Luna crept carefully through the Dreaming. The Dreaming was and could be many things, but tame was not one of them. It was born of the dreaming minds of ponies, and was the one place they could be completely free in their safe, structured lives. The Dreaming was wild. It contained all the catharsis, all the repressed emotions, and all the unrealized or unrealistic fantasies in Equestria. The Dreaming was where sanity went to die, or at least fake its death so it could go on an extended vacation.
Luna passed through another dream, moving as a ghost so as not to disturb the surreal-scape or the dreaming ponies.
The irony, at least for Luna, was that she felt safer awake and walking through the Dreaming than she did in her own dreams. Being asleep meant the potential for a visit from the Nightmare. It meant being vulnerable.
Here, like this, she felt powerful.
Not that she would abuse her ability for the sole purpose of feeling powerful....
Well, not much anyway.
"Help! Please, somepony, help!"
Luna followed the cry through the dreaming. As she traveled, the Dreaming became a dense jungle. Tall, moss covered trees blocked out the Sun. Growls of carnivores echoed from the deep shadows.
Luna paid them no mind. She homed in on the pony in need, pulled by some surprisingly strong instinct.
Luna reached a small open space. It wasn't quite a clearing. The trees still pressed in, and the Sun was nowhere to be seen. In the center was a damp patch of earth, and a pony slowly sinking in.
Quicksand, Luna realized.
"Peace," she said. "Do not be afraid. This is a drea-"
"Help! I'm stuck! Help me out, will you?"
"I'm trying to help you," Luna told him. "This is a dream. You aren't in any dang-"
"What are you waiting for?" the pony demanded. "Help me out of here!"
"There's no danger," she told him. "This is only a drea-"
"Why won't you help me? Why are you doing this to m-"
"I'M TRYING TO HELP YOU, YOU STUPID PONY!" She yelled in the Traditional Royal Canterlot Voice. "THIS IS A DREAM."
The pony sank ever deeper into the sandy soil.
"Please! Please!" the pony cried desperately.
Luna sighed. She had the patience of a stone, except where it came to stupid ponies.
Luna's horn glowed. She levitated the pony out of the quicksand.
"Why did you wait so long?" the pony demanded. "I could have died in there!"
"You weren't going to die," Luna told him. "This is a dream. You were never in danger. I was trying to get you to help yourself."
"This is a dream?" he asked, confused. "I'm having a dream... a nightma.... You're Nightmare Moon!"
The pony thrashed, still gripped in Luna's magic.
"Is this torture?" he demanded. "Do your worst, Nightmare Moon! I won't break that easily!"
Luna rolled her eyes, and dropped the pony onto a safe section of ground.
"Alas, you have defeated me with your strong words," she said, raising a foreleg to her head. "I am undone! Curse your indomitable will and your harsh speech!"
Luna stepped from the dream, eager to be anywhere else. Small-minded ponies notwithstanding, it had been a rather peaceful evening. The nightma- the bad dreams had been few and far between.
Luna sent out her magic, sweeping over The Dreaming, searching for ripples or disturbances. Nothing. All was serene. A sense of recognition tickled her senses in the one place she dared never go, yet now she had an explicit invitation.
Luna stepped through the Dreaming, and into Celestia's dream.
"Thou called, sister?"
Celestia sat in the center of a green field dotted with wild flowers. The Sun shone brightly overhead, and off in the distance Luna could hear the sound of water flowing in a stream. A cool breeze washed over them, removing any bite the warm Sun might have had. In short, it was a pony paradise. The wild flowers looked delicious.
"Of course! I'd been hoping for a visit, but it seemed like you were avoiding me."
"Avoiding?" Luna asked in surprise. "No, giving privacy. This is thy dream, and thine alone."
"You don't hesitate to go into anypony else's dream," Celestia observed.
"They have the protection of anonymity," Luna explained. "I don't know them. I don't know their names or their families or friends. I am there and then gone, and most won't even remember. Thou, however, art my sister. Thy life is intertwined with mine. This is the only place which is thine alone, which thou needest not share."
"Oh, Luna," Celestia said shaking her head. "I have to keep so much of myself private from everypony else all the time. You are the one pony I can really share with. It's really more a relief than anything, I swear. You can visit any time. I trust your judgment not to intrude if I'm... busy."
Celestia giggled as Luna blushed.
"Oh, Luna, when did you become such a prude? You are so much fun to tease now."
Luna looked down, mumbling incoherently, not even really sure what she was trying to say. She stopped abruptly when she she felt a pair of forelegs wrap around her.
"Oh, Luna. I do love you. Come on. Let's go sit and talk like we used to. I promise not to tease. Much."
Luna nodded. If nothing else, it was nice to have somepony to be yourself around.
"And not only did her parents turn into trees, trees, but that dusty old egg actually hatched! Then the dragon that came out started growing like crazy! I couldn't believe my eyes. Well, I knew right then that any filly like that deserved my attention. Not only had she proven her potential, but I also hadn't been entertained like that in a century. I haven't regretted it once."
Celestia rested her head on her hooves in reflection.
"I've taken a greater interest in her than I have anypony else in quite a while. Sometimes I wonder if I've done too much. As much as I think of her that way, I'm not her mother. She has parents. Have I done them a disservice by trying to raise their daughter for them? I've taken away their son as well. He's captain of the guard. They've produced the brightest and the best I've seen in decades, centuries, even, and what have I done to reward them but take their children away."
"Nonsense," Luna assured her. "Thou hast done no such thing."
Celestia looked at Luna, her eyes misty.
"But I have. I've taken their children away."
"Thou hast given their children opportunity to grow, and grow they have. They have begun to realize their potential, and grown in respect, knowledge, and power. What more would parents want for their children? What more would you want for yours?"
"I would want a loving, supportive family for them," she replied.
"Hast thou denied them contact? Hast thou forbid them to see their children? I know thee too well to expect that. Thy student and her brother have the benefit of their parents and each other and thee as well."
"I suppose you're right... I just worry. You know I can get a bit overbearing when I think I'm doing something in somepony's best interest. It grew worse when I didn't have you to deflate my ego for me." Celestia smiled at Luna. "You always knew how to take me down a notch."
Luna shook her head.
"Thou speakest so highly of thy student."
"She's such a sweetheart. She's awkward, neurotic, obsessive-compulsive, and hopelessly naive, but she's also the most open-hearted, sensitive, caring, clever pony I've known in some time, not to mention her magical potential. I'm looking forward to see how much she grows."
"Let her see behind the mask," Luna said.
Celestia jerked upright.
"What? I..." Celestia shook her head. "No. For now I'm still the all-knowing, all-powerful Princess. How could I shatter that image? What would she have faith in after that?"
"Ponies' relationships with their parents change. It's part of growing up. Thou wilt always be a maternal figure for her, but that doesn't mean thou canst not be her friend as well."
"I..." Celestia hesitated. "N-no. No, I can't. I..."
"Thou frettest that thou wilt become too attached, and hurt when she passes. It is too late for that. She will pass, and thou wilt regret the 'might have been's and 'should have been's."
"You're one to talk," Celestia accused.
"Yes," Luna agreed. "I am. I have regrets. I have made mistakes. Wouldst thou share them?"
"Oh. Luna, I... I'm sorry... that was wrong of me."
"It was truth, Celestia, nothing more, nothing less. After so much time, after so many mistakes, why should I fear it?"
A ripple disturbed the dreaming. Luna's head snapped up, her senses open, searching for the source.
"I must beg thy leave. Something demands my attention."
"I... I understand."
"Nay, sister. This is not a retreat from thy words. I beg thy forgiveness, but something is amiss in The Dreaming."
"Ah. As you say. Love you, Luna."
"I love thee, Celestia."
Luna rose, and stepped out of Celestia's dream.
The disturbance echoed across the dreaming, but it definitely came from within. Somepony was having a nigh- a bad dream. It was an impressive dream to make such a ruckus in The Dreaming, but a bad dream was all it was.
There were creatures who attack ponies in their dreams, but they were mercifully few and far between. Once they'd been no match for the princess of the Moon. Now? After a millennium of time away from her duties, Luna wasn't sure she'd be up to a confrontation like that. Fortunately, today she wouldn't have to find out.
Luna wove her way through the dreaming, working her way to the eye of the storm. At last she reached it. She paused, hesitant. There was no telling what she'd find there.
Luna stepped into the epicenter, and came face to face with herself.
No, it wasn't her, it was the Nightmare.
She stared at the imposing figure, the avatar of her own darkness. Something was wrong. This wasn’t her dream. She shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t be able to haunt other’s dreams.
“Nightmare Moon! No, please!”
It was a pitiful, wretchedly desperate cry which drew Luna’s attention away from the Nightmare.
“WEAK, PATHETIC, WORTHLESS LITTLE FOAL! GROVEL BEFORE US! BEG US TO SPARE THY FRIEND!”
“Please,” Fluttershy begged, falling prone on the ground. “I’ll do anything, please just let her go!”
Luna stared agape at Fluttershy. Understanding flooded her. This was her dream, obviously. She was dreaming of the Nightmare. Luna turned to take a second look at the Nightmare. At her hooves, no, under her hoof, was a rainbow maned body, broken and unmoving.
The horror of the scene weighed upon her. She saw the truth in the dream even as she understood that the Nightmare wasn’t the real fear. Helplessness was.
“Please, Nightmare Moon, I’ll do anything.”
“Fluttershy, it’s me. Luna. Thou art dreaming. This is thy dream. The Nightmare isn’t real. Rouse thyself and face her. Only then will thy n-nightmare cease.”
“FOAL! THOU THINKEST TO DEFY US? WE WILL CRUSH THY LOVE AS THOU WATCHES, AND MAKE THEE LIVE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE THAT THOU WERE TOO WEAK TO SAVE HER.”
Fluttershy gave a soft whimpering cry. Tears streamed from her eyes as she squeezed them shut, not wanting to see the end of her friend.
“Fluttershy, please listen. This isn’t real. This is thy dream. Didst thou not prove to me that kindness was strength? Show thy strength now. Thou needst not battle her, only face her.”
Luna stared at the prone pegasus, torn between pity and frustration.
She turned to the Nightmare.
“You!” she yelled. “Nightmare Moon! You are a selfish, arrogant, petulant little filly! You should be spanked at sent to bed without supper for your foalish temper tantrums.”
The Nightmare turned and glared at Luna, bringing her full fury to bear.
Luna fought the urge to cower. It was terrifying, facing her like this, but she was a dream, a manifestation of Fluttershy’s fears. She was only a shadow of the real Nightmare Moon, and she had no power over Luna.
“Your use of the Traditional Royal Canterlot voice is a petty display to intimidate ponies because you fail to command respect by your actions or laughable wisdom.”
“And there, your use of the informal ‘thou’ to set yourself above everypony else is a pathetic display. You are a very bad pony! You should be ashamed of yourself. I ought to go tell your parents what you’ve done.”
“Luna,” a quiet voice interrupted, “It’s okay now. I don’t think she really wants to be bad.”
Luna turned to Fluttershy. Her face was damp, and her eyes red and puffy, but she smiled as sweetly as Luna had ever seen.
“But she is, Fluttershy. She… I… am ashamed of what I’ve done. She… I treated ponies like possessions. I hurt them because I thought they were less than me, and because I thought it was my right to do so.”
She turned back to the Nightmare.
”I was a selfish little filly.”
Fluttershy brushed up against Luna, drawing her attention back.
“Everypony has their selfish moments,” she said. “It doesn’t make you a bad pony. Sometimes all it takes is a chance to learn to be better.”
“Perhaps not, but mine actions were unforgivable. That alone should damn me.”
“Your sister forgave you. So did Twilight, and me, for that matter. What’s important now is what you do next.”
Fluttershy turned, her gaze hardened into a glare that sent a fearful shiver down Luna’s spine.
“Nightmare Moon!” she said in a quiet but firm voice. “You have been very bad. I have been as patient as I could, but enough is enough. You’ve been a big meanie, and you’ve hurt ponies. You go home and think about what you’ve done.”
The Nightmare gaped at Fluttershy, astounded at the sheer audacity of it all. “WHAT…”
“What did I say?” Fluttershy interrupted, her glare hardening even even more. It was a sight to behold. Preferably from a safe distance.
Even the Nightmare was not immune. She dropped her head and cowered back from the assault.
“ys ms fltrshy,” Nightmare Moon mumbled.
“What was that?” Fluttershy asked.
“YES MISS FLUTTERSHY,” Nightmare Moon repeated.
“Okay. Now be a good little filly and run on home.”
“YES MISS FLUTTERSHY.”
“Go on, then.”
The Nightmare turned and fled into the darkness, head held low.
Luna turned to Fluttershy, impressed.
“Thou art formidable,” Luna told her. “However, I don’t recommend that tactic against the true Nightmare.”
Fluttershy was in no position to hear. As soon as the Nightmare departed, she ran full tilt to the rainbow maned figure crumpled on the ground.
“Rainbow Dash! Oh no, oh no oh no oh no…”
She lifted the broken form, cradling it in her forelegs.
“This is a dream,” Luna reminded her. “She isn’t really hurt, just as she isn’t really here. If it pleases thee, heal her.”
Fluttershy looked up with teary eyes.
“I… I can’t. Nopony can fix this.”
“This is thy mind. Believe it and it can be done. Thou hast attended the birds and the beasts of the forest. What wouldst thou do for them?”
“I… I could, b-but I’d need…”
“Whatever thou needest, thou shalt have.”
With a wave of Luna’s wing, supplies appeared before them. Fluttershy stared at them a moment, a determined look in her eye, and went to work.
Had they not been in the Dreaming, what happened would have been nothing short of a miracle. In the twisted logic of the unconscious mind, it simply was. Every bandage, every splint that Fluttershy applied seemed to add strength to the battered pegasus. Bones appeared to knit, and wounds close right before their eyes.
“F-fluttershy?” Rainbow Dash stammered, her eyes fluttering open. “Y-you saved me. I… I always knew ya had it in ya.”
Rainbow Dash smiled.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Fluttershy exclaimed, throwing her forelegs around the prismatic pegasus. “I was so worried!”
“Heh,” Rainbow Dash rasped, leaning into the hug. “You know me, Flutters. I’d never leave ya hangin’.”
“I-I know. I’m glad.”
Fluttershy released her and turned back to Luna. The pegasus faded from existence.
“We did it.” Fluttershy smiled.
“Thou didst. I was merely a catalyst.” Luna cocked her head and looked at Fluttershy speculatively.
“The Nightmare saidst she was thy love. Is this true?”
Fluttershy colored and ducked her head.
“Fluttershy, thou canst affirm thy desire, or claim it is nothing but a construct of thy dream. Either way I will believe thee. Thou canst also say nothing, as it is a private matter to thee. One thing I must insist, however, is that thou beest never ashamed of what thou dreamest. This is thy private place, where ponies are truly free. I am an interloper here.”
Fluttershy glanced up, keeping her head low.
“Y-you…. Th-the nightmare…. I-I….”
“Ah. Of course. I am the Nightmare. I will take my leave.”
Luna drew herself up to step back into The Dreaming.
“I-I meant, y-you helped get rid of the nightmare. Y-you are welcome here, e-even i-if I….”
Luna looked at her with sympathy.
“Fluttershy, my friend, I only wish to help thee. If thou wishest to talk, I will listen. Thy thoughts and feelings will not be judged here in The Dreaming. I have experienced much, and forgotten much. I cannot promise more than a willing ear, but that much is always thine.”
Fluttershy glanced up shyly and shuffled her hooves.
“Rainbow Dash is one of my first and best friends,” she said. “She protected me when nopony else would. We lost touch for a while, but met again here in Ponyville. W-we… we met, but we never really got back together as friends, not until the Elements. Even then, we still aren’t friends like we used to be. I… I care for her, and it hurts a bit, but I…. She’s going to be a Wonderbolt, and I would just hold her back. I can’t do that to her. She’s… she’s….”
“Destined for greater things?” Luna supplied.
“Thou art a pitiable foal to think such things,” Luna chastised. “How could there be something greater than thee? If Rainbow Dash wishes to spend time with thee, that is her choice, and she makes it knowing full well the repercussions of her actions. Whether this is the right choice for her… that decision you should make together.”
“I… I can’t!”
“Fluttershy, look at me,” Luna demanded. “I am an old pony, far older than I look. I’ve lived long enough to collect scars and regrets like curios on a shelf. They are revisited often, and kept dusted and arranged. Dost thou know what I regret most? What I return to again and again?”
Fluttershy shook her head.
“I regret the time I lost which was not spent with those I loved. I regret the time on the Moon which kept me from my sister. I regret the days not spent with friends and loves before they passed from this life. Thy time is limited, Fluttershy. It is precious and fleeting. Do not waste those moments. Do not follow my path of regrets. Thou may findest that Rainbow Dash does not share thy feelings. That is the risk thou takest. Talkest to her regardless. Takest the chance.”
Luna watched as Fluttershy’s eyes lost focus in thought.
She looked back to Luna, a small smile on her face. Her eyes looked troubled, and the smile held sadness, but it was a smile nonetheless.
“You know, you’re kinder than you realize,” she said.
“Thou art kind to say so, though I think thou art overly optimistic.”
“No, you’re trying, I can tell. You’re trying to care about ponies, even if you don’t think you are. What I’m trying to say is…”
Fluttershy’s face lost some of the burden, some of the sadness it held, and a smile broke out on her face.
“Thank you, Luna. Thank you for coming here and talking with me.”
Luna sat, reclined in the library, her fore legs crossed in front of her, and her chin resting atop them.
“Thy friends are… are deeper than they appear.”
“Our friends,” Twilight reminded as she shuffled books on and off of the shelves. “What do you mean?”
Luna shifted so she could gesture with a hoof.
“Consider Fluttershy,” she said. “She presents such a timid appearance. She avoids conflict with other ponies to the extent that she allows herself to be walked upon. She seems to relate to animals more than ponies. Yet underneath her soft exterior lies steel. It is buried deep, but it is there, just like the depth of emotion she carries. She acts as though her kindness is a simple, superficial thing, all the while hiding how much she truly cares, and how much she is willing to sacrifice for others.”
Luna lifted her head and waved a hoof.
“And Applejack. I’ve known ponies who told the truth simply because they lacked the creativity to lie, yet she shows depths of understanding I wouldn’t expect from somepony who claims to be a simple, hardworking farm-pony. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting that farmers lack intelligence, it’s just that…”
Luna sighed at Twilight’s cross expression.
“Twilight, understand that the life of a farmer is difficult. The work is hard, and farms are nearly always on the brink of collapsing. One failed crop or one year of poor sales and many farms risk going belly up. That tends to make the farm all-consuming to those who work on it. Farmers aren’t foalish, they simply lack the time for such pursuits. Taking too much time away from the farm can be disastrous.”
Twilight’s expression softened.
“You didn’t really expect them to be so one-dimensional, did you?” she asked.
“No,” Luna responded. “Of course not. I’ve seen too much to expect ponies to be as simple as that. It’s just that I’ve been on the receiving end of some very insightful comments from the two of them… and….”
Luna rose and went to a window. She peered out into the town, feeling curiously empty.
“Wisdom often comes from surprising sources, just as epiphanies come when you least expect it. This is as it ever was… but…”
Luna turned to Twilight, her mouth open to speak. No words emerged.
She sighed and looked back out the window, not really sure what she was looking for, not sure where the words were, or how to verbalize what she was feeling.
Perhaps she wasn’t really sure what she was feeling.
Confused? Ashamed that such wisdom seemed beyond her even after so many centuries. Grateful for the guidance their friends have given? Suspicious at the convenient timing?
She stared out at Ponyville through the library window, watching the mellow activity of ponies going about their business. Ponyville was such an easygoing town, so unlike Canterlot. Ponies strolled by, engrossed in their errands, oblivious to their surroundings and seemingly in no hurry. There were times Luna envied them.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m just… tired.”
Luna felt a brush at her side.
“Are you okay, Luna?” Twilight asked as she leaned against Luna. “Talk to me. I’m here for you.”
“I’m fine,” Luna lied, looking to Twilight. “I’m just…”
Just what? Luna wasn’t even sure. The jumble of words and emotions refused to sort themselves out. Instead the merged into a weighty gray malaise.
‘I’m just… tired.”
“I think,” Twilight said, “that you are a silly filly who is still adjusting after being alone for so long, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Nopony can blame you for needing time.”
Luna looked back out the window. She extended a wing and draped it over Twilight, pulling her into a feathery hug and savoring the warmth of the smaller body next to hers.
“I’m glad you’re here, Twilight. I’m glad you’re my friend.”