Cadence stared into Azula's eyes, her awakened empathy filling her with the pain of everyone she'd ever hurt, everyone she would hurt, and the flames that roared through her being, ready to erupt with the passing of the Comet. Desperately, Cadence reached out to offer her comfort, to hold her close and tell her everything would be alright, that she would fix it...but she could not fix it. Azula called out for help...but Cadence' hoof brought only death.
As she touched the young woman before her, the desperate hand of a young girl seeking love was knocked away, her desperate yearning spurned by what she saw as the embodiment of love. Young eyes filled with betrayal stared up at Cadence, tears of fire pouring from her eyes. "I don't want to go..." she whimpered desperately.
The child before her dissolved in light, the swirling winds of possibility tearing at Cadence' wings, showing her everything that might have been that now could never be, the changes that might have happened had only she swallowed her distaste at the sense of wrongness deep inside Azula and offered her the love she so desperately craved. Once more, Cadence screamed in agony, as the flames began to consume her, licking up her forelegs to devour her soul in the agony of her crime.
"You did this to me," the blue dragon hissed in her ear in Azula's voice as it swirled around her. "You destroyed me, left me to become a monster!" Beneath the blue dragon's wings, the Kraken rose, devouring the fleet. "The sons and daughters of fire fell, because of you!"
Desperately, Cadence turned to the red dragon, but it stared down at her impassively. "There are no punishments for mistakes," it whispered in Iroh's voice. "Only consequences."
"And now it's time to face yours!" the blue dragon snarled, lunging forward. "Join me in the death you chose for me!" Its jaws opened wide, and Cadence lost herself in terror.
The blue dragon dispersed as a ray of purest light pierced it, wrapping around Cadence as the red dragon faded into the ether. The crimson flames withdrew, held back by soothing blue light that gently cradled Cadence, lifting her out of the agonizing vision that had tormented her for so long. Lifting up from the scorched lands of the Earth Kingdoms, she found herself resting upon a cloud over Canterlot, the stars drifting through the night sky like ducks upon a river. Beside her upon the cloud, a familiar blue figure rested, wrapping a comforting wing around her as the soothing blue light released her. "Oh my dear sweet niece," the soft voice murmured in her ear, as a warm muzzle nuzzled into her neck comfortingly. "What horrors have you lived through, to leave such scars upon your mind and soul, and when could they have possibly come to pass?"
Cadence glanced around quickly in confusion, eventually managing to take in the figure beside her. "L-Luna?" she gasped out. "B-but..."
"Shh," Luna gently hushed her. "You are in the realm of dreams, Cadence. The pain and torment of your nightmare was so great that it pulled me in, and I did what I could to aid you. Normally, I would seek to aid you in addressing the cause of your nightmare, but well do I recognize the terror visions born of past memories. Still, this is hardly the dreams you should be having the night before your wedding."
"Dream..." Cadence murmured softly, managing to get herself to calm down somewhat. "Yes...a very familiar dream...one I've had many times since...that day."
Luna watched her silently for a time, letting her get herself back under control. When that was done, she spoke up. "Within the dream realm, time passes - or not - at the rate of thought. If you wish, I can take the time to hear the whole story, to perhaps better aid you with this pain."
Cadence smiled softly. "I appreciate the offer, Luna, I really do...but it's an old pain. I've been dealing with it for thirty years-"
"But you are only 32," Luna pointed out. "And I saw in the dream that you were older than two when that happened."
Cadence chuckled softly. "Physically, yes. But...well, let's just say that things were quite complicated."
"Indeed?" Luna replied with a chuckle. "How so?"
"I lived thirty years in another world, and only five minutes passed in this one," Cadence explained.
"I thought you said it was complicated," Luna countered. "Sounds simple enough to me."
"Reverse aged into an infant that, for some reason, aged to adolescence in three years and then only aged another ten in the remaining 27," Cadence continued.
"Yes, being an alicorn does have unusual effects on the aging process at times," Luna confirmed.
Cadence stared at Luna for a time, trying to detect any hint that she was being teased. "Well...I suppose we could talk for a bit..."
"...and then I sat, waiting for my father to wake up and live again," Cadence finished, sipping the tea she had conjured for the both of them. "It's been...an adjustment, coming back after having been gone years in seconds."
"I can well imagine," Luna replied, chuckling.
"Truly?" Cadence inquired.
"If you thought trying to unlearn thirty years of habits in seconds was difficult, try embracing a millennium in change in perceived seconds."
Cadence struggled not to chuckle. "Goodness. I guess you did have a great deal to adjust to after coming back from the moon."
"Indeed," Luna confirmed, sighing sadly. "I...have a lot to make up for. Much like you, there are crimes upon my soul that, despite forgiveness offered, I cannot let myself forget. I must always remember what I've done, so I do not make the same mistakes again..."
Cadence frowned, something about how Luna put that bothering her. "Luna...how exactly are you ensuring you never forget?"
Luna glanced away, biting her lip. She plainly didn't want to speak of it...but eventually, she relented. "Perhaps you may understand after all," she allowed. "I have created a dream creature, one that will ensure I never forget that horrible crime I have committed...by making me relive it in my nightmares."
"That's not healthy," Cadence stated bluntly.
"It is not so different from these nightmares you cannot escape," Luna countered.
"Isn't it?" Cadence demanded. "You said it yourself, these are scars upon my mind and soul. There is nothing wrong with keeping your scars." Lifting her hoof, she manipulated her dream to make her coat recede, revealing the burn scars. "They remind you of your mistakes, and help you remember to learn to do better. But to deliberately inflict the same injury on yourself over and over...that is no scar. That is tearing the wound open repeatedly, guaranteeing that it will never heal."
"Do I not deserve it for what I've done?" Luna demanded defensively.
"I told you what Azula did," Cadence countered. "I told you what she would have done. Do you think she deserved anything that happened to her? Whether by my hoof or her brother's hand?"
Luna stared into Cadence's eyes for a time, then glanced away.
"I understand not being able to forgive yourself," Cadence continued. "It's something I deal with as well. But you made a mistake, that's all. There are no punishments for that, only consequences." She lowered her gaze. "Father taught me that. It...helped me get past my guilt regarding my involvement with...what happened in the Northern Sea." She raised her head, gazing into Luna's eyes. "But it still haunts me...and I accept that as one of the consequences for my mistake. But I don't punish myself for that mistake beyond these nightmares my mind creates on its own...the pain of those scars flaring. Is what you did so much worse than my own mistakes?"
"And every decision Celestia made on her own for the kingdom, shaped by her grief and desire to somehow save me...is that not my fault as well?" Luna demanded.
"Merely more consequences," Cadence continued. "But will you face them...or hide from them?"
"Hide?!" Luna demanded angrily. "I will not hide from the consequences of my actions!"
"And yet you feel you have to create your own punishment?" Cadence countered, firmly meeting Luna's angry gaze.
Luna fell silent, letting her niece's words turn over and over in her mind. Eventually, she lowered her gaze. "It...it is not so easy to let it go..."
"That's why you have a loving family," Cadence replied softly. "We'll all be here for you, to help you through it...if you'll just open up and let us."
Much to Cadence' surprise, Luna chuckled softly. "How often have I given that self same advice to a child whose nightmares I have helped them face?" she murmured. "I was summoned to your nightmare to help you with your pain...but it seems it is you who have helped me, somewhat, with my own."
Cadence smiled softly, extending her wing to embrace her aunt. "Just addressing the issue doesn't fix it," Cadence offered comfortingly. "But it is the first step."
Luna leaned into the comforting embrace, relaxing. After a time, she spoke up again. "Your father sounds...interesting," she mused idly.
"Pretty sure Aunt Tia's already called dibs," Cadence replied impishly.
Cadence couldn't help but laugh.