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    They’d been there before, hadn’t they?

    Once upon a time, Princess Twilight Sparkle and Rarity the Unicorn had a sleepover with all their friends—they played games, shared stories, and had more fun than Twilight remembered having in quite some time.

    Three days later, Rarity got cursed, maimed, and taken away from her.

    Twice upon a time, Princess Twilight Sparkle and Rarity the Unicorn had a sleepover with all their friends—they played games, shared dreams, and had more fun than Princess Luna remembered having in quite some time.

    Three days later, they hoped the other shoe wouldn’t drop.

    Foals of all ages filled the Dreamland, running and rushing and playing and laughing, each and every one carrying with them a very special teddy bear—each one wholly unique.

    At the center of this excitement was Dusk Star, reveling in his very last nights as a nine-year-old foal.

    The foals talked and talked and talked, about what he’d do, what presents he would get, and most importantly, at what time would Elder Moonshine come visit him to tell him the town’s great secret.

    It was impressive, Twilight had to admit, the extent to which the chaos magic had shaped Hollow Shades and its customs. Impressive in a tragic sort of way how it had quietly warped ponies into convincing each other for generations that Princess Luna wasn’t real.

    But it was fine because they had won.

    They had won, and as she’d said to Incantation during Seeking Night, if this didn’t work, then she and Rarity would figure something else out.

    Then again, there was no shame in preparing in advance.

    Seated at the corner of the lobby, Twilight poured herself into the fourth of several history books written during her era, Celestia’s note about the Winter Moon Observance acting as a book marker.

    Beside her were notebooks filled to the brim with notes on Princess Luna and everything she’d done during her reign in comparison to Princess Celestia. As it turned out, the Winter Moon Observance wasn’t the only event Princess Luna had canceled. There were dozens more, all resembling successful events Princess Celestia had organized, and all doubtless canceled for the very same reason.

    She had thought no pony cared.

    Maybe this will help?

    Chimes from a distant clocktower interrupted her thoughts, and she smiled when the foals collectively groaned in disappointment.

    “Come on, everypony!” Pinkie announced. “Time to go home!”

    As Incantation herded the foals towards their backpacks, Twilight carefully put her books and notes away and then quietly approached Pinkie.

    “We should talk to him now before he leaves,” she said, glancing towards Dusk and his sister. “Where’s Rarity?”

    “Oh, in the bakery, I think? She said she wanted more coffee.”

    Twilight frowned. “More? It’s nearly seven at night.”

    And wasn’t that her seventh cup that day?

    “I’ll go get her,” she continued, walking towards the bakery. “You get Dusk ready and we’ll be out in a minute.”

    Twilight tried to go to the kitchen to do just that, but a barrage of foals interrupted her, as they often did when they had to go home. After saying goodbye to each and every one, and then almost—almost—manipulated to take one on one last fly around the Dreamland, she finally stepped into the bakery, closing the door behind her.

    Phew.

    Sounds distracted her, and when she looked towards them, she saw Rarity looking for something under the counter, steam rising from the large mug she’d put on it.

    “Rarity? We’re supposed to talk with Dusk now. What are you doing?”

    Rarity looked up. “Oh, Twilight! Nothing, dear. I’ll be right out!” She looked back down. “Do you know if Pinkie moved my sugar bowl? I can’t find it anywhere.”

    “Isn’t it a little too late to be drinking coffee?”

    “Too lat—Ow!” A clunk interrupted her, and she lifted her head from beyond the counter, rubbing where she’d hit herself. After assuring Twilight she was fine, she cleared her throat and went back to searching for her sugar bowl. “As I always say, a good night’s sleep is only made better with a good cup of coffee.”

    “I have never heard you say that.”

    “…I’m sure Pinkie has a mug with that written on it somewhere, though!” The sound of mugs clanking filled the air. “Some of the slogans on these are quite clever, actually. In fact! The one I was using earlier had a delightful joke, hold on—”

    She got up from behind the counter and disappeared into the kitchen.

    “Rarit—”

    “Hold on, hold on!”

    She came back out a minute later, reading off the dirty mug she was holding.

    “All right, here it is. I’m sure you of all ponies will appreciate this.” She cleared her throat and read aloud, “What did the coffee-drinking ghost say?”

    Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Rarity.”

    “What did it say, Twilight!”

    With a roll of her eyes, Twilight indulged her. “What did the coffee-drinking ghost say, Rarity?”

    “Brew!” Rarity exclaimed, dissolving into a fit of hysterical giggles before those giggles dissolved as well as she pressed her face against the counter. “Stars, I’m so tired.”

    “Of telling bad jokes?”

    “Bad? It’s a terrible joke,” Rarity muttered, face still pressed against the counter. “Pinkie thinks it’s hysterical. And I’ll have you know I’m actually tired.”

    “I’m not surprised considering how much coffee you’ve been drinking the last couple of days,” Twilight gently chastised, walking over to her marefriend. “Are you avoiding sleep?”

    “What? No! Goodness, no,” Rarity said, instantly alert. “I’m just stressed. I’m sure you can appreciate that with everything still at stake. I promise once everything with Dusk is over, I will take several sleeping pills and have a well-earned beauty sleep.”

    “Tonight,” Twilight gently said, pushing the mug away from Rarity. “You should sleep properly tonight.”

    Rarity whined. “But…” Her ears dropped. “What if I have nightmares?”

    “You haven’t had one since before Seeking Night,” Twilight pointed out. This was good, of course, but she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t a little disappointed that now that she could help, Rarity wasn’t having a single bad dream.

    “That’s true…”

    “And if you have any,” Twilight continued, smiling affectionately at her, “I’ll take care of them.”

    Rarity smiled. “I’m sure you will.”

    The doors to the bakery opened and Pinkie poked her head in. “Uhm, are you two coming, ooooor…?”

    “We are.” She turned to Rarity and nodded towards the door. “Coming?”

    Rarity’s eyes drifted towards her coffee. “But…”

    “I’ll make you a cup of tea after we’re done, okay?”

    “Oh, all right,” Rarity said, defeated. “Onwards, then.”

    “What’s going on?” Dusk asked as they stepped out, glancing towards the outside where Incantation was distracting his sister. He clutched his teddy bear in his foreleg and grinned. “Are we doing something?!”

    The three mares briefly glanced at each other, sharing the same trepidation. Was this a good idea?

    Rarity decided for them.

    “Dusk, if I may,” she said, sitting down in front of him. “You believe Princess Luna is real, don’t you? And that Twilight is really the princess of legend, yes?”

    Dusk nodded. “Uh-huh! We’re rescuing Princess Luna, right?! I’m gonna tell Elder Moonshine all about it when she comes to visit me tomorrow!”

    Rarity laughed nervously. “Yes, about that. When the Elder comes…” She faltered.

    “What about it?” he pressed. “Is it about how I’m gonna help you with Seeking Night next year?! Featherwing told me his big brother started helping when he turned ten! I think we should have more waterslides!”

    “No, dear, that—” Rarity faltered again.

    Twilight took charge.

    “Dusk.”

    She stepped forward and sat down next to Rarity, Pinkie doing the same on the opposite side.

    How did she say this?

    “Tomorrow, Elder Moonshine and the others are going to tell you things that you might not agree with.”

    His brow furrowed. “Like what?”

    “Things,” Twilight said, unsure of whether she should elaborate or not. “Things about Princess Luna. About me.” She faltered and then forced herself to go on. “Things that might upset you.”

    “Upset me?” he asked, eyes searching the three mares. Perhaps subconsciously, he squeezed his teddy bear. “Why would they say stuff like that?”

    Pinkie moved forward, speaking quickly.

    “It’s the spirit! Remember how we told you the Spirit is making the adults think silly, dumb things? It’s ‘cause he’s mean and he’s trying to trick us! And he’s already tricked the other adults!”

    “Is he gonna try to trick me?!”

    “Yes,” Twilight said, “but you’re not goi—”

    “Is Elder Moonshine going to try and trick me too?” he interrupted, visibly upset. “Why would she do that?!”

    “No, darling,” Rarity quickly said. “Elder Moonshine doesn’t want to trick you, but… Well, she doesn’t even know she’s been tricked herself. Do you understand? It’s as if… Pretend you didn’t know what vanilla or chocolate ice cream was, and I tricked you by giving you vanilla ice-cream but telling you it’s actually chocolate.”

    “But it’s vanilla!”

    “Yes, but you wouldn’t know that, would you? As far as you’re concerned, that’s chocolate ice-cream. And if Rhinestone were to ask you what it was, when you say it’s chocolate ice-cream, well…”

    “Ooooh… “ Dusk frowned. ”I’d be tricking her.”

    “Not on purpose, of course, or because you meant to trick her. You just won’t know you’re accidentally tricking her because you don’t know you’ve been tricked yourself.”

    “Dusk,” Twilight said. “Whatever they tell you, whatever they say, you know what’s real. You know I’m real.” She reached over and placed a hoof over his teddy bear. “And you know Princess Luna is real.”

    “This isn’t about who’s right or wrong,” Rarity added. “This is about what you believe. Trust what you know.”

    “Okay! I won’t let him trick me, I promise!”

    “Good,” Twilight said.

    Hopefully he would keep his promise.

    ***

    Late into the night, long after Dusk and his sister had left, Twilight and the others were gathered in the bakery, having nothing left to do but wait.

    “So you told him?” Rainbow asked between mouthfuls of cake.

    “As much as we could,” Rarity replied.

    “Okay, but, like, why not just tell him everything?”

    “This is a test,” the professor spoke up, tinkering with his device. “The final test, which means it wouldn’t be a very accurate one if we completely prepare him for it. For our own sake, we need to see what happens when he’s told without expecting it. If his belief in the legend survives, we’ll know our efforts are fool-proof.”

    “There’s also the fact that we can’t risk activating the chaos magic,” Twilight continued.

    “Activating it?” Applejack asked. “I thought the darn thing was already mighty active.”

    “Not really. It’s influencing ponies, but right now it’s doing it in a very passive way. We have to be ready for it to fight back once it realizes what we’re doing, which it will.”

    “Pfffft! So what?” Rainbow Dash stuck her fork in her cake and crossed her forelegs. “We beat the chaos magic at the dragon caves, and then the one from Princess Twi’s forest. We can beat it again!”

    Fluttershy cleared her throat, drawing the attention to her.

    “But…if Dusk passes the test, what will we do then? Do this for years and years until there’s no more ponies influenced by chaos magic?”

    “In theory, yes,” Rarity replied.

    “That’s insane! I mean, I know that’s the plan, but that’s going to take years!”

    Rarity smiled thinly. “…Yes.”

    If,” Twilight interrupted, “we only focus on chaos magic. I think we should consider what might be fueling the chaos magic, too.” At everyone’s stares, she elaborated, “Princess Luna. I have a theory that she might be keeping herself trapped in there.”

    Rainbow guffawed. “What?! Come on, Princess! Why would anypony keep themselves locked in some dinky place for a thousand years?!” she asked, and when everypony fell silent as Rarity eyed daggers at her, she quickly cleared her throat. “Oh. Uh. Well. Besides you, Princess.”

    “Land sake’s, Rainbow Dash.”

    “I’m sorry!”

    Anyway,” Twilight interrupted, “when Princess Celestia wrote back to me at the castle, she mentioned the Winter Moon Observance, an event that was supposed to go along with the Summer Sun Celebration.”

    The professor blinked. “Strange. Most of our holidays are the same as the ones from your era. Why haven’t I heard of this one before?”

    “Because Princess Luna canceled it after feeling like ponies didn’t care for it as much as they did for Princess Celestia’s event. That might be what’s keeping her wherever she is. Discord… Discord lived in the castle with us for almost four years. He knew us well enough to know how we work. That’s what his chaos magic is doing; using us against ourselves.”

    Pinkie’s eyes widened. “The inscription on her statue!”

    “What? The statue in the plaza?” Rainbow asked. “What inscription?”

    “It’s what she told the founder of Hollow Shades when she met him in his dreams,” Rarity said, somberly. “I saw it the first time I visited Hollow Shades. ‘Perhaps my fate is to be forgotten, now in dreams as I was in life.’”

    Applejack snorted. “At this rate, I reckon’ we should hire a therapist and we’ll get y’all out of there lickety-split.”

    Twilight laughed. “We don’t need a therapist. We have somepony better,” she said, grinning at her marefriend. “Right, Rarity?”

    Rarity peered into her cup. “Ah yes, who wants a thrilling career in fashion when you can run around like a headless chicken rescuing princesses from themselves, mm?”

    “What exactly are you proposing, sugarcube?” Applejack asked, looking to Twilight

    “If our Seeking Night plan works, then that’ll mean the Princess has no other choice than to believe ponies do care about her. If she believes that, and if she really is trapping herself in there like I was, maybe that will convince her to break her own curse.”

    “Interesting theory,” said the professor. “If true, that might actually help.”

    The others quickly voiced their agreements, and yet Twilight noticed Rarity didn’t join them, instead staring intently at her tea.

    “Rarity?” Twilight asked. “What do you think?”

    “I think,” Rarity said, standing up and covering a yawn with her hoof , “that I’d love to discuss that when I’m not falling asleep. Tomorrow’s a big day for us all and Twilight’s already threatened to put a spell on me if I don’t try to get a full eight hours. So, with that said, goodnight, everypony!”

    Twilight blinked, thrown off by the abrupt goodbye. “All right…”

    The gathering didn’t last much longer after that, most everyone using Rarity’s departure as a good time to leave as well. Goodnights were said, said goodnights turned into half hour conversations in the lobby, and then eventually ended when Incantation strongly encouraged them out. Soon, only Fluttershy remained , the only out-of-towner actually staying at the Dreamland.

    “Why do they even say goodnight if they’re going to stay another hour talking?” whined the changeling, locking the front door. When that was done, she turned to the princess. “I’m going to bed, Princess. Did you need anything else before I do?”

    Twilight shook her head. “No, that’s fine. I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee and then I’ll head up.”

    Incantation raised an eyebrow. “Coffee? At midnight? Isn’t that kinda la—Oh! Are you dreamwalking tonight? I figured you’d stop doing it after Seeking Night.”

    “No. Princess Luna still wants me to practice,” Twilight replied.

    “Oh, I guess that makes sense. It’s not like she’s going to be freed tomorrow.” Another yawn escaped Incantation’s lips and so she made her way up towards her room. “Okay, well, I’m heading off. G’night, Princess!”

    Twilight watched her go before heading back to the kitchen, where she brewed herself a cup of coffee and then a cup of tea for Rarity, hopefully dissuading the unicorn from wanting more of the caffeine she’d been practically inhaling for the past days.

    Her nightmares must be really bad if she’s avoiding sleep that much, she thought to herself, idly stirring sugar into the tea.

    Unless.

    Unless she doesn’t want you in her dreams, another voice whispered.

    “No, that’s not true,” Twilight quickly told herself, wanting to bury the thought before it began and turned into something else. Unless it was true, which it might be, which meant that—”No.”

    No.

    Rarity had given her permission, and she trusted Rarity to not have done that unless she really meant it.

    She took a deep breath and pressed her hoof on the physical and literal representation of that trust, trying her best to remember her breathing exercises. Once she’d taken ten full breaths, she forced away any further doubt and made her way out of the kitchen.

    She’d almost made it to Rarity’s room too when the sound of arguing forced her to stop.

    “…worrying over nothing, really!” Rarity said, though Twilight failed to catch what or who was worrying over nothing.

    “I’d rather worry over nothing than not worry at all,” Fluttershy replied, her voice coming closer and closer until she stepped out of the room and ran into Twilight. “Oh, princess!”

    “Is something wrong?” Twilight asked, immediately concerned.

    Fluttershy shook her head. “Oh no, everything is fine!” However, rather than elaborating as Twilight hoped, she instead looked at the mugs Twilight was floating and smiled playfully. “I hope the coffee is for you.”

    “It is.”

    “Good! I’m going to bed, then,” Fluttershy continued, walking past Twilight. She only made it five steps before stopping and turning back to Twilight. “I’ll be in my room if you need me, all right? Please don’t hesitate.”

    “Er, all right.”

    Fluttershy smiled. “Good night, Princess.”

    “Goodnight.”

    Twilight watched her leave after that, the entire exchange leaving more questions than answers. Was she worried?

    “Oh, Twilight!” Rarity exclaimed when Twilight stepped into the room. She was already in bed, ready to turn in for the night. “Coming to bed?”

    “Uh, no, not yet.” She walked over and put the two mugs on the table, glancing back towards the door. “Does Fluttershy think something is wrong with me?”

    “What do you mean?” Rarity asked, reaching for her cup of tea.

    “I’m not sure? She said I shouldn’t hesitate to talk to her if I needed to.”

    And so Rarity’s hoof froze in mid-air. “Oh?” she asked, before finally taking her mug. “Don’t trouble yourself over that, dear. It’s been an emotional week for us all, and she’s just being, well, Fluttershy.”

    “But…”

    “Twilight, really,” Rarity insisted, not forceful but almost. “Fluttershy would worry over her own shadow if she could. Don’t think about it anymore. Instead…” She patted the spot next to her, fluttering her eyelashes. “You could join me in bed.”

    Twilight grinned. “To sleep?”

    “I was more thinking something akin to cuddling and talking until morning, but I suppose we could add sleep somewhere in there, yes.”

    “I can’t. I told Princess Luna I’d practice dreamwalking tonight,” Twilight insisted when Rarity whined at her. “I told her!”

    “Oh, all right,” Rarity grumbled, covering herself with the sheets. “Be that way! Leave me to sleep alone. I see. I see.”

    Twilight moved in to kiss her, giggling when the unicorn tried to hide her face so as to prevent it. After kissing Rarity’s cheek through the sheets, she got up and made her way to the door, magically turning off the room’s lamps.

    “Goodniiiight!”

    “You know!” Rarity loudly said to herself. “Since Twilight will be too busy dreamwalking instead of making sure I’m asleep, she certainly won’t be able to stop me from getting more coffee!”

    Twilight stopped dead in her tracks and turned to Rarity. “You won’t.”

    Rarity smiled deviously. “Won’t I?”

    “You won’t,” Twilight repeated, assured, up until Rarity simply kept smiling. She sighed heavily and then made her way to the bed. “I can’t believe that worked.”

    Soon enough she was under the covers, Rarity cuddled up against her with one hoof wrapped tightly over Twilight’s barrel. The unicorn sighed after that, a long and relaxed sigh, and Twilight couldn’t help but be endeared.

    “I’ll stay five minutes,” she warned, the teasing tone of her voice dissipating when Rarity buried her face in her chest, whining softly. “What’s wrong?”

    There was a long pause.

    Long, long, long until finally Rarity spoke.

    “I love you,” she whispered, like a vulnerable confession, moving her head back slightly to meet Twilight’s gaze. “You know that, don’t you?”

    “I know,” Twilight replied. “I love you, too.”

    Rarity stayed in that moment for another second before moving forward and burying her face in the alicorn’s chest again, eyes closed.

    So Twilight made a choice.

    “Do you want me to tell Princess Luna I’m not dreamwalking tonight? I can stay here with you, if you’d prefer that.”

    And faced with that, Rarity made a choice of her own.

    “No, that’s fine,” she said after a pause. “Though I’d appreciate it if you stayed until I fell asleep.”

    In the dead of the night, a wing wrapped around her significant other, Twilight Sparkle waited for Rarity to fall asleep. She waited, and waited, and waited, as patiently as she could, anxious to face whatever monster kept Rarity awake at night.

    About an hour later, Rarity’s grip on Twilight finally loosened, the unicorn putting up no resistance when Twilight gently sat up and moved off the bed. She climbed down, tucked Rarity in, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and then quietly left the room, closing the door behind her.

    Showtime.

    The workroom’s lamps glowed to life when she came in, revealing that the room hadn’t been touched since Seeking Night. Everything had been left as is, from the gramophone and its jazz record, to the teddy bear designs scattered on the table, and finally, the meditation cushion waiting for Twilight in the dead center of the room.

    She made herself comfortable, taking one last sip of her coffee, before finally closing her eyes and letting her horn alight with magic. A moment passed, and when quiet music filled the room, she began the spell.

    “Twilight Sparkle.”

    A smiling Princess Luna greeted her when she awoke in the dream realm, standing tall before the younger mare. Behind her, dozens of doors had already appeared, some flashing softly.

    “Princess Luna!” Twilight said, getting up. “Sorry I’m late. Rarity asked me to stay with her until she fell asleep.”

    Princess Luna’s smile vanished.

    “Is something troubling her? I’ve not spoken with her since Seeking Night.”

    Though she knew Rarity was nervous about Dusk, telling Luna probably wasn’t the best solution. She’d been in a good, hopeful mood since Seeking Night, and the last thing Twilight wanted was to ruin that.

    “I think it’s her nightmares again,” Twilight said, and she couldn’t help a smile. “But I’ll take care of them. Has her door appeared yet?”

    “It has,” Princess Luna said carefully.

    “Really?! Where is it? Can you show me?” Twilight looked past the princess, trying to find Rarity’s door, but quickly stopped at Luna’s unimpressed stare. “…Or not?”

    “It is not very reassuring to see a dreamwalker be so enthusiastic over their partner having nightmares.”

    Twilight cleared her throat, embarrassed. “Right.”

    “Let us walk,” Princess Luna said, walking away from Twilight and towards the rows of doors.

    “A lot of them are flashing,” Twilight noted. “That’s strange.”

    “Strange? Not at all. Despite its games, Seeking Night is still a reminder of Discord’s triumph over us, so it is normal for foals to have nightmares about him. It has always been the busiest time of the year for me.” She paused. “Well, I suppose examination season at school is one such as well.”

    “Are we going together or splitting up like we did last week?” Twilight asked. “I think splitting up will be easier as we’ll cover more ground and finish faster. In fact, I can start with—”

    “We’re going together.”

    “…Oh. Okay. Although! Considering how many foals need help, splitting up would be a lot faster, Princess. I counted last time, and it took us one hour to end a high-maintenance nightmare, so if we split up, we can—”

    Princess Luna stopped, giving Twilight A Look.

    “…Sorry.” Twilight paused. “Though it would be much faster.”

    “Nightmares are not a game, Twilight, nor something to be excited about,” the princess continued, moving on. “Rarity’s nightmares do not have priority over the nightmares of others.”

    “I know,” Twilight said, chastised. “And I don’t think they should have priority, but I’m worried about her. She’s been drinking coffee to avoid sleep, and I really think I can help her. I know her.”

    “Do you.”

    Twilight came to a stop. “What do you mean? Of course I know her.”

    “No. You know what she presents to you, nothing more, nothing less,” Princess Luna said, stopping as well. “The very fact that you are eager to assist her tells me you have no inkling of what ails her.”

    At Twilight’s expression, the princess’s demeanor softened.

    “It is not my intent to be harsh, but to simply make you understand what it is you want to do. Rarity’s dreams are not like the ones of foals, Twilight. She is an adult, and the terrors that plague adults are a very different beast to handle; the ones that plague Rarity even moreso. There are things in her dreams that even she does not want to confront, and though she may have given you permission, remember the circumstances of that. We often agree to things we are not prepared for when we are too deliriously happy to think them through.”

    “But…”

    An awful feeling overcame Twilight. She’d asked Rarity if she was sure, but just the idea that she might have been lying or…

    No.

    Rarity had said it was okay, and so Twilight would believe her. Rarity trusted Twilight to help, as she’d proven earlier that night.

    “But she did think it through,” Twilight said, determined. “I asked her tonight if she preferred I didn’t dreamwalk, and she said it was fine.”

    “She did?” the princess asked, ears lifting, and when Twilight nodded, a smile settled on her lips. She hummed for a moment, thoughtful, and then went on her way. “Follow me.”

    They walked further along the corridors of doors until, finally, they came to a white door emblazoned with three diamonds.

    “Here we are.”

    Unlike the many others surrounding them, Rarity’s door was not flashing. It simply was, signaling that whatever dream she was having wasn’t an unpleasant one.

    Princess Luna reached over and pressed a hoof on the door, a pulse of magic filtering into the wood.

    “All is well.” She smiled to Twilight. “I do hope you’re not disappointed.”

    “I’m not disappointed!” Twilight protested. She did in fact believe Rarity deserved a good night’s sleep, thank you very much.

    “Regardless, I must assist the others.” Princess Luna retrieved her hoof and stepped away. “I assume you’d prefer guarding Rarity’s door.”

    Twilight nodded, straightening up. “Is there anything I should know about her dreams? Or that I should prepare for?”

    The princess stared at Twilight for a moment and longer still. The kinds of stares where millenia passed in a second, where all and nothing was considered at once.

    “Remember your purpose,” she said eventually. “You are no longer Twilight Sparkle. You are merely an observer, and whatever you see, whatever happens, remember you are there to assist her and nothing else. Your personal feelings cannot get in the way.”

    Twilight nodded. “What about the nightmare itself? Do you know what it’ll be? If it comes.”

    “I have an inkling, yes,” the princess said, and nothing else.

    “…And?” Twilight prompted, gesturing with her hoof until the princess kept silent. “…Aaaand you’re not going to tell me. Why not?”

    “This is your final test, Twilight Sparkle. It is perhaps one of the most important tests you’ve yet faced.” She cocked her head to the side. “It would not be an effective one if I gave you all the answers.”

    A lump formed in Twilight’s throat. She… She didn’t know this was going to be that kind of test. In fact, she didn’t know this was going to be a test at all.

    “Farewell for now,” said the princess, walking away. “Find me if you need me.”

    “W-wait!” Twilight called out. “Isn’t there anything you can tell me? What am I helping Rarity with? I know she was afraid of Discord and what he’s done! Is that it? Is she still afraid of what happened?”

    Or… Or maybe what Rarity really feared was Discord hurting Twilight.

    “Or is it me?!” Twilight asked next. “Does her nightmare involve me?”

    And for the final time, the princess stopped to speak, though she did not look back.

    “It does,” the princess said and then, after a pause, went on her way, leaving Twilight alone with her thoughts.

    Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts that swirled and swirled as she waited for the nightmare to come, if it was to come. It made sense that Rarity would be afraid to have Twilight see her nightmares, especially if she was still afraid of Discord and what he could do, or of all the things that could go wrong. She was a leader now, not that she’d ever stopped being one, and she probably had trouble showing weakness in front of anypony—especially considering how long it took her to open up to Twilight herself.

    Maybe there was just a bigger monster to face and, just as Twilight had for so long, she was afraid to ask for help.

    It was this thought, really, more than any other that drove Twilight to want to help Rarity. This thought that prevailed above all others, shut down the insecurities, and then gave her the nerve she needed when finally Rarity’s door cracked and turned black.

    Whatever monster Rarity was facing, she thought, twisting the handle and pushing the door open, Twilight would face it with her.

    Admittedly, she’d not expected said fear to be Trottingham.

    Trottingham! Trottingham City was bustling with life in this vivid new dream, and as Twilight walked around, making sure to be invisible to all, she couldn’t help but be, well, a little underwhelmed.

    She sat down in the middle of the sidewalk, ponies phasing through her, and she tried to figure out exactly what was scary about any of this. Ponies were walking by, immersed in friendly and energetic conversations; others were walking in and out of buildings, going about their daily routine; and…

    “How is this a nightmare?”

    To be fair, she didn’t see a lot of ponies wearing clothing, so maybe that was the nightmare? Not that Rarity was a fashion designer anymore, as far as Twilight could tell, but still.

    I should start by finding Rarity first, and then maybe this’ll make sense.

    She got up and took a better look at her surroundings, noticing some of the buildings weren’t well-defined—literally. Murky but distinguishable as buildings, they blurred into the background and revealed themselves as things Rarity didn’t care to visually establish in her dreams. Much like the buildings, ponies too lost their features the further they walked away from Twilight.

    It was because of this that the perfectly defined, crystal-clear hotel behind her stood out amongst everything, the name Scriptoria Suites & Spa emblazoned for all to see. A thrill rushed through her heart. Rarity was naming a hotel after her Trottingham name? Interesting! Very interesting.

    Filing that away into a mental folder of things to treasure, she walked inside the hotel and into a big luxurious lobby with marble floors and plush surfaces. Elegantly dressed ponies paraded around, bellhops trailing behind them as they all walked towards some steel doors in the back, numbers going all the way up to twelve flashing above them.

    Oh! Those must be the elevating devices Rarity told me about!

    Her curiosity getting the best of her, she followed the bellboy towards the elevating device, eager to test it out for herself. She watched with excitement as the numbers flashed in descending order until finally, to the sound of a loud ding, the doors opened and revealed Rarity.

    Oh, there she is!

    In a decidedly strange blast from the past, the unicorn ran through her and towards the front desk, prompting Twilight to run after her, hovering by as Rarity spoke to the concierge.

    “How can I help you, miss?” she asked, pushing up her glasses and peering at the unicorn. “Are you checking out?”

    “No, er, not yet, I’m afraid. I…” She glanced back, briefly scanning the lobby before turning back to the mare. “By any chance, has somepony asked for me?”

    The concierge looked at her papers, shaking her head. “Not that I know of, Miss Rarity. Should we be expecting somepony to do so?”

    “No!” Rarity blurted out, an embarrassed laugh following after. “No. No, no, you shouldn’t. I was just curious.” She bowed her head and made a move to leave. “Thank you.”

    “Of course, miss. If someone asks for you, is there anything you’d like for us to do?”

    Rarity glanced back towards the lobby. “Just letting me know is fine, thank you!” she said brightly before walking away.

    As they walked towards some nearby floor cushions, Twilight noticed Rarity’s cheer fading away, her brow furrowing with every step. Furthermore, the second she sat down, she devoted herself to scanning the lobby again.

    Looking for what, though?

    Twilight sat beside Rarity, trying to piece together this unclear puzzle. Clearly Rarity was either waiting for someone or, potentially, avoiding someone? Was it Discord maybe? Or was it someone Twilight didn’t know?

    Maybe figuring out a time-frame would help.

    Looking at Rarity, the first thing she noticed was the missing necklace, meaning this could either be set before they met or during the two year period Twilight was gone. Rarity’s scars, too, were gone, but she didn’t feel comfortable using that as evidence of this being before she got them. Dreamselves were often the ideal versions of a pony, and she very much doubted Rarity’s ideal self had scars.

    Okay, well, that still doesn’t help.

    Maybe she should appear before Rarity and outright ask her? Would Princess Luna consider that cheating?

    The loud chiming of the elevating devices caught both her and Rarity’s attention and they both turned in unison to see the doors open and a familiar stallion step out, a bellboy carrying luggage behind them.

    “Red Lining?” Twilight asked aloud, staring at the stallion. The Trottingham librarian? Twilight frowned. Was he somehow Rarity’s nightmare?

    Her attention turned to Rarity next when she let out a soft, strangled laugh matching her strangled expression which then swiftly turned to a delighted one the second Red Lining spotted her.

    “Rarity!”

    He walked towards her, the bellboy still trailing behind with luggage Twilight couldn’t help but notice seemed too big for a single pony.

    “Were you waiting for me?” he asked with a big smile.

    “But of course, of course! No one else but you, dear…” she said slowly, her hoof lifting to her chest and patting on it, only for her eyes to lower down to her hoof. “Oh.”

    “Are you looking for your necklace? Because I have it.” He reached into his saddlebag and extracted a familiar pink, glowing necklace, giving it to her with a teasing smile. “You left it behind.”

    Oh, Twilight thought, joking to herself, maybe losing the necklace was the nightmare.

    And yet, Rarity did not seem as thrilled as Twilight would have expected.

    “Oh! Oh, thank you,” she said, taking the necklace in her magic and pocketing it in the saddlebag she now had rather than putting it on. That was strange, but at least it gave her an accurate timeline of the events, as she knew Rarity avoided putting the necklace on during the two years she was gone. “The light was bothering me when I was sleeping.”

    “I found it under our bed this morning when I woke up,” he continued. “Good thing I saw it!”

    “Thank you, dear,” Rarity said again, just as Princess Twilight Sparkle blurted out for nopony to hear, “Our bed?!”

    Oh. Oh. Oh. Okay. All right. Okay.

    Our bed.

    “Have you checked us out yet?” Red Lining asked, clearly referring to the room he and Rarity had shared in this hotel named after Twilight, which in retrospect was actually no longer a little funny detail, and in fact should be taken from her mental treasuring file and added into her very concerning file.

    “Not yet, no.” Again, Rarity glanced towards the lobby. “Are we in a hurry?”

    “Not really, no! I just want to call Summer Breeze ahead of time to let her know when she should expect us at the cottage for our—” He grinned, giddy. “Permanent stay.”

    Twilight stepped back. Permanent stay?!

    “Yes! Yes, that’s right,” Rarity said, her excitement dissipating as she rubbed a hoof against her neck. “Permanent.”

    To say that statement hit Twilight like a freight train would be an understatement. Why was Rarity—? Permanent? Thoughts swirled in her head, frenetically building up on each other. Was this something that had happened? Or did Rarity want to go with Red Lining to live at his seaside cottage?

    “And that’s not all!” he continued, clearly trying to restrain his excitement. “With the opening of the new library, I can invite prominent ponies in the fashion industry and you can get your career back on track. I hear Sapphire Shores is looking for a new personal designer.”

    For the first time, Rarity’s eyes genuinely lit up. “Sapphire Shores? Really?”

    “Yes,” he said, Twilight’s chest compressing in on itself as he leaned in to kiss her. “Just as you hoped for.”

    Rarity smiled thinly. “Just as I’d hoped for…”

    Twilight took a step back, and then another, and another, too overwhelmed by her own emotions. What was all of this? Where had it come from? What did it mean? Every answer was worse than the next, and the more she thought about it, the more she hated being there at all, a catalyst for the world’s most invasive show.

    Maybe this was the test. Maybe this wasn’t even Rarity’s nightmare, because as far as she could tell this was more her own nightmare.

    Did Rarity not love her?

    Had Twilight done something wrong?

    No,” Twilight hissed to herself, desperate. “Focus. Detach yourself.”

    No matter what she saw, no matter what she felt, she’d brought this on herself. She’d asked to be let in, to face whatever had to be faced, and if Rarity had allowed her in, the least Twilight could do was her job.

    This was still a nightmare, after all, wasn’t it? Maybe Rarity didn’t want this either. She wouldn’t have allowed Twilight to see this if it wasn’t for a reason.

    Steadying herself as much as she could, she walked back towards the couple, doing her best to stay as objective as possible.

    “…should be back tonight,” Red was saying. “Will you be fine until then?”

    Rarity nodded, smiling brilliantly. “I believe so. In fact, there’s a fashion show a few blocks away that I really want to see! If I’m lucky, I might be able to network a little and make some new contacts.”

    “Really? That sounds fun. Do you want me to go with you? I can cancel my meeting.”

    “No, that’s all right!” she said. “I’m quite fine going alone.”

    “But, Rari—”

    “Really, Red,” she interrupted, insistent. “I do want to go alone.”

    He sighed. “All right, but you’ll have to tell me how it goes, then. Goodbye!” He made a move to leave but then turned back to her with an affectionate smile. “I love you, Rarity.”

    “Darling, you’ll be late!” she quickly said in reply, nudging him off. “Off you go!”

    And off he went, leaving Rarity alone with her haunted ghost, who was slowly coming to realize that she didn’t know what to do. Or where to start. Or what to think.

    Twilight might have almost preferred having to deal with Discord.

    She’d been shaken to the core, and she thought it painfully amusing that the only thing she wanted to do was talk to Rarity and ask for advice. When she turned to her, a glimmer of hope flickered to life when Rarity pressed a hoof to her temple and whined miserably.

    It was reassuring to know they both felt the same way about what had happened.

    Maybe there was nothing to confront, then. Maybe that was the test, maybe this really was just a bad dream and nothing else. No deeper meaning, no fear not confronted, just a bad situation.

    “Miss! Miss Rarity!”

    They looked and saw the concierge waving at them.

    “Miss Rarity,” she said when they walked up, “somepony was asking for you. That mare over there.”

    Twilight followed the concierge’s gaze and felt her stomach drop at the sight of herself, lingering by a painting on the other side of the lobby, apparently not having seen Rarity with Red. To her dismay, Rarity seemed to be anything but pleased, letting out a deep breath and rubbing a hoof against her forehead, her eyes closing.

    Until.

    “She’s very beautiful,” the concierge noted.

    At this, Rarity opened her eyes and shifted her gaze towards the distant alicorn. She stared for what felt like hours until finally she dissolved into an affectionate smile, tenderness in her eyes.

    “She is, isn’t she?” She turned to the concierge and grinned. “She’s my marefriend, you know. “

    Oh. So Rarity wasn’t dating Red Lining.

    She was cheating on Twilight with him.

    Rarity moved away from the counter and walked towards the dream-construct Twilight, the real one following along as she debated whether she should take the compliment or not in light of recent events.

    “Once upon a time,” Rarity said aloud when she reached the construct, her voice carrying out like a storyteller in front of an audience, the smile still present on her lips, “there was a mare more beautiful than the sun and moon themselves.”

    A matching smile pushed itself onto the construct’s lips.

    “Oh?” she asked, her smile turning into a smirk. “And did said mare wander off to random hotel lobbies without telling anypony?”

    Rarity laughed, pressing herself against the construct. “No, she scolded other ponies for taking an interest in architecture, but darling, I’m flattered.”

    The construct sighed, wrapping a wing around her. “You’re very silly, Rarity.”

    “Silly in love!” Rarity protested, and then buried herself against Twilight. Her next words came in a whisper.

    “I do love you, Twilight. You know that, don’t you?”

    “I know,” Twilight said, chorusing her construct self, still at a loss for what to feel, but sure of what she whispered and her construct giggled, “I love you, too.”

    A few moments passed as they shared in the silence.

    “I suppose this is a nice lobby,” The construct relented, letting go of Rarity.

    “Isn’t it? But I am a little tired of it.” Rarity fluttered her eyelashes. “In fact! There’s an event going on nearby, and I was thinking you should come with me. In fact, I insist!” Twilight felt a small surge of vindication at the fact she’d gotten invited but Red hadn’t. “No danger, no spirits, no nothing but a wonderfully lovely time, just you and I. We can get front row seats and—”

    “An event?” The construct frowned. “But we need to go rescue the princesses.”

    Rarity faltered. “…Well, yes, of course, but…”

    “We don’t have time for events, Rarity,” the construct said.

    “Yes, we do!” Twilight exclaimed, unable to help herself.

    “I told you. We need to rescue the princesses, no matter what,” the construct continued, echoing the very words Twilight had said herself during Seeking Night and even in Trottingham.

    “I… I know,” Rarity said, resigned almost, and Twilight practically jumped in front of her.

    “That’s—! That’s not what I meant!” she cried, not that anypony could hear.

    “But…” Rarity spoke up again, “darling, it’s…” She sobered up, standing straight. “Twilight, I need to tell you something.”

    “What?” she asked, and immediately her eyes widened. “…Is something wrong?”

    Rarity looked away, her ears flattening. “I… Yes,” she said, finally, and now more than ever the real Twilight paid attention. “You—”

    “M-me?” the construct interrupted, horrified. “Did do something wrong? Is that why you want to go to an event? I’m sorry. What did I do wrong? I—” Her eyes then landed on Rarity’s chest and her horror increased. “…Where’s your necklace, Rarity?”

    Rarity’s eyes widened in horror. “My necklace? O-oh! In my bag, it’s in my bag!” she blurted out in a frenzy, reaching into her saddlebag and putting it on. “See! There it is! Ha ha!”

    “Oh, all right,” dream-Twilight said, relieved for a minute, as the real Twilight stepped back, ears clamping against her head. That wasn’t right. It wasn’t right at all, and to hear her voice say that it was…

    “I just took it off last night for a while, noth—”

    “You took it off?” the construct asked, and in less than a second, it all came back. “Why? What’s wrong? Why did you take it off? Did I do something wrong?”

    “No, darling,” Rarity said, clearly straining to be calm. “Nothing bad, the light was just—”

    “How do you know? Are you sure?” dream-Twilight continued, speaking over the unicorn. “Did I do something? I’m sorry. Is it my fault? I’m sorry! You don’t want to wear it anymore, do you? That’s fine. I understand. I messed up, didn’t I?”

    “Twilight, no, it’s—You did nothing wrong, it’s fine,” Rarity tried to say, the construct interrupting her to apologize. It was sickening to watch. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. Let’s just go with the othe—”

    “But what did you need to tell me?” both Twilight’s asked, one much more rattled than the other.

    “Nothing, Twilight,” Rarity insisted, trying to push her along. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s just lea—”

    Twilight couldn’t help herself.

    “Of course it matters!” she protested, jumping in front of Rarity, not caring that she couldn’t hear her. “How could you even think it doesn’t?!”

    Oh, what was the point?

    Twilight closed her eyes and let out a frustrated groan, knowing that by then she’d probably already failed the princess’s test regardless, letting her own feelings interfere. She sat there, waiting for whatever came next in that sunforsaken nightmare, and yet when she opened her eyes to do as much, she realized the now paler Rarity was gaping at her.

    At her.

    Twilight?”

    If Twilight didn’t know better, she might say Rarity was actually looking at her. And in fact, when she turned around and realized the dream construct was frozen in place, she realized exactly what she’d just done.

    Rarity backed away, looking between the two alicorns. “Twilight, how—?! What is going on?! Why are there two of you?!”

    “Rarity, wa…wait! I can explain!” Twilight stammered, the panicked words tumbling out her mouth in a hurry. “You weren’t supposed to see me, but I-I messed up and—”

    “Wasn’t supposed to see you? What in Equestria do you mean I weren’t supposed to see—” The rest of her sentence died strangled in her throat, along with any of Twilight’s chances for damage control.

    She stepped back.

    “Oh.”

    Twilight’s heart sped up, her mind struggling to control her panic. Oh no, no, no, no, no, no.

    “Rarity, please—”

    “What did you see?” Rarity interrupted in a whisper, inaudible to the point Twilight almost wasn’t sure she spoke at all.

    “Wha—”

    What did you see, Twilight?!” she snapped, her forehoof slamming against the floor.

    Not for the last time that night, Twilight’s ears clamped against her head as she recoiled, eyes brimming with tears, completely out of her depth.

    “I don’t know! I’m sorry, I—”

    “What do you mean ‘you don’t know’?! How could you possibly not know?! What did you see?!”

    “Red Lining!” Twilight blurted out, wanting this to end and regretting every second of it. She steadied herself with all the courage she had left, yet she could not stop herself from bowing her head apologetically as she spoke: “I saw you meeting with Red Lining and everything after that.”

    When Rarity said nothing, Twilight forced herself to look up, the desperate solution she’d scrambled together dying at the sight of the shell-shocked Rarity, staring at Twilight through tearful eyes.

    Horror filled Twilight, and yet before she could say anything or move forward to comfort her or something, Rarity vanished from existence, followed in short order by the rest of the dream. It cracked and fragmented like a mirror until Twilight was back in the hallway of dream doors, Princess Luna standing before her.

    Twilight stared at her, completely detached.

    “Twilight.”

    And only then did Twilight react, her eyes filling with tears, her body trembling out of pure horror. A storm of thoughts pummeled her, incoherent and rambling and desperate, dazing and overwhelming her to the point she could hardly speak.

    “Uhm,” was all she managed, this tiny word that summarized the war raging inside her head. Eventually, from somewhere, she clawed out more words to speak. “I… I’m done.”

    And she was, in every sense of the word.

    And yet, “I am sorry, little one,” the princess said with all the kindness in the world, her horn flashing as she did so, “but you must face this. All of it.”

    The world around her faded, and Twilight jolted upright with a gasp, her sight blurry from tears still streaming. She lifted her hoof and wiped at her eyes, staring at her trembling damp forehoof with mindless fascination.

    What now?

    Could she even ask questions? Was she allowed?

    Who did she ask for help with this when the only pony she trusted was the one she’d apparently hurt?

    What now?

    What now, what now, what now, she wanted to ask, to think, to figure out, her heart beating painfully against her chest, and even more so when she heard the distinct sound of a door opening outside, followed by lights turning on and filtering in from under the door.

    It’s not over yet, indeed, because much like everything else Twilight messed up, consequences were always to be had.

    She stood up from her cushion, mind blank as she waited for what came next. Waited, and waited, and waited until distant hoofsteps filled the air, coming closer and closer until their owner and her shadow stopped right outside the door.

    It would be easy to leave. Easy to teleport away as she used to do when things were too much. Easy to disappear and find a new place to hide from it all. But instead, she waited, lost in this fantasy yet too paralyzed to enact it.

    All she could do was wait.

    Nothing happened for a while, for minutes that felt like hours, the anticipation rising and rising until she nearly jumped right out of her coat when there were three knocks at the door.

    “Twilight?” Rarity called, a cheer to her voice that threw Twilight off. Either she was faking it, or… had the dream really meant nothing at all? “Twilight, dearest, are you awake?”

    “Y-yes!” she called out, burying deep her guilt, and her pain, and her feelings, and furiously wiping her eyes. When no answer came, she called again. “Yes? What is it, Rarity?”

    “Can I come in?”

    “O-of course!”

    After another eternal minute, the handle lowered, the door opened and in stepped Rarity with a big smile.

    What?

    “Hello!” she exclaimed, closing the door behind her.

    “…Hello,” Twilight said, unsure until she realized that Rarity might interpret her being unsure as something being wrong, and if nothing was wrong with her, then— “I mean, hi!” Too enthusiastic. “Hi, Rarity.”

    Did she really just say hi three times?

    “Is something wrong?” she said next, trying to save face.

    “Is something wrong? No!” Rarity quickly said, her strained laugh finally hinting to Twilight not all was as it seemed. “No, no! No.” Her eyes grew wide. “Is something wrong with you?”

    “What? No!” Twilight threw back. “No.”

    “Oh, good.”

    “Yes.”

    And that was that, apparently. Were they just not going to address it? Or mention it? Or…? Silence filled the room, allowing Twilight’s anxious thoughts to get louder and louder until she couldn’t take it anymore. She had to say something.

    “Rarity—”

    “Did you dreamwalk tonight?” Rarity cut off, and again, she couldn’t hide the strain in her words.

    Twilight’s chest compressed her heart. “Yes,” she said, and almost as fast blurted out a defense, something to explain or somehow assuage whatever was to come next, “I told you I would. Princess Luna asked me and—”

    “Yes, I know,” Rarity tersely cut-off, before quickly composing herself. “I mean, yes! Yes, I know, darling. I was just wondering…” She faltered. “Did you…” And again she faltered, now closing her eyes and just forcing it out. “Did you do it?”

    Panic flooded Twilight, and so did stumbled explanations rush out. “Rarity, wait, listen, I—”

    “Just answer me, Twilight. Please.”

    Not for the last time, Twilight’s ears pressed against her head.

    “Yes,” she replied, and decided she might as well move things along. “I went into your nightmare.”

    It startled her when Rarity laughed.

    “Of course you did,” she said, a thin smile shoving itself onto her lips.

    Twilight watched, horrified, as Rarity slid down against the door and onto the floor, tears filling her eyes.

    “Of course you did.”

    “Rarity!”

    Twilight rushed to her, scooping her in a hug as best she could, horrified to see her beloved like this. Any fear over the nightmare died, any doubt, any pain, all suppressed and gone in favor of helping Rarity herself.

    “Rarity, please—”

    “I’m sorry, Twilight,” she choked out, buried against her, clutching her tight. “I’m sorry, I just— There was never anything between us, I promise.”

    “Rarity, it’s fine! It’s fine, it was just a nightmare. I believe you,” Twilight gently insisted. “And you don’t have to apologize. I asked to be let in. Part of my training with Princess Luna is to expect being part of the nightmares of ponies you know! It’s fine!”

    “I know, but— But—” Rarity looked up at her, eyes reddened from crying. “I don’t understand. Aren’t you upset?”

    Twilight swallowed, memories of Red and Rarity pushing through. But it was fine. If there was something Twilight knew she didn’t have to worry about, even despite that, it was her relationship with Rarity.

    “I… Well, it was upsetting to see,” she confessed, “but I’m fine.”

    Rarity’s eyes widened, surprised. Wary. “Really?”

    Twilight smiled, nodding her head. “Yes. It was just a nightmare, and nightmares are just reflections of our subconscious fears!” she insisted, trying to reassure both herself and Rarity. “In fact…” An idea sprung to mind. “In fact, it makes sense! When we saw Red Lining at Trottingham, you were worried I might be jealous and that’s where this nightmare came from. See? It makes complete sense!”

    And yet.

    And yet Rarity did not seem convinced. Her brow furrowed, and her eyes searched for something in Twilight’s gaze.

    “Do you see?” Twilight prompted, and received a wholly different answer.

    “But… what about the rest?” Rarity asked, every syllable cautious. She leaned back, ears lowering. “Aren’t you upset about that?”

    “The… The rest?” Twilight asked, confused. “What else was there? It was just you cheating on me. That was the nightmare,” she said, and when Rarity moved back, her confidence began to wane. “…Wasn’t it?”

    And when Rarity said nothing, just stared with watering eyes, it began to crumble.

    “Rarity? What is it?” she asked, alarmed, and even more so when Rarity moved back when she tried to move in. “What else was there? Rarity?”

    But Rarity didn’t reply.

    Instead, she simply shook her head and leaned back, completely silent.

    “Rarity, what’s wrong?” Twilight asked again, her chest compressing more and more with every time Rarity replied with a mute shake of her head. “What’s wrong? Tell me, please!”

    “I can’t!” Rarity choked out, desperate.

    “Why not?!”

    “I can’t! I’m afraid, Twilight, I—”

    And now Twilight was really concerned, a terrible thought crossing her mind. “Afraid? Of what? Is it Discord? Rarity, did Discord do something to you?! Rari—”

    “No, it’s not Discord!” Rarity snapped, somehow finding it within her to sound exasperated. “It’s never been Discord, it’s—” She cut herself off again, closing her eyes. “It’s never been Discord.”

    Twilight stared, completely lost. “Then—Then what is it? Why are you so afraid?” she pleaded. “You need to tell me! You have to trust me, please.”

    “I’m trying, Twilight! Can’t you see?!” Rarity exclaimed, startling the alicorn. “I agreed to using the necklaces! I agreed to going to the library! I agreed to you going into my dreams!” Her voice again fell to a strangled whimper, pressing her hooves against her eyes. “I’m trying.”

    “Then let me help you,” Twilight pleaded, struggling not to raise her voice out of desperation. So many things she had messed up, so many things that were her fault, yet not saving Rarity from her monsters would not be one. “I can help you! Like with the library! You were afraid of it, but you trusted me and now you’re not afraid of it anymore!”

    And then it came. In a harrowed whisper.

    “It wasn’t the library.”

    Twilight leaned back. “What? Yes it was? You were afraid of the libra—”

    “It was never the library I was afraid of, Twilight!” Rarity interrupted, her face still hidden. “It was you.”

    It was you.

    And her entire spinning world came to a stop.

    “What?” Twilight said, whispered, gasped, whatever, standing up.

    What?

    And yet as soon as Rarity saw this, realized that Twilight had stood up, now towered before her, her eyes filled with tears. “Nothing!” she said, suddenly. “Please! Nothing, it’s fine! I—”

    Nothing?!” Twilight exclaimed, flabbergasted, her thoughts dizzying. Rarity was afraid of her? Stars alive. “What do you mean— How is that nothing, Rarity?!” she demanded, her eyes welling with tears. “You’re afraid of me?”

    “No!” Rarity exclaimed.

    No! But you just said you were!” Twilight demanded, desperate, thinking, what had she done now? What had she done, what had she done, what had she done now.

    “I know what I said!” Rarity shot back, ears clamped to her head. “Please, Twilight, it doesn’t matt—”

    “Of course it matters! You’re afraid of me, Rarity! How can it not matter?! But I can’t—! I can’t fix this if you don’t tell me what’s wrong!” she said, helpless against another of Rarity’s roadblocks, another of Rarity’s walls that she’d apparently stupidly believed were gone.

    “You don’t understand, Twi—”

    “Of course I won’t understand if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, Rarity!” Twilight exclaimed, the final drop. “I can’t fix this if you don’t communicate with me!”

    And there it came, spilling out.

    I’m afraid of that, Twilight!” Rarity snapped, in voice and in spirit. “How do you expect me to communicate with you when I’m afraid that anything that happens or that I say will just be another weapon for you to use against yourself?! How do you expect me to not be afraid when anything might set you off into another guilt spiral and next thing I know I’m waiting outside a barrier for another two sunforsaken years because of something I set off in you?!”

    And as soon as she finished, as soon as Twilight felt like a dagger had been plunged through her heart, Rarity’s eyes widened, her hooves pressed against her mouth.

    No taking that back, was there?

    And so Twilight thought back.

    Thought back to the last moments of the dream, of Rarity trying to talk to the construct and the construct in turn being too busy blaming herself to even listen, and only then did Twilight Sparkle realize who was the big, bad monster of Rarity’s dreams.

    And Rarity was right to be afraid, wasn’t she? The only reason the chaos magic ever managed to possess her was because she allowed herself to spiral that far.

    “I’m sorry,” Rarity agonized, seemingly guilt-wracked by her own confession, “I’m sorry.”

    But Twilight was too far away to respond, too lost down memory lane, mentally reviewing each and every single instance that hinted at this.

    “Granite’s Rest,” she said, hoarsely.

    “Wh…What?”

    “When I went to see Princess Celestia’s painting with Fluttershy and the others, you were supposed to meet with us at Canterlot. Instead, you were at Granite’s Rest because you said you missed me too much. That was a lie, wasn’t it? It was because you were afraid of how’d I’d react with the painting?” she asked, calculated, measured, detached, now really taking Luna’s lesson in stride.

    “I did miss you,” Rarity defended, desperate. “It wasn’t just because I was afraid.”

    “But you were afraid,” Twilight stated, matter-of-fact as she began to list off moments and events.

    Rarity’s outburst during the party at the castle, when Rarity left when they were talking about her imprisonment.

    Rarity not wanting to mindmeld with her out of fear of how Twilight might react.

    Rarity’s reaction to Twilight’s spiral when she realized her research on the elements was wrong.

    Rarity being so against Twilight going to the library, almost upset at the idea.

    But most damning of all was Seeking Night.

    It had been there all along, all those times Rarity said she was worried, and the most damning thing of all when Incantation told her as much and she didn’t even think about it.

    “I think she’s more worried about how it might affect you, Princess.”

    “But—But I was better—” Twilight said, every word searing her throat because she was better, she really thought she was better, she— “I was better.”

    “I know,” Rarity said, burying her face in her hooves. “I’m sorry, I—

    But maybe she wasn’t better.

    Maybe she was only better because Rarity had made it easy, tried to avoid setting her off, maybe she would be set off by anything, maybe she really was still a monster, and now Rarity was traumatized because of her.

    Rarity the unicorn was the only thing she knew was safe, thought was safe, in fact the only anchor she had, she could overcome anything as long as she had Rarity there, and to see this?

    To see a Rarity who once was fearless, once had no problem calling Twilight out, once stood up to the princess of legend herself, and yet who now thought through every action, every word, every moment twice, who—

    Rarity was afraid of her.

    She’d hurt her.

    “I’m sorry.”

    The words tumbled out of her mouth, familiar, familiar, familiar, as were the tears and what came next.

    “It’s my fault.”

    Rarity looked up, alarmed. “Twilight. No,” she said, bellowed almost. “Stop, no. No. It is not your fau—”

    “But it is!” Twilight gasped, because it was, it was, it was. “It is! Look at you! Look at you, Rarity! You’re afraid of talking to me, and it’s my fault, if I hadn’t—”

    “See?! Look at this!” Rarity exploded, standing up, her voice a dance of desperation and frustration. “This is exactly what I meant, Twilight! You can’t keep doing this every single ti—”

    I KNOW!” Twilight exploded back, because she knew, knew she was no different than the construct, and yet she couldn’t stop any of these thoughts from assaulting her, now mixed with the horror of this all happening. “I know,” she choked, hating herself for hating herself.

    She was better, she’d been better, and yet there she was, as if nothing had changed, as if she was still stuck in her library, just the same, freed physically but not mentally.

    It was painful to be aware, to be a spectator to her own spiral. She was better, wasn’t she? To believe otherwise was devastating, but then why was she relapsing so badly? She’d forgiven herself! She had! She was out of the library! So why was this all coming back?

    Why wasn’t this nightmare over?

    “Tw-Twilight!” Rarity exclaimed, rushing to her.

    No!” Twilight yelled, and it took her that much not to conjure up a barrier. When Rarity immediately stopped, ears flat against her head, tail between her legs, guilt and regret washed over Twilight. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Just don’t, please.”

    Rarity fell down to her hindlegs, quietly obeying. What else could she do?

    Three gentle knocks rang out.

    “Girls?” Fluttershy called out gently. “Can I come in?”

    Rarity turned to Twilight, seeking confirmation, and in turn Twilight looked away.

    “I don’t care,” she murmured, forcing herself up, and swallowing hard when she heard Rarity let out a deep breath.

    “Come in, Fluttershy,” she called out, standing up as well.

    It must have been a sad sight for Fluttershy, Twilight thought, when the pegasus stepped in to find two quiet mares, eyes still red from the tears.

    But if it was, she did not show it. Instead, she simply looked to Rarity and smiled kindly.

    “Rarity. I think you should go to bed,” she advised, and when the unicorn’s eyes flitted towards Twilight, she continued, “I’ll take care of everything.”

    You mean deal with me, Twilight thought, bitterly.

    But Rarity didn’t move.

    “But… Twilight.” She turned to her, concerned despite it all. “What… What are you going to do?” she asked, and somewhere found the courage to ask, “Do you still want to sleep in my room?”

    “No,” she replied, not wanting to sting Rarity on purpose, not really, but just… “I’m not tired, sorry. I’m going out.”

    “Out?” Rarity asked, alarmed. “But, Twilight, it must be three in the morning!”

    “It’s fine,” she said, moving to the door. “I’ll be back later.”

    “But, Twilight—!” Rarity protested. “You’re in no state to go out at this hour! Please, be reasonable.”

    “I’m fine,” Twilight affirmed again, stung by Rarity’s attitude and hurrying to the door before she lost her temper.

    “Twi—” A frustrated groan interrupted her, and so Rarity turned to Fluttershy. “Fluttershy, please, go with her, won’t you?”

    “I said I’m fine, Rarity!” Twilight snapped, turning around and slamming her hoof on the ground, telling herself that was the reason for the tears in her eyes. “I don’t—! I don’t need a babysitter! I’m not going to—! To—!” She choked on her words, torn between upset and indignant. “I’m not going to go trap myself anywhere!”

    “Princess…” Fluttershy said, only to flinch when Rarity replied in kind.

    “That’s not what I meant, Twilight!” she snapped back, her own hoof slamming the floor. “Of course I don’t think that’s going to happen, for sun’s sake! I was just worried about you!” And yet, as soon as she’d said that, so did she step back, shaken. “I… You’re right. You can make your own decisions. I should go to bed.”

    And so, without another word, she moved forward and out of the room.

    Though she wanted to speak up, Twilight held her tongue as Rarity marched out of the room, instead closing her eyes and taking a deep breath when a door in the distance audibly closed shut.

    When she opened her eyes, Fluttershy was still there, still smiling kindly.

    “Princess,” she said, “are you sure you don’t want me to join you?”

    “I’m sure, Fluttershy,” she said. “Thank you.”

    The pegasus bowed her head. “Of course.” She smiled. “Though, I might check up on you a little later?”

    Twilight found it in her to smile. “…All right.”

    She then moved forward, almost crossing the door, when she stopped again. She turned to Fluttershy, ready to speak, only for Fluttershy to pre-empt her.

    “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of Rarity.”

    Twilight bowed her head.

    “Thank you.”

    Thus she made her way out of the room, into the lobby and then down the stairs, focusing on keeping her erratic thoughts suppressed by focusing on whatever was in front of her as she walked—on toys strewn on the floor, on drawings plastered on the wall, and on dresses and costumes left behind. Anything to distract her.

    It wasn’t until she was outside, until she unlocked the front doors with her magic and pushed them open that the weight of it all hit her with the same intensity as the freezing night air, a sharp intake of frigid breath burning her lungs.

    Spike was her first thought.

    More than Luna, more than Princess Celestia—if she even for once answered the letters Twilight had been sending her—it was Spike she wanted to see.

    The only other home she had, now that Rarity was…

    Another breath of air, blinking back tears and emotions that served little purpose.

    She pressed on, though to say it was she who pressed on would be inaccurate. It was her hooves that moved, that carried her along, her mind only numbly following along. She walked through the streets of this place that wasn’t home, barely registering the few ponies still meandering about at this hour, barely returning their smiles, barely thinking for fear of thinking too much.

    “Come on! You could totally do it!”

    When she reached the outskirts of Spike’s valley, it was Rainbow Dash’s voice that gave her pause. She hid behind a tree and looked out, finding Spike curled up and the pegasus on his back, the two of them chattering and laughing without a care in the world, as if it wasn’t well into the night.

    And Twilight stepped back, now unsure of what to do.

    She’d hoped for Spike, but not Rainbow Dash.

    She’d hoped for home, but not the future. Not the present.

    She’d hoped for the past. Suddenly, almost overwhelmingly to the point of being sick, Twilight Sparkle was homesick for a place that no longer was.

    A rush of cold air hit her again, her coat standing on end, and she hated it. She hated the cold she could sense, hated her heart that could beat, hated her lungs that could breathe, and hated her body that felt.

    She stepped away from the trees and headed back towards town, Spike and Rainbow’s voices gradually fading until there was nothing more but the sounds of her hoofsteps, of her heartbeat, of her breath.

    Wandered through town, aimless and dazed, past the empty stalls of the merchants, past the firepits for nightmare bombs, and finally past the Seeking Night constructions that had yet to be dismantled, until she finally saw it.

    The maze.

    And it wasn’t that she wanted to be imprisoned again, but she couldn’t help but be comforted when she stepped inside and was greeted by her books, by these vaguely familiar hallways of a place that had been her prison but also her home.

    She made her way until finally, she stepped inside her little room and took in the sights.

    The owl inkwells the foals had made out of clay, the scrolls pasted to the walls filled with scribbles of all kinds, the stacks of books scattered throughout, the barely lit candles flickering their last light. All these cozy little details that reminded her of home.

    Yet none brought tears to her eyes as much as the discovery that she was apparently not the only one who was homesick.

    From under the table, huddled in their nest of parchment strips and sticks, a family of owls peered up at their master.

    “Hello,” she sniffled, walking towards them and lying down, placing her muzzle near the nest. “Is there any room for me?”

    And there was, of course, as the family left their nest and found a better one, Themis and Elara huddling against her barrel, and the chicklets against her heart. One of them nestled up beside the softly glowing necklace hanging from Twilight’s neck, and when she hooted curiously at it, Twilight closed her eyes and silently shook her head.

    She knew it wouldn’t ring. Not tonight.

    Time passed. Minutes. Hours? Twilight didn’t know how long. She simply let it flow like ink from her quill, indulging herself to an existence in a simulacrum of her past. She didn’t want to stay there a thousand years, no, never again, but…just a few hours would be fine, wouldn’t it?

    “Hello,” came a soft, familiar voice after a while. “Is there any room for one more?”

    Twilight glanced up. Standing by the entrance, a saddlebag draped around her, Fluttershy had made good on her promise.

    “Oh, Fluttershy.” Twilight sat up. “You came,” she said, only for her surprise to turn into…not resentment, but… “Did Rarity send you?”

    Fluttershy giggled. “No.”

    Twilight snorted, lying back down. “Really.”

    “She tried to get me to come,” Fluttershy elaborated, carefully stepping in, “but I came here because I wanted to.”

    When the princess said nothing else, she stepped further into the room and looked around. “Are you sleeping here tonight, Princess?”

    “I don’t know,” Twilight said. “I’d like to. Why? Do I have to go back?”

    Fluttershy hummed thoughtfully. “Oh no, you can stay here if you want to. Not forever, I hope, but one night should be fine.” She took off her saddlebag and opened it up. “I’m only asking because I brought a pillow and blanket for you.”

    “Oh…”

    And so, the princess quietly watched Fluttershy lay down a blanket, willing herself to get up and lie down on it afterwards. It was surprisingly warm, so, so warm, and as comfy as the small pillow Fluttershy placed under her head when she lifted it up.

    When she was done, the pegasus turned to Twilight, affectionate. “There! All set.”

    And Twilight’s heart hurt.

    “Would you like to still be alone, Princess?” Fluttershy asked. “Or would you like for me to stay?”

    And in the smallest voice, the princess spoke.

    “Please stay.”

    Not long after that, after a second pillow had been set and a second blanket covered them both, Princess Twilight Sparkle nestling herself against her friend and closing her eyes as she tried to focus on Fluttershy brushing her mane.

    Just like Rarity might.

    Stars.

    “Does Rarity hate me?”

    “She loves you very much, Princess. A fight won’t change that.”

    “But this wasn’t just a fight,” Twilight murmured, burying herself in Fluttershy. “This was… The worst! This was terrible! This was— I don’t know what this was!”

    “A step forward,” Fluttershy suggested.

    “A step forward?! This was… This was fifty steps back!” Twilight protested, and again, the frustration came back in a great sweeping wave. “I was better… I really thought I was better, but now it turns out that I’m not, and…” She petered out, barely aware of Fluttershy brushing her mane again. “I don’t understand. I’m out of my library. Why am I still like this?”

    “You’re trying your best,” Fluttershy chastized. “Thousand year old habits won’t die in two months, Princess.”

    “How am I going to fix this?” Twilight asked. “Can I fix this?”

    “Rarity asked me the same,” Flutterhy said, suddenly.

    “Huh?”

    “She asked how she was going to fix this.”

    “…She did?”

    “Mm-hmm. She also asked me if I thought you hated her.” She paused. “And then she asked me if she should exile herself to Saddle Arabia and become a… what did she say… ‘a work-a-holic too lost in her business to feel the wound in her heart.”

    “The wound in her heart.”

    Fluttershy frowned. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t say that right. She said ‘the gaping wound in her ravaged heart’.”

    “The gaping wound in her ravaged heart. Right.”

    And despite it all, Twilight couldn’t help a laugh, affection for the unicorn washing over alongside a great wave of exhaustion.

    She would have to fix this, wouldn’t she? This, whatever it entailed, whatever it meant, and whatever had yet to be said. Cadance’s words again rang in her mind. She had to take responsibility. For what she’d caused, and what was yet to be fixed.

    After all, if the unicorn had once fought for her, so would Twilight have to do the same.

    And she would tomorrow.

    Tomorrow, she’d deal with Rarity, and Dusk, and Princess Luna and everything else.

    But tonight?

    Tonight she just wanted to sleep.


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    1. Hazel Jeffrey
      Nov 22, 22 at 9:54 pm

      Recovery isn’t linear and doesn’t that just suck. I empathized with Twilight so much this chapter.

    2. Zanna Zannolin
      Oct 30, 22 at 7:43 pm

      dhmu just had the bestworst experience of my life reading this. are my eyes burning from tears or from staring at a screen writing all day, who knows!

      i am still so unbelievably anxious about dusk and how all that is going to go. i am on PINS AND NEEDLES over here worrying about seeking night and princess luna and i get NO RESOLUTION and i think that’s very well executed but i am still suffering and still confining myself to one chapter a night to pull myself hand over hand through this hellscape of a semester so. yeah i’ll cry about it what of it.

      also i’m VERY excited to see where this princess luna plotline is going like. just something about self-sabotage you know. i have too many blorbos who self-sabotage who i love and want to lovingly rattle. i love the bit about how discord lived in the castle and knew their ways and used it against them. it’s just soooo. there’s nothing like a friend turning on you.

      “Applejack snorted. “At this rate, I reckon’ we should hire a therapist and we’ll get y’all out of there lickety-split.”” if we let applejack take charge we could have had the princesses out half a book ago look at her she’s so smart i love her.

      on the one hand i get twilight wanting to be efficient about dreams and everyone on the other i’m like oh my god twilight chill a little it’s not a good thing that you have to go into your SO’s nightmares. she’s just curious i know but wow twilight how did you think this would end well. my little naive princess.

      the construction of the nightmare and the climax that followed it are absolutely brilliant. i really REALLY love how it doesn’t dance around the difficulties of trauma and mental illness and trying to navigate a relationship dealing with both of those. like yknow. it’s just a mess sometimes! and that’s okay but you have to talk about it! and right now neither of them are really letting each other talk or listening much despite wanting to communicate because they’re afraid. rarity is afraid she’s going to set twilight off so she’s being gentle and twilight is afraid that she’s making rarity afraid so she’s dancing around the issue and it’s this massive vicious cycle and it’s JUST SO INTERESTINGGGGGGG oh my god. you have such a level of depth and honesty to your portrayals of characters and their struggles. a unique kind of messiness. i love it a lot.

      also dhmu literallyyyy crying over fluttershy i got teary.

    3. A Deer
      Aug 22, 22 at 6:17 pm

      Been enjoying the story. Healing and moving forward don’t tend to progress in a straight line or what we hope is a straight line. Twilight feels things took a step back, but I think Fluttershy is right since this would have had to come up eventually. It seems the danger is a negative feedback loop between Rarity’s and Twilight’s emotions, which would be something Discord wants.

    4. AFanaticRabbit (Ashley)
      Apr 13, 22 at 4:14 pm

      This chapter hurt. My eyes are sore.