Rainbow had stopped crying by the time Fluttershy returned, holding a glass of water on a rather damp tray. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said apologetically, “I had a little trouble finding the glasses.”
Rainbow was sitting where Fluttershy had left her, leaning back against Tank and fiddling with the frog of one forehoof with the tip of the other. She looked up and smiled as she took the glass.
“Thanks, Fluttershy. Sorry my place is such a mess.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, Rainbow.”
The two friends sat together in silence as Rainbow drained the glass of water.
“Fluttershy,” Rainbow asked at last, “this hoof massage... does it work on the frog at all?”
“The massage covers all parts of the sole, including the frog, yes.”
“Can you focus on that or something?”
“I can spend more time on the frog if you like. Would that make you feel better?”
“Yeah, I think it might. ...OK, let’s try it. I -- I want to give it a shot, at least.”
“Alright, Rainbow, if you’re sure. Now, we don’t need a hard surface for this, so we can move back onto the bed if that’s more comfortable. And again, if lying on your wings bothers you, you can lie on your side. As long as I can reach your hooves, we’ll be fine.”
Rainbow walked back to her bed and stood in thought for a moment. She unfurled her wings and flexed them a few times. Finally, she lay herself down in the centre of the bed, on her back -- but with her wings spread out to either side of her, rather than folded up beneath her. I can always switch up if it bothers me, she told herself. Fluttershy settled down next to her, on her right side.
“Remember, Rainbow: you’re the one in control here. We can stop whenever you like, and there’s no need to push yourself; if it’s not working, we can always try something else.”
“I know, Fluttershy,” Rainbow reassured her. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, if somewhat unsteadily, and extended her right forehoof to her friend. She looked up at the high ceiling, with a strong feeling of butterflies in her stomach.
Just think of something nice; something positive, she told herself. She closed her eyes.
“I can’t feel it.”
“It’s there, Rainbow. I promise!”
“Move your hooves a little to the left, Rainbow.”
“No, the other left.”
“How can there be two lefts, Derpy?!”
“Oh! I felt it! Ohmygoshohmygosh I can feel it! It’s true! It’s a horn! You’re -- you’re going to have a unicorn! Iiii! It’s moving -- It tickles!”
Rainbow jerked violently as her friend touched a hooftip to the sole of her hoof, but Fluttershy had hooked a foreleg just behind Rainbow's hoof, and her leverage kept Rainbow’s leg stationary.
“S-sorry,” muttered Rainbow, embarrassed.
“Don’t apologise, Rainbow. We both knew this was going to be difficult for you.” Fluttershy shifted her hooftip back and forth, kneading a point in Rainbow’s sole. Rainbow felt her frog shift. “This is what a hoof massage feels like. I’m basically going to work my way over your entire sole like this. It doesn’t hurt, does it?”
“N-no. It doesn’t hurt.”
“Good. If I do hit a sore spot, you need to tell me right away so I can work around it. Aside from that, just... try to relax.”
“Relax. Y-yeah, OK. Sure. Right.” Rainbow’s heart was beating madly against her ribs. She was already breathing hard. She tried to take a deep breath and found she couldn’t hold it in. She crossed her left foreleg over her eyes to shut out as much distraction as possible, but the real distraction was the contact with her sole. Fluttershy was being as gentle as possible, but her touch alone was enough to set her friend off.
Rainbow writhed involuntarily on the bed, her wings twisting beneath her. She felt trapped; worse, she felt scared, because she couldn’t keep her thoughts clear and she couldn’t fight or run from any of this because it was always lurking inside her and was now rising to swallow her again --
She was being pulled out of a closet, curled into a tight ball with her hooves pressed together as hard as she could, so no pony could get to her soles, but it was useless: she was too ticklish, she had too many sensitive areas, she couldn’t cover them all, and she wasn’t strong enough; she was being pinned, her hooves were being forced apart, and all the time she had that evil, sneering voice in her ears and she couldn’t breathe --
I’ve got to tell Fluttershy to stop. I can’t take this. I can’t breathe! This is --
“Hyperventilation,” chirped a voice in the back of her mind.
It was not been the taunting voice she had been dreading. In fact, it sounded a lot like Twilight Sparkle’s.
“Hyperventilation,” the voice continued in Twilight’s prim, didactic tones, “is a state characterised by overly-rapid or overly-deep breathing, depleting the carbon dioxide content of the bloodstream and thus compromising oxygen uptake....”
Rainbow recognised these words: she had read them in one of those books on physical training that she had borrowed from Twilight. But she had only skimmed that passage, since it described symptoms she had never encountered while flying, and she had been alone when she went over the book; why the words were coming back to her now, in Twilight’s voice, she could not guess.
“...Said uptake is further compromised by the increasing alkalinity of the bloodstream brought about by decreasing carbon dioxide levels --”
Great, thought Rainbow. Even in my head she can’t stop lecturing. Mare in distress, here? Can we just skip to what to do about it?
“...The best immediate means to counter hyperventilation are to encourage the sufferer to deliberately slow her rate of breathing by counting in her head during inhalation and exhalation --”
Rainbow tried to take a deep, slow breath -- and choked, blowing it back out almost immediately.
“...The sufferer will be unable to do this at first, but what matters is the attempt. By endeavouring to control her breathing and employing a counting technique, the sufferer draws her attention away from the panic response that accompanies hyperventilation, ultimately enabling her to progressively reassert control over her respiratory --”
OK, got it! You can lay off now, Rainbow told her inner Twilight.
Rainbow tried again, and choked again. It said it was going to be hard at first, she reminded herself, just keep at it!
She tried once more, counting as she drew a breath in: One....
She was forced to blow it out.
It felt like drowning, but she fixated on her count as a drowning pony might clutch at a passing branch. Her whole world shrank: there was nothing beyond the next breath. At each measured inhalation, her instincts rebelled, begging, crying, screaming for more air, more, faster, we’re dying, we need air, air! It took every ounce of willpower she had to keep at her count; she would remember it as one of the most brutal struggles she had ever fought.
Fought, and won. It was hard going -- radiant Celestia, how it was hard! -- but slowly, ever so slowly, the count increased. She could repeatedly reach a count of two, then three, then five.... As she gained more control, she was able to progressively draw out the exhale as well. And as her breathing stabilised, the blind, desperate panic that had been gripping her gradually eased, and her wings and hindquarters stopped thrashing.
...Nine ...ten ...eleven. Inhale: one... two... three....
“Rainbow? Rainbow, how -- how are you feeling?”
Rainbow drew her foreleg off her face and blinked up dazedly at Fluttershy.
“I’ve finished with your right forehoof. Are you... alright? I was worried when we started, but you managed to calm down towards the end....”
“I... feel a bit dizzy, actually,” said Rainbow, “but I think I’m OK.” She was lathered in sweat. She pulled her right foreleg out of Fluttershy’s hooves, stretched it up towards the ceiling.
“My leg tingles a bit.”
“Oh, that’s a natural side effect of working the frog: it hyper-oxygenates the leg. It’s a good, mild detox as well.”
“...Cool,” said Rainbow, still a little light-headed. “Are you gonna do the left leg, now?”
“Do you want me to, Rainbow?”
Rainbow favoured her friend with a weak smile. “Yeah. I think... I think I can actually do this.”
Her friend returned her smile. “Alright then, it stops when you want it to.”
Fluttershy lifted off with a few wing flaps and drifted gently over Rainbow, repositioning herself on Rainbow’s left side. The blue pegasus extended her left foreleg to her friend, folding her right foreleg over her eyes.
Inhale: one... two... three....
Rainbow opened her eyes, frowned, blinked a few times, and rubbed a foreleg across her eyes. When had it gotten so dark? She rose sleepily to a half-seated position, disturbing in the process the coverlet that had been draped over her. She pushed the bedsheets back absentmindedly as she looked around.
Night had fallen. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she noticed a mound in the blanket next to her, and a swirl of pink hair emerging from beneath. The sight made her smile: Fluttershy had never liked night-flying. She had probably felt safer staying over.
Rainbow slipped out of bed very gingerly, cautious not to wake her friend. As she did, she very nearly tripped over Tank; the tortoise was snoring softly, curled up in his shell, at the foot of the bed, perched on a battered old wooden case. Rainbow gently stroked the shell with a hoof, before spreading her wings and gliding silently over to the balcony door. She carefully opened the door and stepped out into the balcony, crossing it and standing at the railing, forelegs up on the railing and her chin in one hoof.
The cool night air felt crisp and clean, and Rainbow breathed it in eagerly. It helped clear her head as she reviewed the day’s events in her mind. What a strange day it had been! She looked up -- straight up -- at the glorious swath of stars wheeling majestically overhead. Rotating on a hind leg, she leaned back against the railing and tilted her head back as far as she could. She could see virtually the entire star field visible beyond the overhang of her roof -- right down to the horizon behind her, if she rolled her eyes back as far as they could go.
Had she ever been this flexible? Even now, she could only half-believe it. Massages really worked! And how could she have failed to notice the mess her body was in? That was something she needed to address: it was one thing to push oneself, quite another to neglect an injury. She could really hurt her performance -- and herself! And she felt so much more able right now. Ironically, it seemed going a bit easier on herself could help her accomplish more.
Maybe I ought to try a few appointments at the spa, she thought ruefully. Or... or maybe Fluttershy wouldn’t mind doing this again, sometime. I’m -- I’m game if she is! It’d be something we could do together. Maybe she could teach me some of that stuff; it’d be nice to return the favour....
A cloud of concern crossed her face. Would she be too rough? Fluttershy was a little delicate.... She looked down at her forehooves, rubbed them together.
She did say I had deft hooves, though, Rainbow reminded herself. The thought made her smile, as she looked back into the bedroom where her friend lay. Something drew her gaze to Tank, illuminated in a ray of silvery moonlight, sleeping on her grooming kit.
...Didn’t we leave that downstairs?
She gave a sudden start. She stared at her hooves, rubbed them together again, then lifted off to inspect her rear hooves as well. They were trimmed. All four of them were neatly trimmed and cleaned. Rainbow could not believe her own eyes. When had this happened?
Did I...? I fell asleep? She was fiddling with my hooves and I fell asleep?! Ha! Graze on that, you sick --
A sudden shudder ran through Rainbow at the thought of her sadistic foalsitter. Her ears flattened against her head and her hooves pulled tightly against each other of their own accord, forelegs pressed against her chest.
Breathe, Rainbow, breathe! The count, remember? Inhale; one... two... three....
By the time she had cycled her breath four times, her heart rate had returned to normal, and she was able to will her clenched muscles to relax. She slid one forehoof past the other and used the hooftip to depress the frog of the opposite hoof.
OK, so there’s no miracle cure. That’s fine. We’ll just file today under... ‘progress.’
A determined smile crept over Rainbow’s face. Even this felt like such a victory! Had she won a championship derby she could not have felt more triumphant. She was suddenly giddy with excitement. Oh, this called for a celebration! She wanted to rocket around her home a few times and streak out over Ponyville with her patented Buccaneer Blaze, or --
Actually, no. The victory fly-by could wait until tomorrow, when there were ponies to see it. And after that, she would drop by Derpy’s place for a visit. She was overdue for some catching up. At the moment, however, there was something else she wanted to do.
Rainbow snuck back into the room, drifting up to the bed as silently as she could. She slid back under the covers ever so carefully, so as not to wake her sleeping friend. She snuggled down next to Fluttershy, pushing down softly on the cloud mattress just behind her, slowly rolling her friend into her forelegs and taking her up in a gentle hug.
Rainbow brought her mouth up to Fluttershy’s ear. “Thanks, pal,” she whispered, “I’m... I’m really glad you stayed.”
Fluttershy flicked her ear twice and moaned something incoherent. She writhed gently, wriggling deeper into Rainbow’s embrace, before sinking back into deeper slumber with her forehooves clutching softly at Rainbow’s own.
Smiling, Rainbow buried her face into her friend’s silky mane and drifted off to sleep, borne on the scent of meadowflowers.
~ FIN ~