A Bluebird’s Song
Watch the big wheel, turning round
Some go up, and some go down
Some go thirsty, some just drown
That’s the law round here
Said the King of Sunset Town
“Best of luck, Rainbow.”
Twilight and Dash stood on the silken cloud surface of their balcony, as Dash prepared to take flight. Dash smiled at the unicorn, her expression one of contentment, rather than the excitement or apprehension that Twilight had expected. “I just want to know that I tried,” she said, quietly. “Even if I can’t persuade her to tell me where Mom is, at least I’ll know that I did what I could.”
“I really hope this works out for you,” replied Twilight, gently.
Dash flared her wings, ready for takeoff. “Funny, really,” she giggled. “Me using magic, it seems such a weird idea. I feel like I’m half-unicorn now. You’ve given me an identity crisis, Miss Sparkle!”
“I aim to please,” smirked Twilight, winking at her marefriend. Dash leaned down, and they shared a brief but intense kiss, each getting a little lost in the other’s eyes.
“See you later,” Dash whispered, pulling away and launching herself skywards with a thrust of her powerful hind legs. Looking down at the hotel a moment later, she waved farewell to Twilight, who returned the gesture before heading back inside.
Flying was different now. Without worrying about the minutely complex and entirely unnecessary wing motions, every maneuver felt effortlessly natural. Her flight obeyed her thought, not her body. She still loved to feel the wind in her wings, and was in any case more aerodynamic with them outstretched, but she no longer flapped them. It could well have been her imagination, but she fancied that she could feel the magical energy flowing within her wing-bones, eager to be put to use.
Grinning broadly, enveloped in the familiar euphoria of the open sky, she flipped over and arced down between two cloud-buildings, dipping below the level of Cloudsdale before evening out and pulling back up past the factory districts. She was on the eastern side of the city now, a more industrial district where high-density housing pressed up against manufacturing and weather control plants.
Suddenly, a familiar smell met her nostrils, the citric tang invoking in her mind a strange mixture of nostalgia and fear. She brought herself to a halt almost without thinking, looking around at her surroundings. The air around her was peppered with heavily urbanized cloud-banks, the maze-like city disorientating by its very nature. Pegasi buzzed around her, ignoring her presence, concentrating on their jobs or families with little time to examine the world they inhabited. Dash knew that she should not delay, that she needed to get to Canterlot before too long, but something about this place intrigued her.
The factories. That’s the smell from the chimneys of the rainbow refineries.
Of course it was familiar. Sometimes it was hard to recognize places in Cloudsdale, because of the way that the clouds drifted of their own accord, and how new buildings sprang up and were just as soon removed again. Its face had been changed and weathered by the passing of time, but Dash knew this place. This was where she had grown up.
Below her were the factories that created that sharp scent that had accompanied her through her foalhood, through the good times and the all-too-common bad. Above her, built into the side of a well-tethered chunk of solid creamy-grey cumulonimbus, stood the six-storey block of apartments where she had lived with her father. Looking left, she saw with a pang of sadness that Fluttershy’s family home was no longer in its place. It once stood as the reassuring silhouette on the skyline; the sight that she used to see from her bedroom window when fate or her father had dealt her a poor hand that day. She could look across the empty space between them, and know that she had a friend who would not leave her. She often thought that that knowledge was what had kept her sane, and kept her going from day to day.
It saddened her now, finding that oasis of peace to be gone. Perhaps Fluttershy’s family had moved their home to another part of the city, as was often the way in Cloudsdale. Maybe they no longer lived in the city at all.
It was strange; she reflected. To her, and all of her friends, their life in Ponyville had become like a bubble. Fluttershy never spoke of her family, and Dash never saw any evidence of contact between them. Likewise, she did not know how long it had been since Twilight had so much as written to her parents. Applejack always went strangely quiet when the subject of parentage was broached, and as best they could tell Pinkie had never set hoof back on the rock farm since she began lodging with the Cakes. The only one of the six with an active parental presence was Rarity, and even for her that was not much beyond discussing her brief stints looking after Sweetie Belle. The strength of their friendships, combined with their duties as the Elements, tended to force them into excluding the rest of the world, their families included. Maybe it was wrong to exclude their past in this way, no matter what fears it held, or what distractions were in the present.
Suddenly, Dash could not resist landing for a few minutes to have a look around. This place felt like a gateway to her history, its opportunities both tantalizing and frightening in equal measure. She alighted on the balcony of the apartment block, cruising to a gentle halt before setting herself down in the open corridor. The familiar slightly-acidic scent surrounded her, the row of white, numbered doors stretching off down the line of apartments on this floor. She could not quite explain the way she felt. She had every right to be here, but felt almost as if she were trespassing, walking in a place that should, by rights, be left untouched.
What if he still lives here? The horrible thought struck her, and she backed instinctively away from the door marked ‘24’. She knew that her fears were unfounded. Even if her father still occupied Apartment 24, he would be well past his prime. She, on the other hand, was a well-trained athlete at the peak of her career, with every success and confidence on her side. Even if he found her here, there was nothing that he could threaten her with. Still, memories could be crueler than realities. She had no desire to re-ignite the shadows of her past.
Why did I even come here?
She was on the fourth floor, the balcony some way behind her now. Suddenly, she heard the soft hoof-falls of multiple ponies on the stairs behind her. Acting on instinct, not quite knowing why she was doing so, she darted to the far end of the row of flats and turned left, following the L-shaped corridor, hiding in the shadows just around the corner, out of sight.
She heard three ponies begin walking down the line of doors towards her. They were clearly a family, talking animatedly, one voice shrill and excitable, clearly a filly, her hoofbeats bouncing on the wooly cloud floor.
“Come on, now.” A mare’s voice, clearly the mother. “I know you’re excited for tomorrow, but you’ve got homework to finish tonight and you won’t get it done if you’re bouncing off the walls.”
“I don’t know why we’re bothering,” grunted a second voice, a stallion this time. He did not sound unpleasant, merely a little world-weary. “You never see anything at these air shows anyway, ten seconds, one fly-by, that’s it.”
“It’s not just an air show!” the filly exclaimed, sounding scandalized. “We’ll get to see a Sonic Rainboom!” She giggled. “I’m gonna do one of those, someday,” she announced, proudly.
Dash smiled to herself, realizing that these three were planning on attending her record attempt tomorrow. Something in the filly’s excited voice touched her, almost bringing a tear to her eye. She knew that she would have been like that foal once, had she been given the chance, and had her natural enthusiasm and effervescence not been so violently curbed.
She was not entirely sure what possessed her to make her next move. Once upon a time it would have been simply the pursuit of adulation or ego gratification, but now it felt like something more meaningful. Perhaps she wanted to see what might have been, had things been different for her. Whatever her reasoning, she stepped out from behind the corner, trying to make it look as if she had been simply walking along the corridor, rather than hiding.
The family of pegasi heard her approach, and their heads turned in Dash’s direction for a moment. Dash saw with a jolt of pleasant surprise that they had stopped outside number 24, and were apparently its current occupants. She wondered momentarily where her own father had gone after she had left, but the reaction to her appearance drove that thought from her mind. The mother and father looked away again, disinterestedly, but the vivid lilac filly did a double-take, her mouth falling open. “Mom! Dad! It’s her!” she exclaimed, looking stunned and pointing a hoof at Dash.
“Who, sweetie?” her mother asked, turning again to look at Dash. “And don’t point like that, it’s rude.”
“But it’s Rainbow Dash!” the filly said, grinning broadly.
Well, great work, brain. Now what do I do? Dash mentally berated herself. Whilst the foal was undoubtedly excited to see her, she now found two ponies squinting suspiciously at her, and had no easy answer as to why she was walking around the corridors of an apartment block that she did not live in.
“Uh, hey there,” she said, smiling back a little uncertainly. The filly seemed to bounce slightly at being addressed by a pony who was obviously something of a hero to her. Dash was reminded forcibly of an older version of Scootaloo.
The mother’s eyes widened in understanding and surprise. “Oh, you’re the one who’s trying to break the airspeed record tomorrow?”
“Guilty as charged,” Dash nodded.
The mare laughed, a little grudgingly. “Well, you’ve got a lot to answer for.” She gestured towards the excitable filly. “Won’t stop talking about you. She wants to be a racing flyer someday.” She smiled at Dash, her expression softening. “Even so, I’m glad you’ve given her somepony to look up to.”
“So, you wanna be a racer?” Dash turned interestedly to the filly, who grinned and nodded excitedly.
“Yeah! I can do loops already and everything.” She suddenly became a little shy, looking down and pawing at the floor with an awkward hoof. “Would… would you sign something for me? My friends are never gonna believe this!”
“Sure, no problem.”
The father rolled his eyes, evidently not a stallion prone to being wildly impressed by current celebrities. “I’ll get your poster, Fizzle,” he said, sounding a little bored with the whole situation and beginning to unlock the door to the apartment.
It was Dash’s turn to do a double-take, turning again to look at the pegasus filly. “Fizzle?” She burst out laughing. “Oh, that’s awesome! You were the one who wrote me that letter, weren’t you? The one about going really fast?” She had made sure to reply to the letter, although it had been one reply out of many and had been necessarily brief, albeit appreciative.
Fizzle’s eyes lit up. “You remember that?”
“’Course I do,” Dash smiled.
Fizzle’s father emerged from the apartment, holding a pen and a poster in his teeth. It was a brightly coloured image bearing the date and announcement of the record attempt, and a well-timed photograph of Dash’s Sonic Rainboom from the previous year. It occurred to Dash that whoever ran the Cloudiseum was probably making a fair few bits out of merchandise, and made a mental note to talk to Twilight about collecting royalties.
“See?” Fizzle poked her father, triumphantly. “I told you she’d read the letter!”
She took the poster, and held it out to Dash, who signed it. On an impulse, she added: ‘PS: Keep on going really fast!’ beneath her signature, and passed it back to the filly.
“’Fank oo!” Fizzle squeaked, her voice comedically muffled by the poster in her mouth.
Her father nudged her gently, taking the poster and tucking it beneath his wing. “Come on, now. You’ve got your poster signed, you’d better let Miss Dash get on with whatever she’s doing.”
“Okay then…” Fizzle turned to head indoors, looking back at Dash and beaming. “It’s amazing to actually meet you!” She called, still bouncing excitedly on the spot.
“Great to meet you too, Fizzle,” replied Dash, sincerely. “Keep up the flying!”
Then, the filly and father were gone. Fizzle’s mother, however, hung back, looking curiously at Dash. She was a rich shade of royal blue, her mane wavy and ice-coloured. “I didn’t want to ruin Fizzle’s moment,” she said, “but I’ve got to ask. What are you doing here of all places? You don’t live here, do you?”
Dash chuckled, and shook her head, deciding that it was best to be honest. “Nah, I’m a Ponyville girl these last few years. I just wanted to see this old place again.”
“Here?” The mare looked confused. “Why?”
Dash shrugged. “I grew up here. The same apartment you’re living in now, actually. I… I left when I was pretty young. I guess I wanted to see if this place was still here.”
“Really?” The dark blue pegasus laughed, too. “What are the odds of that? I’d better not tell Fizzle, she’d never let us move out.”
“It’s just… nice. It’s great to know this is a happy place now.” The words slipped out before she could think their implications through, and immediately regretted speaking them.
Dash shook her head. “It’s in the past now; it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. This place is bound to be full of memories for you; you can’t help it if they slip out.”
“Hey,” Dash grinned, one particular memory occurring to her, “does the back wall of the kitchen still do that thing where it drifts forwards if you don’t anchor it with a chair or something?”
Fizzle’s mother rolled her eyes, smirking. “You have no idea. I swear it’s got worse since we moved in.”
“Funny, my dad always said he was gonna get someone in to fix that.” He had so many plans. I can’t think of one that actually worked out for him. Maybe that was why he started drinking. Dash nodded absently, looking around and catching sight of the distant mountain that was her destination. “I’d better let you get on, I don’t mean to keep hanging around like this.”
“No problem,” came the reply. “Just before you go though, I just wanted to say thank-you.”
Dash was a little taken aback. “For what?”
“They always say never to meet your heroes, because they’ll disappoint you. Thanks for being an exception to that, for my daughter. You really mean a lot to Fizzle.”
Dash smiled wryly, thinking back to her non-existent time with the Wonderbolts at the previous year’s Gala. “It sucks to be let down like that by ponies who’re important to you. I’d rather not be the kind of pony that other ponies regret looking up to.”
She turned to fly away, trotting up to the balcony and stretching her wings. “I’m Ruby, by the way,” Fizzle’s mother added. “Sorry for not introducing myself earlier.”
“No worries, nice to meet you, Ruby.” Dash smiled, and gestured towards the apartment. “Glad to see you’re looking after the place. See ya later!”
With that, she launched into the air, and began soaring at full speed in the direction of Canterlot, not bothering with any aerobatics this time.
What happened to you, Dash? She thought to herself. This time last month you’d have given that kid the whole ‘maybe one day you’ll be as awesome as me’ spiel.
Maybe I actually don’t need to boast anymore. Maybe I really am different.
In any case, it was nice to know that the apartment was no longer the dismal place it had once been. It was strange to know that a family ate and talked and laughed around a table that she had once cowered beneath, in the forlorn hope of hiding herself from her drunken father. Dash knew that everything must always change, but it was comforting to know that sometimes, just sometimes, things changed for the better.
Maybe I have as well.
Now, however, she needed to catch up on lost time. Gritting her teeth, the wind singing in her ears and whipping at her mane, she redoubled her speed.
By the time she arrived in the city of Canterlot, the weather was warm, and the pleasant hubbub of a meandering crowd drifted in the air. The city’s spires shimmered in the early afternoon sun, the cobbled squares thronged with unicorns from all walks of life, aristocrats rubbing shoulders with stallholders and students from the city’s many colleges.
Dash alighted on a marble pavement, looking around herself. She did not know the city well, and resolved to find a guard to ask the way to the dungeons. After briefly scanning her surroundings, she caught sight of a golden-armoured unicorn standing stiffly in a recessed alcove in front of an ornate fountain.
She trotted over, attempting to catch his eye. “Hey,” she said, a little awkwardly. The pure white unicorn turned his head to peer suspiciously at her. “This might sound kind of weird, but do you know where I can find the castle dungeons?”
“The dungeons aren’t open to tourists, kid,” grunted the guard, looking away disinterestedly.
Dash snorted in annoyance. “I’m not a tourist. I’m a visitor. A family member of mine’s imprisoned there, and I wanna pay her a visit.”
“Seriously?” The guard raised an eyebrow at her. “Most criminals in this city get dealt with by the police-ponies. You’ve gotta do something pretty damn bad to end up the castle dungeons. I can tell you now, if she’s in for something petty, try the police station.”
“Trust me, she’s in for a good reason. Heck, she’s been in for most of this week already,” replied Dash, trying to keep her voice level. She supposed that suspicion was to be expected, and guessed that she would have to try the palace itself and find a more superior officer to talk to.
The guard, however, grinned craftily. “Okay, then. I was on guard duty in the dungeons until we got rotated a few days back. If you can give me a name I recognize, then maybe I’ll believe that you’re not trying to waste my time.” He stood there, smirking as if he had just drawn an ace from his sleeve.
Dash’s eyes narrowed, and she decided to wipe the smile off his face. She dropped her voice. “Cloudshine mean anything to ya?”
The guard’s eyes widened. “Oh…”
Dash rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“Okay then…” The stallion was clearly taken aback. “You say you want to visit her? That you’re… family?”
“That’s pretty much it.” Dash nodded.
“Well then,” the guard cleared his throat. “It’s probably best if you come with me. I can explain to the other guys what’s going on, so they’ll let you in without any bother.”
“Fair enough.” Dash fell into step beside the gold-armoured stallion, a little irked by the conspicuous absence of any kind of apology for his flippancy. They passed beyond the crowds, upwards into the higher echelons of the city, the shops and residences becoming noticeably more opulent as they passed, and the crowds growing thinner. Eventually, they reached the golden palace gates, the arching metalwork stretching far up above their heads.
“I need to pass this on to the Sergeant,” the guard said. “Since our unit got rotated away from guard duty, he’s made it clear that any inquiries we hear about prisoners go through him first.”
Instead of passing through the gates, they turned left into a small guardhouse at the foot of the towers on either side. The guard opened the studded wooden door and called into the cramped, dimly-lit interior. “Sergeant Quintus!”
A second unicorn stallion emerged after a few moments, his golden armour more ornate than that of the guard Dash had been following, and a pink-tinged scar on his right cheek.
The guard saluted him. “Sergeant, you asked us to refer any inquiries about Sunset to you.”
Quintus nodded, scrutinizing Dash. “Thankyou, Private.”
“She says she wants to visit Cloudshine. Apparently she’s family.”
“I see,” Quintus’ eyes narrowed slightly, and he seemed to be thinking hard. “Very well, Private. I’ll take this from here. Come with me, Miss.”
Dash rolled her eyes, wishing that she had searched out the dungeons herself. She had only wanted directions, and now found herself being shunted from one escort to another. In truth, she realized that she could have planned this out a lot better. She had no proof of any kind of connection with Cloudshine, and had no idea of the usual protocol involved with visiting a prisoner. She wished that Twilight were with her; the unicorn’s organizational skills would have most likely come in useful.
The guard she had been following saluted again, and walked away, vanishing into the crowd.
Sergeant Quintus motioned to a grey stone staircase, hidden away behind the guardhouse, that hugged the rounded contours of the overhanging mountainside, and dipped away out of sight beneath the castle’s golden ramparts. The steps jutted out of the grey stone, the face of the mountain on one side, and a dizzying fall to the rocks below on the other. “The dungeons are built into a cavern system in the mountainside. Be careful on the steps.”
Dash was reasonably sure that the Princess would have forewarned the current dungeon guards that she planned to visit, and was confident that she would be allowed in. It was a relief that Quintus had apparently accepted her story, but at the same time it was strange. By rights, he should have turned her away and told her to come back with some kind of evidence that she had a good reason to be visiting. Pushing these doubts aside, she started down the steps, the Sergeant following a few steps behind. She moved nimbly, ignoring the drop to her left, trusting in her flight to save her should she slip.
She closed her eyes momentarily, her heart pounding in anticipation. What was she going to say? Would Cloudshine even give her a chance to explain who she was?
Don’t stress out about it. What’s the worst she can do?
The view up here was incredible, it had to be said. The verdant fields of Equestria stretched out as far as the eye could see, the rooftops and roads of Ponyville clearly visible on the edge of the Everfree Forest. Looking ahead, she could see the entrance to the dungeons loom into view at the foot of the staircase, a metal, arch-shaped door cut into the mountainside, some distance ahead of them.
Something was wrong. Something was nagging at Dash’s brain. Her intuition was buzzing, wheedling her, focusing her attention. What had the first guard said? He had been on guard duty in the dungeons. Their unit had been taken off dungeon duty a few days ago. Just after Dusk had been killed. Had they been moved for their incompetence? Or could they not be trusted?
“One of the guards must have been either paid off, or already in Sunset’s pocket.” Celestia’s words echoed inside her head.
What had the guard said to her? “I need to pass this on to the Sergeant. Since our unit got rotated away from guard duty, he’s made it clear that any inquiries we hear about prisoners go through him first.”
This time, her intuition had come too late.
The hoof-falls behind her had suddenly ceased, and Dash spun around. “Why’ve we stopped?” There was an edge of fear to her voice.
“Who sent you here?” Quintus’s tone was calm, almost conversational, though his eyes bored into her with a steely glare. “A pegasus wanting to visit a member of Sunset? That’ll be the day.”
Dash flared her wings, ready to flee if needbe. The unicorn might have magic on his side, but he could not pursue her in mid-air. “I’m her half-sister,” she repeated, hoping against hope that he would believe her, but knowing inside that he would not.
“A half-sister just appears out of nowhere, the moment Sunset’s in prison and vulnerable?” Quintus snorted. “Do you think I was born yesterday?” His horn flared, and he drew a golden ceremonial dagger from a sheath on his armour. It glinted in the sunlight, sharpened to an almost invisible razor’s edge. He gestured to her outstretched wings. “Don’t try it. You wouldn’t get ten feet. Now tell me,” his voice became angry. “There are a great many pegasus groups who want to put Sunset in the ground once and for all. You’re an assassin, or at least an opportunist, and you know it as well as I do. The only question is, which organization sent you?”
“I’m telling the truth!” Dash yelled, desperately. Her eyes narrowed, and she felt a surge of anger. “So, how much did they pay you to kill Dusk Tempest?”
“Enough. And they pay me enough to keep them safe,” growled Quintus.
“But look at me!” Insisted Dash. “I’ve got no weapons, nothing! I didn’t even know the way into the dungeons. I really am her half-sister. Ask the dungeon guards if ya like; the Princess told them I’d be coming. They’re expecting me.”
Quintus shook his head. “I know what Celestia did to Dusk. We all heard the screams, although none of as talk about it. I don’t trust her any more than I trust any of you pegasi.” He smirked, nastily. “Besides. If I let you go now, you’ll just go running to Celestia. I’d have to go into hiding for years, and trust me. I don’t want that. All in all, better safe than sorry.” He raised the blade.
Dash snorted, angrily, pawing at the ground, readying herself. She knew that there was only one way out of this.
Quintus looked at her for a still, silent moment, staring her down. The world seemed to hold its breath for a second, as they faced one another off on the mountainside steps. There was something almost apologetic in his eyes.
Then he lunged at her.