Rainbow Dash hadn't planned on saying anything. She'd just been lounging face-down on the branch of an apple tree, her legs dangling and swaying softly in the afternoon breeze, when something clicked for her. In one instant, her mind was blank, just on the edge of slipping into a nap, and in the next she had a plan. Well, not a plan. Rainbow Dash wasn't the kind of pony that made plans often. It was more of a goal. But for her, that was more than enough to act. She looked down at Applejack, reclining against the trunk of the tree, and grinned. "I see how you look at her, you know?"
With a start, Applejack looked up at Rainbow Dash. "The way I look..." she repeated, trailing off. Her eyes went wide and Rainbow Dash caught a glimpse of a blush before she pulled her hat forward, blocking Dash's view of her face. "At who?"
Dash rolled her eyes and didn't even try to keep the amusement out of her voice. "You know exactly who I'm talking about, Applejack."
"Well." Applejack's voice had a slow, deliberate neutrality. "I reckon I do, come to think of it. What of it?"
It seemed pretty obvious to Rainbow Dash. "Why don't you ask her out?"
Staring down at her silent, motionless friend, Rainbow Dash started to get the impression that the conversation wasn't going to go the way she'd expected. She shifted on the branch and looked out across Sweet Apple Acres. For a moment, she considered trying to change the subject; the mood was starting to get a bit too heavy for Dash's taste.
Before she had a chance, Applejack broke the silence.
"I don't rightly know," Applejack said, her head tilting back. "Could be I'm afraid. Could be I'm waiting for something. Not sure what. The sort of thing where you know it when you see it."
Rainbow Dash blinked. Her brow furrowed. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
With a shake of her head, Applejack chuckled, but there was more bitterness than humor in it. "I don't either, Rainbow Dash."
With a huff, Dash rolled off the branch, flapped her wings once, and landed in front of her friend. "I've seen her look at you, too."
Applejack just shrugged and straightened her hat. "So've I."
"So what do you think that means, hoof-for-brains?" Rainbow Dash asked.
A hint of anger entered Applejack's voice. "It ain't the same look."
Dash paused. Memories of two sets of eyes flashed on the surface of her mind. One pair was green, the other blue, both soft with desire, but one tinged with something else, something Rainbow Dash hadn't recognized at first, something she couldn't place. Something Applejack must have noticed. Dash looked at her hooves and scuffed the dirt. "It's still a look."
"Every look is a look!" Applejack pounded a hoof into a root. After a moment, she slumped and sighed. "Not every look matters."
"So what are you going to do?" Rainbow Dash asked.
Applejack got to her hooves with a groan and stretched. "I'm fixin' to get back to work."
Rainbow Dash wasn't amused by the attempt to dodge the question. She'd thought that Applejack, at least, could be counted on not to complicate things that should have been simple. "I mean about Rarity."
"I know what you meant, Dash." Applejack stepped out from the shade of the tree, adjusted her hat to shade her eyes, and began to walk in the general direction of her barn.
Taking to the air, Rainbow Dash followed her. "So you're not going to do anything!?" She asked, incredulous.
"I'm gonna keep livin' my life," Applejack said, as though it was a sensible answer.
"For how long?"
"I'm hopin' a good while, yet." Applejack deadpanned.
For a moment, Rainbow Dash was speechless. When she spoke again, she found that the heat was gone from her voice. "But wouldn't you be happier with her?"
Applejack stopped and turned to look up at her friend. Her eyes were distant and there was a small smile on her face. "I am happier when I'm with her," she said, before turning away and continuing forward, "and I happen to spend time with her several times a week, and I ain't gonna put that at risk."
"No, Rainbow Dash," Applejack said, shaking her head. "Just stop."
"Ugh!" Dash shouted, throwing up her hooves. "You're hopeless!" She couldn't take it anymore. She flew away. She didn't know quite where she wanted to go, but she hoped that wherever she ended up, the ponies would make some sense.
* * *
A bell rang as Rainbow Dash pushed open the door of Carousel Boutique and stepped in.
The sound hadn't faded from the air before Rarity called from the back of the shop, her customary greeting beginning even before she turned away from arranging a dress on one of the many displays. "Welcome to Carousel Boutique, where everything is—oh!" Her smile relaxed into something less practiced and more genuine as she saw Dash. "Hello, Rainbow Dash. I don't suppose you're here for a new dress?" she teased.
Rainbow Dash glanced involuntarily at one of the stifling prisons of cloth and lace adorning a featureless white ponnequin and shuddered. Truly, she was in a place of horrors. Still, she was there for a reason, so she filed away the sarcastic reply that popped into her head for later, and she put on her serious business pegasus face. "No. No, I'm not."
Rarity tilted her head, her brow furrowing. "Why, is something the matter, dear?"
It took a moment for Rainbow Dash to realize she wasn't already talking, and another moment for her to realize that she probably should have thought of something to say in advance. "Geeze, this is awkward," she muttered. She tried to look anywhere but at Rarity as she said, "I had a long talk with Applejack earlier."
The smile drained from Rarity's face, her lips compressing to a thin line. "Oh. I see."
"So you know why I'm here," Rainbow Dash said.
"I suppose I do know why you're here," Rarity said, then shook her head softly. "But I can't imagine what you're trying to accomplish." She turned back to the dress she had been working on before, using a hoof to smooth cloth that already laid perfectly flat.
Rainbow Dash chewed her lip. "I'm trying to get you to ask her out. Or something. Maybe." She sighed and scratched the back of her head with a hoof. "I probably should have planned this better," she added lamely.
After a moment, Rarity stopped her work and hung her head. "I'm sorry, Rainbow Dash. I'm... I'm just sorry." Rainbow Dash couldn't see her face, but her composure sounded forced.
"So you don't feel... That way about her?" Rainbow Dash asked.
Rarity sighed, shaking her head. "It's a lot more complicated than—"
Rarity glared at Rainbow Dash over her shoulder. "You're simply infuriating sometimes, Rainbow Dash."
"That's not a no," Rainbow Dash said with a grin.
For a moment, Rainbow Dash thought she had gone too far. The frown on Rarity's face deepened, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes flashed dangerously. Then, all at once, it drained away. It left Rarity looking just... empty. "It's not," She said, "It's definitely not a no."
"So what's the problem?" Dash asked. "You of all ponies should know what to do about this sort of thing, with the courtship and the happily ever after and all that nauseating stuff you're always going on about."
"It's not going to happen, Rainbow Dash," Rarity said. The way she spoke gave Dash the impression that she wished it was.
Rainbow Dash put a hoof to her face. The whole thing was coming apart faster than a snowpony in a sirocco, and she didn't know if she could salvage anything from the effort. Not for the first time that day, she considered the possibility that it may have been better if she hadn't said anything to Applejack in the first place. It wasn't going to happen. Not because they were opposites in every way, and not because they fought constantly—and Celestia knew, they were and they did. Not even because they didn't have feelings for each other. It wasn't going to happen because Applejack and Rarity were the two most stubborn ponies in Equestria, and they would rather give Rainbow Dash a pounding headache than do what they were supposed to. "So tell her that, at least. Don't you think she deserves to know?"
"Applejack is a very special mare, and I feel strongly for her. But she feels much more strongly for me, and she deserves a lot of things that I cannot give her." Rarity sighed. "She deserves some things that she would be better off without."
Still not quite understanding, Rainbow Dash nodded. She hadn't really expected a straight answer by that point anyway. "And what if she confesses to you? What'll you do then?"
Rarity looked at Rainbow Dash, and then she looked far beyond. Dash got the impression that she saw there was terrifying. "I... I don't know," Rarity said, "I wish I did, Rainbow Dash, but I do not."
Rainbow Dash shook her head. "I just want her to be happy, Rarity. I know you can make her happy."
"That is what I want as well, Rainbow Dash. I want her to be happy. I could make her happy, but I could make her very sad as well. That is why it must be this way. Sometimes it is better not to know. Maybe we will be happier this way," Rarity said. And she spoke like she believed it, but to Rainbow Dash it sounded like happiness was something very far away.
* * *
When Rainbow Dash was annoyed, she flew. To be fair, she flew when she was most things, but she put something extra into the effort when she was annoyed, and the more annoyed she was, the faster she flew. Rainbow Dash was moving quite quickly indeed when she passed through the window of the town's library. For a lesser pony, an attempt at controlled high-speed flight indoors would have resulted in grievous injury, a swift transition back to outdoors, or both. Rainbow Dash was not a lesser pony. She bled off some momentum in a couple of tight loops near the rafters, came in for a perfect landing, and found herself balanced on a pair of misplaced books, sliding across the library. She flared her wings, kicked, and watched the makeshift skis land on top of a pile of books to be sorted. Finally feeling solid ground beneath her, she dug in her hooves, stopping with a jolt. Every part of this had, of course, been completely intentional, or at least completely awesome, but Twilight Sparkle didn't even glance away from the book she was reading. This did nothing to improve Rainbow Dash's mood. "Applejack and Rarity are driving me crazy!"
Twilight Sparkle's horn lit up as she turned a page. "Are they fighting again?"
Walking toward Twilight's seat and bookstand, Rainbow Dash snorted. "No, this time they're in love or something."
"They're what?" Twilight asked, finally looking up from her reading, brow arched.
Rainbow Dash caught Twilight's gaze, once again trotting out her serious business pegasus face. "They're into each other. Way into each other."
It seemed to take a moment for Twilight Sparkle to process that, her head tilting slowly to the side. "Are you sure?"
Twilight's blatant incredulity irked Rainbow Dash. "Yes, I'm sure! They even admitted it."
"And this is a bad thing because..." Twilight trailed off, gesturing with a hoof for Rainbow Dash to finish the sentence.
Rainbow Dash huffed. "Because they aren't going to do anything about it." She started pacing, her wings twitching as she ranted." They both know they have feelings for each other, but they're just going to keep on acting like nothing's different because they got a couple of dumb ideas and they could give mules lessons on stubbornness." She turned to face Twilight for a moment. "And don't tell Rarity I said that," she added.
"Did they say why?" Twilight asked.
Thinking back, Rainbow Dash realized she probably should have paid more attention to the details of Applejack's and Rarity's reasons. "Applejack said something about not wanting to risk changing what they already have because she likes how things are now, and Rarity said something about not wanting to make Applejack really sad." Coming out of her own mouth, their excuses sounded almost reasonable to Dash. Almost.
Twilight Sparkle nodded for a moment, her eyes drifting away from Rainbow Dash. "Those sound like they could be good reasons to me," she said, looking back at Dash. "Well, your interpretation of good reasons anyway."
"Well I don't get it!" Rainbow Dash wasn't sure she wanted to get it. There was a certain way things were supposed to go. Pony one gets a crush on pony two. Pony one asks pony two out. Pony two of course also has a crush on pony one, so pony two agrees. Rainbow Dash was a little fuzzy on what would happen if that weren't the case, but she didn't let that bother her, and it didn't apply to Rarity and Applejack anyway. The next step, of course, was pony one and pony two kissing and living happily ever after and all the mushy stuff that made Dash a little bit queasy when she thought about it. She'd never had any interest in being pony one or pony two, but helping her friends toward the happily ever after part was, in her opinion, a good way to score friendship points. Friendship was—like all good things in life—a competition. Everypony won, of course, but Rainbow Dash intended to win the most.
"Not at all?"
Rainbow Dash sat on her haunches, crossing her front legs and frowning. "Not at all!" For a moment she wondered whether she couldn't understand or just didn't want to understand, but she quickly dismissed the difference as unimportant. "You do?"
Closing her book and levitating it, Twilight shook her head. "Not all the way, no." She turned to the shelves, quickly sliding the book into place before starting to walk around the library, her eyes scanning the titles as she went. "But I guess I understand a little bit."
Dash rolled her eyes. "So you're the egghead as usual. Think you could explain it to me?"
"Well, have you ever been in love?" Twilight asked. She pulled a book off the shelf, her magic flipping through the pages quickly before closing it with a puff of dust and returning it to its place.
"I haven't either," Twilight said, her ears folding back as she pawed at the ground with a hoof. After a moment, she brightened again and continued. "But it's supposed to be really, really strong. Like the feeling you have for your closest friends, but more so, right?" She looked over her shoulder at Dash.
Rainbow Dash shrugged. "I guess."
Twilight nodded and pulled another book from the shelf. "Do you remember when your gryphon friend…" Twilight frowned for a second before brightening. "Gilda! Do you remember when Gilda came to town?"
"Don't remind me," Rainbow Dash replied, her mood darkening considerably. Nopony—and no gryphon—implied Rainbow Dash was a lame-o and got away with it. "I don't even want to think about her."
Twilight Sparkle's smile was weak and uncertain as she approached her friend, but Dash found it reassuring nonetheless. "Well that's kind of the point I'm trying to make. It still feels bad, doesn't it?" She put a hoof on Rainbow Dash's shoulder. "Gilda was your friend. It must have hurt when she called you lame and stormed off."
"It pissed me off!" Rainbow Dash stomped a hoof, her brow furrowing. "Hurt?" she asked, about to start on another rant, but instead she blinked, and she thought. The outrage drained out of her like drizzle from a punctured cloud. She was quiet for a moment, and glad for Twilight's hoof. "Well, maybe."
"Have you spoken to her since then?" Twilight Sparkle asked.
Twilight stepped back, bringing the book she was levitating into her view and starting to flip through it, her eyes flicking across the pages even as she spoke. "You're a pegasus, so you might not be familiar with it, but unicorns and earth ponies have an idiom. 'Burning bridges'. It means destroying relationships so badly that there's no going back to the way things were." Her eyes flicked back to Rainbow Dash. "Gilda burned her bridges, and she hurt you doing it."
"Yeah," Rainbow Dash said, nodding slowly. "I guess she did."
"Now imagine how it would have felt if Gilda hadn't been just another friend. What if she had been the most important p—er... Most important thing to you in the whole world. I've seen the way ponies that are in love describe it. " Twilight put a hoof on the page, reading from it. "She is my everything." She flipped a few more pages before stopping again. "I think about her from dawn until dusk, then I dream of her until the sun comes again." Twilight opened the book to a page very near the end. "I don't know if I can go on without her." She looked up at Rainbow Dash, shutting the book, lowering it to the floor, and putting a hoof on it. "They use sappy phrases like that. What if Gilda had been your 'everything?' Love makes rational ponies write like teenagers. It's kind of scary, in a way. Don't you think it would have been so much worse if you felt that way about Gilda?"
Memories of Gilda surfaced in Rainbow Dash's mind. She thought of laughter, great races, and fun times. Sure, it'd sucked to tell Gilda to buzz off, but there had never been an instant's doubt about her ability to go on without her friend. The thought of needing someone that much sent a chill through Dash. "It definitely would have." She paused. "And you think that's what Rarity's afraid of? Doing something like that to Applejack?"
"Yes," Twilight said with a nod. She returned the book to its place on the shelf and pulled another, walking back to her reading stand.
Rainbow Dash stared at the ground, trying to come to terms with the realization that she might have been wrong about how things were supposed to be. "So you're just going to let them go on like this?" She asked, looking up at Twilight
"What else can we do, Rainbow Dash?" Twilight Sparkle replied with a shrug. "In the end, it's up to them."
Perhaps it was. Rainbow Dash didn't like it much, but she had to admit it was a possibility. For a moment, she wondered what to do. Drop it and pretend she'd never discussed it with Applejack and Rarity? Apologize and try to explain that she understood? Make an entry in the diary? She wasn't quite sure what she'd learned. Not to burn bridges, she supposed. Her mind drifted, and she wondered what earth ponies did when an actual bridge actually burned down.
And then she knew exactly what to do.
"Hey Twilight! Thanks again!"
"Anytime!" Twilight replied with a grin as she looked up from her book, but Rainbow Dash was already gone
* * *
"...So then I tracked you down and here I am," Rainbow Dash finished, shifting to find a more comfortable position on the cloud. She had little success, since her discomfort came more from the awkwardness of the conversation than the awkwardness of her perch, but trying was better than sitting in silence. The last sliver of sun disappeared over the horizon, and the first chill wind of twilight sent a shiver through Rainbow Dash as she waited.
Eventually, a reply came from the other occupant of the cloud. "Sounds like a bunch of sappy junk to me," Gilda said, but her voice was warm, and when Dash glanced over at her there was the start of a smile in her eyes.
Rainbow Dash grinned. "Yeah, thinking about it, it kind of is. But they're my friends, and that's how they are," she said with a shrug. "Well, it's how Rarity is. I have no clue what got into Applejack."
"Well at least something good came out of it," Gilda said, poking Rainbow Dash in the shoulder with a talon.
"What?" Rainbow Dash asked.
Gilda looked away, scratching at the back of her head. "Well you're here, aren't you?"
It sounded to Dash like the words were difficult for Gilda to force out. Rainbow Dash would have compared it internally to pulling teeth, if gryphons had teeth. She smiled. "Yeah. I guess I am." Another gust of wind ruffled Dash's mane, and she watched the red of sunset fade toward purple.
"Another race?" Gilda asked, eventually.
Rainbow Dash nodded slowly. "In little bit."
"A little bit?" Gilda snorted. "You going soft on me, Dash?"
Dash stuck her tongue out at Gilda, earning a chuckle. "No way!" Rainbow Dash said. "I just want to wait for the sun to set. It's been awhile since I've had a good night flight."
"Have it your way," Gilda replied. She leaned back, falling onto the cloud and stretching out with a groan before folding her talons behind her head, looking up at the darkening sky. Dash watched her over a shoulder.
The pegasus found that she was still smiling.
Eventually, Gilda broke the silence. "Say, Dash, do you think your friends are making the right choice?"
Rainbow Dash scratched her chin with a hoof. She wondered how easy questions could turn into hard ones in the course of an afternoon. She was less sure than ever. "I guess not," she said after a moment's though. "It seems like the coward's way out to me. I guess they're afraid somepony's going to end up getting hurt, but nothing worth doing is one hundred percent safe." She puffed up her wings, sitting up straighter as she put a hoof to her chest. "I guess I'm just more about risk. Maybe they'd end up burning their bridges. Maybe they'd end up together forever. If it were me, I'd give it a try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?"
"That's the Dash I know!" Gilda said, pumping a fist into the air.
Rainbow Dash grinned. "Same as I ever was."
"Same, huh?" Gilda asked, her voice growing more thoughtful. "So how about us? Is our friendship the same as it ever was?"
Rainbow Dash paused. "Well... No," she said. "It's not like we can forget what happened. Things between us won't ever be the same as they were." Her voice brightened. "But they can be something."
"Good enough," Gilda said, nodding. "So. That cloud?" She pointed to a far-off wisp, barely visible in the deepening darkness.
"You're on," Rainbow Dash said. And with a flap of their wings, they were off.