• Published 2nd Dec 2012
  • 14,669 Views, 189 Comments

Crucible - Luminary

Equestria, beset by the changeling invasion, must deal with a dawning golden age. Without Celestia.

  • ...

Eight - Dash: Radicality

“So it turned out he was a real sport about it, which was cool. There’s nothing as bad as a stallion whining like a foal. I still feel a bit rotten about it, I guess. His leg’s going to be in that cast for a while. Kicker did tell me that Krav Pega stuff being pretty intense. It’s not for playing around. Stuck with Rolling Thunder after that.” Rainbow Dash boxed one of her forehooves into the air above her. She was laying in abject comfort with her back on a particularly fluffy cloud she’d herded up from around the base of one of Canterlot’s waterfalls. Waterfalls always made the thickest clouds. And thick clouds make for the best beds. Hers just happened to be parked outside of Twilight’s cell window for the last two days, about forty feet up along the palace wall. “Still, I warned them about what they were getting into trying to match the Dash. Twice, even.”

“Uh huh.” Twilight’s voice crept from inside. Rainbow knew the tone well enough, it was the I’m-not-really-listening voice that everyone got after a few minutes of Pinkie Pie. It didn’t stop the pegasus any more than it deterred Pinkie.

“But know the best part? The best part?” Rainbow wiggled all four limbs in the air in foalish glee. “One of the guards told me yesterday that Spitfire had been watching the whole thing. She totally saw me outfly a whole squad of Royal Guard pegasi! Then kick the flank of a goddess.”

“That’s cool.” Twilight automatically answered. She currently had her nose in one book, and was writing with a quill in another. It was very Twilighty. Dash had no idea how she was actually reading anything, since she said everything was blurry. Maybe it had to do with the weird way that the letters on the pages were glowing? Whatever. The important thing was that Twilight was acting okay. If you stuck that pony’s nose in a book, she’d perk right up, no matter what. Considering the broken pony in the cell before, it was a huge improvement, in Rainbow Dash’s mind. Even the pegasus knew that it was a fake sort of improvement, but she didn’t really subscribe to touchy-feely pony psychology. Everypony didn’t have to whinge and moan and cry over every problem. Forgetting about it for a while was good too, in her view. That’s why it didn’t really matter if Twilight was listening.

Besides, she was using magic in a magic-blocking cell. All the guards were practically shaking in their armor, she’d heard. Rainbow Dash had the most awesome friends in Equestria, there was no doubt about that.

That’s why I’ll always be there for Twi, or any of my friends. It always helps to know that a pony cares enough to always be there for you.

Applejack had teased her about turning all soft and sappy when she explained why she’d parked her cloud where she had. Dash could imagine what it must be like to be all alone and trapped. She couldn’t take being forced to stay in one place as it was. So she’d been taking her naps where Twilight could look out the window and see a friendly pony curled up, and available to talk to. She’d swapped out with Fluttershy a few times, even though it took a lot of work to remind the yellow pegasus that she could fly, and had no reason to be afraid of heights.

Okay, so it sounds a little sappy. But it takes more than just being fast and great-looking to be the best pegasus in Equestria.

“I already had a few of the guards ask me if I was planning on hitting the training grounds again. I said sure, tomorrow morning. I think that they just want an excuse to blow off some steam. But so do I. So if I can do that while totally impressing the Wonderbolts, win-win for everypony, right?”

“Wait, what? Goddess?” Twilight looked up from her book, toward her barred window. She wore a look of confused concern.

Dash shared that confusion for a moment, at least until she gave a little snort. “I said that, like, thirty seconds ago. Way to pay attention, Twi. Guess you’re not so in the loop in the dungeons, huh? It’s all over the castle.” Twilight gave a nod, some emotion on her face that Dash couldn’t identify. Something distinctly uncool, though.

In a fit of attempted cheer, Dash flew up and began her story. The pegasus posed herself in a triumphant rear at first. “Right. Because I was making the guard look like a bunch of little fillies dressed up in mommy’s armor, I missed the start of it. But here’s how I heard it went down.” She lightly knocked a hoof against the side of her head. “Pinkie somehow got it in her head to go out and buy every Moon Drop in and around Canterlot for her big bash. Apparently they’re made from some flower that Luna is all gushy over. Like, they’re all sacred and stuff. Who knew, right?”

Twilight frowned. “The Moon Lily. Nobody’s been allowed to pick it since, well, forever. Didn’t really make any sense why the Princess had banned it, until Luna came back and started giving it out to ponies whom she wanted to reward.”

Dash rolled her eyes. “Okay, who but you knew? Anyway, someone apparently noticed her buying it. The police didn’t want to go nabbing a national hero, so they go to Princess Luna about it. Luna’s already totally stressed out, from practically killing herself tr...” Rainbow clamped her mouth shut. Bad topic. “Erm, anyway, she hears that Pinkie has been buying drugs, with counterfeit bits, and goes nuts. She started yelling at the others while I was, like, halfway up to the moon, dodging a bunch of the guards. I didn’t even notice until the part where she started talking about Pinkie being the new Discord and wanting to turn her into stone.”

“What.” The word was delivered so flatly, without even a questioning tone, that it made Rainbow’s heart sing a little. It was pure Twilight. The incredulous outburst that followed was just as comfortingly familiar. “But that’s crazy! Pinkie is the least evil pony ever. For Celestia’s sake, she’s practically powered by sugar and smiles!”

“I know! But Luna was pissed off. Apparently she was pulling something off with the Voice that had everyone just frozen and whimpering. Even Applejack. So that’s about when I noticed Luna was there, called time on the sparring, and went to go see what was up. Wasn’t hurrying at first, until I was close enough to see that things were... off. So, anyway, Fluttershy of all ponies manages to get up, and gives Luna the Stare.” The pegasus dropped her voice to an ominous, if overdramatic pitch with that last word, and gave Twilight a mock glare to illustrate.

Twilight brought hoof to face. “Really, on Luna? This sounds really, really bad.” A bit of academic curiosity crept into her tone. After telling the tale a half dozen times, Rainbow knew nopony could resist finding out anything about the mysterious royal sisters. “Did it work?”

“Oh, it totally does. I keep telling you guys that Flutters is the baddest pony around, next to yours truly. Things just have to be really, really bad before she starts to kick flank. So, like I was saying, it works, at least for a few seconds. I dove down to give Luna a piece of my mind when I saw she’d done something to get even Fluttershy mad. Meanwhile, she’s chewing the bucking Princess of the Night out for being a bully. Little Luna’s made from tougher stuff than big, scary dragons though, because she sets the sun and gets with some kind of weird magic that knocks everyone right on their docks. I was going so fast by then that I was only into it for a second. But it was like... I don’t know, having your brain shut off. Anyway, so I gave her the hooves at about a billion miles an hour. Whack! Smash! We both go flying. Honestly, my legs are still all shaky and sore from it. It was like hitting a wall. She got off worse though.”

“Was she okay? Rainbow Dash!” Twilight’s tone became frazzled and scolding. “If Luna ends up in the hospital too, who’ll keep the days going? We’ll all freeze! Or burn! We can’t take that sort of—”

“Hey, hey, cool it. She was fine. I think I got one of her ribs, but she didn’t seem to even really feel it. Word is that it popped right back in a few minutes later. One of the servants puked when she heard it. Great, huh?” Rainbow rolled back onto her cloud. “Anyway, she was okay about it. She was even grateful.”

Really, really grateful. Confusingly grateful.

“For breaking her rib? Really?”

“Yeah.” Rainbow happily provided no further information at all on that. She turned her face away from the cell under the guise of fluffing up her cloud, so Twilight wouldn’t catch her blush. “So, anyway, she just needed a stiff buck upside the head. She knew that. Apologized to Pinkie and everything. Told her she would go to her party. Perked Pinks right up before she started to go all turnip-buckets on us.”

“What?” Twilight wore a look of abject confusion. “Turnip-buckets? Your slang is getting weirder by the day, Rainbow.”

Oops. Dash waved it off with a hoof. No need to be mentioning that little episode in detail. She finally settled with her back to the cloud, looking up at the twinkling stars. It was nice. She had been getting incredibly sick of orange. “Yeah, sorry. So Cadance finally managed to get Luna to go to bed. Though not before yelling at her for, like, an hour, I hear. Me, I think she needs another hoof to the head instead. Deserves one. But hey, maybe the rest’ll help. Guess it’s not just earth pony farmers who go loopy after convincing themselves they don’t need sleep, huh?” Well, and unicorns needing to ‘monitor everything’, but no need to mention that either. She might have the best friends, but they could be a bit... odd under stress.

“Not a problem for you, obviously, Dash.” The cyan pegasus grinned a little at the bookish librarian’s tone. It was more distinctly normal, Twilight-brand sarcasm.

Ha. Take that, Pinkie! If a pony needs cheering up, I can do it in a dash.

“Nope. That’s why pegasi are the smartest kind of pony. We know awesomeness starts with a good night’s sleep.” Dash closed her eyes. She knew she shouldn’t fall asleep, not for long, anyway. Rarity was expecting her in an hour, but the change toward the night was playing havoc with her internal clock.

“Rainbow.” Twilight’s voice came from much closer this time. Dash totally didn’t flinch from it. She was just... readjusting how she was laying down, to get comfy. The purple unicorn was standing up on her rear hooves, forehooves against the wall under her window. Her face was filling up that small, barred portal. “Thanks for coming here to see me. I know I don’t have the right to complain, at all, but most of the guards just glare at me. It’s nice to see a friendly face.”

Well, someone else is getting a broken bone.

“Huh? Oh. No problem. Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” Dash made a little waving gesture with a wing. She took a moment to study the unicorn’s face. It might have been an improvement from when she’d tried to get a jailbreak going for Twilight, and she’d been all but dead to the world, but she still looked tired. Really tired. She probably hadn’t been sleeping. It was hard to tell if her eyes were all puffy from that or from crying. The only time when the unicorn had really been able to relax was when Cadance was visiting, and that was due to freaky alicorn mind-control or something. Dash wasn’t quite sure how she felt about that, but she wasn’t going to question it so long as it made Twilight act like, well, Twilight for a while. And not the fragile Twi-shell she was getting.

Can’t blame her. I feel bad about breaking a pony’s leg. Twilight nearly killed Princess Celestia. She almost went nuts enough to send Ponyville into a riot when she thought she was going to disappoint Celestia. Refusing to let me bust her out is practically sane compared to Smarty Pants.

“Think you could wake me up in a half hour or so, Twi? Rares said she’d make me up some kind of awesome training getup. And I want to look my best in case Spitfire is watching again tomorrow.”

Twilight smiled. It wasn’t much of one, Rainbow thought, but at least it was something. “Sure.”

The pegasus took a quick glance around to make sure the guard that was stationed in a nearby turret wasn’t looking. Upon confirming he wasn’t, she leaned toward the window and affectionately rubbed her muzzletip against Twilight’s. It wasn’t exactly her style, but she’d make sacrifices for a friend. Besides, it made the unicorn’s smile a little less fake. “Thanks, Twi.”

* * *

Rainbow Dash couldn’t believe that she’d agreed to this half-hour of horrors. Worse, she’d asked it as a favor. She’d even forked over bits for this torture, because she knew Rarity wouldn’t think of charging for her time and materials if Dash didn’t insist. For all that selflessness, to make the fashion pony feel better, she was trapped, poked, prodded, measured and judged. And to make it worse, Rarity had the audacity to smell good. Not just Rarity-good, with the expensive soap and imported perfumes. Really, really, uncomfortably good. Direct line to the subconscious good. It was a sensation she never wanted rattling around in her head, when directed at her friends. Ever. “Are we done now?” Dash asked, irate and hopelessly hopeful.

It was official, the whole week had been just a cosmic practical joke to make Rainbow feel awkward and embarrassed.

“Really now, Dash. I’ve only pinned up the form. Or did you think I was going to clothe you in beige felt, clothespins and black marker lines?” Rarity finished making one of said dotted lines to show a future cut at the join of rear leg and hip. She levitated that marker up and flicked it against the tip of one of Rainbow’s primary feathers. Certainly not the main body of that fully extended wing. If the filly jumped, Rarity would probably have to start all over. “And fold your wing. I need to see how it sits across the withers.” She tapped the named spot near the base of the pegasus’ colourful mane. “There’s no need to be so tense, dear. I’m making you something to wear, not torturing you for information.”

“Can’t you do some other part first? I don’t think its tight enough around the legs. I don’t want one of the guards getting a cheap grab with their mouth and wrecking my moment of glory.” Dash added the explanation rather weakly.

“My my! Useful criticism? You didn’t once use the word ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’, in any percentages, to describe necessary changes. You’ll spoil me, darling. But, no. No use changing the legs until I know it’s hanging properly from the shoulder. Wings down.”

Dash tried. She really did. She even got them about halfway down before the discomfort made her give up. They snapped back to their full extension. “I... uh... can’t,” she admitted. She added, lamely, “I must have strained something when I was flying...?”

Realization visibly dawned on Rarity’s face. “Rainbow Dash!” She scolded, scandalized. The pegasus felt the sudden urge to escape. Possibly to a remote shack in the far northern glaciers. A quick look around discovered only narrow arrow-slit style windows in Rarity’s tower-room. Too thin to fly out of, which was honestly for the best. With all the tension in her wings, she’d probably drop out of the air and go splat somewhere in the lowlands.

“It’s your fault!” Dash reflexively accused, to shift the blame when escape proved unfeasible. “You smell like a bucking mare in heat! I know I look great, but I signed on for some clothes, not to get felt up by the world’s lustiest unicorn!” The pegasus raised a hoof to her face, to cover it suddenly, as her brain caught up to her mouth. “Notthatmaresturnmeon!” She gushed from behind that hoof, barely coherent.

Rarity jumped back from Rainbow Dash to create some space when she was accused of impropriety. Her gaze snapped around, likely looking for her fainting couch. Her white fur did nothing to hide the fire that suddenly burned on her cheeks and muzzle. “I would never do such a thing. To my friends least of all!”

A terribly awkward silence stretched between the two ponies, who were wearing nearly identical looks of shamed misery.

“I must apologize, darling,” Rarity eventually braved, though she was obviously dragging the words out with great reluctance. “I should have rescheduled your fitting until I was in a better state. I assure you that this isn’t your doing at all.”

Rainbow’s brow furrowed as she considered that. She wasn’t sure if she should be relieved or insulted. She at least played it off as the latter, hoping that a bit of sarcasm would cut through the thick awkwardness of the moment. “Oh, gee, thanks. There’s a boost to the old confidence.”

Rarity dismissively waved a hoof. “Oh, there’s no need for that. You’re a perfectly lovely filly. The very picture of svelte sleekness. I assure you that I would be scrambling for a chance to court you, if I was that way. But I’m afraid my dreams are graced with stallion suitors, not mares.”

The rainbow-maned pegasus gave a forced laugh that sounded hollow even to her own ears. “Yeah. Mine too.” Rarity gave her a rather unconvinced look. “Really!”

“Honestly, Rainbow. Give me a little credit. It’s old news! It’s very literally my job to know what catches a pony’s eye. And I know my friends best of all. Put you in front of a crowd, and you naturally seek out the, shall we say, softer forms within it. I daresay I know the tastes of all my friends better than they do themselves.”

Dash lowered her head, ears pinning back. Embarrassment was even allowing her wings to droop somewhat. She’d take what miniscule favors she could get. “You didn’t tell the others, did you? I don’t want it to be... weird.”

“I hardly need to, dear. I wager the only one who doesn’t know is Twilight. I fear she’s rather oblivious about romance. Certainly you haven’t been open about it. I commend you for realizing that a mare should have discretion. But I would have thought that your reaction...” She motioned toward Dash’s wings with her marker. “... to Pinkie’s little ensemble in that horribly dusty little town was rather telling.”

Dash groaned in dismay, if anything sinking lower in her stance. She muttered something barely audible. “Thelegs.”

“Pardon?” Rarity asked, blinking in confusion.

“Pinkie has incredible legs. Lots of tone. Probably from all the, you know...” The pegasus hopped in place ever so slightly to pantomime Pinkie’s bouncing. Rarity winced and looked to the delicate felt shell covering Dash in concern. “And that outfit really showed them off.”

The pegasus hurried to inject a few more words after a pause. “Not that I’m crushing on Pinks. Just... a pretty pony is a pretty pony, right? Right.”

“Just so,” Rarity answered, agreeably, with a nod. The pegasus had to contain a relieved sigh. If this was a nightmare, then she couldn’t even imagine the fallout of her friends mistakenly thinking she was all sweet on them. “Well, at the very least I’m glad you can appreciate how much the proper clothing can enhance a pony’s beauty. Though suffice to say I would have made rather different choices of style than dear Pinkie.” Rarity tugged upon the sleeve covering Dash’s foreleg with her telekinesis, so she could repin it in place where the delicate temporary fabric had torn. “But really, you needn’t worry about our reaction. It might be a bit... out of fashion, but it’s not as if you’re all alone in Equestria in solely liking mares. There simply aren’t enough stallions to go around. And even if that wasn’t the case, we’re your friends, and we love you. I assure you we’d accept far stranger things happily.”

“Yeah, I know that. You guys’ve got my back. I never really doubted it, but, well, people have a certain image of...” Rainbow Dash hesitated for a moment. She didn’t really want to put a name to herself. Especially one that people tended to use with a certain derision. “... fillyfoolers. That they’re... you know...”

“Soft? Weak? Just scared to indulge in the cut-throat chase for stallions?” Rainbow winced, but nodded glumly at Rarity’s words. The unicorn levitated her marker under her friend’s chin, and used the covered tip to lift it, to make sure she those magenta eyes were meeting hers. “Darling, anyone who has met you, or even just heard of you, would never dare to ascribe those qualities to you. You’re brave. Nay, fearless! And the strongest and most excellent of pegasi. We more boringly mundane-of-desire mares should be thanking you for your preference. How could we compete, if you decided to hunt for stallions?”

Rainbow couldn’t help but laugh. It just bubbled up out of her, at her friend’s drama. She did feel better, though. “Thanks, Rarity. I guess I shouldn’t have worried? Especially with you. But don’t go gossiping about it to the others. Definitely not Applejack. She’s a bit more... old-fashioned.”

The white unicorn smiled reassuringly. She made a small ‘x’ across her chest with the tip of a hoof, and followed it with motion toward her eye. She omitted the words. Anyone from Ponyville knew well that it made it less likely that Pinkie would pop out of anywhere afterward.

The silence persisted for a minute or two, far more comfortably, as Rarity went back to finishing with the mock-up fabric. She stayed back a bit more as her levitation worked, which suited the pegasus just fine, as it kept the mare out from under her nose. Still, curiosity was slowly eating Rainbow up inside. Eventually she had to ask, to avoid exploding, or something. “So, uh, if it wasn’t me, what’s got you so worked up?”

Rarity glanced to either side, as if someone could have gotten into the room without either pony noticing. “I would ask you not to repeat this. Especially to Twilight, for now.” Before Rainbow could move, the unicorn’s magic grabbed hold of her hooves to keep them on the ground. “That sort of promise is not required. Don’t do anything until I’m finished. I have to take in the legs.” The unicorn didn’t wait for any pledge to be spoken. Dash would likely rather throw herself off a cliff with her wings tied than knowingly let down a friend. Apparently Rarity got that, which was pretty cool. “It’s Cadance and Shining Armor.”

Rainbow’s wings flared again, this time in surprise. Unicorn magic kept her hooves glued to the ground, which is all that kept her from rearing back in shock. “What!? Twilight’s brother? And a Princess? I thought you said you didn’t like fillies?”

Rarity lifted her muzzle ever-so-slightly, as if she was preparing to get all snooty about something. “Cadance and I have been spending a lot of time together the last few days. I find that I really like her. Not that way, mind. But enough so that a herd arrangement hasn’t been so distasteful as it might otherwise be. As for Shining Armor, well, he speaks for himself. He’s gallant, virtuous and sweet. Everything a stallion should be.”

Dash gave a quick shake of her head. “I know you can’t exactly choose who you crush on, Rares, but this has ‘best to forget it’ written all over it. It can’t go well.”

Rarity couldn’t contain a very fillyish giggle. It wasn’t something at all cultured or refined. The little hoof-shuffling dance she made when standing there was no better. Rainbow imagined she knew the cause. She felt that wiggly, nervous, happy energy when she had met Spitfire for the first time at the Gala. She couldn’t keep still. “It’s been going along smashingly!”

“Rarity!” Rainbow resisted the urge to raise her voice, but she sure whispered loudly. “You’ve only known them for a few days! They just got married. Now you’re, what, dating them?”

“I know!” Rarity returned, all but gleefully, at the scandal of it. She gave a little wiggle of her haunches, just as an outlet to her excitement. “It’s terrible of me. Cadance is just so... so... convincing.”

“I can’t know these things!” The pegasus complained. She folded her ears back, as if that would block out Rarity’s words. Rainbow closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Celestia! Not looking at the beautiful mare shaking her flank. While being way too close to me again. And telling me how she’s being seduced by a hot young Goddess. Dash’s wings were unconvinced. She felt heat rising in her cheeks as her feathers started to bristle from a similar warmth. The pegasus filly knew she really should demand a change of topics. She was going to talk about the weather. Yeah. Nice, neutral shop talk. “W-well, if things are going that well, shouldn’t you be a gooey pool of super-satisfied pony, instead of... you know?”

Stupid traitor brain.

“Rainbow Dash! Even if things had become so intimate, it isn’t something to be gossiped about. A Lady does not kiss and tell. She certainly doesn’t do more than kiss, then tell.” The unicorn turned her muzzle aside slightly, her tone edging from scolding to serious. “I think no small part of it has been to keep my mind off of everything. You know I have a habit of putting a bit too much on my shoulders, given the opportunity. I was practically headed to a nervous breakdown today trying to spread a bit of calm among the House of Ladies, regarding Princess Luna’s little episode yesterday. Which, as you can imagine, was a bit of a contradiction. Cadance has diffused that quite well by driving me and Shining to such absurd lengths of distraction.”

If anything, Dash was relieved by the introduction of the far more depressing topic. She latched onto it like a drowning mare. “Yeah, I know what you mean. About keeping your mind off of things. It’s all a bit too much. It feels like we should be busting Twi out and going off to find some fix for Celestia or something. Heck, even going to kick some bug flank in the Everfree would be better. We could be off Harmonizing Chrysalis or something. Turning her into stone or making her a good guy. Would she still be a bug as a good guy, you think? Anyway, anything is better than sitting on our docks, tearing each other up.”

There were a few moments of silence as Rarity held some pins between her lips, to free up her levitation to straighten the increasingly form-fitting felt. “I think Luna wants the Elements close. She hasn’t said anything directly, so it’s just a guess, but she told me that I should concern myself with our little group, to keep our Elements strong. I think we’re the last resort. Who knows what would happen if we used them on Celestia? The Elements are so mysterious. But if she takes a turn for the worse, what would there be to lose?”

Dash rolled her eyes. She thought Rarity could be pretty dense sometimes. “They fixed Nightmare Moon, and put everything in Equestria back to normal after Discord. Celestia isn’t just a good pony, she’s the one you compare ponies to when deciding if someone else is good. You gotta ask how much like Celestia that pony is. The Elements aren’t going to throw her off into the moon. Or the sun. Whatever. Luna is just being stupid.” Rainbow cringed a little and looked upward at some random point in the ceiling. “Sorry, Princess. Not the kind of thing someone’s supposed to say about an alicorn, huh?”

"How very prayerful of you,” Rarity commented. Her tone shaded toward something wry after that. “Of course, one really isn’t supposed to break a goddess’ ribs or to kiss them either.”

“Ohmygosh!” Dash recoiled. Rarity watched helplessly as one of the dull-beige legs tore free from the rest of the pattern. “You saw that?”

Rarity sighed and dragged the leg back up, pinning it in place. Dash’s glare dared her to say something about it. “Hardly. I was still recovering from whatever it was Luna did. But the guards do talk. Shining and Cadance both heard separately.”

Dash groaned and brought her wing around to hide her face. She caught a little smile appearing at the edges of Rarity’s lips. The unicorn knew she used a wing instead of a hoof to avoid tearing the mock-up again. The pegasus changed the subject before her friend got all sappy on her. “This is bad. What the buck am I going to do, Rarity?”

“Stop kissing goddesses, I should think.”

Dash lowered her wing enough to glare over it. “She kissed me this time. Or tried to eat my face off. One or the other. She was kind of intense about it.”

“This time?” Rarity airily sang, fluttering her lashes. “Oh! A courtship! How lovely! With a Princess! It must be my birthday.”

Rainbow’s ears splayed, this time with annoyance. “Rarity. You’re apparently dating a Princess and a Prince. You’ve got me beat.”

Rarity scraped a hoof at the ground with an embarrassed motion. “Mine is less a courtship and more a series of horrifyingly embarrassing revelations followed by mane-tingling passion. It’s not something I regret, but nor is it, perhaps, the romance I would have hoped for. Love is ever the goal, not just base attraction.” Rarity bit her lower lip for a moment, before musing, “I suppose a pony must take what light life offers, in dark times.”

“We’ll make a pegasus of you yet. Live the day! Life is short! And all the rest of that. Unicorns worry too much, usually.” Dash’s voice carried a proud note. More proof she had the best friends in Equestria. “Anyway, sounds like things with me and Her Royal Loudness, then. Minus the passion. Luna’s not exactly taking me out for dinner and a show. She’s, umm...”

“Yessss...?” Rarity wheedled, all protest over being lumped with the pegasi forgotten in pursuit of a potential dirty secret.

“I think she’s been visiting me in my dreams. Like, she always seems to show up when I’m having a bad one, and makes it better.”

Rarity breathed a slow, wistful sigh. It didn’t do much to improve Dash’s level of irritation. “Oh! I’m jealous! How wonderful. The goddess of the night laying a protective wing over you at your most vulnerable! The gratitude for cleansing her of darkness growing into affection, then, eventually, love. The wounded Lady and the brash, young rogue who can heal her broken h-RMPH!” Rarity’s gushing was silenced by a cyan hoof shoved over her mouth. A wing wouldn’t do this time.

“Life isn’t a romance novel, Rares.”

“Ew!” Rarity all but jumped back, wiping at her muzzletip with her foreleg, which set Dash to rolling her eyes again. “Kindly never do that again! Yes, well, I doubt any romance novel would really star a goddess, well, you know... being unfashionable.”

“I just came off a cloud. They’re made of water. And I barely walk. I’m not slogging mud all over you.” Dash gave her hoof a covert glance anyway. Not a speck of dirt. “Being unfashionable? What does that have to... oh. You mean being a fillyfooler. That’s kind of lame, Rarity. Anyway, Luna totally is one. Everypony knows that.”

The unicorn at least had the presence of mind to look abashed at Rainbow’s disappointment. Still, she couldn’t let the amateur gossip slide. “Oh, and who, exactly, is everypony? Honestly, these rumors never seem to have a source.”

“Pinkie Pie.”

“Pinkie Pie.” Rarity repeated. “What could Pinkie know about such a topic? She likely thinks a fillyfooler is someone who plays pranks on youthful mares.”

“She heard it from Vinyl. The Princess was totally snogging on her after a rave in Manehatten a while back.”

“DJ-PON3? That Vinyl? Vinyl Scratch?” Rarity made a dismissive turn of her muzzle. “Honestly, she was probably hallucinating. Have you heard her music? One simply can’t make that sort of noise while uninebriated.”

“I like her music,” Dash complained. “You can actually dance to it. Without having to take lessons from ponies with their heads up their plots first.” Which would be doubly uncomfortable, since the ponies she was speaking of were invariably unicorns. Unicorns, the tribe of ponies who were so bad at dancing compared to pegasi that they invented a whole style that sounded like a series of dry directions for the world’s lamest scavenger hunt. Three steps left, quarter turn left, step forward, step back, three steps right, quarter turn right. Repeat until everyone falls asleep on their hooves. Then they pretended it was the superior way to dance until it had frou-frou ponies like Rarity actually convinced of the delusion. “And anyway, there were rumors after that whole mess in Cloudsdale, at the Weather Conference. Cloudchaser told Flitter, who told me, that she overheard Blossomforth and Cloud Kicker talking about Luna visiting her in her sleep.” Dash sighed and gave a martyred look. “I probably should have sort of made the connection about things before now.”

“Oh yes, how could you have missed it based on that rock-solid, fifth-hoof information?” Rarity’s words positively dripped with sarcasm. “I hardly think that Princess Luna would comport herself so openly. Certainly she wouldn’t snog, whatever that is.” The unicorn said with a scoff, all thoughts of tailoring long forgotten. “For all of her bluster, and regrettable lapses, she is a rather fragile thing, I think.”

“Oh, yeah, she was super shy when she was grabbing me, and kissing me in front of everypony and their mothers.” Dash groaned and let her head drop down, ears folding back. “And Spitfire. I just realized. Of course Spitfire. To totally ruin my life.” Dash shook her head. “I mean, I know that’s how all mares were back then, but come on!

“Shall I get my fainting couch for you?” The unicorn offered with faux-innocence, giving a ingenue bat of her eyelashes. Dash’s glare was withering. Rarity crafted a put-upon sigh, as if Dash was the one who was hard to deal with. “In any case, how would you know about what mares were like in ancient times? Did Twilight bolt you down to the ground and torture you with a feather until you read a history book?”

“Nope. It was in Daring Do and the Pegasus Spear. There was that part with the clay statues? The Hundred Stallions of Commander Hurricane’s harem, who were buried alive with her, trapped inside the statues? You don’t get a hundred stallions by acting like Fluttershy.”

Well. That sounds positively ghastly.” Rarity scrunched up her muzzletip in distaste. “You’ve inspired me. I think I shall spend tomorrow in thankful prayer to Celestia, for ensuring those barbaric times are long over. Besides, you do know that Daring Do is a fictional story, correct?”

Rainbow lifted up a felt-covered foreleg and gave it a little wave to remind Rarity of her work. Scissors and pins which had been poised in the air, unmoving, went back to work. “The Pegasus Spear is totally real. I’ll prove it after this.”

“I’m afraid not. I promised to meet Cadance before Pinkie’s soiree to help her figure out something suitable to wear. And...”

Dash interjected, “I don’t think you get to call a party that takes place in a warehouse a soiree anymore.”

Rarity lifted her muzzle haughtily, if only so much as she could while orchestrating the movements of a cloud of sharp objects around her friend. “I’m well aware of what sort of party it is. Thank you. It shall prove to be quite a departure from my usual fashions, but it does an artist good to be forced from her comfort zones, from time to time. And of course, I need to attend to my own grooming, as well. Luckily, I already discharged my promises to Shining Armor before meeting you, else I wouldn’t have any time at all.”

“Discharged your promises? Is that what they call it now?” Dash shot her friend a sly, suggestive look, and was rewarded with a new blush on the white unicorn’s cheeks, and a look of embarrassed anger. “No wonder you were all hot and bothered. Well, geez, if I knew I was interrupting play-ti—” The pegasus flinched as the rubber grip of a pair of dainty scissors stingingly snapped down atop her nose.

“Dash, my dear, don’t let our friendship lead you to believe that I won’t utterly destroy you, if you finish that sentence.” Rarity’s voice had the quality of ground glass as she delivered the threat through gritted teeth.

Rainbow Dash, godslayer, felt assured enough in her martial prowess to allow Rarity the point. She laughed lightly and dipped her head down in a bow of gracious surrender. “Right, sorry.” Okay, so she might have done a better job of actually sounding apologetic. “How about this: I should go check on Fluttershy, because she’ll be working up some excuse not to go the party. You get yourself all prettied up, as if you need it—” Rarity beamed at the compliment. “—and then I’ll steal you away for ten minutes or whatever on your way to Cadance, to prove my point. We don’t have to leave the palace. Not even far out of the way. It’ll be worth it, promise.”

* * *

Rainbow Dash settled down onto her haunches in the doorway of Twilight’s bedroom, within the tower that the unicorn always returned to when in Canterlot. She tried to stay unobtrusive. She didn’t want anything to do with the little scene in there. It took all kinds to run the world, and you wouldn’t find Dash saying otherwise. Everypony should be free to do whatever they want, no matter how weird. At least they had the good sense to keep it in the privacy of a bedroom. But did they have to leave the door open so anypony could walk in on it?

Fluttershy had her wings tight against the sides of the other in the room. Her cheeks carried a warm flush. She breathed a gentle sigh, then took in a slow, almost quivery breath to replace it.

“Hush now, quiet now,” the butter yellow pegasus sang. Her beautiful, gentle voice rose barely above a whisper, yet it filled the expansive stone room. The teary-eyed little dragon she cradled in her forelegs and wings clung more tightly to her. She didn’t so much as flinch in worry of his sharp claws. She was fearless when it came to taking care of something. She nuzzled the tears from his cheeks without breaking the lulling rhythm of her voice. “It’s time to rest your sleepy head.”

“Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to go to bed,” she continued, as Spike burrowed his face against her throat.

“This is stupid,” the dragon sniffed. He was whispering, his voice heavy with misery. Clearly he was trying to be quiet, but he could have been far more so. He was used to dealing with the dull senses of unicorns, not with those of pegasi. “Crying isn’t going to fix anything. I know she’s hurting. Worse than when she was in the hospital. She needs me. She’s always had me there.”

“Shh. It’s okay. It will fix something. When there’s nothing else we can do, it can make you feel better to let it out. Twilight would want that.” It looked to Dash as if Fluttershy was about to start crying too, probably only because Spike was. Her eyes were getting all watery, and a bit of waver had entered her voice. Seriously, Applejack called Dash a sappy pony.

Great. My eyes are doing it too, probably ‘cause I didn’t get enough of a nap, Dash asserted, privately. Or maybe it’s a reaction to that felt Rarity was using. One of those is my story, and I’m sticking to it. Them. Whatever.

Dash sighed and let her wings droop down. It was no use. Fluttershy was just so sweet that it was like an arrow to the chest. It was piercing and got you directly in the heart. It was probably very bad for you, like eating too much candy, or, well, an arrow to the chest.

The young athlete weathered the assault on her heart-strings by daydreaming about flying with the Wonderbolts, and doing her very best not to think about how they might reject her for being some kind of Princess-molesting fillyfooler. Hey, maybe Spitfire was like that too? Stop it. Not even worth thinking about that.

Makes for a good fantasy though. For later, and stuff. Surely she had to be allowed a bit of private daydreaming, regarding her idol. Even if it was probably hopeless. I mean, everypony has to be a fillyfooler for Spitfire, after all!

Movement drew the cyan pegasus’s attention. Fluttershy was carefully lowering the dragon into his basket, her wings beating slowly to let her keep her balance while she used her forelegs. She gently tugged a blanket up over him with her mouth. “Sleep tight, my brave little dragon,” the kind-hearted mare whispered, barely audible even to Dash’s keen ears. The pink-maned mare was wearing the most serene look Rainbow could imagine as she turned to begin prancing toward the door. Her first few steps were so light upon the floor that it was a surprise to find her wings folded in relaxation at her sides, instead of carrying her aloft.

Dash’s heart sank when Fluttershy’s blue-green eyes met her own and widened. The yellow pegasus visibly shrank, her head lowering and tilting to one side to let her hide behind her hair. Her posture slumped, and her previously relaxed wings gained a nervous tension. “O-oh. Rainbow Dash. I didn’t know anypony was there.”

The far braver pegasus made a motion with her head in the direction of the hallway, and started down it herself. Fluttershy meekly followed. At first the butterfly-adorned mare was content to walk several steps behind, but Dash slowed down until she was beside her friend. She companionably extended a cyan wing over the other pegasus’s back. If she could get all mushy with Twilight, it should be easy with Fluttershy. “So, Spike is taking things bad, huh?”

Fluttershy seemed to be in a strange, divided mood. It was probably her nervousness at being touched warring with her tender side. Not that she had any other side, really. “Oh, no. He really is being very, very brave. So much braver than I could be. They won’t let him in to see Twilight, you know? So he’s just been waiting outside those... those...” Fluttershy cringed a little bit, her voice squeaking. “... dungeons. All day, every day. And he’s putting on a strong face. But he’s just a baby dragon. He should be allowed to let things out.”

“If you say so, Flutters.” It wasn’t really something she wanted to debate with Fluttershy, truthfully. Mostly because it was really annoying having any kind of disagreement with the bashful pegasus. She just rolled over on any point, and never put up a fight about it. “So,” Dash began again, aiming for subtlety and predictably failing, “you’re done helping Pinkie with the decorations? What time did she want us to come back for the party, again?”

“E-eight.” That likewise predictable stumble heralded Fluttershy scrambling for an excuse. “Um... I don’t think I’m going to be able to go. Somepony should keep an eye on Spike.”

Here we go, Dash inwardly sighed. She didn’t even say anything, she just steadily looked at Fluttershy out of the corner of her eye.

The other pegasus squirmed under the pressure of that gaze. “And Twilight too? I can take another turn on your cloud. I wouldn’t want her to get lonely in that...” Fluttershy squeezed her eyes shut, just like she always did when talking about the dungeon. “... that horrible place, while everypony is having fun.”

Fluttershy opened her eyes a sliver, looking over at her friend. Rainbow was continuing to look back at her, wordlessly. “A-and I’m kind of tired too. I should probably get some sleep while it’s still night.”

The gentler pegasus stared straight forward down the hallway, presumably so she couldn’t see Dash staring at her. It was easy to tell she could feel it, though. Her head kept lowering further down, and by the time ten steps had passed, she was cringing. “Ohpleaseohplease don’t make me go, Rainbow Dash! There’s going to be hundreds of ponies there!” she wailed, fragile composure collapsing like a poorly-stacked house of cards.

The athlete started a short mental countdown in her head. She generously started at five. She’d gotten to two when Fluttershy’s wings drooped in surrender and her muzzle followed, sulkily, until her nose was nearly touching the floor as she walked. “F-fine. I’ll go. You don’t have to twist my wing so hard about it.”

Dash smiled, well, smirked really. She gave the wilted pony a squeeze with that draping wing, and allowed herself a nod of self-congratulation.

* * *

“There.” Rainbow Dash tapped on the magically hardened glass of the display case in front of her. There hadn’t been any tours running through the palace since Celestia’s... accident. But Dash had managed to convince the Guard outside Celestia’s Trophy Hall to let her in. He was one of the ponies she’d been sparring with yesterday, as it turned out. Her voice carried a note of triumph. “The Pegasus Spear. Told you.”

“Well, I can scarcely believe it, but there it is.” Rarity squinted. “And it must, indeed, be of pegasus manufacture. No other tribe of pony would stray so far from good taste.”

“What do you mean?” Dash complained, her tone edging toward hurt. “I think it looks awesome!” She emphatically gestured with a hoof, as if Rarity’s problem was simply that she hadn’t seen the object on display.

“It’s terrible. What pony would use something like that?” Fluttershy whimpered, barely heard. She was half-hiding behind Rarity.

Rarity lifted her gaze to the ceiling, like a pony asking Celestia for strength. “It’s shooting lightning. Frost is pouring off of it. It’s bright blue. And gold. Presumably to make a pony think of a rainstorm by having their eyes water in irritation just from looking at it. And while I hardly know a thing about such brutish endeavors, I’m fairly certain that being so jagged doesn’t actually help. Where is a pony even to hold it without cutting up their mouth? It looks like a knife factory exploded, and half of it got stuck in a horrifically-coloured stick.”

The cyan pegasus made a show of knocking her forehead against the glass in frustration. She glared balefully at her unicorn comrade out of the corner of her eye. It didn’t have the same effect that it had with Fluttershy. “I’m revoking your honorary pegasus privileges. You couldn’t even keep them for an hour.”

“Yes, yes. Worst, possible, thing, and so on.” Rarity half-heartedly retorted, taking a moment to read the gold plaque below the display. “What’s this?” The fashionista’s perfectly painted eyes narrowed. She lifted her muzzle with an effete, disdainful outrage. “Really, Rainbow. This wasn’t at all the time for foalish pranks by you and Pinkie. You knew I was busy, and I came here in good faith.” Rarity turned and stalked from the room, leaving Rainbow staring after her, wearing a look of confusion. The fashion pony called back, “Come, Fluttershy. It’s painfully obvious that you’ve been crying. We need to bring down the swelling around your eyes. That will take a stop at the kitchens for cucumbers.”

It was no surprise when the yellow pegasus meekly fell into step behind the unicorn, as she did with Dash earlier. She at least gave a sympathetic glance to offset the weather pony’s utterly lost look.

“I just don’t get that pony, at all,” Dash muttered to herself. She focused her attention on the small plate under the display, which had caused the outburst. She read it aloud, like she did everything else. “Pegasus Spear... blah blah blah... Commander Hurricane... yadda yadda... Founding of Equestria...” She skimmed along. “Presented to Princess Celestia in 962NE following its rediscovery by Pinkamena Pie.”

The pegasus promptly applied hoof to face with a groan. “Pinkie, seriously? As if I don’t have enough going on, you gotta set yourself up to drive Luna even more crazy?” She set her hoof’s edge to trying to knock the plaque off. The best she managed was to dent it somewhat. It was well affixed. “Great. Just great. Now I’ve got to get this changed back without Luna knowing about it.”

* * *

“Oh, buck no. You aren’t leaving.” Dash flared her wings across the doorway to the room that Applejack had been given in the palace. She braced her hooves far apart to give the impression of immovability. “You’re just going to ditch us here? Leave Pinkie high and dry? Abandon Twi?”

“Yer Loyalty, not me,” the earth pony gruffly replied, jamming her lasso into the already bulging trunk. “And Ah'm Honesty, so Ah'm bein’ honest. Ain't nothin' more that Ah can do here. Not sure there was anythin' Ah could do in the first place. Twilight's in jail, they won’t even let us non-winged ponies see her, an’ she'll stay there until Luna gets her horn on straight an' decides to let her out. In the meantime, Ah got a family to worry about and a farm to be runnin'.” She lifted her face to the pegasus; the farmer pony's expression was haggard, with deep, dark bags under her eyes. Dash couldn’t figure out what was with ponies and not sleeping these days. “For Celestia's sake, Dash. Before Ah left, Apple Bloom asked me if Twilight was gonna be okay. What in tarnation am Ah supposed to tell her? That everything's gonna be all right? Ah'm not so sure of that anymore.”

“Apple Bloom was probably just worried Twi was going to show up with Smarty Pants, when we heard Twi had gone crazy again.”

“This ain’t the time for jokin’!” the earth pony snapped, slamming the trunk closed. She had to lean her weight on it afterward to get the lock to click. “Luna’s been one wheel short of a wheelbarrow since Celestia got hurt. If you want to do the Loyal thing, you’ll convince the rest of our friends to meet me right on that train platform, ‘fore they all get thrown in jail, or turned to stone, or worse.”

Applejack pushed her hat down more securely with a forehoof, then grabbed the trunk’s strap with her teeth. She began to drag it to the door. Verdant-green eyes drilled into the pegasus in the doorway, daring her to keep herself in the way, and showing no small triumph when Dash stepped to the side, to allow her through.

Rainbow impatiently waited until the farmer was halfway out the door before casually kicking out a rear leg, her hoof connecting with the luggage with a wooden thud. The stressed lock released, and the painstakingly-packed items spilled out across the floor.

“What the hay, Rainbow?!” the orange mare yelled, after spitting out the strap she’d been pulling on.

Dash’s wings beat, carrying her up into the air, her freed forelegs crossed stubbornly across her barrel. “You’re not leaving.”

“Y’all reckon you can stop me?” Applejack angrily retorted, eyes narrowed.

“Yeah, if you’re really going to force me to keep you from regretting acting like a total drama princess, later.” The flyer reached down and contemptuously flicked the brim of Applejack’s hat with a forehoof, knocking it off of her head. She made a show of examining the earth pony’s forehead. “No horn? And I was so sure you and Rarity had switched places. For once she’s acting kinda sensible and you’re a—”

Dash never got to finish. Bellowing with rage, the apple farmer leaped at the hovering pegasus, forelegs outstretched to try to grab her. She took the smaller mare around the middle, doubling her over. There wasn’t any underestimating the sheer, unstoppable mass of a charging earth pony. So long as the pair remained in the air, however, a pegasus had a supreme advantage. Dash reacted with the lightning reflexes befitting her tribe, and martial arts training besides. Even as pegasus magic helped air refill her lungs, after it was so rudely forced out by the impact, she set her hooves behind Applejack’s neck. A few powerful strokes of her wings had her sliding upward over top of the earth pony’s body. She shoved downward as hard as she could. When Applejack met ground again, far sooner than she had anticipated, it was in a graceless tumble, sliding across the polished stone of the floor.

Right. Definitely time for some more Dash-brand healing. The pegasus’ wings carried her in a shallow upward arc. She didn’t try to gain any real speed as she started back down toward the fallen farmer, unlike with Luna. She didn’t want to hurt her friend, just deliver a good sense-restoring hoof to the head. Maybe bruise her a bit, medicinally. She drew back a foreleg as her glide brought her close to her target.

There was a flash of orange, which gave way to an explosion of stars across Dash’s vision.

The pegasus regained some minimal amount of sense within short order. There was no room for long periods of disorientation in a flyer. Rainbow pieced together the fact that she was spinning through the air just before the trip was halted by the fragile bulk of a delicate urn. In the hallway. Over a dozen feet from where the unplanned flight had begun.

Sharp pain blossomed in Dash’s sides as sharp bits of painted, fired clay dug past her fur. Oddly, that was really the only place that hurt. Admittedly, the fact that both the left side of her face and her right shoulder were entirely numb gave ominous promises. Somehow Dash’s mind found the time to churn up some small bit of woozy amusement at the fact that she’d received a pair of hooves in pretty much the same places she’d hit Luna the previous night. It turned out that hitting ponies was more fun than getting hit.

It took the pegasus a long moment to identify the clatter of hooves running across stone toward her. “Ah’m sorry Rainbow! Please don’t be dead!” Applejack cried, in a panic, voice cracking.

Dead, seriously? What does she think I am, a unicorn? Dash flared her wings out. Air gathered and thickened under them, answering the call of her magic. It allowed even a small, awkward beat to lift her into the air in a surge. Shards of pottery fell away from her. The flight was just a short hop, landing her right in front of her earth pony rival. Rolling Thunder was a martial art that relied heavily on the fact that pegasi could free up any of their limbs by flying. It didn’t offer much in the way of brute strength, however, unless a pony could be near enough to use the ground to gain leverage. A second slice of cyan feathers launched Dash back into a low forward arc. She hooked the crook of her left foreleg under the orange pony’s chin, using her momentum, and a well-timed kick of rear hooves against the ground, to flip the earth pony head over tail onto her back. It was nearly impossible to force an earth pony to move in a way they didn’t want to.

Of course, earth ponies also tended to recover quickly if you did actually manage to shift them. Applejack rolled back onto her hooves without so much as a moment of disorientation from being flipped. “Ah ain’t going to fight you, Dash. Bucky and Kicks ought never to be turned on a pony in anger. ‘Specially not a pegasus or a unicorn, y’all break too easy. Granny Sm—”

* * *

Rainbow Dash clung to Applejack’s back, a foreleg tight around her throat, and the other bracing it. Even for an earth pony, a stranglehold was a show-stopper. It was the method every pegasus martial art taught as the definitive way to disable their powerful, landbound cousins. The farmer barely seemed to notice. She hopped and leapt and bucked, trying to throw the pegasus off, showing no signs of slowing despite the probable secession of the flow of air into her lungs. “Get off’a me, ya overgrown buzzard!”

A loud bang echoed through the room. It startled Dash enough for her to lose her hold. She flew up toward the ceiling by reflex, frantically looking for the source of the sound. What she found was a hoofprint in the wall, where Applejack’s wild bucking had caught it. Four of the sizeable stone blocks making up that wall were spiderwebbed with cracks. The masonry had failed, allowing said blocks to be forced an inch or so back. The wall in the hallway outside was probably bulging outward.

Ohmygosh, the pegasus thought, eyes widening, no wonder she thought she’d killed me.

A laugh began to bubble up from the rainbow-maned mare’s throat, as she surveyed that damage. There was only one conclusion to be drawn. “I am so. Bucking. Awesome!” She shouted, triumphantly. Further ruminations on her invincibility were cut short by an orange mouth grabbing her colourful, dangling tail and yanking toward the ground. “Ow! Hey! Tail-pulling is not cool!” The athlete’s wings fluttered, trying to overcome her worrying loss of altitude.

* * *

The brawl found its way to the floor, eventually, as all such fights inevitably did. Traded kicks and forehoof strikes lost their energy as exhaustion set in. Once those could no longer promise sore spots and bruises, both parties began resorting to mare-ish biting, and half-hearted pushing to ward those attempts away. There was no surer way to drain energy than combat. It simply took longer than with most for the two rivals. Both ponies sported puffy eyes, bumps and bruises distorting the colour of covering fur. It was enough that a few bite marks were rather trivial in the grand scheme of things, and both ponies seemed to realize as much at the same time.

In a final show of stubbornness, the pegasus gathered the last reserves of her strength, forced her wings into motion and shoved against the bulk of her distressingly fit rival. She rolled the earth pony onto her side, and placed her forehooves down against the orange mare’s ribs. As a pin it was woefully useless. If so much as token struggle was offered, Dash knew she would just fall off, but Applejack seemed content to just lie there.

It was fortunate, since Dash hated losing and draws weren’t much better.

“Feel...” the pegasus said, between quick, panting breaths, “... better now? Needed... that?”

Applejack didn’t speak, but the grudging nod of her head was enough.

Dash took a deep breath and held it for a moment, feeling strength start to filter back into her body with that air. Her heartbeat slowed. Pegasi tended to bounce back from exertion more quickly than earth ponies or unicorns. “Well, maybe the Princess needed it too. Way worse than you did.” She let Applejack chew on that idea for a bit.

“Ah’m not gonna kiss you.” Applejack stated, finally, once her own breath was under control.

“Oh, come the buck on!” Dash beat her wings, allowing her throw her hooves up into the air in frustration at the unfairness of the universe. She could feel the burn of a dark blush colouring her cheeks and muzzle. It felt especially hot where a bruise was already forming. “She...” Dash made a nebulous waving of her hoof, to indicate Luna, in an arbitrary direction. Though she certainly did it emphatically. “... kissed me, okay? Unicorn magic and mane-pulling was involved. I didn’t sign up to get my tonsils sucked out. I was saving Pinkie.”

“Well, Ah’m right glad to hear that.” Dash suppressed a cringe at the implications of Applejack’s relief. “But that’s more of a sign that Luna just ain’t right. Maybe she did need to blow off some steam, but there’s an awful difference between an honest brawl ‘tween friends, and turnin’ good folk to stone. Then molestin’ a stand-up, reputable-like mare no less.”

“Forget Luna, okay?” The pegasus wished ponies would forget about the Dash-and-Luna combination, in particular. “I’ll buck some more sense into her if I have to. We need to stay here for Twi. She doesn’t have anyone but us. ‘Sides, what if things go bad with Celestia, and we need you to do your Honesty thing with the necklace? There might not be time to go get you from Ponyville. So, yeah, it stinks here, but we’ve just got to tough it out for a little while longer, okay?” Dash had to swallow back her pride to descend to the levels she was plummeting to. “A-and you’re the toughest pony I know, so it should be easy, right?”

Applejack broke into a husky chuckle. “Oh, Ah was so right. Ah’m thinkin’ Ah should offer you a business proposition. We already have rainbow jam, with the Zap Apples. With all that sap comin’ off of you these days, Ah bet we could get some rainbow maple syrup goin’ too.”

“See if I’m ever nice to you again, Applesmack.” Rainbow growled, using her wings to lift herself off of the farmer, to settle on the ground nearer to the door. “Go dust yourself off, the party’s at eight. Pinkie needs us there.”

“Y’all call this bein’ nice? Ah’d hate to see mean.”

* * *

Rainbow Dash fell back onto her haunches, reliving memories of the first time she saw fireworks bursting over Cloudsdale. Celestia’s room was unnaturally dark. The glow of medical monitors, and even a few lit bulbs were visible, but the light seemed muted, and didn’t travel as far as it should. The aurora of flickering magic dancing across the slumbering alicorn had no such restrictions. Magelight in a dozen colours traced lines of liquid power across the sun goddess’s pristine white coat. Through it all, like a swarm of silvery fireflies, was the moonborn power of the Princess of the Night made manifest.

The sorcery in the air was tangible, tingling against Dash’s skin, ignoring her cyan pelt. It was not unlike the threat of a brewing storm cloud underhoof. It was the spellwork of two groups, each of a half dozen ponies, unicorns all. Two esoteric diagrams of precise, steady light, cast onto the floor, each played host to five ponies in a ring around their perimeter. In the center of one, the focus of that thrumming nexus of potential, was an elderly unicorn mare, coat gone grey-blue and mane white with age. In the center of the other was the Princess of the Night herself, her wings flared wide, crackling static leaping between her feathers. Her horn was ignited, those motes of firefly-light gathering most strongly around it, as if attracted to it.

There were others at work, unicorn doctors casting by themselves at Celestia’s bedside. Even a pair of earth ponies were stroking the fallen monarch’s outspread wings. Dash didn’t have attention to spare for them, in the face of the display she witnessed. Not that much would have been missed. The greater part of the experience was in the feel of the room, not the sight. Like her first time seeing fireworks, there was the sense of being swept up in something even greater than herself, in being a tiny part of the interplay of enormous forces.

Minutes, or perhaps hours later, it came to an abrupt finish. The pale power of the moon winked out, and harsh electric light flooded back into the room, as if a curtain had been pulled back. The pegasus flinched, shielding her face with a foreleg. She took a sudden breath, as if she had been scared to so much as fill her lungs until that moment. She couldn’t remember making a conscious choice to do that.

Blinking the last vestiges of the glare from her eyes, the pegasus surveyed the room. Celestia remained as she was before, though the two earth ponies were refolding her wings, for whatever reason. Both groups of unicorns were either lying on the floor, or slumped over, taking greedy breaths of air, as if they had run for miles. They were lathered with sweat, one and all. The elder unicorn, perhaps a senior doctor, who had been at the center of the second circle, seemed hardest hit. A few of the others were ignoring their fatigue to help support her. She seemed barely conscious. The dark goddess, however, folded her wings daintily at her side, and rose with unhindered smoothness to all four shod hooves. “Rest, my little ponies,” It was odd hearing Celestia’s phrase from Luna’s mouth, Dash thought. “We could all use it. We’ll work again in the morning. I thank you for your efforts.”

Rainbow rose to her hooves in turn. Her wings stretched and gave a little flutter, just testing the air without any real conscious command. It was a nervous sign of a pegasus readying for escape into the air. She clamped her rebellious wings down at her sides just about when Luna noticed her.

“Well met, fair Rainbow Dash!” Luna called in greeting, trotting in her direction, still showing none of the fatigue that had so crippled the other ponies. “Thou hast come to check upon thy liege? Thou shalt find no reason to chastise her this time. We are on our very best behavior, to avoid thy wrath!”

Even if it took a bit of work to mentally translate, it was a lot less weird to hear the alicorn speaking normally. Well, normally for Luna. “Yeah. The thing is...” The cyan athlete trailed off, glancing toward the ponies who were all pretending not to listen. “Do you think we could talk somewhere a bit more priv—”

The world entered a nauseating spin. For several long moments everything was an overwhelming blur, as if Dash was caught in a flow of ice-cold rapids, unable to tell up from down.

“—ate,” Dash’s mouth completed, without any conscious intervention. “I think I’m going to be sick.” The pegasus dipped her head and gulped air, trying to stave off an ill twist in her middle. Looking down, she could see a strange midnight blue smoke pouring off of her limbs. A glance back found the same thing happening to the rest of her body, though the effect was diminishing.

That look also revealed the fact that she was in an entirely different room from the one she had been occupying a second before. It was in a huge, cavernous hall of dark stone, cut down the middle with a blue carpet. More hints of subtle colour were granted by starlight pouring through a dozen stained-glass windows, all showing intricate evening scenes. An expansive window, clear and circular, set at one end of the hall, let in the light of a full moon, which in turn fell upon a raised dais. It was there that the Princess of the Moon sat, upon a throne of gilded silver twice as tall as she was.

“Apologies, my dearest suitor, time is short this eve. Soon, we must endure the overdone posturing and grating squawking of the gryphon ‘ambassador’. They are demanding reparations for the ‘attack’ on the natural order brought about by long days and nights. And since the risk of war is not enough to fill our night, we have Laughter’s party to attend shortly after.” The goddess gestured with a metal-clad hoof. “So speak thy mind. And worry not over our complaints. We shall always make time for thee.”

Rainbow tried to think back to her long minutes of pacing the halls before entering Celestia’s chambers. She’d mentally rehearsed, over and over, what she’d wanted to say, with an eye toward diplomacy. Rarity would want her to act like that. Nothing came to her. She drew a complete blank. I am not a clever pony.

The pegasus stomped a hoof down, her posture leaning slightly forward and held aggressively high. “My friends and I are going to be allowed to visit Twi. That’s all there is to it. All the Bearers.” Dash cringed a little. That sounded even worse than she’d planned. This was way easier when she was really mad. “And, um, Spike too. Definitely Spike, actually.”

The corners of Luna’s lips quirked up in wry amusement. “Twilight’s familiar? We suppose it is within our power to grant that request. But what is in it for us?”

Rainbow blinked. She wasn’t expecting that question. It wasn’t a very Princess-y thing to say.

“We jest, fret not. Thy company is all the gift we need.” Dash’s ears folded back. “We did not intend to deprive you of each other. It simply slipped our mind to craft such orders. We dare not threaten the Harmony of the Bearers. And Twilight’s familiar is an able scribe. We meant to do all we could to facilitate Twilight’s studies.”

“That’s where she got those books?” Dash asked. She tried her very best to not think about the mentions of Luna’s affection right now. That dangerous little web could wait.

The pegasus had the distinct impression that the goddess very much realized her discomfort. “Indeed. We wish for Twilight Sparkle to continue her research as best she can. It is doubly important now. Dost thou know what problem she attempts to decipher?”

“She mentioned it to me. Practical something with the interharmony of pony souls, or whatever.” Dash bit her lip lightly. No, that was wrong. It was in that article that Twi had been so proud of. A Study on the Arcane use of Interharmonic Souls? Interpony? Is the ‘souls’ thing right? Okay Dash, you’re blowing it! In the end, to avoid looking even worse in front of a goddess, she rolled her eyes. “The magic of friendship, right? What’s with that pony and trying so hard to sound smart?”

“The greater mystery, we think, is when she manages to sound mundane. Our friend is very much that brilliant. And we know that thou ken as much. However, thine own skill is in cutting to the quick. What thou saw today was the limits of pony magic, as we know it. Six unicorns may work in concert, and no more. Earth ponies don’t work their magic consciously, and only passively. We need not speak to thee of the pegasi. But tell us, how many friends dost thou hold dear to thy heart?”

“Good ones?” Rainbow Dash found it in her to stand proudly again. “You know the answer to that. Six. The six best in all of Equestria.”

The goddess-on-high inclined her head in concession. “‘Tis a powerfully symbolic number, that. Six Virtues. Six Elements. Six mages in a full array. It goes further, of course. Six kinds of magic, six great cities within the ancient world, and so on. It reappears over and over. But that isn’t the point we make.” The goddess was quiet for a moment, seemingly in thought. “Pinkamena. Laughter. How many friends doth she call dear?”

“Pinkie?” Dash extended a wing and made a dismissive flicking gesture with it. “Who knows? What’s the population of Ponyville these days? Lots. Hundreds.”

“Indeed, which is why we chose her as an example. Not six. Love knows no limit. It knows no division by tribe, or even by species. What could that portend in healing Celestia, if Twilight were to stumble upon the methods whereby that power could be worked? Could we gain the assistance of every doctor in all Equestria at once? Every pony? How trivial would it be to banish the changelings if we had a million pairs like Cadance and our frustrating Captain?” Luna stretched out her expansive wings once more. Dash found her eyes instinctively drawn to them, as any pegasus’s would be. The alicorns all had enormous, luxurious wings, all power and grace. A single leisurely beat of them brought the goddess to the base of her dais. She started toward the smaller pegasus in an unhurried walk. “For centuries before my exile, my Sister and I worked. For a thousand years after she continued alone. And perhaps, within thy lifetime, we may see the culmination of that. Ponies in true Harmony, bound together by unbreakable bonds. Peace. An end to suffering. That is why Twilight Sparkle works, even now. In that hope.”

“That sounds pretty awesome and all, but it’s sort of above my pay grade.”

Luna laughed, it was certainly nicer than all of her shouting and speechifying. “‘Tis an unlikely possibility, in any case. Nothing in life is truly so easy, we have found. Yet, thou art a part of it. A very important part. In my time, few, if any mortal ponies could potentially wield Loyalty. Thou art a very special mare, and for more than thine heroism.” The goddess stopped in front of Dash. The pegasus, not really liking having somepony looking down at her, began to beat her wings, hovering easily at a proper eye-level. It was worth it, even if every flex of her flight muscles made her shoulder ache where Applejack had bucked her. Her flying must have been a bit uneven, the pegasus version of a limp, because Luna’s face took on a look of concern. “Thou art injured! We hope it was not something that happened when thou quieted our outburst.”

“No, it—” The pegasus tripped over her words as the tips of feathers brushed lightly against her cheeks. They were soft, feeling more like the down of tertiary pegasus feathers than the load-bearing pinions they were. Those feather tips moved down to the shoulder of her foreleg next, but Rainbow barely noticed that. She was shying slightly away as Luna’s muzzle dipped forward toward hers. It wasn’t a kiss, like she expected. Rather, Luna nuzzled lightly at her bruised cheek. A pleasant, cool sensation filtered through the athlete, not so dissimilar to a night’s cool wind against her coat when at altitude, starting at that point of contact. It radiated out through her body, causing her to shiver. The feeling of tight heat from the battered and swollen parts of her eased, the ache diminishing. Luna’s left eye closed partially, as if some of the puffiness from Dash’s own took root there. “Um... Applejack needed a bit of a shaking up, too. It’s nothing. S’how our friendship works.” Dash spoke entirely on automatic. She shook her head, looking away from the goddess to clear her thoughts for a moment. “Listen. Thanks, for helping me with the bruises. I’m not a talky pony, but I think we need to talk about... this.”

Luna settled back onto her haunches once more, with all the appearance of satisfaction. The bruises she gained were already starting to fade, if slowly. By the time she had folded her expansive wings, both eyes were able to open fully once more. The alicorn didn’t seem at all nervous, quite unlike Dash. Her tone carried a note of amusement, and she even dropped some of the formality from her words. “Must we, now? I wouldn’t expect thee to be the kind to need words, when actions have been clear. I favor thee.”

Dash settled back down to the ground, taking up a mirrored position, sitting upright, rainbow tail curled lazily around her leg. She looked up to meet the goddess’ gaze. “Why me? You don’t know me all that well. You know Twi a lot better.”

Luna’s look became coy. “We know her dreams, too. I’m afraid I’m the wrong divinity for our Twilight. And my heart aches in pity for her, for it. She knows enough of history to have caught the trend of Celestia’s marriages and acquiring of concubines. ‘Tis a hopeless longing, as she lacks the... proper accessories. To say nothing of our Sister being so concerned about the untouchable image forced ‘pon her by her subjects, even if her student were the proper gender.” Dash’s cheeks heated slightly, her ears folding back. She looked away, as if that would distance her from the knowledge. Twilight went for mares too? Maybe just Celestia. She didn’t really feel right hearing about Twilight’s crushes from a third party. Plus it added a whole other layer of ‘sad’ to the mess of injuring Celestia. A hoof touched under Dash’s chin, lightly guiding her to look up at the alicorn once more. The metal covering it was strangely cool to the touch. The touch of that hoof lingered even after the pegasus allowed her gaze to be drawn back. “I know thine deepest and hidden self, fair Loyalty. I have seen thy fears and thy hopes. I know thy manner. My Sister may look to guide and nurture her suitors, but I lack her motherly drive. Twilight is beautiful, and her brilliance is alluring, to be sure, but I want fire, and excitement. I want bravery, and boldness. Thou hast the strength and will to tame a goddess, if thou wishes. And I can trust thee, if I allowed thee to do so. For who is less likely to abuse trust than Loyalty?”

The pegasus stared up at the goddess with magenta eyes. She didn’t at all know what to say, and it showed. She hadn’t really bothered with the whole romance thing, since Cloudsdale. And that was really just going through the motions of what was expected of her. Going out with colts so her parents wouldn’t think she was weird. Even back then she knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere, so she never made any real effort to take it seriously. It was just a stupid game, which she’d been happy to ignore after coming to Ponyville. This wasn’t a game anymore. She wasn’t a little filly anymore. All of Equestria was watching her, which was normally pretty cool, but there was one heck of a downside.

Luna seemed to read her thoughts. Either that, or she really did know Dash as well as she said. “Thou worries for thine image. Likely thou art angry with me, for making so public of a display of it. I admit, ‘twas in poor taste, done in the heat of the moment, as all things were that night. Now thou thinks that ponies, and thy friends, will see thee as weak, or deviant.” That hoof left its place under Dash’s chin, to strike the blue carpet. Lightning flashed outside of the windows as it did, and a low rumble of thunder followed. “‘Tis foolishness! Had we not been gone, ponies would not dare to so disparage those like you or I. And damn Celestia for allowing it! Equestria was built upon the strength of the pony heart! It is the height of folly to question where it leads.” That shod hoof rose once more, to rest against Dash’s chest. “And is thine heart weak, Rainbow Dash?”

Yes, Dash thought. She squashed the notion down a moment later. That was Rainbow Crash thinking. “N-no.” She lifted her head a little higher, and marshaled her will, to repeat herself. “No.”

“Of course it isn’t. Nopony would dare to doubt thee. But we understand. Thou needst show them. Very well! I enjoyed playing this game before, and I wager I will again. Prove thine boldness. Do what countless thousands of ponies have dreamt of, but only one other of thy generation has ever done. Court, and win, an alicorn. How could anyone do anything but envy thine courage with a goddess counted as thy conquest?” Luna’s starry mane stretched out, curling around Dash’s smaller body. The touch was incredibly gentle, almost imperceptible, like allowing oneself to fall through a cloud. “Thou may make thine first overtures to seek my favor in the evening following this one. Is that agreeable?”

Rainbow had to admit that there was a certain part of herself that liked the argument of earning the envy of the kingdom. And conquering, or whatever, sounded a whole lot better than what was happening now, which was feeling like a doe stalked by wolves. The problem was that she didn’t exactly want her fame to come from the fact that she was the most successful fillyfooler in Equestria. ‘Rainbow Dash: Princess Plaything’ sounded a lot worse than ‘Rainbow Dash: Wonderbolt Superstar’.

Wait, is she asking me to take her on a date? Tomorrow? The sky-blue pegasus’ mind froze up at the implication. Once again her mouth didn’t seem to suffer the same problem. “Yeah. Okay.” Dash blinked. She distinctly mispronounced ‘No’ there. She meant to turn Luna down, didn’t she?

Luna smiled as radiantly as a goddess of darkness could. “Excellent! I shall wait, breathlessly. I shall see thee tonight, as well, at Laughter’s celebration. And I shall behave myself, so be free of worry.” That starry mane expanded, billowing around the pegasus, until all she could see was the night’s sky. She felt that disorienting, wrenching feeling again, and felt the cool dew of evening grass against her hindquarters instead of carpeting. The pegasus blinked and look around. She was in the gardens outside the palace. Clearly she’d been teleported again. A new wave of that strange nausea informed her that, indeed, Luna wasn’t quite as good at it as Twilight was. That wasn’t the weather pony’s real concern at that moment.

What the heck just happened? she hopelessly wondered.

* * *

Pinkie was staring hard at a midnight-blue paper streamer that had torn down the center, up high amidst the girders of the cavernous space of the empty warehouse, as if her glare alone would make it mend itself. Her bright blue eyes glanced from point to point, clearly plotting out what insane bit of acrobatics would be needed to move between catwalks, scaffolding and hanging pipes to affect the repair of that decoration. That it was a dozen pony-lengths in the air wasn’t going to deter her. The party pony’s impressive focus was broken when the meager weight of a pegasus fell across her back. Forelegs wrapped around her barrel in a tight hug.

“Pinks, it’s been a really weird night.” Dash breathed an exasperated sigh out into the cotton-candy fluff of Pinkie’s mane. Affection was way easier with Pinkie than with anyone. Probably because the baker was so huggy herself. That embrace firmed, and wings beat. The pegasus began to raise her friend up into the air, toward that streamer.

“Heya Dashie-Washie. Thanks for the lift.” She turned her head, trying for a nuzzle, but couldn’t quite reach. She gave up after a second, and instead daintily snatched one end of the streamer with her lips when it came into reach. “Weird’s okay. E’rything would be boring if was always normal.” Pinkie’s words were a little mushy, with the decoration in her mouth. But earth ponies tended to be pretty good at talking while holding things.

“Guess that’s true,” the pegasus conceded. She began to wing toward the other end of the broken streamer. After flinging Applejack around, carrying Pinkie was shockingly easy by comparison. An earth pony that packed in so many sweets should have been forcing Dash to thicken the air under her wings substantially, or maybe push some pegasus magic her way to reduce her weight. Carrying the party pony was like carrying Fluttershy, which was to say, completely effortless. She pondered asking Pinkie if she was on some kind of weird diet, but the sheer absurdity of that thought was actually enough to keep even her recently-out-of-control mouth shut. “So,” Dash changed the subject ham-handedly, “what do you know about the Pegasus Spear?”

Pinkie, with a flurry of hoof motions, somehow tied a bow to connect the broken parts of the streamer. She didn’t even use her mouth. Like with most anything about Pinkie, it made Dash’s head hurt to think about it. “Oh, neat! I get to do this twice. Okay, lemme tell you a story, Dashie, that Nana Pinkie told me. So there Grammy was, hanging on a vine over a pit of crocodiles, again. After spraining her wing, again. And not for the first time, she was wondering how she got there. After all, she thought she would be spending a few weeks brushy-brushing away at dusty old pots and stuff, collecting easy bits from the Cloudsdale Heritage Council, right? In the dry old southern mountains. Not being chased through the jungle by—”

“Pinkie,” Dash wearily interrupted, after setting the party pony down on the ground, “that’s the start to Daring Do and the Pegasus Spear.”

The baker raised a hoof to her chin in a pondering gesture. “You don’t say? Weeeird. Anyway, you love Daring Do, so win-win. Right, so, she was being chased through the jungle by clay statues of ponies. That was strange even for Grammy Pie, so, the first thing she had to do was—”

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