The first time Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy ever met, it was because one of them was crying. Unlike what later years would bring, it was a young Rainbow Dash that was crying. Fluttershy stood on a cloud, away from the rest of her classmates at Flight School. The cloud she stood on was part of a vast forest of clouds interspersed with swirling seas of mist and rivers of wild rainbows, glistening beneath a dome of crystal blue sky. Fluttershy tried not to look down as she slowly crossed the clouds. If she looked down, she might see how far up she was and how far away that mysterious place known as the ground was. She had never been on the ground, but according to adult pegasii slamming into it was painful.
Fluttershy didn't much care for things that were painful. There was a break between classes where students were allowed to practice their flying, talk among themselves or just play. Fluttershy enjoyed nice, quiet games, but she was too slow for a lot of the games many of the other foals enjoyed. She had decided to just go exploring the cloud forest. As long as she didn't go too far she should be alright. Of course, adult ponies were all around which made her feel safe. The rules said to stay in sight of the cloud pillars. Fluttershy wasn't sure what the penalties were for going past the pillars, but was certain she didn't want to find out. So far, she had never gotten in trouble. Not even once in her entire life.
It was something she was quite proud of. She trotted through the clouds, occasionally giving a little hop as she went from cloud to cloud. Suddenly, she heard a piercing cry, almost a wail, of somepony that was hurt. Fluttershy looked around. None of the adult ponies were close enough to hear it, but Fluttershy was certain that she had heard somepony. Fluttershy hurried her pace, heading towards the pillars. Two tall pillars of hardened cloud rose up. Designs were carved into the top of the pillars, images of fruit hanging from vines and curved letters of the ancient Pegasan language. As Fluttershy moved closer, the piercing wails got louder. Suddenly, she saw a little, blue Pegasus filly with a rainbow colored mane. Fluttershy moved closer. The blue filly was curled up in a ball, whimpering. Fluttershy couldn't see any wounds or signs of what she still referred to as a boo-boo. She hesitated, then reached out a hoof to place it on the other filly's shoulder. "Um, are you okay?"
The filly knocked away her hoof and Fluttershy saw the cut. "Go away! Leave me alone!"
Fluttershy backed away. "Um, okay. B-but if you don't mind, I have a band-aid."
The filly wiped at her cerulean eyes. "Really?"
Fluttershy sat down, pulling a bandage from her saddlebag. "Yes."
The blue filly held out her hoof, allowing Fluttershy to place the bandaid over her wound. Then she pressed her lips to Dash's hoof just like her mother did. She wasn't sure if it actually helped to heal anything, but it sure felt nice. "How'd you even get hurt?"
Dash looked down at the clouds and muttered something.
Fluttershy shrugged. "It's alright if you don't want to tell me. I crash into things all the time."
Dash flapped her wings in an instinctive aggressive gesture and shot up to her hooves. Fluttershy nearly tripped as she stood back. "I didn't crash!"
Fluttershy stammered. "Um, okay, I'm sorry, but I don't know how else you could have gotten hurt."
Dash shuffled her hoof, her wings returning to her sides. A look of shame passed over her face and her ears drooped. "I'm getting out of here. Thanks for everything." She took to the air, soaring so fast that Fluttershy couldn't even follow her with her eyes. The mysterious blue filly flew so fast she just barely missed crashing into the pillar. Her wing knocked into the pillar and she yelped. She paused, gave a bashful glance over her shoulder at Fluttershy and continued on her way.
I wonder who that filly was. Fluttershy thought to herself. She continued her trek then realized she had flown past the forbidden pillars. I-I hope she doesn't get in trouble.
The filly must have had the same thought. She came right through the pillars once again and landed at Fluttershy's side. "So,um....I don't think I told you my name. Rainbow Dash. My name, I mean. It's Rainbow Dash." She held out her hoof.
Fluttershy bumped it. "Fluttershy."
A brown Pegasus mare trotted up to them. "Okay, you two. Back to class." She hesitated. "Oh, Fluttershy. You made a friend." A smile crossed her face. "Well, I'm sure you two can talk more after class."
Fluttershy glanced at Dash. Was she a friend? She had never had a friend before.
... Rainbow Dash had almost completely recovered from the owie that kind, yellow filly had bandaged. It had been a week and just that morning she had taken off the bandage. She was soaring in the sky that was the same color as her coat, enjoying the rush of the wind. There was some commotion down below.
Two brown colts were standing over a trembling, yellow filly, laughing cruelly at her terror. Dash's eyes narrowed. It was the same filly that had bandaged her hoof a week ago and the same colts that always bullied her and called her Rainbow Crash. Anger surged up in her and she landed, placing herself between Fluttershy and the bullies. "Leave her alone!" She shouted.
"What'cha gonna do about it?" The bully sneered. Dash felt a strong desire to plant a hoof in his face, the way Instructor Whacker had taught them in combat class.
She snarled, crouched down, wings flaring out in a threat display. "Keep making fun of her and find out."
The bully strode closer, glaring at her, flaring his own wings. "Think you're such a big shot? Why don't you prove it?"
Dash grinned. "What do you have in mind?"
A race was decided upon as the best way to handle this matter of honor as was customary among adult Pegasii. Fluttershy went and got a checkered racing flag from one of the instructors. She stood on the cloud, holding the flag in her mouth. The combtants were all crouching down, preparing to flare their wings and race. Fluttershy waved the flag.
The two brown colts and the blue filly shot off, Dash in the lead. Fluttershy had around a tenth of a second to admire Dash's grace before the whoosh of the pegasii knocked her off the cloud.
... "I'm really sorry."
That was the first thing Dash said to Fluttershy as she slinked into Fluttershy's dorm room. The yellow filly blinked. "For what?"
Dash gaped. "Duh! Because I knocked you off a cloud!"
Fluttershy's absence had been quickly noted and it took about six hours before Camp officials managed to find her frolicking in a meadow with a swarm of orange butterflies.
Fluttershy hopped off the bed and comfortingly nuzzled Dash. "It's okay, Dash. You didn't mean to. And you protected me from bullies and we both got our cutie marks!"
Dash grinned and returned the nuzzle. She looked back at her flanks where twin rainbow lightning bolts came out of clouds. "Yeah, that is pretty awesome."
Fluttershy looked admiringly at the butterflies adorning her flank. "Yeah. Mommy and Daddy are picking me up for my cutecenera tomorrow."
"That's awesome, so are mine!"
Dash paused. Fluttershy sensed she wanted to say more. "Look, Fluttershy, I...nah, forget it."
Fluttershy laid a hoof on her shoulder. "What is it, Dash?"
"It's sort of, well y'know, you were really kind to me. And I hate seeing bullies being mean to you. Those bullies are mean to me too. We need to stick together." Dash said, laying a hoof on her shoulder. There was a seriousness, an intensity to her voice.
Fluttershy leaned into her. "I'd like that."
"Y'know, Mr. Whacker told us that when Pegasii become friends they...they sometimes exchange feathers. And then its like they're sisters. Feather sisters." She stumbled over her words, a blush creeped over her face.
Fluttershy held out her wing. She plucked out one of her feathers, the pain hardly noticeable as it was removed from her wing. Dash held out her wing and Fluttershy slid the wing beneath her primaries. The yellow was nearly hidden in the blue. In time, Dash's feather would grow over it. It would remain part of her. A few drops of blood trickled down Fluttershy's wing.
Dash held out her own wing and plucked out a feather, placing it among Fluttershy's feathers. They held their wings together, blood mixing. A bond was forged. A sisterhood was born.
Fluttershy sighed in contentment at the breakfast table. Celestia’s sun had just now greeted the world, orange and red flames lighting the eastern sky. Rays of light flooded through her windows. The night creatures were beginning to rest, the Everfree Forest growing still. Only a few moments ago howls and the echoes of scurrying feet had hinted at predators going back and forth, hunting and fighting and killing. That was how Creator had made them, Fluttershy thought. She didn’t judge predators even if she kindly requested that they not look for meals in her yard. For the most part they respected her wish. Only the most rabid or fierce dared defy her. Not that she judged them though. Creator had made the world to be in balance. Predator and prey. Life and death. The eternal turning of the seasons that Creator had made her race guardians of.
While it saddened her to lose an animal friend she was able to accept it. She had watched over entire generations of squirrels and mice and other creatures whose time on Equus was short. A whistling from the stove told her that her tea was done and she floated over to the kettle. After pouring a cup she got comfortable in her chair. Angel Bunny hopped up and went to sleep in her lap. Fluttershy stroked his ears eliciting squeaks of pleasure. Outside the robins and the blue jays, the cardinals and the finches, the hawks and the eagles were lifting up their morning songs to the sun. The tea was a blend of various herbs bought from Zecora. The rich, earthy scent filled the whole room. The taste was strong and pungent, but it was delicious. Many of the other animals were still asleep. Fluttershy would be done with her tea before they awoke and needed their food. Angel stirred in her lap, seeking a more comfortable position.
So, now you want to cuddle, she thought. Last night Angel had spent all of his time chasing a female rabbit, Lisa Bunny, who had very forcefully rejected him. Fluttershy had separated the two much to Angel’s annoyance and Lisa Bunny’s relief. Angel had pouted and slept on the couch rather than his customary place at Fluttershy’s bedside. That incident had apparently been forgotten. A few squirrels had woken up and were now chittering, talking among themselves. Fluttershy focused her ears, picking up bits and pieces of gossip. Charlie Chipmunk was still feuding with Kyle Chipmunk after Kyle took his last nut. They were glaring at each other, but wouldn’t fight in the presence of the one they referred to as The Kind One.
Sally Chipmunk was still nursing her young who scurried around her. Fluttershy drank the last bit of her tea and went to get some nuts for the woodland creatures, worms and fish for the birds and vegetables for the others. Harry the Bear was already fishing, his paws going back and forth in the water as he searched for a meal. Fluttershy started her chores with putting out a bowl of nuts which the chipmunks gleefully gathered around. Then she put out a few bowls of vegetables. Angel, being the alpha bunny, took the first few nibbles before allowing the other rabbits and to gather around. That completed Fluttershy flew out the window into a bright and warm spring day. She ascended into the highest branches, floating in the air as she gave worms to the birds. From this high up she could survey the lands around her cottage.
The brook that separated her cottage from Ponyville was as serene as ever. If she listened close she could hear the rushing sound it made as it flowed across the land. Ponyville was waking up, a few ponies already out for a morning stroll. A few fillies and colts were out, already on the way to school. Most ponies this time of day were trudging along, barely even awake yet.
Fluttershy loved this time of day. It was serene, the sun softly lighting the earth. The air was cool and the drops of dew on the grass tickled her hooves. As she came down to the ground she thought about what she would do today. The animals would need to eat again at noon, but until then they could care for themselves. She might have a few disputes to resolve, but she didn’t have any sick patients. Somepony might come by the cottage, of course. Until then she had nothing to do. Usually, she just played with and watched over her animal friends. There was always something going on. Or she might visit some of her friends. She hadn’t seen Rarity in a while. It had been even longer time since she’d visited Twilight. As for Rainbow Dash…
She sat down and tried to think of the last time she had visited Rainbow Dash. They had seen each other at the slumber party last week, but not since then. And when was the last time they had spent time together as just the two of them? She searched her memory and struggled to find that last time. They had had tea and sweets at Sugarcube Corner. Halfway through Pinkie had joined them and Dash had talked to her about planning some prank or other. Before that they had worked together to bring the birds back home during Winter Wrap-up. That had been a civic duty though, not just spending time together as friends. And occasionally Dash did drop by for tea. And Fluttershy visited her cloudhouse. She couldn’t recall the last time that was, but she remembered doing it a few times.
Have me and Dash really drifted that far apart? She wondered, her mind always eager to seize on something new to worry about. She looked up to the sky. Dash loved the sky. She flew more than she walked. Even when in town she flew over the heads of others. If she needed to be found one only had to look to the sky.
Fluttershy rarely even used her wings and never went too fast. Dash was the only pegasus in recent history to pull off the sonic rainboom, a feat in which great speed was required.
Different. They were very different. In taste she was closer to Rarity. In her fascination with nature she was closer to the intellectual Twilight or the farmer Applejack. She often found herself overwhelmed by Pinkie Pie whom Dash spent much of her time with. Me and Dash are very different. I wonder if the only thing we have in common is our wings…and that’s not all that much.
Yet, Dash was her oldest friend. Dash had been her protector in flight school always driving bullies away from her. Fluttershy recalled one Nightmare Night in particular. While she disliked the holiday Dash had convinced her to come to a party. Dash had dressed up like a royal guard, gleaming silver armour and a sword at her side. Fluttershy had come as a princess. It was the perfect metaphor for their relationship. But what if she’s grown tired of protecting me? What if she’s grown disgusted by my weakness? Dash is such a strong pony. And I’m so weak.
Her friend might assure her otherwise, but she knew the truth. It was a cloudless day today and the weather pegasii were kicking away whatever stray clouds came in from the Everfree. Among the flock of pegasii she saw a brightly colored rainbow mane. Dash whirled and kicked in the air, making a great show of bucking the clouds. Fluttershy counted. On average Dash knocked away five clouds every second. Fluttershy stared up, watching in amazement. Within minutes the sky was completely clear. Fluttershy spread her wings and flew into the air as the assembled pegasii went off to other duties. Fluttershy hoped to catch up with Dash before she too went off. Luckily, Dash noticed her and stopped her flight. Fluttershy flapped her wings till she was floating in front of Dash.
“Hey, Fluttershy. What’s up?” Dash asked.
“Oh, um hi. I was just wondering if well, if you wouldn’t mind, would you like to spend some time together?”
“Sure.” Dash said. “I was just about to go to Sugarcube Corner.”
“I meant some time alone. Just us.”
“You and Pinkie have a fight?”
“No, not at all. I just wanted to spend time with you. We haven’t done that in a while.”
“Well, we both went to that sleepover last week.”
“But everypony else was there. When was the last time it was just us?”
“Well…come to think of it you never come by my house.”
“Yeah, I know. You never come by my cottage either.”
“I’m always busy with practice or racing AJ or pranking with Pinkie.”
“And there’s nothing you like to do with me?” Fluttershy asked, hoping there was no pout to her tone.
There was. Dash raised an eyebrow. “Fluttershy. Are you jealous?”
What? No, don’t be silly. Of course I’m not jealous. Why would I be jealous that my oldest friend prefers everypony but me? Wait. That DID sound jealous. “No, of course not.”
“You sound a little jealous. And like I said how come you never come over to my house?”
Fluttershy blushed. This was turning into a confrontation. She hated confrontations. A mumbling that was utterly incomprehensible came out of her mouth. Not even she was sure what she’d just said.
“Don’t be like that, ‘Shy. If you have something to say just come on out with it.” Dash told her, folding her forelegs.
“C’mon out with it.” Dash encouraged. “I won’t get mad.”
“You sound like you’re mad.” Fluttershy said. Dash placed a hoof on her shoulder. Fluttershy flinched, surprised at the sudden gesture, but then relaxed.
“’Fluttershy. We’ve been friends since we were foals. There’s nothing you can’t tell me.”
“I’m jealous.” Fluttershy muttered.
“What was that?”
“I’m jealous, okay?”
She looked down, refusing to meet Dash’s gaze.
“I’m sorry.” Dash told her.
Fluttershy looked up. “What are you sorry for?”
“I’ve been neglecting you. Look, we can do anything you want today.”
“Well, we could go flying.”
Dash shook her head. “No, don’t just pick something because you think I’ll like it.”
“I do like flying though. Not too fast, but I do love the way the world looks from the sky. And there’s this place I’ve been meaning to show you. Just follow me, alright?”
Fluttershy turned and began to glide towards the Everfree. Dash followed. Fluttershy’s flight pattern was as graceful as the butterflies that adorned her flank. She rarely flapped her wings, merely allowing the wind to lift her up as it whistled through her feathers. Dash followed beside her. Her wings nearly rebelled at the thought of going slow, but for Fluttershy she slowed her pace. Together they soared over the vast and spreading forest. They flew so close their feathers brushed against each other. It reminded Dash of the times that they used to go flying together in flight school. Dash hated going slow, but she would slow down for Fluttershy. Fluttershy had trouble going fast, but she’d speed up for Dash. That way they had flown in harmony. Fluttershy would show Dash how beautiful the world looked from above, all the wonderful things one could see when one went slow. Dash had pushed her to fly, shown her how thrilling it was to feel the wind whipping your mane, rushing beneath your wings. Then at the end of those long flying sessions they’d rest on a cloud and preen one another’s wings. Dash began to adjust to the slow flight pattern as they continued their glide over the forest.
“So, what exactly did you want to show me?”
“It’s a surprise.” Fluttershy said.
“Is it awesome?”
“I suppose you could say that.” Fluttershy said, adjusting her wings and letting the wind carry her upwards to where the air was becoming thinner. With a flap Dash followed her.
“You know Flutters it’s too bad you never became a pro-flyer. You’re so graceful.”
A blush crept up Fluttershy’s cheeks. “You really think so?”
“Yeah. I could probably learn a few things from you. You never seem to crash into anything.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“No, really. Just don’t let any of the girls know I said that. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only reason I said it was this thin air is making me dizzy. Why are we so high up?”
From here the world was a vast expanse of greens and browns. She couldn’t even make out individual trees or ponies. Up ahead were outcroppings of rock.
“I never even knew you came up this far, Flutters.”
“I used to not, but one of my younger birds got lost. That’s how I discovered the place I’m going to show you.”
She flew towards the mountains, Dash flying alongside her.
“So, what was it you wanted to show me?” Dash asked as she perched on the mountain and turned. Her mouth hung open.
“That.” Fluttershy said, pointing a hoof. Dash’s jaw dropped. The mountains were so high up that a vast field of clouds stretched out from it, constantly swirling, an endless river of mist and fog shining in the light of the sun.
“A cloud forest.”
While pegasii handled errant clouds there were places in Equestria where wild, untamed magic had left vast forests of cloud and mists covering entire mountain ranges.
“I found it about a week ago. I thought it was really beautiful. And I know cloud forests are great practice. And if you fall you can fall on the cloud instead of a mountain or another pony. Maybe you could try it for training.”
Dash wrapped a wing around her. “Thanks for showing me this place. It is awesome.”
She then withdrew the wing and began to preen an errant feather.
“It’s been a long time since…you know…” Fluttershy mumbled.
“Since we preened each other?”
Fluttershy nodded. “May I?”
Dash spread a wing and Fluttershy took it gently in her mouth. She ran her muzzle through the wings, brushing them slowly. Then she bit and twisted any feathers. Old, broken feathers began to pile around the pair. Dash’s eyes drooped and she visibly relaxed as Fluttershy continued brushing her wings. With a final brush she removed her muzzle.
“You need to preen?” Dash asked.
“Oh, yes.” Fluttershy spread her wings. Dash buried her muzzle into the wings and began to brush the feathers just as Fluttershy had done to her. Most of her feathers were fine, but a few had become twisted or loose during her flight. Dash gently twisted and tugged on them. Like Dash had, Fluttershy relaxed beneath Dash’s ministrations.
“Why did we stop doing this, Dash?”
Dash placed a yellow feather on top of the pile of feathers that had accumulated around them.
“I’m not sure. I guess I got caught up in other things.”
“So did I.” Fluttershy admitted. “But I want to start hanging out with you again. Maybe next week?”
“Well, next week I’m trying out at the Best Young Flyers Contest.”
“I could come and cheer for you.”
“You’d do that?” Dash asked.
“Of course I would. Though you’ll have to teach me how to cheer.”
“I can do that.” Dash held out her hoof. “Friend. Sister.”
They hoof-bumped and stood together gazing out at the expanse of sunlit cloud.
The train chugged along the iron tracks, the engine rumbling as the grey, icy mountains rose up on either side. Inside one of the compartments a group of champions rested. Dash floated lazily in the air, staring out at the storm clouds that hung over the white-capped peaks. She stretched and yawned. Her muscles were sore, aching. That jousting match had taken a lot out of her. She had forgotten just how much jousting took from her. Even with an opponent like Fluttershy, it was still difficult.
The lance provided a counterweight which had to be held in the forelegs, slowing the jouster down as she charged forward. Dash landed on the plush red carpet and stretched her forelegs. Her legs sank into the carpet as she stretched her back. Fluttershy sat next to Applejack and Rarity on the plain brown seats. They were having a whispered conversation about fashion, which Applejack seemed to be listening to only out of polite interest. She'd occasionally nod as if to confirm that she was indeed paying attention.
Pinkie, surprisingly, was curled up and asleep. A thin line of drool trailed down her lips. Dash chuckled. It was cute. If Dash was sore, then Fluttershy should be aching. She soared over to her fellow Pegasus. "Yo, Fluttershy. Want to stretch?"
Fluttershy smiled. "No, that's alright. I'm a little tired."
Dash raised an eyebrow. "You sure? Preening session maybe?"
Fluttershy flapped her immaculate wings which were in probably better shape than hers. "Um...if you want to."
Dash shook her head. "Nah, don't want to overpreen. Are your muscles sore?"
Fluttershy massaged her shoulder. "A little bit."
Rarity patted her back. "You need a proper massage. I'll arrange something at the spa as soon as we get back."
"That sounds lovely, Rarity." She stood. "I've sort of forgotten my exercise classes from school. How do you stretch?"
"Don't worry, I'll show you."
They stood side-by-side. Dash stood on her hind legs and Fluttershy followed her lead as Dash raised her forelegs to the sky and then bent to her right and left side. "Feel better?"
Fluttershy imitated Dash as she went through the stretch three more times. "Oh my, it does."
Dash returned to all fours and pushed out her forelegs, arching her back and Fluttershy went along as Dash lifted up. Dash pushed one backleg back and another forward as she stretched out one foreleg ahead of her and another behind her. Fluttershy examined the yogic pose, old memories of flight school returning. She just barely managed to do it, nearly stumbling. Dash steadied her with a wing. "You're doing good. Reverse the back legs."
Fluttershy did so, a rush of blood flowing up to her head. She nearly stumbled again. Dash gave her a worried look. "You okay there?"
Dash pulled up on her backlegs, feeling her spine straighten. Fluttershy went up with her before they went down to all fours once again, going down into a full prostration. Fluttershy felt her back relaxing. She also felt a rush of blood to her head and a sudden feeling of weightlessness. Dash stood straight once more and Fluttershy followed her. Dash spread out her wings as did Fluttershy. Dash began to move, rotating her right shoulder and then her left. The tension in her shoulders evaporated. Fluttershy moved her own shoulders in the rhythmic pattern, old lessons from gym class returning.
While the Pegasii stretched the train rolled along, leaving the Crystal Empire far behind, journeying away from the grim and frozen North towards the warm, sun-drenched southern valleys. The rugged mountains gave way to soft, emerald hills lifting up to the crystal blue clear sky. The train passed through small towns with their thatched roofs and simple stalls of the market place. They passed through Canterlot, the alabaster tower of the cities dazzling as they caught the sunlight.
Pinkie stirred and bounced over to the windows. Twilight barely looked up from her book as they passed through her native city. She observed Fluttershy and Dash who were going through a series of yoga poses. As she watched, she noticed Fluttershy's movements seemed almost sluggish. Sure, she wasn't as athletic as Dash, but a Pony of her age and build shouldn't have been having that much trouble with the simple poses Dash was showing her.
She set aside the book on Crystal Empire history. Something was wrong. Dash dipped into Cobra pose. Fluttershy paused before following her. Dash glanced over at her. "Um, Fluttershy. You okay there? Let's take a break."
"No, I can...just let me...rest. Yeah. Rest."
She laid down, folding her wings against her sides. Dash shook her. "Fluttershy? Look at me."
Fluttershy's eyes were unfocused. "I'm fine. Just...just a little dizzy. Please, Dash, I'm okay. Let's just...what pose is next?"
"You need to rest. No way are we doing more."
"Okay. Rest. Rest is good."
Twilight trotted over, pressing her horn to Fluttershy's forehead. Fluttershy looked up. "Twilight, what are you...?"
"A diagnostic. Just relax." Twilight's horn glowed. "You're experiencing vertigo. I don't know why. We need to get you to the doctor immediately."
Fluttershy stood on shaky legs. Dash and Twilight took hold of either side of her as they led her over to the seat. Pinkie, Rarity and Applejack herded around her. Applejack touched her forehead. "Don't got no fever. How about I whip you up some good apple soup once we get back?"
Fluttershy swayed slightly. "That would be nice. Very nice. I have such very nice friends. I'm so glad I have such nice friends."
Dash shot Twilight a worried look as Fluttershy sat down. Twilight thought she saw tears glisten in the rainbow-maned pony's eyes as Fluttershy closed her eyes. "Twilight? She'll be okay right?"
Twilight nuzzled her. "We'll get her to the doctor."
"Twilight, I need to know. Will Fluttershy be alright? No bullshit."
Twilight sighed. "I don't know."
Dash bit her lip.
"There's no sign of dark magic so it's not Sombra. Exhaustion seems likely."
"Exhaustion." Dash repeated in a voice that sounded dead.
The train pulled into Ponyville station. Dash shook Fluttershy's shoulder. "C'mon Fluttershy! Wake up! Wake up!"
Twilight rubbed her back in what she hoped was a comforting gesture before she levitated Fluttershy onto her back. They quickly marched off the train.
... Fluttershy laid in the white hospital bed, white sheets beneath her. The room around her was a sterile shade of whitish grey. The only color in the room were the five ponies who crowded around the fallen member of their circle. Her pink hair spilled all around her, her wings unfurled at her side.
Dash was unashamedly, unabashedly weeping as she paced. Tears tracked down her face as her chest heaved. "This is my fault! I know it is! It's all my fault!"
Twilight reached a hoof out to her only for Dash to knock it away. "Look Dash, you don't know that!"
Dash turned on the unicorn. "Yes I do! I shouldn't have pressured her into that jousting match! I could've gotten AJ or, hell, even you!"
"I can't joust, Dash. Applejack and Rarity were guarding the heart. Pinkie and me were doing other things. What else could you do, grab a random Crystal Pony, hand them a lance and pray for the best?"
Dash shook her head. "I know Fluttershy isn't that strong, but I pushed her anyway! I could've done something other than jousting!"
Applejack walked over and placed both hooves on Dash's shoulders, stopping the pacing Pegasus. "That ain't gonna help, Dash. Trust me on this one. Blamin' yourself ain't gonna help Fluttershy one bit. Right now, we don't know what's wrong with her. She could just be tuckered out and we're over-reactin'. Or she could have caught some kind of crazy Crystal Empire bug."
Twilight scratched her chin. "Huh. That is possible. The return of the Crystal Empire could cause certain pathogens to reappear."
"Ya hear that Dash? Maybe she picked up the Crystal Flu. We don't know."
Dash sniffled. Applejack wiped away her tears. Dash trotted over and grasped Fluttershy's hoof. "Please be okay, Fluttershy. Please."
Doctor Well Heart strode inside. He was an elderly, grey Earth Pony and held a clipboard. Dash nearly flew to him. "What's wrong with her?"
"She experienced a rapid drop in blood pressure."
Twilight stepped forward. "What could have caused it?"
The doctor walked over, examining the sleeping Pegasus. He touched her wings. Applejack physically restrained Dash as Dash nearly charged him. "Hey Buddy, stallions are NOT supposed to touch there!"
The doctor gave her a flat look. "Miss Dash, I am only giving her an examination so that I can determine what her affliction is caused by. I have no prurient intentions towards your friend."
Dash relaxed and Applejack let her go. Well Heart returned to his examination, pressing down on a nerve that made Fluttershy jerk awake. Fluttershy shot up, tucking her wings against her sides. Dash barreled into her, giving her a hug. "Fluttershy! You're okay!"
Fluttershy patted her back. "Um, Dash, are you okay?" She looked around her. "Where am I?"
Dash let her go. "The hospital. You passed out."
Fluttershy looked to the doctor.
"Miss Fluttershy, how often do you use your wings?"
Fluttershy blinked. "Well, I don't fly often. Usually just to feed my bird friends. About forty-five minutes a day, I'd say."
"The average Pegasus needs a solid hour of flight a day to remain healthy. The wings begin to atrophy from lack of use which puts pressure on the heart. Your friends tell me you had a jousting match earlier. That put more pressure on your heart. Of course, this was inevitable. You need to start flying more."
A wicked grin began spreading over Dash's face. "Oh, does she now?"
Fluttershy suddenly felt very nervous. She bunched up onto the bed, even pulling a sheet over herself. That look on that face never meant anything good. As much as she loved Dash, the other Pegasus had a tendency to take things to an extreme. Fluttershy knew she needed to work out more. What she didn't want was to do one-hundred laps a day which Dash actually did.
How her wings hadn't managed to fall off Fluttershy didn't quite understand. "Doctor, surely a nice, light glide a day would be good?"
The doctor shrugged. "It would be a start."
"Oh. Oh my."
Dash walked over and spread a wing over Fluttershy. "Don't worry, Fluttershy. I'll take good care of you. We'll start you with ten laps a day-"
The doctor held up a hoof. "Hold it, Miss Dash. She's not quite strong enough for that. Don't start her out with a full Pegasan training regimen. No need to have her twirling around mountains."
Dash harrumphed. "Whatever. I'll think of something."
Well Heart addressed Fluttershy. "Getting into shape can be fun, especially if you have a friend to help you with it."
Fluttershy lowered her head, pink strands of her mane covering her face. "Gym class was never very fun when I was a filly."
Dash snorted. "Especially with the jerks tossing balls at your head. Look, Fluttershy, I know you had a bad experience. I was there. But the doctor's right. This can be fun. Being healthy, being strong. There's nothing like it. I'm going to help you get into shape and you're going to love it."
... Fluttershy yawned and stretched as the yellow rays of sunlight streamed through her window blinds. A bluejay was perched on the alder tree outside her window and was cheerfully singing. A robin lilted a merry tune as he flew above the forest. He was joined by his feathered brethren and a symphony broke out and filled the former silence of the dawn. Fluttershy turned over on her side, a river of pink mane spilling onto her pillow. She yawned once, spreading her wings before rustling them and returning them to her side. She rolled over onto her back and closed her eyes. Her ears twitched as the melodies continued outside her window.
The melody was ever different, but ever the same. The rise and fall of the notes, the different birds who each added their own particular tune. The endless rhythms of longing for mates or competitive males warning each other off. Some squeaks and the scurrying of claws on tree bark told her that the squirrels and chipmunks were awake. Angel Bunny nestled into her side, cuddling against her chest. She embraced him in her wings. He sighed in utter contentment. A few chipmunks were also snuggled against her back. Her cat took her customary place at the foot of her bed.
This was happiness. Sometimes, Fluttershy never wanted to leave these precious moments. The stillness of the dawn. The peace before the day began with fresh struggles and triumphs. Before her mind could begin churning out its daily regimens of panics, anxieties and lists of things that could go wrong.
Alas, the moment could not last. Her tummy began to rumble, rudely informing her that the apple and walnut salad she'd prepared for supper last night had long ago worn off. Still, she wanted at least five more minutes of sleep. She groaned as her tummy grumbled. Sighing, she knocked away the big, white comforter and began disentangling herself from the sheets. Angel hopped off the bed and was soon followed by the chipmunks. The cat jumped under the bed and returned to her slumber.
Fluttershy padded across the cool, wooden floor, opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. Angel followed her as she crossed the hall and stepped into the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator, pulled out a bag of bread, unwrapped the tie holding together the plastic and selected two pieces. She carried them to her toaster and put them in. Then she took a pot, turned on the sink and waited as clear water flowed from the tap and filled it. She then took the pot, turned on her stove and laid it on the burner. Once the water was boiling she added a teabag.
Soon, the black tea was done so she filled her white teacup with it, spread strawberry jam on her toast and sat down. The first bite flooded her taste buds with sweetness. The black tea was rich and savory, filling her with the energy she'd need for the day.
The steam rose up from the black liquid, warm against her lips. She set it down on the table. Yes, this was a peaceful moment.
"Good morning, Fluttershy!"
There it was. Fluttershy jumped into the air, her piece of toast thankfully falling onto her plate. A blue hurricane flew through her window, which she kept open in case one of her bird friends wanted to come inside.
Or another type of feathered friend. The hurricane slowed long enough to reveal itself to be Rainbow Dash. The cyan pegasus bounced in air, shadowboxing. Angel glared at her. Dash slapped Fluttershy's withers. "That's right! Let's see you flap those wings! That's the spirit!"
Fluttershy floated back down, settling into her chair. Dash took a seat across from her. "So, I have all kinds of ideas! Laps are boring, even I think they're boring, so I thought up a great idea!"
Fluttershy picked up her piece of toast and nibbled onto it. "I'd love to hear it. Have you had breakfast?"
"Yep! Scrambled eggs! I couldn't sleep last night."
Fluttershy finished up the toast and started on the second piece. "Would you like some tea? It's black tea, great for energy."
Fluttershy stood up and went to the stove after retrieving a cup. She poured the tea and hoofed it to Dash who took it, sipping it down. "This is good! Got anything for insominia?"
Fluttershy sipped her own tea. "Chamomile."
Dash slumped in her chair. Soon a light snoring sound came from her lips. Fluttershy finished her toast and the rest of her tea. Glancing out the window, she noticed that the sun had inched steadily forward. It was probably around eight. There was really no way to avoid what was coming and who knew? Maybe it would be fun.
Hesitantly, she poked Dash's side. Dash jerked awake. Fluttershy sat back in her chair. "So, what were you thinking?"
Dash set down her saddlebag and pulled out an orange ball. Fluttershy's blood ran cold. Memories of cruel taunts, the hard rubber smacking into her face, returned to her. Dash reached out, placed a hoof on her shoulder. "It's going to be okay. Okay? I'm here and I won't hurt you. You know that."
Her fears evaporated as she looked into those faithful, rosette eyes. "Alright. Let's do it."
Dash jumped up and whooped. Angel kicked her and raced from the room. Together, Dash and Fluttershy made their way outside. Fluttershy's hooves sank into the grass. Dash shot into the air, the ball held in her forehooves. Where Dash had snapped open her wings and rushed towards the sky, Fluttershy gently unfurled her wings and delicately flapped after her.
They floated, facing each other. Dash had her familiar cocky grin. Fluttershy was unsure, but smiled anyway.
Dash tossed the ball and caught it. "Remember what the doctor said, Fluttershy? This is going to be fun. The rules are simple. First pony to let the ball drop to the ground loses. Let's keep it in the air."
"I remember, Dash."
With that, Dash gave a gentle toss of the ball. Fluttershy tensed up, her wings snapping shut. She began to fall, but opened her wings back up at the last minute. Dash had already rushed forward to help her. The ball plummeted. Fluttershy quickly caught it and tossed it back to Dash.
Dash threw it in the air a few times. "Um, okay. Not great, but a good start." She tossed the ball again. It sailed through the air, a blur of orange against the sapphire sky. Fluttershy steered her wings, going after it. She caught it in her forelegs. "Hey, I got it that time!" She gave a little midair hop.
Dash whooped. "Good job, Fluttershy."
Fluttershy gave it a weak toss. Dash quickly caught it and threw it back to her. It sailed a few inches past her. She shot out and caught it, her wings flaring out as she wrapped her forehooves around her target, turned and threw it. Dash had no trouble getting a hold of it. "Dang! That was good! Maybe I'll kick it up a bit!"
Fluttershy found herself smiling. "If that's okay with you."
The ball whizzed past her, strands of her hair lifting up in the breeze. Once more, Fluttershy had to fly in order to keep up with it. This time, she threw the ball back so fast that Dash didn't catch it. The cyan Pegasus' eyes widened and she had to shoot downward in order to catch it. She shot upwards and threw it with much more force this time. Fluttershy dodged it by a few scant inches and rocketed after it. She got one foreleg around it and threw it.
It was Dash's turn to dodge. The ball kept flying as Dash turned to catch it. The ball felt hot against her fur as she wrapped her hooves around the searing rubber. She quickly propelled it towards Fluttershy. "Ye-ouch! Hot!"
That alarmed Fluttershy who rocketed upwards. The ball sailed into the distance. Dash roared past her. "First one to catch it wins!"
Fluttershy shot off after her friend, the wind roaring and bending around the two fliers. Dash was faster, but Fluttershy managed to keep pace with her. The two sailed on the currents of the wind, a hard gust kicked up in their wake that shook the tops of trees.
Dash turned to Fluttershy. "I told you this would be fun!"
Fluttershy didn't respond, only wiping away some sweat from her forehead. She could no longer see the ball. Dash was the one to spot it. It had picked up speed and so did she. Fluttershy followed as Dash spiraled downward after the ball, catching it as it hovered only a few feet below the ground. She threw it upwards and straight into Fluttershy's forelegs. Fluttershy yelped at the searing rubber and threw it back-right against Dash's head. Dash blinked several times and the ball fell to the ground.
Fluttershy raced to her. "Oh, Dashie! I'm so sorry!"
Dash shrugged. "It's okay." She descended and picked the ball back up. Fluttershy landed beside her. They were in one of the wide, spreading meadows that stretched outside Ponyville and rolled all the way to Canterlot. "That was my fault. I underestimated you."
Fluttershy fluttered back into the air. "Um, one more round?"
Dash fluttered up next to her. "Of course."
Fluttershy landed suddenly. Dash was at her side in an instant. "You alright?"
Fluttershy nodded. "I will be. Can we go inside for a bit of water?"
"Good idea. Do you want to do a second round? We don't have to."
Fluttershy looked up to the sky. "I want to."
Dash patted her back with a wing. "We'll get you there one day."
They walked inside, each one laying a wing atop the other's back.
The thick, gnarled branches of the Everfree Forest towered over the two Pegasii. Dash soared above the thick grass which her yellow companion's pasterns sunk into. The ground felt soggy, moist from millenia's worth of rainfall. The collected leaves of ten-thousand autumns were strewn all about them. The sun was choked by the high tree limbs which meshed together like skeleton's interlocking their fingers. Manticore's growled and cockatrice's screeched along with other unnatural beasts.
Fluttershy shivered. Even Dash felt some chills, hairs raising on the back of her neck at the cries of the beasts. The sun, going upon its journey to the West, was half past its zenith. The heat mixed with recent storms and a fine layer of mist swirled all around them. Fluttershy paused suddenly and then jumped into the air, her wings carrying her. A black-and-red snake slithered past her and stuck out its tongue as a salutation to the Kind One and her companion. The snake went about its business, taking shelter in a low lying bush. Blue and magenta flowers burst from the ground, emanating a sweet smell that was so strong it made the Ponies' head swim. A grey bunny rabbit hopped past, flashed its fangs. Dash instinctively puffed out her chest in a threat display. The rabbit hissed.
Dash pointed to it. "Um, Fluttershy? What the hell is that thing?"
They flew over it and Fluttershy fixed it with a look. It whimpered and scurried off. "That was a Vampbunny."
"Very dangerous, hostile and territorial."
They continued their flight, drifting over a patch of blue flowers. Dash giggled and Fluttershy joined in at the memories the Poison Joke conjured up. Beyond the blue flowers was a small hut. The sounds of chanting reached them as did the savory scents of herbs and spices. That, however, was not their destination.
They flew past the hut and into a place where the trees thinned. High, mutated oaks gave way to smaller arboreal abominations, green tendrils curling up birches and crepe myrtles whose pink blossoms were choked by vines. The vines grew into each other, intertwining and running over themselves in endless clumps.
Fluttershy gulped and then she steeled herself. Dash paused as she did, glancing over at her. "Want to have lunch?"
Fluttershy shook her head. "Not yet."
They flew over the vines, their keen eyes picking up rainbow colored berries. Neither Pony swooped down to investigate further. Black trees rose up before them. Dash didn't stop, only flying forward. Fluttershy used her as an example, powering after her into the shadows. Her wings locked up and she nearly tumbled out of the air as the darkness closed in. Dash grabbed her, helping her back into the air. The smell of rot greeted them and little mushrooms popped up in a circle around a lake. Shafts of sunlight cut between the canopy, danced on the waters.
Dash flapped as they crossed the lake. "Fluttershy?"
Fluttershy rode on an air current. "Yes?"
Dash looked around her. "Why did you want me to come into the Everfree Forest with you?"
Fluttershy adjusted the pack strapped to her back with a flick of her wing. "I didn't want to do this alone."
Dash gave her wings a break as they sailed out of the grove of black trees and into a grove of trees so tall that they dwarfed all the other trees that they had seen so far. Conifers, their green needles scraped the high dome of Heaven, their trunk about as thick as minotaurs. Rocs, huge black birds, nested there.
"You didn't want to do what alone?"
Fluttershy stared at a tree straight ahead.
A roc spread its wings, casting a shadow that enshrouded both Fluttershy and Dash. It crowed and they hurried away. Fluttershy took off a few feet away from Dash. Dash quickly caught up. "Seriously Fluttershy! You're freaking me out! You come to my cloudhouse, interupt my training and tell me you want me to follow you into the Everfree Forest and you won't tell me why?"
Fluttershy narrowed her eyes as she turned to Dash. "You didn't have to come."
Dash rolled her eyes. "I am NOT letting one of my friends wander into the Everfree Forest by themselves. Why me though? Twilight has a ton of cool spells and Applejack is stronger than me with that whole Earth Pony power she's got going on."
"Because you're brave, Dash. You...you make me feel safe. Always have."
Dash didn't say anything for a while. They drifted for a few minutes. Dash sidestepped a purple bird with three eyes and shuddered. "You still haven't told me where we're going or why we're here!"
Fluttershy continued to stare at some point in the distance. "I'll know when I get there."
The land rose up, tree-covered hills rolling through the heart of the wilderness. Ruins of a city were scattered, moss growing on monuments to a forgotten ruler and a forgotten people. Dash thought it was the kind of place that a Daring Do novel could take place in. "Fluttershy? I don't think I've ever gone this far in the Everfree Forest."
"I have, a few times."
"Okay. Where are we?"
Fluttershy looked around. "This is a manticore's territory. He's old, no pack. Used to have one, but his son took over. He has a mate. They're sleeping in that cave."
The jagged, stone mouth of the cave opened, leading deep into the earth. The land flattened and leveled out into a field of sunflowers, their petals incongruously bright and happy in the gloom surrounding them.
It was still wrong, just a different kind of wrong.
Dash was a brave pony. She would never admit to fear, never allow fear to rule her. But she felt a shudder go through her body at the deep black center of what appeared to be sunflowers. She would go to court and testify that they were staring at her. Fluttershy grabbed her shoulder, nearly dragged her along. "Don't look at the center, Dash. That's how they get their prey."
"Th-those aren't sunflowers are they?"
"No, they're not."
"Seriously, Fluttershy. What are we doing?"
Fluttershy set her face to the west. "I'll know when I get there."
Dash growled. "Why won't you just tell me?"
Fluttershy shook her head. "It's...um...so, how was the Dragon Migration?"
The change in subject temporarily confused Dash. "It was good."
"See a lot of dragons?"
Fluttershy turned away. "It was fun, wasn't it?"
Dash glanced at her. "It was."
A wind stirred the branches. A grove of juniper trees leaned towards the ground as the wind picked up speed. Fluttershy forced her wings to move through the sudden gusts, struggling to hold onto the basket atop her back. The wind whistled and roared. The juniper branches snapped and crackled, some branches blown away.
Dash dodged a branch and shot into the air. Fluttershy struggled to follow her and Dash grabbed her hooves to pull her up. The wild winds ripped the limbs off the trees, tossing them for miles. Dash and Fluttershy stared down at the devastation as the trees bowed to the power of the wind, continuing to sway and bend.
Fluttershy adjusted her wing, making sure the pack was secure. Dash's ears splayed as a sudden rush of wind crashed into them. A scream escaped Fluttershy's lips and she was sent sprawling. Dash tried to reorient herself, tried to see through the blur of needles kicked up by the storm, but all she could see was green. She dodged one branch, but a second one slammed against her skull.
Fluttershy charged and grabbed hold of her friend. Dash held onto her and they interlocked their wings in an attempt to shield themselves from the storm. The gale lashed and whirled around them, whipping up dirt and grass, knocking around the limbs of the trees. Dash had no time to shake off the feeling of vertigo coursing through her as she half-dragged Fluttershy to the shelter of the cave.
Fluttershy shouted as the wind knocked the pack from her back. The flap opened and two daisy sandwiches flew off. The yellow Pegasus frantically grabbed for them, but Dash jerked her away. "We'll worry about that later!"
They landed on the rock of the cave and were blinded by the darkness. Outside, the storm raged on, howling like an angry animal. The whole forests shook as the trees swayed.
Dash turned to Fluttershy, not that they could see each other in the pitch blackness. A snore rumbled through the cavern. "Alright, Fluttershy. Now I want answers."
She heard a sniffle. Her ears wilted and she reached for her. "Hey, Flutters...don't cry."
Fluttershy wrapped her wings around Dash and Dash returned the embrace. "I-I'm so sorry, Dash! I'm so sorry!" She took great, shuddering breaths interspersed by sobs. "N-now we're lost in the Everfree and it's all my fault!"
Dash rubbed her back. "Fluttershy, calm down. It's not so bad. We'll get out of this. I know we will."
Fluttershy wiped at her eyes. "H-how can you be sure?"
Dash stared out at forest which remained in a state of uproar. "The storm will calm down. We can fly above the treeline and figure out where we are."
Fluttershy fell silent for a long time. The temperature had dropped by several degrees. Rain pelted the outside of the cave, joining the cacophony of the wind. It was a constant, hard tapping, a rhythmic beat against water and stone. Grey clouds had marched in, covering the woods in a deep darkness.
Dash thought she could hear the rush of waters leading deep into the back of the caverns. Occasionally, lightning would flash and reveal the brownish-red rock. The cave seemed to almost lead on into infinity, an endless maw driving deep into the heart of the planet. White fish leapt up from two streams on either side of them, their eyes glowing with the flash of lightning.
Fluttershy and Dash leaned into each other, seeking warmth. "I should tell you why I came here."
Dash shrugged. "If you don't want to that's alright."
"I'm tired of being a coward."
The whispered words had all the impact of a gunshot. "So, you decided to prove you're not a coward by going off into the Everfree? I must be rubbing off on you."
Fluttershy chuckled. "Maybe so. Maybe that's not such a bad thing."
"You're not a coward. You know that, right? You get nervous, but you're not a coward. You yelled at a dragon until he cried and stared down a cockatrice."
"And then, I couldn't even go on the Dragon Migration." She laid down on the floor, the stone comfortably cool against her stomach.
Dash laid down beside her. "Did you really want to go?"
"Maybe a little bit. I'm an animal expert, I'm fascinated by patterns of migration. I read an article in Animal Caretaker's Magazine about it. They had pictures. It was beautiful."
"You'd have been scared."
"I know. I would have been. I don't want to be. I went to the Animal Caretaker's Convention last week. It's all everypony was talking about. I lied and said I went. It was...it was humiliating."
Dash nuzzled her, waited for her to continue.
"So, I thought if I could just cross the Everfree-even if it was with a friend-that would mean I wasn't a coward."
"You wanted to cross the whole Everfree?"
"It's not that big. I've heard you can cross it in six hours and I packed a lunch."
At the mention of lunch, Dash's stomach growled. The winds were tapering off and the rain had cleared up. "Is there any fruit trees around here?"
Fluttershy pursed her lips. "Um, I don't know."
Dash peaked her head out of the cave, Fluttershy following her. Dash looked around and they lifted into the air, floating past the rows of trees, all of them blending together into a blur of green as they rose above the tree tops. The forest stretched out in all directions, with not even the slightest hint of civilization.
Dash dipped down, Fluttershy following her as they noticed a flash of red. They both landed in a grove of apple trees, the red fruit hanging from a cloud of emerald leaves, swinging in a light breeze.
Dash floated up, reaching for an apple. Fluttershy noticed the coiled hive hanging from a branch, but it was too late. Dash's hoof slowly wrapped around the apple, her wing fluttering in excitement, the feather knocking against the hive.
The buzzing started slowly, increasing in intensity. Fluttershy grabbed Dash and pulled her. Dash screamed as the mist of bees darted forward and both Ponies shot off, rocketing away from the grove so fast that the branches rocked.
They fled, the angry, buzzing mist always a few inches behind them. Fluttershy dragged Dash by her hoof, Dash rushing ahead.
"A lake! There's a lake over there!" Fluttershy shouted.
Together, they crashed into the deep, blue waters. The bees hovered over them for one second and then dispersed. Dash panted, washing away the sweat on her face with water. Fluttershy floated, her wings spread out.
Dash lifted onto her back, floating beside her. They stared up at the canopy above them. "So, after this, nopony gets to call you a coward ever again."
Fluttershy grinned. "Yay."
The laugh began in her belly, moved up and soon spilled out in a stream of giggles. Fluttershy joined in, doubling over, droplets of water sliding off of her wings. The giggle fit lasted several minutes before it subsided.
For a while, they lazily let the current move them.
Dash groaned. "I'm still hungry."
"The bees have probably calmed down by now."
"So, you couldn't use the Stare on them?"
"No. Insect minds are different. Doesn't really work."
Dash let herself sink into the water, splashing it around herself. "Ah, I love a nice dip." She turned around and began to doggy paddle towards the shore, propelling herself with long strokes of her forelegs. Fluttershy shook the water from her wings and lifted up, sailing on a breeze and landing on the grass just as Dash pulled herself up.
They both looked around. A circle of elm trees ringed the lake. They hadn't been paying attention to where they had been going as they'd ran from the bees.
Dash took to her wing as did Fluttershy a few moments later. They journeyed through the rows of trees, dodging high bushes and intertwined tree trunks. In their haste, they had instinctively gone around them during the chase. With their panic cooled and instinct subsided, they found themselves at a loss.
They stopped at a solid wall of vegetation which both were sure hadn't been there before. Dash jumped over it. Fluttershy followed her. The grove of apple trees was nowhere to be found. Dash gave a dissatisfied growl as she regarded the row of hedges that jutted up before them.
Fluttershy looked behind her. Somehow, the landscape of the forest had changed from lines of trees to a clearing. The grass came up to their hooves. A serpent crawled past. She lowered herself and asked it in its own tongue where the apples were. It answered her and slithered forward, vanishing into the weeds.
Dash hopped impatiently. "What'd it say?"
"Mr. Snake says the apples are in the other direction. We went the wrong way."
Dash nodded and they crossed the meadow and back into the forest, looking for the lake. When they reached it, they spread their wings and crossed over it, the movements of their wings creating ripples. They landed on the other side and Dash hurried ahead, Fluttershy struggling to keep up with the more athletic Pony.
Fluttershy scanned the woodlands and they flew over a cluster of maple trees until once more they found themselves where the grove of wild apple trees lay. This time Dash was much more careful as she grabbed hold of a piece of fruit, tossing one over to Fluttershy as well. They sat beneath the shade and began munching. Dash gobbled up her apple and went up to grab a second one. The fur around her mouth was completely stained with juice. She settled down with a second apple, biting into it with a loud crunch.
Fluttershy took dainty little bites of her apple, finishing it shortly after Dash had finished her second one.
Dash swallowed the last chunk and tossed the core. "Y'know Fluttershy? This has been kind of fun. I'm glad I came along."
Fluttershy gave her a flat look. "Getting caught in a storm and chased by bees is fun?"
"Gets the blood pumping."
Fluttershy chomped at the apple, the juice spraying her chin. "I suppose."
"Do you still want to cross the Everfree? I'm game if you are."
"Sure, if that's okay with you."
Dash hopped up. "It totally is."
Both deciding their wings could use a break, they trooped through the high grass. Dead leaves were crushed beneath their hooves as they traveled. Fluttershy hopped ahead. The trees were beginning to thin out, alternating between open fields and sand pits that dropped several hundred feet. They stood at one such pit. The sand glistened in shades of beige and pink, the sunlight nearly blinding them as it shone down in its full glory from the clear sky.
Thin pines waved their arms, verdant hair spilling down brown bark. The pines led to the pit and continued to grow on the other side. Fluttershy heard a stick snap behind her. Dash spun around, alerted by the same sound. No one was behind them
Fluttershy flared her wings, preparing to fly over the sea of sand. Dash went to join her and then stopped. Clawsteps were coming closer.
Dash had no time to react as Fluttershy slammed into her. A manticore jumped from behind the pines. It's mouth was filled with rows of fangs, its claws fully extended in preparation to tear into Pony flesh.
Fluttershy stood between Dash and the hybrid. The manticore growled low. I am old, Kind One. I need to feed.
Fluttershy stamped the ground. "You have no right to hunt sapient creatures. You will not hunt my friend or myself."
The manticore advanced. Fluttershy stood her ground, staring into his eyes. It continued its march. Fluttershy didn't budge. Dash's eyes went from him to Fluttershy. A bead of sweat broke out on her forehead.
The manticore stopped as he came face to face with the Kind One. If it were anyone but you...I know of the favor you did my son. If I struck you down, I would never be forgiven.
He turned his tail, slumping away into the forest. A deer crossed his path and Fluttershy turned around as he pounced. "Are you alright, Dash?"
"That's twice you saved me. Once from the bees and one from a manticore. Thank you."
Fluttershy pawed at the forest floor. "It was nothing. You've saved me plenty of times."
"Don't ever let anypony say you're not brave ever again, alright?"
Once more, both of them snapped their wings open and they sailed over the pit. Past that was a wide meadow. They had crossed the Everfree. Turning around, Dash and Fluttershy gazed at the dark forest behind them.
A wide smile broke out on Fluttershy's face. "I did it. I really did."
Dash covered her back with a wing. Seeing the expression of pure joy on her feather sister's face was enough to make this whole trip worthwhile.