Exhausted from a hard day’s work followed by a long flight, Rainbow Dash alighted on her cloud home and tossed the bag that contained all of Photo’s trappings in a corner. She’d had the option to stop by the penthouse on the way to Ponyville, but opted against in order to avoid the public eye as much as possible. Stupid tabloids, making her life harder. Sun already well below the horizon, Rainbow laid down and stared at the ceiling of her bedroom. The pillow was calling her, but so was the pile of magazine layouts in her desk drawer.
With a disappointed sigh, she got back up and sat at her desk. Staring at the partially done work, her mind simply drew blank. The nearly empty pages stared at her in challenge, and she had nothing to fill them with. The day had been too much of a mess for her to really focus on what was in front of her properly. This should have been second nature to her, but here she was just… being stared down by her own unfinished work. She felt the slow buildup of stress in her system the longer she looked.
It abruptly occurred to her that she’d never opened her mail from that morning. Obviously not procrastinating, she reached for her bag and shuffled through the letters. Mostly generic correspondence, but she did manage to find the response letter from Rarity. A quick review and comparison with her schedule led Photo to the conclusion that tomorrow afternoon would be good. She’d have to wake up early and duck to Canterlot to chang- Her goggles stared up at her from inside her opened saddle bags, resting atop everything else she’d need in the morning. Photo regarded that lucky turn of events for just a moment before starting to draft a reply letter to Rarity. She could just float down and tuck the letter into her mailbox that night, as she was fairly certain Rarity would check the mail with enough time to get ready.
She looked at the folded letter and then at her layouts. As tempting as it was to go deliver the letter instead of doing real work, she set the envelope aside and started staring at the pages again. A few cursory lines, all immediately erased, a few more lines. This was getting nowhere. She was too unfocused to work on this, all of the day’s stressors racing around her thoughts. She just wanted to relax.
Hot tubs are relaxing. That stray thought sent her back into a panic spiral. In her spare time throughout the day, she’d been grappling with ideas for how to get away with being both Photo and Rainbow at the party, but nothing managed to stick. There had to be a way. Had to. She just couldn’t come up with one. But she had to. Wait, there was another problem. Photo couldn’t exactly wear her dress into the hot tub. No dress means nothing to cover her tail, and basically no disguise at all. She had to come up with an answer to that, also. Panic slowly building in her heart, Rainbow lost track of everything that was going on around her. In a brief moment of clarity, the first useful result of her assorted panics throughout the day finally arose.
“If I can’t figure it out myself,” she mumbled, “I'll have somepony else figure it out.”
Then again, that thought was a dead end. Asking somepony’s help to keep your secret identity intact doesn’t exactly work. After a brief moment of mental stillness, she laughed at herself. This is exactly the reason she chose to let Twilight in on everything. Going to talk her problems over with Twilight was such an obvious next step she felt like an idiot for not coming up with it already.
Standing from her desk, and with a fleeting glance at the nearly untouched layouts, she left the house. She just told herself that the layouts would be easier once she wasn’t so distracted, and that talking to Twilight was just another step in that plan. Yeah, that sounded like a real thing and not just putting off her work. Yeah. Stepping off her cloud, she cruised down to the library.
Deciding to use the door this time, Rainbow tried to calm down a bit and knocked. After some shuffling noises on the other side, a familiar purple glow pushed the curtains aside to reveal and even more familiar purple face.
Twilight smiled and opened the door, “Heya, Rainbow. I was just working on… uh… the thing.”
“The… oh, yeah,” Dash said, glancing over her shoulder to double check nopony was listening, “That’s great. Hey, can we talk?”
Twilight gestured for Rainbow to follow her in and they both sat down at the common table in the middle of the room, “What did you need to talk about?”
“Okay, so I ran into Spitfire…”
After the better part of an hour giving as much detail as possible, Twilight finally seemed to have a rough grasp of the situation. She sat and pondered for a good while, before finally announcing, “I’m not really sure I see a solution either.”
Rainbow’s heart sank, “But there has to be a way, right?”
Twilight’s expression was enough of an answer, eyes showing concern while everything else read of grudging disagreement, “There’s probably a way, but it’s also probably not worth the risk on your part.”
Twilight interrupted, “You have two careers to worry about. You have much more to lose than to gain from trying some overblown solution.”
“My honest advice here?” Twilight continued, “One of you has to say you can’t come.”
Rainbow felt like she’d just taken a blow to the chest. It was the thought that had been plaguing the back of her mind the entire time. Having placed all hope in Twilight coming up with some better answer than that, it hit like a ton of bricks. It couldn’t be done. She would have to choose.
“There has to be a way,” Rainbow mumbled to herself.
With a sigh, Twilight put a comforting hoof on Rainbow’s shoulder. In a flash, Dash had jumped away from her, “No, damn it. I’m going to make this work. It has to work, I don’t care what you say.”
Twilight was shocked for a second before taking a moment to process the scene. With a comforting smile, she simply announced, “Stage two, anger.”
“The fuck are you talking about?” Rainbow demanded.
Twilight let out an exasperated sigh, “Rainbow, keep your voice down and stop swearing, Spike is trying to sleep.”
Rainbow’s next complaint caught in her throat and she sat down at the table once more, frustrated to no end. To Hell with Twilight, Rainbow was going to make this work somehow. Sure she was smart, but Twilight wasn’t always right about everything. Rainbow would find a way.
Trying to break the mood, Twilight spoke up again, “I’ve gotten a good way into figuring out the illusions you were asking about.”
Rainbow phased back into the real world, “What now?”
“So far the best I’ve found only works on the caster and takes a ton of energy to upkeep,” Twilight said, shuffling papers, “but I think I’m on track to getting you something you can use instead of your normal disguise. Hiding your wings will be a problem, though, since they take up space even when disguised.”
“The way things are going, I might not have long left to pretend I don’t have wings,” Rainbow grumbled, “Stupid tabloids.”
Twilight pondered neutrally, “On the bright side, that makes the spell easier.”
Rainbow just grumbled more, her mood holding quite sour. There was a long silence as Twilight examined Rainbow and Rainbow stared into space thinking and looking grumpy.
Eventually, Twilight’s expression flattened, “Look, do you need anything else from me or are you just going to sit there being mad about things?”
Rainbow shot upward, looking like she was about to argue, but sense got the better of her, “I… I’m sorry. Today’s been shi- stressful. I just… this matters to me. I don’t want to let Spitfire down, not as either one of, uh… me.”
“I get that,” Twilight admitted, “just don’t take it out on everypony around you, okay?”
With the long sigh of somepony trying to calm themself, Rainbow replied, “Okay.”
After a short but less awkward pause, Twilight announced, “I should probably get back to work on this. You’re welcome to stay and sit, but expect me to be distracted.”
Rainbow grudgingly stood up, “Nah, I also have things to do. And hey, thanks for doing all this for me. I’m sure it’s a hassle.”
Twilight smiled, levitating six books at once, “Are you kidding? This is the type of thing I do for fun.”
“Well then, sorry to drag you through my personal drama,” Rainbow offered, heading for the door.
Twilight pondered the thought before pointing out, “Actually, I’m pretty sure I can write a friendship lesson about this, so that’s actually one more thing off my plate.”
Rainbow laughed sarcastically as she stepped out the door, “That’s the most ‘Twilight’ thing you’ve said all night.”
“Hey, Rainbow,” Twilight called after, causing her to turn back, “Take care of yourself.”
With a quick salute to show she understood her order, Dash took to the sky.
Photo rolled her face all over the layouts. She was so, so bored, and her conversation with Twilight had done nothing to alleviate her worries. Sitting up and looking at the pages, she noted just two things. One, she had barely gotten any work done that night. Two, apparently she hadn’t removed all of her makeup, because flecks had been left on the page when she was collapsed on the desk. While she idly played connect the dots with the mascara spots, Photo spared a few glances around the room. It was late, idling toward midnight, and she still had so much work to do.
There was an envelope on her desk. Breaking from her idle doodles, she picked it up, remembering it was her response letter to Rarity. She needed to make sure to deliver that tonight. That sounded like a thing that needed her immediate attention. More than happy for another excuse to get away from her work, Photo stood and stretched. She honestly wasn't sure what was tiring her more, sitting hunched over her desk for hours on end or the fact that it was the middle of the night. Either way, she took the letter and took her time, gliding down to Rarity’s boutique.
Ponyville’s streets lit only by streetlights and the moon, Rainbow was happy to see nopony around. At least this way the letter couldn’t be traced to her. With no lights on in the boutique, Rainbow decided the coast was clear and slipped the letter into her mailbox, doing another quick double check to make sure nopony was watching.
Satisfied, Rainbow turned to fly away when the sound of a door latch turning made her jump like a startled cat. Turning toward the sound, Rainbow saw Rarity, standing in the doorway holding a candle in her magical grasp. Had she seen?
“Hello? Who’s out there?” Rarity called cautiously.
Bail or play it off? Rainbow contemplated quickly before calling out, “Oh hey, Rare. Didn’t know you’d be awake.”
Looking visibly relieved, Rarity stepped through the door and toward Rainbow, “Darling, you startled me out here. I saw an unmoving silhouette and simply the most dreadful thoughts filled my mind.”
Stepping into the glow of her friend’s candle, Dash smiled, “Yeah, sorry about that. You’re up really late, though. What’s up with that?”
Rarity paused, her expression turning to one Rainbow couldn’t read, “Honestly, I could ask the same, Darling. Well, since you’re here, do you mind coming inside?”
“Sure,” Rainbow shrugged, following Rarity back toward the door, “What’s up?”
Ushering Rainbow through the door ahead of herself, Rarity replied in an oddly practiced tone, “There’s something I’d been meaning to discuss with you.”
Rainbow could tell something was off and cautiously looked over her shoulder, watching Rarity slowly close the door. The resounding clunk of Rarity throwing the deadbolt gave Rainbow a surge of adrenaline, “Wh… What’s going on, Rarity?
“I just have one, simple question, darling,” Rarity explained, her expression still unreadable and her voice slowly waxing ominous, “How much of the conversation did you understand?”
Something in Rainbow told her that this was not somewhere she wanted to be. The main room of the boutique, lit only by Rarity’s magic and candle light, took on a foreboding air. Rarity’s stare bored through Dash in a way she really, really didn’t appreciate. All Rainbow could hear was the sound of her own heartbeat slamming away and the dull chirp of crickets outside.
“I…” Rainbow stammered, contemplating exit via a window, “What in Equestria are you talking about, Rare?”
Rarity’s eyes narrowed and she snapped, “Don’t play the fool with me, Rainbow. How much did you hear?”
Rainbow’s mind staggered around to figure out what she was talking about. Eventually it clicked.
“You mean you and Spitfire?”
Rarity gave her a look that read go on.
“Uh…” Rainbow struggled to remember details, “She’s throwing a party and asking you to invite ponies? She… wait, how do you two even know each other? She sounded like you were frie-”
“Anything else?” Rarity interrupted in a cold tone.
Rainbow was caught off guard. Rarity wasn’t often this confrontational and it was really disorienting. She struggled for more thoughts, “Well, you thought she was inviting somepony special. It was-” Wait, I shouldn’t know that, “um, you didn’t know who. No but seriously, how do you know Spi-”
“After that?” Rarity cut off once more, the light of her candle flickering and casting shadows across her face.
Dash fumbled, “I dunno, you talked about some more stuff and then she wanted to know where I was?”
“And that ‘stuff?’”
The pause was so pregnant it looked like it was about to bear quadruplets. Rainbow had no idea what had been said. Would Rarity believe her? Looking back, it was probably something really… awkward. She remembered Spitfire shuffling at the ground and Rarity looking amused. Was that what this was all about? What could have been said?
Not really knowing what to say, Rainbow decided to go with the truth, “Look, I was so distracted by you and Spitfire apparently being secret best buds that I have no damn clue what you were even talking about. No seriously, what’s up with that?”
Rarity took a cautious step backward, as if to judge her friend. She seemed satisfied, “So you really didn’t hear?”
Rainbow made blew a raspberry and shrugged.
Rarity’s mood lightened, but she still shot the occasional suspicious squint, “Well… okay then. Good. As to how I know her, I’m afraid I can’t tell you.” She paused for a short moment to consider, “Honestly, I’m not sure if she’d mind me telling you, given other things, but a promise is a promise.”
Dash paused to process, still wondering what the hell she had missed in that conversation. Rarity being secret friends with Spitfire was also weighing on her mind, but a complete background thought compared to what would drive Rarity to such lengths of confronting a close friend.
Rarity seemed to see the levels of deep thought through Rainbow’s eyes, because she declared, “Well, love, should you piece anything back together, I do hope you understand that telling anypony will have consequences.”
Rainbow snapped to attention, “What? No, of course. Like… a good friend and an idol of mine have a secret, I’m not so stupid as to run around announcing it.”
Finally, Rarity smiled, “Well, just so long as we have an understanding. I do apologise for the theatrics.”
The door unlatched with a thunk and Rarity’s posture slowly settled to her normal poise. Rainbow just stood there, stock still, mildly suspicious that it was a trap. Rainbow cautiously made for the door, eyes on Rarity the whole time. This entire event had left her jarred and she just wanted out.
As she reached the door, Rarity spoke up again, an apologetic tone to her voice, “I do hope you understand.”
“I don’t,” Rainbow stated plainly.
Rarity raised a hoof as if to start explaining, but just deflated again, “Yes, I was worried that would be the case.” After a sharp exhale, she continued, “Simply put, everything is fine so long as you just move on like you heard nothing at all and this never happened.”
Nodding suspiciously, Dash replied, “Sure. Yup. I’ll just go home then.”
Rarity silently opened the door and Rainbow stepped out in a pretend calm before jolting skyward. Landing on her balcony in a daze, Rainbow staggered toward her bed and collapsed. Just pretend it never happened. Yup. The lingering thoughts of work to do were overwhelmed by trying to process what had just happened. Rainbow stared at her ceiling. Just pretend it never happened.
But it happened.
As the sun slid up above the horizon, Photo Finish grudgingly opened her eyes. Somehow, the events of the last night had lingered through her dreams and were still flooding her mind. She just had to push it aside and get ready for her day. Sitting up in bed, she was still lost in thought. Rarity was so thrown by the possibility that she had overheard something important. Half of her wanted to find out what, but the other half never wanted to have another encounter like that.
The next thing she knew, she was already in her kitchen preparing the morning’s coffee. Rummaging about, she found a blueberry bagel to shove in her face while she waited for the coffee to finish and sat down to think about her next few days. Today wasn’t impossibly hard, it was just a matter of holding character and pretending that Rarity didn’t terrify her after the events of the night before. That was doable, so long as she could rationalize what had happened. The longer she thought on it, the harder that prospect seemed.
Photo was in the middle of staggering for ways to comprehend that situation when the coffee finished dripping and clicked off. Casually pouring herself a cup, Photo kept pondering. Spitfire had a secret. Well, two secrets. One secret that she was friends with Rarity and one that she could have heard if she had been paying attention. With a start, she noticed that she had filled her mug right to the brim, almost too full to pick up properly. Grumbling to herself, she set the pot back on her counter and stared at the near-overflowing mug.
Cautiously sipping from the mug as it rested on her table, she kept pondering. Why keep a friendship secret? Spitfire might have friends that didn’t like Rarity, but that seemed unlikely. The only reason to keep a secret is fear of repercussions. Why would you be afraid that ponies knew you were friends with a designer? Public appearance? Nah, Spitfire had that on lockdown. So then, why?
Finally having sipped enough coffee to safely lift the mug, she sat upright with a start and tried to clear her mind. She had business to attend to today, and the stupid layouts were still silently taunting her from the next room over. Honestly, if she wanted to know, she could just go find Spitfire and ask. Worst case, she was seeing her in two days. She swallowed hard at the idea of having to come up with a plan for attending the party in such a short span, but resolved that she’d come up with a way in the afternoon. Her schedule after the meeting with Rarity was totally clear. That would give her time to think. And do layouts. Mostly think.
She’d just spend the morn- Rainbow heard a cooing noise from the next room over. It wasn’t so out of place that it immediately caught her attention, but something about it made her slowly turn her head. She found herself in a staring contest with a pigeon on her window frame. It just sat there, staring.
Remembering the one watching her at the penthouse, Rainbow impulsively called to it, “Hey! What do you want?”
Not breaking eye contact, the pigeon hopped off the windowsill and flew off. Crossing the room in confusion, she watched the small bird cruising off toward the park in the center of town. It had to be the same one, that was the only thing that made any remote sense. Of course, that was not to say that being followed around by a grumpy pigeon made any sense. It just made more sense than the alternatives.
Walking back over to her coffee, Rainbow struggled to rerail her train of thought. Things to do this morning. She still needed to get her hooves on a copy of that tabloid, and this time she actually had bits with her. That was a thing to do. Also, she reminded herself, layouts. Might as well grab the magazine first, it would be quick and give her some time to think while flying. Chugging the last few ounces of her coffee in one go, Rainbow set off to the market square. As she passed overhead, she caught sight of a familiar Stetson and decided to say hi.
Spotting her friend approaching, Applejack tipped her hat, “Howdy there, Rainbow. How’s it going?”
“Eh, weird past few days,” Rainbow replied, kicking up a small cloud of dust as she landed, “You good?”
AJ shrugged and gestured at the cart of apples and apple products behind her, “Mac got sick and I’m stuck with another day of standing around in the square.”
There was a pause as they each tried to word what they wanted to ask, but AJ was the one to speak first, “So I managed to break Fluttershy’s window with you?”
Rainbow let out a single chuckle, “Yeah, well. Not the first time you’ve sent me rocketing out of town square. Remember the catapult?”
AJ stopped to grasp at that memory, “Barely, I was half asleep for that. Still don’t know why you thought that was a good idea.” She let out a sigh before continuing, “I do the work, you pay for the lumber?”
Rainbow’s expression shifted instantly from forced humor to a regretful grimace, “Yeah, I think that sounds fair.”
“Alright, I’ll probably do that tonight then,” AJ informed, her own expression one of self disappointment.
After a moment of shared silent acceptance, Rainbow tried to change the subject, “By the way, about two nights ago. Uh… what happened?”
“You mean before or after I whooped your sorry flank at pool for like two hours?”
Rainbow grumbled, “After.”
“Spitfire showed up and you started trying to match drinks with her after already being a few in,” Applejack explained, “I bailed when you started the shameless flirting.”
“I wasn’t-” Rainbow started to complain before realizing she honestly had no idea.
“Well. It looked like that to me,” AJ put forward, “I got the feeling Spitfire thought the same.”
Failing to form any counterarguments that didn’t just make AJ sound more right, Rainbow just rolled her eyes, “Eh, whatever. Have fun standing around all day, I’ve got things to do.”
With the sparkle of amusement in her eyes, Applejack waved to Rainbow as she left. Walking among the stands of the marketplace, Rainbow finally found the one that sold magazines. After a quick glance at the selection, she felt satisfied that the stakeout from the day before hadn’t spotted Rainbow on the way into the penthouse, or at least hadn’t had time to publish yet. The problem was, the particular magazine she was looking for was noticeably missing.
“What happened to that tabloid with the article on Photo Finish?” Rainbow asked the pony behind the counter.
“Sold out,” he stated regretfully. “You might be able to find somepony who already has one, though.”
Rainbow sighed. Nothing could be easy, could it? She thanked the merchant and left, heading back home to maybe finally get some useful work done. Dissatisfied with being unable to tie up what should have been the easiest loose end of her rapidly fraying disguise, Rainbow landed on her balcony. As much as she wanted to just spend the day making things work, Photo had a meeting with Rarity to prepare for.