with a start, shooting up the brick vent and back out into the night. She stumbled on the thick snow as she raced to her sack of gifts, barely managing to tie herself in before flaring her wings and flying off into the night, a muffled promise of, "You'll be all mine, forever!" Echoing in her ears.

"Goodness..." she muttered as she finally caught her breath from the harrowing ordeal. "They just don't raise foals like they used to."

The plan had specifically stated for him to keep to she shadows and darkened alleys, trailing the princess without reprieve, lest somepony see them and blow the lid off of the entire operation and ruin the one chance they had at revenge.

That is, until he heard the commotion. Despite the possibility of utter failure looming of over his head, natural curiosity finally won over. Throwing caution to the wind, he crept out into the open and scuttled over to the house. Slipping and sliding over to the nearest window, he hiked himself up onto his tip-hooves and peered into the frosted glass just in time to see the entire show.

"Oh my."

Flinching as the princess jettisoned her gift-wrapped payload into the corner, he dropped from the window and trained his eyes skyward, waiting until the disoriented alicorn popped out of the chimney and made a hasty retreat towards the safety of the sky to peel himself off of the side wall.

His eyes hungrily following the fleeing princess.


He dipped his head and slid back into the nearest alley, melding back into the shadows.

With the first two houses of the evening progressing just as badly as she had anticipated, the prospect of delivering any more of the seemingly-cursed gifts weighed on her like a massive weight tied around her shoulders. Begrudgingly, she swept low over the houses and yanked out her list, ready to find her next yuletide torturer.

Diamond Tiara


1624 E. Steeplechaser Lane


Luna's brow furrowed. This was it—her first naughty child of the evening. She had certainly expected plenty of naughty children that night, but never in a hundred years would she think that they would inhabit Ponyville. Hmm... and it seemed like such a nice town the last time I visited.

Locating the correct address, she brought herself in for another landing, though this time much more hesitantly. The roof angled sharply downward in an unusual modern design, sheltering a massive three-story mini-mansion with a garish design, grossly contrasting with the rest of its rustic neighbors. The "chimney," if it could be called that, was nothing more than a tiny slit against the shingled sheltering—no way was Luna going to be able to fit in there.

Huffing exasperatedly, she levitated a round, black lump from within the sack. "Hello, old friend. Looks like we're going to have to do this the old fashioned way." Heaving a pained grunt, she lit up her horn and tensed herself. Slowly but surely, the atoms in her body began to separate into a fine mist, with the coal following suit a moment later. Her face—or, what was left of it, at least—went taut at the tingling pain of being voluntarily pulled apart.

The glowing mist fought the wind over to the "chimney" and slipped down into the house, rematerializing on the other side. As the last of Luna's leg inserted itself into the plane of existence, she let out another softer growl. That never hurts any less than when we first did it. She tested her weight on her almost-complete hoof. Ow.

Limping along furtively, she found her way through the darkened hall towards the sole object of light in the house, the huge, tinsel-coated Hearth's Warming tree located in the grand foyer. Tip-hoofing against the cold hardwood floors, she made her way over to the tree.

When she got to the base of the grandly decorated tree—or, as close as she could get, what with the massive pile of presents already stashed under the tree. The sheer volume of the huge stash rivaled her own payload. Goodness, somepony has certainly been busy.

Curious as to who in their right mind would bother to purchase so many presents, she bent over to examine them.

“Wait one Luna-fearing second,” the princess snorted aloud as her eyes scanned the packages. In addition to the garish shade of candyfloss-pink that threatened to make her retch at the sheer level of ‘yuck’ that it exerted, something about the tags seemed off.

Mainly that they were all signed in Lunushka's name.

How strange. I do not seem to recall giving this foal one present, let alone a thousand presents. Her eyes narrowed as they wandered from label to label, all sporting the same forged signature as the first. If there was one thing that Luna despised more than that particular shade of pink, it was counterfeiters. I sense a strong case of shenanigans.

"Hello there, Lunushka."

All her anticipation boiled over into a single, surprised grunt. She whipped around to face the new speaker, her face awash in equal parts fright and frustration. Silently, she mouthed an exasperated, Who is it now?

That 'who', as it turned out to be, was none other than another foal, glowering at her with fiendishly alert eyes. For simplicity’s sake, Luna just assumed it was this ‘Diamond Tiara’ pony that was due to recieve her yerly cummupense.

“Hello, child,” the princess hesitantly replied. “Shouldn’t you be in bed? I think it is past your bedtime—”

“Yeah, enough trying to dodge the subject, Lu. Do you mind if I call you Lu? Good.”

‘Lu’ recoiled in shock and disgust at the filly’s disrespectful tone. “Young mare, that is very rude of you to treat a mythical figure with such disrespect.”

“Yeah yeah, heard it already.” The filly gave an exaggerated yawn. Are you done yammerin’? Good.” Her glare morphed seamlessly into a barbaric smile, an innocent grin belaying murderous intentions. “Now, I have a little proposition to make.”

“A... proposition.” Luna tilted her head confusedly.

“You got mistletoe in your ears or something? Yes, a proposition. Now, I’m gonna go ahead and assume that your black lumpy friend over there is meant to go in my stocking, yes?” Pointing at the ball of coal still grasped tightly in a dim blue glow of magic, she continued, “Now, I get it—I’ve been a bad girl this year. Believe me, it doesn’t come as a surprise at all. When being mean is so fun, how can I not be expected to do it?

“But here’s the thing. I’m gonna be the laughing stock of the entire school if somepony finds out that I’ve been getting coal from Equestria’s favorite holiday hero.”

“I’m Equestria’s favorite holiday hero?”

“Yeesh, you really do have to live in the Northern Windigo Caves if you’re that out of touch. But I regress—if I don’t get even one measly present from you, I’m gonna end up having to hang with those loser-brat Cutie Mark Crusaders, eugh.” She visibly shook in disgust.

“All these presents here are great and stuff, but they’re no substitute for the real thing. So, in exchange for one measly present from your’s truly, I’m willing to offer you not one, but two—count ‘em, two—free pieces of stock to Filthy Rich Enterprises. They’re worth upwards of four hundred bits on a good market day, though let’s be honest here—every day is a good market day for my daddy’s business.”

Meanwhile, Luna’s poor head spun as the filly’s surprisingly harsh smooth-talking audibly assaulted her ears. How a mere foal could even toss around four hundred bits’ worth of stock in a company she didn’t even own was beyond her. “Listen, young one, my list says that you were naughty. And whether you like it or not, you’re getting what you deserve.”

The smug smile on the filly’s face vanished, replaced by a deathly still stare, hardened to a fine point and jabbing at Luna’s heart. An uncomfortable cold creeped through Luna’s veins. “I see... so we’re gonna have to do this the hard way.” From out behind her, she levitated a plate of cookies, cut into miniature pony shape.

“What if I told you that these cookies contained the very souls of your beloved subjects, and that by eating them I will gain their power and wrestle my presents away from you?”

“Well, those cookies aren’t in the slightest bit enchanted, so I would have to say that you’re lying.” Shaking her head slowly, Luna added, “That untruthful streak of yours is probably what got you this coal in the first place.”

“What if I told you that these cookies were made two weeks ago, and they’re really, really stale?”

“Now that is just irrelevant to the conver—ow!” The princess’s reply was cut off as a tiny cookie-dough pony impacted the side of her head. Ironically enough, Diamond Tiara was not lying about how rock hard these cookies had become.

Not bothering to hold her booming voice back any longer, Luna deflected the next volley of deadly treats with a thunderous, “How dare you throw cookies at me, you naive? A curse upon your house, I cast upon you—your descendants will receive only coal for a thousand Hearth’s Warmings!”

But of the warring parties went rigid, however, as a fumbling crash echoed through the high walls, halting any offensive action on the front. A bleary, “Whuuzit, whoozere?” floated down into the foyer. Luna paled, while the filly grinned demonically.

“Ooh, you went and woke up my daddy. He’s gonna call the cops, and bring a lawsuit down on your flank faster than you can say ‘Ho Ho Ho’, you big hack.” The manic smile that twisted the filly’s lips promised vengeance and plenty more hoof-propelled cookies of death.

Clearly, it was time to leave.

Dematerializing was out of the question—that would take far too much time, and she could already hear thumping hoofsteps coming down the stairs. She had to get out now. Dancing on her hooves nervously, her eyes panickedly scanned across the massive room, finally landing on the first link to the outside world—a shuttered window.

She was running out of time, and that accursed filly was already rearing back to deliver another wave of homemade deliciousness into her skull. Sending out a curt prayer to any nearby demigods that may have been listening, she jolted the window open with a burst of magic and sailed out into the outside world.

He had his nose plastered to the frozen glass when it started to shake. Staring at the hinges out of the corner of his eye like a deer caught in the hypnotizing glare of a headlamp, he watched dumbly as a pulsing blue glow materialized around the rusty metal, shaking it ever so slightly to loosen it up.

And then the window opened—or more accurately, exploded outwards.

This wouldn’t have been a problem, had he not had his nose firmly stuck to the ice-coated glass as it open-sploded.

The impact of such a powerful being focusing all her magical powers on a single, feeble window knocked the hooded pony back headfirst into a nearby snow drift. His head, still draped in a white-washed canvas, popped out of the snowbank just in time to see a catlike, regal form dive from the window and shoot up to the roof, where a brief scuffle ensued (probably between the princess and her knotted foe, the harness). She appeared a moment later, hastily dragging the giant bundle of still-undelivered toys behind her.

This was his chance. This was the opportune moment to strike! Lunushka was clearly too distracted with her heavy load and whatever had just transpired in that disgustingly-designed house she just lept from to notice a lone vigilante on her tail.

“Hey, get back here with my presents! I’ll sue you for... for something if you don’t come back!”

Well, he thought bitterly, so much for being the only one on her tail. Still encased in snow, he watched on in mild amusement as the bratty filly from inside burst out through the front door, balancing a tray of cookies on her back as she screamed at the alicorn. He was set to bust out laughing until he realized that she was running after Lunushka.

“H-hey!” he stammered. “She is my target of opportunity, get lost!” Fighting their way out of the snowbank, he skittered across the street in an uphill battle to keep up with the warring duo, who moved surprisingly fast considering that they were either weighted down with a million loads of gifts or slipping on patches of ice every other step. Desperate to keep his cover, he skidded from alleyway to alleyway, hugging the shadows close while still maintaining a chipper pace.

This was all definitely not according to plan. If this kept up, all the nets that he had painstakingly set up in the park would be about as helpful as a water gun in a freezer.

He had to think of something quick, or his plan would turn into a complete disaster.

Ooh, this is a complete disaster, thought Luna as she desperately tried to attach herself to the knotted-up ropes that flailed crazily in the wind. First that discordant foal Diamond Tiara had chased her out into the streets (she gauged the distance between them by seeing how far the cookies she threw whizzed by her head), now that shadowy pony in the hood that had been trailing her all night had made their move, quickening their pace and alley-hopping with a greater sense of urgency than before. She hoped that it was another Shadowbolt, swooping in to try and protect their princess from harm, though she feared that this was all too far from the truth.

Reasoning that it was just another crazy pony who wanted in on the insanity, she picked up her pace and swerved around a corner, nearly knocking out a streetlamp as she did.

She ground her teeth together as the gift bag strained against her grip, turning her legs a painful shade of red. With the giant sack dangling precariously from her hooves, she wouldn't be able to outrun her adversaries for much longer. With negotiations an obvious road to nowhere, she turned to the only trick still left up her sleeve: evasion.

Streamlining her body against the bite of the wind, she flexed her wings and drifted around the next corner, the bottom of her bags barely scraping the edge of the curb. As the turn ended, she dipped her body and continued her spiral, fighting against gravity to stay up. Out of the corner of her eye, she locked onto her target—a darkened alley between two nearby shops, draped in shadows.

Calling on years of expert flying experience, she straightened herself and her cargo, squeezing into the alley way and skidding to a stop. Allowing the shadows to conceal her form, she turned her attention to the street in front of her, willing her oblivious pursuers to pass her by.

"Get back here... and give me... my presents!" The huffing pants of Diamond Tiara heralded her unwanted entourage, galloping down the icy streets with reckless abandon. Despite her uncanny ability to hit every patch of ice on the entire street, her progress was alarmingly good. Mercifully, she passed by the hiding spot without noticing the alicorn wedged inside of it.

Thank Me for small favors, she thought as she stooped to catch her breath. Once her vision finally stopped swimming, she set to work on reacquainting herself with the ropes holding her saddlebags together.

As she worked, her mind began to ponder over the events of the past hours. Is this what all the towns are going to be like? I hope not—if they are, I'll be delivering gifts until New Years'. She gave a weak chuckle. "Wouldn't that be a sight. The great Lunushka, turning Hearth's Warming into a week long affair."

"Oh, I don't think it sounds so crazy."

The princess's gaze shot up from the knots and tangles.

"In fact, I think I like the idea of Hearth's Warming lasting longer. It means I get to spend more time with you."

She remembered that voice. That sickeningly innocent purr that could only come from a young filly completely obsessed with something that she could not have (though in most cases, this voice came out for the acquisition of dollhouses or dresses, not princesses). "You... you're the filly from earlier. Show yourself!"

Following her orders, a shadow peeled itself off the nearby wall, manifesting itself into the shape of a small pony. "Hello, Lunushka," it purred again. "Surprised to see me? You should; I spent a great deal of effort concealing myself."

The princess shifted awkwardly, attempting to tie herself into the makeshift harness without taking her eyes off the over-possessive pony. "How did you know I was in here?"

"Oh, you know," she answered matter-of-factly, "I just followed you from my house, watching you from the shadows—though I did a much better job of concealing myself then that hooded individual who just came running past. With those giant bags on your back, you aren't exactly the stealthiest of ponies."

"Yes," she chuckled dryly, "that's great. But I really must be going now. I need to go finish my route, I'm already nearly an entire hour behind schedule—you know how it is."

"Believe me, I 'know how it is'." The filly took a step forward. "You finally realized your grievous mistake and came crawling back to me. It's okay, I get it. You just needed some time to think it over and—hey, where are you going?"

Before the clearly-crazed filly could finish, Luna seized the moment and rocketed into the sky, putting as much distance between herself and the ground as possible. Sure, it would probably blow her cover, but at least she didn't have to hear that unnerving voice again. She shivered at the mere thought as she leveled out, searching for another place to hide.

He had nearly given up. Blood pounded in his ears and tears beaded at his eyes from the fierce wind that kicked his face as he ran. He was a wreck, and he hadn't even gotten close to exacting his revenge. The entire evening seemed to be destined to go down in flames.

That is, until he saw the majestic form of Lunushka, hugged by several not-so-majestic sacks, rising from the ground up into the sky.

His breath caught in their throat. Venting a hot breath of white steam from their nostrils, he turned to face the shadowy mare as he picked up his hooves and broke out into a gallop. In between his heavy pants, his muttered bleakly, "Hold still... for a moment... so I can catch you.”

Luna had hardly descended back to earth when she heard the cries. Frenzied shouts coming from down the street, all demanding that she halt at once, echoed off the buildings and created an eerie second voice. Her shoulders slumped. Don't tell me there is another one wishing to bring me harm.

Thankfully—or unfortunately, she wasn't quite sure which—only two familiar ponies rounded the corner, huffing and puffing as they attempted to keep pace with the speedy alicorn. Only this time, the cookie-chucking Diamond Tiara was accompanied by a third set of hooves, belonging to one parentally-proclaimed egghead-turned Lunushka stalker. The hooded pony was nowhere to be seen—probably keeping to some nearby alleyway as they made their approach.

As she turned to flee, a vague look of annoyance crossed her face as she risked a glance back at her pursuers. Great. Now they have all teamed up to destroy me. Is there anything else the universe would like to throw at me? Perhaps a meteor shower, or a zombie-pony apocalypse?

Not wishing to be outdone, the cosmic dice-throwers delivered unto her something much worse than flying fireballs or brain-eating hordes.

A dead end.

Suppressing a rising note of panic in her chest, she took a steadying breath and turned her gaze upwards. Thankfully, no roofs or unfortunately-placed overhangs were there to hinder her escape route. All the had to do was fly up and she would be free of these pint-sized menaces once and for all—


She shot upwards as a huge weight suddenly disconnected from her midsection and threw her off balance. As she attempted to right herself, she noticed a distinct lack of ropes digging into her shoulders. Her heart sank like concrete as she looked down to find an impressive pile of frayed string that used to be her makeshift harness, sitting uselessly between her saddlebags in a dilapidated heap.

Her irises wobbled and shrank. Deep inside her brain, the last remaining bits of her sanity shattered.

Horrified, she swooped back down to her ruined ropes and cradled them in her hooves like they were a dying comrade in arms. Vainly, she tried fitting the shredded edges back together, letting out a pained whimper as her attempts to fix it only pulled it apart even more.

Once it became clear that her precious rope was unfit to support its own weight, let alone the weight of her still-full saddlebags, her mind began to formulate alternate escape plans. It quickly became apparent, though, that unless she had immediate access to a catapult and rocket engines, she was going to be stuck here until she could fashion another makeshift set of straps.

She looked up. Her stalkers were gaining ground, slipping and sliding their way towards her at dangerous speeds. Their cries only pumped more raw panic and adrenaline into her blood as they closed on on the cornered princess.

"You will be mine!" shouted one.

"Your presents will be mine!" shouted another.

"Lunushka will be mine!" they shouted in tandem, lowering their heads and charging towards their trapped quarry with malevolent smirks on their faces.

“Hah... hahah—” His pained chuckles exploded into a violent fit of coughing, sending him reeling as if they had been drop-kicked in the lungs.

Despite the acute pin prick of pain in his chest, he still managed a rasping chortle at the two fillies’ expense. There they were, bounding towards one of the most powerful beings in the universe like a group of dimwits. If they weren’t incinerated by the alicorn’s stare alone, then the massive pile of presents would surely crush them.

But while they were busy being annihilated, he would be perfectly peachy in his hidey-hole, waiting for the moment the princess turned her back to strike and deliver his revenge. His plan of deception and sneakiness would finally pay off.

He opened his mouth to cackle maniacally...

Only to have his breath violently ejected from his lungs by a huge blast. The entire sky seemed to collapse on top of them with a thunderous boom that rattled the foundation of every home from here to Fillydelphia, knocking over everything that hadn’t been bolted down and smothering them in a fine layer of what used to be the cobblestone street. The shockwave alone sent the hooded pony sprawling.

From the massive explosion of dust and debris emerged four shadows, standing tall between Luna and her adversaries in the open.

His smile disappeared.

Well, so much for the plan. TIme to wing it.

"Attention, unidentified ponies!"

Luna’s head cocked as the familiar voice assaulted her ears—that same voice that had already interrupted her flight once before. On no, it isn't. It can't be.

"Under Greater Equestrian law Article 18, Section 2, Subsection 67—"

"Page 72,393,341 Line 53."

"—page 72,393,341 Line 53, any direct or indirect threat towards the princess of Equestria will be met with whatever force is deemed necessary to deter said threat. Now stand down!"

The cloud finally settled, revealing four heroically-posed Shadowbolts looking down venomously at the 'threats' to their leader. For their part, the miniature combatants shriveled under the caustic stare of the new arrivals, skittering blindly over the ice-covered ground as they attempted to regain their footing. Simultaneously, they all starting spewing stuttering apologies.

"I just wanted p-presents—"

"I just wanted Lunushka—"

"Both of you, shut up!" The Shadowbolt captain's rough voice forced a thin whimper out of the foals. "Now, all of you are guilty of disturbing the peace, disruption of of official Royal duties, and general creepiness. You can either come quietly into custody, or we can take you by force."

Turning his attention to the princess, he bowed courteously. "Your Highness, we saw the commotion from up above and moved to intervene. Looks like we got here just in time—"

"Captain. Did you just threaten those children?"

"Err—well, yes Your Majesty. But in my defense—"

"Captain!" For the second time that night, the Shadowbolt found himself shushed by the princess. "Are you mad?" She turned her ravenous stare to the rest of the flight group, cowering together in a collective heap. "Are you all mad? First you trample all over my schedule like it's some sort of game with your incessant orders to 'protect' me, now you go and try to bully these children like they're war criminals! What kind of example is that?

"The entire point of Hearth's Warming is to show compassion and love to your fellow pony. On the one day of the year where ponies are expected to display that more than anything else, you go around and act like this? To children no less? You are not just sworn protectors of the very same ponies you now abuse, but adults who know right from wrong, now act like it.”

The look she gave that bore into the Captain’s skull shattered any shell of authority that clung to his armor. The four hung their heads, unable to meet their leader’s harsh stare.

Good, she’s distracted.

With the princess currently occupied with turning her subordinates into a dark-colored puddle on the floor, the mysterious pony crept out of their protective shroud of shadows and advanced on the loose crowd of ponies.

Even at his present distance, each word of the alicorn’s impassioned rant hit him like a strong buck to the spine. He shuddered, shaking his head at the poor ponies wilting under the blistering tirade.

Don’t get distracted, he reminded himself, the more they get chewed out, the more time I’ll have to get into position. Tearing his gaze from the doomed Shadowbolts, he resumed his lurk through the night.

“Yeah, Lunushka! You tell those meanies!”

The princess, jumping at the new voice, wheeled her gaze from the terrified fliers to her first filly-sized nuisance of the night. “And you.” she continued in an equally forceful (but thankfully less spiteful) tone, "Real or not, mythical heroes are not to be blindly obsessed over. Stories and legends hardly reflect the myriad of real lessons that you can learn by studying the real world.”

Her voice lost its sharpened, bitter edge. “You have so much potential to become whatever you wish to be. Do not waste it on trying to prove the existence of something as trivial as “Lunushka. Doing such a thing would only prove to be a waste of your own precious time.”

Forty paces.

Thirty paces.

He was so close.

Only a hooffull of steps more, and he would be able to reach out and touch his target’s flowing blue mane.

The hour of revenge was at hoof. Soon...

“Well, yeah, but you can totally see where I was coming from, right?”

The peeved princess turned her steely gaze to Diamond Tiara, who returned the deadpan in full. “I mean, sure, I wasn’t the nicest, but I was only trying to fit in. If you’re going to blame somepony, blame society for turning me into who I am.”

“Ooh no,” Luna growled, “you’re not getting out of here without learning your lesson too. Here’s some food for thought; if you want presents, be nice. If you’re not nice, then you better be able to own up to your mistakes and accept your punishment.”

“Are you trying to say that I deserve that coal?”

“Yes! Yes I am! Be grateful that you got anything at all, for goodness sakes. Did you know that getting coal in one’s stocking for Hearth’s Warming used to be considered a good thing? When ponies got it, they burned it in their hearths, with their families, so that they could all enjoy each others’ company without freezing to death. Don’t your schools teach about it in history class?”

He reared back on his hind legs, wiggling his rump for good measure as he dialed in on his towering target.

“One way or another, you are all living personification of why this holiday has fallen out of favor with me. Foals focus on what they want, not what they already have. Fathers and mothers blindly fight over the latest holiday toys instead of spending time with family. It’s more of a circus than a hallowed tradition at this point.”

He closed his eyes and breathed deep, counting down the seconds until takeoff in his head.

Ten... nine... eight...

“Instead of focusing so much on material goods that you want, try to look at all the things that you are already blessed with. Your smarts, your ingenuity, your talents—don’t you think that they are all more important than a new doll?”

Seven, six, five...

All of you are missing the point of the holiday. It’s not about toys, or mythical heroes, or protecting said mythical heroes.” The disgraced flight team cowered in their uniforms at the fresh glare shot their way. “It’s about showing kindness and solidarity to your neighbor, and being the exceptional ponies I know you all can be.”


“In the end this holiday is really just about love, tolerance, and—”


“—and revenge—wait, what?”

The disgruntled princess turned just in time to see a shadowy figure adorned in a thick cloak burst from the shadows and leap in front of her, sending the already on-edge crowd into another fit of gasps and shouts. Digging his hooves into the dirt, the hooded pony let out a war-whoop and shouted, “The hour of revenge is at hand! Prepare yourself, Lunushka, for my ultimate fury!”

Funny, Luna thought. This one’s voice sounds familiar. “I know who you are... Pop—no, Skip? Wait, Pip. Pipsqueak.” A distant memory of colorful masks, bobbing for apples, and one pink earth pony dressed in a chicken suit flooded her mind. “Yes, I remember you now. You’re the little one from the Nightmare Night celebration. I suppose you are the hooded fellow that has been following me around for most of the night.”

“Yes, it is I, the rogue adventurer P—” Stark realization that his quarry had already done the dramatic reveal for him hit him only after he had thrown off his cloak. “H-hold on a minute. How do you know who I am? And how did you know I was following you?”

For the first time all night, Luna voiced a genuine laugh. “ My senses are quite keen, and you weren’t doing yourself any favors by wearing that cloak over your shoulders and making yourself look like a member of the Illumineighti.”

“What? I spent so much time being secretive,” he whinnied angrily, before reminding himself that he was supposed to be angry and intimidating. “B-but that still doesn’t explain how you know who I am.”

Leaning in, Luna replied, “Think back to another holiday, one with much more fright.”

“Fright?” Pip recoiled. “But, the only holiday with any fright is Nightmare Night, and I spent that playing with Princess... Luna.”

The gears finally clicked in his head. His confused yet spiteful stare morphed into one of absolute bewilderment. “W-wait, so—Princess Luna is Lunushka?” The princess’s nod of confirmation only made his eyes grow even wider with panic. “But that means, all this night—I’ve been plotting revenge against my favorite princess?”

Now it was Luna’s turn to draw back. “Revenge? What is this revenge you speak of?”

Hesitantly, Pip conceded, “Oh, yeah—uh, that. You see, I may have been plotting to... you know... seek revenge on Lunushka after all the years she neglected me. Nothing major or anything.”

“Plotting revenge?” Luna knew that the earth pony had a bit of an eccentric personality, but revenge against a revered holiday hero? That seemed way out of line with his normally friendly personality. “Why in My good name would you do that?”

Without warning, the colt stiffened. A spark of raw emotion flashed in his eyes, and his face instantly took on a much darker tone. “Well, I grew up in Trottingham—and not the good part of Trottingham, either. Everypony thinks it’s nothing but castles and cheery ponies, but it’s not. The city’s full of lifeless apartments with lifeless ponies that are always mean no matter how nice you try to be back to them.”

Luna moved to comment, but he brushed it away coldly. “When I was in there—we called our building the Muck, because of its color resemblance—we hardly had a Hearth’s Warming at all. Holly and mistletoe and lights were too expensive, so we had to go off the hope that Lunushka would bring things for us. Nothing fancy—just something to make the mood a little less grim, you know? We wrote letter after letter to her, all but begging her to come and make the mood a little brighter.

“And you know how many times she came?”Luna, afraid that she already knew the answer, braced herself. “Zero. Not once.”

What hurt the most about Pipsqueak’s story wasn’t the content itself, but the disbelieving tone in which he spoke it, as if even though he had lived through it, he still didn’t quite accept that it had ever even happened. “When we needed Hearth’s Warming spirit the most, she was nowhere to be found. I just thought that Lunushka was supposed to bring the spirit of Hearth’s Warming to everypony that needed it the most. Why wouldn’t she come and visit us?”

Only the wind responded to the colt’s question. Of course, Luna had been to the part of town that Pip was referring to. She had also seen the crime statistics that poured out of the police departments, bearing numbers so high that Celestia herself had been left slack-jawed and helpless. She knew why her sister would have flown over that part of town—after all, a gleaming white alicorn with a massive bag full of presents would have only been a giant flying bullseye for any criminals lying in wait.

She also knew that trying to explain all that to poor Pip would just confuse him further.

Lips pursed and head lowered, she wrapped a weary hoof around the young pony and sighed ruefully. "Pip, I'm so sorry to hear about what you had to go through. I should know as well as anypony how badly being ignored can hurt. But believe me when I say that revenge is never the right way to go about righting this. If you really want to keep what happened to you from happening to anypony else, just look around you. Find the ponies that don't have enough Hearth's Warming cheer of their own, and give them a little bit of yours. Make their holidays as happy as you want yours to be."

The colt sat in silence for a moment, hastily digesting the new mindset. "That... actually makes a lot of sense." As he looked up at Luna again, she noted with well-contained glee that his eyes were devoid of the cloudy confusion and anger they had previously held. "You seem pretty good at this whole Hearth's Warming thing."

"Well, I've been around for a couple of them in my day."

The laugh that they shared lit up the frigid atmosphere like a glittering star atop a Hearth's Warming tree.

"Heh heh... hey, Luna?" Raising her eyebrows, the princess motioned for Pip to continue. "Thanks for telling me all that stuff. I don't really get some of it, but I promise I'll think about it real hard about what you said."

That was all Luna could have ever asked for. Flashing a content smile at the colt, she finally released him and turned her attention to the dazed group of ponies watching the tender scene, glad that the colt's arrival had spared them from the princess's moral-plugging rants. "I believe that we all have a lot of thinking to do about what we leaned this night, am I correct?"

Each and every pony snapped to attention immediately, jittering in fear of having another life lesson shoved down their throats. "Yes ma'am," they shakily replied in tandem.

"Good." Nodding in satisfaction at her job well done, Luna turned her gaze to the remnants of her saddlebag's harness. Firing up her horn, she pulled another length of rope into existance and, with a strong sense of deja vu nipping at the recesses of her mind, re-remade the straps. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm an hour behind schedule, and I have to deliver about a thousand—" She reached into the bag and pulled out a toy at random. "— 'Captain Mankind Power Hands'—"

Her eye twitched. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."

An entire night's worth of pent-up frustration finally overwhelmed her and took hold of her muscles. In a single, powerful move, she hefted the huge bags onto her back and forced her huge wings into motion, rocketing her forward and sending a loose pocket of presents at the top of the bags tumbling to the ground in front of the still-stunned group.

For a moment, nopony spoke, fearful of bringing the wrath of an angry princess back down on their heads.

"Sooo..." Diamond Tiara finally spoke up, "does this mean I get to keep all those presents?"

Any ponies still awake that fateful night may have heard what sounded like a shrill scream, as loud as a roaring train, echoing through the dry night air.

But then again, it may have just been the wind.

The saddlebags were empty, though they may as well have been filled with lead. The improvised harness, frayed and worn from the long night's work, bit into Luna's skin and turned her royal blue coat a painful shade of red. Any part of the princess's form that wasn't covered in ropeburn was covered in a fine layer of ice. Both her wings bore feathers that stuck out at odd angles, impeding her natural lift—an unfortunate consequence of having to rush-deliver nearly half of her load after her time-consuming escapade in Ponyville.

Squinting hard against the first rays of dawn, the battered princess limped her way back to Canterlot Castle, pausing mid-flight every so often to make sure that her wings wouldn't pop out of their sockets and send her plummeting to the ground far below. As she approached the tower that had served as her takeoff point, she noticed a tiny speck of white against the slate-grey of the tarmac.

"Sister," she muttered breathily. "I hope her little excursion went better than mine."

She wouldn't have to wait long to find out. No sooner did her hooves touch down than she found the legs of her sister wrapping tightly around her neck. "Luna," she beamed, "I'm so glad to see you're still alive."

"If not a bit frazzled..."

Ignoring the younger alicorn's comment, Celestia motioned for the staff to come forward and help peel the accursed harness off. "So tell me, how did your first Hearth's Warming in a thousand years go?"

“Remind me never to visit Ponyville during the holidays ever again.”

Celestia laughed. "Come now, it couldn't have been that bad."

"I was pelted with cookies and attacked by a stalker a quarter of my height."

The smile disappeared from her face. "Oh my. I'll tell the waitstaff to draw a hot bath."

Luna nodded in silent thanks as they ushered themselves in through the wide, double-braced door and into the castle. The warmth from the facility's central furnaces hit her almost at once, turning her hooves to jello and her distant, pained look into a melting smile. "Ooh, that feels good." She paused for a moment to shake off a stray icicle that had formed on her leg.

"So tell me," Celestia started, "what did you think of the new Hearth's Warming?"

Luna bit her lip. "It was... unusual.The mindset has changed more than anything, if I had to try and pin it down. Ponies seem to get awful ravenous about the things they want when they know they have a chance of getting it."

"Isn't that the truth," her sister giggled.

"No, really. It's as if their brains are wrapped in tinsel so tight that they can't see straight. One filly, bless her heart, tried to keep me as a trophy to show all of her friends." Only an hour ago, the memory would have brought her nothing but bitterness. Now, though, she found herself laughing lightly along with her sister as they pushed through a set of double doors into another long hallway.

"And there was this other filly—goodness, was she ever the physical embodiment of the naughty list—she tried to bribe me with cookies. When I declined, she starting throwing them at me!"

As she regaled Celestia with the tales of her unorthodox deliveries, her sour mood finally began to lift from her weary shoulders. All the problems that plagued her became thick, wet snow piled high on her heart, melting under the fire of friendship.

"...And by the time I had stuffed them all back into the saddlebags, the rioters were nearly on top of me. By the time I got to Trineighdad and Tobago and realized that I had misaligned the payload, I had given myself a wing cramp."

They shared another sisterly chuckle. "It sounds like I missed quite the adventure." Celestia's tone suddenly grew wispy, contemplative. "Would you do it again?"

Luna paused. "Do it again, sister?"

Receiving a nod in confirmation, she cocked her indigo head in thought. "That is a good question. It was absolute bedlam, every second of it. I don't think I've ever been so worn out in a long time. I would need to be some sort of crazy pony to say that I enjoyed having to chastise my Shadowbolts in front of a group of children like a power-hungry drill sergeant.

"But still..." her voice trailed off. "All the craziness of it, the unpredictability of it... it was just as thrilling as it was stressful. It was like one of those new action movies the Guards are so fond of. All those quick action shots and fades are disorienting and annoying to a fault, but they're just so fun to watch that I'm willing to risk an occasional dizzy spell if it means getting to enjoy something with the rest of my subjects."

The thinly veiled smile returned in full force. "Besides, I daresay that getting chased around by foals throwing cookies at you was actually kind of fun."

By the time their laughter had quieted, they had passed another massive set of doors leading into luna's private chambers.

"Okay then, dear sister," Princess Celestia chuckled warmly, "I think It's about time that I take my leave. I'll leave you to get cleaned up now." Extending her legs and bringing Luna into a comforting hug, she added, "I hope that being Lunushka for a night didn't wear you out too badly."

Luna snorted. "You have no idea, sister. No idea at all."

Shaking her head in between muffled giggles, Celestia turned on her hooves and strode towards the door, the knowledge of her sister's success giving her mane a renewed glow to combat the gloom of the early-morning chill.

Something was still bugging Luna's, though. Her lips went taut, and she hesitated for a moment before calling out after her sister. "Tia?”

The sun princess halted in the doorway, casting an attentive stare towards the younger princess. “Yes?”

“For next year’s gift delivery, make the slums of Trottingham a priority. They are in dire need of some Hearth’s Warming spirit, and I can think of nopony better than Lunushka to give it to them."

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