• Published 15th Aug 2013
  • 9,298 Views, 95 Comments

Xenophilia: Plague's End - SpinelStride



The Blank Plague has burned out in Canterlot and Ponyville, but one alicorn must still undergo its ravages. But the Princess of Dreams has duties that cannot be left untended, and dreams will not bear the sun's light...

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Chapter 1: Infection

The sky over Ponyville was not, as Rainbow Dash had feared, one big fogbank from the ground to Cloudsdale. The cloudwork was on the messy side and the humidity was definitely higher than it was supposed to be, but there were a lot of towns around Equestria that had worse weather service. She was actually pretty happy with how her team had performed in her absence. Happy enough she only thought two or three times about pretending to be mad for a prank. Too easy, anyway. They'd totally be expecting it.

So it was a smiling Rainbow Dash who had her weather team lined up for a review, and a lot of puffed chests and happy faces from the pegasi she was inspecting. Most towns didn't go in for formal inspections. Most cities didn't go in for formal inspections. Most pegasi thought they were archaic shows that belonged to the Guard or the Wonderbolts, not weather teams.

Most towns and cities were still trying to get their weather back in order. Ponyville had the Everfree, the single nastiest zone of wild weather in all Equestria, on its border, and they were still one of the first towns to get the skies back on track. There wasn't a pony in the sky that day who'd trade Rainbow Dash's eccentric mix of impossible standards, casual indifference, and disdain for paperwork for any other weather team. She could do everypony's job better than they could, she could do the entire job herself if she had to, and she expected everypony else to reach for her standard - and somehow, ponies did.

She'd made Snowflake learn to assemble a perfect rainbow, and he'd gone on to apply for Wonderbolts Academy, small wings and all. She'd inspired Fluttershy, of all ponies, to join in that tornado. She'd given Star Hunter the night team, and nopony ever gave a stallion the dangerous job of flying around in the dark, let alone put him in charge. She'd inspired Princess Luna herself to pull the old ‘Bolt Surprise’ prank on her on Nightmare Night, and she wasn't even trying that time!

She also picked a monthly Most Valuable Pegasus for whoever went furthest above and beyond the call of duty that month, and the MVP award came with a certificate for a free massage from that weird mate of hers, and rumor had it that Princess Celestia couldn't get her hooves on one of those, with his waiting list.

There were a lot of reasons the Ponyville weather team was getting noticed by other weather coordinators. But getting noticed by other weather coordinators didn't compare to getting noticed by their weather coordinator.

"Medley!" Rainbow Dash called, hovering in front of her neatly-formed team. "Cloud Kicker! Front and center!"

The two assistant coordinators zipped forward, going up and over everypony else, and saluted. Rainbow Dash gave them an enthusiastic salute back. Then a tight hug, while the weather teams cheered.

Even so, the two hugged mares gave each other a look of concern. Not that Rainbow Dash hadn't ever hugged anypony before, of course she had. She was a physical pony and she got excited often enough. But everypony knew how strong she was, an earth pony in the sky. A hug from Rainbow Dash could leave a pony's ribs aching for days. This was just a hug. Everypony in Ponyville had seen how Pinkie Pie was still walking around instead of bouncing, and how the other Bearers of the Elements had taken the plague hard too. Their job wasn't done yet.

"You all did awesome," Rainbow Dash said, and let them go. "Seriously. I am so amazingly proud of everypony here. You are the single most completely dedicated, talented, loyal weather team Equestria has. If I needed ponies to set up a sky, I would be proud to fly with all of you against anypony else, up to and including the Wonderbolts."

There was a collective gasp. Rainbow Dash's fixation on the Wonderbolts was almost as much of a living legend as her Rainboom. Or her heroics, taking on manticores, Nightmare Moon, Discord, anything that got in her way. There was a growing interest in pegasus martial arts and their military history among the foals of the sky, all because of her. Ponyville wasn't the only town with a Rainbow Dash fan club among the fillies and colts. Just the only one on the ground. Debates raged at Flight Schools about whether she could personally take on the Wonderbolts.

Of course, some of those debates also claimed that she could turn into a giant dragon, that she burst into flames when she was mad, that she could fly so fast she went backward in time, and that she was secretly in charge of the weather for the entire country and that was why she wasn't already in the Wonderbolts. Debates at Flight School were not particularly well rooted in provable facts. There had once been a lively debate about whether Princess Luna or Princess Celestia would win a race, and that one at least had some solid estimates on wingspans and body size, but still had partisans taking both sides. Right up until somepony had gone so far as to get a Court appearance just to ask, and Princess Celestia said Luna would win. That still didn't settle the debate, but it added in the question of whether the princess was just being nice to her younger sister.

"Medley, Cloud Kicker, you know I hate these, but I'm gonna need reports on everything," Rainbow Dash said. "So try to make them interesting, okay? I mean, I don't expect Daring Do, but I'll fall asleep if it's all blah blah blah partly cloudy blah blah fog."

Medley rolled her eyes. "Trust me, boss, it was interesting."

"The same way juggling thunderheads is interesting," Cloud Kicker agreed. "Just let one thing slip and you're getting banged every which way at once."

"Great," said Rainbow Dash. Then she sighed theatrically. She'd gotten a lot better at those since she started hanging out with Rarity. "In the meantime, I'm still not allowed to go out and get my hooves wet on pain of getting my flank handed to me on my own wings, so I'm going to be stuck in the office." Her next sigh was much more heartfelt. "So if anypony can find an emergency all-hooves-on-flight-deck situation that I just have to come help with, I won't complain one teeny bit."

There was a chuckle from the ranks. She gave them a chuckle back. "So, anyway. Seriously, I am one hundred and twenty percent impressed with how all of you did keeping Ponyville's skies going." They cheered. Rainbow Dash gave them a large smile. "Which means next time you're going to be aiming for one hundred and forty percent impressed, right?"

The next cheer was at least one hundred and forty percent louder.

***

The palace was in a far better state for Luna's convalescence than it had been for Celestia's. For one thing, Luna wasn't actually sick yet, so the staff could take time to get her apartment set up for her to be conveniently cared for, instead of having her laid out in the throne room. For another, the kitchen staff was fully recovered, and the laundry had already been expanded to handle contaminated clothes. And for a third, Princess Celestia was personally running her court again in the middle of Canterlot, rather than Princess Luna's still-unfamiliar rule at a distance. Relief and even celebration were the mood of the city.

Even Luna's tower was relatively close to cheerful. A few days without having to command both the sun and the moon, and Princess Luna's exhaustion receded. More courtiers came to her in those few days than in the half-year prior. She found time to visit Lero and Twilight anyhow.

"It is truly amazing how quickly ponies rush to show their dedication the moment they realize that a single illness is all that stands between them and a complete shift in court politics," she drily noted over tea. Twilight had to be propped up, and Lero had to lift her cup for her, but at least Twilight was merely exhausted, not miserable.

"Maybe that's not a bad idea," Lero commented. "If you and Celestia can do each other's jobs, why not take time off every now and then?"

Luna looked down into her teacup and slowly shook her head. "If only it were that simple, Lero. Do you remember what I told you when you sought a solution to my sister's rise in temperature? It would be a very unwise thing for either of us to interfere with the other's bond." She set the cup down. "When I was sealed into the moon, I was connected to it more deeply than simply raising and lowering it, and so Celestia could guide that aspect. And when Celestia was channeling the sun's strength into herself, the same was likewise true for me to guide her charge. For either of us to simply take over the other's duty while we both are well..." She shook her head again. "It would be very, very unwise. It is dangerous enough for us to do so under these conditions, when there is no other choice."

"Dangerous?" asked Twilight. "Is there something we can do to help?"

Luna smiled at her sister's pupil. "Only what Lero has already volunteered to do. Tending to my physical body while I ail will free me to tend to my other responsibilities."

"Dreams?" asked Lero.

"Dreams and other things," Luna agreed. "There are duties that even Nightmare Moon did not dare shirk, bound and crazed as I was." She met his eyes. "If ever you learn of those duties, Lero, Twilight, they will become yours as well. Knowledge changes destinies."

Twilight sighed and leaned back into the pillows around her. More than she already was. "Princess Luna, if you want to recruit me for something, you should really wait until I have enough energy back to get insatiably curious."

Luna laughed and set her teacup down. "Twilight Sparkle, if ever I have need to recruit you for such duties, I will you tell you of them outright." She grew serious again. "Thus you would not bear the burden of having chosen to accept them."

***

Rainbow Dash glowered at the anemometer. Spike had got Twilight's gadget set up for her, and she was checking her wingpower to find out just how far off her mark she was.

"Seven?" she spluttered, and whacked the device with a hoof. "That can't be right!"

"You were very, very sick," Lyra reminded her. "You probably shouldn't even be flying right now."

Rainbow Dash glared at her. "You are not tying me up again. Fluttershy can fly when she's at a half-wingpower, I'm not going to strain anything staying in the air when I can still pull a seven."

Lyra smiled easily at her. "I wouldn't dream of it. It's your choice. If it takes you longer to recover, or you pull something flying before you're really ready, I'm sure you know best."

Rainbow Dash glared again, then sighed and dropped to her hooves. "I'm not gonna stay grounded all day, you know," she grumbled. "I'd go stir-crazy if I couldn't get some altitude. At least in the castle Twilight's suite was high enough up I could see some clouds!"

Lyra looked up, then back at Rainbow.

Rainbow rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean."

"They look different from above?" Lyra asked. "I never noticed anything when you spun one, but I'm not a pegasus."

"Of course they look different from above," Dash said. "From above, they've got the ground behind them."

Lyra smiled. Rainbow Dash waited for her to say something, then frowned. "You're waiting for me to realize I said something profound, aren't you? Or is this a Still Way conversational martial arts thing?"

Lyra smiled. Rainbow Dash groaned. "Okay, okay! Yes, the clouds are the same, it's not about the clouds, it's about where I am, and stuff like that. It still means I want to be in the air! I'm not talking about doing a Sonic Rainboom! I'm not even talking about bucking a raincloud! Just being up in the air!"

Lyra smiled. Rainbow Dash sighed and flopped down on the ground. "I at least have to go up to give out weather assignments and check on everypony, and I'm not gonna find out if I'm better if I don't test on Twilight's wingpower thingy!"

Lyra smiled. Rainbow Dash put her face in her hooves. "Okay! Okay! I get it! I can fly if I have to but if I push myself even a little then I might hurt myself and then it'd be ages before I could fly and if I did some permanent damage then I might never get into the Wonderbolts, I get it! Would you please stop smiling at me!"

Lyra kept smiling anyway, but she came over to nuzzle Rainbow Dash's cheek. "If you need something to think about, why not visit Fluttershy?" she suggested. "Like you said, she can stay in the air at a half wingpower. Maybe a little slow-flight practice would be a challenge that won't strain anything."

Rainbow Dash paused, then sighed. "Slow-flight practice is even more boring than distance training. Buuuut... I guess it's better than nothing. Just don't come watch, okay? Every little gust bobbles you around when you're at like two wingbeats a minute and only Fluttershy knows how to make that look graceful."

***

It didn't take long for Luna to succumb, just a few more days, and the courtiers and the guardponies were banished from her tower. Once more, only Lero could tend to one of Equestria's princesses. This time, though, they'd had time to set the place up. Her bed had been insulated in case she went hot too, plumbing had been installed so he didn't have to haul water in a cart at a time, a rigging of straps and pulleys set up so Lero could reposition her, and a shower set up at the tower's entrance. And he'd quietly acquired a brand new horse-sized feeding tube.

"I wud righd," Luna said, head down on a pillow. "I ab debinidely looging forward do beig idsedsate ady dime dow." She lifted a handkerchief with her magic and blew her nose vigorously.

Lero set a hand on the side of her neck. Her dark coat felt cool. "There's a long way to go, I'm afraid," he told her. "But you should have a few days before you're to that point. I'll be here the whole time."

She smiled at him. "I abbrediade dhat, Lero," she told him. "Id's nod so bad do go away if you know subpody is waiding for you do come back."

He hugged her. "There's going to be lots of someones waiting to welcome you back this time, Luna," he promised.

She pressed her head into his hug. She wasn't so weak she couldn't stand, not yet, but far from fit already. "I have nod by sisder's aggolades frob our liddle podies, bud I hab by loyal Nighd Guard and I hab some friends," she agreed. "Id will be a joyful dime."

He ran his hand carefully through her mane. It had lost its ethereal shimmers; there was nothing there but the same softness that the other alicorns' manes had. Even softer than Twilight's, and she took diligent care of hers. Rainbow Dash and Lyra, they were a bit more utilitarian about their manes. "You don't think there aren't ponies out there who noticed who led Equestria through a two month crisis?"

She chuckled ruefully. "Podies id a padic are nod bery good ad payig addendion, Lero. Igcludig me. Has Dwilighd nod dold you aboud by ill-faded redurn to Nighdmare Nighd? Id's wordse whed you hab dhe power do really mage a meds ob dhings."

"It worked out in the end, didn't it?" Lero pointed out, and began to really give her neck a proper rubdown. "And you can make Nightmare Night work for you. Being in charge of Halloween could make for a good thing. It's already associated with candy and fun."

"Halloweed?" Luna asked. "Dwilighd has wridden of your world's dendency doward silly names, bud I do nod regognide dhat one. ... Also, you are very good ad dhat."

"Halloween. All Hallow's Eve." Lero said. Careful of the lower neck and upper back, he moved to her side, fingers working over a somewhat larger area than he was used to. "It's more or less the same thing as Nightmare Night. Children dress up in costumes and go around getting candy. Or used to. Some places stopped it. The old tradition, or at least one interpretation of the old tradition, was that it was the night when the barriers between the real world and the spirit world were thinnest, and children dressed up as monsters so the magical creatures wouldn't recognize them."

"Dhere mighd be good reasods for dhad dradidion," Luna murmured. "Why was id sdopped?"

Lero couldn't really argue about the possibility of ghoulies and ghosties sneaking into the real world to kidnap children. Not when he was rubbing tension out of the muscles of the flying magical unicorn in charge of the moon, who was also the local equivalent of Jack Skellington. "People started being worried it wasn't safe. Too easy for kids to go missing when they're all wearing masks."

"Worrisome, do be sure, bud easily gleared ub soon enough, cerdainly?" Luna asked. "A parend remobes dhe mask and redurns dhe child do her prober home. No harm done."

"Not getting mixed up," Lero said quietly, working along her ribs. "There are some very bad people out there."

Luna lifted her head to look at him. Then put her head down and closed her eyes. "Dhere are. Few doday, here. By sisder has done well in dhad regard. Bud led us nod speak of sadnesses. How would you mage Nighdmare Nighd... worg for me?"

"Same way any politician does," Lero said, and started working on her leg. "Offer up a tax cut."

Luna sighed loudly. "Dhe dags gode is carebully balanced and nod do be modified od a whim," she started to recite.

"The Nightmare Night tax rate," Lero interjected quickly. "The candy?"

She opened her eyes and cleared her throat. Then blew her nose again. "You are aware dhad ids nod an agdual dax, Lero?"

Lero laughed. "It's still yours! Hmmm." He thought about it for a moment.

Luna came up with an idea first. "Since Nighdmare Moon was defeaded by the power of friendship, id is no longer needed do appease her widh candy," she said. "Insdead, fillies and colds are do show dheir friendship by givig dheir besd piece of candy do... Whidgh would be bedder? Do dheir besd friend, or do a new friend?"

"New friend," Lero said.

"Id shall be done," Luna proclaimed. Then blew her nose again.

***

"... And, finally, Sofas And Quills is due two thousand thirteen bits for Emergency Substitute Hospital Beds and keeping Ponyville supplied with writing implements throughout the plague," Spike finished, wrapping up the end of the long, long scroll he'd written down.

Mayor Mare put her head down on her desk. Her pink mane spilled across its surface. Mane dye hadn't been on the list of 'vital necessities' to be delivered around town, and somehow the Ponyville stocks had dried out. "What's that all add up to, Spike?" she groaned.

Spike tapped on the parchment with a claw, mentally double-checking his figures. "... A lot," he finally said.

Mayor Mare kept her face down on the desk's surface. Spike was glad she wasn't a head-pounder. It always seemed so dramatic. So much better to just swoon onto a couch, like Rarity. Of course, everything would be better done like Rarity.

"And how much is left in the Ponyville Emergency Fund?" she asked.

"A big pile of IOUs and bills," Spike said, without needing to check. "The Royal Emergency Fund should have fixed that a month ago, but Canterlot has non-critical-right-this-instant fund requests on hold until everything's settled. Cloudsdale is still half-empty, and Appleloosa's in the middle of the plague. They're gonna have to help the buffalo a lot too, and they're so spread out they'll be having pockets of plague for months and months."

"Can we tap the Twilight Sparkle Restoration Fund?" she tried next. "She's not here, after all. We won't be needing it until she comes back."

Spike shook his head. "That's under Royal Command, not to be used except specifically to fix stuff related to Twi doing her magic and experiments and stuff, except in immediate life or death emergency."

Mayor Mare groaned again. "The Hydra Defense Fund?"

"Fluttershy tapped it to buy supplies to nurse the hydra back to health. It got the plague too."

"To nurse the... Of course she did. The Nightmare Night budget?"

"What budget? Pinkie does all the decorations and everypony puts up the games on their own."

"The library budget."

"Twi is gonna disown me, but I gave that up weeks ago. There's not gonna be any new books until after Hearth's Warming Eve."

"My salary."

"Not letting you do that."

Mayor Mare smiled. But without lifting her face from the desk. "You really are a grade-A, number-one assistant, Spike. Twilight's lucky to have you. A loan from Filthy Rich?"

"Who do you think most of those IOUs are to?"

"Selling the office supplies on a street corner?"

"Wouldn't cover the cost of the salespony."

"Declare bankruptcy and run away before anypony finds out?"

"Applejack chased you down and hauled you back when you tried that yesterday."

Mayor Mare finally pushed herself off of the desk to slump back in her official chair instead. "Any options I've missed?"

Spike scratched his head, thinking. "We already tried getting a loan from a dragon, but I don't have a hoard and that other guy wanted five ponies a year in interest, minimum ten year payoff period, and we're not that desperate. Ummm... The Diamond Dogs?"

Mayor Mare put a hoof against her face. "Are we that desperate?"

Spike glumly looked at the long, long list of outstanding expenses the plague had left Ponyville with. "I kinda think we are."

"What would we even offer them?"

"Does anypony other than Rarity or Twi know a gem-finding spell?" Spike asked.

Mayor Mare shook her head. "It's a cutie-mark specialization spell," she said with a sigh. "I've asked Twilight Sparkle about that. Four hours later what I got out of the explanation is that Rarity can do it naturally, Twilight Sparkle can do it by convincing her horn that she's Rarity or something, and there aren't any other unicorns in Ponyville who know enough magical theory to copy that spell."

Spike looked down at his scroll. A very large number was still sitting there in red ink. He couldn't say what had to come next. She was so generous, of course she'd offer to help, she'd walk right down to the Diamond Dogs and let them get their dirty paws on her beautiful, glorious, perfect, pristine white coat, and... No. He couldn't.

His head jerked up when Mayor Mare said, "Rarity would do it, but I couldn't ask that of her. And I know you couldn't." She smiled at him. He blushed. She went on. "Desperate times call for desperate measures, then." She took a deep breath, then let it out. "Time to go commit political suicide and possibly something like treason. Spike, take a letter."

Spike stared at her. But had a quill and paper in his claws anyhow.

"Dear Princess Celestia," Mayor Mare began. "In a financial crisis, it is sometimes necessary for a governmental body to collect on past debts, even ones it had no intention of ever claiming. Ponyville is officially tasked with securing and monitoring the Everfree Forest, which includes the archaeological site known as the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters."

Spike's eyes went huge. He committed the cardinal sin of the transcriptionist. He interrupted her. "Mayor Mare! Please tell me you're not..."

She held up a hoof, took another deep breath, and continued. "It has come to my attention as Mayor of Ponyville that certain valuable artifacts were removed from Ponyville's jurisdiction in the Everfree Forest. Accordingly, we are levying a civil fine against the responsible parties, in this case the Day Court, for the improper seizure of the artifacts known as the Elements of Harmony. Please please please I'm desperate don't banish me to Tartarus on fire on the moon. Sincerely yours, Mayor Mare. P.S. The bill is attached. I am so so so so so so so so so sorry."

***

Luna smiled at Lero, too weak today to lift her head. Celestia had lowered the moon for her this morning. Now they could hear her laughter all the way from Luna's tower about something.

Her nose had dried up, letting her voice return to clarity, though with a rasp to it. "It is good... to know that laughter still finds a home in the Day Throne," she said. She breathed hard after speaking.

Lero was massaging her neck again. She was still cool to the touch, not feverish at all. "Celestia enjoys a good joke, I hear," he said neutrally.

Luna closed her eyes. "Is it cruel of me to be glad you do not love her, Lero?"

Lero winced. But he kept his fingers working along the strong cords of muscle under her dark coat. "Human nature, I suppose. If that applied."

"I have that much of a human in my nature, then," Luna said quietly. "Perhaps it came to me when humans walked upon their moon. Stranger things have happened."

Lero kept the massage going, but he couldn't think of anything to say to that.

"I am weaker than I judged, Lero," she said. "My sister has taken the moon's weight from me, but I may yet fail in other duties."

Lero could only think of Men in Black. About to have some grand secret of the cosmos revealed, drawn into it, never to return to a normal life. Or as normal as his life could be considered. Maybe never to return to Twilight Sparkle, to Lyra, to Ponyville. To Rainbow Dash.

Luna felt something from him, because she went on. "Dreams, Lero." She coughed several times, hard, then repeated. "Dreams. Those at least are linked to my body, if tenuously. The night does have its terrors. I may have to summon my heroes to aid me."

Lero set his hand against her cutie mark. It felt different from Rainbow Dash's, or Twilight's, or Lyra's, or any pony whose mark he touched at the spa. To his fingers, yes, it was nothing but fur, the image upon it not registering any differently. But on Princess Luna, he could feel something... underneath. Something other than the muscles of an earth pony. There was a vastness there. Cold and almost empty, pinpricked with hope. Rainbow Dash had mentioned that the cutie mark was a reflection of the soul. If that was so, Luna's soul was...

He felt her eyes on him. "Do not linger there, Lero," she said quietly. "Thou art still mortal."

He moved his hand away. She lost consciousness not long after.

***

Something was wrong with the rainbow. The colors were flowing into each other at the edges, and no matter how hard Rainbow Dash flew after it, she never got any closer. It was like the crazy thing was running away from her. She looked behind herself. Her own rainbow trail was going just right, neatly separated bands in a straight line behind her mane. The weird rainbow must have been something different. Maybe something Pinkie did.

Rainbow Dash flew faster at the idea of Pinkie Pie making rainbows. It flew away from her just as fast.

A hand patted her on the rump. "Off chasing rainbows?" Lero asked her.

She whirled around. He was there too, flying right beside her. No wings, no magic spells around him, not falling, just casually flying right next to her like it was the most natural thing in the world. He had a cape on for some reason, but no trail.

She grabbed him so he wouldn't fall. "Lero! What are you doing up here?"

He kissed her. "Dreaming, I think."

She kissed him back, of course. Priorities, priorities. Then added a few more after the first one. His teeth sure felt real against her tongue, those little sharp edges that still made her feel all quivery just for a second. She could deal with dreams like this one. Oh, she knew just what to do with dreams like this one.

There was a discreet cough from the side. Rainbow Dash's eyes flew open and she looked over. Princess Luna was flying with them too, a dark, starry trail behind her.

"My apologies for the intrusion, Rainbow Dash. I hoped to prevail upon Lero to see more of his world, and thought that his mares might wish it as well," she said. She looked curiously at Lero. "Indeed, Lero, I had thought to meet Rainbow Dash alone in your sky. It is rare indeed for a wingless pony to dream gladly of being without the ground below her hooves." She considered. "The only one I know off-hoof is Pinkie Pie, and I cannot imagine anything of which she would not gladly dream."

Lero bowed to her, still hugging Rainbow Dash, all of them still racing along at Rainboom speeds. Somehow it worked. "Humans dream of flight, Luna," he told her. "Not everyone, not all the time, but dreaming of flying has been with us a long time."

"Awesomer and awesomer," declared the cyan pegasus.

"So it is said, so it must be," Luna consented. "In any case. Let us repair to the ground, where your other beloveds await us."

And as quickly as that, there they were, on the ground. Still moving very rapidly, as it turned out. Rainbow Dash and Lero were sitting in the backseat, which somehow fit them both despite seeming to have two inches of legroom. Luna was in the passenger seat. Twilight Sparkle was in the driver's seat, wearing a familiar pair of black sunglasses usually seen on Rainbow Dash's muzzle.

"What the hay is going on?" asked Rainbow Dash.

"I have no idea!" squealed Twilight Sparkle. "But this is fun!"

The red sports car whipped around a curve as Twilight's hoof brushed the wheel, tilted up on two wheels to go between a pair of trucks, and dodged an oil slick from the car in front of them.

"I may have slightly unrealistic dreams about cars," Lero apologized. "Too many action movies."

Luna was somehow remaining perfectly calm in the passenger seat. Rainbow Dash was trying to figure out how to get her seatbelt off so she could fly Lero to safety before Twilight killed them all, dream or not. Lero hugged her again.

"Would you mind stopping so we can pick up Lyra?" Luna asked, while Twilight took the car through the Lincoln Tunnel and drove on the roof with the aid of some conveniently-manifesting rocket boosters. Lero had been thinking of that movie earlier, after all.

"Sure!" agreed Twilight happily. Her hoof slammed on the brakes, the car spun twice around, then came up neatly in front of Lyra, who was sitting on a bench watching the whole thing. Lyra put a hoof on the door and hopped in next to Lero and Rainbow Dash. She somehow fit.

Twilight took off again. They'd somehow ended up on a racetrack and she was blowing the doors off of the other cars.

"Is there any place you might particularly like to visit, Lero?" Luna calmly asked. "Anything you can dream."

The world spun dizzily around them, and not due to anything Twilight did this time. It settled in front of a simple white suburban house. The car did a neat one-eighty and parked in front.

"I think the most important thing I'd like to do, then, is let you meet my parents," Lero said.

***

Pinkie Pie happily bounced along the streets of Ponyville. Finally! It had been such a totally weird feeling having her legs be all not-bouncy like that for days and days and days and days and even eating three whole batches of triple-chocolatey cupcakes with double frosting and extra sugar on top still didn’t make her feel any better and she couldn’t remember that ever happening before, but now she was completely one hundred percent better unless it was measured from how she was when she felt really bad and then she might be something like sixteen thousand percent better compared to that! She’d had to wait all that time to get back to the really super-duper important stuff like reminding ponies about secrets and Derpy did such a great job and everypony liked her so it worked out pretty good even if her timing was way off ‘cause that just made it even funnier. For the short term. It wouldn’t make a good running gag because then it’d get harder to remember the glowy red eyes and growling and all the reverb and things because Derpy was just so friendly that she did happy reminders instead and that just wasn’t sustainable!

Pinkie poked her head into the library, and she hadn’t noticed when she got to the library but she must have been going there because that’s where she ended up! The door was open and that was how it always used to be before Twilight came to town or at least how it had been for months and months and months since Mrs. Hush retired and the library had just been open with nopony really taking care of it other than volunteers dropping by to put books on the shelves every so often but now it was all organized and everything and Spike left it unlocked even though he had a key and even though all his stuff was in there because he said that Twilight would want it that way and Pinkie thought he was right because Twilight would say things about civic institutions and tell a history lesson about famous librarians keeping the library open and then she’d go on until somepony interrupted her and maybe even longer depending on how hard the interruption was!

It was quiet inside the library but not the library kind of quiet where Twilight would be reading and you didn’t want to interrupt her even though Pinkie sometimes did because she had something fun to share. It was the kind of quiet that was the Lyra sitting alone by her rocks kind of quiet where nothing was happening but it wasn’t supposed to be happening and it was all peaceful and there was nopony inside anyway so she didn’t have anypony to talk to. So she sat down for a few minutes to have fun with the library the way the library liked to have fun and Twilight was so good at having with it even if she didn’t know she was, but Pinkie was noooooooowhere near the kind of library fun pony Twilight was, so she could only keep it up for a few minutes before she bounced up and told the empty library, “Bye!”

***

The room was cold. Lero had a fire going in the fireplace with as much wood as he could stuff inside and still have any decent airflow, but Princess Luna’s body seemed to suck up all the heat. Once he’d felt her getting colder it hadn’t been a surprise that the trend continued; he’d put in an order for a heavy coat, hat, and mittens. Fancy Pants didn’t have any insulated pants available, and the only gloves he’d been able to find were made for minoturs - four-fingered and surprisingly small, and all imported. Dutiful Servant promised to find a tailor who could make a custom order in a hurry. But for now Lero could bear the chill.

For all that Luna was perfectly fine in dreams, her physical body wasn’t bearing up any better than Celestia or Cadence had managed. She wasn’t waking with the dawn or the sunset; a relatively short while reclaiming her duty over the moon hadn’t formed the same depth of habit that Celestia had. Her semi-lucid moments came at random intervals, and featured a great deal of Old High Equestrian. He’d made a discovery, though. By talking back to her, she sometimes would switch to modern language, even as her mind ranged through a long and surprisingly bloody history.

“Menske chigal,” she muttered, her eyes shut. “Abir hit.”

“Luna,” he said to her. “You need to have some water.” It wasn’t going to be long before she’d freeze anything she tried to drink, and it was as useful as anything else he could think of to do. Neither of the other alicorns could give him any better suggestions either.

“Lots of water now,” she mumbled back at him. “Cloudage will no more hoard it all. Lots for all pegasi. So tired. How many starbursts? Dozens. Nothing left. Sowed their sky with stars.”

Lero ran his hand down her neck. Briefly. It was like petting a snowbank. “Drink, Luna,” he urged, and held a straw to her lips.

She took only a sip, then moaned. “Dry Skies, we have him. We have him now. Draw the brass blades sharp, he’ll need neither wings nor mark again now.”

Lero blinked. Well. She was alive during some very bloody periods. Twilight would probably love to interview her. He didn’t think Luna would appreciate getting famed for cutting off wings and cutie marks from her captured enemies, though. It’d probably be years before she’d be comfortable enough with her public image to talk about it, if ever.

Her eyes opened, and she glared at him. “Look at you now, Dry Skies” she rasped. “No wings, no mark, no tongue, no balls, hardly a pony left. Certainly no stallion, certainly no pegasus. So much for conquering Cloudsdale, eh?” She snorted weakly, and snowflakes danced in her breath.

Lero couldn’t debate the first two points. As long as she was still talking in modern language, he could keep his mouth shut. And for the last, well, she probably wasn’t used to seeing anyone in pants.

“So much for a ‘fat-flanked filly,’ now, Dry Skies,” she snarled at him. “I’ll hang you in the sky for all to remember for all time. They’ll see your corpse shine forever. Flying wingless and shamed.”

Lero’s eyes widened. That was... very much the inverse of the usual reason for placing someone into the sky. He made a mental note to very delicately ask Twilight if she’d ever seen any ‘stars’ with hooves still attached.

Her mind was wandering again. “Forron ahisthe mec?” she moaned.

This time he couldn’t get her back to anything he understood.

***

Froggy Bottom Bog was a lovely place for Fluttershy’s more waterlogged friends. They couldn’t all be soft and fuzzy and cuddly-wuddly, but they were all so adorable. Nature was just so wonderful in all the different ways it found to make delightful new kinds of animals. Fluttershy thought she could spend days and days and days in the bog sometimes, and meet new little wriggly friends every day.

Her tail flicked sharply and she fanned herself with her wings. Not that everything in Froggy Bottom Bog was nice. She could very easily do without all the mosquitos. They were too small to get a good look at, for one, and always liked to chase after her, and then she got such itchy bumps afterward. Like teeny parasprites trying to eat ponies. If she spent days and days around them, she’d end up skinnier than Rainbow Dash!

Oh, that wasn’t very nice, was it? Rainbow Dash didn’t want to be skinny, except she exercised all the time to keep herself skinny, so Fluttershy was never entirely sure which way her very best friend wanted it. And so she never mentioned it out loud, not even if Rainbow Dash wasn’t around. It wasn’t important what she looked like, just that she was happy. But Rainbow Dash never seemed to really agree when she said that.

Fluttershy didn’t like to mention her own build either. That whole fiasco with being a model when she didn’t want to be one and Rarity didn’t want her to be one, that had just convinced her that she should never let anypony bring up her looks again, and even if she had to be just the teensiest bit rude about changing the subject she should. Of course she was curvy, she didn’t like to run or fly and she spent lots of time holding very still to help new little friends learn to trust her. She wasn’t trying to be. Maybe when she started looking for a herd she’d really try, but she wasn’t quite ready for that step just yet.

She blushed thinking about just what steps she had been very very ready for in her last heat. But that didn’t count. And she mostly could push those ideas out of her head by thinking about her work.

Like now! She could be friends with bears and humans easily enough, but they were only a bit taller than her, not ten times her height and actively interested in eating her. The hydra was a much more challenging friend. No matter how much she helped him, his stomach always got the better of him, at least at first. But she knew just how to deal with him.

First, step out into his line of sight at a good distance away. Not too far or he wouldn’t see her in enough detail, not too close or he might get her first, but just the right distance so she could see all four heads at once and they could see her. Perfect!

Second, a good firm Stare to let him know she wasn’t going to put up with any silliness today! First one head, then another, then the last two at once dropped. Just like that! And now he was all ready to be looked after.

“And how are we feeling today?” she asked him, trotting up into the bog. His stomach rumbled and he had the good grace to look embarrassed. She laughed gently and patted his side. “Aww, there, there. There’s lots of fish in ths bog and in the rivers, and I’m sure you’ll catch plenty of them for lunch. You wouldn’t want to eat me, would you?”

Two heads blushed. The other two quickly shook side to side. She gave all four of him a big friendly smile. “I knew you wouldn’t! You’re a big old softie when you aren’t being all grumpy, really. You’re not feeling tired anymore?”

Four heads shook this time. Fluttershy patted his side again. “And not having those dreams about some big nasty scary monster cutting you into parts, right?”

Four denials again, these ones much more relieved. The copy of Holding Off Hydras at the library had been the only reference Fluttershy could find about how to deal with hydras, so she mostly used her own feelings, trusting her Cutie Mark, but the book did have some really interesting reading about hydra heads having an innate fear of being separated from each other. That had led to some nice long talks while he was still too weak to move and she was feeding him as many fish as she could carry into the bog, and so she’d found out about his bad dreams.

“Good! Then I think I can give you a clean bill of health,” she happily told him.

The four heads turned to look at each other. Necks twisted, eyes narrowed, mouths hissed. Then they turned back to her. Hydras couldn’t talk, of course, not nearly so much as Angel Bunny or even Winona, but Fluttershy knew what he meant. It was just sort of a casual, nonchalant, carefully distant bit of body language, but she could understand him just as much as if he’d said it out loud.

“Of course I’ll come and visit you sometimes! Poor thing, you’re all alone!” She giggled. “Well, sort of. But of course I’ll visit! And I’ll keep my ears open for any word of a lady hydra or even another male hydra you could meet, all right.”

The four heads twisted, looking all around the bog. One ducked under the filthy water’s surface; another scanned the clouds. Then fast as lightning he whirled all four necks around the little yellow pegasus and gave her a squeeze, then set her back down, backed away, and gave an overly-loud defiant roar. Everything in Froggy Bottom Bog cringed away from the sound of an infuriated hydra, but Fluttershy merrily pranced away through the knee-high water.

***

Twilight Sparkle was finally able to walk steadily, so she and Lero started exploring Canterlot in the afternoons. Luna was still getting colder and colder, and Lero could only stand to be in the room for so long. She would have been showing him around if she had known more of the city herself, but her prior life as a studious recluse emerged to bite her in that regard. Beyond the castle, the libraries, her family’s place and Pony Joe's, she didn't know the city.

She know about Canterlot, of course. Centuries of history, famous landmarks, et cetera, et cetera. What she didn't know was how to get anywhere, or what modern attractions there were to offer. So they wandered.

"Everything's supposed to be smaller when you come back to it after growing up," Twilight said, looking down a crowded street. "Am I doing it wrong? Canterlot was never this big before."

"Did it look like a book before?" Lero pointed out.

"Oh, har har har," Twilight grumbled. "I am perfectly aware that I was unhealthily socially self-isolated before coming to Ponyville and that I still have strong introvert tendencies to the point that I need external assistance from my herd and my friends to remind me to participate in real life. It's still weird to come back to the place you thought of as home for years and realize you don't know it at all."

"Sometimes all you need is a change of perspective," Lero said, and his hands caught Twilight under the forelegs. She eeped as he picked her up onto his back. "There! Now you've got a perfect excuse."

Her hoof tapped on his shoulder. Tap. Tap-tap tap. Tap. Tap-tap tap. She hummed a couple of bars.

Lero got ready to let her go if she started to pull away. Ponyville had plenty of songs break out, but he'd never been holding Twilight, Rainbow Dash, or Lyra when they started one. He'd been caught in the middle of a couple, even, but the crowd had left him plenty of room.

It's a new perspective when you come back again,
You don't know where you are until you know where you've been,
Two steps forward and then Lero please spin,
It's not home anymore, but it's the city we're in!

Lero wanted to break out laughing. She was putting stage directions into the lyrics? But he obeyed. Two steps forward and then a slow spin in place while she flung her hooves upward. The other ponies on the street were abandoning their transactions and starting to line up.

I was a curious filly with my nose in a book
If it wasn't written down it wasn't worth a look
Hold up your hands and take the rose from that nook
Now I'm back in Canterlot and I might get hooked!

Sure enough, there was a vase sitting in a crevice next to Lero's hand when he reached up. He plucked it out and tilted it toward Twilight. The other ponies were starting to add a percussion section, flicking their hooves against the cobblestones as they danced along.

By another name, a rose smells as sweet
And there's something to be said for a city street
Bring it a little closer and I'll nibble that treat
Then walk straight forward and let me leap!

Lero was having a tremendous amount of trouble keeping from dropping to his knees laughing. He offered up the rose to Twilight, and she indeed nibbled on the edge, then took it from his fingers with her magic and tucked it behind her ear. Lero got his feet moving again, and then brought his hands down to put under Twilight's hooves. She gave him a kiss atop the head, perfectly in time with the music he couldn't hear, and then she jumped from his back, somehow performing a picture-perfect backflip and landing in the middle of the street, at the head of a marching wedge of ponies. Lero hurried to get out of the way.

The march went on for a little while, followed by a whirl down the street, each shop owner singing out the praises of her own establishment, and Lero took the time to double over, laughing. A minute or so later, the procession came back his way.

So I think I'll enjoy finding everything I missed
Not from a book or even making a list
Together we'll have fun just being tourists,
So get back here and we'll end with a kiss!

Canterlot ponies might not have been as accepting as the citizens of Ponyville, but they weren't going to let a musical-ending dip-smooch like that one go un-cheered.

***

Every new direction was a new reality. Forward, backward, left, right, up, down, those were still there. But there were so many other directions. Lero couldn't make sense of them all. Rainbow Dash, Twilight, and Lyra were pressed to his sides, their eyes as wild as his felt, trying to look every which way at once, protecting their stallion from... anything that might be there. Fluttershy was curled up on the ground with her tail pulled over her face whimpering. Applejack was staggering around, looking everywhere at once. Pinkie kept sticking her head in those new directions and saying "Hi!"

Luna cleared her throat. Lero realized Luna was there. "Pinkie," she said calmly, "Please stay with us." The ground took form, a stone floor under Lero's feet. The other directions collapsed into paintings hanging on the walls. Moonlight and starlight shone through tall arch-topped windows. Every painting was lit from within. Statues between the paintings smiled into the wide stone hallway. Banners from the rafters were embroidered with Luna's mark.

"Luna?" asked Twilight, still pressing her flank against Lero's side. "Where are we?"

"Oooh! Oooh! Are we mrmmmph!" Pinkie put a hoof in her own mouth this time. She blinked, looked down, tugged on her hoof, tugged again, then looked up at Luna.

Luna smiled at Pinkie, but neither the broad happy smiles she usually received, nor the patient, tolerating ones she sometimes got instead. This was a sad smile. "You are between the dreams, my friends. This is my realm as much as others you know more prominently. And one I fear I am losing."

Pinkie tugged at her hoof, but it remained resolutely lodged in her mouth. Lero set one hand on Lyra's head and the other on Twilight's; Rainbow Dash was against his back. "It's good to see you anyhow," he told the princess.

She gave him the sad smile next. "I will see you again soon enough, Lero. Thank you for tending to my body through this plague. It seems I must conscript your herd and your friends to aid me further.'

Pinkie finally got her hoof out of her mouth. "Is it because you're losing control of yourself while your magic gets gobbled down and you need to ask us to take on your super-heavy burdens and take care of everypony's dreams until you're better again?" she asked eagerly. Then looked down at her hoof. "And why was my hoof stuck in my mouth? Usually Applejack or Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle or Rarity does that, not me! Mrmmmph!" Her hoof went back in her mouth.

Luna laughed, but only briefly. "The place between dreams is closer to the subconscious than most others, Pinkie Pie. If you are quieting yourself, it is because you want or expect to be."

Pinkie's hoof came out of her mouth again. "I guess it would have been super un-dramatic if I stepped all over your big reveal," she agreed.

Applejack was still shaking her head and blinking rapidly, her tail twitching. Fluttershy was peeking out from under her tail, at least. Twilight cautiously stepped away from Lero, though.

"This is... between the dreams? These are all the dreams of every pony in Equestria?" she asked, looking down the long, long hallway. "This place is..."

"A fiction, Twilight Sparkle," Luna said. "Something easier for your friends to accept. Applejack, calm yourself."

The apple farmer's eye was rapidly developing a tic. "It all ain't true! Whole darn thing is jes'... jes' ain't true!"

"Dreams hide truths without sense," Luna told her. "Here, where dreams all meet, the truths are left to their dreamers. You must find your own truth."

Fluttershy let go of her tail and hugged onto Applejack. "I'm here," she said. "That's true, isn't it? And you're here, and our friends are all here. We're all friends, and that's a true thing too."

Applejack squeezed Fluttershy hard enough to wring a squeak out of the yellow pegasus, and she let out a sigh of relief. "Thanks, sugarcube. Ah needed that."

"Princess," Twilight asked, "If you're losing this place, who's taking it? It seems to be doing fine for now."

Luna bowed her head. "Simply by being, I prevent dreams from entering each other. That I am here, in this space, holds dreams apart. If I lose too much of myself, then the ponies of Equestria will begin to dream each other's dreams." She lifted her head and looked down the long hallway. "And one dreamer's truth can all too quickly become another's nightmare."

Rainbow Dash's eyes lit up and she zipped away from Lero's back to hover in front of Luna, air-boxing an invisible opponent. "So we're gonna be your Secret Dream Soldiers and fight off bad dreams in here so they don't get out of control? Awesome!"

Luna laughed again, more fully this time. "No, Rainbow Dash, if I lose too much strength to keep the dreams apart, I will lose too much strength to bring all of you here as well." She grew serious again. "Only one of you will come here again. Hers will in many ways be the easiest task, but the one best-suited to it."

The princess looked down at a lavender unicorn. "Will you accept? Only you, Twilight Sparkle, have the magical power and control to take on my power of the dream. It is not an easy task, nor one often remembered in the light of dawn by those it benefits, but I would not leave my little ponies unguarded."

Twilight swallowed. "What do I have to do, Luna?" she asked.

Luna bowed her head. The tip of her horn touched Twilight's. A flash of darkness swirled around that spot, then vanished. Twilight's eyes widened. Dreams were dancing in her pupils. A black crown sat atop her head, matching Luna's own.

"Help them," Luna said. "Find those in true need and aid them. But above all... be here. Even should they never see you, they will know you are here, and that alone will give many the strength they need. My Champion of Hidden Things."

Twilight's eyes were still flashing from one dream to the next. Her voice was half-stunned, half-wondering, as she said, "I will."

Luna lifted her head again and looked to the rest of them. "Lero. Your task is in the physical world. You are here that you may bear witness in Canterlot and understand. Lyra Heartstrings, you shall bear witness in Ponyville, and ensure that my friends do not suffer mortal ills." Lyra nodded a single time back at her, impassively.

The alicorn's eyes ran over the other five. "And you... You I must ask the most difficult task. One I have failed at on my own many times already. If I... return to what I was, I could run rampant, here, Twilight Sparkle or not. I fear I will, as my control over my own thoughts wanes with my body's strength. So I must ask you to bear my burdens for me, for a time."

"Just what is it you want us to do?" asked Rainbow Dash suspiciously.

"Take from me the things that would harm my little ponies," Luna said quietly. "The night is not to be feared, but sometimes the darkness is. I do not know if you can bear these things, but if you cannot, no others can."

"We'll do it," Fluttershy said. Then shrank down. "Or, um, I will? If you don't want to that's fine..."

"No way I'm leaving you to do it all by yourself, Shy," Rainbow Dash indignantly declared. "Everypony else in?"

"Yep."

"I wouldn't dream of leaving Princess Luna in need."

"Okie-dokie-lokie!"

Rarity ahemed. "Pinkie, darling, if you'd let the rest of us give our own answers? It's yes, of course, but still."

Applejack shrugged. "She said what Ah was gonna say anyhow. We'll do it, Princess. This gonna come with new necklaces an' th' like?"

Princess Luna shook her head. "I fear the only thing you will have from this is sorrow, Applejack. But less than if I were to spread that sorrow across defenseless dreaming minds. I cannot control what form this will take; I can only release unto you my inner demons. Please, my friends, I beg you, do not hate me." She closed her eyes, and her body began to grow black. Not the darkness of Nightmare Moon; it was as though the space where Luna had been filled from the inside out with a vast, starless void.

The darkness flew from her. The five vanished.

***

Rainbow Dash jerked out of bed, spinning in the air, nostrils flaring, hooves lifted. "What was that?" she snapped out, staring all around.

***

Fluttershy's eyes opened. She smiled at the sight of Angel Bunny sleeping in his little bed next to hers. "Aren't you just the best bunny in the whole wide world, yes you are," she cooed, and closed her eyes again.

***

Rarity barely opened her eyes, but she pulled the pillows and sheets from her bed all into a bundle in her forelegs, squeezing them tightly to herself.

***

Pinkie Pie's eyes snapped open and she stared frantically around the room. She saw Gummy in his little watery bed in the corner and jumped to hug him tight, and closed her eyes, ignoring the water soaking her coat.

***

Applejack stared up at the ceiling. "Ah... Ah... Ah'm so sorry," she whispered.

***

"Where'd they go?" asked Lero, spinning around, looking through the hallway. "Rainbow Dash!"

"They woke up," Twilight said, then pointed off in a direction that wasn't there. "See? Fluttershy and Rarity are already dreaming again."

Luna tossed her head. Her mane was alight with glittering stardust, nebulas and galaxies dancing with every movement she made. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "I have not felt this good in a long, long time!" She bounced to their side and pulled Lero, Twilight, and Lyra into a gleeful hug. "Oh, thank you, thank you all! Bless this plague, bless everything!"

"P... princess? Are you all right?" Twilight asked, startled out of her rapt exploration of her new powers.

Luna kissed her, then laughed again. "Oh, I am so much better than all right!" Had they not been dreaming, her hug would have crushed bone. "I shall carry my woes again, never fear, but I shall enjoy their absence while I can!" Her eyes shone the moon, a brilliant silver disc.

"What happened to them, Princess?" asked Lyra, patting Luna's side.

"You will have to find out!" Luna happily told her. "I could not guide what happened, nor can I see my own ills to judge them without your help. Make sure our friends have everything they need to bear them for me! Indeed, I so decree it! Lyra Heartstrings, your command shall be as my own if it so be needed to ease the burdens of those five wonderful ponies! And Lero, I never revoked my delegation to you as well, but now I expand it! As you must do to ensure Twilight Sparkle's task is as gentle as it can be upon her, you may do with my full authority!"

Celestia suddenly appeared in the hallway. Her eyes widened for a moment, then she composed herself. Her mane was pink and she was smaller than usual, but still clearly Celestia. The same size as Luna, in fact. Luna bounded to her and nuzzled her. "Sister! Forgive my impertinence to summon you thus, but I would share this moment with you as well!"

Celestia looked at her sister, then nuzzled her back. "It is good to see you as you have been and will be, my sister," she said gently. "But is this wise?"

"Wise or not, it is done!" Luna happily told her. "Lyra Heartstrings and Bellerophon Michaelides are to be my viceroys for Ponyville and Canterlot while it goes. Please let everypony know!"

Celestia nodded her head. "For you, Luna. Be well soon. No matter how long I have you back, I will always miss you when you go."

Luna hugged the alabaster alicorn tightly. "You are the most wonderful sister in any world, Celestia!"

Celestia hugged Luna back. "Only excluding yourself, Luna," she said warmly. "Now, if I may go? You tire yourself to bring me here, and I must rise all too soon."

Luna nuzzled her. "Of course! I will see you soon, sister!"

And Celestia was gone.

"Oh, this is going to be so much FUN!" Luna sang out.

Author's Note:

And so we return to the Blank Plague. With the castle operating smoothly and Celestia perfectly comfortable ruling alone, Lero's having a much easier time of it now. Relatively.