He Kindly Stopped For Me

by Pascoite

Chapter 1: He Kindly Stopped For Me

“Twi! Twi! Come quick! Somethin’s happened to Scootaloo!”

Twilight Sparkle took only half a second for her mind to form a dozen questions and immediately shove them aside. She barreled out of the library, a swirl of parchment in her wake as she raced after Applejack. “What happened?” she finally asked, once it wouldn’t slow her down any.

As hard as Twilight was galloping, Applejack would still easily outdistance her, except… she must have slowed a bit so Twilight could catch up and hear her answer. “I dunno yet. Apple Bloom found her near their clubhouse, and Pinkie showed up a minute later, every part of her a-twitchin’.”

“You go on,” Twilight instructed, her jaw set as a tremor shot through her body. “I’ll get Nurse Redheart.”

“Fluttershy’s already gone to fetch her,” Applejack answered. She surged back into a faster gallop, with Twilight straining to keep up.

“Hold on, why are we running?” Twilight said, shaking her head. “Stop!” She skidded to a halt and sucked down few lungfuls of air.

“But Twi—” Applejack trotted back to where Twilight stood and pointed the way they had been heading. “We can’t waste time!” she started, but she nodded when Twilight’s horn began to glow. The warm, pleasant feel of magic enveloped the pair, and when they next beheld sunlight, they stood in a familiar remote corner of Sweet Apple Acres. But before Applejack had moved two steps, Apple Bloom shot by Twilight and tackled her sister from the side, nearly knocking her over.

“Oh, thank Celestia you’re back! I can’t stand here lookin’…” Apple Bloom wailed. She shuddered, clung to Applejack’s far side, and peered around her toward the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ clubhouse. She shook so hard… the poor filly was scared to death. Twilight wanted to do something, but what could she do about it that her own sister couldn’t do better?

“There, there, Apple Bloom. It’s alright. We’re gonna take care o’ her,” Applejack reassured her. She hugged Apple Bloom back and gave a fragile smile, her own knees quivering.

Twilight hesitantly approached the crumpled orange body, and the serene expression on Scootaloo’s face struck her—a slight upward curve to the corners of her mouth and her chin tilted up—despite the blood-soaked forelock matted against her head. Scootaloo’s ragged breathing came in rasping, shallow spurts, and her wings, halfway unfurled, twitched at random. Twilight shook off that thought and leaned over Scootaloo to wrap her in a teleportation spell, but she heard Pinkie shouting to somepony. She jerked her head up to see Redheart soaring over the treetops in Rainbow Dash’s grip, with Fluttershy trailing close behind, laden with satchels of first-aid gear.

Rainbow deposited her passenger lightly on the ground. Before Twilight could even start coordinating everypony’s efforts, Redheart had crouched down, taking vital signs and applying pressure to Scootaloo’s head wound. “Who saw this happen?” she demanded, her steely gaze jumping from one pony to the next.

Apple Bloom crept forward from behind her sister. “I… I did, ma’am,” she volunteered through her sniffling as she brushed at some of the older, crusted tear streaks on her face.

“Tell me,” Redheart barked, her ears pricked toward Apple Bloom even as she returned her attention to the filly lying in a heap.

“She… she jumped off the clubhouse roof… to try and fly. I saw her as I was comin’ out o’ the house. She said yesterday she was takin’ a flyin’ lesson today. I didn’t know she meant this!” Apple Bloom receded into a teary silence and held a foreleg across her eyes while she took shelter behind her sister again.

A chill running down her spine, Twilight held a hoof to her cheek, and her eyes shot wide open. She hoped Rainbow Dash hadn’t heard that… but Rainbow’s body had gone stiff. She’d never forgive herself if…

Redheart nodded at Apple Bloom and let out a prolonged sigh. “Rainbow Dash, I need you to take over on the gauze. Keep applying constant pressure,” she said.

Rainbow didn’t move. She merely stood, her mouth sagging open as she stared at Scootaloo. Her wings drooped, their tips trailing in the dirt, and a hoof flinched toward her mouth.

“I can—” Twilight started.

“Rainbow Dash, now!

Finally shaken into action, Rainbow lurched toward Scootaloo and took charge of the bandage. She added a fresh layer to the sodden bundle, but blood soon soaked through and pooled around her hooves. Rainbow squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head away.

Redheart turned her attention back to the only witness, her tone low but rushed. “Apple Bloom, how far did she fall?”

Applejack nudged her sister. “Go on, sugarcube. It’ll help her.”

“I think… about twenty hooves,” Apple Bloom said, and then her tears started up anew. “I—I can’t stop seein’ it!” She shuddered again, grimaced, and buried her muzzle in her sister’s mane.

Pinkie Pie looked on, a vacant stare on her face. She paced around, shuffling her hooves in the dirt. “Will she be okay?” she squeaked in a timid voice more suited to Fluttershy, who had lost her power of speech altogether.

And despite all her power, all her knowledge, Twilight could do nothing more than that herself. Like everypony else, she only stood there with a dull ache in her chest.

“I’ve done all I can here, but I’d like to avoid moving her physically if possible,” concluded Nurse Redheart. She quickly gathered up her equipment, not even bothering to organize it before shoving it back in her saddlebags. “Rainbow Dash, you can stop; I’ll take over. Twilight, would you?”

Rainbow drew her hooves back and held them, trembling, in front of her face. She finally opened her eyes, and when she saw the bloodstains on them, she fell to her haunches. “It was… my fault. She was supposed to fly with me today, but I wanted to sleep in, so I gave her some excuse. Same as every day this week…” she wheezed.

Twilight fought for something, anything to say, but at least Pinkie and Fluttershy had already moved next to Dash. They glanced at each other, but didn’t do any more than sit there, though. Maybe their presence would be enough. Maybe.

A hoof touched Twilight on the shoulder. “I know you want to help, but Scootaloo comes first,” Redheart said quietly. “We need to go.”

A moment later, Twilight nodded, and she brought the purple glow of her magic to bear again.

A presence circled around the bleak landscape and spiraled down toward a small orange filly, the only speck of color in the endless gray. He knew this one, sprawled across the ground: Scootaloo. Of course, he knew all ponies, but some drew his interest more than others. Yes, this one. He knew her well. And, even more surprisingly, she knew him. He peered at her from above until her eyes began to flutter open, then he retreated a short distance to observe.

Scootaloo squinted into the daylight and blinked. With her gaze upon it, the world crackled to life, or something like it. A large oak tree pushed up behind her and raised her into a seated position, and a ripple passed through the featureless dirt, outward from her. As her pupils finally dilated back to normal size, she stretched cramped muscles and yawned her gratitude for a good rest. She glanced around and showed no visible reaction to what she saw. All as it should be, no doubt.

Underneath the rough, ridged bark of the branches spread a field of showy daffodils, whose sullen blooms nodded forward, weeping cold tears of morning dew onto the acorn-strewn ground. Grass waved rhythmically as it might have, had there been any breeze. On the horizon, two-dimensional serrated crags stared back at her from behind their oily sheen and watched. Except for the isolated tree against her back, the remainder of the forest consisted only of featureless charcoal-black trunks supporting bland coifs of an all-too-expected green hue. Yes, all just as it should be.

If nothing about the empty field had surprised her, then neither did the town behind her, where of course no buildings stood. Scootaloo wondered what today had in store: school, a Cutie Mark Crusaders’ meeting, maybe hanging out with Rainbow Dash. The presence could see the thoughts emblazoned on her mind as clearly as if she’d scratched them out in the dirt. Oh, yeah, Rainbow Dash, she cast out with a considerable amount of ice. The sooner I get that she just doesn’t have time for me, the sooner I can start learning to fly on my own.

Like relaxing a tensed muscle, he allowed himself to fade into her perception. She turned her head slightly—yes, now she could definitely sense the considerable gravity seated in the weeds to her right. When she focused her full attention on him, she wrinkled her brow and frowned. A great, writhing mass of fog that somehow didn’t obscure her view of the plastic landscape behind it—that’s how her mind would interpret him, if he understood from the previous few times he’d permitted somepony to detect him. A black cloud, its particles hissing against each other in their frenzied trajectories. If he thought it might put her at ease, he would have grinned.

“Greetings, young one.”

She clenched her jaw as his voice rolled over her like thunder, her body ringing as if standing next to a great bell, but she would not have actually heard it—it existed as a strong impression, a crystal-clear memory that the utterance had been spoken. It was only a whisper, after all; a shout would have set this world to crumbling.

“Hello,” Scootaloo answered, the uncertain glimmer fading from her eyes as she cast them down to the grass.

“Thou hast no fear of me? Curious.”

“I-I don’t know,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut. “I think I’ve met you. Once… maybe.” She rubbed her temples and then blinked away the blur in her vision.

“Aye, that we have.”

“I’ve… never heard you talk before. You sound funny, like one of those actors Rarity likes to watch.” A smirk crept over her features. “Her and Twilight. Not the rest, though, ’specially not Da—”

Once more, she set her jaw. “I don’t want… to talk about…” Scootaloo sniffled and gathered her legs up against her. “I could feel you there one time. I can’t remember when. But like that weird, tingly feeling, when we jump out of the hayloft at Sweet Apple… Sweet…”

The presence waited a moment, but she didn’t continue. “My apologies. I will attempt to speak in a more modern fashion. I did not wish to upset you, young one.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head, “you’ve never hurt me. At least I don’t think so.” She brushed her forelock out of her face and smiled.

“I often take the blame for things not of my doing. Why would you be any different?”

“I don’t think it’s your fault,” Scootaloo replied. She propped a foreleg on one of the tree’s thick roots and rested her chin on it. But of what was she absolving him? Her mind had gone blank—it looked like a wad of fuzz to him. Her mouth had merely given some automatic response, though not the one he normally heard.

He would have laughed if he thought she could endure it. ”You surprise me, young one. That does not happen often. I rather like it.”

“It’s nice to know I’m good for something,” she muttered. She rubbed a hoof at her nose, and like a wisp of wind, two ghostly fillies galloped past her to frolic among the daffodils. An earth pony and a unicorn—they chased each other around the tree and leapt through the grass. “Can… can I…?” Scootaloo started, but they paid her no heed. She slumped harder against the root.

“You all have something unique to offer—that is a basis for your society, correct?” She shrugged. “Would that not guarantee that you were ‘good for something’?”

“Yeah.” She didn’t perk up in the least. The presence merely sat in silence. He inhaled slowly, in case a pleasant odor might accompany those daffodils, but only stale air greeted him. And still he waited. Patience was a quality he had in abundance.

“But… ’s not really it. It’s more… y’know.” She sighed, and her eyes trailed after the pair of romping fillies.

He watched them as well for a moment. “I do not often find somepony willing to talk. I appreciate it.”

A hint of a smile stole across Scootaloo’s face, and she picked a hoof at the dirt. “I… want to mean something to somepony who means something to me. Y’know?”

Two more pony wraiths materialized next to the playing fillies—another earth pony and unicorn, full-grown mares this time. They each beamed at their younger counterparts and exchanged a warm nuzzle. Sparks danced on the unicorn pair’s horns, while the earth ponies bucked around and threw powerful kicks into the air. And all while Scootaloo watched.

“I cannot say that I understand, young one. Though I will try. I am not normally in the habit of cheering up my… companions, as most only remain silent or ask me questions I cannot answer. But you are different.”

A half-smile formed on her lips, but it soon withered in the sun. “One time, about two years ago… I crashed my scooter real bad. The nurse said I almost broke my neck.” She sighed and strained her eyes at him. “I… I remember you. You were there, weren’t you? But you looked different.”

“Yes. You have very discerning vision.”

“But I’ve never seen your face.” Strange of her to realize that. “I didn’t think you had one.”

As she turned her head away again, a twitch shot across her cheek, and she stared. Not at him, but beside him. And he stared back at her, watching the impressions roll across her mind: On the edge of her sight, a black earth pony stallion—the tail first, striped in a full spectrum of black. Then his cutie mark—a seemingly odd term for a being of his nature—an ouroboros, glowing faintly, and slowly but inexorably circling through its eons-long orbit. A large body, at least four times her size, then to the withers, the curve of his neck, his face. The… face. Nothing there. Nothing, a deep well of nothing that sucked her breath from her chest.

Wind whipped at her mane, pulling her in deeper. Maniacal wailing, brilliant things not meant for mortals to see, ringing building in her ears. She breathed heavier and heavier, pulled at her mane, and opened her mouth to scream, but nothing would come! Madness, rising to consume her.

And he stopped her from going any further, tensed again, invisible. He hadn’t meant to scare her—she sat, panting and trembling, for too long. Far too long. When she finally peeked, she squinted where she had seen him last. “H-hello?”

“I was concerned I had shown you too much, young one. I trust you are undamaged?”

Scootaloo took another shuddering breath. “Hours… h-how many hours was I…?”

“Time means nothing here.”

She glanced up to the sun, which hadn’t budged an inch. Nodding through her gasps for air, she stared wide-eyed at the grass. “What would’ve happened…?”

“I cannot say for certain. But I can say that you are the only mortal ever to have that experience. You see, you are unique.”

A faint grin returning to her face, she hunched up her shoulders. “Who’d believe me?”

“Belief is irrelevant.”

She tore her gaze from the wildflowers in front of her and opened her mouth partway at the sight of the ghostly pairs of ponies running around. “I just wish that—that I meant something to my so-called friends. Especially Rainbow Dash.”

“Ah, yes. That one. If she were as observant as you, she would recognize me even more readily than you have.” Scootaloo wasn’t listening. He’d never seen that particular look before—she stared at those phantom ponies, who failed to notice her at all. Curious. Normally, he had no trouble commanding attention.

He watched her with renewed interest. Countless times, he’d observed ponies and their loved ones. A joy, a longing. Not that he’d ever felt those things himself, but at least he understood them. This was different, though—alien, yet… somehow familiar.

He almost asked, but he could wait. He could always wait.

Applejack immediately bolted for town with her sister on her back, but pulled up quickly when nopony joined her. “Hey—!” she shouted, but she exhaled sharply and held her ground when she saw Rainbow Dash trembling.

Rainbow’s gaze finally focused on her hooves, and she stumbled backward, trying to wipe off the dried blood. She scuffed them over the grass harder and harder, then finally against each other, her eyes widening. From beside her, Fluttershy approached and laid a hoof softly on her shoulder, but Rainbow jumped from the touch as if it were a live wire. She fell heavily on her side and held up a defensive foreleg.

“Dashie,” Pinkie said quietly. “C’mon. We have to go back to town. We have to see if she’s okay.” Pinkie gave a forced smile and pointed toward the road.

Bending low over Rainbow, Fluttershy smoothed her friend’s forelock back. “Please come with us. You shouldn’t be alone right now.”

The look of a trapped animal finally left Rainbow’s eyes, and she nodded barely, her jaw set. “My… my fault,” she mumbled. She held a hoof to her stomach and grimaced.

“I’ll help you up,” Fluttershy said. She draped a wing over Rainbow’s back and whispered in her ear, but Applejack couldn’t hear what she said.

“We… Are we ready?” Applejack asked, glancing back and forth between the road to town and the pair huddled over Rainbow.

Dash squeezed her eyes shut and nodded rapidly. “My fault,” she added. She struggled to her hooves, her limp wings dragging on the ground, and took a few steps toward Applejack. Then she grabbed her stomach again and retched in the ditch.

“You okay?” Applejack said, her eyebrow raised. Rainbow coughed, nodded, and made it a few more shaky paces closer. “You sure, sugarcube?” After a short pause, Rainbow shook her head and sniffled, but trotted along anyway.

Applejack took a deep breath and watched her for a moment, then glanced up at Apple Bloom on her back and gave her little sister a squeeze. Reckless kids, she thought. It could have been any one of them. But she didn’t have time for that now. She motioned to the other two mares and jutted her chin toward town. “Fluttershy, go with Dash straight to Nurse Redheart’s. Pinkie and I will get Rarity, Sweetie Belle, and Spike.”

They all silently fell into step behind Rainbow Dash.

“It’s the middle of the day, right? Doesn’t anypony have to go to work?” Scootaloo asked. She looked over her shoulder at the empty town, and in response, a parade of formless blobs began lurching around like slugs to their various destinations. “Everypony’s running late. Must be a holiday. I guess that’s why I don’t have school.”

“No, I should say school will not be a pressing matter.”

Scootaloo brushed a hoof through the identical blades of grass and briefly flicked her eyes up to the playing ponies nearby. “I’m glad you’re here. I… I don’t want to be alone.” His jaw tensed. When had anypony ever said that before? A desire for simple companionship, yes, but actually wanting him there?

He watched Scootaloo. As the fillies chased each other around the tree, he watched. As the mares nuzzled them, he watched. And as Scootaloo shrank against the trunk, he watched.

She raised her head above the thick root again. “Can I—can I play with…?” she asked, but the ponies didn’t acknowledge her.

“I do not understand, young one. Why do they bother you?” He had to tread carefully. They belonged to her, after all, even if she didn’t realize.

“They’re…” She blinked hard and wrinkled her nose as if she were holding back a sneeze. “They’re sisters.”

“All four?” Yes, he knew all ponies. All real ponies. He could read their souls, their thoughts. These didn’t have either.

Scootaloo gave a shaky nod. “The unicorns are sisters. No reason to think they won’t both use their magic together soon. The earth ponies are sisters, and they already buck apples together. The fillies might as well be, too, ’cause they share… knowing what they’re s’posed to be.” She hid her eyes and flexed her wings.

A rustle of feathers overhead drew his attention. A pegasus had nestled into the fork of a stout bough and lay still, her tail swinging limply and her chest swelling with each breath—breaths that became progressively louder until they’d reached a light snore.

Scootaloo’s ears immediately pricked toward the new sound, and she beamed upward. “Rainbow Dash! Is it time for—?”

Her face fell as the mare in the branches merely resettled her position and continued snoring. Scootaloo frowned, but—her eyes went out of focus. The ground shook, the sun blazed, the large oak turned gray and began to crumble, and the ghostly ponies finally acknowledged her—only to turn and glare at her.

Scootaloo pressed a hoof to her forehead and grimaced. “Owwww! Why does my head hurt?” she said through gritted teeth.

And the presence felt something different from her mind—not fantasy, but true memories.

“Nnnggghhh! Oww!” Scootaloo scrunched up her face and writhed around on the examination table. Her eyelids parted slightly, revealing a milky whiteness as her eyes rolled back in her head.

“Twilight!” shouted Nurse Redheart as she ducked away from one of Scootaloo’s flailing hooves. “Hold her steady! She’ll injure herself!”

Twilight’s magic flared up immediately and kept Scootaloo still. Redheart pried one of Scootaloo’s eyes further open and shone a penlight over an unresponsive pinprick of a pupil. Her patient’s struggles dying down, she let out a held breath and returned her attention to dressing Scootaloo’s head wound.

It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes since they’d gotten here, but Twilight could swear she’d already paced a thousand laps between the table and the window. At the table—no, nothing more from Scootaloo, but still breathing steadily. And at the window, no sign of the others yet.

One way, get Nurse Redheart another alcohol swab. Back the other way, bring over some more gauze. Adjust the light, dab on a little iodine. Redheart had kept her so busy that she hadn’t had time to—

Twilight had to smile, if only a little. Treating two patients, it seemed. She took advantage of a lull in Redheart’s attention to offer her a damp cloth and wipe the sweat off her face. “Will… will she be okay?”

Nurse Redheart smiled her thanks, but then sighed sharply. “I don’t know yet. There’s not much else I can do for now. Her pulse is too weak to try any medications.” She pulled a blanket over Scootaloo’s trembling form, then sat down for the first time in over an hour and squeezed her eyes shut. “We just have to wait and watch.”

Glancing out the window again, Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but bit her lip instead. She looked down at Scootaloo’s face—shallow breathing, but the shivering had stopped, and Redheart had cleaned most of the red stains out of her forelock. “If…” Twilight began, but it came out as barely more than a croak. She swallowed against the dryness in her throat. “If you think things aren’t… going well, you need to tell me. I hate to put her on the spot, but… I may be able to get Princess Celestia to help.”

Grasping at straws so soon and vouching for her mentor—she drooped her ears. Had it come to this? Calm reasoning giving way to desperate measures?

Nurse Redheart stopped rubbing her eyes and looked up abruptly from her slouched position. “Would she…?”

Before she fell completely onto her side, Scootaloo caught herself and leaned back against the tree again. She sucked down a few gasps of air, her eyes wide. “What… what was that?”

“The real world, young one.”

“I-I don’t…” She tapped a hoof against the tree root, which had turned a natural brown again. The ground unbroken, the playing fillies oblivious once more. “This is real.”

She was right, of course, but not in the way she understood. He considered the four ponies running around in the field again. However, she understood some things better, it seemed. “Tell me about these… sisters. Why is that so important to you?”

“I-I don’t want to…” She turned away, but jerked her head back toward him with a gasp. He’d let down his guard while thinking about those… sisters. She must see him again.

Another spark of truth danced across her mind, and she cocked her head at him. “I… I remember you another time, later on. When Rarity’s wings burned at the Best Young Flyer Competition, you were there.”

“Yes. And you were not supposed to be there.”

A guilty smile crossed her face. “Yeah, I… I snuck over, but I had to watch from the ground. I wanted to see—” her eyes hardened, and she set her jaw “—Dash.” She squinted at her thoughts and finally grinned as if seeing him in a new way. Her eyes sparkled. “Y-you were set to catch her, all gentle. Like a mother with her baby—like you’d carry her off somewhere safe. I wasn’t scared, even though I thought for sure she was going to…”

Scootaloo swallowed, but her smile didn’t leave. “You just made it peaceful, not scary. I don’t know why—I should have been screaming my head off or crying or somethin’.”

“You… see much that others miss.” He waited a moment while she picked at the grass with her hoof. “But yes, when that eventuality occurs, it is my honor to escort that pony with dignity and respect. And those that fear me require even more understanding.”

She nodded, but her eyes returned to tracing her companions’ paths. “That’s Rarity there,” she said, pointing out the older unicorn. “She’s doing fine now. And her sister, Sweetie Belle. And Applejack and Apple Bloom.”

As if hearing her, they nuzzled each other. Yes, the sisters. He had never gotten an answer from her. “I do not understand. What about the random chance of birth gives sisterhood special meaning?”

“It’s not that.” Scootaloo shook her head. “Not all sisters are good sisters. I guess it just gives you more of a chance to be friends.”

“I see. But you called the two fillies sisters as well.”

Scootaloo squinted toward him. “You’ve never heard anypony talk about stuff like that before?”

“No. Most ponies do not care for conversation with me. You expressed… gladness earlier for my keeping you company. I should thank you as well.”

She raised her head. She wouldn’t be able to see his face now, but she gazed up toward it. “Nopony much talks to you?”


“And nopony much can see you?”


Scootaloo couldn’t suppress her grin. “Well, it’s like… when two ponies become good enough friends, they care for each other like family. Maybe even closer. Choosing a sister means more than just having one by birth… I guess.”

“And you chose these ones?”

“Yeah, and they chose me.” Her smile froze in place for a moment, then slowly melted. “But they have their own sisters too. I… I have…” She looked at the sleeping form in the bough above her and pursed her lips.

He considered her words at length. Yes, a pony for whom somepony cared, though not kin. That made sense. It certainly explained the thoughts he’d felt from some of his charges in the past. Not a romantic love, either. That had been a difficult enough concept, but this…

No. Once, long ago. He hadn’t known what to call it at the time, but there was one—

An unexpected movement caught his eye. The filly Scootaloo had identified as Sweetie Belle no longer ignored her. She stepped forward and beckoned. Scootaloo held a breath and stood slowly.

Nurse Redheart held a foreleg against Scootaloo’s neck for the fourth time in half an hour. “Twilight, her pulse is getting weaker.” She sighed and shrugged. “If you think you can do something, it might be time…”

Her jaw set, Twilight nodded and teleported away immediately. She reappeared among the darkened bookstacks of her home and the evening shadows clawing their way across the floor. Still home, she thought, but her nostalgic smile soon faded. “Spike!” she shouted. She had to think the others had made it here by now, but maybe not. “Are you here?”

Spike came charging out of the kitchen and nearly collided with her. He hugged her tightly. “Is Scootaloo okay? Pinkie stopped here and told me what happened.” Over and over, his claws clenched and unclenched as he gazed up at her. “I stayed here in case you needed… I don’t know. I just…”

“I’m glad you did,” she answered. “Otherwise I’d have to fly—I can’t teleport that far. You’re the quickest way to get a message to Canterlot.”

His face fell. “It’s… gotten that bad?”

Twilight nodded quickly and stepped over to the desk, where she scratched out a hasty note. She pushed it into his claws, but then paused to smile at him. He needed a little care, too, of course. “Thanks, Spike. You’re just what we needed.”

He grinned back and dispatched a puff of breath-borne green smoke toward Canterlot. She’d closed her eyes to fix an image of Redheart’s office in her mind when she felt a tug at her mane. “Are you going back?” Spike asked. His eyes glistened, but there was more. He leaned forward like he did any time he leapt to a task she’d assigned him, but she hadn’t done so now. “I want to go, too. You’re scared, and… so am I.”

At that moment, he might have made a convincing Shining Armor. She recognized that look, like her brother would give her when he’d do anything to take away her troubles.

She knelt and offered him a seat on her back. “Thanks, Spike. You ready?” When he nodded, the warm purple glow of her magic enveloped them, and one blink later, she stood once again in Ponyville’s medical clinic.

Her eyes wide, Twilight glanced around at all her friends surrounding Scootaloo, and another brief shot of warmth suffused her body. But it couldn’t last. “It’s done,” she declared. “We should know soon.”

“What’s done, sugarcube?” Applejack said, her ears pricked.

“I’ve asked Princess Celestia for help,” Twilight answered. She gave a slight nod to Redheart, but the nurse didn’t notice—she had her eyes trained on the clock while checking Scootaloo’s pulse again.

“Do you think she can?” Rarity asked, her hoof curled around Sweetie Belle, who bit her lip and exchanged a look with Apple Bloom.

“I don’t know,” Twilight said. “I think it’s worth a try. Just in case.” Her previous pacing route now blocked, she walked up to the examination table and swished her tail.

Nurse Redheart touched Twilight on the shoulder. “I’ve sent a courier to the closest hospital as well. If we can get Scootaloo stabilized, we’ll move her there.”

Still on Twilight’s back, Spike craned his neck to see around her. Only Rainbow Dash stepped forward to join them next to the table. “My fault,” she muttered. She reached a hoof toward Scootaloo, but flinched back from her bandaged forehead before settling it on her cheek.

Everypony waited several long minutes in silence until a brilliant flash heralded the Princess’s arrival.

Scootaloo brushed a hoof across her cheek. “Did—did you do that?”

“Do what, young one?”

“It felt like something touched my face.” She patted the same spot again.

“Perhaps something did.” The presence almost said more, but he stopped himself. There were rules, after all. She must have noted his hesitation—she stared back intensely and waited. But the time had not come for that yet. It would happen soon enough.

Finally shrugging, she reached her own hoof out to accept the invitation Sweetie Belle had silently offered. She smiled and giggled and pounced through the grass with the other two fillies, just as a child should. Time and again they circled the tree and frolicked among the daffodils, and the more Scootaloo lost herself in the moment, the more the midday heat died away. On the occasional trip past the adults, Scootaloo might even exchange the odd nuzzle with Applejack or Rarity.

Vitality—he didn’t often see that. The games of a child and the ability to cast off all concerns. Still, the way she interacted with her young friends—sisters. Sisters by choice, not by birth: a bond greater than friendship, even family. He turned it over in his mind again and again. And the more he thought, the more it stoked something familiar, something long-buried. But in his reverie, he failed to notice that the light had changed.

The sun had at last budged from its position overhead and lazily coasted toward the horizon, the sky taking on a dusky orange hue. And for the first time, a few wisps of breathy laughter escaped Sweetie Belle’s and Apple Bloom’s mouths—phantoms given a voice.

Scootaloo yawned, hugged her friends, and retreated to her cozy place against the tree root. The sun had paused at the treetops and sat there like a lidless eye, refusing to slide out of view. Watching. Waiting.

She laid her head down and shut her eyes, but her breathing didn’t relax. “I just want to belong,” she mumbled, nestling in.

And in the branches above her, Rainbow Dash stirred and peered down. “Hiya, squirt,” she said.

Everypony reflexively bowed to the Princess, except Twilight, who merely gawked. Instead of Celestia, Princess Luna stood before her. “Why are you here?” she said. She immediately felt all eyes on her and quickly bowed as well.

“I received your letter, Princess Twilight,” Luna answered, her face betraying no sign of anger at the breach of etiquette. “My sister is away, and fortunately so. I think perhaps only I might assist in this matter.”

“What do you mean?” asked Applejack. Her inquisitive squint soon jolted into a wide-eyed gape as she blushed and pulled her hat down against her chest. “Oh, and… sorry for keepin’ that on, Your Highness.”

In the back, Nurse Redheart quietly slid her cap off.

Princess Luna held her breath for a moment and scanned all the faces directed at her. “Twilight, perhaps we should discuss this privately, but come at once. We do not have much time.”

“You can use my office,” Redheart volunteered. “Out the door, to the left, at the end of the hall.”

“Thank you,” Luna said, inclining her head. “Twilight, if you would…”

Twilight followed Luna to the empty office, settled into a threadbare seat, and waited while Luna circled behind the desk to take the large chair. But Luna only stood there silently. Why her? Why did she feel the need to come personally instead of relaying the message to her sister?

She caught her rear leg fidgeting and forced herself to sit still. She needed to focus on the most positive thing she could scrounge up: Luna was showing her an inordinate amount of trust. The corners of her mouth inched upward. Somehow, Luna had always seemed distant. Maybe she could get to know her better, forge a relationship closer to what she had with Celestia—

Luna cleared her throat and leaned forward over the desk. She hadn’t sat down yet. “Princess Twilight, I learned a rather lot of dark magic in my time as Nightmare Moon,” she began. She paused and examined Twilight’s face, but Twilight held her expression steady. Or so she hoped. “We call it dark because it is very powerful and tends to corrupt, but there is nothing inherently evil about the magic itself. I know how to help Scootaloo, but it will involve using some of this magic. My sister would most definitely not approve.”

Nearly withering under Luna’s intense stare, Twilight swallowed hard, but visions of new directions in magical research soon had her smiling. “I’ve never heard of spells like that. Are they documented somewhere? We could—”

“No.” Luna squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then clenched her jaw and resumed staring at Twilight. She waved a hoof in the air. “There comes a time when the magic is such a second nature that you can shape it to your own purpose. Specific memorized spells are not required.”

“Can you teach me that?” Twilight asked, her eyes blazing. “That sounds fascinating!”

But Princess Luna’s sharp sigh brought her back to reality. “You have already done that once, to a degree. But listen. We must work swiftly. Scootaloo is in danger right now. Her will to live may be the only thing that decides her fate. We need to ensure that she does not lose that.”

“How? Can she hear us?” Twilight’s ears flattened against her head.

“Perhaps, but that would be too unreliable. She dreams now—I have already sensed it, but she does not realize her situation. We have to go into her dream and convince her to stay with us.” Luna’s voice had risen the entire time, and she nearly shouted by the end.

Twilight’s eyes widened as she gasped. “You… you need me to go with you?”

“Yes,” Luna answered, her mouth curling as if she’d bitten into something very bitter. “Dreams represent very personal thoughts. I can observe them by my own nature, but allowing another to see them represents… a terrible intrusion. Hence the dark magic.” Forcing out a breath, Luna opened her mouth to speak further, but instead gulped and stood up straight.

Luna dropped her voice almost to a whisper. “You are powerful enough to help. I will need you to add what magical energies you can. Just concentrate on supporting me, and I will focus your magic with my own.” Her gaze diverting toward the window, she finally sank into her chair. “An… additional voice may arise to aid us in our cause, if necessary. I-I do not know yet which side she favors.”

Twilight clambered out of her chair and gave a sharp nod. “Of course! I’ll do whatever I can, but… I’m not sure how this works.”

After a moment of silence, Luna took a deep breath and turned back toward Twilight. “The rules, then. This is Scootaloo’s dream, and she reigns there. The world’s form depends upon her thoughts at the time of the… incident. There is no way to know ahead of time how she will perceive us, so we must tread carefully and play along. Do not force anything. She can expel us if we upset her. The psychic effects, while temporary, would be—” she shuddered “—unpleasant.”

“Got it,” Twilight said. “I’ll just follow your lead, then.” She moved toward the door, but Luna remained in place.

“One more thing, Twilight. The voice I mentioned…” Somehow, she shrank into the seat, as if she were about to endure punishment. “Nightmare Moon was not destroyed, merely… contained. She is still a part of me, and I draw upon her to use the dark magic. If I rely on her too much, she may gain control. Your friends should stand ready to summon my sister at once if…”

Princess Luna tapped a hoof on the desktop, and her eyes glistened, but she showed a faint smile. “I do not have time to explain, but she has changed. I-I think she may prove useful.”

A feeling like electricity coursed through Twilight’s body, and she could feel the extra weight of that realization pressing her hooves to the floor. “You’d risk that?”

Luna nodded immediately, as if Twilight had stated a well-known fact. “A life is worth more. Just be prepared to see… him… in there.”


A hoof held to her forehead, Luna squeezed her eyes shut. Her silence drew on until Twilight considered asking if she was okay, but Luna finally stood and assumed a regal pose. “I-I cannot speak of it right now. Just be prepared,” she replied curtly, her knees trembling.

Without another word, she trotted back down the hallway with Twilight in trail and stopped beside Scootaloo. Amid a volley of curious glances, she bowed her head and lightly touched her horn to Scootaloo’s forehead.

“I can’t explain right now,” Twilight said as she rushed to Luna’s side, “but be ready to warn Princess Celestia if anything goes wrong.” She held her own horn to Scootaloo, and her magic’s purple gleam joined Luna’s. “Spike,” she added, her eyes already drooping shut and her speech slurring. “You-you’ll have to notify Celestia if we need her to raise the moon. Just tell… t-tell her… I don’t know. Something.”

Applejack scratched her head and shoved her hat back on. “How y’all reckon we’ll know if somethin’s gone wrong?” Only shrugs and blank stares greeted her.

“We are in unfamiliar territory,” Rarity said. “Maybe Pinkie can alert us?”

Pinkie frowned and shook her head as various body parts twitched out of control. “Sorry. I’m maxed out already.”

Beside the pillow, Rainbow reached a hoof toward Scootaloo’s face again. “I’m not losing her,” she said in a wavering voice. “I’m not.”

Rarity nudged Sweetie Belle toward Apple Bloom and walked up by Rainbow. She grimaced first at the reddish-brown residue on Rainbow’s hooves, then at the similarly colored streaks left on her face where she’d brushed away a few stray tears. “It’ll be alright, dear. You should really wipe that… um… those stains off,” she said, levitating a kerchief out of her saddlebag.

“I’m not,” Rainbow whispered, her eyes fixed on Scootaloo.

An oddly artificial meadow greeted Princess Luna. She glanced around, her gaze soon settling on a large oak that clearly served as the center of this world. Only the objects near it held any trace of realism, but even those had an unnaturally glossy sheen. The small army of daffodils swiveled to examine her and the pony next to her. They abruptly turned away.

“What?” Luna heard the pony cry. “I look like…”

“Twilight? Is that you?” Luna whispered, examining a perfect likeness of Rainbow Dash.

“I… I guess so,” Rainbow said. “And you…” She couldn’t hold back a grin as Luna wriggled around in midair to see herself: a large, pale-green moth. “This should be easy! Scootaloo loves Rainbow Dash.”

“Assume nothing,” Luna replied.

“But Luna—”

“Do not call me by name,” Luna hissed at her. “We must assume the identities she has given us.”

“Won’t she find a talking moth strange?” Rainbow asked, one eyebrow raised, but Luna didn’t answer. They both stared at a rustling of grass at the base of the tree.

Another Rainbow Dash, one more of air and cloud than flesh, dropped out of the tree and landed next to a large root. Scootaloo popped up from behind it and hugged the ghost tightly. “Yes, of course I’ll go flying with you!” Scootaloo shouted.

“See, she’s like a big sister!” Scootaloo chattered to the dark shape next to her. “They’re just as much fun, plus you want to be like them when you grow up.”

“Come,” Luna ordered, and the Rainbow Dash with her followed her to the tree. When they arrived only a moment later, Scootaloo merely regarded the two Rainbow Dashes in silence with gray, dull eyes. Her gaze lingered longer and longer on the new one, and finally, something like scales fell from her face, and her natural purple gleamed from her eyes.

Scootaloo shook her head. “You!” she spat. “What are you doing here? I hope you have some new excuses. The usuals are getting old.” She crossed her forelegs and hunched up her shoulders.

“What?” Rainbow said, her eyes going wide. She stared in turn at Scootaloo, then Luna, then the black mist. At least it would appear that way to her. But Luna could see him. She could see him perfectly.

Luna landed on Rainbow’s neck. “We are here for Scootaloo,” she reminded her.

Rainbow nodded and opened her mouth to speak, but the ghostly version of her yawned, stretched, and returned to her napping place in the branches. “I’m… I’m sorry, Scootaloo,” Rainbow said.

Not a bad first move, but Luna had hoped for more of a familiarity with Scootaloo’s mindset. With Rainbow gaping and stammering, there was no way she had a plan in motion.

“Sorry for what?” Scootaloo shot back. “Getting caught? Or keeping my hopes up long enough that I actually thought you cared?”

“I do care.” Rainbow shifted her eyes toward Luna for an instant and coughed. “I just… Sometimes I feel like I’m the one who’s not worth it. You’re—” she broke into a grin and forged ahead more quickly “—like a little sister. I’ve never felt responsible for anypony before, and… honestly, it scares me.”

“I hope you are certain about this,” Luna whispered. “While it may serve our needs, I cannot abide deceit.” Rainbow answered with a slight nod.

Scootaloo’s face softened, and she buried her nose between her hooves. “I wish—I wish I could believe you. But what happens tomorrow? Or next week?”

“I’ll try. I really will,” Rainbow said, hanging her head. “I know I’m not perfect, but you’re worth the effort.” She took a few steps closer and laid a hoof on Scootaloo’s shoulder. A hint of a smile flashed across the filly’s face, and her own hoof flinched toward returning the touch, but she set her jaw.

“You must know what you mean to your friends,” Luna added, her silken voice lilting on the cool air. “Do you not enjoy playing with them?”

“Yes, but… I don’t quite fit. They like the mushy, girly stuff—doing each other’s manes, playing dress-up… At least Apple Bloom doesn’t mind getting her hooves dirty, but I think they’d have more fun without me. I’m just their ride to school.” Scootaloo turned toward the low sun on the horizon and leaned back against the trunk.

“But you had such a good time with them getting ready for the talent show and practicing your routine for the Equestria Games! I was so proud of you!” Rainbow said. She leaned forward, and her eyes sparkled—Luna need not question the authenticity of that sentiment.

“You… were?” Covering her face again, Scootaloo let out a groan. “I don’t know. I just wanted… My friends, a sister…” She exhaled sharply, and the daffodils strained toward her.. “I-I need to think. Alone.”

“But Scootaloo,” Rainbow began.

“We should respect her wishes,” Luna interrupted gently, settling onto Rainbow’s mane. “Come, give her time.”

With a sigh, Rainbow turned and trudged away, but no matter how far she walked, she couldn’t get more than a few dozen paces away from the tree. She broke into a trot, then a gallop, but still couldn’t put any more distance between them. Panting, she finally plopped into the grass and nearly dislodged Luna from her perch.

“Luna, I—”

“Shh! Remember, do not use my name!” Luna cautioned her. “This is her world. She can hear us, even at this distance, if she wishes.”

“This isn’t going well, is it?” Rainbow said. “I wish I knew what to say to her, but things could get weird with the real Rainbow Dash if I say something wrong.”

“Our lack of information may become problematic,” Luna admitted, “but we have no other choice. She cannot see past these… false friends she has invented, and she has constructed this entire place to obscure the truth. Unfortunately, we may have to resort to more extraordinary measures.”

Rainbow nodded and sighed. “How do you play the game when the rules are stacked against you? How do we make her choose us over them? They’ll give her exactly what she wants, by design.”

“I-I find it irrational that she would consider otherwise,” Luna sputtered. “How could she sit there with… him!? He is fear incarnate!” She gave her wings a hard flap and flitted around Rainbow’s head. “What sense does it make? Can she not see?

Rainbow opened one wing and corralled Luna onto it. “Lu—who is ‘he’? I don’t understand.”

The moth’s image lost cohesion, and the ground beneath them rumbled. And the next instant, a new form stood in front of Twilight: a midnight-hued alicorn with familiar armor and narrow, slitted pupils. Rainbow sprang backward, but the image gritted its teeth and slowly wavered until it had coalesced into an insect again.

“Was… was that…?” Rainbow asked, a hoof held to her chest.

Luna didn’t answer immediately, but she landed on a flower and drooped her wings. “Yes,” she finally said. “She fights to force her identity into this dream rather than accept the one assigned to us. She fears him more than anything, enough so that—” she took a breath and swallowed “—it overwhelms me at times.”

“Fears whom? Why won’t you tell me?”

Luna watched Rainbow in silence. Princesses shouldn’t have weaknesses, and nothing good could come of admitting one so readily, one that not even her sister knew. Her sister… In some ways, Luna understood Scootaloo all too well. But in her own case, she had broken the bond with Celestia, a regret that still lingered. Perhaps—

She wrested control of her thoughts back to the present. “Death. She fears Death. She has always resisted it with all her might, even forced him into her service. He was yet another rival to her power, and she had to accumulate ever more to keep him at bay. She truly believes that he is the end, and it terrifies her.”

With a derisive snort, Rainbow wrinkled her nose. “I see now why you wanted me here. You knew you might encounter him, and you couldn’t face him alone.”

“Yes,” Luna conceded after a moment. She’d chastised Rainbow about deceit, and yet she’d pushed it too far herself already.

“You should have trusted me,” Rainbow said. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Have… you ever read the letters we send to Princess Celestia?”

“I have, but…” Luna hovered in front of Rainbow’s face. “I am not quite the student of friendship that you are.”

Rainbow stared at her for a long moment. “Can I speak to her?” she finally said.

“No!” Luna sputtered. “What purpose would that serve?”

“You said she might prove helpful.” Rainbow narrowed her eyes. “And she’s pretty much the reason I’m even here.”

Luna glanced toward Scootaloo, who still sat hidden from their view, behind the tree. She watched Rainbow for a minute longer, but her face betrayed no expression. They had the time, but… what good would come of it? She had to admit that Rainbow was right, though—if not for Nightmare Moon, Luna wouldn’t have asked for her help. “Very well,” she replied.

A spark lighting behind Rainbow’s eyes again, she leaned in close while Luna bowed her head and grudgingly undid the tether she always kept fastened around her psyche. Her heart froze, and what felt like a surge of bubbles rushed up over her chest. And then she saw the spark in Rainbow’s eyes anew, as if from a distance—as if relayed through an artist’s interpretation of the real thing.

“Twilight Sparkle,” a low voice said.

“Nightm—” Rainbow let out a small gasp at the tall form in front of her. “You shouldn’t use my real name here.”

Nightmare Moon sneered at the sky. “I care not for the rules of this place.”

“But it’s for her sake,” Rainbow said, angling her head toward the oak.

Nightmare’s lips curled to spit out some pithy reply, but… she held back. Without knowing why, she held back. “Well?”

Taking a step backward, Rainbow cocked her head. “Well what?”

“You wished to speak with me. Care to gloat?” Nightmare flopped heavily into the grass.

“Gloat…? No. N-no!” Rainbow’s face paled, and she hastily lay on the ground as well, like one afraid of violating a sacred ritual. “I… She said that you had changed, and… I wanted to see for myself. I trust her. But I had to know—”

Her face a carefully controlled mask, Nightmare waited. She had become very good at waiting.

“She said you might help.” Rainbow held her mouth in the kind of tight line that betrayed a throat full of questions which would never see the light of—the light of day, she supposed.

“And you have to know why.” After a moment to consider her answer, Rainbow nodded. Nightmare’s eyes blazed. The mare had dropped her guard, and…

And Nightmare would not do anything to her. “I am not sure I could give an answer that would satisfy you.”

Rainbow clenched her jaw, then closed her eyes. “She trusts you. And I trust her.”

“And again, you have to know why.” She squinted at the thin smile on Rainbow’s lips—not the grin of a predator. At one time, Nightmare would have lost all respect for her at that instant. “‘Know thine enemy.’ Surely you have heard that before.”

Rainbow nodded silently.

“Suppose I had gotten to know my enemy well enough that I no longer considered her one.”

Rainbow’s smile only grew. “She is an impressive pony. I wish I had more opportunity to spend time with her,” Rainbow said.

“You assume I refer to Luna,” Nightmare replied drily.

“Don’t you?” At Nightmare’s laughter, Rainbow opened her eyes and raised an eyebrow. “I mean… she wouldn’t trust you without reason.” She wrinkled her brow. “C-can you tell what she’s thinking?”

“I honestly do not know,” Nightmare answered, chuckling through her still-toothy grin as she shook her head. “Imagine a flood of thoughts, all the time, some your own, some definitely not, and others that… Well, I have never known a time without them. Where does one of us end and the other begin?”

Nightmare brushed a hoof over the unnatural grass. “Perhaps you could sort us out.”

“You don’t like being that close to somepony?” Rainbow asked. “Honestly, sometimes it’s like that for the rest of us, too, in a way. Friends, sisters even.”

Nightmare Moon paused at Rainbow’s dreamy smile. Her words teased at a memory, like something seen in a mirror, long ago. No, not so long ago. A similar wording, the straightforward prose of the same author, no doubt. And read to her by a sister…

“Another friendship lesson?”

Rainbow gaped until she’d wrenched her voice free. “You know about those?”

Her eyes drooping halfway shut, Nightmare allowed some warmth to melt the frost holding her stoic mask in place. “Yes. I have heard. Luna has particularly enjoyed reading them with her sister.” For the first time, she met Rainbow’s gaze. “You must think even I can learn something from you.”

“Anypony can. And not just from me.”

The firm set of her jaw, the conviction in her voice… “If only I had your faith, Twilight Sparkle.”

Rainbow opened her mouth to reply, but Nightmare Moon caught a hint of motion—Death had moved toward Scootaloo.

Nightmare Moon pressed her chin to her chest, as if resisting some bitter medicine, and seconds later, the alicorn shimmered and dispersed, leaving only the moth. Without pausing to recover her strength, Luna shot over to Scootaloo and landed on the tip of her nose. The filly’s eyes, gray and clouded again, looked straight through her to the ghosts beyond.

“It is time.”

Luna stared at Death. “No! She doesn’t—”

“I will explain it to her.”

“Yes, I-I’ll go with you, Rainbow Dash,” Scootaloo mumbled to the phantom in front of her as the sky darkened a shade.

“Scootaloo!” Rainbow shouted as she charged over and stood nose-to-nose with her wispy double. “Don’t go with her!”

“Why not? I want to be with my sisters,” Scootaloo replied in a monotone. “That’s all I want. That’s all.”

“You can’t!” Rainbow seized her by the shoulders. “You need to stay here—with your friends. Don’t go with those… with those fakes!”

Scootaloo bared her teeth, and her eyes cleared. “Who are you to tell me what I want?” she shouted, her voice dislodging Luna. “You don’t know what it’s like! Left out, don’t belong. But at least they never lied to avoid me!”

“Scootaloo, please listen!” Rainbow said, but Scootaloo shoved her back.

“Go away, Rainbow Dash! Just go away!”

Luna gasped as Rainbow winked out of existence, leaving only the soft sounds of Scootaloo’s crying to break the silence.

Fluttershy caught her chin nodding toward her chest yet again and forced her eyes wide open for a moment, for the few minutes of wakefulness it might give her. After the first night’s vigil, everypony had begun to wonder when Twilight and Luna might ever move again, or if whatever they were doing might work. Eventually, they agreed to keep watch in shifts, and Fluttershy had volunteered for the early morning hours before sunrise. Her eyelids had almost drooped shut again when a bright flash jerked her awake. She looked up in time to see Twilight ejected backward, slam into the wall, and crumple to the floor.

Instantly, Fluttershy leapt from her chair and rushed to Twilight’s side. “Twilight! Are you okay?” she said, looking her over for any obvious signs of injury.

Twilight groaned softly and squinted around the room, then her gaze set on Fluttershy—

A shrill scream shot from Twilight’s throat, and Fluttershy jumped. “No, no, Twilight. It’s me!” she said. She reached for Twilight’s shoulder, but her friend shrank away and huddled in the corner, a defensive foreleg held up.

“What happened?” Redheart yelled as she burst through the door.

“I… um… don’t know,” Fluttershy whimpered while trying nearly as hard to back away from Twilight’s incessant shrieking. She wanted to cover her ears, but she couldn’t risk missing anything Redheart said. She clenched her jaw and fought back tears. “Sh-she broke out of the spell like this!”

Her body trembling and her chest heaving, Twilight kept her gaze locked on Fluttershy and never noticed when Redheart rummaged through a drawer and approached her with a sedative. Her ragged breathing eased, her eyes lost their focus, and Fluttershy returned to her side. “Shh. It’s okay, Twilight,” Fluttershy said, stroking her friend’s mane, and found herself shaking even more than Twilight had been. The screams dulled into rough wheezing, and at last Twilight fell silent.

She slumped forward into Fluttershy’s hooves.

“You must decide, young one, while you still have a choice.”

“What?” Scootaloo replied dully. “Decide… what?”

“Whether to stay here.” The five phantom ponies gathered in a line and smiled at her. “Or go with them.”

“Why would I stay here?” she said, wrinkling her nose. Luna held her tongue. The time to interfere hadn’t come yet. She would let Death have his say. A shudder passed through her body.

“Staying here is the only way to return to your friends.”

“Like Rainbow Dash? Some friend,” she spat back. “I have all my sisters here.”

Luna opened her mouth to respond, but she saw Death do so as well. Curious. She’d never seen him hesitate before. The types of beings who wielded that kind of power rarely showed less than complete resolve over what to do with it.

“It is not my place to influence you, young one, but consider carefully. I fear that you do not fully realize what this decision entails.”

Scootaloo stepped forward and hugged Apple Bloom, whose cloud-tinted form took on a wash of color. “Look at them,” she said. “They want to play with me, and Rainbow Dash is going to take me flying.” Hearing her name, the ghostly pegasus silently nodded.

“Do you realize where we are? Nothing seems unusual to you?”

“Just Ponyville.” Scootaloo shrugged. “I’ll spend the evening with them, then I’ll go home and see everypony tomorrow. Rainbow wants to spend time with me. Why would I give that up? I thought you said time didn’t matter here anyway.”

“Between fixed points, no, but—young one, there is no tomorrow. What you choose will determine all of your tomorrows. That is why you must choose carefully.”

The five spirits took a few steps away before Rainbow Dash turned and beckoned to Scootaloo. “C’mon, squirt,” she said, her voice diffuse and muted as if heard underwater. Her colors brightened a little.

“Right with you, Da—”

“No!” Luna said, hovering in front of Scootaloo’s face. “You must not go with them! What you would give up is precious, irreplaceable. Please consider the rift you would leave in your friends’ lives. Think! This place is real, in some ways, like a dream in others—if you go with them, you will not wake again!” Scootaloo tried to dart around her, but Luna moved to block her path again.

“My only friends are Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Rainbow Dash, and I told Rainbow to go away. I just want to stay with Rain—” Scootaloo held a hoof to her forehead and groaned.

“Think, Scootaloo,” Luna said. “Rainbow Dash said she was proud of you. Think!”

“I want…” Scootaloo dropped to her knees, and a thin trickle of blood ran past the hoof on her head and dripped in the grass. “Ow! Why does my head hurt? I… can’t remember.”

“I know, Scootaloo. I am sorry, but you have to think!” If she couldn’t get Scootaloo to see the truth soon… “Please do not inflict this on the ponies who love you. They are all here to help, right now, crowded around you.”

“Love… me?” Her grimace abating, Scootaloo looked up. “How do you know?”

You know,” Luna answered. “Think! Sweetie Belle a-and Apple Bloom, you said. I saw you carry a flag at the Equestria Games. You must have rehearsed. Remember that. What about the first time you met Rainbow Dash? Picture it.” Luna grasped for more to say, but she simply didn’t know Scootaloo that well. To her knowledge, they’d only met in her dreams—

Scootaloo giggled into her hoof. “Rainbow finally admitted she liked our Equestria Games routine from the start, but she couldn’t break…” Her eyes widened as she watched Luna.

Yes, they’d met in the dream world before, and with Luna here alone now, she could shed her imposed disguise with less risk. She knew the dream realm well, after all. The moth’s form faded, and Luna gradually took on her true shape.

When Luna stood fully as the Princess of the Night, Scootaloo gasped. “I-I remember you! Fr-from my…”

“From your dreams,” Luna said with a nod. “I helped you then, and I want to help you now. Please remember.”

Scootaloo closed her eyes, but the harder she squeezed them shut, the more she grimaced. She rolled onto her side and cried out, clutching at her head. As she writhed on the ground, Luna took a step forward, but—

Scootaloo went still. She glanced up, her face clouded, and no trace of her wound.

“Have you decided, young one?”

“I-I’m going with my sisters,” she murmured.

Death sighed, a great rasping sound, like thousands of dry leaves scraping over cobblestones. “Very well.” He rose and attended her as her friends led her toward the horizon.

“Scootaloo,” Luna said in a low, firm voice. “Stop.” She left no doubt that her words must be obeyed, and the filly did hesitate for a moment. Some things simply came with being a princess.

Death turned to face Luna, his eyes flashing. “Do not interfere. It is not your place.”

Freezing where she stood, Luna gaped back at him, her eyes narrowed. How dare he? Nopony could order a princess around in that manner, not even—a grin spread across her face. “You are right. It is not my place.” Under her breath, another voice sounded, low and guttural. “But it is my place.”

Emitting a low groan, Twilight rubbed her eyes. The throbbing in her skull told her she might prefer to leave them closed and try to fall back asleep, but this place sounded nothing like her library. After a few more moments of postponing the inevitable, she let her eyes creep open, only to find five smiling faces staring back at her.

“She’s awake, y’all!” Applejack said, wearing a broad grin. Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Spike pressed in around her to have a look for themselves.

“Unnhh. How—how long was I out?” Twilight asked. She tried to sit up and rubbed at a knot in the back of her neck.

“Overnight, sugarcube,” Applejack replied as she fiddled with her hat. She pursed her lips and glanced down at the blanket. “Before that, you and Princess Luna were doin’ your magic thing about two days.”

Twilight shot upright and gaped. “Two days! It felt like an hour at best.”

Fluttershy popped her head over Pinkie’s shoulder. “What were you doing in there? That is… if you don’t mind my asking… or not. It’s okay.”

“We were in Scootaloo’s dream, but she didn’t understand. The poor filly thinks nopony cares about her, and she had some… imaginary stand-ins.” Twilight frowned and flattened her ears. “I’m afraid she might choose to go with them. She feels like she doesn’t belong here.”

Rarity wrinkled her brow. “Well, why ever not, dear? When have we ever made her feel unwelcome?”

Taking a deep breath, Twilight bit her lip. When, indeed? Twilight had not so subtly suggested that those three fillies needed to take their noise out of the library on more than one occasion. They’d been chased from Carousel Boutique, and probably Sugarcube Corner, too. And Rainbow Dash…

“It works differently in there—things don’t have to make sense. I looked like Rainbow Dash to her, which I thought was a good thing, but she got mad at me, and…” Twilight flexed her bruised withers and winced.

“Oooh,” Spike said, gritting his teeth. “Yeah, she’s kinda frustrated with Dash right now. She promised Scootaloo some flight lessons, but hasn’t shown up for any of them.”

Twilight nodded. “Yes, I found out the hard way. We… we weren’t alone, either. It sounds strange, but… Death was there. He didn’t intimidate me though. I don’t know why—I barely saw him do anything—but he seemed more patient and gentle than frightening. Scootaloo was very calm around him. On the other hoof”—she added a frown and rolled her eyes toward the window—“Luna was terrified of him.”

“Well, she doesn’t look terrified,” Applejack replied, angling her head toward the hallway. “She’s still standin’ there, all peaceful-like.”

“Still?” What could be keeping her? If she hadn’t convinced Scootaloo by now… A spark shot through Twilight’s nerves, and she immediately slid out of bed. “I need to get back to them. I’m scared for both of them now.”

Rarity cocked her head and perked up a foreleg. “How will you get back into the dream?”

“I can’t,” Twilight said, stumbling her first few steps toward the door, “but I need to find a way to help, if I can.” Think. She needed to think, but the headache didn’t make it easy. She limped back to Scootaloo’s room with the rest of her friends in tow.

Scootaloo paused at the field’s outer edge and brushed her hoof over the last few daffodils, who waved back clumsily in the light breeze. She’d finally found her home. No more watching from the outside. All her sisters, circled around her, here because of her. She smiled and sniffled.

“I’m not just taking you flying,” Rainbow said. A full spectrum gleamed from her mane, and her voice rang out clear as a bell. “You’ll fly with me. On your own.”

“What’s it like?” Scootaloo asked Death.

“It is wonderful.”

“You’ve seen it?” she said, bouncing on her hootfips.

“No. I cannot look beyond the threshold. But I know.”

Scootaloo stepped over to Rainbow and looked up—no, level. She looked Rainbow levelly in the eye. As tall as… She whipped her gaze toward her own sides and unfurled broad, full wings. They… glistened, even in the dying sunlight, every individual feather. Giving them a tentative flap, she easily rose above the ground and hung there with little effort, not that ineffective buzzing she always had to do before.

“No!” she heard Luna call from a distance. “You will always have this chance when it is truly your time. Think about the pain it would cause your friends if you took it now!” Scootaloo turned to the sound and lowered her eyes. Her friends were here. And she could fly now. What did Princess Luna even mean?

“Tell them face to face, Scootaloo!” Luna shouted. “You at least owe them that.”

Scootaloo gave a muted smile. What was that tall mare going on about? Who was she anyway? Scootaloo responded to Sweetie Belle’s tugging on her mane and trailed after her.

Twilight watched the peaks on Scootaloo’s heart monitor grow shallower and more frequent. And she watched Redheart shake her head more and more at the readout.

“I don’t understand!” the nurse said, flicking a hoof toward the device. “She was stabilized!”

“Should I run out and try to catch up to the doctor?” Applejack asked.

“No time!” Redheart shouted as she pulled the contact off Scootaloo’s chest and pressed her ear to it. “She’s not breathing. Everypony, give me some room!”

Everypony obeyed except Rainbow Dash—she stayed by Scootaloo’s side. And Twilight noticed the stains still covering her forehooves. That poor mare… Three days later. Couldn’t she bring herself to wash them off? Was she even aware of them? She probably hadn’t gone home the whole time.

“Twilight! Will this hurt Luna?” Redheart asked as she pinched Scootaloo’s nose shut and leaned over her face.

“No,” Twilight answered, “her magic will protect her.”

Redheart nodded and sealed her mouth over Scootaloo’s. She blew repeatedly, the filly’s chest rising with each forced breath. And with each one, Twilight watched Rainbow’s hoof curl and clench even tighter. Five breaths went by, then ten, then twenty, and Dash’s eyes took on that same dull gray that Twilight had seen on Scootaloo i-in there. In that place.

A cough. A-and a sputter! Redheart broke off immediately, and Scootaloo’s eyes jerked open, flicking about rapidly at the faces arrayed around her. A chorus of encouragement rang out, and Rainbow looked like she might snatch Scootaloo from the bed and hold her tightly.

“Scoot! Stay with me, please!” she hissed. Scootaloo shifted her gaze to the face just inches from her own, and she mouthed something silently, but then her eyelids drifted shut again.

Redheart shoved Dash aside and resumed her artificial respiration, having to crane her neck around Luna. Three breaths, four, and Scootaloo sucked in another gasp on her own. But her eyes didn’t shoot wide open this time—they gazed gently back at Rainbow, and a soft smile graced her lips.

Rainbow lurched forward and cradled Scootaloo’s head in her hooves. “I love you, Scoots.”

An icy shock ran down Twilight’s back. The Rainbow Dash she knew would never admit to something like that, at least not within earshot of another pony. Yet here she was, announcing it clear as day to the whole room.

“Please don’t leave me. My little sister… I promise—things will be different,” Rainbow said.

“Sorry… Dash. I-I’ll try…” Scootaloo answered, her body going limp.

Princess Luna didn’t understand what she’d just seen. Scootaloo had crumpled to the ground, momentarily recovered, then dropped a second time. And now she stood tall again, looking… looking rather like Rainbow Dash in carriage. Scootaloo brushed her feathers against her cheek and spread her wings over her friends.

Her jaw set, Luna took wing. She knew how this would work—no matter how hard she flew, she’d never close the distance, but she had to try.

And then Scootaloo’s head jerked toward her, the broad grin gone. Her eyes wandered toward the sky, like she’d forgotten something, like… she’d lost something. She shook her head, fell to the ground, and pressed a hoof to her temple. And a voice echoed through the sky: “I love you, Scoots. Please don’t leave me. My little sister… I promise—things will be different.”

“Think, Scootaloo!” Luna shouted into the wind. “Remember!”

Scootaloo clutched at her skull, and blood trickled down her forelock. She gritted her teeth. “Dash? Rainbow… Rainbow Dash?” The ghosts with her all dispelled into the air.

“Push through it, Scootaloo!” Luna urged her. “Keep going!”

“Rainbow Dash… loves me?” With each additional word, Scootaloo writhed even harder on the ground. “Rainbow loves me. Sh-she loves me!”

As Scootaloo staggered to her hooves and bared her teeth against the throbbing in her head, Luna came to a landing in the grass. Scootaloo had a foggy look about her, like somepony who’d just awakened from a long nap, yet tall and proud—well, not so tall anymore. A filly. She was a filly again.

Scootaloo turned to the black mist by her side. “I changed my mind. I want to go back.”

“The time for reconsideration is past. You have made your decision, young one.”

“Stop!” cried Luna, her horn ablaze with dusky light. A duplicate image appeared beside her—no, not quite a duplicate. Its piercing eyes gazed sharply from beneath its helmet. “You tell him to come to me!” they yelled in unison. The ground split open, swallowing up the field, the flowers, the tree… and Scootaloo faded from view. Overhead, the sky turned black, save an intense shine from the full moon. “YOU TELL HIM TO COME TO ME!” they shouted again in the Royal Canterlot Voice.

Across the face of the moon, Death shot toward them at tremendous speed.

One last time, Scootaloo’s eyes flickered open, and she raised up from the pillow to greet her friends with a weak smile.

“Oh, thank goodness!” Rainbow whispered over and over again while she hugged Scootaloo close and stroked her mane. “I thought you were gone. My little sister.” Her tears thudded softly on Scootaloo’s blanket.

By the doorway, Twilight let her shoulders slump. Days of stress and fatigue flooded into her head without a focus to keep them at bay, and she leaned heavily into the wall. She’d rest her eyes for only a moment. Just a—

“YOU TELL HIM TO COME TO ME!” rang throughout the room, and Twilight jolted back into a rigid posture. Before her mind could sort through the first few possibilities of what might be happening, Princess Luna’s tall, midnight-blue form collapsed to the floor.

Intense black eyes stared back at Luna in the moonlight. That gaze could draw the soul from almost any living thing, but not her. Not unless she allowed it.

“You should not have interfered, Luna. You have complicated matters.”

“I realize that you have been more than accommodating,” she said, bowing her head toward him, “but I ask your indulgence once more.”

“You presume too much.”

“I presume nothing.” Luna glanced at Nightmare Moon and gave a slight nod. “I have known you as long as I can remember and have seen your compassion. Nothing will change that—I do not see why today should be any different.”

“It is different because a decision has been made. I have a duty to perform; it is not within my power to alter that.”

“But it is within mine,” Nightmare Moon rasped. “You have served me in the past, and you will do so again.”

“I think not.”

“YOU WILL OBEY!” Nightmare Moon shouted, her teeth gritted and her chest heaving.

Death winced from the sound. He actually winced. Luna would never have suspected he could. And despite Nightmare Moon’s firm tone, Luna noticed her knees shaking. She—she was bluffing. She could not command Death’s fealty any longer, but he wasn’t certain of it, or else she couldn’t have intimidated him like that.

“Nightmare Moon, you could never hide your fear, even when I was powerless against you a millennium ago. I do not believe your feelings would have changed in all that time.”

“You dare question me?” Nightmare fumed, lowering her horn toward him. “Pray you do not incur my wrath lightly!”

Death studied her face for a moment, then snorted and waved a dismissive hoof at her. “Your empty threats do not sway me. Do with me what you will—I am no longer your willing pawn. If you still possess the power to command me, then so be it.”

Nightmare Moon scraped a hoof at the ground, and her jaw clenched so hard that it trembled. And Luna’s own mind clouded with thoughts of violence—she shook her head and steadied herself. Though physically separated, they still shared one mind, and Luna could feel her counterpart’s fatigue. Her own fatigue, for that matter, as she tucked her sagging wings up a little more tightly.

“Ah. It is as I suspected. Detain me no longer. I must conclude my business with the young one.”

“Please,” Luna said, holding up a hoof. “Grant us a moment.”

Another brief silence, and Death sat back on his haunches and waited.

“Thank you,” she answered, then turned to her companion with a sigh. “You see, Sister, a little kindness can—”

Sister?” Nightmare’s jaw dropped, and half of her mouth formed into a sneer.

“Well… yes,” Luna replied. She backed away a step and wrinkled her brow. “You are a part of me, and I consider you like a sister, albeit one with a… difficult past.”

Nightmare Moon only gaped. Her thoughts mingled with Luna’s, and both of them struggled for words until Luna again broke the silence.

“Surely you felt it,” Luna said.

Nightmare returned a perfunctory nod, but her forehead remained creased. “Yes, but—but toward her. Toward Celestia.”

The poor mare never knew? “Toward you as well, if you could have let yourself believe it.” Nightmare had drooped her head, but Luna reached down to raise her chin.

“I know,” Luna continued, “why you fear him, why you run from him. You thought you could earn no forgiveness; when Death finally came for you, there would be no happy homecoming, no celebration—just nothing. But you have seen the compassion he has shown before, and especially for Scootaloo today. You can earn that as well.”

“No. No, I… have never caused anything but pain,” Nightmare answered. She turned her face aside. “I can either accept it or admit to being nothing more than a bad memory.” She forced a smile, but Luna curled a foreleg around her in a light hug.

“You are wrong. During these past months, whenever I struggled with relearning friendship from my sister—my other sister—and her student, I could feel you there. You heard, and I think you tried to understand,” Luna said. She draped a wing over Nightmare Moon’s back. “Those lessons did not fall on deaf ears. Do you remember the letter regarding Twilight’s friend Rarity making dresses for the whole group?”

Nightmare gave an unsteady nod. “Yes. It—it was one of the first I actually listened to Celestia read.”

“And you wondered why somepony would invest such time and effort into helping friends. You wondered what would ever make her want to.” Luna wrinkled her nose and sniffled. “Then you remembered the forgiveness that Celestia gave us, and for a brief second, you knew the value of a selfless gift.”

“Perhaps. I-I…”

“And other letters: When Pinkie Pie felt excluded, but her friends merely wanted to surprise her with a party. When Twilight learned not to judge a new zebra in town,” Luna said, her tempo increasing. “You found kindred spirits in Pinkie and Zecora, both isolated and misunderstood.”

Nightmare stared at the ground and nodded. “I knew how they felt. Yet I could not understand what they did.”

Smiling softly, Luna sidled up closer to her. Nightmare appreciated logic and reason as much as she did, and she had a clear path in sight. She only had to lead Nightmare Moon down it. “They forgave. You knew the word, but not the concept. It made no sense to you. Until…”

Nightmare hung her head. “Until Nightmare Night.”

“Yes,” Luna said. She leaned into Nightmare’s neck and let out a long breath. “By then, you had become more curious than anything else, and I let you guide me that night. Amid even more misunderstandings, we both made some poor decisions, but… they forgave us. You didn’t just observe it—you received it.”

Turning her head away, Nightmare hid her face under her wing. “You did not know what it meant until that moment, either. But once you did…” she said.

“I forgave you, too, Sister.” Luna nuzzled her—cold steel on the surface, but a warmth radiating within. “You are still learning. As am I.” From underneath that helmet, a few teardrops pattered on the ground.

“And Scootaloo feels the same way,” Nightmare added, jerking her head up. Her eyes flared, and she hissed into Luna’s ear. “I do not deserve the confidence you place in me, but what I can give you is strength. If you will combine your power with mine, I believe we can bend Death to our will, coerce him to—”

Luna held up a hoof. “Not that way. We can reason with him. He possesses more empathy than you know. I just need your cooperation.” After a momentary pause, Nightmare Moon nodded. “Good. Death?”

The dark figure roused and slowly turned his face toward them. Luna imagined she could see a raised eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Why the adherence to protocol?” Luna asked, a pointed squint to her eye. “Why can Scootaloo not change her mind?”

“Protocol is immaterial. Events have been set into motion. A place has been prepared.”

“A place that will still exist when her natural time comes,” Luna replied as she swept a hoof around at the blackness. “There is no difference to you.”

“It is complicated. I do not expect you to understand. While I recognize your sense of loss, it is unfounded. She will be happy.”

Luna stalked closer to him and fought down tears. If she couldn’t convince him… An old memory cascaded into her mind. The last time she’d argued with him and stared into those impassive eyes—no, not impassive. Deep and beckoning and full of gentleness. But still, the last time she’d argued with him, she—“It is not just my loss. The emptiness would spread to many. I know you are not impervious to it.”

“My responsibility is not to the living. And why this particular soul? Would you argue as vehemently on another’s behalf?”

“I would like to think so, but not having been in this situation before, I cannot say for certain,” Luna said. Her mane somehow billowed in the windless dark. “This is the first opportunity I have had to plead so; I care for all my subjects, and I hope I would be as passionate about any of them. But in the end, it may be a selfish desire. I will concede that.” And more hesitation from him. If Luna existed as a creature bound by law, he did even more so, but still he wavered.

“And if I agree? Will you then attempt to persuade me in every instance? And how do you decide who deserves your advocacy and who does not? You must see what responsibility you presume to take on. And you must see how it cheapens all life to do so. I cannot entertain your request.”

Beside Luna, Nightmare Moon simply watched. The longer they spoke, the more animated Luna became, and with each new attack and feint, the more the weight in Nightmare’s chest increased. The pain from her—from her sister… She used to shove it away, like a foal might some distasteful pill. She used to discard it as a weakness or a failure. But not lately. She’d observed, touched, tasted… and now she accepted it fully. Not because it gave her any pleasure—it made the bile rise in her throat—but because she’d rather bear the pain herself than let her sister endure it, or let Rainbow Dash endure it, or let any of them endure it.

She shuddered for a moment, then spoke up over her twin. “Is the place you spoke of prepared for Scootaloo alone?” She leaned forward and even smiled a bit. She could anticipate the kill.

“It is not. It is merely a vacancy.”

“Then you can take another in her stead?” Nightmare relaxed her shoulders and swished her tail. Checkmate in one.

“Yes, but I will not. Many would wish to strike such a bargain for a loved one. It is no different than Luna’s argument.”

She smirked and held her head up high. “But you have always coveted my soul. I suspect you will take me in exchange.”

Death turned his full attention upon her.

“Sister, no!” Luna shouted. She took a step toward Death and flared her wings. “You cannot permit this!” she said to him.

His gaze never left Nightmare Moon.

“Luna, please allow me this. It is my best chance at happiness,” Nightmare said. She opened her mind and tried to push the warm sensation that suffused her body toward her sister.

Luna stopped quaking for a moment—maybe she felt it. “But why would he make a deal for you and not another?” Luna asked.

“For any other,” Nightmare replied, “he would eventually take her soul anyway.” She cast a sidelong glance at Death and gave him a wry smile. “Mine is a lost soul that he cannot obtain by force. A valuable prize, if I am not mistaken.”

Trembling again, Luna reached a hoof toward her. “But you would be destroyed! I cannot let you!”

“No. I have you to thank for that. I can sense it now,” Nightmare said. “I found forgiveness through you. You spoke of Death’s empathy—he would lead me to rest, to… to fulfillment. Otherwise, I could not take Scootaloo’s place. This is precisely why Death will accept my offer: bringing a lost soul into the light is a rare and exultant occasion.”

“She speaks the truth. I will consent to this bargain.”

“It is for your sake,” Nightmare Moon continued, “as well as Scootaloo’s and everypony else’s. I… feel it.” She wiped away the tears off her cheeks and held a hoof to her breastplate. “You taught me that, as much as Celestia or Twilight Sparkle did. You saved me from my own stubbornness.”

Luna’s own tears dripped into the blackness. “Sister, how could I let you go? You have been with me constantly for centuries. I would feel empty without you.” She sank to her haunches and flattened her ears.

“This is really the best I can imagine. My life finally has some value. I fear that, given the chance, I would fall back into corruption. I should go while I still can as somepony you would respect.” Nightmare Moon’s hoof ran from star to star as she traced it down Luna’s mane. “Please. This is what I want. This is my peace.”

“And you,” Luna said, jutting her chin toward Death. “Why would you honor her request and not mine?”

“As I told you, the young one—”

“Not that request. Long ago…” Luna shielded her face with a wing.

Only silence greeted her. She sniffled and waited for him to tell her she’d been foolish and naive, that she’d cried out in desperation. And he would have been right. But he remained silent. Luna lowered her wing just enough to see over the edge of it. He stood directly in front of her.

“For one, Nightmare Moon asked for others’ benefit. You asked for your own.”

Luna cast her gaze downward. A lecture. She probably deserved it. But she didn’t want validation for her rash decision—only a reason for his refusal. If one required the other, then so be it. “And…?”

Death didn’t answer right away. In the quiet, Luna waited. She could be patient, too. For him, she could be patient. “At the beginning, I… was curious. Why did I suddenly feel intense life from the moon? So I went there.”

“And you found us,” Nightmare Moon said wryly.

“Yes. As I told the young one, few ponies speak with me. But you did. While Nightmare Moon conserved her strength, we talked daily about many things—joys, fears… You astounded me with your understanding of concepts far above what most ponies could conceive of, from the broadest galaxy to the smallest atom. And contemplating the meaning behind it all. You… have a beautiful philosopher’s heart.”

Steeling herself against his accusing glare, Luna looked up. But Death smiled back gently. She hadn’t seen him smile in…

“I enjoyed giving you a periodic respite from your loneliness, but after the first hundred years, when you had grown so despondent that you asked me… I could not. And I could not return for fear that my presence would serve only to remind you of your former life. It is what you spoke of most often, and without me there, maybe you could forget.” And the one who could stare down anything in all of creation averted his eyes. “If I stayed away, you could never ask me again.”

“And so you never returned,” Luna said with a solemn nod.

“Yes. I knew your exile was temporary. If I could force you to endure it, then you would regain your freedom.”

Death hugged her. He actually—

Luna would have expected a striking cold from his touch, but she felt… almost nothing. Only a calming peace. Her heart stilled, and she could finally see clearly—him, Scootaloo. She didn’t have to like it, but yes, that calming peace infused even her thoughts about Nightmare Moon.

“I would have missed you too much if I had agreed to—”

He was no judge. He was not here to condemn Luna for past mistakes or ask forgiveness for himself. After all that time, it had sunk in, and she returned the embrace, her hoof trembling with the weight of realization.

“It took the young one to explain it to me, but I understand it now. You had become like a sister to me.”

Luna almost laughed at his admission. Sentimentality from Death, and on his own behalf? Perhaps they were rather alike.

“It is good to see you again.” He pulled away slowly and turned to Nightmare Moon. “It is time.”

Luna frowned. “If you have decided, Sister, I cannot stop you.”

Nightmare shut her eyes and nodded. “It is best for me and for Scootaloo. But one last thing.” She unbuckled her breastplate, kicked off her ornamental shoes, and slid her helmet off. “I shall not require these anymore.”

She joined in their hug, and for the first time, Luna felt that warmth—the warmth that she always knew lay beneath the armor. She wished she could scream, shake Nightmare by the shoulders, something. But that accursed calmness from Death’s touch settled her thoughts, leaving her only to draw a long breath. “Then go. But know that I love you.”

Nightmare Moon smiled softly and closed her eyes. She must feel it, too, that wretched peacefulness. Luna would have wrapped her in a hug, but that superficial intimacy seemed empty compared to sharing a mind for so long. “I love you, Sister,” she whispered.

They parted, and Death led Nightmare Moon into the darkness. The moon overhead rippled like a reflection in a pond, and it began to dim. From a distance, as if through cotton-stuffed ears, Luna heard a voice: “It—it is beautiful!”

“Good-bye,” Luna mumbled as her vision blurred and sleep overwhelmed her. “I will never forget you.”

Warm tears ran down Luna’s cheeks. A few snippets of far-off conversation reached her ears—better that way, since she didn’t exactly want any company at the moment. Gradually, she opened her eyes and turned toward the sound. White walls and spare, functional furniture—a hospital room. The voices she’d heard filtered in through the cracked door. Then behind her, the dry sound of a flipped page and the dull thump of a book closing.

“Princess Luna? Can you hear me?” Twilight asked as she leaned over the bed.

Luna slumped her shoulders and faced Twilight, the daylight streaming through the broad window on that side of the room. Squinting against the brightness, she shielded her eyes with a hoof. “How long…?” she whispered.

Twilight spoke slowly—she must have sensed the fog in Luna’s head. “Two days before Scootaloo sent me away, then another night for me to recover. We heard you shouting later the next day, just before you collapsed. Scootaloo awoke at about the same time, so we moved you both to the hospital. You’ve been here three days.”

“Almost a week!?” Luna’s eyes shot wide open, and she drew a sharp breath. “Does Celestia know?”

“No,” Twilight answered, a sly grin playing across her lips. “She hasn’t returned yet. Spike sent her a message that you weren’t feeling well, so she’d raise the moon for you, but she didn’t pursue it after we assured her it was nothing serious.”

Luna sank back into her pillow with a faint smile. “So she does know.”

“But I didn’t tell—”

“I know—” Luna held up a hoof “—but she understands all too well. And she forgave me long ago. My sister…” Her lower lip quivered, and her tears started again. “She is gone, Twilight.”

“I know,” Twilight replied, her brow creased. “That’s why you got our first letter instead of her. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Not Celestia. Nightmare Moon,” Luna said. Twilight held a hoof to her mouth and let out a little gasp. “She went with Death in place of Scootaloo.”

“But… I thought she was terrified of him! What changed her mind?” Twilight said. She pricked her ears forward and waited.

In the silence, Luna shook her head and gathered up her thoughts like… daffodils in a field. She smiled at the image. “I told you she had changed. She was slowly learning the lessons of friendship with me. When I showed her affection and concern—when she realized what a gift she had in forgiveness, it sparked something inside her. She finally understood.”

Twilight’s mouth worked to give a voice to the questions that must have caught in her throat, but nothing came out. She merely placed a hoof on Luna’s shoulder.

“Nightmare Moon’s sacrifice saved her,” Luna continued. “That was the only reason Death accepted her as a surrogate, and it was an important factor in her decision to go.” She shrugged and brushed the tears from her eyes. “A bit selfish, perhaps, but my own intentions were no more noble. We are very much alike.”

Twilight pulled her chair close by the bedside and sat, swallowing whatever she’d wanted to ask. She merely listened, but she still had an eyebrow raised.

“I was in no danger,” Luna added. And the eyebrow settled down with its twin. “Death cannot reach me without my consent. And only once have I ever given—” She sighed and pursed her lips. “Another time, Twilight.”

Her sister’s student continued to sit quietly with a gentle smile. From what she read in Twilight’s letters, she didn’t always handle stress well, but in peaceful moments, she reminded Luna so much of Celestia. “My sister,” Luna said. “I have not given her enough credit. I think I should spend some more time with her. And you, my teacher in the art of friendship—”

Twilight blushed, but at the sound of thundering hooves approaching, she lit her horn and swung the door open. “Here. I think you’ll want to see this. It’s only been going on all morning…”

Rainbow Dash galloped at a full tilt past the doorway; on her back, Scootaloo stood with her wings outstretched. “Feel that?” Rainbow shouted. “That force trying to push your wings up? Fight it and keep ’em level.”

A moment later, they barreled by in the opposite direction. “That’s what it’s like to glide, Scoot. Get used to that sensation. We’ll be up to flying in no time!”

And on their third trip past, one of the nurses followed in hot pursuit, only a few paces behind. “Ma’am, this is a hospital! You can’t run and shout in here! And that filly needs to be in bed!”

Luna laughed out loud, even through her tears. “A soul for a soul. And a sister for a sister…” She shook her head and looked at Twilight’s soft eyes. So much like Celestia. “Maybe Death will stop by from time to time. Just to talk.” Twilight merely smiled back, somehow knowing that stale platitudes or verbal salve wouldn’t heal anything right now. Only a kind touch. Yes, she should get to know Twilight Sparkle better, maybe even take Scootaloo for a flight lesson sometime.

Everypony had reached a peace: Nightmare Moon in her resolve, Princess Luna in quiet thought, Twilight Sparkle in her friends. And two others found it in noise—rather a lot of noise.

In the hall, Rainbow raced by again, and Scootaloo giggled from her perch. Her heart galloped along with the hoofbeats under her. Even that brief hint of flight sent a thrill through her chest. She crouched down and pressed her muzzle into Rainbow’s mane, to… to get more streamlined. Yeah.

She glanced behind them—the nurse was still gaining ground, but probably wouldn’t catch them for another few laps. Twisting her wings up a little, she lifted off a half inch while keeping a firm grip on Rainbow’s mane. “Woo hoo!” she cried.

As they shot past, a few bits of dust swirled in their wake, and one caught Scootaloo’s eye—it traced an odd path around an out-of-place shadow. Time slowed to a crawl as she watched it twist upward with a larger black cloud of…

She blinked, and it was gone, far in the distance. The seconds ticked by the same as they always had. Dropping down to Rainbow’s back again, she touched a hoof to the stitches on her forehead. “Thanks…” she whispered.

“What’s that, Scoot?” Rainbow Dash called over her shoulder.

“Nothing, Dash. Just… wanted to thank all my friends. I appreciate what everypony did for me.” She returned her gaze forward, tightened her hold, and leaned into the turn as they approached another corner.

“Anything for you, Little Sis,” Rainbow answered.

“You are welcome, young one.”

A vivid memory of somepony saying those words quickly filled her mind, though Scootaloo was sure she hadn’t heard any such remark.

Author's Notes:

The title is the next line after the eponymous opening one from Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death," though this story doesn't completely follow her concept of his character.

Return to Story Description


Login with