“Like the Friendship Games all over again!”
And then a weird thing happened. Each of her friends looked at the others, sharing glances with them, none of which could be described as ‘comfortable.’ And although they did that with each other, they all avoided looking at Rainbow. She didn’t know what was going on, and she didn’t like it.
“What? Yeah, I remember the bit where a lot of people nearly died, but...” she trailed off and blushed, but only a little. She’d thought everyone was ok with talking about what happened at the Games: enough time had passed, nobody had been seriously hurt, they’d made friends with both Twilight and the Shadowbolts, everyone was generally over it as far as she knew. She remembered the seven of them joking about it a few months before, so why wouldn’t that be ok now?
“...I’m hoping this won’t get that out of hand!” she laughed nervously, thinking of Adagio getting so angry at losing that she’d suddenly be able to do magic again and would rip apart the school and everyone in it. She couldn’t see Adagio being talked down as easily as jumped-up Twilight was.
“We still won though, and it was awesome!” Rainbow finished. Technically, Principal Celestia had said that everyone had won, but nobody really believed that. Everybody who had really been there knew that CHS won, and had no problem talking about it as if that were the official result.
A long pause stretched, as if nobody was really sure what to say, and a few quick looks still passed between the others. Could Fluttershy and Rarity still be upset about nearly falling through the hole to Equestria? Neither of them were the toughest, she supposed, but nor had either of them mentioned to her that they were having a hard time dealing with what happened, even long after the event.
“Yes we did!” Sunset suddenly announced, much louder than expected, and with a big smile that didn’t look natural.
“Go us!” Pinkie cheered almost at the same time.
“Absolutely right, we did a great job!” Rarity joined in immediately afterwards. The others all wore the same tight grin as Sunset, and Rainbow had no doubt that they were all fake. But if they were upset about how everything fell apart at the Games, why would they now hide it and try to say that it was all fine? It didn’t make sense.
“...Guys?” she asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” Sunset shot back much too fast to be true, and then spoke much quicker than usual, “Nothing’s wrong, why would you think that?”
“Because you’re acting like something’s wrong, but pretending it isn’t,” Rainbow said slowly.
Sunset froze, not moving or saying anything. Applejack spoke up a moment later, and she didn’t sound as panicky as the others had, but not quite relaxed either.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it, we’ll tell ya later.”
But now Rainbow was suspicious, and she wasn’t going to be distracted or let it drop until she had a clear answer to her question. One that she believed. She leaned forwards, frowning and crossing her arms, staring at each of her friends one after the other as she spoke.
“Why not now? What happened at the Friendship Games that wasn’t awesome, besides one of our friends turning evil and trying to smash through to another world?”
Because if they’d been fine joking about that a while ago, what could be so much worse that they didn’t want to tell her about it?
“Are you sure you want to talk about this now?” Sunset said calmly, after a deep breath. “Not focus on Adagio, and discuss it another time? It would probably only distract you, and it can easily wait until later.”
Rainbow could tell Sunset was doing her best to sound sensible, and, just as she knew that getting into an argument before a big game would make it harder for her to concentrate on playing, then finding out the truth about the Friendship Games, whatever it was, wasn’t likely to help in her struggle with Adagio.
But she also knew that she wouldn’t be able to forget about it, and would be even more distracted knowing that something was wrong but not knowing what. A part of her even wished that she could just let the subject drop, and find out another time. Wishing for it didn’t change anything, though.
“Tell me. It was awesome, I know it was.”
“Yeah...” Sunset slowly nodded, “we thought so too, at the time.” She didn’t appear embarrassed, but it was still like she was admitting something she shouldn’t have done. “But since then we’ve got to know the Shadowbolts a bit better, and sort of put two and two together.”
Oh, I have definitely missed something here. No one really knew how to start, from the looks of things, but no one wanted to come right out and say whatever the problem was, either, because it obviously made them uncomfortable.
“Have you spent much time with Sour Sweet?” Rarity asked.
“Sorry, can’t say I have,” Rainbow replied. “Should I have done?”
“She’s, ah, she’s who it’s most obvious with, it’s probably fair to say. She’s the one who made me first think about it.”
That wasn’t helping. Rainbow’s friends were almost being deliberately unclear, and leaving her with more questions than she started with. However good their reasons might turn out to be, the conversation trying to avoid the subject was annoying.
“Ok, what about her?”
“Um, excuse me, would you like me to tell it, Rarity? I probably know her best,” Fluttershy delicately interrupted from Rainbow’s left. Rarity gave her a grateful look, and made a hand signal for Fluttershy to continue.
Rainbow knew how much Fluttershy hated being the centre of attention, so her volunteering to tell the story was unusual, and gave Rainbow even more of a bad feeling about whatever Rarity had just been rescued from.
“Sour Sweet and I went against each other in the archery contest in the Games, if you remember. She was really good at it, too,” Fluttershy said, and even though she had been Sour Sweet’s opponent in that competition, she smiled proudly about the girl who had since become a friend.
“Yeah she was!” Pinkie burst in, “She was all commando rolls and three arrows at once, like she was a ninja!”
“I remember,” Rainbow agreed, “she wasn’t bad at all.”
“I was, though,” Fluttershy looked down at the table. “I only hit my target by lucky accident.”
“It’s ok, darling,” Rarity said kindly, “archery isn’t exactly an essential life skill. I’d have had just as much trouble myself.”
Fluttershy smiled, her cheeks turning red, and after a clear struggle she managed to meet her friends’ eyes again.
“A-Anyway, I tried talking to her once everything had settled down afterwards,” she continued. “We’ve met up for tea and cake a handful of times. I wouldn’t say I know her especially well, but I’d like to.” Although Fluttershy had been mainly looking at Rainbow while telling the story, as the person who wanted to hear it, she also glanced at each of her friends as she talked, including them in it too. She then looked directly and only at Rainbow when she asked, “Have you ever spoken to her?”
Rainbow tried to remember all the times she’d seen one or more of the Shadowbolts since the Games, there must have been a few times she’d talked to Sour Sweet, but she could only really think of one, and even that was hazy.
“I think we had a conversation at that party a couple of months ago. I’m not sure what it was about, though.”
“Anything you do remember? About her, and how she was to speak with?”
It hadn’t been a long conversation, just talking for a few minutes by the snacks table while they both filled up their plates. Had anything about it stood out to her? Why hadn’t they talked more afterwards?
“Oh yeah,” she recalled, “quite a few times she’d say something nice and then follow it with something really mean. That was kinda weird.”
“That’s her,” Fluttershy nodded sadly. “She’s lovely. So humble and friendly. Half the time.” Although everyone looked in her direction while she spoke, they didn’t lean in closer to her. Fluttershy always talked softly and doing that would have made it easier to hear, but they had learned that if they crowded around her, she’d just get even quieter and eventually stop talking altogether.
“She always has that behaviour of alternating between being so, so nice and... a lot less nice,” she carried on. “I did some research online; I mean, a lot of it’s too complicated for me to understand, and I’m certainly not medically qualified, and, even for those who are, there are so many variables that individual diagnoses can be difficult. And sometimes just reading about something on the internet is the worst thing you can do, especially if you then think that you know more about it than everybody else, and–”
“Fluttershy!” Applejack loudly grabbed her attention, cutting through how worked up she’d been becoming. “We get it, Sugarcube,” she said more gently, “ya could be wrong.”
“Enough with the small print,” Rainbow added impatiently, “on with the answer!”
Fluttershy looked shocked, and then embarrassed, staring at her plate again. But then she looked up to AJ and Rainbow and smiled, probably grateful that her friends had let her know she’d been stuck going off on one doubting herself. Then she made an obvious effort to be calm, and picked up her story where she left off.
“With all that said, it looks like she could be suffering from one of a few conditions.
“It could be that she hears voices in her head that aren’t really there – perhaps she has a second voice alongside the internal monologue that everyone has, one that doesn’t really feel like ‘her,’ and it might be influencing her thoughts. So half the time it would be her own reasoning behind her words, and the other half someone different advising her on what to say. That’s one display of symptoms from one of the eight forms of schizophrenia, as I understand it.”
“Or, much scarier,” she said, her voice dropping, and Rainbow remembered how Fluttershy usually handled things she found scary, thinking of all the years she’d spent trying to persuade Fluttershy to come out trick or treating with her, “it could be the two voices are constantly scrabbling for control of her body.”
To not be in control of your own body? A voice in her head that wasn’t hers would be bad enough, but for it to sometimes take over? Who did that other voice think it was, driving her body?
“Wait a minute,” she pushed in before Fluttershy could keep going, “why not just ignore everything she says in that nasty tone, if that’s not really her?”
Rainbow had thought Fluttershy looked sad about it before, but after that question it was worse.
“Um, well,” she answered hesitantly, “i-it can’t be nice, fighting for control every second, especially when half the time you’re losing. Or hearing your mouth saying things you don’t mean to the people you love most, and watching them react while powerless to do anything about it yourself.”
Rainbow couldn’t even begin to imagine what that would be like. All she could do was hope that she never had to find out the hard way.
“So I can’t rule out that the nasty voice is the one that’s really her,” Fluttershy said, “and the nicer voice is the one that doesn’t belong, because there’s every chance that in her position I’d be seething with rage a lot of the time.”
That helped to put it into perspective for Rainbow – it would be so bad that it would make Fluttershy that furious that often.
“Alternatively,” Flutters continued, “they could even be two entirely separate personalities, both of which feel like ‘her.’ That’s closer to something called dissociative identity disorder, although that also involves memory problems, and it’s quite a controversial area.
“Or it could possibly be very intense, sudden and short-lived mood swings, but I think that’s less likely. There is a condition called borderline personality disorder, but the mood swings involved in that are measured in hours rather than seconds.”
Fluttershy let out a sigh, looking relieved to have reached the end of her long talk, and shared a small smile with her friends at having managed to get through it, but then gave the same sad frown she had when talking about the pain Sour Sweet must be in.
“Whatever it is, I think she finds it quite difficult to get close to people.”
A gloomy silence followed, until Sunset spoke up, looking in Rainbow’s direction.
“And you said the way she acted was ‘kinda weird.’”
Rainbow flinched. There could be no denying it, that was exactly what she’d said. Which now felt mean, given what Sour Sweet must have been dealing with.
“Oh,” she hid her face behind her hand, “I did, didn’t I?”
Her hand dropped to cover her mouth, and she sat there red-faced, looking guilty.
“Well,” Applejack said from opposite her, “it is kahnda weird.” She sounded reassuring, but also determined, like she expected others to argue. “It’s not something most folk do, or behaviour ya come across ev’ry day.”
No one said anything, but each gave nods or sad smiles of agreement. Fluttershy was looking down again, probably wishing that the world was a kinder place, so Rainbow did what she could to cheer her friends up.
“It makes much more sense now you’ve explained it, though,” she said encouragingly. She’d had no idea there might be anything like that going on with Sour Sweet, but then she hadn’t really thought about it.
“Yeah,” Sunset said unhappily, “but she has to give that explanation to everyone she ever meets, or know that they’re thinking of her as ‘kinda weird.’”
That conversation must get old really fast. And people would probably ask the same few questions each time, too. And it would be worth the awkward few minutes of talking about it for the people you’d be spending a lot of time with, like classmates, but not so much for those you’d only speak to for a minute, like when paying for something in a shop, so you’d just have to live with those people thinking you were a bit strange. Day in, day out.
“Ouch,” she said out loud.
Again, silence was the only response to be made to that, but Rainbow’s friends all made signs of agreeing with her. After another few seconds of no one saying anything, Sunset moved on with the story, and they were all glad for the distraction.
“So, it’s looking like Sour Sweet has a pretty serious mental health condition. One that I don’t think any of us have encountered before. And yet,” she said thoughtfully, “the other Crystal Prep students don’t bat an eyelid, they act like it’s just Sour Sweet being herself.
“Which is wonderful, by the way,” she said quickly and cheerfully, “it’s fantastic to see, and it’s just how it should be.”
And so it was. She and her friends all looked more perky at that thought. But as most of the other Crystal Prep students they’d met were Sour’s friends and knew her pretty well, then them knowing about her condition and being understanding of it was mostly to be expected, as she’d have talked to them about it before. Rainbow wasn’t sure it suggested anything more, although she still wasn’t sure what the girls might be trying to suggest.
“They’re probably used to it,” she shrugged.
“That’s what I concluded, too,” said Sunset. “But it did strike me as unusual, especially with her being in a regular school when her condition is that severe, and it got me thinking.”
I guess it is pretty serious, having someone else in control of your actions for that much of your life. Everyone lost it a bit when they got really mad, but to not be in control fully half of the time? Both sides of Sour Sweet were probably completely harmless, but there was no one with anything like that level of health condition at CHS, so her situation was definitely a bit strange.
“And then,” Sunset said after a few moments, “I remembered Sugarcoat.”
Rainbow looked at her blankly.
“So, you know what Sugarcoat’s like, right?” Sunset asked. “How would you describe her?”
“Brutally honest, the whole time,” Rainbow said without hesitation.
“Right. And we don’t really question why that is, because she’s often really funny, and so we assume it’s all ok. And also, we’re used to Applejack not being too keen on lying.” Sunset’s eyes flicked to Applejack when saying her name, but they did the rest of the time while she was talking as well, perhaps because it was Applejack’s friend they were discussing.
“And her being blunt with us as the opposing team in the Games,” Sunset said, “that made sense: she was trying to demoralise the other side, and no criticism hurts more than the truth. But, you heard what she said to Twilight during the tri-cross relay. Why would she be so painfully honest with her own teammates?”
Rainbow did remember that, and both she and Sunset had frowned at Sugarcoat at the time. Neither of them had thought that was a good way to treat someone on your team, particularly when they were clearly struggling. Thinking of how differently Applejack and Sugarcoat had reacted to that situation, Rainbow was surprised those two had become such good friends since.
“I guess,” Rainbow said uncertainly, reminded of Spitfire’s reputation as captain of the Wonderbolts, “being frank with your team is good for knowing where to improve?”
“Yep, I could see that. And ‘come on Twilight, you can do better than this,’ might possibly have worked as tough love under the circumstances. But the way she did it didn’t help anyone. At a stretch I could put that down as aiming to do the right thing and missing by a considerable margin.
“But then she called out the hypocrisies of her principal in front of everyone. Given how strict Crystal Prep discipline is, she could have been expelled for that remark.” Sunset shook her head, looking like a hospital doctor with bad news. “That’s not ‘she doesn’t like lying,’ that’s ‘she has no internal filter.’”
Rainbow hadn’t thought of it like that before, and her eyes went to Applejack to see if she would confirm that view of her friend. AJ was nodding her head while not looking at anything in particular, with movements almost too small to be noticed. Huh.
“So Sugarcoat and Sour Sweet might have some... issues?” Rainbow had mostly forgotten wanting to get to the end of the story in a hurry, with how eye-opening it was turning out to be, but not entirely. “Where are you going with this?”
“Pinkie?” Sunset asked, showing no signs of rushing. “Would you like to tell Rainbow about Lemon?”
“Oooh, my turn!” Pinkie cried, waving her arms in excitement, and everyone at the table turned to face her. “I think Lemon Zest is great,” she said with a big grin, “I mean she’s so cool. Sonata and I hang out with her a lot, and one of the great things about her is how laid back she is about why she’s, ya know, the way she is – she thinks it’s hilarious. She told me straight up, and she’s mentioned several times that she doesn’t care who knows, so...”
Pinkie Pie stopped to take a breath, and when she started up again, she wasn’t as chirpy. She wasn’t massively sad either, perhaps because if Lemon Zest herself found the whole thing funny, then Pinkie was trying not to be too cut up about it. But she still wouldn’t joke about it, even if her friend did.
“Her parents were both stockbrokers. They made huge, huge amounts of money, but with massive stress. So to chill out and de-stress when they weren’t working, they smoked an awful lot of I-don’t-know-what-but-it-was-certainly-very-strong. And having thick clouds of that smoke in the air around the house when Lemon was a small child had a fairly permanent effect on her brainwave chemistry, as she put it.”
Rainbow sat, stunned. She liked Lemon, too, and it was weird to think that the girl she knew wasn’t originally meant to be that way, but only grew up like that because of stuff in the air she was breathing.
“That’s gotta be illegal,” she said, staring straight ahead.
“Eeyup,” Applejack told her with wide eyes.
“And no one did anything to stop it?!”
“I doubt anyone would have known,” Rarity said quietly. “It’s not often that social workers visit the richest neighbourhood in Canterlot.”
That was almost certainly true. Rainbow had jogged through that area the week before, and it definitely wasn’t the sort of place she’d think to associate with that kind of thing. Hugely overpriced wine, sure, probably whole cellars full of it, but not people sitting in their house smoking so much it screws with a child’s head.
“And what about now?” she asked, “Now that Lemon is old enough to go see Social Services herself?”
“What for?” Pinkie asked, and Rainbow froze. “Her parents are both retired now, and they haven’t done that kind of thing in years. Lemon loves them both very much, and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” Pinkie put a gentle hand on Rainbow’s shoulder, and spoke more softly. “That’s just who she is now. She doesn’t mind it, and it’s way too late to do anything about it.”
Rainbow had no idea what to say to that. It still seemed wrong to her, but she wasn’t nearly as sure what to suggest doing about it. Applejack appeared to have a much better idea, though, and picked up where Rainbow had left off.
“Ah’m not sure it’s somethin’ that oughta jus’ go unpunished.”
“But who would benefit from that?” Fluttershy said worriedly, “No one involved wants that to happen.”
“Ah guess it would show others thinkin’ a’ doin’ that that they can’t be expectin’ ta get away with it?”
“True,” Sunset said to the group. “But there can’t be that many similar cases.”
“No,” Applejack agreed after a second, hanging her head, “and ah’m not sure it’d outweigh the damage of takin’ Lemon away from her family.”
Applejack taking over arguing their point had left Rainbow free to think about what she’d been told. Sour Sweet, Sugarcoat, and Lemon Zest: three different people with various things like that affecting them, and one big thing tying them all together. The pattern was easy to spot.
“So you’re saying that the Shadowbolts are all...?”
She trailed off as her question was answered with nodding heads from everyone at the table. They had the same grim looks as when the subject had first come up, mixed with sadness and acceptance, confirming an unpleasant truth.
“What are the chances of that happening?” she asked, avoiding dealing with the issue by asking the first question she thought of.
“As in,” Sunset checked, “six people with various mental health issues within the same year group ending up at the same school? When we have none at CHS?” Rainbow nodded, and Sunset didn’t look hopeful. “All other things being equal, very low. So I strongly suspect that all other things are not equal.”
“Meaning what?” Rainbow said suspiciously.
“I can’t think of any external factors that would make poor mental health more prevalent around the Crystal Heights area of Canterlot than here. But,” she said more thoughtfully, like that was the bit that Rainbow needed to be catching onto, “being a private school, Crystal Prep draws students from a wide area of the city, and obviously isn’t an option for everyone, so it’s somewhere people choose to go to rather than being assigned to.”
Of course. If people could make the decision themselves, then it wasn’t just random chance who ended up there, including how many weren’t completely well. Twilight would be so proud if she saw Rainbow doing science thinking like that, she just knew it.
“So you’re saying that if kids have a mental illness, then that’s the school they go for, if their parents can afford it?”
“Yep. And those six girls were the best representatives of their school for the Friendship Games. So what does that tell you about Crystal Prep?”
Then the sledgehammer struck, inside her head, and everything she thought she had previously known about the whole thing shattered. All that was left was the question of why she hadn’t spotted it earlier. Like, months and months earlier. When she answered, she wasn’t able to think enough to add feeling to her words, or expression to her face, or look anywhere but straight ahead, and so she ended up sounding like Pinkie’s sister, Maud.
“...It’s a special needs school.”
Sunset gave her a smile which might have meant ‘welcome to the right answer, doesn’t it suck here?’ Rainbow’s mind searched around for some problem with the idea, something that would to prove it wasn’t true, so that she’d be able to piece the way she had seen things back together, as that seemed a much less scary option than rethinking it all.
“But aren’t we forgetting that Twilight was a Shadowbolt from Crystal Prep too?” she asked, grabbing onto the first thing she thought of.
Pinkie for some reason giggled and then held a hand over her mouth, and when that wasn’t enough to contain her laughter, stuffed a fist in her mouth instead. Rarity gave her an unimpressed look, and then turned to Rainbow.
“Obviously we’re all very close to Twilight,” she said delicately, “so I don’t quite know how to tell you this, but–”
“Twahlaht has the worst case a’ OCD ah’ve ever seen,” Applejack interrupted, not bothering to phrase anything gently, but still saying it with a kind smile.
Twilight’s got something up with her too? Confusion must have shown on Rainbow’s face, because Pinkie looked in her direction and finally exploded with laughter, so loudly that Rainbow drew back from her.
“Did ya never notice?” she squeaked between bursts, “She made a schedule of when she’d make her next schedule! I love her so much, but, woo yeah!”
Like Applejack’s smile, Rainbow noticed that Pinkie’s laugh wasn’t at all cruel. It wasn’t picking on her friend for not being normal, it was more like celebrating her for being different. Or maybe the laugh was more aimed at Rainbow herself not noticing anything unusual in Twilight.
“I thought she was just eccentric?” she said weakly, explaining herself but expecting to be corrected.
“Well that’s all it is, in a way,” Rarity responded.
“Look,” Sunset said, “you know you have a fiercely competitive streak, right?” Rainbow wasn’t even going to bother trying to deny that. She nodded, although if Sunset had asked, she would have said it wasn’t a bad thing, and it drove her to push herself harder. “And how sometimes, if you don’t keep it under control, you can be a bit difficult to be around?” Rainbow was less sure about that, but none of her friends were arguing with Sunset about it, so if they all thought the same thing then maybe there was something to it. “Well, it’s like that, but much harder for her to control.”
Rarity, who had been watching Sunset and pulling agreeing faces, then took over speaking.
“Some people have addictive personalities, some are more prone to being self-destructive, some less inclined to empathise – these are all natural traits, that each of us have in different measures. When one overwhelms the rest, and risks taking over your life, then that’s when we start thinking of it as a disorder.”
“And sometimes,” Fluttershy then said, “that can be overcome just by keeping an eye on it, or finding coping mechanisms to work around it day to day. But other times it’s so strong that only professional treatment will help keep it at bay, whether that’s therapy, medication, or anything else.”
What would Rainbow’s life be like if she were even more competitive? If she had to win (or had to win everything she cared about, remembering their earlier talk about Adagio), no matter the cost. Would she ever get a moment to herself that wasn’t spent training? How many of her friendships would fall apart if she never had time to see her friends? She knew they’d be understanding, of course, but how long could you go on thinking of someone as a friend, if they never had time to speak to you?
“I have no idea what Twilight would be like if she didn’t have OCD,” Sunset said a few moments later. She didn’t seem as sure about what she was saying; where before all five of them had been trying to persuade Rainbow, now Sunset was just thinking out loud. “I doubt she knows, either. She might be every bit as organised, but perhaps less likely to get as stressed out when things don’t go to plan.”
“Yeah,” Pinkie cut in, “but she could be completely disorganised and not care about organising things at all, like she eats chaos for breakfast.” The way Pinkie said it suggested it was something she’d quite like to see.
“I really couldn’t say,” Sunset replied softly. “With some conditions, such as OCD, it can be very difficult to tell where the personality ends and the disorder begins.”
Could Rainbow’s own competitiveness be a disorder? No, she really didn’t think so, that was just who she was. But what would she be like without it? She didn’t want it any stronger than it already was, but she didn’t want it weaker, either, that would be like making her a different person. And of course Twilight hadn’t had any choice in how strong her drive to put things in order was – ok, none of them had any choice in those things, but with Twilight it was like that wasn’t the way she was meant to be, and something had gone wrong.
Was that the right way to think about it? Or was it more that whether that part of her was a disorder or not, it was a big chunk of who she was, something that her personality had been built around and on top of?
Rainbow didn’t know. And weirdest of all was the thought that Twilight herself might not know. Maybe Rainbow was just thinking about it all too much, and by tomorrow her friend would just be Twilight again, whatever the reasons for why she was who she was.
“I didn’t get much chance to speak with Indigo Zap before her family moved away,” Sunset started saying after Rainbow had been lost in thought for a while, “but, from what Twilight’s said about her?”
Even Indigo had something up with her, did she? How did I miss all this?
Sunset looked off to the side and frowned, with everyone waiting for her to figure out what to say next. When she did, she tilted her head to one side and looked straight at Rainbow, speaking in a much less serious voice.
“Do you remember that bit near the beginning of Finding Nemo, where Nemo tells his classmates about his deformed fin, and the little octopus reveals that she has one tentacle shorter than the rest?”
Rainbow cast her mind back to the one time she’d seen that film, dimly recalling a scene with a pink fish or something, and so she nodded at Sunset, but didn’t look confident about it.
“And then the seahorse says he’s H2O intolerant and sneezes, and then a yellow fish gets right in Nemo’s face and announces ‘I’m obnoxious!’ like it’s a medical condition?” This time Sunset didn’t wait for Rainbow to confirm, she just went on, but sounding darker. “Well, Indigo Zap is obnoxious.”
Rainbow opened her mouth to protest, having seen a lot of herself in Indigo and hung out with her a couple of times before she moved away, but Sunset held up a hand defensively.
“I don’t mean it in a nasty way,” she said quickly, “that’s just what sprung to mind when thinking about her in that context. Personal space and indoor voices weren’t exactly concepts she was best known for defending, and even by Crystal Prep standards she took the competition very seriously.”
They all had, as far as Rainbow remembered, on both sides. Or maybe that was her own enthusiasm for it affecting how she thought of it, trying to adjust her memories to make her friends as into it as she had been. Maybe Indigo had been pushing harder than the rest of her team, but it still felt bad thinking about a friend that way, accusing her of having something other than herself controlling her actions.
“You seem to know that movie pretty well,” Pinkie said to Sunset, pulling a lollipop from her pink fluffy hair as she did so.
“I may have watched it a lot when I first got here,” Sunset admitted, embarrassed but smiling fondly. “It’s so colourful, it reminded me of Equestria. Finding Nemo is important to me, I guess.”
Rainbow was hardly paying attention, instead still trying to figure out whether she was being a bad friend to Indigo. It did seem kind of rude, suggesting that someone behaved so strangely that the best explanation you could come up with for it was mental illness. Obviously there was nothing wrong with that if it were true – but there was, wasn’t there? That was why things like that were called mental health problems, or disorders; problems and disorders were things to be cured if possible, and managed if not, right? So it wasn’t like it was all fine, and that having that kind of condition was just as fine as not having it.
But Rainbow didn’t think any less of Indigo as a person for having that. Nor would she of any of the other Shadowbolts, or other Crystal Prep students who didn’t make the Games team, or anyone. Maybe it was just like a physical injury, in that you were sorry if it happened to someone and you hoped they got better as soon as possible, but you did what you could to make stuff easier for them until it did, and it obviously didn’t affect your friendship with them.
Should she look up the details on the internet and try to find out more about what her friend was going through, and if there was anything Rainbow could do to help? Or go on as before, and treat her exactly the same, just as she would anybody else? Not that she was likely to see Indigo again, with how far away she’d moved, but what about the other five? Sour Sweet, Sugarcoat, Lemon Zest, Twilight, and–
“Wait a minute,” she suddenly said out loud, “what about Sunny Flare?” She then blushed and added more quietly, “I kinda forgot about her.”
Rarity was the person to answer, first making a face like she’d eaten something bad.
“Much to her displeasure, many people do. She’s the normal one of the group, in her own words.” Then Rarity went back to her usual smile, and continued, “She might be a terrible person, in her own way – although I am very fond of her – but there’s nothing different about her in a medical sense.”
Having barely ever spoken to Sunny, Rainbow couldn’t really comment either way. Rarity seemed to know what she was talking about, though, even if what she was saying caused an obvious problem.
“When she first told me that,” Rarity said, “about her being the normal one, I thought she was referring to how we had several things in common. We’re both interested in fashion and shopping, that sort of thing, and so I assumed she was implying that that made her normal in my eyes.” Rarity paused, and then lost some of her cheerfulness. “Since I pieced together the rest of the Crystal Prep situation, though, I’ve come to rethink that conclusion.”
“But then what would she be doing at a special needs school?” Rainbow asked, unable to help sounding confused. It just didn’t fit with everything else she’d learned that lunchtime.
“She wouldn’t. Nor would Fleur, for that matter.”
“Crystal Prep isn’t a special needs school,” Sunset said, “not officially.”
This did nothing to help Rainbow’s confusion. She’d finally come around to accepting that Crystal Prep was exactly that, and then they told her it wasn’t? She scowled at Sunset and Rarity, wishing they would just be open with her instead of dancing in circles around the subject, and would tell her the truth from the beginning.
“But it does offer the small classroom sizes and top of the line teachers and facilities that you’d expect in a private school,” Rarity said, as if that made things clearer.
“All of which are of even greater benefit to students with poorer mental health,” Sunset explained, so in-sync with Rarity that the conversation seemed almost pre-planned, although Rainbow was certain it wasn’t, “who’d be more likely to flounder in a regular school. Crystal Prep also offers a much higher ratio of teaching assistants to students, which help to no end those with special needs to fit in in school.”
“And the teachers, assistants and other staff have all been trained extensively in the best ways to reach those students and educate them,” said Rarity, waving a hand in the air as she made her point.
“So a sizeable contingent of the students there – I don’t have much hard data to go on, but I’d say 50 to 75% – have one form of special needs or another,” Sunset said.
Pinkie and Fluttershy sat quietly listening, and poor Applejack must have had conversation bouncing between her ears as Rarity and Sunset took it in turns to speak from either side of her. But none of them looked bored with the heavy conversation. So did that make Crystal Prep just a normal school? And if so, what had been the point of the whole conversation, which had taken up most of their lunch hour?
“The school is marketed as being a great place for special needs students,” Rarity began, shifting in her seat to get more comfortable.
“Rather than a school designed for them or explicitly designated for them,” Sunset finished, and Rainbow started to understand the difference between the two.
“I imagine that helps the students feel more empowered,” Rarity suggested, “making going there seem more like something they can choose to do, instead of having to, even if there aren’t many other options.”
“Exactly,” Sunset agreed, “no one is forcing anyone to go to Crystal Prep, or separating those with special needs from those without, and there are plenty of good reasons to still choose to go there even if you’re perfectly healthy and always have been.”
Rarity added, “Which probably helps anyone with those kinds of issues feel a little more normal, or at least a little less out of place.”
And yet it was coming to CHS that had made Twilight feel more normal. The way she told it, she’d pretty much had a closet at Crystal Prep that she’d stuffed with sciency things, and everyone else had kind of left her to it. But then, knowing Twilight, that was probably her own choice, and if she’d felt confident enough to do that, then maybe Crystal Prep really was good at letting students feel like they decided things for themselves. Should schools be pushing friendship, or leaving students to do their own thing? Maybe Twilight was a special case, and the CHS way was better for her but the Crystal Prep way better for the others?
Anyway, that was a distraction from the main thing Rainbow was trying to think about with Crystal Prep, how it wasn’t a special needs school but was a great place for special needs students, and so sort of was a special needs school, but also sort of wasn’t.
“Their website doesn’t come right out and say it,” Sunset said on a different note, “just asking parents of potential students with special needs to contact the school to discuss things directly, but there are almost certainly discounts and scholarships available for those suffering who would benefit from going to Crystal Prep.”
“It’s telling that Sunny,” Rarity picked up, “the healthy one, and Lemon, with the hard-to-medically-diagnose problem, are also the ones from the wealthiest backgrounds, as the only Shadowbolts who probably had to pay the tuition fees at full price.”
So the point was, as Rainbow understood it, that Crystal Prep wasn’t seen as any different to a regular school, other than being expensive and probably better. And that made it a good choice for students with mental health issues, who it was known to do well with, and that meant that those students made up a big part of the school’s total number. It wasn’t a special needs school by the way it was set up, but it kind of was because of its students. Mostly.
“So why did they set them against us in the Games?” she asked, not sure how whoever organised it could set up something so unfair.
“Th-There’s a lot of stigma attached to mental health, still,” Fluttershy said from where she sat on Rainbow’s left, flinching only a tiny bit when everyone turned to look at her. “What better way to break it than to show people with those issues competing against those without, and winning?”
“Crystal Prep went in confident they’d win, after all,” Rarity pointed out, “and they always did in the previous years.”
“That’s right,” Fluttershy smiled, “and even if we didn’t know about it, the Crystal Prep students did. That must have been quite a boost for them.”
“And quite a blow to have now lost,” Rainbow said, feeling her stomach sinking.
“Yeah,” Sunset sighed. “Why do you think Cinch was so up in arms about the whole thing?”
“...I thought she was just horrible,” Rainbow said, having not reached Crystal Prep’s unpleasant principal in her re-thinking of the school.
“Are you kiddin’?” Applejack snorted. “What kind a’ petty, mean-spirited twunt would Principal Cinch have ta be ta get that obsessed with the students of a school costin’ tens a’ thousands a’ dollars a term beatin’ those goin’ to a regular, public school?”
“That’d make her, like, the most horrible person on the planet,” Pinkie giggled from much too close, and Rainbow suddenly realised Pinkie was almost resting her head on Rainbow’s shoulder, “which would be...”
“...Statistically unlikely,” Sunset finished, as Pinkie returned to her usual seating position as quickly as she had come.
Yeah, but Cinch was pretty horrible...
“She’d spent years telling her students that they were just as capable as us,” Rarity said, her tone suggesting she felt sorry for the horrible woman, “in spite of whatever issues might be holding them back. To suddenly lose – and to a public school, no less – it must have been a crushing sign of the reality they would face when they graduated.”
Rarity managed to sound as disgusted when saying ‘public school’ as Rainbow could imagine Cinch herself doing, and Rainbow’s friends defending that woman was tough to hear.
“But she was horrible!” she burst out, listening to the word that had been bouncing around her head since the subject of Cinch had come up.
“Yep,” Sunset nodded, “she came across as a vile woman.” Then she hesitated, and Rainbow knew there was a ‘but’ coming. “Is the captain of the Wonderbolts known for being kind and gentle?”
The sinking feeling in Rainbow’s stomach struck again, because she knew Captain Spitfire was anything but that. Although she also knew that Spitfire on her worst day was still a thousand times better than Cinch on her best. She didn’t say anything, and Sunset took that as a sign to go on.
“I don’t like the idea, nor am I that keen on defending her, as I loathed her just as much as anyone, but it may be that only someone that caustic could do what she did. Some people will do anything to win, and unlike most, she had a good, altruistic reason to do so, and a nicer person might not have fought as hard as she did.”
“Also, darling,” Rarity spoke up, “we may not have been seeing her at her best. She knew what was at stake with the Games, and she couldn’t let the students in on it. She was fighting to protect them, and she was the only one doing so; the pressure of it may have got to her and been responsible for some of her waspishness.”
“And us,” Sunset jumped in, picking up her back and forth with Rarity again, “lucky enough to be in good health, must have seemed a slap in the face in our normalcy, never knowing the life problems many of her students would, and there we were beating them in the competition.”
“We didn’t know,” Rainbow protested, but Sunset responded instantly.
“No, we didn’t. And that may excuse us, but to her it may have made us seem all the more infuriating in our ignorance, not even realising the damage we were causing.”
“Ah didn’t lahke her one bit,” Applejack said grimly while Rainbow was thinking about what Sunset had said, “and ah don’t approve a’ cheatin,’ but her reasons were the best ah’ve heard.”
“The benefits of us winning didn’t come close to the cost of them losing,” Sunset agreed.
Rainbow could hardly believe what she was hearing. The reasons may have been good, sure, but that didn’t make it right, did it? If you couldn’t afford to lose something, you shouldn’t have entered it in the first place.
“She must have known that was a risk,” Rainbow said. That was always a risk, however many times you’d won in the past.
“A calculated one, I’d guess,” Sunset answered. “Clearly she miscalculated, or didn’t update her risk assessment with CHS doing better in recent years, and she realised it too late.”
Everyone went quiet for a few seconds, looking around in thought. Rainbow still wasn’t convinced, but she didn’t have any new arguments, just the same ‘but that doesn’t make it right to cheat, or even to be that mean about everything.’
“In my view,” Rarity said into the silence, “she sought to shelter them. A different identity: they weren’t the invalid patients of some educational funny farm, they were the privileged few of Crystal Prep.” Rarity said it in her usual drama-class manner, sounding sickened when saying ‘invalid patients,’ with her voice shining on ‘privileged few.’
“I agree,” said Sunset, “she tried to shelter them under a different banner. It’s sad the one she chose was wealthy elitism,” she made a face, “but for a long time it worked, and I don’t know if the same could be said of any alternatives.”
“That’s why she was so obsessed with reputation,” Rarity explained. “The first thing a college or future employer would see on a former student’s résumé would be ‘Crystal Prep Academy,’ and in some cases that would be all they’d need to look at.”
That didn’t really sound like a good thing to Rainbow, with jobs being given out just on the grounds of which schools people went to, but Sunset continued where Rarity had left off.
“Not a delicately-worded declaration of having a mental health condition,”
“Followed by a brief explanation of what it means,” Fluttershy interrupted, and the fact that she’d speak over anyone else, even as quietly as she had done, said a great deal about how strongly she felt about the subject.
“Right,” Sunset nodded in thanks, “or the name of an under-funded, under-performing specialist school that no one has heard of.”
“Or ev’ryone knows for the wrong reasons,” Applejack added unhappily.
Rainbow thought about it, and unfortunately could well see someone not giving a fair chance to a person with a résumé listing a mental illness. Not that that would have to be listed on a résumé, as far as she knew, but she could also think of times when it might not be a bad idea to do so. Her dad had once told her that employers usually decided whether or not to hire someone within the first thirty seconds of meeting them, and if you obviously displayed signs of a mental health condition when you walked in the door of the interview, having not mentioned it previously, then the unexpected first impression might throw your chances of getting the job.
“Crystal Prep’s reputation wasn’t a vanity project,” Rarity said, looking away, “or a tool to persuade the school governors to increase Cinch’s salary.” Then she locked eyes with Rainbow and said sadly, “It was a shield. It kept Crystal Prep’s students safe long after they left the protection of the school, which was when they needed it most.”
“And Cinch knew how bad things could get if that reputation was lost,” Sunset took over a moment later. “Perhaps she shouldn’t have risked it in the games, but it was public victories like the one she expected to have there that maintained it.”
“In hindsight,” Rarity said, “she probably would have been ok sticking to school exam results alone that year.”
“But,” Sunset responded, “how much of the school confidence, which served its students so well, was down to knowing they’d won the Games so many times before?” She looked to each of the others in turn, as if any of them would have a sure answer. “How would future exam results suffer following the blow to school spirit that would come from pulling out of the Games?”
Rainbow had no idea. It was all connected – how well the Crystal Prep students did in the Games would affect not just how confident they were in going against regular kids and interacting with the outside world, and how that confidence would carry over to their exam performance, but all of that would also affect how good their school was seen as being, and that would in turn give them a better shot in their future lives.
“As it was,” said Rarity, trying to sound hopeful, “Cinch had a lucky escape when Principal Celestia announced that everyone won, and Crystal Prep’s reputation is still mostly intact.”
“But I doubt it can survive a second round of that,” Sunset frowned, “Crystal Prep will have to win the next Friendship Games outright or choose not to compete at all. I suspect they may go for the latter.”
“That would be sad,” Rainbow said, thinking of how she had loved both the Games themselves and the buildup to them, “stopping future students from enjoying the competition.” She’d still had great fun, and even the things she’d learned that lunchtime wouldn’t change how fun she’d found it, any more than the crazy magic stuff had at the time.
“It wasn’t a real competition in the first place,” Sunset shook her head. “It was a PR exercise designed to boost the confidence of those with mental health issues.”
It had felt real, Rainbow thought, and she’d treated it as real. And it hadn’t been rigged. Not in any direct way, although it hadn’t really been fair either, so she wasn’t sure.
“That’s why it was called the Friendship Games,” Rarity said darkly, “a name only a short stretch from ‘Special Olympics.’”
Oh. When you put it like that... Had Rainbow competed in the Special Olympics without knowing it, as someone in perfect health? She remembered the bad guy deliberately doing the same thing in one episode of a cartoon series she liked, and it had been shown as a really, really bad thing to do. The thought of it was certainly not a good one.
But was it really the same? The Shadowbolts might have had their issues, but they didn’t have learning difficulties, not in the sense that the phrase usually meant. Was it actually even worse to think of them as needing that kind of special treatment? Or was that exactly what ‘special needs’ meant? What was the precise difference between ‘special needs’ and ‘mental health conditions,’ or other similar words? Maybe she did need to go away and look things up online.
Maybe thinking of it as being like the Special Olympics wasn’t right, maybe the two weren’t the same, but doing so did have the effect of showing Rainbow how the Games might look from the outside, or if the situation had been exaggerated, and with that she completely stopped defending.
“...If we had known,” Fluttershy said, almost too quietly to hear, “should we have let them win?”
On any other day, the thought of letting someone else win anything would have sounded crazy to Rainbow. At that moment, she didn’t know what to think, although she wasn’t sure she could convincingly lose.
“Or refused to compete?” she suggested.
“I don’t know,” Sunset said, staring ahead of her.
“I really don’t,” Rarity agreed, not looking up from the table.
“That just seems patronising,” said a very lost-sounding Pinkie.
“But goin’ ahead an’ tryin’ our best ta thrash ‘em anyway don’t seem great either,” Applejack finished.
They all sat silently for at least half a minute, not looking up at each other, just trying to run through the options in their heads, none of them managing to figure it out.
“I do know this, though,” Sunset said at last, “with how things turned out: For all the progress that’s been made with equal opportunities, and while of course the people at Crystal Prep are just as valid and as valuable to society as we are, beating them is not something you should be boasting about.”
“I didn’t know,” was the only thing Rainbow could say, knowing that Sunset was right.
“Ah know, sugarcube,” Applejack said kindly, and Fluttershy put a hand on Rainbow’s shoulder, “it’s ok, don’t worry ‘bout it.”
“But now you do know,” Sunset said regretfully, “I’m afraid it’s a victory you shouldn’t mention as often.”
All Rainbow could do was nod her head and stare at her hands in her lap. Fluttershy pulled her into a hug, and Pinkie soon piled in from the other side. Rainbow wondered how long ago each of them had realised the truth about Crystal Prep and the Games, and how they’d reacted when they found out. Was she that much more stupid than them when it came to picking up signs for that sort of thing? ‘Oblivious,’ Rarity had once called her when she’d accidentally tracked muddy boots across the bottom of a dress Rarity had been sewing, and maybe that description was more true than she’d thought.
“It’s ok, silly,” Pinkie said, “you’ve still got every other win of all the teams you’re captain of.”
“Ah’m sure there’s no shortage a’ vict’ries with ya name on them,” Applejack said as Pinkie and Fluttershy drew back to their normal seats.
Rainbow grinned weakly. She hadn’t been crying or anything, but it kind of felt like it, from the effort it took to laugh when Applejack added, “Not in arm wrestlin’ against me, though.”
“And I think it’s ok about the Games, too,” Sunset said gently. “For all that was wrong with them, we got six new friends out of it, and so did they.”
“I know she cared about winning,” Fluttershy smiled, “but given how hard Sour Sweet finds it to make friends, I think our acceptance means more to her than the Games would have done.”
“And I’m not saying that the sheltering reputation of Crystal Prep isn’t important to its students’ future prospects, darling,” Rarity added, “but they were called the Friendship Games. And in that respect, everybody really did win.”
Rainbow glanced over to the clock on the wall and saw that lunch hour was pretty much over. The outside sunshine would have to wait until the end of school. It hadn’t been a wasted hour, though, she’d learned a huge amount. Probably more than she would in class all that afternoon.
She was just about to thank her friends and probably say something embarrassingly mushy to them when the cafeteria doors flew open with a bang, and Adagio Dazzle casually walked in.
Immediately, Rainbow grabbed her chance and jumped to her feet. Her friends had managed to cheer her up again, but she’d probably still be a bit down over the whole Friendship Games thing for the rest of the day. Winning against Adagio could be just what she needed to be smiling until she fell asleep that night. And there was no risk of that battle being unfair, she thought, at least not to her advantage. Adagio had made it all too clear again and again how good she was at their game, and from her smirking, appeared to enjoy it, too.
“Don’t do it, Rainbow,” Rarity said, looking up at her.
“It ain’t worth it,” Applejack agreed.
Fluttershy didn’t say anything and just looked at her with huge eyes, begging her not to go.
Rainbow ignored them, and started walking towards the middle of the room. She needed to do it. She had to. It was too important not to.
“This won’t end well,” Sunset called after her, louder than the others, but not so loudly that Adagio would hear it on the far side of the cafeteria where she was filling a plate with whatever food was left yet to be served.
Rainbow kept walking. She looked from side to side, seeing something like half of the tables still with people sitting at them chatting, although everyone had finished eating. More than enough of an audience for the word of her winning to travel throughout the school.
It was finally time. In one blow, she’d gain a new victory to replace the Games, which she could no longer really call a win, and she’d deal with the problem that’d been bugging her for so long.
For weeks, Adagio had been twisting Rainbow’s words into implying she was a lesbian, and that she had a crush on Adagio. Not that there was anything wrong with having a crush on a girl, and if Sunset liked Aria then that was great, but that wasn’t what was happening with Rainbow, and Adagio obviously knew that.
Rainbow had stayed up for hours thinking of her comeback, the perfect witty line to imply that it was Adagio who was the lesbian, not Rainbow, and do so in a way that would stick in everyones’ minds. At last she’d found it, and now she was going to use it. If she were in a video game, she’d be hearing her superweapon charging up for the killshot.
Adagio had finished loading her plate, grabbed some cutlery, and was just turning towards the centre of the room to head to a table.
Rainbow took a deep breath.
Then she called out to Adagio, not quite shouting, but loudly enough to carry across the whole cafeteria, for Adagio to hear and everyone else in the room to overhear.
“How’s it going, Avagio?”
Adagio stopped walking. She didn’t instantly freeze in place, but she stopped her movement and stood with her legs together, plate in hand, looking at Rainbow across the room, not saying anything. Her expression didn’t change either, and Rainbow had the idle thought that being speechless must be a new experience for her. She didn’t look speechless, her mouth wasn’t hanging open or anything, or moving up and down as if trying to make words. But she wasn’t saying anything either, which was close enough to speechless to do.
Nothing else in the whole cafeteria moved or made a sound. Every single student was fixed in place, with only their eyes moving, flicking back and forth between Rainbow and Adagio. No one laughed, or made ‘oooh, sick burn’ noises, they were all just waiting to see how Adagio would react. Rainbow had a feeling most of them were even holding their breath.
And then, after a pause that felt like forever, but couldn’t actually have been longer than a second or two, Adagio answered, with a smile that looked real.
“All the better for seeing you, Rainbow Gash.”