• Published 26th Aug 2017
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To Perytonia - Cloudy Skies



Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Rarity are tasked with establishing ties between Equestria and the strange people of Perytonia. Understanding and connecting with your own friends may yet be the bigger challenge. Updates every Tuesday and Saturday!

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Chapter 12

Applejack

I’m ever so sorry for the late reply. I’ve been a little busy by the edge of the Whitetail Woods lately, and I meant to reply to your letter—and I’m again sorry for leaving this letter in your mailbox. I heard you knocking on my door last night, but it was a little late, and, well. I’m sorry.

You’re right. I wanted to talk about last night. I guess it’s last week now, actually. I just wanted to let you know that Rainbow Dash and I are friends, and that you didn’t have to yell at her. I understand you were probably just trying to help, and I appreciate that, so I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m not very thankful, but it’s really okay.

-Fluttershy


Whether or not they stood before a city was something Rainbow Dash really couldn’t decide on. They passed between two large trees with branches that drooped so low, Rainbow Dash had to duck to pass them by. Once through, the last few drops of rain fell upon what Phoreni called the Grove, and if nothing else, Dash had to agree that they’d definitely arrived somewhere.

They stood upon the top of a slope, its edges curving inwards suggesting an immense bowl-shape, but Dash couldn’t tell for sure. The lip of the slope was densely vegetated, creating a wall they’d just passed through, a contrast to the more sparse forest floor beyond. Their path, and many like it, went from the green wall down into the relative darkness where trees grew even larger, thicker and taller to counter the drop of the slope, keeping the canopy above unbroken and even.

Though most of the thick trunks studding the slope had their lower halves free of branches, it was hard to see far: the trees were anything but bare. Faint, ephemeral light was cast upon the Grove by luminescent reds, blues, greens and pinks from plant-life clinging to trees and branches. On platforms built onto the trees and in their branches lived the Ephydoerans.

Huge platforms in dark wood jutted from the trees, some circling the entirety of a tree-trunk, and many of them not looking built into so much as grown from the trees, wood entirely too flat and smooth to be… carpented? Woodworked? Built. A few of the platforms had wooden supports and some had bridges spanning the gaps, but the vast majority of what Rainbow Dash could see were solitary platforms with simple roofs. Ephydoerans flew to and fro these platforms with purpose, gliding down to the ground or flying in great big circles up from the forest floor.

Someone gasped when they pushed through the wall behind Dash, and Rainbow Dash was fairly confident it hadn’t been her. She made an effort to follow Phoreni and to drag her friends with her. Well, her friend, Rarity, and possibly her girlfriend, Fluttershy? She shook her head and grinned. She liked the thought of it, even if Fluttershy wanted to “talk about it”.

“My home is in the third middle circle,” said Phoreni. Dash still looked up, barely avoiding a collision when Phoreni stopped. Where had the other peryton in their escort gone? She must have dismissed them. “Second blue gleam from top of twelfth on the warm side. You will find me there. I will go announce your arrival to the High Warden and ask if she will see you, ponies of Equestria. The evening is still young.”

“Sure,” said Dash, agreeing with whatever Phoreni had said. Down the slope, the lights were even brighter, owing in part to the contrast with the darker forest floor, but also due to some sharper points of light that couldn’t be plants. The path they followed became indistinct, but there was precious little vegetation in this place outside of low grasses and some flowers. Plants and mushrooms mostly nestled among the roots.

Rainbow Dash kept thinking back to Twilight’s library. Not far ahead, where the trees reached a certain size, there were buildings in and around the roots of the trees, too. The tree-house library would fit in perfectly with all the other stuff built or carved into the trees on the ground level. Further in, nearly every single tree showed signs of population, peryton milling about. Many of them looked young, some carried small bags slung around their necks, and a couple carried radiant lanterns that were clearly not guested by fireflies.

“Um, actually, one more thing,” said Fluttershy, just as Phoreni spread her wings and her horns took on a soft glow. Dash jerked her eyes away from the chaos around them. So many of the peryton were flying compared to the other cities. Rarity stared off into the distance still, while Phoreni tilted her head in question.

“I’m sorry to keep you, but do you know if there are any places we might sleep?” Fluttershy asked.

“Oh yeah,” said Dash. As awesome everything around them was, she had no idea what she was actually looking at. “Do you have any hotels? Motels? Inns? Or I guess you call them resting houses?”

“And while we’re at it, are any of these shops and boutiques?” asked Rarity, gesturing towards the nearby doors, portals and obviously well-kept glowing mosses that populated the roots of a massive tree. A few peryton stood around one of the doorways. Now Rainbow Dash noticed that most of the peryton were unpainted, in more familiar natural colours.

“More questions. That is natural, and I am unthinking. You have no place to rest.” Phoreni let out her breath slowly. “We have no place for you. There is the communal nest, but that would not be fitting. You may sleep in my nest, but there is little space for so many. You will have to sleep on the floor. Are your bodies hard enough for this?”

Dash shrugged. “It’s better than nothing, right?”

Rarity nodded and put on a smile, though Dash could tell she wasn’t happy with the prospect. “Oh, of course, and you are very kind to offer.”

Phoreni pointed up and ahead, to a cluster of tall trees nearly lost amidst the others. They were a little thinner than the rest, though still absurdly thick compared to anything but the largest oaks of the Everfree. Right below where their branches spread to join the thick canopy far above, through the washed-out mess of colours, a number of small wooden constructs were only barely visible, built on top of half-formed branches that grew leaf-shaped out from the trunk itself.

“There,” she said. “You will find it. Second blue from the top of the twelfth. I said this earlier.”

The ponies looked at each other, exchanging nonplussed looks. Dash spread her wings, thinking to fly up and see if she could make sense of it up close, at least.

She immediately regretted it. Her joints burned the moment she tried to unfurl her wings, and she sucked in breath, trying to keep quiet so nopony would notice. Right. Wings. I knew that. She looked away and closed her eyes tight for a second.

“Hey, yeah, so, that’s great,” Dash said after a few deep breaths. “But, uh, flying Rarity around everywhere is going to get really… uh, old. There’s not a lot of ways to get between places up there without flying, huh? Don’t you have any place we can crash down here?”

Rarity frowned at Rainbow Dash, but it was short-lived. “What she says is right, quite frankly. Are all your houses up in the trees?”

“Most,” said Phoreni. “Again I do not think. One of your number cannot fly. Our houses are tree-bound, as are the proving grounds and the exalted places, but down here, you will find necessities.”

Phoreni nodded her antlers to a nearby door set in a thick trunk. The bark had been removed around the doorway to make room for elaborate carvings lit up by a bright red lantern. Simple yet elegant sculptures of peryton and abstract symbols lined the ground around the door.

“A woodcarver, a storyteller. There—” she pointed to the bright and busy cluster or doors and tree-house windows Rainbow Dash had noted earlier. “—are trades and simple paints, and a brush-height drinking house. Far down the path, to the left, if you see all the young feathers playing between the trees, that is one of our rearing grounds where the flightless learn. There is life down here, too, and much of it. Half of life is brush-bound, half is not.”

Fluttershy smiled. “We can ask if they have someplace we can stay at the… drinking house, you called it? If they are some kind of inn, maybe they have rooms?”

Phoreni shook her head. “There is no reason for a drinking house to have nests for others to rest in, and its tender will nest above, as do most. I have a better idea if resting on the ground does not offend.”

“Why would sleeping on the ground be offensive?” asked Rarity.

“Because when you have wings, why would you not use them?” Phoreni retorted, to which Dash automatically nodded her agreement. “This way, follow. I have a solution that will suit even those who are unlucky and without wings,” she added, leading the way down the path.

“Unlucky, is it?” Rarity muttered. She sighed and shook her head as Dash led the three to follow in Phoreni’s wake.

Fluttershy glanced over at Rarity and walked a little closer, brushing against her. “Oh Rarity, you’re not offended, are you?”

“By what?” Dash asked. “What would she be offended by?”

Rarity rolled her eyes and lowered her voice further. “Come now. I can deal with her manners being a little rough, but I feel as out of place as I would in Cloudsdale without being able to fly. You’ll take me up there later if there’s anything to see, Rainbow Dash, won’t you dear?”

“Heh, sure, no problem,” said Dash, feigning interest in the tree-house they passed by. The tree-house, as it turned out, returned that interest tenfold—specifically, the peryton near it did. A group of young peryton, barely bigger than pony fillies, played outside. They jumped from low branches and glided to the ground while a large, unpainted stag watched from a doorway. The smell or rich food wafted from inside and Scarlett let out a sharp burst of song.

The younglings’ games halted at the sound, noticing the ponies walking by. No less than twenty of the fluffy feathered things pointed at them, and in a chorus of caws and trills, they all ran up to hide behind the cover of the roots that sketched their playground-sized pen. Rainbow Dash grinned and pretended not to see the rows of tiny nubby antlers and eyes peering over the rim of the roots and hidden in the grasses. She heard Fluttershy giggle at her side as they walked on. None of the young peryton left the safety of their hiding spots, but Dash heard shouts once they passed from view.

“My father has a brother,” said Phoreni over her shoulder. “His name is Mennau. When he is not in the far northwestern reaches attending as one who wards, his is a trade that takes bronze, favour or goodwill for shaving.”

“Shaving?” Rarity echoed.

“What kind of shaving?” asked Fluttershy.

“Stories. Declarations. You must have noticed,” Phoreni said. She slowed down a little to walk at the ponies’ side. She didn’t stop, but indicated the patterns in the side of her coat with a wing while she led them further down the slope. Trees grew larger, lights brightened a little, and more peryton moved about. They caught a few stares, some comments Dash couldn’t make out, and many a pointed hoof.

The attention took on a different character from all they had experienced yet. The friendly looks of the Ortosians seeking contact had little in common with the vague disinterest of the Stagrumites, and neither of those had anything in common with the open and unafraid stares of the adult Ephydoerans.

“—no meaning by itself?” Rarity said. The other three were talking, and whatever they’d said, Dash had missed it.

“They have meaning depending on what we attribute to them,” Phoreni said.

“What about the large symbol on your haunch in particular?” Fluttershy asked. “I think I’ve seen that one on some of the trees, and on some of the other peryton here—the one that looks like a mountain, or a sharp triangle.”

Rainbow Dash cocked a brow. They were still talking about their flank-marks. On their peryton escort’s upper haunch, partially hidden by her wing, was the symbol they had seen on a tree during last night’s rest: A spike outlined in what Dash guessed was a flame, shaved into her coat in stylized lines and curves. Did the other peryton have that one too? She hadn’t noticed.

“This one?” Phoreni asked, gesturing with her antlers. “Helesseia, of course—” she paused and frowned, her steely demeanour broken for a moment. “—or, is that obvious to you? I do not think it is. She is the fire within and the fire without. The Aspect of burning passion, of strength but… how would one best say it simply? Of restraint. Her stories guide us in our vigil.”

“So that’s your thing, huh?” asked Dash. This bit, at least, made sense to her. “Like Orto has, uh, which one was it—”

“Myrtella,” supplied Rarity.

“—Myrtella, and like Stagrum has Phostos, you’re all about this ‘Helesseia’?”

Phoreni glanced at Rainbow Dash. “Is it ‘like’ their relationship with other Aspects? I can not say. One thing is not like another.”

“Sure, not exactly like,” Dash said. “Just… kinda like?”

“One thing is not like another,” Phoreni repeated, turning right to follow the curve of a tree serving as some sort of eatery, large groups of peryton taking meals on simple tables scattered around it, chatting and eating noisily.

Dash snorted. “Yeah, you said that, but if it’s kinda like the way Ortosians like Myrtella, then it’s a ‘yes’, and if it isn’t at all like it, then it’s a ‘no’. You know what I mean, you don’t have to be difficult.”

Phoreni stopped in a quiet spot between two trees particularly close together. There was no path here. They’d walked on low undergrowth for a while now. The peryton turned to face Dash.

“Two things that are not the same, are not the same,” Phoreni said, her voice low but sharp. She looked… something. Frustrated? It reminded Rainbow Dash of Twilight’s face when she’d said something the unicorn knew was wrong, but Twilight couldn’t correct her on without doing a lot of thinking or research.

“Yeah, duh?” said Dash, shrugging.

“I’m sorry,” said Rarity, smiling at Phoreni. “Rainbow Dash can be a little—”

“Hey!” Dash snapped.

“—direct, which is fine, do have a little faith dear,” Rarity added, shooting Dash a quick frown. “In Equestria, that is not a problem. Usually. What is the matter?”

“Is there a problem? Have I been wounded?” asked Phoreni. “I have not, but you must understand. When you ask for, when you demand... absolutes, you may call them, you destroy any room for things to change. Using those two words, it is not very common. With them, there can be no nuance.”

“What, okay, what’d I say?” asked Dash. “I don’t get it. Which two words?”

“‘Yes’ and ‘no’?” Fluttershy suggested.

“You can’t say yes or no? Okay, that’s weird,” said Dash. “I don’t—”

Phoreni shook her head and shifted her stance a bit, digging her hind-claws into the ground. “We can say the words, of course. Listen. Yes, no. See? The words are easily spoken, but when you use them, you land the argument and clip its wings, never to take off again. This is the issue.”

“Alright,” said Dash, scratching at her snout. “I still don’t get it.”

“You can at least make an effort—” Rarity began.

“Well, yeah,” said Dash, pulling at the cart. There weren’t a whole lot of options on which way to go. She set them moving forwards between the trees. “I don’t have to know why. I’ll try not to say it. Happy?”

“I spoke hoping to avoid conflict, not to cause it,” said Phoreni with a small sigh. “Kin from the other cities do not always understand, either. You may use the words as you wish, of course. They are not forbidden. Just know that they may be considered rude. This rudeness I can abide from a stranger, but demanding of another to use them, to choose between two absolutes, this will cause anger.”

Dash nodded, flicking her ears. “Right. Now I know. Got it.”

It was a ten, maybe fifteen minutes’ walk. Rather than take them deeper down the slope—where Dash could see great rocks and stone formations mingling with the flora—Phoreni led them along the curving slope, passing by countless traders, eateries, and just about every other kind of place you’d find in the middle of a regular town—except it was all trees. The light slowly changed, and though she couldn’t see, Dash knew that the clouds thinned and broke up, trading the grey clouds for the dark blue of a late evening sky.

Phoreni halted them outside an unremarkable, unpainted door set in a wide trunk that shot off into the canopy above. Two shuttered windows betrayed a second floor to whatever lay inside, and there were no other doors in this particular tree. The tree opposite sported multiple windows and doors and stood equally closed and silent.

“Mennau will not be back for weeks,” said Phoreni, making for the door. “You may have this. Mine is his, and his is yours, if you will be gentle before greedy or reckless.”

“I really only think we need a place to sleep,” said Fluttershy, smiling at the doe. “It’s very generous of you to offer. Thank you ever so much.”

Phoreni nodded by way of reply. She gave the peryton-sized door a push, and it creaked as it swung open, letting the group of four slip inside into the darkness. Rainbow Dash left the cart outside, and Rarity gave them light, bathing the room in a soft, blue-white glow.

The main chamber was dusty and disused, entirely hollowed out from the inside of the tree-trunk, with a high ceiling and fairly generous space. A weird bench, too thin for even a pony, stood near the door, and numerous small tools Dash couldn’t recognise hung on the wall next to a wooden bucket. The rest of the room was taken up by a kitchen with a small stone firepit, a tiny mushroom garden behind some wooden screens, and under an empty lamp of some kind stood a table that would easily seat four.

All this was contained within a single room given no doors, but on the far side, a large gap in the ceiling betrayed a balcony above. Rather than stairs, the gap provided space for even the large and clumsy peryton to fly up to its landing. Or a tiny bird, as Scarlett proved, tiny wings sending her from Fluttershy’s head, into the room and up and out of sight. Distant, muffled and contented peeping noises suggested something up there delighted her.

“And this uncle of yours, he… shaves these symbols and such into your flanks for a living?” Rarity asked. She stood by the bucket and the metal tools, eyeing them critically. Without letting her light drop, she magicked over what looked like a small metal potato peeler.

“‘For a living’? He wards. Shaving, he does as a service, I think is the better term. He has elected to take on the paint, and that is his chief concern.”

“So then he’s an amateur artist. Does he compete with professionals?” Rarity asked, raising a brow.

“Rarity, what the hay are you getting at?” asked Dash, chuckling. “He’s letting us stay at his house. Or, uh, she’s letting us stay at his house, but you don’t have to… actually I have no idea what you’re doing.” Her laughter petered out. Fluttershy gave Rarity an odd look as well.

“I’m asking because I’m curious if he’s an artist, dear,” said Rarity. The unicorn put the tool back in place and smiled at Phoreni. “I mean no offence, and if you are in a hurry, don’t feel compelled to indulge me. This is a lovely place.”

Phoreni glanced at the tool rack, then back at Rarity. “You ask if he is professional. You mean, are there those who do his job, and only his job? Not that I know of. Any who have a claim to some vision can perform shaving craft. Some have none in their family who do it. Those will seek out generous peryton such as Mennau. He minds the story I carry with me, carves my coat to my liking as I decide what I wish told.”

Rainbow Dash trotted to the back of the room, trying to get a good look at the second floor. She reared up on her hindlegs, but there was no way to tell without flying up, and she knew better than to try. When she noticed—or felt, rather—Fluttershy’s eyes upon her, she feigned interest in the stuff near her, pretending she’d never wanted to fly up there in the first place. Are these real mushrooms? Are those cobwebs? Super interesting, yep.

“Well, even if it is just a hobby or what-have-you, why does he use these tools?” asked Rarity, indicating the tool rack and the bucket. “These look to be designed for mouth-grasping. Why not use magic? Does he—oh, dear, have I put my hooves in my mouth? Does he not have magic? Was there some accident? It’s just that every other peryton we’ve seen has been able to do magic, and—”

“He has not lost the magic of his antlers,” Phoreni interrupted, holding up a hoof to forestall Rarity’s spiralling ramble. “But using magic for such things is a waste.”

That got Dash’s attention. Their horns glowed when they flew. They clearly used magic, but she hadn’t seen exactly what they used it for. She looked over at the still-open door, and it had a proper door handle that could be pushed by hoof.

“Using magic for art is a waste? Well, that’s… certainly an opinion,” said Rarity, frowning deeply.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why is that?” asked Fluttershy. “I haven’t seen you use any magic. Your luminescent flora is lovely, but you don’t use magical light?”

“Well, now that you mention it,” said Rarity, her head tilted sideways. “None of the peryton eating at the restaurants used utensils or any form of magic as they ate, either. Do you not use your magic at all?”

“They do when they fly,” said Dash. “Don’t you know how to pick stuff up with magic?” She blinked and looked over at Rarity, never having really thought about whether or not all unicorns could do that. “Is it like… a thing you can not know how to do?”

“I don’t know that there is a unicorn of age who cannot, but the other cities were clearly built for magic.” Rarity crossed her forelegs and leaned against the bench, deep in thought for all of a second before she drew breath and gave Phoreni a muted smile. “We are probably being very rude by putting words in your mouth again, dreadfully sorry.”

To Rainbow Dash, Phoreni didn’t look very insulted. She had her usual complete lack of expression, and if she was anything to go by, the Ephydoerans were a little weird like that. Phoreni appeared to just listen, stood by the doorway a little apart from the ponies. She sounded a little tired when she spoke, though.

“You are travellers whose steps resound with Selyria’s name. I am not. You speak of these things that are new to you, but they are not new to me, and I can not make myself understand the wonder as you feel it. I cannot easily understand the difficulty of understanding—I was not raised to answer questions, and I have no children to teach me how.”

The stone-faced peryton rolled her jaw and stretched her neck from side to side. “A trader from Orto once asked me similar questions. He had heard our magic was taken. I think most born in other cities know this, but he wished to know why. He did not leave pleased with the answers given.”

“Uh, okay?” tried Dash. “What did you tell him? I didn’t get half of what you just said.”

“I ward. I do not think as well as some, and presenting my thoughts through speech is not among my gifts, so instead, I will do this.” She gave a brief, strained smile, moving away from the door and further into the room.

The ponies gave her some space, and Phoreni spread her wings slowly and deliberately. At first, Dash felt her own wings itch in a pang of envy, but it rapidly transformed into wonder as the peryton’s antlers started glowing. As if in response to the magic, the wing-joints glowed as well, and so did her hooves and her hind-claws, the peryton lighting up in the relative darkness of the room.

Phoreni stretched her wings out in full, drew herself up, and looked at them each in turn, her presence and her body presented as the explanation.

“I know that magic can be used to do much. I do not… blame those who do other things. I do not judge. Ephydoera is not in the habit of judging, but our magic is for our bodies, and our bodies alone.” She bowed her head low, folded her left wing and pointed the right wing straight up. The move looked too practiced, too graceful on the warrior-creature to be random, like a dance move that Phoreni had performed a thousand times. Neither Rainbow Dash, nor Fluttershy or Rarity said a word, the room utterly silent until Dash’s brain caught up and she considered the words rather than just stare at the wings.

“Wait, hang on, you use all your magic for your wings and your legs? Is that why you guys fly so much—well, more than the other peryton? How?” Dash asked. She didn’t ask why. It made perfect sense. If she had a horn, and there was a way to use it to get better at flying rather than do the dishes or whatever, why wouldn’t—”Whoa, hang on, do you guys think the Princesses can use their magic to fly faster?”

Fluttershy blinked. Rarity stared at her.

“Darling, that may be the least relevant and interesting question possible. No offence,” said Rarity.

“Hey, none taken, and you’re wrong,” said Dash, shrugging.

“Um, should we… leave? Are you okay? Are we interrupting?” asked Fluttershy, leaning a little closer to the frozen peryton.

Phoreni reversed her move perfectly, spreading the folded wing as she lowered the other, furling them so neat she didn’t even need to rustle and shrug them into place.

“You asked a question, and I hope it has been answered,” said Phoreni. “Would we fly as we do without our magic? We would not. Glandros’ stories teach us that as the body soars, so will the spirit. The stronger we are, the faster we are, we are exalted. And so, our magic is put to that use.”

Dash nodded for lack of anything else to do. Now, the Ephydoerans made sense to her. If they all wanted to be as fast and as strong as they could possibly be, she would be the last one to argue. Maybe that meant they could get a proper meal without freakishly large portions meant to be cut up by unicorn utensils, too.

“Well, thank you for explaining that to us,” said Fluttershy, smiling at her. “I understood it, I think, and if that’s what you want to use your magic for, then good for you.”

Phoreni nodded sharply. “If you are satisfied for the moment, I will leave to see the High Warden. We will speak again, as I own your visit.” She made for the door, but paused at the threshold to look back at the ponies, tilting her head to one side. “Please do—hm. You may do what it is you are here to do, but I have explained that visitors to the Grove are not common. We do not balk at doing what is not done, but I ask you do not make me regret speaking up for you.”


Rainbow Dash stood by the door and watched Phoreni go. After a short run to build up speed, the peryton leapt off the ground and spread her wings, taking off to gain height by flying in large circles around the trees of the Grove. Compared to the flying she’d seen in Orto and in Stagrum, the magically augmented flier was definitely impressive, but she wasn’t exactly graceful. For all her speed, she didn’t pull any tricks, but Dash couldn’t deny that the wingbeats looked strong.

“She said we’re free to do ‘what it is we are here to do’,” said Rarity behind her. “I don’t know what we can do while we wait for her to contact their mayor. Well, ‘High Warden’, as they call her here.”

“We probably want to ask Phoreni about the road ahead,” said Fluttershy. “She seems to know a lot about the forest, but if the storm could hit any day now, we probably have to wait until it passes anyway. Khaird would be happy to know we’ll spend some time here.” She moved past Rainbow Dash and dragged their cart to the side of the door, grabbing all three of their saddlebags and starting the work of moving their stuff inside.

“I guess it could be worse,” Fluttershy continued. “Though if I had to choose, I think I’d like to be back in Orto right now.” She smiled at the floor, at nothing and no-one.

Rainbow Dash could all but hear the final words she didn’t say. Or back home at my cottage. Again, she idly wondered if Fluttershy would’ve stayed home if Rainbow Dash hadn’t decided to go. She puffed out her cheeks and shrugged.

“Yeah, I don’t know. We’ve been running all over the place, I don’t mind kicking back and hanging out for a bit. Just, maybe not with Phoreni all the time,” she said. She grinned at Fluttershy, hoping for some support, but the other pegasus didn’t look at her.

“Rainbow Dash!” said Rarity, glaring at her. “Phoreni has been nothing but helpful, and sure, she was a little brusque, but I know a good heart when I see one.”

Dash huffed. “Jeez, I’m not saying she’s not great, I’m just saying she’s not a lot of fun. It’s about as fun as hanging out with the Royal Equestrian Guard.” She grinned at Fluttershy, but the other pegasus didn’t laugh or even smile, still studiously avoiding looking at her.

“I think she had a lot of interesting things to say, really,” said Fluttershy, pointing to Rarity’s supply chest. “Rainbow Dash? Could you help me with the chest?”

“I happen to agree,” said Rarity while Dash moved to Fluttershy’s side. “Communicating may be a bit of a challenge, but I think she’s sold herself short with all this self-deprecation. She tries her best to explain, I feel.”

“Hey, Rarity. Do you think the leader guy who tried to stop us on the road has a ‘good heart’ too?” asked Dash, snickering. Once the pegasi had the chest sequestered inside, she opened their food box, and found that the only stuff they had left were a few kelp cakes and some of the treats Rarity liked. She grabbed a bite. “‘Cauhf’ ahm’ finking ‘no’”, she added.

“I’m sure he had his reasons,” said Fluttershy.

“Yes, I’m sure, and according to Phoreni, that ‘reason’ was laziness or unwillingness to take responsibility for us,” said Rarity affably. She waved a hoof. “Regardless, you have a point with what you said a moment ago. We have been stressing a lot, even after your… concessions.”

“Concessions?” Dash echoed, tossing the last of their stuff on the pile. She pushed the cart out of the way and stepped back inside.

“Slowing down our travel for my benefit,” said Rarity, shaking her head.

“Oh come on, are you still on that?” said Dash. “Walking around in that heat was stupid. Sure, we all wanna get this done, but we’re not gonna get anyone hurt. Besides, we’re travelling smarter, not slower, and smart can be fast!”

Fluttershy frowned ever so slightly, nodding with conviction.

“I didn’t mean to re-open any wounds, dear,” said Rarity, sighing. She raised her head and brightened the light from her horn ever so slightly, peering around at the room. “Hmh. This place is a little more claustrophobic than Twilight’s house, and a lot messier. I don’t even know how their light works. Did you see any fireflies out?”

“No, but it has been raining,” said Fluttershy. “They have lanterns and lights, but I don’t think they use any form of insects. We know they don’t use magic either, so I don’t know, I’m sorry.”

“Well, that’s one more mystery for us,” said Rarity. She looked straight up as though she could see through the ceiling to the second floor balcony, and the light of her horn shifted. “That, and finding a comfortable place in here to sleep. Perhaps the floor above is clean, unlike this place—and unlike us.” She held up a foreleg, inspecting it critically. The rain had helped a little, but they were all still flecked with dried or drying mud. “We really should find out what’s up there. Beds, I imagine.”

“Uh, maybe,” said Dash, hoping very much Rarity wouldn’t ask her to check. “Hey, now that Phoreni’s gone, actually, d’you wanna ‘talk’ or whatever?” she asked, looking over at Fluttershy. The very word still annoyed her, but clearly they needed to do something. Fluttershy had acted a little odd ever since Phoreni left. Fluttershy took a deep breath, but before she could even reply, Rarity rounded on them.

“Also, that! Yes!” Rarity said, pointing a dire hoof at them, her voice almost painfully high-pitched. “You two! What ever happened during that scuffle with the hydra? We will do nothing until you explain to me exactly what is going on!”

“I… don’t actually know if I can explain,” said Fluttershy. She puffed out her cheeks, finally looking over at Rainbow Dash.

“Pft, like it’s complicated,” said Rainbow Dash, smiling back at Fluttershy until it kindled the beginnings of a smile in Fluttershy as well.

“First I jam my hooves all in my mouth by misunderstanding what’s going on between the two of you—or rather, what wasn’t,” Rarity said. She took a step forwards, her head at a tilt. “And now the two of you are discussing romance? I am very, very confused. I feel I have to ask, as a friend to you both, what exactly is going on? Rainbow Dash, is this some prank, or are you quite serious?”

“Oh come on,” said Dash. “Why do you ask that? Why do both of you ask that? Do you seriously think I’d prank someone—” she paused, rolled her eyes and groaned. “Okay, maybe I could have, but I’m not,” she said, glowering.

Fluttershy chewed on her bottom lip. “I don’t know what’s really ‘going on’, exactly. We were going to go talk about it, but I guess… Rainbow Dash wants to try?”

“Yep! We should totally give it a go,” said Dash. Go. She loved that word. Dash bumped her flank against Fluttershy’s, earning an eep and a confused look.

“And you?” Rarity asked. “You never told me you’ve shown an interest, Fluttershy,” Rarity said, frowning at the pegasus in question. Fluttershy dipped her head low and smiled.

“I’m sorry. I don’t really—or, I didn’t really think it mattered,” Fluttershy said.

Rarity exhaled slowly, touching a hoof to her temple. “I see. Well then. Between monsters and the stress of getting settled, there really hasn’t been much space for anything today. If the two of you need some time to yourselves, how about you attend that while I find some water and a way to clean up. When you come back, we’ll see about setting your coats and manes right as well. Again. Hopefully, you’ll agree on where you stand by then.”

“Wait, don’t we agree?” Dash asked, tilting her head.

“I… don’t think we disagree, but we should probably still talk,” Fluttershy suggested.

“Truly, the two of you are paragons of romantic expression,” Rarity said, smiling and shaking her head. “Go sort this out.”

“Romance schmomance,” said Dash with a snort. The word annoyed her almost as much as ‘talking’ did. “Let’s find somewhere else to hang for a bit.”

Fluttershy nodded in return, smiling with obvious trepidation. “I think that would be nice, yes.” She’d no sooner spoken than a tiny red missile zoomed down from the balcony above, landing with expert precision on top of her head. Fluttershy giggled and shook her head. “Scarlett, I think it’d be very nice if you could let us be alone this time.”

Peep.

“Yes. Just this once, please. You can keep Rarity company. You’ll take good care of each other, won’t you?” Fluttershy replied. She laughed when Scarlett hopped over and sat down on top of Rarity’s head instead. Rarity herself didn’t look half as amused.

“You may stay for now, but after I clean up, my head is off limits, just so we are clear,” the unicorn said, glaring cross-eyed at the bird before she turned back to the two pegasi. “You two take as long as you need, I’ll be—”

“Mennau! Your counsel?” came a voice from outside.

The ponies exchanged glances. Before any of them could mount a reply or comment, a peryton stuck its head inside.

“Mennau? Will you mark—ah. What is this?” the peryton asked. Rather than wait, they walked fully inside, uncomfortably crowding the entrance all by themselves, wings a little looser on their body now. With the paint covering their feathers and given neither particularly long or short tail-feathers, Dash had no idea whether it was a he or a she.

“Are we threatened?” They asked, leaning forwards a touch, long neck stretched towards the ponies.

“Threat? Sure, yeah,” said Dash, her eyes half-lidded. “We’re invading. Boo.”

“Maybe don’t say that,” said Fluttershy, her eyes widening a touch.

“Mennau is not here at the moment,” said Rarity, smiling brightly. “His niece, Phoreni, was ever so kind to let us borrow his house. May we help you?”

The peryton maintained their stoic demeanour impressively well. For a few moments, they looked back and forth between the ponies, from their faces to flanks to horns and wings. Dash tapped her hoof on the ground impatiently.

“I intended to ask his help with my markings, but I see now he is not here. If you are here, then your intent is peaceful, and if peace is in your hearts, I will ask no more of you,” said the peryton, turning to leave. Rarity craned her neck as they did so, staring at they peryton’s flank as it passed her by. Dash quirked a brow. The peryton didn’t look like Rarity’s type.

“Ah, a moment, please!” said Rarity, halting the visitor by the door.

“If your guesting here is marked by others, best you should speak with them,” said the peryton, looking back over their shoulder with their head tilted. “If I can help, I may, but I suspect I am of little use to you.”

“Perhaps,” Rarity allowed. “But maybe I can be of use to you.”


“Now, I hope you understand I do not mean any offence to your… ways if I make any mistakes,” said Rarity.

“Did I for a moment suspect you did? Your manner is inoffensive and unassuming,” replied the peryton. The doe—she had introduced herself moments ago—half lay, half stood inside the chamber, her right-side legs standing up to display one side to Rarity, and her left side at rest on the tall, thin bench.

Simple shapes were shorn into her side. Some odd trees and peryton script that Dash couldn’t read surrounded stylised icons, including a full set of burning antlers—a little bit like the symbol Phoreni had said belonged to this “Helesseia”, maybe? Whatever the case, where Phoreni’s markings had been clearly visible, this peryton’s tan skin was bare only in spots, cream and brown fur growing back instead to contrast with the colours of her camouflage.

“I am glad you think so,” said Rarity. “Now, you wish to have the patterns you’ve shaved into your side touched up, that is all?” She turned one of the shaving tools around in the grip of her magic, looking about as pleased as Pinkie Pie had been when Twilight had offered her a sugar-free treat last week—probably longer than last week. How long ago, Dash wondered?

“I had meant to ask for a few more shavings, but my first intent was this,” the doe said. When Rarity tossed the tool into the bucket, the peryton looked a touch worried. It was the first time Rainbow Dash had seen an Ephydoeran even the slightest bit concerned.

“Mennau fills the bucket with water, wets the coat, and shaves—”

“I understand, dear,” said Rarity. “But this is not some sort of sacred ritual, is that right?”

The doe nodded slowly. “It is not a sacred ritual, as those words mean little to me.”

“Good. Then all I need is my magic, if you don’t object to that.”

“I… do not object,” the doe said, still frowning ever so slightly. With a complete lack of subtlety, she stared at Rarity’s flank, then Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy’s. “It is clear your craft is excellent.”

“They’re not—” said Rarity.

“They’re—” began Fluttershy.

“Our—” Dash started to say. The three ponies looked at each other. Dash chuckled and shook her head, Fluttershy giggled, and Rarity smiled.

“They are not my designs, sadly,” Rarity concluded. “But thank you regardless.” She turned to Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. “This doesn’t change our plans, dears. If you two want to go get some air and spend some time together, I think I will be busy here for a moment. If this lovely lady is content to let me help with her decorations, then I can no more reject someone in need than I can withstand the temptation to try a form of artistic expression.”

“Are you sure?” asked Fluttershy, furrowing her brow.

“Of course! Go on, you two, figure this out so you can tell me whether or not I should be happy for you,” said Rarity, shooing the two pegasi away with a hoof. Scarlett scrambled for purchase as Rarity whipped her head around again, turning to her subject. “Now, tell me again what you wanted done. I don’t suppose you are open to some suggestions on your tail-feathers too?”

“Let’s leave her to it,” suggested Fluttershy, waving to the unicorn already lost in her work, and Rainbow Dash followed, happy to give Rarity some peace in case she suddenly decided she wanted to start shaving Dash’s coat as well.

“So, what would you like to do? Or, I guess, where would you like to go?” asked Fluttershy. The other pegasus smiled at her when they stopped a small ways outside, two ponies planted in the grass between titanic trees.

Rainbow Dash looked up at what tiny bits of sky were visible through the dense canopy above. What did she want to do? She didn’t know for sure, but doing had a far better ring to it than ‘talking’, and in that sense, Fluttershy had her in a better mood now than a minute ago. They could do a thing and talk.

“I don’t know, what do you want to do?” Dash returned, and she realised her own lie right after. She knew what she wanted to do: She wanted to spread her wings and check out what was up near the tree-tops, but she also knew that even just spreading her wings would be a bad idea. Something not flying, then. “Actually, hey, let’s go find some animals or something. We’re in a forest, how hard can it be, right?”

Fluttershy tilted her head. Her mane fell over her face, but when she tried to blow it away, it didn’t quite work out. The entire side of her mane stuck together as one mass. Dash grinned and reached out to part the bangs of Fluttershy’s mane, shaking loose some remnants of mostly-dried mud that glued it together. Fluttershy smiled her thanks, sitting down to tend her mane for a moment. Yesterday, that would’ve been a completely normal thing to do. Help a friend out. Right now, it made Dash’s ears itch pleasantly. What was up with that?

“That sounds lovely, really, but we did swim with the snickersnouts last week,” said Fluttershy. “Isn’t there anything you would like to do?”

Dash shrugged. “Like what? We don’t know anything about this place. We could go see what they do for fun, but eh, it’s probably all closed by now. Let’s just get out of the valley and see if we find something cool. Or as AJ would say, ‘go rootin’ ‘round fer var-meents’.”

Fluttershy giggled. “Rainbow Dash! That’s not very nice!”

“Bet you couldn’t even tell the difference,” Dash said, puffing out her chest. She managed to keep serious for about two seconds before she burst out laughing as well. “Okay, okay, that’s terrible, but I know she does impressions of me, too, so I don’t care. She does an awesome Twilight!”

Fluttershy stood up and shook her head, her laughter trailing off. Her mane fell about her head like it should, and after a brief look around, she started them up the slope.

“I guess we can look and see what we can find. I don’t think it’s a valley, though,” Fluttershy said. “Did you see the rocks near the bottom? And the way it curves? It might be a big crater of some kind.”

“Yeah, I thought it looked kinda like a bowl. Valley, bowl, crater. It’s the same thing,” said Dash, falling in step with her. Vaguely, she was aware that they passed a particularly busy tree of some kind, drawing a lot of attention from the local peryton, but her eyes and ears were elsewhere. “What kind of animals do you think they have here? We haven’t seen many critters at all. Did you check your book? Anything like flying squirrels? Falcons? Y’know, the cool stuff.”

Fluttershy glanced behind her. “Hm? Oh, no. The book isn’t really a guide to Perytonian animals. It’s just a really old encyclopedia about rare animals from other continents. When we find something, I can read about it in the book, that’s all.” She shook her head. “It’s not always helpful, either. I didn’t find anything about these ‘glare beasts’. I thought they might be cockatrices, but those are native to Equestria and the Everfree. There should be ferralopes all around, but I don’t know if this forest is dry enough for them.”

Rainbow Dash nodded along, grinning at the excitement in Fluttershy’s voice. “Eh, maybe we’ll find something anyway. We’ll just go for a walk I guess.”

Fluttershy nodded and smiled at that. She kept looking over at Rainbow Dash. First a glance, then another, and finally she stared outright.

“What? Something on my face?” asked Dash. She tossed her mane back, chuckling. “Or are you just enjoying the view?”

Fluttershy didn’t even blink. “Are you sure you don’t want to do something else? We’ve been walking a lot lately, so I understand if you want to do something more exciting than just go for a walk.”

“I said I wanted to go look at animals, didn’t I?” Dash asked. “I’m not kidding around.”

Fluttershy nodded again, pinning her ears back for a moment. Dash looked away to hide her frown. Maybe she’d sounded a little angrier than she meant to, but she was serious. About wanting to go see if they could find some animals. About going for a walk. About talking, and about Fluttershy. About everything. The fact that Rarity had second-guessed her too really annoyed her right now.

“I’m surprised Rarity agreed to help that doe,” said Fluttershy, yanking Dash back to the present. Dash shook her head and blinked.

“Wait, why is that surprising?” asked Dash.

“Do you think she would ever open her boutique with her mane like that, and with mud on her?” Fluttershy asked, giggling.

“Oh, wow. I didn’t even think about that,” Dash admitted, laughing with her. “I guess she’s so used to it by now, heh.” She looked down at her own legs. Her coat was brown up to her knees, and the tip of her tail was still muddy. Dried mud flaked off her even as they walked. With luck, Rarity would have some water ready for when they got back.

“I’m very glad we have her with us, though,” said Fluttershy, a little more quietly.

“Yeah,” said Dash with a smile. “Yeah, me too.” They slipped between two trees that stood close together. The slope grew steeper, and they passed a bare earthen circle with dozens of little wooden statues. They had stele fields here, too, then.

If it got a little darker when they left the lanterns of the last ground-level houses behind, the moonlight that spilled through the slightly sparser growth above made up for it. A trio of painted peryton flew overhead, circled them twice, and then moved on in silence. The ponies both followed them with their eyes until the fliers were out of sight.

“I know we keep talking about it,” said Fluttershy, lowering her eyes, “but these peryton are a little scary.”

Rainbow Dash didn’t say anything to that. She’d already decided she wasn’t scared by the Ephydoerans, but they sure were different from the other peryton. She kept walking.

“Did you hear what Phoreni said, by the way?” asked Fluttershy. “She said that even she had problems understanding someone from Orto or Stagrum, once.”

“Yeah. I heard,” said Dash, frowning at that. “That’s really weird, but Gilda told me about some really strange towns on their northern borders, really far away from their capital.” She snorted. “The Peryton’ve got to work like any other place, right? It’s probably just like that. The Griffon Kingdoms are as different from Equestria as any place could possibly be.”

Fluttershy nodded pensively. “When I first heard that the griffons call their princesses ‘king’ and ‘queen’ there, and that they’re not sister and brother, but actually, um, you know, together, I didn’t believe it at first,” she said with a laugh. “Even if they call their princess a ‘head consul’ here, it can’t be stranger than that. It’s probably just because their cities are really far apart.”

“Exactly,” said Rainbow Dash, nodding. “I don’t understand why they build their cities so far away from each other, though. I guess we could try to ask Phoreni, but jeez, none of the peryton are any good at explaining that sort of stuff. ‘Why don’t you hang out more’? I tried asking Mirossa that!”

Fluttershy nodded pensively. Finally they neared the top of the crater where the slope got even steeper, and again they were faced with a wall of vegetation.

Dash looked around for a second before she found a path that headed for, and then was swallowed up by the flora right next to a wooden pillar with Helesseia’s mark. She ducked through, and waited on the other side for Fluttershy, offering a hoof to pull the taller pegasus through the narrow gap. Fluttershy smiled and dipped her head in thanks, and Dash grinned back. That was the sort of stuff she was supposed to do if they were girlfriends, right? She’d have to try holding a door open, sometime. Rarity would be impressed.

“Oh goodness,” said Fluttershy, and not to Dash’s amazing manners.

“What?” asked Dash, but she had her answer once she looked around. The undergrowth was as thick and heavy and the trees as dense as any patch of the Everfree—she’d expected that, but she hadn’t expected that the Grove would disappear so swiftly. She stuck her head back through the bushes they’d just come through just to make sure there was no magic at work. Sure enough, the Grove was still there, but from the outside there was no way to tell they stood within spitting distance of a tree-house city.

“Okay. South,” said Dash. “We need to remember that it’s south and a little bit west.”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” said Fluttershy. “I can always fly up and check, but we probably shouldn’t go too far anyway,” she added, looking up at the tightly knit leaves and branches overhead with obvious skepticism. She’d said ‘I’, not ‘we’ or ‘you’. Obviously she knew that Dash was in no condition to fly. Fluttershy didn’t miss stuff like that.

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Dash agreed. “Hey, I think there’s a small hill over there. Maybe we can get higher up without flying.” She tried to smile at the idea. Like trying to get Applejack excited over pear pie.

The hill was everything but small. The green rise Dash had spotted between the trees kept going, and there was little room for small-talk as they climbed. The steeper it got, the more determined Dash was to climb it. Her wings would’ve been little use anyway; the growth was so dense, half the challenge came from pushing through the branches and bushes.

She expected Fluttershy to suggest they turn back, but the other pegasus kept her silence, and before long, they were up. The last branches Dash pushed aside were the very tops of trees, and the hill jutted clear over the forest’s canopy like a tiny green mountain.

Rainbow Dash reached down to offer Fluttershy a hoof up, but her eyes drifted. While she waited for Fluttershy to take her hoof, she looked all around and ahead. It had been nearly a full day since she’d last flown, and she hadn’t seen the topside of the Khosta since the glowing plants started making their appearance, making the sight more than a little surreal.

Looking around from right above the treetops where the forest was this dense, the pair stood in a sea of colour. In every direction, greens and blues were interspersed with faint light from groves of luminous plants. Above, the deep blue sky was cool and cloudless apart from the banks drifting out to sea far to the southeast.

“You can’t even see the Grove from here,” said Dash, gaping. “It’s right over there, but the trees are the same height—or, I mean… the trees are taller the deeper they root? Is that how you say it? Jeez, what made this—”

“What’s that?” Fluttershy asked. “Did you see that?”

“What, where?” asked Dash. Fluttershy pointed to the mountains to the west. Though still distant, they loomed larger than ever. Dash squinted at the rocky outlines that were barely visible under the half-moon. She was just about to ask what Fluttershy was on about when a flash of blue blinked in the distance, tiny and brief but bright enough to make Dash squint. “What is that?” she asked.

“I don’t know either,” Fluttershy whispered, but though they both watched until their eyes stung for fear of missing another light, the mountains stood grey and silent. At length, Fluttershy slowly turned in a circle, drinking in the rest of the forest. “This is beautiful, but I guess we took the hard way up.”

“Oh. Yeah,” said Dash, looking over to the far side of the hill, which, as it turned out, only had one steep side. The north face presented a natural ramp that disappeared into the trees. She shrugged and grinned. “Heh, that’s silly, but I don’t mind the workout.”

Maybe some of Fluttershy’s breathlessness came from the climb rather than the view, too, but she hadn’t said a word of complaint. Fluttershy made a noncommittal noise, still slowly turning on the spot. A gust of wind blew past the hilltop, ruffling their feathers.

“I didn’t realise it was so late,” said Fluttershy, finally tearing her eyes off the horizon. She walked towards the slope and leaned her head low to the ground as though she could peer underneath the canopy from here. Dash heard distant, muffled birdsong. “I don’t think we’ll find anything but a few bats now. If there are any ferralopes here, I wouldn’t want to disturb their sleep,” Fluttershy added.

“Why are there so few animals here, anyway?” asked Dash, moving to stand next to Fluttershy. “It can’t be just because they’re shy. Back home, I can’t get in your door sometimes because it’s so full of creatures.”

Fluttershy giggled. “Well, they’re friends, you know, and some animals really are very shy. All animals are a little scared of people they don’t know, and it’s hard to make friends when you’re moving all the time.”

“I guess, yeah,” said Rainbow Dash, sighing. Fluttershy looked at her, head tilted down and frowning with a mixture of concern and question. “What?” asked Dash, staring back.

Fluttershy shook her head. “I’m sorry, I was just thinking.”

“Thinking about what?” Dash asked.

“I don’t know, it just sounded like you were disappointed that there were no animals to greet us here.” Fluttershy smiled. “I mean, I know you don’t mind them unless they’re geese—”

“Of course I’m disappointed!” said Dash, stopping Fluttershy’s giggle short. She raised a brow. “It’s awesome to watch you around animals. You’re super confident when you’re surrounded by bears and whatever. That’s cool,” Dash said, her voice cracking. How could Fluttershy not get that? She puffed out her cheeks and sat down. “And there aren’t a bunch of bears here, so that’s annoying me a little, yeah.”

The confusion and apprehension slowly drained from Fluttershy’s face. She sat down next to Rainbow Dash, side by side with her. She only gave a tiny nod, but Dash knew there was a smile lurking beneath the surface. Things would be so much better if Fluttershy was as happy about everything as she was about animals, singing, and all the other stuff that couldn’t possibly make her sad for a second.

“So...” said Fluttershy.

“Yeah. Talking,” said Rainbow Dash. “You know what would be a lot easier than talking about this? If you could just grab me with a wing or something. I’d do it, but you know my wings are busted.”

She gave Fluttershy a second, but when the other pegasus didn’t do anything, Dash leaned over to poke Fluttershy under the wing with her snout, causing Fluttershy to yelp, extending her wing on reflex. Rainbow Dash gently bit onto the wingtip and draped herself in a yellow, feathery blanket just as warm as the heat of Fluttershy’s burning cheeks. It lasted all of two seconds before Fluttershy packed her wing away again, looking straight at her.

“Rainbow Dash, I’m serious! We really do need to talk,” Fluttershy said.

“Okay, okay, we’re talking!” said Rainbow Dash. “What’s the problem? I don’t even know what you want to talk about!”

Fluttershy chewed on her bottom lip. “You said you wanted to give this a try, to try going out, being together—but I don’t understand what you mean. I don’t understand how you can just say that.”

“Why? Because you don’t think I like you?” Dash asked.

Fluttershy exhaled loudly, staring straight back at her. “No. Or, maybe a little bit, but it’s not about… about confidence or anything like that.” She lowered her voice until it came out barely a whisper. “I don’t think you mean it as a prank, but it’s… very sudden. For both of us, I guess.”

Dash squinted, staring at her through narrowed eyes. “Yeah, but that’s not an answer. You don’t think I’m serious.”

Fluttershy opened her mouth to protest. Dash knew she would. But she also noticed the hitch, the half-a-second pause first. She held up a hoof and beat Fluttershy to it.

“I knew it!” she said. Her snout frumpled and she tensed up, shifting her weight where she sat, but she lost the wind under her wings before she got properly worked up, sinking down a tad. “Fine. I get it. You still don’t think I mean it. You know what? Maybe you could have been right, actually. You say you’re not me? Well, I’m not you. I don’t think about stuff all the time.” She sighed, putting her hoof down again.

“Maybe I wouldn’t always have asked you out—or wanted you to ask me out. Whatever we’re doing. Maybe you’re right.” Dash felt a little cold as the truth of her own words hit her. Fluttershy made a soft noise, but for the moment, Dash neither heard nor saw her. She wasn’t looking at anything in particular, just visiting at some old memories.

She hadn’t always been on Fluttershy’s team the way she was now. Friends? Always. But she had a lot of memories of herself and Fluttershy. Most of those, she wouldn’t trade for the world, but some, she’d like to forget. Some she couldn’t, some she wouldn’t. She knew there was a time she’d doubted Fluttershy. The memory of a certain climb up a mountain as recently as a few years ago tore at her.

It wasn’t the only recent memory, though. Things had changed.

“Do you—” Dash began to say, pausing to clear her throat when her voice cracked. She sighed and looked over at Fluttershy. “Do you remember earlier this summer?”

Fluttershy tilted her head.

“The Ponyville hurricane effort,” said Rainbow Dash. “The way you stood up for yourself.” She never wanted to forget that day. It wasn’t the only time Fluttershy had shown how strong she could be, nor was it the first time she’d stood up for herself or her friends. It just happened to be the first time Rainbow Dash really noticed. Thought about it.

A small nod.

“Yeah, well, that was awesome, and I meant what I said about you around animals, too,” she went on, louder, trying to force Fluttershy to understand. “Did you see yourself when we were playing with the snickersnouts? That was awesome, too. You are awesome, and you don’t get to say that I don’t think so.”

“Okay,” Fluttershy said. She leaned over. They sat close enough side to side that she put her head atop Dash’s, and Rainbow Dash felt the sigh more than she heard it, the other mare’s muzzle touching against the base of one of her ears. “But why now? How can you just suddenly say you want something… um, something… romantic?”

Rainbow Dash stared out past the hill onto the darkened forest. Unable to look at Fluttershy directly, she fixed her eyes on the distant mountains, hoping to see another one of the strange glimmers.

To her, it sounded like the same question again, the same doubt, and she was getting tired of repeating herself.

“Why not?” Dash asked, trying hard not to sound weary. “Because I didn’t think about it before you told me you liked me, I guess, but can we just roll with it? Or not? If you don’t believe me, fine. If you do, then hey, if you want to give it a go, let’s. If you don’t want to, then… we don’t?”

Fluttershy pulled back, looking down at her. She fidgeted with the tip of her mane. “If you’re okay with it either way, if you can… take it or leave it, I don’t know if we—”

“Oh my gosh, Fluttershy,” Dash said, rolling her eyes. “You know that’s not what I meant! I’m cool with it if you’ve changed your mind, and I can’t force you to say yes, but why can’t this just be simple?”

Fluttershy winced and nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Do I have to kiss you or do some other stupid unicorn thing to make you believe me?” Dash asked, frowning.

That broke Fluttershy’s funk. She burst out giggling in the middle of her backpedaling and apologising, looking away for a second. At length, she turned back to Rainbow Dash and sighed, smiling. “I’m sorry. I just don’t want things to get weird between us. I don’t want things to change—or, I mean, I do, but I don’t want to lose anything. I’m really happy with the way our friendship is right now, too. I’m more than just ‘fine’ with it, honestly.”

Rainbow Dash grunted, leaning to the side until her head hit Fluttershy’s neck, resting against the taller mare. “Fluttershy, I’ve known you for almost as long as I could fly. That’s basically all my life. The part of my life that matters, anyway. I’m not going to ditch my best gal-pal, no matter what happens, you know that.”

“I do know that,” Fluttershy murmured, resting her head on top of Dash’s. “And I’m not going to let anything ruin our friendship either. That’s important to me, and I won’t let that happen. I’m sorry.”

“And you don’t have to apologise!” Rainbow Dash laughed, rubbing her snout against Fluttershy’s neck.

“I know,” said Fluttershy again, sighing. “Sorry. I’m just still a little surprised, but if you really mean it, then I’m going to stop second-guessing myself. I’ll try at least. I just don’t know where we’re supposed to begin.”

“Don’t look at me. I don’t know the first thing about romance,” Dash admitted with a laugh. “I said you’re awesome, I didn’t say flowers were awesome.” Fluttershy giggled as well, and for a little while, neither of them said anything.

It was a little weird already, but probably not in a bad way? They’d been friends forever, and it wasn’t like Rainbow Dash hadn’t felt Fluttershy’s coat brush against hers before. It wasn’t like this was the first time she’d felt Fluttershy’s breath, but she couldn’t remember noticing her pulse against her ear where it lay pinned between them. Her ears felt pleasantly warm, and not just from the heat of Fluttershy’s body.

“So, uh,” Dash said.

She felt Fluttershy’s head shift on top of hers.

“Is this supposed to be awkward? I can’t tell if it is,” Dash admitted. “‘Cause we can sit like this a little longer. S’okay.”

“I don’t think I can tell either,” said Fluttershy. It sounded like she tried to laugh, but she brought a foreleg to her snout, and Dash heard her mask a sniffle. “I’m a little scared. I don’t know if that counts for anything,” she said.

“Well, don’t be,” Dash replied. What else could she say? They sat together in silence for another minute before Fluttershy spoke up again, this time with a nervous trace of laughter in her voice.

“You know, I think Rarity’s right. We’re probably not very good at being romantic at all. I don’t know what we do when we stop sitting like this.”

Dash shrugged as much as their hug allowed for. “Call each other girlfriends. Make fun of Rarity.” Fluttershy laughed at that, nuzzling into Dash’s mane. Dash grinned. “Seriously though, I dunno, we just hang out for a bit? You’re the one who’s been having a crush for a while, but if you don’t have any plans or whatever, how about… we don’t worry about it? I told you I’m not leaving you hanging.”

Fluttershy let go and drew back. The top of Dash’s head felt cold without her there. Fluttershy blushed ever so faintly, but she met Dash’s eyes, unwavering and glowing.

“Okay. I’ll try not to worry,” she said, nodding.

“Cool,” Dash said, smiling back at her. “Really though, you didn’t actually have a plan for what you wanted to do, right? Some creepy list? If Twilight has a crush on somepony, I bet she has one.”

Fluttershy shook her head, giggling. “No. Not at all. And sitting here with you right now is the only thing I’d write on a list if I had to.”

Now you’re getting sappy,” Dash said, laughing.

Fluttershy smiled at that. “Actually, there was something else I’ve wanted to ask you about for a while.”

“Yeah? Shoot,” said Dash.”

“I know you probably don’t want to talk about it, but I’m worried about your wings. Are you okay?”

Rainbow Dash grunted and nodded at that, staggering upright. She wanted to say she was fine and to leave it alone, but if she couldn’t be honest with Fluttershy about this, she couldn’t tell anyone, and besides, it’d be obvious soon enough. Fluttershy stood as well, leaning in close to look at Dash’s folded wing, her breath hot against the feathers.

“Did something happen during the fight with the hydra, or was it from the flight yesterday?” Fluttershy asked.

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath and slowly spread her left wing as much as she could manage. It ached every step of the way, and once it was halfway open, she had to stop. Despite her best efforts to school herself, her breath came in ragged hisses.

“I’ve got it, just be careful,” said Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash felt a hoof supporting her left wing, and she let it rest as much as she was able.

“I don’t know,” Dash said, grimacing. “I lost a few feathers here and there, I guess. Flying really hard through the rainstorm wasn’t the best, and I didn’t rest up or stretch or anything before I did a bunch of other stuff. Then we found the hydra. I was stupid,” she admitted. She closed her eyes and craned her head back as Fluttershy gently massaged the base of her wing with a hoof. One of her forelegs lifted off the ground on reflex. “Awh jeez that feels good, don’t stop!”

Fluttershy clucked her tongue and did, in fact, stop.

“Fluttershy!”

“If you lie down, I can help you with both your wings,” said Fluttershy. “Come on now. Let me help, and you’ll feel all better in the morning.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. Something in Fluttershy’s tone reminded her a little too much of the way she coaxed all her little animal friends, but the promise of a massage was entirely too tantalising. She was down on the ground before Fluttershy finished her sentence, and Fluttershy herself lay down next to her, nudging her wing half-open again with excruciating care. Her hooves were cold at first, but warmed up nice and quick.

“Thanks,” Dash murmured. She’d have to ask if massages were available on the regular now.

“Don’t mention it,” said Fluttershy, gently kneading circles right above Dash’s wing-joint with her hooves. “I’m glad to help.”

Rainbow Dash meant to reply to that, but she neither knew what she wanted to say, nor did she have the ability to say anything. She kept taking deep breaths and letting them out again, helpless under Fluttershy’s touch. She could probably never go to the Luxury Lotus Spa again. It would never feel as good as the wonderful, warm, soothing and divine hooves that knead her sore and abused muscles.

Dash sunk lower to the ground still, her head on her forelegs. The grass tickled her snout, and she turned her head halfway around so she could look at Fluttershy with one eye while she worked, and she found Fluttershy looking back at her, a serene smile on her face.

Clearly Fluttershy was happy, too, and in that moment, being two wings down didn’t bother Dash as much as it should. With her wings hurt, they couldn’t do anything on Rainbow Dash’s A-list of cool stuff, so they had to do something more up Fluttershy’s alley. Sure, the massage was a nice bonus, but more than that, Fluttershy’s happiness with going for a walk made Rainbow Dash happy, too.

In the same sense, even if it annoyed her that Fluttershy didn’t believe her at first, squashing Fluttershy’s doubts had felt good, too. Whatever doubt there had been in Fluttershy’s voice earlier was now gone. Rainbow Dash had fixed it.

A hoof ran gently along her first wing-joint. Another kneaded circles under her wing. Fluttershy worked in silence, and Dash dutifully lifted her other wing when Fluttershy moved to the opposite side. The only thing keeping her from dozing off was how much she wanted to be awake to enjoy it.

Instead of pushing Fluttershy herself, she’d simply pushed Fluttershy’s worries away.

When Fluttershy stopped and let go, Dash’s sides had gone pleasantly numb. She had to consciously resist the urge to test her wings, because for all that she knew it was a terrible idea, they didn’t constantly throb to remind her. Rainbow Dash stood up and stretched her legs, yawning. “Alright, I owe you one,” she said. “A big one.”

“Happy to help,” said Fluttershy, smiling back at her. “Hopefully you’ll be okay in a day or two. I’m sorry you worked so hard. I know how much flying means to you.”

“Sure,” said Dash with a forced smile, but she dropped the act after a second. Fluttershy was one of the few who actually did know how much this hurt her. “I can’t stand when this happens,” Dash added, sighing.

Fluttershy nodded softly, letting her wings hang loose. “Mhm. I remember last time. That was a while ago, thank goodness. You told me your mom used to sing the Cradle of Wind to you when you got hurt.”

“Yeah, heh.” Dash felt her cheeks heat up. “I was probably overtired. Or had too much cider or something. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter, I’ll be up in the air again soon.”

“I’m sure,” said Fluttershy, nodding quickly. Another gust of wind rolled over the treetops, sending their manes and tails out straight behind them. It carried a chill with it, and the sky above was as dark as it would ever get. Fluttershy looked from Rainbow Dash’s mud-streaked legs and up to her wings again, pointing with a hoof. “Your wings could probably still use some cleaning and preening, too. I could help you with that if you want.”

“Heh, they’re a mess,” agreed Dash. Mud, feathers out of alignment or outright missing, the last fight had taken its toll. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll fix it later.”

Fluttershy nibbled her bottom lip. “Are you sure? I don’t mind.”

“Nah,” said Rainbow Dash, shaking her head. She considered it, but Fluttershy was happy right now. She didn’t like the idea of ruining that by risking her doing a poor job of preening or anything, or if she didn’t actually want to do it. “I got it, but thanks. We should probably go check on Rarity.”