• Published 23rd Dec 2011
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A Bluebird's Song - Ardensfax



Rainbow Dash is struggling against her own past. Is it time for her rising star to fall?

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The Open Sky

A Bluebird’s Song

~~~
Sing a different song
‘Til you’re running the ledge
To the gasp from the crowd
Spinning round in your head
Everything that she said…
~~~

The Open Sky

The air in the cloud-walled room may have been thin from altitude, but the expectant atmosphere could have been cut with a knife as Rainbow Dash and Lightning Flare shook hooves.

Twilight was glaring suspiciously at him, as if half-expecting him to suddenly attack. Fluttershy had edged nervously to the back of the group, and Rarity moved almost subconsciously to stand protectively in front of the timid mare. Limelight was watching the exchange with apprehension etched on his face.

Dash, however, seemed more at her ease. At the sight of her smile, Lightning Flare seemed visibly less nervous. After the hoof-shake broke, Dash scratched the back of her head, a little awkwardly. She was painfully aware that she had referred to him as seeming ‘bigheaded’ in her interview, and was hoping somewhat forlornly that Lightning did not read the Cloudsdale Journal.

“So…” she began, not quite making eye contact. The unasked question hung in the air between them, the silence seeming to balloon in the empty space.

“I just wanted to wish you luck,” said Lightning, hurriedly.

“Thanks,” Dash smiled again, still a little wrong-footed. “I… How come, though? I’m trying to break your record, aren’t I?”

The white pegasus shrugged, apparently genuinely unconcerned. “That’s what records are there for, I guess. ‘Sides, you’re a real athlete from what I’ve seen. I can respect that.”

“You’re not so bad yourself, the way I heard it,” Dash remarked, a little of her customary easygoing attitude returning. “I watched the 50-mile sprint once, back when I was a kid. It’s quite a race to put yourself in for.”

Lightning laughed, relaxing visibly now that he knew the other pegasus was not hostile towards him. Dash could understand his wariness; the papers had been making them out to be the bitterest of rivals, in an attempt to whip up the hype for the event, and he could not have known that Dash did not take this point of view herself. “They train us tough up in Las Pegasus. You’ve got to be, to fly in that kind of weather.”

Dash nodded, remembering the constant dust storms that whipped the region around the northern border, making flying nigh-impossible for all but the toughest or most foolhardy. Gilda had booked them both tickets to watch the sprint, mostly for nostalgia’s sake. She had lived in Las Pegasus ever since she had hatched, and attended the Nova Academy for a few years herself. She had never confided in Dash the circumstances of her leaving, but most students of the academy that they had encountered had given her a wide berth, eyeing the griffon with apprehensive glares.

Limelight sighed audibly with relief that Lightning’s appearance had not rattled Dash too badly. “I’m just gonna head back to check a few things with the event team, while you guys catch up.”

Twilight nodded, also looking pleased at the lack of animosity between the two pegasi. “Sure.”

“Back in a few.” Limelight turned, and vanished through the door marked Event Preparation.

“So, what’s Las Pegasus like these days?” Dash asked, interested to hear what had become of the city her sometime-friend had hailed from. “Still dusty?”

“You know the place?” Lightning’s eyes brightened. “Yeah, still dusty. Still pretty crazy, too.” He rolled his eyes, looking suddenly irked. “And it’s still packed with griffons, obviously. That’s what you get for living on the northern border.”

He spoke as if the presence of griffons was a stain on the town’s good name, his tone of voice indicating that he expected Dash to agree with him. She raised an eyebrow, a little surprised at this attitude. She had met plenty of griffons during her life, and most of them had seemed pleasant enough, if a little overbearing.

To be fair, Gilda wasn’t all she was cracked up to be, piped up a small voice in the back of her mind.

Yeah, but neither did Trixie, and you don’t have a problem with Twilight because she’s a unicorn, do you?

“Uh, I guess so?” The reply turned inadvertently into a question, her expression betraying slight unease. Dash tried to mask the moment, hastily continuing. “So, what’s different about Nova? I was at Cloudsdale, and that kinda sucked most of the time.”

“I know what you mean,” Lightning agreed, nodding. “None of the guys there can even get close to me, it’s so rare to get a challenge. I bet you know how it goes on the ground; some of ‘em try to pal up with you, the rest try to bring you down.” It was strange, really. The words sounded more like a statement of fact than boasting. A small, rueful note in his voice hinted that he resented his own success, for the separation that it naturally brought with it.

“Yeah,” Dash snorted. “They know they can’t get close in the air, so tryin’ to screw you around on the ground’s all they’ve got left.” She felt an unexpected and comforting sense of familiarity; almost of camaraderie. The life that Lightning had described was all too familiar.

Lightning grinned, the slight self-doubt gone from his eyes. “I guess so, but hey. That’s how pegasi do things!” There was a proud emphasis on the word ‘pegasi’, and something flared in his expression that gave Dash a nagging sense of uncertainty, a doubt born of the cracks that occasionally showed in his façade. Twilight had mentioned something about him, hadn’t she? The yield of some minor piece of research into his background? The memory floated in her head, almost dreamlike, semi-acknowledged.

Arrested three years ago… A pro-pegasus student rally that turned violent… Suspected that he was the one who started the hostilities…

Dash realized that her friends had not spoken for several minutes now, and turned hurriedly to introduce them in order to fill the sudden void in the conversation. She gestured to the five ponies. “By the way, these are my friends from Ponyville. They came up here to cheer me on.” She trotted over to Twilight, then paused, a little unsure of how she should introduce the unicorn. Twilight was fine with airing their affection openly among their friends, but Dash did not know how she would react if their relationship were announced to a stranger, and wanted to avoid embarrassing her. On the other hand, it might seem cold to describe her simply as a ‘trainer’ or ‘friend’.

Twilight noticed Dash’s uncertain gaze, and gave an almost imperceptible nod, indicating her assent. Dash smiled, realizing that Twilight had practically read her mind, as always. She trotted over to stand beside the unicorn. “This is Twilight Sparkle, she’s my marefriend, and she’s the one who’s been training me.” She tried to keep her voice casual, but the expression on Lightning’s face when she turned back to face him took her by surprise. He was staring at Twilight, his expression one of blank disbelief.

“Whoa,” he muttered, attempting to compose his expression, his voice a little uncomfortable. “I’d heard you were being trained by a unicorn, but I guessed it was just hype. You’re… you’re together too, huh?”

Dash nodded, her eyes narrowing a little. “Yeah,” she said, her expression daring Lightning to have a problem with the affirmation.

“But… this is flying we’re talking about,” Lightning broke Dash’s gaze, and looked back to Twilight. He seemed rattled, but was obviously attempting to disguise his consternation as curiosity. “What could a unicorn have to offer a pegasus?”

“More than enough,” Twilight replied, coolly, not for a moment taken in by the thinly-veiled contempt.

“Believe it or not, there’s more to this game than just flapping,” added Dash, wryly.

Lightning Flare shook his head, his composure visibly slipping. “I never expected this,” he grunted, shortly. His voice dropped to a low tone of frustration. “Isn’t there anywhere you can get away from…” He cut himself off at the last second, apparently realizing that his indiscretion had left him on already shaky ground.

Twilight’s eyes widened in realization. “So that’s why you’re here!” she exclaimed. “This isn’t about Rainbow at all, you just wanted to see if the rumours are true about her being trained by a unicorn.”

“No!” Lightning backed up, suddenly defensive. “I… I’ve never met a pony who could challenge me before,” he explained, turning hurriedly to address her next words to Dash. “I was at the young flyer’s contest last year. I couldn’t compete ‘cause of a sprained wing, but I wanted to watch anyway. You were… amazing.” His voice sounded open and genuine, but his eyes narrowed angrily a moment later, and he threw up his forehooves in frustration, abandoning any pretence he had once maintained. “Then I come here, and I find this. It’s all wrong. What makes you think that she knows the first thing about flying?”

Dash snorted. “What makes you think it’s any of your business?”

“I don’t want her to mess you up!” exclaimed the stallion.

“Mess me up?” Dash shot back, angrily. “She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me! I wouldn’t even really know who I was if it wasn’t for her.” Despite the situation, Twilight could not hold back a small smile, her spirits lifting a little in response to the open affection in Dash’s words.

Lightning took a deep breath, attempting to calm himself down, and lowered his voice with obvious effort. “Look, Dash,” he said, quietly. “I respect you. Hay, I look up to you. I’m trying to help you. It’s her I’ve got a problem with.” He jabbed an accusatory hoof in Twilight’s direction, throwing her an unpleasant look.

“Let’s get this straight, Lightning,” said Dash, her voice also low, suffused with a dangerous confidence. “If you’ve got a problem with her, you’ve got a problem with me. You don’t know one single thing about Twilight; how can ya even have a ‘problem’ with her?”

Twilight took a step forwards, before the white pegasus could respond. “This obviously isn’t about me,” she said, turning to Lightning in a forlorn hope of attempting reconciliation. “It’s pretty clear what the issue is. I’m a unicorn, and you don’t like unicorns.” Her voice rose a little. “I could be Equestria’s greatest expert on flying, and you’d still hate me.” She snorted, shaking her head in mild contempt.

“Can you blame me?” snapped Lightning, pawing at the floor with a hoof and leaving deep scores in the cloud surface. “Flying’s the one thing we pegasi have left, and now you unicorns are trying to muscle in on that too. Just because the princess favours unicorns, you think you can stick your noses in wherever you want.”

It was all Twilight could do to contain a groan. This again? “The princess doesn’t favour anypony,” she explained, tiredly. “She’s not like that; we’re all ponies to her, not unicorns or pegasi or earth ponies. We’re all her subjects.”

Lightning turned away with a shake of the head. “Well then, don’t say I didn’t warn you, Dash. I know a great flyer when I see one, and it’s not something some unicorn can teach. Something about the eyes, something that tells you way more than the wings. Just… just remember you’re a pegasus, okay?”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Dash replied, curtly. Then she looked at the unicorn beside her, smiling a small, secret smile. “I guess you’re right, in a way. The things I’ve been able to do, the way I’ve been able to change myself… It’s not something some unicorn could have shown me the way to finding. It’s something Twilight showed me, and if she’d had wings instead of that horn, I know she’d have done just as good a job.”

Twilight blushed, caught off guard by Dash’s words, but smiling gratefully nonetheless.

Lightning turned to leave, with a sigh and a small shake of the head. The anger had left his eyes, and in the moment before he turned away, he looked almost disappointed with himself. However, whether it was directed at his own behaviour, or merely at his failure to convince, Dash was not sure. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “This didn’t go the way I’d imagined it.”

“Well gee, ah wonder why that was?” burst out Applejack, taking a step forwards, her eyes angry. She had been watching the exchange in silence, with mounting indignation, but it seemed that her temper had finally got the better of her. “If ya’ll are plannin’ on insultin’ a pony as close ta Rainbow as Twi’ is, ya don’t have any right ta be surprised if she don’t take kindly to ya’ll afterwards.”

“Exactly,” added Rarity. “Frankly, if you’ve done a poor job of winning Rainbow over, you’ve only got yourself to blame. She loves Twilight, and she’s not going to stand for your idiotic prejudices.”

Lightning turned at the door to face them again. He looked wearied, but Rarity’s words had rekindled a spark of irritation in his eyes. “That’s exactly the problem! No pegasus with the least bit of sense should get close to a unicorn. They’ll suck you dry, anypony knows how decadent unicorns are.” He gestured in Rarity’s direction. “I mean, just listen to her. Typical debutant, right down the affected accent, out to take the world for whatever she can get out of...”

The words, however, died in his throat when he noticed the look that Fluttershy was giving him. Her fur was bristling, and the expression on her face could have melted an iron bar as she stepped out from behind Rarity. Her eyes dared him to say one more word against the alabaster unicorn.

Suddenly aware of the silence, Rarity looked around and caught sight of Fluttershy. The expression of indignation at Lightning’s outburst fell from her face, and she took an involuntary step back from the canary pegasus.

“I think it’s time you left,” said Fluttershy, quietly. A strange chill seemed to radiate out around her, even though she never raised her voice.

With an infuriated and slightly fearful snort, Lightning turned and walked back the way he had arrived. “Dash,” he called back without breaking stride or turning his head. “If you were a real pegasus you’d see how crazy this was. You might have the wings, but if you defend the unicorns, you might just as well be one.” He vanished around the corner without looking back, and the sound of his muffled hoofbeats receded down the corridor.

In the silence that followed, Pinkie Pie voiced the general sentiment, one eyebrow raised to the point where it was in danger of vanishing into her mane. “What the hay just happened?”

Rarity was looking at Fluttershy, and was apparently wondering much the same thing, but for somewhat different reasons. The canary mare had reverted to her usual timidity, and was hiding her face in her mane, a deep blush staining her cheeks.

Dash sighed, turning to the others. “I’m sorry, guys.” She shook her head, disbelievingly. “I should have expected that,” she added, quietly.

“Rainbow,” Twilight rested a comforting hoof on the cyan pegasus’s withers. “I didn’t see that coming either. He seemed… he seemed almost like a kindred spirit for you, at least at first.”

The truth of the words cut deep, although of course Dash knew that such was not Twilight’s intention. He was so similar to her, and yet so far away. The pony that she had gone to such lengths to avoid becoming, only to find that the reasons for her repulsion had been utterly misplaced. The arrogance that she had expected had been strangely absent, and yet his blind anger and preconception had stung all the more, for the memories it invoked. Perhaps he genuinely cared; perhaps he truly wanted to protect her from an enemy that existed only in his head. In a way, she yearned to understand the reasons behind the way he thought; understand him in the way that she understood her sister.

Are you defending him? After what he said to Twilight? To Rarity?

Of course not. But think about Cloudshine. I don’t hate her for what her life led her into; I pity her. Because I could have been her if things had been different.

“We both knew he was anti-unicorn,” Dash replied, at length. “I just never guessed how deep it went. I’m sorry he said those things to ya. You too, Rarity.”

Twilight smiled, and hugged Dash gently around the neck. The pegasus sighed softly at the sensation of Twilight’s breath playing gently across her face. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, Rainbow,” she whispered.

“Quite so, dear,” added Rarity, eyeing the space where Lightning had stood with an air of distaste. “It’s clearly not your fault that he was such a bigoted lout.”

Dash closed her eyes for a moment, prolonging the embrace for as long as she dared. “I love you, Twi’,” she breathed in the unicorn’s ear, keeping her voice low, for Twilight’s ears alone, and relishing as always the slight shiver that passed through Twilight’s body at the words.

“I love you too, Rainbow,” Twilight murmured in response, her eyes half-closed, her voice warm and sincere. She reluctantly pulled away from the embrace as the Event Preparation door opened, and Limelight returned, clutching a clipboard in his hooves.

He halted in the doorway, looking around at the group of ponies, and noting Lightning’s absence. “Is everything okay? Where’s Flare?”

Dash realized that time was ticking away. Indeed, she could hear the soft thump of hooves through the cloud ceiling above her, as some early arrivals filed into the Cloudiseum and began searching for their seats. It was hardly worth re-iterating what had happened, and Dash felt that she did not have the stomach for it, anyway. “It’s fine.” She smiled a little woodenly at the auburn stallion. “He had to go take his seat, I think he showed himself out though.”

“It was certainly interesting to meet him,” added Twilight, cottoning on to what Dash was doing. The others nodded in vague agreement, with the exception of Pinkie, who still seemed a little lost.

Limelight let out a sigh of relief, apparently happy to not enquire further into the matter. “Okay, that’s great. Sorry he burst in on you like that, guys. I told him to wait.”

“It ain’t your fault,” said Applejack, reassuringly. “Now, Ah reckon we’d best get down to business. Ah’d hate to send RD here up without her knowin’ where she’s headed.”

Dash laughed, although it still sounded a little forced. Questions were spinning in her head, but she forced them to the back of her mind. She would probably never see Lightning again, and if she did he would simply be a face in a crowd of thousands. There were some mysteries that she could never know the answers to, and some ponies whom she would never understand. “Hey now, show a little faith, AJ,” she countered, a fraction of a second too late for the response to sound as easygoing as she would have liked.

The others filed into the preparation room ahead of them, but Dash held back for a moment, beside Twilight. “Hey,” she said in a low voice. “Are you okay? He really had a go at you.”

Twilight smiled, wanly. “I’ve had worse. It’s just… I don’t want what he said to be distracting you. You’ll need all of your concentration today.”

Dash nodded, eyeing the grooves that Lightning’s hoof had cut into the cloud surface of the floor, before turning to follow the others, smiling reassuringly at the unicorn by her side. “He’s not gonna mess me up. Promise.” She let out a small sigh, turning her gaze to look ahead of her, and forcing herself not to look back. “I just wish I understood some ponies.”

*

Dash’s preparations passed in a hazy blur of maps, charts, and windspeed calculations. The preparation room was small, and cluttered with shelves stuffed full of maps and documents. The walls were papered with cloud-stained posters of previous events, and the smell of damp hung in the air. Several members of staff milled about the table, relaying snippets of information with the professional half-friendly half-disdainful of ponies who have been dealing with stunt flyers for most of their lives.

It was decided that the attempt should be flown in a crosswind; that way she would have neither an unfair advantage nor a disadvantage. Conditions, it seemed, were as close to perfect as could be expected. There was some wind along the intended flight-path, but it was steady, not gusting. The sun would be overhead, and therefore not blinding. Even cloud cover was minimal.

The course itself took some debating, as Dash would need a long distance to build up speed, and would also need landmarks to ensure that she was on course. At such height and speed, it would be very easy to lose sight of the pegasus city in the cloudbanks below her.

In the end, it was decided that she should start over Ponyville, above the Everfree border, and then aim herself at the mountain that Canterlot was built on. Cloudsdale was on a straight line directly between the two towns, so she should pass directly over the Cloudiseum.

Communication was, of course, an issue. Limelight and his assistants had wanted to make Dash wear an awkwardly heavy piece of metal headgear that would allow her to communicate with her team on the ground, but Dash had put her hoof down. Both parties had dug their heels in and refused to budge, and angry words flew from one side of the table to the other.

In the end, however, Twilight had defused the situation, and devised a solution. She knew of a spell that allowed a pony to magically speak to another pony, more-or-less regardless of distance.

“It’s difficult, but possible,” she explained to the room in general. “The only issue is the fact that it’s a one-way spell, but I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t adapt it.”

“And I don’t have to strap a huge metal box to my head?” Dash asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Nothing like that was involved, last time I checked,” affirmed Twilight, dryly.

By this time, the crowd above was clearly audible, the excited chatter and sound of hooves penetrating the layers of cloud above and around them. Twilight looked at the clock, and realized with a painful jolt that there was less than an hour to go. Limelight clapped his hooves together. “Okay!” he said, loudly. “I think that’s everything. The equipment should be all set up topside, right?”

One of the assistants nodded, scanning a clipboard held between his forehooves.

“The judges and ground team are all going to be on that platform in the middle of the arena, right?” Twilight asked.

Limelight thought for a second, apparently working something out. “Yeah. You’ll have to be with them as well, if you’re in charge of communications.”

Dash nudged the purple unicorn, and smiled reassuringly. “See? You’ll be up there with me.”

Twilight nodded, too nervous to smile back. “Can the rest of our friends be there too?” She gestured around to the four other ponies, also clustered around the table.

“I don’t see why not,” replied Limelight, and there was a general sigh of relief.

“Right then,” Dash said, stretching her wings out to relieve the tension of standing still for so long. Nerves were starting to bite at her, and the sounds of the expectant crowd only made things worse. She had to move, to walk, to at least do something to get away from this stuffy, oppressive room. “I’d better get suited up.”

*

Time has a habit of being eternally unhelpful. Twilight willed the seconds to stop ticking, to wait for her, to allow her to catch up, but they would not. She watched the others as if from a dream, moving and talking without it truly impinging on her mind. Forty, thirty, ten minutes to go. The worst part was that she could not show her fear, for the sake of the others.

Dash knew how she felt, of course. Dash always knew. She insisted on staying by Twilight’s side right up to the last second, in order to act as a reassurance, and maximize their time together.

They were alone in Dash’s dressing room. The pegasus was staring absently at her reflection in the mirror, wearing a silver flight-suit that Rarity had made specially for today, her goggles hanging around her neck. Her expression was torn between determination, and worry on Twilight’s behalf.

Dash nudged the unicorn gently. “How’re you feeling?”

Twilight laughed, the sound a little higher-pitched than she had intended. “I should be the one asking you that! You’re the one who’s doing all the work.”

“I s’pose,” replied Dash, smiling. She nuzzled Twilight’s cheek, holding the contact for a long, still moment. She could see how much the event was getting to the unicorn, and resolved to try and abate her fears, at least a little. Her own mind felt strangely calm now, the nerves having fallen away as she lost herself in psyching herself up for the attempt, away from the stuffy preparation room. On the other hand, Twilight seemed skittish, her eyes darting and almost panicked. Dash knew the danger signs when she saw them; the unicorn was holding herself together by a thread.

“Twi’,” Dash said, gently. She held out a hoof, and Twilight took it without question. Dash noticed the unicorn’s hoof shaking with barely-suppressed fear, under her own. Without speaking, they walked to the dressing room’s wide window, and the pegasus swung it ajar with a sweep of her wing. Realizing what the plan was, understanding that Dash had recognized her need for even the briefest of escapes, the lavender mare wrapped her forelegs tightly around her love’s midriff, and a moment later felt the sharp gust of air as Dash stretched her wings wide.

The next few seconds passed in a gusty haze of whipping wind, the sky and light and faraway land blurring into one another. Dash kept her held closely to her side the entire time, never once letting her grip weaken, and a moment later they alighted on the roof of the Cloudiseum’s grandstand. They were hidden from the growing crowd by a tall, cloudy spire, dotted with pegasine flags and banners. The chill breeze bit at Twilight, although the sensation was a pleasant one after the claustrophobic backstage of the Cloudiseum.

Dash lay back on the springy cloud surface, carefully pulling Twilight down beside her and cradling the mare in her forehooves, the smooth silver fabric of her flight-suit soothing and cool against the lavender unicorn’s trembling body. Dash felt her give a small sigh, and her eyes stopped darting from side to side, some of the fear leaving her expression. Twilight nuzzled into the pegasus’s neck, huddling close as if in need of warmth.

“I’ll be okay,” murmured Dash. “I trust you, I trust the princess, and I trust myself to not do anything stupid.” She smiled, looking down at the unicorn, her eyes wide and sincere, hoping that Twilight trusted her in return. “I’ve been stressing myself out about this for so long now, wondering if I’m doing the right thing. I know how much it’d hurt you if anything happened to me, and I don’t wanna risk that. You… you know I wouldn’t be going through with this if I thought it might go wrong.”

Twilight smiled back, a genuine warmth in her eyes, replacing a little of the panic. The iron fist closed over her heart seemed to unclench a little, and her eyelids drifted closed for a moment. “I… I trust you too, Rainbow. I know you won’t let me down.”

In that moment, Twilight felt truly content; more at peace than she had for many of these past weeks. She had told the truth; she trusted the pegasus implicitly, not only to keep her safe, but to keep herself safe as well, for Twilight’s sake. She knew that old determination burning in Dash’s eyes, but understood that now its focus was different; no longer egocentric. She felt as if she were a part of Dash now, just as the pegasus was a part of her, as they lay curled up together on the breeze-tossed cloud.

She’s going to be okay.

*

Are things different now?

“Rarity, do you mind if I have a word with you?”

The pearly-white unicorn jumped a little at the soft voice behind her, as she sat alone on one of the seats in the waiting area. She turned to see the mare whose mysteries filled her thoughts standing behind her, still clutching that wide-brimmed hat beneath her wing. She really did have a knack for approaching silently, Rarity reflected. “Oh, Fluttershy. I didn’t realize you were there.” She turned her head, catching sight of the apologetic expression on Fluttershy’s face. “Of course you can, dear. Have a seat.”

The pegasus pulled over one of the white folding chairs, and sat down opposite Rarity, throwing her a grateful, if bashful, smile.

“First of all, I’m sorry Lightning Flare behaved like he did,” mumbled Fluttershy, blushing a little. Being a pegasus herself, she apparently could not avoid a slight sense of responsibility, no matter how unfounded that sense was.

“Oh, darling, don’t you apologize too. The fault lies with him and him alone,” insisted Rarity, firmly. Then, she let out a small giggle, sounding almost nervous. “The… The way you stared him down like that… It was quite something. I’m glad I wasn’t on the receiving end of it.

Is that true, Rarity? A small, wheedling voice spoke up chidingly in the back of her mind, and she too felt a slight sting in her cheeks; her embarrassed reaction making a liar out of her.

I need to stop thinking like this. All I’m doing is hurting myself.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

At least I’m not living in self-doubt anymore. I’ve done all I can, and if I’ve failed, I still tried my best. I feel better for that. Less of a coward, anyway.

“I didn’t realize you could use your stare on other ponies,” Rarity said, largely for the sake of covering up the slightly awkward moment of silence, eager to hide the fact that her thoughts had overtaken her again. She stared with apparent fixation at her forehooves, hoping that Fluttershy had not noticed her suddenly rosy complexion.

The canary mare squeaked almost inaudibly, hiding her face a little behind her mane. “I didn’t know either. I don’t think that it was the stare; not properly, anyway. I heard him throwing those accusations around, and it… it just made me so angry with him. Then when he started on you, I just… just couldn’t…” She sighed, shaking her head at the memory and settling gently back on her chair. “I don’t know what to think anymore, sometimes.”

What does she mean by that?

“You said you wanted to talk to me,” Rarity blurted out, absent-mindedly leaning forwards a little.

Fluttershy nodded, still hiding behind her mane. She bit her lip, nervously, and the one eye that was visible broke contact with Rarity’s. “I just need to talk to somepony who’ll understand. It’s about Lightning Flare. I… I keep thinking about why I reacted to him like I did. I scare myself sometimes… I could barely hold myself back from chasing him down the corridor. It was all I could do to keep myself in check, but I know that I’d normally hide from somepony who was being so aggressive.”

Rarity leaned further forwards to rest an encouraging hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “Perhaps it’s for the best. Maybe you’re gaining some confidence at last.”

“I’ve been running away from myself for so long,” Fluttershy murmured, her voice breaking slightly. “But it’s… it’s not worth it anymore. I wanted to do this differently; I wanted to do it better, when we had more time. I just can’t stand being a coward like this anymore.” She shook her head, her voice dropping even quieter than her usual scarcely-audible tones. “I… I didn’t stand up for Twilight, did I?”

She sighed, apparently steeling herself, and lifted her gaze back up into Rarity’s eyes. Her blush was a furious burning shade now, but her gaze was steady and unflinching, almost fierce, a light of self-assurance that Rarity had only ever before seen igniting in anger. “I can be honest with myself, Rarity. And it’s been far, far too long since I’ve been honest with you. It wasn’t his anger that made me want to hurt him. It was because he directed his anger at you. Right then, I’d have done anything to defend you. You were the one thing that mattered most to me.”

She rested her own hoof on Rarity’s, which still lay limply on her shoulder, and shook her mane clear so that she could look into Rarity’s eyes with both of her own. Her gaze had softened, the words coming easier, and she edged toward the unicorn almost without meaning to. Rarity felt the mare’s sweet breath tingling across her fur, and she was suddenly conscious of her own heartbeat, of the blood in her cheeks, of the look that must even now be in her eyes. “You… you still are,” Fluttershy whispered. “Rarity, I was wrong, and I'm so, so sorry... I... I...”

“Rare’! Fluttershy! Ya’ll ready?”

The two mares whipped around at the loud voice of Applejack behind them, and saw three of their friends rounding the corner of the corridor. Dash was not amongst them, although according to the swelling thunder-like roar of voices that shuddered around them, she was being introduced to the crowd prior to takeoff. Twilight looked a little windswept, although nopony seemed to notice.

Rarity leapt backwards with a yelp, the moment shattering as she broke contact with Fluttershy’s eyes and instinctually jerked her hoof back. Fluttershy, however, barely moved after her initial frightened jolt. Her hoof fell lamely back to her side, and she dropped her gaze to the floor, her face beet red. Bitter, silent tears of resignation welled up in her eyes.

I don't believe it. All that planning, all that waiting, and I... I just told her. She knows, but there's so much more she doesn't know. What must she think of me? Maybe this is what I deserve for being so weak.

“We’re up, guys! They’re calling us,” exclaimed Pinkie, excitedly. Twilight raised a hoof slightly to silence her, noticing that something was amiss.

“Of… of course,” murmured Rarity, sounding a little shell-shocked. Her expression was one of surprise, but beneath that lay the barest visible hint of euphoria; a vague hope that she had for so long denied, suddenly rekindled.

Fluttershy said nothing, utterly unable to look at the alabaster unicorn. The beautiful simplicity of the moment was long dead, wasted, and the next time she would not be prepared. The fears and complexities had come back tenfold, invading the oasis of certainty that she had found for such a short time. She had no idea what had possessed her to admit the truth to Rarity at this, the worst of times. Fluttershy had seen the wondering look in the unicorn’s eyes when she had stood up to Lightning Flare on her behalf; she had read and understood the question in Rarity’s gaze. It was not a question that could be answered with anything other than the truth, and she knew that Rarity deserved her honesty, after being so generous with her own. It had been inconvenient, and impractical, and utterly the wrong moment, but she had not been able to wait for one second longer.

Fluttershy realized that her eyes were suddenly screwed shut, as if keeping her tears in could somehow protect her from the weight they bore. She was biting her lower lip, and tasted the faintest hint of blood. It tasted of catharsis; of the pain that she felt she so richly deserved.

You fool, Fluttershy. First you let her down to protect yourself, then you spring this change of mind on her at a time like this. You gave her no time to think about what you said. She’ll be so confused, so betrayed that you could lie to her like that.

I told her the truth, didn’t I? At least she knows that I've changed my mind.

But she doesn't know why you changed your mind, and you know perfectly well that you’d lie to her again if it suited you. One truth isn’t going to change that.

“…Fluttershy? Fluttershy!

The sharp, frightened voice cut through the spiraling descent, and Fluttershy pulled herself out of her mind with some difficulty. The four ponies were looking at her, fearfully. She realized that she was rocking gently back and forth, eyelids still tightly closed, hot tracks of moisture running down soundlessly from her eyes. She knew from bitter experience that the world never just went away, and she forced herself to open her eyes.

“What’s the matter, ‘Shy? What’s up?” Applejack’s voice was urgent, anxious, as she knelt down beside Fluttershy.

“I…” The canary mare’s voice cracked; words were impossible.

“Leave it, Applejack.” A second voice. Rarity’s. Her words were measured, restrained, but not without a slight break to them. “She won’t want to talk about this now. You three go ahead.”

Twilight looked mutinous, but Rarity threw her a look that brooked no argument. Applejack and Pinkie nodded in silent acknowledgment. The three ponies filed back around the corner, heading to wait at the foot of the staircase that led up into the arena. Knowing that she had only seconds, Rarity knelt down beside the still-seated canary pegasus. “I don’t want you to be afraid anymore, Fluttershy,” she whispered.

Fluttershy tried to break eye contact, but Rarity’s proximity made it impossible. “I… I’m so sorry.”

“Later,” Rarity murmured, her voice low and gentle. “Keep your apologies for later if you like, but I promise you won’t need them.” She took Fluttershy’s hoof between both of her own. “Right now, I need you to be brave for me. Dash is up there waiting for us to see her off, and we both need to be there for her.”

Fluttershy got tentatively to her hooves, unable to prevent herself from shaking a little. Rarity was there to steady her, however. “I’m such an idiot,” Fluttershy whispered, beginning to walk towards the corridor, her cheeks still a vivid red. “I tried to say so much on a day like today. I should have realized I’d have no time to explain myself.”

Rarity sighed. “You’re not an idiot, Fluttershy. Sometimes our feelings just get the better of us; they escape. I know that far too well, and I'd never dream of judging you for it.” The white mare smiled, her eyes a little watery. “I... I understand what you're saying, and it makes me happier than I can say... I just need to know what made you see me differently. I don’t really understand what’s going on in your beautiful head yet, darling. But I truly want to. There’s so much I want to tell you, but you’re right. I have to understand you first, and we don’t have the time right now.” She stopped walking alongside Fluttershy, and the pegasus stopped too, meeting Rarity’s eyes of her own volition for the first time. “Later,” Rarity promised. “After today, we’ll have all the time in the world.”

Fluttershy nodded, mutely. This was more than she had dared to hope for, and she wanted nothing more than to embrace the unicorn and sob her gratitude into her mane, to pour out her fears and faults for all to see until someday, someday, she might begin to be worthy of this mare. But she could not. Not today. That was the understanding.

“Thankyou, Rarity,” she whispered, simply. The words sounded painfully inadequate to her, but Rarity did not seem to care. The unicorn smiled, a delighted shine dancing in her expression that she had done her best to repress given Fluttershy’s delicate state.

Swallowing hard in apprehension, and picking up her hat once again, Fluttershy trotted forwards to join the others at the entrance to the arena, Rarity walking solidly by her side, a quiet contentment smouldering in her eyes.

*

The noise up here was incredible. The roar of the crowd hammered at Dash’s ears as she stood atop the dais of cloud that was to be her takeoff area, looking around at the packed arena. She was surrounded by various pieces of equipment, manned by four ponies who had been sent down from Trottingham to officiate the record. A refreshment table had been set up on the platform to ensure that Dash was hydrated before the attempt, and she emptied a second water bottle, her mouth suddenly dry from the anticipation.

The atmosphere, the sounds, the sights, all of them were reminiscent of last year’s young flyer’s contest. Of course, Dash’s attitude could not have been more at odds with the last time she had been here. She no longer felt like a nervous wreck, or an amateur. Certainly Lightning Flare had been right about one thing; she was an athlete at the peak of her game. Arguably the two most powerful magic users in Equestria were looking out for her, keeping her safe. Her heart was pounding, but it was beating for excitement, not fear.

Cutting easily through the noise of the crowd, a trumpet fanfare sounded, bright and sharp. Looking around, Dash saw the distinctive figure of Princess Celestia alighting on the royal box, flanked by a small cohort of guards. Her heart dropped a little in her chest, as she realized that this was the first time she had been in Celestia’s presence since the incident in Canterlot. In truth, she had no idea how the princess had reacted to the news. For all she knew, the alicorn was moments away from calling for Dash’s immediate arrest.

Desperately, she tried to catch Celestia’s eye. The princess met her gaze steadily, registering the apprehension in Dash’s expression, and gave an almost-imperceptible nod, her eyes kind, but not without some small warning. Dash understood her meaning perfectly well. The record could go ahead, but this was a reprieve, not an exoneration.

The sound of the crowd swelled once more, and she looked around to see the five others approaching across the narrow cloud-bridge to the dais. Twilight was leading, with Rarity and Fluttershy bringing up the rear, side-by-side, the latter wearing her protective hat. Dash noticed that Rarity kept glancing at Fluttershy, and biting her lip to keep from smiling. The two of them were also walking a little closer together than normal, although, in fairness, the bridge was not very wide. The wind whipped at the ponies as they crossed, and Applejack looked a little green at the dizzying drop that greeted her each time her eyes strayed downwards.

Dash watched as Twilight too caught sight of the princess. She watched as Celestia once more gave that slight nod of permission. The unicorn relaxed visibly, and nodded back to show her understanding and gratitude. Then, she approached the dais where the cyan pegasus stood.

“Five minutes to go,” Twilight said, as she climbed the steps to the launching area, her voice loud in order to carry over the hum of the crowd. Her smile was a little nervous, but she was infinitely more collected than her earlier state of near-panic.

“I still dunno why they made me come up here without you guys.” Dash scowled slightly at the memory, and Twilight laughed.

“You’re the star of the show, you’re the one they want to see.”

Limelight appeared from behind one of the magically-powered speed measurement devices, having apparently discovered that magical operation does not create a machine that is free of faults. The bug had apparently cleared up, however, and the various banks of screens and dials lit up across its face. It was a testament to the seriousness of the situation that Twilight’s interest remained firmly directed at Dash.

“Okay,” Twilight was suddenly businesslike. “I’ll be your eyes down at cloud level. This kit allows us to track your course, so I can tell you if you’re running off the right path, or into turbulence. I’ll be able to tell you when you enter the measured mile above the Cloudiseum.”

“Talking of which, how’s that communication spell going?” Limelight enquired, sidling over to the two mares.

Twilight nodded. “Just about to set it up. Hold still, Rainbow,” she warned the pegasus, her horn beginning to spark. Dash held herself as immobile as possible, as the tip of Twilight’s horn emitted a narrow silken strand of yellow light, that stretched out and touched Dash squarely between the eyes. The pegasus winced a little, expecting discomfort, but it did not come. Still concentrating hard, Twilight retreated back along the cloud-bridge, the strand stretching out between them, growing ever more taut, and apparently demanding ever more magical resources from the unicorn, who gritted her teeth. Dash could feel the tug of the strand, but dug her heels in and refused to move as best she could. Twilight was still stoically trudging backwards, step-by-step, building the tension of the connection between them. Then, with a cracking sound like a whip, the strand snapped in the middle, rapidly consuming itself along its length with a hissing, fiery glow, and finally vanishing.

There was silence for a moment.

“Did it work?”

Dash jumped. Twilight was standing almost twenty feet away from her, but her low voice rang out in the pegasus’s ear as if she were standing by her side. Dash grinned. “Loud and clear, Twi’.”

She heard the unicorn give a sigh of relief. “I’m really glad I only had to do that once. It’s exhausting.”

Somepony tapped Dash on the shoulder, and she turned to see Limelight. “Are you ready? It’s time.”

Dash nodded. She had expected to feel fear at this moment, but instead she felt only elation. The nerves she had felt earlier had melted away since she took her place on the dais. Perhaps it was the encouraging atmosphere, or just the sense of sheer anticipation that gripped the Cloudiseum. She knew that this was doubtless a dangerous undertaking, but at that moment the danger seemed distant, almost irrelevant. She was running on excitement. She looked around at her friends, and at Twilight as she approached them rapidly across the bridge.

Applejack was the first to step forwards. “Good luck, sugarcube. Ya’ll be careful now.” She bestowed a brief hug on the pegasus, and smiled warmly before stepping back. The rest of her friends took up the pattern, stepping forwards to offer a few words of encouragement. Fluttershy was the next-to-last. She held Dash in a tight, almost fierce embrace, and thanked her, although Dash had no idea for what she was being thanked.

Finally, there was Twilight. Her eyes were a little tearful, partly due to nerves, and partly because today was a culmination of weeks of struggle for the pair of them. With luck, today was the day they could put Sunset behind them, and move on.

“You’re going to be amazing,” she whispered in Dash’s ear. Dash opened her mouth to respond, but was cut off. Apparently the lavender mare had decided to throw caution to the winds, uncaring of the number of ponies that surrounded them, because the next moment Twilight was kissing her. Dash kissed back hungrily, enthusiastically, without thinking. The crowd realized what was happening, and a swelling roar of approval greeted the moment of contact, but Dash was deaf to the noise, her mind filled by her love’s presence. The unicorn’s heady scent filled her, and she recognized that taste that was so sweetly familiar, and yet so fresh and electrifying even now. When Twilight finally pulled away, she gazed at Dash for a few moments, still holding her tightly, her eyes half-closed and dusky. “See you soon,” she whispered, her low voice easily audible in Dash’s ear over the sound of the audience, with the help of the communication spell.

“Hey,” Dash winked at her. “Maybe I’ll see you first.”

With that, she turned and walked to the cleared area at the edge of the dais. Downing the last of her water bottle, she looked straight ahead, focusing on the coming few minutes. The scene around her seemed to slow. She took several deep, calming breaths, soothed by Twilight’s lavender scent still clinging to her fur. The fog of enthusiasm cleared a little from her mind.

Don’t do anything stupid.

For a second, the world seemed silent. The crowds surrounded her, uncountable eyes boring into her head from every direction, their cheers muted.

She could feel the cloud beneath her hooves, and still she focused on her breathing. The announcers shouted, and the wind at whipped her as she stood, statuesque.

Turning, she met Twilight’s eyes.

The Unicorn nodded minutely at her, and it was time. Twilight’s scent had faded, and the adrenaline took over. The empty air before her called to her; this was her world. Nothing could reach her in her world.

She closed her eyes, flared her wings, and let the sky take her.

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