• Published 31st Jul 2013
  • 10,349 Views, 147 Comments

Xenophilia: The Blank Plague - SpinelStride



When magic is part of who you are, who are you when the magic is gone? The ponies of Equestria have to find out, while Bellerophon Michaelides nurses their rulers back to health.

  • ...
26
 147
 10,349

Chapter 2

The Blank Plague: Part 2

There was a loud sniffle from the other end of the hall as a door closed. "Auntie Celestia? I think I'm starting to come down with it now..."

Lero looked away from the stricken monarch. An impeccably-coiffed white stallion was standing in front of the doors, a wheeled trolley with a silver platter on top of it by his side. Lero didn't recognize him, but he'd called Celestia 'Auntie,' so that narrowed it down. And Rarity was really a good raconteur when she wanted to be, and the Gala had turned into one of her best anecdotes. So Lero thought he was safe in assuming this was none other than the infamous Prince Blueblood.

He was currently staring at Lero in open, aghast horror. "Auntie! Not another one! I know you feel simply wretched, but you can't keep summoning servants. We're already running out of them. Are you really down to... whatever this is? I shall do my royal duty and tend to you, but I *am* only one unicorn, marvellous as I am."

Celestia lifted her head and let out a groan that Lero was surprised to hear; judging by Blueblood's expression, it was not a sound he expected to hear from the gleaming alicorn either. She made a clear effort to speak more steadily. It was a partial success. "Nebbew, blease. I abbreciate your ebborts, I truly do, but I do not need a rumor starding that I am calling serbants to by side do be infected. Dutibul Serbant came dhis mordig, on his own, and poor Clean Sweeb neber god the word to stay out of dhis chamber. Lero is a human, from anodher world endirely, and is ibbune to the plague. Dherefore, he has agreed do wadch ober me while no pony can ged close."

Blueblood's mouth drew into a sharp frown, and a petulant plaintive tone entered his voice. "But Auntie! How can I do my Royal Duty," and this time Lero could hear the capitalization, "if you let some... alien thing do it instead! I'm capable of so much more than just organizing the Gala. Let me prove it to you."

Lero was frankly surprised. The whine, yes, and the rudeness, and the superiority complex, and the appearance, those were all just what he'd expected from Rarity's descriptions. But this Prince Blueblood was trying to help, and moreover was risking himself to do so. "Maybe he had a change of heart since taking a cake in the face?" Lero mused. "Or maybe Rarity caught him at his worst?"

Celestia let her head drop back down again. "Blueblood. Nebbew. Canderlod needs somepony do be visibly in charge durig dhe day. Luna cannod stand in frond of dhem herself, so somepony else has do be dhe symbol of leadership. You know as well as I do that you don'd know addythig about managig an ebidemig, so I egspegd you do led the professionals do dheir jobs. Bud you can magge a show ob beig id charge."

Blueblood had looked excited for a moment when Celestia started talking about needing someone to be in charge. But his face fell as she continued and made her expectations clear. He nodded his head glumly. "Of course, auntie. I can be a very good figurehead. No one can take the spotlight like I can." He gave the trolley a push with a hoof, sending it rolling over the floor toward Lero, opened the door behind him with his magic, and backed out of the room.

Celestia sighed and closed her eyes. Lero was starting to get used to her stuffy-nosed voice now, all her usual melodious tones flattened. "He's not a bad pony. Vain and self-centered, and often foolish, but it took the Elements of Harmony to make him realize he was those things. He's tried hard, for him, to improve. And he does love me."

Equine body language was still not Lero's greatest fluency, but tones of voice were every bit as clear as human ones. The last sentence she spoke was soaked in disappointment, and he knew exactly who it was aimed at. "Princess," he said, then trailed off.

She pushed her eyes open, but did not lift her head. "I am sorry, Lero. You are being a great help in this terrible time. I cannot harm my little ponies with my illness. Anything you need to do to keep them safe, do. Your orders have my authority in this. I will do what I can, while I can, to help you."

Lero had to blink. Going from 'volunteer nurse' to 'full authority of the throne' had not been in his plans. He shoved those thoughts down to concentrate on something more practical. "Ah, in that case, Princess, can you tell me about, well, your body? What do I need to do to take care of you?"

She made a laugh that for a moment captured her usual tones. Then coughed and it broke. "In the most important ways, no different than any of my ponies. I eat, I drink, I sleep. I preen." She weakly lifted a wing, then let it fall back to her side. "Rainbow Dash has told you how personal a task that is." She gave him a weak smile. "You will have pegasi buying you drinks the rest of your life for that story, when this is done. Beyond the same things any pony does, I simply don't know. I have not been sick like this. Alicorns do not get sick like this. You will have to do your best. I know you will." Her smile grew stronger. "If you would not, Twilight would not have given her heart to you."

Lero sharply shuddered at the reminder of Twilight, remembering her graying under his fingers, remembering Rainbow Dash so distant and apathetic, that glorious wild spray of color turned ashen. Celestia closed her eyes again. "She has already succumbed, hasn't she?" the princess asked softly.

Lero nodded. Then said, "Yes."

Celestia sighed softly again. "A plague that devours magic. Of course the bearer of the Element of Magic would be quickly affected. And yet you still are here to watch over a pony you fear. I have promised before and promise again, Lero, I will not hurt you. But it is not enough, is it?"

Lero couldn't deny it.

A knocking came from the door, and then it opened again. A slender pink alicorn stood there, surrounded by a pink bubble, with a concerned-looking stallion behind her. The newly arrived alicorn lifted her hoof to her mouth and coughed. "Auntie Celestia? I think I came down with it on the train. Shiny, please, you have to stay back!"

Lero wasn't particularly well-informed about Equestrian politics, but he could recognize Princess Cadence on sight, and Twilight's brother had that familiar star on his flank. He realized belatedly that he had no idea whether he was supposed to be following some sort of royal protocol in the palace, but Twilight said that Princess Cadence was friendly and forgiving, and her brother was technically his brother-in-law now, right? And so far he hadn't heard anything about rules. Mostly he wasn't sure for a moment whether to bow, wave, or something else. Twilight had recited that silly rhyme, but he wasn't about to go mooning a... foreign princess? He wasn't sure whether the Crystal Empire was part of Equestria or not. He settled for waving.

Celestia pushed herself slowly to a sitting position, though she had to flare her wings to settle herself; Lero was impressed by her wingspan, but he felt a surge of panic stab him at the sight of that long, sharp, sharp horn rising into the air. The surge vanished after just a moment, but he kept looking back at her horn. She bowed her head politely to the pink alicorn. "Hello, Cadence. Have you met Lero? He will be nursing us through this."

Cadence wasn't as imposing as Celestia; her horn was long and sharp, but no match for Celestia's spear. And Lero found himself smiling when she looked at him. She smiled back, an open and honest happiness on her face despite the circumstances.

"We haven't met before, but Twilight's written us so much about you, Lero. I hope when this is all over you'll bring your herd to the Empire and let us show you around," she said.

Shining Armor was still stuck behind her in the hall, her pink bubble blocking the entire doorway. "Nice to meet you, Lero!" he called out. "Luna said you're immune?"

Lero nodded. "We hope. The plague attacks magic and I don't have any."

He could see Shining Armor's sympathetic expression through the layers of pink forcefield. "I'm sorry to hear it, but at least it's useful now, right?" Lero nodded again rather than go into explanations.

Cadence moved forward, coming into the room. Shining Armor started to follow her, but she frowned at him and waggled a hoof to stay back; the red-shirted unicorn trotted in place in frustration, but stayed in the door. Cadence let her bubble drop and hurried to nuzzle Celestia. Lero couldn't keep from smiling, and almost wanted to join in. Then Celestia's head moved just a fraction and his eyes returned to that sharp horn.

"Oh. Right. Princess of Love. She must have an Aura of Smooth on all the time." For a single solitary heartbeat he pictured her driving a red convertible, wearing gold chains and dark sunglasses. Then the pink alicorn in his mind's eyes was replaced by a cyan pegasus, and his mood regressed.

"I'll let you two catch up," he suggested. "I need to go check on Twilight and Rainbow Dash."

"Oh, they came with you?" Cadence brightly asked. "Why aren't they... OH. Oh. Oh." Shining Armor's eyes went wide.

Lero bowed his head. "On the way here."

Shining Armor winced. "Cadie, will you be all right? I need to go with Lero."

Cadence gestured with a wing. "Go ahead. Don't catch it yourself, though! We don't know how it spreads."

Celestia slumped in her seat, then lay back down and blew her nose. "I will be here when you return."

Shining Armor was just about prancing in place in the hall, frustration etched onto his face. Lero could sympathize. At least being magicless meant he could do something to help. All Shining Armor could do would be get sick. Lero stopped before reaching him. "Wait. I'm not a doctor, but shouldn't I be doing something to keep from spreading this?"

Twilight's brother tilted his head. "Search me. The Guard doesn't have much experience with plagues. What do you have in mind?"

Lero rubbed his chin. "If it's anything like diseases on my world, then it could be on my clothes and skin. So we should have a shower set up, and I'd have to go through it every time I leave the princesses, and changes of clothes." He held up a hand. "And yes, clothes. You can clean clothes much more harshly than skin. Or fur, for that matter. So I guess the first order of business is to get a portable shower and something else for me to put on."

Celestia sneezed. "There is a bathroom in the hall outside. There have been enough incidents over the years to make having a shower by the throne rooms useful. As for clothes, there might be something suited for a minotaur you could wear."

Shining Armor bowed his head. "I'll tell the servants. Lero, you only need clothes when you're in with the Princesses, don't you? You won't bring anything in to them."

Lero cleared his throat. "Culture thing. I'd really rather have them."

Cadence looked just a trifle disappointed. And curious. Shining Amor shrugged. "All right. I'll see what I can do. But then we're going to Twiley."

"Of course," Lero agreed. Shining Armor backed out of the doorway and let Lero into the hall from a distance.

***

The bathroom door was discreetly placed just outside the throne room's entrance, and the shower inside was large and well-appointed, big enough for a dozen diplomats to hose down at once. The palace's clothing stores were not so well-stocked. At least in one vital regard. Fortunately, Lero was able to improvise.

"Nice towel."

Lero sighed. "Turns out minotaurs don't wear pants either. Neither does anything else that Equestria has diplomatic relations with."

Lyra nuzzled his side, as he'd returned to their suite. "If it's any consolation, you look cute in a skirt."

"I've decided it's a kilt." Lero ran his hands against the side of Lyra's muzzle. He could feel her trembling. "Hey." He knelt down and pulled her against his chest. "It'll be okay. Everyone's going to get through this. I'm still here. I'll take care of everyone."

Lyra pressed her face against him. "I'm sorry, Lero. I'm sorry. I'm having more trouble than I thought." She took a long breath and let it out. "Don't tell Rainbow Dash this, but the Still Way isn't perfect. 'Let the world unfold and wait for the moment' is good advice, but I'm a Grandmaster, not a hermit. They're my herdmates and I can't do anything for them and I'm scared, Lero. I know it'll pass, I'm not going to do anything rash, but... right now I'm scared."

He hugged her, pulling her into his arms, holding her against himself. He brushed her mane with his fingers, avoiding tender spots. "It'll be all right," he told her. "I'm here. It won't be fun, but you'll all get through this, and I'll be taking care of you the whole time. Luna said everyone's young and strong and will recover."

"Luna also said it would hit slowly," Lyra said. "You saw what happened to Pinkie. I was looking at Rainbow Dash when she caught it. They didn't weaken while their magic drained. They went from normal to grayed like chalk in the rain. Lero, they're all exceptionally strong, magically. Twilight's magic, Dash's speed and strength, Pinkie's... Pinkieness. And then they're Bearers of the Elements of Harmony, too. If they're not having a normal reaction, there's no moment I can wait for that I can do anything. They're my herdmates, Lero, I love them!"

She was shaking again. Lero held her. "I love them. I love you too," he told her, lips against her ear. "It's going to be all right. It's going to be. They're going to recover." He did not let himself think of any other possibility. They're going to be all right. Luna said so. He hadn't had time to think anything else. They're going to be all right. Luna said so. He hadn't thought about the specific progression Luna had described. They're going to be all right. Luna said so. He'd been distracted by Celestia's presence. I have promised before and promise again, Lero, I will not hurt you. But it is not enough, is it?

The door to the other bedroom in their suite opened. Twilight's bedroom had been expanded some time ago, when Celestia first heard that her student was in a herd. The beds were long enough for Lero, even. Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle were in the other room. Shining Armor had gone in to see his sister. He came out now, head low.

"She didn't know who I am," he said. "I couldn't even see her cutie mark. It's just... gray."

Lyra pulled her head from Lero's chest. He let her go. She was putting on her Serene Grandmaster face again now that someone else was in the room. "Is she all right otherwise?" he asked.

"She wasn't complaining about anything," Shining Armor said, lifting his head gradually back up. "And when I asked she said she felt fine. She wouldn't say anything unless I asked her first, though. Even when I asked her about Starswirl the Bearded, she just said, 'Who?' She never gives up on a chance to lecture about him. She's really sick."

Lero stood. "I need to see them." He put a hand on the white unicorn's back in passing, and Shining Armor leaned against his hip. Lero paused there. The memory of being in Cadence's presence just for a few minutes came to mind, and he ran his hand along Shining Armor's back. Living right next to her, with that kind of constant presence, and then being unable to touch her... no wonder he needed physical contact. Lero nodded his head at Lyra. She got the message and came over to nuzzle her herdmate's brother gently. Lero drew his hand back and slipped into the other room.

One had wings. One had a horn. Other than those cues, he would have been hard-pressed to identify his mares at first glance. He couldn't see the stripes in Rainbow Dash's mane or in Twilight's. He knelt down and opened his arms. Neither one moved at all. He had to move over and pull them both against him. They didn't resist, but neither did they help. It was like hugging Rarity's ponyquins. Lero pressed his head between Rainbow Dash's ears. "I love you," he said.

The words ran down her mane like paint. A very faint, watery paint, but the colors of her hair shone for him. And then they faded again. His heart felt like it was about to burst. He hugged them both again, hard. "I know you're in there. Even if you can't hear me right now," he told his stricken mares. "I love you. I'm going to take care of you, and you're going to be all right. No matter what."

***

A knock on the door came before dawn. Lero reluctantly untangled himself from Lyra's legs, partially hindered by her waking up and hugging him all over again. She was back to herself while Lero got dressed in shirt and towel. She attributed the improvement to getting Lero to herself for the night. Then she went back to sleep.

Celestia and Cadence were already awake when Lero reached the throne room that had been converted into their quarantine facility. He brought with him a wheeled trolley with a fresh stack of boxes of tissues, two covered trays, and a large pitcher of water. Celestia was looking out the window at the horizon, her head resting on the divan's pillow. Cadence was sitting up, a blanket wrapped around herself. They both had a small pile of tissues already by their sides.

"Watch with me," Celestia said quietly. Her voice was raspy, and she did not move her head. "It has been more than a thousand years since the sun rose by any command but mine."

Two bright shooting stars rose up from the horizon at the same time. They left long bright trails behind them, two lines making an acute angle. They collided, and a bright flash came from the junction. For a lingering moment, the outline of a unicorn's horn flashing with magic was in the sky, and then the sun peeked into view. Bands of blue, green, purple and pink rose with the glowing orb as it lifted, higher and higher. Lero had to look away as a bolt of fear ran down his spine at the sight of Celestia's mane rendered across the sky.

Celestia watched her sister's tribute, then closed her eyes. "Beautiful, Luna," she whispered. "You always made beautiful sunrises."

Lero looked back at the sky. The colors had faded, and the sun was floating serenely in place by itself.

"Auntie Luda used do raise dhe sud?" Princess Cadence asked, then blew her nose again.

Celestia was still looking out the window, but she smiled. "Even for us, there was a beginning. We raised the sun and the moon together for a time, before either of us was strong enough to move them on our own. And we both tried each. We did not know how long it would be, then."

Lero brought the trolley closer. He set Cadence's breakfast tray on the table by her side, along with a stack of fresh tissues. She promptly made use of the top one. "Dhank you, Wero. Ugh, I sound horrible."

Lero pushed back a brief impulse to kiss her on the head and assure her she sounded fine. Princess of Love, he reminded himself firmly. He also resisted the subsequent impulse to break out a line he'd thought of the previous winter, when Rainbow Dash caught a cold. "You sound a little hoarse" just didn't quite translate culturally, not without someone he was close enough to to fire a 'monkey' joke back at him. Or maybe a... a thought hit him. He'd told Spike he looked like he was draggin' when Spike caught the same cold a week later. Then he'd had to write a letter to Princess Celestia and send it via pegasus post asking her to send his shoes back and promising not to tease Spike while he was sick anymore. Had Twilight told Spike they were going? Had she left him a letter? He hadn't seen the little dragon yesterday morning, but he often slept in his old basket in the library. Lero made a mental note to send word to have someone check on him. He'd win major Spike-gratitude if he talked Rarity into letting him stay at the Carousel Boutique for the duration.

Cadence lifted the silver cover from her tray and tried to inhale the scent of the syrup-drenched pancakes waiting underneath, only to snort in a highly unprincessly manner instead. Lero had to laugh and comment, "I admit, that did sound horrible." She laughed, and her horn glowed to pick up her fork.

Lero brought the other tray over to Celestia. She still did not lift her head. "Princess?" he asked her. "You should try to keep your strength up." He set his hand on her neck, then jerked it back. She was hot, but dry; her fur felt like cloth fresh from a dryer.

"You will have to put it in front of me," she admitted. "I can't sit up."

He brought the cart around, but instead of putting the tray under her face like a feedbag, he picked up the fork himself and sat at the end of the divan. He took small portions and brought them to her lips for her. "You're hot, Princess," he told her. "I can barely touch you. Is that something you're doing?"

She chewed slowly, as though every bite tired her more. She took her time responding. "Not deliberately. I feel hot. In an unfamiliar way." Another bite. "I have no way of knowing if it is helping or hurting me." And another.

Lero let her concentrate on eating rather than keep asking questions. Her breakfast was barely a third finished when she said, "Enough." He put the tray back on the trolley and took a handkerchief. He poured water on it from the pitcher, then laid the cool, soaked cloth against Celestia's neck. "Does that feel better?" he asked.

"It does," she said. Her eyes closed again. "Please, continue." He prepared another handkerchief, and carefully put it on her forehead. His thumb brushed her horn and he shivered. She felt it.

"Why do you fear me?" she asked him, eyes still shut. "I am not used to being feared."

"I don't know, Princess," he told her while he worked to cool her. "I was terrified of your mane at first. Then you changed it, but I was still afraid. Then you cast your spell, and I felt better, but not entirely. Enough I could talk with you."

"You do not think like a pony, Lero," she told him. "A pony would have accepted my apology and believed it, and that would have been the end of the matter. Or any other Equestrian, pony or not. And that spell would have eased any lingering fears. Had I cast that spell on Fluttershy to ease her fear of heights, she could have joined the Ponyville weather team. Why do you fear me?"

Lero laid another cloth on her side. He checked the first. It was warm already. He took a moment to think before he answered. "You only get one first impression, Princess," he told her. "It's hard to overcome that, sometimes."

"Dhe spell mighd be counderproducdive, dhen," Cadence suggested. "Maging Wero nod hab hids nadural reagtions, so he can'd ged ober dhem?"

Celestia let out a breath. "It will soon enough cease to be an issue, then. The spell will fade as I do."

Cadence gasped. Lero's head whipped around. Celestia made a weak chuckle. "Not like that, my little... rmm. Habit. Not like that. I expect to wake again." Her voice quieted. "But I can feel myself weakening. The sun will restore me. I know it will. But my body is a pony's body, and spells cast by my magic must be sustained by that body."

Neither Lero nor Cadence had anything comforting to say.

Celestia lost consciousness soon after that. Cadence laid down to rest as well, so Lero left, showered, took a new towel and shirt, and gave the servants some new instructions. He'd need more than wet cloths to keep the ruler of the sun cool, and he wanted to make sure they were being careful to wash everything he wore while in the chamber with the alicorns. Plus he wanted his pants back.

Writing a letter took longer than Lero had expected. He ended up having to ask Lyra to do the actual quillwork for him. Somehow tonight he didn't think he could've written a clean letter with a ballpoint pen, let alone a quill and ink.

Dear Rarity,

I hope this letter reaches you in good health. I'm sure you've seen how Pinkie reacted to the Blank Plague. Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash both are showing the same symptoms as Pinkie, and Princess Celestia and Princess Cadence are having an entirely different set. I believe I'm going to be very busy. Even if they can't recognize me, I'm going to take care of my girls, and I'm the only one who can take care of the Princesses. I don't know what instructions Twilight left with Spike, but would you please look after him until we get back?

Thank you,
Lero (and Lyra!)

A similar letter went to Fluttershy, on the chance that Rarity was already ill as well. After some deliberation, Lero and Lyra added a third one to Spike himself.

Dear Spike,

If Rarity or Fluttershy is still healthy, please stay with them. I know you're perfectly capable of looking after the library by yourself, but with this plague going around, it's important for everypony to have somepony with them. Twilight and Rainbow have already come down with it like Pinkie did, and the castle is already so chaotic they've had to go to Prince Blueblood for a public presence. Please, stay in Ponyville with Rarity or Fluttershy. Luna already told everypony that this hits unicorns harder, and Canterlot is a unicorn city. This could be hectic, and it's better to not get caught up in it if you can.

See you soon,
Lero and Lyra

Lyra wrapped the letters up into scrolls. "I'll get these in the mail. The train is still running," she said. "Unless you know how to send things to Spike?"

Lero shook his head. "I didn't ask, and now Celestia doesn't seem to be in much shape to answer."

"Oh," said Lyra quietly. And left to send the letters.

Lero had little luck with his gray mares. Nothing brought color to their manes, nor any but distant disinterest to their voices. And then he had to return to watching over the Princesses.

***

Lero was back in the throne room the next morning. Celestia didn't so much as respond when he asked how she was doing. Cadence was laid out on her divan, moaning steadily, one hoof against her head. Lero came equipped with cold compresses and bottles with straws. He couldn't get Celestia to eat, but she did manage to feebly drink from the straw when he set it in her mouth. Her eyes opened, but didn't focus.

"Hwahr," she mumbled.

Lero leaned in closer. "What?"

"Hwahr," she mumbled again.

Lero looked over to Cadence. The other alicorn looked blearily back at him. "I dhink dhat was Old High Equesdrian. 'Wader.'"

He nodded, and held the bottle a little higher, letting gravity help feed the cool water down into Celestia's mouth. Then he froze as he heard a fluid sound.

Cadence made a small choked sound somewhere between a rueful laugh, a cough, and a mortified whimper. "I gueds id was a euphebism. Don'd dell. Bad for dhe mysdique." She slumped back against her divan then, and let out a fresh groan. "Promids, Wero."

Lero closed his eyes. Well. Not the first time he'd dealt with a plumbing issue. "I promise. And I'll be right back. With a mop."

Acquiring the necessary equipment was an exceedingly delicate task, requiring the utmost discretion. And to Lero's complete amazement, there wasn't so much as a rumor anywhere in his hearing on the topic. He had time to wonder if perhaps Princess Celestia had been encouraging the evolution of gossip-proof ponies for castle servants.

It was the high point of the day. One miserable pink alicorn and one increasingly-hot sun-powered unconscious alicorn needed lots of attention. Coming back to the apartment and finding Rainbow Dash entirely failing to so much as notice him unless he physically picked her up didn't help.

***

Lero had already gone through a small cartload of cold compresses by noon the next day. Cadence was barely awake enough to mumble; Lero had to lean in close to hear her. She wasn't heating up like Celestia was, though. One compress on her forehead, set against her horn, was all she needed. Trying to keep the Day Princess cooled was an endless challenge. She grew hotter as the morning progressed, and the cold compresses heated faster and faster.

Lero had retrieved a fresh cartload and bowls of soup for the two alicorns, with straws. Cadence managed to sip a little of hers. Celestia's lips did not close on hers, and one abortive attempt at using the straw to siphon water into Celestia's mouth ended quickly with a coughing fit from the unconscious princess. The door slammed open. Lero jerked around, dropping the bowl.

"Cadie!" wailed Shining Armor, turning, his hoofprints in the door. "I can't leave you like this!" His shield was around himself, a purplish-pink bubble of magical energy.

It dissolved as he came near. Lero was too surprised to even shout, watching. The outer edge of his shield fizzed as the white unicorn charged forward. A hole developed, then six, then they grew, as though the mere presence of the alicorns was devouring his spell like acid.

"Cadence," he breathed, and bent his head to kiss her, eyes streaming.

One kiss, and then another gray unicorn stood blankly in Canterlot, wet trails drying on the fur of his cheeks.

A tiny sound came from Cadence's throat. A tear spilled. She closed her eyes. Lero couldn't wake her again.

Twilight's hooves rattled unevenly on the floor of the apartment that evening when Lero was able to return. Lyra had moved all of the furniture out of the second room so the staggering mare wouldn't hurt herself colliding with them. The gray pegasus was still steady on her feet.

Lero held Lyra very tight that night.

***

The room was dark when Lero woke up. He ran his hand along the warm, softly moving form against his side, along her fur, up to her neck, back down her side, against her feathers, down to her flank. It occurred to him that something was amiss. The mare nuzzled him, and said, "Sorry, Lero. Only a dream." He felt a lump in his throat at that voice. It'd only been a few days, but he missed hearing her already.

Another warm shape pressed against him from the other side. "Princess Luna has to spend most of her time awake during the day now. Equestria needs her to manage the waking world, so she can't stay up through the night to visit dreams very often," Twilight told him.

"But she's making sure you get to have us with you in your sleep, 'cause she's awesome like that," Dash added. "And because she doesn't want you to be alone." Her cyan coat wavered and darkened a few shades for a moment as she said, "Nopony should have to be alone." Then it reasserted its usual bright hue.

He didn't remember the rest of the dream.

***

The moon was still up when Lero awoke. He carefully disentangled himself from Lyra. He suspected she was fully aware of every effort he made to keep from waking her up, but she didn't open her eyes, so either she slept through it or was letting him pretend he did. He dressed as quietly as he could anyhow. He'd sent to Rarity, Fluttershy, Bon-Bon, and Mayor Mare, asking anyone who got the letter to have his pants shipped to the castle. So far they hadn't arrived. He did have a few pairs that someone had found the previous day anyhow. He thought he should have remembered Rarity talking about Fancy Pants sooner. Of course a pony with a name like that would have something he could fit into.

The corridors were quiet that early in the morning. Lero was able to pick up his cart and load it with water, cloths, and two bowls of oatmeal. The only places active were the kitchen and the laundry. The kitchen staff was starting to come down with the plague, and the undersized laundry facility was being frantically expanded by a construction team to deal with an expected explosion in the amount of washing to be done. Lero's point about clothes being easier to wash than bodies had apparently been taken to heart by the staff.

Neither princess was awake when Lero entered. He hadn't thought they would be. They were limp atop their divans, heads laid atop the low cushions at the end. Celestia's body was too hot for him to touch for more than a moment, but at least the cool cloths didn't steam when they laid atop her. Cadence wasn't heating up the same way at all. Lero was relieved to know he wouldn't be between two flaming equine bodies, at least.

A rasp made him turn around. Celestia's eyes were opened, fixed on the window. She struggled to lift her head, her horn shaking. Lero avoided looking at the quivering tip; he rushed for the cart instead and grabbed the pitcher of cool water along with a straw. He brought both to the end of Celestia's divan and held the end of the straw up for her. "Drink. Please," he told her.

Her lips closed on the straw, and Lero was surprised at how quickly she drained the pitcher. A feeble golden glow began to form around her horn.

"Rest, Princess," he told her quickly. "Luna is taking care of the sun while you're sick. Just rest."

Her horn dimmed and her eyes turned to him. "Luna?" she asked. Despite drinking all the water Lero had with him, her voice sounded raspy. "Luna hath returned? Hath Our plight freed her of her madness? Our sister?"

Lero felt his throat close up. Hallucinating? Losing memories? He did not want to have to tell Luna that her sister's mind was damaged. He didn't want to have to be within horn's reach of a blazing-hot horse who might decide at any moment that he was a threat to be attacked.

He stayed anyway. "Yes," he told her. "Luna is safe and taking care of everything."

Her eyes lost focus. When they came back, she whispered, "That valiant little filly... Doth... doth thou think Our sister can do it, Clover? She is so young, so young... Thou thinketh she can hold the tribes alone?"

Lero had no clue what long-dead advisor she thought he was. But calling Luna a 'valiant little filly' made the response easy. "Of course, Princess."

"Remind Our sister... remind her not to let the moon shine too bright. It always is the prouder..."

He really hoped she was being metaphorical or making some culture reference. The idea that the sun and moon might have personalities of their own apart from the alicorn princesses was a little too unsettling, and he wasn't so very settled at the moment as it was. "Of course, Princess."

She gasped, staring at him with a fevered gaze. The weak golden glow formed around her horn again, then broke. She coughed, a dry sound. "You. Of course it would be you. Trickery and betrayal, always your weapons close by." She gasped for air, then panted and continued. "I do not know how you escaped the thorns of the Everfree, how you have struck me down, but my sister will find you and avenge me."

Lero backed away. Even if her magic was being swallowed up by the Blank Plague, even if she was exhausted, he didn't want to find out what kind of damage she could do. "Celestia, you're ill," he said cautiously.

Hate was in her red-rimmed eyes as she stared at him. "I swore oaths long ago even as you or I count them that your kind would never walk this world again, sidhe," she ground out. "If I... If I..." Her head wavered, and then her eyes closed.

Lero waited a moment, then quietly said, "Celestia?"

There was no response. He tried louder. "Celestia?"

Still no response. He didn't want to discount the possibility she might be trying to lure him closer. He went to get more water instead.

***

More ponies fell ill in the castle as the day passed. The kitchens reduced their menu further as ponies without experience or talent in cooking were pressed into service; oatmeal and toast were the main options. Lero had to invoke Celestia's authority directly to get a guard detailed to bringing him water; the Solar Princess' body was growing hotter and hotter no matter what he did. She roused again at sunset, but barely enough to drink some water before she sank back into unconsciousness. Cadence didn't awaken at all. By the time he returned to Twilight's apartment, he was beat. Lyra wasn't in much better shape. Neither of them had energy to do much more than check on their stricken herdmates and fall into bed together.

Lero's hand ran along Lyra's mane. Sunrise would come all too soon, and he'd need to be there to get some water and food into the princess if he could. He was exhausted, but he had another mare he wasn't going to abandon. Everyone needed some care. And at least he didn't have to be on his feet to provide emotional care.

"They activated my commission today," Lyra told him, her head against his chest. "They need every guardpony they can get patrolling the streets."

"They had you outside the castle?" Lero asked. "Are people..." He floundered for a way to put it. "I mean... is it dangerous?"

"No more than staying inside," she said. "It's more rounding up the new victims and putting on a display, showing that we're still there, keeping anypony from panicking." She stretched against his side. "My regular exercise routine isn't designed for all-day marching."

"As long as it's just marching up and down the square."

"Human joke?"

"Human joke."

***

The morning indeed came much sooner than Lero wanted. Lyra got up with him. They checked on Twilight and Rainbow, then he helped her don the borrowed set of armor she'd been issued; nobody was going to take the time to find and retrieve her own stored kit.

"That's a good look on you," he told her, adjusting the helmet on her head.

"Stallions love a mare in uniform," she agreed, and nuzzled his side.

"You should bring yours back to Ponyville," Lero suggested. He gave her as strong a smile as he could manage, given the hour and the lack of caffeine. "We might find some unofficial uses for it."

She gave him a small smile back. "I thought you already had a designated heroine."

He knelt down to hug her. "The plot's adaptable."

She nuzzled his cheek, but shook her head. "I appreciate the offer, Lero, but we both know Rainbow Dash is only straight for Twilight. It'd get awkward."

Lero ran his fingers through her mane, where it poked out through the back of the helmet. "She wasn't straight for Twilight when we started. And I don't want anyone feeling left out. Maybe if we started with you, me, and Twilight, and Rainbow Dash stayed in the audience until she got comfortable?"

Lyra smiled weakly at him. "I love you, Lero. And I appreciate the effort. But I think I'd better think about Guard duties today. Even inner peace only goes so far."

They hugged tightly, and then set out to their separate tasks.

***

Celestia's eyes opened just before the sunrise again. Her head moved slightly, but no glow formed around her horn this time. Lero avoided looking out the window. Luna was making spectacular sunrises, but the tributes to her sister were too... familiar for him to enjoy. He kept his back to the window and lifted a straw to Celestia's lips instead. She drank, again thirstily, again swallowing an entire pitcher.

"Thou has destroyed them, human?" her voice rasped. "Thy blood and iron and will against their power?"

Lero stiffened. It wasn't Old High Equestrian, but archaic enough. And she still recognized him as a human. He wasn't entirely sure he liked the implications of that. Or what it might have said about that first meeting. "Destroyed who?" he asked.

"Thy tormentors, human. They who took the magic from thy blood and replaced it with iron, bound you to the death-metal." She made a small, pained sound, and her body shuddered. "Or art thou their creature, holding me thus bound?" Then she quivered her head. "No. This is not thy gift. I yet live. Thou slayest immortals for their game, not magic."

"Slay immortals?" The question rolled out of Lero. He brought her another pitcher of water, and she drained it dry before she responded.

"Hast thou forgotten, human? Thy magic, taken, thy iron blood granted that thy kind should bring new spice to their foul games. True death reintroduced as possibility, iron in the hands of thy kind. Little enough threat to such as they, but more than any other they permit in their realms." Her head dragged against the cushion of the divan as she managed a sickly smile at him. "In sooth, such might be kinder than whatever they have done to me this day."

Her head sagged and her eyes lost focus. Lero couldn't tell if she was babbling or speaking some ancient language again until her eyes widened once more and stared at him.

"A... a human? No, this cannot..." Her body shook. "Stay thy hand, I beg of thee! I am not thy enemy!" She broke into a coughing fit, prolonged by her efforts to keep talking through it. "Slay me not!"

Lero took a step back, his leg bumping against the cart. Of all the ponies he'd never expected to see in a fit of panic, and that was a small number indeed, Celestia was at the top of the list. He found a fresh cloth under his hand and turned to soak it.

"What dost thou?" she groaned at him. "Thou must believe me! I guard my folk from theirs, I prey not upon yours! My little ponies would be destroyed without protection!"

Lero brought the wet cloth back and, after a deep breath and a clenching of his teeth, laid it on her forehead, around the base of her horn. Her head moved toward him, but weakly and slowly, and he guided her horn away from himself. Her body was too hot to touch; he had to deflect that sharp length with the wet cloth.

She just tried to kill me, he thought to himself. And said, "I am not going to hurt you."

The relief in her eyes was plain to see, and then he watched her really focus on him. She blinked twice, then said softly, "Thank you, Lero." And then she passed out again.

Something made him turn. Cadence was smiling at him. Lero hurried to bring her another pitcher. She drank far more sparingly than Celestia, and when Lero touched her, she wasn't nearly so hot. Feverish, yes. But not burning. She passed out again much more quickly, and without a word spoken.

***

Lyra was already in bed when Lero came back after sundown. She was slow to rise in the morning, too. He had to help her get her armor on, and the weight made her sag.

"Lyra," Lero began.

"I know, Lero," she replied quietly. "Weak caster doesn't mean not a unicorn. Canterlot's full of weak casters. Most unicorns are. And it's hitting all over the city."

Lero sat on the edge of the bed and put his head in his hands. He wasn't crying. He was too tired. "Lyra," he said again. "I'll take care of you."

She pulled herself up next to him and pushed her way across his lap, making him shift his posture and put his hands on her side instead. "I know you will. But not for a few days yet."

"What?" he asked.

She snorted slightly. "You've been too busy to see, but almost nopony else has done that sudden gray surge. They gave me the primer on the plague before I went out on patrol. Exceptionally strong unicorns - and, as Pinkie and Rainbow Dash prove, exceptionally strong anypony else - get hit like that. Some professors of magic in Fillydelphia showed those signs. Normal ponies, though? It's like Luna said. Weakening, then graying out." She touched her hoof atop his knee. "Most ponies stop talking entirely and lose interest in anything but eating or sleeping. Then they start to recover."

Lero sighed softly. "Then at least Twilight's almost through the worst of it."

Lyra brushed his knee again. "I hope so."

***

The next week was one of the worst weeks of Lero's life. That he could recall, at least. He was already exhausted at the start of the week, and Lyra's condition degraded steadily. She was off the duty roster by Wednesday, and her green was muted by Friday. Celestia stopped waking up even at dawn, and Cadence didn't open her eyes again. Lero had to consult with the palace physicians to find a way to keep them fed and hydrated.

Lero suspected neither princess would be terribly thrilled with the solution he ended up using. Neither he nor the doctors was comfortable with the idea of him trying to stick a needle into Princess Celestia for a saline bag, even if they could keep the bag from boiling in her proximity. The usual solution, magic, was of course impossible. They did have feeding tubes, but only pony-sized ones. Even Canterlot General Hospital simply didn't have any equipment scaled properly for the Princesses.

Fortunately, the Canterlot Zoo did. The head of the zoo, Wild Wonder, made Lero Pinkie Promise, swear on Celestia's name, and sign in writing that he would never under any circumstances up to and including banishment to the moon let any of the princesses know that they had shared a piece of veterinary equipment with the zoo's horse exhibit. She also refused to say where she had learned about Pinkie Promises.

Lero wasn't really sure what to think about the fact that at one point during that conversation, a certain already-gray mailmare had stuck her head through the window to cheerfully chirp, "Forever!' at them. He'd kind of gotten used to Pinkie Pie appearing and yelling that when the subject of secrets came up, but Derpy missed her cue and came in three minutes late. In the end he took Twilight's advice and just didn't think about it at all.

There was some hopeful news. Dutiful Servant had recovered in just two weeks, the same as any other average unicorn, so catching the plague from the Princesses wasn't worse than catching it any other way. This alone brought a wave of relief to the ponies of the castle. As much as they loved Celestia, Lero was sure that if there had been any safe place to run to, half of the staff would have fled long ago. He carefully did not mention to anyone his observations on pony tendencies to flee in panic.

Twilight. Lero couldn't watch over her and take care of the alicorns at the same time. Not when she was starting to try to eat the rugs. Not when Lyra finally grayed out too. The following Monday, he reluctantly had to consign his mares to the Guard just so someone could watch over them, along with the rest of the palace's patients. Some earth pony Guards had constructed a large corral out in the gardens with a canopy over one end, and every grayed pony from the castle was there. Sharp pangs of guilt jabbed at Lero's chest when he guided the three in. He'd had to carry Twilight most of the way. Rainbow Dash's wings were furled to her sides and didn't so much as flutter. Lyra just stumbled along, her usual grace vanished.

"Names?" the guard at the edge of the corral asked. They'd taken Lero's advice about clothing. Instead of armor, the guards keeping the gray ponies contained were wearing robes with hoods and leggings - as close as he'd seen any pony wearing to a full outfit, save for Pinkie's pressure suit that one time.

"Twilight Sparkle. Rainbow Dash. Lyra Heartstrings," Lero told him.

"Twi... Where?" The guard leaned forward, looking over her clipboard. "You didn't let her get too close to the Princesses, did you? Everypony knows how she..."

"She caught it before we got to Canterlot," Lero interrupted, and set Twilight down. She unsteadily began to clomp her way into the corral. "This is Twilight."

"Little filly's all grown up," the guardpony said, and sat back on her stool. "Don't worry, Mister Lero. I was in Shining Armor's company for a while. I knew Twily when she was still carrying Smartypants around everywhere she went. And..." She sighed softly. "That makes the pegasus Rainbow Dash, and your other mare is Harpstrings, did you say?"

"Heartstrings," Lero corrected her. "Lyra Heartstrings." He had to nudge Rainbow Dash's rear to get her to take the few steps forward to get into the corral. Seeing her so... so inert made him want to drop to the ground right there. But that wouldn't help her.

"Heartstrings. Okay. I'll keep an eye on them." The mare shook her head. "From rainboom to cloudy day," she muttered, writing on the clipboard. She had a clamp attached to the side of her hood to hold the quill.

Lero realized he'd lost track of one of his mares already. He scanned the slowly mingling crowd of pony bodies, but he couldn't tell one unicorn from another, other than picking out gender. "Twilight?" he called, and swallowed. "Do you see where she went?"

The guard turned to look, then pointed. A unicorn was stumbling around. Several others were doing the same. Lero looked harder.

A surge of despair slammed through him. He hoped he was even looking at Twilight at all. "I... I can't tell."

The guardmare gave him an odd look. "You can't tell your own mare apart in a crowd?"

Lero sighed and sank down. A controlled fall, really. His legs didn't want to keep supporting him at the moment. "Between manes, coats, cutie marks, and voices, there are usually plenty of obvious features. I don't have a pony's eye for flanks and things." He pointed to Rainbow Dash. "There aren't many pegasi who stay in that kind of shape. I could tell Rainbow Dash anywhere."

"Yeah, she's gotta be the skinniest mare I've seen," the guard agreed. "Eep!"

Lero was a little too tired to keep an angry look from his eyes. "We prefer 'sleek.'"

"Sure, sure," the guardpony hastily agreed. "Sleek. Sure. I didn't mean anything by it! Everypony who goes through Basic Training ends up, uh, sleeker than when they went in, and everypony knows about those Sonic Rainbooms, so no wonder she's not carrying any extra weight at all, right?" She swallowed and gave him a particularly hopeful smile. "Hero of Equestria and all that, on the windows and everything, got to have a lot of other things going for her than flanks."

She gulped at the sour look she won with her last comment and checked her flank to make sure the anti-contamination robe was covering her sides completely.. "Uh... You're sure you can't tell ponies apart other than color and cutie marks, right?"


***

If the next week was an improvement, it was only due to numbness. With all three of his loves gone, Twilight's suite was large and lonely. Celestia and Cadence were both unconscious. Getting the feeding tube into Cadence's mouth and getting her head pulled into the right position to use it was physically demanding enough; she wasn't too much larger than a regular pony, but moving her limp form around was taxing.

Celestia was another matter entirely. She was simply too massive for Lero to move around that much, and her temperature had continued to rise. He had to get hold of a block and tackle to get her off of the couch, and found bricks to rest her head on. The divan was scorched where she'd been laying. Lero didn't want to know whether Celestia could set a fire hot enough to burn herself, so bricks and the marble floor it was. There was no question of getting a feeding tube down her throat after that. He had to put on a heavy blacksmith's apron and soak it just to get within four feet of her, and when he tried to spray her with a hose the water flashed into steam while it was still inches from her body.

Lero really, really, really hoped she wasn't going to unconsciously channel the entire sun into Canterlot. He couldn't think of what he could do about it, though. It was on his third day with the hose that an idea came to mind, and he blamed the tiredness for not thinking of it sooner. It turned out that a guardpony named Solid Stalwart was receiving Princess Luna's orders at the palace. He was happy to pass along Lero's request for an audience.

That would be overnight, of course. Fortunately, an interruption came to take up some time in the afternoon.

Dear Bellerophon and Lyra,

Of course I'm taking care of dear little Spikey-Wikey! I fear he did come down with this horrible plague just two days after you left, but he was so very brave, trying to keep the library open all by himself. Fortunately, Fluttershy and I were checking in on him, and when Fluttershy heard him coughing she brought him straight to me. Do you by any chance happen to know how dragons are supposed to respond? We looked in the library, but we simply couldn't find a thing, even with Spikey-Wikey helping look. He hasn't lost his color at all, unlike the ponies who've caught it, but he's been dreadfully miserable, coughing and groaning and barely able to get out of bed. Why, he's so awfully weak that he couldn't even do more than gnaw on a bowl of rubies I brought him. He's been such a little trooper, though, and he's even taught Sweetie Bell how to make remarkably good daisy sandwiches. She hasn't set the kitchen on fire even once since then, at least not while making daisy sandwiches.

I'm afraid the rest of the news from Ponyville isn't quite so pleasant. We could really use Twilight's talents with organization, as Mayor Mare has declared a state of emergency. The spa's been closed ever since! The market as well, which would be terribly inconvenient, but the Mayor has arranged deliveries of vital supplies for everypony on credit, and Derpy has been such a civic treasure, bravely keeping the mails going all on her own, though perhaps a tiny smidgen delayed. Carrot Top and her herd have had to take over running Sweet Apple Acres, if you can believe it, because Applejack, Big Macintosh, Granny Smith, and even Applebloom have all fallen ill.

Lero, darling, I know it's nothing next to an entire world of totally wild weather, but I do believe I have some appreciation for what the skies must have been like for you when you were a colt. The weather teams have been hit so hard they're only managing emergency requests right now, rains for firefighting and the like. I know Rainbow Dash prefers to hear her athletic talents praised, and far too many ponies, myself admittedly included, fail to give her proper credit for Ponyville's well-kept schedules, but I do believe that the entire town has learned its lesson about taking the weather for granted!

So far, Fluttershy is healthy, which really does make sense, considering how little contact she has with most other ponies on a regular basis as it was even before this entire matter. She's been very brave, coming by to check on me every now and then. And... well, you know of course I would simply be the LAST pony to be dramatic, but I fear I may be in need of her care before long. I've developed somewhat of a cough myself. A ladylike one, of course. It was really the most touching thing. When dear little Spike heard me, he barely had the strength to get out of bed, but he came right over to me and promised me right on the spot that he'd take care of me just like I was taking care of him, no matter how sick either of us got. And perhaps we both were under some degree of stress, because we were hugging and crying for really a rather long time after that. He fell asleep and I tucked him in. He really is a noble dragon, in the cutest possible way."

Dear guys,

Rarity didn't finish her letter. I'm going to take care of her. No matter what. I feel worse than anything I've ever felt before but I've been sick for days and I haven't turned gray or forgotten anypony, so I'm going to make sure she's okay. I'm going to make sure everypony is okay. So you make sure Twilight and Celestia and everypony else up in Canterlot is okay too, okay? There are a lot of jerks there but some of them are okay and I have friends there too, so, okay, make sure they're okay, okay?

I think I think I think I'm tired and not making much sense now. But I'm going to be okay and I'll make sure everypony is okay.

After a nap.

Spike

***

The Earth hung high in the sky, above the sharp gray hills and craters. The spacesuit was surprisingly comfortable as Lero sat back on the couch next to the Eagle. The dark blue alicorn next to him was looking quietly up at that beautiful blue marble.

"How dost thou know this?" she asked softly. "This is thy dream, not mine own. How dost thou know of my kingdom so well?"

Lero heard a snippet of music play. He took off his helmet to hear it better. He hadn't heard recorded music in ages, just a capella singing and every once in a while some live instruments. He sang along, just a little. "If you believed they put a man on the moon, man on the moon..."

Luna slowly turned to look at him instead of the bright blue world overhead. "Then... thy world, too, sent its exiles..."

Lero shook his head. The music had stopped anyhow. He knew he was dreaming, but it was still hard to concentrate. "Heroes. Explorers. The greatest journey any human ever took." He reached back to pat the leg of the lunar lander. "Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. We come in peace for all mankind."

Luna turned to look over her shoulder at the craft. "So frail," she murmured. "And yet." She looked back up at the rising Earth. "Thy people have no magic, and yet. You flew higher than a pegasus, braved the airless void, in the name of peace for a warring people. I think thou art indeed the one who would dare to tend the sun."

The sun, off in the distance, abruptly sprouted a frowny face with a thermometer in its mouth. Luna stared, and then promptly burst out laughing. "Bellerophon Michaelides, if thou hadst not already gained my deepest thanks for tending to Celestia in her time of need, thou wouldst have earned it now for that image!"

Lero laughed and leaned back in the couch. "Glad to be of service, Princess," he told her.

Her laughter lingered much longer than Lero's, and echoed across the vacuum. At last, she wiped her eye with a hoof and smiled at Lero. "Thank you, Bellerophon." She took a deep breath and nodded once. "Lero. I have been much in need of laughter. I am not as strong as once I was, and to raise the sun and moon alike, and to guide all Equestria in dreams, and yes, to watch and fret, have all taken their toll." She shook her head. "My respect for my sister grows each day, to remember she did this duty for a thousand years alone. But you requested this audience, not I. What dost... do you need, Lero?"

Lero felt everything come into clearer focus. Purpose. Ah, yes. The dream was getting to the point. He felt the cold of the vacuum on his face and decided to be glad Luna wasn't letting the dream get too realistic. "Celestia keeps getting hotter," he said. "If this keeps up, she might melt the palace right off of the mountain. Or worse. Is there anything you can do?"

Luna frowned. "I cannot interfere with my sister's bond to the sun," she said quietly. "I know not if I have the power, and I know for certain that even did I have the power, it would be a very, very unwise thing to attempt. Do not under any circumstances permit anypony to try."

"That's not what I meant," Lero hurriedly explained. "I was thinking more like sending her to the moon? Or at least someplace outside of a major city? Not right now, but if she started getting dangerously hot?"

Luna relaxed and lifted her head again. "That, too, I cannot do," she said. "Not because it is unwise, though it might be that as well, but because it is impossible. Her body is ravaged by a magic-devouring plague, and she is drawing on the power of the sun to fight it. A simple teleport spell would be consumed before taking action, no matter how powerful."

Lero slumped. "Oh. Is there anything we can do that might help?"

Luna nodded, eyes fixed on the bright Earth overhead. "Indeed there is. I shall inform the Guard to prepare evacuation plans for Canterlot. Removing Cadence from the palace shall be your duty, as none other can accomplish the task. My sister has already given you a viceroy's authority for anything you find needful in caring for her, and I add to that. If you command Equestria's capital be abandoned, it shall be done."

Lero let out a breath. "So. No pressure."

Luna's horn glowed, and Lero's helmet lowered back down onto his head. "Of course. We are, after all, on the moon."

Lero woke up laughing.

***

The apron was heavy when it was soaked, but Lero was in better spirits than he'd felt in weeks. The laughter had stayed with him all morning, an echo in the back of his head, like Pinkie Pie's spirit was bouncing on his shoulder. He'd actually checked in a mirror. With Pinkie, he could never be perfectly sure. And the guards at the corral had confirmed that Lyra had already wandered over to the tables and taken a few bites of a salad instead of continuing to crop the grass. Even the water hissing into steam, he thought, was getting closer to Celestia than the previous day. He had no idea if it was doing any good at all, since it wasn't actually reaching her, but it felt like he was doing something.

When the tank emptied, he got a cool, wet cloth and turned to Cadence. She was still feverish, but nothing worse than that. The horse-feeding tube was still working well to keep her hydrated, too, and she didn't seem to be in any actual distress that he could identify. She wasn't moving much, but she was breathing steadily. He decided to try to roll her again today, just in case alicorns could develop bed sores. With the near-total lack of medical information on their rulers, the doctors had given him basic pony care tips and asked him to write reports.

Doctor Fresh Discovery had been less than amused to read "Celestia goes into heat when she's sick." Lero blamed it on having been very tired that day.

He knelt down to get his arms under Cadence's side, and was surprised to feel her legs move, wrapping around him in a hug, pulling him close. His breath caught in his throat for a moment.

He wasn't in the throne room. He was home. With Rainbow Dash. With Twilight. With Lyra. Laughing together. Around the table. In bed. Wandering around Ponyville. He felt Twilight's tear under his fingers as he wiped her cheek. He laughed up to Lyra as she somehow twisted herself out of his grip and pinned him again. He called out, "Ready!" to Rainbow Dash and let go of her neck and spread his arms and leaned backward and off of her, and for just a few seconds as she dove next to him they were flying together side by side before she swooped under him and caught him. He felt the most powerful unicorn in Equestria's flanks heaving under his hands as her heat conquered even that brilliant mind. He felt Rainbow Dash's breath coming fast against his cheek, her body quivering in the ropes. He felt the tingle of Lyra's magic and heard her chuckle, something about the 'most secret techniques of the Still Way.'

He felt like his pants were too tight. He snapped back to the moment, and his cheeks grew hot. Oh. OH. Apparently a fever was not her only reaction. Celestia ruled the sun. She got hot. And Cadence was Princess of Love.

Getting her repositioned, watered, and fed was an extremely interesting experience. When he left the throne room, he took a very, very cold shower. It helped some.

Lunch was unusual, too. He usually ate at a table by himself. None of the ponies wanted to get too close, either because they were afraid he might be carrying a super-charged plague from the Princesses or because they didn't want to eat with the freak. Today they seemed to be in a much more sociable mood. He'd hardly sat down when a trio of mares settled in next to him, and then a pair of Guard stallions with their helmets off were joining the table as well.

Lunch was oatmeal. Again. At least there weren't any crunchy burned bits in it anymore, now that the replacements were learning how to make the big batches the castle went through. And at least it wasn't hay fries.

One of the stallions was leaning forward, eyeing Lero as he put the spoon in his mouth. One of the mares sighed and leaned in against his side. He put the spoon back down and swallowed the bite of mush. "... Can I help you?"

The mare on his other side tittered. "Oh! So dreadfully sorry, M'sieur Bellerophon! We just felt so terrible about how we've mistreated you!"

The mare leaning on him nodded her head. Or possibly nuzzled his side. Or both. "Oh, oui! You have been so brave, so noble, the lonely stallion caring for the Princesses themselves in their time of need!" She gave a rapturous sigh.

One of the two stallions blushed, but nodded his head. "You're doing good work, sir," he said in a deep, gravelly voice. "This here's something we can't rightly protect the Princesses from, but you're in there on the front lines buckin' away every day. We oughtta be celebratin' you, not makin' you sit by yerself!"

Lero had to blink. "Um. Member of the Apple family?"

The stallion saluted. "Sergeant Rotten Apple, sir!" He dropped his hoof and cleared his throat. "Not to worry, bit of a wild weed when Ah was a colt, but th' Guard straightened me right out! Ah'd do anythin' to help keep Equestria safe. An' the Princesses." His voice dropped several decibels and took on a husky note. "Anythin'."

The other guard stallion nodded his head firmly. "Ayup."

The three mares sighed again and all leaned in. Lero felt like an apple in a cider press. Just thinking that made him think he was definitely acclimatizing to Equestria.

"Uh. Thank you? If I need anything I'll be sure to ask."

A hoof reached over from the third mare, brushing on his bicep. "Oh! So dashing zis one is, taking all ze troubles of ze Princesses onto his... exotic... broad... strong shouldairs..."

Something clicked in Lero's mind and he scrambled to his feet. "Sorry I really have to go check on my HERD now," he spluttered, and raced for the door.

Apparently Cadence's love was clingy.

Three maids and two guards leaned together and sighed wistfully as they watched him flee.

"Zat is really a nice flank..."

"Ayup."

***

It helped, oddly. Twilight Sparkle's suite was still lonely with all three of his mares sick, but suddenly when Lero walked through the halls, the palace ponies would just happen to wander close, to nuzzle at his side in passing or just give him a smile. It was almost like a little slice of friendly Ponyville had showed up in the stuck-up halls of Canterlot.

Assuming a certain pony from Rainbow Dash's weather team had come along for the ride. And brought a few dozen clones. Who were all moderately tipsy. He hadn't heard that many veiled and not-so-veiled innuendos since reading that trashy romance novel Twilight had given him to try to show him what pony courtships were like. He'd been halfway through before she glanced at it and started up an exhaustive research project cataloguing all the ways it was historically and psychologically inaccurate.

Still, lewd offers aside, friendly greetings were a nice change of pace. It helped him get through the next few days. He could keep track of Lyra's progress, even if Rainbow Dash and Twilight were still mindlessly chomping on the lawn. It took three more days, but finally her gray coat developed a greenish tinge, and she noticed her surroundings enough to ask the guard where she was... though she showed little interest in the answer. That show of initiative was enough. With unicorns still falling ill across Canterlot, ponies on the mend were getting returned to their families as fast as the doctors could sign them out. The ones who had families to watch over them, at least. So Lero took her home. For the 'Twilight Sparkle's suite' definition of home.

She looked dully around the apartment and then... just stood there. It was the stillness of apathy, not the Still Way. Lero could tell. He thought he could tell. He decided he could tell. He picked her up and sat on the couch, holding her across his lap.

Her color improved almost immediately. He could see the aqua of her coat deepening around the spaces where he rested his hands. Lero bent down to softly speak into her ear.

"I love you, Lyra."

The words ran down her mane like a rolling wave reaching the beach. For the first time in over a week, she looked up at him.

"Love you too, Fingers," she whispered.

He held her very close that night. The next day, Lero found that Rainbow Dash had quit eating grass. The next night, Lyra was recovered enough to feel Cadence's effects on him. Very gently, they made love.