• Published 22nd Nov 2011
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Lacuna - Drakmire



Visions of a dark future prompt one pony to seek help, but she cannot act alone.

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02 - Sunshine and Rainbows

Luna sat at her desk, an empty teapot bearing testament to her long hours spent reading. A gentle breeze stole in through an open window carrying the assurance that all was peaceful outside.

A quiet knock broke her reverie. Happy for the distraction, Luna willed the bedroom door open, sight unseen. With her guards posted outside, there could only be one visitor this late at night. As she entered, Celestia glanced at the fitted sheets and ornate pillows that had remained undisturbed as of late, but shrugged it off. Though a bit of rest made life much better, sleep wasn’t a necessity for either of them.

Luna had yet to look up from her book, nor say a word of greeting. Wings folded, Celestia padded across the carpeted floor to nuzzle her sister, earning a sigh and an affectionate nuzzle in return. Celestia kept her gaze from falling on the open book, preferring not to subject herself to what Luna’s curiosity had pried into. As though she could sense her sibling’s unease, Luna set a bookmark and closed the tome, turning to face her sister. Weariness and red-rimmed eyes spoke to the difficulty of the subject she had been studying.

“Is it truly so bad?” Celestia asked.

Luna paused a moment before shaking her head. “There are terrible things written here, but also things of great nobility, sacrifice, and love. It speaks of a path of unimaginable darkness, hinting at a means of redemption, but the price is too high.” She stroked the purple velvet that covered the book. “There are great swathes of time missing in it, things that we could only guess at, but the warning signs might be enough. Should there be any chance of these events coming to pass, we would do well to act. In truth, I believe we could do much right now, gentle adjustments that would keep us on a steadier course.”

Celestia nodded, trusting her sister’s judgment. She did not know the details written in that book, but neither did she want to. She had made that mistake in the past, indulging her curiosity as much as confirming the truth by reading the tomes brought by Sand’s predecessors. In the light of day, they garnered little thought, pushed away by the needs of the people and her duties. At night, however, alone with her thoughts and the ache of her sister’s absence gnawing at her heart, Celestia had been gripped by a powerful melancholy. They were only stories, she had told herself. Products of broken minds and overactive imaginations. But there had been threads of truth woven through each--private things, secret things, enough to lend an air of authenticity that made Celestia question her silent assertion. Enough to make her act.

She didn’t regret her actions, especially since it had often simply been a matter of diligence. Yet...Celestia wondered, at times. Virtues did not exist in a void. Courage could not exist without the opportunity provided by fear, mercy without suffering, compassion without hardship. Stability risked stagnation; Celestia could certainly appreciate the truth in that. A thousand years of peace, held together by the will of a living goddess. From an outside perspective, it must seem trivial. She had no equal, not now. No challenge to her rule could ever hope to be successful. Her people reverenced her, both in love and fear. Disguised forays out into the public provided her the means to break the monotony of royal life, but when all was said and done, she was still a goddess and they were still her subjects.

For the first few years after Luna’s banishment, loneliness had threatened to overwhelm her. Celestia would spend every night on a quiet hilltop, watching the moon pass in its silent arc across the sky. She had yet to work up the courage to mention that to Luna. Celestia loved her sister, loved to see her happy, and those discussions would be difficult. Nightmare Moon’s madness had made the banishment a necessity, but without that, would they have grown spiteful of each other in time? She believed in the inherent goodness of ponies, but she couldn’t help but wonder sometimes.

Celestia blinked, closing her eyes as he tried to clear her mind. She realized that Luna had been quiet for a while now, silent as she watched Celestia lose herself to introspection. “A farthing for your thoughts?” Luna offered.

Celestia smiled at that. “We switched to using bits over two hundred years ago.” It was a dodge and they both knew it. “I was thinking of the choices we make, and what the cost is, even when we know every side. Especially then. We do the things we do because we believe we are wise, and because there is no one else. Yet for every time I have suppressed one of these events,” she placed a hoof on the book, “I wonder what we give up in exchange. Free will and choice? A belief in the goodness of ponies, and all folk alike, that they could stand up to the evils described within?” She considered all the lives that would never come into the world as a result of her actions, then shook her head to clear it. “You have read it, and I have not. I trust your judgment implicitly, little sister. I can only speak of my past, when I acted without your presence to guide me through difficult times.” Luna appeared conflicted at that, and Celestia moved to wrap wings and hooves around her, drawing strength from the embrace. Into her ear, she whispered, “I know you will choose wisely.”

Luna cherished her sister’s touch as the enormous wings enveloped her. She had spent little time awake during her banishment, and even less time fully in control of herself, but she had missed her sister regardless. Dreams of her sibling had kept her warm in the small corner of her mind where she had remained herself, and even now, she would fight down anxiety whenever Celestia would leave her sight. With a slight pang, she broke the embrace and said, “You place a great deal of faith in my abilities, sister. Many of the suggestions that Sand Shaper offered would both benefit the realm and stave off this...” her eyes flicked to the book. “...catastrophe. Or so we believe.” She turned to stare out at the night sky. “It may be that the future is immutable, that we only play at the games of powers higher than ourselves, with our people paying the price for our hubris.” She felt lost, adrift in indecision. Luna hoping that the course, once taken, would not sink them all.

“I believe that we are not meant to know the future. This,” Luna gestured at the book, a sour look on her face, “is an aberration. Forewarned is forearmed, I’ve heard it said, but this is paralysis.” She dropped to all fours, approaching her sister with an earnest expression. “Tell me, truly, would you have given up the chance to prevent Nightmare Moon’s madness?”

Celestia said nothing for long moments. Then: “No. I would not have.” She felt that more should be said, to explain her hesitation, but her sister nodded, satisfied.

Luna sighed. “I wish I had simply taken Sand Shaper’s advice and never read the accursed thing. To lose so much and gain so little--surely it is worth what we must do to avoid that.” She lowered her head, pawing at the ground. “If we are to prevent the war and the resulting fallout prophesied in the book, we will need to mend fences with our zebra neighbors before long. Yet while rectifying economic matters with them will be straightforward enough, their purported fear of me will require a more personal touch than I am used to. If you’ll have no part of this book...” she looked to Celestia, but her sister frowned and shook her head. “...Then I must seek elsewhere for advice. What is Sand Shaper up to now, do you know?”

Celestia said, “Her escorts saw her to the Ponyville Library, but there they parted ways. Twilight Sparkle has yet to write another letter since that morning, so I can only assume they are busy together.”

“Perhaps their perspective could help us.” Luna saw doubt creep across her sister’s face, so she continued, “A limited perspective. I do not know how much Twilight and her friends have learned by now, but they do not deserve this burden if we can help it. Much could be saved by understanding one another.” Luna’s horn glowed as quill, ink, and parchment floated from a nearby cubby, coming to rest on the wooden desk. Giving her sister an expectant look, Luna moved aside as Celestia began writing.

***

Dawn found the Ponyville Library only lightly occupied. Twilight had offered to put all of them up for the night, mentioning something about another sleepover. While Sand accepted gladly, Rarity and Fluttershy had begged off, claiming matters at their respective homes that needed attending to.

Despite her fears, Sand found herself strangely relaxed. She could have chosen better words the previous evening, but once Sand had explained further, their initial panic died down a great deal. Twilight had been deeply compassionate, while the others had been supportive, if not fully understanding. It was more than Sand had hoped for.

Still savoring the breakfast that Spike had prepared for them, Sand looked up when the belched out a royal missive. Spike opened it, giving it a quick scan before passing it off to Twilight.

Twilight read it over twice before rolling it back up. “It looks like Princess Celestia wants to meet with us over dinner. She's asked me to bring anypony that’s spent a lot of time talking with Sand.” Her guest sat in the corner, a book propped open between her hooves. Sand’s mismatched eyes held a hint of trepidation, but Twilight could understand that. After last night, their burgeoning friendship had been tested, but Twilight trusted her instincts. “She said that she’ll be sending a chariot this evening after moonrise, but to let her know if we’ll need another to carry everypony. That gives us the rest of the day to prepare.”

Sand raised her eyebrows at that. “Prepare? Surely such an informal visit should warrant little...” she trailed off at Twilight looked around, hints of mania playing at the edges of her expression. “Or, we can take the time and be thoroughly prepared. Yes, I believe that is a good idea.”

Still, there was not much they could really do, though Twilight made a noble attempt at fretting over anything possible. Spike took a seat next to Sand. They looked at each other a moment before silently turning to watch Twilight whip herself into a frenzy.

Finally, Sand asked, “Should we...help her out of this in some fashion?”

Spike shook his head. “She’ll be like this for hours. Best bet is to hunker down until she tires herself out. Then she’ll finally be ready to listen to reason.”

“Reason? Reason?! We’re meeting BOTH princesses tonight, Spike! Do you know what that means? An official summons to a private dinner with both Princess Celestia and Luna! What if it’s bad? What if I’ve been a bad host? What if they’re disappointed?!” Twilight had graduated from borderline to full-blown hysterics, her mane and tail frizzing at irregular intervals, her pupils contracted to mere pinpricks.

Spike was unimpressed. “Twilight, calm down. Disappointed in what? And you’ve been a great host. You’re worrying too much again. And you’re scaring Sand.”

To her credit, the Sand was doing her best to remain composed, but Goddesses that look Twilight had. Sand felt like her skin wanted to crawl away and hide in a corner somewhere.

Twilight put her hooves to her temples, saying, “Okay, I’m all right, I’m all right. I can calm down, this doesn’t have to be as bad as I’m thinking.” She could hear her heartbeats pounding roughly on par with a hummingbird’s. She had buried her head between her hooves, breaths coming in rapid succession when she felt her mane being gently stroked. The soothing sensation was slow and methodical, and bit by bit, it helped Twilight bring herself under control. After a few minutes, she felt calm enough to begin to approach the situation logically. Lowering her hooves on the ground, she started to rise, saying, “Thanks Spike. I know you say I worry too much, and you’re right. We should...” Only then did she notice that her assistant was still seated across the room from her, watching carefully. Turning her head, she saw Sand give her an awkward smile.

“I apologize if I was too forward.” Sand pulled her hoof back, sitting on the floor next to Twilight. “My mother used to brush my mane when I was upset. Back when it wasn’t so...” she ran a hoof through her short hair. “I'm sure tonight will be all right, Twilight. I fear that I’ve brought a great deal of trouble into your lives, but Celestia and Luna will have discussed matters by now and will have a course of action in mind. We should find Rarity and Fluttershy--I’m certain that they’ll be wanted as well.”

***

Carousel Boutique was only a hop, skip, and jump away, so they opted to stop there first. The shop had a single customer who was making his final transaction, hurriedly stuffing something into a bag as Sand and Twilight entered. Seeing him out the door, Rarity returned to the counter to cart off several garments that could be called risqué without being too far from the truth. Oblivious, Twilight greeted the shop’s proprietress with a smile, so it fell to Sand to give Rarity a questioning look. She returned an enigmatic smile, mentioning only “customer confidentiality.”

“Now, what can I do for you girls? It’s a bit early for tea, and I have my next fashion line to plan, but my friends always come first, should they need me.”

The other two looked at each other, not having decided who would explain. After a moment, Sand said, “We received a letter from Princess Celestia this morning. She’s requested our presence this evening for dinner, including both you and Fluttershy. Princess Luna will also be in attendance, so we thought you might care for some advance notice.”

Rarity’s eyes grew wider with every word. Advance notice? Both princesses? No, no, no, what would she wear?! She let out a panicked shriek as she began darting around her workroom, looking for the perfect ensemble to wear for an audience with royalty.

Twilight giggled as Sand called out, “The chariot is to arrive after moonrise tonight. If you would be so kind as to meet us at the library, we can set off together.” Smiling at each other, the two left their friend to her maddened search.

“One down!” Twilight said. “Now, Fluttershy’s cottage is this way, but I’d like to stop by the market square to pick something up. Maybe we’ll see Applejack there and I can let her know where we’ll be in case anypony starts wondering.”

They found their friend just as they had hoped: staffing a cart full of apples. Approaching as they did, it took the cowpony a moment to notice them, but when she did, she was pure sunshine.

“Well howdy! How’re ya’ll doing today?” Applejack crossed her front legs, looking pleased as punch to see the two unicorns. The mood was infectious, and soon all three wore identical beaming smiles.

“Oh just...trying to stay busy!” Twilight twitched, ever so slightly. With a reassuring look from Sand, she took a deep breath, letting it out in a slow sigh. “A few of us are headed to the royal palace tonight, and we wanted to let you know so that you didn’t worry if you came looking.”

Applejack looked a little surprised by that. “Well shoot. Ah told Pinkie that ya’ll had been up to something, but Ah never reckoned it’d be something with the Princess. Figured ya might not have been quite...honest with me at Pinkie’s party, but that’s alright. It ain’t nopony’s business but your own.” Both unicorns looked abashed, but Applejack's smile hadn’t lost its friendliness. “Who’re you going with? Might as well cut my list down some, save me some racing across town once Ah close up shop here.”

Sand said, “Miss Rarity and Fluttershy are to accompany us, if possible. I’m certain that you are welcome to join us too, as well as the other Bearers, if you so desire.”

Applejack just shook her head at that. “Ah appreciate the offer hun, but what with Big Macintosh and Applebloom tied up with the cider presses, Ah need to get back ta apple bucking before we start losing crop to the ground. Ah’ll let Pinkie and RD know when Ah see ‘em, but Ah don’t know what they’re up to.”

Nodding at this, they waved their goodbyes and thanks. They were well past the outskirts of the town when Twilight stopped, facehoofing as she sat on the ground. Only then did Sand recall that they had intended to make another stop for something before heading out. Head lowered, she asked, “What did you intend to purchase in town? We can certainly go back; it isn’t far.”

“No, no, it’s nothing big, I just forgot to pick up some burdock and fireweed for Fluttershy. Since she left so late at night, she asked me to get some from the herbalist’s shop the next time I came to visit.”

“We have many hours yet until nightfall. The shop is not too distant, but I spied some of one, if not the other as we walked. If you’re up for some impromptu botany, we can gather some on our own,” said Sand. Twilight brightened at the suggestion, happy to do some fieldwork with somepony educated on the topic.

They spent the next few hours tromping through chest-high grasses, Sand occasionally pointing with hoof or muzzle at a plant species as she named it, described its uses and how frequently it could be encountered in this climate. What began for Twilight as moderate interest blossomed into a growing respect for her companion. They ate foraged greens for lunch, sheltering beneath a lonesome oak standing vigil far afield. Lying next to her friend, Twilight realized that she had not been plagued by thoughts of their impending royal dinner for the first time all day. In addition to their meal, she and Sand had gathered a few bundles of Fluttershy’s requested flora, easily a more interesting afternoon than a trip back to town would have been.

“Thank you.” Twilight gestured languidly at their makeshift camp. “For this, I mean.”

Sand snorted. “Think nothing of it. The land here is plentiful. Lunch was easy enough to come by.”

Twilight gently shook her head. “No, I mean for taking my mind off of things. I sometimes...worry a bit more than I should.”

With good grace, Sand managed to show no incredulity at the understatement her friend had just made. Instead she said, “When in doubt, the best thing to do is to learn something.” She looked out across a sea of grass, shifting and noisy in the warm breeze. “I have not seen much in this life, but that belief has held true for me.” A pale green eye turned to regard Twilight, dappled sunlight playing across both ponies’ features.

Twilight felt as if an invisible door had opened, the prospects that lay beyond beckoning her through. Tentatively, she took her first steps. “How did you get your cutie mark? I’m afraid I haven’t been able to figure out its meaning since we met.”

The empty scales adorning her flank shifted as Sand settled into a more comfortable position. Studying her friend for a moment first, she said, “I chose between what I loved and what was necessary. I don’t regret my decision, even now, but sometimes...” Sand held Twilight’s gaze for a few heartbeats longer before looking back out across the field of amber. “...I wish things had been different.” She was surprised when she felt a weight on her shoulder. Turning, she saw Twilight’s head resting there, purple eyes regarding her own.

“It hasn’t all been bad though, right?” Twilight asked with an awkward half-smile.

Sand felt an unknown tension melt away. Giving Twilight a warm smile, she conceded, “No. I suppose not.”

***

Before long, they found themselves at Fluttershy’s cottage, but their visit proved to be shorter than any of them would have liked. Wide-eyed at being told of the Princess’s request, Fluttershy gave a small squeak, looking around at what needed to be done. Though much less high-strung than Rarity, she nonetheless worried over the numerous animals that still needed tending to, and so they parted ways with Fluttershy hastening in her ministrations.

With dusk still hours away, the two unicorns found themselves with little to do but take their time in returning to Twilight’s home. When Sand suggested that they continue their fieldwork from before, Twilight pounced on the opportunity, happy for the distraction.

Time slipped away, and before either had quite realized it, they found themselves at the edge of town. Arriving at the library by dusk, they found that no chariot awaited them. However, as they stepped inside the cavernous tree, they found that both of their friends had managed to arrive first. Spike had seen to their care, though Sand suspected Fluttershy had largely been neglected and was simply too polite to make mention of it.

Proper night had begun to settle around them when a loud knocking drew everyone’s attention. Behind the door waited their anticipated escorts, and soon four ponies found themselves clustered together on a single chariot, calling their goodbyes to the little dragon and a curious owl that had perched itself on his head.

***

“Welcome everypony, I hope the trip here found you well.” Celestia regarded them with a matronly smile.

They found themselves occupying a round table tucked into a corner of the banquet hall, the chamber's enormity doing nothing to diminish the smells of dinner being prepared. Sand gave Celestia an inquisitive stare, but said nothing. Seated across from her sister, Luna managed to catch Sand’s eye and smiled, shaking her head. With the others here, a repeat performance was unlikely.

“We’re happy to be here, Princess. I...” Twilight hesitated, wondering how to phrase her next question without sounding imperious.

“Time enough for that later, Twilight. Let’s give everypony a chance to eat before we move on to more serious matters, shall we?”

Twilight’s stomach roiled. She was eager for their meal to get started, as much to satisfy her hunger as to give her time to piece together her information. Celestia wore her tranquility like a mantle while Luna, as far as she could tell, did not appear deranged or eager to plunge the land into eternal night. True, she looked a bit haggard, as if she hadn’t been sleeping quite right, but she did not appear overly troubled. Twilight had learned that Sand could be a bit dramatic, but overblown theatrics seemed more like Rarity’s forte.

Thinking of her friend, Twilight turned to see Rarity in an elegant black dining dress, doing her best to make smalltalk as Celestia towered over her. Luna had engaged Fluttershy in a quiet conversation, with the pegasus managing to listen with polite interest while also appearing to be on the edge of bolting. Twilight grinned at that.

“What’s so amusing?” Sand asked in a low voice.

“Oh nothing, nothing. Luna’s just come a long way in her speaking habits is all,” Twilight said, garnering a curious look from Sand. Twilight postponed the explanation, however, as the food began arriving.

Working through the meals placed before them, the diners waited for the lulls between courses to discuss matters of more substance. In this way, the princesses were able to draw out the extent of what Sand had revealed before explaining their own involvement in the matter.

Luna gave Sand an inquisitive look as Twilight finished retelling the events of the previous night. Teal eyes met a single gray one, but if Sand planned to offer up more information on the topic, she seemed disinclined at that particular moment.

As the waiters cleared the table, Celestia took the initiative. “Well, everypony, I hope our dinner together was as wonderful for you as it was for us. I know I called you here on short notice, but as you’ve learned, there are matters that need tending to and we felt that it would be best to get your views on the subject.”

Sunshine and rainbows,” Luna said, looking down on Sand. “Yes, I read it. In truth, even if I had not been compelled by my curiosity, I believe I still would have done so. You brought the weight of a mountain down on our shoulders, Sand Shaper, and we could not act as you suggested without knowing more.” Luna paused in her admonishment, turning to address her confused friends. “Miss Shaper brought a book with her originally, a record of these dreams she told you about. Or rather, one dream in particular. It has caused me some restlessness, and my study of it has left us at a crossroads.” Luna paused to pour herself a glass of wine, floating it up for a small sip.

“On one hoof, there is value in knowing what storms tomorrow will bring.” She stopped a moment, glass hovering beside her. “I suppose that’s less insightful a comment for you Ponyville folk. Beyond the reach of pegasus weather teams, nature can be capricious when given free reign, shattering well-laid plans and putting lives in danger.” She shook her head, reining in her tangent. “Knowing what lies in wait can be as much a curse as a blessing, however.”

“Cassandra.” Twilight looked almost as surprised as anypony that she had spoken out of turn. Luna nodded at her, however, and she felt compelled to continue, “A figure in old mythology. She was given the ability to see the future, but not change it. Nopony would believe what she would tell them, and as a result, she slowly went insane from the terrible things she knew would happen but couldn’t prevent.” Twilight shivered.

“Because of Sand’s people,” Luna continued, “we are given opportunities to change what might be, yet we are no less constrained than Cassandra. We may find all our efforts to be in vain, or worse yet, forestall one cataclysm only to produce another.”

“If you will excuse me, Princess Luna, that is true regardless.” Rarity blushed at her slight impropriety, but soldiered on. “We cannot hope to account for everything that might happen in a day because of us and what we choose to do, or not do.”

Luna considered this before a soft voice spoke, drawing all eyes to Fluttershy. “Do...do we know what would really happen?” Sand looked cross, causing Fluttershy to eep quietly, but after a moment she continued, “I mean, what if these terrible things you dream about might...”

“...be the products of a deranged mind?” Sand supplied, but Fluttershy shook her head.

“No, I just thought that maybe they might be more like...guidance. Not just a warning, but...” she fell quiet again.

“A parable,” Luna said. Fluttershy gave Luna a small nod. Resting her elbows on the table, Luna rubbed gently at her temples. “Rather than being fixed in stone or completely avoided, they are stories meant to illustrate the wages of some particular sin. That is probably the wisest interpretation. Thank you, Fluttershy.” The pegasus blushed again, smiling at the princess. “There are still many questions, and I do not know if we can reasonably expect to find answers to them, at least for the time being. A change in tack then: Sand Shaper, you claimed my nightmare had returned? Would you care to explain? I have slept little and dreamt less since you arrived, and to the best of my knowledge, have not gone mad.” Celestia gave her sister a smirk, but Luna tone held no levity.

Sand measured her words before trusting herself to speak, hoping everything would be in order, for once. “Princess Moon--” Sand stopped abruptly, shutting her eyes as she mentally berating herself for stumbling already. “My apologies. Princess Celestia, when you had your final confrontation with Nightmare Moon, how did you find her...mental state?”

With obvious restraint, Celestia answered, “Luna was...unwell.”

From across the table, Luna snorted in disbelief. “Even now, my sister acts to protect my honor. I was insane, Sand Shaper. Beyond broken--I wanted to cover the land in eternal night! Do you know what that would mean for the ponies whose worship I so desperately craved? Death! And worse than that, a slow wasting that would claim all life, in time. Yes, I was unwell.” Celestia frowned, but Luna waved a hoof, not meaning her any ill will for her choice in words.

Uncowed by Luna’s outburst, Sand said, “You are a kind soul--we all are. Everypony is, deep within. To wish harm on another, even in an act of rage, is anathema to who we are. It erodes our spirit and makes us less than ponies, and yet it happened to one of the best of us.” Sand looked around at everypony, settling her gaze on Luna. “I suspect you still struggle with a sense of guilt for what you tried to do, the fear of ever falling so far again burning within you. Or am I very mistaken in my suppositions?”

Luna frowned, but her expression was otherwise unreadable. Finally, she spoke. “I had my sister’s love beside me, we had the Elements between us, and still it was not enough.” Unbidden, a tear rolled down each side of her face. “I do not know what would be. While we have the Bearers together, this has not been a...concern I have needed to address. But you are not eternal, and what if...” she trailed off, her voice breaking as she whispered, “I don’t want to be alone again. Please...”

A rushing of wings and Celestia was there. Sobs wracked Luna’s smaller frame while Celestia bent to whisper soft words of encouragement. The other ponies at the table studiously avoided watching, feeling as though they were intruding on the sanctity of the moment. Yet, saying nothing, Fluttershy moved from her seat. She placed her legs around Luna as much as her diminutive size would allow and moments later, they were joined by Twilight, Rarity and last of all, Sand. Nopony spoke until Luna’s trembling had died down, and even then, they did not move away.

“I am sorry,” Luna began, but Twilight shook her head slightly, giving the princess a small nuzzle on her neck.

“We understand, Luna, as much as we can. It’s true we won’t be around forever, but while we are, we will be with you, in spirit if not body.” As Twilight spoke, only Celestia caught Sand’s slight tension at those words. Resolving to find an excuse for a more private conversation later, she said nothing, not wanting to distract from her sister's need.

Reluctantly, they broke apart. Luna was surprised to find that the warm compassion radiating from all of them counterbalanced her vague sense of loss. “Thank you,” Luna said, her voice thick. She smiled at each of them in turn before letting her gaze finally settle on a pair of mismatched eyes. “Before my fall, I had never felt such a closeness with my subjects. I had my sister and my duties, and that was enough. Or so I thought. I believe...” she looked around at everypony again. “I believe that I would be strong enough, now that I have you all with me.”

Sand bowed her head. “I hope so, Princess, for your sake as much as our own.” When she looked up, her eyes held an unnerving intensity. “Because the nightmare has found you.”

***

“Sand Shaper, dear, you do have a flair for the dramatic, but could you perhaps tone it down some in the future?” Rarity sounded more cross than she actually was, but she wanted to impress upon her friend the need for tact in tense situations.

Sand gave her a sheepish grin. “Sorry.” Luna stuck her tongue out as Sand looked her way.

They had retired to the royal observatory after the events in the feasting hall. Star charts littered the floor as Twilight walked around in open wonder, examining Luna’s scribbled writing and research notebooks. Her attention was drawn back to Sand as the ivory pony mentioned her name, however.

“From what Twilight told me, when you returned as Nightmare Moon, you were evil yet restrained. I do not know whether you had formulated some plan during your banishment, but for knowing that eternal night would mean death to everypony, you took a surprisingly gentle approach with the Bearers.” Sand sat on her haunches across a table from Luna.

The dark alicorn frowned, her mind fighting through the cobwebs of that time. “I did not have control, but neither did I hide within myself as I often had. It was as if I laid in a half-waking state, dimly aware of the world around me, yet knowing there was something I needed to do, if only I could rouse myself.”

Sand took a moment before saying, “My people believe that the eclipse burned away most of your insanity while the rest was funneled into us.” A look of horror crossed Luna’s face, but Sand held up a hoof. “But it was changed. None of us can honestly claim to be experts on alicorns, let alone the more mysterious aspects of how your magic works, but it was our best guess.” She twisted around, trying to locate Celestia. She found it surprisingly difficult, given that the observatory was not large and Celestia was fairly conspicuous at the best of times. Turning her head, she gave a strangled shriek as a huge, white face, grinning from ear to ear, obscured her vision.

“She likes to do that,” Luna muttered as Celestia moved to sit next to her. Sand smiled in spite of her shock.

“Lady--” Sand stopped again, face scrunched in consternation. Slowly, she tried again. “Princess Celestia. Did you find my predecessors to have been of sound mind?”

Celestia’s grin faded. Eventually, she said, “Yes, I suppose I did. Despite my misgivings, your people appear to be just ponies with a gift. Or a curse.”

Sand nodded. "If I’m correct, that blessing will fade. I may be the last to make this kind of journey.” Sand had anticipated the questions that sprang forth, but not the sad, searching look that Celestia gave her. Motioning for quiet, she continued, “Whatever shadow was cast over us, it comes seeking Luna now that it knows she has returned and where she has returned to.”

To her credit, Luna took the news with more grace than Sand had expecting, merely quirking an eyebrow at the news. “And I suppose I have you to thank for that.”

Sand fidgeted, wanting to be out from under Luna’s scrutiny. At last, she spoke. “We had to make a difficult choice.” Sand glanced at Twilight before turning to the princesses. “We knew of your return, and what the fallout for us would be for giving you the book, but the necessity of it took precedence over our own fate.”

“And over mine?” Luna asked. Sand had no answer for that. Luna sighed, aware that she was being unfair. “Do you know how long it will take for this...whatever it is to become a problem?”

Sand shook her head. “While we are a part of the living dream, how it works, why it shows us the things it does, and what it wants are all mysteries to us.”

The princess mulled this over for a time before asking, “How would you describe your people, Sand Shaper?” Cocking her head, Sand considered the unexpected question. Luna added, “Relative to the ponies you have met since you left.”

“Reserved. Grim. We are given happier dreams amidst the dark ones, but they are too few to truly dissipate the gloom, and it hangs heavy on all of us.” Sand frowned, wondering if she would have considered her people so melancholy had she not met her friends.

“But not evil?” Sand shook her head. “Nor crazed?” Again, a no. “That is good news.” Luna continued, “I was an engine of rage, desire, and grief at my banishment. I wanted to hurt everything I possibly could, even those I loved. Especially them.” Luna grimaced, but Celestia put one wing around her, lending her the strength to continue. “I do not know what I should be expecting when the time comes, but I suspect that it will not be simply a specter of my old self, threatening to drown me in a tide of anguish and misery.”

Luna sighed. “I must study the book again. That matter still requires addressing, and we cannot simply cease our lives at the mention of some threat that might be ages away.” She looked around at the assembled ponies. “We have guest rooms prepared for you all, and I will see to...” A soft nose prodded her side, breaking Luna’s train of thought.

“Go on, little sister. I can see to our guests’ needs. You have quite enough ahead of you already,” Celestia suggested. Luna acquiesced, sharing an affectionate moment with her sibling before turning to leave. As she stepped through the door, Celestia made sure to add, “And we will be here for you when you need us. Always.” Luna gave her sister a tired smile before vanishing around the corner.

Celestia turned to her remaining guests. “Now, if everypony would kindly follow me, we will get you settled in for the night. We can discuss matters further in the morning.”

***

Sand found herself walking the halls, unable to sleep, unable to keep her thoughts restrained. A cool breeze caressed her as she stepped onto a stone balcony, a magnificent view of the night sky quieting her thoughts as she sought the few constellations she knew by name and shape. Searching for Vega, she easily found Lyra. Finding Sirius, she could easily make out Canis Major. That was how it had always been for her: find the brightest marker and let the rest take shape around it. Gradually, she became aware of soft hoofsteps behind her, but did not turn from the sky.

A wash of pastels flowed through the air nearby, but her new companion said nothing to disturb their reverie together. Eventually, Sand broke the silence.

“Lady Moongazer.”

“Dawn Star.”

The names hung in the air, suspended on shimmering threads of gossamer. Finally, the unicorn spoke. “How long have you known?”

“Since tonight’s dinner. Nopony ever called me that name but you.”

“You should have kept more company on your nightly vigils," Sand said. "They would have helped alleviate your melancholy, I think.”

Celestia gave a conciliatory nod. “That is probably true. It is always easier to be wise in hindsight.”

They let the silence build again.

“Does Twilight know?" Sand asked. "Does Luna?”

“After your first night here, I explained to Luna the little bit that I understand about what happens to you and your kind, though I have not informed her of who you are in particular. I have not yet told Twilight either of these things."

Sand didn’t comment at first. “Your student might like to know the truth of her fate, though she'll surely grieve at the loss of her friends when they move beyond and she does not.”

Celestia knitted her brows. “Do you begrudge that?” she asked.

Sand looked at her former mentor before saying, “If she’s anything like the rest of us, she’ll be happy to have any chance to spend more time with you, all the more because we understand how fleeting life can be.”

Their gazes returned to the view before them.

“I have missed you in our time apart, Dawn.”

“You miss all of us. It’s your love that calls us back, and our love for you that answers.”

“My other students weren’t so secretive about who they were when they found their way to my court.”

Sand grinned. “Maybe I just wanted to surprise you.”

"I think you simply enjoy hoarding your mysteries." Celestia's face took on a knowing smile. "You may look different, but you have changed little. Perhaps one day, I will finally convince you that your friends love you for who you are and not for the secrets you keep."

After a time, Sand said, “If events fall out the way I believe they will, our spirits will need to find some new way to return to you."

“You do not wish to move beyond? What of your loved ones?”

“They are at peace and will remain so. They need not wait for me.”

Celestia looked at her friend, trying to read her expression in the pale light.

Sand felt her watching and said, “You could just ask, you know.”

“A farthing for your thoughts then?”

Grinning, Sand said, “You have become an absolute pig at the dinner table.” She dodged a playfully thrown wing at that, laughing for the first time in what seemed like...ever. Sand stood, leaning against Celestia’s side as she savored the warm touch. “I’ve missed you too, Lady.”

“Twilight will wonder if she hears you call me that.”

“I...will explain the truth to her when the opportunity presents itself,” Sand conceded, receiving a nod of approval. "I do have to wonder though: why 'Celestia' and not ‘Aurora’ or maybe ‘Solaria’? At least ‘Luna’ makes sense given her charge.” Earning a bump for her jibe, Sand gave her friend a smile, though it quickly broke into a yawn.

“You should get some sleep. Dawn is still a ways off,” Celestia said.

“No, I’m right next to you.” She grinned as Celestia just rolled her eyes. “Besides, you’re here.” Sand nudged her friend with her shoulder, just to be sure. “Dreams are well and good, but reality is better.”

Wrapping a soft wing around her companion, Celestia said, “I hope so, Dawn. For all our sakes.”

***

(Special thanks to Chris, without whom, this chapter would have had some *severe* logic problems in how the characters behave)

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