"It was taking me forever to find you," Rainbow Dash continued. Twilight hadn't responded yet. She was trying to figure out if it would be better to teleport away from Dash, or just run really fast. Teleporting was normally a no-brainer, but in her state, she wasn't sure she could handle it.
"But then I just ran into Princess Luna, like, five minutes ago. And she was all 'you really need to find Twilight, and she'll be heading for the city exit!' So I went here. Good thing I bumped into her, huh?"
"Luna wanted to find me?" Twilight scowled. So Luna wasn't going to let her off without the lecture, or banishment or punishment. Luna, and Celestia too, had to know that Twilight recognized her own evil; why couldn't they just let her leave?
But then again, they'd only sent Dash, not the police. Maybe she could still get away.
"Yeah! Come on, she looked really upset! You'd better get back there right away. But first, let's catch up!" She grinned. "What've you been up to?"
"Yes, I'm sure they want me back." Twilight turned towards the town exit. "Tell them I'm sorry."
"Wait, what? You're not going back to see them?"
"Nope. Bye, Dash." Twilight began trotting quickly towards the city exit. She wasn't that far away, she thought, so she could get out of town in just a few minutes. Then she'd have a head start on whoever the princesses sent.
Dash sounded completely bewildered. "Hey, don't go! What's wrong?"
"I'm sure the princesses can fill you in." And then, to distract Dash from calling the guards, "What are you even doing here?"
"Spike told me Celestia told him you were taking some test." Dash began hurrying after Twilight. "I decided to take a few days off and go support you. But then they wouldn't let me see you until it was done for some stupid reason."
Twilight mentally cursed Spike. "Tell the others back in Ponyville that I'm sorry too, okay?"
"Sorry for what?" Dash still sounded confused, and Twilight supposed that make sense. Dash didn't yet know the extent of Twilight's depravity. "Why can't you tell them yourself?"
Twilight knew that she should make up a lie -- preferably one that would send Dash somewhere else so she could slip out of town -- but she was so tired from the whole ordeal that she couldn’t bring herself to do it. "I'm not going back to Ponyville."
"For how long?"
"Ever. I'm heading out to the frontier territories."
Dash was silent for a long moment. "But why?"
"The princesses know."
"But -- but you can't do that!" Dash looked horrified. "You can't just leave and not even say goodbye! We're your friends! You can't do that to us!"
"I can and I will. It's for the best. Now will you get out of my way? I'm behind schedule." Twilight turned back and glared at her. "I don't have much time to waste either. Just tell the others that I can't go back to Ponyville, okay?"
"But we're friends! You can't just run off like that!"
Twilight snapped, "I have to! I'm leaving because I can't stay in Ponyville and, and impose on you all anymore. You deserve somepony better."
Dash didn't back down. "Why not?" she demanded. "What do you mean, impose'? You're not imposing!"
Twilight wanted to scream. "Because I'm a terrible pony and I'm leaving before I hurt anypony else!"
"What?! Who told you that?"
"I discovered it for myself."
Rainbow Dash shook her head. "Twilight, that's not true."
"Yes, it is," she said. "That's what I was doing here. The princesses were giving me a test on if I was a good pony and a good friend, and I completely failed. I probably got the worst grade ever."
"They have a test for that?"
"Yes, they do. And I blew it. I proved to everypony that nopony should be close to me, because I'm evil and I'll hurt them and--"
"That's a stupid test," said Rainbow Dash, as if it were trivially obvious. "I mean, that's obviously wrong."
"Princess Celestia came up with it herself."
"It's still a stupid test. You've helped us all so much. If anypony says you're a danger and shouldn't be my friend, I'll buck 'em."
Twilight sighed. She felt very tired. "I appreciate the sentiment, but you weren't there. And now... now I really do have to go. I have a long journey ahead of me."
"Where are you going, anyway?"
"Like I said. The frontier. Somewhere where I can be useful, and where I won't have to worry about hurting my friends."
"But which settlement?" Rainbow Dash frowned.
"I'm not telling. You might try to follow me."
"Well, yeah," said Rainbow, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "Of course I will."
Twilight wondered if she was recharged enough to teleport away and get out of this endless conversation, but decided against it. Screwing up a teleport again could leave her completely exhausted and too in pain to move, and if she couldn't move, she couldn't escape Dash. She again cursed Spike for telling Dash about her trip; she should have been long gone by this point.
"So tell me about this test," said Rainbow Dash, as Twilight resumed her rapid trot out of town.
"I'm leaving now."
"Hey, you can't do that!" Rainbow flew in front of Twilight, but Twilight easily stepped around her. "No! Stop!"
Twilight groaned, feeling completely exasperated. At this rate, Rainbow would make so much of a scene that she'd wake up everypony else, and probably summon the city guards to boot. That could scuttle her escape plans. "Okay, look. If I tell you about the test, will you stop making so much noise?"
Rainbow Dash quickly nodded.
Twilight looked around for a private place. There was a little restaurant that was still open, but of course she had no money.
Rainbow Dash followed her gaze and quickly said, "Hey, let's go there. My treat. I mean, uh, if you're leaving, I want to get you a last meal or something."
Twilight sighed. She couldn't accept her food, but... well, maybe it would be good to tell somepony. She supposed it was only fair that they know the real her. Then they wouldn't miss her as much; they'd hurt less, and even now, she cared about that. "Alright, fine."
Twilight stared at Rainbow Dash blankly. "Well, yeah. After I realized that I... that I would have done something so horrible to you and the others, I decided I had to leave immediately. I can't risk being around--"
Rainbow Dash laughed. "What, really? That's all? C'mon, Twilight, I thought you'd done something really horrible or something."
"...I killed you, Dash."
Rainbow said, "So, if I have this right, Celestia gave you a bunch of false memories telling you that you're this awesome assassin or something. She had you think that if you didn't take part in that deathmatch, thousands of ponies would die horribly and the whole country would be plunged into war. She set up all the matches to give you a huge disadvantage so that you were tired and stressed and mad at us that we didn't know what you were going through. She had you get hurt defending Pinkie, and us not care, to stress you even more and make you madder at us. She messed with your mind by giving you this whole past that we couldn't understand, and the only ponies who got it were the palace guards. She made me sound like a manipulative monster who enjoyed putting you in a horrible position. She--"
"I murdered you, Dash. I killed you because Princess Celestia told me to and I didn't question her."
"But now you're leaving town because Princess Celestia's test told you you're a bad friend, and you're not questioning that?"
Twilight blinked. This was a surprisingly difficult argument. "That's different! I mean, I - I showed her, and myself, that clearly I can't be trusted."
"I trust you."
"Well, you're wrong to do so. Did you miss the part where I killed you?"
"No. You kind of brought it up a few times." Twilight looked down at that, but Rainbow Dash pressed on. "I just know that it isn't the real you. It was some weird hallucination. In real-life, you wouldn't hurt us."
"What if it hadn't been all a dream?" said Twilight. "What if I showed up in Canterlot, and she gave me those memories, but all the rest of it was real? Then I'd have killed you."
"That'd be her fault, for screwing up your head," said Rainbow, matter-of-factly. "The real you, the one I'm talking to right now, would never hurt us."
"Look, right now, you don't actually want to hurt us, right?"
"Of course not!"
Rainbow nodded triumphantly. "That's why you're leaving, right?"
"You don't want to hurt us," said Dash in a triumphant voice. "So much that you're willing to go to some distant city to avoid it. So then you really, really don't want to hurt us! So what're you worried about?"
"I'm worried about getting fooled again and hurting you!" Twilight almost yelled.
"Hey, Twilight, we can take care of ourselves. I think we're all willing to put up with that risk, just like I'm sure you're willing to risk it for our sakes."
"It's, it's different..."
Rainbow Dash reached across the table and took Twilight's front hooves in her own. "We want you around, Twilight. You're a good friend."
Twilight paused for just a moment. It was tempting, she thought. Tempting to forget plans of leaving, to stay and just live like she had before...
"No. No, I'm sorry, Dash, I can't. I can't ask you to take that risk." She hastily got to her hooves. "Alright, I told you what you wanted to know. You promised you'd let me get out of town without making noise."
Dash looked pained. "Come on, Twilight... please don't leave. We'll miss you."
"I know. I wish there was another way, but there isn't." She didn't want to think too much about what Dash was saying; it was starting to almost make sense. "I'm really sorry."
She took off at a run.
It didn't take too long to reach the edge of Canterlot. Twilight found herself slowing as she got there, even though she knew she shouldn't. But she couldn't deny herself one last bit of nostalgia.
She pawed at the ground. Just another step and she'd be out of Canterlot forever. Well... it was what it had to be. She couldn't stay in this town. She didn't deserve it.
Twilight jumped and wheeled around, to see a frantic Rainbow Dash. Again.
"I'm going to follow you!" the cyan pony announced.
"No you aren't."
"Yes, I am." Dash smiled.
Twilight scowled. "Okay, Dash, I appreciate it, but really, enough's enough. You're not coming. Sorry."
She hoped she was up to a round of teleportation, because otherwise, she didn't know how to shake Dash.
Twilight focused, weaving the magic over herself and visualizing her destination. There was a convenient field a few hours out from Canterlot. She'd port there and hope that she retained enough energy to hide from her friends.
With a flash of light, she vanished, and appeared a moment later in a field.
"Woah." She stumbled around, disoriented. Her head was spinning, and she saw stars in places where stars had no business of being. "Yeah, no more magic until I've had a nice nap." Maybe two days worth or so.
Disbelieving, Twilight turned to see Rainbow Dash standing besides her. She smiled cheekily.
"Oh, didn't I mention it? When I bumped into Luna earlier, she gave me this trinket thingie." Dash took a large gemstone out of her saddlebag. It sparkled with magic. "I didn't get all the technical mumbo-jumbo, but it lets me 'follow' anypony around me who's using teleportation magic!"
Twilight's mouth dropped.
Then she teleported four times in rapid succession. She was back in Canterlot, on the castle walls, in the nearby woods, and then in another large field, this one on the opposite end of town. There. That would throw off--
Twilght took two steps and collapsed in exhaustion.
When Twilight woke up, she found that she was in a tent.
At first, she had no idea what was going on. She certainly hadn't had a tent the previous night, and neither had Dash. What had happened now? Was she hallucinating again? Had she had a complete mental breakdown?
Completely confused, she poked her head outside and saw that somepony had set up a portable stove. It smelled like eggs were cooking, and toast too. As she watched, Rainbow Dash flew down and put a few more sticks on the fire.
Twilight could only stare.
Dash saw her and smiled. "Hi, Twilight! Want some eggs! They're almost done! Nothing like a good egg over easy on a nice summer day." One of the eggs was beginning to smoke a little bit. "...eggs over hard are good too, right?"
Twilight just continued to stare. Dash had followed her even with Twilight's teleporting. How could she get away?
"So where now?" asked Dash.
"You're going home. I'm going--"
"I'm coming with," said Dash, matter-of-factly.
"Well, apparently, I can." Dash grinned.
"I mean, you have a job and stuff! Friends! You're trying out for the Wonderbolts soon!"
"You can't turn your whole life upside down for me!"
"Well," said Dash, "I guess you could come back to Ponyville. Then I wouldn't have to leave."
"What -- I -- you can't do that!"
"Sure I can! And there's nothing you can do about it." Dash chuckled.
Twilight paused. "But why..."
"Um, because, you're my friend? I'm not letting you wander off to Western Nowhere by yourself."
"But I killed you!"
"I don't care. We're friends, and I know you would never hurt any of us in real life. So I'm going to follow you until it gets through your head. I don't care if I lose my job with the weather bureau or whatever. I'm not abandoning you."
Twilight looked away, tears in her eyes. "I don't... don't you get it, Dash? I'm not worth this." She paused. "Dash, I don't know how else to say this. Celestia's test showed me that I'd hurt you just because Celestia asked me too. I can't risk hurting you girls by staying near you."
Dash tilted her head. "But when Discord messed with all of us, we almost destroyed the world... and you didn't want us to leave."
"That's different," said Twilight. "He--"
"You've saved the world multiple times, and you're always there for whoever needs it. You're worth it."
Twilight looked away.
When Twilight didn't respond, Dash sat on a rock by the fire. "You know what? When I went back to Canterlot to get the tent stuff, I bumped into Luna again. She and Celestia were searching the whole town for you."
"To throw me in jail or banish me."
"To get you to calm down. Luna told me about that test. She said that you almost set a record."
Twilight frowned. "A record? For what, highest body count?"
"No, I..." Rainbow Dash put a hoof to her head. "Twilight, you're awesome, but sometimes you're more stubborn than Applejack, you know?"
"What do you mean?"
"That test is specifically created to tempt a pony to do horrible things. It was, quote, 'made so that the princesses of the land could see what they needed to watch out for in their most trusted servants, and so those servants would not grow proud and think themselves incorruptible.' Or something like that. Anyway, it's usually really good at it. Luna told me that the average time for a pony to fail and start hurting other ponies is about twelve hours."
"Twelve -- okay, that's obviously not true. Unless everypony else is even more psychotic than I am."
Dash smiled. "The test is designed to tempt ponies into doing horrible things, Twilight. That's the whole purpose -- to show the princesses who can fight it the longest, and to show the ponies taking the test that they aren't perfect and need to make sure not to get corrupted. So, it'll take a pony who thinks she could rule the country better, or more justly, or whatever, and gives them a situation where they could get away with assassinating Luna and Celestia and taking charge. Or it takes a greedy pony, or one who needs money for, I don't know, a doctor or something, and puts them in a position where they can kill a rich friend and take their money. Or it takes somepony like Pinkie, who cares about having a ton of friends, and has all their friends backstab and betray them until they go on a rampage. Everypony else, it's really simple things like that. But not for you.
"For you, Twilight, the spell had to come up with an entire deathmatch tournament, have Princess Celestia herself order you to kill ponies, give you an entirely new past, and invent literally dozens of ponies to manipulate you in the right way. And it still took five days to get you to betray your friends. Twilight, you wrecked the curve. Luna said that ponies only do as well as you once a century. She said that Celestia was so proud of you that she could barely speak. You're probably going to get an award or something." She paused. "Luna told me that Celestia underwent the test once, herself, to prevent herself from going crazy like Nightmare Moon. She made it six days before she anointed herself 'Empress Solar Flare' and tried to 'bathe the world in endless day' and crush everypony who didn't want that. Twilight, you almost did better than Princess Celestia."
"It doesn't matter. There shouldn't be anything that could convince me to kill you girls."
"This is a spell," said Rainbow Dash, still cheery, "Designed by the two most powerful magicians in Equestria specifically to figure out what could make ponies do horrible things. Are you really going to be upset that you couldn't beat a spell designed by Celestia and Luna themselves?"
"No, I... I know that's not reasonable..."
"So stop worrying about it. You did amazing. You're still the same kind, caring pony that you were a week ago. And if anypony tells you different, whether it's Snips in Ponyville or Celestia herself with some stupid test, you tell me and I'll set 'em straight. Twilight, I don't freaking care if 'the test' says that you're dangerous. I know you aren't, and so do the rest of your friends. And if you think we're going to let you wander off on some exile, you've got another thing coming." And she embraced Twilight.
Twilight sat still for a long moment, almost stunned -- she'd never imagined that even Dash would respond this way, with this kind of loyalty.
And then she was crying, and Dash was still hugging her, and she felt like she never wanted the blue pony to let go.
After a few minutes, Dash smiled and helped her get back into the tent and under the blanket. "I'll finish breakfast. Why don't we eat and camp out for a while before going to see the princesses?"
"And no more talk about running away, right?"
She nodded again.
"If you ever want to do something this silly again, you'll talk to me first and give me the chance to pound some sense into you, right?"
Twilight smiled slightly.
"Good." Dash hugged her. "We care about you. If there's something as bad as this, and you want to do something desperate, talk with us first." Her voice grew a little more serious. "Please."
"Alright, I will." She nodded.
Dash got up, but Twilight said, "Um... Dash... can you stay, for a little while?"
Dash smiled. "Sure." She moved into the tent and sat down next to Twilight.
Twilight settled into place. "You're a good friend, Rainbow Dash."
"So are you." She smiled down at her.
Twilight fell silent, and soon fell asleep. The last thing she saw before drifting into slumber was Rainbow Dash, sitting next to her like a bodyguard... or a champion... ready to protect her from anything.
She smiled as she drifted off.