• 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 20

There comes a time in a mare’s life when one declares ‘never have I been this frustrated before in my life’. Never mind earlier today, or last week, or any of the other times I may have said this: I have never been this frustrated before.

Every time I’m part-way into designing something I think wonderfully combines form and function, whenever I find a stunning way to blend common peryton colours with wing holes, ways to part cloth around their tail-feathers, or reach some revelation on how the presence of antlers and their shapes may influence geometry use—every time, I stop and realise that they are still dresses, forced to discard my work.

Yes, I am a fashionista, and if something can be considered fashionable by anyone of note, I have duty and an obligation to know and master it. When Salad Fork somehow managed to make those awful little ear-clips in vogue, I had to figure out how to incorporate them into my work. But first and foremost? I am a dressmaker. I make dresses. I brought supplies to make—

I’ve made my point, and made my source of frustration clear. I sit down to enjoy the challenge of producing these designs only to throw them away because Perytonia and dresses don’t mix.

My purpose here in Perytonia is to dazzle their princess-person with my designs, but if it cannot be done with a dress? Or rather, if it is not to be a dress...

I need to think. My brief foray into accessorizing in Ephydoera yielded nothing, either, but there is, there must be a path to this ceremony that waits for me in Cotronna, the crowning moment that will surely make up for all this horridness. Perhaps I am not taking enough creative liberties. Or perhaps this is less a process of creativity, less about my own vision.

Those words do not sit well with me, but perhaps it is the only way.

I would ask Fluttershy or Rainbow Dash for some input, honestly, but I understand if the two of them wish to spend some more time together, instead. Indeed, how prophetic is it not that the cart, a cart with two wheels, broke apart? There is no room for a third wheel—and in fact, had we two blankets, I should wish to sleep apart from them, as is only proper. What is romance if not friendship elevated? Why should they wish to keep somepony such as I about?

...Alright, Rarity. I shall admit this only to myself: That may be a touch dramatic. Regardless, I feel I must afford the two a little more time to themselves. I will not descend into petty jealousy just because we have technically become a two plus one. I must not.


Despite what she expected, Rainbow Dash did not find herself mid-kick when she came to, nor was she surrounded by malicious monsters to fight. In the space of half a heartbeat, she went from knowing nothing, to a keen sensation of having her nonexistent expectations upset. After all, that was how things usually went. In fact, hadn’t she had a dream like that earlier? When was earlier, and when was now?

All she knew was that instead of having a blast fighting some creature or other, a presence left her. She felt the touch of feathers not her own, and then she was alone, which probably meant she had one of her rare, un-awesome dreams. That didn’t explain why the one dream fled, chased away by another.

She tried to take in her surroundings, but they disappeared before she could understand them. This, too, had happened before. She recalled glass, a pitch-black darkness and a pool of colours all blending, but there was no time or room for remembering. These things, the glass and the colours, they were here, and they were now. They hurtled towards her as if called by her attempts to remember.

Infinite panes of glass shattered in her face without sound or impact, spraying drops and not shards. A rainbow sprayed in her face like Pinkie Pie squirting multi-coloured frosting at her—except it had only colour and no substance. A jet of utter-black spilled like hot chocolate into air or ground or both or neither. Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to gasp, but her reaction was too late. It had already happened. It was over.

No, not over. Stopped. A single square of glass hovered mid-air, the only object left in existence. Now she knew for sure she remembered this. There had been another dream like this one—and the way everything froze was known to her too. The stillness was more familiar than the chaos by far.

“I’m… dreaming again, okay, that I get,” said Rainbow Dash, words spoken to the void though she knew she wasn’t alone. “But this is still weird. I’ve seen this before, right?”

“You sound uncertain tonight,” came the reply. A perfectly calm and even voice with a clear presence, filling the place entirely despite coming from nowhere at all. “Tell me, Rainbow Dash. Do you remember where you sleep?” Luna sounded part curious, part amused.

Rainbow Dash flicked her mane and snorted. She opened her mouth to tell her yes, to say that of course she—of course what? Of course she was asleep? The only reason she knew that was because she knew she dreamt.

There was another Rainbow Dash, another her, an equally awesome pegasus who slept… somewhere, but she couldn’t recall where or how. She remembered perfectly now that she had talked to Luna in her dreams before, twice—no, three times. The third time was hazy.

“It goes without saying that these are more of mine,” said Luna. She stepped out of the nothingness to Rainbow Dash’s right or her left. The princess glanced at the single pane of glass and blew at it like one would a birthday candle. The only fixed point in vision disappeared, leaving only the two of them. Dash widened her stance, fearing for a moment she’d fall over.

“Yeah. That’s what I meant. I think I remember this,” Rainbow Dash said. The memory of that last dream with Luna slowly came back to her, of a place of glass and a vivid sky, but tonight’s earlier dream remained elusive—as did everything else outside of it. “We’re still in the forest. A big forest,” she finally remembered, clinging on to thoughts that eluded her.

“Clearly your clarity last time was an effect of my dreamscape. I may have collapsed this one when I… reacted,” said Luna, pursing her lips. “With it, the bridge is lost.” She stared off into the distance as though there was something to see beyond the black.

Rainbow Dash shook her head slowly. “I don’t get it. What’s going on this time? Can you take it from the top?”

Luna smiled ever so slightly, inclining her head. Her horn took on a silvery sheen, and rather than glow like other unicorn horns, hers resisted spreading light like it should. It drew Dash’s attention for a moment, and that was long enough to miss what had happened. Now they stood in a night-swept glade of great oaken trees under a full moon, fireflies thick in the air.

“There. This should be easier on the eyes for you,” said Luna. She didn’t wait for an answer before she went on. “As for what is ‘going on’? Less than you might think. The last time you dreamt, you were in the shell of my discarded memories. Do you remember this?”

Rainbow Dash nodded slowly, her eyes on the fireflies as they danced. “Sure.”

“I have yet to figure out how that happened, but I have been… alert, ever since,” said the Princess, shifting her weight from one set of legs to the other. “I have been waiting and watching for anything out of place.”

“Is something’s wrong?” asked Dash. She frowned and spread her wings.

Luna shook her head slowly, though she smiled. “Do not worry. Nothing is wrong. I am merely curious despite myself, and tonight, my vigil was rewarded when the shells—the echoes—were touched again.”

“Okay,” said Dash, scratching at her own neck. “So, be honest, am I being awesome or just really annoying? Because I’ve no idea how I’m making this happen.”

“It is not your doing. It is not you alone who find yourself in these halls,” said Luna. “I was mistaken last time. All three of you wander. I speak to you because you are more lucid in your dreams—even if your connection to the waking self is not perfect.”

Rainbow Dash blinked, her every muscle tensing up. “What?

The Princess raised an eyebrow. “I just told you. You likely remembered things related to the waking world better last time we met because of the dreamscape you borrowed. This one is gone.”

“Not that!” Dash said. “What do you mean all three of us ‘wander’?”

Luna shrugged. “If you worry about Fluttershy and Rarity, they are quite alright. They dream in this place, too. Or rather, in similar places, but dreams are often confusing, usually forgotten, and these are harmless, as dreams almost always are. Is this something you would rather not have known? I thought it inconsequential to tell you.”

“I don’t know,” Rainbow Dash admitted, puffing out her cheeks. There were too many words, too many details that she didn’t know what to do with. Even hearing that her friends had similar dreams to hers right now was confusing because part of her wondered if they were really asleep. Her brain rejected the fact, because she didn’t know it. “Jeez, I don’t know about any of this! I don’t know what to do with any—”

“It is unimportant,” said Luna, cutting her off with a shake of the head. “And I did not mean to intrude unannounced, either. I am still looking into this business of these dreamscape shells on my own, but to tell you the truth, chances are greater that you will unravel this mystery, rather than I. I hope you will let me know if you discover anything that explains this. I am very curious.” She hummed. “Curious. I repeat that word often because it is true. I am even a little bit annoyed at this point, I must admit.”

Rainbow Dash nodded quickly. “Hey, sure. Count on me. Well, on us. We’ll let you know what we find out, but I don’t even know where to start. Uh, and besides, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, would I? I don’t usually remember stuff when I go to sleep, that’s half the problem.”

“Sometimes you do. Even without the aid of one of these dreamscapes, it waxes and wanes,” said Luna, shrugging. “You remember some things if you focus, surely, but if nothing else, you may tell me when we meet in the waking world. It is no matter. This is not urgent.”

“Alright. Cool. Yeah, you’ve got a deal. I’ll keep an eye out for… stuff that explains stuff,” said Rainbow Dash.

The Princess nodded again in return, her eyes drifting. She turned on the spot and took a few steps towards the darkness beyond the trees as though to leave. “You said you are in a forest. All is well?”

She tried to remember, she really did, but all Rainbow Dash remembered was that she was really frustrated with the forest. The Splitwood, it was called; She’d cursed the name a fair few times, so it stuck.

“Eh, the place is pretty much the worst, and it’s really hot, but yeah, I guess,” Dash said. Luna nodded, but did not move, hesitating. The silence hung between the two of them for a moment, wobbling.

“I would offer to stay—perhaps ask if you would let me join your battles tonight,” said Luna, her brow creased with the smallest of frowns, “but I have much to do, and besides, I see no foes of your design. Your night is spent in another kind of battle.”

“Yeah, I get it,” said Dash, not getting it in the slightest. She waved a foreleg and grinned. “We’ll catch up some other time.”

“Catch up,” said Luna with a wry grin. “Yes, I suppose we will.”

Yet still, the Princess did not move. She looked at Rainbow Dash as though there was something still unsaid, expectant. She turned about to face her again.

“So… uh, why are you still here? No offense or anything,” asked Rainbow Dash. “You said you were busy and everything. If you have to go, that’s cool.”

Luna nodded slowly. “I am indeed busy. It is the deep of night, and the dreams are my domain. That means I am on duty, guiding dreamers through the waters of their terrors.”

“Yeah. I guess you’ve got a lot to do,” said Dash. “And you came by here just to…” she trailed off, thinking. What had Luna really said in their conversation so far? Not much. “To tell me to keep an eye out?” That wasn’t much of a reason for a busy Princess to come visit.

Luna smiled, a lopsided and languid thing to go with another nod. “While I was here, I wished to let you know to ‘keep an eye out’, yes, but those who know me, know that I show up to help soothe those who are in distress. To extend a hoof in assistance. I come to help those who fight battles they cannot win alone.”

“Right.” Dash scrunched up her snout and her brain both, thinking. “But all three of us are having the same dream. Why’re you here and—”

“You are in the same place in your dreams. You do not dream of the same thing. It is only the stage upon which you dream tonight, and it matters very little in the grand scheme of things.” Luna shook her head. “I do not consider a dream within empty memories very terrible. As I have said, it is confusing at worst.”

“So...” Dash began again, trailing off into silence when Luna arched a brow precariously.

“Need I speak plainly?” Luna asked. “I came here to see to you, because you may need me.”

“I’m not some little foal having a bad dream,” Dash retorted, rolling her eyes, but even as she spoke, memory rushed back to her. She knew what she had dreamt before Luna’s arrival, and with the realisation came a stab of fear—no, confusion and frustration, maybe.

“You are not,” said Luna, simply. She walked back past Rainbow Dash, into the little forest clearing she’d made. The Princess sat down at its center, plopping down her haunches unceremoniously, her forelegs straight. “But then, to have fears and concerns is not the sole domain of the youngest. You are wise enough to understand that sometimes, we all need a little help.”

Rainbow Dash swallowed and nodded. She couldn’t deny it. That didn’t mean she had to like it.

Luna smiled at her. “Distress can be many things. In our dreams, we sometimes try to work through that which we cannot grasp when awake. Tonight, it seems your dream has fled from you. I cannot help much without knowing what troubles you, but I have two good ears, and I can listen.” She tilted her head to the side. “Do you remember your dream now? Will you let yourself think of it?”

Rainbow Dash closed her eyes, sparing a second to consider how ridiculous that act was—closing eyes that were already closed. Back in the waking world, Rainbow Dash slept tightly entwined with Fluttershy, and she knew that only because it was a contrast to the dream where the other pegasus was unreachable.

She didn’t know what that was supposed to mean. Fluttershy wasn’t going to disappear or anything. Thinking about that made her heart feel cold, but it only lasted until she realised how utterly ridiculous it was to think that they should move apart, scatter like—like what? Like the Perytonian tribes? Another memory recalled at random. A tidbit of recent events she could not place.

Wherever it came from, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash weren’t like that. They weren’t two Perytonian tribes who would suddenly declare they had nothing in common, like two cities built far apart.

“Are we?” asked Rainbow Dash of nopony in particular, frowning deeply. “We’re not that different, and even if we are, who cares?”

Luna blinked. “Who? Is this the source of your anguish? Are you still concerned with the differences between Perytonia and Equestria? You mentioned something of this when we spoke some time ago.”

“Eh, yeah, sure, that,” said Rainbow Dash, shrugging. It was way faster and less lame than having to explain all her thoughts about Fluttershy to Luna, and besides, to do that, she’d have to know what those thoughts were in the first place.

“We’re so different,” she said, sighing. Just like the cities. “But I don’t know what to do about that. It didn’t use to be a problem. I still don’t know if it is.”

The Princess pursed her lips. “Matters of culture can be challenging. We knew this when we decided it was time for Equestria to reconnect with her neighbours. I am sorry if this causes you distress. The task still falls to you, of course, but I have no desire to be neglectful. Perhaps I may offer some simple advice?”

Rainbow Dash snorted, disturbing a firefly who strayed too close. “I’ll take anything I can get.”

“Often, we think we are at the center of all things. I am perhaps more qualified to say this than most, and I can tell you that we are always wrong. If you seek to understand a people that think differently, compromises must be made.” She tilted her head skywards, stretching her neck to each side. “Broadening your understanding does not mean you have to abandon the ideals upon which Equestria were built. Seeking the center for the sake of understanding does not mean you have to always dwell in it.”

Dash ran the words by herself twice, trying to understand what Luna said. Compromising and seeking center. Compromise. It was a word Dash associated with accepting second place, with saying “good enough”. It was an awful word, but perhaps there was something to it. Never mind Perytonia right now—was this what Rainbow Dash had been doing wrong all along?

Once she realised that pushing Fluttershy hurt her, Dash had tried to make sure Fluttershy didn’t feel pressured into doing the stuff Rainbow Dash wanted to do, but trying to do the stuff Fluttershy herself wanted to do didn’t work out either. The answer was obvious. They had to find something that belonged to neither of them. Neutral ground.

“Alright, hey, that… actually helps,” said Rainbow Dash, trying not to sound too surprised. “I’ll be fine, but thanks, really.”

“Truly?” asked Luna, slowly standing up. She let out an indignant snort, stretching her wings out. “Do you know, many—ah, some have said my words tend towards the cryptic and obtuse, but I never believed it myself, hmf.”

Rainbow Dash let herself fall, the narrow walls rushing past her for no more than a second before she spread her wings to arrest her dive. Ducking under a rocky outcropping, she collected the end of the dangling rope in her mouth. There was barely enough space to fly down here, and she took some solace in that. It couldn’t really be called a gorge or a canyon. If anything, it was a ditch full of sharp rocks.

Rainbow Dash tied the rope off on the wooden post at the opposite side, just like she’d done with the other one. Of course, it didn’t really make for a rope bridge. All the wooden bits were shattered and lost among the rocks below.

“Ta-daa,” Rainbow Dash announced, bowing to the complete lack of applause.

“Wonderful,” said Rarity with a bemused smile, standing no more than ten strides away, on the other side of the ditch. “Granted, were I to be critical, I would ask how this helps us, but perish the thought.”

“Eh, it doesn’t, but maybe someone will see it’s broken and fix it. We nearly missed it, and the bridge’s supposed to be a landmark,” said Rainbow Dash, shrugging. Mostly, she’d seen a challenge, and she’d taken it. Thinking back, she probably could have pulled the ropes up by their other end and thrown them across.

She hadn’t asked Fluttershy to help her out, of course, not just because she knew she probably shouldn’t, but also because she now knew it was fine not to. They’d find something else to do. A compromise.

“That’s a very nice thought, at least,” said Fluttershy, running a hoof through her mane as she smiled. “Though I guess if the peryton are the ones who use these trails the most, they could probably fly across, too.”

“Speaking of which,” said Rarity, leaning to peer over the edge.

“I got you,” said Dash, zipping across the gap and bending down. “It’s barely a jump, but I’ll take you.”

Rainbow Dash peered over her own back as the little ditch receded behind them. It was easily the least remarkable feature of the Splitwood, a papercut to the Morillyn Gorges, a footnote amidst colourful or flooded valleys and collapsing ruins. It became exciting for one tiny little fact, though.

“So, that’s it?” asked Rainbow Dash. “That’s the last thing on the list?”

“Yes, that’s the last of Phoreni’s directions,” said Fluttershy. Where Rainbow Dash looked all around, trying to find some proof that they were about to leave the woods, Fluttershy seemed calm and collected. Dash tried to follow her example, but it wasn’t easy to stop looking for proof that the forest released its grip on them. There’d been bare patches in the middle of the woods, too. Tree-less groves and clearings the size of small plains that made meaningless the way the wood grew sparse past the ditch.

Hopefully they’d catch a glimpse of Vauhorn sometime soon. Rainbow Dash hadn’t seen anything the last time she flew up high, and it was a hassle to get the saddlebags back on now that they had to carry water again. She’d even settle for the monotony of the road now. Even if they were down to a crawl in the terrible heat, she’d take anything to speed things up a little—and that was as far as she got in thinking ahead before she realised something else.

“Aw, come on,” Dash said, groaning.

“What is it?” asked Fluttershy, looking over at her, eyes filled with concern. “Are you alright?”

“Something the matter?” asked Rarity.

“I forgot to tell Luna that we need a ride back home,” Dash admitted, sticking out her tongue. “I just realised.”

Rarity raised a brow. “You had one of these… seances with the Princess?”

Rainbow Dash snorted with soundless laughter. “You make it sound weird. I just remembered I had saw her in my dreams last night. She wanted to have a chat about the dream—” she paused for a split-second. “About the place we all dreamed about.”

Fluttershy made an inquisitive noise. “What do you mean? I don’t remember dreaming anything, really.”

“Nor I,” said Rarity.

“Yeah, I know,” said Rainbow Dash, shrugging. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Worry? I hardly worry, but all this dreaming business sounds stranger every time you mention it,” said Rarity, shaking her head.

“Uh-huh,” said Rainbow Dash, adjusting the straps of her saddlebags. The cloying heat made her want a break even though they’d just had one. Thinking about it now, would it get worse when they found the road and lacked the cover of the trees? “Hey, Fluttershy? D’you know where we are on the big map at all?” she asked.

“I have an idea, but I was actually thinking of going up for a look,” said Fluttershy. She forced the group to a stop in the middle of nowhere. They’d just been heading due north-east since the ditch anyway. Fluttershy loosened her saddlebags.

“Hey, I got it,” said Dash, trying to wriggle out of her own. Fluttershy didn’t slow down in the slightest, already shaking her wings out, her head moving side to side in disagreement.

“If you’re uncomfortable with maps, you probably can’t check what you see against the map we have. I want to have a look, anyway,” said Fluttershy. She took off and hovered in the air with slow wingbeats. “We can always go together, you know.”

Rainbow Dash nodded slowly. Of course they could. It was hardly a pulse-pounding activity for them to share in, but it was something, especially after all the times Dash had struck out on her own lately. On the other hoof, there was something else she needed to do right now. “Right, yeah. Uh, you go ahead, actually. I’m gonna take it easy.”

Fluttershy hesitated for a moment, her mouth half open. She then nodded quickly, flashed a smile and took off between the treetops. Rainbow Dash watched her ascend until the trees hid her from view.

“So, yeah,” said Rainbow Dash, clearing her throat. “Rarity, you got a second?”

The chat with Luna had cleared stuff up for Rainbow Dash. She knew what to do about Fluttershy, and that was great and all, but at the same time it felt a little silly to talk to Princess Luna about it—well, listen, really—when she had friends right by her side. Maybe she should tell Rarity the full story, really.

Except, Rarity wasn’t really reacting at all. Rainbow Dash should’ve seen it coming. The moment they stopped for even a second, Rarity had her sketches or her fabrics out. This time, she inspected the contents of Fluttershy’s saddlebags while taking notes.

“Hey, Rarity,” Dash tried again.

“Hm? I’m sorry?” asked Rarity. She locked eyes with Dash briefly, smiling at her before she went back to her work, now sitting down with a charcoal stick and a fresh sheet of paper.

“You busy?” Dash asked. It wasn’t that she needed help, but Rarity knew tons of stuff.

Silence. Rarity said nothing.

“Hey, Rarity!” Dash said, a little louder. “You got a minute?”

“Huh? Of course, dear,” said Rarity without looking up. “We can talk while I work, surely.”

Rainbow Dash sighed and shook her head. “Nah, never mind, whatever. What are you up to? Making dresses for Vauhorn?”

Rarity nodded absent-mindedly, leaning a little closer to the paper. “Yes, in fact, but the dress is really rather unimportant in the grand scheme of things. I would suggest you wear the same dresses that I made for Orto or Stagrum, but they’ve gotten dirty, so I may as well put something together while I learn more about them.”

“Okay?” said Dash, trying to ask every question she had with that one word.

“Whatever they like or don’t, I’m sure there’s one thing that they are proud of, one essential element that makes them… them,” said Rarity, as though that explained everything. “I’ll explain when I finish this creation.”

“Okay,” said Dash, again, nodding emptily. She glanced skywards, shading her eyes with a leg to see through the harsh sunlight that pierced the canopy. Already she saw Fluttershy on the descent.

“The road’s right to our east,” said Fluttershy before she’d even landed. The pegasus wiped her forehead, out of breath—and it was no wonder. The sun had not yet set, and the heat was merciless.

“Right to our east, as in, a stone’s throw away?” asked Rarity, packing her papers away. “Or right ‘right to our east’ as in, we’ll get there before Hearth’s Warming?”

“Right over there,” said Fluttershy, beaming. “We’re really close to Vauhorn now. I think I saw the city—the coast’s a lot closer, and the Spokes are mostly behind us, so I know where we are. We can cut straight east to the road and follow it north.”

“Awesome job, Fluttershy,” said Rainbow Dash. She grinned and leaned over to nuzzle her girlfriend, and Fluttershy leaned past her, holding her in a hug while still breathing heavily.

“Yes, assuming we want to do that,” said Rarity. Dash squinted. Rarity sounded—and looked—dubious of the prospect.

“Hit me. Why wouldn’t we want to?” asked Dash.

“I guess the sun is a little worse, but the canopy’s lighter here, so we don’t have a lot of shade anyway,” suggested Fluttershy. Rarity nodded at this.

“There is that. I’m just thinking back to Phoreni’s warnings, that we might not wish to use the roads,” said Rarity, shrugging. “On the other hoof, walking along the road will doubtless be faster.”

“Alright, yeah, and we know Phoreni wasn’t kidding around, but I still don’t know if this isn’t a little paranormal,” said Dash. “It’s weird to keep thinking we have to hide all the time.”

“Paranoid,” said Rarity. “You mean paranoid.”

“Well, um, after the things that happened in the fortress, maybe both,” said Fluttershy, smiling weakly.

Rarity sighed and nodded at Fluttershy. “I will give you that,” she said, turning to Dash again. “Again, I’m just presenting our options as I see it. I have no pony in this race. I’m not even calling for a vote, I’m just mentioning it for completeness’ sake.”

“I don’t think it really matters,” said Fluttershy with a pointed glance to the sky. “The sun won’t be up for much longer, so maybe we can at least get to the road before we decide if we want to talk on it or beside it? Oh, and I’d also like a drink first.”

“Yeah. Snacks, water, and let’s go!” said Rainbow Dash.

They found the road at sunset, and it was all Rainbow Dash could think that the broad, rock-strewn strip of dirt had waited for them forever. So familiar was the Vauhornite trading road—as a continuation of their path from Orto forever ago—that though she’d been desperate to find it for a week now, she was tired of it the second they stepped onto it.

Of course, it wasn’t the dumb dirt road’s fault. Much of the problem was that Fluttershy had been right about the heat. As the Splitwood unceremoniously thinned out into nothing, the sun bore down on them twice as hard, and now Dash was a puddle of regrets over not suggesting they follow the Splitwood a little further north.

Now that the sun disappeared and the wind picked up, the sweat that clung to her body and refused to evaporate instead froze. Though she couldn’t see it, Rainbow Dash smelled the sea on the wind. The coast must be near, further to their north, past the shrubs and rocks in the distance. If Rainbow Dash found the wind annoying, that meant Rarity would be in for a hard time.

“Wanna find a place to sleep right away?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“I think that would be best, yes,” said Rarity. Her lips tugged in a mirthless smile. “On the bright side, all these water breaks make for a lighter weight to carry.”

“I’d actually worry about running out of water if I didn’t think we’re close to the city,” said Fluttershy. “It should be just over the ridge ahead, past that hill.”

“Speaking of which, maybe that’s our stop for tonight,” said Rarity, squinting as she looked ahead. Rainbow Dash raised her head to try to get a good look, too. It was too tempting to let her head hang while they walked.

The hill stood out more and more the closer they got. The landscape around was a far cry from the monotony of the plains near the Splitwood’s southern edge, full of crags and rocks in the east and generously green to their west, and the hill at the top of the long climb ahead blended the features to each side of the road, a natural green tower. Now that the dark threatened, Rainbow Dash saw light from the very top. A fire, probably.

“Looks like there’s someone there,” Rainbow Dash said, exhaling loudly through her nose. “Jeez, I almost forgot that was a thing. Other people. And no, the creepy bird doesn’t count.”

“I’m sure he wasn’t all that bad,” said Fluttershy, biting her lower lip. “Maybe we should have tried harder to be welcoming and nice.”

“We did try harder,” said Dash. “And besides, you’re only saying that because he’s really far away now.”

“Anyway,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head and smiling. “I guess these are traders leaving Vauhorn, or heading to it. I hope they’re friendly.”

“Leaving Vauhorn, I should—” Rarity said, pausing to let out a sound somewhere between a cough, a sneeze and a bark. She stopped and grimaced, levitating out a handkerchief from one of her saddlebags. “Pardon me.”

“I thought you were done with that coughing and sneezing business. You’re actually getting sick,” said Dash, frowning deeply. “That’s not cool at all.”

“I’m sure I’m—ack,” Rarity cleared her throat noisily. “I am fine, thank you. I just got something in my throat.”

“Rarity.” Fluttershy said nothing but her name, the one word spoken with sympathy. She moved a little closer to the unicorn, leaning against her for support while they walked.

“As I was saying,” said Rarity, shaking her head briskly, blinking rapidly. “They’re leaving Vauhorn, because otherwise, they’d have risked being caught out in the storm like we were. Unless they’re travelling from some other town nearby, that is.”

“Yeah, one of the small peryton villages we’ve seen so many of,” said Dash with as much sarcasm as she could scrounge up. “I thought they weren’t supposed to travel this road, though.”

“They said single wagons had their goods stolen. This looks like a caravan,” said Fluttershy, pointing ahead.

The hill grew only steeper the closer they got. Three large and fully loaded peryton carts stood parked in its shadow by the road, near a path that led up the side of the hill. A chorus of distinctly peryton laughter spilled from the top, and Rainbow Dash saw a familiar-looking stone shape by one of the edges, Selyria’s more common shape barely visible between verdant green growth that covered the height. Rainbow Dash took point, brushing a much-abused low branch aside. Circling the hill three quarters of the way around, they reached the top a minute later.

A large fire burned in the middle of a packed dirt clearing, blindingly bright now that the sun fully set, and a full dozen peryton sat and lay at rest in a space circled by trees at the edge of the hilltop. The Selyrian statue stood to the side, identical to the ones on the road to Stagrum, and at its side rested a large flat slab of rock reminiscent of the Ortosian stele, rife with inscriptions.

“We have visitors!” announced a stag with purple wing-tips, turning to face the ponies who paused at the very edge. The raucous laughter and chatter petered out while all around, heads turned. Some gave them curious looks, some were dismissive, many offered mere glances and polite smiles or nods—and from all of their antlers glittered silver, gold and gems in the light of the fire, bangles around their legs. Stagrumite traders, then.

“Hey,” said Rainbow Dash, waving a hoof. She glanced at Rarity, but the unicorn said nothing, rubbing at her eyes. “Mind if we take a nap here?” Dash asked, not really sure what else to say.

“Selyria’s embrace has room for all who wander,” said the stag, dipping his head.

“Let Selyria have a nap herself, along with all the others,” said a doe sat next to him with a warbling laugh. “Every time I visit Vauhorn, I can happily go a season without hearing her stories told again.” Her words were met with scattered laughter and a few shakes of the head—and one case of a sharp jab in the side by a stag. This seemed to be a signal of sorts, the peryton turning to each other, talking and by and large ignoring the ponies again—excepting one, who turned away from the group. The doe stared intently at Rainbow Dash.

“That is a curious shade of green,” she said, her face unreadable.

Dash had to look at her own back before she remembered what the doe meant. The green covering her wings and splattered across her back didn’t stand out that much, and especially not in the partial darkness. She’d tried to forget about it—and nearly succeeded, travelling with only Fluttershy and Rarity for company.

“Yeah, real curious,” said Rainbow Dash, flashing the inquisitive doe a stiff smile. She pointed to the statue and nudged Fluttershy and Rarity into motion around the peryton, stopping right in front when it became apparent that the shelter-statue was, for the lack of a better word, full.

“Well, this is disappointing,” said Rarity, yawning and tilting her head as though if she just looked carefully enough, another stone wing ready to house three ponies would appear. Blankets completely covered the space inside.

“I… guess maybe we should head back down?” Fluttershy suggested. “We could find a nook in cover from the wind, but the best thing would probably be to head back into the forest.”

“It’ll take forever to find something better than a tree or two in there,” said Dash, sighing.

“Have we been greedy and unfair?” asked the voice that had greeted them. The stag moved to stand at their side with the faint rustle of silver chains in his antlers. He leaned down, head slightly askew as he inspected the interior of the statue. “We must fix this. Clear some room from yourselves, and we will take what is left. Leave to me the task of explaining.”

“Hey, thanks a bunch,” said Dash, smiling back at him.

“Actually, do you think we could borrow—well, that you could make a little room around the fire? We think our friend is getting sick—” Fluttershy said, but once that word was out, she got no further. The stag drew back, a frown plain on his face.

“Thalereia!” he called.

“Yes, Tholmoss, star of my sky?” came the reply, loud above the chatter of the other peryton.

“Bring from our carts the dregroot for a tea!” the stag yelled, turning quickly after to Rarity, squinting at her. “You have blankets for warmth? And you are not allergic to dregroot?”

“Really, this is all unnecessary—” Rarity protested.

“We have a blanket, and I don’t think we’ve ever seen dregroot,” was as far as Fluttershy got.

“Also a blanket, if you can find one!”

“All that you ask!” the other voice replied, a mono-coloured grey doe with glittering antler-pride darting out from the group by the fire, leaping off the hill’s edge and sailing down.

“Well, there’s a side of the Stagrum peryton I hadn’t seen before,” said Rainbow Dash. She pushed one of the peryton blankets a little more out of the way, spreading theirs in its place.

“Mirossa told us,” said Fluttershy. “She said they cared for each other a lot in Stagrum.”

“But they ‘show it differently’, yeah, I know, I remember, I get it,” said Dash, shaking her head. “It’s not that I didn’t believe it, it’s just still a little weird seeing it.” She peered outside the shelter as she spoke, just barely spotting a snippet of the yellow cotton blanket the peryton had wrapped Rarity in. The unicorn rested by the fire, sipping tea.

“And a little funny. Where’s their whole fair trade thing now? They’re being really nice,” Dash added.

“They did say they’d help in exchange for a story,” said Fluttershy, nudging the peryton blanket partly back in place, diplomatically halving the bed-space Dash had made for them.

“If Pinkie Pie could get a cake for a story, every shop in Ponyville would be bankrupt,” said Dash with a giggle. “Whatever, I’m glad they’re being so nice, even if Rarity’s fine. Ish.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “She’s alright now, but she’s definitely coming down with a cold. I just hoped this would make her rest a little.”

Rainbow Dash nudged their saddlebags further against the center of the statue, next to all the peryton’s personal belongings. All their stuff was settled. They had a place to sleep for the night, and everything was squared away. They’d had a drink, and she’d grab a light snack before bed—could those apple-like things they found yesterday be grilled? ”Wait, hang on a minute,” she said.

Fluttershy tilted her head, looking up from her efforts rooting around in Rarity’s saddlebags. “Hm?”

“You hoped? You planned this?” Dash asked, and from the way Fluttershy lay her ears flat and nervously glanced over towards the fire outside, she knew she’d been right.

“Not so loud, please! And, um, okay, not really?” Fluttershy said, sighing. “I just hoped that if I told the peryton Rarity was sick, she’d have to take a break. If that didn’t help, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Rainbow Dash scratched at her snout and nodded. “Okay, I guess you got a point. She never leaves her dresses alone any more.”

Fluttershy nodded. “I’m happy if she’s enjoying her work, but she really does need rest. I just hope we make it to Vauhorn before she gets worse.”

“I don’t know she’s really enjoying all the dress stuff that much, either,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning.

“I tried asking her about that, but it’s a little hard to talk to her about it,” Fluttershy admitted.

“Yeah,” said Dash. When Fluttershy stretched her wings out, so did she, like a yawn transmitted from one to the other. Another burst of cawing laughter from outside. The near-full moon and the reflected light from the fire lit up their faces. Rainbow Dash looked at Fluttershy, and Fluttershy looked back, both of them quiet for a moment.

“Your mane’s really long,” said Rainbow Dash, as though it had ever been anything but. Of course, her bangs didn’t usually look like they tried to reach for the ground, and these days, her tail dragged. “I like it,” she added, helpless to hold back a smirk.

“Thank you,” said Fluttershy, lowering her gaze as she smiled back. “You should try growing out yours one day, too. Is it getting in your way now?”

“Yeah, it kinda is,” replied Dash. She didn’t really have the option of not looking at her mane now. It fell in her face no matter what she did. “Rarity said she’d take care of it, but she’s been busy.”

“Mm,” was all Fluttershy said.

Rainbow Dash tapped the ground. “Hey, she has a pair of scissors left somewhere, right? You already have her saddlebags open, can you check?”

“I think so,” said Fluttershy, one brow cocked. “Why?”

Dash shrugged. “You’re good at that sort of stuff. It would be awesome if you could get rid of the hair that gets in my eyes.”

Fluttershy’s hesitation was so brief and so swiftly quelled that Rainbow Dash didn’t really have time to think about whether or not she should’ve asked. Perhaps it was a stupid impulse, the sort of question old Rainbow Dash would’ve asked, something that began as a simple issue and would evolve into daring Fluttershy, into pushing her on.

Then again, they were talking about a simple mane cut. Before she could reconsider, Fluttershy had her snout deep in Rarity’s saddlebags again.

“Most of her tools are for unicorns, but I think she had a razor of some sort, somewhere—oh, here it is,” said Fluttershy, resurfacing with a folded razor in her mouth. With a little hoof-work, she unfolded it, eyed it critically, and folded it again, tucking it under a wing. “I’m sure it’ll do fine. I’m not good at mane styling, though, but we can try together?”

“Uh, if you’re not sure, it’s cool,” said Rainbow Dash, but Fluttershy already made for the gap in the shelter’s wings opposite of where they’d come in. She stuck her head outside and waved Dash over before she left.

“What, are we hiding, now?” asked Rainbow Dash when she stepped onto the small space between the statue and the eastern edge of the hilltop. From the higher vantage point, the moonlight fell upon craggy hills for as far as she could see.

Fluttershy nodded. “Kind of? What do you think Rarity will do if she sees us doing this?”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Probably try to take over? I don’t know if she’s the same way with hair styling that she is with fashion or—”

“She’ll feel bad because she said she’d do it,” said Fluttershy, sighing. “And she’ll think we’re upset with her when she should really try to get better instead of worrying about our manes.”

“Oh. Okay. And that,” said Rainbow Dash, splaying her ears.

“Come on, sit,” said Fluttershy, patting the ground and smiling at her, and when Rainbow Dash didn’t immediately comply, she brushed at the grass with her tail. “There. Better?”

“Jeez, relax,” said Dash with a laugh, taking a seat. “I don’t need you to do much, I just want to see where I’m going.”

Fluttershy nodded. “I’ll just trim the front a little. It really looks the same right now, just longer.”

“Well duh, I’ve had the same style since forever,” Dash replied, grinning.

“For as long as I’ve known you, at least,” Fluttershy replied. She wiped her hooves on the grass and moved Dash’s mane about a little, as if trying to decide where to begin, but Dash didn’t worry too much. She had already decided they were going to do this. It’d work out or it wouldn’t.

“Did I ever tell you why I keep my mane like this?” asked Rainbow Dash.

Fluttershy paused. She put the razor back under her wing, having just grabbed it. “No? Is there a story?”

“Oh, nah,” Dash said. “No—or, well, kinda. Mom and dad used to do my mane. Mom told me that she’d cut it to look like a lightning bolt so I’d fly faster.” She grinned at the memory. “Guess it works, huh?”

“I guess so,” said Fluttershy, giggling. “It does look a little bit like that with the one long bang you like to keep, but um, you’ve kept it the same ever since? That’s a lot of pressure.” Her laughter petered out, and she took a deep breath.

“Come on, relax,” said Dash. She reached out to touch Fluttershy’s chest with a hoof, smiling at her. “You’ll do fine. As long as you get the hair out of my face, I’m good.”

Fluttershy looked her deep in the eye, drew breath again and nodded, smiling back. “Okay. Can you bend down a little lower for me, please?” she asked, and a moment later, she went to work on Rainbow Dash’s mane.

Dash didn’t know where she found this calm. She should insist Fluttershy stop in case something went wrong and she got upset—not that there was a lot to get upset over. Anyway, this time she just couldn’t work up the energy to worry herself.

Maybe it was the comfortable knowledge that she had a new and better plan. Once they got to Vauhorn, she’d figure out something to do that worked for both of them. Right now, Fluttershy would do her best with her mane, and she’d probably do a great job. Rainbow Dash looked up as much as she could without moving her head.

“Doing good,” said Rainbow Dash, though honestly she couldn’t tell. She had slightly less hair in her eyes. More hair on her snout, though. She blew away a few coloured strands.

“Mh nearly donh,” Fluttershy replied.

“Awesome,” said Dash, though she was disappointed to hear it. With every cut, Fluttershy tugged at her head a little, every one of her moves deliberate, measured. The peryton on the other side of the statue sounded distant, a world apart. Right now, it was just the two of them, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. When Fluttershy put down the razor and wiped some hairs away with a gentle hoof, it was entirely too soon.

“Is that better?” asked Fluttershy, her eyes on Rainbow Dash’s forehead, fidgeting.

Rainbow Dash tossed her head about, shaking it left and right. When she stopped, she could only see a snippet of her mane that she knew she’d forget about in a second because it’d been there for years upon years.

“Perfect,” Dash announced with a huge grin. She leaned over to grab Fluttershy in a tight hug. “I owe you one. Hey, actually, d’you need me to give your mane a look? As long as you don’t mind ending up very, very short?”

Fluttershy giggled and hugged her back, one leg around her neck. “No problem at all, and, um, that’s… a joke right? You won’t be offended if I say ‘no thank you’?”

Rainbow Dash laughed and pulled back. “Of course I’m kidding,” she said, running a hoof through Fluttershy’s mane. “If you’re my girlfriend, that means this mane is at least like… forty percent mine, and I’m not trading it for anything.”

“Maybe you would trade some of it for a little preening?” asked Fluttershy, nodding to Dash’s wings.

Rainbow Dash spread her wings and gave them a quick look, one by one. Sure, she’d been thinking about that a lot lately, and it’d probably feel good, but Fluttershy had already done her a favour. She shouldn’t push her luck. Or, push her pushing, as it was. She shook her head. “Nah, I’m fine. Haven’t been flying a lot lately or anything, right?”

Fluttershy’s smile waned a bit as she nodded. “I guess we haven’t, really.”

Of course, wings still needed cleaning. Rainbow Dash rolled her jaw as she thought. Maybe she should offer to give Fluttershy’s wings a quick look? “What about yours?” Dash asked. She already knew what the answer would be.

“I’m fine, too,” said Fluttershy, looking over the edge of the hilltop. “I can clean them myself tonight.”

“Right, yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. She took a step towards the edge, standing side to side with Fluttershy. At first she thought there was nothing to see but rocks and darkness, but Fluttershy squinted and leaned forward.

“What’s up?” Dash asked. She couldn’t figure out what Fluttershy saw until the other pegasus pointed ahead.

“Down by the large boulders right across the road,” she said. “Do you see them?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Dash. A group of small, thin creatures rested on a rock, their features lost to the night. Even as they watched, a dark shape flew in from above and took up position next to them.

“They look a lot like our nightfishers,” Fluttershy whispered. “I’ve never seen this many in one place.”

“Our what?” asked Dash.

“Equestrian Nightfishers,” Fluttershy repeated, giving her a look. “You haven’t seen them before? They’re rare birds who stay up all night to hunt bugs that only come out after sunset. They’re wonderfully social.”

“Uh, I don’t think I’ve seen them, no. I haven’t really looked,” Dash admitted. “Wait, are these the ones who hang out on your roof all summer and make a fuss if I pop by in the evening?”

“Mm, no, they stay away from light,” said Fluttershy. “They’re actually very pretty, but it’s hard to get a good look.”

“Oh. Huh.” Rainbow Dash could see how. Or rather, she couldn’t. They were too far away, and it was far too dark.

She stole a glance at Fluttershy, and she caught Fluttershy looking back. Fluttershy didn’t offer to show her the nightfishers up close, but then, Rainbow Dash didn’t ask, either. When the silence held, Rainbow Dash moved around the hilltop’s edge. Were those lights in the distance? Circling the far side of the trees, more and more lights came into view.

She sat down against a tree looking north, catching the first real look at the coast in what, weeks? The lights glittering far away had to be Vauhorn, an indistinct glow more than anything else. Fluttershy sat down next to her, but not nearly close enough. Rainbow Dash scooted over and draped a wing around Fluttershy’s side. They smiled at one another.

What was it Rarity had said, way back when? Rainbow Dash had asked her a question, and Rarity said something about how in Equestria, they called coming together “harmony”, just like the Elements. Extending a hoof. Meeting halfway. Luna had said something of the same, and Rainbow Dash just had to find a way towards it, and to hope that wherever Dash and Fluttershy met would be half as good as the stupid little minute they’d spend together fixing Dash’s mane. Half as perfect.

“What do you think it’s like?” asked Fluttershy.

“I dunno,” said Dash. She reached up to make sure her mane lay right, but thought the better of it, leaving it alone. “Phoreni said they talk weird in Vauhorn, and coming from her, that could mean anything.”

Fluttershy giggled and nodded. “I guess so. As long as we get along, I’m sure it can’t be all that bad.”

“Yeah. It’ll be even better if they have hot meals. And beds,” Rainbow Dash said with a lazy grin. She tugged Fluttershy a little closer. They were already close, touching, but it wasn’t enough. She rested her head against Fluttershy’s neck, making the taller pegasus rest her head atop hers. “Maybe something to drink besides water,” Dash added in a murmur. “Someone who can make sure Rarity’ll be fine.”

“She just needs rest, but staying out here in the wild wouldn’t be good for her,” Fluttershy said, nodding so that her cheek rubbed against Dash’s head. Rainbow Dash closed her eyes and tried to pull Fluttershy a little closer still.