The Bright Side of the Moon

by Crescent Minor

First published

Princess Luna has been going through a bad patch in the last thousand years or so, to put it mildly. Now, at this time in her life, she is finally ready to answer the difficult questions. But there's one thing she's never thought to question ...

It’s been a long millennium, and the Princess of the Night is picking herself up off the ground. She’s been getting closer with Celestia, and she’s finally learning to rely on her emotional support. They are able to talk more openly than they have in centuries.
But a feeling of sadness remains that Luna hasn’t mentioned, one that’s haunted her since her foalhood. She denies its existence as best she can, and certainly won’t talk to Celestia about it. She doesn’t know what it is or why it’s there. Perhaps the time has come to find out.
A transgender narrative. Contains depictions of dysphoria; I tried to be as true as possible to my own experience, but some may find it upsetting.
It has been a long time since I have creatively written like this. So, I'm rusty. Please criticize my work if there is something about my writing that you don't like, and don't worry about sparing my feelings. I want to improve and, if you'll pardon the pun, get back on the horse.

1. Date Night

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It was a sort of new tradition between the two sisters, one that they’d kept to ever since Luna returned. Canterlot was a busy, beautiful city with a rich theatre scene; not quite at the level of Manehattan, but there were many skilled Canterlot artists plying their craft onstage to see. Given their vaunted position, Celestia and Luna knew their presence would cause such a stir that it would defeat the point of unwinding from their royal duties. The ponies of Canterlot payed very close attention to every personal decision the Princesses made, and judged many artists’ work by whatever the Princesses’ standards appeared to be. Going to see one play might draw so many ponies to it that all other plays currently running opened to an empty house, and neither princess wanted anypony’s career to end because they’d felt like seeing a comedy that night instead of a drama. In the time before Nightmare, they’d never addressed this problem, and resigned themselves to missing out.

But in this new era, one in which they’d resolved to be closer and remember to relax wherever possible, they had come up with a solution. One night of every month they set aside to magically assume disguises of ordinary tourist ponies, and go see a show. For this one night, they shed the burden of being royalty and mingled with their citizens unnoticed. Celestia, with her odd sense of humor, insisted upon referring to it as their ‘date night’.

On one such night, Luna stood in front of the mirror in her bedchamber, half-heartedly appraising the purple pegasus disguise she had selected. She was not exactly excited about it, but it was no surprise: this part of date night didn’t matter much to her. Luna had never experienced, or could not remember experiencing, vanity. The feeling never came to her. She was never quite pleased with her appearance and so trying to find one that she liked was a wasted effort. As such, she did not expect that her disguises would make her happy, but hoped that at least Celestia would like them.

A hoof rapped upon her door, and though the voice was disguised, Luna recognized small affects in the pony’s speech as her sister’s. “Luna, are you ready? We should go now!” Her chosen pitch was unusually deep tonight. Celestia, unlike Luna, loved this part. She was always fussing over small details of her visage until she adored what she saw. Luna occasionally worried they’d be late for a show because her sister wasn’t done putting her disguise on, but the results couldn’t be argued with. Every date night, Tia was practically strutting down the street, her entire demeanor glowing. It felt good just to sit next to her when she was in such an uplifting mood.

Luna wondered sometimes if there was something wrong with her, that she could not feel that way.


“Oh … Yes, I am ready.” Luna turned away from her underwhelming reflection, considering if the name Purple Prose was realistic enough to be believed, and deciding it would be fine for the night. After all, she’d already put together a parchment cutie mark and they might be late already. Luna opened the door … and blinked, stopping in her tracks.

Her sister had made herself into a stallion. She was a faded blue unicorn, in a severe, silky black suit with a short-cropped white mane and tail. The suit was tailored to expose the diamond cutie mark on the flank. Celestia noticed Luna’s hesitation, and looked uncharacteristically self-conscious, her ears folding back a touch.

“Is this alright? I just felt like trying something different, but if you don’t like it, I can –”

“No, no, Tia, I –” What exactly was her reaction? Seeing this distinguished, well dressed stallion and knowing that her sister was under the magic illusion brought up an odd jumble of emotions that neither heads nor tails could be made of. The best Luna could do was call it ‘fascinating but painful’. It brought a tight ache, just a mild one, to the hollow between her ribs. It wasn’t a new pain; she’d felt it many times before. She didn’t have time to puzzle out why it was happening now, because her sister was still waiting for the rest of her sentence. “I was only surprised. You look … dashing.”

This brought Celestia back to her normal inner glow of pride, and she smiled, straightening to her full height. “Yes, I enjoy being the tall one.”

Luna broke into a grin. Celestia’s stallion character did stand about a half-head taller than Luna’s own pegasus mare – hardly anything compared to their usual difference in height.

“My name is Brilliant Cut, and I’ll be your escort for the evening.” She bowed like a gentlepony. “And your name?”

Mentally, Luna rolled her eyes in amused resignation. The Rising Sun Herself had such fun with the introductions, presenting their characters. Just like the process of picking a disguise, Luna tolerated it, only really finding happiness in how much Celestia enjoyed it. “Purple Prose. A pleasure, sir.”

Celestia leaned down, took Luna’s hoof and kissed it. “The pleasure is all mine, milady.” The ache got momentarily tighter at the word, as it always did, and Luna tried not to cringe. “Shall we depart?”

Luna smiled, keeping her confusing feelings to herself. “We shall.”

As they walked off down the hall, side by side, Celestia asked “What do you think? Does The Magic of Metal still sound good? We have time to change our minds.”

“No, no, I think a comedy would be just the thing. Resolving that land disagreement between the Bluebloods and the Forests was such a frustration.”

“Yes, I agree. I don’t normally indulge in such a predictable comedy of errors, but … oh, this month. I don’t have the energy for anything challenging.”

“I hope it isn’t another Halter and Bit. That was awful.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve read great reviews.”

They stepped out an unnoticeable back door of their palace, on the street level, and set off on their usual route. They would walk down Royal Street until they hit Rhyme Road, then turn a couple of laps around the entertainment district, until anypony who might’ve seen them had forgotten that they had come from the direction of the palace. Then, they would go along Thespian Way until they came to one of their preferred theatres, The Thespian’s House; so named, as one might infer, from its location.

Walking side by side ‘Brilliant Cut’ in the faded light, Luna couldn’t keep her eyes off her sister’s chosen male form. He appeared to be a jeweler by his mark. Though it was only an old ponytale that horn size or shape affected the quality of the magic, Celestia had chosen something shorter and sharper, suggesting that his levitation was a precision instrument. He had a little grey hair in his mane, and a thin streak in his tail, making him appear middle-aged. Her sister would only rarely choose a young pony as her character; she usually stuck with somepony who would not raise eyebrows if they ordered a specific year of wine.

They arrived at the theatre, paid for their tickets, and went in. As usual, Celestia had hurried them out well before the play was supposed to start, and most seats were empty, which allowed them to claim two in the top row. Sitting quietly in the dark, Luna kept sneaking glances at ‘Brilliant Cut’, hoping that Celestia didn’t notice. She still felt the same small turmoil every time she looked at her: fascinated with every detail, but with that familiar pain tugging at her insides. The little ache was a lifelong companion; it had come and gone for as long as she could remember, and she still didn’t know just what exactly it was. It wasn’t quite sadness, nor quite discomfort, nor quite anything; it just hurt. It felt particularly hard and sharp right now, because of Celestia’s handsome disguise.

Luna shut her eyes and lay her head on Celestia’s shoulder, putting one hoof over hers. Celestia returned the gesture, laying her head against Luna’s. “Wish I’d gone as a pegasus.” she whispered, her smooth male voice tweaking that pain in Luna’s chest. “I always forget how strange it feels not to put my wing around you.”

The purple mare breathed deep, hoping that nagging ache would go away if she just focussed on the pleasure of her sister’s company. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

When the show began, it was very shallow and light. Every character acted rather unrealistically, and only the protagonist and his dramatic best friend were somewhat likeable. Act one flew past with enjoyable hamminess, and though Luna seriously questioned the flimsy justification as to why the unicorn protagonist had to paint himself green and perpetrate the ruse that he was an earth pony blacksmith, she couldn’t deny that the ensuing ridiculousness was amusing. Laughter rolled through the theatre when he had to hold his hat on over his horn while being pelted with snowballs. At this, Celestia whispered to Luna “Why doesn’t he just tie the hat on? This has happened at least three times now.” When he tried to lift a suit of armor and succeeded only in sweating and collapsing, nearly everypony in the audience groaned; they may not have earth pony strength, but even a unicorn could lift things. Most of it was enjoyable enough to distract her, but during the boring stretches, that constant sadness sitting heavy in her chest was all Luna could think about.

When the play ended and they started for home, Celestia tried to make light conversation about the show, but Luna was having trouble participating. Every answer she gave was too short and too closed, and she kept promising herself that she’d say more. It was no use, and soon they were walking along in silence.

The quiet continued when they entered their palace, and as they climbed the stairs to their private chambers. They stopped at a fork in the hallway, where they’d have to part ways to go to their own bedrooms. Celestia, still looking like Brilliant Cut, leaned down to nuzzle Luna.

“That was fun.”

“Indeed.” Luna agreed, returning the gesture.

Celestia pulled away to look Luna in the face. “Was something bothering you tonight? I know you said you didn’t mind my character, but you didn’t seem … present.”

Luna privately cursed her sister’s perceptiveness. She’d so hoped she’d managed to act natural. “It’s nothing, Tia. You needn’t worry. I am tired, that’s all.”

Celestia did not look as though she believed her, but she let it rest. “Mmhmm. We should go to bed; I only have time for an hour-long nap before the sun needs raising. Good day, sister.”

That same little twist came again, deep inside. “Good day.”

Back in her bedroom, Luna shed the nondescript purple pegasus image, freeing her navy coat and starry mane. Her horn came into view gleaming with the effort of dismissing the illusion, and Luna caught sight of her restored self in her mirror. Meeting her own eyes out of habit, she stood and stared at herself as her horn dimmed and darkened, finished with its task. Many ponies had called her beautiful, but looking at this reflection, she could objectively see what they liked without being able to feel the same way. What she felt, if anything, was a barely noticeable touch of dismay and surprise every single time she met her reflection. It was as though she could never quite believe what she looked like, always expecting … something else, but she could not have said what. Minutes went by, and Luna now sat in front of the mirror, still staring and wondering. Something terribly familiar had been hurting her all night, was hurting her right now, and it had to do with this. She supposed seeing Celestia get so much joy out of making herself beautiful had always made her jealous. Tia seemed to have something Luna could not see herself ever having. That made sense.

But Luna was not satisfied with that explanation. It didn’t explain why her sister being a stallion had mattered so much. Luna herself hadn’t ever tried a stallion character, not once in the few years they’d been keeping their dates. She supposed that the reason was her worry about whether she was ‘normal enough’. The ponies seemed warmer toward her in this new era, and she was more accepted than she’d ever been, but she had a looming fear that the smallest thing could ruin that. She had been shunned for so long, part of her believed it was a natural state to which their society must eventually return. She was sure that terrible episode with the Tantabus –

Maybe best not to think about that right now.

Allowing herself any strange or potentially distasteful behaviour, even if nopony apart from her sister knew about it, felt like too big of a risk to take. If she kept letting herself act strangely, like speaking in the old dialect which she still preferred, or pretending to be a stallion, she’d never be thought of as normal. Given her nocturnal proclivities, she was strange enough as it was.

Celestia didn’t have that problem, or at least, she didn’t act like she had that problem. She was so at ease that she magically crossdressed, all night, just because she ‘liked being the tall one’. She did not worry about being different as Luna did.

Luna would bet that her sister did not have a constant, nagging sense of doubt and discomfort, an ache, that chose the strangest times to ruin her good mood. When she looked in the mirror, when she picked out something to wear, when anypony called her ‘lady’, ‘princess’, sometimes even when Celestia called her ‘sister’, like in the hallway just then. Her own name might set it off. Anything that made her think about herself, it seemed, and it didn’t answer to reason. Maybe that was why she so often felt like she wasn’t even Princess Luna at all. Was that possible? Could she somehow have no choice in being the Princess Luna, and yet not be herself? Could a pony be trapped in their identity while sometimes not even identifying with it?

A bird trilled loudly outside her window, and Luna started, flicking her head toward the sound. She was shocked to see grey dawn light coming through a crack in the curtains. How long had she spent staring at herself? Celestia had already raised the sun.

And Luna had forgotten to lower the moon. She cursed and illuminated her horn, reaching for the corner of the sky where her charge should be; true, she couldn’t see the sky from in here, but setting the moon could be done by feel in a pinch. Blindly, she grabbed hold of her misplaced light, which she’d left high in the west, and dragged it down. It set a little quicker than usual in her haste. Luna released it once it was below the horizon, and let out a frustrated sigh. How could she have almost neglected her duty just to worry about this? It was not as though it would ever go away, so she should not waste her energy dwelling on it.

“Just go to sleep.” Luna muttered to herself, standing up. She rifled through her record collection, much of it thoughtfully preserved through her long imprisonment on Celestia’s orders. The album she selected had been with her since the early days of their rule, and survived entire eras of Equestrian history; she put it on the player once more. It was quiet and soothing and sad, perfect for getting to sleep. She lay in her bed and listened to the cello.

In conjunction with the music, there was a soothing trick she often employed. She held perfectly still, softened her breath until she couldn’t feel or hear it, and worked to ‘ignore’ her physical form. If she just listened to the music and let that consume her attention, she could forget to feel any part of her, until she couldn’t feel where her body ended and the air began. After a few minutes of this, she couldn’t feel her body at all, as though it had ceased to exist, vanished into the ether. She used this trick almost every day, and she’d become very good at it. There was only cello music and thought, and nopony at all.

I am not Princess Luna.

There was no positive statement, no answer as to what was. There was only what was not.

And at this moment alone, the ache inside eased.

2. Dispeller of Nightmares

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The polished orb on her bedside table flashed once like a riot control weapon, and Luna flung one foreleg over her eyes before she was even fully awake. The sudden stabbing pain made her want to hide under the covers, but she forced herself up, surging with panicked energy, because the Tartarus-bound thing would go off again in a matter of seconds. It had to be deactivated with a gentle tap from one’s horn, which seemed like a terrible oversight in design; wasn’t anypony else terrified they wouldn’t make it quite in time and get another eye-bleeding, headache-inducing flash at close quarters? Luna knocked an empty tea mug off her bedside table in her haste, but managed to tap the orb quickly enough.

Relaxing for a moment, she leaned back and rubbed the cloudy afterimage out of her eyes, grumbling. It would sound strange to say, but one of the hurdles of quitting the Tantabus was the lack of a natural alarm. She’d always instructed the creature to torment her until the sun was a half-hour from setting exactly, and it had obeyed. Celestia never understood until recently how Luna was always so punctual in the evenings.

Lacking a monster in her mind, Luna now had to rely on the metropolitan unicorn’s answer to a ‘rooster crow’, which was a personal light-based alarm. Being situated in Canterlot, it was the closest thing on hoof, but Luna despised it. The device had been made with ordinary unicorns in mind, naturally, and so it did not account for an alicorn with perfect night vision and, as such, eyes which were more light-sensitive than quite literally anypony else’s in Equestria. The alarm was about as well suited to Luna as staring into the sun was to an ordinary pony; to call it painful was an optimistic description.

With her sight finally approaching normalcy, Luna fumbled for her sandals and put them on, then reached for her peytral. Her tiara she put on without the mirror; in fact, given the morning before, she’d resolved to avoid the mirror this evening. The day had been long and her sleep fitful, but despite that she was slow with fatigue, she forced a brisk pace out of her bedroom and down the hall to attend her first duty.

The balcony she worked from was only a short distance, and the shuttered doors were already open. Luna came out under the sky, and saw across the way that her sister was in her own tower, a pale shape against the dimming blue. She could surely see that Luna had arrived at her proper place, and would now take her cue as she did every dusk. A tiny glow of gold could be seen from Luna’s faraway vantage, and she lit her own horn in response. Their twilight hour performance began.

Celestia pulled the sun down, cutting off the light behind the horizon and darkening the sky. The colours in the western half became warmer and richer, deep reds and oranges coming to the surface of the watery yellow. Luna responded in kind, lifting the moon from its hiding place, bringing up a soft silver against the embers of the sunset across. The palette of their sky, a canvas that spread from one end of the world to the other, grew cooler and darker at a steady pace. The bright colours made a brief stand against the encroaching dark, growing riotous and fiery before being quenched against the western line. The pale light of the moon brightened gently at the sun’s passing, easing the weight of the dark, and Luna brought out the stars to help. Celestia settled on her dais just as Luna rose off her own to get a better view of her work. She daubed the stars over the sky with care; this could not be rushed no matter how practiced she was. The sky was a display of size and complexity beyond mortal comprehension, and every star had a historically valued place that could not be mistaken. Celestia went inside, leaving Luna to her task of bringing each star out, one by one.

Once every point of light was just where it should be, Luna lowered herself to the balcony’s surface and looked around with satisfaction. It was not a special performance by any means, nothing particularly unique or unusual about it. To their little ponies, it was just another sunset. Wonderful.

Luna turned and went inside, to meet Celestia in their kitchen. No doubt she would already be there, having started her dinner while Luna starpainted.

She entered their personal dining room and sat at the small table. Contrary to popular belief, the grand dining hall was only used for public functions. The princesses took their daily meals in the little, softly lit room off of the kitchen, where their table was short enough that the alicorns didn’t require chairs. Luna couldn’t be sure, not having been present for the Canterlot palace’s redecoration, but looked to be a repurposed coffee table. Servants had already come and gone, leaving her a breakfast of flowers and fruit at her place. As Luna started her meal, Celestia asked “Did you double-check that Orion is properly dressed?”

Luna smiled as she chewed. There had been one night since her return that she had painted the hunting horse with four stars in his belt by accident. Within hours of moonrise she’d received many irritated letters, the first from Twilight Sparkle, admonishing her for altering it from the customary three. As the picture was her own creation, she privately thought that Orion had however many stars in his belt that she said he did, but then it had been a mistake. It was now something of a running joke between them. “Yes, Tia, Orion’s wardrobe is canonically accurate.”

“Good, that is the most important part.”

“But of course. Equestria would fall.”

The guardians of the nation laughed.

Celestia’s shift was ending, and she could take her time finishing her dinner, but for Luna the work had just begun. She finished her breakfast quickly, and bade her sister a good sleep. As she rose from the table and turned to leave, Celestia called “Oh, sister, I nearly forgot to ask.”

Luna paused at the door; she anticipated the question, but politely said “Yes?”

“Would you like to talk this dawn?”

‘Would you like to’ or ‘do you need to’. Luna could swear she could hear Celestia weighing the merits of how to phrase that question every time she asked it. One implied Luna’s greater choice in the matter while also allowing her to avoid it when perhaps she shouldn’t, the other insinuated Luna’s dependence. The talks were more than simple talks; Luna had no personal experience on the receiving end of modern-day psychiatric practices, but she imagined their conversations over the past few months were a close approximation. Ever since her monster had been caged, they’d become a regular practice. Her sister had been, to understate, greatly concerned when she’d heard of the terrible near-escape of the creature, and what had caused it. At Celestia’s insistence, their relationship since then had become much more intimate, more than Luna was comfortable with. In her opinion, it was a natural way to feel: what pony could ever be comfortable talking about their greatest failings and personal insecurities? It was never a welcome prospect, but tonight the idea of plumbing the depths of her personal flaws with her sister was even more tiring and frightening than usual.

“I’d rather not.” she replied, words clipped. She swept out of the dining room quickly, closing the door just as Celestia opened her mouth to strongly suggest otherwise. Her stomach gave a quick squeeze of guilt as she walked away down the hall; she knew better of this avoidance, but that didn’t stop her hasty retreat.

She returned to her chambers, and secured the large oak door in place behind her. When it was locked, it was as secure as a vault; it was a foot thick of solid hardwood too heavy for a mortal pony to move, and the lock was ancient and sturdy. Not the castle staff nor anypony besides her fellow alicorns would be able to disturb her; even sound scarcely carried through the wood. Dream diving required solitude, not just for the performance but for peace of mind. Projecting her awareness out of the physical plane meant that she’d be oblivious to anything happening around her, and one does not live to be over a thousand years old by leaving the door unlocked during such vulnerable moments. One of the few times she had ever worked her magic in an insecure place had been the day when the Tantabus escaped, and there’d been no time for precautions. Many safety considerations had been cast aside … not least of which had been her personal rule that only a few ponies would ever share a dream.

Luna shuddered at the memory of holding that gargantuan dreamscape together. If she allowed herself to dwell on it, she swore she could still feel the searing magical exertion. Her horn had felt as though it would crack open along the shaft like a bone in the fire. That had been an unnatural overextension, far beyond what she was designed to do. So many ponies’ dreams, the soft underbelly of their minds, all linked together and on display to one another … it had been so demanding because it should not be done. Dreamdiving was a practice meant to be personal and intimate.

Her sparkling regalia came off and was thrown in a pile in preparation. Every now and then, particularly when dealing with Twilight’s friends, she forced herself to cross into the dreamscape still wearing all that unnecessary jewellery for the sake of some sense of royal decorum, but not tonight. She didn’t expect to meet anypony who might care whether or not she was in uniform: it was the nice thing about working with children. Luna summoned her dreamdiving spell. It built gradually, as such a powerful spell must, slowly lifting her off the floor, white glow surrounding her. The tendril of light reached the tip of her horn, and cast out into the world. At the moment it left her body, Luna followed it, releasing her awareness in this plane …

… and regaining it in the vastness of the next plane over. She stood as her immaterial self, a shining translucent copy, in the dreamscape. All things here: the location, other ponies, the princess herself, truly had no visual representation at all. As was her duty, she’d given this world an appearance for her and her little ponies’ convenience. She’d designed the world around her to look like a hallway of doors, one door each for the dreams of every sleeping pony in all Equestria, floating floorless and wall-less in an infinite expanse of stars. The hallway stretched as long as the entire population of the country, and the whole thing was hers to take care of. She started down the row, knowing where to find the foals.

She approached one such door, and lay a hoof against it. A vague sense of the dreams it contained and the emotion intrinsic to them could be felt through touch. This one felt confused and befuddled, but not afraid; a mere absurd dream, not a nightmare. She moved on to the next and the next, encountering several that were simply confused or bored, until she touched one that emanated a feather-ruffling stew of frustration and panic. It was strong enough that she worried for the dreamer, and so she opened the door with a burst of light and stepped inside.

The environment was ill-defined, as was often the case: the room was small, with chipped beige paint on the walls and linoleum worn to a shine. Bookshelves, filled haphazardly with paper, magazines and textbooks were set into the walls in randomly chosen spots. Oddly shaped wooden objects littered the floor, some of them shoved against each other until their strange angles and protrusions had gotten stuck together, and in the centre of the mess was a sweating grey colt. He was fumbling with two pieces, turning them every which way and pressing them against each other like a hoofheld puzzle he was trying to solve, head bowed over his work so that his cornflower mane fell in his eyes. He was shaking and muttering, his voice tired.

“Just … c’mon … why won’t you fit?! Uugh!” He flung the pieces away, straight at the entering princess. Luna was unfazed, allowing them to pass through her projection without reaction. The colt, seeing where his pieces had gone, jerked in surprise. “Oh!” He leapt to his hooves. “I’m sorry! I didn’t – I mean, it was an accident, I – you’re her, aren’t you?”

Luna stalled him with a raised forehoof. “It’s alright, Chrome,” she reassured him, picking his name out of the ambience of his mind. “Nothing here is real; you’ve done no harm.”

He blinked. “It … it’s not real?” Chrome Finish turned in a circle, looking around at the off-kilter room and the pile of tangled wood scattered around him. “Oh … well, that explains why I’m doing this.”

Luna picked up a piece. “What are these, my little pony?”

“They’re … if I can just do it right, they’re supposed to form a perfect sphere.” His ears twitched, and he started pawing through the pieces again as he talked. “I can make them fit, I swear, I just need more time.” He grabbed any two pieces from the pile and ground them against each other. “I’m not stupid, I can figure it out, I can make it perfect …”

“Chrome, I’m afraid they’re not going to fit.”

“B-but …”

“It’s the nature of the dream, Chrome. This is an anxious nightmare. Success is not possible here.”

Chrome dropped the pieces, ears drawn back. “I don’t get it.”

“Are you worrying about something?” Luna prodded. “Upsetting dreams like these can come from what plagues us in our waking lives. Is there something in your own life that feels like an impossible puzzle?”

The colt looked up at her, and began “Well …”

Responding to his shift in mood, a shelf of books suddenly tilted, spilling its contents between the two ponies. The vague piles of paper took on recognizable characteristics: textbooks full of math problems, old printings of classic novels with footnotes in the back, thick lined-paper notebooks with sparse notes and frantic scribbles on every page. Chrome looked away, shame-faced. “I’m having a little trouble in school.”

Luna looked over the reading material. Was that MacBit? That was a rather gruesome story for a foal his age. “Is Shakespony nightmarishly difficult?”

“Shakespony talks like a crazy horse!” Chrome blurted. “Crazy! He makes no sense!”

She fought to keep from smiling, mindful not to hurt his feelings. “It’s only early Modern Equestrian. Everypony used to talk that way; as a matter of fact, it feels quite recent to me.”

“Well, I think it’s dumb. I don’t get it. We’re supposed to answer questions about what happens and write about the characters and what we think about them and I don’t even know what anypony’s saying! How am I supposed to … I mean, what …” Chrome couldn’t finish the sentence, sputtering in confusion. He shut his muzzle and snatched up a couple more puzzle pieces, resuming his futile efforts.

“Why don’t you ask your teacher for help?”

Chrome cringed, shaking his head. “No. I won’t. I don’t need help, I’m not stupid.”

“Everypony needs help sometimes. It doesn’t make you foolish.”

Chrome shook his head again, scowling, eyes still on his work. “You don’t get it. No grown-ups get it. Of course it makes me stupid. Everypony else is doing okay. Only the dumb colts have to get extra help. If I ask Mr. Blackboard to help me, like I’m some little foal and I can’t do it by myself, then … then all my friends will think I’m an idiot. I must just not be trying hard enough.”

Luna put a hoof over his puzzle, staying him. “There’s no shame in talking to Mr. Blackboard; helping you is his job. Chrome, this isn’t good for you. Your anxiety is already affecting your dreams. It’s unhealthy for a pony to carry stress like this, especially a pony your age.”

Chrome looked up at Luna, his stubborn expression relaxing somewhat.

“And these nightmares will return time and again as long as you’re struggling with this alone.”

“But … I just don’t want to …”

“I know you’re afraid of other ponies thinking you’re not intelligent. But a fear you avoid is a fear that follows you all your life. It may feel like the worst thing, but this is the way to solving your problem. If you never face this, then you’ll always feel this anxious and overwhelmed. You must get help.”

“I …” He hesitated. “I’ll think about it, Luna.”

Luna nodded, quietly pleased that he’d left out her title. “I hope you do, Chrome, for your sake.” As she concluded with her most often-used adage, the hypocrisy of that statement gnawed at her. “Face your fears, my little pony.”

Unaware of her thoughts, Chrome dropped his gaze and nodded at the floor. “I’ll try.”

The dreamwalker did not need to leave through the door as she’d entered; she simply loosened her magical grip on this colt’s dreams, and his world faded away. The hallway reappeared around her, and she continued making her rounds.

There were many children who needed her help, just as there were every night. Here, a filly who dreamed of hiding from monsters just as she hid from her schoolyard bullies, there a filly that dreamed of her speech going wrong the day after, there a colt who dreamed nopony wanted his friendship and had left him alone in the woods. The inner demons of ponies were many and vicious. Luna stepped into each of these nightmares, alleviating the worst of their mental assault and patiently discussing their source with each frightened foal. Much of the advice she gave to her ponies stung a little on the way out. How could she tell others to accept help or to face what they feared most when she’d avoided doing the same? Dishonesty went against the grain for her, and her job was more tiring for it.

She’d passed through multitudes of nightmares by the time dawn neared. It had been a long night, by intention; reluctant to return from her realm, Luna had remained in the dreamscape, tending to every foal that she could reach before they started to awake for the day. But now, when a few early risers were starting to withdraw from the hallway, her other duties could wait no longer. She allowed the entire dreamscape to dissolve around her …

… and came back to her body, hovering near the ceiling. Feeling came back into her limbs slightly after her eyes opened; regaining full awareness of this plane of existence took a few seconds to achieve. Luna released the dreamwalking spell, lowering herself to the floor with partially stretched wings. Out the window, she saw Celestia was just beginning to nudge the sun upward. She couldn’t fully lift it with the moon still raised. Luna’s horn was uncomfortably hot after holding her spell for roughly the past ten hours, but she forced a final bit of magic through it to tuck her charge out of Celestia’s way. When the moon was where it should be below the horizon, the sunrise started in earnest, lighting the sky with its warm palette.

Luna watched the autumn-coloured dawn with apprehension; as soon as Celestia was finished lifting the sun, Luna would have to go rectify her mistake from earlier that evening. It was the decent thing to do … though it still hurt to think about opening up to her. Perhaps she could just go to bed now, and avoid the issue altogether. Celestia wouldn’t blame her for trying to sleep; she’d been hard at work all night. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d skipped dinner, not the first time she and her sister hadn’t seen each other at sunrise. Besides, it could be that such cloying reluctance to have one of their talks was a sign she ought not to do this for a while. At least until tomorrow.

Luna shook her head in disapproval; she knew excuses when she heard them … but didn’t they have a point? It’d been a long night with the children, she wasn’t up to more. But aside from that, she was fine. She drew her curtains, blocking the daylight out of her room, then went to her bed and lay down. She didn’t need to talk with Celestia. She was fine.

Minutes crept by. Long hours of work notwithstanding, she felt no closer to sleep as the sun grew ever brighter outside. Since losing the creature, she’d had entire days where unconsciousness eluded her. This stubborn wakefulness suggested today might be one such day. And that was a problem, for in the shadows and stillness, there were all sorts of thoughts that were easier to hear.

Why had she felt so sad and detached the other night? It was supposed to be special, bring them closer and ease the stress of their duty to the ponies; instead, she’d been stuck in her own head the whole time, not talking to her sister, sad and pained for reasons even she couldn’t put into words. Their once-monthly time together had ended with her sitting alone, disconsolate and confused, thinking some nonsense about not being herself. It was pathetic, really, that was the perfect word for a centuries-old alicorn who could console and advise the entire nation she ruled, then come back to herself and while away the daylight hours feeling miserable.

After she’d missed her sleep worrying about this, she still would not have the slightest idea why she didn’t recognize her own reflection. Pathetic, she was so pathetic …

“Shut. Up.” she growled.

Tartarus, she wasn’t going to sleep at all. This day would crawl past, with the same thoughts circling her mind until sunset. Then, that awful alarm would flash, and she’d have to do a full night’s work again. It would feel like death warmed over, all because she couldn’t get to sleep.

But she knew full well what could fix this problem. It was sealed in a vault that could only be accessed through the dreamscape, kept in a deep sleep. She had the magic to reach its prison, open the door, wake the beast. If freed, she wouldn’t have to worry about any of this. It could force her body to get the sleep it needed, while her mind was subject to its assault. No frustrating problems or unimportant worries could bother her if she were in the grip of the Tantabus, forced to endure the only fear that ought to matter. Next to these sleepless nights stressing over nonsensical identity issues … the clarity of that single, pure horror sounded healthy.

If only it hadn’t all gotten out of hand. If only it hadn’t slipped free of her restrictions. It still made her wish for her rightful punishment to think how close the Tantabus had come to swallowing Equestria. What had undoubtedly started the problem was when it learned how to grow strong on her raw guilt. In her psyche, guilt was far too plentiful a source; any creature feeding on that would eventually grow to endanger Equestria. It hadn’t really been at fault; it was just an animal, a pet dog, she was the master. If only she’d put harder restrictions on when it could feed, and how much, maybe she could have kept it under control.

Perhaps she still could control it, now that she knew what the problem was. If it could be made safe, conditioned and modified so that it couldn’t possibly escape, then she could consider the possibility of its return to duty. And a vital duty it was. There was a risk of Nightmare returning, regardless of what Twilight or Celestia tried to tell her; no matter what anypony else said, the fact remained that she’d fallen into that mental state once, without any outside interference, and therefore she had the potential of letting it happen again. It was unarguably a risk. Anything that reduced that risk should not be disregarded.

She couldn’t help feeling that everypony had been a little bit overdramatic about why she’d created the Tantabus; perhaps to them it looked unhealthy, but what was reliving Nightmare’s emergence if it was not facing her worst fear? That was all, she just been following her own advice to so many young ponies. It was necessary suffering, no more than what she needed. What did Celestia know about the nature of fear? Who was she to try telling Luna, the Dispeller of Nightmares, how to fight the inner demons? What if this whole endeavor was a terrible mistake and the path she was on ended in another eclipse – ?

Oh, Tartarus.

Luna bolted upright, cursing. “No, no, we promised we wouldn’t think that way anymore. None of that … defeatist rationale. It’s nothing more than lies.” She groaned, kneading her temple with a hoof. “Even when it sounds true … especially when it sounds true.” She turned to look at her bedside table, gritting her teeth in reluctance. There was something in that drawer that she kept for times like these. A little levitation magic flowed through her horn to open the drawer, and lift a folded paper out. She brought it over and held it in her aura, pondering. She didn’t see how it could help right now; those words never changed and she knew them by heart. How could they convince her that she didn’t need the creature back?

“You never think it will help. But it does, every time.” she muttered. She unfolded it along its deep, worn creases. Pointless though it seemed, she read it slowly from the beginning.


The Tantabus must remain asleep, or it poses a threat to all of Equestria. Whatever safeguards might be put in place, the only one that ensures our safety from eternal living nightmares is to keep the creature locked away. Waking it would be to court a danger greater even than that once posed by Discord, risk destruction and misery the likes of which Equestria suffered during Tirek’s recent escape. You have been entrusted to be its jailer. You must not unlock the door.

The grim facts of the matter were blunt, written to be a quick and effective reminder for when she needed it. Below, there were gentler sentiments, in case those were what she needed:

You may feel as though you need the creature, that you depend on it to avoid your past mistakes. But its torments cannot help you. What you used the creature for was not to face those fears and overcome them, but to obsess on them to a dangerous degree. That is not help, it is hurt: to dwell on your fears is not to move past them. I know you know this, better than anypony else.

The Tantabus is your means of self-destruction, and nothing more than that. If you ever feel you deserve such harm, I want you to remember that it is a lie. Remember that you are a revered guardian and guide to your subjects. Remember that our partnership is what balances the very sky. Remember that I love you more than anything and I know you deserve peace.

Let it sleep.

Luna squeezed her eyes shut. Every time, and there had been many, every single time she read those words, tears threatened. She folded the note back up without looking. Her earlier impulse wasn’t quite so convincing now, as intended. She’d almost lost the reasons, but she’d been reminded why she couldn’t have the creature back. It would stay behind the door for tonight.

And her greatest feeling about that wasn’t relief, but disappointment.

She threw the note back into her bedside drawer, and forced herself to get out of bed. She understood the mental mechanisms perfectly. She knew that the fear didn’t mean anything, nor did her flimsy reasons for releasing the creature; they were just excuses to fall back into the old pattern. Yet that didn’t prevent them from twisting in her gut and keeping her awake.

“Cease this pointless brooding,” she grumbled, “and go talk to her. We obviously aren’t ‘fine’.”

She didn’t want to. But she went to the door, and left her small, dark room for the open sunlit palace.

3. Talking

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Luna entered the dining room. Customarily, a dish of fruit and bread was waiting at her seat on the table, prepared and left by her servants before she’d even lowered the moon. It had not been so before Luna’s imprisonment, but it had since become the common practice that a servant pony was most professional when they were not only unheard, but largely unseen as well. Perhaps it was a mark of their respect, but she found she missed seeing those who worked for her. Celestia sat across from Luna’s place with its untouched meal, eating alone. She noticed Luna in the doorway, and brightened.

“Oh. Good morning, sister!”

“Good morning.” Luna returned Tia’s smile, despite the seriousness of a few minutes ago. She sat across from her, without eating.

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“Mm … no, not particularly. I may ask to have this set aside for breakfast later.” Luna hesitated, then admitted “I should not have walked out on you earlier. That was wrong.”

Celestia gave an unbothered tilt of her head.

“And I spoke rather hastily.”

At this, she looked up from her food. “Have you changed your mind? Would you like to talk?”

The true answer was that no, she did not want to talk tonight. She couldn’t imagine that she would want to talk for all the foreseeable future. And therefore, she said “Yes, I suppose we should.”

Her sister smiled. “Thank you.”

Luna could not match her enthusiasm; she merely nodded.

After the sun princess had had a moment to finish her meal, she rose from the little table. Luna went with her to their usual spot in a nearby room. It was a small, snug place, which lately they’d used just for these private conversations. Celestia jokingly called it the one parlour that guests were banned from. Servants also knew not to hover, nor enter except in emergency. The two of them sat by the fireplace, a well-used pad of paper on the floor nearby.

“So,” Celestia began, “why the change of heart? Something on your mind?”

“Well, I regretted the way I left things, but I still wasn’t going to come to you. Until, just after sunrise, I needed to reread your letter.”

Celestia nodded.

“No problem in particular, I just got to thinking all the wrong things again. A pony’s memory or perspective can be revised to justify anything they want, but written words can’t be so creatively edited; they’re always the same, always the truth. This is all to say, the letter helped.”

“Good for you.”

“Good for me?”

“You recognized a difficult moment, and you dealt with it. So yes, good for you.”

Luna scoffed lightly. “You always spin my failures into positives.”

“That’s because they aren’t failures. For you, that’s much improvement.”

“Oh, thank you(!)” Luna grumbled sarcastically, then winced. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped.”

Celestia tilted her head again. “It’s alright. I don’t mind.”

“I don’t mean to be unpleasant, but I feel so worn out. The other night was stressful.”

“Quite far from the point of our dates. I could tell you weren’t enjoying yourself much. What was the problem?”

Ah. She should have known that’s where this would end up, but she still found herself at a loss for how to convey her meaning. Luna half-began a word, stopped, tried again, and met another false start. Sighing, she admitted, “Well, I’d like to tell you. It would be very nice if I could. However … this is one feeling I’ve never been able to put into words.”

“Oh. I see …”

“I … I suppose that …” Luna struggled for a minute more, then resolved to spit out the first words that came to mind. “I suppose that I was bitter about – about how at ease you were. I felt I wasn’t nearly so natural. You can somehow, ah, ‘blend in’ with other ponies, be as one with them. I couldn’t. I was keeping to myself and being closed off …” Luna stopped talking; that had gone in entirely the wrong direction.

“Ah. You know, Luna, as I’ve said it before, you’re too hard on yourself. Blending into a new culture takes more time than one year. You’ve done remarkably in the time you’ve been back already.”

Luna shook her head, fumbling to correct herself. “No, that wasn’t what I meant. That’s more of a … a side effect of a larger issue. It’s like I … I don’t connect with them because I’m not sure … I’m not sure who I am. So even when I’m pretending to be some fictitious character, I cannot be fully invested in my pretense. I am never happy with it … not even when I’m ostensibly being myself. I’m not entirely certain that I’m … me.”

Celestia paused uncertainly, and Luna’s head hit the floor. “I knew I couldn’t articulate it properly. Perhaps we simply forget I said anything?”

“No no, we’ve barely begun on this. Don’t give up yet. Hmm … when you feel this way, is there something that comforts you?”

Luna lifted her head a little to shoot her sister a quizzical look.

“I’m trying to narrow your meaning down. Maybe this will help.”

Luna rested her head back to the floor, thinking it was worth a try. “Hmn – well …there is something.” Luna set her jaw a little, apprehensive of her next words. “This may sound … wrong to you, but try to keep an open mind.”

“Of course.” Celestia said, slightly concerned.

“I sometimes pretend I don’t exist.”

There was a beat of silence, while Celestia worked to quell her automatic dismay. Luna hurried to clarify, hoping to sound less depressing. “It’s not a new thing, I’ve been doing this for a long time, even since we were foals. You see, it’s more like a … meditative thought.”

“How do you mean?” her sister asked, managing to keep an even tone.

Luna settled into a more comfortable position, staring into one corner of the room, before answering. “I lie perfectly still for a few minutes, until it seems I could not move if I tried. I breathe more slowly, softly enough that I can’t hear it. And then, it’s a sort of reverse body awareness. I block each physical sensation until I feel nothing. Then … it’s very easy to imagine that my body has simply vanished. And perhaps I can still think and feel, but even so, I’m nopony.”

“And … this is a soothing idea?”

“Yes. If I’m nopony, then … I don’t have any name or face or anything I’m expected to call my own. Sky knows that none of them have ever been right.”


Luna paused, wondering if they were actually getting somewhere. “Sometimes I have to say my name to myself over and over, just to see if it might sound like it belongs to me after twenty times, fifty times. Last night, I was staring at the mirror for a full hour after we parted ways, thinking the same thing: maybe if I just look at my reflection hard enough, that will be me.” Luna straightened up and turned to Celestia, confidence somewhat restored. “I know rationally what my name is, I know what I look like. But I can’t believe it.”

“You know in your head, not in your heart.”

“Is that the saying now? Yes, that suits. I really have no idea why I disassociate like this … or how long ago it began …” She sighed. “It’s sort of pointless to discuss, I think.”

Celestia shook her head. “Not at all, Lulu. I can already think of one possible explanation; you can likely guess what I’m about to say.”

“Do tell.”

“Your appearance, name, and every aspect of you was once suddenly altered against your will,” she pointed out. “After being unexpectedly transformed into somepony else, I imagine you may distrust your identity, or find it somehow unreliable.”

Luna’s gaze dropped to the carpet, frowning. “That seems logical. We could blame Nightmare Moon.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“No, it doesn’t seem right. I could swear I remember feeling like this even earlier than that, but … hmm.”

“When did you last feel like yourself?”

“Honestly, sister … though I’m loathe to even say something so reminiscent of my adolescent poetry … I don’t think I’ve ever felt like myself. Or if I did, the feeling must have faded quickly.” Luna shrugged and scoffed. “But why should we take my intuition seriously? I just admitted I don’t believe in my own name. It’s clearly broken.”

Luna met Celestia’s pensive expression and asked “Do you know what I’m describing? Was there ever anything you knew to be true that you simply couldn’t believe?”

Celestia’s eyebrows raised in surprise, then tilted. “I … y-yes, there was. When you were gone, I … Every day, I’d have to tell myself, it had really happened, you were truly away from me. It took over a hundred years to believe it for even a day.”

Luna shivered, and felt compelled to stretch her wing over Celestia’s withers.

“After that, I would still go through times when it stopped seeming possible. Centuries alone, and I still somehow thought that you’d never been exiled. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to believe it, though I certainly didn’t. It was that it felt like the laws of nature forbade such a thing. We could not be apart any more than water could be dry. It couldn’t be.”

Celestia hooked one foreleg around Luna and pressed them close together. Luna allowed it, leaning into their hug. “I know exactly what you mean.” she whispered.

They stayed like that for several minutes, until they weren’t gripping so tightly and simply relaxed in their entwined position. Celestia broke the silence gently.

“Sometimes I’d have a royal proclamation to make, or a young student would need consoling, and I’d think ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, I should go get Luna. She’s the one who handles these things.”



Luna thought about that for a moment, until something occurred to her. “How did you handle the stars while I was gone? I never asked.”

Celestia laughed, though it was more than a little self-deprecating. “Well … for the first several years, until I found your star charts and had them professionally interpreted into a map … I just sort of put them anywhere.”

Luna sucked her next breath through her teeth. “Oh, Tia, no. The nautical confusion that must have caused …”

“Everypony really took my ‘compass’ idea more seriously the moment you left.”

“Well, they didn’t have a choice, did they? Great aurora … I’m glad I’ve got my night sky back.”

“ … Hm.” Celestia leaned back enough to look at Luna’s face. “Now that you mention that, I have another question.”


“You said the other day … last week I believe, let me check …” Celestia’s golden glow wrapped around the pad of paper by the fireplace and flipped back through their log of these talks kept inside. “Last week, I asked if you ever resented being the night princess. And you said …”

“Not the smallest bit. No … not even when I was at my worst. On the brink of becoming Nightmare Moon, the plan still centered around my domain being, ah, ‘superior’ to yours.” Luna had to glace away at that last line, although Celestia didn’t seem bothered.

“Mm-hmm. I just wanted to clarify that, though you love being the guardian of the night … you can’t identify with the name ‘Princess Luna’?”

“That’s exactly – ludicrously – correct.” There was an edge of frustration in her voice, exasperation directed entirely at herself. “I love everything about my purpose. I love holding the moon. I love the way Equestria looks in the evening light. I love crafting the constellations and lighting up the darkened sky. I love to dream-dive and help the foals understand where their fears come from. There’s not a single thing about being myself I hate. Just … actually being myself, evidently.”

With a disgusted sound, Luna’s head was back on the floor. “This is no use at all. I’m … very sorry to have wasted your time with my foolishness.”

Celestia shook her head, smiling wanly. “You’re being much more coherent than you give yourself credit for, Luna.”

“It’s making sense to you? A good job, then, because it isn’t making sense to me.” Luna remarked “Sometimes our talks make me feel like every problem has a solution and it’s all very simple. But, other times doing this makes me feel like Discord invited himself into my mind and turned it into a funhouse.”

“I presume we’re in a ‘funhouse’ moment?”

“With warped mirrors, and chocolate rain.”

Celestia laughed, even getting the worn-out night princess to smile. “At least you keep your sense of humor about it.” she said.


“It’s funny you mention Discord.”

Luna shrugged with her wings, head still on the floor. “I feel chaotic. Listen to me, saying I adore everything my cutie mark implies, and yet somehow I also don’t feel like Princess Luna. I don’t make sense. Only he could make less sense.”

“Try not to exaggerate, Luna.” Celestia admonished her. “And I don’t think you’re ‘Discordant’. I think you’re just stuck in some patterns. Every time you’ve tried to explain how you feel during this session, you’ve shut down your line of questioning. You lament its absurdity, and give up. Unless I’m mistaken, I think you do this even when alone. You try to think about how you feel and where it might be coming from, but before you get anywhere you call yourself insane and give up. Does this seem right to you?”

Luna went still. “Yes.” she mumbled.

Celestia set her paper pad down. “You look like you need your sleep, so I think we should call it a night here. So to speak.”

Luna shoved herself upward, forcing her clumsy, weak limbs to support her. “Oh …” The rush of blood to her head was worse than she’d expected, blacking out her sight for a moment. She blinked. “Yes, I’m more tired than I thought.”

“In the meantime, try not to dismiss yourself that way. Even feelings you don’t understand deserve to be considered seriously. If you keep condemning them as ridiculous, you won’t get anywhere.”

Luna, swaying where she stood, cracked a smile. “Yes, that way lies … lunacy.”

Celestia was silent for a moment, shaking her head, and said “Oh stars, Lulu, go to bed.

Still smirking, Luna poured her intent into her horn; she doubted her ability to walk back to her room and instead teleported herself directly into her bed with a flash of blue light. She sank into the bedclothes, finally relaxing. Already half-asleep, she wondered, could she do what Celestia suggested? She’d never seriously entertained those thoughts, or examined that particular sadness. In the main, she’d only ever tried to ignore them, frustrated that they were there. It might take a long time to learn anything with habits that deeply imbedded.

Oh. But there was a shortcut, she realized. Luna’s slowly closing eyes opened wide.

She could simply dreamdive into her own mind and examine it directly. It wouldn’t be much different from what she did every night, just for herself. All she would have to do was go inside and look around.

Maybe it was just the fatigue, Luna acknowledged that was a real possibility … but this seemed like a brilliant idea.

“We’ll sleep on it …” she mumbled. “Decide this evening.”

Sleep finally took her.

4. A Walk Inside

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The alarm cast its blinding light, and Luna protected her eyes. The room was filled with quite un-princess-like cursing and threats to the unicorn who’d invented that wretched thing. Shielding herself from its malicious flashing with one hoof, Luna managed to shut the alarm off. Rubbing the blinding after-image out of her eyes, she sighed heavily.

“There has got to be something better ...” she mumbled. Lights and appliances in Equestria typically weren’t made with the nocturnal in mind, and she couldn’t very well ask the thestrals of her guard for advice; they were woken by the barracks alarm bell.
Well, she didn’t have time to think about it now. She’d set the blasted orb to go off early tonight, allowing her time to take a necessary precaution for the evening.

The princess got to her hooves and lit her horn. She readied her dreamdiving spell in gentle increments. It wasn’t necessary to use the full spell for this and cross over; no, this would only require that she could touch the other realm. When a small, circular rip opened in the air, revealing the shimmering depths of the dream realm beyond, Luna paused. That was far enough. She prepared a different spell, one of numbness and forgetfulness, and sent it through the hole. The cyan energy rippled outward, on its way to touch every corner of the dreamscape. Satisfied, she released the diving spell and allowed the rip in reality to seal itself. What she’d administered could be described as ‘dream anesthetic’, something that may not prevent her little ponies from having nightmares, but wouldn’t allow them to remember feeling the fear and pain when they awoke. It had to be used sparingly, as it was no substitute for properly handling and dispelling the terrors, but it could protect them from suffering any serious mental damage when she wasn’t on-duty.

And tonight, she couldn’t be. It had been days since she’d thought of trying to study her own dreamscape, and now she’d finally made an opportunity to go through with it. Luna hurried through the moonrise, even through the starpainting; maybe there would be another astronomy error tonight, but she couldn’t care about that now. Every spare minute was needed for her investigation. When the bare minimum of the night sky was rendered, she trotted straight back to her quarters, planning on skipping her meal. Celestia, knowing of her plan, wouldn’t miss her at breakfast.

Luna shut her bedroom door behind her, and locked it. She took a deep breath, steadying herself for the task ahead. She couldn’t in good conscience overuse that anesthetic spell, which meant that it would be at least a few weeks before she could clear another whole evening for introspection. Her mental investigation must be methodical and efficient, for this time could not be wasted.

She summoned her dreamdiving spell once more, forcing its power to build rapidly. The bead of light sped down her horn, but instead of casting it off when it reached the point, Luna pulled it inward, back to its source. Her body went numb, her vision darkened completely, until …

… she opened her eyes inside the dream realm, standing on the imaginary floor. She looked around at her construct, seeing that everything was just as she’d left it. The colours were comfortingly cool and constantly blending into slightly different shades of purple and blue. Despite the ever-evolving hues, the structure of the walls and floor was solid; the circular room looked not unlike an ornate foyer, with one wide curving hallway leading off. With a wave of her hoof, she brought up the map.

A detailed layout of her construct appeared in the air before her. Tiny points of light represented each separately contained element, strung together with connecting paths. The many individual lines and dots would be confusing at first, until one noticed that the overall pattern was a spiral, built around a wide main hallway; for as she’d once explained to Discord, it was always a hallway. The points along the outer edge of the spiral were pale, less important, but grew brighter and closer together the further in they went, culminating in a hooful of brilliant lights holding the center. Having just entered, Luna stood at the tail end of the spiral. She looked down the main hallway with its gentle curve, twisting away into the elements she’d come to examine … and turned from it to a side-room, a tiny, pale point barely visible on the map, at the very edge. This was a very recent addition, and it needed but a moment of her attention before she could do what she came here for.

Its doorway was covered by a thick, black curtain, something to separate it from her mind at large. Luna nosed the fabric aside, and placed her hooves carefully as she entered the shrouded alcove. It wasn’t as though the inhabitant could hear the sounds, but it still seemed appropriate to be as silent as possible. She came up against a second door, though to call it such was misleading; this was a solid, metal wall, locked with a bar as thick around as her barrel. It hadn’t functioned as an openable door since its creation, and the plan was that it never would. She put one hoof to the slotted peephole, and reluctantly slid the heavy piece out.

Through the tiny window, there it was, sealed in a clear crystal orb. The Tantabus was formless in its comatose state, a puddle of glittering smoke at the bottom of the sphere. As she watched, it was undulating just slightly, in and out, like the breath of a sleeping animal. The creature, made of raw magic as it was, could not be unmade once it was made. Nor could they risk it being extracted from the dreamscape and held somewhere on the material plane. Outside, anything could happen, any rockslide or abandoned guard post or deliberate meddling by evil creatures could release this living nightmare into the world. But inside Luna’s mind, it could be kept thusly: still alive, but inert, unaware, and interred in this vault.

Forever, if she could manage it.

Luna’s eyes creased with sympathy, knowing that her monster had no understanding of what had happened to it, nor what it had done to deserve this imprisonment. It had only ever followed her orders. Luna had been everything to it: she’d brought it to life, given it its purpose, housed it, and been the one to hunt it down and lock it away in the end. It was only fair to visit whenever she was on the inside, no matter how pressed for time she was, and take a moment to remember what she was responsible for.

Her duty done, she emerged from the prison cell back into her mind proper, and started her walk down the hallway.

She reached a door, next to a large, darkened window. On her map, this was one of the first, palest points. She willed the window to brighten, and looked in to newly revealed sight. Inside was an imaginary pony, an exact representation of Luna, gleefully pulling back on a pumpkin catapult. Within anypony’s mind, every element of their personality was given physical representation, often very close to the appearance of the pony themselves. Most others allowed all these representations to run amok in a crowd of emotionally disparate clones, but Luna kept her dreamscape to a higher standard of order. Therefore, every little building block of her personality was contained separately in their own area, behind their own door, and ordered by their relative dominance in her mind.

This silly apparition was obviously meant to be Playfulness. It released the catapult and crowed with excitement as the pumpkin soared off into the ether, and ran to chase after it beyond the sight of the window. Luna smiled affectionately, a little regretful that it had to be kept so far on the outskirts, so small a part of her mind. But then, a leader couldn’t allow such foolishness to define their personality overmuch. That was how it must be.

Moving on down the hall, she passed several of the less important elements. Suspiciousness watched her as she walked by with horn lowered, while Daydreamer sat on its own in the corner drawing little pictures on the walls, without taking any notice of its visitor. There were many smaller facets of her personality along this outer edge of the spiral, but most of them Luna strode right past, barely doing more than glancing in their windows; it was very unlikely that she’d find any answers in these smaller surface elements. It would only be worthwhile to take interest in those held deeper inside.

As she kept up her brisk trot, Luna started to notice something was keeping pace with her. Separate from the ethereal colours, a shadow flitted along the wall, just barely close enough that she could see it moving in the corner of her eye. Luna glanced back to see what it was. It only lingered for a moment before slipping away, but the shape had been sharply defined and very distinct, leaving no doubt; she’d know that silhouette anywhere.

Luna sighed. “I know you’re there.” No response. “Leave me be for once.”

She kept walking, and gritted her teeth to see the shadow keeping pace with her, just barely staying in her blind spot. She planted her hooves. “Oh, for – Come out, or depart for some faraway corner! I’ve no patience for this.” She looked all around the deceptively quiet hallway. “Well?”

Just under the background noise of this place, she thought she could hear that old cackling laugh, dripping with condescension. She flicked her ears. “Funny, is it? Very well, hide like a rat.” She resumed her trot. “A rat in a ridiculous helmet that couldn’t hold her ground for more than a day.”

Barely a hair in front of her, the beast finally appeared to Luna. Her utterly inequine face, draconic eyes glowing and fangs bared, was twisted with rage. The image couldn’t last for more than a second, and the threatening picture dissipated like smoke. Unfazed, Luna rolled her eyes. “There’s no point trying to frighten me. I’m not afraid of you.”

The creature would not be shaken off, and the following shadow soon returned, skulking along after her through her mind. Luna wasn’t concerned at its appearance; it was just a nagging memory, a remnant of things long past, and she’d long since realized that it might never go away. Annoyance notwithstanding, she would have to work around it as best she could.

She summoned her map, and saw she’d almost reached the second loop of her spiral with no hint of what she sought. How much further in could it possibly be? That disconnect with her identity had been around for quite some time, but surely it couldn’t be in her core personality traits?

She continued through, passing by many enclosures with little more than a glance their way. At this depth, most of what she saw were unhappy elements; Loneliness, Frustration, Despair, they all found their place around here. Passing over door after door, she delved deeper and deeper into her dreamscape. After some time, she checked the map, and was surprised to see the center was very near. Only one enclosure left, and that door couldn’t contain the identity problem because she knew what it was. She leaned to look down the hall at the darkened window.

“Suppose I’m wrong …” Highly unlikely, but it might not hurt too badly to be thorough. She approached the element in question and very slowly, she brought the light up to a carefully indistinct dimness.

The element inside was huddled in the corner, whimpering, and she was grateful that she’d kept the lights low; she’d been entirely correct about what lived here. She could hardly have been mistaken when it had encroached just outside her center for years. If she’d brought the light up to its full illumination, she would have had to see the many cuts and bite marks oozing blood in its blue fur. Most ponies’ Guilt element only went so far as to mumble self-deprecating words or knock its head on the walls, but her own was very hard on itself. At least, for this visit, it wasn’t doing any more than crying; she’d caught it doing far worse before.

Luna turned the lights off again, leaving it to its relative peace. To the inner sanctum, then; there was nowhere left to go but there.

Up ahead, there was a pale glow around the gently curving corner, and Luna broke into a canter. The small, round room that formed the core of her mind was lit with soft silver light, and the colours morphed rapidly all around her. Two elements, positioned side by side with windows bigger that her castle’s stained-glass, held the center as the very brightest and defining attributes of them all. As she entered the room, the shadow hung back at a safe distance, dropping its head and sulking. This was the one place it wouldn’t follow her, whether it refused or it was unable to. Its sullen growls went unacknowledged as she ventured further in.

These elements were no mystery to her. Both their lights came up as she approached, and the sight was welcome indeed.

On the left, the image in the window was of two ponies, heads bowed together and forehooves entwined. One was herself, the other her sister, and both were quietly content. Behind them, the sky turned endlessly: sun and moon and stars rose and fell, colouring the land beneath them every shade that light could produce, and their landscape waxed and waned as the light played across it, falling into winter and warming into spring. There wasn’t a single name for this one, because it represented such a great deal: the love between her and Celestia, the order they kept in the sky, and the land they took care of … all were inextricably tied together into a single element.

And on the right, the frame was dominated by roiling shadows; their endless motion tricked the eyes into seeing all manner of monstrous creatures, though the images would melt within seconds into the teeming mass. At the bottom of this looming darkness, a spherical magic shield kept a small safe haven from what threatened outside, and she held the center of it. Ponies were inside with her, some clinging to her for comfort, others keeping watch, and their details were in constant flux. They were pegasi, unicorn, earth pony, thestral, they were foals and they were grown. Children might need her guidance more than others, but all Equestrians were under her protection, and she shone light for them in the darkest times.

Luna let out a long sigh, relief unexpectedly washing through her. These things, the guiding elements of who she was, these would always be here. The shadow might follow her, the most painful elements might creep ever inward, but the core of her mental structure was solid, stable, and her best qualities held their rightful places.

Minutes passed as she looked on at the affirming pictures. “You haven’t all night …” she reminded herself. Even delicate and emotionally vulnerable tasks had deadlines; she couldn’t spare the time to stand here quite literally lost in thought. Swallowing that tremor of feeling, she brought up the map with a brusque motion and muttered “Where am I looking next?”

Where was there left to look? She’d walked the whole length of the spiral, and hadn’t seen or felt anything that could be the root of what she was looking for. Uncertain, she leaned in, scrutinizing the map as closely as she could – and noticed something. Every point near the centre was appropriately bright, but there was one point, so dim that her eyes slid right over it, that the map placed just outside this very room, closer even than Guilt.

“That’s curious,” she mused, “I don’t remember seeing anything there …” But she got to her hooves and, with some reluctance, walked back out of the inner sanctum. The nuisance of a shadow greeted her with a half-hearted snarl, and fell into step just behind her.

After walking a few paces, expecting to see a door, Luna paused. She’d walked far enough to stand at the place indicated on the map, but there didn’t appear to be a door or window. She should be facing the element she’d missed. Instead, she was facing a blank wall. Well, no surprise then that she’d walked right by this place the first time, but how could this be? Luna scowled at her map, then back at the offending empty space. “You cannot tell me I’m wrong, I built you,” she grumbled at the wall.

As she stared at the wall in stymied frustration, the colour patterns encountered something that warped them, a distortion marking out an edge like textured glass. Luna started, and walked up to the wall. She set her hoof against it and ran the point along until she reached that distortion, finding a nearly-invisible ridge in the smooth surface. Feeling along the ridge, it made a perfect straight rectangle, exactly as though there was a door here that had been wallpapered over.

She set her teeth, feathers ruffling slightly. Hidden doors in the dreamscape were uncommon and cause for concern. In her experience, they often represented a harmful repression, like a traumatic memory locked away or a pattern of thought that the pony was unaware of.

Luna turned to her pursuing shadow. “Is this one of yours?”

It, expectedly, declined to answer in favor of pacing back and forth with pretensions of being threatening. Shaking her head, she turned back to the hidden door. She could burn the paper away; it would take a little effort, but she’d exposed hidden doors before. However, she knew to be very cautious; this might be anything, a hidden element, a forgotten memory, another dream-creature, and there was a good chance she wouldn’t like what she found inside. Doors only ever hid themselves for pressing reasons, and whatever reasons this one had for being under the wallpaper, they might’ve only mattered to some earlier time, but they could just as easily still matter now.

Luna lit her horn, and began applying her magic to the thin layer covering the edge of the door. The moment her light touched it, she felt a shiver of trepidation. The feeling only grew stronger as the beam ran up the edge, leaving a strip of revealed wood in its wake. She began taking steadying breaths as she continued despite the growing want to leave it alone; nervousness was only a natural reaction to exhuming something in her mental landscape, and it was no excuse to walk away now.

Finally, the door was exposed in full, an old and splintered thing, and her heart was pounding despite her best efforts to remain calm. There was no window that she could detect, so her only available method was to feel what it concealed. Mindful that whatever it held, it could not damage her, Luna steadied an outstretched hoof and lightly touched the cracked wood.

That nameless feeling rose up inside her, that tight pain below her lungs and the bewildered sadness that came with it. It was sharper and more uncomfortable than she could remember, sharp enough that there was a deeper layer to this awful feeling: she had the distinct, disturbing sense that her own skin didn’t belong on her body, like she was wearing a costume.

Her hoof came off the door just as fast as she’d placed it. “Alright … we’ve found what we seek. Finally.” It was held closed with a rusted, rotten lock that looked like it might break at the slightest pressure, but had obviously not been so much as touched in a long time. She pressed down on the handle, popping the rickety door ajar. “What could possibly make this one emotion important enough to bury?”

The door creaked open further, letting soft, steady light into the hall. She peered around the edge, and saw her foalhood bedroom; though the castle no longer stood in the present, this memory preserved it perfectly. Stepping cautiously, she moved past the door, and saw a small blue pony, another projection, sitting on the stone floor facing away. Their tiny horn held a ball of light over the book spread out in front of them. Horn light took more effort than candlelight, but she’d never gotten used to the way the latter tended to flicker.

The projection was a child, with no wings or cutie mark, coming from a time long before her ascension. Luna circled around, studying it for some detail that might tell her just what she’d come upon, and froze when she saw its face.

It was not a filly, it was a colt. Every other detail was as it should be: that was her soft cornflower mane, her black-speckled rump, her aura colour. But the eyes, the shape of its face, made it unmistakably a little boy.

“ … Hmm.” She furrowed her brow in concentration, studying the child as he kept reading quietly. “… Well, this is unexpected. What are you doing in here, my young colt?”

Naturally, the boy did not respond, unaware projection of a time past that he was, just kept reading his book. Luna stepped back and sat down, momentarily stymied and unsure what to think. This, she had no plan for.

Before her, the little colt gave a little disapproving sigh, and knocked his hoof on the floor. “No, no, Silver Blade, you have to make sure the wolfpony is really dead!” he scolded to the prose in a raspy little voice. “Never walk away without looking. Tch, I’d make a better warrior than you.”

Silver Blade … “Oh, I haven’t heard that name in a good few ages.” She’d once been enamoured with a series of stories, one of the very first mass-produced series ever run off the then-new advent of the printing press. In truth they’d been junk, quickly manufactured and badly written, but as a child she’d adored the idea of the strong, chivalrous stallion, Silver Blade, standing between the common pony and whatever monsters awaited in the dark of night.

Setting aside the one obvious difference, this looked like an otherwise accurately depicted memory. But she couldn’t be sure exactly what she’d found yet; the projection was male, but why? The other elements had been quite easily understood and named, but this one, possibly from being so recently unearthed, was more reserved and obtuse.

She prodded at the dreamscape, asking it to give up further evidence.

The scenery around her stirred, colours swirling and shapes blurring uncertainly, before coming to rest in a new place altogether. They were in a memory outdoors, a courtyard, surrounded by precisely sculpted walls of shrubbery. It was an undecorated field, the only feature a small, clear pond. Dozens of fillies and colts, almost all unicorns, huddled in several small, insular groups, loosely gravitating toward similar age and sex. The scene was vaguely familiar to Luna, more from later knowledge than actual recollection. Noble families of the young Equestrian nation had all the work of founding a country to do, leaving most with no time to look after their foals. Though it had been a new idea to the unicorns, the custom of ‘day care’ had to be adopted from the earth ponies out of necessity. Among those noble families had been her own.

“Hey! Hey, you there, the purple one!”

Luna turned to an area several feet from the pond, in the shade of one wall. There was the colt who so looked like her, trying to break into one of the little cliques. The lavender foal he called to was deep in a horn joust with another colt, glowing horns set point-to-point, both trying to knock the other over with only their magic. Neither boy looked to be gaining any ground, sweating and gnashing their teeth. Not getting a response, he prodded the purple foal’s flank with one hoof. “I said, hey!”

“Time out!” he called, and his opponent relented. He whirled on the little blue colt. “What?”

“Can I joust with you guys?”

The other colts exchanged glances, and the purple boy looked uncomfortable. “Uh … I ‘unno … fillies are better at that, I think …”

He huffed in frustration. “We are not, you always say that!”

Luna blinked in slight surprise; the scene was playing out exactly as it had happened, without any acknowledgement of her altered gender. He lit his horn and dropped his head at the other boy, insisting “Just one round!”

The lavender foal glared at him. “I don’t want to play with you, go away!”

The other foals stood there awkwardly, waiting for him to leave. He let his horn dim, lowering his ears angrily. “Fine, be that way!” he yelled, and stomped off. He settled some distance from them, hunched over and fuming, as the sounds of their game started back up.

“Oh, Iridium? Could you hold on a second?” came a gentle voice from a nearby group of older girls. A very familiar white filly approached him and sat in the grass by his side. “Hey, Lulu.”

He mumbled “Hi, Tia.”

“I heard you yell at that colt. What’d he do?”

“They won’t let me play with them. Again.”

Young Celestia rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry about them, Lulu, colts are jerks. Why do you even want to play with them?”

He shrugged. “They just … I dunno. I want to joust.”

“Well, you don’t need them for that.” Celestia got to her hooves and lit her horn. “Let’s go!”

He sprang upright, instantly forgetting his dejection, and returned his sister’s gesture. “Okay, now!” he yelled, and their auras met in an electric clash. The telekinetic force between them was a tiny fraction of what they’d one day muster, but it was enough to force their hooves into the dirt as they braced themselves. In less than a minute, Celestia was shaking, lowering her stance into an increasingly defensive position. Her little brother was already smirking, ready for his quick victory – when she lashed out with one hoof and kicked a foreleg out from under him, sending his horn beam wildly into the sky. She took her moment and gave him a magical shove, knocking him to the ground.

He let out pained cry when his shoulder broke his fall, and Luna could hear something very strange about the returning echo: it wasn’t his raspy little boy voice, it was her voice. But, not quite. It hit her ear wrong, made her grit her teeth like a chalkboard scratch. The colt bit his lip, looking embarrassed; could he hear the unsettling undercurrent, too?

Celestia laughed at him, not hearing anything wrong. “I gotcha!”

He glowered up at her, and shot back “You cheated!”

“No, I won.”

“You gotta fight fair or it doesn’t count!”

She gave him a cocky smile, and retorted “Says who? The filly who lost?”

He scrambled upright and launched himself at her. “See how … you like it …!” he growled, wrapping one leg around her neck and trying to pull her down. They staggered back and forth, shoving and grappling. A few foals turned to watch as their wrestling went to the ground, losing ferocity as they both started laughing.

“Aren’t they, y’know, the chosen ones or something like that?” somepony wondered aloud.

Eventually, once it looked like her brother was getting the upper hoof in pinning her down, Celestia held up her hooves, gesturing to stall him. “Okay … okay, time out!”

“Aww, c’mon!”

“What, Lulu? I need water.”

He rolled his eyes at her, but followed her to the pond.

The colt dipped his face for a few swallows, and lifted his muzzle from the water, relaxing for a moment to watch the ripples settle. When the water was placid, the reflection that took shape below him was somewhat unsettling, and Luna leaned over the water to be sure what she was seeing. It showed the little boy as a filly, the first time since entering that she’d seen a perfectly accurate image of her childhood self. But like his voice, there was something wrong. There seemed to be a sheen, an obscuring glow that had nothing to do with the water, making the fine details of the little foal’s face and body hard to see. If she looked away from it, she knew she wouldn’t remember what it looked like. She glanced at him, and saw a very familiar expression of pensive sadness.

A stir of motion, and Celestia’s clear, bright image joined his clouded one. She saw his face, and frowned in concern. “You okay?”

He started. “Huh? Oh, yeah, I’m okay.”

“Alright then, go!”

With that, the young filly tackled her brother, knocking him away from the water and effectively ending his reverie. As their grappling started up again, Luna kept studying him. It shouldn’t, but watching these old memories play out with this one twist felt so familiar that it almost seemed she had simply misremembered them all these years. It may technically be true that she’d always been a filly, and yet she recognized this colt. She might have pictured him every day like an imaginary friend, theorized constantly about how he might look or sound, wishing he were real.

Luna set her teeth, and reached for long-overdue objectivity. To hold herself at hoof’s length and examine this situation, she could safely assume that this colt was a sort of unconscious self-image. At some point in her early youth, she must have subliminally thought of herself as male, and hadn’t let go of it for years. What remained, then, would be a repressed memory of that idea. She had entirely forgotten that she used to feel this way and why, but that old memory lingered, still causing her some distress. She would have to rifle through these recollections and see when they ended to find out how long she’d held this mistaken identity. “Keep going …” she requested, and the dreamscape began to run into the next memory.

When the scene reformed, she was back in her bedroom some years on; a few furnishings moved, a few foals’ toys exchanged for practice weapons, the mirror right where it always was. She saw the colt and Celestia sitting on the bed together, looking much closer to adulthood than before; they were starting to take on their mature colours, though their hair still obeyed gravity. The atmosphere of this room was heavy and quiet, all the levity of the previous snippet drained away. Celestia’s attention was on him, but he was staring at the floor with a blank expression.

“It’s … it’s really not that big of deal, Lulu,” Celestia offered, attempting to break the silence.

He only grunted in return.

“Seriously. I know it’s a little weird right now, but it’ll feel normal soon. Promise. And I’ve been handling it for a couple of years now, so if you need any advice –”

He gave another groan, this one considerably more pained, and covered his face with both hooves. Luna began to recognize this moment, and cringed in advance; this was one childhood embarrassment she could’ve gone the rest of her existence without reliving, and it was all the more awkward with her stand-in being male. It was sheer determination to explore this element that kept her from skipping ahead.

He began to attempt forming words, muffled by his hooves. “… I hate this …”

“Oh, it’s not that bad.” Celestia scoffed; politeness and respect were things she’d acquired with age, and quite sorely lacked at this early time.

“Everypony in the bucking class must’ve noticed …”

His sister’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Wait … didn’t you notice before the end of the day?”
He dropped his hooves from his face, revealing a very uncomfortable expression. “Um, I … yeah, I realized there was … something, uh, going on.”

“Why didn’t you come home, then? They would’ve let you leave; they probably have that happen all the time.”

“I-I don’t know … I guess I didn’t think it was really, um, that.”

Celestia looked even more confused. “What else could you think it was? It’s called heat for a reason.”

He flinched at the word, and yelled “Oh, stars, Celestia, I don’t know! It just seems kind of … soon, I guess.”

“Not really, Lulu,” she said, shaking her head. “It wouldn’t even be soon if you’d gotten it three summers ago. You’re actually kind of late on this.”

He glared at her and hung his head. “Ugh, whatever ...”

As silence fell between the siblings and stretched on for several strained minutes, Luna looked around the room for something else to focus on. She noticed the mirror, and wondered if his reflection was still warped. She adjusted her position until the two of them were captured in its frame.

It wasn’t the same; shockingly, the filly in the mirror was even more unsettlingly rendered than before. The filter over her image was thicker, not just obscuring the details but covering them in a sort of sickening glow. It hit the eyes like she was looking at something disgusting.

But setting that aside, the mirror showed this moment in her life as it had truly happened. That filly was miserable over something as banal and expected as her first estrus, and her older sister was justifiably mystified at her overreaction.

Concerned, Celestia tried to offer “Is it bothering you? You need an ice pack or something?”

“Please stop talking about it!” he cried, heedless of how his voice bounced off the walls back at him.

“What? What’s the matter?”

He crumpled inward, still not looking at her. “I just, I just … I don’t want to talk about it, alright?”

Celestia was only growing more worried. “Are you scared? It’s okay, little sister, you don’t have to be scared.” She reached over and put a hoof on his back.

He smacked it away the moment she made contact. “I’m not – I – don’t call me that! I’m not a baby! I’m not scared! Just leave me alone!”

Her sister drew back, hurt, but not angry. “Well … alright, if that’s what you want …”

He made no response. She got down off the bed and hesitantly started for the door. “Call me if you need me, okay? I mean it.”

When the door shut behind her, the colt had nopony to be angry with, and all his misery came to the surface. He rapidly started shaking, his sobs echoing in the stone room. In her line of duty, Luna met so many children faced with fear and pain that they weren’t able to process. She looked on one now, every bit of his body language conveying his deep sense of helplessness. No matter what he’d claimed, the foal was terrified. Luna almost went to calm him, before she remembered he wasn’t really there. He was just a projection of an old memory.

A memory that she hadn’t fully examined until now; the years since had dulled and trivialized it in her head such that it came as a surprise how terrible this felt. If asked only an hour before, she would’ve said that this step into adulthood had been awkward for her, but no worse than for any other pony. She’d been wrong. And whatever the exact nature of this male image, the focus it placed on this meant it was to blame for that misery. Looking at it through this lens, it almost made sense; no filly ought to be on the edge of an emotional meltdown in this situation, but if she had some hidden delusion that she was a boy, then certainly estrus would trigger this sort of response.

Luna nudged the dreamscape along, uncovering the next moment this element made noteworthy.

He was lying on his bed, alone, a couple of years older and past his ascension, wings tucked in tightly at his sides. Most of the stars in his mane had developed at this stage; she would’ve placed him close to adulthood. If his flank were bare, she knew she would’ve seen her cutie mark, but he wore loose-fitting clothing that covered up his hindquarters. There’d been a time during puberty that the customary nudity was intolerable for her; though Celestia told her she was worrying too much, she’d been unbearably self-conscious back then. By his troubled expression, even hiding his body couldn’t entirely soothe the feeling.

After a long time spent quietly brooding, he stirred. He pressed his muzzle into his fetlock, nuzzling the soft skin just under his hoof. The colt took a sizable tuft of fur between his teeth. Luna realized what he was about to do and flinched pre-emptively a second before he yanked his head back, ripping out the thick chunk of fur at the root. His whole body quivered with the aftershock, wings partially splayed from the jolt. Breathing unsteadily, he spat out the piece of torn fur, and lowered his muzzle to his fetlock to bite down once more. Luna quickly ordered “Stop.”

The playback froze, plunging this world into utter stillness, and she pressed one hoof to face. She’d forgotten that particular habit had started this early. Before she’d gone to all the trouble of creating an entirely new lifeform out of pure magic and arming it with her darkest memory, there had been far simpler ways of causing herself pain.

Pushing the dreamscape forward to the next moment barely changed the scene at all; it was much the same, showing her that miserable young stallion biting his fur out, or kicking the wall, or cursing to himself. On a good day, he was merely lying quietly, eyes shut, pretending that he had no body; the dreamscape took on a muted, dark ambience at those times.

Luna shook her head. She could make the safe assumption that the rest of her teenage years would be more of the same. “Let us skip forward …” she requested of her surroundings. They obediently melted and swirled around her, rushing past memories by leaps and bounds.

When the blur of passing time had solidified, Luna couldn’t be sure exactly when it had dropped her, but she had some idea. Around her was the auditorium of the Castle of the Two Sisters, and she was standing on the far left of the stage. That put her at least centuries ahead, some time past the assumption of their reign over Equestria. She’d finally reached the era she was known as ‘Princess’.

"CITIZENS OF EQUESTRIA!” She heard her own voice ring out through the acoustically tuned room. She’d come into one of the many hours spent practicing her public speaking, it seemed. Luna turned toward center stage – and stared in shock.

That stallion was still there. They were so many years on past foalhood, and he hadn’t faded yet. As she gaped, he drew a deep breath and projected his voice as much as he could muster. As it rang off the domed walls, it was very close to the powerful and steady sound she now had, but that upsetting edge hadn’t gone away.

“WE WELCOME YOU TO OUR CASTLE, AND TO THIS GREAT FEAST THAT YOU MIGHT FIND COMFORT IN THIS COLD NIGHT! WE … bucked that up, ponyfeathers, ponyfeathers …” As he dropped his volume to normal, cursing, it was almost a relief not hear the tainted returning echo, even if it meant returning to the male voice.

Hoofsteps came from behind them, and they turned to see Celestia entering the stage. “Greetings, sister.”


She approached, smiling at him. “The Royal Everfree Voice is coming along very well. You sound even better than last year.”

“Hmm,” he grunted, disbelieving. “Do you think so?”

“Yes, of course. It’s very authoritative. A bit on the intimidating side for my taste, maybe, but you always were a little … forceful.”

He smiled, agreeing “Indeed … but I don’t think it’s strong enough.”

Celestia laughed. “If it were stronger, I’d worry for your subject’s ears!”

“No, it … I can hear it echoing off the walls, and I don’t like it. It just doesn’t sound good. Can’t you hear that? Maybe it’s too high.”

“It’s not high at all. I think it’s quite rich.”

He shook his head. “I can get it deeper. I want it deeper.”

“Alright … but you really don’t need to. I’d say you’re ready to open the festivities already.”

“It’s my Winter Moon celebration! And this year, the speech will be to my satisfaction.” He glared out at the walls of the auditorium. “I’ll be ready when I don’t sound so … wrong.”

Celestia shrugged. “Okay, Lulu … I just came to inform you that the staff have finished preparing dinner.”

“Alright … a few minutes more.”

Celestia departed as he started running the lines of his speech again. Through the painful edge, Luna could hear him straining to lower his pitch ever further, seeking some deeper place in his chest to resonate. He certainly managed to deepen it; it was booming, impressive sound … but he couldn’t manage to find a tone that hit his ears well. Because, as Luna finally realized, it was unmistakably a mare speaking no matter how strong it was.

“We’re almost in the modern era. How is a mistaken identity lasting so long?” Luna wondered aloud, starting to get frustrated. “Confound this element … surely we’ll come to the end of it soon.” Luna shoved the dreamscape along through time, aiming roughly for something after Discord’s downfall; perhaps that was a late enough date to sort this out.

The scene reformed around her in stunning contrast to the last. Throngs of ponies, multitudes of ponies, pressed around her; if they weren’t made of thought rather than matter and incapable of touching her, it would feel claustrophobic. They were outside in the Everfree Castle courtyard, open to the night sky. The sounds of their cries were so joyous and the air so heavy with the smells of sweat and fresh cider, she must’ve come into a party. Some distance away through the press of bodies, a tiny yellow mare hopped up onto a rickety picnic table. She yelled over the commotion “The beast is in stone!”

The answering call was deafening, the relief and gratitude palpable in the air. “THE BEAST IS IN STONE!”

Luna blinked. “Ah, so when I tried for after Discord’s downfall, this element happened to have something to say about the night immediately following his imprisonment …” she mumbled.

“Make way! Make way, my good mare, I had a hoof in that petrification, you know!” A deep voice came, its diction muddied just slightly, and Luna cringed. Surely not …

The starry-maned stallion stepped up on the table, to the adulation of the crowd around him. “Milady, if I may have the pedestal?” he asked of the yellow mare, who was blushing deeply and didn’t appear capable of speaking. Instead, she simply retreated into the crowd. He chuckled, took a deep draught from a tankard he held in his aura, and began to project his voice out to his gleeful audience.

“Hear me, my fellow ponies, you will know peace and order! Gravity shall only pull down, the ground shall be solid, and my sister and I will ensure that day and night can be relied upon once more! For Discord has fallen!” The answering echo of his voice didn’t carry the same pain as before; it was worn out and shouted hoarse, deepened from fatigue and spirit until it barely clashed with his masculine appearance at all. Along with the freely flowing cider, that was probably why this very public speech lacked her customary stiffness.

“Let us make merry through the dusk until the dawn, until the stars themselves must join in our revels!” A veneer of formal word choice remained despite his obvious inebriation: ‘revels’ wasn’t a term she ever heard anymore, but the word ‘fun’ hadn’t even entered the Equestrian language at this point in history. The stallion took another swig from his tankard and insisted over the assenting cheers, “We can command them to do this, good citizens, we do not jest! These stars are ours!” He lit his horn and forced every star in the sky to flash brilliantly, momentarily casting the ground below in light almost as bright as day. The uproar of laughter and cheering from the assembled crowd was gloriously loud, and though he rubbed his eyes from the glare, he was obviously proud of his address.

He hopped down from the table, receiving many affectionate calls as he made his way toward Celestia, watching from the archery range. She raised an eyebrow at him as he came close.

“Dear sister, do you think you may be showing off?”

The taboo word took the edge off the stallion’s joy, and his answering look was a bit pointed. “Perhaps. What of it?”

“No need for defensiveness; only a joke.”

He looked to the rack of throwing spears, down to the standing target two dozen strides away, and his smile was restored. “I shall show off if I please. Stand and see this!” He readied a spear in his aura, and raised his voice for attention. “Let us suppose, my little ponies, that this target is the Great Beast’s hideous, buck-fanged snout!” Hundreds of eyes turned to watch, and Celestia put a hoof to her muzzle, laughing, as he reared and loosed the spear.

“Ha ha!” He crowed, victorious, when his weapon thudded into the target reasonably close to centre. Answering whoops came from all over the party.

Celestia interjected. “If we suppose that, then you’ve merely chipped his horn.”

Ponies close enough to hear her murmured excitedly, anticipating his response. He whirled on her, his hooves spaced a little wider for balance. “Oh? Let us see you, dear sister, best me!”

Celestia moved to put her tankard down, only for her brother to give her a playful shove that nearly spilled it. “Oh no, I made that shot after I drank; if it is to be fair, you drink.”

With a smile, the solar princess complied, draining the entire thing in three swallows. She gagged slightly, but managed to retort “And I shall actually hit his face!” She was still grimacing as she lifted the other spear in her golden aura, yet it flew across the range like a bolt of lightning and hit the dead centre with a shuddering impact, to the even louder cheers of their guests. Celestia looked back at the stunned colt with a smirk.

“Ah … well … it’s yet to go to your head …”

She gave him a playful shove of her own, nearly toppling him, and laughed as his wings shot out to keep his balance. “Not so for you, my baby sister!”

He and Luna both grimaced; maybe it was the public place, but that one hurt the ears a little more sharply. “Must you call me this on the eve of our victory?” he pleaded.

Clearly thinking it was nothing more than mild embarrassment, Celestia rolled her eyes at him. “Yes, I must. You’ll always be that to me, Lulu, no matter what horrors we face together. You know that.”

He looked away, his merriment tempered. “I do …”

Luna frowned as he turned from his sister to mingle with the surrounding mortals. Looking up at the imaginary sky, she wondered when she might find the end of this confusion. For a mere foalhood phase, it was lasting a worryingly long time. What might draw a line under this?

“Oh …” There was one thing that had shocked her mental landscape, one turning point sharper than any other. As Celestia put it, a day when every aspect was altered against her will. That would almost certainly be the end of this.

To direct the dreamscape there, Luna manipulated the flow of time much more carefully than any of her previous directions, finding an exact minute of an exact day. She selected the moment, and as it formed to her specifications she came to see him and Celestia standing on opposite sides of the throne room, dawn just having broken. He raised his voice and called to her from the balcony, the exact tone and delivery of his words forever familiar even despite their lower key and tainted echo.

“Did you really expect me to sit idly by while they all basked in your precious light?”

The words stirred an apprehensive shock to her extremities, ruffling her feathers. It was purely a learned reaction; she’d begun many sessions with the monster by reciting those words, and even months after they’d stopped, there was a physical expectation of pain to follow them. She set her teeth, and pressed onward. “Good, now …” She fixed her gaze on the floor. “Skip past the transformation.” Guilt automatically clawed its way up, the old unwanted habit, insisting that it was wrong to look away from the worst part. But she’d spent enough time, far more than enough time, dwelling on this awful day since her return. After experiencing this memory inside and out as many times as she had, for tonight there would be no harm nor shame in avoiding it. It was immediately afterward she wished to investigate.

When the dreamscape had reached an appropriate moment, she ordered it to freeze, then looked at the pony now in her place; a towering, ebon alicorn. “So, Nightmare, are you similarly affected?” she wondered aloud as she approached the creature for a closer look. “… oh. Oh, that’s interesting …”

There was Nightmare Moon, frozen in a tableau of an evil smile, and she was rendered true to life. Luna noticed in particular then just how feminine a pony Nightmare was: the thick lashes, the ornate armor, her voluptuous figure. Perhaps it was the contrast between this pony and the stallion she’d been looking at all night that brought this to her attention, but Luna saw now that Nightmare wasn’t simply a monster. She was an outright caricature of what a mare looked like, perhaps deliberately so.

“Hmm …” She considered it a moment longer, then prepared to shift the dreamscape again. The next time worth looking at would be quite far into the future indeed.

She allowed the dreamscape to coalesce into a deafeningly silent scene. It was the same castle as before, though it had weathered a millennium of erosion and encroaching nature. She spotted herself, a barely conscious, light blue pony on the floor, surrounded with broken bits of armor and dissipating remnants of dark energy. At that moment of return, suffering through the touch of the Elements, she’d felt so vulnerable and afraid that it had manifested in her appearance; her colours regressed to their soft childhood shades. It was a piteous sight, but at least she was surely in her proper form now, restored to reality.

Her ear turned as her sister’s soft voice came into hearing. “– into your heart. Now if only another will, as well.” Celestia approached, and the pony stirred, raising their head. Luna sucked in a shocked breath.

The stallion was still there. As he shrank in on himself with remorse, the observing princess shook her head, muttering. “What? No. This is too … it’s too close. It’s too soon. It’s not possible.” He ran into Celestia’s embrace, crying out an apology. “This is wrong, it must be – oh, no …”

A terrible thought occurred to her, and she all but threw the dreamscape ahead in time, instantly blurring the touching moment away, pushed to form the most recent moment it held. She had an awful suspicion, one that was all but a certainty now, but she needed to see for sure.

The scene that reformed was her bedroom just before dawn, and there stood a plain-looking pegasus mare, her most recent disguise. Blue aura enveloped her, and the illusion was quickly burned away, revealing beneath it … him. Luna took a step back, wishing there was some mistake she’d made, some reason that what she saw wasn’t what she saw. He went and sat in front of the mirror, and that frightening, tainted reflection appeared once again. Still subtly wrong and confusing, still plaguing him with questions after all those centuries.

She’d been wrong. This wasn’t childhood holdover, no relatively simple matter of a confusion long since passed that had left its mark. This element was alive in her mind even to this day, a persistent delusion. She was looking at the part of herself that believed, without reservation, that she was a stallion.

The realization was more than she could bear. “Let me out. Let me out!” she yelled at the dreamscape, forcing it to reform her exit, the rickety old door, inserted into a nearby imaginary wall. Luna ran for it and slammed it open, arriving back in the hallway. Without looking back, she kicked it closed.

A brighter blue shone from the wall behind her, and she turned to see something burning through the wallpaper. A window emerged from the glow, the element fully revealing itself at last. Through the window, she saw that little boy she’d first come upon, so young he lacked his mark. Taking a breath, she stepped closer to examine him. He turned, noticed her, and galloped to the glass, standing and pressing both forehooves against the barrier like he’d dive through it if he could. The thrill in his eyes just that she was looking back at him was only tempered by the fear that she would walk away. If nothing separated them, he would’ve grabbed her and never let her leave.

She held his gaze for a long moment. “Where did you come from?” she whispered to him. “What do you mean?”

He made no response, just kept her eye contact, staring as hard as he could like he could keep her from looking away.

“How do I fix you?”

He flinched and dropped his ears, his blue eyes welling with tears. Still, he wouldn’t back away from her.

“I’ll be back. I will find out more … and see about putting this right.” She broke off her dreamlink, the image of the dream world around her breaking up and dissolving just as the colt began to cry in earnest. The next sight that slowly came into focus was the floor of her bedroom some wingspans below, and the glow of her dreamdiving spell fading away. She settled to the floor, feeling the tingle of blood returning to her limbs as they took her weight. The sky outside her window was a dark, featureless grey, that brief time when the stars receded but the sun had not yet risen. She’d cut it close, by a mere fifteen minutes at most, before it would come time to help Celestia turn the sky. She had only that much time to gather herself and decide whether or not she could face dinner. The more she thought about that colt, the more frightening it seemed.

“Sweet moon, what is wrong with me?”

5. The Prince

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Luna couldn’t remember a time this banal ritual had been more unpleasant.

Every stroke of the brush made the image in her vanity harder to look at, because she was applying her makeup perfectly. The night princess curled the brush upward, lengthening her eyelash. Finally, she set the tool down, finished with her paint job. It was actually quite lightly done, making the prettiest effect out of the least actual colour. It didn’t matter that the desire to wipe it all back off was stronger than it had been in years; that delicate blue eyeshadow and those long black lashes everypony knew so well, it was expected she show up wearing it.

Her dress was beautifully crafted. The alicorn in the mirror had on a silver gown that draped well, accentuating her feminine figure just enough to still be tasteful, and the slight reflective quality of the material reacted with her Klein coat in such a way to evoke moonlight. If Luna were looking at anypony else, if all the effort of tailoring the garment had been for another, she would have thought they looked wonderful.

But seeing it on herself, all she felt was sickened. She took a breath, and tried to think the feeling through; it wasn’t true disgust, not of her own. That segmented part of her mind, the colt whose door she’d opened, it was he who was upset and him alone. He foalishly resented anything that made her look less like him, anything that pulled reality further away from what he wanted. Uncovering his door and acknowledging him was worsening his influence, but a selfish child was all he was.

Rationalizing it did not ease the tight pain below her lungs, and she had to look down at the vanity table, away from the offending mirror. She let out a long sigh, knowing in advance that she’d be feeling that sad ache all night long.

Luna turned as her accompanying guard entered her room, his posture perfectly upright. “Hello, Curtain,” she said.

He nodded, and in a clipped tone, replied “Greetings, your highness.”

The thestral stallion was, as regulation required, solidly built and his tail banged short. His figure, chiseled and stripped of any soft fat, wore the unforgiving, boxy armor well. Everything about him was respectably masculine, from his powerful-looking wings down to his broad, shorn hooves. Not quite mindful of herself, Luna’s gaze dropped between his hind legs. Stars, he was admirable to say the least … He began to shift his forehooves uncomfortably, reminding her to look back at his face.

“Um … is there something the matter, milady?”

Luna barely kept from flinching; the word sunk deep, and she couldn’t help but feel insulted. Drawn Curtain was checking the straps of his backplate, unaware. “Is my armor on correctly?”

“Oh, I – yes, it is. My apologies, I wasn’t inspecting you, I just … my mind was elsewhere.”

It’d been ‘elsewhere’ more than usual ever since her inward journey a few days before. Accidental inappropriate staring kept happening around her male guards, and not only because they were appealing. Given what she’d learned, it had become obvious that attraction was only half of what they inspired in her. She, or rather the little boy, couldn’t help but fixate on their handsome features in deep longing.

She snuck another fleeting glance below his belly, hoping he didn’t notice. “Let us depart,” she said, nodding toward the door. As she exited, he fell into step directly behind her, forcing her to keep her eyes forward and off of him. He kept precise step with her as they went to the west wing ballroom.

It had become much harder to ignore these fixations ever since she’d found that hidden door. A great many of her fleeting strange thoughts and pangs of distress were understandable now when they hadn’t been mere days ago, which had an unfortunate magnifying effect. It was rather like wearing thickly tinted sunglasses long enough to become accustomed to it, then removing them and seeing the light and colours as they truly were, lurid and brilliant. There were keenly distracting thoughts throughout her day now, and they often led to awkward moments like that with Curtain. It might be quite some time before they stopped bothering her so, before that colt quieted down.

As such, the event she was about to attend conceivably could have come at a worse time, but she’d be hard-pressed to think of when it would be more unwelcome a prospect. True, if one were to take all the world-ending horrors she’d faced into account, this was not so much to endure, but … it would be difficult on a different level entirely.


“My humblest greetings, Princess Luna. How good to see you again. You look radiant this evening.”

“Thank you. It’s always a pleasure, Conifer Forest. Welcome to our home.”

“Why, thank you, your highness. It was I who suggested to our good Prince that he host the dinner here; I always look forward to the gracious company of our Princesses.”

“You’re too kind, Conifer. Now, I beg your pardon, but …”

“Of course, you must attend all your guests. Good evening.”

This exchange, up to and including the claim of credit for some aspect of the party, had repeated between Luna and several of the dozens of noble ponies throughout the secondary ballroom. There were many more and several hours to go, and they were already on the edge of intolerable. It didn’t seem possible that every mention of her title or remark about her appearance could be as uncomfortable and frustrating as the last, but the sting of it never dulled. She was careful not to give any outward impression of her growing exhaustion, at the cost of giving little outward impression at all. Listening to herself repeat the same polite greetings, she soon heard her tone slip into the slightly false and disinterested sound of an actor giving their fourteenth performance of the week. She knew she came off as rather cold and stiff to her public when she allowed this to happen, but better that than the truth.

Truthfully, she wanted to run away. To be held in the eyes of so many ponies, knowing what they saw when they looked at her … there was a small colt deep in her mind begging to hide in his room. All that kept her from leaving was her duty to be ‘the Princess’. How she longed to lie down in the dark and be nothing …

Later. Just tolerate this until the party is over. It didn’t help that the whole reason for this interminable get-together was the self-congratulation of a pony she had no respect for in the slightest …

The head of her wait staff entered, announcing that dinner was served. On the automatic, Luna proceeded to the round table in the middle of the ballroom, where she and Celestia sat side by side. Her sister was already there when she took her place, and she briefly touched one white wing to her back, smiling at her. Luna made the effort to smile back, despite being too emotionally dulled to find any comfort in it. Her ear turned at his voice, the stallion to blame for all this.

“Oak, I am so pleased we could reach this agreement. It was really for the best that the old growth area remain in unicorn holdings; it’s very important to the Blueblood family legacy. We simply couldn’t have it fall into the hooves of tradesponies. With all due respect for you and yours, of course.”

Oak Forest’s reply sounded much as hers had all evening, slightly false. “Of course, I understand completely. It was … generous of you to invite my family to your castle for the evening, my Prince.”

“Any time, my good friend, any – what is this? Colt!”

Luna turned to check what the matter was. Prince Blueblood sat at the head of his own table, yelling for the attention of a young-looking waiter; he appeared to be scandalized by the contents of his plate. Her jaw clenched with hate the moment she caught sight of him. Luna had never warmed up to that brat, and found it difficult to believe that anypony could. It never ceased to amaze her how his every single detail could jump out at her as individually detestable. The lines of his suit straight and crisp, so thoroughly cleaned of lint, his cufflinks shining, the soft wave of his professionally groomed mane … she’d never act on it, but the urge to give that square jaw a kick and spoil his perfectly angled, handsome face came up over and over again.

“I said, colt!” The waiter jumped and turned, wide-eyed. “Pay attention, chattel, or have you forgotten I’m a prince?”

His clear, trained voice, almost musical in its delivery and yet used to form such revoltingly rude words, made the whole effect much worse. Mentally, she aimed her hypothetical kick a little lower, right for that spot in his throat that his beautiful voice came from. That insolent foal didn’t deserve to be so outwardly perfect. To think, he got to be a –

Oh. He got to be a prince.

There was an embarrassing possibility: her gut hatred for Blueblood could have its roots in jealousy. Not true jealousy, of course, not her own feeling; something more that came from that sad, angry little boy. Of course he resented Blueblood, wanted everything he had by right of birth alone. The thoroughbred, masculine features and male title, that was all he wanted, and an unpleasant stallion like Blueblood had been the one gifted with them instead.

“I specifically ordered the kitchens not to include the stew sidedish; I don’t eat peasant food! You’ve mixed my plate up with one of my guests! If you ever fudge my order again, I can see to it you won’t find another position in the castle. I don’t tolerate any disobedient, stupid horses in my employ.”

At this, Luna couldn’t stand by. Perhaps it was just that her contempt was closer to the surface than ever, or perhaps she would’ve done this regardless; at the moment, it mattered not. She stood from her place.

“Ah, Lulu? What are you –?” She ignored Celestia’s hushed question and stalked toward Blueblood’s table, drawing curious and nervous glances from all other occupants aside from its host. He did not take notice of her until she pointedly brought one silver-shod hoof down next to his settings, making him jump at the ring that brought almost every voice in the dining hall to sudden quiet.

“Pardon, little prince,” she said, adopting a particularly condescending tone reminiscent of a disapproving schoolteacher, “but this waiter is not in your employ at all. In point of fact, you have no right whatsoever to threaten his station; that rests with myself and my sister alone. While we are speaking of this, I must advise you how unbecoming it is to be so discourteous to our staff. You are aware of how to conduct yourself like a gentlepony, yes?”

She paused, and the silence stretched uncomfortably long. The eyes of the room pressed upon them. “Well?”

“Y-yes, my princess …”

“Then I suggest you act like it, colt,” she growled.

His ears were visibly reddening, and he dropped his gaze, glaring in chagrin at his plate while a few other ponies seated at the table bit their lips to hide their smiles. Quiet giggles started up around the room as other guests didn’t suppress their amusement so well.

Luna took her hoof from the table, finally cooling down enough to realize she’d gone a bit far; Blueblood would surely be laughed at over this for days if not weeks, and his injured ego would make him doubly unpleasant for a long time to come.

She raised her voice, bearing the sound of the returning echo. “Pardon me, honoured guests, I will return shortly … carry on with your meals.” She swept out of the room and onto the small westward balcony. The door she closed behind her with her magic, shutting out their stares, and took a heavy sigh of the cool night air. Alone, finally, not a single pony able to see her … it wasn’t quite perfect relief, but it felt marginally easier to breathe. Just a little bit longer, and then she could go to her room, get this awful gown off and block her own existence out of her mind. Barely hours to go, and then much-needed peaceful nothingness.

Her ears flicked at the sound of the balcony door opening. Blueblood, come to protest?

“Lulu …”

Her ears dropped. Oh, no, much worse.

Celestia came up next to her, and Luna looked away over the western view. After a moment, the eldest spoke. “What happened in there, sister?”

Why did she have to use that word so much? Couldn’t she refrain for a few sentences? “Blueblood was a cad, is what happened,” she retorted.

“Lulu, come now …”

“I know! I know …” Her sigh bordered on a groan. “It was rash, I shouldn’t have …”

“I know you have trouble tolerating our nephew. I’ve the advantage of getting used to his, ah, unique personality since he was born. But you can’t let him anger you.”

“I’m not angry, he’s angry …” she muttered.

“Yes, I’m sure he is, and being berated in the middle of a party in front of all his peers, no matter what he may have done to encourage it, I would say he has the justification.”

Luna blinked, realizing what she’d said aloud and letting Celestia’s interpretation pass unchallenged, though she hadn’t been talking about Blueblood.

“Celestia?” she began. “I think it best if I take a moment away … if I am missed, might you invent some excuse? I won’t be long.”

Her sister paused, and Luna hoped it wasn’t a disappointed silence. “Very well. But you’ll need to return to see our guests’ departure.”

“Of course.” The moment she’d been given leave, Luna lit her horn and teleported away. When she rematerialized, she was inside her bedroom. It felt better to be here, but there was something she needed to do before she could relax enough to meditate. Promptly re-lighting her horn, she pulled at the fastenings on her gown.

Once she’d cast it off, she kicked the dress into a pile of soft, shining fabric in the corner, and wasted no time heading for her bathroom to scour the paint from her face, turning the hot tap as she approached the sink. After rubbing at her eyes with the steaming water, she checked the mirror to see that they were clean. Her fur was matted and wet, and though that insulting paint job was gone, it meant there was nothing to hide exactly how exhausted and sad she looked.

Well, she couldn’t think about that, nor could she think about how she’d have to put it all back on in less than an hour. Not if she wanted to adequately recharge. She went back toward the bed to lie down and meditate her body away.

She put both forehooves on the sheets – then stopped, struck with a peculiar idea. Perhaps it wasn’t stripping everything away that she ought to do. Looking to her left, her mirror looked back from the far wall. The hardest part, more than every pang of misery, was trying to ignore it all, tamp it down and pretend she didn’t feel the colt’s protests. It had been a rather unpleasant part of her life before, but now that he had surfaced, it may be that repressive approach would no longer suffice.

Perhaps she ought to put something entirely new on.

He wanted to see himself in the physical world; a delusion he might be, but it was an understandable desire. If she indulged his wants privately, it might soothe his nagging distress. Which meant, of course, she’d have to do what she’d never dared. All of Canterlot and Equestria beyond would think it was the fascination of a maladjusted and confused recluse if they were ever to learn of it, the very reason she’d never considered it before. She’d have to take the necessary precautions if this experiment was to go ahead. With a glimmer of her horn, she made certain that her bedroom lock was closed, and got to her hooves.

Very slowly, irrationally nervous that her fortress-like door would suddenly open at any moment, she began to layer a brand new illusion over herself. It had to be a subtle shift; it wouldn’t do to simply start constructing a generically handsome and muscular draft horse. She did want to appease the colt, but it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t believable.

She considered what he’d looked like in her dreamscape, how a colt might look if he’d been through her training, her personal taste in stallion grooming … and carefully set about painting straighter lines over her feminine curves, squaring off her jawline, adding size where appropriate around her hooves and wings. She took the time to settle smaller details, making sure that his fetlocks were shorn and feathered neatly. There was the obvious matter of what needed to be drawn over her nether regions, and Luna realized with mild embarrassment that she couldn’t be sure what dimensions were appropriate. Without any male alicorn specimens in existence, nopony could be certain as to their proportions in that area, leaving her to make an educated guess. She decided to go so far as to craft his armour, and she allowed a little self-indulgence in this; the slender, ornamental peytral she wore daily was hardly impressive in a fight. She imagined a piece that covered her entire barrel, smooth and midnight black, her cutie mark inlaid in its centre.

She stepped back from the mirror, and looked over the new pony ear-to-tail, turning to the side to appraise the disguise’s profile in a sidelong glance. If she said so herself, he looked good; not only did he look strong, even studly, he also looked very much like her. She hadn’t taken the new look so far that he could be anypony; her subjects might see enough of a resemblance to think him a long-lost brother of the crowns. Not, of course, that they ever would see him, but she considered it a good job.

She cleared her throat, then remembered she’d done nothing to fix the voice. A quick auditory illusion layered over the visual ones remedied that. “Greeti – oh, dear, that won’t do.” Cringing at the ludicrously deep, dragon-like sound that came out of her muzzle, she made an adjustment to the hasty spell, mumbling as she did so to track its calibration. “Can’t even take myself seriously, what prince sounds like that? Ah,” she sighed, arriving at something closer to tenor. “That’s better … Greetings.”

She saw the stallion in the mirror give a little smile, feeling cautiously optimistic about her experiment. “So far, so good … now, we can’t very well call him ‘Luna’. Name … hmm …” Royalty never had names quite the same as casually spoken words back when she and Celestia had been born; at most, their names alluded to related words without themselves being words. Celestia, Luna, Amore, Sombra’s chosen name … they could only be used as proper nouns, never just nouns. Mi Amore Cadenza’s name even followed this pattern, though she went by ‘Cadance’ to keep with the times. Twilight hadn’t bothered with a hard proper noun at all, despite her ascension. That was well and good for younger ponies, but this prince, he needed a traditional name.

Unable to think of anything, she went to her window and looked over her constellations for inspiration. There was Orion, properly dressed as almost always. ‘Prince Orion’ had a nice sound, but … no. The character was largely undeveloped in the stories she’d invented around her star pictures, a hunting horse and little else, and she couldn’t see giving his name to such a personal creation. She’d only written him to be the companion of …

Ah. Of Artemis, hunter, guardian of the children and symbol of the lunar light by which all nocturnal creatures lived. She’d put a lot of herself into that character, almost embarrassingly so. The name was lovely, as was the association. But, Artemis was a mare.

“So what?” she muttered, discounting the problem. “Who is to say that the name is only female? Nopony. The name is my own invention, and its usage is up to me. In point of fact, I have even heard of colts receiving it before.”

It seemed a likely candidate. She went to look at the stallion in the mirror again, and he whispered “Artemis …” The name fit rather well. It was made of soft syllables and formed a comforting sound, it came from the times that were now called ‘ancient’ and carried millennia of meaning in Equestrian history. Now he thought of it, the name meant something quite similar to ‘Luna’: a guardian of the night long thought equally fictional.

“I am Prince Artemis.” His reflection cracked a smile, satisfied. “Ah, that flows well, doesn’t it? Prince Artemis …”

How else had he greeted his subjects? The stallion in the mirror got an embarrassed edge to his smile at the memory of that tiny Nightmare Night party, and the clumsily handled royal introduction that had interrupted it. “Citizens of Ponyville!” he bellowed, raising his hoof to punctuate his statement. He spread his great wings, adopting the striking image any royal arrival ought to entail. “Thy Prince of the Night –” he struck one hoof to his breastplate, “hath arrived!” He laughed at himself. “Oh, how would you look arriving in the Eventide Chariot?” Just to be thorough, he tried a few other simple things; cantering by to watch how his gait had slightly changed, kneeling in a takeoff position to reveal the new wing shape … he knew he was getting silly with it when he lay on his belly and tried for a seductive smirk.

I’m posing, he finally realized, and I’m actually enjoying it. It was surprising, but he was indeed playing with his visage; it had to be the first time he’d spent this long looking at a reflective surface without growing melancholy. Examining his looks actually felt like a bolster to his ego, not a blow. Was this vanity? Was this why Celestia could put so much effort into looking her best, to get this experience of looking in the mirror and seeing something she could be proud of? He finally understood every time he’d had to wait up for her; why would anypony be without this if they had the choice? And it was clear, he really had been without it up until this very moment. Correcting for his internal incongruity seemed to clear that blocked emotion, and the change felt so comforting.

He happened to look over his reflection’s shoulder at his bed, and remembered what he came in here intending to do. It didn’t feel quite so necessary to be nothing, not like an hour before when it’d been all he wanted. Right now, what he wanted was …

He looked himself in the eyes, searching that question, and found that what he wanted was to show off what he’d made of himself. He felt proud of it. What if he left the room now and returned to the party, still wearing this cover? He was more than up to it, even eager, and perhaps he’d make better company like this; not cowering from their eyes, but welcoming them. It was such a new thought, so unlike him, but he wanted them to see. He could tell them something to justify the cover, perhaps that it was an inside joke between him and Celestia. Maybe he could even get a few of them to go along with the ‘joke’, get them to call him by this new name that didn’t make him cringe, oh, that would be –


His heart sank with disappointment, his little fantasy shattering in an instant, at the simple fact that what he was doing was denying his natural state. It was quite literally unnatural. No, of course it would be met with horror and disapproval, and she ought to be grateful that she’d remembered that. This wasn’t like when Celestia was playing some imaginary character; what Luna had done was warp her own image, the very image her little ponies looked up to. Their princesses represented the very order of the world; nopony could defy nature, and it would be wrong of her especially to try.

And what was more, she didn’t need this. She’d lived her life in relative comfort for centuries, without taking solace in any of this strangeness. In truth, though it was harder to ignore now that the door was open, nothing had actually changed. That little colt had been locked away inside up until now, and he could and must stay there. She’d managed as she was this long, and she could certainly continue to do so.

With a flicker of magic, Luna burned the cover off, stripping away all the stallion features she’d designed, leaving her reflection just as it had been: a slight, tired, miserable mare. She felt suddenly choked, and bowed her head, unable to look, and threw a quick spell at the mirror to black it out. She really should have thought to do that before taking the cover off. The stress of this entire night all fell back on her at once, and she thought of her expectation back at the party with dread. Luna wanted to tell herself that it was little trouble, that she’d be fine, but the tightness in her chest insisted otherwise.

In fact, breathing was becoming a serious problem. It was getting harder to open her lungs when the room suddenly felt so small and suffocating hot. Creeping dread started to crawl up from her stomach, and the sound of her heartbeat was growing in her ears… oh, no.

Okay, no need to worry, she told herself, turning to her bed to lie down as her stomach pitched with fear. Don’t be afraid, you’re fine. Luna crawled onto her bed, trying to concentrate on slow, even breaths, on the chance it could calm her system. You’re only panicking, you’re perfectly safe, nothing’s wrong.

No part of her body believed that. That miserable feeling gripped her; her own skin didn’t just feel foreign, it felt revolting, and all her empty reassurances and rationalizations were falling away to leave one word: trapped.

And she was. Her very body was binding, every little thing about it sickening and wrong. Looking down at her shaking hooves, she had the most upsetting impulse to grab her pelt in her teeth and tear, rip this crawling skin away as though she could find the real pony underneath it. She shut her eyes, wishing she could banish the nauseating image as it played out in her head again and again.

What if this feeling never ended? She’d told herself it would wane, but she could never have what she needed to ease it. She’d always look like that mare in the mirror, always sound like her, the word ‘princess’ would follow her forever; anything else was impossible. So how could she be anything but horrified when all that awaited her were nights like this?

She tried to think of something, anything at all, that might distract her, and the answer was obvious. She only had one recourse that had never failed to purge her mind of everything, one source of pain strong enough to drown out all the rest and leave her with a modicum of peace. It would only be for tonight. Just a little controlled release, for a few hours; she could put it back to sleep when this had passed. Her promise to Celestia didn’t apply here. This was an emergency, and she needed the Tantabus like never before.

Luna brought a glow to her horn to go unlock the monster’s door … and froze, for a moment thinking beyond the lovely blankness to the crushing guilt that would follow. She thought of the moment she’d have to tell her sister what had happened. Worse even than that, if she ran back to the Tantabus now, it was as good as admitting that she couldn’t cope without that monster, nor be trusted to jail it.

It took a long time of sitting there, thinking of the regrets that awaited her, before she could let her horn go dark. Yet she hadn’t quite decided against it; it was still the only thing that could possibly make her feel better. She knew it was a matter of minutes before she changed her mind and went to its cage.

What she had to do now would be severely humbling, but it was the only safety measure sufficient. She brought a glow to her horn, and willed herself where she needed to be.

Her teleportation spell dropped her in the hallway, not far from her bedroom door, in front of a surprised solar princess.

“Oh! Hello, Luna, I was just coming to see how you were –”

“Celestia, I need your help.”

Her sister’s brow furrowed in concern. “What’s wrong?”

Luna set her jaw, and gave her next words in as matter-of-fact a tone as she could. “I need you to watch me. If I’m left alone, I’m going to wake it up. I need for you to be there to stop me.” A slight hitch crept into her voice as she concluded “I’m s-sorry to ask.”

Celestia’s expression had moved through sympathy and settled on reassuring calm. “No, you don’t need to be sorry,” she said. “I’m glad you told me. Of course I’ll stay with you.”

“What of the party?”

She shook her head. “It’s just a party. They’ll get on without us, I’ll invent some excuse.”

“Don’t tell them –”

“Of course not, I wouldn’t do that to you. Would you like us to go to our parlor? We’re certain to have privacy there.”

Luna cringed internally, remembering that Celestia would want to ask her what brought this on. “Yes … I suppose that’s best.” As they walked side by side through the hall, Luna felt her sister’s wing on her back; it wasn’t the gentle, friendly touch she often gave, but had a particular weight and tension, her leading edge curving over Luna’s shoulder, and she didn’t withdraw it. It felt as though she was preparing to grip Luna to her side. Celestia was keeping a smooth face, but that gesture gave away her worry.

In going to their private room, the two crossed paths with one of their staff, and Celestia called her over. “Clarity?”

She stopped in her tracks and turned to face Celestia. “Yes, highness?”

“A message to our guests in the west wing ballroom, if you’re able. Inform them that Luna and I must attend to a classified matter of national security –”

Luna swallowed; that wasn’t technically a lie.

“ – and while they are welcome to continue their dinner, their princesses will be away for the evening.”

Clarity nodded, and trotted off to deliver word to the nobles.

Celestia looked to Luna as they walked. “You missed the meal, sister. Would you like – what?”

She’d quite noticeably flinched. “Could you please not call me that right now? I can’t explain why, just – please.”

Looking confused, Celestia replied “I – alright. I was going to ask, should we have your food brought up?”

Her stomach was nowhere near settling. “Thank you, but I’m not hungry.” Luna looked at the floor as they got closer to the parlour, knowing that at the moment, she was focussed on handling the danger and preventing the monster’s release. But once they reached that little room and she had time to dwell on what had landed them here, the looming turmoil would come crashing down. This was going to be a very long day.

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CONTENT WARNING: Just be safe, this chapter gets the warning, too. There's some descriptions of dysphoria in the beginning.

Luna understood fear. For centuries, she was the one that ponies turned to when they couldn’t handle it alone, and she knew how it sapped at the rational mind, how it could make the impossibly horrific seem plausible.

But even knowing that she was afraid and therefore wasn’t thinking clearly, it was impossible not to believe the feeling that somepony else’s flesh – worse, a body that nopony owned, that shouldn’t exist – was wrapped around her, and that the skin-crawling disgust would never pass. How could it? Becoming something else, something that felt like it belonged to her, was impossible. Miserable thoughts, all the reasons to despair, circled in her head. They’d fade just slightly for a few minutes, quiet just enough to let her think she might be settling, then that terrible word trapped would come again and she had to hold back from biting down on her hooves.

It wouldn’t do to harm herself in current company, after all, or she might have already indulged that old habit. Luna was lying next to her sister on the floor of their parlour. She looked like a child tucked under Celestia’s wing like this and wished they could at least sit further apart, but she knew it comforted Celestia to hold her. It reminded her of the weeks after she’d returned from the moon: her sister had needed to keep her in sight at all times. Her joy at her sister’s return was tempered with anxiety, and she seemed to fear Luna would simply disappear again. Even very brief separations upset her back then, and she’d always need some reassuring touch. This meant the night princess had spent entire days held against Celestia’s side, listening to her softly-told stories of all that had happened in her absence and all it had taken to aid her return.

Tonight, she’d voluntarily returned to the constant company of those raw early days, but there was little talking now. Crying had happened. Long, awful silence had happened. What hadn’t taken place was any kind of explanation for her state.

“Is there some reason you’re struggling right now?” Celestia had waited some time before she’d asked, probing as gently as she could.

“I can’t talk about it …” This was the best Luna had managed to do. Beyond the physical difficulty of forming the words, she was deeply uncertain of letting Celestia know about this bizarre complex at all. Logically, she knew that she had little choice but to admit to his presence; anything that was causing her difficulty keeping the Tantabus asleep had to come to Celestia, she’d agreed to that without reservation. Yet her own bewilderment at the colt’s existence was already too much to bear; just thinking of Celestia’s dismayed reaction on top of that made her heart race. If there was to be a time when she could speak of it, it would only come after she’d investigated the matter further, made sense of his element. “Not yet. I’m sorry.”

“No, Lulu, don’t be. Only when you’re ready. I’ll be here.”

Her wing tightened around Luna’s body, clinging to her.


In the days that followed, much as Luna suspected would happen, Celestia hovered by her around the clock, even to the expense of some of their responsibilities. Just as it had been a few years before, not allowing any time apart withheld them both from anything they could not do together. Many of the nobles and court staff who had arranged meetings with Celestia, the princess they were more familiar with, balked at changing their habitual group to include Luna and postponed instead. While technically not barred from Day Court, the night princess was very aware that nopony in these high-level positions were comfortable altering their customs if there was a way to avoid it, not even to allow other royalty. Consequently, administrative matters put on hold were piling up day by day.

What was more, Luna’s primary duty was entirely off the table. It had been a terse discussion that first night. Celestia saw Luna’s spiral alight and recognized her dreamdiving preparation, interrupting her with anxious objections.

“Ah, Lulu? Do you really think that wise? I’m not certain you should be …”

Giving a slight sigh of frustration, Luna dropped the budding spell. “If you don’t want me crossing over entirely –” Celestia cringed and folded her ears back, and Luna pressed on in a marginally sharper tone, “I have to at least administer my anesthetic spell. The ponies aren’t accustomed to doing without me anymore; they need something to shield them from their demons. If I can’t be there to defend them, some of the more vulnerable foals could be badly hurt.”

Celestia looked away, frowning. “Well … I suppose …”

“I’ll be right here, I won’t leave this realm. I’ll just numb their pain, nothing more.” Luna watched her sister consider, her fearful expression relaxing somewhat.

“Alright, go ahead.”

When Luna relit her horn to reach for the dream realm, Celestia placed her wingtip on her withers quickly, as if without conscious thought.

As the days went by and the question came up every evening, the discussion around it became ever more tense. Luna had trouble abiding even one more use of her emergency backup so soon after her investigation barely a week before, but to continue to use it exclusively night after night was nothing short of grossly negligent to her little ponies. This she tried to explain to an increasingly anxious Celestia, and her patience grew ever shorter.

“Are you sure you’re ready to dreamdive?” she asked again, with just as much trepidation as ever.

“I have a duty to the foals, Tia!” Luna insisted. “Simply dulling their memories night after night – this is not caring for them! Countless Equestrian citizens depend on me for their emotional health. If I leave them alone much longer, not even this painkilling spell will prevent their misery.”

“Of course … but if you –”

“Celestia. I can’t lay about doing nothing, and you can’t keep putting your work off, either. Our duties won’t wait another day.”

“What of keeping the Tantabus asleep? Is that not the highest priority?” Celestia argued.

“Yes, but that’s … I’m not ….” Luna sighed through her teeth and glared into one corner of her room. She was beginning to wish that she’d endured that awful night without help and left Celestia none the wiser to how close she’d come. This constant supervision …

… was exactly what she’d asked for. Luna bit the inside of her mouth, reminding herself she could not be frustrated with Celestia, no matter how many days it had been since she’d been left alone. Her sister had good reason to worry, about Equestria and about her. Her concerns were entirely valid, and must be treated as such. She turned back to her to apologize – and was surprised when Celestia approached and lowered her head to touch their horns.

She began to speak almost at a whisper. “I know you need to help them. I understand that, truly I do. It’s just that … I can’t be with you. If you were to … I couldn’t stop it.”

“I know.” Ponies without Luna’s mastery of the dream realm lacked her mobility. She had entered Celestia’s dreams before, even managed to invite her inside Luna’s own dreamscape, but that was the very limit. Bringing her into another pony’s dreams wouldn’t be possible, not without binding their dreams into one shared experience, and that would defeat the entire purpose of exploring the pony’s unique fears. To tend to them properly, she had to go where her sister could not follow. “You’re right. You’ve no way to be certain,” she admitted. “The best I can offer you is my word. I’m no risk tonight. I promise.”

Celestia scraped at the carpet with one hoofpoint, uncertain as yet. Luna continued. “You can watch my dreamdiving light, see that it casts off; you’ll know then I’m nowhere near its cage. I can’t access it without withdrawing into my own dreams; it’s out of reach from another pony’s mind.”

She halted in her nervous pawing. “True.”

“There wouldn’t even be a need to watch me once I go,” Luna chanced. “Take the opportunity, Tia, we both need to catch up on our work.”

Celestia made an uneasy sound at the idea, looking at the floor in thought. “Stars … I don’t like it, but I suppose you’re right.” She met her gaze again. “I will watch you depart, yes?”

“Of course. Do close my door when you leave; I hate to allow anypony to walk in while I’m not here.”

Celestia nodded, and Luna stepped back, reaching for the spell once more. Her sister’s eyes stayed on her as she lifted from the floor, withdrawing from the physical, her eyes in the material plane rapidly dimming …

… only to brighten in the next realm. Luna settled to the hallway’s starry floor, looking around at the long tunnel of doorways. Without even needing to touch one, she already felt the fear in this place, an atmosphere of her nation’s collective unease. It was to be expected; her ponies had been left untreated, every foal in Equestria alone with fears they couldn’t be expected to understand. Luna set her guilt to the back of her mind, and approached the first door exuding a nightmarish aura. She had much work to do.


Several hours later, Luna had trekked through a heavy set of terrifying visions. Tonight had been one of the most taxing in quite some time. The creatures had been especially grotesque, the scenarios disturbing enough to rattle even the more callous horses. One foal in particular stuck in her mind; she’d found him endlessly chasing ephemeral mirages of his family. Once she’d managed to calm him enough to get him talking, she learned that his cat had died just two days before. For him, the realization that he might lose anypony around him, and surely would live to lose some, was setting in for the first time. She hadn’t been able to leave him entirely soothed. He, and many others, would need her nightly attention and counsel without interruption for a long time to come. Anesthetic was no substitute for true guidance, and they were now paying for her leave of absence.

Just before returning, Luna sat in the hallway. With slow breaths, she let the frightening images travel past her mind’s eye, allowed the guilt to come as it would … and told herself to let them go for now. There would be a time tomorrow to return, but tonight, she could not allow these thoughts to linger. She had business yet to attend to, and needed all her composure. Calm enough, she severed the dreamlink.

She drew herself up to the material plane, regaining her sight gradually as she settled to the floor. Celestia was still away. By the colour of the sky, she had a few hours yet before it needed to be turned, and therefore she possibly had another hour or two to herself. She quickly dipped back to the dream realm, pulling the spell inward before it could lift her. This was the first opportunity she’d had to follow up on her investigations in nearly a week, and she might not see another for some time. Questions yet needed answers where the little colt was concerned.

She pushed her dreamscape to form around her rapidly, starting to run down the hallway before she could fully feel her astral hooves. The beast’s enclosure whipped by at full gallop without so much as a glance, her eyes focussed forward. Not even that nuisance shadow could keep pace with her, falling away as she headed deep inside her mind.

Arriving at her near-centre, she halted next to the window and peered in. There he was, the tiny cornflower colt, lying on his back. The look on his face as he stared at nothing was deeply sad; not the frightened tears typically expected of foals his age, but a quiet, thoughtful sorrow. Luna’s wings tightened in trepidation as she went to his door. No time for hesitations; Celestia might return any moment, and she wanted to be back in physical reality before then. She didn’t allow a pause in opening it and stepping inside.

When she shut the door behind her and let it vanish, he tilted his head back and saw her. His eyes widened, and he scrambled to his hooves to run up to her. He kept looking into her eyes, craning his head up at her greater height. This wasn’t like when she’d only seen the memories of this element with their set sequences; now she was with the element himself, able to talk to him.

She cleared her throat, and kept her tone soft. “Hello … Artemis.”

His smile was so big that his eyes shone, and he put his tiny forehoof on hers. She swallowed; perhaps she shouldn’t encourage him, especially not when she had come for the express purpose of finding a way to resolve whatever mental complex allowed him to exist. His smile weakened as the thought occurred to her, and he uncertainly took his hoof back.

“Little one, can you speak?” she requested.

He shuffled his hooves a little, and opened his muzzle. “Uh … you …” He coughed, apparently struggling with his scratchy little voice, and his expression twisted with skepticism. “You want to listen to me?”

“I do, why would you think – oh. Of course … I have been attempting to quiet you, haven’t I?”

He nodded, looking a little angry. “You keep pretending I’m not here.”

“I know. I have to … do you understand why?”

He finally looked away from her, his ears falling. “I know why. And I know what you’re here for. To ‘fix’ me …”

“I cannot actually solve whatever problem formed you in a single visit,” she said evasively, “but you are correct in that I’m seeking your origin.”

“So you can know how to fix me,” he pressed. “How to get rid of me.”

Luna sighed. “Yes.” Seeing him tense, she inquired “Do you also know why I have to do this?”

“I know what you think. That I shouldn’t be here. That you’d be okay if you could just get me to go away. You called me ‘unnatural’. I know everything you think about me, you think I don’t?” He glared at her. “So now you’re going to go looking around, right?”

“I am,” she replied.

“Huh. Well … I don’t think you’re going to like what you find.”

“And what makes you say that? You can’t possibly know something I don’t.”

“Just got a feeling like you’re wrong.”

Luna scowled at him, then lit her horn. The details of the room around her and of the belligerent colt wavered. “Show yourself,” she ordered, “strip every exterior away and reveal your essence.” All sights temporarily faded. Every element had a root cause, a how and why of its existence; whatever she next saw would tell her what had created Artemis. She expected she might see some small occurrence in her infancy, some event that triggered this deep-rooted complex; that was how such things usually started.

What reformed in place of her old bedroom was a setting that could not have been more familiar to her. Under her hooves was soft grey cloud, and spread from horizon to horizon overhead was star-studded darkness. Low in the night sky yet, a sliver of a gibbous crescent cast its tentative light, outshining the landscape of constellations even in its diminutive phase.

Luna waited, expecting something more, when it became clear that the tableau was finished forming. “This is all? But … it’s no more than the night sky.” She unhappily rustled her wings, at a loss. “I ask to see his reason for being, and all I find is this? That’s no explanation at all.” She lit her horn and pressed upon her previous order. The scenery shuddered … but re-solidified exactly as it was, unchanged. “So you have no more to tell me? What am I to make of this? Artemis exists because of the night? Because of my realm, my –?” She interrupted herself with sharp inhale, realizing what it actually meant. She looked back to her flank, at the pale crescent glowing in the imaginary moonlight. “Because of my cutie mark. He’s … oh, stars …”

All that her discovery implied unfolded in her mind like a map. Luna sat silent, unable to form words for several minutes. Satisfaction at solving the mystery came and went, swallowed in disappointment. She’d so hoped this was fixable, but it hadn’t even occurred to her that it could be rooted so deep.

Bowing her head, she allowed the element to reform as it was. This would be difficult news to deliver. Under her hooves, she watched the hardwood floor coming into existence.

“Are you alright?” His weak voice came, sounding oddly echoed.

She stared blankly at the floor for a moment before remembering to answer. “I …” She lifted her head. “There’s been something of a – hmm?” She paused, surprised as she set eyes on him. “What are you wearing?”

There was a piece of polished, navy-blue armour perched on his head, tilted to one side because it was far too big and heavy for him; he had to hold it up with both hooves just to remain upright. His small face was somewhat lost inside of it, just the tip of his muzzle visible in the metal cave. “I … I like it,” he mumbled, sitting down and pressing it to his head like she was going to take it away. Luna approached him to get a better look, and laughed when she recognized its rivets and the scalloped frill running along the top.

“Father’s helmet!” she exclaimed. “Yes, I remember now. I used to wear that all the time.” He tilted the oversized piece back, cautiously looking out from under it as she smiled at him. “He had trouble keeping it in the armoury because I stole it so often. I could never explain to him what liked about it. I suppose I just wanted to look …” she trailed off a moment, and he smiled back at her. “I wanted to look like him. But I don’t have to tell you that, do I?”

He awkwardly tried to shake his head while still balancing his beloved helmet over his ears.

“What made you go looking for that?”

“While you were gone … something shifted in here. I knew you were upset, or mad at me or something. So I went and got it. Uh … I dunno.”

“You were frightened?”

He shrugged evasively. The room was silent for a minute as they looked at each other. He took the helmet off to hold in his hooves, looking down at it rather than make eye contact as the moment neared. “So …”

“You warned me.”

“I wasn’t sure … but yeah, I did.”

“Artemis. I deeply regret it … but you are a destined element.” She tucked her ears back, afraid to say the words, yet continued just the same. “You were always going to exist, the same as I was always going to rule the night. You’re part of what forms my cutie mark, and a pony cannot fight their own mark any more than they can fight who they are. And that means …”

“It means I can’t disappear,” he whispered at the helmet. “You’re just stuck with me, right?” Luna flinched. “You came here to find out how to get rid of me and now you’re sad that you can’t.”

“Artemis, please, try to see what this means for us.”

“I know.” His tiny voice was shaking. “I know. Your stupid delusion is going to bother you forever and you hate that.”

Luna reached out to touch him, tilting his face up to look at her gently. “You’re not a delusion. You’re supposed to be here. We were born like this, or at least, fated to be this way.” She withdrew her hoof. “Fated to be … mismatched as we are.”

His eyes welled up as she watched.

“I’m not mad at you … not really. It’s not your fault. And I was wrong about you, once again. I can’t fix this.”

“I’m so sick of being stuck in here.”

Her eyes stung. “Oh, I know. I feel it, too. The only thing we’ve tried that helps is when I put that illusion on …”

At the very moment the idea began to form, he softly asked “Do you think you could … y’know … let me out again?”

She thought of the brief comfort the illusion had brought, and of the utter misery that had followed when she had to take it off. She shook her head at him. “You know we can’t do that.” The boy just nodded. “I’m sorry, little one … but nopony else is ever going to see you. You’re too …”



His shoulders began to shake, and Luna’s gut twisted. She wrapped one foreleg around him, nuzzling him and hearing his soft sobs.

“Not fair …” he mumbled, getting the words out around his tears. “This isn’t fair. Why am I like this?”

Luna’s jaw clenched; she never wanted to say those words aloud, but she couldn’t keep from thinking them. They stayed curled in that position for a long time, Luna holding him as his crying and protests slowly wound down again. Even after he fell silent, the night princess couldn’t bring herself to leave. It went against the grain to leave any foal in such a state of misery, even a mental manifestation of a fragment of her soul, nor did he pull away.

They might’ve stayed there even longer, if a sudden, piercing sound like an endless high note hadn’t disturbed them. Luna’s wings partially flared in panic the moment she recognized what it was.

“Oh, no!”

“Celestia,” he said.

“She’s come back. Stars, she must think I’m – oh, horseapples.”

He stepped away from her. “Will you be back?”

“Yes, when I can.”

The look on his face was dejected enough that he must realize as well as she did how long that might be. Without another word, he went back to his bed and dropped onto the covers. Luna broke down the dream realm as quickly as she could …

… and Celestia’s face swam into view, the golden glow of her horn stinging Luna’s recovering eyes. A few seconds later, her ears caught up. “Luna!” She could finally hear her sister’s yelling.

“I’m back! I’m back …” Luna mumbled, regaining feeling in her muzzle.

Her sister was leaning over her with both hooves on her shoulders, her eyes wide with alarm. She allowed the glow to fade, and stumbled over her words. “I-I came to check on you, and you were … I thought …”

Luna’s stomach turned; of course, what else could she possibly have thought? She’d taken too long on the inside and let Celestia return to find her within reach of her monster’s prison. “I didn’t even go near it,” she hurried to reassure her. “It’s contained, you have my word. Search me if you wish.”

Celestia stared into her eyes, frowning, before igniting her horn again. Her aura enveloped Luna’s, and the hot pulse of her sister’s probing magic ran through her head. After a minute, not sensing another conscious living being, the solar princess broke the spell off. She sighed, and looked at Luna with a relieved expression. “I don’t mean to doubt you. But I needed to be sure.” Celestia backed up a step, letting Luna’s shoulders go.

“No apology necessary. I’d expect nothing less,” Luna insisted. “If anypony should apologize, I should. I worried you. I didn’t mean for you to see that, I’m very sorry. I only needed to look at something.”

Celestia’s brow furrowed, not seeming to like Luna’s answer. “What were you doing in there? You told me you didn’t need to go inside.”

Luna paused. “I was …” Perhaps she could tell Celestia what she’d found. She could explain her near-relapse, give her sister some reason for the turmoil of the past several days. But then again, knowing what she knew now, was this really something she ought to share? Telling her wouldn’t change anything. All she would accomplish by revealing Artemis was giving Celestia one more reason to feel sorry for her, one more reason to constantly worry about her barely-functioning little sister, and she had more than enough. If nopony could benefit from her telling, then by all that was moral and right she should keep it to herself.

“I was looking at my memories of the solar eclipse.”

“Lulu!” The younger alicorn flinched at the shock in her tone.

“Nopony gets hurt that way …”

You do.”

She lowered her head, unable to explain herself, and Celestia sighed. A hoof reached around the back of her neck and pressed her into her sister’s embrace.

“Sister, what’s wrong? Did something happen?”

Luna chose her words carefully, so they were only true enough. “What’s wrong has always been wrong. Nothing’s changed.”