• Published 3rd Oct 2012
  • 32,840 Views, 450 Comments

Pericynthion - Skystrider



While trying to escape, Nightmare Moon pulls something into Equestria that doesn't belong.

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Awake

From: chamrajnagar%polemarch@ifcom.gov/centcom
To: MinCol@ColMin.gov
Subj: Fwd: Re: Requested Resources
Attch: List1

Minister Graff,

At the request of the Strategos, I will be providing the IF’s formal response to your inquiry. Given our working history, IFCom thought it best if we communicated one-on-one. Knowing you, this would have found its way to my desk no matter what course of action we took.

I am afraid that I will have to deny your request for the attached list of ships, equipment and personnel, especially considering the task force you have already commandeered. While the IF does report to you in matters of colonization, this pet project of yours does not fall under that umbrella, even under the broadest of interpretations. If you’d like to go behind my back and convince the Hegemon that the moon is somehow the next best hope for humanity, you’re more than welcome to try.

Jawaharlal Chamrajnagar
Polemarch

From: MinCol@ColMin.gov
To: chamrajnagar%polemarch@ifcom.gov/centcom
Subj: Re: Fwd: Re: Requested Resources
Attch: Wiggin Search
Encryption Alg#: 0942810294JJI

Polemarch Chamrajnagar,

The details of my ‘pet project’ should be explanation enough as to why I’ve been sitting out here for the past few months. As you can see from the encryption, this information is for your eyes only. Do not disclose this to the Strategos or the Hegemon - especially the latter. We both know who will most likely replace him. If the young man in question were to find out his brother is still in reach, well... you’ve read the same reports I have.

I have as much faith in you as you do in me, but I do trust you will act in your own self-interest.

Make whatever excuses you want to the Hegemony, just get me what I need. We owe it to the boy.

Graff

From: chamrajnagar%polemarch@ifcom.gov/centcom
To: MinCol@ColMin.gov
Subj: Re: Re: Fwd: Re: Requested Resources

Approved.

Cham

For the first time in nearly a year, Ender awoke without any lingering weariness or the echoing remnant of yet another nightmare. It was such a foreign sensation that, for a moment, he believed himself still to be dreaming. This feeling couldn’t be real, could it?

The sensations on his body certainly held a dreamlike quality. For months, he had been sleeping on precarious tree limbs or in dank enclosed grottos to protect himself from predators. Now he felt as if he floated on a cloud. His back, arms, neck and head were perfectly supported by a soft, downy material. A light layer of the same rested easily over his chest - warming without smothering.

It was heaven.

Maybe I’m dead, the boy thought, as his most recent memories surfaced in his mind. There was the harrowing crawl to the stream as pain coursed through his body. He distinctly remembered collapsing as an irresistible weariness overtook him. But what of the house, and those bursts of color?

Were those voices I heard?

Ender opened his eyes, and could not comprehend what he saw.

The black of space stretched as far as he could see. The stars shown as perfect lights in the distance, unmarred by the distortions of an atmosphere or the refractions of a station’s viewport.

It was magnificent.

Is this where I spend eternity then, an endless field of stars?

Honestly, he had expected much worse.

The soldier exhaled a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, and the starscape rent in two, throwing off his entire perspective. Ender’s eyes widened as he tried to comprehend what he saw. The very fabric of space seemed to split, revealing bright light beyond. As a breath caught in his throat, the starfield wove itself back together in countless threads.

Experimentally, Ender exhaled the rest of the way, watching in disbelief as the scene before him again parted. It was as if the sky was hollow, and he could tear it apart on a whim.

A thrill of adrenaline ran through the boy, awakening nerves and bringing a sense of body back to his drifting mind. Now fully awake, he raised his hand and realized that the ‘sky’ of stars was no more than a few inches above his face, between the limb and his eyes. Lowering his fingers, he was soon able to grasp...

...hair?

Nothing made sense. Ender tried to lift his head, only to notice a firm and unyielding bar was holding it down. Feeling trapped, the soldier had to fight down a rising sense of panic that urged his body to thrash against the restraint. He took a deep breath, and with a forced slowness, turned his head to the side.

A pair of brilliant green eyes stared out of the dark.

Now undisturbed, the false sky reformed itself and starlight gradually illuminated a face around the twin emerald points. Ender’s mind ground to a halt as it tried to fit the shape against a comfortable human norm. With a jolt, memories surfaced, and the boy recognized just who and what he was seeing.

“Luna?”

She smiled - a flash of white against the starlit background.

As the alicorn raised her head, Ender’s world suddenly grew brighter, forcing him to shield his eyes and squint into the sudden day. When his pupils finally contracted, he saw her whole form outlined by streaming sunlight.

The starfield was... her hair? No matter how bright the light behind it, the flowing mane appeared to be a window into the night sky. From this perspective, it was even more confusing than it had been when he looked directly into it.

She was larger than he remembered, and her coat seemed darker, but Ender was sure it was the same pony. After their shared experiences in his dreamscape and Luna’s brief time inside his head, hers was a face he wouldn’t soon forget.

Noticing his gaze, the alicorn made a series of sounds, a melodic and wavering sequence of syllables that ended with a lowered note. As she looked expectantly at him, the boy realized she had spoken.

“I - I can’t understand you.” It took Ender a couple of tries to say even a short sentence - his mouth felt thick with dryness and disuse.

Luna blinked and opened her mouth to speak again when suddenly her eyes widened and she emitted a sharp, high sound. As she leaned forward, Ender saw her horn begin to glow. He looked at it with amazement, only then realizing what had been restraining his head.

The soldier felt a brief moment of vertigo and was reminded of a similar instance in his dream where Luna had touched his mind to... to what? He couldn’t remember.

“Nola heay hwaniene?”

Ender blinked and tilted his head forward, straining his ears. Though he could hear her clearly, his mind felt as if she were speaking from very far away.

Luna’s eyes narrowed. She paused, then leaned forward to briefly touch the tip of her horn against the boy’s forehead. The sense of vertigo was greater this time, but rapidly cleared away before Ender could fully realize its presence.

“Can you understand me?” Now her voice was clear. It was melodic yet strongly resonant - the tone of a bell in winter morning air. Though Ender could remember her speaking during their last encounter, Luna’s voice seemed new, as if he were hearing it for the first time.

He struggled to sit up, but cringed as a dull ache swept through his entire body. Every muscle protested, and a slow burn seemed to creep through his left leg. As the boy inhaled a sharp breath of air to brace against the pain, deep bruises made themselves known across his chest. Luna’s eyebrows furrowed with concern as he returned his head to the pillow.

“I can, now. What... what did you do?” Looking up at her, Ender gingerly touched the spot where the alicorn’s horn had rested. He had to squint in order to make out the princess’ form against the morning sunlight.

She grinned, eyes flashing with pride. “I conditioned your brain to render Equine in a language you can understand.”

Right, the horns are magic, Ender thought. He had put off coming to terms with the existence of something so fanciful - mere survival had taken the lion’s share of his attention for the past few months. Even the most skeptical person, however, would be hard pressed to deny it given what the boy had experienced since arriving on this world. The very fact that he was here proved that there were at least some things outside the knowledge of modern science.

Wasn’t faster-than-light communication thought to be impossible until we saw the Buggers doing it?

“Thank you.” He nodded gratefully to Luna. A thought occurred to Ender as he considered the gift. “It’s one thing for me to understand you, but as far as I know, I’m speaking Common. How are you understanding me?”

...and if you can rewire my brain to hear one thing and interpret another, is the reverse true? Am I speaking another language without knowing it? The boy feared what would happen if he were to return to his own world in this condition.

Luna’s smile, if anything, grew wider. The alicorn seemed pleased at having the opportunity explain her magic in detail. “That is the tricky part. A simple translation spell can twist a known language so that everypony nearby can understand one another. With you, however, I’m working off of what I gathered from both our time in your dream and my brief stay in your head. I don’t know your language, but I have a full impression of how your mind interprets it. The rest of my spell translates those meanings to the listener. Unfortunately, I’m only working on two hooves here. I’ll need a little more time to modify that part of the spell so it will work when I’m not around.”

So I won’t be understood if I’m on my own, Ender noted. Good to know.

“I’ll have to take that on faith, because everything you said after the word spell lies outside of anything I’ve ever learned. I don’t even know where to begin understanding it.” The boy smiled up at her wryly.

Luna blinked, cocking her head to the side momentarily. She opened her mouth as if to launch into a lecture, but cut herself short. She shook her head and scooted forward on the bed, looking at the soldier intently.

“I’d be glad to explain, but some other time, perhaps. What I want to know now is: what happened to you? I thought you were dead, Ender.” Her expression took on a dark, faraway look. “My search took months, and when I finally found your craft, I was convinced you hadn’t survived.” As Luna refocused her eyes on the boy, her face brightened again. “I cannot convey how overjoyed I was to hear of your survival.”

Ender was touched that she had looked for him, but confused as to why she would have thought him dead. Perhaps she had found only bits and pieces of the lifeboat?

As he thought about it, Ender again cursed his decision to follow the river north instead of south. Given her wings, he could only assume Luna had been looking for him from the air. The cover provided by the monstrously thick forest could have delayed his rescue by months. If only he had known...

“Where... were you?” Luna prodded gently, taking his silence for distress.

Ender blinked, realizing he had zoned out. Coughing apologetically, and wincing from the pain it caused, he replied, “I was a number of places, but most of the time I was lost within an impossibly dense forest.”

“The Everfree...” Luna whispered. She motioned for Ender to continue when she realized he had stopped after her remark.

It was clear that his audience was lost in thought, but the boy pressed on. “I was in a desert and a river canyon before that, but a fall into the river brought me quickly to the forest. I spent the rest of my time trying to get out of it. Why did you think I was dead?”

The pony looked up as he asked the question, the rise in tone bringing her out of her reverie.

“I found your craft in the San Palomino Desert,” she said quietly, eyes glazing over in recollection. “Griffons had torn long gouges into the metal and worn tracks around the site. I thought they had taken you.” A brief snarl rippled across Luna’s face, too quick for Ender to see.

Griffon, the word rang through Ender’s mind as it made the connection he had missed before. Now he had a name for the beast that attacked him all those months ago, and it reminded him of his last fight at Battle School. The teachers had pitted two armies, Griffon and Tiger, against his own Dragon Army in an unprecedented match to see if he could finally be beaten.

He hadn’t been.

Then, Ender would have never imagined having to fight an actual griffon. The sigil worn by William Bee’s army was a pale imitation of the real thing.

“One almost did,” he told the princess. “I ran into it not long after I left the lifeboat.”

“And... you got away?” Luna asked in disbelief, her eyes widening.

Her expression only grew more amazed as the boy told his story of the encounter. She began to ask what exactly he shot at the griffon and how he did it when an audible growl from Ender’s stomach interrupted her and caused the alicorn to laugh.

Slipping off the bed, Luna shook her head as she chastised herself. “What am I thinking? We’ll have plenty of time to talk about this later. You’ve been asleep for over two days... you must be starving!” She began to trot towards a large door at the far end of the bedroom. “Just stay there. I’ll have my hoofmaiden bring something up from the kitchens.”

The Night Princess was almost halfway across the room by the time Ender stopped her. He sat up, the rich blanket falling away to reveal a bruised and bandaged chest. “Um, Luna?” He raised an arm to attract her attention.

She turned, hovering gracefully a few inches above the polished slate floor. “Yes?”

“Would it be possible for me to bathe and, er... use the facilities first?” The boy made a show of sniffing slightly at the back of his hand. “I’ve been outdoors for a long time; it would be nice to use a proper bathroom again.”

Luna blinked, then blushed slightly. “Oh, of course... I should have thought of that.” Her horn lit up briefly as a violet glow enveloped and opened a door to the right of the massive bed. The aura left the door, but her horn continued to illuminate as she turned her head to look into the bathroom. Ender heard the sound of running water followed by other, less familiar noises. In a matter of seconds the magic dissipated and the alicorn turned back to him. “There! I started a bath for you. Just go through the door and you shall find everything you need.” Nodding awkwardly, the pony turned and flew through the main doors of the room, closing them behind her as she disappeared.

Ender sighed with relief after she left. Whomever had bandaged his wounds had also removed his clothing. While nudity was common in Battle School (at least in the barracks), the boy didn’t quite feel comfortable parading naked through this lushly appointed bedroom, especially with an audience.

Looking toward the open door, Ender saw that steam was beginning to drift out of the bathroom. It carried a delicate floral smell.

Perhaps I can use a spare towel or something until I can find my clothing.

He maneuvered himself gingerly to the edge of the massive bed. Using a nightstand as a crutch, the soldier levered himself to a standing position and tested his weight on his injured leg. His entire body protested, but the aches and pains became bearable as he pushed himself into motion.

The cool morning air and the cold of the stone floor raised goosebumps across Ender’s entire body. When he reached the threshold, though, the temperature and even his dull aches were completely forgotten when he closed the door behind him.

Had the boy ever been to a spa, he might have had something with which to compare the royal bathroom. As it was, the admiral was simply left speechless. Bathrooms in the Battle School were communal affairs. The modular units were designed at minimal cost with the goal of conserving both space and water. Decoration, if one could call it that, was limited to the flow indicators on exposed piping and fixtures. Even the private bathroom that graced his room on Eros was a spartan affair - it was barely larger than a closet, and the sink was integrated into the shower.

This... was something else entirely. Ender estimated that his entire quarters on the planetoid could fit in this bathroom and not even touch the walls.

The room was circular, mirroring the shape of the massive bath in the center. To his left, a broad sink set into a counter made from a light gray stone stood under an equally wide mirror. It felt low to Ender until he realized that it was designed for someone of Luna’s stature. Long blue sliding doors matched the curve of the room to the right of the sink. One had been left ajar, and beyond it the boy could see row upon row of garments hanging from unseen racks. Directly opposite Ender was another door, smaller than the one behind him. To the right, floor-to-ceiling windows provided a stunning view of a set of snowy mountain peaks. The altitude gave him a small twinge of vertigo, even when standing a good distance from the glass.

The bath, however, was the commanding feature of the room. Stretching easily ten feet in diameter, the polished ivory cylinder rose to Ender’s chest. A gold rim and waterspout gleamed in the morning sunlight and reflected the bright light fixtures set into the ceiling. Peering over the side, the soldier’s eyebrows raised in amazement as he took in the intricate artistry at the bottom of the bath. A silver crescent moon rested among light blue tiles, shimmering under the water of the rapidly filling tub.

The sound of the cascading water had an effect on the boy’s bladder. Any further examination of the room was brought to an abrupt halt by the call of nature. Ender hurried across the white tile floor to the door on the far side of the room. Beyond, he found a wide stand-alone shower and the object for which he was searching. While the toilet was strangely shaped to account for equine anatomy, it worked much as he expected it would.

I never thought I would be this happy to see indoor plumbing. The soldier laughed to himself as he went about his business.

The relief was palpable.

After emerging from the side room and washing his hands, Ender noticed that the flow of bathwater had stopped on its own.

More magic? he wondered. There were no visible mechanisms attached to the waterspout or faucets. As he walked around the bath, looking for a step to help him get over the tall sides, Ender noticed small golden shapes raised across the ivory expanse. Touching his fingers to the stylized suns, moons, and stars, he marvelled at the craftsmanship.

All this for a bath tub, he thought, amazed.

After making a complete circuit, the soldier slapped his forehead, realizing why he hadn’t found a ledge or a step-stool. His host had wings. Why would she need one? Looking down at his various array of bandages, Ender wondered if it would be wise to stretch his wounds, or even get them wet.

He flexed and leaned over experimentally. His muscles protested, but not even his leg felt dangerously painful. He doubted Luna would have drawn him a bath if he wasn’t healthy enough for it. After testing the water’s temperature with one hand, the young man nimbly pushed himself over the rim, gritting his teeth against the flares across his body.

Divine... there was simply no other word for it.

As soon as he entered the water, jets near the bottom of the tub began to agitate the mixture, and in a matter of moments, a soapy froth of bubbles covered the surface of the bath. Ender sank down as he felt his tired muscles relax. Before he reached the bottom, the boy came in contact with a tiled ledge halfway down. Sitting on it, he rested his arms on the gilded rim of the tub, and let his legs drift, carried by the currents of the jets.

The soldier sighed deeply and closed his eyes as the various pains and aches across his body melted away. He barely lifted his head when a sharp and succinct knock came from the door.

“Ender, are you in the bath yet?” Luna’s voice was slightly muffled by the door.

“Yes,” he called back. “This is wonderful, thank you.”

His eyes shot open as he heard the door unlatch and swing inward. To his surprise, the alicorn strode in, turning her head briefly to shut the door with a slight motion of her horn.

“I’m glad you like it!” She grinned broadly, looking back towards the tub. “I commissioned it last year - not even my sister has a bath as extraordinary as this. I’m not usually one for opulence, but if there is anything in the world that I like, it is the-” Luna’s words cut off abruptly as she noticed his shocked expression.

Ender thought hard. There was something he was missing, and it was caught on the edge of his mind. Fighting through his initial reaction to the unexpected breach of privacy, the boy pieced together what his subconscious had already figured out.

The size of the bath was more than just luxury. Luna was smaller than he was, and he was practically lost in the tub. A memory from Battle School presented itself - a Japanese boy from an older group of Launchies chastising Bernard after the he had complained about the school’s group showers. The elder boy had told a story about communal baths from his home country. Was that a common practice here?

The large bank of windows told him everything he needed to know about a pony’s concept of modesty when bathing. The toilet was hidden, but the rest of the bathroom was not. And why should it be? He hadn’t seen Luna wear anything other than small accessories, and she had just left her bedroom without even those.

His cultural norms didn’t apply here, and judging by the rapid change of Luna’s expression, she had just come to a similar conclusion. Ender quickly hid his shock and opened his mouth to apologize for the reaction, but she beat him to the punch.

“Oh, I must have offended you.” The dark alicorn stopped abruptly, wings flaring as she began to back towards the door. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”

“No... No, really it’s OK, I just... didn’t expect you to come in.” Ender forced a smile.

Luna regarded him shrewdly. “Your kind bathes alone, doesn’t it?”

“Most of the time,” the boy replied. “I assume yours doesn’t. Really, it’s alright. We actually had communal showers where I grew up... it’s just that they were divided by gender.”

Ender couldn’t help but notice Luna’s interest pique. Her ears flicked up as she seemed to consider his words.

“Oh, so it’s an issue of modesty, not privacy, and... oh!” She blushed, which resulted in her face turning an interesting shade of purple as she backed towards the door. “I-I am very sorry then, I will just be going...”

The boy laughed as he slid most of the way down below the layer of bubbles.

“Again, it’s alright. It’s your bathroom, and I’m truly not offended. Besides, with all this,” he waved at the thick layer of pearlescent soap, “I am more than covered.”

Luna lowered her wings and tentatively stepped towards her guest.

“I see.” She nodded her head, then stared off into the middle distance, as if trying to regain a train of thought. “Oh! Right, I was going to say that breakfast is on its way.”

Ender smiled broadly. “Wonderful.” In the luxuriously hot water, he had forgotten how hungry he was.

He watched as Luna made her way around the bathroom to his side of the tub. She sat on her haunches, a feat the boy wasn’t quite sure a normal horse could manage.

“How do you feel? I have a nurse coming up later to check on your injuries and replace your bandages.”

Ender took a moment to consider it. These waters really were remarkable; he could barely feel the aches and pains across his body. He didn’t feel any kind of sting under his bandages, so hopefully that meant his wounds were closed.

“Considering all I’ve been through, I’m pretty sure I should be feeling a lot worse.” The soldier looked up at Luna, who was now peering at him over the edge of the bath. “Whoever patched me up did an excellent job. My thanks to your medical staff.” Judging by the luxury that surrounded him, Ender felt it safe to assume that his host had a medical staff.

Luna looked to the side for a moment. “While my ponies are very talented, they’re not the ones you should thank. You see...”

As she started to explain the circumstances of Ender’s recovery, the night princess was interrupted by the sound of her main chamber doors opening and a voice calling out, “Luna? I missed you at breakfast. Are you still asleep?”

Ender looked on curiously as he saw the alicorn squint in puzzlement, her brow furrowed. “Why is she...” Luna began under her breath, though she let the thought trail off as she looked towards the bathroom door.

The voice sounded closer now. “Oh, are we bathing early? That’s a wondrous idea, sister. You would not believe the day I’ve had so far. The rumors have been spreading like...”

The soldier did not hear the rest. As she listened to the voice coming from her bedroom, Luna’s eyes widened in shock. She scrambled up from her place next to the tub, drowning out the voice with the rapid clicks of her hooves against the tile.

“What’s wrong?” Ender asked.

She froze, looking back and forth between him and the door in rapid succession. “It’s Wednesday.. our weekly bath. I had completely forgotten...” Interrupting herself, Luna turned towards the entrance and called out, “Just a moment, sister, I’m-”

The rest of her words were lost as the doors opened suddenly. A much larger alicorn entered, immediately drawing Ender’s attention. Stark white, she was nearly the size of the horses with which he was familiar. Like Luna, she had both wings and a horn, though the latter was decidedly longer. Her mane differed as well; instead of a field of stars, it was comprised of a flowing mixture of pastel strands. Ender couldn’t help but be reminded of the curtains of the aurora borealis. The white alicorn’s mane matched the colors exactly, and it even moved in a similar manner.

At the moment, the newcomer’s horn was engulfed by a bright yellow aura. The boy watched as it enveloped both a golden crown and a massive yoke, lifting them up and over her head. She closed her eyes and ducked her head through the loop, but never broke her stride towards the bath.

“...pony’s been asking about what happened yesterday.” Ender heard the newcomer’s rich, melodic voice as she continued towards him, still not looking where she was going. “I’m shocked that word has already spread so far. Usually, the palace staff is good about keeping quiet, but I think your new guest is simply too much of a sensation for them to resist.”

As the heavy golden raiments cleared her long horn, the alicorn shook her head, sending her mane flying everywhere as she leapt into the air. Luna’s stammered protests were drowned out by the harsh clangs that reverberated off the tile as the crown and yoke fell to the floor, no longer sustained by the white pony’s magic.

Time seemed to slow for Ender as he backpedaled in the bath, his movements hampered by the depth of the water and the push of the jets. He fell back, eyes widening in shock as Luna’s sister bore down on him through the air. Her eyes were closed in serene joy, seemingly anticipating the same pleasure he had found in the waters. Reaching the top of her arc, the pony kicked off golden horseshoes, one of which nearly took off Ender’s head as it sailed past the edge of the tub. Just when the boy threw up his arms in futile effort to save himself from being crushed, massive white wings erupted from both sides of the descending alicorn, buffeting him with a sharp rush of air and slowing her to a gentle landing in the water.

Ender blinked and wiped his face, clearing a hole in the mound of suds that now covered him. Though the sound was muffled by the water in his ears, he heard his new bathmate offer a long, guttural sigh and exclaim, “Ah, now that is exactly what I needed after this morning!”

As his vision cleared, the boy saw only a shimmering curtain of her now wet mane. The alicorn had turned back to Luna. His host, on the other hand, was staring at the scene slack-jawed, her eyes wide in disbelief.

“Oh, that reminds me, Luna,” the warmly resonant voice returned, “where is your guest? I noticed that your bed was empty when I came in.”

For a moment, the dark alicorn didn’t move. She shook her head and returned a deadpan glare. It seemed to Ender as if she wanted to reply, but thought better of it and simply pointed at him with one deep blue hoof.

Luna’s sister seemed to understand immediately. He saw her posture stiffen as she slowly turned her head and magically lifted the wet wall of hair that blocked him from view. A wordless “Oh!” formed on her lips as she regarded him with light violet eyes. To her credit, the newcomer didn’t miss a beat; her look of surprise was quickly replaced with a warm smile.

“Well hello! It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said brightly.

“Good morning.” Ender didn’t know what else to say. Command School had exactly one etiquette course for its students, and this situation was not in the curriculum. It didn’t help that the white alicorn was now eyeing him with an expression that bespoke mischievous intent and curious fascination.

The new alicorn let a brief moment of awkward silence pass before glancing at Luna. “Well, aren’t you going to introduce us? It’s not every day we share our bath with a complete stranger,” she said as a slight but wicked grin graced her features.

Luna gave an exasperated sigh. “Tia, this is Ender Wiggin,” she began, stepping purposefully to the edge of the tub to glare meaningfully at her sister. As she turned to look at him, the alicorn’s voice took a slight but noticeably sarcastic edge. “Ender, allow me to introduce Her Royal Highness the Princess Celestia, Diarch of Equestria, and Goddess of the Sun as well as my dear and mature older sister, who I am sure will give you a proper welcome and provide a good example of what to expect from ponykind. Right, Tia?”

Celestia only rolled her eyes and scoffed. Ender didn’t quite understand what Luna was implying, but he was well-versed in bickering between siblings. Before the white alicorn could respond, he took the initiative.

“It’s an honor, your highness,” he said, inclining his head respectfully. Ender couldn’t exactly bow amidst chest-high water and a veritable blanket of suds. Given what he had seen of Celestia’s attitude so far, the boy thought humor might be the best way to ingratiate himself. Luna’s reaction to her indicated that Celestia was the more lighthearted of the two.

“Please forgive me, had I known I was going to meet royalty this morning, I would have made sure to wear more formal bubbles,” he said earnestly, gesturing to the mound covering him. The white alicorn blinked and fixed him with a searching gaze, apparently not sure how to respond. It was only after Ender gave a small, wry smile that Celestia cracked and burst into a full-throated laughter that resounded off the tile walls of the room. Looking over, the boy saw that even Luna was covering a smirk with one hoof.

“I like him,” Celestia announced, looking over at her sister while waving a hoof in Ender’s general direction. “At least somepony in this room as a sense of humor.”

Luna scoffed, shaking her head. The motion sent her mane flying in an arc of stellar black. “In case you did not notice, dear sister, Ender is not a pony,” she narrowed her eyes while staring up at the larger alicorn, “and this is not exactly the best way to begin a relationship with a new species,” Luna gestured at the bath, motioning emphatically for her sister to get out.

“Whatever do you mean, Luna?” The white alicorn backed up towards Ender, luxuriously stretching her wings and settling deeper into the bath. “It’s comfortable, relaxing, and private. I can’t think of a better way to get to know somepony - oh, excuse me, someone.” She glanced back over her shoulder to wink conspiratorially at Ender. “Just think of all the misunderstandings that could have been avoided had we done this when we first encountered the griffons.”

Filing the fact about griffons away for future consideration, Ender looked over at Luna. Were she human, she would have been turning red, but given the dark pony’s coloration, frustration was turning her a deep shade of violet. She opened her mouth to respond, but froze, apparently thinking better of what she wanted to say. After a few seconds, she took a breath and began again.

“Celestia,” Luna said calmly, “I just so happened to be discussing social propriety with Ender before you arrived. While communal bathing might be normal to us, it is something his kind does in private. It is an issue of modesty.”

“Oh? Then what were you doing in here, sister?” Celestia replied, her eyes flicking back to the boy for a moment. She stared at her sister blankly, as if slow on the uptake, but a small smirk at the corner of her mouth told Ender otherwise.

Luna fidgeted uncomfortably. “I made the same error, though not quite so... flagrantly. Even so, I think it would be best if -”

“Really, it’s fine,” Ender interjected. He appreciated Luna’s sentiment, but his embarrassment had fled with the shock of her sister’s entrance. “When in Rome, right?” He waved a hand dismissively.

Now both ponies looked at him blankly. It took a moment for the boy to understand why.

“Sorry,” he shook his head, “it’s an idiom. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ It just means that you should do your best to fit in, no matter how strange another culture might be.”

Celestia smiled brightly. “Well said! I think that’s a very wise outlook to have. You see, Lulu?” She turned towards her sister. “There’s nothing to worry about. Now quit being a sourpony and get in.”

Luna glanced at Ender, raising both eyebrows as if to ask if it was really alright. He nodded back, showing a slight smile to reassure her. With a shrug and a push of her wings, the dark alicorn gracefully cleared the edge of the bath and landed next to her older sibling. She muttered something that caused Celestia to laugh, but it was too quiet for Ender to hear.

“I hope you’ll excuse us, Ender. My sister and I don’t always agree.” The elder princess regarded him as she levitated two crystal bottles from the counter on the far side of the bathroom.

“That’s quite alright your highness,” the boy responded, accepting one of the bottles from Celestia’s magical grasp, “I have siblings myself.”

Luna glanced up at his revelation, but anything she might have said was cut off by a derisive, and decidedly unladylike snort from Celestia.

“Now, now. I’ll be having none of that,” she said sharply.

The soldier furrowed his brow in confusion. “None of what?”

“I haven’t met a new species in...” she trailed off, “longer than I care to admit, and I won’t have you bending and scraping like everypony else. Besides,” she looked at him seriously, “Luna tells me that we both owe much to you. When we aren’t in front of my subjects, please, call me Celestia.”

Ender looked at Luna questioningly. To what was she referring? Sure, they had worked together to escape from Nightmare Moon, but he could not recall ever meeting, much less helping Celestia. Luna looked at him meaningfully. It would be a question for another time.

“Of course... Celestia.” The word sounded strange on his lips... perhaps another effect of the translation spell?

The larger pony smiled with approval and turned to her sister. Levitating several brushes and bottles, she fell into what seemed to be a long-practiced movements of washing and grooming her sister. After a long, hesitating glance at Ender, the dark alicorn powered her own horn and did the same in turn for Celestia.

Leaving them to their bath, Ender regarded the bottle Celestia had given him. A far cry from the ubiquitous plastic squeeze tubes of the International Fleet, the container was made of thick, faceted crystal. Pulling out the stopper, the boy found it filled with a substance slightly thicker than the shampoos to which he was accustomed. It had a vaguely floral scent that the boy couldn’t place; Ender was simply too unfamiliar with natural smells to identify anything but the most basic of fragrances.

He cast about, hoping to see a bar of soap. It took a few seconds for the boy to realize that he wasn’t going to have any luck. What use would ordinary soap be to creatures who had natural coats? A quick glance at his hosts told Ender that they used the shampoo for everything.

Oh well, he thought, I’ve certainly had worse problems over the past few months.

It seemed that for all her airs of obliviousness, Celestia was genuinely trying to let him wash in peace. After a few minutes, she began to relate to Luna all the goings-on at court that morning. Apparently, he was the talk of the household, and word had spread quickly to the surrounding town. Nearly everyone, or everypony, as she put it, had inquired about him.

Ender gingerly washed himself as he listened, delicately working around the bandages with one of the many brushes that were scattered around the tub’s rim. It took a little effort to remove the layers of sweat and grime accumulated from months in the woods, but soon enough his skin showed through, pink and slightly raw. It was a small price to pay to feel fully human again.

Looking up, the soldier found he had an audience.

“Your... hands, was it?” Celestia glanced at Luna for confirmation. “Your hands are amazingly dexterous, even more so than Twilight’s report indicated.”

Ender regarded her questioningly. “Twilight?”

Luna stepped forward with the answer. “My sister’s protege, and a most gifted academic. While one of her friends cared for you, she wrote a detailed account of your physiology and even went so far as to offer conjecture about your origins and habits.”

“Her friend... was the one who found me?” Ender asked, recalling the details of his earlier conversation with Luna. He hadn’t focused on it then, but he now realized that she wasn’t the one who had rescued him.

“Fluttershy is her name.” the dark alicorn replied. “She is an animal caretaker who resides next to the Everfree Forest. She found you near death, just outside her home.”

The last moments of his long and painful trek vividly flashed in front of Ender’s eyes. “I thought I was hallucinating. The cottage just seemed so... improbable... after spending so long in the wilderness.”

Luna nodded. “You’re very lucky. The doctors told me that you would have died had she not given you the proper care when she did.”

“I would like to thank her sometime, if that’s a possibility.” Ender looked up at his host.

Luna only smiled. “Of course. I’m sure it can be arranged.”

“You should thank Twilight as well,” Celestia interjected. As Ender turned back to her, he saw her reading a scroll she had produced from seemingly nowhere. Though he was looking at the back side of the paper, the light streaming through it highlighted a figure that looked somewhat like the Vitruvian Man. “I never knew she was such an artist. I’m sure her detailed diagrams helped our physicians greatly after you were brought to the castle.”

Tia!” Luna reddened, though from embarrassment or anger, Ender could not tell. The golden aura that enveloped the scroll was quickly subsumed by midnight blue as Luna winked away the scroll.

“Hey, I was reading that!” the elder sister protested.

“You can do that later.” The princesses engaged in a brief staring contest before Ender cleared his throat.

“Well,” he began, “either way, I’m grateful. I’d like to thank both of them when the opportunity arises.”

Celestia smiled in response. “Well, I’m sure you will. Very soon, if my intuition is correct.”

Luna looked at her quizzically, but the white alicorn ignored her. Pressing on, Celestia stood up full in the bath, spreading her wings as far as she could. Sheets of water rippled off them and cascaded into the bath.

“Well, as much as I would love to laze about all day, duty calls.” She sighed heavily. With one powerful leap, she cleared the rim of the bath and settled into a bright ball of golden light. Within a few seconds, Celestia’s water-matted coat settled out, and her wet prismatic mane and tail dried, drifting up to fly behind her as before. As the magical aura around her diffused, it reappeared around the various golden accoutrements she had so carelessly flung about when she entered. The drifted back to their owner and quickly fastened themselves in place. As she stepped into her golden shoes, Celestia glanced up at her sister.

“I’ve already cleared your schedule for the next few days, Lulu. Just let me know if you need anything regarding our guest, OK?”

Luna genuinely smiled in response. “Thank you, Tia. I will.” With that, the white alicorn swept out of the room, closing the ornate bathroom doors behind her with a flourish of golden light. After a half second, they heard her muffled voice call back. “Oh, Luna! Your breakfast is here. Just to let you know, I’m stealing a sweetroll.”

Another voice beyond the door spoke up in muffled protest, but it was soon drowned out by Luna’s laughter. Looking up at Ender, she shook her head slowly. “I am sorry, Ender, I truly am. She is the most benevolent soul I know, but she can really be a hoof-full sometimes. I was hoping to introduce you in... well, in better circumstances.”

The boy waved away her concerns. “It’s OK, it really is. Trust me, it could have been much worse.” Turning the conversation around, he asked, “So do you bathe together often?”

“Why yes, at least once a week,” she answered brightly before her expression sobered. “We spent a long, long time apart, and this is one of the ways we are reestablishing our bonds.”

There was an awkward silence as Luna regarded her reflection in the bathwater. Looking up, she fixed him with her emerald eyes as she said, “Well, I am sure you want to get out and dry off. I will leave you to it. Please do not be too long. I just realized that my poor maid has probably been waiting out there for quite some time now. I keep telling her to not be shy, but she never listens...”

The dark alicorn exited the bath in much the same way as her sister, except that Luna elected to remain aloft as she dried off, floating across the bathroom and exiting in mid-air. As the doors closed behind her, Ender heard muffled voices as she conferred with her attendant.

Standing, the boy quickly spied a large towel folded across the tub’s far rim. Ender could only surmise that Luna had somehow left it for him, as he didn’t remember seeing it when he entered. He was glad for the consideration, since it was clear that neither of the princesses needed such things.

Princesses. The thought hit Ender as he stepped gingerly from the high bath, careful not to strain his damaged body. Though she had not specifically identified herself as royalty, it was clear that Luna commanded some kind of power. She seemed to defer to Celestia, but that was likely a factor of age. After all, Luna referred to her sister as a ‘diarch.’ Who else would share the rest of that position if not her?

What have I gotten myself into?

And what of Celestia’s comment on how much they owed him? Ender did not know what to make of that. He put that point near the top of a very long list of questions he needed to ask his host.

As he finished drying off, Ender looked about unsuccessfully for any clothing. I guess I should be glad that I at least have a towel, he mused. Wrapping the damp cloth about his waist, the boy limped towards the door.

A gentle breeze greeted him as he entered Luna’s bedchambers. Looking across the broad circular room, Ender spied a large set of open double doors leading onto a broad balcony. The cool air felt luxurious after the heat of the bath.

A soft gasp drew his attention. A nondescript gray pony stood behind a service cart, openly gaping at him. She, given the feminine nature of her maid uniform, was decidedly smaller than Luna, and lacked the wings or the horn of his host.

The maid’s jaw fluttered momentarily before she finally gathered the courage to speak.

“Y-y-your clothes, er... sir.” She jerkily nodded to the pile on top of the cart. “W-we did the best we c-c-could, but Steelwool had never seen anything like it. And the b-b-blood was, well, we’ve never seen so m-m-much in...”

She trailed off as Ender reached for what looked like his fatigues. “This is exactly what I needed right now, Miss...?”

“D-Dusty, sir. Name’s Dusty.”

Ender did his best to smile reassuringly. “Thank you, Miss Dusty. I’m sure you did your best.” He gathered up everything from the cart and laid it out on Luna’s bed, which he noted had been stripped of all its linens.

Dusty hadn’t moved an inch. Looking back at her, he smiled again and said, “I’m going to need some privacy to change. Would you mind giving me a moment?”

The small pony jumped an inch, then grabbed the wide handlebar of the cart with her teeth. “Ah, ov coursh, shir! Ah’ll shust ‘e going ‘ow.” Backpedalling, she stammered out a few words around the metal. The cart careened a bit as she brought it around a corner and through what he assumed were the main doors to Luna’s room.

Ender chuckled to himself. Poor thing, it seemed like she was scared senseless.

His camouflage looked as if it had been put through the wringer, which, now that he thought about it, it probably had. The various rips and tears he had incurred throughout his travels had been worsened by whatever washing process Dusty and her co-workers inflicted on them. The threads of his shoddy repair work had been torn out and most of the other jagged edges were left frayed. The whole uniform had faded, though Ender could not tell if it had always been that way, or if it was the work of extremely hot water or harsh soap. Rough as they were, though, he found his uniform and underclothes were still serviceable as he gently pulled them on over his bandages and bruises. The soldier’s boots fared the best of the ensemble. Though they were tight over one swollen ankle, the tough suede material felt as solid as it had when he first pulled them on nearly a year ago.

Ender stood up straighter than he had in a long time. Well-rested, scrubbed, and dressed in clean clothes, he felt better than ever, even with his injuries. Tantalizing smells reached him on the breeze, and led the boy hobbling across Luna’s room and out into the bright sunlight of her balcony.

Blinking away the late morning light, Ender’s eyes adjusted to see Luna resting on a supple patio recliner covered by a broad violet umbrella. A silver service cart laden with a variety of foods sat between her and an identical chair. The aroma drifting from the cart reminded Ender of just how hungry he was.

All thoughts of food vanished, however, as the soldier approached the balcony railing. The view he had seen from the bathroom windows paled in comparison to this. Before him stretched a beautiful river valley criss-crossed with streams and dirt roads. Forests gave way to rolling plains which shifted to farmland then back to forest again. Looking back, Ender realized that not only was he on top of a massively tall building, but the building itself was perched on a sharp gray peak nearly five thousand feet in the air. To the left of Luna’s balcony, a waterfall cascaded from underneath a wide bridge all the way to a river below.

Ender noted that the railing was barely higher than his waist. Glancing at it warily, the soldier guessed that if he fell, it would at least take half a minute to reach the bottom. The frantic flight from the top of the Giant’s Table briefly flashed across his mind.

He realized that Luna must have noticed his expression when a pastry drifted across his field of vision, enveloped in a dark aura.

“Hungry?” the princess asked, waving the goody back and forth.

Ender’s stomach growled in response, causing her to laugh. The boy turned away from the balcony and settled down on the remaining recliner. It felt strange; the padding seemed to be concentrated in the seat more than the back. Looking over at how Luna was sitting, settled on her stomach like a horse would normally lie down, Ender saw the reason why. He then wondered why the recliners had backs to them at all.

Grasping the pastry from where it was suspended in mid-air, Ender thanked the princess and took a bite. Rich, warm apple filling burst from inside as the flaky crust parted. It was so sweet that Ender almost spit it out, but hunger overrode shock as his tongue acclimated itself to real food again. He had been hunting and gathering for so long that he’d nearly forgotten what baked goods tasted like.

“Good?” Luna asked. Ender could only smile around a mouthful of pastry. His host grinned and moved the cart forward. “I was unsure of what you ate, so I had the cooks prepare a variety of everything they have.”

Ender wasn’t surprised to see an absence of meat on the trolley, but the wide variety of egg and dairy dishes was unexpected. Apparently, Luna and her kind had a different diet than the equines he knew. The soldier also noticed that Luna either had a huge sweet tooth, or desserts were a staple here. There was even an honest-to-goodness cake amidst the breakfast food. When Ender pointed at a bite-sized hole on top of the it, Luna grimaced.

“I think my sister took more than just a sweetroll.”

They each laughed at that as Ender selected various bowls of cereal, yogurt, and fruit as well as a tall glass of what looked and smelled like orange juice. His host sipped at a cup of tea and bit delicately on a wafer that seemed to be made of woven grasses. The breakfast was wonderful, though Ender found that the cereal was not oatmeal, as he has originally guessed, but straight, unrefined oats. Luna pretended not to notice as the boy tried to discreetly spit it out. Otherwise, the pair ate in silence as they watched birds drift along the mountain air currents.

“What happens now?” Ender ventured, breaking the comfortable silence.

“I am not quite sure,” Luna replied. She did not look over at him. “I will try to return you to your home, though...” she trailed off.

Ender sat up, but the princess’ gaze remained locked on the vista before them.

She continued. “I still do not know how... how she brought you here. Her memories are still somewhat confusing to me. I will keep trying to examine them, and I am confident that one day I will understand.”

Ender started to respond, to reassure her that it would be alright, that she had done enough, but she spoke over him.

“In the meantime, I will ensure that you make a full recovery. It is the very least I can do in exchange for all that you have done for my sister and I.”

This time, Ender pressed his words. “I’ve been meaning to ask about that. Why do you and your sister think you owe me some debt? Yes, we helped each other escape from... your other self, but I was in as much danger as you were. I am immensely thankful for your help, and you certainly don’t owe me anything. Anyone would have done the same in my position.”

Now Luna turned in his direction. It was hard to see with the shade from her umbrella falling across her face, but it seemed as if her eyes were moist.

Luna shook her head. “It was far more than that. You brought me with you when you could have escaped the dream on your own. You let me stay in your consciousness and most importantly, you showed me how to fight her in my own mind.”

The boy did not know what to say to that.

“When Nightmare was released, she imprisoned me in a place where I had to watch everything she did. She wanted to punish me for defying her and for helping you escape. I felt everything she did when she cast you down from the sky, and she was going to make me watch as she killed Celestia. But the thoughts you shared with me, the ways you showed me I could resist her... that let me assert my will just enough to save Tia’s life. You gave me the strength to fight her the entire way. I was able to blunt nearly all of her attacks against Twilight and her friends - Celestia’s backup plan,” she added when she saw Ender’s questioning look.

“If you had you not helped me, all of this,” she gestured at the beautiful landscape around them, “would be a wasteland.”

Ender furrowed his brow, and looked down at the cart between them. The steam had long since stopped rising over the tea and coffee pots.

“When you first explained what she was, I saw,” he paused, not entirely sure how to voice his thoughts. “I saw parallels to some of my own experiences. When she first started to pull you from my mind, I knew I could help in at least a small way. All I did was draw from my own knowledge and offer what advice I could. I didn’t even know if it would work.”

Luna smiled. “Nevertheless, it was a gift offered freely, and you saved countless lives by giving it.” The alicorn’s face sobered as she thought of what the boy had said.

“What... what did you mean by parallels?” She stared at Ender intently.

Ender turned toward the horizon, thinking of the face he sometimes saw in the mirrors of his dreams - the face that was not his own.

“Two faces of the same coin.” Valentine’s voice echoed in his mind.

Ender blinked, shaking off the memory. Luna’s gaze had not wavered.

I was caught up in the moment, he thought ruefully.

Ender cursed himself for casually saying something so personal and wondered how he could possibly explain what he meant.

“I... humanity lacks your magic, so literally fighting oneself is an impossibility, but I’ve seen much in my life, and I know that you can pose a greater threat to yourself than any enemy could ever hope to do.”

It was a vague generality, and Ender saw at once that Luna wasn’t satisfied, but she didn’t press any further.

He hoped she never would.

Luna was still puzzling over Ender’s remark as they entered her room a few minutes later. A sudden rap at her chamber doors interrupted her reverie.

“Come in!” she called.

The doors opened to reveal an alabaster pony flanked by two of the Night Guards. The stark contrast made her coat shine all the brighter in comparison. The newcomer bowed low with a flourish that sent her royal purple curls bouncing.

“Your highness, it is such an honor! Your sister, who has been so generous as to allow me to actually stay at the castle, mentioned that you would have need of my unique design services. I deeply apologize if I am interrupting, but before I started about my business in town, I wanted to see what you needed. Obviously any royal order would take precedence over anything that little old me happens to be doing.”

Luna blinked. The Canterlot elite had always put on airs, but in the centuries since she had last lived here, they had adopted a positively foppish quality. This pony seemed to almost make an artform of it. Something seemed very familiar about her, but the princess was hard pressed to identify it.

In the blink of an eye, the newcomer rushed into her chambers and started measuring her. She was faster than the guards, which was saying something, as they had only just raised their wings and started to protest. A quick glance from Luna directed them to close the doors and take their leave - after all, the Night Princess was in no danger from a simple measuring tape.

“So what is it that your highness requires? I would be more than honored to design anything for you. In fact, I can’t think of any time in recent memory that a royal has worn a dress! What kind of event are you preparing for... a ball? Oooh, are you going to attend the Canterlot Garden Party? That would be absolutely lovely and I think I have just the perfect idea for...”

The white pony nattered on as Luna stood stock still, trying to figure out her sister’s purpose in sending this... fashion designer. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ender looking on in amusement.

The unicorn must have noticed too, because the measuring tape suddenly fell to the ground with a soft rattle. Soft, careful footsteps brought the white pony back into Luna’s field of vision. Her expression spoke of utter shock.

“Y-you’re that... that... creature Sweetie Belle was excited about... and you’re wearing those... those...” she stammered.

Everything clicked at once in Luna’s mind. This was Rarity, the Element of Generosity and one of Twilight’s friends. She only vaguely remembered the white pony from her time as Nightmare Moon, and while she had run into the other Elements during Nightmare Night, she had somehow missed Rarity during her time in Ponyville. Given the way Twilight described her friend in her reports, Luna quickly deduced why Celestia had sent her.

Putting a wing over the shocked pony, Luna took control of the situation. “Miss Rarity, I believe you’ve already met Ender?”

“A-after a fashion. He was... indisposed the last time I saw him.”

The human strode up and extended a hand. “That would be one way of putting it. Good morning, Miss Rarity, or afternoon, now that I think of it,” he added with a quick glance towards the windows.

“Charmed.” Rarity flipped a violet curl out of her eyes and raised a hoof. Ender grasped it gently before letting go. It was a different custom, to be sure, but not entirely alien to pony society. Luna noticed that while Rarity’s ears were back, she had regained most of her composure.

“I am sorry to disappoint, but I believe my sister sent you to design a garment not for me, but for him.” Luna nodded towards Ender, who observed the exchange with a bemused expression.

Rarity’s eyes widened. “Well, I do enjoy a challenge, and I must say, sir, that you are most certainly a difficult one.” She quickly levitated the measuring tape and advanced on the human. Luna almost felt sorry for him.

To his credit, Ender stiffened but did not flinch. Looking at Luna, he raised his eyebrows.

“While I appreciate the generosity, is this really important right now? These fatigues have been through much, I know, but at least I have clothing for the time being.”

Rarity was horrified. “My dear, no. Nonononononononono. As ingenious,” she tugged at a sleeve, “as this material is, and as durably,” she flexed a seam, “as it was stitched, the color and pattern are simply deplorable! I would not recommend this for Appleoosa much less Canterlot Castle. And these blood stains! What would the average Canterlot pony think of such... such...” she trailed off, apparently unable to articulate what proper Canterlot society would think of Ender’s attire.

Based on his expression, Luna could tell Ender gave as much consideration to fashion as she did, but apparently clothing was not optional for him. Her sister was right - if they were ever to take him around the castle, much less Canterlot itself, he would need to be properly attired.

“Are these your only clothes at the moment?” Rarity asked. When Ender nodded, she tut-tutted under her breath. “Such a shame, I could really use some kind of pattern, but as ever, I will make do.” She paused, closed her eyes, and exhaled abruptly. After a moment, Rarity regained her composure. “Let us see, let us see - hmm, I think with some additional measurements, I could probably make my own pattern, but I need to know your range of motion. Here, can you...”

The white unicorn’s attempt to move Ender’s arm was abruptly cut off as he stiffened and clenched his hand, pain etched across his face. Only the slightest hiss escaped his lips, but it was clear that the human was in pain.

“Oh! I’m so sorry... your injuries! I had completely forgotten - please forgive me!”

“Quite... alright...” Ender bit back through clenched teeth.

As Rarity approached him again, he held up his hand, forestalling her. His eyes widened as he looked around the room.

“What’s wrong?” Luna asked. The human looked back at her.

“Did they... the ponies that found me... was there a PA - a large silver canister nearby?”

The Night Princess recalled the strangely heavy-yet-not-heavy object Twilight gave her along with Ender’s clothing. It had been extraordinarily difficult to teleport all the way to Canterlot Castle. She pointed with her horn toward the closet where she had stored it. “Over there. I’ve been meaning to ask you what it is.”

Ender limped his way over to the far side of the room, grasping at end tables and chairs to support his weight when he could. Rarity winced at his obviously painful progress.

“It’s a pack, but a special kind that can... well, it’s a lot to explain. Let’s just say it carried all my survival equipment.” He pulled the large object from the closet and set it upright on Luna’s slate floor. The two ponies leaned in and watched as he opened it. Luna was amazed at the bright controls that appeared in the air as he moved his hands over the smooth silver sides of the cannister. It looked like magic, but there was none that Luna could sense. In a moment, a large portal opened in the top, and Ender reached down with both hands, fishing for something at the very bottom.

“Aha!” he exclaimed after a few moments. “I can’t believe I forgot about this!” After much pulling, and an audible shift of the contents inside the canister, Ender withdrew an extremely wrinkled, but nevertheless beautiful set of garments.

Rarity murmured in appreciation, and Luna could see why. It was an outfit that looked much like the Royal Guards’ dress uniforms, but instead of bright red, it was a deep blue that was nearly black. Bright silver piping outlined the sleeves and shoulders. An ornate latticework of silver and cobalt blue decorated the collar and the base of the sleeves. A silver plate with lettering adorned one side of the chest, and a multitude of ribbons with every imaginable color lined up neatly in rows on the other side. Above these rested a pin that looked like pegasus wings curved upwards in preparation for takeoff. Between the wings was the carved relief of a globe with sapphire oceans and emerald continents. As fascinating as the pin was, the dominating feature of the uniform rested on top of the shoulders. Each pauldron featured three beautiful starbursts wrought in sapphire and silver.

“It’s... magnificent. Terribly wrinkled and neglected, but magnificent.” Rarity was awed. “What is it for? It’s so different than that... thing... you are wearing.”

Ender grimaced. “It’s... for special occasions, and it is notoriously uncomfortable. Before I... found myself here, I was going to a function where it was required. When I set out, I put it into the bottom of my survival kit and completely forgot about it. I think at the time I was going to save the material for bandages if need be.”

Luna could tell that Rarity was shocked at the notion, but restrained herself from commenting.

The Night Princess examined the outfit with growing curiosity. It looked like so much more than just formal wear.

Ender continued, not noticing the alicorn’s gaze. “Could you use this for a pattern? You’ll have to re-size it first, but once that’s done, it should be a good template. Just don’t... make the new clothing as restrictive.” He laughed, though Luna could not understand why.

The unicorn was puzzled. “Re-size it? Didn’t you say you were wearing it earlier?”

“It’s been the better part of a year since I,” he paused, glancing towards Luna, “since I arrived. I’m sure I’ve grown since then. These boots are definitely tighter than they used to be.” He held the top up to his chest. The dark alicorn didn’t need any experience in fashion to see that it was slightly too small for him.

Rarity looked at Luna, then back again. “You’re... still growing?” She looked up at his taller frame. “I really should have asked Twilight about about you when I had the chance.” She bounced forward, peering intently at Ender. “Given your size, I thought you were fully grown. Does your kind keep growing throughout life... like dragons do?”

The human laughed and shook his head, though Luna could see it was slightly forced. The truth was beginning to dawn on her.

“Ender, how old are you?” the princess asked directly.

He paused before replying. “Assuming I kept track of time correctly while I was traveling, I turned thirteen a few weeks ago.” The boy looked her directly in the eyes, as if trying to gauge her reaction.

Rarity blinked, backing up slightly. “That’s... that’s not much older than Sweetie Belle... and you said that you were out in the wild for a year?!”

“Well... almost a year.” Ender replied, seeming as if he didn’t quite know how to respond.

A few moments of uncomfortable silence passed before Rarity cleared her throat and moved things along. She enveloped the boy’s uniform with magic and levitated it away, clucking her tongue as she did so.

“Well, alright then. I’ll need to take a few key measurements - don’t worry, you won’t have to move - but then I think I’ll have enough to tailor these and to make a pattern for a few more outfits,” she called over her shoulder. “Don’t worry, darling, Rarity will have you fixed up in no time!”

Ender moved to join the unicorn where she had left her measuring tape, but Luna raised a hoof to softy rest on his chest, stopping him where she could speak softly and be heard. “That is a uniform, like a guard would wear, is it not?” Her voice implied a statement rather than a question.

Ender looked her directly in the eye as he replied evenly, “Yes, it is.”

Luna didn’t know why, but she had expected denial or deflection. Pleased at his honesty, she pressed ahead with the other question that had occurred to her.

“Is it normal among your people for one so young to wear a uniform?” She thought for a moment. “Are you even considered young?”

Ender pursed his lips. “No, and yes.” He clearly did not like answering her questions, but his gaze never wavered and she sensed his words were true.

By then, the unicorn was staring back at them expectantly, so she let the boy go. His previously somber voice picked up as he began to ask Rarity about his new wardrobe, simultaneously changing the subject and deflecting any questions she might ask herself.

Clever, Luna thought.

She watched as he interacted with Rarity, complimenting her appearance and asking leading questions about her plans for his ensemble. He was subtly playing to her personality, even though he had only spent a few minutes with her. It was amazing how quickly the boy adapted.

Luna had been looking forward to getting to know Ender, simply because they had shared an experience which might have allowed him to understand her better than all but her own sister. After all, no one else had walked dreams with her side-by-side. The fact he represented a new species and a treasure trove of new knowledge was just an added bonus - a reason for her to add to the Royal Library for the first time in centuries. But the more Luna learned, the less she understood. Now, he represented a mystery instead of a mere curiosity... a mystery Luna wanted to solve.

Ender stifled a yawn. After all Luna and her sister had done for him, the last thing the soldier wanted was to offend his hosts, especially given the strange formality of the evening.

He sat in a small but ornately decorated dining room. Mahogany panels covered the walls surrounding a matching dining table, and all the wood was polished to a high shine. Each side featured intricate tapestries edged in gold brocade. Moons of violet and silver dominated the clothwork on the far end of the room while suns of blue and gold wove their way behind Celestia, who was seated at the head of the table. Ender was surprised at his placement to the Sun Princess’ right, and he wondered briefly if it held the same implication of honor as it did in his own society.

Luna sat across from him to her sister’s left, though the boy had a feeling that it wasn’t her usual place. The high-backed chair at the opposite end of the table featured a prominently-engraved crescent moon over its back. It was not the sort of chair to normally sit empty.

The evening’s sense of formality flowed from none other than Celestia herself. Gone were the playful smiles and quick winks from the morning; she had replaced them with a queenly mask of measured grace and reserved benevolence. It took a few minutes of observation for Ender to see why: it was the presence of the servants and guards. He noticed that while the armored ponies had wings, and Celestia’s attendant levitated a large notebook and quill with her horn, only the alicorns had both. The other servants lacked either advantage. All of them, Ender saw, regarded the Princess with awed deference.

She has an image to maintain, he realized. The soldier remembered how he had carefully concealed aspects of himself from his army at Battle School. Ender always, for example, ensured his toon leaders were the ones to pass lenient commands and praise while he was always the bearer of bad news and criticism. It welded his toons into cohesive units and provided his toon leaders a prestige and loyalty uncommon among their contemporaries in other armies. At the same time, the practice won the uncompromising loyalty of his toon leaders, all of whom were smart enough to understand what he was doing. That simple facade forged the foundation of his uniquely decentralized force, the army that went on to dominate Battle School.

Celestia must face a similar situation. She clearly was one with a role to play, and judging by the ease with which she performed, Ender guessed she had been playing it for a long time.

The white alicorn noticed his gaze and returned a gentle smile. “Is the food to your liking, Mr. Wiggin?”

“It is excellent, your highness. My compliments to your chef.” While he couldn’t exactly identify many of the ingredients in the vegetable broth, it really was delicious. A rich and hearty puree, it settled comfortably against Ender’s ribs. The trouble was, it was also lulling him to sleep and threatening to make him yawn again. The soldier took a long sip of ice water to rattle his nerves into wakefulness.

“Sister,” Luna began formally, “I must compliment you on your idea to enlist Miss Rarity’s aid in outfitting our guest. Not only did she relish the novelty of such a challenge, but she has proven her efficacy yet again.” The dark alicorn nodded in Ender’s direction.

Celestia took the opportunity to examine him closely. “Indeed, I noticed his splendid attire. Even I am amazed at how quickly she was able to produce such excellent work. I shall be sure to pass along my praise when next we meet.”

Ender was, in fact, dressed in his newly washed, pressed , and re-tailored formal uniform. The unicorn had done what generations of military designers could not - created a comfortable set of dress blues. It fit so well, in fact, that the boy had forgotten he was wearing it.

Before he could respond, Luna cleared her throat with a polite cough.

“I would not want you to embarrass our friend, sister. Not to diminish her fine work, but Mr. Wiggin actually brought these clothes with him. Rarity only tailored and cleaned them, though from what I saw earlier, even that was a formidable task.”

“Truly?” Celestia raised an eyebrow. “It is quite a departure from the... clothing... you had before. Is your kind always so fashionable?”

Ender shot a questioning look at Luna. The dark alicorn only responded with a smile and a flash of intent emerald eyes. She had steered her sister expertly to the topic he had previously dodged, and the soldier had little choice but to answer such an innocent question in polite conversation.

Well, two can play at this game. Turning back to Celestia, he shrugged casually. “As a matter of fact I was on my way to a formal affair, not much different from this, before I...” was brought here, Ender was going to say, until he remembered how sensitive Luna was about the actions of her other self.

“...found myself here.” Out of the corner of his eyes, he watched the smaller princess for any reaction, but her gaze remained unflinching. Thank goodness. He meant to softly rebuke Luna’s prying, not hurt her.

After all, she saved my life, and has done who knows what else over the past eight months. The boy considered his situation for a moment. I could give her something, he reasoned. Maybe not the whole truth, but some of it.

Before either alicorn could respond, the boy continued. “It was a media function, actually. Do you have a press here? Peop... er, ponies who gather information, write factual stories and report them to others?”

A bit of the mask slipped away from Celestia’s face; she looked genuinely curious. “As a matter of fact we do. It’s a relatively new institution, but it has quickly become a mainstay in modern society.”

“A main annoyance of modern society, perhaps,” Luna muttered. Ender could barely hear her. The other ponies standing at the edges of the room gave no sign that they understood the dark alicorn, but a brief grin flitted across Celestia’s face.

“Well, it was supposed to be a press dinner, a grand announcement made to the whole of my race,” Ender continued.

Now both ponies were listening and listening closely. Celestia’s visage remained calmly neutral, but the boy could tell by the look in her eyes that he had her undivided attention.

“We were announcing to the world the launch of mankind’s first colony ship - our first attempt to settle a world beyond our own.”

Luna blinked. “A... a world beyond your own, you say? Out... in space? How far away is it?”

Ender smiled warmly, glad to have pushed her questions towards his future instead of his past. “I do not know how you measure distances, but it would take light forty years to make the journey.”

She sat back, dumbfounded. After a few moments, Celestia stepped in to prevent an awkward silence. “That is quite a feat,” she began, mask thoroughly back in place, “might I ask what your part was in such a remarkable endeavor?”

Ender laughed inwardly. Just when I stop worrying about one princess, here comes the other. Fortunately, the soldier was prepared.

“Of course,” he said placidly, “I was to be the colony’s governor.”

“I owe you an apology,” Luna began, as soon as they were away from the entrance to the dining room and out of the guards’ earshot. The sound of her steps echoed along the long marble corridor, masking her voice from anyone else who might be nearby. “I should not have maneuvered you into discussing something you clearly wished to avoid earlier, and I am sorry I prevented you from assuming your role in such a historic event for your people.” The alicorn’s voice held an edge of sorrow Ender hadn’t heard since their time together in his dreamscape.

He shook his head. “You have nothing to apologize for. I should have been more forthcoming,” and I wasn’t completely honest either, he added silently. But what choice did I have? “Regarding the rest, we both know it wasn’t you who brought me here.”

“That is kind of you to say, but without me, Nightmare Moon would have never been-”

Ender placed a hand on Luna’s shoulder, interrupting her and bringing her to a stop in the middle of the marble hallway.

Waiting until she turned to look at him, the boy said softly, “You showed me the memory of when she was created, remember?”

Luna nodded.

“What could anyone have done against that? You couldn’t have known what would happen, and even if you had, you’ve more than paid for that mistake, wouldn’t you say? What more could any reasonable person... or pony,” he sighed at his difficulty with pronouns, “expect of you?”

The alicorn didn’t argue, but judging by her expression, his words hadn’t swayed her in the least. Ender started to regret even mentioning the future that had been taken from him. The soldier was no stranger to guilt, and he had no desire to lay any on others.

Damn it, I should have thought of this before opening my mouth. What’s that saying? “...and the truth will set you free?”

Well, maybe not the whole truth.

The soldier bent down slightly, resting his hands on his knees so he would be at eye level with the alicorn. “Luna, the truth is that I wasn’t exactly excited about going. I never chose to be the colony’s governor. The role was thrust on me and I fully intended to pass it off after assuring the settlement’s viability.”

She looked up at him with a puzzled expression. “But... why not? Such a historic role, offered to one so young... it must have been an immense honor.”

The boy smiled wryly. “It was, but it was also the only option given to me, and the last I would have chosen for myself.”

Luna’s eyes narrowed as she looked at him with a mixture of puzzlement and wonder. “But why would you not want to-” the princess cut herself off when she saw his expression. “No, it is not right for me to pry. I am only repeating the mistake I made earlier. I am sorry”

“Well, I appreciate the consideration, but again, no apology is necessary.” Ender paused, thinking of how to offer a diplomatic escape. “In your place, I would be curious too. Perhaps we can discuss it later?”

She gave him a wan smile, understanding completely. “Of course, another time, perhaps.”

Perhaps, he thought, and for a moment Ender believed it might be possible. Then he remembered his reasoning for being so reticent.

Luna sighed as she resumed the journey towards her chambers. “Well, at least the rest of the evening was a success.”

“Hmm?” Ender was not entirely sure what she meant.

“The staff that attended us were not chosen by accident. They are some of the biggest gossips in the castle.”

The soldier thought about it for a moment. “The rumors your sister discussed this morning.”

“Exactly.” Luna nodded. “She hopes that by providing a first hand account of what you are like, she can head off some of the more... sensational things that are being said.”

“Sensational?”

“Well, you don’t eat ponies, do you?” She flashed a grin back at him.

He laughed. “Only if they get on my bad side.”

Luna smiled, but it soon faded as her eyebrows drew together in thought. “I should have asked earlier; Twilight was reasonably certain that you ate meat. Is our fare going to be a problem for you?”

He gave it a moment’s thought. “I really don’t know. Other than surviving in the woods, which meant eating whatever was available, I’ve never had to provide for myself. I know some of my kind choose not to eat meat, but I’m not sure how they balance their nutritional needs. I’ll have to check my desk before I can give you a good answer.”

Luna drew up to a full stop and looked back. “Check your desk?”

He fumbled for an explanation. “It’s... wow, how do I even...?” Ender paused. “How do you store information?”

“Scrolls or books,” Luna replied.

Ender let out a sharp bark of laughter, drawing a stare from his companion.

“Let’s just say that there’s no way I’ll be able to explain. I’ll have to show you, and I’m entirely too tired for that now.”

Luna turned back towards the staircase to her tower. “Fair enough, human.”

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but could you, or perhaps one of the guards, direct me to my room? I’m still not entirely sure how to get around.” Ender rubbed his eyes sleepily as he waited by the door to Luna’s chambers.

“What do you mean?” The alicorn looked back at him flatly as she closed the doors to her balcony.

“Well, I’m not going to be sleeping here,” a startled look crossed his face, “am I?”

The Night Princess moved towards her bed as she levitated the covers back and began magically primping pillows. “As a matter of fact, yes. The medical staff pronounced you physically fit last night, but something deep within your subconscious prevented you from getting the rest your body needed to begin healing.” Luna finished with her bed and turned back towards the boy. “It was such a problem that not only was I the only pony powerful enough to handle it, but I had to go so far as to shunt magic directly into your body in order to get you to sleep properly.” She walked up to Ender and demonstrated by thunking her horn down in the middle of his forehead, reminding him of the sensation from earlier that morning. “Do you realize what that means?”

Ender shook his head, dislodging the horn.

“It means,” the alicorn continued, poking him with a silver-shod hoof, “that you are most certainly *not* well, and that you will be under observation, by me, until such a time as you can rest on your own. I said this morning that I would make sure you recovered, and I intend to follow through on that.”

The boy raised his hands in surrender. “Alright, alright. While I don’t understand any of that, I will agree that I slept better last night than I have in... well, probably my entire life. That being said, I’ve never had a problem going to sleep before, so how about this? I can sleep on that couch over there so you can observe me,” he pointed to the sitting area of Luna’s chambers, “and as soon as you think I’m better, I’ll go to a different room. I don’t know how it is in your society, but sharing a room like this in mine would be... inappropriate. I’d hate to think of what the castle rumors would be.”

“They’d be silenced, is what they would be,” she muttered. Looking up, Luna nodded briskly. “Fair enough, but I insist on a bed - I’ll have my staff bring one.”

Sure enough, by the time Ender changed out of his dress uniform and emerged from the bathroom, there was a fully-appointed queen-sized bed set up on the far side of Luna’s chambers. He limped towards it gratefully, not realizing how tired he was until he saw it waiting for him. Oblivion pulled at him strongly as soon as he settled beneath the soft duvet.

Heh, he laughed to himself, there’s no way I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight. Looks like Luna was worried about nothing.

Ender wondered briefly where she was. The door to the balcony was cracked, but he saw no sign of her through the glass doors. The other side of the tower, perhaps?

He drifted off as the moon rose over the far horizon.