CONTENT WARNING: Just be safe, this chapter gets the warning, too. There's some descriptions of dysphoria in the beginning.
Luna understood fear. For centuries, she was the one that ponies turned to when they couldn’t handle it alone, and she knew how it sapped at the rational mind, how it could make the impossibly horrific seem plausible.
But even knowing that she was afraid and therefore wasn’t thinking clearly, it was impossible not to believe the feeling that somepony else’s flesh – worse, a body that nopony owned, that shouldn’t exist – was wrapped around her, and that the skin-crawling disgust would never pass. How could it? Becoming something else, something that felt like it belonged to her, was impossible. Miserable thoughts, all the reasons to despair, circled in her head. They’d fade just slightly for a few minutes, quiet just enough to let her think she might be settling, then that terrible word trapped would come again and she had to hold back from biting down on her hooves.
It wouldn’t do to harm herself in current company, after all, or she might have already indulged that old habit. Luna was lying next to her sister on the floor of their parlour. She looked like a child tucked under Celestia’s wing like this and wished they could at least sit further apart, but she knew it comforted Celestia to hold her. It reminded her of the weeks after she’d returned from the moon: her sister had needed to keep her in sight at all times. Her joy at her sister’s return was tempered with anxiety, and she seemed to fear Luna would simply disappear again. Even very brief separations upset her back then, and she’d always need some reassuring touch. This meant the night princess had spent entire days held against Celestia’s side, listening to her softly-told stories of all that had happened in her absence and all it had taken to aid her return.
Tonight, she’d voluntarily returned to the constant company of those raw early days, but there was little talking now. Crying had happened. Long, awful silence had happened. What hadn’t taken place was any kind of explanation for her state.
“Is there some reason you’re struggling right now?” Celestia had waited some time before she’d asked, probing as gently as she could.
“I can’t talk about it …” This was the best Luna had managed to do. Beyond the physical difficulty of forming the words, she was deeply uncertain of letting Celestia know about this bizarre complex at all. Logically, she knew that she had little choice but to admit to his presence; anything that was causing her difficulty keeping the Tantabus asleep had to come to Celestia, she’d agreed to that without reservation. Yet her own bewilderment at the colt’s existence was already too much to bear; just thinking of Celestia’s dismayed reaction on top of that made her heart race. If there was to be a time when she could speak of it, it would only come after she’d investigated the matter further, made sense of his element. “Not yet. I’m sorry.”
“No, Lulu, don’t be. Only when you’re ready. I’ll be here.”
Her wing tightened around Luna’s body, clinging to her.
In the days that followed, much as Luna suspected would happen, Celestia hovered by her around the clock, even to the expense of some of their responsibilities. Just as it had been a few years before, not allowing any time apart withheld them both from anything they could not do together. Many of the nobles and court staff who had arranged meetings with Celestia, the princess they were more familiar with, balked at changing their habitual group to include Luna and postponed instead. While technically not barred from Day Court, the night princess was very aware that nopony in these high-level positions were comfortable altering their customs if there was a way to avoid it, not even to allow other royalty. Consequently, administrative matters put on hold were piling up day by day.
What was more, Luna’s primary duty was entirely off the table. It had been a terse discussion that first night. Celestia saw Luna’s spiral alight and recognized her dreamdiving preparation, interrupting her with anxious objections.
“Ah, Lulu? Do you really think that wise? I’m not certain you should be …”
Giving a slight sigh of frustration, Luna dropped the budding spell. “If you don’t want me crossing over entirely –” Celestia cringed and folded her ears back, and Luna pressed on in a marginally sharper tone, “I have to at least administer my anesthetic spell. The ponies aren’t accustomed to doing without me anymore; they need something to shield them from their demons. If I can’t be there to defend them, some of the more vulnerable foals could be badly hurt.”
Celestia looked away, frowning. “Well … I suppose …”
“I’ll be right here, I won’t leave this realm. I’ll just numb their pain, nothing more.” Luna watched her sister consider, her fearful expression relaxing somewhat.
“Alright, go ahead.”
When Luna relit her horn to reach for the dream realm, Celestia placed her wingtip on her withers quickly, as if without conscious thought.
As the days went by and the question came up every evening, the discussion around it became ever more tense. Luna had trouble abiding even one more use of her emergency backup so soon after her investigation barely a week before, but to continue to use it exclusively night after night was nothing short of grossly negligent to her little ponies. This she tried to explain to an increasingly anxious Celestia, and her patience grew ever shorter.
“Are you sure you’re ready to dreamdive?” she asked again, with just as much trepidation as ever.
“I have a duty to the foals, Tia!” Luna insisted. “Simply dulling their memories night after night – this is not caring for them! Countless Equestrian citizens depend on me for their emotional health. If I leave them alone much longer, not even this painkilling spell will prevent their misery.”
“Of course … but if you –”
“Celestia. I can’t lay about doing nothing, and you can’t keep putting your work off, either. Our duties won’t wait another day.”
“What of keeping the Tantabus asleep? Is that not the highest priority?” Celestia argued.
“Yes, but that’s … I’m not ….” Luna sighed through her teeth and glared into one corner of her room. She was beginning to wish that she’d endured that awful night without help and left Celestia none the wiser to how close she’d come. This constant supervision …
… was exactly what she’d asked for. Luna bit the inside of her mouth, reminding herself she could not be frustrated with Celestia, no matter how many days it had been since she’d been left alone. Her sister had good reason to worry, about Equestria and about her. Her concerns were entirely valid, and must be treated as such. She turned back to her to apologize – and was surprised when Celestia approached and lowered her head to touch their horns.
She began to speak almost at a whisper. “I know you need to help them. I understand that, truly I do. It’s just that … I can’t be with you. If you were to … I couldn’t stop it.”
“I know.” Ponies without Luna’s mastery of the dream realm lacked her mobility. She had entered Celestia’s dreams before, even managed to invite her inside Luna’s own dreamscape, but that was the very limit. Bringing her into another pony’s dreams wouldn’t be possible, not without binding their dreams into one shared experience, and that would defeat the entire purpose of exploring the pony’s unique fears. To tend to them properly, she had to go where her sister could not follow. “You’re right. You’ve no way to be certain,” she admitted. “The best I can offer you is my word. I’m no risk tonight. I promise.”
Celestia scraped at the carpet with one hoofpoint, uncertain as yet. Luna continued. “You can watch my dreamdiving light, see that it casts off; you’ll know then I’m nowhere near its cage. I can’t access it without withdrawing into my own dreams; it’s out of reach from another pony’s mind.”
She halted in her nervous pawing. “True.”
“There wouldn’t even be a need to watch me once I go,” Luna chanced. “Take the opportunity, Tia, we both need to catch up on our work.”
Celestia made an uneasy sound at the idea, looking at the floor in thought. “Stars … I don’t like it, but I suppose you’re right.” She met her gaze again. “I will watch you depart, yes?”
“Of course. Do close my door when you leave; I hate to allow anypony to walk in while I’m not here.”
Celestia nodded, and Luna stepped back, reaching for the spell once more. Her sister’s eyes stayed on her as she lifted from the floor, withdrawing from the physical, her eyes in the material plane rapidly dimming …
… only to brighten in the next realm. Luna settled to the hallway’s starry floor, looking around at the long tunnel of doorways. Without even needing to touch one, she already felt the fear in this place, an atmosphere of her nation’s collective unease. It was to be expected; her ponies had been left untreated, every foal in Equestria alone with fears they couldn’t be expected to understand. Luna set her guilt to the back of her mind, and approached the first door exuding a nightmarish aura. She had much work to do.
Several hours later, Luna had trekked through a heavy set of terrifying visions. Tonight had been one of the most taxing in quite some time. The creatures had been especially grotesque, the scenarios disturbing enough to rattle even the more callous horses. One foal in particular stuck in her mind; she’d found him endlessly chasing ephemeral mirages of his family. Once she’d managed to calm him enough to get him talking, she learned that his cat had died just two days before. For him, the realization that he might lose anypony around him, and surely would live to lose some, was setting in for the first time. She hadn’t been able to leave him entirely soothed. He, and many others, would need her nightly attention and counsel without interruption for a long time to come. Anesthetic was no substitute for true guidance, and they were now paying for her leave of absence.
Just before returning, Luna sat in the hallway. With slow breaths, she let the frightening images travel past her mind’s eye, allowed the guilt to come as it would … and told herself to let them go for now. There would be a time tomorrow to return, but tonight, she could not allow these thoughts to linger. She had business yet to attend to, and needed all her composure. Calm enough, she severed the dreamlink.
She drew herself up to the material plane, regaining her sight gradually as she settled to the floor. Celestia was still away. By the colour of the sky, she had a few hours yet before it needed to be turned, and therefore she possibly had another hour or two to herself. She quickly dipped back to the dream realm, pulling the spell inward before it could lift her. This was the first opportunity she’d had to follow up on her investigations in nearly a week, and she might not see another for some time. Questions yet needed answers where the little colt was concerned.
She pushed her dreamscape to form around her rapidly, starting to run down the hallway before she could fully feel her astral hooves. The beast’s enclosure whipped by at full gallop without so much as a glance, her eyes focussed forward. Not even that nuisance shadow could keep pace with her, falling away as she headed deep inside her mind.
Arriving at her near-centre, she halted next to the window and peered in. There he was, the tiny cornflower colt, lying on his back. The look on his face as he stared at nothing was deeply sad; not the frightened tears typically expected of foals his age, but a quiet, thoughtful sorrow. Luna’s wings tightened in trepidation as she went to his door. No time for hesitations; Celestia might return any moment, and she wanted to be back in physical reality before then. She didn’t allow a pause in opening it and stepping inside.
When she shut the door behind her and let it vanish, he tilted his head back and saw her. His eyes widened, and he scrambled to his hooves to run up to her. He kept looking into her eyes, craning his head up at her greater height. This wasn’t like when she’d only seen the memories of this element with their set sequences; now she was with the element himself, able to talk to him.
She cleared her throat, and kept her tone soft. “Hello … Artemis.”
His smile was so big that his eyes shone, and he put his tiny forehoof on hers. She swallowed; perhaps she shouldn’t encourage him, especially not when she had come for the express purpose of finding a way to resolve whatever mental complex allowed him to exist. His smile weakened as the thought occurred to her, and he uncertainly took his hoof back.
“Little one, can you speak?” she requested.
He shuffled his hooves a little, and opened his muzzle. “Uh … you …” He coughed, apparently struggling with his scratchy little voice, and his expression twisted with skepticism. “You want to listen to me?”
“I do, why would you think – oh. Of course … I have been attempting to quiet you, haven’t I?”
He nodded, looking a little angry. “You keep pretending I’m not here.”
“I know. I have to … do you understand why?”
He finally looked away from her, his ears falling. “I know why. And I know what you’re here for. To ‘fix’ me …”
“I cannot actually solve whatever problem formed you in a single visit,” she said evasively, “but you are correct in that I’m seeking your origin.”
“So you can know how to fix me,” he pressed. “How to get rid of me.”
Luna sighed. “Yes.” Seeing him tense, she inquired “Do you also know why I have to do this?”
“I know what you think. That I shouldn’t be here. That you’d be okay if you could just get me to go away. You called me ‘unnatural’. I know everything you think about me, you think I don’t?” He glared at her. “So now you’re going to go looking around, right?”
“I am,” she replied.
“Huh. Well … I don’t think you’re going to like what you find.”
“And what makes you say that? You can’t possibly know something I don’t.”
“Just got a feeling like you’re wrong.”
Luna scowled at him, then lit her horn. The details of the room around her and of the belligerent colt wavered. “Show yourself,” she ordered, “strip every exterior away and reveal your essence.” All sights temporarily faded. Every element had a root cause, a how and why of its existence; whatever she next saw would tell her what had created Artemis. She expected she might see some small occurrence in her infancy, some event that triggered this deep-rooted complex; that was how such things usually started.
What reformed in place of her old bedroom was a setting that could not have been more familiar to her. Under her hooves was soft grey cloud, and spread from horizon to horizon overhead was star-studded darkness. Low in the night sky yet, a sliver of a gibbous crescent cast its tentative light, outshining the landscape of constellations even in its diminutive phase.
Luna waited, expecting something more, when it became clear that the tableau was finished forming. “This is all? But … it’s no more than the night sky.” She unhappily rustled her wings, at a loss. “I ask to see his reason for being, and all I find is this? That’s no explanation at all.” She lit her horn and pressed upon her previous order. The scenery shuddered … but re-solidified exactly as it was, unchanged. “So you have no more to tell me? What am I to make of this? Artemis exists because of the night? Because of my realm, my –?” She interrupted herself with sharp inhale, realizing what it actually meant. She looked back to her flank, at the pale crescent glowing in the imaginary moonlight. “Because of my cutie mark. He’s … oh, stars …”
All that her discovery implied unfolded in her mind like a map. Luna sat silent, unable to form words for several minutes. Satisfaction at solving the mystery came and went, swallowed in disappointment. She’d so hoped this was fixable, but it hadn’t even occurred to her that it could be rooted so deep.
Bowing her head, she allowed the element to reform as it was. This would be difficult news to deliver. Under her hooves, she watched the hardwood floor coming into existence.
“Are you alright?” His weak voice came, sounding oddly echoed.
She stared blankly at the floor for a moment before remembering to answer. “I …” She lifted her head. “There’s been something of a – hmm?” She paused, surprised as she set eyes on him. “What are you wearing?”
There was a piece of polished, navy-blue armour perched on his head, tilted to one side because it was far too big and heavy for him; he had to hold it up with both hooves just to remain upright. His small face was somewhat lost inside of it, just the tip of his muzzle visible in the metal cave. “I … I like it,” he mumbled, sitting down and pressing it to his head like she was going to take it away. Luna approached him to get a better look, and laughed when she recognized its rivets and the scalloped frill running along the top.
“Father’s helmet!” she exclaimed. “Yes, I remember now. I used to wear that all the time.” He tilted the oversized piece back, cautiously looking out from under it as she smiled at him. “He had trouble keeping it in the armoury because I stole it so often. I could never explain to him what liked about it. I suppose I just wanted to look …” she trailed off a moment, and he smiled back at her. “I wanted to look like him. But I don’t have to tell you that, do I?”
He awkwardly tried to shake his head while still balancing his beloved helmet over his ears.
“What made you go looking for that?”
“While you were gone … something shifted in here. I knew you were upset, or mad at me or something. So I went and got it. Uh … I dunno.”
“You were frightened?”
He shrugged evasively. The room was silent for a minute as they looked at each other. He took the helmet off to hold in his hooves, looking down at it rather than make eye contact as the moment neared. “So …”
“You warned me.”
“I wasn’t sure … but yeah, I did.”
“Artemis. I deeply regret it … but you are a destined element.” She tucked her ears back, afraid to say the words, yet continued just the same. “You were always going to exist, the same as I was always going to rule the night. You’re part of what forms my cutie mark, and a pony cannot fight their own mark any more than they can fight who they are. And that means …”
“It means I can’t disappear,” he whispered at the helmet. “You’re just stuck with me, right?” Luna flinched. “You came here to find out how to get rid of me and now you’re sad that you can’t.”
“Artemis, please, try to see what this means for us.”
“I know.” His tiny voice was shaking. “I know. Your stupid delusion is going to bother you forever and you hate that.”
Luna reached out to touch him, tilting his face up to look at her gently. “You’re not a delusion. You’re supposed to be here. We were born like this, or at least, fated to be this way.” She withdrew her hoof. “Fated to be … mismatched as we are.”
His eyes welled up as she watched.
“I’m not mad at you … not really. It’s not your fault. And I was wrong about you, once again. I can’t fix this.”
“I’m so sick of being stuck in here.”
Her eyes stung. “Oh, I know. I feel it, too. The only thing we’ve tried that helps is when I put that illusion on …”
At the very moment the idea began to form, he softly asked “Do you think you could … y’know … let me out again?”
She thought of the brief comfort the illusion had brought, and of the utter misery that had followed when she had to take it off. She shook her head at him. “You know we can’t do that.” The boy just nodded. “I’m sorry, little one … but nopony else is ever going to see you. You’re too …”
His shoulders began to shake, and Luna’s gut twisted. She wrapped one foreleg around him, nuzzling him and hearing his soft sobs.
“Not fair …” he mumbled, getting the words out around his tears. “This isn’t fair. Why am I like this?”
Luna’s jaw clenched; she never wanted to say those words aloud, but she couldn’t keep from thinking them. They stayed curled in that position for a long time, Luna holding him as his crying and protests slowly wound down again. Even after he fell silent, the night princess couldn’t bring herself to leave. It went against the grain to leave any foal in such a state of misery, even a mental manifestation of a fragment of her soul, nor did he pull away.
They might’ve stayed there even longer, if a sudden, piercing sound like an endless high note hadn’t disturbed them. Luna’s wings partially flared in panic the moment she recognized what it was.
“Celestia,” he said.
“She’s come back. Stars, she must think I’m – oh, horseapples.”
He stepped away from her. “Will you be back?”
“Yes, when I can.”
The look on his face was dejected enough that he must realize as well as she did how long that might be. Without another word, he went back to his bed and dropped onto the covers. Luna broke down the dream realm as quickly as she could …
… and Celestia’s face swam into view, the golden glow of her horn stinging Luna’s recovering eyes. A few seconds later, her ears caught up. “Luna!” She could finally hear her sister’s yelling.
“I’m back! I’m back …” Luna mumbled, regaining feeling in her muzzle.
Her sister was leaning over her with both hooves on her shoulders, her eyes wide with alarm. She allowed the glow to fade, and stumbled over her words. “I-I came to check on you, and you were … I thought …”
Luna’s stomach turned; of course, what else could she possibly have thought? She’d taken too long on the inside and let Celestia return to find her within reach of her monster’s prison. “I didn’t even go near it,” she hurried to reassure her. “It’s contained, you have my word. Search me if you wish.”
Celestia stared into her eyes, frowning, before igniting her horn again. Her aura enveloped Luna’s, and the hot pulse of her sister’s probing magic ran through her head. After a minute, not sensing another conscious living being, the solar princess broke the spell off. She sighed, and looked at Luna with a relieved expression. “I don’t mean to doubt you. But I needed to be sure.” Celestia backed up a step, letting Luna’s shoulders go.
“No apology necessary. I’d expect nothing less,” Luna insisted. “If anypony should apologize, I should. I worried you. I didn’t mean for you to see that, I’m very sorry. I only needed to look at something.”
Celestia’s brow furrowed, not seeming to like Luna’s answer. “What were you doing in there? You told me you didn’t need to go inside.”
Luna paused. “I was …” Perhaps she could tell Celestia what she’d found. She could explain her near-relapse, give her sister some reason for the turmoil of the past several days. But then again, knowing what she knew now, was this really something she ought to share? Telling her wouldn’t change anything. All she would accomplish by revealing Artemis was giving Celestia one more reason to feel sorry for her, one more reason to constantly worry about her barely-functioning little sister, and she had more than enough. If nopony could benefit from her telling, then by all that was moral and right she should keep it to herself.
“I was looking at my memories of the solar eclipse.”
“Lulu!” The younger alicorn flinched at the shock in her tone.
“Nopony gets hurt that way …”
She lowered her head, unable to explain herself, and Celestia sighed. A hoof reached around the back of her neck and pressed her into her sister’s embrace.
“Sister, what’s wrong? Did something happen?”
Luna chose her words carefully, so they were only true enough. “What’s wrong has always been wrong. Nothing’s changed.”