• 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 44


Your home is empty. I do not know which house you guest at, but I leave here this letter in hopes that you see it soon. If not, we will doubtless speak tomorrow.

A letter arrived from Cotronna. I do not know that it has been seen by you. You know as well as any that the flow of words from the ravenry to our people’s ears is as molasses, but the urgency of this scroll has made furrows in the air, and the three ravens who carried it bore feathers red with the flames of speed flying low over Orto. No, you must have heard: The three Equestrians who guested Orto briefer than zebra in fall are now exiled from all cities of kin.

This by itself would not warrant me chasing your tail feathers, but there was a second letter from the Council of Cotronna, this one for you. It was addressed to the one who served as liaison to the Equestrians, and so it lies at your bench in our Council Hall, and I admit this to you now: I looked at it. Out of love for you, I looked at a private letter when I should not have, afeared that it is dire news.

While I cannot with confidence say that is exactly dire, its contents worry me still. They ask you to explain what your dealings with these ponies were. Theirs is confusion. It says this: Orto was given the task of understanding and establishing contact with the Equestrians, and have we not done so? Why did these Equestrians come to Cotronna without word from us? Why did we not advise Cotronna of how to greet and understand them? Has Orto already brokered diplomatic accords with them?

I did not ask you what happened after they left Orto’s demesne, as I was busy with matters of my own, but now I recall that a visiting zebra—Ardo—mentioned in passing that he had been asked to bring a letter from you to another city. I hear now from our colleagues at the Council Hall that this is not the only such letter you have sent.

Can you explain this? What do we tell Cotronna? Have we been neglectful, have you made an error, or can you bring understanding to us?

I think you will. I will tell the council now—to still the budding confusion—that you will speak before them tomorrow. Do not make this a bargain with Esorys, but prove to me that you have been dutiful in your dealings with the Equestrians by explaining this.

With all of Myrtella’s love,

Nelystrinna of Hearth’s Rest

Sunrise. Judging by the light growing in the west, Celestia had decided it was time for day.

Strictly speaking, Dash assumed that daytime was at the same time every morning, but fact remained that somewhere—presumably in Canterlot Castle—Princess Luna and Princess Celestia did some cool hoof-shake or a wing-slap, Luna took away the moon, Celestia cast some weird spell, and the sky lit up as a result. Hundreds of leagues away from Canterlot, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy lay in a tiny patch of shrubland-forest in the middle of Cotronnan farmland, and this very moment, the former of the two pegasi was perfectly okay with the situation. Presumably Fluttershy was happy, too. Judging by the way she smiled as she massaged the underside of Dash’s hoof, she was.

“I’m not being too rough, am I?” Fluttershy asked, tilting her head. She gently rubbed little circles with the tip of her hoof against the softest parts of Dash’s own.

“Mh, no,” said Dash. “Or, maybe a little bit—”

“Is this better?”

“Yeah,” said Dash, smiling lazily. “A lot.”

She had never really been comfortable with ponies touching her hooves— friends or no—and Fluttershy had never given a hoof massage before, either, but who would judge them if this wasn’t how they were done? Rainbow Dash didn’t care. This worked for the two of them, and that’s what mattered. Fluttershy re-awoke the aches of months on the road, and then soothed them. They would have to switch afterwards so Fluttershy could feel this good, too.

Rainbow Dash had missed this closeness. One of a myriad ways in which she had missed Fluttershy despite never having been apart from her.

Way back on the road, Rainbow Dash didn’t think that being a couple meant a lot for her and Fluttershy, that it was just being friends under a different name. Now, as stupid and sappy as it sounded, she realised she had slowly fallen in love with being in love. She wanted Fluttershy to always look at her the way she did when she was happy with her. She just needed to try not to overthink it. Talk a little more. Not worry so much about flying that she crashed, basically. She could do that.

Rainbow Dash reached out with her other hoof and ran it along Fluttershy’s side, following her contours. Sat down, the well-toned pegasus’ muscles were on display, and Dash couldn’t not touch. She had no clue how to give somepony a massage, but she could appreciate how good Fluttershy looked. How strong she had become. As a bonus, the scar on her hock actually looked kinda cool.

Whatever Fluttershy did when they got back, whether she kept her body this way or not—and that wasn’t Rainbow Dash’s choice to make—she had at least gotten to experience being in great shape, something that meant a lot to Rainbow Dash.

Fluttershy blushed faintly under her touch, but smiled and kept up her work. Easy to fluster, but impossible to dazzle. Thrown off balance by a touch or a word, but completely immune to Rainbow Dash’s awesomeness. Used to her, and once more understanding her. Fluttershy was perfect like that. Right now, she looked up at the darkness that slowly dissipated.

“We should probably go back, really,” she said. “Before Rarity wakes up.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Dash. She was annoyed at the prospect of getting up for as long as it took her to realise exactly what Fluttershy had said. She winced. “Rarity.”

“I hope she’s okay,” said Fluttershy. She let go of Rainbow Dash’s hoof, gently putting it down, and Rainbow Dash stood, testing her wings.

“She’ll be okay,” said Dash. “Or we’ll make her okay.” Fluttershy smiled at that, but there was still a tinge of sadness to her smile. “She feels really bad, you know,” Dash added.

Fluttershy shook her head. “We all do, really.“

“No, dummy. About you,” said Dash. She brushed some more bits of broken antler into her saddlebags and put them on.

“Oh. No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” said Fluttershy, sighing. “I feel bad for what I said to her. I guess I was just looking for somepony to blame. I… I said things I shouldn’t have, and she was asleep when I got back, so I never got to apologise.” She shook her head again sadly, her wings sagging until Rainbow Dash reached over with a hoof to push them back up on her body.

“Yeah, well, let’s go talk to her. We’re not gonna fix things by standing around here. C’mon,” said Dash, grinning. She flexed her wings and gave Fluttershy’s side a little nudge when the other pegasus mare finally smiled back. Rainbow Dash soared into the air, and a moment later, Fluttershy pulled up at her side. Their wings found their rhythm all by themselves, the two pegasi flying entirely too close, perfectly in synch, and Rainbow Dash had no idea if Fluttershy even noticed.

Their flight was entirely too short. They had cool morning air and a proper breeze at their backs, and it felt like a matter of minutes before they touched down outside their house. Already the peryton of Cotronna were moving to and fro, and carts rattled by.

Cotronna and Perytonia obviously hadn’t gone anywhere. They were still exiled, and judging by the look on Fluttershy’s face when they landed, Dash wasn’t the only one who just remembered that. There wasn’t anything to be done about that, though. They could make sure Rarity was okay. Rainbow Dash spit on her hoof and pushed the door open.

“Helps get a grip,” said Dash, grinning at her girlfriend, who giggled and shook her head.

“Don’t tell Rarity about that,” Fluttershy replied.

“What are we not telling Rarity?” the pony in question asked.

Rainbow Dash stepped inside alongside Fluttershy, and shut the door behind her with a little effort. Rarity sat by the low table doing absolutely nothing Dash could see. Her mane was dishevelled, and she looked tired, more tired than even Rainbow Dash felt, and Dash had barely slept tonight.

“Hey,” said Dash, waving.

“Rarity,” said Fluttershy, slumping with one ear bent sideways. She took a step towards the unicorn, her head sinking towards the ground. “I’m so sorry. I said all those awful things, blaming you—”

Rarity shook her head quickly and slid off the bench, walking to meet her. “No, darling dearest, no, I’m the one who’s sorry. I’ve treated you—both of you—absolutely awfully. I got so caught up in my own dreadful plans that I completely neglected my nearest and dearest friendships! I’m ever so sorry, but you simply must forgive me, or I don’t know what to do!”

Rarity wrapped a foreleg about Fluttershy, and Fluttershy returned the hug, squeezing her tight, the two ponies holding each other tight for a long moment.

“Of course I forgive you, Rarity,” Fluttershy mumbled into the unicorn’s neck.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and smiled. “Come on, Rarity. You weren’t that bad.”

“You say that, Rainbow,” Rarity said, sighing as she looked over at her. “But I haven’t even told Fluttershy what I told you—that I’ve been jealous, all these awful things—”

“Hey, Fluttershy,” said Dash, interrupting Rarity. Fluttershy peered around the other side of their hug, one brow raised. “Rarity’s been freaking out because she was a little jealous and worried we were gonna forget about her or something. She’s not perfect. Newsflash: It’s fine.”

Rarity’s look of complete and utter indignation was somewhat ruined by Fluttershy’s giggle. Fluttershy gave the unicorn a squeeze and let her go, smiling at her.

“I think that’s understandable, and I’m sorry if we neglected you, Rarity, I really am. We both are,” she said, pausing and giving Rainbow Dash a look, ensuring that Dash nodded her agreement, which she did. ”But you don’t have to worry. We’re always going to be friends. If you ask me, I feel like we’re even better friends now than we have ever been, after everything we’ve done together.”

Rarity looked back and forth between the two pegasi, first looking like she’d had all her feathers ruffled the wrong way, and then mollified by Fluttershy’s words. At last, she simply sighed in exasperation.

“Well, the two of you are certainly… yourselves again, as potent a one-two kick as ever,” she muttered. “I take it this means you have made up?” She perked up, suddenly a touch nervous. “Tell me you have, oh please do, I cannot bear to think you are going to give up on what you have found together!”

Fluttershy nodded and reached out towards Rainbow Dash with a wing. Dash stepped forward to touch a wingtip to hers, smiling at her.

“Either we’re good, or we just decided to head out and fly all night, and we’re really happy because Fluttershy took home first prize in a shessa-bread eating competition,” said Dash. “What do you think?”

“We’re okay,” said Fluttershy, leaning forward to nuzzle Rarity.

“Speaking of which, thanks for the talk,” Dash added, running her wing along Fluttershy’s body to tap it against Rarity’s chest. “Seriously. It helped.”

“Oh. Well, I’m glad,” said Rarity, smiling a touch at that. “I won’t take credit, though. There is only really one thing I have to take credit for right now, and I wish I didn’t,” she said, trailing off. The costumes they had worn yesterday still lay on the smaller table, the unicorn’s smile disappearing before it had a chance to settle. “I am thrilled to hear you two have made up, but I suppose we still need to prepare to leave the city. That, at least, still hasn’t changed. I still don’t know what went wrong.”

“Eh, I kinda think I do, actually,” said Dash, waving a hoof.

As much as that was still true—looming exile and all that mess—Rainbow Dash wasn’t half as worried about that as she was about the way Rarity’s frown refused to fly away. Maybe it was too much to expect that all of her gloom would be dispelled by the wind under Dash’s wings, but part of Rainbow Dash still felt—what was it? Not responsible, not guilty, but she knew there had to be something she could do to help.

“You do?” Rarity asked, blinking rapidly.

“Hang on,” said Dash. “Be back in a sec.” She darted for the stairs, her hooves off the ground until she hit their bedroom, quickly looking around. Their blanket lay on the far bed, and she galloped over, wrestling with it in an attempt to get it onto her back.

“Rainbow Dash? What are you doing?” asked Fluttershy, who had followed after her.

“I dunno,” Dash admitted with a shrug. “But we gotta do something.”

Fluttershy tilted her head.

“For Rarity!” said Dash. “She’s still hard in the dumps. She’s been walking and trotting everywhere. She can’t just fly to rest her hooves like we can, and the hoof massage you gave me felt really, really good. Maybe we could give her one. Something like that.”

Fluttershy nodded and lit up with a smile. “I think that’s a wonderful idea, really. I could massage her neck and her body if you help with her hooves. Maybe one of us could go get something good to eat, too?”

“You wanna head to the market across the street?” Dash asked. “Like, do you want to want to, or should I yell stupid stuff at you a bit first?”

Fluttershy giggled and shook her head. “I think it’s okay. I saw a lot of the city yesterday when I flew away. I can do it.”

“‘Course you can,” said Dash, grinning at her. While Fluttershy disappeared downstairs, she wrangled the blanket on top of her back and trotted down to the living room to a very bewildered Rarity who stood staring at the door.

“Rainbow, dear? Would you be so kind as to explain to me exactly what is going on?” asked Rarity. “Fluttershy just ran out the door with a pouch of gems!”

“Sure!” said Dash. The bench by the larger of the two tables was wide enough, so she put the blanket down there, folding it double and smoothing it out as best as she could, just the way Rarity liked it.

“What’s going on is that you’re visiting the newly opened Cotronna branch of the, uh, the—” she paused as she thought, flying over to land on a clear spot atop the small table. She shoved the remains of the disastrous costumes into Rarity’s saddlebags and dumped them unceremoniously out of sight behind the table, buying a little more time for herself, but nope. Nothing came to her.

“The Cotronna branch of the Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy spa,” Dash finished, tapping a hoof on the table. “Yep, that’s terrible, but we’re sticking with it, and since I came up with it, it’s automatically cool. That’s a fact.” Rainbow Dash laughed at the confused look she got from Rarity.

“I see,” said Rarity, who clearly didn’t.

“Oh, she’s back,” said Rainbow Dash, gesturing to the door just as Fluttershy returned, the pegasus carrying two paper-packaged bundles on her back. The one on top let off steam, and Dash thought she smelled carrot. “Our spa serves food, too,” Dash continued, nodding sagely. “We serve, er, whatever it is Fluttershy’s got. It’s free!”

Fluttershy giggled. “Rainbow Dash, would you get us some bowls? And Rarity, can you help get this on the table without spilling? It’s breakfast soup, apparently. It looked really good. I got some more phela, too. Freshly made.”

“Bowls, got it!” said Dash, ducking past the curtains that separated the kitchen from the living room. She rummaged around until she found some large wooden bowls, and then grabbed another few for water while she was at it. When she returned, Fluttershy had gotten the unicorn onto the blanket, and Rarity had reached peak bewilderment.

“I don’t understand why you are doing this,” said Rarity, frowning at them. Rainbow Dash said nothing, dumping the bowls on the table. “It’s nice of you to get us breakfast, of course, and I admit I’m famished—”

“Not just breakfast,” said Fluttershy, smiling. “If you don’t mind, We’d like to give you a massage. I thought I’d start with your flank, while Rainbow Dash takes care of your forehooves.”

“Rainbow Dash? Massaging?” Rarity asked, and Rainbow Dash realised her mistake. This was utter confusion and bewilderment. Dash had to laugh.

“Come on, I’ll figure it out as I go. I know how to take care of wings, and I can’t make it worse. Gimme a hoof.”

It didn’t take much more coaxing than that. Soon, Rarity lay on her side. Fluttershy stood half on the floor, half supported by the bench while she kneaded the muscles on Rarity’s flank, and Rainbow Dash tried her best to repeat what Fluttershy had done for her, gently working her hoof’s edge along the underside of Rarity’s own. Rarity didn’t complain, so clearly Dash wasn’t messing up too bad. If the unicorn did protest, it was with her silence, and the confusion on her features becoming a faint sadness instead.

“It’s not right, you two,” Rarity said, shaking her head slowly. “It’s not right for you to pour affection onto me like so much chocolate sauce after I’ve been so horrible to you.”

Fluttershy beat Dash to it.

“It’s okay,” Fluttershy said with the gentlest smile imaginable. “You just lost your head a little for the very last day, that’s all, and like Rainbow Dash said, you weren’t that bad. You’re being too hard on yourself, and we want to help.”

“Yeah, seriously, stop it,” Dash said, frowning. “We’ve all messed up different things anyway, and we’re sorry, too.” She let go of Rarity’s hoof and grabbed the other one, kneading the softest parts there as well.

“You’ve been too hard on yourself this entire trip, really,” Fluttershy said, moving around Rarity slowly as she worked her hooves in circles, now up and down, the unicorn’s eyes slipping shut. “You’ve kept comparing yourself to other ponies, worrying that you can’t do the same magic that Twilight can do, and that you’re not as athletic as some other ponies, but that’s not why you’re here.”

“And don’t say it’s about the dresses,” Dash growled. “You know you weren’t sent here to make some stupid dresses.” She let go of Rarity to hold up a warding hoof when the unicorn glared at her. “I get it! Dresses matter a lot to you, and you’re great at making stuff. I know! That’s a big part of who you are, but wake up! It didn’t work out here, and that’s no big deal! You’re smart, great with people, super nice and a bunch of other junk, that’s what Fluttershy’s saying, and she’s right! We’re all way different, and that’s cool.”

“That’s the Rarity we want,” Fluttershy said, nodding and smiling. “Just because your dresses didn’t go over well, that doesn’t mean anything about you as a person, and we love you for who you are, not for how much you are like other ponies who aren’t Rarity. You’ve done a lot of wonderful things while we’ve travelled, and we’re both very grateful to have you with us.”

“I’m glad the two of you are feeling better, at least, I really am, and it does help.” Rarity chuckled softly. “I don’t presume I can expect this treatment every day in the future of our friendship, but… it does make me feel a little better, too, knowing that one is not going to be forgotten, and that somepony feels I have something to give. I… no, that’s all. Thank you.” Her voice wavered toward the end, but she distracted herself by lighting her horn and pouring the still steaming soup into the three larger bowls, filling the room with the scent of cooked vegetables.

“I think you can dip the phela in the soup. I saw some of the peryton do it,” said Fluttershy. At her suggestion, Rarity levitated the bowl over, tore a piece of bread off with her magic, and did just that. “Oh. Oh this is wonderful—try a piece, dear,” said Rarity once she’d swallowed.

“In a minute,” said Fluttershy, smiling and shaking her head. “I just want to finish your other side first. Can you turn around a little more so I can reach better?”

Rarity did as asked, and Rainbow Dash licked her lips, eyeing the food, then Rarity’s rear hooves—then the food again. Rarity giggled, and the unicorn leaned forwards to rub her muzzle against Dash’s.

“If you’re hungry, do eat,” said Rarity. “This was wonderful, thank you. The hoof massage and the thought that went into this.”

“Sure,” said Dash, smiling back at her and returning the affectionate nuzzle. She hopped onto the bench next to Rarity and gave the soup a sniff and a sip. Carrots, celery, onions and at least two other things she didn’t recognise all made for a heady combination.

“You said you think you know what went wrong, did you not?” Rarity asked. The unicorn looked at Fluttershy, smiling at the pegasus who still dutifully worked away at Rarity’s flank, but the question was clearly meant for Dash.

“Yeah. Or, I think so?” Dash asked, shrugging. She grabbed another sip of soup. It had pasta, too. Weird bits of pasta floated in the soup like it belonged. Breakfast soup, huh.

“So, we know we really peeved the Cotronnans,” said Dash, simply.

“Yes, that much is hardly news,” Rarity replied, while Fluttershy patted the unicorn’s flank to signal she was done and switched her attention to the food instead.

“We really, really offended them,” Fluttershy said with a sigh, taking a seat and nodding her agreement.

“Yeah, well, I think we actually offended everyone, not just Cotronna,” Rainbow Dash said. “They didn’t like us saying that the other cities belonged to Cotronna, but it’s not just that. They didn’t like us putting all the cities together like they’re just one thing, either. They said something like that about your dress, didn’t they?”

Rarity dipped another piece of bread, pausing to think with the soggy fry-bread dripping into her soup bowl. “I suppose so,” she said, nodding slightly. “But the dress was meant to celebrate their individual contributions to what could be a wondrous whole. I’m afraid I don’t see the issue.”

“Because—” said Dash, thinking back. “Because they really enjoy being different. Not like they’re strutting around flaunting it, but it’s kinda who they are. They really appreciate being different, and I didn’t understand how that worked. Or, I did get it, and then I forgot,” she said, her ears itching fiercely. She grinned at Fluttershy. “And then I remembered! I don’t think they see themselves as halves, or parts or whatever. They’re not parts of one whole, they’re all-in-one packages, fine by themselves!”

“Surely that’s not true,” said Rarity, frowning deeply. “They’re one nation! I… that is, they are one nation, aren’t they?”

“I dunno. They all call this place Perytonia, so sure? They all like working together, just not the way we do,” said Dash, grabbing another sip. Delicious soup and talking didn’t blend as well as she would have liked. “Princ—heh, no, Luna showed me last night, actually,” she said.

Fluttershy blinked. “Luna?”

“We’re not using the title anymore, are we?” Rarity asked, one brow perched.

I’m not,” said Dash, grinning. She waved a hoof. “Whatever, she showed me what it looked like way back when, before all the mess with the gorges, before they even left the Cauldron. They had their cities really far apart then, too! They had this meeting… meeting place, just a bit of dirt, really, but they called it something that even sounded like Cotronna. Like, Cotra? Corta? Whatever—”

Rarity opened her mouth to protest. Dash knew what she was probably going to say. What did this have to do with anything?

“I’m thinking as I go along!” Dash said, preempting her question. “Just hang on, uh. I’m getting at something. I think. Oh! Right! Yeah, because they were different even then. Like, way different, and that’s the way they like it! But I guess the point is that they’re all equal? Maybe each town has its own princess-that-isn’t-a-princess or something, but they just met in the middle back then, and I guess Cotronna is like that now. Cotronna is just where they meet. It could be Orto, or Vauhorn, or just a patch of dirt. It could be anywhere.”

“They don’t have any princess at all,” said Fluttershy, staring wide-eyed at her soup bowl for a long and quiet moment. “They don’t have a princess, and… and I guess that’s kind of the point?” She looked up, one ear bent in question at her own words more than anything. “They all have different leaders. Some don’t have leaders at all, it feels like, and they all do something different best, like a special talent. But they work together, and instead of ponies with different talents, they are cities with different… I think ‘emphasis’ is the right word? And Cotronna seems to like delegating and distributing and protocol, so maybe they like to help everyone with that. It would be very easy to think that’s the same as our capital.”

“Exactly!” said Dash. “Yeah, they do ‘protocol’ and a bunch of those words Twilight probably reads to herself for fun or something. I don’t know for sure, but what Luna showed me kinda explains it. They’re all their own boss, and we just told them that they weren’t, and I guess—” she sighed, the momentum of her discovery lost upon the conclusion. “They didn’t like that. At all.”

Rarity put a half-eaten piece of bread down on the table edge. “Yes, well, that is an understatement. I suppose I did insinuate that Cotronna was their seat of power. And their Head Consul clearly is no kind of princess or prince, I see the signs very clearly in hindsight. Yesterday was a monumental faux pas.” She paused, repeating the words under her breath with disbelief. No princess.

“What I haven’t figured out is why Khaird said that Cotronna was their capital,” Dash said, frowning at the thought. “He told us that the Head Consul was like their princess, at least. Like what they had instead. What the hay is up with that?”

“Maybe they don’t even know what a princess is,” said Fluttershy, her voice full of wonder.

Rainbow Dash laughed. “Everyone knows what a princess is! Right? I mean… they have to, right? No way don’t they know.”

The silence spoke volumes on Rarity and Fluttershy’s thoughts on the matter.

“Right,” said Dash. “Because we didn’t actually explain, either, and he told us what they had that was most like what he thought a princess was. Good job, all of us.” She sighed.

“At any rate,” said Rarity, gesturing towards the other table, behind which lay the discarded costumes. “I suppose that means the dresses themselves weren’t the entire problem, but I understand they didn’t help matters.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “I don’t think it was about your dresses, and it wasn’t just you. What you told the council through the dresses we wore was just what we all really thought was true. We all thought things would be better if they came together, and we all thought that Cotronna was their capital. If we hadn’t put the dresses on, we would probably have offended them by saying those things instead. What really made them angry was that you gave the sigil to the Cotronnan Head Consul and said that she was the most important peryton.”

“I suppose, yes,” said Rarity, staring at the table as though the dresses, the jewellery and the antlers all still lay there as they had for so long. “I still don’t understand why I ever thought making those was a good idea.” She looked like she had swallowed a bug. “How did I get here? There was nothing beautiful about them, nothing bold, just a… a mish-mash of random parts with no coherent style, ugh.”

Dash took a long, noisy slurp of soup, and didn’t say she told her so. She vaguely remembered Rarity saying something way, way back, though. Something she had thought was important enough to try not to forget.

“Do you remember that bath in Stagrum?” Dash asked. “The bathhouse, not the ocean.”

Rarity nodded gravely. “Every single time we’ve been forced to bathe or wash in a stream, I cherish that moment.”

Dash chuckled. “Not the actual bath. You said something then. Something how fashion is self-expression or whatever.”

“I may have said that,” Rarity allowed, shaking her head. “And it is true enough. Each dress I make is a part of me expressed through my creativity. Ideally, at least.”

“Yeah? Well, what the hay are you trying to ‘express’ about yourself with these costumes?” Dash asked, frowning. “I don’t know anything about dresses and stuff, but I don’t even understand what these are supposed to be.”

Rarity’s mouth hung open for a good few seconds before she finally laughed. “I don’t either, Rainbow. No, thank you for the reminder, and you are absolutely right. I am quite done with the topic, and with those dreadful costumes, except…”

Fluttershy tilted her head. “Except what?”

“Except I am impressed,” said Rarity, pursing her lips. “I never thought I would find a people who put more meaning into one of my creations than I do.”

Dash giggled and shook her head at that, while Fluttershy smiled.

“We did learn that the Cotronnans put a lot of meaning into things. We probably just didn’t learn it well enough, or soon enough,” said Fluttershy.

“Heh, but the peryton from Stagrum was super upset too though, did you notice?” Dash asked. “I was watching the top row, and the other… I guess they were the other cities’ ambassadors, they were really upset too.”

“Oh, they would be,” said Rarity. “If Cotronna does not make all the decisions for every city, the Head Consul must have taken her cues from everyone present, including the ambassadors…” Her eyes widened. “Oh dear. And if Stagrum is responsible for Stagrum’s own trade treaties, the ambassador would be upset that we did not talk to his city. If they all have their own leadership, as you pointed out—”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash.

Oh,” Fluttershy agreed, her voice very, very small.

“—then we have, for lack of a better word, snubbed every single city we have passed through by announcing that our sigil and our message is for Cotronna,” said Rarity. “I had a lingering feeling that perhaps these peryton were all overreacting, but now I understand. We have said that we have no interest in any trade deals or diplomatic negotiations with the other cities,” she finished. It all made sense, and it all followed from what they had discussed mere minutes prior, but Dash hadn’t really thought about it.

Now, Rainbow Dash thought about it.

“Whoops,” said Dash.

“That’s, um, very bad,” said Fluttershy, folding her ears. She sunk down on the bench until she was nearly flat against it.

“Nah,” said Dash, flicking her tail. She hopped down to the floor and trotted over to where Fluttershy’s saddlebags lay over by the other table.

“No?” Rarity asked, one brow raised so high it threatened to push against the ceiling.

“We’re already banished from all the cities anyway, remember?” Dash said, rummaging around. She pushed Fluttershy’s animal encyclopedia away, a few of the abused pages falling out of their own accord. She found what she was looking for right underneath it. “It literally doesn’t matter anymore. Yesterday I was thinking we’d messed everything up, but I just remembered—” she said, yanking out a glass jar filled with little white balls speckled with green. “—there’s at least one family that liked us.”

“That’s the candy that Neisos and his family gave us,” said Fluttershy, her head tilted sideways.

“You mean to open it now?” Rarity asked.

“Candy is for eating,” said Dash, grinning. She flipped open the lid with a little effort and tossed one of them into the air, catching it in her mouth. Like chocolate, but a little spicy, too. She put the jar on the table and sat back down next to Rarity. “Tasty! I feel better already. Try one.”

When Fluttershy grabbed one, so did Rarity, both of them nodding appreciatively.

“Khaird probably doesn’t dislike us,” Fluttershy said. “And though we didn’t talk to her a lot, Ligilia from the resting house in Orto liked us, I think.”

“Mirossa and her mom too,” said Dash, grabbing another of the candy balls. Chewy. “If she didn’t just run off and leave her mom and say it was our fault for talking her into it or whatever.”

“And Phydra, I suppose,” said Rarity, one of the orassh balls arrested, hovering in front of her muzzle. “I can’t quite say for sure how Phoreni feels about us given the terms of our departure from the Grove and Ephydoera—and we never got to say goodbye to Khyrast. The dockmistress in Stagrum can’t be very pleased with us, though, and all the other leaders—”

“Like I said, doesn’t matter,” said Dash, snorting. “We can’t do anything about it. Just forget about it. We messed up, and we don’t get this place. I mean, no princess? What they hay is up with that? I don’t understand how they get anything done here, but they didn’t say Equestria was banished. Maybe someone else can come here and try again or whatever.” She grabbed another candy ball, chewing as she spoke. “Heh, maybe Twilight and the rest of the gang messed up too, and we can switch.”

“Oh goodness, I sure hope not,” said Fluttershy. “You shouldn’t even joke about that!”

“Yeah, yeah”, Dash laughed. “Come on, what are the odds that they’ve messed up half as bad as we did?”

“And you definitely shouldn’t say that,” Fluttershy said, her already severe frown deepening.

Rarity sighed and pushed the jar a little further towards the center of the table, presumably trying to save some of the candy. “Perhaps you are right. As frustrating as it is to have disappointed Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, and though I hardly enjoy the prospect of returning home in shame—” She smiled at the two pegasi, “—what truly matters is that it seems that despite our best efforts, our friendships have survived intact, even if things won’t be quite the same again.”

Fluttershy shook her head slightly. “Just because Rainbow Dash and I are girlfriends doesn’t mean we’re not friends. I hope you’re not worried about that. It doesn’t mean we don’t need you, Rarity. I think it means the opposite, actually.”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash, sticking out her tongue. “We could probably have fixed all this mess between me and Fluttershy way, way sooner if you had actually listened.”

Fluttershy winced and Rarity flicked her ears, her smile vanishing in the blink of an eye.

“Yes, thank you,” Rarity muttered.

Rainbow Dash headbutted her lightly. “It’s what Fluttershy said,” she added, rolling her eyes. “We need you, too.”

“I think what she’s saying,” said Fluttershy, clopping her hooves together, “is that you have a lot to offer, and that we’re very glad we’re still friends, closer than ever.”

“Sure, that too,” said Dash, nodding. “Same thing, but seriously, if you could have said what you told me yesterday like… last month—”

“Yes, yes, I quite get your point,” said Rarity, sighing.

“Rainbow Dash,” said Fluttershy, clenching her eyes shut.

“Fine, shutting up,” Dash said, huffing, but when she again leaned against Rarity, Fluttershy did the same, and Rarity smiled again, the usual understated yet confident smile that belonged on Rarity’s face. Dash grinned to herself. If Rarity was feeling better, maybe she could even convince her to toss Dash another one of the chocolate balls? She was too lazy to get up and reach for the jar. Her musings were interrupted when one of her ears perked up of its own accord.

“You hear that?” Dash asked, cocking her head. Though very little of the noise from the streets could be heard through the thick and well-fitted shutters, Dash swore she could hear a growing noise.

“I think so,” said Fluttershy, getting up.

“There’s some sort of commotion,” Rarity agreed. The three ponies all moved as one towards the ground floor window, Rarity’s magic surrounding the shutters and opening them just as Fluttershy stepped up. Dash hovered just over her friends’ backs, sticking her head out as much as she was able.

Down the street, the usually orderly flow of daytime traffic had been disrupted. A large wagon blocked one side of the street, clearly forced off the center of the road by a procession of sorts that pushed right down the middle.

No, not a procession, Dash realised. Processions and parades were precise and organised, but the figures who occupied the street stalked, painted peryton awkward on the cobblestones as they tried to find cover where there was none.

The Ephydoerans flowed down the street, surrounding another, smaller group of unpainted peryton. The entire scene stood out as completely alien and at odds with the rest of Cotronna, and the Cotronnans themselves stared, the city completely halted in its tracks. Rainbow Dash thought the peryton doe at the very front looked familiar, but she couldn’t say for sure. She definitely recognised two other peryton in between the Ephydoeran wardens, though. One bore soot-stained legs and glittering beads about her neck.

“Is that… Caldesseia? The Morrowsworn Guide?” Rarity asked, incredulous. “And that’s Velysra, the doe who cared for us while we were imprisoned.”

“And Koltares,” Fluttershy added. “I don’t know the rest.”

“And that’s definitely Phoreni at the front,” Dash said. She got a good look at her antlers and her wings when she stopped to talk to a bowing Cotronnan, and then she passed from view, leading the party of two or three dozen around a corner. “What is going on?”

“I don’t even know what our plan is,” said Rarity, hastily wrapping one of the Ortosian scarves about her neck, then, apparently thinking the better of it, she unwrapped it again and instead slung an ohron full of gems around her neck. “Whatever is going on, what do you two think we can do?”

“No idea,” said Rainbow Dash. She didn’t bother pointing out that despite hints of protest, Rarity was hurrying to leave just as quickly as either of the pegasi. Dash scarfed down one more mouthful of soup-dripping bread. “But I wanna know what’s going on. I’m sure that was Phoreni.” She hurried over to the door and waved for Fluttershy, who struggled to pack up the rest of the food and candy in case any of it spoiled particularly quickly.

“That’s assuming anyone will even want to speak with us,” said Rarity. “Our graces are limited in Cotronna right now, and we don’t know where we stand with Phoreni herself!” She grabbed the key but froze mid-stride towards the door. “In fact, if that was Phoreni…”

“In fact what?” Dash asked, but Rarity did not answer. Instead, the unicorn’s horn lit, and a small tablecloth of some kind hovered from a small cupboard by the short wall by the door to land draped across Dash’s back. “What the hay is that about?”

“I think that’s a good idea,” said Fluttershy, nodding her head at Rarity as though it made perfect sense to her. “Phoreni was really upset about the paint, remember?”

“Of course I remember,” Dash grumped, catching on. “Okay, fine.”

“Exactly. I thought perhaps we could at least try to be a little sensitive this time,” Rarity said, trotting down the stairs. “I don’t know if it will help to simply hide the issue—”

“I get it, I’ll keep my wings out of her face,” said Dash, nodding quickly, eager to get on with it. It wasn’t like she had forgotten Phoreni’s repeated attempts to tell them how it wasn’t a joke to her. How the whole mess with the paint hurt her.

“Well, good. I’m glad we agree.” Rarity flashed a quick smile. “Now let us go see what this is all about. I am certain I have no idea.”

“We know the Ephydoerans flew into the Morrowsworn village,” said Fluttershy. “But we don’t know what happened after that.” She helped Rainbow Dash shut the door, and Rarity locked it right away, the three ponies trotting down the street. Dash didn’t bother joining one of the orderly lines that were re-forming now. She’d grab her friends and fly overhead if a wagon decided to try to run at them.

“Whatever’s up, I wanna know,” said Dash. “We were there. Something’s going on, and this all started because of us! We sent the Ephydoerans the message about the Morrowsworn village!”

Fluttershy nodded quickly. “The Morrowsworn started following us long before then, but I don’t think that matters too much. What matters is that we might be able to help.”

“That’s what I’m thinking,” said Dash.

“If there even is a problem, and they want help,” said Rarity, but despite the skepticism of her words, she sped up, suddenly at the head of the pack. “We are talking in circles regardless. Come on, girls, let’s go!”

Catching up to the Ephydoerans didn’t take half as long as Rainbow Dash had expected. She still remembered how the wardens blended into the forest, moving effortlessly through the trees, but that ease of being clearly did not extend to a city of stone. The ponies simply followed the trail of turned heads and disturbed Cotronnan lines, and a few other locals walked the same way as they, clearly just as curious. Two blocks further on, they saw the tail end of the Ephydoerans, two wardens capping off the sky-and-moss-painted party hemming in a group of six unpainted, among whom Dash recognised Caldesseia, Velysra and Koltares.

“What do we say?” Fluttershy asked.

“No idea,” said Dash.

“I couldn’t say either,” said Rarity. “But if that is indeed Phoreni, it’ll be the first time an introduction does not begin with giving someone our names. A little familiarity—for better or for worse,” she quickly added with the beginnings of a frown. Dash shrugged and pointed ahead.

“It is her, though,” said Dash. She didn’t know exactly when she had gotten good enough at telling peryton apart even at a distance and under a cover of paint, but she was one hundred percent sure. Fluttershy nodded, though she looked nervous at the realisation herself. Rainbow Dash kicked off into a jog, cantering past warden after warden, peryton after peryton. She walked within a few paces of Velysra and Koltares, but they were busy talking amongst themselves in angry tones, so she ignored them right back, drawing level with Phoreni a moment later.

The doe walked at the head of the group, not as crouched-down and awkward as the other wardens, but her eyes darted about the buildings with undisguised confusion.

“You new in town?” Dash asked, walking alongside her and trying to keep from laughing.

Phoreni’s head turned around so fast, Dash wondered for a second if she had given the doe a whiplash. She never imagined she would be able to actually catch her by surprise.

“Rainbow Dash,” said Phoreni. Her step faltered, and she stopped, extending one of her wings to signal the rest of the Ephydoerans to halt as well. She looked over her shoulder to see the other two ponies just as they caught up. “Rarity and Fluttershy, too,” she added, her voice hoarse and breathy. She smiled as wide as Rainbow Dash had ever seen her smile, but it lasted only a second before she schooled her features, shaking her head. “You are here, after all.”

“Pft, where else would we be?” Dash asked, laughing. “I guess this means you got our message, but we already guessed.”

“Did we receive your message? It was… unconventional, but we understood the bird’s meaning, and we also found one who had committed the deed,” she said, gesturing to Rainbow Dash. “The one who stole the… the paint.” Her words trailed off into a brief silence, her eyes falling upon Dash’s back, where the pegasus’s wings were covered by a drab brown tablecloth. One brow quirked in an open question.

“What?” asked Rainbow Dash. “You’re the one who said something about the ‘paint unearned’ or whatever you called it.” She tried to keep the edge out of her voice, but her ears bent of their own accord.

“We didn’t want to remind you, or hurt you any more,” Fluttershy added, nodding.

“Call it damage control, if you wish,” Rarity chimed.

Phoreni’s smile was faint but unmistakable. “Do I think you must cover yourself? Hiding oneself in such a manner serves no purpose, but I understand what it is you seek to do. The gesture is noted.”

“Right. Okay, good,” said Dash, wasting no time in leaning over to fling the stupid itchy tablecloth off to the side, flexing her painted wings. Rarity caught the cloth in her magic and folded it, packing it away into her ohron. “You were saying? What’s happened?”

Much has happened, and now we find ourselves occupying a city we did not know existed,” Phoreni replied, simply. “We did not plan for this.”

“Wait, what? You accidentally conquered the Morrowsworn city?” Dash asked, blinking.

“Was it an accident? It was… unplanned,” said Phoreni, though she sounded less than thrilled. “Agaus has stayed behind with the majority of the great-flight, and I have much to do in his and the High Warden’s stead. But you made it to Cotronna at last, as you told me was your goal.” She flashed a toothy smile. “I knew you would. Khyrast and I worried much when we saw the ferocity of this year’s storm, but I was not wrong to assume your strength and your size have never seen eye to eye.”

“The storm was scary, but everything that happened in the Cauldron was much scarier,” Fluttershy said, splaying her ears. She leaned a little bit against Rainbow Dash. “A lot has happened to us, too, but if you got our message… well, you probably guessed.” She looked over her back at the cluster of Morrowsworn in the Ephydoerans’ midst, and Dash did, too. For a brief second, Caldesseia looked up at them, but when Dash blinked, the bejewelled doe looked away.

Phoreni nodded. “I can tell that you have seen much happen since last we spoke.” She raised a hoof and pointed to Fluttershy’s mane. “Your… hairs, they are all different. You look unlike yourselves.”

“Yeah. Like she said, stuff happened,” said Rainbow Dash, chuckling. She nuzzled Fluttershy’s cheek. “I like it.”

“But you said… you occupy the city in the mountains?” Rarity asked. “What does that mean, exactly? Nothing bad? I hope we haven’t inconvenienced you terribly much by sending the message.” She frowned. “I don’t know whether you still feel insulted by all the business with Rainbow Dash’s wings and whether or not you are still angry—”

“The less we say of it, the better,” Phoreni said, cutting her off with a shake of her head. “Do I feel I could have acted better? I have acknowledged that I was in the wrong even back then, and to hold on to hurt gains no one. As for the flight over the mountains and our discovery of these lost kin? Your role in it is not to be blamed. What is done is done, that is the wisdom that must prevail this day.”

She looked up, squinting at the roof-tops of the tall buildings surrounding them. “I am taking my flight to the Great Council Hall, and there is much I do not understand still. I must confer with the council and send letters to the High Warden, and then—” she paused, letting out a deep breath. “Then perhaps we can speak? Tomorrow? We have flown hard all day, and I require rest, but I am… glad to see you safe.” Her voice was heavy with emotion even if nothing else about her expression betrayed it at that moment.

“Sounds good to me,” said Dash, nodding along. “We’ve got some catching up to do, I guess.”

“Except, um, well, you know,” said Fluttershy, fidgeting. “We’ve been banished.”

“Oh. Oh yeah, that’s a thing,” said Dash, her ears twitching. “I forgot.”

Phoreni blinked exactly once.

“We’ve been exiled from Cotronna and all the cities, yours included,” said Rarity with affected boredom. “Very droll, but entirely of our own doing. Well. Mostly our own doing, with a touch of overreaction, but I can hardly judge. You’ll probably hear all about it once you talk to the council, especially if you plan on telling them all that happened, given that we are involved.”

“Eh, they said we had to leave in three days yesterday. No matter how you shake it, we’re still good for tomorrow,” said Dash. “We’ll come visit.”

“Dear, I believe the intention is that we have three days to pack up, prepare for the journey and leave town,” said Rarity. “It’s not a license to ‘hang out’ in town for three days.”

“Pft, like they care what we do now,” Dash countered.

“Sorry,” said Fluttershy, giving Phoreni a sheepish smile. “We can probably come visit tomorrow anyway. Where do you think you will be staying? We’re renting a red house just down the road. I think they said it’s ‘third by sixth’ for this part of town.”

Phoreni sighed and shook her head. “You wander from one disgrace to another,” she said, though Dash saw a gleam of humor in her eye. “It is easier if I find out what ‘third by sixth’ means and send word. I do not yet know where we will be, or what will happen. Things are still undecided. I will ask about the terms of your exile, as well, but unless you have done harm to kin—” she said, lingering on that word in question.

“Never!” said Fluttershy. “We just had a misunderstanding.”

“We are not brutes, dear. Do give us some credit,” Rarity scoffed.

“As long as kicking Koltares and a bunch of the others doesn’t count,” Rainbow Dash muttered, sneaking that technicality under her breath. Somehow she doubted that was what Phoreni meant, anyway.

“Then I cannot see what you have done to disgrace yourselves in my own eyes, council or no council,” Phoreni concluded.

“That’s comforting to hear at least,” said Rarity, smiling.

“But!” said Phoreni, raising one wing to the air. The Ephydoerans filling the street behind her perked up. “This talk is not the talk of the future of Perytonia, and that is the conversation I must have with the council now. Will we speak again soon? We have not spoken our last.”

“Sure, see ya!” said Dash, waving as they said their goodbyes. Once again the peryton of Ephydoera stalked down the street, using as much of the space as the curious and bewildered Cotronnans gave them. This time, Dash caught a sad smile from Velysra in passing, the doe walking with her head low. A small but growing group of Cotronnan peryton followed after the party, gesturing vividly and talking amongst themselves.

“I suppose that means we stay in Cotronna for the day, at the very least,” Rarity said, watching the last of the Ephydoerans disappear around the corner of the next block. “Do we have any other unfinished business?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “I got nothing. I wanna go see what Phoreni’s up to, but if she needs to talk to the dumb peryton up in the council first, I guess we’ll have to wait. Heh, and speaking of the Ephydoerans and stuff, anypony else think they looked weird in the city? That blue and green looks so stupid here.”

“Um,” said Fluttershy, looking pointedly to Dash’s back.

“Hey, whoa, whoa,” said Dash. “Their blue is cerulean! Mine is more… deep sky. Totally different! And I wear the green better. No contest.”

“Yes, well...” said Rarity. “No comment. Do either of you have suggestions on what we might do to pass the time?”

“Actually, I know a pretty nice café,” said Fluttershy with a lopsided smile. “I found it yesterday when I was… taking a walk.”

“By all means, darling. Lead the way,” said Rarity.

Dash glanced up at the bright and cloudless sky above. It might not be as ridiculously hot as some of the days, but it was hot enough that she wouldn’t mind some shade.

“Yeah, okay. If it’s got something cool to drink, I’m in,” said Dash, shrugging.

“Ryshalos’ Rest?” Rarity asked, her snout creased as she peered at the peryton scrawl on the pole-mounted sign. Like so many other public establishments, the eatery had an open front, but stood out for having not one, but two entire floors lacking a front wall. “Unless you have learned how to read their letters, you must have asked someone what this place is called,” the unicorn said.

“I did spend most of yesterday evening here,” said Fluttershy with a nod. She gestured to an empty table on the second floor, trotting towards stairs set on the back of the ground floor right next to a long bar desk. Rainbow Dash didn’t bother with that. She ducked under Rarity, stood up straight, and took off with the unicorn on her back. Rarity let out a squeal in surprise that lasted exactly as long as it took for Dash to set her back down on the floor, this time on the balcony-like second floor that overlooked the docks.

“Just because we are not yet back in Equestria,” Rarity said, her cheeks flushed, “does not mean that I am baggage to be carried around at your whim!”

“Sure it does,” said Dash, laughing. “Gotta enjoy it while it lasts.” They got more than a few weird looks from the many peryton scattered about the low tables that studded the floor, but nothing more than that. Fluttershy came trotting up the stairs a second later, shaking her head in the mildest of reproaches possible.

“Speaking of while it lasts,” said Rarity, brushing imaginary dust off her chest. “What did Princess Luna have to say about transport back home to Equestria?”

“I didn’t ask,” said Rainbow Dash, scratching at her snout. “We kinda had more important stuff to talk about.”

“More important—” Rarity sputtered.

“Yeah. Like fixing stuff with you guys. She helped me out big time,” said Dash, holding her gaze. She ran a wing along Fluttershy’s back and smiled, and Fluttershy smiled back, stopping Rarity short.

“Well. I see,” said Rarity, clearing her throat noisily. “I… yes, I suppose there are some things that are more important. Forget I said anything at all. But that’s the second or third time you’ve failed to ask the Princess about our return. You do realise that at this rate, we are going to have to find somewhere outside of town to sleep while we wait.”

“It’s not such a bad thing, is it?” Fluttershy asked, taking a seat between the two ponies. She smiled at Rarity. “We have a lot of experience sleeping outside now, and we could always pick up a bigger tarp or a new blanket tomorrow to make it a little more cozy. Maybe even a tent? Besides, I think the weather is getting a lot better.”

“Just because we have been on the longest camping trip of my life does not mean I am eager to go on another one,” Rarity said. “In fact, I believe I am cured of camping urges for the rest of my life.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Oh come on. It’s been fun!”

“Do they serve drinks here, then?” Rarity asked, changing the topic completely and turning to Fluttershy. Dash knew why. Not only did Rarity not deny that she’d had a good time, Dash was pretty sure she had caught a smile lurking under that frown. “Cold cider or grape juice? Anything?” Rarity continued, fluffing her shortened mane.

“Oh, I think they have both, even if their cider is a little different,” Fluttershy replied, nodding and smiling. “You order at the bar, and they can bring it up if you like. I don’t know what their prices are like, though. I didn’t bring any money last time, but someone bought me something to eat.”

“Anything good? I smelled something vegetable-y downstairs. What did you have yesterday?” Dash asked.

“We ate just before we left, dear,” said Rarity. “That was less than an hour ago. You cannot possibly be hungry again, unless that’s Pinkie Pie in there somewhere, dressed up as—” she went quiet for a half second, then shook her head. “No, I’m reasonably sure you’re Rainbow Dash.”

Dash rolled her eyes. “Ha ha.”

“They grilled and salted some vegetables,” said Fluttershy. She stared at Rainbow Dash with open curiosity. “But speaking of food and weather, actually… it really is getting a little less hot these days. Summer’s been over in Equestria for a long time now. You don’t think that’s why you’re hungry now?”

“Huh. Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. She glanced down at her own chest and ran a hoof along her coat. “I guess that’s it.”

Rarity made an inquisitive noise, her snout creased. “Your winter coat is coming in now? It’s still hotter than any day we’ve ever had in Ponyville, that’s ridiculous.”

Dash shrugged. “It takes a long time for pegasi to get our winter coats, and it has nothing to do with temperature or whatever. Can you imagine what a mess that would be? We play around with weather all the time, and it’d be really dumb if we started getting shaggy while making something that’s not on-season! It’s just the time of year.”

Fluttershy nodded. “Don’t you remember last year? Twilight wanted to study us because she had never heard of it.” She giggled. “I guess Canterlot’s libraries don’t have a lot of volumes about pegasus physiology.”

Rarity chuckled and shook her head. “I must have missed it. That must be a bother, though. I would perish if I got mine while in Perytonia. It shouldn’t be any later than early or mid fall back in Ponyville.”

“Like I said, we get it real slow,” said Dash. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“And besides, Rainbow Dash always gets hers early,” said Fluttershy. She extended a wing to rest it lightly on Dash’s back. Dash scooted closer until she sat flank to flank with Fluttershy. She meant to insist on food again, but from where she sat now, she faced the missing wall of the eatery, looking out over the docks unobstructed by any guard railings or anything.

The dockside traffic was as orderly as the rest of Cotronna, and though the peryton here did not hide in the shade like the Vauhornites did mid-day, there was a relaxation to their movement that was so very peryton.

The ships, the masts and the rigging, the bustle of peryton loading and unloading cargo—all the sedate chaos of the docks just across the street and beyond the boardwalk obstructed their view of the sea, and though Cotronna was unique among the other cities, so were they all. All unique, but with the same essential core of the peryton people. Rainbow Dash had almost gotten used to it now. Used to the constant surprises and re-adjustments, to trying to understand new peryton. She was almost as used to the sight of peryton and their cities as she was to watching ponies walk by Sugarcube corner while she had a lunch muffin.

“Rainbow? Are you quite alright?” Rarity asked.

“Yeah,” said Dash, shaking off her thoughts and tearing her eyes off the streets and the glittering ocean. “It’s been a while, huh?”

“Hm?” asked Rarity.

“You mean since we left Equestria,” Fluttershy guessed. Dash felt her tail touch against her back.

“Yeah,” said Dash. She forced an awkward chuckle. “You know, at first when we got here, I thought it was weird whenever they talked about ‘seasons’ instead of months as a time thing, but we’ve actually been here for a full season.”

“One or two, depending on whether they count first and second summer as separate seasons,” Rarity mused, her eyes on the docks now as well. “But we’re getting uncomfortably close to starting our third month abroad, I believe.”

“Jeez,” was all Dash had to say to that.

“Did you want something to drink? And maybe something to eat?” Fluttershy asked, seeming rather less fazed by that particular truth. She got up and gestured to the stairs. “If one of you come with me, I’m sure I can handle ordering and everything.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Dash, grinning at her.

Many hours later, they still sat at the same table, chatting and glancing out to sea. Though dark threatened, the peryton were fastidious about keeping the streets clear around the docks, probably owing to the many great wagons that rolled by. Whenever one of them rumbled along the cobbles outside Ryshalos’ Rest, talk was impossible for a good half minute.

Rainbow Dash had slung a foreleg around Fluttershy’s neck, the two pegasi sitting as close as they possibly could, and Fluttershy had grabbed Rarity with a wing, pulling her closer as well until the three ponies sat side by side at a table littered with empty bowls of all sizes and shapes.

“Do you know,” said Rarity, frowning. “I am going to miss it.”

“The city, or Perytonia?” Dash asked. “Yeah, me too,” she added before Rarity even replied.

“It would be nice to have a little more time, even if we made some mistakes,” said Fluttershy, nodding her head. “We’ve actually spent as long here as we have in any of the cities, haven’t we? I wish we had stayed longer in Orto.”

“All the other cities,” Rarity murmured in agreement, covering a yawn with a hoof. “Especially Stagrum with its bathhouses.”

“I’m sure they have something like it here, somewhere,” said Fluttershy, giggling. “Maybe we can visit a bathhouse tomorrow before we leave.”

“A last hurrah, in a sense,” said Rarity, smiling back at her. “Yes. I like that idea.”

“Sure,” said Dash, stretching lazily before she put her wing back in place. She pushed her snout up under Fluttershy’s jaw, causing the other pegasus to make a little squeaking noise. Success.

“But,” said Rarity, slowly disentangling herself from the other two ponies. “As much as I do stand by the sentiment, I am very much eager to get home to Equestria, to Ponyville, and to Carousel Boutique again, assuming it still stands. You will let Princess Luna know to come pick us up when you go to sleep, won’t you, Rainbow Dash?”

“Yeah, I need to talk to her anyway,” said Dash, nodding absent-mindedly, but even as she did so, she realised that the notion bothered her. Not because she necessarily wanted to stick around and munch on phela, vegetable soup or kelp for the rest of her life—she shuddered when she remembered that kelp cakes were a thing—but because she felt like there was something else she should, or could be doing.

“Maybe we can go back to our house anyway,” Fluttershy suggested. “I wouldn’t mind.” Rarity nodded her agreement and stood, stretching out her limbs.

“Let’s,” said the unicorn. “With luck, perhaps we can find something else to do tonight on our way back home. If we can find a copy of the board game I played with Neisos, that would be wonderful—I can teach you to play.”

“Sounds good,” said Dash, smiling at that. She pointed to one of their neighbouring tables where a group of peryton hunched around a bunch of small stone game pieces, their antlers glowing in turn as they moved them about. “Those guys over there are playing something. Let’s ask them where they got it.”

She definitely didn’t feel done. Rarity had mentioned unfinished business earlier in the day, and Rainbow Dash was sure they still had some. Presently, Rainbow Dash lay in bed between Rarity and Fluttershy, leaning against the latter and idly playing with a hoof along her leg. Fluttershy smiled in her sleep, and Rarity leaned against Dash in turn. Their backs was a mess of interlocked wings that would require serious preening if they slept like this, but at least their manes were too short to get tangled.

Not the worst way to sleep. Possibly the best way to sleep, really. Rainbow Dash had her girlfriend back, and Rarity was cooler than ever before. Things had changed, and changed again, and ignoring the whole failing their mission and disappointing the Princesses detail, she couldn’t be happier.

And she had no desire to close her eyes. Rainbow Dash quested her hoof a little further up, resting it where Fluttershy’s foreleg met her body.

If she closed her eyes, she would sleep. If she slept, Luna would come by, and she’d have to talk in earnest about how they failed. Annoying, but true. Then she’d have to ask the Princesses to send someone to get them—and what if Luna just said “okay” and whisked them back to Equestria in an instant? Apparently she was crazy magical and could probably do that. If she could turn a monster into a rainy snake and some stupid burning bird, dumping the three ponies back in Ponyville couldn’t be all that hard, could it?

Okay, odds of that happening were slim, but point remained that she wanted to see Phoreni first. She didn’t feel done. She didn’t feel finished until she knew what would happen to the Morrowsworn. Her eyelids drooped, and she covered up a great yawn. Fluttershy shifted a little, nuzzling her in her sleep. Dash smiled and sighed contentedly as she thought.

If she never fell asleep, she couldn’t contact Princess Luna. That much was obvious, and obvious stuff made for the best plans. Dash grinned to herself and began the laborious but necessary process of sneaking out of bed without waking either of her friends.