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64w, 6dPinkie Pie: Pinkamena Diane Pie
63w, 5dThe Mysterious Mare Do Well
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The pastel colors of the sunrise that initially flooded the sky gradually faded in favor of the blue of the coming day. It was only then that Rainbow Dash was able to bring herself to pull away from Mare Do Well's touch.
"Are you going to be all right?" the mare asked, seemingly unbothered by the sudden way Rainbow Dash jerked back, as though burned. "You were really tired."
"I'll be fine," Rainbow Dash answered in a clipped voice. "I'm going now."
"Don't push yourself."
"Oh, yeah, like I'll do what you tell me to."
"You're probably planning to go talk to Applejack, aren't you?"
Rainbow had been crouched down again, wings flared as she once more prepared to take off, just like before, but Mare Do Well's question caught her attention, and she found herself turning back to face the other mare. "So? No rule against that, is there?" Dash asked sarcastically, rolling her eyes.
"Do what you like. I just don't see why you're doing it at all."
"Because of the game you thought up, remember?" Rainbow retorted, with a sharp snap of her wings for emphasis.
Mare Do Well was silent for a moment before answering – but when she did, the response was an unexpected one. "You'd be surprised at how many ponies out there fall in love without ever really seeing whom they claim to love," she said. "There's a dissonance. Between what a pony is, and what everypony else perceives of them. A literal mask might be easier to work around than a figurative one."
The contrast between her philosophical tone, formal wording and her ridiculous costume was a little jarring, especially considering where they were right then. A roof.
Rainbow Dash waited for Mare Do Well to continue and explain herself, but no such explanation came, prompting the pegasus to say, "You're weird. I don't even know what you're talking about."
"I'm talking about perception," Mare Do Well replied smoothly without missing a beat. "You've shaped these ideas about your friends based on your experiences with them, but they have a life outside of you that impacts them just as much, if not more – yet you refuse to allow for change. That's why you don't see any of them in me, and why you likely won't be able to uncover me. Because you refuse to accept that there might be something deeper to my character, or that one of your friends might have been hiding an aspect of themselves from you. You're so used to your ideas of them that you reject everything else."
"You know, saying stuff like that isn't really making me warm up to you," Rainbow Dash managed to answer.
"I'm not trying to insult you. I'm just saying that it might be easier for you to let it go and avoid the potential unpleasantness your investigation may bring."
"Yeah, not gonna happen," Rainbow Dash cut in, equally smoothly. "You're just trying to psyche me out so that I back down before I've even really started. You can't pull one over me; I know all the tricks."
"Do you?" the mare asked lightly, sounding amused again; so instead of saying anything more, Dash took off, flying into the new day and not looking back, no matter how much she found herself wanting to.
When Mare Do Well had spoken earlier, she'd spoken for herself, too. Perception and dissonance... the concepts rung especially strongly with her, especially now, and for obvious reasons.
There was a gap between who she knew she really was and the way she displayed herself, but whether that gap grew larger or smaller as Mare Do Well, she had no idea. All she knew was that no matter what Rainbow Dash said to the contrary, she knew now that the pegasus was starting to warm up to her, however gradually. That alone made her happy enough to practically erase any doubts that she may have had.
The sunrise they'd watched together was far from a genuine victory, but she was much closer now than she'd been before. It was progress, and if she somehow managed to continue along this track, then it wouldn't be much longer.
Plus, she'd gotten to spend a morning close to the pony she loved, and that in itself seemed to make everything worth it. No matter what happened now.
The first thing Rainbow Dash did upon returning home was go to sleep, and she was pleased to discover that she had, in fact, been correct. Clouds were much more comfortable for napping than the street.
But that comfort didn't stop her from dreaming.
Lately, Rainbow's sleep had been of the restless sort, but she had never once woken up with any kind of recollection of the nightly visions that kept her tossing and turning. This time, though, her dreams were vivid, sharp against her memory. Not that this unexplained clarity did much to tell her what they meant.
Although her dreams seemed brighter, somehow, and more detailed, they were as surreal and nonsensical as dreams could be expected to be, a collection of interwoven symbols and half-remembered memories from the day. A mare without a face, a maze where she caught glimpses of a black cape fluttering at every corner and over every wall, a border of blood-red flowers seeming to edge her thoughts, all tinged with a darkness that pressed against her, closer and closer, almost suffocating Dash with its presence.
And finally she woke up in a cold sweat, breathing heavily with her heart pounding, as if she'd just woken from a nightmare, and her mind flashed back to the mental image of the red flowers and the black against the black.
Rainbow Dash groaned in frustration and shoved her head deep into the tuft of cloud she'd been using as a pillow, hoping to muffle the thrumming of her heart that sounded so loudly in her ears, and maybe even to drown out all thought. It was only then that Rainbow could fall asleep again. This time without dreaming.
Upon waking for the third time that day, Rainbow Dash at last decided to give up on trying to sleep – but before she was ready to head back out into the world, she had some things that she needed to think very seriously about for a while.
This whole challenge was a race, basically, and Rainbow Dash was good at races. She just needed to keep telling herself that and soon she would believe it.
These were the basics, as far as she knew.
Rainbow Dash wanted Mare Do Well to go away, and Mare Do Well wanted to convince Rainbow Dash to want otherwise. This had led them to make a bet to see which of them would accomplish their goal first. If Rainbow Dash could figure out Mare Do Well's true identity, then Mare Do Well would finally step out of the picture and leave her alone. But like any other contest, there were rules.
The first rule: force of any kind was forbidden. Rainbow Dash couldn't tackle and unmask Mare Do Well against her will, and Mare Do Well couldn't try and slip Rainbow Dash some kind of black market love potion. Not that Rainbow would've eaten or drunk anything the mare had offered her anyway.
The second rule: neither of them were supposed to seek outside assistance, although Rainbow Dash had already recruited Pinkie to her cause and didn't really plan on telling her to go away. Dash privately resolved to compromise by not asking anypony else to help her. She could do that much, at least.
The third rule: neither of them were allowed to interfere with one another. Apparently this meant that Rainbow Dash was supposed to go along with whatever Mare Do Well suggested they do, and in return, Mare Do Well wasn't going to actively try and halt her progress. It wasn't exactly a fair bargain – it was one that Rainbow Dash doubted she'd be able to hold up, actually – but she'd agreed anyway, just to get Mare Do Well off her back.
And of course amendments could be made later.
The game itself seemed easy enough from the outside, and might have actually been as simple as it first appeared if it had been taking place inside a comic book or something. The clues would've been obvious, and the list of suspects much shorter. But as it was, Rainbow Dash had nothing to go but presumptions that she had no way of guaranteeing.
Although Rainbow Dash was at least 90% sure that Mare Do Well really was one of her friends in disguise, she had no idea who. They were all simultaneously equally likely and unlikely, and she just kept finding new reasons to either further question them or pass one over as a potential suspect. The only pony that Dash was now sure about was Twilight – because of the party, when her sudden appearance had prompted Mare Do Well's flight.
At first, Rainbow Dash had thought that Applejack was a sure thing, too, but then Pinkie Pie had planted the seeds of doubt in her mind with her casual mention of Applejack's apparent ability to disguise her voice.
All Rainbow Dash wanted was for Mare Do Well to disappear. If not that, then to at least stop bothering her. Dash didn't even care anymore if Mare Do Well still hung around Ponyville and did her superhero stuff or whatever; she just didn't want the mare to seek her out any further.
But after watching the sunrise together, Rainbow had found herself calling all of her preconceptions of Mare Do Well into question. The morning they'd shared, willingly or not, had been so different from any of their previous, tension-charged encounters. It had been so simple, so innocent, and for that little while, Mare Do Well had seemed more like a lovesick filly than the malicious deviant that she'd appeared to be before. It was only later, when Rainbow Dash had prepared to leave, that Mare Do Well had resumed the taunting, dignified air that was so characteristic of her. But until then, it had almost been easy for Rainbow to believe it really was one of her friends underneath the mask.
How much of Rainbow's initial impression of Mare Do Well had been due to prejudice, and how much to reality? Had she just been against the other mare from the beginning because she'd felt threatened by a potential rival?
On the first night, Mare Do Well had scared off a wannabe thief for her, but Rainbow Dash had lashed out – more out of embarrassment over the circumstances under which they'd met than out of any real hostility. It was a similar situation the second time; Dash had been an idiot and had gotten herself hurt, and Mare Do Well had been there to help her. And then, in response to Rainbow Dash's impulsive anger, she'd nuzzled Dash before disappearing. On the third meeting they'd spoken for the first time, and Mare Do Well had gotten way too close – but, as creepy as it had been, if she really was one of Rainbow's friends, that changed things. For instance, if it had been Pinkie Pie getting all in her face like that, it would've seemed playful and good-natured. Instead, Rainbow Dash had interpreted it as some kind of veiled threat.
And Rainbow Dash couldn't help but remember what Mare Do Well had said before she'd left, about perceptions. It was all about perception and interpretation, and those were such easy things to change.
Pinkie came to greet her first thing in the morning. Or afternoon. Whatever. It was morning for her, since she'd slept in so late. The point was, the first pony Rainbow Dash saw that day was Pinkie Pie, who was as bubbly as ever.
"What are you doing, Pinks?" Rainbow asked, bleary-eyed and mane mussed. She looked as though she'd just gotten out of bed, which she had. It was like her sleep cycles were gradually shifting so that she was becoming nocturnal. Dark, bruise-like circles were under her eyes, making Dash look almost fragile for once.
Maybe it was Rainbow Dash's obvious disorientation that caused Pinkie to considerately refrain from bellowing her reply the way she normally did. "Detective Pinkie Pie, at your service!" she announced gaily, but quieter than what was typical for her. "And we're gonna solve the Mystery of the Masked Mare some more, remember?"
"Yeah, because that went so well last time," Rainbow Dash yawned. "Remember how we went to Rarity's and found nothing?"
When Rainbow had first gotten up, she hadn't fully understood why Pinkie was waiting for her under her cloud house, sitting patiently on the road and waving excitedly when the pegasus first looked outside, but as soon as she'd spotted the pink pony, Dash had flown down to see what she wanted, knowing that Pinkie Pie would likely spend the entire day pestering her until Rainbow Dash finally gave in. It was easier to give in right from the start.
Her mind flickered back to the way Mare Do Well had been waiting so patiently for her to wake up when she'd fallen asleep in the alley, but decided not to dwell on it.
"Well, today we're gonna go to Sweet Apple Acres and find nothing!" Pinkie cried, throwing her arms wide open in excitement. Rainbow Dash half expected a burst of confetti to rain down on them as she did so, and was mildly surprised when it didn't happen. "You need to give Applejack a turn at being the suspect pony, and I'll come with you to investigate and then we can come back and make Rarity's apology cake together!"
"You're seriously doing that?" Dash asked incredulously, but she already knew that the answer would be a resounding yes. Pinkie Pie never missed an opportunity for unnecessary baking.
"I know, I know," Pinkie said with an apologetic giggle and shrug of her shoulders. "I'm a lazy pony for not doing it yesterday, but I tried to, I just couldn't finish! It just looked so good that I kept sneaking little nibbles, and the next thing I knew, it was all gone! But this way we can do it together and that's double the fun, right?"
"Um, sure. I guess."
Before Rainbow Dash could protest, Pinkie Pie hooked a foreleg around her neck and began to half-walk, half-drag her down the road to Applejack's place.
The orchard looked bare, but that's because it was. The trees were utterly barren of any leaves or fruit. The last of the summer apples had been harvested long ago, put into storage for the winter in preparation of the snow that was taking so long in coming.
At some point, Pinkie Pie had released her iron grip on Rainbow Dash, but Dash still trotted along beside her, only half listening to the way Pinkie chattered on inanely about whatever caught her attention. Although the pegasus wasn't really listening, there was something soothing about the sound of her rambling. It was a familiar sound.
It felt strange to be walking through Applejack's fields when they were empty. With every step there was a crunch of dead leaves and dried grass that littered the ground in anticipation of the turn of the year. Their breaths came out in little white puffs that hovered alongside them as they walked.
One tree in particular, though, caught Rainbow Dash's attention. It was the only tree left with any life about it, but that was because of the tree house set in its branches and the laughter of fillies that emanated from it.
"Rainbow Dash!" somepony shouted from within, and a scrappy orange pegasus came tumbling out of one of the windows before darting forward to sit eagerly before her idol. "We were just talking about you!"
"We were not," retorted a voice with a familiar southern twang to it. Apple Bloom popped her head out the window, accompanied by Sweetie Belle. "You were. We were talkin' bout tryin' to get fire-eatin' cutie marks."
"Yeah, but then Sweetie Belle said that sounded dangerous and I said that sounded perfect, and that reminded me of Rainbow Dash, because they don't call her Rainbow Danger Dash for nothing! Right?" Scootaloo chirped.
Pinkie had sidled up to them surprisingly quietly, and when Scootaloo noticed the way the pink pony mildly took her place by Rainbow Dash's side, her eyes narrowed slightly. But Pinkie Pie only responded to her expression of distaste by breaking out into an enormous grin.
"Oh, hi, girls!" the pink pony cried, jumping up and down and waving. "Whatcha doin'? Can we help? Wait, no, we can't, we gotta go find Applejack. Sorry! Maybe next time! Bye!"
"Huh?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Yer lookin' fer Applejack?" Apple Bloom asked. Her head ducked out of sight, then reappeared again in the doorway as she began to descend the stairs, once more followed by Sweetie. "She's over in th' apple cellar."
"Why are you looking for Applejack?" Scootaloo interrupted, eyes shining with barely repressed excitement. "Is Ponyville in danger? Are you guys putting together a crack team to fight evil?"
"Nah," Rainbow Dash answered coolly. She always tried her best to look good in front of the kid, and coupled this response with a proud toss of her mane and a cocky smile. "Not today, squirt. We're just looking for her to talk about stuff. Important stuff."
"I thought we were gonna ask her if she knew anything about Mare Do Well," Pinkie Pie asked, looking at Rainbow in confusion. It was all Rainbow Dash could do to restrain herself from kicking Pinkie right then and there.
By this point, both Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle had joined Scootaloo in standing before the older ponies, though neither of them had quite the same expression of worshipful adoration that Scootaloo had. The mention of Mare Do Well seemed to catch their interest, though.
"Mare Do Well? What about her?" Apple Bloom asked curiously.
"Ooh, yeah, Mare Do Well!" Pinkie explained eagerly. "Dashie wants to find out who she is because she's been showing up all mysteriously lately and trying to make kissy faces with her and we're gonna talk to Applejack because Dashie hasn't done that yet and then we're gonna make cake!" And she gasped for air, having said all of that in one breath.
"Mare Do Well?" repeated Sweetie Belle.
"Cake?" asked Apple Bloom.
"Kissy faces?" cried Scootaloo, looking horror-struck.
"Pinkie, you can stop talking now," Dash cut in.
"Yeah-huh, cake!" Pinkie continued, ignoring her. "A ginormous chocolate one! But first we gotta talk to Applejack."
The three crusaders exchanged sly grins. At least, they would have, if Scootaloo hadn't been so busy looking stricken.
"Y'know," Apple Bloom said slowly. "Fire-eatin' sounds awful dangerous."
"What would a fire-eating cutie mark even look like, anyway?" Sweetie Belle chimed in.
"Yeah!" Scootaloo added, getting into the swing of things. "You know what this calls for?"
"CUTIE MARK CRUSADER MYSTERY SOLVERS! YAY!" the three of them shrieked in unison, causing Rainbow Dash to jump, before racing off. Only Scootaloo remained behind.
"Don't worry!" the orange pegasus vowed, a deadly serious expression on her face. "We'll find out who Mare Do Well is! No criminal's safe when the Cutie Mark Crusader Mystery Solvers are on their trail!"
And then she was gone, too.
"They got that right. Nopony's safe with them around," Rainbow Dash said dryly. "C'mon, Apple Bloom said she was over at the cellar."
She turned to go, but stopped when Pinkie Pie didn't immediately follow.
"I should go help them!" Pinkie cried, looking inspired. "Detective Pinkie Pie always helps those in need, and they can't do it alone! They might need my magic question ball!"
"Your... what?" Rainbow Dash asked, halting in her tracks and looking dumbfounded.
"Yeah!" Pinkie Pie ducked her head down and whipped it back up, yanking a black and white plastic orb out of nowhere. She managed to carry it in her mouth in spite of the huge smile she wore. "Shee?" she mumbled through the plastic before setting it down on the ground and giving it a little tap, rolling it over to Dash. "Ya just gotta ask it a question and it answers. It knows everything," she added in a conspiratorial whisper, leaning close with wide, almost fearful eyes.
Rainbow Dash nudged the orb with a hoof, looking at it oddly as she sent it rolling back to Pinkie Pie. Why did I ever think she could help me? Dash thought, sighing inwardly – but she hadn't, she reminded herself. She'd only recruited Pinkie Pie to get on Mare Do Well's nerves.
"Watch!" Pinkie continued obliviously. "Dear magic question ball, will I get to eat a whole pie for dinner?"
She bent over and picked it up in her mouth before shaking her head furiously and dropping it back on the ground. The two of them simultaneously leaned forward to read the answer. Signs point to yes.
"See?" Pinkie Pie declared in triumph. "But now I gotta go, though. Bye!"
And then she was gone, too, leaving Rainbow Dash standing alone among the bare trees in confusion.
"Pinkie Pie, you are so random," Dash muttered out loud to herself. It was like a mantra, one that she could repeat whenever Pinkie got just a little too weird for her, to find instant comfort. Now she had to find Applejack on her own.
Apple Bloom had said that she thought her sister was in the apple cellar, and she was right. As Rainbow Dash descended, she was a little surprised by how dark it was. A musty smell pervaded the air. The only light came from the soft glow of the bare bulb that hung from the ceiling on a long, frayed string, illuminating the crates of apples that filled the tiny room. The darkness was oppressive; it reminded her of her dream. Rainbow Dash felt almost claustrophobic down there.
"Oh, hey, Rainbow!" Applejack greeted in her friendly way from within the black. "Just lookin' over the stores fer the winter. You guys ever plannin' on gettin' round to that?" she joked.
"Whenever I feel like it," Rainbow Dash shot back, swooping over to hover beside the workhorse. Who, she now noticed, looked absolutely exhausted, despite the cheerful manner in which she'd spoken.
"What brings you down here?" Applejack asked with a wan smile that Rainbow could barely see in the gloom. It looked ominous in the dim lighting.
"Can you really change your voice?" Rainbow Dash asked automatically. Best to cut right to the chase. Skip all the small talk. "I've never heard you do it, but Pinkie said it was awesome."
Applejack blinked, looking a little taken aback, before smiling. "Aw, shucks, it's been so long, I reckon I don't know if I can anymore," she chuckled. "I was just a li'l filly when I used to do it. But lemme see –" She paused to clear her throat.
"Ah, yes, is this what you were thinking of?" Applejack suddenly asked, her voice taking on the accent of a posh Manehattanite without even the slightest hint of her familiar Southern drawl.
With a yelp, Rainbow Dash drew back, and Applejack started to guffaw.
"Lookit you!" she hooted, voice back to normal. "Like you just saw a ghost."
But Rainbow Dash didn't laugh. In the dark, hearing such an unfamiliar voice come out of her friend was terrifying, like suddenly realizing that she was alone with a stranger. Especially when she could barely see Applejack as it was. "It's not funny!" Dash shouted, suddenly angry without knowing why. "Don't laugh at me!"
"Can't help it," Applejack retorted. "An' you laugh at me every chance you get. You dish it but can't take it?"
But it wasn't funny, not at all, because that meant that one of the only constants Rainbow Dash had been able to hold onto as an undeniable truth – that Applejack was incapable of deception of any kind – was wrong. Because for that moment, however brief, the workhorse had become somepony else.
Rainbow Dash wanted to demand an explanation, but was lost as to what to say; so instead, she came out with the first thing that popped into her head.
"Why are you so tired?"
"Been workin' all day. Runnin' a farm's hard work, y'know. Not that that's anything a lazybones like yerself has had much experience with." Another chuckle.
Why is she in such a good mood?
"Up late?" Rainbow asked, making no effort to disguise the challenge in her voice – but Applejack either didn't hear it or chose to ignore it.
"Yeah, I guess so. Up early, too. Crack o' dawn."
Have you ever gotten up early enough...
Before she really knew what she was doing, Rainbow Dash's hooves shot out, slamming into Applejack. The push caught the earth pony off guard, causing her to stumble backwards, but she'd never lost her balance before, and when she caught herself, she glared at Rainbow Dash.
"What in the hay didja do that for?" Applejack demanded angrily.
"Why were you up so early?" Rainbow Dash screamed. She couldn't have explained why she was so angry all of a sudden, but she was, and she wanted to hurt somepony because of it. "What were you doing?"
"Rainbow Dash, what –"
"Apples!" Applejack shouted, equally loudly. "Apples, Rainbow Dash! That's what I do! Remember? What else would I be doin'?!"
"Hmm, I dunno, moonlighting as Mare Do Well just to freak me out, maybe?!" Rainbow Dash shouted back. Her throat burned from the sudden screeching argument that she'd found herself in, and her heart was slamming against her ribcage, it was pounding so hard. Her chest was constricting, and she felt like she was either going to explode or cry, but why she was so upset, she didn't even know.
Applejack had looked primed to buck Rainbow Dash right out of the air, but now she pulled back, looking genuinely confused.
"Mare Do Well?" Applejack repeated. "What're you talkin' about? I thought that nonsense got sorted out."
"What? No! That's, like, all I've been doing lately! How did you not notice?"
But Rainbow Dash could feel her anger fading, her resolve faltering. For a moment, she'd been so consumed by panic that she'd worked herself up into a frenzy – but now she saw the pure bewilderment in Applejack's eyes, like she really had no idea what Rainbow Dash was talking about, and Dash could feel herself begin to come down off her outburst.
"Well, I dunno. You never talked 'bout it after it first came up, so I guess I just assumed it worked itself out somehow. I was busy, y'know. I had to finish harvestin' before the cold snap. I didn't have a lotta time to worry 'bout somethin' like that – and I'd think you'd be too busy, too, with winter comin' an' all."
It sounded so reasonable.
The doubts had been pressing against Rainbow Dash from all sides, and the suspicions and darkness and fear had suddenly been overwhelming, but now she could see how ridiculous she'd been. Applejack was honesty and integrity, and although that could drive Rainbow Dash nuts sometimes, she knew that it meant Applejack was a pony that she could always count on.
Rainbow Dash touched down onto the ground so that she was face level with Applejack. And she told her everything.
Applejack looked disgusted.
"Why'd somepony go an' do somethin' like that?" she asked, seeming completely uncomprehending. "It's downright dishonest, goin' around pretendin' to be somepony else just to... to... I don't even know what!"
Rainbow Dash had no answer.
They were both sitting, side by side, propped up against a wall of the cellar. Dash kept thinking back to that night after Pinkie's party, when she'd been sitting against the wall of the bakery and Mare Do Well had come to sit with her.
Why had she ever, even for a moment, suspected Applejack? She was reacting exactly the way Rainbow Dash would've expected her to, and it seemed so illogical to imagine Applejack being capable of pulling off such a scheme without even once slipping up. It was downright impossible.
"So what're you doin' now?" Applejack finally asked, glancing at the pegasus. Her hat cast strange shadows over her face, reminiscent of the eerie lighting from before that had preluded their argument.
"I dunno," Rainbow Dash replied truthfully. "I know it's stupid, but I kind of feel like I need to actually do this and win. Because if I don't, then... I don't know. I just have to."
"Yeah," Applejack said slowly, with a thoughtful nod. "Yeah, I can understand that. But... an' I'm just sayin', here... maybe yer goin' about this the wrong way?"
Rainbow Dash's ears pricked up.
"What do you mean?" she asked carefully.
"Yer tryin' to figure out who Mare Do Well is, but maybe you should do it backwards. Like, try and figure out who'd wanna be Mare Do Well. Is there anypony out there that fancies you that might wanna tell you in such a... a dramatic way?"
"Oh, you know me," Rainbow Dash answered breezily, trying to hide the sudden heat she felt in her cheeks. "I got ponies falling for me left and right. Can't hold me back. Everypony wants a piece of the Dash."
"Yeah, yeah, we know. Yer a heartbreaker." Applejack grinned. "But seriously, now. D'you know anypony that might wanna go that far fer you?"
Rainbow Dash thought.
"No," she said.
A silence fell over the two of them. It was strange, sitting with Applejack in the dark. Since Rainbow couldn't see the other pony, it was almost like she was alone and talking to herself.
"Y'know, speakin' of breakin' hearts..." Applejack began casually, probably trying her very best to be subtle.
"I was kidding," Dash was quick to leap in.
"I know, I know. But I think you know who I'm talkin' about."
"Who?" Rainbow Dash finally asked.
"C'mon!" Applejack said, nudging her playfully. "You mean you don't know?"
She could feel Applejack stare at her, even though she couldn't see it in the darkness, and when the earth pony spoke, her voice carried that pitying tone that ponies usually saved for when they were speaking to somepony of much lower intelligence than them. "Shucks, Rainbow Dash, I dunno what we're gonna do with you," Applejack said fondly with a hint of sadness. "How can you be so bright one moment and so dense the next? You mean to say you really don't know?"
"Know what?" Rainbow Dash repeated stubbornly. "Are you coming on to me?"
She could only joke about it because she knew now that that definitely wasn't the case. If she'd still suspected Applejack was Mare Do Well, she would've taken wing right then and there, getting away as fast as possible.
Applejack snorted. "Celestia, no," she giggled. "I know better than that, you heartbreaker you. I'm talkin' 'bout – you know what?" she said suddenly, changing course. "Never mind. I'll let you figure it out yerself."
When Rainbow Dash left Sweet Apple Acres, it was already sunset. She'd slept so late and long and had ended up spending so much time at the orchard talking with Applejack in that comfortable way that friends were able to talk about things that the day had disappeared before she'd even noticed.
Same time, same place, Mare Do Well had said earlier. Did that apply to tonight as well? If Rainbow Dash headed to the cul-de-sac, would she find the mare in black waiting for her? If that was the case, did she want to go? What would happen if she did?
She was so lost in thought that she almost didn't notice when she passed over Pinkie Pie.
"Oh, hi, Pinks," Dash said lightly, swooping down low to meet the pink pony. "I just finished talking to Applejack, and I'm pretty sure now that –"
"Where are you going?" Pinkie Pie interrupted.
"Uh, home?" Rainbow Dash answered with a careful smile.
"No, you're not. Don't lie. You're going back there, aren't you?"
Rainbow Dash blinked, and found herself drawing back a little.
Pinkie Pie looked dead serious for once. Not a hint of laughter in those blue eyes that usually shone with it.
"Pinkie, I don't think –"
"I don't want you to go!" Pinkie blurted, and she took a quick step back so that she stood before Rainbow Dash, forelegs outstretched as if to block her path, even though Rainbow Dash could fly.
"Don't go," Pinkie Pie repeated. "I don't want you to go see Mare Do Well. We, we have to bake Rarity's cake, remember? You should come to Sugarcube Corner with me and spend the night. We'll bake the cake and eat tasty snacks and watch a movie or something, and it'll be totally fun! Right?"
Her voice had an edge of desperation to it.
With a nervous laugh, Rainbow Dash started to fly ahead anyway.
"Pinkie, relax. I'm just going –"
"No!" Pinkie said quickly, again stepping backwards so that she stood before Rainbow Dash, gazing up at the pegasus pleadingly. "Please don't. Please. I'm your best friend. That's enough of a reason, right?"
"Pinkie, ha-ha, very funny, but –"
"I'm not being funny! Not everything's a joke, you know! I don't want you to go, isn't that enough?"
Rainbow Dash could feel herself beginning to grow tense. "Pinkie," she began. "If you're worried about me, don't be. I can handle myself. Nothing's gonna happen. So just leave me alone, and let me do what I want, okay?"
"Why would you want to go spend time with her instead of me?" Pinkie Pie asked feebly.
She looked so pathetic. Nothing at all like the happy-go-lucky hyperactive ball of joy that had been trailing Rainbow Dash for so long. She looked forlorn and utterly lost and very, very tiny from Dash's perspective in the air, but still Pinkie stood there, trying to block her way from the ground.
Only then did Rainbow Dash realize what she was looking at.
For the first time, she was seeing Pinkie Pie with all pretensions of endless frivolity stripped away, baring the vulnerable, easily-wounded pony beneath: a pony that was desperate to keep a hold on her best friend, to the point that she would forcibly prevent her from leaving if she could.
And it frightened her.
Pinkie Pie isn't supposed to be sad or scared of anything, Rainbow Dash found herself thinking, but that only summoned the memory of Mare Do Well's words to her from their last conversation.
You're so used to your idea of them that you reject anything else.
She had caught a glimpse of this Pinkie before, on the birthday when the pink pony had thought all of her friends had rejected her. But rather than help Pinkie deal with whatever baggage she had that had made her that way, her friends had quietly forced her back into place, restoring the status quo and laughing it off as no big deal. It had been selfish of them, but it had been easier than trying to bend their perceptions to accept a Pinkie Pie that wasn't constantly joyful.
Even now, all Rainbow Dash could think was that she didn't want to deal with this. She didn't want to see Pinkie this way. Even as she thought it, she knew it was wrong, but she couldn't help it.
"Why would you want to go spend time with her instead of me?" Pinkie repeated, a little more insistent this time.
She was asking Rainbow Dash to choose. Rainbow's Element was Loyalty, and Pinkie wanted proof: would Dash remain loyal to her best friend, despite the startling revelation that there was more to her than meets the eye, or would she be abandoned the way she'd been abandoned once before?
The answer was obvious. Rainbow Dash was supposed to say, "I don't. Of course I'll hang out with you, Pinkie." She was supposed to choose Pinkie, and then Pinkie would smile again and they'd go have a fun, happy sleepover, and then everything would be okay, and that was all Dash wanted. For things to go back to normal and be okay again.
"Pinkie Pie," Rainbow Dash said carefully, and she saw the pink pony's ears prick up hopefully. "Pinkie, that sounds fun, but I want to do this, too. I don't really know why yet, but... I do. I think I should, at least. So I know you don't want me to, but... I'm gonna go. And then... afterwards... maybe I'll drop by Sugarcube Corner, and then we can hang out?"
Pinkie Pie stared at her blankly, before giving Rainbow a smile, but it wasn't the patented gigantic Pinkie smile. It was small. It faltered. It was fake. A mask to disguise the hurt.
"That sounds good, Dashie, but I dunno. Sugarcube Corner isn't open forever, you know. It might be closed when you get there," she said lightly, and she turned her back on the pegasus.
Pinkie walked away. A quick, meaningful step, slowly building into a trot and then into a run, and Rainbow Dash was left hovering, once again alone, suddenly feeling oddly hollow inside and wondering if she'd given the wrong answer.