• 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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Past Imperfect

A Bluebird’s Song

~~~
Give me a flare to paint the sky
So I can light the world for a second
Before we fade away
~~~

Past Imperfect

Like so many buildings in the ancient unicorn city, Canterlot Hospital was built into the sheer rock face of the mountainside, overhanging the abyss. Flashes of the eye-level cloudscape and distant field patchwork flashed past in the windows as Twilight and her friends ran down the main hallway to the rooms in the east wing.

Twilight had almost lost hope as she ran, leading the others . A few visitors and members of staff were dotted up and down the tile passageway, and hastened out of the path of the charging ponies. A few indignant yells pursued them as they went, but none looked back.

If she’s out to get Rainbow, she’s had more than enough time, Twilight thought, desperately.

Pray that she isn’t. We might be wrong.

She gritted her teeth, her horn sparking instinctually in anger. And if she is, she’d better pray she can get away. There’s nowhere in Equestria she’ll be safe.

They skidded around the corner, past Twilight’s room. Dash was next door, in Room 16. The small circular window in the door was covered by a privacy curtain, With a flick of her magic, Twilight swiped for the handle, twisting it sharply.

She was forced backwards. The door was locked from the inside; the type of lock that automatically clicked into place once the door was closed. Twilight gasped, whipping around. “She’s still in there,” she whispered. In truth, whispering was for the most part pointless. The jerk on the magically-gripped handle would have alerted Rainbow Shine to their presence. If they were to maintain the element of surprise, they needed to act fast. Picking the lock would take too long, but blowing the door off its hinges was liable to attract attention, to say the least.

Twilight concentrated, her horn flaring. She pushed a narrow tendril of magic into the keyhole, and expanded it once it was inside, filling the interior with a purple aura that clung tightly to the inner mechanism. Twilight suddenly clenched the magical field together with a sudden, violent motion, and the lock imploded with a dull thud. With a final spark of the unicorn’s horn, the crushed interior of the lock was jerked back out of the keyhole in a shower of small, broken pieces of metal.

Her heart hammering, dreading what she might find within, Twilight pushed the door ajar with a forehoof. Her horn was glowing; she was ready to defend herself.

Her eyes widened at the sight that greeted her.

*

Cloudshine’s eyes cracked open at the familiar squeaking sound of the cellblock door swinging ajar. The torch brackets in the walls were beginning to burn low, and she guessed that the afternoon was beginning to wear on. Down here, buried deep out of sight and sound beneath the great mountain, she measured time by meals, and the patrols of the guards. Her body clock had ceased to function properly in the windowless dungeon, and she slept when the need arose in her, not according to any real pattern. At least the food was reasonable.

Root Blacksap must be down here somewhere, as were the others. Of course, they were kept in separate block with no way of communicating. The guards were rotated on a weekly basis. All in all, Cloudshine had to concede that they had run out of cards to play. Sunset was dead, and the worst part was knowing that it had died on her watch, all because of one pony, one pony she had trusted, who had so infuriatingly decided to pursue his own idiotic agenda and destroy such a carefully-planned operation.

It would have been so simple. Steal the dragon, blackmail Sparkle. She destroys her research. Kill the dragon, dump it, move on. Problem solved. It was going to be so easy; so routine. She glowered at the wall, which already bore a number of crescent-shaped chips where she had kicked out at it in frustration.

She knew that eventually she would be put on trial, and it was painfully obvious what the verdict would be. The guards had found everything; weapons, potions, their records, their future plans, everything. She had only been in Sunset’s upper echelons for a few years, but she had accrued quite enough blood on her hooves over that time. She was looking at a life sentence, and knew it all too well. Cloudshine ground her teeth, flopping back on the straw mattress. Dusk Tempest had a lot to answer for.

Sometimes, she wished that she had been able to get some time alone with him, to pay him back a little. Her slow-acting poison of choice was, of course, an unpleasant enough way to go, but she and her accomplices were looking at years of staring at blank stone walls such as this one, and would doubtless die doing exactly that. She could think of no slower death.

Occasionally, she wondered what had become of her half-sister. She wondered if she had ever found their mother, in the end. Seventeen, Palm Avenue, Manehattan. Cloudshine half-smiled. The coltish little pegasus was certainly in for a shock.

Then, her ears pricked up a little. Down here, every sound was one she had heard repeated a thousand clockwork-regular times. The drip of damp from the walls, the iron-shod hoofbeats of the guards. These hoofbeats were different; they were heaver, and somehow more graceful, the chink of metal on stone ringing out with a higher pitch. A strange, mottled-gold glow illuminated the shadowy corners, and Cloudshine’s heart sank as she guessed the visitor’s identity.

Princess Celestia stepped into view, looking down at Cloudshine, her features impassive.

“I think we should start by agreeing to tell one another the truth,” Celestia said, quietly.

Cloudshine rolled her eyes. It was a remarkable talent of the princess’s to make even the bluntest of statements sound melodramatic. She did her best to keep her expression bored. “I think that goes without saying,” she replied. “You already know everything, and lets face it,” she looked around at the cell, a small smirk on her lips, “it’s not like my situation can get worse, is it?”

“I expect Dusk Tempest thought the same, but you proved him wrong,” the princess noted.

“You mean we proved him wrong?” Cloudshine countered, raising her eyebrow. “I’d say we had a pretty good collaboration on making his last few days hell.”

Celestia did not bother to ask how the unicorn knew of what she had done to Dusk. Even when prisoners are separated from one another, there is no such thing as a secret in a prison. Guards gossip, rumours circulate, and one way or another, word gets around in the end.

A note of anger crept into Celestia’s voice. “How much did you know?”

Cloudshine climbed slowly to her hooves, a hint of confusion in her eyes. “About what?”

“Remember that pegasus who visited you? Your half-sister?”

“Rainbow Dash?” Cloudshine cocked her head, suddenly interested.

“The very same. Did you know what Dusk Tempest was planning?”

Cloudshine snorted. “We put two and two together in the end. It was never about unicorns; for him, it was all about you.” She shrugged. “I dunno exactly what he planned, but I bet it was something bad for you.” She let out a humourless bark of laughter. "Word travels in prison. The guards heard the screams. Tell me, what drives a goddess to that?”

Celestia frowned. The words stung, but more significant was the understanding that Cloudshine genuinely knew nothing of Dusk’s plans. “Rainbow Dash was slipped a dose of Foolishness, and it caused her to crash at high speed. She’s in a coma now, and our best guess is that Dusk Tempest orchestrated the entire thing before his death.”

The revelation was harshly blunt, and for some reason Cloudshine felt a small pang of loss for the pegasus she hardly knew. “Why… why are you telling me?”

“You knew him,” the princess said, simply. “This had nothing to do with Sunset; that much is obvious. It was Dusk, working alone, using your resources. My main question is this: I need you to tell me how much influence he had, about his ability to lay backup traps. He might well have known she would survive the crash.”

To her surprise, Cloudshine nodded, sitting back down on the straw. “Sure.”

Celestia was taken aback; she had expected the unicorn to be belligerent. “You have to understand,” she added, her voice one of warning, “I’ve been around ponies for millennia. I know when I’m being lied to.”

The caged pony snorted. “Give me a break, I don’t owe Tempest anything. Hell, if I can make it so he died for nothing, if I can make it so his big old revenge plan ends up properly sunk, maybe staring at bars for the rest of my life might just be a bit more bearable.” She fixed Celestia with a deadpan stare. “I’m not doing this to help you or your little pegasus friends, I’m doing this because Tempest screwed me over, and I’d like to return the favour.”

Celestia half-smiled, but her eyes were sad. She had almost expected for Cloudshine to ask for immunity from jail in exchange for information, but the unicorn was intelligent enough to realize how much of a risk she was. She knew that if there was one thing that she could never taste again, it was free air.

It was not the young mare’s fault; that was what made the whole thing so much more unpleasant. The princess knew perfectly well, just as Dash had realized, that had the random hand of time arranged the world a little differently, it could all too easily be Cloudshine’s cyan half-sister sitting behind these bars, with the same achingly youthful, haunted eyes. The same bloodied hooves.

“First things first, then.” Celestia’s voice was a little louder than she had intended, as if she were trying to drown her thoughts out. “Do you know if Tempest had any contacts outside of Sunset, ponies of a similar mindset who he could have called on or paid to do his dirty work?”

Cloudshine thought for a moment, settling back on the mattress. Then, she smirked. “You know, I think I do.” She turned away momentarily, wistful. “He was the reason I first caught Sunset’s attention.”

“They tried to recruit you?”

Once again, the unicorn laughed, the sound bitter and humourless. “Not me. In my family, I was the second choice. Dusk was a friend of the family, he knew my dad from someplace. When he got out of prison, my dad was the first one he went to. He must have put Sunset on the scent of our family when he joined up in prison.”

Celestia leaned forwards a little, listening with interest. “And?”

“Dad was a fighter,” continued Cloudshine. “Still is, I guess. Big guy, for a unicorn. Charismatic. Looked good with a placard, they always gave him a front row spot at demonstrations, I remember riding on his back… the shouting; that sense of being in the teeth of a crowd. My mom was the opposite, she was a thinker. But after the way her last guy up in Cloudsdale treated her, she had just as much of a problem with the pegasi as dad did. Intelligent anger, that was what Sunset wanted. I took after mom, y’see. In fact, I way too young to be of much interest to Dusk back then, but I’d say I’m a little smarter than her.” She snorted, gesturing around at the damp, claustrophobic cell. “Shows, doesn’t it? Look where I am now. Make way for the young!”

Celestia ignored the outburst. “So, Dusk Tempest scouted her out. Did she join?”

“She wanted to, trust me, but Sunset were too cautious; they took too long. They came knocking a few years later for me. I signed up like a shot, but they’d missed their chance with mom. She couldn’t, you see.”

“Why not?”

“She wasn’t available, and do you know what? I guess we’ve got Rainbow Dash to thank for that.” She lay back on the makeshift bed, staring up at the ceiling, smirking. “Why don’t you pull up a seat? It’s quite a story.”

*

Rainbow Shine was seated beside her daughter’s bed, holding the inert cyan mare’s hoof between both of her own, and she was weeping openly. The bed-covers were dotted with tears. She was muttering under her breath, although the words were inaudible. She was rocking back and forth a little. Her headscarf lay on the bed, her mane a disheveled, prismatic mess. She was nothing close to the straight-necked, obviously intelligent mare who had resided in Dash’s locket. Time had been cruel to her.

She seemed not to notice Twilight’s entry, nor the four others who immediately followed her, each stopping in their tracks at the sight, and piling up a little in the doorway. None of them spoke, although Twilight imagined that they all felt every bit as awkward as she did.

Twilight heart seemed to shrivel a little in shame, at the sight of the crying mare. She felt deeply uncomfortable, as if they had intruded on something extremely private and personal. This was not ordinary grief; there was something very obviously wrong with the mare. Internally, she thanked Celestia twofold, firstly that their delay had not caused any harm to come to Dash, and secondly that they had not accosted and locked up this fragile, shaking pony. She felt cold at how close they had come to making a terrible mistake.

Somehow, Twilight wanted nothing more than to back away, to cease this intrusion, but it was not possible. As if suddenly aware of the additional presences in the room, Rainbow Shine turned and met Twilight’s conflicted, apologetic gaze.

“Twilight Sparkle?” Rainbow Shine’s voice was thick with tears, but somehow she did not seem surprised. Perhaps they had been less stealthy than they had imagined. The ochre mare half-smiled, but her eyes were pinpricks, somehow cold and fearful. “I heard about you. I… I guess I’ve got some explaining to do.”

She’s no threat. She’s just afraid; she’s as scared for Dash as I am, but I’m better at bottling it up.

Twilight shook her head. She burned for answers; her analytical brain drawing a blank. If Shine cared, why had she never come back? For that matter, why had she not simply taken Dash with her? Those questions, however, could wait. “It’s alright,” she said, quietly. “If you want some time alone with Rainbow, I’d be more than happy to wait.”

Shine looked back down at the comatose cyan mare, and sighed, still rocking gently backwards and forwards in place. “I know what you think I'm here for. Part of me still thinks I ought to be... Celestia knows I’ve hated this mare,” she murmured. “I'm not here to harm her, I swear. I thought she’d destroyed my life. It took me this long to see that she's probably saved it. She gave me the push I needed to redeem myself.” She stroked the unconscious mare’s hoof.

She looked back at Twilight, and registered the look of confusion on the unicorn’s face. “I’ve had all the time alone with her that I can bear. Ask whatever you want.” Her gaze darted back to Dash’s peaceful face. “I don’t think she’s got very long now,” she whispered, more to herself than anyone else.

“Don’t say that,” Twilight begged, taking a half-step backwards.

“Why not? Is there any point in lying?”

“Twilight doesn’t wanna hear it,” Applejack snapped, stepping protectively in front of the lavender mare, her voice a little higher than usual. “An’… an’ neither do Ah, come to that. We all know, alright? We know it’s gonna take a miracle.”

For what felt like the thousandth time, Twilight swallowed the numbing, empty pain, and forced herself to focus. “I don’t have any faith in miracles,” she whispered, not trusting her voice to hold if she spoke aloud. “But I’ve got faith in Rainbow. I’m not going to believe there’s no hope until… until I have to.” She shook her head, walking forwards into the room. “Now… please, tell me. What happened? Why are you here after all this time?” The knowledge was, she supposed, not really necessary, but it was a distraction. It helped to alleviate the sense that they were taking part in a vigil.

Rainbow Shine motioned to the grey plastic seats that skirted the windowless room, and the five ponies sat. The sheer strangeness of the situation was near-overwhelming. Fluttershy and Rarity looked particularly uncomfortable. Turning to face them, the ochre mare began her story. She seemed more focused now, as if the sudden absence of solitude had bolstered her will a little. Something was still strange, though; her eyes still seemed skittish.

“I don’t know how much you know already, so I’ll start from the top. I… I left when Rainbow was barely able to walk. Her father used to get violent, I guess she’s told you that much. Part of me wanted to take her with me, but back then I hated everything about that stallion, including his daughter. She reminded me of all the burns and bruises… it wasn’t fair of me, but maybe that’s just how I was. Besides, I wanted to build a new life for myself, and that’s so much more difficult with… baggage.”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed a little in anger at the word ‘baggage’, but she did not say anything.

“I left Cloudsdale entirely, I wanted that to be the end of it, and it seemed like a way to make a clean break of it. Long story short, I met a stallion. I… I hope you don’t mind, I’d rather not drag his name into this. This is a messy affair, and I’d rather he were in the clear, at least. We had the same mindset, for what it’s worth. By that time, I had quite a problem with pegasi. Aside from the obvious, I always attracted strange looks around Cloudsdale; I never really felt that they were welcoming ponies, in truth. Being a unicorn, I suppose I was something of an unusual sight.”

She sighed, but Twilight could not tell if the sound was regretful or reminiscent.

“We rented a place together. I don’t know if it was mutual dislike of pegasi, or if we really had something in common, but we clicked. I felt vindicated, I suppose, I thought that I’d made the right decision in leaving Rainbow behind. Next thing I knew, I was pregnant again. It was so soon, I never expected it, but when the news came it felt right. It felt like a second chance.”

“You’re talking about this like it’s all in the past,” interjected Rarity. “Aren’t you still with this stallion?”

Shine shook her head. “No. You see, that was when Sunset came into our lives. Cloudy was growing up so fast. I remember her first steps, her first words. That was when the guilt really started. You see, I remembered Dash’s first words, too. Her first steps had been only weeks before I left. Even Cloudshine’s mane reminded me of her, even though I saw the same one whenever I looked in the mirror. I couldn’t understand it. I hated pegasi, and yet there one was, gnawing away at me, and I couldn’t admit it. Because if I admitted it, I’d have had to admit that I still cared for Dash. I buried it with hate; you don’t know how much I hated that filly.”

She returned to absently stroking Dash’s unresponsive hoof, the motion almost compulsive.

“One day, some ponies came knocking at the door. They said they wanted to speak to my coltfriend, and when he came to the door they showed him some kind of symbol. He understood what it meant. An old friend of his, Dusk Tempest, had been sent to prison a while after Cloudshine was born. He was in a mood for weeks about it, but it looked like Dusk had made a few new friends in prison. They spoke to both of us for a while, but in the end they made it pretty obvious that I was the one they were interested in. They could see the way I felt about pegasi, and they could see I had the brains to back it up. Cloudshine must have been about ten, I guess. That was when I learned about Sunset, and what they stood for. How they keep the balance, how they stop the pegasi from walking all over us.”

Fluttershy shrank back in her chair a little, even though Rainbow Shine’s tone was not malicious, merely the detached tone of a storyteller. Rarity wrapped a protective foreleg around her shoulders, glaring at the ochre mare, who seemed not to notice.

“I… I’m not going to lie, I wanted it. Cloudshine did too… she got caught listening at the door when they were there. They liked that, strangely enough. One of them said she had the right mindset, that they’d keep an eye on her too. But they told me we had to wait, that they needed to be sure. The most dangerous thing for any underground organization is the recruiting, and they needed to be sure that they could trust me before they let me in, and of course, Cloudshine had to be older. It took them years, but by then it was too late.”

Twilight leaned forwards, sensing that they were reaching the crux of the matter. “Why was that?”

“Because before then, I had a nervous breakdown. Several, in fact. I didn’t know why at the time, or even what was going on. Mood swings, stress, I’d feel worthless and cry for days on end. Sometimes I’d just lock up and not talk to anypony. I tried to kill myself once, apparently, although I don’t remember it. Another time I went in the bathroom with a knife, and refused to come out or talk for hours. I don’t remember that, either. I was falling apart, and eventually I realized it. Cloudshine was in her teens, and she’d started going to demonstrations and clubs on her own. I promised myself I wouldn’t leave another child, so I told them both where I was going. They even helped me pack. Cloudshine didn’t cry. She never cried.”

“Where did you go?”

“I signed myself into a clinic. A mental home, you might call it, on the outskirts of Manehattan. Number Seventeen, Palm Avenue. It was… nice. Peaceful. It wasn’t all padded cells and restraints like you’d think. Obviously, they had that sort of thing for those poor souls who needed it, but most of us were allowed to wander around the place pretty freely. It was like a little village, really. My parents had passed on a few years earlier, and what they left me, along with my savings… it was enough to cover the fees.”

“Seventeen, Palm Avenue,” Twilight repeated, her mouth falling open a little. Her stomach clenched in anger at Cloudshine’s casual cruelty. On her instructions, without any warning, Dash would have made her way into Manehattan to be confronted not with her mother’s house, but with a mental hospital. The experience would have been, to say the least, frightening for her. “So… you’re still living there?”

The ochre mare shrugged. “Maybe. I might have damaged my chances yesterday, to tell the truth. Anyway, the therapists there are great. They helped me so much; they pinpointed exactly what the problem was. I hated pegasi, and yet I couldn’t help but love Dash, who was a pegasus. I wouldn’t admit it; I told myself I hated her, and felt nothing else, but every waking minute, I had two incredibly strong emotions just under the surface, utterly unable to reconcile with each other. I hated her and loved her at the same time, and that just made things worse because I blamed the guilt on her, too. Half of me wanted to find her to wring her neck, and the other half, not that I’d admit it, wanted to find her so I could apologize to her, and beg her to forgive me. In the end, the stress built up so badly that I couldn’t function properly anymore.”

She took a few deep, calming breaths, her eyes had become a little less focused, and she dabbed harshly at them with the fur of her foreleg. “I was making real progress, particularly these last couple of years. I had two outlets, you see. Firstly, there was the therapy. Those ponies were amazing. Secondly… I knew what Cloudshine was doing. She’d visit me from time to time, and although she couldn’t say anything direct, I picked up enough hints to make a good guess. It allowed me to live through her when things got bad. When the anger came, and it did come from time to time, I could tell myself that my daughter was out there, keeping the pegasi under control.”

Rainbow Shine laughed, bitterly. “It was a joke, of course. Sunset might pretend to themselves that they’re all high-and-mighty pro-unicorn heroes, but they’re like any other criminal group. They’re out for themselves, first and foremost. Anyway, one day, my therapist told me that Rainbow Dash would be attempting to break the pegasus speed record. I asked if I could go and watch. She thought that it was a bad idea at first, she was worried that it might set me back. In the end, I convinced her to allow me.”

The unicorn stood, stretching her legs a little, and turning away from Twilight and the others. “I was supervised, of course. They still didn’t think I was safe to go out on my own. I was still a danger to myself, at any rate. Probably still am, I guess. The point is, it did me far more good than they could ever have expected, because none of them had any idea what was going to happen.”

Her voice broke a little, her emotionless storyteller’s persona beginning to fracture. “When… when I saw her fall, I wanted more than anything to catch her. It felt like I’d been stabbed, to tell the truth. I didn’t have any choice at that point; I had to admit to myself that I cared… that I loved her. Right then, I realized that leaving her behind with… with him... It was inexcusable. I could have just broken down again, right there, but something made me hold it back. I guess I saw how stupid I’d been, and suddenly all I wanted to do was find her and explain everything. I wanted to ask her to forgive me.”

She turned back to face them, a little more composed. “In the end, it was easy. The crowd was in a mess, they were being shepherded out of the arena, ponies were shouting, pushing, some seemed pretty panicked. They sent this one old doctor to keep an eye on me, and in all the commotion it was easy to give him the slip. I knew if Dash had survived the fall, they’d bring her here. I snuck onto an airship heading out to Canterlot yesterday evening; I hid out on the deck last night. It was freezing, but the ticket collectors never found me. By the morning, I’d reached the hospital. I’d brought a little spending money from the clinic; they let you do that on trips. You never spend it, it just gives the patient a sense of… freedom, I guess. I bought some breakfast and a hot drink. Then I came here. I… I was terrified, to tell the truth. I didn’t know how bad her injuries were… I didn’t even know if…”

She stopped herself, swallowing hard, and looked at Twilight, her gaze almost expectant. “Well, you know the rest. That’s my story.”

“So… you came here to apologize?” Twilight asked, still going over the story in her head. She was amazed by how much sense it made, fitting the last pieces of the puzzle perfectly into place. Dash had believed for so long that her mother had abandoned her because she did not care. Now she knew differently; her mother had left her behind to try and convince herself that she did not care. In the long run, it had destroyed her. It explained the mare’s shadowed pinpricks of eyes, her compulsive motions, her nervous tics.

Shine nodded. “I… I suppose so. To apologize, or to lay her to rest, whichever was needed.” She looked Twilight squarely in the eye. “But now? Now I know my role in this. I must have caused her so much pain, so much uncertainty… but I know how I can mend it. I need to let her know that I still love her; that I never really stopped.”

There was a moment’s silence, then Twilight’s eyes widened a little as she understood what the mare meant to do. She opened her mouth to speak, with no idea of what she was going to say.

In the end, she never got the chance to say anything.

The smallest of signs can give away the greatest of upheavals.

On the bed, Dash’s chest gave a twitch; a small leaping motion. The clear tube running from her nose misted once with a sudden bloom of breath, then the pegasus seemed to relax. Twilight rushed to her side, gazing fearfully at the mare she loved, her heart-rate rocketing, her breathing uneven.

The steady, measured line of bleeps coming from the machine by the side of the bed suddenly broke their monotonous rhythm. Two beats in quick succession. A third, momentarily too late. Then a constant, high-pitched, droning tone. A sound that could mean only one thing.

Twilight stared at the flat screen in helpless horror, her chest seemingly contracting until she could scarcely breathe. She could not think.

There had been no warning; no precedent. No chance for farewells or preparations.

Rainbow Dash was gone.

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