• Published 12th May 2020
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The Nothings - Ragnar



Luna, retired, receives a letter from Poppy, an art prodigy with terrible nightmares.

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From the desk of Princess Luna, Retired

Dear Poppy,

Thank you for writing. Yes, I would love to be your friend.

As one ages, one finds new favorite colors. I am very old, so I have many favorite colors. My first favorite color was a particular shade of light rosy cream, the color of my sister's fur, and while it would feel more apropos for my newest favorite color to match yours after your articulate defense of ink wash gray, I must admit that your favorite colors and I are already well acquainted. My art collection would have something of a gap in it if I organized it chronologically, you understand—many revolutions of art have passed me by—but ink is an old medium, and my own collection of ink washes is on permanent loan to the Baltimare Museum of Ancient Craft, if I recall correctly. I believe you live fairly close to it, certainly in the same city, so I have enclosed tickets for you to bring your mother there when your schedules permit.

Your own work will make a fine addition to my ink wash collection, though I shall not be releasing it to the care of another anytime soon. When I write that I love your work, I write it as somepony known for candor rather than tact. These washes you've sent me are exquisite, and I particularly enjoy the lamp and vase. My sister Celestia finds them rather somber, but agrees that you have a formidable skill for somepony your age, and has expressed an interest in meeting you. She shall have to wait her turn.

I am sorry to hear of your nightmares. Ponies your age, particularly artistic sorts, are prone to bad dreams. You have written to the right pony, and I shall do everything in my power to help you. I should mention I have quite a lot of free time these days and nights, and your nightmares may be due to conditions beyond my reach in dreams, so I believe it would be wise to accept your mother's gracious invitation so I may meet you in person. Whether the problem is under sun or moon, I shall be there for you.

Your mother will be receiving another letter to arrange a time and date. I will be bringing better paper as well, as I suspect you wouldn't be cutting up scrolls if you had the option.

Your friend,

Luna

***

Somber, Celestia had called Poppy's work. Luna held the ink wash painting up to the train window to better see it in the late afternoon light. Celestia had meant "gloomy," but had deliberately chosen a kinder term. Was it gloomy, really?

"Anything to drink, ma'am?" said a pony with a cart of water and assorted bottles.

"Gin fizz, lavender botanical for preference. What do you think of this picture?"

"Um. The picture's beautiful! But—" he hesitated. "Cocktails aren't really, er, available except in first class."

"Oh," said Luna, abashed. "This is my first time in—yes. Well, do you have gin?"

"Yes, ma'am!"

"Club soda?"

"Yes. Would you like gin, or club soda? Or—" He smiled.

"Both. How about a bit of lemon juice and an egg?"

"I'll have to go get those, but I think we can do that."

With the air of someone carefully reeling in a fishing line, Luna said, "To be clear, if I were the one to mix it, neither of us will be out of line?"

He thought about it. "Well, I don't know how the egg fits in, but I don't think I'd get in trouble for it. That'll be six bits for the gin, one for the club soda, and I'll be right back." He hurried off, visibly delighted to help. Luna's heart went out to him, though she'd hoped he would have gone into detail about the ink wash.

Her stipend would have covered first class. Money was no object, frankly. Celestia would have argued for it if she'd come along, and it wasn't as if Luna were proving anything by riding in the free cars. She just preferred to avoid unnecessary luxury, or liked to think of herself as somepony who did. Princesses were treated like princesses because a princess symbolically was her nation, and also to ease the crown's terrible weight. Luna had no need for ostentation anymore. She had flowers and friends, and it turned out you could even mix your own drinks on the train if you asked nicely. There was no need for first class.

Luna glanced at the ink wash. Meanwhile, there were ponies with actual problems. Poppy had described some of her nightmares. An example: in silence, a great spider slipped through Poppy's window, bent over her sleeping shape, and bit her head off with segmented mandibles. Then it slid under the covers and, in Poppy's voice, called for Poppy's mother to come into the room.

The nightmares had no unifying theme, which was troubling in itself. If all of the dreams involved spiders or predation or the window of her bedroom, the solution to her problems might be material or social, which meant she needn't rely entirely on Luna's help. But no—the nightmares appeared to be the sickness rather than the symptom, and would require a particular sort of magic. Poppy's salvation would have to come from the two of them and no one else.

Unless Luna had missed something. She mustn't make assumptions. Dark magic? Local auric interferences? The manifestation of an unusual talent? Poppy wouldn't be the first pony to find oneiromancy the hard way, heavens knew.

"Hello again!" The attendant had come back. He set each item in front of Luna. "Gin! Lemon! Can of club soda! A glass for mixing it all! And an egg." The egg was scrambled and on a plate.

"Um. Yes," said Luna. "A scrambled egg is a reasonable interpretation of what I said. Thank you very much." She overtipped extravagantly to cover her embarrassment. "One more thing, can you go into detail on your opinion of this picture? My friend inked it. I won't tell her what you say, whatever it is."

"Oh, I thought you made it." He studied it at length. He leaned over his cart, squinted into the image, set his hoof to his chin. "Well, all I can say is that it's really good."

"Nothing else?"

"And—" He hesitated.

"And?" Luna leaned forward.

"And depressing. In an artsy way, though. It's a really good picture." He smiled. "Have a great evening, ma'am."

After the attendant left, Luna looked at the picture again and sighed. Then she twisted to face the griffin in the seat behind her. She levitated the plate so he could see it. "Would you like a scrambled egg?"

***

Rows and rows of rowhouses lined the quiet street. It was almost dark, and foals were being called in for dinner or had already gone inside to escape the cold. Luna, her overnight bag balanced on her back, compared a slip of paper with the address over a door, put the paper back into her bag, climbed the narrow stairs and knocked. The door was flung open—the light blinded her—and from somewhere around the height of Luna's belly a voice shouted, "SHE'S HERE! YOU'RE HERE! MOM, SHE'S HERE!"

A blue-gray earth pony filly binkied in place. She had a straightish black mane—currently flopping up and down—dark circles under her eyes, and an expression of pure joy.

Luna smiled. "Hello. It is nice to meet you in person. May I come in?"

"You're really..." Poppy dropped back, sat down on the floor and stared forward, suddenly overwhelmed. "You're here. I can't believe..." She swallowed, said "pleasecomein," and ran away to hide.

Poppy would have to get past that before they began their real work, but Luna could help with that. She stepped into the light.

The front door led to a living room with art-lined walls—watercolor paintings by famous artists and carved wooden hangings from curiosity shops, nothing by Poppy—and a filly-sized desk with several books and a loveseat, and connected to that room was a small kitchen. Frozen pizza dough thawed on the counter next to a mixing bowl and two bags of vegetables.

A mare charged down a narrow staircase with her mane wrapped in a towel. "You're here!"

"So I have been informed," said Luna. She smiled again. "Starsong, yes? My name is Luna."

Starsong shook Luna's hoof. "I thought you'd come after sundown," she said, abashed.

"I ought to have clarified. As a matter of fact, I am happy to have caught you in the act of making dinner, because now I can help. I believe I see pizza ingredients?" Luna noticed a pair of filly eyes looking out from under a coffee table.

"Oh, don't worry about that. You and Poppy can get comfortable while I make dinner. It shouldn’t even take an hour."

"Are you sure? I have an apron." Luna produced an apron from her bag. "And I think I ought to give Poppy a moment."

Poppy crept out from under the coffee table and hid behind her mother's back leg. Starsong pulled her under her foreleg and held her close. "Up to you, but here she is."

"Well, I don't in fact know how to make pizza," Luna admitted. "Poppy, is this desk your atelier?"

Poppy came out from under her mother. "No, it's just a desk. I have a bedroom, though, and that's where I do most of the art."

"Have you cleaned your room yet?" said Starsong with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes," Poppy lied, and ran up the stairs.

Starsong sighed. "Well, at least she's having a good day. She's usually... Well. She barely sleeps anymore, and the doctor's advice just plain didn't work, so I don't know what to do. I hope you can help."

Luna looked her in the eye. "Don't worry. I retired from formal civil service, but I have hunted nightmares for thousands of years, and I will never stop." And that was true. Admittedly, she'd fought on both sides.

Starsong looked uncomfortable. Luna didn't understand why, so she changed the subject. "And what do you do during the day?"

"Sing and dance!" said Starsong. "I perform at a jazz club uptown."

"Ah, another artist," said Luna.

Starsong paused in the act of tying the knot on her apron. "Yes, I suppose I am. You know, when I think of Poppy's nightmares, I wonder if I did something. I... wonder if it was me." She looked down and fiddled with an apron string. "There are nights when I sing and you see the clouds in the night and I'm belting my heart out, and dancing as hard as any pony ever danced, and I feel like I'm touching the edge of something pony eyes can't see. And I think about the awful nightmares I had as a child." Then she smiled and tightened the apron knot. "I guess we're both sensitive ponies." She faced Luna. "You know what I think? I think the edge keeps me dancing, and my little baby's art is wonderful. Now get out of my kitchen and go talk to her. Shoo!"

Luna obediently put her apron back in her bag and drifted upstairs.

***

Starsong had a point. So far as Luna knew, creativity wasn't hereditary, but magic sensitivity could be, including sensitivity to the kinds of magic that didn't belong to ponies. The filly and her mother had a good relationship, Poppy showed no sign of bullying, and the doctor had apparently not found any physical ailments beyond the sleep deprivation and the nightmares themselves. The issue was likely psychological, a matter of age and temperament. Luna's goal tonight would be to comfort and reassure as much as to chase off bad dreams. But she would be keeping an eye out for the touching of edges.

The upstairs consisted of two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Downstairs was for guests and general living, but the upstairs was for Starsong and Poppy, and Poppy decorated her space with her own work by pinning them to her walls in a great collage. She was prolific. Her work was entirely monochromatic, yet full of experimentation within her medium.

Her room was not clean, of course. Comic books lay open on the bed. A frumpy dress had been draped over a chair, likely something she'd considered wearing that evening. Empty ink bottles and brushes dried on a thoroughly inkstained plank of plywood, as opposed to her homework folded into a textbook on the bed, which looked pristine and untouched. Poppy sat on a pillow in the corner and picked at a strand of carpet.

Luna knocked on the open door, though she was already in the room. "Poppy?"

She jumped. "Hello! I mean, I hope you like our house. I mean, I mean—"

"It's peaceful, and full of art," said Luna. "I love it." She lay down on the carpet next to Poppy, who blushed. "Have you had a chance to visit the Museum of Ancient Craft yet?"

"Yes, thank you," said Poppy. "I got so many ideas there!" She sprang up and fetched a large art book that had been sitting on her chair, and opened it to the bookmark. "Look at the way the guy did distance. I've been trying to figure out how to make things far away, you know, out on the horizon. The basic techniques aren't hard, but when I do it, the things look like they're not important. I drew a bush on a mountain with faraway trees and I really wanted the trees to work out right and they would be strange and good like a song you almost can't hear, but I couldn't figure it out, right? But look at how this guy did it!" She rapped the page with a hoof.

Luna her neck to read the caption. "I see. Morning Fields, unknown artist, commissioned by—hmm, but I knew the artist personally. I shall have to go down there and tell the editors."

"Yeah. Anyway, he did it by not doing it! You can tell where the trees are supposed to be and then he just left them off, and now you can feel them there in the center of the picture. Beautiful fruit trees. And he put them there by showing you where they were supposed to be and then leaving them out. It's a great idea and I've been playing around with the idea and I mean, I can't do it, but I love trying. Sometimes I almost get it."

"Do you? May I see?"

"No way." Poppy once again remembered who she was talking to and clammed up.

Luna smiled encouragingly. "Well, of course I only want to see what you want to show me. May I peruse the works you have displayed here?" Poppy nodded and turned back to her book, retreating into herself again, though after a while Luna noticed she wasn't turning pages.

There was no pattern to Poppy's presentation of her work except a kind of outward spiral of unframed pictures, oldest in the center and most recent on the very outside, as if she had begun by putting her favorites next to one another on the wall and never stopped. Now every wall displayed a cluster of ink drawings, huddled together like black and white flower petals.

All of them were intriguing and some of them were wonderful. Despite the choice of medium, her method of illustration was realistic rather than conceptual or impressionistic, unlike so many of her ink-using forebears. She strove to capture the little specificities of her subjects rather than reduce them to their essence. This approach sometimes backfired, perhaps due to inexperience, and the resultant image could appear obsessive and unfamiliar, such as the horseshoe where she had poured all the detail work into an attempt to convey flecks of rust to the point that the rest of the image was clearly an afterthought. But even these were interesting.

Luna's gaze wandered, and stopped. Across from Poppy's room Luna could see a framed print hung on the wall of Starsong's bedroom opposite her door, a copy of a famous Mid-Nascence oil painting by Crema Fritta. Three Saddle Arabian mares spoke together on a couch in a garden under the sun. The room was unlit except by the light of Poppy's lamp, and the poor lighting muted the print's colors and obscured the mares' expressions. Luna found herself arrested by it. She remembered the day she had gone to see the original in its museum gallery, in a warm chamber under warm lights with Celestia there to tell her all about the historical context and the exciting new ideas of the Mid-Nascence period. Her sister wasn't here now, and the image had a silence and a distance to it that hadn't been there on that warm gallery day.

Poppy followed the line of Luna's gaze down the hall and to the painting. "Oh. Yeah. I don't like that one."

"Yes," said Luna. "Dark rooms are unkind to that painting. It needs natural light."

Poppy walked to her mother's bedroom door and gently closed it to block their view of the painting, then went back to her book without a word.

Luna shook herself. She knew there was work to be done in dreams, and it was making her impressionable. "You have a prodigious talent. Do you intend to turn it into a career? What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"The first earth weather pony," said Poppy, "or a new kind of dog. Or maybe I'll paint when I'm old enough to do watercolors. But even if it's not my job I'll never stop doing art. Mom sings for work, but she sings at home too."

"I'm retired, but I still walk the dreams of ponies," Luna volunteered.

"Yeah! You're supposed to do what you're good at, and a new dog that can paint would be amazing." So the dreamwalking didn't make the filly uncomfortable. That helped.

Was she joking about dogs and weather ponies? The filly had a very matter-of-fact and deadpan way of speaking, which could be hiding a dry sense of humor. How old did one have to be to have a realistic answer to that question? She did have her cutie mark, a pair of crossed brushes. Luna reviewed the previous conversation for clues.

Wait. "What do you mean, 'when you're old enough for watercolors'?"

Poppy shrugged. "Color is hard. Every time I try using color it all falls apart, so I bet I'll understand it when I get older. That's what adults say, isn't it? You'll understand when you're older."

"Yet you clearly understand quite a bit already."

"Look, here's the last time I tried." Poppy dug a folded piece of paper out of a drawer and spread it out on the carpet in front of Luna.

It was intended to be a picture of Princess Twilight Sparkle, probably an attempt to recapture a magazine photograph of her majesty walking as seen from the side, her head turned. It had a horn and wings, and Poppy had made a good attempt at the proper shade of lavender for the princess' fur. But she had done alarming things to the anatomy. The knees were the wrong way around, and while Luna could see what Poppy was trying to do with the neck, it looked as if Twilight Sparkle's head was on backwards. Her face might or might not have been upside down. And, come to think of it, Poppy didn't have many inks of ponies, or creatures or animals of any sort. She preferred plants for subject matter, or landscapes, textures, or the occasional mood piece.

Luna passed back the princess painting. "I suppose it is a matter of practice."

"Thank you," said Poppy genuinely. "I was worried you were going to tell me it was good. "

"Let us say your other works are better. This one is evocative, though, even if in unintended ways. Keep it."

She folded the picture back up. "Not where I can see it, though."

"Incidentally," said Luna, reaching into her bag, "I brought you art supplies. This is a good time in your career to experiment with other canvasses than scroll paper. Canvas, for instance."

Poppy's eyes lit up.

***

Luna envied Celestia's ability to make conversation. She could turn a stranger into an acquaintance in seconds. For Luna it tended to work the other way when she tried to be civil at parties, in that old friends would pretend they didn't know her. The answer was not to try to imitate Celestia's social grace in the first place. Luna would always be awkward at social gatherings. Best just to be herself and let things work themselves out.

"I enjoy Baltimare," said Luna. "Did you know this city has one of the highest per capita populations of adult ponies who have bitten another pony in anger in the past year?"

"Why?" said Poppy through a mouthful of pizza. Luna noticed a new blot of ink on her left foreleg.

"I have no idea, but I feel a certain provincial character is revealed there. Have you ever bitten anyone?" It was nice, not having to eat pizza with a knife and fork. How heavy that crown had been.

"Yes, but I was told to feel bad about it," said Poppy. "Mom, did you bite anypony this year?"

"Nopony," said Starsong.

"I was just thinking it's nice not to use a fork for pizza," said Luna. "I remember when the only utensils in the world were bowls and knives. The first time I saw a fork, I thought it was some sort of ill-conceived weapon." She picked a second slice of pizza off the pan with her magic and bit into it with gusto.

"How did you eat rice? Or stew?" said Poppy.

"Suffice to say it was a time of messy eating."

Starsong looked at a loss, which matched Luna's usual conversational experiences. Then again, the dancer often seemed at a loss. Her attention wandered visibly sometimes. If you watched her eyes, you could see her mind switch from topic to topic, leaving Luna to wonder what esoteric subjects crossed her mind as she ate. Somehow it reminded Luna of watching a pony try to read something in a language they didn’t recognize.

And there again, her attention shifted. "Well. How will the dream thing... work?"

Poppy sat up to listen better, rapt, still chewing.

Luna smiled. "We shall be taking advantage of an interesting opportunity. It has been a long, long time since I've had the chance to work so closely in dreams with another, because I shall be sleeping somewhere nearby—"

"Oh, I thought you were sleeping here," said Starsong, disappointed.

"I meant somewhere near Poppy, in this house," said Luna.

"My bed," Poppy said firmly. "Not on the floor, definitely not on the couch down here, my bed."

Starsong smiled and shrugged. "Her bed."

"All right." Too close, perhaps, in the same way two lenses in a telescope eyepiece didn’t function if the lenses touched, but Luna could work through it. "When you fall asleep, I shall follow you into your dreams and help as I can, with finer control and much greater synchronicity than usual."

Poppy peered at Luna. "And you'll fight the nightmares?"

"Yes, whatever that might mean in context. In practice, the fight is usually metaphorical. I find it easiest to subvert the narrative, or distract the dreamer with other ideas, or offer advice for the waking world if the nightmares suggest problems there." Luna dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. "That last is a common issue, and of course another advantage of my physically being here is that I'll still be present when you wake up."

Poppy mumbled something and slid her plate forward. "I'm going to paint. You guys can talk if you want." She walked away from the table and up the stairs.

Starsong watched her go. "I don't know. I just wish I knew what to do. Maybe something really is happening in the daytime, but I never hear about anything like that and she hasn't told me anything that worried me. And she hates talking about her dreams. I feel as if I can protect her, or should, but..." she shook her head, looking lost.

"Whatever it is, I'll help," said Luna quietly. "I can devote however much time I like to this, nowadays."

Starsong tried to smile. "Yeah. So how is retirement going?"

"What?"

"Retirement! Keeping busy, or relaxing?"

"Yes. Retirement." Luna began gathering the plates to give herself a moment to think. "Both, I think. I'm busier than I expected, but it is relaxing overall. I must admit I find it easier to relax now that I’ve seen Princess Twilight Sparkle has the palace well in order."

Starsong trotted to the sink to fill it for washing dishes. "I haven't gotten to see Princess Twilight yet. What's she like?"

Luna laughed, setting the stack of dishes next to the sink. "Her Majesty Princess Twilight Sparkle has turned into a living legend over the past few years even before she took the high throne, and at this point she's a leader of millions. And her reputation is still understatement, I feel, both for her courage and her capacity to love. I have more faith in her rule than I would anyone else in the world."

"All I know is, we sent two letters and one of you answered a letter and one of you didn't," Starsong muttered.

There were many reasonable responses to that, but none of them were worth saying to a worried mother, so Luna pretended she hadn't heard.

***

"Look, you can see the moon through my window," said Poppy through a mouthful of toothbrush foam, pointing out of the hall bathroom. "Will that help? I don't know how it works. You're the moon princess, so it feels like it'd help."

"If it helps put you at ease, then it helps," said Luna. "Other than that, magically speaking, the major predictor of success is our mutual conductivity, which is helped by relaxation and your own comfort. How are you feeling?"

"Ready for battle!" She saluted.

"But in a relaxed way, yes?"

Poppy gulped. "Still working on that part. Yeah, I guess I should relax. Maybe... art? I could do art."

"That would help, then?"

"The sound of the brush calms me. I'm not sure what to paint right now, though."

Luna considered Poppy's kit. "Then perhaps I could borrow your brush and ink, and you can offer suggestions as I go?"

"Okay!" Poppy hopped to Luna's side.

As Poppy watched Luna unroll the paper and mix the ink, Luna considered what to paint. She was skilled enough not to embarrass herself, in her own estimation, though she lacked Poppy's spark. Should she try to teach something? Education before bed could cause intellectual indigestion, depending on the subject, but it would hold Poppy's attention.

Luna had always been best with the more impressionistic, abstract artistic methods. So, she demonstrated the concept of haboku, and the array of splashes and contours it afforded an artist. There was not always any need to depict something; the ink could be allowed to speak for itself. An artist might apply this philosophy to smaller portions of a work as well, where leaves or water currents could take on less concrete forms to better suggest the character of the subject.

It worked. Maybe it was the art or maybe it was the academic language, but Poppy had rested her head on the carpet and fallen asleep then and there.

Luna studied her, watched the way she breathed. Poppy's weight pressed her cheek into the carpet and bunched it up like a squirrel's. Luna smiled, set down the brush, and took stock.

Poppy, Starsong's daughter, resident of Baltimare. No sign of trauma or interpersonal troubles, no magical irregularities, no evidence of neurological issues. Luna wasn't aware of any unusual incidence of nightmares in this part of Baltimare, so it likely wasn't the water or anything of that nature. She was a bright filly with a good home and a stable life. So, what was she fighting?

Well...

All beings were bi-directional. A bi-directional creature had a left and a right. It could direct its attention to the left or to the right, or some combination or variation of the two, such as down or forward. A bi-directional being could turn itself to ambulate one way or, if it preferred, the other. Two directions were enough for their purposes, and speaking for herself, Luna seldom felt the lack.

But there were other directions. Luna knew of a few of them. Nothing lived down those ways. Sometimes, in the right mental state and with the right words on the tip of her tongue, Luna could turn to look, perhaps take a few steps down an empty path. She wasn't made for it, but she'd learned how to fake it. Nothing lived down those ways, endless fields of Nothing, and sometimes the Nothing leaked in.

And now Luna turned, neither left nor right, to look at Poppy. There she was, full of light. The curtains fluttered despite the closed window.

***

Poppy sprawled in bed face up with her eyes open, thinking about the thing under her bed. It lay underneath her against the underside of the mattress, subject to an opposite gravity that pulled it upward. They lay back to back. Poppy shifted her hoof, and it shifted its own hoof to mirror her. Poppy rolled over onto her face, and the thing rolled to face her, and if the mattress were invisible they would lay eye to eye. But its eyes were closed.

Poppy was tired from an evening of playing with a princess, tired from her art, and most of all she was tired of being scared. Her eyes closed of their own accord and she felt herself fade. As her eyes shut, the thing's eyes opened, and when Poppy finally fell asleep, the thing would be free, would no longer have to mirror her, could come out from under the bed—

***

Poppy flinched awake.

Luna scooted in to wrap a foreleg around the girl (and leaned down to eye the underside of the bed). "Your dream. I saw that."

"It's not real, right?" whispered Poppy.

"No," said Luna. Of course, in her experience, realness was best expressed on a continuum rather than as a simple binary, or perhaps plotted on a graph with at least one other axis (danger, for example, or perhaps independent sentience), but now wasn't the time.

"Mom says we're herbivores, so we have dreams about predators sometimes. Was that a predator dream?"

"Y...es. Do you often dream of the person under the bed?"

"Oh, I have lots of dreams that keep coming back," said Poppy. She stopped and looked over Luna's shoulders through the open door to watch Starsong come up the stairs in a nightie.

"It's almost bedtime," said Starsong. "Are you ready to be tucked in?"

Poppy looked at Luna, who smiled back in what she hoped was an encouraging way. Poppy nodded reluctantly and clambered into bed, and Luna followed her under the covers. Starsong pulled the covers up around Poppy's chin and kissed her forehead. She saw Luna looking at her, hesitated, pulled the cover up around Luna's shoulder and kissed her forehead as well.

Poppy was awake, now, but quiet. Luna focused on staying still and warm and letting Poppy follow suit.

***

There was a squat stone well with a wooden frame, a rope, and a crank to draw it up and down, though the bucket was gone and the rope ended in a fray of spines, mineral-crusted from years underwater. It was a wishing well. It ate coins. Wishes would be made and coins would disappear into the dark, and if you fed the well a coin every day you would eventually notice that the rope no longer reached the water, though the earth ponies swore the aquifer hadn't moved. It was just deeper, now. Perhaps the coins did it.

And wishers fed coins to the well and the bucket disappeared, and there was no water to be had here, not from the well and not from the new pump, which spat out wet plugs of broken, rusted coins. One day it spat out a tooth, a molar, too large for anything that lived in town.

(Too coherent. You're still hypnagogic. Go further in, and I shall follow you.)

Put your head in the well and you could hear gnashing waves and a grinding tide. And that was what it wanted—put your head in the well. Breathe its breath and listen to what it almost says. The coins did nothing, but there was one wish it could always grant you. It had granted that wish to coins and frogs, and an owl, once, that had come too close. Crane your neck into the well, and when you're ready, go down to learn about the teeth.

Poppy snapped her head out of the well and bolted down the path. She turned a corner and ran into a wall of bracken, chewed her way through it, swallowed thorns, and burst through. Her head was in the well again. She jumped away, tumbled down the hill and fled into the wall of bracken. The path she'd chewed through was gone. She turned, tripped, and found herself looking down into the well. She slipped on the stone, hot and slick with the well's breath.

A foreleg slipped out of the well and caught Poppy, and there was Luna, hanging from the rim inside.

"It's disgusting down there," said Luna, climbing out with some difficulty, as the rim of the well was still slippery. "Interestingly, I am already seeing different results from sleeping beside you—I'm dreaming from your perspective as well as mine."

Poppy tried to ask what Luna meant. But she couldn't speak, not in this dream. No screaming allowed.

***

Poppy's drawings had unified into a single blob on the wall. Luna was nailing the window shut; the hammer blows made no noise, but Poppy could feel the wall vibrate against the tip of her right ear.

"I checked under the bed," said Luna. "There's no one there, so I'm going to assume this is the other dream."

"The one about the stairs?"

"Oh," said Luna. She shut the door with her magic. "I was thinking of the spider dream, but the door is easy to watch."

The bottom stair groaned under a great weight. Then the next stair up, and with deliberation, the next.

"How popular you are. It's one after the next, isn't it? And who is this?" Luna bent down and tilted her head to peer under the door.

"Don't let it see you!" Poppy hissed.

"Oh, don't worry. Tonight we introduce your predators to the concept of 'apex prey.' This, Poppy, is YOUR dream, and we shall not allow—ah!" She leapt away from the door.

"I told you!"

"It didn't see me," said Luna. "It's just not what I expected." She stared at the line of dim light under the door. "I know this one."

The walking weight took another step up the stairs.

"You've been in my dream before?" asked Poppy from under the covers.

"No, I think I brought this one with me."

Poppy poked her head out from under the blanket at the foot of the bed. "Oh. Do you want to trade places?"

"Er. Not yet. It's not a sight for young eyes, and nightmares can be contagious." This was not the way things were supposed to go, thought Luna.

"They're not?" said Poppy.

"I'm sorry?" Luna was lodging Poppy's chair under the doorknob.

"This isn't how it's supposed to go?"

Luna sighed. "Yes, that is what I was thinking. You are reading my mind, and I'm seeing through your eyes, and my nightmare is walking up your stairs. Our dreams are converging, and I don't believe this situation is entirely safe anymore. We need to wake up and reassess."

"It's fine," Poppy said stoutly. "This is way less scary than usual."

Luna, expressionless, stood to one side of the door and threw it open. Poppy looked down the stairs at Luna's nightmare.

***

"AH!"

"Indeed," said Luna.

Poppy had thrashed her way to the other end of the bed in her sleep. Now she lay under a nest of blankets, leaving Luna bare to the cold.

Luna rearranged the blankets and worked to untie Poppy from the coils of sheets, and as she worked she said, "I respect your courage. It must have been hard-won over many difficult nights. But it would be unhelpful to give you more bad dreams, and if our synchronicity is such that my nightmares are going to invade yours, I had better at least sleep on the floor." Luna got out of bed and levitated Poppy back into a proper sleeping position with her head resting on the pillow.

But Poppy wouldn't allow herself to be tucked in. "That wasn't the plan! And what was that? It looked so scared and sad and gigantic." She stood in the center of her bed and faced down Luna. "I thought nightmares were for little kids, but you have them too. If I'm still going to be having nightmares when I'm old like you, then we should be helping each other, shouldn't we?"

Luna could feel her authority eroding. "This isn't about me."

"I know. So let's make it about you too."

Luna rallied. "Then I shall make you a deal. If you see an opportunity to fight my nightmares in a way that doesn't compromise our original goal, I won't necessarily stop you."

The look Poppy gave Luna bordered on mutinous, but after a few seconds she nodded once, sharply.

***

Poppy was fascinated. She'd never seen the aftermath of a battle before.

"We ought to be congratulated," said Luna, stepping over the still form of an armored pony. "We've discovered a whole new meaning to the word 'counterproductive.'"

Poppy stared at an arrow stuck in a tree, bloody up to the fletching on one side but with no other sign of its victim. How? Luna could guess, and so Poppy could too.

"It's peaceful here," said Poppy, for lack of anything positive to say.

"I passed these hills on the train ride to your house. The battle was so long ago that even the cairns have been washed away by the rain. But I remember. Yes, I remember this peace."

"What's this?" Poppy picked something up. The talon of a griffin, just one, laying in the grass.

"Enough," said Luna. The scene changed. The trees were sucked into the ground and the grass grew up past Poppy's head. Drab flowers bloomed. The sky turned yellow-purple.

"Oh," said Poppy. She huddled close to Luna. "This one's mine. Um." She closed her eyes.

Luna looked down and raised an eyebrow. "Are these flower petals made of—why do you know what leather looks like?"

"There was a book," muttered Poppy.

Luna picked Poppy up and placed the filly on her back. At least the corpses were gone. She looked to the left and right and then a third way, and walked. It was a bit risky to go that way in dreams, this close to the Nothing, but it was time to leave.

***

The pony stretched, like a cat, never breaking eye contact. The skin of his legs hung loose like shirtsleeves. As he stretched, the sleeves slipped up above his ankles.

***

They watched her through the window, and there was nothing she could do about it.

***

The winged, lavender thing squatted in Luna's throne as best as it could with its backward limbs. Its face was upside down, set upon a twisted and misshapen neck and a thin torso. The crown was ornate, but not correct, as if painted by somepony who'd never seen it up close. The thing twisted and jerked, and turned to consider its new supplicant.

"It's been very difficult for you, I know," said the thing. "Anypony with sense knows you were asked to do the impossible. Help lead a nation you could barely recognize? That wasn't fair." Its voice didn't match the movement of its lips, which were wet with drool.

Poppy lowered her head and sighed. "Thank you for your candor, Twilight. Yes, I've known for some time that I... that my skills are no longer suited to this role. If they ever were."

"Please don't talk about yourself like that," the princess-thing said. It tried to set a hoof on Poppy's head, but couldn't lift its leg high enough. "Yes, the new world is hard for you. That's okay. But you've been saving children from bad dreams. Isn't that enough? Hasn't it been enough? Go and be free." It tried to laugh. "I wish you and Celestia would learn how to think about yourselves just a little bit. Please just let me be kind to you."

Luna closed her eyes. "I really am tired of failing, Twilight."

It nuzzled Poppy. "You weren't failing. You were doing your best with what you had, and you didn't have enough. But I do. I'm going to take over, and when I wake up, I'll just tell Mom the nightmares are over."

Poppy lifted her head. "I’m sorry?"

"The nightmares are over. No more falling behind in every diplomatic meeting with nations you didn't know existed, no more being knocked out at the beginning of every fight, no more boring homework when you'd rather play. And I bet I could draw ponies with a bit of practice. No, I'm going to take your place. No arguments! Don't you think you deserve it?"

Luna roared, distended her jaw and chewed the dream to shreds.

***

"Well, then," said Luna into the pillow, "that's certainly confirmed my suspicions." She rolled off the bed and onto her hooves. "Poppy, we have things to discuss."

Poppy wrapped the pillow around her head. "Nuh. Don' wanna talk."

"Don't be silly," said Luna.

Poppy looked up and mumbled, "Okay, okay, I can talk. All real ponies can talk. Last year every nightjar corpse in the eastern slough happened to die facing west-south-west. Did you ever learn why?"

"Tch." Luna grabbed the creature pretending to be Poppy by the scruff of its neck and dived back into the dream.

***

The dream-thing got free of Luna's teeth in the moment between wakefulness and sleep, leaving Luna alone with her thoughts in a gray void. As it escaped, she got a glimpse of it—a roil of ten thousand apes' paws, a silent wildfire, the enormous, scissoring mouth of a cricket. Such a being wouldn't have a coherent appearance from a bi-directional perspective, of course.

Now, where was Poppy? She'd hidden herself somehow, which was impressive. Hiding successfully in a dream meant hiding from yourself, in a way, and it required a certain psychological contortionism not available to most sane ponies. It wouldn't be a problem for Luna unless she'd achieved true ego death, but it was impressive.

So. Where?

There.

Luna dropped into an ocean of ink, thick like black milk. She slipped under and swam straight down. It was disconcertingly warm. She felt it sink deep into her coat. Would it stain? Would she wake up with this numbing taste in her mouth?

A soft lump of filly lay at the bottom of the ink sea. Luna poked Poppy, who sat still for a moment and then gripped Luna's hoof with both of hers.

They sat together in the tall grass among the leather flowers. Poppy no longer paid them any attention. She spat ink, shook out her mane, said, "plegh," and looked up to see that Luna was dry. Thoroughly stained, but dry.

"In some of your nightmares I can change the small things," said Luna. "That's something."

The flowers twisted on their stalks to face Poppy. "I think I could draw a pony if I tried."

"Tell me where you are so I can crush you back into nothingness," said Luna.

The flowers directed themselves at Luna. "You lost your position and it's only made your life better. We're going to do the same for her."

"No, you are going to go back to the Nothing. And Poppy, I'm afraid we have to reset again."

***

Poppy was huddling with her head under a pillow. "Is this real?" she whispered.

Luna looked around. She clacked her hooves together, considered the sound for a moment, then squinted at a nearby ink painting of a doorknob. "Yes. And are you real?"

"I think so." Poppy's eyes widened. "That's not something I should worry about, is it?"

"No, you're real. This incarnation of the Nothing is rather bad at pretending, so it couldn't deceive itself like that. Anyway, I would know." Luna got out of bed.

"I don't get it. And where are you going?"

"I need tea, and we should talk. Would you like some hot milk?"

Poppy nodded, but was clearly exhausted. Luna carried her downstairs and set her in what Luna gathered was her usual chair. She heated milk in a pot for Poppy, with a kettle on the burner behind it.

"This isn't going too good," said Poppy, when Luna set the milk in front of her.

"I have had better nights," Luna admitted.

"What is that monster?"

"A bit of Nothing that floated in through the edges of the world," said Luna.

"Nothing?"

"With a capital N," said Luna. She removed the tea strainer from her mug and set it on a folded cloth napkin. "It's not sentient, exactly, but is becoming so by accreting strong emotions on its way into reality. Fear is an easy source. Eventually it will gather enough fear to be properly sapient, and it will take over its host entirely." They could also be persuaded into a symbiotic relationship if you didn't mind losing yourself in a slower way, but there was no need to bring up old drama. Luna sipped her tea.

"But it can talk," said Poppy.

"It would be more accurate to say it repeats back to us the things we tell ourselves. Think of it like a soap bubble. Its outside is reflective, but there is nothing inside. Don't worry yet, though," added Luna. "We are facing complications, and I normally don't encounter these nonbeings in the dreams of, well, mortals, so it is empowered in ways I am less than familiar with and therefore has a structure more alien to me than most others, but—"

"I'm way too tired to know what that all that meant," said Poppy. "Anyway, did Princess Twilight really say that to you?"

"Absolutely not. We told her we were retiring, and her reaction was nine tenths panic."

"Oh." She thought. "I wish I was helping you. I thought I was going to help you. It's frustrating."

"In the end, my problems are the sort that are solved with personal reflection," said Luna from behind her mug, "whereas yours require the help of an expert. Don't trouble yourself with the petty problems of insecure adults. I shall be all right one day. And you ARE helping, by letting me help you."

Poppy lay her head on the table and closed her eyes. "So it helps you to help me, but I can't help you. What if helping you helped me? I can't stop thinking about what it's like to be you. Sometimes it still feels like you aren't real, down here in the kitchen in the middle of the night. Real things don't happen at 2:00 in the morning, do they?"

"I'm afraid they do, and I'm quite real." Luna removed her tea bag and set it on a saucer. "But you know, some problems can only be dealt with by processing them over time. I..." She sighed. "Do not repeat this, but, well, I have mixed feelings about my retirement."

"I kinda worked that out, yeah." Poppy smiled blearily. "I won't tell anybody."

"I need time to adapt. I'll be all right, Poppy. I just need time." Luna looked away from Poppy’s staring eyes and poked at the tea bag with the base of her mug. "Until then, I hope you will forgive this crack in my armor. We all have a few."

Poppy was shaking now. "But how do you fight that thing?"

Starsong trudged into the room, sat and rubbed her eyes. "S'ry, we awake again? Whuss' happening?" Luna noticed now that Starsong's limbs were stiff from dancing all day. She worked hard for her daughter.

Luna cleared her throat. "We have unearthed the problem." How to explain this gently?

"We're telling mom?" said Poppy, alarmed.

"Tell me what?"

"I'm sorry, yes, Poppy," said Luna. "This might be thought of as a medical condition, a sort of magical infection. Until you are of age, I believe your mother has the right to know."

"Know what?!" Starsong was wide awake now.

Poppy rested her chin on the table. "Yeah, I guess. She's just gonna freak out."

Luna sat forward. "There is a foreign abconscious in Poppy's dreams which must be destroyed."

"Ab, er, conscious," said Starsong without inflection.

"An otherly nonbeing. A fleck of nothingness trying to force itself into existence. I am going to destroy it, because it will attempt to take your daughter's place in her body."

Starsong grabbed Poppy. "No. No no no no no, that's not right, that can't happen, how do I protect her? What am I supposed to do?!"

"You've done everything you can; the rest is up to us," said Luna, because "there is nothing you can do" would have been an unkind way of phrasing it.

"What does it want with a body?" Poppy grumbled. "Does it even know how to eat? It doesn't even talk like a pony. People are gonna know something's wrong."

Luna nodded slowly. "No doubt. I'm afraid it's happened in the past, in my absence—and to myself once, by choice, though we won't be discussing that right now. In the Lunar Library back at the castle I've gathered records of ponies and other creatures that exhibited the signs of being inhabited by another being. In some ways they had the understanding of a newborn, but sometimes they spoke strange languages, prophesied disasters, and tended to hurt themselves and others in ways we would call impossible. If the being took over and I survived, I'm afraid I would have to take your possessed self with me for the safety of others—this is all academic, of course," she added, because Starsong had gone pale.

"Just kill it if it takes my body. Set it on fire." She glanced at Starsong. "Not that it'll happen."

"Correct. But should the nonbeing come into being, which won't happen, I'm afraid I'd have to treat it like any other living being. Records suggest there is the possibility it would inherit your sense of right and wrong, in which case its existence would be analogous to a child whose birth killed its mother, as it didn't precisely choose to come into existence any more than a boulder chooses to roll downhill—but none of this will happen in the first place," she assured Starsong, who was beginning to hyperventilate.

"Right. Um, mom, don't you have work tomorrow?"

"Me? Oh, don't worry about me." She laughed in a way that worried Luna. "But yes, I'm getting up in a couple of hours."

"Surely you have sufficient reason to take a sick day."

Half to herself, Starsong said, "Oh, I wish, but there's nothing I can do here, so really it'd just be an excuse to get some extra sleep. What would I even tell everypony? And today we have this big thing going at the club, and there's a new girl who's probably going to need help with the dance numbers to next week's setlist. And I won't be falling asleep again tonight, I know that. Ugh, did you make any more tea?"

Luna stood up. "No, but I can. Have a seat."

"I can make it myself." She reached for the kettle, but Luna levitated it away from her and pointed at the seat she'd just vacated. Starsong sat down, nonplussed. Luna set another mug's worth of water to boil.

"Have you done this before?" said Starsong.

"Yes."

"Fight body-stealing monsters, I mean."

Luna poured the boiling water over the tea strainer of dried jasmine and set it in front of Starsong with a jar of honey. "Not in this exact scenario, no."

"But this'll work out?"

"Yes."

***

The thing with Starsong's face held Luna's head by her hair under the ocean surf. Luna couldn't fight it or twist to face it, because this was a dream about drowning.

"I'll be a good girl," it muttered to itself. "This is how it is. You're going to go away, and now everyone knows Luna won't do anything when I take over, because she cares about the Nothings too. She shelters us, the mindless murderers, the empties, the defenseless against her power, we take faces and she can't stop us, soon every pony will be someone else someone better someone who does what they're told and never makes mistakes and it'll be okay, and you'll go away and there will be Nothing left. Let go, let go, let go. Gonna be a good girl. Gonna be a good girl."

Luna stopped fighting and dove into the sea. She let herself drown, because this was a dream about drowning.

***

"You can't have that face," said Poppy.

"Too late," said Starsong.

***

"Wouldn't it make more sense if I was the daughter? Let's trade. You can be nothing, and I can be you. Why do you want to feel anymore? You're allowed to leave, just like Luna did, just like Luna will. She's too important to answer your letters forever, you know that, right? Why are you running away?"

***

Luna crawled onto the shore. She growled, "Dreams of dying. I'll give you dreams of dying, you wisp. Come here and try that again."

This was the problem with fighting a reflection. It knew the same tricks you did. Worse, it could use them on Poppy. If only it had more psychic substance to it, she could find the thing and be done with it.

This was going nowhere. What would Twilight Sparkle do?

Oh, for...

"Fine," said Luna. "Let us negotiate. What if you entered the world in a different way? You needn't take Poppy. I can give you the body of a fish, and you can explore the seas. Or you can become a star in my mane and live forever, never to be alone again. Or would you like to be Poppy's best brush?"

"Gonna be a good girl," said the sand.

"You could be a good brush."

"Gonna be a girl."

"You can be a good brush or you can be a dead girl," Luna snapped.

"You've been fighting the realization there is nothing you can do," said the seafoam.

"Oh, why am I even talking to you?" Luna kicked sand into the water.

***

Somber, Celestia had called Poppy's work. Luna held the ink wash painting up to the train window to better see it in the late afternoon light. Celestia had meant "gloomy," but had chosen a kinder term. Was it gloomy, really? Celestia could be a bit judgmental sometimes. A pony had the right to be a bit gloomy, didn't she?

"Yeah, that is kinda judgy," said Poppy, pushing a drink tray with her head. "Can I get you anything?"

"A friend," said Luna.

Poppy consulted the menu. "Oof. Well, actually it looks like friends are for princesses only." She looked down at her uniform. "Wait, what did I just say? Why am I wearing this?"

"Is that you?"

"Who?"

"Poppy," said Luna.

"Me? I think so." Poppy glanced from side to side. "How do we know for sure?"

"Oh, you can usually tell. I think you're real."

"Oh. Well, that's good, then." Poppy hopped up on the seat and looked out the window. "I've never taken the train this far before. It doesn't usually look like this, does it?" The countryside had turned to hills of soot and peeled flesh.

"Not quite," said Luna.

Poppy dropped back to the seat and took her attendant hat off. "I don't think I can do this. The monster just does the same thing over and over again, but it works on me every single time. I think it's going to be like this every night for the rest of my life. I'll be some old lady, having the same old nightmares forever. That's no way to be."

"Excuse me," said Luna.

"Oh. Sorry."

"Only joking. But no, you won't end up like me; the thing takes a little from you every time, and someday there won't be enough left of you to fight back."

"I don't want that either," said Poppy.

"No."

"You haven't moved since I got here," observed Poppy.

"I'm thinking."

"Oh."

The train passed through a tunnel. Sinewy things skittered across the glass in the dark.

Luna sat up. "What was that? That thought was interesting. Think it again."

"I wasn't thinking anything," said Poppy.

"Oh, then it might have been me. What was I thinking?"

"I think you wanted to know why we aren't working together better," said Poppy.

"Because of our synchronicity!" shouted Luna, driving Poppy back. "I have a plan."

The windows shattered. The dark flooded in.

***

What are we?

We're one. I am me.

So, who am I?

A daughter. A sister. A tired little ball of light. Isn't it interesting?

I just realized something. If all our nightmares come from us, they're ours, aren't they? So why don't we make them ours?

I like that. If nothing else, it's nice to have a motif. And how about a name?

What about Datura?

***

No one sat at the table and sipped coffee. Nothing set its newspaper down to watch the staircase.

The black rot striated through the walls and poured down the stairs in languid drips. Flaking paint fell from the ceiling onto the stairway carpet, and was overtaken by the flow of black. Windows frosted over.

Dreams coalesced around the Nothing and took the shape of Luna. "And what's all this?"

The liquid rot rose from the floor and took the rough shape of a princess. "Die.".

"None of this matters," said the Nothing shaped like Luna. "I'm starting to put myself together. Do you know your struggling is the only reason you're hurting? It doesn't have to hurt. Wouldn't you like your last dreams to be nice ones?"

"I am us," said Datura. "We are not you. You are dead. DIE."

"Then together we will have dying dreams," said the Nothing. Datura tried to grab it, but its fur turned to churning teeth.

***

"And now we set it to a full boil."

***

"This is what fire tastes like, and this is what soap tastes like, and this is what blood tastes like, and this is what you taste like. Eat. Eat."

***

Datura gathered all their faces and locked them in the freezer. "It's got to be one of you."

***

The arrow clipped her ear and buried itself in a tree.

***

"Okay, time out," said Datura. "There's no reason to have problems keeping track of who's who right now. Don't let it dictate our dreams."

"I agree," said Datura.

"Let me help you, sweetie," said Luna's face.

"Shut up and die."

***

"If you think about it," said Datura, sitting on the thing's back, "since everything you are belongs somewhere else, you won't stop existing when I kill you."

The nightmare burbled into the ink sea.

"Of course not. Your components will be given back to dreams, discorporated but still real. What if I tried to paint you? Would that be okay?"

The pony-shaped nonbeing went flat under Datura's bulk like a deflated balloon. A glimpse of white arched above the ink and slipped into the waves. Datura laughed and dove after it.

***

The bones of the elk fled through the woods.

"Do you know what I am?" shouted Datura as she chased. "Half of me is the strongest being this side of waking, and half of me absolutely sodding hates you."

Overhead branches bent down and plucked at Datura. She ducked under them. Stones rose out of the underbrush and tried to trip her. She jumped, flew up above the trees, and dreamed of a wind to tear the leaves from the trees. And there was the elk again. It stood on a hill under bare trees, looking up at Datura.

It laughed. "I think it's your turn again," and its voice came from right next to Datura.

***

"Have you considered that the reason you're losing is because you keep fighting things, like elks and anxieties, when you should be fighting nothing?"

"Fight nothing? As in stop fighting?" said Datura.

"Just sit down, set your goals aside, and fight nothing."

"I am not a complete idiot, dream-thing."

"Can't blame a good girl for trying," said Starsong, and shut the freezer door in Datura's face.

***

Datura lay in Poppy's bed, back to back with Nightmare Moon, sharing one spine.

With some difficulty, the Nightmare tilted its head to look at the back of Datura's head. "Poppy, you've fallen in with a bad crowd tonight. This is why you shouldn't talk to strangers. Who do you think started that battle on the green hills? You're not the first person to send a letter like that, but did you know you're the first to get an answer like the one you got? She ignored so many letters every day."

"Your attempt to turn us against each other is noted," Datura growled.

"And it's working. Luna, what are you doing? You're bad at protecting ponies because you know they're going to die anyway. You just make things worse, and it's going to happen again now that you've gotten involved. Take the hint and stop inflicting yourself on ponies. I don't know if you've noticed, but you've been making Poppy and Starsong uncomfortable all night."

Datura oozed to the other side of the bed to face the Nightmare, nose to nose, sharing a pillow. "Now I know you're running out of material. You are just repeating thoughts I've grown used to discarding, using the face of an enemy I have already beaten. Come with me, my prey, to the sea."

But she was getting tired, and they both knew it.

***

They murdered each other again and again. It was interesting, in a way. Before this, neither part of Datura had known what it was like to die.

Now Datura hung from the stone wall, shackled by her hind ankle with the floor just beyond her reach. She was exhausted, sick of every sensation. Wasn't it daytime in the real world? But it was always dark here.

"Luna has hung ponies up like this before," said the Nothing. Some hours ago it had settled on the appearance of Starsong. Datura had been telling herself this didn't hurt.

"It was a different time," Datura choked out.

"You regretted it even then. Poppy, did you know some of the books she owns are written on vellum? That's a lot of dead calves, isn't it, Luna?"

Datura could only cough. Shadows drained from her hooves down the wall.

"This is one of the ponies you wrote a letter to. And do you know why Princess Luna is the only pony that answered? It's because she's the answer you deserved. You knew you shouldn't have wasted a princess's time, and you wrote your letters anyway, and this is what happened. Everyone is going to wonder why Poppy became such a good pony when I take over. You should thank me before you go."

Now two ponies hung from chains on the wall. Poppy writhed and snarled. Luna swung gently with her face against the cold rock.

It sighed. "Thank goodness. I won't know for sure until I'm real, but Luna, I think you were right. I'm going to find you two incredibly depressing. Why are you laughing?"

Luna broke her chain with ease, righted herself and wiped the dust from her face. "You shouldn't have split us up. You didn't go back to Poppy's dream, you poor foal. I took you to mine."

***

Luna lowered the Nothing into the black sea. It struggled. It changed into Poppy, Luna, a camel, a burning ember, and Starsong, but it couldn't escape Luna's teeth. Finally, it turned into Celestia. Poppy gasped. Luna rolled her eyes and dropped the thing into the ink, set her hoof against the back of its head, and pressed it into the black mush.

It juttered and twitched, and Luna could feel its neck stiffen and loosen as its jaw worked, frantically gulping mud. Eventually it stopped moving. Luna let the shape float out into the waves.

"It's over."

"You killed it," said Poppy in the voice of somepony too tired to cry.

Luna shook her head. "It was only a metaphor, in the end. A person almost existed. That's all."

"I know. But I still watched you do it."

"Yes."

"I'd like to wake up now."

***

Starsong slept on the carpet by Poppy's door. Luna sat up and got out of the bed; Starsong launched herself into the room with such speed that Luna suspected she'd woken up in midair.

"What happened?" She whispered.

"M'm, 'm alive," slurred Poppy. She was pale as a ghost and dripping sweat.

"That's her," said Luna. "The enemy is gone."

"POPPY!" Before Luna could get out of the way, Starsong climbed over her, sat on the bed and pulled Poppy into a hug. "I've been terrified all night. Would you like breakfast? I can make chocolate waffles in wizzleberry syrup."

"Can I just lay like this for a while?" said Poppy from Starsong's chest.

"Whatever you need, Poppy," said Starsong.

"I shall be napping on the couch downstairs if you need me," said Luna, though Starsong was already snoring gently and Poppy didn't look like she could escape if she tried.

It was the first time Luna had seen the downstairs in the day. The windows were on the small side and didn't let in much light. A chair sat directly under one window, the better to read by. The couch was further from the window and, in Luna's judgment, the sun wouldn't touch it for another two or three hours. She stood next to the couch and let herself fall into it.

Poppy would have died without her help. If there had been a way to save Poppy without traumatizing her, Luna hadn't found it. Sometimes surgeons had to leave scars.

Luna rolled over on her back to stare at the ceiling. Poppy would live, but she'd experienced many of Luna's nightmares now, and died countless deaths as one half of Datura. Her entire dreamscape had changed. Practically speaking, there was also the issue that Luna was likely not in a position to help anymore. Tonight, or at any rate the next time Poppy found herself able to sleep, how many of Poppy's dreams would include Luna? She herself could have become a trauma stressor for Poppy. This would put paid to any chance Luna had to help, and who else was there to fight Poppy's bad dreams?

All right. It would be best to leave before Poppy came downstairs and had to face her. She would leave a note and get out, and then get Starlight Glimmer to switch Luna's cutie mark with somepony else—

There was a knock on the door. Luna craned her neck to look out the window, and saw a cloud of papers and scientific instruments.

"Hello?" said Princess Twilight Sparkle from the other side of the door.

Luna rolled off the couch into a standing position and went to open the door.

Twilight balked at the sight of Luna. "Wow, you got my letter fast. Okay, let's go over the plan again."

"The—"

Twilight shuffled through her papers. "So, I'll introduce myself, 'here to help nice to meet you,' or you can introduce me actually, and I'll lay out my research and any, um, modern resources you might not know about." She smiled nervously, apologetically. "And we can maybe get a feel for Poppy's home life and check for wayward magic. We've got the whole day to work with! Then you can take over when Poppy goes to bed, if you don't mind, and while you do that, I'll survey the local thaumatic environment again and see if anything has changed from the charts."

Luna stood still in the doorway and tried to absorb the blast of new information. She figured she would have time for one question before Twilight went off again.

"Is that a theodolite?" Luna managed.

"Yes! Anyway, how long have you been here? You can't have read my letter before last night because I sent it at sundown, so—wait. How long have you been here?"

"Since yesterday afternoon," said Luna. "I have walked Poppy's dreams. I saved her life but made the matter worse otherwise." Her tired mind landed on something Twilight had said a moment ago. "What modern resources?"

Twilight rotated the cloud of notes around her head to a battered binder and opened it to a bookmark near the beginning. "Oh, it's fascinating! The Center for Pony Mental Health, or CPMH as you probably know since you helped put it together—"

"Correct." It occurred to Luna that she hadn't invited Twilight in, and Twilight hadn't asked. A crowd was forming.

"—right, and it really is amazing, by the way. I love a good research facility. They're installing a third library! I'm trying to get them not to name it after me. But I brought a list of licensed local therapists and psychiatrists, and did you know there are medications for nightmares now?! I was looking at one of them and it doesn't make the nightmares go away, but it does change how you experience them. Honestly I don't understand all of it yet, but, hey, by the way, where are Poppy and Starsong?"

"They are indisposed. Does your list of local specialists include trauma therapists?"

"Subsection C."

Luna nodded thoughtfully. "Good. And, Twilight Sparkle, I have a question regarding social skills. In this instance, is it forward of me to invite you into someone else's house without the homeowner's consent?"

"I have no idea," said Twilight earnestly. She turned to address the crowd. "Does anypony know?"

***

Dear Luna,

I told Dr. Bendo if I worked hard I bet I could see you again by the end of the year without having to run away right after, and he was really supportive. I miss you and I'm really looking forward to it.

I know you get it, but I'll keep saying it until you GET IT get it. You saved me and the things that happened to us were worth it, and we're all working on it now. You're a part of helping me too, helping me with the trauma I mean, and that's just how I want it. I've never stopped trusting you. Not for a second.

I finished my painting of the Nothing. It's my first portrait I'm proud of, and I've been showing it to people. Mom doesn't really understand it, but I showed a teacher and she told some arty-smarty ponies she knows and they want to see it too. If you want to see it for real then you have to come to my house at the end of the year, but I can sort of remake it right here. It looks like this:

















It's called Untitled and it's a real saving on ink, although not a saving on canvas, because it works way better when it's really huge. If it's small it just makes it look like I'm trying to be clever, but with the real life one that I made, there've been ponies who got all quiet when they saw it and I think those are the ones that got it. You look at Untitled and you see the gunk on your eyes and the shadows from the window and all the things you're thinking about, because there's nothing there, so you fill it up yourself.

That’s not how it affects me, though. The portrait just makes me feel sad for her. Sometimes I tell myself there’s a foal that got born somewhere that night that’s actually her, and I don’t believe that, but I want it to be true and I tell myself it is. It’s what should have happened and I can’t prove it didn’t.

That reminds me, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but you’re wrong about the Crema Fritta painting in my mom’s room. It’s a better picture when the light is off and you can’t see their faces. So what if it’s spooky? So are you. That’s just what I decided, so don’t get mad.

Somepony asked me if I was going to do an Untitled II someday. I said I don't know. Maybe after my brain settles down and I figure out how I would want to do that? Before I go around making promises I want to see who I end up being. Right now I'm an earth weather pony, champion breed of dog, half of the secret new princess of poison death, and bored because I can't go to school yet. But I'm going back to school next year. So I don't know.

Hey, I’m not sure who to talk to about this, but I keep finding new roads. I don't get it. I know it sounds weird, but it's all in how you turn your head. If you do it kind of half-clockwise but also Out, like look really really OUT but also really In, there's other paths with weird trees and things on the ground and stuff. I think Dr. Bendo would say I'm dissociating again. Am I? My mom is full of light, and windows show the wrong things sometimes.

Love,

Poppy

Comments ( 5 )

Well, this is long overdue, but late is marginally better than never. The following is all sincere, despite its egregious nature. I love this.

There is so much to say about this story. The interpretation of Luna as mature but conflicted with askew social skills, the dry humor, the dark humor, the black humor, the novel and evocative description and the world-building and imagery and understanding of art and dreams and MLP and writing on display have me beside myself with a multitude of positive emotions; emotions like delight, mirth, enraptured, an occasional chill. I love your dialogue and I love Poppy, especially Poppy. I'm trying to come up with something more coherent and clear than saying she bites and draws blood, but that is the emotion I feel. I mean it in a sincere and positive way.

I think I need to make a blog post concerning this story, partially review, partially education, majority fangirl-esque gushing. Would you mind my liberal use of excerpts as illustration of exceptional writing to learn from? But don't be too lenient, lest I simply copy and paste the story over and go blow-by-blow.

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How could I possibly complain? Thanks for the kind words.

FM
FM #3 · Oct 11th, 2020 · · ·

This fic slaps! Characters are fun and interesting, pacing is just as brisk as it needs to be, and that spicy finish - great stuff.

One of the best Lunas and Twilight is great for 2 seconds. Poppy is also cool. I really like essentially every single bit of this. Just outstanding work

Luna roared, distended her jaw and chewed the dream to shreds.

Mmmm, delicious nightmares. Om nom nom.

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