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"Mama?" Beneath the glowing, ash-strewn sky, the butter-colored filly's voice did not carry far over the armored pegasi galloping past her, their hoofbeats pounding in her ears. "Mama? Where are you?"
"Fluttershy!" An ochre mare in golden armor spotted the filly beneath the confusion and raced over, tearing up bits of cloud as she went. No sooner did the mare reach her did she scoop her up and take off, pumping her wings for altitude.
"What are you doing out here?" the mare demanded. Though her peppermint mane fell into Fluttershy's face, the filly could see the fatigue hanging beneath those orange eyes. "Why aren't you with the other foals?"
"I—I couldn't keep up with them." Fluttershy's head drooped to her chest. "I w-wanted to, but I was scared, Mama. My wings won't carry me like everypony else's." She unfurled one of them as far as she could manage, and even for a foal her wings were tiny. Most of her primaries had yet to molt into pinions. Looking at them, how insignificant and weak they were, made her tear up. "I went to look for you," she whispered. "I'm sorry."
Summer Sky nuzzled her daughter's pink forelock. "Don't fret, my child. You're still growing, and Papa and I both know that one day you'll be a very strong flyer, just like the rest of us. For now, let's find Rivermay and get you safe with the rest of your friends, okay?"
Fluttershy's stomach did a funny loop. All of the other foals her age could fly, and even some of the younger ones hovered better than she did. Not all of them were kind to her about it. "Why can't I stay with you?"
"We've been over this, Fluttershy. Mama and Papa can't keep you safe while we work." Since Summer Sky kicked off from the outpost's central cloud, the homes and buildings were thinning out beneath them as they flew out west. "It's up to the ponies of Flamewithers to make sure the town holds to its name, no matter what comes over from the dragon lands."
Fluttershy looked east. Several miles out from the edge of Flamewithers, a wall of fire raced across swaths of rolling, barren land, the conflagration sustained by unknown forces. It lashed out in angry gouts of red, orange, and gold, casting ashes from its highest reaches. A formation of pegasi in gray armor flew between the outpost and the fire, their bodies like midges against the blazing landscape.
As she watched the fire spiral ever closer to her home, a chill began to pool behind Fluttershy's heart. She pressed her muzzle against her mother's collarpiece. "Will you be okay?"
"As long as you are ours to treasure, my love—I promise you that Papa and I will be just fine. We'll fly straight to Cloudsdale to pick you up as soon as we finish."
A tailwind lifted mother and daughter several stories into the sky. Up ahead, a team of five pegasi pulled a raft of foals behind them toward the main pegasus city. Fluttershy threw her hooves around her mother's neck.
Summer Sky chuckled. "Be brave for Mama, all right?"
"How about, 'I will?'"
Fluttershy only tightened her hug.
Summer Sky pulled in next to a navy-colored mare, exchanged a few words, came to an agreement, and lowered her daughter to the raft. "Be brave, Fluttershy," she repeated. "I'll see you soon." She backwinged into the air with long strokes.
"Be safe," Fluttershy implored. By then, however, her mother had flown too far away to hear her. The filly followed Summer Sky with her eyes as the mare winged her way back to Flamewithers.
Fluttershy had never been this far out from her hometown before, so this was the first time she had a complete picture of it. The main settlement formed three descending cloud terraces facing out toward the blasted expanses of Drakkvarna, the dragon lands. Weather factories lined the rim of the upper terrace, each of them on their own little cloud. Yard after yard of inky thunderhead cloud churned forth from their slender stacks. At the far end of the high terrace, a tapered lighthouse flashed sequences of green and blue from its apex. Pennants emblazoned with Princess Celestia's solar insignia flew defiantly from the spires of watchtowers.
Home to no less than five hundred ponies, Flamewithers was still little more than a period against the burning page behind it. All Fluttershy could do was watch as the storm twisted closer and closer to her home—the formations had long since disappeared to her naked eye.
"Double time, ponies!" Rivermay barked from the front of the raft. "That fire's less than a mile out from the town."
Between the sudden acceleration of the other pegasi and the inherent curiosity of foals, Fluttershy disappeared underneath a pile of ponies as they kicked and squeaked for a spot on the back edge.
"Move, cirrushead. I wanna see the fire."
"Can anypony see my dad from here?"
"Hey! Whirlyloo kicked me."
"That's only because you have such a big head."
"Somepony... help..." Somepony's flank pinned her wing at a painful angle, and she couldn't break free no matter how much she tried to twist or roll away. There were too many foals on top of her, and a small, dancing triangle of light taunted her just beyond her muzzle. She pushed her way toward it as her vision blurred with tears—she couldn't hang on—
And then the mass of foals above her grew silent.
Fluttershy finally worked her head out into the open air and sputtered for breath, weeping. Then she too became silent. There was only the sound of pegasus wings beating the air.
In the distance, the front edge of the firestorm swept over Flamewithers. Houses evaporated into puffs of steam. Watchtowers buckled and fell, one by one, throwing up banks of mist as they toppled. The thunderheads clashed with the flaming wall but for a brief moment before, outsized and outmatched, they too dissolved into vapor. The lighthouse went dark.
All of this, in complete silence.
"Mom? Dad?" A colt near the top of the pile stared at the burning town with huge, disbelieving eyes. Others piped up under his lead just as the lowermost terrace began to sink away from the rest.
"Miss Rivermay? Are my mommy and daddy okay?"
"They told me they'd protect us..."
The voices of the other foals grew remote in Fluttershy's ears. Her eyes scanned the horizon for any signs of her parents as the blaze advanced toward the edge of the Everfree Forest. They were nowhere in sight.
"You said you'd be just fine," she whispered. "You promised."
She expected to see them, still—she held out for dots in the distance, even as the last house curled and withered into the flames.
"You promised you'd pick me up from Cloudsdale when you were finished."
It was not fair. She had had that moment of clarity. She had seen the smile on her mother's face. She knew her parents were going to do their jobs and keep everypony safe.
"Mama? Papa? I'm still here." Drops of anger like molten iron began to seep into Fluttershy's voice. "As long as I was yours to treasure, right?"
The weight crushing down on her decreased as a few foals clambered of her—if she had been listening, she would have heard them muttering in low voices. The front edge of the firestorm reached Everfree's eastern border and hurdled the first line of trees.
"I'm still here." The air around her shimmered as more foals rolled off of her back. Her eyes turned hard as she stared into the firestorm. "That means you're still there, too. Please. Come out."
The first embers of the Everfree blaze danced into the sky. The muttering escalated into something louder. Somepony cried out with something about how hot it was getting.
The air shimmered and pulsed more intensely around her. The last pony hopped off of her back screaming—and now all of the other foals were watching as her hooves lifted a couple of inches off of the raft. Flecks of light sparked across her coat. Behind the firestorm, the remaining fragments of Flamewithers, charred, twisted, and vaporized, fell one by one from the sky.
"Summer Sky! Sundown!" she yelled. "Come out of there this instant! You promised you would be fine! You promised me!"
Something popped like a firecracker the instant she finished speaking. Then she heard the other foals scream—they dashed to the end of the raft as far away from her as possible. The escort pegasi gawked at her and burst into obscenities. Then a navy mare rushed in front of her—Rivermay's golden eyes glared into Fluttershy's.
"Stay still." Those were the only words the mare spoke.
But Fluttershy was not a soldier. She was a filly, and only had the discipline of one. She looked down.
Golden flames raced up her torso and over her wings. Her hooves flared as she flailed them about. Her mane threw sparks left and right. The air was hot and bright and she was burning, burning, burning.
"Miss Rivermay, help me!" she pleaded.
Two strong hooves drove into her abdomen, and she plunged back toward the cloud raft. Everything went white.
Wood and glass crashed on tile the instant Fluttershy snapped awake. For a moment, she could not remember where she was—the padded surface she lay on was not her bed, nor were the violet, filigreed walls those of her cottage. Her heart pounded against her ribs—how did she get here?
The pegasus jerked her head around at the call and regretted it when her neck spasmed in protest. She suddenly had a hard time seeing. But she knew that voice. "Rarity?"
"Good heavens, darling," said the unicorn, shaking slices of cucumber from her eyes. "That gasp of yours gave us quite the shock. Are you okay?"
"I—" It occured to Fluttershy that her friend was also lying belly-down on a padded table close by, with the hooves of a pink-coated, blue-maned mare pressed into her opposite flank. Both of them were wide eyed, their irises diminished to the size of buttons.
"Oh, Rarity, Miss Aloe—" Fluttershy's ears flattened in shame. "I'm so sorry to have scared you all." She turned to her other side, where the spa pony's sister stood against a nearby pillar, her chest heaving from recent exertion. "Miss Lotus—I'm so sorry. I—"
Yes, that was it. That was why she was here. She was at the Ponyville spa for her weekly get-together with Rarity.
She noticed an upended pedestal on the floor, the jars and vials it once held lying in jagged pieces as their former contents mixed into iridescent puddles of oils and scents. She smacked herself on the head. "I'm such a loudmouth." She turned to Lotus. "I promise I'll pay for all of this."
"Don't even worry about it," said Rarity. "It's on me this time."
Fluttershy's ears perked up in surprise. "But it was all my fault. I wouldn't feel right making you cover for me."
"'Fluttershy, you cut that out at once. You are here to relax and I will not have it any other way."
"Ah! Zip it." This the unicorn said in a low voice she rarely used, and it won her the pegasus's compliance. Faint violet auras surrounded the glass fragments scattered over the tiles and lifted them over to a receptacle along the wall, while Aloe and Lotus mopped up the rest of the mess. It did not take them long. Lotus turned Fluttershy on her back, placed her hooves under her eyes, and began rubbing the area in gentle circles.
Strangely, the look the spa pony gave her was not one of irritation, but of worry. "Mees Fluttershy," said the spa pony, "if I may be honest? Eet does not appear that you have been sleeping well lately. Your eyes feel so tired."
"I-i-i-is i-it th-that d-d-d-dream ag-g-g-ain?" Rarity's voice vibrated under the tattoo of Aloe's hooves.
"I'm afraid so," Fluttershy corrected. A wave of woozy pleasure slithered down her spine as the spa pony slid her hooves up and around to just in front of her temples. Little by little, tensions she had not even been aware of melted away from her face and neck. The same thing was happening for her thoughts. "And yes, Lotus. Lately, my dreams have been—well." Her voice grew quieter with each word. "They haven't been very, um. Nice."
Lotus clicked her tongue. "I am sorry to hear that. Here—remember to breathe, yes?"
Rarity rolled onto her back like Fluttershy. "I don't understand what's going on with you, darling," she said. "Your parents are still happy and in good health the last time you told me about them, and you went to visit them just last month, did you not?"
"I did." The pegasus frowned. "They even asked about you, and how the boutique was doing."
"Then why do those dreadful nightmares keep coming back?" Rarity lifted a hoof into the air and let it drop a few moments later. "I can't even begin to imagine what I'd do if I had to see my business torched like that. I'm sorry I can't help you anymore with this. I feel so unhelpful here."
"It's okay, Rarity." Fluttershy dug deep into her mind, pushing the troublesome embers of her dreams aside, and came back up with a small smile. "I didn't think they would have come back, either. For now—I'm just happy to be here with you. We're here to relax, right?"
"That is the idea." Lotus's hooves moved to the base of her skull, where she gently lifted her head a few seconds at a time.
"You're absolutely right," said Rarity. "Let's put this dreadful business aside. In fact, I have a story that might cheer you up. Would you like to hear it?
"That would be lovely."
"Very well, then. Just the other day, I finished making a new summer dress when somepony walks into the boutique, and you'll never guess who it was. It was Applejack. Applejack, of all ponies. Wahahaha!"
The unicorn had given Fluttershy no time to guess at all, but that was the way Rarity spoke when she got rolling. The pegasus often got lost beneath all the words. At the moment, however, she was grateful to have someone fill the silence. She continued listening, inserting nods and affirmative noises at the appropriate times. Applejack had lost a bet with her brother—a bet that had apparently involved a fancy dress and a makeover...
Fluttershy stepped into her cottage just as the sun set below the horizon. Though Rarity had offered to put her up for the night after the get-together, the pegasus had declined. The unicorn was one of the most generous ponies she knew, and that generosity could push her too far for the sake of making others happy. She remembered asking her for a hat made out of bird's eggs, by Celestia. Rarity must have felt her career going to pieces while making that thing.
At any rate, the pegasus thought the last thing she needed was to stay up all night telling Rarity everything about her dreams, and why she thought they kept coming back. She shuffled through the living room into her kitchen, where a white rabbit with beady black eyes read a newspaper at the table. At the sound of her entrance, he set the paper down and waved.
Fluttershy smiled. The dishes were stacked in their shelves and the countertops gleamed. "Thanks for tidying up the kitchen while I was gone, Angel."
The rabbit stood on his seat and bowed low. It had been his pleasure.
The two of them then spent some time discussing some of Fluttershy's patients. "Mr. Mousey's still staying off his leg? Good... Cottontail's running a fever again, so you know the regimen... Well, I wouldn't be happy wearing a brace, either, but we need to make sure Bluebeak keeps his on until his wing gets better." Being Ponyville's resident veterinarian meant she shuttled between the different areas in and around her cottage most every day. Though many ponies did not realize this about her, Fluttershy rose just as early as Applejack on most days—many of her patients disliked daylight. She even cared for a manticore kit she had found on the edge of the Everfree Forest. It came for a bowl of milk twice a week and always waited for her beneath that one fallen tree. Celestia, had her work with that creature paid off that one time!
Angel poked a paw at a place setting on the other side of the table, asking if she had eaten already.
"Oh." Fluttershy cringed. "I had dinner with Rarity earlier. Sorry." The pegasus broke into a sudden yawn, and her wings flared out from beneath her saddlebags' straps. "Goodness, I didn't realize how tired I'd be coming back from the spa. I think I'm going to call it an early night. We've got lots of work to do tomorrow."
Angel saluted and made to put away the dishes on the table.
Fluttershy sighed as she left the kitchen. She could not be like Rarity and run her ad hoc clinic by herself—Angel took care of all the little details she overlooked, and he earned every letter of his name for it.
She reached her room at the top of the stairs. Birdhouses hung from the rafters around her her bed—much easier to clean that way. Earthen pots of medicine and aromatic herbs clustered in the corner near her bathroom, and several windows looked out into the purpling night sky. The floorboards squeaked as she made her way to her nightstand, where she pulled a pale green candle out from her saddlebags and lit it.
It smelled of cut honeydew and summer lavender, and the flame burned merrily in the dimness. The spa sisters had given it to her as a gift, despite her insistence on paying for it—oh, they did not have any of that. They told her it would help ease her dreams at night, and that it was the least they could do for a loyal customer. She fanned the candle flame with her wings to get the scents into the far corners of the room. If the candle did what the sisters said it would do, she would ask them for Rarity's "usual" the next time she visited them.
Just as she was about to climb into bed, a flash of bright red caught the corner of her eye from the cobblestone fireplace on the far wall. Perhaps it was because she was tired that she was prone to whimsical notions, but she shuffled on over anyway. A ledge above the fireplace held a variety of small items: an acorn cap, three mottled seashells, a pair of crossed porcupine quills, an ivory-veined obsidian, and countless others.
Rarity had come up with the idea of collecting mementos of her former patients. She had even made the first contribution to the collection with one of Opalescence's gem-encrusted collars, saying that just because Fluttershy's hard work sometimes escaped the other ponies did not mean it had to escape her.
But even though the fashionista was her best friend, Fluttershy's foremost keepsake rested upright in a glass case above the ledge. Its donor had been the only patient the pegasus had ever failed—but then again, nothing could have helped that patient but time. The memento was a pinion, one of the largest and most important feathers for flying, and it changed from a vivid orange at the base to a bold red at its pointed tip. It glowed from within, casting a warm tint over the gray stones behind it.
Very few ponies could say they had seen a phoenix—fewer still could say they possessed one of their feathers. As far as Fluttershy knew, she was the only pony in Ponyville to have one. It had not been easy to get. Philomena, after all, had been none other than Princess Celestia's personal pet—and, like her owner, she had a trickster side to her. Fluttershy could hardly believe a month had passed since their visit.
Thinking back, she wondered how she could have once lived on the borders of Drakkvarna, where fire was just another kind of weather, without recognizing what Philomena was sooner. The adults sometimes talked about firebirds who left trails of flame whereever they flew, and a few came to roost at Flamewithers during the winters. When the nights grew cold, having a firebird in the house was a blessing worth several midnight patrols. Then again, Fluttershy had never seen one close to death, much less how they burned when they died.
An uneasy feeling pooled in her stomach. Though Philomena's feather was hooves down one of the most beautiful things anypony was liable to own, she suspected its arrival had something to do with her recent dreams. They always happened at Flamewithers. They always had her parents. And they always ended the same way—an immense firestorm would rip through her dreamscape and she would jerk awake, sweating and huffing.
Being set ablaze, though—that was new.
She suddenly wished she had somepony else to talk to about those dreams. Rarity had listened to her long enough and did not need to be bothered about it. Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie talked about their dreams from time to time, but all the prismatic pegasus ever dreamed about were the Wonderbolts, and most ponies turned their brains off for safety reasons whenever Pinkie broached the subject. She was the reason why no restaurant in Ponyville served oatmeal anymore.
Who did that leave? Applejack always treated Fluttershy kindly, but the farmer pony put as much stock into nighttime dreams as she did in the fashion industry. She would probably try and convince her to ignore them. That left her with only one option—and this one seemed the least suitable at all. She had come from the most prestigious unicorn academy in Canterlot, always carried a book or two with her whereever she went—and she had a stubborn skepticism against anything which could not be proven through scientific, methodical study. True, having Pinkie Pie as a friend taught her how accepting the unexplainable from time to time did not make her less happy or intelligent. But would she approach a dream with the same kind of openness?
She did live in the Ponyville library, however. And Flutteshy had no doubt that she had plumbed the depths of Canterlot's extensive archives during her studies. Even if she went about her days free from the concerns of dreams, she had to have a book or two on them somewhere. And even if they didn't answer all of her questions right away, at least they could point her toward an answer.
She was also a very close friend—one she had confided in during her brief foray into modelling, and one who enabled her to overcome her fear of fully-grown dragons. Yes. There was that.
That was it, Fluttershy decided as she slipped into bed. Come the next day, when she finished checking on her morning patients, she would head to the Ponyville library and speak with Twilight Sparkle.