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Luna could think of nothing to do after she left Sweet Apple Acres that afternoon, but Applejack had told her where to be the next morning, and so she had gone to wait. She flew over Ponyville, spotted the Forest Road, and landed nearby in a suitably clear field. The view was not as good as it had been from her balcony, but the alicorn found it to be a worthwhile change of scenery. The sun set, and Luna raised moon with an imperceptible magical effort. Her work done, she relaxed, standing motionless in the sea of grass as she enjoyed the night.
Dew formed on the alicorn's fur and feathers in the early morning chill; the newly risen sun had nearly dried it by the time she saw Applejack walking up the road. The Earth pony called out a greeting, and Luna's lips curved slightly in an unbidden smile. She waved a wing and trotted out to travel beside the other mare. Applejack had a serious expression and got down to business immediately, briefing Luna as they passed one of Ponyville's outlying farms, "We're headin' out to Fluttershy's cottage; Fluttershy is the Element of Kindness, and just about the nicest pegasus you'll ever meet. She doesn't have a grudge holdin' bone in her body and she'll forgive you lickety split, as long as you can get around one big problem: that pony is a coward. She's a close friend of mine and dear to my heart, but the biggest scaredy-pony I've ever laid eyes on. She'll probably bolt the moment she sees you, on account of that whole Nightmare Moon thing, especially if Rainbow Dash got to her first. Unless, o' course, we give her nowhere to go. So we're going to catch her when she's in her house; there's only one door and she won't fly out the window on account of her wings lockin' up when she's scared."
Applejack paused, and Luna took the opportunity to cut in, "You say that she's a coward, but she didn't balk at facing me when I was Nightmare Moon. She didn't flee then; why should she do so now?"
The Earth pony nodded, "Well, that's one of the admirable things about Fluttershy; she can be very brave when she needs to protect her friends. Of course, you're not gonna to be a threat to her friends, of the pony sort or of the critter sort. You'll be taking care of the animals for her while she's cooped up. She'll be watchin' you, and if you're nice to her animal friends, I'm sure she'll warm up to you. Eventually."
Luna raised an eyebrow, "So your plan is to trap her in her house until she's forced to talk to me? That doesn't sound very... kind."
"Well," Applejack replied with a nervous chuckle, "We're just gonna call this 'tough love'."
"And what if one of her other friends shows up?"
"Oh, that's taken care of," The Earth pony stated, a mischievous smile spreading across her face, "I left notes for others sayin' that Fluttershy got called off to help with an emergency with some critters in another town, a real bad outbreak of somethin' or other. I told em' I'd come round once a day to take care of things here and make sure all the animals got fed an' everythin' while she was gone. It's not worth this long trip to go to the cottage if Fluttershy isn't around, so they shouldn't bother us."
Luna's lips curled in a sardonic grin, "Some Element of Honesty you are." She couldn't keep the amusement from her voice.
Applejack laughed, "Well hold on there, missy! Honesty means bein' worth trustin', not sayin' no word that isn't true. A pony can speak only the truth and still be slippery as an eel, using carefully chosen facts as a weapon against you, and a pony can tell only lies and know that every one of them is worth believin', and lift your spirits with falsehood. Which pony do you think is more worth trustin'? More honest?"
The two ponies traveled on in silence. They passed empty fields and stands of oak and elm, and the land began to look a bit more wild. The sounds of nature, bird calls, brooks, and the wind in the trees, all became more noticable as they left the din of Ponyville behind. Luna thought on what the farmer had said. The princess found that she did not mind being called 'missy.' It had a charming informality to it. As for Applejack's view on trust, the princess was unsure, but it was certainly a question worth asking.
After a few minutes, the two mares spotted the cottage. Its surroundings teemed with wildlife; squirrels chittered in the trees, ferrets played in the fields, and there seemed to be a bird on every branch. The calls of the animals filled the air with song. It had been a long time since Luna could enjoy such a menagerie. Even the old royal gardens couldn't compete in sheer number of animals. It seemed to the alicorn that Fluttershy must have been extremely skilled, or incredibly charismatic, to attract so many animals to her care. Possibly both. Applejack put out a hoof to stop her a few hundred yards from Fluttershy's home and spoke in a rather unnecessary whisper, "You wait here. The animals shouldn't give us away; I've got a bunny on the inside. I'll go in alone, in case Fluttershy is watching out the window. I'll tell her what's goin' on, and that should distract her. Give me a ten count after you see the door close behind me, then trot out to the clearing where she can see you. Once she knows you're out here, she probably won't leave the house. I'll tell you more after that's all done. You got all that?" Luna was rather pleased by how seriously Applejack was taking this; she nodded.
The Earth Pony set out toward Fluttershy's home with a determined stride. The princess watched her cross the clearing, knock on the cottage door, and disappear inside. She counted slowly, then trotted swiftly out to to a visible area, and waited. It wasn't long before Luna saw the curtain on the front window twitch aside, and the face of a pink-maned yellow pony peek out. They made eye contact for just an instant, Fluttershy's eyes as wide as saucers, before the pegasus dropped out of sight. Luna found herself smiling.
Eventually, Applejack emerged from the cottage, closing the door behind her, and approached the princess. "That went about as well as I expected. She wants to talk to you, but she's afraid. If you go in there, she'll just clam up and shudder in a corner. So, we're going with my plan. Have you worked with critters before?"
Luna tilted her head, thinking. "Well, I created a lot of animals, but that was a long time ago. Most creatures are very different now. I haven't had a pet in.... Well, the species is extinct now, to give you some idea."
"Uh...huh...," Applejack replied, raising an eyebrow, "I guess I'll have to show you everthin', then. I've taken care of things 'round here before, so it shouldn't be too bad. Fluttershy keeps most of what you'll need in a shed or the chicken coop, so you shouldn't have to get anything from the house." The Earth pony spent the next few hours showing Luna everything Fluttershy did for the animals. The Alicorn rather enjoyed herself, feeding birds, helping a family of voles with their burrow, letting mice ride on her outstretched wings, and generally assisting however she could.
Around noon Applejack gave a final speech, "I've got my own land to take care of, so I'll leave you to it. Just try to stay away from the house; no need to spook Fluttershy any more than she already is. When you need to sleep, I've got a guest room that you can use, if you'd like to fly over, but try to wait until Fluttershy is already asleep."
"That won't be a problem," Luna interjected, "I don't sleep."
The Earth pony's voice was completely flat, "What."
"My sister and I don't need to sleep. It's like eating. We can. Celestia has, and says it's fine. But we don't need to. I've never tried it. It can't possibly be as good as eating. Is it?" Luna was genuinely curious.
"Uh... no, Luna, I guess it's not. If you don't sleep, what do you do at night?"
"I look at the stars. That's kind of my thing. I was known for it. Ponies even named a science after me. I guess Lunastronomy didn't last through the time that I was imprisoned in the moon?" Luna was disappointed; there had always been at least two or three Lunastronomers alive, studying the stars. Before her banishment, at least.
"You have got to be the weirdest...," Applejack muttered before she caught herself, "Uh, no, not by that name. I think it's just astronomy now. That's a hobby of Twilight's, but y'all don't seem to be on speaking terms, yet. Still, that's good, common ground could be useful. I'll think about that, but for now, we have to focus on Fluttershy. I'll leave you to it. Have a good day. And night, I guess." With that, the orange pony trotted off toward Sweet Apple Acres.
Luna spent the rest of the day feeding, helping, or just spending time with Fluttershy's companions. The animals seemed to mistrust the alicorn at first, but food and softly spoken words won many of them over, and eventually all were accustomed to her presence. Every so often, the princess thought that she could feel the pegasus watching her from the window. Whenever Luna turned to look, she saw only a gently swaying curtain.
Eventually, it was time to raise the moon, and the lights in the house came on as the sky grew dark; the work, however, continued. Nocturnal animals emerged, and Luna found herself surrounded by owls, bats, and other creatures of the night. A strange furry creature that looked like a cross between a rat and a monkey stared up at her. Its huge eyes seemed to glow like lanterns in the dim moonlight, and its disproportionately large tail twitched restlessly. It was quite possibly the cutest thing the princess had ever seen, and she greatly enjoyed feeding it. Untiring, she tended to the new pack, long after the illumination in Fluttershy's cottage was extinguished. Luna wondered how their normal caretaker could handle all of this; the pegasus couldn't possibly have twenty four hours a day to dedicate to her work.
Eventually, dawn came again, and the nocturnal animals returned to their dens, branches, holes, and other miscellaneous dwellings. She was a bit sad to see them go; anything that lived its life under the moon, any citizen of the night had a special place in her heart.
The second day of her task began much like the first. Applejack came by in the late morning to deliver baskets of apples, one to Fluttershy and another to a particularly intelligent-looking rabbit. When Applejack reemerged from the cottage, Luna told the Earth pony about her progress with the animals, and the orange mare nodded, smiling, "Fluttershy ain't so certain you're scary, now. Keep doin' what you've been doin', and you'll be just fine." Her tasks complete, Applejack left.
It was late afternoon when Luna heard it; a weak caw from across the field. She wandered toward the cry, looking for the source. Soon, she could see a raven in the grass, walking slowly in circles as though it had no idea what to do with itself. Both its wings were twisted unnaturally, flesh and bone showing where one had been partially severed; its feathers were devastated, sticking out at odd angles where they were not slicked down by blood. The bird had been mauled, and clung tenuously to life. Luna's horn glowed as she approached it, scrying its body to determine the extent of the damage. Before she could get close, the raven noticed her, and she felt its heartbeat increase; her large, unfamiliar form sent the mortally injured animal into a panic. The alicorn knew that too much of a shock could kill it outright, and that she would have to be very close to be able to heal the bird without inflicting enough pain to be a death sentence. Mending living tissue correctly was a monumental task; even the best unicorn healers could only speed natural regeneration. The raven needed more than that.
Luna lowered herself slowly to the ground, trying her best to be nonthreatening. As she inched forward, she called out softly, hoping to reassure the bird, "Please come here. I want to help you. I can make it better." She knew that it was the tone, not the words, that mattered; the raven couldn't understand her speech. Despite her best efforts at coaxing and crawling, the raven kept its distance, the grounded bird hobbling away whenever she came near, unapproachable in its confused panic. Luna could almost feel the seconds ticking away as the raven weakened, approaching death.
The princess collapsed as she realized that there was nothing she could do; trying to approach quickly could shock the poor thing literally to death, and grabbing it with telekinesis certainly would. Tears welled in her eyes as she contemplated the futility of her efforts. She didn't think of her attempt to win over Fluttershy or what the black bird's death would mean for it. The raven had become just one more creature that recoiled when she reached out, one more thing that feared her, one more subject whose trust she could not win, and that drove her to despair. Luna wept into her hooves. Her failure would cost the creature its life.
"Come here, little one," A soft voice called out from beside the alicorn. She looked up, and through misty eyes, she could see Fluttershy standing beside her, motioning with a hoof. The raven was slowly but intently making its way toward the pegasus, giving the pink-maned mare as much of a look of devotion as its solid black eyes were capable. Fluttershy looked down at Luna, concern etched on her face, "Please don't cry, Princess. Can you help him?" The raven was huddled against one of the mare's hooves.
The alicorn nodded, adding, "Just try to keep him still." Her horn pulsed with magic; she held it nearly touching the raven's head, its dark aura washing over feathers and blood. She could count on her hooves the number of times she'd mended living flesh. The difficulty didn't lie in repairing damage, but rather in doing so without causing permanent deformity. If the sinew and muscles came together wrong, the raven would never fly again. Time seemed to slow as Luna's magic enhanced her perception; she saw each cell, each fiber, every ruptured blood vessel as she traced nerves, shutting down cells to numb the wounds. She didn't bother with subtlety; any cell with a hint of damage was banished as she summoned a healthy copy in its place. New blood vessels bridged the gaps in the raven's flesh as conjured blood began to flow through them, replacing what had been lost.
The muscles were a different challenge; trauma had deformed the tiny threads of muscle tissue. Luna burned off the ends, tracing back to relatively undamaged flesh on both sides of each wound. Cell by torturous cell, she reconnected the sides, one fiber at a time; each ending had a twin, and connecting them incorrectly would weaken the muscle. She mended the tendons, and tested their elasticity, making adjustments. Splinters of bone came together around restored marrow, new calcium mending them on a level that natural healing could never have recreated. Skin grew over the wounds, and Luna set the raven's feathers aright, growing new ones where old plumage had been lost. Finally, Luna restored the nerves, returning feeling to her charge.
Nearly a second had passed.
The raven appeared stunned, but Luna could feel its heartbeat return to normal as it tested its new flesh. Soon, with a caw, it took off and circled above the ponies' heads, gliding on mended wings. Satisfied, it returned to perch on Luna's horn.
Fluttershy giggled, "Oh, Well done, Princess. Good as new. I think he understands."
Luna, her eyes crossed as she looked at her new horn ornament, smiled, "I'm glad. And please, just call me Luna," the alicorn paused, "I wonder how long he's going to stay there."
The raven cawed, twisting its head to look down at the alicorn with one black eye. She was sure that if it weren't for the beak, he would be smiling at her.
Eventually, the bird went on its way. In that time, Fluttershy managed to work up the courage to invite Luna inside for tea. They drank in silence, the pegasus appearing nervous and the princess just not seeing any significance in the lack of words. After finishing a third cup, Luna spoke, "Thank you for the tea. It's very good," she paused, "And thank you for helping me with that raven."
Fluttershy responded quietly, "I was watching from the window, and saw what you were trying to do. I couldn't just stay inside with you trying so hard to help that poor little guy. I'm sorry I was too afraid to talk to you earlier."
Luna examined her empty glass to avoid looking at the other pony, "It's alright. A lot of ponies are afraid of me. I'm just glad that you're able to talk to me now."
Silence returned, but after a moment, Fluttershy broke it, "Luna, can I ask you something? Why did you become Nightmare Moon?"
Luna tilted her head, "Twilight didn't tell you?"
Fluttershy looked away, "I'd like to hear it from you," her eyes moved to meet the alicorn's, "If that's okay."
The princess sighed, "You love these animals, do you not? You want to help them, care for them, guide them. You provide only your best for them, as well as you know how. Their affection is your only reward, but it is more than enough. Am I correct in all that?" Luna paused, and Fluttershy nodded, so she continued, "What would you do if you wanted to show your affection for some creatures, to guide them and provide for them, to play with them and enjoy their company, and they shunned you? Fled from your domain and presence? Rejected your gifts and spurned your love? How well would you take it?"
"I...," the pegasus looked down, gaze locked on the floorboards, "I... don't think I would take it very well," her eyes widened, "Not very well at all."
"So you understand some part of my pain," Luna sighed, "These creatures are like family to you, but I created the ancestors of your ancestors, long, long ago. Ponies are my children by more than adoption, and I love you all as such, but it is easy to become angry when your children don't do as you think they should. When they forget, and abandon you."
Fluttershy's bashfulness faded as her interest grew, "You created ponies with Celestia?"
"I created many things with Celeista. Ponies, though, as they are now, are more mine than hers. The three separate forms, as well as...," Luna paused, and her eyes grew distant as a cloud of sadness passed over her face, "...well, there are other blessings that separate my ponies from Celestia's, things that are essential to ponies as you know them. Just hope that you never meet one of Celestia's children, if any yet remain."
And then they were silent, as Fluttershy traced a hoof along the floor, seemingly deep in thought. Eventually, she spoke again, "Luna, if you don't mind my asking, are you going to become Nightmare Moon again if you, um, don't get the love you want from, er... us?"
Luna shook her head, "No, Fluttershy, and not just because it would be evil. I've learned that you can't win love with threats and violence. The path to the sort of love I want is the path of patience and kindness. The hoof that helps, not the hoof that harms."
Fluttershy murmured, barely loud enough to be heard, "Applejack said that you came for forgiveness. I forgive you, Luna. Just remember- be kind."