“Oh, my goodness! Rainbow Dash, are you alright?”
A single blue hoof thrust triumphantly out of the pile, holding aloft an old, battered wooden case. “Got it!” exclaimed a somewhat muffled voice.
“But you’re not hurt, are you? That looked painful.”
“Aw, don’t worry about it,” joked Rainbow, waving off her friend’s concerns.
Fluttershy took the grooming kit from her and, after a moment’s inspection, gently dusted it off.
“So, where do you want to do this?”
“Uh, let’s see....” Rainbow’s eyes darted quickly around the area. “How about the dining room?”
“Good idea! Those klinai would be perfect.”
And it’s airy and open, Rainbow added silently. She could feel her heart rate accelerating steadily. She shut her eyes and exhaled nervously.
'Figures it wouldn’t be as simple as ‘get Fluttershy to do it.’
She followed Fluttershy back into the dining room with growing apprehension. The yellow pegasus set the grooming kit down on the flooring and, sitting down in front of it, flipped open the lid and began checking the contents.
“Take a seat anywhere, Rainbow. We can get started in just a minute.”
Rainbow shifted the kline she had been lying on previously so that it was directly in front of the open doors leading outside and sat down. She looked at the wide sky stretching out beyond the doors, with snow-capped mountains poking through the distant clouds.
It can’t get any more open than this unless we go outside. Come on, just get it over with!
She swung her hindquarters onto the kline and lay down carefully. She could feel her wings sink into the sculpted cloud, compressed under the weight of her body. Her hind legs curled and uncurled reflexively, hooves rubbing nervously against one-another. She pressed her forehooves together. Her heart was pounding against her ribcage.
Get a grip on yourself, Rainbow. She hasn’t even started yet!
Fluttershy loomed over her, large file in hoof.
“Ready, Rainbow?” she asked pleasantly.
Fluttershy’s smile dropped. She look at her friend for a moment.
“Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure! Start already!”
She moved to the foot of the kline, transferring the file to her mouth. Rainbow looked out the open doors and thought desperately of flying, of soaring free through the sky with the wind whistling in her ears, feeling her mane and tail flapping in her wake --
She gasped and flinched away when the file touched her right hind hoof. She shut her eyes in frustration and embarrassment, feeling her face growing hot.
“Sorry,” she muttered. Gritting her teeth, she stretched out her right hind leg once more, inviting Fluttershy to continue.
After what seemed like an eternity, her friend touched file to hoof again. Rainbow drew a hissing breath through her teeth, but this time she was ready, and didn’t pull her leg away. Fluttershy began to scrape away at the hoof capsule, while Rainbow forcibly pressed her forehooves together to stop her forelegs from shaking.
Just lie still, OK? It can’t take that long -- how long does it take to trim four hooves, anyway? Twenty minutes? Twenty minutes isn’t long, right?
...How many breaths in twenty minutes?
She was already fighting for air, each breath coming in short and shallow. She could feel her wings writhing under her, fighting against the cloud on which she was lying. Her eyes darted around the room, desperately searching for something to distract her, but neither the high, airy ceilings above or the open skyscape before her provided any comfort. She tried closing her eyes, but that was no escape either.
Worse, in the back of her mind she could hear a voice....
Oh no, thought Rainbow desperately. No, no, no, no -- please, no!
She ground her forehooves together desperately. Her ears flattened against her head, but that couldn’t keep out the mocking, sing-song voice.
Don’t freak out in front of Fluttershy! Don’t --
It was no use.
“Oh, Raaiiinboow,” lilted the horrid voice, “What tiiime it is?”
“Stop, stop!” Rainbow rolled off the kline and landed with legs splayed and all four hooves firmly pressed into the flooring, gasping for breath. She unfurled her wings, spreading them as far out to either side as they could reach.
Fluttershy, alarmed, pulled the file out of her mouth. “Rainbow, what’s wrong? Are you alright?”
“No,” Rainbow shot back.
“Oh, no! That was the hoof you split! Does it hurt?”
Rainbow shook her head, still panting. “Fixed,” she gasped, “Twilight fixed it. It’s fine. It doesn’t hurt, it’s just....” She stamped a hoof in frustration. “It’s just me. It... it’s me.”
“Is -- is it that bad when other ponies touch your hooves?”
“Y-yeah,” admitted Rainbow, humiliated.
“Um... Oh! Do you have -- I’ve heard some ponies have a natural reflex... you know how some ponies just can’t stand the sound of a hoof being drawn across a chalkboard, but others don’t mind it? I’ve heard some ponies are the same way with their hooves: they just can’t stand other ponies touching them. Do you think that might be what’s happening here?”
“No wonder you were so upset about getting a hooficure! Oh, Rainbow, I’m so sorry! We had no idea!”
“Hey, h-how were you to know, right?”
“I’ve made a terrible mistake,” said Fluttershy, guiltily clutching the file to her chest. “That must have felt just awful! Please forgive me!”
She considered for a moment.
“...Well, clearly nopony but you is ever going to be able to trim your hooves.... We’ll just have to make sure you stay on schedule,” she added in a hopeful tone. “Maybe if you did it on fixed days? Then we could just remind you....”
Rainbow still stood with all limbs awkwardly splayed out, every muscle pulled taut and her eyes screwed shut. She’d heard the expression “feeling torn in two” before, but only now did she truly understand what it meant.
She was getting everything she wanted: Fluttershy was backing off, the whole unpleasant business was going to be dropped, and Rainbow would never be bothered about grooming or hooficures ever again.
And all she had to do was keep lying to a friend who trusted her and would never doubt a word she said.
She’s never lied to me. Even when it was hard to talk about, even when she was upset, she’d always.... She’s never lied to me!
“...Or maybe we could get you a schedule book. You could write down when you--”
“Fluttershy, it’s not like that,” Rainbow blurted out. “It’s not a reflex and I wasn’t born that way and it’s not -- it’s not like that!”
Her friend stared at her, surprised at the sudden outburst.
“What do you mean, Rainbow?”
Rainbow turned away and looked longingly up at the wide sky spread beyond the open doors. Oh, how she wanted to streak out into the deep blue heights, faster and farther than anypony could follow and be all alone and not have to talk to or look at any other pony -- but how would Fluttershy feel if Rainbow flew off like that and left her behind?
I should have just gone to the spa! What do those ponies care, as long as I pay my bits at the end?! Or -- or I should have done my own hooves! I’ve always done them before; so what if it was sloppy?! At least then I’d be by myself and not trapped in my own house having to talk about -- I should have done it on my own!
She hated herself for it, but right then her most fervent wish was that her oldest friend were gone far, far away.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to pry,” said Fluttershy, clearly sensing her reticence. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to....”
Rainbow made a pained grimace.
But now you know that something’s wrong, and you’re going to worry about it, aren’t you? And you’ll never ask me about it, and you won’t tell another pony because it’s personal, and you’ll keep it all to yourself and you won’t know what to do about it and it’ll eat away at you, and... and I know what that’s like....
She took one last mournful look at the beckoning sky before turning back to her friend.
“Look, Fluttershy... uh... l-let me ask you this: are... are you ticklish?”
Fluttershy blinked, nonplussed, before breaking into a smile. “Oh, Rainbow, is that what you’re worried about?” she asked, reaching a hoof out to her friend.
“NO!” A snap of Rainbow’s wings shot her straight up to the ceiling, so quickly that Fluttershy flipped over onto her back, all four legs sticking straight up in the air, with a goat-like bleat.
“Oh, ponyfeathers! Fluttershy, are you OK?” Rainbow swiftly swooped down to pick her friend off the floor.
“I’m fine, just a little startled,” Fluttershy assured her.
“S-sorry,” Rainbow mumbled as she lowered them both back to the flooring. “But look -- just answer my question: are you ticklish?”
“Well, I guess I am a little....”
“And... do you... like being tickled?”
Fluttershy considered for a moment. “I wouldn’t say that I like it, exactly. I suppose I can take it or leave it.”
“But -- but it doesn’t hurt or anything?”
Fluttershy smiled at the idea. “Why, no! Why would it....” The smile slid off her face as she realised what the question implied.
“You mean... it hurts you?”
“YES,” Rainbow gushed, “it hurts! It hurts a lot! It feels like... like needles being shoved under my skin -- knitting needles! Heated, even!”
“I... I had no idea....”
“Of course not!” Rainbow ranted, gesticulating wildly. “Nopony does! Because you smile! You smile and you laugh like an idiot when you’re getting tickled and even when you scream at ponies to stop it always sounds like you love every moment of it and everypony thinks it’s a big joke and they just keep going on and on and... and it hurts!”
She slumped, suddenly listless. “It... It really hurts...” she finished lamely.
“I’m sorry, Rainbow. That sounds terrible.”
“But, um... you know,” Fluttershy pointed out gently, “a hoof trimming only works on the capsule. There aren’t any nerves in there. It’ll never tickle, no matter what I do.”
“I know,” said Rainbow wretchedly.
Rainbow hesitated one final moment before the plunge.
Well, what’s she going to do? Laugh? Fluttershy would never!
“When... when I was just a filly,” Rainbow began, “a little filly -- this was years before we met -- I had this foalsitter... and she’d tickle me. A lot. Mostly on the soles of my hooves, ‘cause I was really sensitive down there, and... and ever since, I’ve never been comfortable with anypony... touching my hooves.”
Rainbow turned away dejectedly. “All because of one stupid, lousy foalsitter.”
Gah! That sounds so lame!
“That’s a shame,” said Fluttershy after a moment. “But you know, Rainbow, I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm.”
“What.” A muscle beneath one of Rainbow’s eyes began to twitch spasmodically as her teeth reflexively ground together.
“You said it yourself: most ponies can’t imagine that tickling would actually be painful. Of course, what happened is very sad, but I just know she thought it was all good clean fun.” She laid a comforting hoof on Rainbow’s shoulder.
Rainbow turned on her angrily, knocking her hoof away.
“ ‘Know’?! What do you --” She shut her mouth with an audible snap of her teeth.
No, she doesn’t know, Rainbow scolded herself. She wasn’t there, and she thinks every pony’s as nice as her. ...Don’t shout at her for that.
She turned away from her staring friend, pacing angrily across the floor as she forced herself to continue in a more controlled tone.
“Look, she knew, OK? She never let up... she’d keep going until I couldn’t even breathe! Until I.... until I wet myself,” she added in an undertone.
“What?!” gasped Fluttershy, horrified.
“UNTIL I -- !” Rainbow checked herself. “Y-yeah, you heard me.” She halted before the open doors, to stare up at the sky beyond.
“A-and when you’re that age, it feels like an accomplishment, you know? Like you’re a big girl now ‘cause you don’t have ‘accidents’ any more, and....” She hung her head, wings drooping.
“...And she took that away from me....”
Suddenly Rainbow’s head snapped around to face her friend again. “So don’t tell me she didn’t know what she was doing,” she snarled, her anger flooding back in full force.
“Oh, Rainbow, that’s horrible,” said Fluttershy earnestly as she walked up to her. She reached out a hoof to her friend. “Did you try --”
Rainbow jerked away from her, fanning her wings out.
“ ‘TRY’?! ‘TRY’?!”
“You think I -- just took it -- ?!”
Don’t shout at her! Don’t!
“L-look,” she said, somehow managing to contain herself, “I tried, OK? I tried everything! O-only she had twice my size, and-and three times my wingspan, so what was I supposed to do, huh?!
“I-I tried running, I tried fighting, I tried... begging.... Nothing worked, alright? I couldn’t get her off me! I -- I couldn’t....”
“Did you try talking to your parents about it?”
“I -- Well, I tried,” stuttered Rainbow, suddenly flustered, “Only they thought it was just... just horseplay, you know?”
“But if she was making you --”
“They... they didn’t know about that part....” Rainbow swallowed hard, fighting an uncomfortable lump that was growing in her throat. “I-I never told them....”
She hung her head, wings drooping. “...I never had the guts....”
“Oh, Rainbow,” said Fluttershy, laying a wing over her friend’s back.
“Yeah, pretty stupid, huh?!” Rainbow pulled roughly out of Fluttershy’s embrace, returning to her angry pacing.
“Not at all! I never meant --”
“But it is stupid, isn’t it?! I mean, my parents weren’t idiots! I could have talked to them! If I just -- if I’d explained... I could’ve had her off me in like, five minutes! ...I had her for two years, Fluttershy! Two years! She was my parents’ favourite! I used to dread when she’d--” Rainbow shuddered and shook her head.
“And the only reason she finally got out of my life is because, because her family moved off to Los Pegasus or, or wherever, and she probably found some other foal to make miserable over there, a-and I could have stopped all that if -- if I just had... had the nerve to ask for help one time...!”
Rainbow trailed off, hot breath snorting out her nose, tail lashing dangerously. She was shaking with shame and barely-contained rage, most of it turned inwards. She shut her eyes against the tears she could feel burning at the edges of her vision, and hated herself all the more for their being there. She barely registered Fluttershy’s desperate pleading above the rushing in her ears.
“Oh, Rainbow, you mustn’t think like that! It’s so easy to look back and see what you should have done, but you were young -- it wasn’t your fault!” And then Fluttershy put her forelegs gently around her friend’s neck, to draw her into a hug.
“STOP TOUCHING ME ALREADY!” Rainbow exploded, rearing and wheeling so fast she sent Fluttershy sprawling across the floor. Rainbow’s wings snapped down with an audible crack as she lifted off, looming over her stricken friend.
“I SWEAR YOU’RE AS BAD AS --” The rest of the sentenced died on her lips as her mind caught up with what she was saying. Her diaphragm seized. Her eyes shrank to pinpricks. Her brain went blank.
For a moment, she forgot how to fly.
Her left wing missed the next downstroke, sending her drifting drunkenly into one of the kline. Off-balance, she scrambled for a hoof-hold as the unanchored cloud tilted under her, sliding her down its width and spilling her hindquarters onto the floor.
She lay there, breathing hard and staring at her friend.
Fluttershy lay motionless. She had tried to open her wings to catch herself, but had not been quick enough: one wing was canted up into the air at an odd angle, the other was crumpled beneath her. Her mane and tail had fallen in pink swirls around her, and for an agonisingly long moment she did not move at all.
Rainbow reached out a hoof to her and then snatched it back, as though she had thrust it into an open flame.
I hit her! I -- I hit her!
Fluttershy stirred at last, dragging her forelegs underneath her and slowly raising her forequarters off the floor. The afternoon light streaming through the open doors behind her outlined her, leaving her face in shadow.
Rainbow’s heart hammered in her chest. She parted her lips, made an attempt at speech, but only a weak, choking sound came out. She couldn’t think, couldn’t string two words together, couldn’t get any air past the ever-expanding lump in her throat --
I can’t breathe.
Fluttershy tilted her muzzle up to look at Rainbow. Rainbow could glimpse her friend’s soft blue eyes through her flowing pink mane, which partly obscured her face. Rainbow slowly shook her head from side to side, but still she could not speak. Tears were welling up in her eyes, causing Fluttershy’s form to blur and swim, and try as she might, Rainbow could not hold them back.
I can’t breathe!
Rainbow remembered the day Ponyville’s dam had given way into her: the sudden crack of the concrete, the shock of the cold water striking her, the irresistible force of the rushing waters knocking her from the air and sweeping her away.
“I’m sorry, Fluttershy!” she cried, and then she bolted. She clambered blindly over the kline, which rocked madly beneath her like an unstable rowboat. The cloud pitched her forward; she struck out a hoof to catch herself and a shock of cold ran up her leg as she put her hoof in the bowl of cirrus still sitting on the table. The bowl slid across the table’s small surface, the table tipped beneath her, and Rainbow flipped forward, going head-over-hooves as she crashed to the hard flooring.
Somewhere two empty glasses were shattering across the floor, somewhere a voice was calling her name, but Rainbow rolled with the impact, scrambled to her hooves, and dashed out of the room. Her vision was a blur of tears; she could not fly. She put her left wing to the wall and ran alongside the edge of the open shaft, galloping up the circular stair that led to the third floor, and her bedroom -- the only refuge she had left.
Rainbow shouldered open the door to her room, kicked it shut, and crossed over to her bed in one gliding bound. She caught up her thickest pillow in her forehooves, thrust her face deep into it and bit down hard to muffle her voice as she screamed. She screamed a long cry of shame and anguish, that finally broke up into wracking, choking sobs. She could feel the pillowcase dampen against her face as it soaked up her tears.
Idiot! Moron! Jerk! Creep! How could you?! She was only trying to help! She’s always come through for you, and what have you ever done but shout and shove? Now you’ve... I’ve.... Oh, Celestia help me, I’m going to be sick....
She was suddenly aware of a soft tapping at the door. “Rainbow?” Fluttershy’s soft voice called timidly. “May I come in?”
“NO!” Rainbow rushed across the room, reared up and put both forehooves against the door, leaning her whole body into it, desperate to hold it shut. “Don’t come in,” she pleaded, “don’t come in!”
“Rainbow, how... how are you feeling? Are you alright in there?”
Rainbow bent her forelegs and pressed her forehead against the door. She tried to speak, but her sobbing got in the way; she tried to bring her breathing under control and failed. She shook her head, flicking glittering tears off her muzzle, which spattered across the flooring in a short arc before the door.
“Rainbow, I’m so very sorry....”
Rainbow ground her forehead against slightly-yielding cloud-stuff that made up the door and clamped her mouth shut to stifle her sobs, but only managed to reduce them to a string of low, whimpering gasps.
Why in Equestria is she apologising to me?!
She felt she had to say something; she tried timing the words to match each gasp for breath in an attempt to sound more natural.
“Look... Fluttershy... I’m not up to... this right now.... Can we... talk later... or something...?”
“ ‘Later?’ But, um....”
“Yeah... Sorry about the mess.... Th-thanks for dropping by.... C-catch you later, I guess...?”
What the hay am I saying?!
“Rainbow? I don’t think --”
“Fluttershy, would you just go already?” Rainbow collapsed against the door, sliding down along it on her left side. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but I can’t -- I don’t....
“I want to be alone,” she sobbed. “Fluttershy, please just... just leave me alone!”
“Well,” said Fluttershy hesitatingly, “if... if that’s what you really want....”
She hesitated a little longer, but finally gave in. “Goodbye then, Rainbow. I hope you feel better soon.”
Rainbow heard the forlorn clip-clop of her friend’s hooves as they turned away from the door and slowly made their way back down the stairs. There was a pause as Fluttershy glided to the lowest floor, before the sound resumed. Rainbow tracked it across the atrium to the entrance, and finally heard the door close softly.
She forcefully slammed her head into the bedroom door; her vision flashed white.
“I’m sorry, Fluttershy,” she sobbed miserably into her hooves, “I’m so sorry....”