A Bluebird's Song

by Ardensfax

Catching Sparks

A Bluebird’s Song
Part Three

There’s a truth in the madness
That I can’t get beyond
And a fever that won’t leave me alone
I can’t get beyond you

Catching Sparks

“I thought it’d be quieter,” remarked Rarity dryly, looking down from the wide picture window of the second floor landing.

Their alarm calls had come, as requested, at seven o’ clock that, waking them to the glare of the cold rising sun. Even Rainbow Dash had defeated her usual antipathy to mornings, and had been wide awake in a matter of minutes. For Twilight, the start of the day had passed in a dreamlike blur of frantic preparation, last minute correspondence, and barely-suppressed worry. She had posted their missive to the Princess in the hotel’s mailbox the previous night, but had heard no word from Celestia or her guards. She took it as a good sign that no golden-armoured stallions with arrest warrants had dragged them out of bed in the middle of the night, but even so the silence was unnerving.

They had been informed by the Cloudiseum officials that transport from the hotel would arrive for them at nine, although Twilight could not understand why they were doing so. The Cloudiseum was within easy walking distance from the hotel, so sending a pegasus carriage at first came across as rather unnecessary. However, when she joined Rarity at the window to see what she was looking at, the reasoning behind the decision became clear.

It seemed as if half of Cloudsdale had turned out, ready to greet Dash. A line of trenchcoated and trilbied journalists waited eagerly at the front of the crowd, notebooks and cameras at the ready. Occasionally, flashbulbs would ignite with puffs of smoke, or banners bearing encouraging slogans would be hoisted experimentally above the heads of the crowd. The noise was a low, excited buzz of expectant conversation.

Twilight gaped at the sight, and retreated away from the window. Rarity smirked at her over her shoulder, remaining where she was. “Told you.”

“That’s… wow, that’s something.” Twilight muttered. She had known that Dash was popular, particularly in Cloudsdale seeing as she was a product of the town, but had not anticipated this. She had harboured vague expectations of public reaction, a few photos, a few autographs, but this went far beyond such simplicity.

I suppose it was stupid of me, she thought to herself. Dash’s already famous from the Young Flyer’s Contest, and the Cloudiseum’s owners will have spent big bits on publicity for an event like this.

She shook her head, trying to pull herself together. For most of her life she had been an extremely private pony, sometimes bordering on actively asocial. Now she was ostensibly Dash’s trainer, and the fact that she was not herself a pegasus would result in a significant share of the limelight coming her way. She knew that she could handle small-scale interviews and the occasional piece of fan-mail, but had no idea if she was ready for this kind of exposure. She had been aware from the start that the Cloudiseum would likely be packed out, but the crowds there would be at a good distance, easier to avoid focusing on.

This was unexpected, and Twilight had never liked the unexpected in the slightest.

Rarity suddenly turned away from the window, looking suddenly concerned. “Oh dear,” she murmured. “Fluttershy. She’s not going to like this at all.”

Twilight winced. Her friend was, of course, right. If she was nervous about presenting herself before thousands of eager eyes, then how would the ever-fearful pegasus react? “You’d better go and talk to her,” she said with a sigh. “You’re better at this than me.”

Rarity nodded, heading up the corridor. “I’ll be as gentle as possible,” she replied. “Even so, it’s going to be a challenge to get her out of her room when she knows what’s waiting out there.” She laughed, and Twilight attempted to join in, although the result sounded inelegant and stilted. Today, laughter did not come naturally to her.

“Whoa, Twi’!” Twilight turned to see Dash bounding up the stairs towards her, a pair of flight goggles that she had been searching for dangling over her hoof. She pointed in the vague direction of the window, looking amazed but pleased nonetheless. “It’s a convention out there, I just saw ‘em through the lobby window!”

Twilight was pleased to see that her magic had done its job, and the Dash was no longer wincing when she walked. “Better bring a spare pen,” she remarked, “I see a lot of posters out there.” She gestured towards the pegasus’s side, which no longer looked red and inflamed. If there was still a bruise, it was hidden beneath the blue fur. “How’s your chest feeling now?”

Dash gave the damaged area an experimental poke with a hoof, and looked relieved. “It’s great now, the pain’s pretty much gone. It’s not gonna affect my flying today,” she said, a reassuring note of certainty in her voice. “Take-off’s at twelve, right?”

Twilight nodded. “That should give the magic time to fix up any last twinges.”

The pegasus smiled gratefully at her. “Thanks for patching me up, Twi’.”

“No problem,” Twilight returned her smile, feeling the expression come to her a little more naturally. “Thanks for putting up with my dancing last night.”

“Nothin’ to put up with, you picked it all up pretty quick.” Dash waved an airy hoof, then leaned in to whisper to the unicorn, her eyelids falling to that half-closed gaze that always made Twilight’s heart quicken a little. “Besides, you showed me a few new moves afterwards, didn’t you?”

Twilight blushed, biting her lip. “I do my best,” she whispered back, her voice suddenly low and infused with a little duskiness.

“Then I’d say we’re even.” Dash winked at her, affectionately nuzzling the soft patch of silken fur just above the unicorn’s ear.

A noise from behind them interrupted the moment. With a rattle, Fluttershy’s door flew open, and the normally-timid pegasus ran skittishly across the thickly-carpeted landing to gaze fearfully out of the window. Her mouth dropped open at the sight that greeted her, and without a word she turned and bolted back into her suite, slamming the door shut behind her. Panicked squeaks drifted through the cloud wall, accompanied by Rarity’s reassuring voice.

“Seems Rarity wasn’t tactful enough,” muttered Twilight, ruefully. Coaxing Fluttershy to come out and face the cameras was going to be an interesting experience, to say the least.

Dash rolled her eyes, apparently thinking along the same lines as Twilight. “This is gonna be a long morning.”


Captain Gladius knew that the princess was troubled, even before he opened the door to her throne room. The distinctive click of her golden-shod hooves rang out against the marble floor as she paced from one side of the room to the other. Gladius knew that he had been summoned, but nonetheless felt that it was a courtesy to announce himself first, given that the princess was obviously in such a troubled state of mind. A little nervously, he knocked twice on the door.


“It’s me, your highness.”

“Come in.” Celestia’s voice was a flat monotone. Gladius pushed the door ajar and entered the room. The princess had halted her pacing, and was standing at the throne room’s window, looking down on the city below. A letter was held in mid-air beside her, but she folded it up and stowed it beneath her wing when the captain entered the room. The steeply-angled rays of clear morning light fell around her, a cold spotlight of her own creation.

“Your highness,” Gladius saluted, briefly. “D Company of the pegasus guards have been stationed in and around the Cloudiseum. If there’s any trouble, they can react at a moment’s notice.

Celestia nodded. “Good. What about the Wonderbolts?”

“No luck. They’re out of the country at the moment; a diplomatic incident in Zebrica.”

The princess sighed. “They would have been useful, too, there’s no chance of getting them back, is there?”

“It’s a four hour flight even in favourable good conditions, and I gather there’s quite a storm over the sea.” Gladius lowered his voice, steeling himself. “There is one other matter that I must discuss with you.”

“Yes?” He was sure that the princess knew to what he was referring. He had been skirting around this issue since yesterday, but realized that now was the time to act on it.

“Princess,” he paused for a moment, hoping that his next words would not see him demoted, or worse. “I’m one of your guards, and I would gladly lay down my life in your service, but please understand that I’m no fool, and I hope you don’t take me as such.” Gladius looked at the floor, unable to hold the princess’s gaze. “I know what happened to Sergeant Quintus, at least generally. It’s obvious what happened from the barest of investigations, and it’s equally obvious who the culprit is. I don’t know the motive or the details, but something happened between Rainbow Dash and Sergeant Quintus on those steps yesterday, and it resulted in the sergeant’s death.”

Celestia did not immediately reply, and Gladius hastened to clarify his intentions. “My point is; if I’ve worked it out, then others will as well. Particularly if they find the body. Anypony who knew that Miss Dash was scheduled to visit the dungeons at that time will be able to put two and two together.” He sighed in exasperation at the bizarre situation. “We’ve got eighty armed pegasi in Cloudsdale for the express purpose of protecting a pony who they should, by rights, be arresting on suspicion of murder.”

There were a few more moments of silence, and Gladius chanced a glance back up at the princess, who looked pensive. To his relief, there was no anger in her eyes, even though he realized he had likely stepped quite far out of line.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Celestia said, at length. “I realize that letting this record attempt go ahead must seem foolish of me. But… you know what I had to do to Dusk Tempest. I feel that if this can go ahead without any harm coming to Rainbow Dash, I might be able to find some closure, maybe some kind of justification for what I did.” She drew the letter out from under her wing, the tip of her horn glowing slightly as she held it in mid-air. “I received this from my student, last night. An explanation, of sorts. I see no reason to doubt its truthfulness.”

“That’s it? A letter?” It was all Gladius could do to hold back a snort.

The princess nodded. “Of course, the matter doesn’t simply end here. I fully intend to conduct an investigation, and I’ll need to bring in both Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash.” Her eyes hardened a little. “I’ll do it myself though, I don’t want the guards involved. Because if this explanation is true then it seems Rainbow Dash has done us something of a service, and I don’t want her to feel as if she’s being arrested for something that was so utterly beyond her control.”

“Beyond her control?” echoed the captain.

With a flare of her horn, Celestia floated the letter over to Gladius, so that he could read it. “Twilight’s never given me any cause to doubt her before,” the princess stated with a tone of finality. “The story checks out all along the line with what we already know. I’m not letting this matter go just yet, but I want to give Rainbow Dash the chance to finish what she’s been working towards.” She paused for a moment. “I’m going to give her today.”

Before he unfolded the letter, Gladius nodded. “Very well, your highness. I’m sorry for my impertinence.”

Celestia shook her head. “I don’t mind. I appreciate that you feel able to speak frankly with me.”

The captain looked up, the unread letter falling to his side. His instinct told him that he had gone far enough, but curiosity got the better of him. “May I ask one last question?”

“Of course.”

“What… what you did to Dusk Tempest. It’s something I know you’d never normally do, but you were able to round up Sunset because of it, and you could also protect Rainbow Dash because of it. Which reason was it that made you able to do something like that?”

Celestia turned away for a few long moments, falling again to gazing out of the wide window. Gladius feared for a moment that he had crossed a line, that he had gone too far, but then the princess turned back to look at him, the expression on her face betraying a slight chink in her armour. “Neither,” she said, quietly. “Obviously I wanted Dash to be safe, and obviously Sunset needed to be brought to heel. But I did it for Twilight’s sake.”

“Your student?”

“Yes. Rainbow Dash means everything to her. If I’d let anything happen to that pegasus, when I could have prevented it, Twilight would never have forgiven me. There are so few ponies who mean anything to me, but sometimes, once in a few centuries, I’ll find one. I’ll find a pony I know I’ll still remember ten thousand years from now, and if I’d betrayed Twilight in that way, I’d still feel the guilt of that betrayal just as strongly ten thousand years from now. I couldn’t bear that; I had to avoid it any way I could. I suppose… I suppose I did what I did out of selfishness.”

She turned away again, but not before Gladius caught sight of the liquid tracks beginning to creep their treacherous way down her snowy cheeks. “I… I’m sorry, your highness,” he stammered. “I didn’t realize that it was such a… personal matter.”

“You couldn’t have known.” Celestia shook her head, still staring resolutely out of the window, into the beams of the rising sun. “Thankyou for listening to me, Gladius.”

Unsure of how to respond, but realizing that the princess would like to be alone, Gladius held out a hoof offer her back the letter that he had not yet read. Celestia, however, did not take it.

“Keep it for the moment,” she said, quietly. “You’re right, Captain. I shouldn’t take you for a fool. I… I feel as if I need some time alone before I depart for Cloudsdale, but I’d like for you to read it. You deserve an explanation.”

Gladius nodded. He recognized the dismissal, but also the note of reconciliation, almost apology, in Celestia’s words. “Thankyou, your highness.” He bowed, and left hurriedly, not wanting to outstay his welcome any further.

Celestia watched as the door swung shut behind him, and closed her eyes. For a moment, she willed the world to simply disappear, and leave her to a silent and guiltless rest. She knew it would not. She knew that it never would.

Ponies are relying on you. Twilight needs you just as much as you need her, she told herself, sternly. Pull yourself together, Celestia. If you’ve got to live forever, there’s no point spending your eternity wishing it would end. You’ve been gifted a beautiful world, but it won’t always be like this. Take what joy you can in it, while you’ve still got the chance.

She let out a small snort, turning away from the window. Sometimes mortality looked so enviable, but she knew that now was not the time to dwell on such things. It was time to go to Cloudsdale.


“I am never doing that again.”

The door of the pegasus-drawn carriage swung shut behind the six ponies, muffling the sounds from the excitable crowd of autograph-seekers and reporters. Fluttershy collapsed onto the plush velvet bench-seat beside Rarity, her knees trembling a little. “I thought the Hearth’s Warming Pageant was bad,” she added, her voice scarcely audible. Obviously, Dash had drawn most of the limelight, but there had been enough cameras directed in her general direction to render the timid mare practically comatose.

For the others, the foray from the hotel to their waiting carriage had been a colourful whirl of camera flashes, cheers, and a seemingly-endless stream of magazines and posters for Dash to sign. A few had been pushed in Twilight’s direction as well, which had been a pleasant surprise. All in all, it had not been as bad as the unicorn had feared. Pinkie Pie and Rarity had looked positively thrilled, and Applejack had tilted her hat down in a vague attempt to obscure her face. Before they had emerged, Rarity had sifted through her luggage and procured a suitably wide-brimmed summer hat for Fluttershy, which the nervous mare had gratefully accepted. The absence of eye contact with the eager throng of ponies had made the whole ordeal a little less mortifying for her.

Now that she was in the carriage, with the crowd muffled and out of sight, Fluttershy seemed to relax a little, and began idly toying with the lacy blue trim of the hat that she was now holding in her forehooves. Against both her will and her better judgment, Fluttershy’s eyes roved from time to time in the direction of the pearly-white unicorn sitting beside her.

The carriage only barely held six, and it was difficult for Fluttershy to prevent her thoughts from moving so unerringly in the one direction that she wanted to avoid, considering the way that she was sandwiched between Rarity and Applejack. The white mare seemed too preoccupied with the excitement of the previous few minutes outside the hotel to notice Fluttershy’s distraction, for which the timid pegasus was devoutly thankful.

Due to the slight difference in height between the two of them, Rarity’s horn was only inches from Fluttershy’s face, and she could have sworn that she felt the ambient magical aura tingling electrically against her lips, leaving a sweet, metallic tang that she could not identify, but enjoyed immensely. She was unable to suppress a slight shiver, actively forcing herself to not crane her neck probingly forwards to better taste the aura of Rarity’s magic. The temperature within the carriage’s cramped yet luxurious interior suddenly felt uncomfortably warm, and Fluttershy considered herself lucky that her cheeks were already scarlet from her encounter with the crowd.

Oblivious to the tension on the other side of the carriage, Dash was grinning excitedly at Twilight. The lavender unicorn was unable to help smiling back, finding the pegasus’s excitement to be infectious. “That was awesome,” Dash exclaimed, leaping a little in an excited bounce, at the exact same moment that the carriage began moving with a sudden jerk, causing her to collapse backwards onto the seat between Twilight and Pinkie.

The purple unicorn laughed at the sight of the toppling pegasus, and reached out a helping hoof to set Dash the right way up again.

“Do ya’ll reckon the conditions look okay today?” enquired Applejack, leaning forwards with interest. “Ah don’t know much about this flyin’ stuff, but it looks like a good clear day.”

Dash nodded. “Seems fine, AJ. We’re above the clouds, so rain’s not a worry. Takeoff’s at noon; the sun’s gonna be right above so it won’t be blinding.”

High noon, she thought to herself, ruefully.

“Wind seems fine too,” noted Twilight, turning to Dash. “Remember what I told you, though. Air currents can be very unpredictable at these heights and speeds. If you don’t feel you can handle the turbulence, pull up. There’s no rule that says you’ve got to get it on the first try.”

“I know, Twi’. But I’ve been able to handle it in training at those speeds. I know I’ve never been able to go twice the speed of sound yet, but I’ve come pretty close.”

Twilight nodded. “True, and let’s face it: If you need an atmosphere that’ll give you the confidence to go the extra mile, I’m pretty sure a stadium full of ponies cheering you on is exactly the right thing.”

Dash could see the sense in this. Last year of course, the exact opposite had happened. She had spent so much time convincing herself that she could not succeed, that her routine had fallen apart out of sheer nerves. In a way, she was no less afraid this year. Perhaps more so; last time she had merely had the fear of humiliation hanging over her, but this year there was potentially Sunset’s presence to contend with. The consequences of their intervention could be far more serious.

Despite this additional worry, the nerves were not all-consuming as they had been last year. This time she had absolute faith in her abilities, and an equal faith in Twilight’s magical prowess to keep her safe.

There are some things no amount of magic can protect you from, Dash, remember that. Things like stupidity.

I’m not gonna do anything stupid.

You say that now, but what about when you’re caught up in the moment? What about when hundreds of ponies are cheering you on? Would you really be able to stop yourself if things started to go wrong?


Don’t try to justify this to yourself. Just remember you're not immune to your ego, even now. You’re already putting yourself at enough risk; don’t let Twilight down, she deserves better than you destroying both of your futures for some stupid burst of pride.

Dash would probably have continued further along this trail of thought, but she did not have the time to do so. At that moment, the carriage pulled up to a sudden halt, and an auburn pegasus stallion with rectangular glasses, a neatly-parted burgundy mane and a welcoming smile pulled the door ajar.

Sunlight streamed into the pony-filled interior, and the carriage’s occupants craned their necks to get a better view of the outside. With a gasp, Dash realized where they had pulled up. One by one, the six ponies disembarked, thanking the pegasi that had pulled them, and looking around at their surroundings. A close observer might have noticed an expression torn somewhere between relief and disappointment on Fluttershy’s face as she left Rarity’s side. For some reason, the alabaster unicorn’s cheeks were a little flushed as well, and she was looking almost appraisingly at the flustered pegasus, a small, secret smile playing across her lips.

Twilight had expected to arrive at some kind of back entrance or preparation area, but it was not the case. The carriage had alighted on a hovering dais of cloud, in the centre of the empty Cloudiseum.

It was a strange quirk of such venues that they always seemed larger when deserted. At this height above the ground, the wind whistled constantly in their ears, but even so the place seemed eerie and silent. They had been here before, but then it had been packed out and filled with the buzz and chatter an a sizable crowd. Of course, the spectators would arrive soon enough. Even so, seeing the great oval stadium’s many boxes and seats devoid of anypony beyond a few scattered guards and staff was a little unnerving, and Twilight felt almost as if they were trespassing, a sensation similar to the moment before making the first print in an untouched field of snow.

“Good to see you all,” said the stallion who had let them out of the carriage, the sudden sound making Twilight jump and breaking into her introspection. His voice was friendly, assured, and his cutie mark depicted an old-fashioned megaphone and a quill, crossed over one another like swords. “My name’s Limelight, I put on the shows here.”

Twilight moved forwards to shake hooves with him, recognizing a kindred spirit in the art of organization. “Twilight Sparkle. Thanks for setting this up at such short notice.”

Limelight did his best to look modest, straightening the black-framed glasses on his muzzle. “Well, if the princess asks you to do something you’re not exactly going to say no, are you? Besides, we’ve dealt with much worse in the past, and between you and me, it’s been too long since we’ve had something really interesting going on here.”

Rarity stepped forwards, looking impressed. “I must say your team do a wonderful job keeping the place in shape.”

Limelight turned to look at her, and his eyes narrowed in mock-irritation, although he smiled a little, somewhat ruining the effect. “Ah, you’re that one who very nearly ruined the Young Flyer’s Contest last year, aren’t you?”

Rarity blushed, and stammered a slightly incoherent apology, but Limelight burst out laughing. “I’m kidding, don’t worry. That was the best show we’ve had in years!” Rarity looked relieved, but a little annoyed with herself for being taken in so easily.

“Anyhow,” piped up Applejack, “y’all have nuthin’ to worry about this year.” She smirked at the alabaster unicorn. “We’ve made sure her wings are well an’ truly clipped this time ‘round.”

“Oh ha-ha,” muttered Rarity.

“This is gonna be cool,” enthused Dash, looking around her at the stadium.

“Right,” Limelight gestured in the direction of the backstage area. “Let’s take you to meet the prep team. They’ll make sure your equipment’s all working, and make sure your course is charted right, taking account of wind. We don’t want you getting up to speed and then ending up flying over Trottingham instead of the Cloudiseum.”

“Isn’t there a backstage entrance then?” enquired Twilight, as they followed Limelight across the narrow bridge of cloud that connected the takeoff and control area to the backstage. She was grateful that the organizers had had the foresight to set up the arena in a way that was traversable by non-winged ponies.

Limelight nodded. “Yeah, but it’s packed outside the arena, and we thought you’d probably have had enough of autograph hunters for one day.” He turned to look at Dash. “You need to be calm and collected for something like this, and wading through crowds of ponies with cameras probably isn’t the best way of going about that.”

“Thanks for that,” Fluttershy said, weakly, her voice sounding intensely relieved at narrowly avoiding a second round with Dash’s fans.

The six of them followed Limelight into the well-lit backstage area, the bare cloud feeling light and springy beneath their hooves. A row of dressing rooms stretched out along one wall, and the opposite wall housed a single door with Event Organization written on it in neatly printed black lettering. The rest of the room was filled with chairs grouped around small tables, and was dotted with a few well-stocked magazine racks with which the ponies waiting backstage could keep themselves entertained.

“We’ll have your goggles and other kit brought in from the carriage,” explained Limelight.

“What about my velocity tracker?” Twilight asked, her voice sounding a little worried.

The brown stallion shook his head. “Sorry, we’ve got to use our own data recording equipment. It’s not that I think you’re a cheat, but letting ponies bring their own trackers into a record attempt is a recipe for disaster, some older models are so inaccurate.”

“Oh yeah,” muttered Twilight, feeling a little stupid for not realizing.

“If any of you are up for refreshments, we’re still waiting on catering, but they should turn up soon enough. Now, I’ll introduce you to the preparation team in a minute, but there’s just one thing.” He turned to Dash. “We’ve had pretty special request from somepony who wants to meet you before the attempt. I’m not convinced about it personally, I thought he might be a bit overpowering for somepony trying to psyche themselves up, but I promised I’d at least ask you.”

Dash raised an eyebrow. “It shouldn’t be a problem. Who…?”

She never had a chance to finish the question, as at that moment a loud, somewhat brash voice rang out around the corner, accompanied by the sound of approaching hooves thumping mutedly against the cloud surface. “Hey, Limelight? Is she here yet?”

Before the organizer could do anything, a young stallion stepped around the corner. Six pairs of eyes widened in surprise, and there was a collective intake of breath. The new arrival was wiry and square-jawed, but obviously athletic, his coat a shining shade of white, fit to rival Rarity’s. His mark was a thundercloud surrounded by a golden corona of electrical energy. What caught the eye, however, was his mane. A long, frizzy shock of shining gold, encircling most of his face, and framing his slanting blue eyes.

“You told me you’d wait,” growled Limelight, embarrassed and angry by the interruption.

Dash was the first to recover from the surprise. The newcomer’s presence was more imposing than his photograph had implied, but it was obvious that he was not actively trying to intimidate.

They all knew who he was, but it was a surprise to see that he had gone to such lengths to meet Dash today. His posture did not seem hostile, and it did not appear that he was here to try and dent Dash’s confidence or otherwise protect his own record. His motives were, for the moment, unknown.

The white stallion held out a hoof, his expression apologetic, his gaze directed at Dash. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to barge in. I… I just wanted to wish you good luck for today.” If anything, he seemed nervous, almost respectful. When he lowered his voice, it was surprisingly soft, with a lilting Las Pegasus accent utterly at odds with his outward appearance.

A great many conflicting thoughts tumbled in Dash’s head, each adding to her confusion. Wait, why’s he wishing me luck? I’m here to try and defeat him; to beat his record. He’s the reason this all started. He’s the reason I saw myself for who I was. He’s… he’s the reason I changed. Would I be with Twilight if it weren’t for him? Another uncomfortable thought struck her: Do I… do I owe him?

“Are you alright?” he seemed concerned that his presence was off-putting. “I’m sorry, I’ll go if you want. I guess I’m probably the last guy you want hanging around right now.”

Dash realized that she was standing immobile, staring at the stallion. She knew that he should be a rival. She knew that he still could be, but the power to make that decision now rested with her.

There was really never any decision to make. It was a greeting she had never expected to offer, at least not on friendly terms.

The world is always changing. But sometimes, just sometimes, it changes for the better. Sometimes the world surpasses your expectations.

Smiling slightly, she stepped forwards to shake Lightning Flare’s hoof.