• Published 31st Jul 2013
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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.

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Chapter 3

The Blank Plague: Part 3

Lyra went out to the paddock the next day, while Lero watched over the Princesses. Rainbow Dash was still there. She wasn't talking, she wasn't moving more than stumbling a few steps every now and then, but at least she didn't have her head down on the lawn anymore. Twilight's head was down, but she didn't seem to be eating, just exhausted. The guard that day was a white pegasus mare, not wearing a protective robe. Given the position, it could only mean she'd already been through the plague and so as far as anypony could tell wouldn't catch it again.

The guard saluted her. Lyra saluted back. Reservist she might be, on medical leave while she recovered she might be, still feeling honestly awful she might be, but she was entirely aware that at the moment she was the viceroy's mare. Even if Lero didn't think about his rank in those terms. Which was just another one of those things she loved so much about him. All the authority of the crown, the fate of Canterlot directly in his hands, and he didn't so much as order room service.

Even dulled, Rainbow Dash stood out. Sick for weeks, eating poorly, and she still had a physique any ancient pegasus city would have swooned for. Maybe not the most fashionable look for the modern day, but any half-trained Guardpony or martial artist could take one look and know just what kind of dedication and determination those sleek flanks represented.

The guard at the paddock was evidently at least half-trained. But far from professional. She nodded her head toward the gray pegasus. "We're keeping an eye on Rainbow Dash for you, ma'am," she said. "And Twilight Sparkle. They're eating and drinking enough, and the nights are warm. They're taking this harder than anypony I've seen, but they're strong. They'll recover just fine."

Lyra nodded her head. It made her feel briefly dizzy. Stillness. Great need of stillness. "Thank you, soldier," she said simply.

The armored pegasus cleared her throat. "Uh... Ma'am? I hope you don't mind my asking, but I really don't understand. Your, uh, stallion."

"He's not from Equestria," Lyra said. She'd been expecting the question. "No magic, so he's immune to the plague. He couldn't possibly have brought it."

The Guardmare shook her head. "No, ma'am. Or... sort of, ma'am. I mean..." She sighed. "Ma'am, permission to speak freely?"

Lyra lifted her head. Slowly this time. Even breathing. "Granted."

The pegasus' wings twitched anxiously. "I'm from a pretty traditional Cloudsdale family, ma'am. So please forgive me. But... how can you take a thing like that for a stallion? I know he's working his nonexistent tail off for the Princesses and they say he's very nice and everything, and I'm sure he'd be a great friend and all, but how can a pony love something like that?"

Lyra did not buck her. A Grandmaster of the Still Way does not buck another pony like an irritated farmhand. She did not cast a spell on her. A sensible pony in the middle of Canterlot does not assault a royal guard. Even when she's a guard herself. Or the viceroy's mare. She gestured at the gray ponies with a hoof. "Those are ponies," she said. "Thoughtless, voiceless, friendless, doing nothing but sate pure physical needs. Take away magic, and we go from being magical talking ponies to being... that."

"That's a strange way to put it," the guard said, recoiling slightly from the aqua mare's calm tones, feeling her fur shiver for some reason. "Of course everypony has magic and talks."

"Except them," she said. "Without magic, we're... animals. Like ponies in Lero's world. His world doesn't have any magic. He doesn't have any magic. But he still thinks. He talks. He loves. He doesn't have songs to share with anypony else. His world doesn't have a princess to guard their dreams. They don't even have four legs to stand on."

"So you feel sorry for them?" the guard asked. "That's nice of you, but that's not what herding is for." She resolutely ignored the rest of her statement. Her memory of having the plague was hazy at best. Feeling sick for a few days, being downright in a daze for a little while, then weak until she recovered. It wasn't all that bad.

She gazed across the paddock. "Sorry? Oh no. I admire them. They took two legs and learned to fall so well he can outwalk any but the strongest Earth Ponies. They took a world without love and they invented it. They took hunters and meat-eaters and they made somepony who plays with fillies and teaches them friendship lessons." She turned to her. She hadn't bothered to get her name. "But in the end, it's not admiration. I love the kindest, gentlest, most understanding, most interesting stallion in Equestria. No matter how many legs he walks on."

The guard backed away sharply from her, wings flaring at her sides, instinct telling her to get in the air, get away now. She held her ground. Still trained. Lyra looked calmly at her; her eyes were peaceful, friendly even, but the Guard's heart thudded in her chest.

"I'll just guard over there," she said, and hurried off to the other side of the paddock.

***

Lero was encouraged by Celestia's progress, inside. The water was definitely reaching her, and even staying liquid against her side, albeit sizzling, before rising up as steam. He couldn't get close enough to get the feeding tube into her mouth yet, but she didn't seem to be in any trouble. None he could see, at least. Her lips weren't cracked and she wasn't thinning, so all the heat wasn't coming from her body consuming its own resources. He tried very hard not to think about having an unconscious pony channeling the power of the sun a few feet away from him.

He didn't do so well at that. "Living H-bomb in front of me, and all I can think about is being glad her hair's not waving at me," he muttered to himself. "Small favors, I guess." The tank was almost empty, and whether all that water was helping at all was still just a guess based on her saying it 'felt good' way back when, but it was the best idea he had. And he thought it was helping him, too.

She was still incredibly dangerous, of course. And maybe it'd all come rushing back the moment her hair went wavy again. But for now she was just a pony who needed help. It reminded him of Fluttershy, when he was the dangerous monster who needed help.

He knew her better now, of course. They didn't have too much in common, except for Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash. But that was enough to mean they saw each other reasonably often. She hadn't been afraid that day she found him there in the Everfree. He'd woken up, hurt, tired, barely able to move, and there she was, a yellow face looking down at him. She hadn't been afraid at all. There was nothing but concern in those big eyes. She'd bandaged him up right there, and then flown off to get help faster than he'd ever seen her fly since.

He'd been one of her 'animal friends' ever since, he thought. She was never as shy around him as she was with any of the ponies. Even the other Element-Bearers made her withdraw into her shell at least a little. She was always happy to talk with him, though. If Rainbow Dash ever figured that out he'd be teased for the rest of his life.

But. She'd seen him, hurt and alone, and she'd cared about him and not been afraid. And now it was his turn to help.

"I guess I'm not going to be wearing any butterfly necklaces anytime soon," he thought to himself. Less afraid, yes, seeing her like this. And if anything, he respected her more than ever, seeing first-hand what kind of power she had to draw on and how skittish her palace ponies were. It still didn't quite add up to liking her. But he kept trying. Princess or not, sun-goddess or not, built way more like a horse than any pony or not, she was an important part of Twilight Sparkle's life, and he wasn't going to let his own irrational feelings hurt Twilight by making his mare think she had to choose between them.

Taking care of Princess Cadence was a snap, comparatively, both physically and mentally. He could get close enough to touch her, and it certainly wasn't unpleasant to feel his love for his girls surging when he did. Just for them; her magic, thankfully, wasn't giving him fantasies about anyone else. And he was getting used to the cold showers. And there was certainly something soothing about preening her feathers; they were larger and longer than even Rainbow Dash's primaries, and he was positive he could see her start just the ghost of a smile when he was finished.

The door slammed open, distracting Lero just as he was about to start the process of shifting Cadence on the bed to keep her from getting bed sores. If she could get bed sores. It probably didn't hurt to try, at least.

In any case, Lero looked up. A white unicorn stallion was leaning against the doorframe. Lero couldn't see his cutie mark, but that streaked blue mane was distinctive enough. "Shining Armor?" he asked. "You know you can't come in here. They're still..."

Shining Armor cut him off. "I have to see my wife," he rasped. "I'm over it now, so I can see her. Cadie!"

He stumbled forward. Most of his body was still gray, and much of his mane. His face and chest were white, though, where Lero had first seen him. "I'm here, Cadie," he groaned out. His hooves thumped unevenly against the floor. Lero stood up to try to hold him back.

"Careful, Shining." Lero knelt down and wrapped his arms around Shining Armor's neck, trying to halt his progress. "It's a lot stronger for alicorns. You might catch it again, or get something else. They're getting better, I promise."

Shining Armor's nostrils were flaring as he leaned against Lero. His muscles were shaking and he felt feverish under Lero's hands, but he started to relax. "I can feel her," he said, like a man finding an oasis in a desert. "I can feel her."

His horn sparked. It was only for a moment, and the force field he created wouldn't have passed muster for a raw recruit into the Shield Brigade, but it was enough to knock Lero backwards. Shining Armor tottered forward as fast as his gray and nearly numb legs would carry him while Lero got to his feet.

"Cadie," Shining Armor groaned. He lowered his head to kiss her.

The grayness overtook him before he got within a foot of her. Her eyes stayed shut. Lero winced, then went to go guide the again-plagued Captain of the Guard back to the door.

***

There were fortunately few other relapses in Canterlot, the doctors told him, almost all among ponies still in their gray phase; only Shining Armor seemed to have come down with a whole new round of the plague. Lero's role tending to Celestia and Cadence remained resolutely solo. He dreamed that night.

The sky was blue and the grass was green. A brighter blue and a stronger green than even Ponyville's colorful hues had ever matched. Lero was sitting in soft grasses on a hillside next to Princess Luna. She was smaller, smaller even than a regular pony, and wore only her crown, which had sized itself to fit her. A dozen foals laughed on a field below, running happily about, bouncing a ball between them in some game whose rules only they could fathom. Luna was leaning against his side, tears running down her face.

Lero set his hand on the back of her head and gently ran his fingers through her mane.

She trembled. Her voice was quiet but steady when she spoke. "This is their last dream."

Lero let her talk.

"Those little colts, those beautiful fillies... They will never wake again. And I cannot help them. All I can do is give them one last bright, sunny day, to play together and make friends. They can share their end together and never know."

She sobbed. Lero brushed her mane and let her. She kept her head up, though, not turning away from the foals below.

"If I can do nothing else for them, I will be here. I will watch their dream with them and know their lives ended in innocent joy. But it hurts, Lero. I must be strong for my ponies. I can not let my court see my weakness. I must be strong."

He wiped her cheek. More tears ran over his fingers.

"You stand watch over my sister in her weakness, Lero. You will watch over me in mine, and so I can let you see my weakness now. I pray you, Lero, please, be with me tonight. My sister recovers, and sweet Cadence. And then it will be my turn to succumb, perhaps to dream of youth and freedom. But I will awaken when it ends, and take up my duties once more. My sister will have no cause to weep for me. But there are so many..."

He heard the music start. It was beautiful. He hoped that it was as beautiful when his girls heard it. He knew with dream-certainty that he had no role in it, that he only needed to listen. So he did.

Luna pulled away and wiped a wing over her face, clearing away her tears. She stood, and spread her wings, walking slowly down the hill toward the foals.

"Come, little children, I'll take thee away, into a land of enchantment," she sang to them. The fillies and colts looked up in surprise, and then laughed and ran to her. He saw her wings shake, but her voice betrayed nothing but a willing, loving offer. "Come, little children, the time's come to play, here in my garden of Shadows..."

The sky stayed a brilliant blue, but the yellow-circle sun faded, turning to a silver circle in the sky. The shadows grew long and welcoming; they wrapped around Lero like a blanket, cool and comforting. Luna herself grew larger, approaching her normal size. The foals' little legs churned as they galloped toward her, and the song filled the world.

Follow, sweet children, I'll show thee the way,
through all the pain and the sorrows...
Weep not, poor children, for life is this way,
murdering beauty and passions.

Hush now, dear children, it must be this way,
to weary of life and deceptions.
Rest now, my children, for soon we'll away,
into the calm and the Quiet...

The foals laughed with joy as they went to her, bounding alongside their new-found lifelong friends. If there was sorrow in her words, it did not pierce their innocence. One by one they came to her side, and smiled at her, and she found a smile for each of them, and a tear. And one by one they lay down on the dream-soft grasses and closed their eyes.

There were no more foals awake on the field when she finished the song to the unmoving forms.

"Come, little children, I'll take thee away, into a land of enchantment," she promised them, standing tall between them, wings spread as though to guard them against some unseen force. "Come, little children, the time's come to play, here in my garden of Shadows..."

They faded. Lero and Luna were alone in the field.

Luna fell to her side, sobbing. Lero ran to her. He held her as she mourned.

It was not so very long before another foal walked out onto the field, and the skies turned to sunshine again. Luna's body was shaking against Lero as she climbed back to her hooves to look out on the filly, who began to happily bounce a ball into the air.

"The old, the young, and the infirm, Lero," she said, voice thick. "I cannot defend them. Modern healing can only do so much. I have not even time to mourn them as they ought be mourned. I can only give them one last dream. And then more come here."

She wouldn't turn away from watching the last moments of her little ponies' dreams. So Lero turned to hug her instead. She had shrunk again, hardly older than a filly herself now.

The music didn't start for him. But he was dreaming and he knew he was dreaming, so he started the music instead.

"When your day is long, and the night,
the night is yours alone,
you're sure you've had enough
of this life, well hang on.
Don't let yourself go.
'Cause everybody cries.
Everybody hurts, sometimes..."

It was a very long dream.

She was still there when he had to go. When he woke up, he knew the names of every pony he had seen that night.

***

Two days later, meeting at lunch, Lyra brought back word from the corral. Rainbow Dash had stumbled her way to the guard and demanded to be let out. She apparently was under the impression she was in a drunk tank, because she kept swearing she hadn't had that much cider, but it was enough to qualify her for 'on the mend' status and a release from the pen.

They went down together to retrieve her. The sense of melancholy that had been clinging to him since the dream vanished as his heart soared. Rainbow Dash's head lifted. Her eyes focused on him, and a look of confusion crossed her face, and then the dull-blue pegasus lit up.

"Lero!" she rasped, and bolted for him.

Or tried to. Her wings were cramped and poorly tended, stiff from lack of use and weak from illness. She barely got her forehooves off the ground, and a groan of discomfort poured out from her throat. Dropping back down, she tried to gallop for him instead, but her legs were clumsy, weak. Lero met her more than halfway there.

His arms wrapped around her neck, and color ran down her mane like a crayola waterfall washing away the gray. She clung to him as tightly as her muscles would allow; he held her much more firmly. Lyra joined in, wrapping her forelegs around them both.

Rainbow Dash was surprised to feel her aqua herdmate's hug. Not that she didn't like Lyra, but, well, Lero was always their connection. And practice. She couldn't remember the last time she and Lyra had hugged each other instead of both hugging their stallion. It felt good. She'd have to think about that later. Too busy reunioning now.

Lero kissed her. Rainbow Dash closed her eyes. Had he always been so strong? Or... was she really, really weak? She hated the idea of it, but, well, right at the moment she felt like Fluttershy could probably pin her with one hoof. Not awesome. The kiss was, though.

"How are you feeling, Rainbow?" Lero asked, when he broke the kiss. He could feel her heart racing from just that short stumbling rush.

"Well... Normally you'd never hear me say this, but not awesome at all," she admitted. "I mean, you just outraced me. That is serious levels of bad."

He laughed - and Rainbow Dash let out a squeak of surprise as he picked her up and settled her onto his back, her forelegs over his shoulders. His hands reached down and back, supporting her rump, and he bent forward to let her rest against his back.

"You better..." the blue pegasus started, then broke off as she started coughing. Several very unpleasant hacks later, she groaned. "I think I could use a nap. Maybe twenty."

"As much rest as you need," Lero promised. Then he let go of her rear with one hand just long enough to wave at the corral. "We'll be back for you soon, Twilight!" he called out, and then turned with his two herdmates to get to their temporary home.

Rainbow Dash tried to stretch out her wings while he walked. Maybe he was faster than she was right at the moment, but get her wings working and she'd be flying circles around him in no time. It was slow going, though. She had to concentrate more than she liked on just hanging onto Lero, and her wings were seriously sore. She had to flex them bit by bit, getting the muscles to respond right. She worked up a sweat just from that while he walked, and her head was resting against his. She didn't think she'd ever felt so...

... weak.

Lero settled her down atop the bed, belly-down, letting her wings lay at her sides instead of under her. Being flat was more of a relief than she liked. He ran his hand along her jawline. She tried to say something, but her tongue felt too heavy. Then her eyelids started catching way too much gravity too, and they drooped down.

When she woke up, she felt at least twenty percent better. Still way too weak and sore, but not crashing on the spot. Her wings were feeling better too. Without opening her eyes, she could feel her feathers being gently nudged into order, and her wings had definitely unkinked some.

"That feels good, Lero," she mumbled.

"Will I do?" asked a different voice. Lyra's.

Dash knew she was definitely sick when surprise didn't get her enough energy to move at that. "Lyra?" she asked.

The touches against her wings stopped, and a hoof touched her side. "I'll stop if you want me to," her herdmate told her. "Your wings were a worse mess than Scootaloo's."

Dash laid there. She felt stupid. Not like being sick was making her stupid. Like she'd been stupid for a while. Very uncool. But she didn't have to keep being stupid. "You can help me preen anytime, Lyra," she said. Still not opening her eyes, though. "We're herding together, aren't we? I shouldn't keep that kind of stuff from you."

Lyra wasn't using her magic. Rainbow Dash knew how precise Lyra's magic could be. She was doing it the pegasus way, nudging each feather into place with lips and tongue.

"You don't need to do anything you're uncomfortable with," Lyra said quietly. "You know I've learned patience."

"I learn stuff too," Dash said back. "Like..." She sighed. "Like when you hugged me and I totally realized it was completely lame of me to not be doing our relationship right. Twi and I have done a lot of stuff together with the Elements and all, but that just means I've gotta work harder to connect more with you."

"Oh?" Lyra asked.

"Yeah," Dash answered. "I mean... ow, pull that one, it's cracked, I can feel it. Yeah, just, just like that... ah, that's better. Thanks." She took several deep breaths. Stupid being sick. Just talking was making her tired? Really? "So, anyway... Yeah. If I do something I should do it awesome, and I haven't been. So, I mean, I'm still bent and all, so I'm not gonna ask you to jump into bed with me, but I wouldn't ask Twi that either."

"Besides, I'm in bed with you right now," Lyra pointed out, gently teasing. The cracked feather went on the nightstand by the bed.

"Waaaay too out of it for puns," the pegasus groaned. "But, look. I know I started being a lot more comfortable doing romantic stuff with Twi after she played with Lero and me, and I love her a lot, but I still wouldn't want to sleep with her without Lero. I'm, y'know, physical."

"I may have noticed that," Lyra deadpanned.

"You are totally keeping me from getting deep here," Dash grumbled. "And doing it on purpose and it's working. So unfair. Anyway. Yeah. Physical." She took a deep breath. Then coughed hard. When she could breathe steadily again, she resumed. "So... Listen, it's gonna be hard for me, I'm not gonna deny it, but when I'm better I want to..." She took another deep breath. "Court you. And maybe try stuff with Lero together. We've got the best herd in Equestria and I'm not gonna let anything mess it up, and definitely not me. So if I have to push my boundaries some, well, you're worth it."

Lyra's head moved up, and pressed her lips to Rainbow Dash's cheek. "Loyal, brave, and cute. How can I say no?"

Those blue cheeks turned red. "Loyal, brave, and cool, sure. But you know I'm never gonna be cute, Lyra."

Lyra nuzzled her cheek. "You pick your definition of cute, I'll stick with mine. Lero agrees with me. You can deny it if you want. I'll wait."

"Nopony ever waits for Rainbow Dash."

"Then I'll be the first."

***

Lero wasn't back until after sunset. The stars were bright that night. Rainbow Dash had slept off and on all afternoon, but she was awake when Lero returned. He didn't say a thing; he slid onto the edge of the bed and pulled her against his chest. Somehow, coming back to find her weak in bed hit him harder than carrying her to the room in the first place did. She rested her head against his shoulder.

"Don't get too used to this," she mumbled. "I'll be back in the air in no time, and then I'll totally have the strength to be hugging you back."

He laughed and nuzzled her cheek. "I'll hold you to that. In the meantime, I bet we can borrow a scooter from a certain fan of yours. You can ask her to teach you some tricks."

Lyra grinned. Rainbow Dash groaned. "I will have such total vengeance on you just for thinking about that," she promised. But didn't lift her head from his shoulder.

"Not total vengeance," Lero countered. "Princess Celestia wouldn't like that. And she opened her eyes today at sundown."

"She woke up?" Lyra inquired.

"Not all the way," Lero said. He shifted his grip, hugging Lyra to his side, keeping one arm around Rainbow Dash's barrel. "But she opened her eyes and looked around, and she cooled off a lot for a few minutes. I'm going to try to get her to drink some water at sunrise."

"You've gotta get up at sunrise?" Rainbow Dash asked. "I guess Princess Celestia does it every day. But she's the Princess." She nuzzled back at Lero. "I oughta keep my stallion on better hours."

Lero smiled and adjusted her position so he could kiss her. "It's a temp job. Overtime's where the real bits are."

Lyra leaned in, and Dash found herself pressing back against the other mare. It felt kinda nice.

"Think Cadence might let you keep visiting afterward?" Lyra asked.

"Huh? What's that supposed to mean?" a confused pegasus asked. "Why would you be visiting Cadence?"

"She's here too," Lero explained. "You were already out when she arrived."

Rainbow Dash thought about shaking her head and decided to just stick with saying it. "Nah, I could guess that. Why visit her after?"

Lyra nuzzled her herdmate's chest. "It's cozy, isn't it? Lero spends all day sitting in a big room stuffed with the most potent love magic in Equestria, and we get to snuggle up to him after."

The cyan pegasus pushed with weak hooves at Lero's chest. "Whoa, whoa, whoa..." She interrupted herself with coughing again. Her chest hurt, but she wheezed out, "We're all soaking up love magic?"

"We all loved each other before we got on the train," he reminded her. "So all it's really doing for us is helping make things more comfortable."

"Well..." Rainbow Dash muttered, her legs tiring, letting her slump back against Lero's chest. "I don't like the idea of somepony messing with my head."

She felt Lyra becoming very still at her side, and Dash wanted to facehoof. "I'm not taking back a single word I said all day, Lyra. Nothing to do with this. I am gonna be so romantic with you Rarity's gonna call me overboard. But I don't like getting my head messed with."

"I'll wait until nopony's messing with your head, then," Lyra said calmly.

Lero looked between the two of them. "Did I miss something?"

Dash sighed. "I had this big realization when I woke up and Lyra was preening my feathers that I was being less than awesome as a herdmate to her. So I said I'm gonna fix that and stuff. And I am."

"I wasn't here when that happened," Lero mentioned.

Lyra relaxed against Rainbow Dash's side. Dash let out a sigh of relief of her own. "So I wasn't getting love-woogied into anything, see? Too tired to move so all that coolness that would usually be going into flying and practice had to go into thinking instead."

Lyra laughed and nuzzled Rainbow Dash's chest again. "Come meditate with me sometime. We'll have you out-thinking Twilight if you regularly put that coolness to use in your brain."

Rainbow Dash yawned, eyelids drooping again. "No way. My head would explode from concentrated mega-awesome-amazingness if I didn't let it all out all the time."

She was smiling as she fell asleep, though.

***

Celestia was notably cooler the next morning. Lero could get close without needing the blacksmith's apron. The water still steamed and sizzled when it hit her side, but the beads jumped as though they were on a skillet, not the middle of a roaring fire. Not cool enough to touch, and he didn't think he could get the feeding tube into her throat without being burned, but compared to the state she'd been in for the last couple of weeks it was downright comfortable.

Her eyes opened just before sunrise. Lero had a pitcher and a straw ready.

"Princess Celestia?" he asked softly, kneeling down. "Can you hear me?"

She didn't respond. Her eyes fixed on the window and the horizon beyond it. Lero risked a fingertip, then his hand, touching the side of her neck. She felt feverish now, but not burning. He lifted the straw to her lips, but she didn't open her mouth.

The edge of the sun peeked above the horizon. Her eyes closed and Lero had to jerk his hand away to keep from getting burned.

***

Rainbow Dash was still in bed when Lero returned. Lyra was sitting next to her, a thick scroll in front of her face, reading out loud.

"Daring stared at the pink unicorn in front of her. 'Say again?' she asked numbly. 'Celestia,' the unicorn repeated with a smile. 'I'm on the solar team. Is there a problem?'" the aqua unicorn read.

"Oh, no way," muttered Rainbow Dash. "Daring gets chucked back in time and one of the first ponies she meets is Princess Celestia before she was even an alicorn? That's just so lame."

"Hello, girls!" Lero called out, and hastened over to give first Lyra, then Rainbow Dash a kiss. "What's that you're reading?"

Rainbow Dash coughed. It wasn't one of the chest-wracking coughs from yesterday, but a 'not saying a thing' cough.

Lyra just laughed. "An official Canterlot secret." She waggled the scroll in the air. "According to palace legend, this is a Daring Do fanfic written by Princess Celestia herself. I heard about it this morning and was able to acquire a copy. Daring Do and the Time-Strewn Tangle."

Lero coughed. He tried and failed to picture Celestia writing a fanfic. Somehow, despite knowing perfectly well that of course she'd use a quill like any of the other ponies, he kept picturing her dipping her horn into an inkwell and wiggling her head to scribble on a scroll pinned to the wall. While wearing a home-made Daring Do costume. He couldn't decide whether Luna would laugh herself sick at the idea or jump to her sister's defense. He hoped he wouldn't dream about that image.

"Yeah, there's no way it's hers," Rainbow Dash said confidently, if without much volume. "This is Princess Celestia we're talking about."

"You don't think Princess Celestia would be good at writing?" Lyra inquired, raising an eyebrow.

"She'd be awesome at it, she's the princess," Rainbow Dash retorted. "Way better than this. But I was meaning if she'd written it and didn't want anypony to know about it, she's got the royal vaults and probably a gazillion other places to hide it."

"Rainbow's been sitting still too long," Lero told Lyra gravely. "I think she's suffering a buildup of mega-awesome-amazingness in the brain."

Lyra stifled a giggle. Rainbow Dash managed to lift her head and stuck out her tongue at Lero. "Just as soon as I can stand up, I am gonna mega-awesome-amazing you like you've never been mega-awesome-amazinged before."

"Can I watch?" Lyra asked.

Rainbow Dash's cheeks flushed. But then she swallowed and nodded her head. "Yeah. If you can keep up, I mean. Things are gonna be so far into incredible you're gonna have to switch from the Still Way to the Galloping Way just to... to... blah, that is totally not working."

"I got the gist of it," Lyra said, and leaned over to nuzzle her herdmate's cheek.

***

By the end of the week, Celestia's temperature had finally receded back to merely feverish all day long, and Lero was able to get food and water into her again. The kitchens had almost completely recovered as well, and the menu expanded back to its usual wide variety, and Lero found that soup was far easier to get through the feeding tube than oatmeal. She opened her eyes at sunrise and sunset, but had yet to respond to Lero. He was able to shift her position on the scorch-marked floor, though he made sure she always faced the sunrise. He tended to her wings, too; life with Rainbow Dash had long since ingrained in him the importance of proper preening. Cadence was still out, but the waves of love had died off. Lero didn't terribly miss the propositions in the hallways, though the number of hugs dropped off. Not all of them, though. The magic was gone, but friendships and good feelings stayed.

Rainbow Dash took three days before she could stand, and just walking across the room left her slumped in a chair panting. It was two more after that before she could stay upright for any length of time. Only Daring Do and the Time-Strewn Tangle kept her from turning irritable; it took Lyra all five days to finish reading it. Most of it. Rainbow Dash stopped her at the climactic scene, where Daring Do had to face Discord himself to get to the last shard of shattered time that would restore Celestia's destiny.

"Daring screamed as Discord's touch drove into her. Like a dagger of pure ice, his power struck at her very spirit, leaving his mark on the deepest core of herself, cutting away... well, her Daring. He laughed down at her as her coat paled. 'No so much of a hero now, are you?' he taunted her. Daring Do looked up. She felt the fear coursing through her, felt him trying to control her, and forced herself to spit out, 'Enough of one,'" Lyra read.

"Stop," said Dash with a shudder. "Just... Sorry, Lyra. But... no way that's the Princess' writing. That's... not what it's like at all."

"It's just a story," Lyra said quietly.

"It just got a little too personal," Dash said back, and sat on the edge of the bed. "That big blast of Harmony fixed everything, and it even got the six of us over having our heads messed with, but I still remember. Getting Discorded is totally not like that. It's not a bolt of ice into you. You don't feel him doing it. You don't want to fight it. You don't know there's anything to fight. You just change who you are, right then and there. It took Twilight's magic to fix us up, and friendship. One pony, even a pony as awesome as Daring Do, just... couldn't. Not alone."

Lyra nodded and rolled up the scroll.

***

There was a letter waiting when Lero came back that evening.

Dear Bellerophon, Twilight, Rainbow Dash, and Lyra,

I do hope you've all recuperated by now. Ponyville seems to have weathered the worst of this dreadful disease without too much ill effect. Thank Celestia Ponyville has such a large earth pony population; with the notable exceptions of Applejack and Big Macintosh, it's only been a week or two each that our brave yeomanry are taken from their work. Even Applejack and Big Macintosh are recovering, and please don't let them know I told you this, but they are positively darling when they're insisting they can go tend to their trees when they're wobbling on their hooves like newborn foals. Honestly, I had to challenge Applejack to a physical competition before she would let me put her back to bed! She didn't actually take me up on it, which rather disappointed me, because when else in the world would I possibly be able to go hoof to hoof with Applejack and win? But she let me put her back to bed, and promised she wouldn't do any farm work of any kind until she was really and truly well again.

I myself am well on the path to recovery, though I dare say I shall not begrudge myself another day or two of rest. The walk to Sweet Apple Acres was taxing, I admit, but I couldn't bear to leave the Apples untended. Fluttershy finally caught sick herself, and her adorable little animal friends seem to be suffering from it as well. That rapscallion bunny of hers tried to take advantage of the situation, but he fell ill himself. Zecora has temporarily relocated into town and is taking care of Fluttershy. She said, and I shall try to capture her words as she so charmingly put them, 'Wandering the Everfree is never a safe place to be. Wandering lost in a haze, I fear I would not last two days. When I one day catch this curse, I too will need a tending nurse.'

Dear Spikey-wikey... oh, he has been the very noblest of dragons. The poor darling can barely stand, and yet he has taken it upon himself to fill Twilight's place as town organizer. He really is quite good with lists, even when he's feeling so absolutely wretched. Mayor Mare has been looking after him during the day, and when he comes home to Carousel Boutique in the evenings he's often still trying to do more work. His dedication is beyond compare. Twilight, you really choose better than you knew when you declared him the new Rainbow Dash. I heard him mumbling one night, and it just made my heart melt. He was talking to the plague itself, and do you know what he told it? He said, 'Do anything you want to me, but I'm not going to let you hurt my ponies.' I do believe he's found a safe and altogether dashing outlet for his hoarding instinct. We're all his treasures. With that said, I really do hope that he recovers soon. He's not a pony, and I spent one entire afternoon searching through the library for anything about dragon medicine, but everything I could find simply said 'Dragons don't get sick.' He's never lost his memory, but I don't think he has the strength to even chew gems. I gave him a sapphire last night and it was still intact in the morning.

Pinkie Pie seems to be recuperating, but very slowly. As Celestia is my witness, and if she is in fact reading this then yes, please, I do mean it with all my heart, I will never bemoan her ceaseless frivolity again. Without Pinkie and her endless parties and wonderful laughter, Ponyville is just not the happy and optimistic place I know. It goes against so very many of my design principles, but I have been personally preparing a 'Pinkie Got Better' party for her doing my best to follow Pinkie's own inimitable style. Streamers and balloons it is, with the largest, most garish cake the Cakes can fit through their door. I even attempted to borrow her Party Cannon for the effort, but the very first page of the user manual informed me that I apparently lack some seven different licenses needed to operate the device. I think I shall have to think quite a lot about what it means for Ponyville that Pinkie is a licensed pyrotechnician.

I have one final story from about town to share before I send this to you, and to the best of my knowledge it is unique in all of Equestria. Just like every pony in town, Derpy Hooves caught the plague herself, just the other day. She carried on with her mail route until she lacked the strength to continue, and then began to wander through the center of town. Her coat didn't show the effects to any great degree, but her mane and expression were quite telling. But then Dinky ran up to her crying, "Momma! Momma!" and clung to her for dear life. A heartbreaking scene, but one all too many foals have displayed in the last few weeks when their parents succumbed. But only dear Derpy responded to that by returning the hug and restoring her proper coloration. I think that I will never again hear the word 'Muffin' said with such fierceness, determination, and purpose. We are all, I think, no little bit in awe. If ever the Element of Motherhood is found, I have little doubt that Derpy Hooves will be its bearer.

Your friend,
Rarity

***

Lero had once again repositioned Celestia and was restoring order to her wings several when he heard something. A distinct groan from the alicorn whose feathers he was aligning.

"Princess?" he asked cautiously. If she decided he was an enemy again, he didn't want to be too close, just in case she had a sudden surge of strength.

"Lero," she rasped back. Her voice was completely shot, either from the feeding tube or simply from weeks without water. He hurried to her with a pitcher, and she sipped at it. Her voice was still scratchy afterward. "Thank you. I have not felt this bad in... ever." The effort seemed to exhaust her, and she did not raise her head from the bricks she was still laid atop. Lero guiltily made a note to get her back onto the divan as soon as he could.

"You're going to be okay, Princess," he told her, and hoped he wasn't lying. She'd recognized him and she wasn't talking in Old High Equestrian, so he hoped that meant she hadn't hurt her brain with all that heat.

"Me too?" mumbled a voice behind him. Lero turned, and Cadence's eyes were open too. She smiled feebly at him, then coughed. Her face screwed up into a wince. "My throat... haven't felt this scratchy since... since..." She coughed again, then groaned. "Can't even come up with a good filthy joke. I must be sick."

Lero blinked. It took him a moment. "... Twilight never mentioned..."

Cadence and Celestia both let out pained laughs together. Cadence rasped, "Twilight would melt into a small embarrassed puddle if she heard me tell one of those. Innocent little filly. Sex is part of love, having fun with sex is part of love."

That speech seemed to take everything the pink alicorn had left, and she closed her eyes again. Celestia joined her a moment later.

Lero's eyes glanced at the bottom shelf of the trolley. He made a mental note to stop bringing the tube. For the moment, he took the brushes from the middle shelf. He'd taken care of their wings, and he'd brushed their coats down after washing the princesses, but he hadn't done much with their manes or tails. Now that they were waking up, he supposed he should work on that. Their hair was in surprisingly good shape for going weeks unbrushed.

He started with Cadence. The yellow, pink and purple of her mane made him feel like he was brushing Twilight and Fluttershy at the same time, but the texture was even finer, softer and silkier.

Phenomenal cosmic powers, enormous living spaces, and super-hair. Seems almost unfair to get that too, he thought to himself. It was helpful, though. He was no hairdresser, but he got her hair back more or less the way it was when she came into the throne room in the first place. It wasn't too tricky to pull most of it to one side and sweep her bangs across.

Celestia's mane defeated him. It was no more tangled nor any less soft than Cadence's mane. The defeat came from himself. He had to force himself to touch that pink hair with the brush for one stroke. By the third stroke his hands were shaking so badly he couldn't hold the brush, and he had to step away, turn around, and take very deep breaths.

When he turned around again, Celestia's eyes had slitted open. She breathed out, "I'm sorry," and then her eyes closed again.

Lero felt like a complete heel.

***

Lero brought the news of the double awakening back to the suite that evening. Cadence hadn't woken again, but Celestia did at sunrise, long enough to drink a little soup. Rainbow Dash tried to fly up to hug him, and her forehooves lifted off the ground - but Lyra walked over and physically put a hoof on Rainbow's back.

The aqua unicorn sternly informed her alpha mare, "I know you're frustrated, and I'm not going to waste anypony's time telling you Still Way philosophy on patience again. I'm just going to tie you up and not in the Daring Do way if you try to fly again before you've recovered."

Rainbow Dash let out a long-suffering sigh, but folded her wings and walked to Lero to hug him instead. "Fiiiine. Earth pony Rainbow Dash, here I am. But seriously, that's great news, Lero. If the Princesses are recovering, it won't be long before we can get back to Ponyville and I can start fixing the weather. The skies are probably a mess."

Lyra came over to join them. "I have some good news too. Twilight ate a daisy sandwich from the table today instead of sticking her face into the grass again. I think she might finally be snapping out of it."

Lero knuckled behind Lyra's ear. "Finally!"

Rainbow Dash poked gently at Lero's side with a hoof. "The plague eats magic. She's the most powerful unicorn in Equestria, and she doesn't get enough exercise, and she's got the Element of Magic. Of course she's gonna take forever to get over it."

Lero kissed her forehead. "Of all the ponies in Equestria, I think you are the very least allowed to criticize anyone else at all for showing signs of impatience."

Dash hmmphed. "I'll always stick up for Twilight. Even if you're right."

Lero smiled and kissed her again. "How about sticking up for Princess Luna?"

Dash blinked. "Huh? Luna? What's that got to do with anything?"

Lyra smiled inscrutably. Lero ran a hand along Rainbow's neck, stopping well short of the upper back. "You wanted to get back to Ponyville, but once Celestia's recovered, I have to stay and take care of Princess Luna next. She's probably going to be just as contagious as Celestia and Cadence."

Dash groaned and leaned into Lero. "Oh, buck me. Two more months? There won't even be a sky left, it's just going to be one big fogbank from the ground to Cloudsdale at that point. Can't Luna come to Ponyville to be looked after?"

Lero stroked her mane again. "Shining Armor caught it twice off of Cadence, so alicorns are contagious even if you've already had it. And I don't want to have to explain to Rarity or Applejack why their sisters went gray again."

Rainbow Dash groaned again. "Cutie Mark Crusaders Quarantine Breakers, yeah. I'm surprised those three don't have Discord for cutie marks at this point."

Back in Ponyville, three excited fillies squealed at the same time, and a prank for the ages began. After it was over, everypony admitted that it was indeed hilarious and just what a Pinkie-less town needed to raise some smiles. But that's a different story.

"Heaven forfend," Lero said.

"I don't wanna go back without you, but I can't ditch Ponyville or the weather team," Rainbow Dash glumly said. "This sucks."

Lero kissed her a third time. "It'll only be a couple of months, and you won't be sick this time. You can take the train up. Or fly direct."

Rainbow Dash spread her wings and stretched them - but with a look at Lyra, put them back at her sides. "I guess that would be a good way to do some endurance training and rebuild after all this. Bleah. Distance flights are boring. Give me sprints any day."

"Twilight could race you," Lyra suggested. "It's a little longer than the Running of the Leaves, but she could give you a head start."

Dash rolled her eyes. "Nopony is ever gonna let me and AJ forget that, are they?"

***

Life in Canterlot continued to improve. The plague was finally dying out in the city as fewer and fewer potential sufferers were left who hadn't been infected. Cadence and Celestia were awake for longer and longer periods each day, and regained enough strength to shift positions on their own. He urged soup and water on them as often as he could, and their voices soon recovered. Wild Wonder promised to personally buck Lero to the moon if he ever let the princesses know where he'd gotten that feeding tube.

Shining Armor took to having Lero bring letters in for Cadence from him; the guards themselves wouldn't let the white stallion get to the throne room anymore. He wasn't captain anymore, after all, and he'd already gone charging in twice. So he wrote letters. Several of them a day.

Sending letters the other way was more problematic. Cadence couldn't hold a quill in her magic long enough or steadily enough to write, and a mouth-pen was obviously too much of a contagion risk. She also declined to dictate her love letters to her husband, so limited her communications to what Lero could repeat verbally for her.

Most of the letters Shining Armor sent wrought a happy sigh, an 'awwww,' or just a warm smile from the pink princess. One brought a distinct flush to her cheeks.

Lero couldn't resist. "Do you need help reading that one, Cadence?" he asked innocently.

She gave him the most princessly sniff he'd ever seen, better even than Blueblood's. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, and her horn and the letter glowed briefly. The letter curled back up into its scroll, and she gave Lero a slightly-too-wide smile.

"Go ahead and try, Lero," she said sweetly. "I hope you don't mind the Want-It-Need-It spell I just attached. It'll cast itself on anyone but me who reads it. You'd get used to being mobbed by lustful ponies every time you walk down the street in no time."

Then she passed out with great dignity, the spell too much for her.

***

"Lero!" came a shout as soon as he opened the door to Twilight's suite. Visions of a stuffed tiger pouncing came to his mind, and he wasn't far off. Rainbow Dash charged, reared up, and flung her forelegs around his waist. It was a charge in slow-motion, though, reminding Lero just how much further his mare had to go in recovery.

"Get these stupid ropes off of me!" she demanded. Lero blinked and looked down. Sure enough, Rainbow Dash's wings were tightly tied to her sides by several loops of rope.

Lyra waved a hoof from the seat next to the bed. "I warned her," she said serenely.

Lero looked down at the frustrated cyan pony. "She warned you," he said.

"Aaaargh!" She threw her hooves up and turned around, stomping back across the floor.

Lyra tilted her head. "Good form on that," she noted.

Rainbow Dash whirled to her. "Good form on what?"

Lyra gestured at the floor. "Shattered Stone. I'd say that was brown-belt form at least. Not bad for a style you don't train in."

Rainbow Dash looked down. The floor was fine. She looked back up to Lyra and snorted. "Very funny."

Lyra smiled at her. "I'm serious. I don't have the muscle for Rolling Earth, let alone Shattered Stone, but you were doing picture-perfect Breaker Stomps."

Rainbow Dash just looked at her. Then facehoofed. "Oh no. You do not get to tease me that I'm turning into an earth pony when you tied my wings up in the first place. So not cool."

Lyra shook her head. "I'm not joking. I know what Shattered Stone looks like, even if I can't do it, and you were doing it right. If you were at full strength, you might have actually cracked the floor."

Rainbow Dash scowled at her. Lyra smiled. "Would you like me to get a second opinion? There's a Shattered Stone grandmaster who lives in Canterlot, and he'd be very impressed at a pegasus pulling off a Breaker Stomp."

Rainbow Dash glowered. "What are you trying to do?" she asked.

Lyra beamed. "Distract you, mostly."

Rainbow Dash facehoofed again and rolled onto the bed. "Since when does the Still Way include conversations?"

"When you hit third rank black belt," Lyra said.

Rainbow Dash seriously considered whether she could facehoof hard enough to just knock herself out for the night. She'd call it Shredded Dignity Style.

***

The guards closed the outdoor corral the next week. Aside from Twilight Sparkle, there were only a half-dozen patients left, and plenty of ponies available to take care of them individually. She was still listless, but at least responding to questions. Lero hugged her to his chest and carried her on his back to the room. He swore he could see hints of purple in her coat.

Celestia and Cadence were wobbly as foals, but they were able to stand for the first time in over a month. Briefly, at least, but long enough to relieve Lero of a duty all three of them were perfectly glad to never mention again. Magic was still taxing for them both. Cadence had to teach Celestia how to eat without magic; Cadence had been a pegasus before her ascension, but Celestia had never had to go without the use of her horn.

"Why don't you give it a try, Lero?" Cadence asked brightly, munching on a slice of apple. "It's a useful skill to have."

"I'm not sure when I'd find a need for it," Lero demurred. "And I don't have the face for it."

Celestia laughed gently. "I didn't need to know it until now, Lero, but I'm learning."

Cadence nodded. "Who knows when you might find yourself having to eat with your arms tied to your sides?" she suggested. Then smiled. Lero opened his mouth. Cadence said, "Princess of Love." Lero closed his mouth.

Celestia lowered her head back to her salad to hide her smile.

Lero cleared his throat. "Anyway. It's not exactly human manners to eat that way. Wrong facial structure. Extended nose and chin."

Cadence waved a hoof. "You're the only human in Equestria. Anything you do is automatically human manners. Give it a try."

"Think of it as a challenge," Celestia suggested.

Lero sighed. "I'm going to have to do this, aren't I?"

"That does seem to be the case," Celestia agreed.

Lero set down the third salad the kitchen had supplied. Since 'mixed greens' in Equestrian terms included a large variety of human-inedibles, he'd ended up with a 'Chaser salad' instead. It was definitely heavy on the anchovies, but he knew he could eat the lettuce. Lero carefully bent down and caught the edge of the top leaf with his teeth, then lifted it and worked his jaw and tongue to pull it into his mouth.

Cadence clopped her hooves together. "See, auntie? He got it first time. It's not so hard."

Celestia laughed. "Lero is far more adaptable than I am in many ways. I'm sure I can find a friendship lesson to send to Twilight in this. In the meantime, Lero, would you please assist me with a napkin?"

"Am I allowed to use my hands?" asked Lero. "And remember, I still have permission from Luna to give the Abandon Canterlot order."

Cadence paused, then laughed. "You beat me to it. All right, you can use your hands. You would have been so cute giving Celestia napkin-nuzzles."

Celestia gave Cadence an amused look. "I think our teacher is letting power go to her head. Shall I bring out the Magic Kindergarten photo album? I have it safely stored in the vaults, but I think with some assistance I could walk that far."

Cadence giggled. "Truce, truce!"

Celestia lifted her chin while Lero got the dressing off of her muzzle. "In the interests of peace between the Crystal Empire and the rest of Equestria, I gladly accept."

A roil of green fire flashed in the air above Celestia's head and turned into a scroll. Lero dropped the napkin and caught it before it could land in her salad. He looked at the outside, then showed it to Celestia. "It's for you."

Celestia lifted her head. "Please, Lero, read it. I am not yet certain I could hold it steady."

Lero nodded and opened the scroll.

Dear Princess Celestia,

Over the last two moons, we learned a lot of lessons. We learned that nopony can do it all on her own. We learned that sometimes everypony has to do more than their share. We learned that all of us are stronger than each of us. We learned how to buck trees and how to weed carrots, how to fight fires and how to cut red tape. We learned that not every problem can be solved by magic, and not every problem can be solved without magic. We learned that we are Ponyville, and that's a lesson we're not going to forget.

Signed,
Ponyville

P.S. We also learned that under no circumstances should the Cutie Mark Crusaders be allowed to operate a Party Cannon, and for the safety of all Equestria we ask that this be made a Royal Command instead of a town ordinance.

Signed,
Rarity

P.P.S We also also learned that anypony ordering in excess of three tons of tapioca, six conifers, and a goldfish should be arrested immediately, and please, please, please do not ask why.

Signed,
Mayor Mare

Celestia blinked, then laughed aloud. "Oh, dear! I had forgotten that one."

Lero and Cadence looked at each other. Celestia raised a hoof. "In this case, 'please do not ask why' is excellent advice."

***

The two alicorns continued to improve markedly. The next day, Celestia had regained enough magical strength and control to reclaim knife and fork and to repair the pink lengths of her mane and tail, and both were able to walk about the throne room steadily. The following morning, Lero was watching the sun rise with Celestia and Cadence. The golden orb crested the horizon, and Celestia let out a warm, satisfied sigh.

Lero turned and dropped to his knees. His mind went blank.

The next thing he knew he was out in the hallway, facing away from the throne room. The door pulled almost shut behind him. The Lady's... no, the Princess' voice called to him. "I am so greatly sorry, Lero! Please, take today off. I did not mean to surprise you like that."

Mind still awhirl, he staggered to his feet and walked into the shower.

***

He was still shaken when he got back to the suite. Lyra was sitting in a chair, meditating; Rainbow Dash was sprawled over the bed reading. Lero could see the title from the door. 'Boomers: Hurricane and Rainbow, A Comparison.' Twilight Sparkle was a gray lump leaning against a wall.

Twilight was the first to raise her head when the door opened. Her eyes slowly focused, and her mouth opened. "Le... ro?" She blinked twice, then croaked, "Lero?" Purple raced down her body and she cried out, "Lero!" She tried to run for her still-shocked stallion, but the moment she pulled away from the wall her legs gave out under her. "Lero," she gasped out on her side, and concentrated. A single spark leaked from the tip of her horn. "What?"

Lyra's eyes opened and Rainbow Dash looked up. Rainbow Dash dropped her book, and then the room filled with a loud SNAP as her wings burst the ropes binding them to her sides. She bolted to him in the air and stopped in front of him, her forehooves on his shoulders. "Lero! Lero, what's wrong?" she demanded.

Lyra got to her hooves and walked to the door. Twilight was too busy trying to figure out why her magic hadn't worked, Lero was still half-stunned, and Rainbow Dash was looking the wrong way to see the way she moved, hooves sliding a fraction of an inch above the floor instead of stepping normally. If Lero had known what he was seeing, he would have hurried to tell her no one needed to die right now. Rainbow Dash might not have, not until she knew what had her stallion in such a state. The Serpent Slide was not a sight for tournaments.

Fortunately, there was no sign in the hallway of any trouble. Lero shook his head sharply and sat down right there in the doorway, then let out a gasp. "Gyuh! Ah! Whoa." He leaned forward, taking deep breaths, and put his hand to his head. "Sorry, sorry. Sorry, girls. It's all right. The, uh... the sunrise was a 'mane event.'"

The tension dropped sharply. Lyra didn't move, but the intensity of her stillness receded. Rainbow Dash hugged Lero hard. Twilight groaned loudly as how incredibly awful she felt caught up to her.

Lero's arms wrapped around his mare, and he felt the warmth of her, felt the racing of her heart, saw the bright defiant colors of her mane. He found his equilibrium, and he held her close until his heart had slowed.

***

Three days later, Celestia raised the sun. Twilight was too miserably ill to get out of bed, and Lero couldn't return to the throne room. Prince Blueblood had resumed the duty of delivering food and water to the alicorns, and word from the guards had it that the notoriously self-centered prince had risen to the occasion during the plague, rallying and calming the ponies of Canterlot for weeks.

Lero held Twilight in his arms to watch the sunrise, with Rainbow Dash and Lyra at his sides. The sun's edge peeked into view, but no golds and oranges came with it. Ink-black night surrounded the sun, stars twinkling all around it as though laughing at a shared joke with it. The darkness rose even as the light did, until the sun's disc had completely come into view. For a heartbeat, the sun and the stars shone together at the edge of the sky. Then the stars gracefully dimmed, and the sun rose amidst a spray of color.

"I think she's feeling better now," Lyra said.

"Lucky her," groaned Twilight.

***

Princess Cadence and Shining Armor left that day on the afternoon train toward the Crystal Empire. They stopped by the suite to give Lero their thanks and to say goodbye to Twilight. The lavender unicorn could barely find the strength to lift a hoof, but they both bent to nuzzle her, and Cadence did a variation on their usual greeting: "Sunshine, sunshine, dragonflies a-flit, get well soon and come visit!"

Princess Luna arrived in the evening, and came to visit as well. Lero was surprised by how worn she looked.

She gave them all a tired smile. "I am not so strong as my sister, it would seem," she said. "A mere few weeks in charge of the day and the night together and I think I have begun to look forward to being laid insensate across a couch."

"Don't be," groaned Twilight.

Luna laughed softly and crossed the room to gently run a hoof down Twilight's side. "I am sure I will have a different opinion soon enough. The moon is my domain, and I reserve the right to be changeable."

Twilight managed a very weak smile at her. "Luna e mobile, qual piuma al vento..." she croaked out.

Luna patted her again. "I may well be, at that. But I think the opera is not in your future, Twilight Sparkle."

"Just as well," Twilight said. "That's the only bit I know from Rigoletrot."

"Does anypony want to explain that?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"It's probably better not to," Lyra judged.

"Fiiiine," Dash grumped.

Luna turned to Lero. "Lero. You are willing to tend to me as you did my sister, while I am indisposed?"

Lero smiled. "Of course I will. No one should have to be alone."

Alicorns had earth pony strength, Lero was reminded a moment later. And Luna was a hugger.

Rainbow Dash frowned for a moment, but Lyra reared up onto her hind legs to give Dash a hoof-pat on the hip. "You too, Dash," she said. "I'm going back to Ponyville with you."

"But Lero's staying here," the multicolored pegasus pointed out.

"So is Twilight, and she knows everypony in the castle," Lyra said pleasantly. "They'll be just fine. I'm not leaving my herdmate to wander off by alone."

Rainbow Dash was a pretty good hugger herself.