“Rainbow Dash,” the voice boomed. “We need to talk.”
Dash opened her eyes, and she was adrift. Stars sparkled in an infinite darkness that stretched in every direction around her. Her hooves rested on nothing, a nothing that she could still somehow stand on, could feel beneath her but know deep down it wasn’t there.
“Where am I?” she shouted at the nothing, at the voice. “Why’d you bring me here?” She glanced warily around the vast emptiness, searching for the source, ready for anything. Her body was a coiled spring, prepared to burst into action at a moment’s notice. If whoever the voice belonged to tried anything, she could take it. Or, at the very least, make damn sure it regretted messing with her.
“We are in your dream,” said the voice, no longer booming but soft, and right behind her. Rainbow Dash whipped around, but managed to catch herself before she bucked Princess Luna in the face. The alicorn didn’t even bat an eyelid. “And as I said,” she continued, “we need to talk.”
Rainbow stared past the princess, scanning the distance for some kind of hidden doorway or trapdoor, or anything she could have used to sneak up on her so quickly. But there was nothing, and even if there had been, surely Dash would have noticed her approach as she’d surveyed the… whatever this was. Or heard the telltale pop of teleportation magic. But Dash had seen and heard nothing. It was an impressive trick.
“It’s not a trick,” said Luna, with a quiet chuckle.
Dash’s eyes widened. “Can you read my mind?” she asked, desperately trying not to think of anything incriminating, just in case.
“Not quite,” Luna replied, although she seemed hesitant to explain further. Instead, she gestured at the vast expanse surrounding them. “This is your dream, and you’ve called me here because you need me.”
Dash frowned. “I don’t remember doing that.”
“That’s not really how it works. I simply am where I am needed.”
“So is this real, then?”
“No more than your dreams usually are.”
Rainbow shook her head. “No, I mean… Like the Tantabus.”
Luna sat down on the nothing, and patted the space beside her, beckoning Dash to join her. She did so, and found the nothing was surprisingly soft and comfortable. And, for a while, the two of them simply sat and watched the stars.
“This is different to the Tantabus,” Luna explained, eventually. “I didn’t enter your dream directly this time.”
“But you’re here.”
“In a sense.” Luna thought for a moment, searching for the right words. “When I returned from my banishment, my magical link to Equestria was restored. A small aspect of that magic resides in the heart of every pony in Equestria, and sometimes – when a pony is in dire need – it awakens.”
“And that’s what this is?”
Luna nodded. “You are the dreamer. I am the dream.”
“So… you’re not real?”
“If that’s easier.”
Luna must have caught the confusion on her features. “How do you explain flying to ponies who can’t?” she asked.
Rainbow blinked. “Er, well, I just sort of flap my wings and-”
“No that’s not it,” said Luna. “That’s the physical side of it, but it’s not flying. The physics don’t make sense. There’s a magic to flight, one that you use every time you take off, every time you soar through the skies, with every sonic rainboom. Trying to explain that to a pony who can’t fly is like trying to explain the colour green to a pony who can’t see it.”
Dash considered this for a moment. “I guess it’s kind of… nature-y?” she ventured. “And fresh.”
“Ah, that’s what green’s like, but it’s not what it is. The only way to teach a pony green is to show them and hope they can understand.”
“Why don’t you show me what this is, then?” Dash asked.
“I already have,” said Luna, sympathetically. “You didn’t understand.”
Rainbow tried to digest this information for a while, and eventually Luna spoke again.
“I am an amalgamation of my magic in your heart, and your subconscious. Whether or not that makes me real is really just a question of semantics. In any case, the Luna you know in the waking world will have no knowledge or memory of our conversation.” She paused a moment, and laughed softly. “It’s probably for the best. I imagine explaining this every single time would get quite tiresome.”
“But that doesn’t explain why you’re here.”
Luna smiled again, although Dash thought she caught a tinge of sadness hidden in it. “That’s what we’re going to find out. Together.”
The world suddenly shifted, as if everything had spun on its axis without moving at all, Dash still staring at the same patch of stars she had been before.
Things were not the same, though. Before them stretched a vast and craggy landscape, covered in grey dust, pockmarked with countless craters.
“An interesting choice,” remarked Luna, picking up a hoofful of the dust and letting it tumble slowly back to the ground, like sand through an hourglass. “I can’t say I’m glad to be back here.”
“I didn’t do that,” Dash insisted, warily glancing about the moon’s surface as though something might jump out at her. There was precedence, after all.
“You did,” Luna replied. “Of course, one doesn’t really choose their dreams, but it’s still theirs. And this is still yours.”
“So if I decide what to dream about, that’s what’ll happen?” Rainbow Dash was in familiar territory now; she’d once ignored Twilight rambling about something just like this, about ponies who were able to realise they were dreaming and do whatever they wanted. Rainbow wished she’d paid more attention. She couldn’t even remember what it was called.
“Lucid dreaming,” Luna said, an answer to a question that Dash hadn’t even asked. “And no, this is different. I’m afraid you’ll find you have a lot less control here than you’d like. Especially later.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dash asked, not liking the princess’ tone. It was almost… menacing.
“We’re going to see exactly what you need to see. Quite often, the things we need and the things we want are far from the same.”
Rainbow chewed her lip. “Couldn’t I just wake up?”
Luna gave her a curious look. “Can you?”
Rainbow looked up, at Equestria floating so far above them, a royal blue orb that hung so motionless in the blackness of space. It was as beautiful as it was unsettling, seeing her entire world before her, so incomprehensibly huge and yet so still. “I don’t think I want to try, yet,” she said, quietly.
“Good,” said Luna. “Though that may change. Personally, I think you should see it through to the end.”
“I don’t even know what this is yet.”
The wisps of cloud around Luna’s hooves danced in the wind as the princess’s dark blue eyes locked with Dash’s, seeming to pierce deep into Rainbow’s soul. “Where are we?” she asked.
Rainbow Dash frowned. She hadn’t noticed the change, the same shift that she’d felt before. But it had changed, somehow, and everything was different. They were back in Equestria now. The cold lunar landscape had been switched out, entirely replaced, and now they were high in the sky, submerged in clouds. It could be anywhere.
Except it wasn’t. She knew these clouds. She knew those markers, those landing strips, this course. “It’s my flight school,” she told Luna, but Luna was no longer there.
Instead was the timid form of Fluttershy, far younger than in reality – barely more than a foal – peering nervously over the edge of the cloud they sat on. “I don’t know, Rainbow,” she murmured. “It’s such a long way down.”
“Don’t even worry about it,” Dash assured her, in a high-pitched squeak that she hated. It was okay, though. She was sure she would grow out of it. “You’ll do great!”
Fluttershy remained unconvinced. “What if I crash again?” she asked, so quietly Rainbow could barely hear her.
“You won’t,” Dash insisted, patting her reassuringly on the back. Fluttershy jumped at the sudden contact, letting out a startled ‘eep’ and almost plummeting over the edge, and Rainbow couldn’t help but wince. For all her encouragement, deep down she wasn’t sure that Fluttershy actually could do it. It didn’t matter either way, of course – she was Fluttershy’s friend no matter what, through thick and thin – but Rainbow still felt like she was betraying her friend in some way with that niggling doubt.
The soft clumpf of hooves landing on the cloud came from behind her, and Dash grit her teeth. It had to be now, didn’t it? Always three of them. They were too chicken to do anything by themselves.
“Well, well,” sneered one of the colts as Dash and Fluttershy turned to face them. “Rainbow Crash and Klutzershy. Planning on nose-diving into any more clouds today?”
“Shut up, Hoops,” she snapped.
His grin only widened. “I’m just asking a question.” And then the snorting laugh she hated so much. “We need to know if we should get out the safety nets.”
Dash hated it. Not because she couldn’t handle them, but because with every word they spoke Fluttershy shuffled slightly further away from the edge, tucked her wings in a little tighter. With every word they killed her confidence, shred by shred.
“You want another race?” Dash growled. “Because I’ll gladly kick your butt again if you want it so bad.”
Hoops eyed the brand new cutie mark on Dash’s flank with disgust. “Depends, are you gonna race fair this time?”
Fluttershy muttered something then, but it was too quiet to hear and she immediately buried her face in her mane afterwards to hide… something. Embarrassment? Fear?
“Speak up, Klutzershy, no one can hear you,” Hoops cackled, his two minions laughing along with him as if he’d actually said something funny.
“I said you’re just jealous that Rainbow beat you,” Fluttershy said, still so quietly it was barely audible. Immediately after she spoke she seemed to regret it, her eyes going wide, pressing her hoof to her mouth before it betrayed her again.
But the damage was done. Hoops rounded on her, a dark scowl doing nothing to improve his features. “And what about you, Klutzershy?” he snarled, slowly stepping towards her as she recoiled from his advance. “Last I checked, real pegasi don’t fall out the sky.”
“Hey, leave her alone!” Rainbow shouted, but then his two cronies moved between them, cutting her off. She’d have loved to buck the grins off their faces, but it was two against one – three if Hoops joined in – and the risk of expulsion wasn’t worth it even if she could take them all on.
Fluttershy stumbled backwards, stammering meek apologies as she went. But Hoops didn’t relent.
“Maybe you’re not a real pegasus after all,” Hoops said, as Fluttershy ran out of cloud and her back hoof slipped over the edge. She caught herself, but now Hoops was right next to her, towering over her demure form with a cold sneer. “You should pack it in and go home, Klutzershy. It’s not like those wings will ever be any use to you.”
He waited a moment longer, seeing if she dared answer back, but whatever resistance had risen in her was long stamped out. Satisfied, Hoops gave Dash one last rude gesture before launching off into the sky with his friends, their mocking laughter echoing behind them as they went.
Dash was by Fluttershy’s side the moment they’d left, resting a hoof reassuringly on the cowering pegasus’ shoulder. “Hey, Flutters, you okay?”
Fluttershy shook her head, keeping it tucked to her chest so Dash couldn’t see her.
“You can ignore those guys,” Dash said, the venom all too obvious in her voice. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
And then Fluttershy did look up, and the tearful expression on her face shattered Rainbow’s heart into tiny pieces. “No,” she said quietly. “They’re right. I’m a terrible pegasus.”
Dash shook her head vehemently. “Not even close to true,” she insisted. “And who gives a crap what those guys think anyway?”
“No buts. And what about me? Do you care what I think?”
“Of course I do.”
“Well, I think you’re an awesome pegasus, and that’s gotta mean a whole lot more than whatever Hoops thinks, right?”
Fluttershy smiled sadly. “Yeah, I guess it does.”
“You can do this,” Dash told her. “I believe in you.”
Fluttershy sniffed, and clambered slowly to her hooves. “Okay,” she murmured, trotting back over to the edge of the cloud, whispering motivation to herself under her breath that Dash tried not to listen to. She knew Fluttershy wouldn’t want her to hear. Fluttershy’s wings flared, and she closed her eyes, and she stepped out into the empty void of the sky, and then Dash was torn violently from her memory back to the moon’s surface.
If the earlier shift had been disorientating, this one was almost strong enough to make her sick. Luna was beside her again, regarding her with patient curiosity, and perhaps that was what allowed Dash to hold it in. She’d rather not puke her guts out in front of a princess, real or otherwise, and she still wasn’t sure which of those this Luna was.
“What was that?” Dash spluttered, when she’d recovered enough for words.
“A memory,” Luna replied. “A dream.”
“Those are different things.”
Luna’s expression remained impassive. “Are they?”
Rainbow couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “You really hate explaining stuff, don’t you?”
Luna smiled then, wide and genuine. “You’re quite perceptive.” And then, all serious once more: “Do you have an answer yet?”
“An answer to what?”
“Why I’m here. Why we’re here.”
“How would I know that?”
“Because that’s what the memories are for. That’s what the dreams tell you.”
Dash stared down at the dust as her roiling stomach finally began to calm. “Yeah, well all that memory told me is how much of an asshole Hoops was.”
Luna blinked. “And you think that’s why we’re here?”
As far as Rainbow could tell, the princess really wasn’t joking.
“I’m pretty sure it’s not,” she said.
“Good.” Luna’s relief was palpable. “That would be a hard one to help with.”
They sat in silence for a while, Dash staring up at the stars, Luna regarding Rainbow with an inscrutable expression.
“I’ve always hated that memory,” Dash said, eventually.
“Why?” Luna asked. “You stood with your friend. You encouraged her to take the plunge, so to speak, even with those bullies trying to discourage her. Those are admirable actions.”
“I should have done more. I shouldn’t have let them get away with it. I shoulda stuck up for Fluttershy right from the start. I could have taken them, shown them not to mess with her.”
“And then you would have been expelled from your flight school, and who would stand by her then?”
Rainbow’s hoof scratched at the moon’s surface in irritation, kicking up grey dust that floated so slowly through the… not air, she supposed. “But I got kicked out anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” she muttered.
Luna frowned. “What happened?”
“I crashed again when I was racing Hoops to prove I was the better flier. I was trying to do another sonic rainboom and wasn’t paying enough attention. After that, the instructors said I was ‘too reckless’ to keep teaching me.”
Another pregnant pause.
“Is that all this is gonna be?” Rainbow asked. “Showing me memories I don’t like?”
Luna pondered for a moment, her frame silhouetted against the stars behind her, shrouded in shadow. “I don’t think so,” she said. “There’s almost certainly more to it than that.”
“What do other ponies normally need help with?” Dash asked.
“I wouldn’t know,” the princess replied. “But sometimes they speak to me after, with thanks.” She hesitated. “It can be quite difficult to accept gratitude for things you don’t remember doing. Things that in some ways you never really did at all.”
“But you do help them?”
“Yes. With many things. We all have fears, doubts. We all need advice and assistance. And sometimes we bury those things so far down that we’re not even aware of them. Sometimes our mind tries to protect us and does far more harm than good. But whatever needs a pony has, I am here to help.”
Something in the way she said that gave Rainbow Dash pause. “Does anyone ever…?” she began, the tips of her ears starting to burn as she caught herself and trailed off.
Luna took no offence, laughing again. “Consort with me? I’m sure they do. I do not mind. Love and lust and comfort are so closely intertwined, and if that’s what they require of me, of their dream, then as their princess I am happy to oblige them.” She gave Dash a meaningful, sidelong look. “Is that why I’m here?” she asked.
Dash gulped, and Luna’s grin widened at her clear nervousness.
“My apologies,” Luna continued. “I am merely teasing.”
A wave of relief washed over Dash, as the mist began to creep in and smother them in white. And then the relief was gone, replaced with icy dread, and she was alone.
The bridge was fixed, now. She’d tied it herself, knew it was solid. And, as she alighted on it just to test its strength in the thick and blinding fog, Dash took a moment to think. She’d turned down the Shadowbolts. She’d stuck by her friends. She’d made the right choice.
But, for a moment, when the Shadowbolts had promised her everything she’d ever wanted, Dash hadn’t known what she was going to say. And that thought terrified her.
Was she really that fickle? Was it even fickle at all? Sure, abandoning your friends seemed like a terrible thing to do, but wasn’t her own happiness important, too?
And there were those thoughts again, the ones Dash was worried about. Because they’d almost convinced her. She’d almost said yes.
But she hadn’t. Images of her friends had risen before her eyes as she’d begun to answer. Applejack, a true and dear friend despite their competitiveness. Maybe because of it. Pinkie, who could always cheer her up no matter what, and would never relent if she even so much as suspected Dash was upset. Rarity, who was always willing to offer help, who would go so far out of her way to do so if she felt it was needed. And now Twilight, too, who was maybe a little too concerned with books but was a truly good pony at heart, Rainbow could already tell.
And even with all of them behind her, she still might have said yes.
But then there was Fluttershy. Fluttershy, who’d been by her side always, who’d been her closest friend for longer than Dash could remember. If she was honest, the thing that had truly stopped her and kept her strong was imagining what it would do to Fluttershy if she didn’t.
Dash could never have faced her again. Even just imagining Fluttershy’s expression when she realised what Dash had done made her heart hurt. And so she’d said no, and it was the right thing to do, and yet the guilt of her indecision was eating through her stomach, tearing through her.
But there was no time for it now. They had a Nightmare to stop. And so Dash took to the air once more, soaring through the mist as she returned to her friends, and she would never dare tell them about her hesitation, her guilt. She left that in the fog, in the past, and Rainbow Dash did everything did everything she could to not look back.
The mist parted, and the now-familiar lunar landscape rushed into focus around her, Dash’s head spinning at the twisting perspective as she skidded to a stop in the grey dirt and the dream managed to assert itself. It was dizzying, and Dash dropped down to her hindquarters mostly just to keep from falling over.
“Why does that always have to suck so much?” she grumbled, but Luna wasn’t listening.
“I’m so sorry,” the princess said. Her words were dull and muted, no trace of her usual strength and confidence.
“Huh?” Rainbow asked, wishing the stars would stop moving, that the moon would stop threatening to slide out from underneath her hooves.
“For everything I put you through back then. All of you. There are very few things I regret more.”
The world finally began to crawl to a stop as Dash shook her head to try and rid herself of the last vestiges of dizziness. “It’s not your fault,” she said, balance becoming dramatically easier. “It wasn’t really you, was it? It was Nightmare Moon.” And then, more quietly. “But that really was me.”
“I don’t understand your guilt,” Luna said. “Or your regret. You were loyal, a true example of the element of harmony you represent. You have nothing to be guilty for.”
“If I was really loyal I wouldn’t have even hesitated,” Dash insisted. “I would have told the Shadowbolts to shove off the moment they made me choose.”
“You understand that those trials were tailored for you to fail? I was trying to stop you, all of you. I offered things that I was sure you couldn’t resist, that would cause you to betray the elements you would come to embody. And every single one of you defeated them.”
“But no one else struggled with it like I did. Rarity cut off her tail, didn’t even hesitate, and this is Rarity we’re talking about. Fluttershy helped that manticore and she wasn’t even a little bit scared. She jumps at her own shadow! I was the only one who hesitated. I was the only one who could have ruined it all. I don’t deserve to bear an element of harmony.”
Luna shook her head. “I have no doubt that it pained Rarity to deface her tail that way. I have no doubt that Fluttershy was scared of that beast. They would have had reservations and doubts, too, but they did what was right, just as you did. You are not culpable for your thoughts, Rainbow Dash, but for your actions. And you stood by your friends. You were loyal, you were strong, and nothing can take that away from you.”
Dash was quiet for a long time.
“I thought you said this wasn’t just going to be regrets,” she said eventually, and more than a little bitterly.
“I said there would be more to it than that.”
“Yeah, okay, I get it. I’m insecure. That’s what this is about, right? Are you happy now? Are we done here? Can I wake up?”
“That isn’t how this works,” said Luna.
“Maybe it should be,” Rainbow snapped. She didn’t really know when she’d stood up, when she’d gotten this angry. But here she was, staring down the impassive princess, who showed not even the slightest sign of acknowledging Dash’s distress. “I’m done. I want to go home.”
“You can’t. Not yet.”
Despite her outward confidence, Dash wasn’t really sure where to start with waking up. She’d never had to try before – sometimes she’d realised she was dreaming in the past, but that had always made her wake up right away with no effort on her part.
Maybe that was the trick here, too. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth in concentration. This is a dream, she thought, trying to block out everything else, to focus entirely on her thoughts. None of this is real. You have to wake up, Dash. Wake up.
She opened her eyes. Princess Luna filled her vision, watching her with pity.
Scowling, Rainbow squinted her eyes shut and tried again. Wake up, Rainbow Dash. Wake up. Wake up and-
Her eyes were still tightly shut as she slammed into the rough stone behind her, the air filled with smoke as she tumbled forward, sprawling into a pile with her friends. Applejack landed heavily on her back, knocking the wind from her lungs, and all Rainbow Dash could do was lie there, wheezing.
She’d messed up.
In hindsight, she didn’t know what she’d been thinking. As if kicking a dragon in the face could ever have been a good idea. Especially one that was big enough to swallow a pony whole without a second thought, one that had sent all five of them flying with a single snort of smoke. And as they lay there, dazed and bruised, and the sun was blotted out by the advancing behemoth, all scales and teeth and claws, Dash wondered if this was it.
She and her friends would never make it off this damn mountain, and it was all her fault. She’d riled him up, made him attack them, and put herself and all her friends in mortal danger. At the very least she hoped her buck had stung like a bitch.
Dash barely noticed Fluttershy rising from the shattered boulder she’d been hiding behind, but she heard the pegasus’ voice, filled with a fury she’d never thought Fluttershy was capable of. And despite the situation, Dash couldn’t help but feel a thoroughly undeserved triumph when the dragon protested her kick – it seemed it had hurt after all. That moment was short-lived, though, as Fluttershy subtly reprimanded her and the guilt sunk in once more.
And then, almost as quickly as things had gone wrong, the dragon was leaving. Fluttershy had done it, she’d saved them all. And yet, as she landed among them and they all congratulated and thanked her, Dash’s smile was a lie.
Because she’d been stupid, and she’d put everyone in danger, and it was all her fault. The dragon could have killed all of them, and then Fluttershy had stood up to it, alone, and what if instead of listening to her it had simply snapped her up? Or burned her to a crisp? What if the last thing Rainbow Dash ever saw was losing her best friend because of her own mistakes? Losing all of them?
And so as the group made their way back down the mountain, clambering down the rocks in high spirits, laughing, cheerful, Dash flew high above them so they couldn’t see her face. So they couldn’t see her guilt, her shame.
Later, Pinkie would prank her with a loud, dragonesque roar, and Dash would freeze up and yelp in fear. And her friends would laugh as embarrassment burned her cheeks, and they would never know that Dash’s fear stemmed entirely from her own insecurity, that she was really only scared she’d do something reckless again and put them all in danger once more, and maybe next time Fluttershy wouldn’t find the courage to stare the beast down. Or maybe next time it just wouldn’t listen.
And then Rainbow would have to live with the fact that she’d doomed her friends, if she even lived at all.
Fluttershy hovered above her. “It’s okay, Dash,” she said, even though Rainbow knew it wasn’t okay, nothing about this was okay. “Not everyone can be as brave as me.”
Not everyone can be as good as you either, Flutters. Not everyone can say they saved their friends today. Not everyone can say they always do.
But you can.
A pang stabbed through Dash’s chest at the thought. She wished she could be half the pony Fluttershy was. She wished she could be so brave as to follow her friends towards something she was so petrified of, and then to face that fear head-on. She wished she’d had the sense not to provoke the dragon, the foresight to not make things worse like Dash seemed to do so often.
When they were younger, Rainbow Dash had always tried to protect Fluttershy. She was too good, too innocent, too kind. And while Dash hadn’t always done the best job of it, she’d tried. She’d been there whenever Fluttershy needed her. Always. Now, though? Now they were all grown up and Fluttershy didn’t really need her anymore, and maybe was better off without her. Maybe all of her friends were. And that thought hurt more than anything.
A leaf drifted down from above her, and Dash gave it a little puff of air, sending it spiralling upwards to land on Fluttershy’s rump. The pegasus squeaked, tumbling out of the air to land beside Rainbow with a soft thump, and her friends burst into laughter. Fluttershy seemed more confused than anything at her sudden predicament, and Dash couldn’t help but laugh too. Maybe Flutters did still need her after all, if only a little bit. Maybe it wasn’t too late for her.
And then the ground beneath Fluttershy was grey dust, and then Fluttershy wasn’t there at all, and this time the transition back to the moon was far less disconcerting than it had been before, as Dash dropped to her hindquarters again and let stars flood her vision. Perhaps she was just getting used to it.
“I didn’t wake up,” she remarked to the moon’s desolate surface in front of her.
“No,” said Luna.
“Aren’t you going to say I told you so?”
“I thought it was self-evident.”
Despite herself, Dash had to laugh at that. The princess smiled warmly, but there was still a deep unhappiness in it that made Dash uneasy.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“These memories are very sad,” Luna replied.
Dash’s good mood faded as reality sunk in once more. At least it had been nice while it lasted. “Isn’t that how this normally goes?”
“As I said, I do not know. And they’re not really my memories to have regardless.” Luna sighed. “I am beginning to wonder if it is for my own sake as much as the ponies I assist.”
“So, you’ve never done this before?”
“I have, countless times, although I remember none of them.”
“Which is basically the same thing.”
Luna’s unreadable expression seemed to darken slightly. “If you think so,” she said.
“So how the hay are you supposed to help me if you don’t even know what you’re doing?”
“Again, that’s not really how this works. I’m here because you’re in turmoil, Rainbow Dash, even if you’re not really aware of it. My purpose is not to give you an answer, but to help you find it on your own.”
There was a pause, and then: “That’s a load of horseapples.”
“I am sorry you feel that way.”
“I told you, I already get it. I don’t need a bunch of dream memories to tell me I’m insecure, I already knew that.”
“So why do you think we’re here, then?”
“I don’t know!” Dash groaned in exasperation. “It’s not like reliving all this is going to suddenly fix it. And you’re no help at all, why are you here?”
“I understand that you’re upset,” said Luna, gently. “But I’m not the target of your frustrations.”
“No, this stupid dream is. It’s not helping. Actually, it’s just making me feel even worse.”
The stars glinted above them, seeming so dispassionate and cold all of a sudden, uncaring, unfeeling as they shone down on the ponies below. Dash’s anger slowly started to fade, melting away as it was replaced by a deep exhaustion. She was tired. Tired of this, tired of seeing all the memories she already had on repeat in her head in those low times, the things that would keep her up at night, making sleep impossible as she buried her head in her pillow and tried and failed to ignore them, to forget them. And aside from Luna’s misguided efforts, there was no longer anything redeeming or calming about the moon’s surface. Now it just seemed cold, still. Dead.
Dash wondered if this is what it was like for Luna, trapped up here for so many years. If she sat and looked at the stars and all of Equestria above her and all she could do was watch and wait and brood on her plight. If it was as terrible as it seemed.
“No,” said Luna, and the princess wasn’t looking at her now, but up at the dark, speckled canvas above them. “It was much worse.”
Luna said nothing more, and Dash didn’t ask – in her head or otherwise. For what seemed like an age, they sat in silence. Dash waited for another memory to take her, to whisk her away to another horrible, doubt-filled moment, but none came. And so Dash sat, and waited, and Luna waited too, and the stars were so bright, and the dust beneath them seemed to almost glow in the stillness.
It wasn’t unpleasant, though. Or awkward. They sat together, and they said nothing, and both were lost in their thoughts and memories and maybe that was okay for now. It was okay for a while, at least, until the princess shifted beside her and the silence was over.
“Perhaps you are missing something,” Luna said.
The princess pondered for a moment. “Why are you so terrified of letting your friends down?”
“Er, because I’m the element of loyalty? That’s kinda my whole thing.”
“And yet you’ve always remained loyal, of that there is no question. You were offered everything you could ever dream of and stood by your friends instead. Loyalty doesn’t demand success.”
Dash took a deep breath. She hated to admit it, but Luna was right. Of course there was more to it than that, lying under the surface, crawling beneath her skin, her thoughts. Wasn’t there always? “Do you ever feel like you don’t belong where you are?” she asked.
“You don’t think you belong amongst your friends?”
Dash chewed the inside of her cheek. “No, that’s not it. I’m explaining it badly.”
“Take your time.”
And so Dash did.
“I don’t feel like I deserve them,” she said, eventually. “And I’m scared that one day they’ll realise I’m not as awesome as they think I am, that I’ve just been pretending this whole time. And then all the great things we’ve done together won’t mean anything any more, like they’ll have seen through the fake me and they’ll all leave.”
Luna opened her mouth to speak, but Rainbow wasn’t finished.
“And I know it’s stupid,” she said. “I know that’s not how it works, but it doesn’t help. Every time I mess up, every time I do something wrong I think ‘this is where they run away, where I’m going to be alone’, and I hate it.” Her eyes were starting to sting, traitorous tears welling up that she hated almost as much as admitting all this out loud. Admitting it made it real. “It scares me,” she whispered. “I don’t want to lose them. I don’t want to be alone.”
Warmth enveloped her, soft and silky, and it took Dash a moment to realise Luna had wrapped a wing around her in a comforting embrace. “I understand why you chose the moon, now,” the princess said. “I’d thought it was just association with myself, but it’s more than that, isn’t it? Isolation. Banishment. Exile.” Luna stared at the empty craters that surrounded them. “That’s what this place is.”
Dash said nothing, and Luna only held her tighter, and Dash let her, let herself be wrapped up in it, let the princess’ embrace soothe and comfort her.
The sunset before them blazed against the sky, bathing it in pinks and oranges that swept across it as if painted there. Dash grinned as the wind gently ruffled her mane, leaning back on the grass while being careful not to disturb Fluttershy, whose head rested on Rainbow’s shoulder as they watched the sun drift slowly beneath the horizon together.
“We did good today, huh?” asked Dash.
“Yes,” Fluttershy murmured. And then: “Well, you did.”
“Aw, forget that. Without you that tornado was a goner.” Dash wrapped a wing around her friend, holding her tight. “You saved the day Flutters, don’t downplay it.”
Fluttershy didn’t seem entirely convinced. “I know I helped,” she said, “but it was still only five wing power. Any other pegasus could have done it too.”
“But they didn’t. You did. And no one else more than doubled their practice power, either. Face it Fluttershy, you’re a hero, and I’m not letting you go till you say so.”
Dash coughed meaningfully.
“I’m a hero,” Fluttershy said, meekly, quietly.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“I’m a hero!”
It wasn’t much better, but it was good enough for Dash. “You're damn right.”
The shadows were lengthening now, the world finally beginning to darken as the red glow before them began to shift to a deep blue.
“I’m sorry you didn’t break your record,” Fluttershy said.
“Doesn’t even matter,” lied Dash. “We got the water up, that’s what’s important, right?”
“I suppose so. I just… You were so excited about it.”
Rainbow sighed heavily, relinquishing her hug and dropping back onto the grass, enjoying the feel of it against her fur. Above, the first stars were just starting to peek through the blue, shining down on the hill the two ponies lay upon. “Yeah, well sometimes things just don’t work out. And you know what? I’m still proud of us. Proud of you.”
A deep blush graced Fluttershy’s cheeks, and she tried to hide it behind a wing, only making her embarrassment even more obvious. “I’m proud of you, too,” she said.
A silence grew between them, Fluttershy clearly wanting to say something but struggling to find the words, or the confidence. Or both. Dash didn’t push her, though. She knew Fluttershy would tell her eventually – she always did – and she knew pushing her to talk would only make it harder. And so instead Rainbow waited and watched the stars appear, dotting the sky one by one by one.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about flight school, the last few days,” Fluttershy said, when she finally spoke.
“Yes. There’s a lot of sad, painful memories there.”
Dash eyed Fluttershy curiously, her own recollections running through her mind.
Planning on nose-diving into any more clouds today?
Maybe you’re not a real pegasus after all.
“You can’t let the bullies get to you,” Dash said. “Especially not after all this time.”
“I know,” said Fluttershy. “But I have a lot of good memories from flight school as well.”
“Like getting your cutie mark,” Dash suggested.
“Yes,” Fluttershy agreed, and the smile on her face at the memory warmed Dash’s heart. “But also I remember all those times you stood up to those bullies for me.”
“Well, yeah. You think I’d just let them bully my best friend?” Dash asked, trying to forget the time she had done that, the time she’d just stood by and watched and done nothing. Trying to ignore the twinge of guilt.
Fluttershy shifted slightly, almost uncomfortably. “No, I know you would never do that,” she said, and the guilt worsened. “And it was those memories that helped me fly today. I wanted to help, like you helped me. And I wanted to say thank you.”
“For standing up to assholes like Hoops? You don’t have to thank me for that.” I don’t deserve it.
“Well, I think I do. And also for never giving up on me, even when everyone else did. Even when I’m useless, or I think I am. Because even a little thing can make a difference, and you helped me realise that.”
Dash stared at Fluttershy, lost in her thoughts and feelings and regrets, long enough that Fluttershy noticed.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I just don’t know how you do it,” Dash said.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re amazing, you know that? I don’t know anyone else as brave as you, anyone else who would do the things you do just to help someone who needs it. Even ponies or creatures who aren’t your friends.”
Fluttershy blinked. “No one’s ever called me brave before. I’m scared of so many things… No, you’re much braver than I am.”
Dash shook her head. “Someone told me once that being brave isn’t about not being scared. It’s about being scared of something and doing it anyway. And so that means you’re the bravest pony I’ve ever met. And who else is gonna stare down a fully grown dragon and tell it to get lost? Only you.”
Fluttershy giggled, and even through her embarrassment Dash could see genuine happiness, and the sight made her heart jump a little in her chest. “Thanks, Rainbow. That’s a really nice thing to say.”
“Any time, Flutters.” Dash pulled herself upright, flapping her wings to clean off any errant blades of grass that had nestled themselves between her feathers. “Shall we get going? It’s getting dark.”
Fluttershy bit her lip, and shuffled a little closer. “Can we stay just a little bit longer? This is nice.” She rested her head on Rainbow’s shoulder again, and any resistance Dash might have had to the idea was instantly dissolved.
“Sure,” she said. “I’d like that.”
And the two sat and watched the last of the sunset as it dwindled into nothing and the stars shone in the darkness and the grass beneath them was grey dust.
Dash blinked, sure she could still almost feel the weight of Fluttershy against her even though her friend was no longer there, the space beside her seeming so empty, now. From her other side, Luna spoke.
“That was a better one,” the princess remarked.
Dash nodded, still somewhat lost in it even as the moon stretched out before her, still feeling Fluttershy beside her, still smelling the grass and feeling the last vestiges of warmth from the fading sunlight. “Yeah,” she said. No more was necessary.
“She’s very important to you, isn’t she?”
“Fluttershy? Yeah, she is. All my friends are.”
Luna shook her head. “No, it’s more than that. Every memory we’ve visited has been about her. The rest of your friends as well, of course, but always Fluttershy.”
Dash frowned. “Huh. I guess you’re right. I didn’t really notice.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Coincidence?” Dash ventured, shrugging.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” said Luna. “Especially not here. These memories are too important for coincidence.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“I’m not saying anything. I merely wonder why all these memories – why all of your doubts – feature one particular friend of yours. Why of all the things you could have chosen to dream about, you chose her.”
“I didn’t ch-” Dash caught herself. They’d already been down that road. “I don’t know,” she finished, lamely.
Luna was silent. The princess was waiting for something, some answer, but Dash didn’t know what to tell her. She didn’t know why it was always Fluttershy in those memories, why it was Fluttershy she was the most afraid of letting down, of failing. Because it always was. When Dash had done nothing in flight camp, she’d sworn to herself that she would never let Fluttershy down again. She’d sworn she would be the friend she was supposed to be. And ever since, Dash had kept her word.
And there had been mistakes, and there had been regrets, but Fluttershy was always there, picking up her slack, keeping Dash true to herself. Dash loved all her friends, of course, and pushing any of them away due to her own mistakes would cut so deeply, but losing Fluttershy? Losing Fluttershy would be far too much.
Losing Fluttershy would be losing everything.
And not just because Fluttershy’s kindness would mean that whatever Dash would have to do to lose her would be truly terrible, not just that Fluttershy would stick by her side through so much, through everything and anything. But because Fluttershy was so much that Rainbow wanted to be, so much that Rainbow was missing. She was the kindness and patience that Rainbow Dash lacked.
And also because when they sat on that hill together and watched the sunset, Dash had never been happier. When Fluttershy asked if they could stay a little longer, Dash had never wanted anything more. Because whenever Fluttershy smiled or laughed the world seemed to smile with her, and Dash loved that about her. And whenever Dash was with her she couldn’t help but smile too.
And so that was why. That was why whenever she messed up, whenever she did something she regretted, it was Fluttershy she thought of. Fluttershy she remembered. Fluttershy she was so scared of losing.
More than anything, that was what scared her.
“Ah, so that’s it,” said Luna. Something had changed about the princess, now. Something subtle, but there all the same. It was a while before Dash worked out what it was – the residual sadness that had lingered behind Luna’s eyes was gone. The princess bore nothing but warmth in her features now, as genuine and kind as Dash had ever seen.
Luna laughed softly. “Rainbow Dash, you’re in love.”
There was a long pause.
Dash shook her head vigorously. “No, that’s not it. It’s not- That’s not what this is. We’re just friends. Really good friends.”
Luna was silent.
“It’s not like that! I don’t even know if I’m into mares or not, I never really worked it out. And even if I was, it wouldn’t be with Fluttershy! I’ve known her since I was a foal, and yeah of course I love her, but, y’know, I’m not in love with her. I love her as a friend.”
Luna was silent.
“It’s not my fault this stupid dream picked memories with her in them. They could just as easily have been about Twilight, or Applejack. You’re reading way too much into this.”
Luna was silent, although a bemused smile was beginning to creep onto her otherwise stoic features.
“And just because I like Fluttershy, as a friend, doesn’t mean I love her. I don’t love Rarity, or Pinkie, or anyone. Or I do, but not like that. And Fluttershy’s exactly the same. I mean, I’ve known her the longest, sure, and we’ve been through a lot, and yeah okay she’s very pretty because of course she is, but so are the rest of my friends! And even if they weren’t it wouldn’t matter, because it’s what’s inside that matters, right?”
“You’re being very defensive.”
“Because it’s not true!”
The princess sighed heavily. “Do you want to know what I think?”
Luna ignored her. “I think this is why you’re so scared of losing her. And also why you’ve buried your love so far down that even you are in denial it exists. Because if you admit it to yourself, then you may have to tell her. And if you tell her how you feel, maybe you will lose her. You think she might turn you down and then it would be just as bad as if you’d pushed her away with bad choices.”
Dash’s emphatic protestations finally faltered. Her breaths came long and shaky, and the world narrowed. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” Dash said, quietly. “She doesn’t love me.”
“Are you sure? Or does that just make it simpler?”
“I don’t know. But I’m not good enough for her either way. She’s too kind, too perfect.”
“No one is perfect.”
“She is.” Dash sighed. “And that’s why I have to stand up for her, do the right thing for her, always. I have to live up to her if I’m ever going to stand a chance. But I’m not ready yet. I’m not good enough yet.”
“Rainbow, love isn’t about being perfect. It’s not about changing yourself to meet someone’s expectations, and it’s not about being flawless in their eyes.”
“But that’s why I love Fluttershy.” The words sounded strange and alien, now she was saying them out loud. Now she was making them real.
“Is it? Do you love her because she’s perfect, or is she perfect because you love her?”
“What’s the difference?”
The grass beneath them was warm, and Dash readied herself to sink into yet another memory, but none came. The moon was gone. The stars were gone. Luna remained. And together they sat on the hill and watched the sunset.
“So you think I should tell her?” Dash asked.
“I do not know. There is at least one other princess more suited for this kind of advice, but I’m afraid she’s not here to ask.”
Dash laughed, but there was a bitterness in it that she couldn’t hide. That she didn’t even want to.
“However,” Luna continued, “this is clearly weighing on you. Heavily enough that it called me here, heavily enough that you’ve repressed it to the point you didn’t believe me. You didn’t even believe yourself.”
Rainbow plucked idly at the grass, waiting for the princess to say what she already knew was coming.
“I don’t think you should tell her,” Luna said.
Rainbow blinked in surprise. “What?”
“You said it yourself, she might reject you. She may abandon you.” The princess’ words took on a harder edge. “Maybe she’ll leave you all alone, tell all your friends about it, maybe they’ll leave you too.”
The grass crumbled to dust in Rainbow’s hoof, the stars shone coldly, a chill rolled through Rainbow’s spine as the moon returned beneath her, her brief escape over. Luna was gone. She was alone. So alone, but the princess’ voice still rang in her ears, echoing, haunting.
“They’ll leave you, abandon you, and you’ll be alone. Just like you’re afraid of. And you will never be happy.”
“That’s not true!” Dash shouted at the voice, indignation surging up from within her. “Fluttershy would never do that!”
“Of course she would. Why would she spare a thought for you? Why would she stand by you if she rejects your affections?” With every word Luna spoke, the stars seemed to shine brighter, colder.
“Shut up.” Dash covered her ears with her hooves, and it did nothing to quiet Luna’s voice spiralling through her head.
“Every time she saw you would be a reminder, every interaction filled with doubt. Every compliment, every kindness that you ever showed her, perhaps just a way to get closer to her, to push her into a relationship she doesn’t want. That’s how anypony would see it, why would Fluttershy be any different?”
“Because she’s my friend! And even if she doesn’t love me that way, nothing could ever ruin that.” Dash was on her hooves, and the stars shrunk back as she shouted into the void. “I don’t care what you say, I don’t care if you’re a princess and you’re supposed to know better than me. You’re wrong.”
The scene before Dash shattered like glass, falling away and disintegrating around her, and then she was on the hill again, and Luna was back, smiling as if nothing had ever happened. “Yes,” the princess said, as pleased as Dash had ever heard her, not even a trace of that cruelty from before. “Of course I am. And you know what you should do, you always have.”
Dash was breathing heavily, still filled with anger and frustration that now had nowhere to go, no one to channel towards. And slowly it faded, and the warmth from the lingering sunlight settled into her fur, and Dash dropped backwards and sighed. “I walked into that one, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” admitted Luna. “But I’m very glad you did. It was honest.”
“I still don’t know if I can do it,” Dash said, quietly. “I don’t know if I’m brave enough. I’m scared.”
“Somepony once said that bravery is being scared of something and doing it anyway.”
Dash gave the princess a withering look, and she swore she caught Luna grinning before returning to her stoic expression.
“Either way, you’re very focused on what would happen if Fluttershy rejects you,” Luna said. “Have you actually considered that she might not?”
And, for the first time, Dash did. For the first time, Dash let herself believe it was a possibility. For the first time, Dash let herself imagine being with the mare she cared so deeply for, let herself be swept up in her imagination.
Spending the days side by side, watching the world spin by as Dash took every opportunity to make Fluttershy smile. Spending the evenings together, perhaps going out for a dinner date, enjoying each other’s company even more than the food, walking home together close enough they’d brush against each other and Fluttershy would blush and oh she was so adorable when she did, and even then Fluttershy wouldn’t try to make more space between them, wouldn’t even dream of it. Spending the nights together, curled up under the covers in a warm embrace, Fluttershy nuzzling against her, Dash watching the soft rise and fall of her chest as they sunk into sleep together.
Everything she’d never allowed herself to think about, never let be a possibility because of how much she’d have to risk, now flooding through her and leaving her so overwhelmed she could barely think. Not that she even wanted to, because thinking had killed these dreams in the first place.
Dash closed her eyes, and when she opened them again the sun had almost finished its journey behind the horizon.
“Okay,” she said, in barely more than a whisper. “I’m going to talk to her.”
Luna nodded. “I’m glad.”
“Thank you,” Dash said, wiping a few rebellious tears from her eyes. And she’d been doing so well, too. “Even if you aren’t gonna remember this, I am.”
“You’re very welcome, Rainbow Dash.”
Dash took a deep breath, preparing herself. “What happens now?”
“You wake up.”
And, right on cue, the world began to blur at the edges, drifting away, disintegrating, collapsing. The sun was gone, and Rainbow and Luna were adrift among the stars once again.
“Hang on, what about you? If you're not the real Luna, what happens to you? Do you get left behind?” Dash asked, a rush of panic rising through her in the last, crumbling moments.
“What happens to any of your dreams?” Luna asked, as the stars began to wink out one by one. “They fade, and then they are gone.”
“Wait, what?” Darkness began to seep into the spaces the stars had been, swallowing up everything. “After all of this, you just disappear?”
“Yes, that’s how it works,” said Luna, and even she seemed to be unravelling now, dwindling as Dash’s sight narrowed, until there was nothing but the princess’ blue eyes in the darkness, staring back at her. “But do not fret, my little pony. This was inevitable, from the moment we began.”
“No, wait. This isn’t fair. There’s gotta be some way to stop it,” Dash protested. “You can’t be okay with just… not existing anymore.”
The alicorn’s eyes glittered in the overwhelming darkness, inscrutable to the last. “It’s already done,” Luna said. “No matter the dream, we always wake up in the end.”
And then Dash did.
Okay Rainbow Dash, you can do this. You’ve come this far.
‘This far’ was, of course, the path leading up to Fluttershy’s cottage, and even just getting to this point had been hard enough. She’d woken at the crack of dawn, the sky just beginning to lighten outside her window. And, for a long time, Dash had simply sat and dwelled.
Dwelling was dangerous, she knew that much, but dwell she did. It had been far too early to head to Fluttershy’s, even if she’d probably be awake and feeding her animals. No, there was no room for error. This had to go right. This had to go perfectly.
Love isn’t about being perfect.
And when she could no longer put it off, Dash had made her way down to Fluttershy’s cottage, and gotten all the way to the bottom of the path before she hesitated.
She stared up at the cottage, and it had never seemed so intimidating before. Had never seemed intimidating at all before now, really. But now the mere sight of it almost made Dash turn tail and flee, almost made her give up and go back home and never think about this again.
Almost. But it didn’t. It didn’t because then she would live with this forever, Dash would never resolve the feeling that burned through the pit of her stomach whenever she thought about Fluttershy. If she ran, then Dream Luna had done all of that for nothing, had disappeared for nothing.
And so instead she willed herself up the path, one hoof at a time. Step. Step. Step. Focus on nothing else. And before she knew it she was in front of the door, and there were no steps left to take and that was even worse.
But Dash steeled herself and raised her hoof, rapping loudly on the wood. And when the door opened and Fluttershy stood before her and smiled warmly when she saw who had come to visit her, Dash’s heart twisted and leapt in her chest.
“Oh, hello Rainbow. How are you today?”
“I’m good, Flutters,” she lied. “Hey, can I come in? I really need to talk to you about something. Something important.”
Fluttershy blinked, concern already beginning to blossom on her features. “Oh, of course you can! Um… would you like some tea? I’ve just made some.”
Dash nodded. She’d always liked Fluttershy’s tea. Mostly because Fluttershy had made it. “Yeah, please,” she said, stepping across the threshold into her nightmare. Into the only thing she’d ever wanted. “That’d be great.”
Elsewhere, on a balcony overlooking the Canterlot palace gardens, two alicorns were sharing their own morning tea. One a snowy white, the other midnight blue, and they sat and watched the birds flutter amongst the trees below them.
Luna set her cup down with a quiet clink, and surveyed the garden, and smiled. She always enjoyed their mornings, just before Luna retired for the day, her night’s watch over. Spending these moments with her sister was a blessing she had never taken for granted ever since her return.
“You’re in high spirits this morning,” Celestia remarked, before taking a dainty sip from her own teacup.
“I am,” said Luna. “Can’t you feel it? Something in the air, perhaps.” She wrinkled her muzzle, uncertain. “Or maybe it is something else. Either way, today is a good day. I am sure of it.”
Celestia considered this for a moment, trying to sense whatever feeling Luna was talking about. But there was nothing, nothing but the warmth from the morning sun, nothing but a light breeze ruffling her fur. And then she saw her sister smiling brightly out at the world – so sure, so contented – and it didn’t matter.
“Yes,” Celestia agreed. “I think it is, too.”