• 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 43

By raven for all cities and all kin,

By consensus of the Quills of Cotronna and the ambassadors of all cities, the ponies of Equestria, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Rarity are to be given no entry to the cities of Perytonia, excepting only where to deny them such will lead to true and real harm.

These emissaries of far-away territories have given grave insult to the Cotronnan Council, to Cotronna, to the representatives of all her sister cities, and through them, to all cities. They have attempted to undermine the strength of the cooperation that binds the cities together, and shown a callous disregard for the sanctity of our ties.

These words stand for a minimum of eight seasons, at which point the council will reconvene to consider which lessons have passed among kin from these events, and what has been learned from these stories.

Message sent in triplicate

-By the Quills of the Council of Cotronna

Again Fluttershy jumped. Rainbow Dash tried not to look, but she had to. She couldn’t look away. The maddened, frenzied crowd cheered, and Rainbow Dash knew with absolute certainty that if she looked at them, she would find that each and every pony in attendance had the face of Rainbow Dash herself, roaring with delight as Fluttershy plummeted.

She couldn’t look away from the falling pegasus. She could do nothing but watch, so she did so in silence, folding her ears to try to mute the cheers. Fluttershy fell forever, it seemed, and just before it looked like she might actually hit the ground, she instead flew away, out the door, out and away into the city.

Rainbow Dash hadn’t known there was a door before now. Neither a door nor a city, but seeing Fluttershy disappear behind the buildings in the distance, the itch in the back of her mind let her remember the other Rainbow Dash who slept. Memories rushed back to her, but whether it was because she had poked against the barrier between waking and sleeping before, or if it was just another way for the nightmare to toy with her, she couldn’t say. Either way, Rainbow Dash couldn’t follow Fluttershy, because of course her hooves were glued to the ground. The dream changed again.

“Oh, it’s very steep,” said Fluttershy, peering over the riverbank, down into the dark, rushing river. The cart at her back was laden with stacks of glass bottles, each and everyone one containing a bright green flame, and the load was so heavy that Fluttershy strained to even pull it along the ground.

“Yeah. Yeah it is. So just don’t do it,” Dash said, though she knew it wouldn’t help. “I don’t want you—oh forget it.”

Fluttershy took a deep breath and bit her lower lip, then nodded to herself as though Rainbow Dash had said something else entirely. She strained to roll the cart towards the river, flapping her wings frantically to try to take off. It would never work. Rainbow Dash moved to stand in her way, but the next time she blinked, she stood off to the side again.

“I know you want me to try,” Fluttershy said, her teeth grit and her head down as the pulled the cart to its doom.

“I don’t,” said Dash, feeling bone tired. “I don’t. Not this. Not now.”

She closed her eyes as Fluttershy toppled over the edge with a terrified yelp and the shattering of glass. Rainbow Dash knew that the next time she opened her eyes, she would find herself in another situation like it.

“Stop. Just stop,” she shouted, clenching her eyes shut as tight as she could make them. At least this time she didn’t have to watch. “I give up, okay?”

Nothing. No sound. The dream denied her any response.

“I don’t want to have this stupid dream any more! Do you hear me? Princess Luna? Anyone?” Her voice sounded thin to her own ears. She hung her head in defeat and lay her ears flat. “I give up. I’m done! Help. Please.”

The air got a little colder. The dream moved on whether she looked or not, and Dash’s heart sank with the realisation. She cracked an eye open, catching a glimpse of colour. Now she had to look.

The red she had seen belonged to a thick stage curtain. Through a tiny gap in the curtains, Rainbow Dash could see a huge crowd chatting in eager anticipation while Fluttershy lay curled up in a quivering ball on the near side, wearing some sort of fancy dress.

On Dash’s right side, opposite of Fluttershy, stood Princess Luna. She watched with keen interest as Fluttershy slowly got up, drew a shuddering breath, and gave Rainbow Dash a tremulous smile.

“Okay. I’ll try. Even if there are more people out there than I have ever seen before in my entire life.”

“Don’t,” Dash muttered, but it was futile. Rainbow Dash tried to look away, but every way she turned, she ended up facing the same way. Dreams she could handle. Nightmares were dumb and refused to let her decide what happened.

“Can you stop this? Please?” Dash asked, giving Princess Luna a pleading look. She didn’t care how lame she sounded.

“I am not the one doing this, Rainbow Dash,” said the Princess, smiling faintly. “But I am glad to see that you have acknowledged that a recurring nightmare might mean something.”

“No,” Dash said a long sigh wracking her body. “No, I’m not acknowledging anything. Can we stop talking and thinking? You don’t understand, I’m done!”

Princess Luna raised a brow. Dash heard her own voice rising, quickening with a building note of desperation.

“I’m done with ‘meaning’. I don’t want everything to mean something else. That’s how we got into this mess, and I… I need your help. I need anybody’s help. I don’t understand. We messed up big time. I messed up big time! Everything is ruined!”

Her eyes stung. “Just make it stop. We failed our mission. Perytonia doesn’t want anything to do with us anymore. They probably think all ponies are horrible people because we’re bad ponies. I bet we made half of Perytonia angry with us before we even got to Cotronna, and today we made the rest of them angry with us too.” Dash shook her head and wiped her snout with a leg. Talking to Rarity started her thoughts and words leaking, and now it came pouring out in full. In front of Princess Luna, too. Great.

“Can you make me never have this dream again?” she asked. Her voice cracked on the final word. Fluttershy slipped between the stage curtains, the tip of her tail lingering before it, too, disappeared. The crowd cheered, and Dash heard Fluttershy whimper. No, they both whimpered at the exact same time. Dash’s tail sagged.

Dash struggled to swallow. “I don’t understand why this dream won’t go away, and I can’t… I just don’t want anything to do with this. Not now. Not ever. This is the dumbest icing on the dumbest cake of my life, and I don’t want to have to think about this too. Take it away, please.”

The Princess shook her head, her eyes downcast for a moment. “I see. Perhaps we have asked too much of you. I did not think that you would suffer this much trying to complete your task, but it has been a lengthy journey for you ponies stepping outside our borders for the first time. In truth, you should have been back in Equestria long ago.”

“We’re fine,” Dash mumbled, sniffling. “We’ll be fine. Except for the part where we made a mess of literally everything. Just take the dream away. We blew it. I’m sorry.”

Luna’s horn glowed for a brief instant. As far as Dash could tell, nothing happened, but then she realised the sound had gone. From what little she could see between the curtains, everything beyond the stage disappeared into blackness.

“I cannot. I can change your dream for tonight, but unless I were to visit you every night, I cannot keep you from having this very dream again.” She arched a brow. “This dream is here for a reason, however. What do you think that reason is?”

Rainbow Dash rubbed at her eyes, a snort of laughter bubbling forth. “Heh, okay, maybe you didn’t hear me. Lemme try again. We messed up, struck out, crash-landed hard. They didn’t want the sigil because we got everything wrong and insulted them really bad, so there’s gonna be zero Perytonians coming to Equestria.” She looked for any sign of recognition in the Princess’ eyes, for anger, condemnation, or at the very least disappointment. “Perytonia says ‘no thanks’ because we failed. Am I getting through?”

The Princess nodded once with absolute disinterest. “Yes, my little pony, I hear you, but this—” she gestured to the heavy fabric at their side. The stage curtains were whisked away, revealing a terrified Fluttershy frozen in time in front of an audience that stretched on for as far as Rainbow Dash could see, the scene returned and displayed like a picture. The statue-like pegasus looked over her shoulder at Dash. I’m doing this for you, said her eyes. I’m doing this because of you.

“This is not a nightmare of exile and failure to complete a royal mission, Rainbow Dash,” said Luna, her features softening a touch. “I ask you again, why do you think you are having this dream?”

Rainbow Dash sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, but the anger wouldn’t come, and Princess Luna’s undivided attention urged her to answer, to say something, and so she did. “Because I’m a stupid foal who wants to push my best friend around, but I can’t anymore, so I keep dreaming about getting what I want. But it’s all stupid. And wrong.”

“To have what you cannot have is a dream, not a nightmare,” said the larger princess pony. She walked in front of Rainbow Dash to stand on the other side of her, and the world disappeared in the wake of her tail, the billowing star-stuff erasing existence until they stood in a formless void.

Rainbow Dash was getting far more familiar and comfortable with ‘formless void’ than she should be, really.

“This is no dream of desire. In your dreams, she is hurt because of you,” said Luna. “Could it not be guilt? Many bad dreams come from guilt. It is a force powerful beyond compare.”

Dash laughed. “You’re asking me if I feel bad about pushing Fluttershy around? Yeah, of course I do!” She had told Rarity all of that, though she didn’t know if she admitted it as plain as that.

“Then tell me of it,” said Luna. “You are no child whose fears are easily dispelled by a touch or a reassuring word. You have concerns that drive you to nightmares, and I am a capable listener.” The dark Princess smiled briefly. “And I have had practice with nightmares, if you can believe it.”

“I don’t know where to start. I don’t even know what you know. Fluttershy and I tried being together. Girlfriends,” said Dash. Announcing it while also admitting it was a thing of the past was as painful as it was stupid, but Luna’s face betrayed nothing.

“It didn’t work out,” said Dash, sobering up. “I liked being… close and stuff, but I realised I hurt her.” She gestured off into the darkness, to the curtains that had disappeared. To the scenarios put forth by the nightmare, and to the memories of equally painful events that were real. “I guess running all over Perytonia was a great, dumb place to realise we’re just too different to work.”

Luna cocked her head, a grand gesture on the usually stoic princess pony. “‘Too different to work’? Is this a recent, modern idiom? And how did you ‘realise’ this through your journey?”

Dash snorted. “Everything,” she said, but of course Luna didn’t know that. She hadn’t seen everything they had been through. She searched her mind for an example, for anything to throw at her. “Like… the gorge. Yeah. So, we found this gorge—or we saw the history of this gorge, long story—where the peryton were so different that they couldn’t live together. They were all in one place, and then they split into these different tribes and made the cities really far apart! They barely even talk to each other now. That’s… that’s the problem, I think,” she said, but even as she spoke the words, she realised she wasn’t entirely convinced.

That was Caldesseia’s reasoning, the Morrowsworn leader’s lie. Dash remembered from the echoes they had witnessed that the peryton weren’t unhappy to move apart, and as recently as yesterday, the old claw-priest Dash had met spoke that word in another tone. Different hadn’t sounded like a problem on her lips. Dash was rapidly getting tired of that word anyway. Sick of it. She spoke it, wielded it, but she was starting to realise she didn’t think about it.

“You say they live in gorges?” Luna asked, her tone light.

“Lived. Before,” said Dash. She started pacing, walking in large circles around Luna. “Morillyn Gorges. The Morillyn Gorges, maybe, I don’t know. A thousand years ago, they lived all bunched up in these really weird canyons, or gorges—what’s the difference anyway? You’ve got to know.”

Luna raised a brow. “I always assumed they were the same thing.”

“Right. Okay, anyway,” said Rainbow Dash. She was getting good at walking in Luna’s brand of complete darkness. “They lived together, and then they decided—because of you and Celestia, kinda—to just… no longer live together. They were all inspired and stuff. I don’t know why they lived in the gorges in the first place. Maybe the whole stuff with the monsters from the Bow has something to do with it.”

“I am not familiar with the Bow, and I do not know how sister and I play into this,” said Luna, shaking her head.

“Oh. Yeah. That’s a long story,” said Dash with a bark of laughter. “The Bow is just the Cauldron. That’s what they call it.”

“Let us try to talk of one thing at a time. Focus helps in these matters,” Luna suggested, gesturing with one wing. “They founded new cities after they left these gorges? New places to live?”

“I guess. And now they’re all super weird with each other. They send letters, and there were some… ambassadors or something at the Cotronnan Council, so we don’t really understand it yet,” Dash admitted, spreading her wings for balance as she walked an imaginary tightrope in the void, hooves perfectly stacked in front of each other. It was something for her body to do. “But they don’t understand each other, either. They don’t… heh, Rarity would call it ‘mingle’, I guess. There’s no Ponyville. There are more unicorns and earth ponies in a single street in Cloudsdale than there are Ephydoerans in Orto—”

Luna’s face was especially blank.

“—that’s two of their cities. Or, Ephydoera isn’t a city, I guess, but it’s a place, and the Grove is the city. Anyway, if Cloudsdale wasn’t so cloudy, or if earth ponies and unicorns didn’t have such a hard time walking on clouds, there’d be a bunch of them there, that’s all I’m saying.” Dash swished her tail and frowned. She couldn’t decide if she had gotten off topic or not.

“I see,” said Luna, locking eyes with Rainbow Dash for a half-circle of Dash’s game of ring around the Princess. “You asked me if I dream, do you remember?”

Definitely off topic, then, thought Dash. At least, Princess Luna seemed done with the topic of her romantic woes. Fine by Rainbow Dash.

“Dunno. I probably asked that, yeah,” said Dash.

“You asked whether I dream, or what I dream,” Luna said, nodding to herself. “I do, Rainbow Dash. I dream, but I no longer store my memories in those dreams. We have visited the halls where I stored them, and I have told you why I abandoned them. A memory echoes painfully loud when you hold on to it, I find.”

“Heh, you sound like a doe I met yesterday,” said Dash.

“Now, just because I allow memories to fade when they wish, does not mean that there are not things that I will always remember,” Luna continued, while Rainbow Dash passed behind her. “I am as anyone else in this. I forget trivial matters easily, while I remember important things. Usually, at any rate.”

“I think I forget important stuff first, actually,” Dash said. “Seriously. I can tell you what we had to eat when we first got to Orto, but I don’t remember what I had for breakfast today.”

Luna smiled at that, a hint of laughter in her voice. “I think this happens to everyone, too, but I speak in generalities. A particularly beautiful sunrise, a heartfelt conversation with a friend, or something that strikes one as profound—as different but important—these things I find stay in my mind for years, decades, or millennia.”

“‘Millennia’ is thousands of years, isn’t it?” Dash asked, squinting at her. “Heh, yeah. You’re definitely just like anyone else.”

The Princess inclined her head slightly, her smile fading a touch. “Perhaps you are right to scoff, but regardless, I would like to share with you one such image, if I may borrow your dream.”

“Knock yourself out,” said Dash, shrugging. “And for the record, I wasn’t—”

The void disappeared in the blink of an eye, the darkness drained away quicker than Pinkie Pie could down a milkshake. In its place was blue, open sky, and Dash’s wings shot out on pure reflex, keeping her aloft. At her side, Princess Luna stood in the sky with her wings furled as before.

A band of stark, jagged mountains stretched out far, far below them, making a squished, irregular ring of snow-capped stone teeth. In the center rested a massive valleyscape with rolling hills, patches of forest, and rivers all flowing to a large lake in the middle. It took Rainbow Dash a long while to realise that they looked down upon the Cauldron from an absurd and impossible height, but there was no jungle to be seen. The colour of the grass reminded her of Perytonia, but the trees were a lighter green, almost like in Ponyville. The mountains were the same, but everything between them was completely wrong. She couldn’t tell if the land to either side of the mountains was Perytonia. She couldn’t tell north.

“Scoffing,” Dash finished. “I wasn’t scoffing.”

“This is the place that took the name of the Cauldron of Storms recently,” said Luna, glancing over at Rainbow Dash. “You do not need to fly. You only fall because you expect to fall—this is not even a dream, it is only a moment in time, as seen by me when I was on my way there.”

“Right,” said Dash. She stretched a hindleg down to look for solid ground, but hit only air. She kept flying, and Luna nodded while Dash squinted at the landscape below. The Princess looked down at something that was neither forest nor grass. A clump of huts or houses, small and large, and Rainbow Dash had no idea how she herself was able to make out detail at this height. In fact, she shouldn’t even be able to tell the difference between forest and jungle from this high up.

“Is that a city?” Dash asked.

“It is called Olquo,” said Luna. “I think. Maybe Olquos. Or perhaps that one is Olquos.” She gestured to the left. “One of these is Olquos, another is Berram, but I do not remember the other ones, though I visited them all the last time I came here.”

Dash saw another city to the right, and two behind. One right below them. More still.

“How many are there?” Dash asked. “Are those all peryton cities?”

“These are the nine cities of the peryton tribes living in what was then the Askonyan Ring. Look below, to the eastern bank of the lake.”

The Princess pointed to an unremarkable patch of dirt. From this high up, Dash had no idea exactly how big it was, except to say it was big.

“Cool. That’s the greatest whatever-that-is that I’ve ever seen,” Dash said. “What is it?”

“That is their place of meeting,” said Luna. “They called it the Cotor. There, the tribes met once every season to debate matters pertaining to the welfare of the entire valley.”

“Right,” said Dash, scratching the side of her neck. “So, uh. Why are we here? Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool and all, but—”

“Because the peryton tribes inhabited a fertile and temperate valley that suited all their needs, and would happily accommodate more of their kind to all live together in one giant fellowship, even one city, but here, in Askonya, they built their cities apart,” said Luna, her eyes locked with Rainbow Dash’s. “I visited them often—compared to some, at least. I learned to know them. I cannot tell you how they have changed during my absence, and indeed I do not remember coming here after the Ring changed, but if they are now as they were then, to live together in one place would strain the relationships of those who prefer to do things differently. It would hurt them.”

Rainbow Dash looked between the cities below. Most of them lay towards the edges, close to the mountains.

“Like ours, like ponykind, their cooperation is, or was, a thing of true wonder. Unlike us, they did not seek to live together. They each sought their own way in groups of those who thought like they, and then found how best to contribute towards helping everyone like or unlike themselves. This Morillyn Gorge you spoke of would be to them what separating each and every pony in Equestria from her friends would do to us. It would be like declaring that all pegasi must live in Cloudsdale.”

“That’s weird,” was all Dash could think to say.

“To be different is no crime. This is a base and simple truth. You do not need to be told this,” said Luna, looking at her as though she thought Dash needed to be told exactly that. “Perhaps being similar, being the one and the same, is not what is best for everyone.” The princess gave an utterly mundane shrug. “The Askonyan Ring and its inhabitants is not a perfect metaphor. Distance does not measure into this, in my opinion, but then, for you to apply this metaphor of cities to your romantic relationship was no better fit.”

Dash sighed. “Yeah, okay, fine, I get it, but Fluttershy and I—”

“You are close,” said Luna.

“The closest,” said Rainbow Dash, glaring at Princess Luna, daring her to disagree.

“And from what I have seen, from what I glean in you and your friends’ letters to sister, I understand your cooperation has been lifelong. You have made your own meeting grounds, your own terms.” The way Luna said it made it sound like Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash had done something amazing. Maybe they had. “Then... when did you become so filled with doubt for your relationship?” Luna asked, arching a brow.

“What, me? Doubt?” Dash asked. She tried to force out a laugh, but all she managed was a single pathetic heh.

“If you have concerns about the manner in which the two of you negotiate your friendship, your relationship, then what you describe to me is ‘doubt’ at best,” said Luna. “You have suddenly decided for the both of you that your relationship has been marked by cruelty.”

When had she started doubting herself, Rainbow Dash wondered. When had she started doubting Fluttershy? She was awesome. They were both awesome.

“When the hay did I lose my cool?” Dash asked, frowning.

Luna let out a soft snort. “I do not dabble in romantic affairs, so take my words with a spoonful of salt, but perhaps… perhaps it was not only a loss of confidence, but an elevated level of concern for someone. A greater care for their opinions. Sometimes, we must break something to build it stronger anew—but you are speaking to me, not to Fluttershy. That is your biggest issue.”

“Yeah, well… talking is dumb,” said Dash, her ears flat with the lameness of her own words. “Fine, but what’s the point of telling her this stuff? She knows I’ve been mean to her, too. There’s nothing to talk about. I just realised I’ve been a bully, that’s all.”

“I sympathise,” said Luna smiling at that. “And do not think this reflects poorly on you. It is to your credit. If you fear harming someone, that is never to be taken lightly, but if you have decided that your shared past should mean one thing rather than another, and if you have unreleased worries that take the shape of nightmares, then you must speak with her. When did this start?”

Dash scrunched her snout as she tried thinking back. “When did it start,” she echoed. “Huh.”

“Yes. When did you—” Luna began.

“No,” said Dash, holding out a hoof for silence. “When did I not ask, that’s a really good question, and I think I know the answer to that one.”

One of Luna’s eyebrows was raised precariously high.

Dash shook her her head. Already her heart raced with the realisation. “I think I get it, anyway, okay. Fine. Just, hang on. You can wake me up, right?”

Luna nodded slightly. “I could, theoretically.”

“Right, right, can we talk tomorrow night or something? Are you gonna be around?” Dash asked. “‘Cause I still have a million questions, but there’s something I have to do.”

The Princess’s face was a marvel, a mix of a bemusement and amusement. “I can make no such promise, but for a friend, I will try.”

“Cool, right. I’ll see ya around, Lunes. Wake me up!” said Dash, grinning wide.

Princess Luna’s frown was very, very slight. Possibly the smallest, most subtle expression that could in all honesty be called such a thing—but it was more than enough.

“You may call me Luna,” she said.

“Right. Sorry. Gotcha,” said Dash, wincing. “Can you wake me up, Luna, please?” she tried.

Luna closed her eyes and nodded once, her horn aglow.

Rainbow Dash woke tired, and her eyes were glued shut. For a fraction of a second she considered going back to sleep, and then she remembered why and how she was awake.

She rolled out of bed. Either Princess Luna couldn’t do anything about tiredness, or she didn’t want to. Maybe she had a spell to make it so that ponies didn’t need sleep. Maybe she used it on herself. If Luna didn’t sleep like normal ponies, that was a shame. Sleeping felt far too good to give up—but she was getting sidetracked, and all of this was unimportant compared to what she needed to do.

Someone had opened the windows. The shutters were wide open, giving her a clear look of the city beyond. It must be well past midnight. The sounds of a single peryton passing below their window were faint, and all else was quiet. Neither Rarity nor Fluttershy made a sound in their sleep.

Fluttershy was back, though. That was worth a smile. She lay on the other bed, next to Rarity. Rainbow Dash lay alone. That part was less amazing—but again, entirely not the point. She was done being sad over details that could mean something, everything or nothing. She had stuff to do. Rainbow Dash spread her wings and took to the air, gliding down the stairs.

She found the antlers on the table where Rarity had left them. The unicorn clearly hadn’t felt like cleaning up downstairs. Good. That saved Dash the trouble of looking around. She stuffed them into her saddlebags, and then trotted over to the larger dining table and flipped a piece of stale phela into the air, devouring it in a single bite. She grabbed another, and then wrapped up most of what was left, shoving the paper-wrapped bread into her saddlebags as well. As an afterthought, she filled a water-bag from the kitchen, careful not to puncture it on her cargo. Twilight would be proud of her foresight. Applejack, too. She ran back upstairs and made for the far bed.

“Wake up,” Dash whispered. Fluttershy’s mane was messy and her coat looked odd in what little moonlight spilled in through the window. If Dash had to guess, she’d say she was crusty with salt, maybe from… seawater? She’d have to ask later. Right now, she didn’t want questions or answers. She had a course of action.

“Fluttershy, wake up,” Dash hissed, poking her in the side with a hoof.

Well, that wasn’t strictly true. She had a thousand questions, and probably wanted a bunch of answers, too, but whatever Fluttershy had been up to tonight was question number one thousand and one at best.

“What?” Fluttershy mumbled, finally stirring. One eye popped open, squinting at her. She shook her head slightly and rubbed at her face. “Rainbow Dash? What is going on?”

“I need you to come with me,” Dash whispered. She jerked her head towards the stairs. “Come on. We gotta go.”

Fluttershy closed her eyes again, yawning soundlessly and shifting about under the blanket. She turned around, but didn’t get up. A few long breaths passed before Fluttershy replied.

“Why? Where are we going?” Fluttershy croaked. She cleared her throat as quietly as she could, glancing nervously over at the still sleeping Rarity.

Rainbow Dash leaned over to pull the blanket away from Fluttershy, tucking Rarity in with the excess and giving her a pat.

“We’re heading outside. Just trust me,” said Rainbow Dash. That was all she was willing to say. She stared straight at Fluttershy, willing her to agree, and what started off as an unshakeable faith—the knowledge that of course Fluttershy would agree to come with her—that certainty eroded with every passing second.

Maybe she was expecting too much, and the past day, the past few months had done irreparable harm to their relationship. Maybe she could no longer ask this even of her friend? At no point would she have expected Fluttershy to jump out of bed and be happy about being woken up in the middle of the night like this, but she had expected the other pegasus to cave by now, driven by whatever force compelled her to usually go along with Dash’s impulses. Rainbow Dash tapped a hoof on the ground, trying to be impatient instead of worried, annoyed instead of scared.

“Okay,” said Fluttershy, her face carefully neutral as she stared at Dash’s bulging saddlebags. She nodded once and slipped off the bed, and Rainbow Dash didn’t wait in case she herself opened her mouth to say something stupid and made Fluttershy change her mind. Rainbow Dash flashed a smile and led the way down the stairs, pausing on the last step until she heard Fluttershy’s soft hoofsteps above. Dash slid the door open and waited.

“Where are we going?” Fluttershy asked again.

“Anywhere that works. I don’t know exactly,” said Dash, shrugging. “Do you think we should lock the door? I don’t understand why Rarity bothered.” Had the windows not been so narrow, she would have just flown out from the upper floor to avoid the whole question.

Fluttershy shook her head slightly. “I don’t know. I don’t think it matters too much either, really.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna leave it,” Dash declared, stepping outside and sliding the door shut. She didn’t even know where Rarity kept the key anyway. She worked her wings out from underneath the awkwardly full saddlebags and gave them a testing flap. “Alright, let’s go.”

One, two, three strokes of their wings, and up they soared. The darkened city receded as Rainbow Dash flew south. West. Southwest. Any combination of those. She headed for the outskirts of the city. Out of the city was a good start. Past all the farms would be better.

“What are we looking for?” Fluttershy asked, drawing level with her. She yawned into the nook of a leg. The mundanity of that gesture was the only thing that made their flight through the darkness seem real right now.

“We’re looking for a good spot,” said Dash, her eyes roving the farms below. If she hadn’t known they were farms from before, the vague shapes passing by below in the night could be anything. Wild fields. Lakes. She pushed her sleep-heavy wing muscles a little harder, gaining more height, and more farms spread out below them. The entire inland semicircle around Cotronna was covered in farmland—except for a small patch further west. Less farms west in general. They headed west.

Fluttershy didn’t say anything more, but she followed, and still Rainbow Dash was grateful. Dash dipped into a gentle, low-angle dive carrying her towards a small forest area in between all the grain farms. Not long after, she stuck her legs out, bracing to land. It wasn’t much of a forest, just a patch of untended land, but trees and dried-out shrubs hid the rest of the world from view where the two pegasi touched down. A vague circle of dried and stunted grasses was all she needed. Rainbow Dash undid the straps of her saddlebags and opened them without any ceremony.

The look Fluttershy had given her yesterday still stood out in Dash’s mind as one of abject betrayal, and when Rainbow Dash cast her thoughts back, she remembered when she felt like she had broken Fluttershy’s… it wasn’t trust, exactly, but a moment in time stood out when she thought of those words, of trust and betrayal. Rainbow Dash did in fact remember where she had taken it upon herself to start doubting. She knew where it had first gone wrong. Dash pulled out one of the wooden antler-sets from Ephydoera, tossing the silly jewelry back into the saddlebags.

“Put it on,” said Rainbow Dash, grabbing the other one. After a moment’s consideration, she put down the one she had selected and took the other pair of antlers for herself—the one with a piece broken off one of the prongs. “Okay, there. Take that one instead,” she said, thrusting her head into the harness and trying to work the straps.

Rainbow Dash expected Fluttershy to protest. She hoped that she would go along with it, but she thought there would be at least a token complaint, a “why?” or a “I don’t understand,” or perhaps even a “this is silly, I’m sorry, I don’t think this is a good idea”. All Fluttershy did in the end was give Dash a long look before she grabbed the other pair and geared up. They fiddled with the straps in complete silence. When Fluttershy had her antlers secured to her head, the faded brown harness was almost invisible against her coat in the darkness. They looked real on her, like she was always supposed to wear them.

“Why?” Fluttershy asked. Now she asked.

Left or right, Rainbow Dash thought. Left. She started walking to the left, lowering her head a touch while still keeping her eyes on Fluttershy. She circled a little closer.

“Rainbow Dash?” Fluttershy asked, frowning ever so slightly. “Why are we wearing these now?”

Rainbow Dash didn’t reply. Fluttershy had to turn to keep an eye on her, but Dash moved closer, too. Fluttershy didn’t have a choice. Unless she wanted antlers in her side, she had to move. Fluttershy moved straight away from her at first, but Dash sped up a little more, moving further out to the flank.

Whether there was any magic to the movements or not, Dash couldn’t tell. Probably not. Without an audience, without the context of the ritual-like sport performance of the Ephydoeran jousts, they were just two ponies with strap-on antlers in a dry clearing—but something happened. The look of bewilderment on Fluttershy’s face disappeared as Dash forced her to react to her movements. Fluttershy lowered her head a little to match Dash’s own stance, and soon they moved in each other’s steps, shadowing the other’s movement.

First they walked, now they trotted. Rainbow Dash tightened the circle and lowered her head almost all the way to the ground, goading Fluttershy, demanding that that she do the same. An open threat. She thought Fluttershy would flee, wondered if the lanky pegasus mare would bolt or turn or call for them to stop, but she did none of those things. Fluttershy lowered her antlers as well, and the two met at a brisk walk with a clack that echoed between the trees. Dash pulled away and started circling the other way.

“Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to join the joust back in Ephydoera?” Rainbow Dash asked, her eyes always on Fluttershy. She widened the circle and kicked off into a canter, chasing her.

“I really thought I had,” said Fluttershy. She matched Dash’s speed. Now Fluttershy was the one chasing her. “I thought it was obvious.”

Rainbow Dash refused to let Fluttershy speed up further. She tightened the circle again, but when Fluttershy slowed down, shying away from a high-speed collision, Dash had to do the same. They met again at a slightly faster walk instead of a run. Clack.

“Nothing’s been obvious. Nothing has been clear. That’s the problem,” Dash said, twisting her head slightly. Fluttershy resisted at first, then let go, breaking away cleanly and circling again.

“That’s never been a problem before,” said Fluttershy. She slowed them down to a simple walk, two pony lengths apart at most, eyes on each other as they stalked. “We didn’t really use to need to make things obvious. We’ve just… worked—and I tried to be clear, I really did! I thought I had told you how I feel, many times. So many times!” Fluttershy said, her voice tinged with disbelief.

Dash sighed, walking straight for a little while, forcing the circle to widen. “Yeah? Yeah, well… I’ve always been an idiot, maybe I’m getting dumber.”

Fluttershy refused to give her distance. She came across the clearing like a dark streak, and Dash rushed to match. They collided at a good trot, and Dash was taken aback by the sudden ferocity.

“You are not an idiot!” Fluttershy snapped. She didn’t twist or pull or try to drag Rainbow Dash to the ground, she just pushed. And she was strong. Dash quickly stepped aside to break the antler-lock and trotted after her, confusing Fluttershy for a moment before she found her path circling Dash the other way.

“You are wonderful,” Fluttershy added, quietly, her eyes on the ground even as she matched Rainbow Dash’s movements. They fell in step with each other again, Fluttershy making her strides shorter and Rainbow Dash making her steps as long as she could until they marched in synch. Either they both subconsciously tried to match their steps to those of the other, or Fluttershy could hear the drums, too.

At some point, a thousand invisible hooves had taken up a beat, and half the time, they followed Dash’s movements, half the time, Dash followed theirs.

“How not-stupid can I be?” Dash asked. She had to shout. Their circle had grown and grown until they walked on opposite sides of the clearing. The grasses were a little taller here, brushing against her. “Sure, we’ve worked the same way since forever, but I didn’t realise that I’ve been a complete jerk to you all the time! How’s that for not being an idiot, huh?” She closed in a little, then angled herself away, curving in and out as she shrank the distance. She found her rhythm at four steps in, two steps out.

“You’ve not been a jerk,” said Fluttershy. She mirrored Dash’s moves perfectly, lowering her body to the ground as well, and Dash did the same to match. “Do you seriously think I would want to be friends with a jerk? I wanted to be friends with you. I want you.”

Want, not wanted. That was something. Want was now, wanted was the past. Rainbow Dash kicked off into a gallop, closer to Fluttershy, but she refused the closer circle. Fluttershy turned around in one smooth motion, and Dash had to do the same. The beat of the drums and the stomping of the hooves followed Fluttershy’s moves.

“Yeah? Well, I’ve been bullying you any way you shake it,” said Rainbow Dash. She refused to keep an even distance, in, then out, in, then out.

“What?!” Fluttershy asked, her step faltering for a second, falling out of synch with the rhythm that filled the clearing. “What is that supposed to mean?” When Dash threatened to come up behind her, she redoubled her speed, and Dash had to obey. Now they were well and truly in the throes of the drums’ commands. Neither Fluttershy nor Rainbow Dash led. They both followed.

“I’ve been a complete jerk-faced bully!” Dash shouted, chasing and being chased, around and around. “Pushing you into stuff I thought you wanted to do!”

“That’s never been a problem before either!” Fluttershy said. They came too close. They passed each other without touching. Rainbow Dash felt the rush of air as Fluttershy thundered past her, and now they ran the other way.

“That I’ve done it for years doesn’t make it better!” Dash snapped. “That makes it worse!”

Fluttershy wrested control of their path. She took them out, away, and in one smooth motion, turned and demanded that they meet. Though their movements were the same, Rainbow Dash felt like she barely had any time to prepare before their antlers met. Her brain rattled with the impact. This time, Fluttershy held on fast, pushing and twisting, denying Rainbow Dash any chance to disengage.

“No! No, you—that’s not it, that’s not it at all,” Fluttershy said, her brows furrowed. “That’s what I meant when I said it’s how we worked. It was wonderful! When I’m left alone, I don’t do anything special, but you encourage me, Rainbow Dash!”

Rainbow Dash tried to step aside, but Fluttershy followed. She tried to twist away, but Fluttershy locked her down. The drumming of the hooves were a roar in Dash’s ears.

“That’s the point,” Fluttershy cried, her eyes glinting in the faint light. “You’re tough! When others let me go, you don’t. You don’t let me give up, and you push me to places I didn’t know I could go! Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t!”

“Yeah! Sometimes it really doesn’t work out—” Dash tried to say. She took a quick step back hoping to use the momentum of Fluttershy’s push to make the other pegasus carry through just like she had done with the doe at the joust, but Fluttershy was far too quick. She stepped on and held their antlers locked together. When she widened her stance, Dash caught a glimpse of the scar on her leg.

“And sometimes it does!” Fluttershy said, her voice thick with emotion. The force of her gaze pushed twice as hard as her body. “When the little experiment with the thunder cloud in Vauhorn went wrong, that was okay! It was fine because you were there! I’m not afraid of failing, and did you forget? I can say no!”

With that last word, Fluttershy yanked Rainbow Dash to the side. Maybe it was a momentum thing, or maybe Fluttershy had always been this strong. Maybe she just forgot she wasn’t weak, or perhaps it was just the outcome dictated by the drums. Dash struggled to keep her balance, barely avoiding falling over and then hurrying to fall back in step with Fluttershy, surreptitiously reaching up to adjust her antlers which had gotten a little skewed.

“After you left me at the bonfire in Vauhorn,” said Fluttershy, “do you—do you know how empty the city felt?” She sniffled, a jarring sound amidst the otherwise constant rhythm. Dash couldn’t see her face now that they chased each other at a trot a little ways apart, and she was glad. She knew she had hurt her back then.

“I thought I was protecting you, helping you, doing good,” said Rainbow Dash. She didn’t mean to laugh, but that’s how it came out. A nervous, pathetic and broken chuckle. “I’ve been going crazy holding back from… I don’t know if it’s pushing or ‘encouraging’.” She slowed them down, from a trot to a sedate walk, and Fluttershy obliged. The drums obliged.

“I… I thought you stopped because that was how you wanted us to be when we were together,” said Fluttershy, her voice rising. “I thought that was how you wanted us to be as a couple! I said I didn’t want things to change, don’t you remember? And then you changed! I thought that was what you wanted!

Rainbow Dash thought she remembered. Vaguely. Fluttershy had said something to that effect, hadn’t she? She had said she didn’t want them being together to change anything, it just seemed infinitely less important than her own realisation that she was hurting Fluttershy. Or that she thought she was.

“And protection?” Fluttershy asked, her voice hollow. They walked closer and closer, but rather than meet, they ended up in a circle so near to each other, Dash could have leaned over and touched her antlers to Fluttershy’s flank if she wanted to. They were a hoof’s breadth away from a close dance.

“Helping?” Fluttershy continued. “The help I need is a little nudge to get out of… of my comfort zone, that’s all. I thought you just didn’t want us to do anything together anymore. You ‘protected’ me from everything about you,” she said, shaking her head. “If you thought that you were doing that for me, I don’t know what to say. There was no Rainbow Dash left in our relationship. It’s like you didn’t think I loved you at all.”

Fluttershy’s steps quickened. Dash had to use her wings for balance, quickly getting dizzy from the tight circles. “You took away the best part about us,” said Fluttershy. “That is why I broke up. I wanted you back. I didn’t want to give you up. I didn’t want to give up what was great about you and me—but when we went to deliver the sigil, you still didn’t want to go back to being the way we used to be. I thought that was what you wanted, now!”

Rainbow Dash refused to let Fluttershy dictate their pace entirely by herself. A little further away, she said. No slower, but further out, eyes on each other, antlers low to the ground they ran.

“I didn’t want it to be that way! Not like that!” Dash retorted. “But after we became girlfriends, things changed, okay? Do you know how bad it feels to look at you when you’re hurt? When I hurt you?” She felt her stomach clench, a clump building in her throat as all those stupid memories bubbled to the fore. She had thought of all those teary-eyed looks and expressions of reluctance and fear so many times lately. She hoped this would be the last time. She wanted to be done with them, and she wished she could show them to Fluttershy. Make her understand.

Rainbow Dash sped up. Fluttershy sped up. Now they galloped, two figures dashing ahead to an unseen rhythm, muzzles pointed straight at each other. At this distance, across the clearing, she hardly recognised Fluttershy’s silhouette. The antlers, the short mane and the tuft of tail were all strange to her. The only thing familiar was the way she ran, a continuous, long-legged graceful gait Dash could recognise from leagues away.

“I love you and all that junk!” Dash shouted. “Bullying you around stinks, even if you want me to do it! Hay yeah I want to back you up, but why can’t I want to not hurt you, too?”

“Not hurt me?” Fluttershy asked. Dash wanted to slow down, but she couldn’t. If anything, the drumming of ghostly hooves sped up. No. That was Fluttershy’s doing. The pegasus put her head down, the antlers nearly touching the ground as they galloped. “Not hurt?” Fluttershy repeated, her voice raw, breaking. At the edge of hearing, Rainbow Dash swore she could make out voices, throat-song out of nowhere building, building, louder and louder. Fluttershy turned, running straight at her. The grace had fled. The voices lent Fluttershy speed and power Dash had never seen in her before.

Dash didn’t want to follow. Against her better judgment, against her will, carried by the song, the drums, and by the pull of Fluttershy’s charge, Dash ran to meet her, the change of direction too fast, too sudden for a straight run. In opposing curves, the two pegasi launched themselves at each other.

“This!” Fluttershy screamed just before they met. The entire world shook, something cracked and tore, and then everything shook again. The song cut out in an instant, the drums exploded, all banished by Fluttershy’s voice and the force of the collision. “This has hurt more than anything else in my entire life,” she finished in a hissed whisper.

The only sound left was that of two pegasus ponies exchanging breath in the night. Dash’s head hurt and she couldn’t see properly. No matter how many times she blinked, the world refused to come into focus. She heard Fluttershy let out a sob, and then something touched the side of her face. Dash’s antler harness slid off her and joined the pieces of splintered wood on the ground.

“I’m sorry,” said Fluttershy. She sat down on the ground, pushing her antlers off her head. They were ruined too, the fancy prongs all broken off. Just two stubs left on a mangled harness, just like Dash’s own. Rainbow Dash didn’t sit down so much as she let herself fall. She rolled onto her side and stared at Fluttershy who sat a hoof’s breadth away from her, the other pegasus’s eyes closed tight.

“You can’t cry,” said Dash, her own voice unsteady. “That’s not fair.”

Fluttershy’s lips curved up in a smile even though her voice trembled. “You can’t tell me not to cry. That’s not fair either,” she said with an absurd giggle that ended in a sniffle.

Rainbow Dash laughed too, but she didn’t trust herself to speak right away. Dash lay there amidst the shattered wood, under the clear night sky, watching Fluttershy who watched nothing, watching the most awesome, most beautiful pegasus in the world for the longest minute of her life, wondering whether they were okay or if everything was worse than ever. She wondered what she could say, what she was meant to say, but she had no idea, so she just opened her mouth and let something tumble out.

“I think I get it,” said Dash, spreading her one free wing, pointing it skywards. She watched the green-dyed tips of her own feathers stretch out as though they could touch the inky sky. “I stopped listening to you, and I stopped listening to myself. Except, I… guess we never really talked much, I just stopped listening to the non-talk too. I started thinking I knew what stuff meant, started thinking I knew what I had to do because I got caught up worrying.”

Dash exhaled slowly and ground her head against the grass, scratching an itch. “Heh. It’s funny, actually. I talked to Rarity earlier, and I think she said something clever. I thought that we got out of the Morrowsworn prison because I forced myself to act like a jerk again.”

Fluttershy shook her head slowly. “We got out of that prison because we worked fine together for a little while. At least, that’s what I think. I thought we were finally okay.”

“That’s what she said, too, yeah,” Dash grunted. “I just got super focused on this whole pushing you around thing, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about how different we are, too.”

Now Fluttershy opened her eyes again, smiling at Rainbow Dash. She raised a hoof off the ground just a smidge, like she wanted to reach out and touch her. Dash wanted her to, too, but instead they just lay there. Lay and sat looking at each other.

“We’ve always been different,” said Fluttershy. She didn’t say it as though it was obvious, even though it was. She didn’t sound like she thought Dash was stupid for forgetting that, or like Dash should have known. She just said it, told Rainbow Dash, and it made Dash feel a little better.

“I know,” said Rainbow Dash.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Fluttershy added, nodding again. “That’s what makes it wonderful that we’re such good friends.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know that now,” Dash said, waving a leg in the air. “But if you keep this up, you’re gonna be like me, heh. There’s gonna be two Rainbow Dashes around.” She grinned at her own little joke, but then, maybe there was a nugget of truth to it. Sometimes, with how hard Rainbow Dash pushed her—no, with how hard Fluttershy pushed herself—she had to wonder.

Fluttershy didn’t look like she thought it was a joke at all. She tilted her head sideways. “I don’t want to be you, but I’d like to be a little more like you,” she said. “But I want to be me, to be Fluttershy. I just wouldn’t mind being a Fluttershy who is a little bit like Rainbow Dash.”

“Alright. Hey, that’s your choice and all,” said Dash. She tried her best to play it off cool, to pretend it didn’t make her feel good, but her smile probably betrayed her. Fluttershy wasn’t looking at her any more now though. She studied her own hooves where they met the ground.

“It’s probably easy to understand why someone would want to be a little more like you, really. I don’t think that’s very strange,” Fluttershy continued, more quiet now. “It’s easy to imagine why someone would want to be with you, too.”

“Like girlfriends and stuff? I dunno. With how dumb I’ve been lately, I really don’t know.” Rainbow Dash snorted and turned to look up at the sky. The moon was just a sliver tonight, and each star was distinct. She wondered what Fluttershy had really meant. Sure, on a good day, who wouldn’t want to be Dash’s girlfriend, but why only her? Fluttershy couldn’t seriously doubt why anyone would want to be with Fluttershy.

Fluttershy stretched her wings and got up with absurd slowness, silent for the moment. Dash lay still, watching as Fluttershy picked at the pieces of broken antlers that lay about them. She was pretty sure she lay on a particularly sharp bit of splintered wood herself, she just didn’t have the energy to do more than follow Fluttershy with her eyes.

“What do you mean by ‘no Rainbow Dash’ anyway?” Dash asked, furrowing her brow.

“I’m sorry?” Fluttershy asked, pausing with the harness of one of the ruined antlers hanging from a hoof.

“You said something about there not being any Rainbow Dash in the relationship,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning. “What’s that supposed to mean? I didn’t go anywhere. Did you think I was gonna leave?”

Fluttershy shook her head, smiling faintly. “No. Never. But… relationships are about doing things together. Even before we decided to try being together, we did things together. That was… it was one of the things that made us us. I mean, I don’t think you’ll ever come do the bunny census with me for fun, and I won’t ever do all the things you like to do, but suddenly, we didn’t do any of the things we used to do. Nothing at all.”

Rainbow Dash flicked an ear. That was all fair enough—which was to say it had been dumb—but Fluttershy had said something else, too.

“And that made you think I didn’t love you?” Dash asked, her snout creasing further. It didn’t make sense at all.

Fluttershy picked up the other harness, too, and walked over towards Dash’s saddlebags, putting them down there. “No, I didn’t say that,” she said. “But when there was no you in the relationship, that made me wonder if you didn’t think that I loved you. I wondered if you thought I didn’t want to be with you. Did you bring water?”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash, trying to wrap her head around that. “Okay. Yeah, no, that’s dumb,” said Dash with a snort. “You said you wanted to be with me.” She flailed about with her wing until she got her left side legs under her and managed to get upright again, still a little dizzy. Her head throbbed when she moved. “Water’s in the left bag, I think,” she added, clutching her temples.

“I’m sorry,” said Fluttershy, wincing as she watched Dash sit down opposite her by the saddlebags. “I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry. My head hurts a little too. You’re okay, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” said Dash. She waited for Fluttershy to take a drink of water before she held her hoof out, motioning for her to pass it over. She didn’t know where this all left them, what she and Fluttershy were at this point, but they were talking. Non-stupid talking without hidden meanings and metaphors. That was something.

“And maybe,” Fluttershy added, pausing for a second while she dug into the other saddlebag with her snout. She surfaced with a bit of dried bread in her mouth, tearing off a bite and swallowing, holding the rest between her hooves. “Maybe the other one too. When I said it’s easy to imagine why someone wants to be with you, I meant it,” she said. “But I don’t know about the other way around.”

She smiled as though it was a joke. As though it was funny. Rainbow Dash let the water-bag drop to the ground and clenched her eyes shut trying to hold the rush of anger and disappointment off, but it was no use. “I knew it,” Dash said, the words coming out a hiss between gritted teeth.

“What?” Fluttershy asked, her eyes widening. “I’m just—”

“No,” said Dash, glaring at her. “You ‘just’ nothing, Fluttershy! You didn’t believe me! You didn’t think I actually meant it when I said I wanted to be with you right after we fought the hydra, just like Rarity didn’t think I was serious at first, either! Way, way back when we first talked about getting together, you didn’t believe me!”

“I did!” Fluttershy said, her ears wilting. “I did believe—”

“You didn’t!” Rainbow Dash shouted. “You just thought I was joking around, you don’t think—”

“I did!” Fluttershy shouted right back. “I did believe you, because I wanted to believe you, and because I do believe you, but when things started going wrong, I looked for any way to explain things! I tried to understand why!”

Rainbow Dash swallowed and looked away. “Great. So you don’t believe me now.”

Fluttershy sighed. “You’re twisting my words. I didn’t say that.”

“Yeah. Well, guess what,” said Dash. Her eyes stung and her breath sounded wheezy to her own ears. “Guess what? I can be sincere. I can do something just like that. I can do something without thinking about it for months or years. I can ask you to be my girlfriend and want that without planning it for forever, and I can mean it.”

“I know you can,” said Fluttershy, her voice tinged with desperation. “I know that, Rainbow Dash, and I believe you. I’m sorry.” Dash felt a hoof touch her chest.

Dash took a deep breath and let it out, slowly, then did it again. Finally, she turned back to Fluttershy. She shook her head and wiped her eyes, pushing Fluttershy’s leg away.

“Don’t be sorry. Just shut up and listen for a second. Just because I didn’t think then doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking,” Dash said. Just thinking about all the thinking she had done tired her out, now. She was done with thinking, probably forever.

“I’ve been thinking too much. About how I like being around you and what I wanna do together with you, and now that I know that I… that maybe you don’t think I’ve been a big mean bully, I just—ugh.” She paused, hitching on that thought, and she really wished that she hadn’t. Fluttershy stared at her, waiting with bated breath for her next words, but Rainbow Dash couldn’t go on before she knew for sure.

“I need you to say it.”

“Say what?” Fluttershy asked, her voice thin.

“That I haven’t actually been a big mean bully. That you want me to… to do whatever it was we used to do. You’ve kind of said it, but I need to know,” Dash admitted. Best to get all the lameness out of the way in one big go. Why not? It was just the two of them, and Fluttershy would understand without making a big deal of it.

Fluttershy sighed with relief, a smile spreading on her face as she nodded. “We’ve had some, um, hiccups lately, but you haven’t been a bully. I thought you knew, but it’s nice that you ask. I really want your help. Your encouragement. That’s what it is to me.”

“Okay. Good. Cool, thanks,” Dash said in a murmur, a wave of relief washing over her. She grabbed a quick drink of water before she went on, feeling like she had been on the longest run or flight of her entire life. She drained the last of the water and wiped her muzzle while Fluttershy watched, and Dash knew she was waiting. Dash had said to shut up and listen, but she didn’t really know where to begin. She knew that even if Fluttershy said she believed Dash loved her, she didn’t. Not really. Or maybe there was just no way she would ever believe it as much as Dash wanted her to.

Maybe this was a really mushy thing then, and these were words that belonged in a romantic setting, words that were meant to be whispered and not spoken, but Rainbow Dash didn’t care.

“If you still aren’t sure that I like you, then you probably still think that the reason I like you as a friend or a girlfriend, whatever—” Dash said, waving a wing. “You probably think it’s because you’re the only one who bothers to come out to watch me fly every day,” said Dash.

Fluttershy looked a little taken aback by that. She hid her confusion well, but Dash could see it in her eyes all the same.

“I… I mean, everypony wants someone who can be there for them,” said Fluttershy, fidgeting with her hooves. “I thought that was part of it, at least. I try my best to be supportive, you know.”

“Fluttershy? I don’t want a cheerleader,” said Dash, staring at her. “It’s nice and all, sure, and hey, don’t stop coming to watch, it’s great, but I have other fans. Ugh, how is this not obvious? D’you remember back when we first got together? Somewhere in Ephydoera you said you didn’t know why I wanted to give it a go.”

Fluttershy nodded, slow and deliberate. “I do remember that.”

“Yeah, well, I told you the answer then,” said Rainbow Dash. “I told you that ever since the Hurricane effort earlier this summer, I… I dunno, you’ve been different, or I started looking at you differently.”

Another nod, this time with a decidedly sheepish look. “You did say that. I… didn’t forget—”

“But you didn’t believe me, not completely. Or you didn’t listen. Or I didn’t say everything I should have,” said Dash. Fluttershy opened her mouth to protest but Dash held up a hoof for silence. “You weren’t just awesome. I realised how much I needed you, too, okay?” She chuckled as she thought back to that one day, the singular effort of one pegasus pony who didn’t think she had anything to offer. Forget that she saved the day. “Ponyville needed every wing it could get. Cloudsdale needed the water, but never mind all that, and never mind the Wonderbolts. Fluttershy, I needed you. I think I even said it.”

Fluttershy said nothing. She stared at the ground between them, chewing on her bottom lip.

“I also made you cry. Like, a bunch,” Dash said. She let out a short, stilted laugh that ended in a snort, and that made Fluttershy look up. Maybe she really was listening now.

“Everything that happened that day happened because you encouraged me. Or… or pushed me, if you really want to use that word,” said Fluttershy, her stare intense all of a sudden. “I became stronger for it. I really, really loved you for everyth—um, well, mostly everything that happened that day. How can you say you fell in love with me because of what happened during the Hurricane effort when you changed everything about us after we became a couple?”

Dash ran a hoof through her mane and sighed. “I’ve already told you how I got that stuff wrong, okay? Stuff changed, and I started caring about you differently! Like… making you upset mattered… not more, but differently,” she said, trying to remember exactly what Luna had said. “That doesn’t have to be all bad, does it? Can we just… pretend I never just suddenly got dumb?” she asked. “And that’s not my point! My point is, that’s the day when I realised how much you winning and being awesome means to me. Jeez, Fluttershy, just shut up and let me tell you why I think you’re amazing and why I love you and all that stuff!”

Fluttershy’s cheeks turned crimson. She nodded ever so slightly, and Dash thought she heard her laugh under her breath.

“Have you ever talked to Rarity about how she begins making dresses? Or, uh,” Dash shook her head, quickly correcting herself, “I mean, have you ever had her start talking about it to you, or at you? She keeps saying it’s all about inspiration, that she gets all this… this power from thin air or whatever, and I didn’t think that word really meant anything, but it kinda does.”

Rainbow Dash looked for any sign of recognition in Fluttershy’s eyes, for any hint that she wouldn’t have to spell it out, but now Fluttershy stared at Dash as though she had gone crazy. Maybe she had, but if she was crazy, it was because she hadn’t realised this sooner.

“Fluttershy, I’m your biggest fan,” Dash said. She felt the clump in her throat return, and she didn’t know why, but her wings felt light all at the same time and her heart raced. “Don’t you get it? I love being the center of attention, but come on, it’s even cooler when you kick butt! When we went on that date in Vauhorn, you said some really nice stuff about what I do to my friends or whatever, and that’s great, but do you seriously think you don’t help me out, too? How can you not see how… how cool you are, Fluttershy?” Dash laughed. She couldn’t help herself.

“You keep talking about wanting to be like me, but you can do so many things I can’t do. All the stuff that’s hard is just extra, and yeah, sure, you cry all the way to the top, but you get there!” Dash’s heart hammered in her chest now. The more she talked about it, the more excited she got, and she knew it was because she was telling the truth. “Even if you need a little push on the butt to keep going, you don’t stop! You challenge yourself more than even I do, Fluttershy. There is nopony in all of Equestria who tries as hard as you!”

Fluttershy wouldn’t look at her now. She stared at her own chest, but with her mane being as short as it was, she couldn’t hide behind her bangs any more. Rainbow Dash worried that she was making Fluttershy sad for some reason. She almost looked sad, but Dash couldn’t stop.

“Sure you like to be safe and hide away,” Dash said, pausing for a second to try to steady her cracking voice. “Sure. But when you really need to do something, you try so hard, you work so hard, you—you make me feel like a deadbeat. You just… you do this thing where you put your head down and just go, and it’s—” Dash looked up at the sky and took a deep, shuddering breath. She didn’t know why she was getting teary-eyed herself, but whatever.

“I can’t beat that. I can’t even compete with that. I can outfly the Wonderbolts, but I can’t even begin to compete against you, because it’s like competing against myself. Against the best part of myself and I need myself—I need you,” she said, breathless. “And you, you always win, because… because you’re you. When you told me that you liked me, that was the bravest, coolest thing in the world.”

“I can’t beat that,” Dash repeated. “And I don’t mind, because it’s the best thing in the world,” she finished lamely, her momentum lost. “Winning without having worked for it is… it’s fun the first few times. Few dozen times. But you earn every single win. You’re amazing. You’re awesome. And if all you want from me is that I’m around to just give you a push on the butt, then that’s fine, because it… it makes me feel awesome, too. It’s not about needing you to have my back. I need to know you’re up there. With me. In front. Being awesome.”

Rainbow Dash puffed out her cheeks. When she shut up, there was no other sound to fill the vacuum. They were too far away from Cotronna for any city noises, and she could hear no animal calls, no insect noises. Dead silence reigned except for the rustle of grass and leaves when a breeze passed through the clearing. Fluttershy reached up to wipe her snout, but otherwise sat still.

“You can’t stop coming to flight practice though,” Dash murmured. “I don’t think I’d do my routines every day if you weren’t there. You can’t just leave me hanging there.”

Never,” Fluttershy said hoarsely, covering her eyes with a foreleg.

“Cool. Okay. Glad we got that sorted,” Dash replied, clearing her throat. “Yeah, so, I’m probably a bigger fan of you than you are of me, is what I’m saying.” She forced a grin, and Fluttershy finally looked up, breaking into a laugh herself, giggles mixing with sobs. The other pegasus staggered over to her and touched her neck to Dash’s, hugging around with a wing as she buried her snout in Dash’s mane.

“I didn’t know that,” Fluttershy whispered. “I didn’t know any of that.”

“Yeah. Well,” said Dash, taking a deep breath. She wrapped a wing around Fluttershy’s back in return. “I didn’t either, so I guess I’m glad I thought about it. Hey, no need to tell me why you’re into me, by the way. I know I’m great.”

Fluttershy squeezed her tighter, sniffling. Dash closed her eyes, counting off the seconds of silence. Two. Three.

“No, seriously though, hit me. Tell me I’m amazing.”

Fluttershy laughed, loud and clear, shaking her head and rubbing her snout against the side of Dash’s neck. “I love you,” she said. “I love you so much. I want you to always be around, and you make me better, I—”

“Okay, I believe you, I gotcha, it’s fine, I guess we talked about it a minute ago,” said Dash, chuckling. She folded her wing again, pulling back from the awkward hug. “Just checking.” She didn’t want to give up on their touch entirely though, leaning her forehead against Fluttershy’s, ignoring the dull throbs that reminded her of what was probably a moderate concussion. Another gust of wind swept across the clearing, playing with their manes and tails.

“Heh. Remember the tailband?” Dash asked.

Fluttershy made an inquisitive noise, otherwise quiet and unmoving. After a moment, she shook her head slightly, rubbing their foreheads together.

“You gave me a tailband after the Summer Sun celebration where we met Twilight. I thought you gave it to me because… I don’t remember what I told myself it was for, it just made me think of the whole mess outside the town hall with Applejack and everything.”

“Oh,” said Fluttershy, smiling faintly. “I didn’t know you kept it. I made it to say thank you.”

“Right. The exact opposite of what I thought, probably,” said Dash. “Heh. Don’t listen to your own echoes and stuff, don’t make stories alone, whatever.”

“I’m sorry, what?” asked Fluttershy, popping one eye open.

“Never mind. Talked to a bunch of ponies. And peryton. I guess,” said Dash.

“That, um, ‘whole mess’ at Summer Sun could have worked out better, though, really,” said Fluttershy, her tuft of tail swishing from side to side. “Even if we never used to talk about it before, it wouldn’t hurt to talk a little bit about how we work together.”

“Yeah. We really need to do that,” said Dash, flattening her ears. “I can’t stop thinking it stinks to see you looking really sad and stuff.” She frowned. “That’s your fault too, you know. If you want me to give you a hoof up and kick your butt about something, I’m gonna do that, and we probably don’t have to talk about everything we do, right? But even if I’m not stupid, I can still mess up.” She pulled her head back, but still they stood close, their muzzles not a hoof’s breadth apart. Dash felt Fluttershy’s breath on her face.

“I guess I didn’t understand what you really meant when you tried to tell me stuff in Vauhorn,” Dash said. She didn’t need to tell Fluttershy that admitting it was awkward, and that she couldn’t tell anypony else. “You were using all these… some of it was metaphor, I think? And you were talking about us, but you talked about Neisos instead? I don’t remember exactly, but I think I got you wrong for the same reason I’m having a hard time with all these peryton stories. They’re talking about other people, but you’re supposed to pretend it’s you, right? That’s how you ‘learn’ from them.”

Fluttershy nodded slightly. “That’s what I think, at least.”

“Yeah, well, it’s hard to try to think everything is about me all the time,” said Dash. She felt her smile slip, but she had to trust Fluttershy would understand. Confidence was funny like that. “These stories are hard. And when you’re trying to tell me something, but you try to pretend like you’re saying something else—just… if you’re trying to say something, say it.”

Fluttershy sighed and nodded again, her ears pasted to the side of her head now as surely as if she had glued them there.

“I know, but talking is really, really difficult, sometimes,” Fluttershy said. “I kept thinking you knew what you wanted, so I didn’t want to argue with you, and you said these things—I thought we had talked about what I wanted in Vauhorn, about how I wished things would be.”

Dash grunted. “Yeah, well, lots of stuff is hard. And talking to me is extra hard because I’m really, really hard-headed, I know that. You know that. But we’ve got to try.”

Fluttershy deflated a little. “I’ll try. I promise,” she said, but no sooner had she said that than her voice hardened and took an edge of steel. “But you need to stop saying that you’re stupid. You’re not. You’re amazingly smart in your own way—”

Rainbow Dash couldn’t keep from laughing. “Smart in my own way,” she repeated.

“—and that’s not how I meant it,” said Fluttershy, scowling. “What I mean is that just because you sometimes act before you think doesn’t mean you’re bad at thinking!”

Now it was Dash’s turn to duck her head and look away, her cheeks heating up. “That’s what I’ve been trying to say,” she muttered.

“But you don’t actually believe it yourself! You keep saying that you’re stupid when you’re not! You understand ponies!”

“Most of the time I don’t,” Dash said, chuckling. “I messed up with you.”

“Most of the time you do,” Fluttershy snapped, the anger in her voice taking Dash by surprise. “You really understand ponies and peryton, and there have been a lot of things only you have understood. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without you, you know that. You just sometimes… sometimes it’s like you don’t believe in yourself. You understand everyone else, you just don’t understand yourself.” Fluttershy sighed and shook her head.

Dash grinned. “Like a smartness donut, with me in the middle?”

Fluttershy stared at her, mouth open, the frustration that was plain on her face a moment ago warping, passing through confusion, and finally coming to a full stop at a very small, tired smile.

“Yes, Rainbow Dash. Like a smartness donut,” she said. “I’m serious.”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it,” Dash said. She took the two steps needed to put her over by the saddlebags, pulling out the package of stale bread. She didn’t have anything to add. If Fluttershy expected her to acknowledge that, yes, Dash’s confidence sometimes needed work, then Fluttershy didn’t know her as well as she thought she did. Besides, that was all said and done. Dash was good. Back in action. Awesome, in fact. Awesome and hungry. She grabbed a piece of bread and munched away.

Well, she was back in action, and everything had been said, but “done”? She didn’t know about done. Dash grabbed another piece of bread and shoved the rest across the grass towards Fluttershy, who took a bite as well.

“What do we do now?” Fluttershy asked. A casual question, like asking to pass the salt. What now.

Dash hoped that they weren’t done.

“I don’t know,” said Rainbow Dash. She grabbed the water bag, but realised she had drunk the last of the water a little earlier. She shoved it into the closest saddlebag along with the antler harnesses. “We could try again. The girlfriends thing. The being together stuff.” She rolled her jaw. Stared at the saddlebags. She didn’t want to look up and find Fluttershy’s face already saying no. “I liked it,” she added. “Can we please try again?”

She had to look. She locked eyes with Fluttershy, finding the other mare already nodding.

“I’d like to,” said Fluttershy with a cautious smile. “I’d love to really. I… yes, please. If I can have Rainbow Dash back, my Rainbow Dash, as a friend and a girlfriend who won’t put words in my mouth, and understands that I don’t need to be protected, and that it’s okay if I—if we make mistakes. We can make mistakes without falling apart.”

Dash nodded. “Deal,” she said. “If you promise you’ll tell me if I’m hurting you. I know you’ll say yes, but I really, really mean it. You can’t say you will, and then make me think it’s not okay. I need to know you’re… y’know, okay around me. You can’t make me feel like some evil villain when you’ve asked me to give you a little push to do something awesome.”

“I can try to do that,” said Fluttershy, scratching at one leg with the other.

“And I mean tell me,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning at her. “I want us to go back to being the way we were, just… better, and more of it, with cuddling and everything, but if you do have something you wanna tell me, don’t say it with a confusing story. Or a tailband. Just say it.”

Fluttershy giggled. “I promise. So. Um... are we—”

Rainbow Dash hopped off the ground, spread her wings, and with one single wing-stroke, crashed into Fluttershy bearing her to the ground. Action spoke louder than words, and she had been resisting the urge to bury herself in Fluttershy wings for far too long.