Rainbow Dash Is A Massive Fanny

by forbloodysummer

First published

Sirens or Shadowbolts, Rainbow Dash always wins. But one’s been outsmarting and embarrassing her in the school corridors, day after day, and she may have profoundly misunderstood the other. But she can’t NOT win, right? She’s Rainbow Dash!

For the last month, Rainbow and Adagio have been clashing in the school corridors, battling with insults, wit and innuendo. Each time, Rainbow has lost the exchange, and ended up outsmarted and embarrassed in front of everyone. But today, she’s determined that won’t happen. She has a plan, and she’ll win at last!

She's excited to tell her friends about it, knowing it'll be the most awesome thing she's done since the Friendship Games, but mentioning that doesn’t go down as well as she expects. Why is everyone else so reluctant to talk about those events? They might be friends with the Shadowbolts now, but why would mentioning beating them in the Games make her friends so uncomfortable?

This story takes place sometime after Friendship Games, and contains spoilers for it. It probably works better sometime before Legend Of Everfree, but since that wouldn’t really affect the plot either way, it doesn’t matter, and there aren’t any spoilers here for that film. I've tagged the Shadowbolts because they and Sci-Twi come up a lot in conversation, but they don't appear.

There's the very occasional bit of slightly stronger language than you might find in the show, as the title might suggest, but I'd hardly call it NSFW. The title, on that note, fits the story better with the British English meaning of the word.


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“This is Captain Spitfire, get your lazy ass out of bed double time, recruit! You think you’ll ever be a Wonderbolt if you keep on–”

Rainbow’s arm lashed out at the snooze button, and the tiny electronic voice cut off. Groggily she reminded herself to never let her friends find out that she still had a novelty Wonderbolts alarm clock at her age, just as she did most mornings. Rarity and Sunset would have thought it tacky, Twilight wouldn’t have got it at all (because it was fun), and worst of all, Pinkie and Fluttershy would have thought it cute. Rainbow Dash did not do cute.

She didn’t want to go without the alarm clock, though – just like all the other Wonderbolts merchandise in her room, it was awesome. At least Applejack would have understood that, she thought, AJ would say that if something made you happy, denying it or running from it would just be lying to yourself, and that was plain stupid.

That’s weird, something feels different. Why do I feel happier than usual today?

There was also the angle that the commanding voice of the legendary Spitfire was the one thing Rainbow could guarantee to wake her up on time each morning. She had a knack for being able to get to sleep anyplace, anytime, but waking up again could be much harder, and when you were captain of every sports team CHS had, you kinda had to be punctual for training sessions first thing, even if you weren’t naturally a morning person.

But today’s only a normal school day, so why am I tingly with anticipation?

She pushed herself upright and rubbed the sleep from her eyes, before swinging her legs to the side, ignoring the cool air around her bare feet. She dragged herself out of bed and stretched, arching her back with her arms above her head, and then set about rummaging around in her drawer for clean underwear.

She still felt the unidentified shivers of excitement running through her as she grabbed her clothes from where she’d dumped them on the floor the night before, yawning freely and not even bothering to cover her mouth with her hand.

Maybe it’s just ‘cause I got less sleep than normal, and I’m a bit spaced out?

But that didn’t fit with what usually happened when she was tired, usually she felt dead on her feet. This was more like the feeling she’d have waking up on match day: there was something out there just waiting for her to win it, and the only thing holding her back was the delay until it was time to start.

Why am I so tired today, anyway? I don’t remember having any weird dreams. What was it I was doing that made me come to bed late?

But that couldn’t have been it either, as she remembered lying in bed the night before, with the digital clock on Spitfire’s plinth showing her usual bed time in lights. But then she also recalled the same clock displaying a much later time, and she didn’t think she’d been to sleep between the two clock checks, so she must have been lying awake thinking about something.

Finally tugging the last piece of clothing on, Rainbow sat back down on the edge of her bed and pulled on her shoes, then gave herself a quick once-over in the mirror before heading downstairs, checking she hadn’t put anything on back to front in her mostly-still-asleep stupor, or forgotten it entirely, a mistake she’d once learned the hard way.

So what was I lying there thinking about for hours?

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, she stepped through the doorway into the kitchen, lifting a hand to shield her eyes from the early sunlight streaming through the wide windows. Between the sun and the under-floor heating, the kitchen always held a warmth early in the morning which was just what she needed after having to leave her bed.

Crossing the floor to the food cupboard, she exchanged the usual wordless wave with her dad at the breakfast bar, as neither of them were normally awake enough to speak. She grabbed her regular cereal from the cupboard, a bowl from another, a spoon from the cutlery drawer, and milk from the fridge, carrying them all over to the bar beside her dad. She felt something in the corner of her mind trying to get her attention as she poured the cereal and the milk, and only remembered that she’d been pondering what had kept her up the night before as she dug into her breakfast.

It wasn’t too hot or cold, and I don’t feel any muscles aching, so I doubt I was too uncomfortable to get to sleep. ‘Cause with me that takes a lot.

So she must’ve been thinking about something, and that was what had kept her up. She tried to remember if there were any homework assignments due in that day which she inevitably hadn’t done, but couldn’t think of any. And anyway, while they were often the cause of a worried breakfast, she didn’t really care about schoolwork enough for it to keep her up at night. And recently she’d been paying even less attention, being so distracted since Adagio had come back and–

That was it! Adagio!

Rainbow, halfway through her cereal, nearly dropped her spoon in surprise. But she remembered clearly now – that was why she was excited: today was the day she’d get the upper hand.

Since the three sirens had returned to school the previous month, she’d been clashing with their leader once or twice a day. The sirens hadn’t really been unfriendly to anyone; they couldn’t really afford to be as haughty as they had been before, not now they had no magic backing them up, but Adagio had really got under Rainbow’s skin.

But today I’m gonna show her!

Finishing her last spoonful of cereal and slurping down the rest of the milk, Rainbow hopped down from the stool, then grabbed the used breakfast stuff and made her way over to the sink.

She and Adagio always seemed to be crossing paths in the hallways, and of course they shared one class together, and each time the two of them interacted, there’d be tension, and an exchange of words. And every time Rainbow thought she was winning their banter, she’d end up worse off. Adagio always had some witty remark that punctured whatever line Rainbow threw, and it was always perfectly pitched to make it clear she’d won the exchange, but not so horrible as to win Rainbow any sympathy.

I won’t be winning sympathy this time, I’ll be winning period.

She rinsed her bowl and spoon under the tap and dumped them in the sink, then grabbed a glass from the top cupboard and a carton of orange juice from the fridge, and returned the milk bottle while she was at it.

Her friends had advised her to ignore whatever Adagio prompted, or at least not get worked up over it. Rainbow had protested, but they’d suggested that maybe the sirens were just having trouble adjusting to their new place in the world, and she was proud to say that she’d thought about that and decided that her friends were probably right, and if Adagio was just frustrated then Rainbow should be the bigger person and let it drop.

Not this time. She’ll wish I’d let it drop!

Rainbow drained her orange juice all in one, pulling a face as the flavour mixed with that of milk in her mouth. She ran the glass under the tap and set it in the sink alongside her bowl, then walked across the kitchen again, kissing her dad goodbye and catching a strong whiff of his morning coffee in the process, before finally grabbing her school bag and heading out the back door.

She remembered how ignoring the problem had worked alright for a few minutes, until she’d had the bright idea to try approaching Adagio and offering to help, and that had not gone well. On paper, nothing had been wrong, their conversation had been normal and reasonable, but Rainbow couldn’t help hearing another layer of meaning in everything Adagio had said. Insults or putdowns could be overlooked, but every time they spoke, Adagio implied that Rainbow was a lesbian, and for some reason she found that very difficult to ignore.

I’ll get her back at last today, though. It’s long overdue.

Rainbow started her jog down the sidewalk to the bus stop, the usual slamming of the books in her backpack against her back, her body soon warming up to fight back against the chill Fall air around her legs.

“I’ve noticed you in the corridors, and–”

“Thank you, I’m flattered to have caught your eye.”

“I just mean I’ve seen the looks you get from some of the other students.”

“Ah. Well I’m sure the way you look at me is completely different.”

The words of that conversation echoed in her head as she ran, each sentence that had preceded her big mistake. It had seemed such a good idea at the time, asking outright if Adagio was flirting with her, blowing the cover off the whole thing. Adagio would have confirmed that she was not, and then they could have talked openly without Rainbow being uncertain of what she was hearing, suggesting or agreeing to through the layers of double meanings. That was not what had happened, and asking didn’t seem like it had been such a wise move, now. She hadn’t realised how much she’d been shielded by Adagio’s words needing to have an innocent alternative explanation, or what might be freely said without it. Maybe if Rainbow hadn’t sounded quite so suspicious when she’d asked...?

“Rainbow Dash, I can’t say human biology is my strong suit, but I’m fairly sure that if I were flirting with you, you’d be pregnant by now.”

“Erm, t-that’s not really how it works. You’re a girl, so you couldn’t...”

“Ah, I hadn’t realised you were an expert on siren reproductive systems.”

“But I thought you were human now, so y-you’ve got a... haven’t you?”

“Are you asking to look up my skirt?”

“No! I mean, I guess now you say it I’m kind of curious, but...”

“That’s ok, Rainbow, lots of young people get curious. Most wait until they’re in college to try anything, but good for you, getting a headstart.”

Rainbow slowed down as she approached the bus stop, her face burning from the memory despite the biting wind. Nodding to a couple of the other CHS kids there, she folded her arms across her chest to keep warm, but knew she at least wouldn’t have to wait long for the bus, having perfected her regular morning timings to the minute.

Her interactions with Adagio since then, she recalled, had continued along those lines. They’d cross paths, Adagio would give her a you-know-you-want-me look, and Rainbow wouldn’t be able to stand the implication or the smugness behind it. So she’d say something, then there’d be a few words back and forth, and Adagio would twist things to imply Rainbow was coming onto her. That was how it usually went.

“Not sure about your outfit today, Adagio.”

“Aww, is that why you’re picturing me without it?”

“N-No, of course not!”

“Oh right. So you just enjoy the view, then?”

The bus pulled up, and she clambered aboard and dropped into an empty seat, slinging her school bag on the floor in front of her. She’d spent enough journeys in the last month looking out of the window, idly watching the Canterlot suburbs go by and wishing she’d thought of some better response to Adagio’s latest jibe.

Not today, though. Today I know exactly what to say, and she’ll be left speechless and embarrassed.

And so with that weight off her mind, Rainbow smiled as she gazed out of the window, noticing the way the trees had faded from similar shades of green to all different reds, yellows and golds. Between sports, school and socialising, Rainbow rarely had time to think about how things looked, but it wasn’t like she couldn’t appreciate beauty. And when stuck on a school bus with no other options, she quite enjoyed having the time to chill out and drink in the scenery. She knew she couldn’t tell Rarity that, or she’d never be able to escape a ‘dress’ conversation again, but perhaps Fluttershy, who rarely stopped thinking about nature. And so Rainbow sat back and took in the view, and, added to the knowledge that within a few hours she’d be taking Adagio down, the resulting good mood kept her smiling enthusiastically right through until lunchtime.


Fry-up Friday. Best day of the week. Rainbow stood in line in the cafeteria, tray in hand, her nose filled with the amazing smells of bacon, eggs, sausages, beans, hash browns, mushrooms, fried tomatoes and toast. She’d been one of the last students to arrive and join the back of the queue, having come from a class on the far side of the school, but she knew there’d be plenty of everything left by the time she reached the front. She glanced over to her usual table and saw that all her friends except Twilight had already arrived, tucking into plates of (in Applejack’s case, heaped with) delicious-looking fried food.

Weirdly, she’d gone the whole day to that point without seeing Adagio at all, and, looking around the other tables in the cafeteria, there was no sign of her there, either. But nor could she spot the other two sirens, so perhaps they’d all been called into the principal’s office or something. She recalled seeing Sonata in English class earlier, but wondered if Adagio might be at home sick or something. She hoped that wasn’t the case – not out of concern, but because she didn’t want to have to wait until Monday to use her brilliant line and win their war of words.

Should I feel guilty at that? Wishing someone to be well just so that I can beat them? It probably wasn’t particularly kind, and Fluttershy might have given her a disappointed look for it, but Rainbow felt mostly ok with it, like it was deserved under the circumstances. She even thought that Adagio, of all people, would understand.

Eventually she reached the front of the line, and grabbed as many sausages and as much bacon as she was allowed, as well as two fried eggs, three fried tomatoes, a scoop of mushrooms and a couple of hash browns. She almost went without any beans or toast, as she might have wanted to be able to move afterwards, but thought better of it and added them at the last minute.

She grabbed some cutlery and carried her tray over to her table, smiling at her friends, who looked up at her approach. Each was in their usual spot, with Rarity, Applejack and Sunset on one side, and Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie on the other, an empty chair between them that might as well have had Rainbow’s name on it.

“Hey guys, how’s it going?” she asked as she set her tray on the table, and pleasant replies greeted her all round as she sat down. She grinned in return and picked up her knife and fork.

“No Twilight?” she asked, looking back to the queue but not seeing her there.

“She texted me earlier,” Rarity said, sounding less cheerful, “she’s at home with stomach cramps, poor thing.” A wince of sympathy was shared between the six of them, and then Rainbow began digging into her food.

“But you look perky,” Pinkie piped up, “what’s put you in such high spirits?”

“Frah-up Frahday,” Applejack stated without looking up from her own plate, which she was mechanically working her way through, so far about half done, and offered a fist bump in Rainbow’s direction. Rainbow, her mouth stuffed full of egg and bacon, said nothing but returned the fist bump.

“It’s not just that, though,” Fluttershy said in the quiet voice she’d never grown out of, looking in Rainbow’s direction, soon joined in doing so by the other four. “I haven’t seen you this happy in weeks.”

Rainbow paused as she finished her mouthful, deciding how to respond. She then lowered her voice and leaned in towards her friends, beckoning them to do the same.

“You know I’ve been having these run-ins with Adagio, right?”

“Yes,” Rarity said fondly, “it’s quite cute watching the two of you flirting away.” Sunset snickered at that, Pinkie grinned (encouragingly!), and even Fluttershy held up a hand to cover a guilty smile.

“We are not flirting!”

Everyone around the table gave her looks from ranging from ‘are you sure?’ to ‘sure you aren’t.’

“We’re not!” Rainbow protested, no longer keeping her voice quiet, but not meaning for it to rise in pitch as it did. With the conversation volume reset, all six of them resumed their regular sitting positions, no longer leaning in but sitting more upright so they could still eat while chatting.

“Whatever you two’re doin’,” Applejack said, looking up and locking eyes with her, “she’s much better at it than you are.”

Sunset chuckled again, and Rarity pulled an ‘ooooh, ouch’ face, but didn’t disagree. Applejack paused, looking away and frowning, then turned back to Rainbow.

“Sorry, that weren’t too nahce of me to say, was it?” she blushed. “Ah think ah’ve been hangin’ out too much with Sugarcoat.”

“For all we hoped that we might be a good influence on the Shadowbolts when we got to know them,” Sunset sighed, “there’s always been the risk they’ll rub off on us, too.”

They all nodded wisely, Rainbow included, before she shook her head to bring her thoughts back to the main conversation, eating whenever listening, and pausing to speak.

“So how come you guys don’t accuse AJ and Sugarcoat of flirting with each other?”

“Darling,” Rarity chided, “nobody’s accusing anyone of anything.”

“There’s nothing wrong with flirting, you know,” Sunset said gently.

“With girls or guys,” Pinkie added, and again she smiled encouragingly.

“We support you, Dashie,” Fluttershy said softly, “whoever you like.”

Another time Rainbow might have been touched by how much her friends cared, but at that moment?

“I do not like her! Not in that way, and in fact not much at all!”

Still her friends smiled to themselves and each other, like they knew some secret she didn’t.

“Again, how come you think I like her?” she continued, “But Applejack and Sugarcoat – nothing going on there!”

Applejack looked at her for a few moments, most of her plate now empty, and the table fell silent, awaiting the response.

“Well,” AJ said thoughtfully, “we don’t flirt with each other in the corridas...”

“We were not flirting!” Rainbow snapped, her voice rising above normal conversation level, but not quite shouting. Not yet, anyway. Her friends fell about laughing, but this time they at least looked a bit ashamed and guilty for doing so.

“Sorry, ah couldn’t resist,” Applejack forced out between guffaws, red faced.

“Yes, perhaps we shouldn’t tease you, dear,” Rarity said in a similar state, “I do apologise.” After she’d calmed down and her face had resumed more of its usual colour, she added, “But to answer your question: Applejack’s not often known for keeping secrets. And Sugarcoat?”

“I think if there were anything going on, they’d tell us,” Sunset finished, and Applejack nodded simply. Rainbow nodded too, resigned, because they did have a point.

“Ya have to admit,” Applejack said after a pause, in hesitant a voice that said she knew Rainbow wouldn’t be happy about it, “it is quahte funny. The legend’ry Rainbow Dash, so cool about everythin,’ gettin’ all worked up at the thought a’ lahkin’ someone.”

Rainbow ground her teeth. She didn’t find it funny. But that did explain what her friends had been misunderstanding about the situation, and she could grudgingly see why they would be so amused by it. And she accepted that of course she’d be unlikely to find it funny, when it was her they were joking about, but that didn’t mean the joke itself was a bad one. Still, she had to set the record straight, that she wasn’t just being a bad sport.

“It’s not that it’s someone,” she explained, firmly but staying calm, “it’s that it’s her.” Rainbow looked each of them in the eyes in turn, stressing how important that point was. “She’s really been getting to me in the last few weeks, and so you guys saying that I have a crush on her, that’s like if I’d said Rarity had a crush on Sunset, back when none of us were getting on.”

Sunset looked straight to Rarity and pulled an apologetic face, reaching out a hand towards her along the table, in front of Applejack’s now-empty plate. Rather than taking the hand, Rarity hurriedly stood up and rushed over to Sunset’s seat, stooping over and wrapping her arms around Sunset’s shoulders from behind.

“It’s fine, darling, it’s fine,” she said soothingly, and Sunset rubbed Rarity’s arm warmly in response. “It wasn’t then, it is now, and I’d sooner we all forget about it.”

As Rarity loosened her grip and returned to her seat, Sunset watched her go, and though she was smiling, there was a sadness in her eyes. And if it was obvious enough for Rainbow to spot, who wasn’t exactly the best with feelings stuff, then it was a pretty big deal.

“...Ok,” Rainbow blushed, “maybe it’s not that bad.” She remembered how Sunset had tormented them for years rather than weeks, and how affected they’d all been by it. “That might have been a bit of an exaggeration. Sorry,” she finished sheepishly.

Sunset held up and hand and waved her away, after which Rarity said to think nothing of it. Rainbow still felt bad, so figured she ought to try explaining again in a way that didn’t stir up unpleasant old memories.

“It’s just that it’s been really bugging me. Each time it’s over in a few seconds, and I look stupid in front of her and then have all day to think about it and what I should have done differently. And I’m distracted the whole time, I keep going over and over each encounter in my head and getting worked up about it, and... yeah, there’s no way I can phrase this that doesn’t sound like I have a crush on her,” Rainbow sank her face into her hand, despairing, but then snorting with laughter, able to share in the joke at last.

“I don’t, though!” she added, exasperated but still laughing at herself.

The others smiled at her again, and that time she didn’t hold it against them, as she could join in.

“W-Why do you think it’s affected you so much?” Fluttershy asked supportively, and Rainbow realised that she hadn’t thought to ask herself that question once in the weeks the whole thing had been going on.

“I, uh,” she began and trailed off. What was it about the situation she found so frustrating? Why couldn’t she keep any distance from it? Since she had brought up when Sunset had been bad, why hadn’t she reacted in the same way back then? She couldn’t put her finger on it. Was there the tiniest chance...? No. No way.

“It’s like, whatever I try, however foolproof I think my approach is, I just can’t seem to win against her. Not even once.”

“I think she’d probably say you won when it counted,” Sunset said grimly, “given the lack of a red gem on that black band she still wears around her neck.”

True, but that was all of us. This is just me, and so it feels more personal.

“And you do win pretty much everything, always,” Pinkie grinned beside her. Smile fading and voice dropping, she continued, “So it’s gotta be all the worse when you don’t.”

“Huh,” Rainbow thought aloud. She hadn’t looked at it like that before. But wasn’t it a good thing, not losing often? She didn’t think it was something she’d want to change.

“You do win a ridiculously high percentage of the time, Rainbow,” Rarity agreed. “Maybe it’s your own sights that need adjusting?” She set her knife and fork together delicately on her empty plate and reached for the grapes on the corner of her tray. “Most people lose all kinds of things quite frequently,” she pointed out.

It wasn’t exactly an enjoyable thought, but maybe that was it. Not even the hardest video game she’d ever tried had beaten her every day for a month straight, so naturally she’d take it badly when a person did, especially one who looked so smug about it.

“But then,” Sunset began thoughtfully, “you’d never win a general knowledge quiz against Twilight.” Well gee, thanks, Sunset! “Or against me, for that matter. You’d never out-sew Rarity.”

That was true enough, Rainbow thought. Now it had been suggested, a tiny part of her wanted to try it, but she knew she’d have to train night and day for years to be in with a chance, and even then it would be a long shot.

“In fact,” Sunset carried on, “despite the number of times you’ve tried, I’m not sure you’ve ever beaten Applejack in an arm wrestle.”

“Have too!” Rainbow shot back instantly, slightly peeved that Sunset would openly list all the other things Rainbow would lose at, suggesting she wasn’t as good as she thought she was in the first place. Applejack gave her an ‘oh really?’ look, but Rainbow wasn’t going to get distracted.

“Yet you call Twilight an egghead for knowing about books,” Sunset lectured on, as if Rainbow hadn’t interrupted at all, “and Rarity prissy for being so good at dressmaking.”

Rainbow suddenly became the second person within five minutes to look shamefully at Rarity, begging forgiveness. Rarity knew Rainbow had said it before, and they both knew she’d probably say it again, but she still looked embarrassed when it was brought up.

“You dismiss those areas where people have got you beat,” said Sunset, “because those things don’t matter to you. So why does losing this contest of yours with Adagio rile you up so?”

Huh. That was a very good point, and it brought Rainbow up short. She’d been wrong when she’d thought that she didn’t lose often – the truth was more that she didn’t often lose things she considered worth winning.

“It’s not like she could beat you at sporty things,” Sunset continued, “any more than the rest of us could, and I bet you play guitar better than she does.”

That was all true. So why would she be so bothered about winning some competition of wit with a depowered villain? Was it how public the whole thing was, and so in her eyes the idea of winning was wrapped up with being cool, or at least losing publically with being uncool? That could be it. Only, the conversation where it had all changed, where she’d offered to help Adagio; that one hadn’t been public. And yet she’d still been just as flustered, and felt it just as badly when she’d lost. So perhaps that wasn’t the answer.

But when she thought about it like that, it didn’t make sense how attached she was to the whole thing. What reason could she have for caring about it so much?

That’s why we think there might be deeper feelings at work here,” Sunset finished, and Rainbow didn’t feel anger at the crush suggestion coming up again, because from the kind tone of her voice, and the patient way she explained it, she knew Sunset just wanted to help.

Could they be right? Could I actually be so determined to win against Adagio because I have a crush on her? That was what would happen in the kind of movies Rainbow had no interest in watching. And if it were true, how would she know? It didn’t sound like the real explanation, and she didn’t want it to be, but she couldn’t really think of any others.

“...I don’t know,” she said slowly, confused and lost, “I don’t know why it bothers me so much.”

She thought of Adagio’s face during their clashes, looking so confident, like it was unthinkable she couldn’t win, and Rainbow recognised the attitude and expression as something she often wore herself. Not during those exchanges, but did she really deserve to wear it at all, with how many times she’d lost in the preceding weeks? Although, when phrasing it like that, Adagio shouldn’t really have had it either.

“Maybe because we did beat her,” she suggested, “and yet she’s not at all humble, or sorry?” Sunset raised an eyebrow, and Fluttershy looked concerned. “Like you said, we beat her when it mattered. So it’s kind of irritating she’s still acting superior to us.”

“Ah, the defeated enemy that does not know her place...” Sunset sighed, looking defeated herself. “I hope it’s not that, ‘cause that’s kind of horrible.”

“It’s animal kingdom behaviour,” Fluttershy said, and Rainbow couldn’t miss the disappointment in her voice. “The pecking order is established by fighting for dominance, and any break from it is seen as a challenge needing to be put down with further fighting.” She hesitated, sounding regretful. “It’s a good survival instinct for sentient species, but as a sapient species, humans are supposed to be–” she broke off, shaking her head, then correcting herself “ – humans have the ability to be better than that.”

A quiet few seconds followed, and Rainbow looked down, her cheeks flushing slightly red. Most of the time she thought it quite sweet when told off by Fluttershy, but not so much at that moment. To cover, she set to work on her last hash brown, cutting off a corner and shovelling it into her mouth.

“Really,” Sunset spoke up, “would that be better as a motivation? Than discovering that you might have a crush on a girl for the first time?” She paused, narrowing her eyes as she looked at Rainbow, as if making a decision. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but if it helps...” Sunset hesitated again, smiling shyly, “I think Aria Blaze is really hot.”

Rainbow wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. Was it sweet? Was it crazy? Could it be both at the same time? Had Sunset said Sonata, Rainbow would have said sweet. With Adagio, crazy. But with Aria, she wasn’t sure either way. Sonata hung out with Pinkie quite often, and while Rainbow wouldn’t have said she trusted Sonata, she didn’t worry about her either, and was sure Pinkie would be fine being her friend. Aria, though, was much easier to think of as a threat, and so the idea that Sunset might like her was surprising at first. But really, Aria hadn’t been any nastier to them than Sonata had, she’d just mostly kept to herself while Sonata had been trying to make friends.

Her eyes flicked to each of the others at the table, checking out how they reacted to Sunset’s news. They were all smiling, although Fluttershy did so gently, Rarity approvingly, Applejack mixing it with surprise, and Pinkie grinning ear to ear. Rainbow added her own smile, because however difficult Aria might be, she was sure Sunset could handle it.

“So, if that is how you feel about Adagio,” Sunset broke the respectful silence, “then I know where you’re coming from.”

And that brought it back to Rainbow. Did it change things, knowing that Sunset liked one of the sirens in that way? Did it make it seem less impossible that if Sunset could feel that way, maybe Rainbow could too? She wasn’t sure. And that, in itself, was a million miles from how certain she’d been about it five minutes before. She kind of wished it was as simple as admitting it, but figuring it out if it was true or not was much harder.

Rainbow hadn’t thought of Adagio as ‘hot,’ she was pretty sure of that. Since the subject had come up, Adagio was hot – even her worst enemy wouldn’t deny that – but if Rainbow had a crush, then shouldn’t that thought have come to her sooner? And perhaps on its own, without Sunset saying anything about Aria? And when she’d thought half a minute before about how she’d have reacted if Sunset had said Adagio instead, Rainbow hadn’t felt any flash of jealousy. That kind of suggested that her feelings weren’t along those lines, right?

“I just don’t know,” Rainbow said, stumped. “I mean, it definitely doesn’t feel like that’s it. It really doesn’t, ya know? But I don’t really have any other answers to why it’s driving me up the wall like this.” She chewed her bottom lip as she tried to figure it out, speaking her thoughts out loud as she went.

“Maybe it’s the way she’s using my own ego against me? Like, she knows I won’t just put up with those looks she gives me, so she uses them to push me into saying something, knowing that she’s good at answering back to that? Maybe it’s just how easy she makes it all look,” Rainbow shook her head, more confused than ever.

“I guess I don’t know what it would feel like, to have the kind of crush that makes you fight with someone. Maybe all the good feelings I usually have towards a crush are there underneath, but all the anger is getting in the way, and so I can’t see them?”

“But maybe they aren’t,” she shrugged. The more she tried to think her way through the problem, the more she found herself going in circles. But she was Rainbow Dash, and Sunset had been right earlier in the conversation, about some of her friends being better thinkers than her. Thinking her way out of her problems wasn’t really her style, she relied a lot more on her instincts. And what did those instincts say about Adagio? They weren’t nearly as lost, and they’d all been pulling in the same direction the whole time.

“I don’t have a better answer why, but I just don’t think that’s it.” She felt bad, knowing that Sunset had told them all something personal, hoping Rainbow would be able to admit the same thing in return. But if she wasn’t denying something, then she couldn’t admit it. She wasn’t too worried that her friends would think she was lying to them about her feelings, or to herself, as she had more confidence in them than that. All the same, though, she knew she should say something to show she realised what a big deal it had been for Sunset to do that.

“But thank you,” she ended, quietly but sounding more sure of herself, “it means a lot that you’d tell me that just to try to help.”

Sunset didn’t say anything, she just smiled kindly. Fluttershy also caught Rainbow’s eye, and gave a look that said she was impressed Rainbow would say something like that, given how she didn’t like saying mushy stuff. Rainbow had to look away, and so took the opportunity to load up her fork with the last few bits of food on her plate and wolf them down.

“Whah Aria, if ya don’t mind mah askin?’” Applejack spoke up, looking at Sunset curiously. Rarity, too, turned to Sunset, like she’d been wanting to ask that herself.

“Swaggering around scowling at people,” Sunset chuckled, “badass jacket, doesn’t take crap from anyone, others jump out of her way – she reminds me of me.”

Pinkie burst out laughing while Sunset looked straight at Applejack and kept smiling, and Rarity looked disapproving. Sunset then added, in the sweet, girly voice of a loved-up 13 year-old, “But with pretty purple eyes,” and sighed happily. Rarity was clearly relieved.

“Is that why you’ve often been wearing your older jacket recently?” she asked, her eyes going to the metal studs all over the black leather on Sunset’s shoulders.

Rainbow grinned at the thought of Sunset trying to impress the bad girl, but didn’t say anything out loud. She wouldn’t tease Sunset about it, not when the whole reason they knew in the first place was because of her trying to help Rainbow.

“Maybe,” Sunset said in pretend shyness, deliberately looking away. “But it’s warmer, too, since we’re coming up to winter again, and also,” she ran a hand over the worn leather, “I love it to bits.”

Rarity nodded, but Rainbow wasn’t sure if she was agreeing with Sunset’s fashion sense, or the idea of someone loving their clothes that much.

“Not Sonata, then?” Pinkie asked Sunset, sounding disappointed.

“Why do you ask?”

“Just – I’ve seen her in her underwear,” Pinkie giggled, “you could do a lot worse!”

Sunset cracked up with laughter, covering her face with her hand, while most others stared at Pinkie with their mouths hanging open.

“How have you seen her in her underwear?!” Rainbow spluttered.

“We went bra shopping last weekend, she tried one on and needed a second opinion.”

“Yep, that’ll do it,” Applejack said matter-of-factly, and everyone around the table made noises of agreement, sharing their usual ‘oh, Pinkie Pie’ look.

“Good job, too,” Pinkie added, “the sizing was way off!”

“I have to say,” Sunset told them once she’d got her breath back from laughing so much, “of the reactions I’d expected, ‘have you considered a different siren?’ was low on the list.”

“Gotta keep you on your toes,” Pinkie shrugged, and Sunset smiled at her, before turning to Rainbow.

“Ok, so, not flirting, but – back to you and Adagio?”

“Huh?” was the best response Rainbow could manage, the question and subject change catching her unawares.

“What was it that made you bring her up in the first place? The reason you were beaming with joy when you sat down?”

“Oh yeah, that was ages ago,” Pinkie cut in before Rainbow had a chance to respond. That was ok, though, it gave her more time to work out where to begin the story from. She looked over to the clock on the far wall, saw that they still had half an hour of lunch break left, and figured that if they were all sitting there anyway, there’d be no harm in staying there for longer rather than going outside.

“Ok, so, she’s always got some smartass response, right? And I never know what to say.” Everyone else nodded, following her thoughts. “So last night I lay awake for hours thinking of the perfect line, and I think I’ve got it!”

As she was stuffed full of fried food, Rainbow finally felt normal again, but she’d been lagging all morning from lack of sleep. She was sure it had been worth it, though.

“...Oh?” Sunset asked hesitantly. The looks everyone was giving Rainbow weren’t exactly encouraging.

“Do tell, darling,” Rarity said, smiling and trying to sound excited about it, but Rainbow could hear the worry in her voice. She could tell her friends the line she’d thought of, but they’d probably just try to talk her out of using it, so she decided to sit on it until the time came to use it. Also she wanted them to be just as impressed as everyone else, and they’d be most blown away by it if they hadn’t already heard it.

“Nah, it’s a surprise!” she said confidently, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms behind her head. She stretched her legs out under the table too, crossing her ankles and relaxing.

“Are you sure you want to carry on with this battle between the two of you?” asked Rarity.

“It won’t be carrying on,” Rainbow told her, trying to reassure them all, “I’m going to win it, once and for all.”

It didn’t have the effect she had hoped for. If anything, her friends looked more concerned than they had beforehand. She spotted Applejack looking in Sunset’s direction, and then back to Rainbow, frowning.

“Remember the bit where she’s beaten you ev’ry day?”

“...For, like, a month,” Pinkie said uneasily, and quietly for her. That wasn’t a good sign at all.

“So, statistically,” Sunset followed with, “what’s going to happen this time?”

“Yeah, but,” Rainbow explained, trying not to sound like she thought they were stupid for not getting it, “this time I’ve got the response!” It was a bit sad how her friends didn’t believe in her being able to get the job done, especially remembering what she’d decided earlier about Sunset being able to handle Aria, but she kept reminding herself that they were just looking out for her, and doing so because they cared, rather than because they wanted to drag her down.

Rarity said, “But as we’ve established, comebacks on the spot are very much her forte,” and Rainbow thought of looking at it as though the girls wanted to hold her back.

Because there were two ways that you could be held back – you could be stopped from doing as well as you possibly could, like if a weak team member was holding you back, but you could also be stopped when you were about to start a fight with someone but were too angry to realise you didn’t have much chance of winning, like when Lyra and Bon Bon had to hold Derpy back from attacking Bulk Biceps during the Battle of the Bands.

Rainbow knew her friends meant to hold her back in the second sense. She had no doubt about that. But if she could beat Adagio, and they got in the way of that, then they might end up holding her back in the first sense, too.

“Not to this!” she said proudly. “Nothing Adagio could say would undo the damage, and everyone who overhears will remember it.” Rarity had a point that Adagio was good at adapting to that sort of thing, but there was no way she would see it coming, and nothing she’d be able to do about it afterwards. Whatever comeback she tried, Rainbow’s line would stick.

“And besides,” she added carelessly, “I hate to say it, but she was probably a better singer than any of us, too, and we won that one.” So there was no concrete rule that said Adagio couldn’t be beaten at her own game.

“...You got a point there,” Applejack had to agree after a second, but she didn’t look pleased about it.

“But are you sure it’s a good idea, Rainbow Dash?” worried Fluttershy.

“Trust me,” Rainbow said, closing her eyes and imagining her victory, although she accepted that her vision wasn’t all that believable, as it had a team of planes spelling out Rainbow’s name across the sky, “I’m gonna win, and it’ll be brilliant!”

She opened her eyes and found that the girls still weren’t feeling it, so she added a reminder of the last time they’d all won big time, to get them on side, “Like the Friendship Games all over again!”

The Shadowbolts

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“Like the Friendship Games all over again!”

And then a weird thing happened. Each of her friends looked at the others, sharing glances with them, none of which could be described as ‘comfortable.’ And although they did that with each other, they all avoided looking at Rainbow. She didn’t know what was going on, and she didn’t like it.

“What? Yeah, I remember the bit where a lot of people nearly died, but...” she trailed off and blushed, but only a little. She’d thought everyone was ok with talking about what happened at the Games: enough time had passed, nobody had been seriously hurt, they’d made friends with both Twilight and the Shadowbolts, everyone was generally over it as far as she knew. She remembered the seven of them joking about it a few months before, so why wouldn’t that be ok now?

“...I’m hoping this won’t get that out of hand!” she laughed nervously, thinking of Adagio getting so angry at losing that she’d suddenly be able to do magic again and would rip apart the school and everyone in it. She couldn’t see Adagio being talked down as easily as jumped-up Twilight was.

“We still won though, and it was awesome!” Rainbow finished. Technically, Principal Celestia had said that everyone had won, but nobody really believed that. Everybody who had really been there knew that CHS won, and had no problem talking about it as if that were the official result.

A long pause stretched, as if nobody was really sure what to say, and a few quick looks still passed between the others. Could Fluttershy and Rarity still be upset about nearly falling through the hole to Equestria? Neither of them were the toughest, she supposed, but nor had either of them mentioned to her that they were having a hard time dealing with what happened, even long after the event.

“Yes we did!” Sunset suddenly announced, much louder than expected, and with a big smile that didn’t look natural.

“Go us!” Pinkie cheered almost at the same time.

“Absolutely right, we did a great job!” Rarity joined in immediately afterwards. The others all wore the same tight grin as Sunset, and Rainbow had no doubt that they were all fake. But if they were upset about how everything fell apart at the Games, why would they now hide it and try to say that it was all fine? It didn’t make sense.

“...Guys?” she asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing!” Sunset shot back much too fast to be true, and then spoke much quicker than usual, “Nothing’s wrong, why would you think that?”

“Because you’re acting like something’s wrong, but pretending it isn’t,” Rainbow said slowly.

Sunset froze, not moving or saying anything. Applejack spoke up a moment later, and she didn’t sound as panicky as the others had, but not quite relaxed either.

“Don’t worry ‘bout it, we’ll tell ya later.”

But now Rainbow was suspicious, and she wasn’t going to be distracted or let it drop until she had a clear answer to her question. One that she believed. She leaned forwards, frowning and crossing her arms, staring at each of her friends one after the other as she spoke.

“Why not now? What happened at the Friendship Games that wasn’t awesome, besides one of our friends turning evil and trying to smash through to another world?”

Because if they’d been fine joking about that a while ago, what could be so much worse that they didn’t want to tell her about it?

“Are you sure you want to talk about this now?” Sunset said calmly, after a deep breath. “Not focus on Adagio, and discuss it another time? It would probably only distract you, and it can easily wait until later.”

Rainbow could tell Sunset was doing her best to sound sensible, and, just as she knew that getting into an argument before a big game would make it harder for her to concentrate on playing, then finding out the truth about the Friendship Games, whatever it was, wasn’t likely to help in her struggle with Adagio.

But she also knew that she wouldn’t be able to forget about it, and would be even more distracted knowing that something was wrong but not knowing what. A part of her even wished that she could just let the subject drop, and find out another time. Wishing for it didn’t change anything, though.

“Tell me. It was awesome, I know it was.”

“Yeah...” Sunset slowly nodded, “we thought so too, at the time.” She didn’t appear embarrassed, but it was still like she was admitting something she shouldn’t have done. “But since then we’ve got to know the Shadowbolts a bit better, and sort of put two and two together.”

Oh, I have definitely missed something here. No one really knew how to start, from the looks of things, but no one wanted to come right out and say whatever the problem was, either, because it obviously made them uncomfortable.

“Have you spent much time with Sour Sweet?” Rarity asked.

“Sorry, can’t say I have,” Rainbow replied. “Should I have done?”

“She’s, ah, she’s who it’s most obvious with, it’s probably fair to say. She’s the one who made me first think about it.”

That wasn’t helping. Rainbow’s friends were almost being deliberately unclear, and leaving her with more questions than she started with. However good their reasons might turn out to be, the conversation trying to avoid the subject was annoying.

“Ok, what about her?”

“Well, she–”

“Um, excuse me, would you like me to tell it, Rarity? I probably know her best,” Fluttershy delicately interrupted from Rainbow’s left. Rarity gave her a grateful look, and made a hand signal for Fluttershy to continue.

Rainbow knew how much Fluttershy hated being the centre of attention, so her volunteering to tell the story was unusual, and gave Rainbow even more of a bad feeling about whatever Rarity had just been rescued from.

“Sour Sweet and I went against each other in the archery contest in the Games, if you remember. She was really good at it, too,” Fluttershy said, and even though she had been Sour Sweet’s opponent in that competition, she smiled proudly about the girl who had since become a friend.

“Yeah she was!” Pinkie burst in, “She was all commando rolls and three arrows at once, like she was a ninja!”

“I remember,” Rainbow agreed, “she wasn’t bad at all.”

“I was, though,” Fluttershy looked down at the table. “I only hit my target by lucky accident.”

“It’s ok, darling,” Rarity said kindly, “archery isn’t exactly an essential life skill. I’d have had just as much trouble myself.”

Fluttershy smiled, her cheeks turning red, and after a clear struggle she managed to meet her friends’ eyes again.

“A-Anyway, I tried talking to her once everything had settled down afterwards,” she continued. “We’ve met up for tea and cake a handful of times. I wouldn’t say I know her especially well, but I’d like to.” Although Fluttershy had been mainly looking at Rainbow while telling the story, as the person who wanted to hear it, she also glanced at each of her friends as she talked, including them in it too. She then looked directly and only at Rainbow when she asked, “Have you ever spoken to her?”

Rainbow tried to remember all the times she’d seen one or more of the Shadowbolts since the Games, there must have been a few times she’d talked to Sour Sweet, but she could only really think of one, and even that was hazy.

“I think we had a conversation at that party a couple of months ago. I’m not sure what it was about, though.”

“Anything you do remember? About her, and how she was to speak with?”

It hadn’t been a long conversation, just talking for a few minutes by the snacks table while they both filled up their plates. Had anything about it stood out to her? Why hadn’t they talked more afterwards?

“Oh yeah,” she recalled, “quite a few times she’d say something nice and then follow it with something really mean. That was kinda weird.”

“That’s her,” Fluttershy nodded sadly. “She’s lovely. So humble and friendly. Half the time.” Although everyone looked in her direction while she spoke, they didn’t lean in closer to her. Fluttershy always talked softly and doing that would have made it easier to hear, but they had learned that if they crowded around her, she’d just get even quieter and eventually stop talking altogether.

“She always has that behaviour of alternating between being so, so nice and... a lot less nice,” she carried on. “I did some research online; I mean, a lot of it’s too complicated for me to understand, and I’m certainly not medically qualified, and, even for those who are, there are so many variables that individual diagnoses can be difficult. And sometimes just reading about something on the internet is the worst thing you can do, especially if you then think that you know more about it than everybody else, and–”

“Fluttershy!” Applejack loudly grabbed her attention, cutting through how worked up she’d been becoming. “We get it, Sugarcube,” she said more gently, “ya could be wrong.”

“Enough with the small print,” Rainbow added impatiently, “on with the answer!”

Fluttershy looked shocked, and then embarrassed, staring at her plate again. But then she looked up to AJ and Rainbow and smiled, probably grateful that her friends had let her know she’d been stuck going off on one doubting herself. Then she made an obvious effort to be calm, and picked up her story where she left off.

“With all that said, it looks like she could be suffering from one of a few conditions.

“It could be that she hears voices in her head that aren’t really there – perhaps she has a second voice alongside the internal monologue that everyone has, one that doesn’t really feel like ‘her,’ and it might be influencing her thoughts. So half the time it would be her own reasoning behind her words, and the other half someone different advising her on what to say. That’s one display of symptoms from one of the eight forms of schizophrenia, as I understand it.”

“Or, much scarier,” she said, her voice dropping, and Rainbow remembered how Fluttershy usually handled things she found scary, thinking of all the years she’d spent trying to persuade Fluttershy to come out trick or treating with her, “it could be the two voices are constantly scrabbling for control of her body.”

To not be in control of your own body? A voice in her head that wasn’t hers would be bad enough, but for it to sometimes take over? Who did that other voice think it was, driving her body?

“Wait a minute,” she pushed in before Fluttershy could keep going, “why not just ignore everything she says in that nasty tone, if that’s not really her?”

Rainbow had thought Fluttershy looked sad about it before, but after that question it was worse.

“Um, well,” she answered hesitantly, “i-it can’t be nice, fighting for control every second, especially when half the time you’re losing. Or hearing your mouth saying things you don’t mean to the people you love most, and watching them react while powerless to do anything about it yourself.”

Rainbow couldn’t even begin to imagine what that would be like. All she could do was hope that she never had to find out the hard way.

“So I can’t rule out that the nasty voice is the one that’s really her,” Fluttershy said, “and the nicer voice is the one that doesn’t belong, because there’s every chance that in her position I’d be seething with rage a lot of the time.”

That helped to put it into perspective for Rainbow – it would be so bad that it would make Fluttershy that furious that often.

“Alternatively,” Flutters continued, “they could even be two entirely separate personalities, both of which feel like ‘her.’ That’s closer to something called dissociative identity disorder, although that also involves memory problems, and it’s quite a controversial area.

“Or it could possibly be very intense, sudden and short-lived mood swings, but I think that’s less likely. There is a condition called borderline personality disorder, but the mood swings involved in that are measured in hours rather than seconds.”

Fluttershy let out a sigh, looking relieved to have reached the end of her long talk, and shared a small smile with her friends at having managed to get through it, but then gave the same sad frown she had when talking about the pain Sour Sweet must be in.

“Whatever it is, I think she finds it quite difficult to get close to people.”

A gloomy silence followed, until Sunset spoke up, looking in Rainbow’s direction.

“And you said the way she acted was ‘kinda weird.’”

Rainbow flinched. There could be no denying it, that was exactly what she’d said. Which now felt mean, given what Sour Sweet must have been dealing with.

“Oh,” she hid her face behind her hand, “I did, didn’t I?”

Her hand dropped to cover her mouth, and she sat there red-faced, looking guilty.

“Well,” Applejack said from opposite her, “it is kahnda weird.” She sounded reassuring, but also determined, like she expected others to argue. “It’s not something most folk do, or behaviour ya come across ev’ry day.”

No one said anything, but each gave nods or sad smiles of agreement. Fluttershy was looking down again, probably wishing that the world was a kinder place, so Rainbow did what she could to cheer her friends up.

“It makes much more sense now you’ve explained it, though,” she said encouragingly. She’d had no idea there might be anything like that going on with Sour Sweet, but then she hadn’t really thought about it.

“Yeah,” Sunset said unhappily, “but she has to give that explanation to everyone she ever meets, or know that they’re thinking of her as ‘kinda weird.’”

That conversation must get old really fast. And people would probably ask the same few questions each time, too. And it would be worth the awkward few minutes of talking about it for the people you’d be spending a lot of time with, like classmates, but not so much for those you’d only speak to for a minute, like when paying for something in a shop, so you’d just have to live with those people thinking you were a bit strange. Day in, day out.

“Ouch,” she said out loud.

Again, silence was the only response to be made to that, but Rainbow’s friends all made signs of agreeing with her. After another few seconds of no one saying anything, Sunset moved on with the story, and they were all glad for the distraction.

“So, it’s looking like Sour Sweet has a pretty serious mental health condition. One that I don’t think any of us have encountered before. And yet,” she said thoughtfully, “the other Crystal Prep students don’t bat an eyelid, they act like it’s just Sour Sweet being herself.

“Which is wonderful, by the way,” she said quickly and cheerfully, “it’s fantastic to see, and it’s just how it should be.”

And so it was. She and her friends all looked more perky at that thought. But as most of the other Crystal Prep students they’d met were Sour’s friends and knew her pretty well, then them knowing about her condition and being understanding of it was mostly to be expected, as she’d have talked to them about it before. Rainbow wasn’t sure it suggested anything more, although she still wasn’t sure what the girls might be trying to suggest.

“They’re probably used to it,” she shrugged.

“That’s what I concluded, too,” said Sunset. “But it did strike me as unusual, especially with her being in a regular school when her condition is that severe, and it got me thinking.”

I guess it is pretty serious, having someone else in control of your actions for that much of your life. Everyone lost it a bit when they got really mad, but to not be in control fully half of the time? Both sides of Sour Sweet were probably completely harmless, but there was no one with anything like that level of health condition at CHS, so her situation was definitely a bit strange.

“And then,” Sunset said after a few moments, “I remembered Sugarcoat.”

Rainbow looked at her blankly.

“So, you know what Sugarcoat’s like, right?” Sunset asked. “How would you describe her?”

“Brutally honest, the whole time,” Rainbow said without hesitation.

“Right. And we don’t really question why that is, because she’s often really funny, and so we assume it’s all ok. And also, we’re used to Applejack not being too keen on lying.” Sunset’s eyes flicked to Applejack when saying her name, but they did the rest of the time while she was talking as well, perhaps because it was Applejack’s friend they were discussing.

“And her being blunt with us as the opposing team in the Games,” Sunset said, “that made sense: she was trying to demoralise the other side, and no criticism hurts more than the truth. But, you heard what she said to Twilight during the tri-cross relay. Why would she be so painfully honest with her own teammates?”

Rainbow did remember that, and both she and Sunset had frowned at Sugarcoat at the time. Neither of them had thought that was a good way to treat someone on your team, particularly when they were clearly struggling. Thinking of how differently Applejack and Sugarcoat had reacted to that situation, Rainbow was surprised those two had become such good friends since.

“I guess,” Rainbow said uncertainly, reminded of Spitfire’s reputation as captain of the Wonderbolts, “being frank with your team is good for knowing where to improve?”

“Yep, I could see that. And ‘come on Twilight, you can do better than this,’ might possibly have worked as tough love under the circumstances. But the way she did it didn’t help anyone. At a stretch I could put that down as aiming to do the right thing and missing by a considerable margin.

“But then she called out the hypocrisies of her principal in front of everyone. Given how strict Crystal Prep discipline is, she could have been expelled for that remark.” Sunset shook her head, looking like a hospital doctor with bad news. “That’s not ‘she doesn’t like lying,’ that’s ‘she has no internal filter.’”

Rainbow hadn’t thought of it like that before, and her eyes went to Applejack to see if she would confirm that view of her friend. AJ was nodding her head while not looking at anything in particular, with movements almost too small to be noticed. Huh.

“So Sugarcoat and Sour Sweet might have some... issues?” Rainbow had mostly forgotten wanting to get to the end of the story in a hurry, with how eye-opening it was turning out to be, but not entirely. “Where are you going with this?”

“Pinkie?” Sunset asked, showing no signs of rushing. “Would you like to tell Rainbow about Lemon?”

“Oooh, my turn!” Pinkie cried, waving her arms in excitement, and everyone at the table turned to face her. “I think Lemon Zest is great,” she said with a big grin, “I mean she’s so cool. Sonata and I hang out with her a lot, and one of the great things about her is how laid back she is about why she’s, ya know, the way she is – she thinks it’s hilarious. She told me straight up, and she’s mentioned several times that she doesn’t care who knows, so...”

Pinkie Pie stopped to take a breath, and when she started up again, she wasn’t as chirpy. She wasn’t massively sad either, perhaps because if Lemon Zest herself found the whole thing funny, then Pinkie was trying not to be too cut up about it. But she still wouldn’t joke about it, even if her friend did.

“Her parents were both stockbrokers. They made huge, huge amounts of money, but with massive stress. So to chill out and de-stress when they weren’t working, they smoked an awful lot of I-don’t-know-what-but-it-was-certainly-very-strong. And having thick clouds of that smoke in the air around the house when Lemon was a small child had a fairly permanent effect on her brainwave chemistry, as she put it.”

Rainbow sat, stunned. She liked Lemon, too, and it was weird to think that the girl she knew wasn’t originally meant to be that way, but only grew up like that because of stuff in the air she was breathing.

“That’s gotta be illegal,” she said, staring straight ahead.

“Eeyup,” Applejack told her with wide eyes.

“And no one did anything to stop it?!”

“I doubt anyone would have known,” Rarity said quietly. “It’s not often that social workers visit the richest neighbourhood in Canterlot.”

That was almost certainly true. Rainbow had jogged through that area the week before, and it definitely wasn’t the sort of place she’d think to associate with that kind of thing. Hugely overpriced wine, sure, probably whole cellars full of it, but not people sitting in their house smoking so much it screws with a child’s head.

“And what about now?” she asked, “Now that Lemon is old enough to go see Social Services herself?”

“What for?” Pinkie asked, and Rainbow froze. “Her parents are both retired now, and they haven’t done that kind of thing in years. Lemon loves them both very much, and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” Pinkie put a gentle hand on Rainbow’s shoulder, and spoke more softly. “That’s just who she is now. She doesn’t mind it, and it’s way too late to do anything about it.”

Rainbow had no idea what to say to that. It still seemed wrong to her, but she wasn’t nearly as sure what to suggest doing about it. Applejack appeared to have a much better idea, though, and picked up where Rainbow had left off.

“Ah’m not sure it’s somethin’ that oughta jus’ go unpunished.”

“But who would benefit from that?” Fluttershy said worriedly, “No one involved wants that to happen.”

“Ah guess it would show others thinkin’ a’ doin’ that that they can’t be expectin’ ta get away with it?”

“True,” Sunset said to the group. “But there can’t be that many similar cases.”

“No,” Applejack agreed after a second, hanging her head, “and ah’m not sure it’d outweigh the damage of takin’ Lemon away from her family.”

Applejack taking over arguing their point had left Rainbow free to think about what she’d been told. Sour Sweet, Sugarcoat, and Lemon Zest: three different people with various things like that affecting them, and one big thing tying them all together. The pattern was easy to spot.

“So you’re saying that the Shadowbolts are all...?”

She trailed off as her question was answered with nodding heads from everyone at the table. They had the same grim looks as when the subject had first come up, mixed with sadness and acceptance, confirming an unpleasant truth.

“What are the chances of that happening?” she asked, avoiding dealing with the issue by asking the first question she thought of.

“As in,” Sunset checked, “six people with various mental health issues within the same year group ending up at the same school? When we have none at CHS?” Rainbow nodded, and Sunset didn’t look hopeful. “All other things being equal, very low. So I strongly suspect that all other things are not equal.”

“Meaning what?” Rainbow said suspiciously.

“I can’t think of any external factors that would make poor mental health more prevalent around the Crystal Heights area of Canterlot than here. But,” she said more thoughtfully, like that was the bit that Rainbow needed to be catching onto, “being a private school, Crystal Prep draws students from a wide area of the city, and obviously isn’t an option for everyone, so it’s somewhere people choose to go to rather than being assigned to.”

Of course. If people could make the decision themselves, then it wasn’t just random chance who ended up there, including how many weren’t completely well. Twilight would be so proud if she saw Rainbow doing science thinking like that, she just knew it.

“So you’re saying that if kids have a mental illness, then that’s the school they go for, if their parents can afford it?”

“Yep. And those six girls were the best representatives of their school for the Friendship Games. So what does that tell you about Crystal Prep?”

Then the sledgehammer struck, inside her head, and everything she thought she had previously known about the whole thing shattered. All that was left was the question of why she hadn’t spotted it earlier. Like, months and months earlier. When she answered, she wasn’t able to think enough to add feeling to her words, or expression to her face, or look anywhere but straight ahead, and so she ended up sounding like Pinkie’s sister, Maud.

“...It’s a special needs school.”

Sunset gave her a smile which might have meant ‘welcome to the right answer, doesn’t it suck here?’ Rainbow’s mind searched around for some problem with the idea, something that would to prove it wasn’t true, so that she’d be able to piece the way she had seen things back together, as that seemed a much less scary option than rethinking it all.

“But aren’t we forgetting that Twilight was a Shadowbolt from Crystal Prep too?” she asked, grabbing onto the first thing she thought of.

Pinkie for some reason giggled and then held a hand over her mouth, and when that wasn’t enough to contain her laughter, stuffed a fist in her mouth instead. Rarity gave her an unimpressed look, and then turned to Rainbow.

“Obviously we’re all very close to Twilight,” she said delicately, “so I don’t quite know how to tell you this, but–”

“Twahlaht has the worst case a’ OCD ah’ve ever seen,” Applejack interrupted, not bothering to phrase anything gently, but still saying it with a kind smile.

Twilight’s got something up with her too? Confusion must have shown on Rainbow’s face, because Pinkie looked in her direction and finally exploded with laughter, so loudly that Rainbow drew back from her.

“Did ya never notice?” she squeaked between bursts, “She made a schedule of when she’d make her next schedule! I love her so much, but, woo yeah!”

Like Applejack’s smile, Rainbow noticed that Pinkie’s laugh wasn’t at all cruel. It wasn’t picking on her friend for not being normal, it was more like celebrating her for being different. Or maybe the laugh was more aimed at Rainbow herself not noticing anything unusual in Twilight.

“I thought she was just eccentric?” she said weakly, explaining herself but expecting to be corrected.

“Well that’s all it is, in a way,” Rarity responded.

“Look,” Sunset said, “you know you have a fiercely competitive streak, right?” Rainbow wasn’t even going to bother trying to deny that. She nodded, although if Sunset had asked, she would have said it wasn’t a bad thing, and it drove her to push herself harder. “And how sometimes, if you don’t keep it under control, you can be a bit difficult to be around?” Rainbow was less sure about that, but none of her friends were arguing with Sunset about it, so if they all thought the same thing then maybe there was something to it. “Well, it’s like that, but much harder for her to control.”

Rarity, who had been watching Sunset and pulling agreeing faces, then took over speaking.

“Some people have addictive personalities, some are more prone to being self-destructive, some less inclined to empathise – these are all natural traits, that each of us have in different measures. When one overwhelms the rest, and risks taking over your life, then that’s when we start thinking of it as a disorder.”

“And sometimes,” Fluttershy then said, “that can be overcome just by keeping an eye on it, or finding coping mechanisms to work around it day to day. But other times it’s so strong that only professional treatment will help keep it at bay, whether that’s therapy, medication, or anything else.”

What would Rainbow’s life be like if she were even more competitive? If she had to win (or had to win everything she cared about, remembering their earlier talk about Adagio), no matter the cost. Would she ever get a moment to herself that wasn’t spent training? How many of her friendships would fall apart if she never had time to see her friends? She knew they’d be understanding, of course, but how long could you go on thinking of someone as a friend, if they never had time to speak to you?

“I have no idea what Twilight would be like if she didn’t have OCD,” Sunset said a few moments later. She didn’t seem as sure about what she was saying; where before all five of them had been trying to persuade Rainbow, now Sunset was just thinking out loud. “I doubt she knows, either. She might be every bit as organised, but perhaps less likely to get as stressed out when things don’t go to plan.”

“Yeah,” Pinkie cut in, “but she could be completely disorganised and not care about organising things at all, like she eats chaos for breakfast.” The way Pinkie said it suggested it was something she’d quite like to see.

“I really couldn’t say,” Sunset replied softly. “With some conditions, such as OCD, it can be very difficult to tell where the personality ends and the disorder begins.”

Could Rainbow’s own competitiveness be a disorder? No, she really didn’t think so, that was just who she was. But what would she be like without it? She didn’t want it any stronger than it already was, but she didn’t want it weaker, either, that would be like making her a different person. And of course Twilight hadn’t had any choice in how strong her drive to put things in order was – ok, none of them had any choice in those things, but with Twilight it was like that wasn’t the way she was meant to be, and something had gone wrong.

Was that the right way to think about it? Or was it more that whether that part of her was a disorder or not, it was a big chunk of who she was, something that her personality had been built around and on top of?

Rainbow didn’t know. And weirdest of all was the thought that Twilight herself might not know. Maybe Rainbow was just thinking about it all too much, and by tomorrow her friend would just be Twilight again, whatever the reasons for why she was who she was.

“I didn’t get much chance to speak with Indigo Zap before her family moved away,” Sunset started saying after Rainbow had been lost in thought for a while, “but, from what Twilight’s said about her?”

Even Indigo had something up with her, did she? How did I miss all this?

Sunset looked off to the side and frowned, with everyone waiting for her to figure out what to say next. When she did, she tilted her head to one side and looked straight at Rainbow, speaking in a much less serious voice.

“Do you remember that bit near the beginning of Finding Nemo, where Nemo tells his classmates about his deformed fin, and the little octopus reveals that she has one tentacle shorter than the rest?”

Rainbow cast her mind back to the one time she’d seen that film, dimly recalling a scene with a pink fish or something, and so she nodded at Sunset, but didn’t look confident about it.

“And then the seahorse says he’s H2O intolerant and sneezes, and then a yellow fish gets right in Nemo’s face and announces ‘I’m obnoxious!’ like it’s a medical condition?” This time Sunset didn’t wait for Rainbow to confirm, she just went on, but sounding darker. “Well, Indigo Zap is obnoxious.”

Rainbow opened her mouth to protest, having seen a lot of herself in Indigo and hung out with her a couple of times before she moved away, but Sunset held up a hand defensively.

“I don’t mean it in a nasty way,” she said quickly, “that’s just what sprung to mind when thinking about her in that context. Personal space and indoor voices weren’t exactly concepts she was best known for defending, and even by Crystal Prep standards she took the competition very seriously.”

They all had, as far as Rainbow remembered, on both sides. Or maybe that was her own enthusiasm for it affecting how she thought of it, trying to adjust her memories to make her friends as into it as she had been. Maybe Indigo had been pushing harder than the rest of her team, but it still felt bad thinking about a friend that way, accusing her of having something other than herself controlling her actions.

“You seem to know that movie pretty well,” Pinkie said to Sunset, pulling a lollipop from her pink fluffy hair as she did so.

“I may have watched it a lot when I first got here,” Sunset admitted, embarrassed but smiling fondly. “It’s so colourful, it reminded me of Equestria. Finding Nemo is important to me, I guess.”

Rainbow was hardly paying attention, instead still trying to figure out whether she was being a bad friend to Indigo. It did seem kind of rude, suggesting that someone behaved so strangely that the best explanation you could come up with for it was mental illness. Obviously there was nothing wrong with that if it were true – but there was, wasn’t there? That was why things like that were called mental health problems, or disorders; problems and disorders were things to be cured if possible, and managed if not, right? So it wasn’t like it was all fine, and that having that kind of condition was just as fine as not having it.

But Rainbow didn’t think any less of Indigo as a person for having that. Nor would she of any of the other Shadowbolts, or other Crystal Prep students who didn’t make the Games team, or anyone. Maybe it was just like a physical injury, in that you were sorry if it happened to someone and you hoped they got better as soon as possible, but you did what you could to make stuff easier for them until it did, and it obviously didn’t affect your friendship with them.

Should she look up the details on the internet and try to find out more about what her friend was going through, and if there was anything Rainbow could do to help? Or go on as before, and treat her exactly the same, just as she would anybody else? Not that she was likely to see Indigo again, with how far away she’d moved, but what about the other five? Sour Sweet, Sugarcoat, Lemon Zest, Twilight, and–

“Wait a minute,” she suddenly said out loud, “what about Sunny Flare?” She then blushed and added more quietly, “I kinda forgot about her.”

Rarity was the person to answer, first making a face like she’d eaten something bad.

“Much to her displeasure, many people do. She’s the normal one of the group, in her own words.” Then Rarity went back to her usual smile, and continued, “She might be a terrible person, in her own way – although I am very fond of her – but there’s nothing different about her in a medical sense.”

Having barely ever spoken to Sunny, Rainbow couldn’t really comment either way. Rarity seemed to know what she was talking about, though, even if what she was saying caused an obvious problem.

“When she first told me that,” Rarity said, “about her being the normal one, I thought she was referring to how we had several things in common. We’re both interested in fashion and shopping, that sort of thing, and so I assumed she was implying that that made her normal in my eyes.” Rarity paused, and then lost some of her cheerfulness. “Since I pieced together the rest of the Crystal Prep situation, though, I’ve come to rethink that conclusion.”

“But then what would she be doing at a special needs school?” Rainbow asked, unable to help sounding confused. It just didn’t fit with everything else she’d learned that lunchtime.

“She wouldn’t. Nor would Fleur, for that matter.”

“Crystal Prep isn’t a special needs school,” Sunset said, “not officially.”

This did nothing to help Rainbow’s confusion. She’d finally come around to accepting that Crystal Prep was exactly that, and then they told her it wasn’t? She scowled at Sunset and Rarity, wishing they would just be open with her instead of dancing in circles around the subject, and would tell her the truth from the beginning.

“But it does offer the small classroom sizes and top of the line teachers and facilities that you’d expect in a private school,” Rarity said, as if that made things clearer.

“All of which are of even greater benefit to students with poorer mental health,” Sunset explained, so in-sync with Rarity that the conversation seemed almost pre-planned, although Rainbow was certain it wasn’t, “who’d be more likely to flounder in a regular school. Crystal Prep also offers a much higher ratio of teaching assistants to students, which help to no end those with special needs to fit in in school.”

“And the teachers, assistants and other staff have all been trained extensively in the best ways to reach those students and educate them,” said Rarity, waving a hand in the air as she made her point.

“So a sizeable contingent of the students there – I don’t have much hard data to go on, but I’d say 50 to 75% – have one form of special needs or another,” Sunset said.

Pinkie and Fluttershy sat quietly listening, and poor Applejack must have had conversation bouncing between her ears as Rarity and Sunset took it in turns to speak from either side of her. But none of them looked bored with the heavy conversation. So did that make Crystal Prep just a normal school? And if so, what had been the point of the whole conversation, which had taken up most of their lunch hour?

“The school is marketed as being a great place for special needs students,” Rarity began, shifting in her seat to get more comfortable.

“Rather than a school designed for them or explicitly designated for them,” Sunset finished, and Rainbow started to understand the difference between the two.

“I imagine that helps the students feel more empowered,” Rarity suggested, “making going there seem more like something they can choose to do, instead of having to, even if there aren’t many other options.”

“Exactly,” Sunset agreed, “no one is forcing anyone to go to Crystal Prep, or separating those with special needs from those without, and there are plenty of good reasons to still choose to go there even if you’re perfectly healthy and always have been.”

Rarity added, “Which probably helps anyone with those kinds of issues feel a little more normal, or at least a little less out of place.”

And yet it was coming to CHS that had made Twilight feel more normal. The way she told it, she’d pretty much had a closet at Crystal Prep that she’d stuffed with sciency things, and everyone else had kind of left her to it. But then, knowing Twilight, that was probably her own choice, and if she’d felt confident enough to do that, then maybe Crystal Prep really was good at letting students feel like they decided things for themselves. Should schools be pushing friendship, or leaving students to do their own thing? Maybe Twilight was a special case, and the CHS way was better for her but the Crystal Prep way better for the others?

Anyway, that was a distraction from the main thing Rainbow was trying to think about with Crystal Prep, how it wasn’t a special needs school but was a great place for special needs students, and so sort of was a special needs school, but also sort of wasn’t.

“Their website doesn’t come right out and say it,” Sunset said on a different note, “just asking parents of potential students with special needs to contact the school to discuss things directly, but there are almost certainly discounts and scholarships available for those suffering who would benefit from going to Crystal Prep.”

“It’s telling that Sunny,” Rarity picked up, “the healthy one, and Lemon, with the hard-to-medically-diagnose problem, are also the ones from the wealthiest backgrounds, as the only Shadowbolts who probably had to pay the tuition fees at full price.”

So the point was, as Rainbow understood it, that Crystal Prep wasn’t seen as any different to a regular school, other than being expensive and probably better. And that made it a good choice for students with mental health issues, who it was known to do well with, and that meant that those students made up a big part of the school’s total number. It wasn’t a special needs school by the way it was set up, but it kind of was because of its students. Mostly.

“So why did they set them against us in the Games?” she asked, not sure how whoever organised it could set up something so unfair.

“Th-There’s a lot of stigma attached to mental health, still,” Fluttershy said from where she sat on Rainbow’s left, flinching only a tiny bit when everyone turned to look at her. “What better way to break it than to show people with those issues competing against those without, and winning?”

“Crystal Prep went in confident they’d win, after all,” Rarity pointed out, “and they always did in the previous years.”

“That’s right,” Fluttershy smiled, “and even if we didn’t know about it, the Crystal Prep students did. That must have been quite a boost for them.”

“And quite a blow to have now lost,” Rainbow said, feeling her stomach sinking.

“Yeah,” Sunset sighed. “Why do you think Cinch was so up in arms about the whole thing?”

“...I thought she was just horrible,” Rainbow said, having not reached Crystal Prep’s unpleasant principal in her re-thinking of the school.

“Are you kiddin’?” Applejack snorted. “What kind a’ petty, mean-spirited twunt would Principal Cinch have ta be ta get that obsessed with the students of a school costin’ tens a’ thousands a’ dollars a term beatin’ those goin’ to a regular, public school?”

“That’d make her, like, the most horrible person on the planet,” Pinkie giggled from much too close, and Rainbow suddenly realised Pinkie was almost resting her head on Rainbow’s shoulder, “which would be...”

“...Statistically unlikely,” Sunset finished, as Pinkie returned to her usual seating position as quickly as she had come.

Yeah, but Cinch was pretty horrible...

“She’d spent years telling her students that they were just as capable as us,” Rarity said, her tone suggesting she felt sorry for the horrible woman, “in spite of whatever issues might be holding them back. To suddenly lose – and to a public school, no less – it must have been a crushing sign of the reality they would face when they graduated.”

Rarity managed to sound as disgusted when saying ‘public school’ as Rainbow could imagine Cinch herself doing, and Rainbow’s friends defending that woman was tough to hear.

“But she was horrible!” she burst out, listening to the word that had been bouncing around her head since the subject of Cinch had come up.

“Yep,” Sunset nodded, “she came across as a vile woman.” Then she hesitated, and Rainbow knew there was a ‘but’ coming. “Is the captain of the Wonderbolts known for being kind and gentle?”

The sinking feeling in Rainbow’s stomach struck again, because she knew Captain Spitfire was anything but that. Although she also knew that Spitfire on her worst day was still a thousand times better than Cinch on her best. She didn’t say anything, and Sunset took that as a sign to go on.

“I don’t like the idea, nor am I that keen on defending her, as I loathed her just as much as anyone, but it may be that only someone that caustic could do what she did. Some people will do anything to win, and unlike most, she had a good, altruistic reason to do so, and a nicer person might not have fought as hard as she did.”

“Also, darling,” Rarity spoke up, “we may not have been seeing her at her best. She knew what was at stake with the Games, and she couldn’t let the students in on it. She was fighting to protect them, and she was the only one doing so; the pressure of it may have got to her and been responsible for some of her waspishness.”

“And us,” Sunset jumped in, picking up her back and forth with Rarity again, “lucky enough to be in good health, must have seemed a slap in the face in our normalcy, never knowing the life problems many of her students would, and there we were beating them in the competition.”

“We didn’t know,” Rainbow protested, but Sunset responded instantly.

“No, we didn’t. And that may excuse us, but to her it may have made us seem all the more infuriating in our ignorance, not even realising the damage we were causing.”

“Ah didn’t lahke her one bit,” Applejack said grimly while Rainbow was thinking about what Sunset had said, “and ah don’t approve a’ cheatin,’ but her reasons were the best ah’ve heard.”

“The benefits of us winning didn’t come close to the cost of them losing,” Sunset agreed.

Rainbow could hardly believe what she was hearing. The reasons may have been good, sure, but that didn’t make it right, did it? If you couldn’t afford to lose something, you shouldn’t have entered it in the first place.

“She must have known that was a risk,” Rainbow said. That was always a risk, however many times you’d won in the past.

“A calculated one, I’d guess,” Sunset answered. “Clearly she miscalculated, or didn’t update her risk assessment with CHS doing better in recent years, and she realised it too late.”

Everyone went quiet for a few seconds, looking around in thought. Rainbow still wasn’t convinced, but she didn’t have any new arguments, just the same ‘but that doesn’t make it right to cheat, or even to be that mean about everything.’

“In my view,” Rarity said into the silence, “she sought to shelter them. A different identity: they weren’t the invalid patients of some educational funny farm, they were the privileged few of Crystal Prep.” Rarity said it in her usual drama-class manner, sounding sickened when saying ‘invalid patients,’ with her voice shining on ‘privileged few.’

“I agree,” said Sunset, “she tried to shelter them under a different banner. It’s sad the one she chose was wealthy elitism,” she made a face, “but for a long time it worked, and I don’t know if the same could be said of any alternatives.”

“That’s why she was so obsessed with reputation,” Rarity explained. “The first thing a college or future employer would see on a former student’s résumé would be ‘Crystal Prep Academy,’ and in some cases that would be all they’d need to look at.”

That didn’t really sound like a good thing to Rainbow, with jobs being given out just on the grounds of which schools people went to, but Sunset continued where Rarity had left off.

“Not a delicately-worded declaration of having a mental health condition,”

“Followed by a brief explanation of what it means,” Fluttershy interrupted, and the fact that she’d speak over anyone else, even as quietly as she had done, said a great deal about how strongly she felt about the subject.

“Right,” Sunset nodded in thanks, “or the name of an under-funded, under-performing specialist school that no one has heard of.”

“Or ev’ryone knows for the wrong reasons,” Applejack added unhappily.

Rainbow thought about it, and unfortunately could well see someone not giving a fair chance to a person with a résumé listing a mental illness. Not that that would have to be listed on a résumé, as far as she knew, but she could also think of times when it might not be a bad idea to do so. Her dad had once told her that employers usually decided whether or not to hire someone within the first thirty seconds of meeting them, and if you obviously displayed signs of a mental health condition when you walked in the door of the interview, having not mentioned it previously, then the unexpected first impression might throw your chances of getting the job.

“Crystal Prep’s reputation wasn’t a vanity project,” Rarity said, looking away, “or a tool to persuade the school governors to increase Cinch’s salary.” Then she locked eyes with Rainbow and said sadly, “It was a shield. It kept Crystal Prep’s students safe long after they left the protection of the school, which was when they needed it most.”

“And Cinch knew how bad things could get if that reputation was lost,” Sunset took over a moment later. “Perhaps she shouldn’t have risked it in the games, but it was public victories like the one she expected to have there that maintained it.”

“In hindsight,” Rarity said, “she probably would have been ok sticking to school exam results alone that year.”

“But,” Sunset responded, “how much of the school confidence, which served its students so well, was down to knowing they’d won the Games so many times before?” She looked to each of the others in turn, as if any of them would have a sure answer. “How would future exam results suffer following the blow to school spirit that would come from pulling out of the Games?”

Rainbow had no idea. It was all connected – how well the Crystal Prep students did in the Games would affect not just how confident they were in going against regular kids and interacting with the outside world, and how that confidence would carry over to their exam performance, but all of that would also affect how good their school was seen as being, and that would in turn give them a better shot in their future lives.

“As it was,” said Rarity, trying to sound hopeful, “Cinch had a lucky escape when Principal Celestia announced that everyone won, and Crystal Prep’s reputation is still mostly intact.”

“But I doubt it can survive a second round of that,” Sunset frowned, “Crystal Prep will have to win the next Friendship Games outright or choose not to compete at all. I suspect they may go for the latter.”

“That would be sad,” Rainbow said, thinking of how she had loved both the Games themselves and the buildup to them, “stopping future students from enjoying the competition.” She’d still had great fun, and even the things she’d learned that lunchtime wouldn’t change how fun she’d found it, any more than the crazy magic stuff had at the time.

“It wasn’t a real competition in the first place,” Sunset shook her head. “It was a PR exercise designed to boost the confidence of those with mental health issues.”

It had felt real, Rainbow thought, and she’d treated it as real. And it hadn’t been rigged. Not in any direct way, although it hadn’t really been fair either, so she wasn’t sure.

“That’s why it was called the Friendship Games,” Rarity said darkly, “a name only a short stretch from ‘Special Olympics.’”

Oh. When you put it like that... Had Rainbow competed in the Special Olympics without knowing it, as someone in perfect health? She remembered the bad guy deliberately doing the same thing in one episode of a cartoon series she liked, and it had been shown as a really, really bad thing to do. The thought of it was certainly not a good one.

But was it really the same? The Shadowbolts might have had their issues, but they didn’t have learning difficulties, not in the sense that the phrase usually meant. Was it actually even worse to think of them as needing that kind of special treatment? Or was that exactly what ‘special needs’ meant? What was the precise difference between ‘special needs’ and ‘mental health conditions,’ or other similar words? Maybe she did need to go away and look things up online.

Maybe thinking of it as being like the Special Olympics wasn’t right, maybe the two weren’t the same, but doing so did have the effect of showing Rainbow how the Games might look from the outside, or if the situation had been exaggerated, and with that she completely stopped defending.

“...If we had known,” Fluttershy said, almost too quietly to hear, “should we have let them win?”

On any other day, the thought of letting someone else win anything would have sounded crazy to Rainbow. At that moment, she didn’t know what to think, although she wasn’t sure she could convincingly lose.

“Or refused to compete?” she suggested.

“I don’t know,” Sunset said, staring ahead of her.

“I really don’t,” Rarity agreed, not looking up from the table.

“That just seems patronising,” said a very lost-sounding Pinkie.

“But goin’ ahead an’ tryin’ our best ta thrash ‘em anyway don’t seem great either,” Applejack finished.

They all sat silently for at least half a minute, not looking up at each other, just trying to run through the options in their heads, none of them managing to figure it out.

“I do know this, though,” Sunset said at last, “with how things turned out: For all the progress that’s been made with equal opportunities, and while of course the people at Crystal Prep are just as valid and as valuable to society as we are, beating them is not something you should be boasting about.”

“I didn’t know,” was the only thing Rainbow could say, knowing that Sunset was right.

“Ah know, sugarcube,” Applejack said kindly, and Fluttershy put a hand on Rainbow’s shoulder, “it’s ok, don’t worry ‘bout it.”

“But now you do know,” Sunset said regretfully, “I’m afraid it’s a victory you shouldn’t mention as often.”

All Rainbow could do was nod her head and stare at her hands in her lap. Fluttershy pulled her into a hug, and Pinkie soon piled in from the other side. Rainbow wondered how long ago each of them had realised the truth about Crystal Prep and the Games, and how they’d reacted when they found out. Was she that much more stupid than them when it came to picking up signs for that sort of thing? ‘Oblivious,’ Rarity had once called her when she’d accidentally tracked muddy boots across the bottom of a dress Rarity had been sewing, and maybe that description was more true than she’d thought.

“It’s ok, silly,” Pinkie said, “you’ve still got every other win of all the teams you’re captain of.”

“Ah’m sure there’s no shortage a’ vict’ries with ya name on them,” Applejack said as Pinkie and Fluttershy drew back to their normal seats.

Rainbow grinned weakly. She hadn’t been crying or anything, but it kind of felt like it, from the effort it took to laugh when Applejack added, “Not in arm wrestlin’ against me, though.”

“And I think it’s ok about the Games, too,” Sunset said gently. “For all that was wrong with them, we got six new friends out of it, and so did they.”

“I know she cared about winning,” Fluttershy smiled, “but given how hard Sour Sweet finds it to make friends, I think our acceptance means more to her than the Games would have done.”

“And I’m not saying that the sheltering reputation of Crystal Prep isn’t important to its students’ future prospects, darling,” Rarity added, “but they were called the Friendship Games. And in that respect, everybody really did win.”

Rainbow glanced over to the clock on the wall and saw that lunch hour was pretty much over. The outside sunshine would have to wait until the end of school. It hadn’t been a wasted hour, though, she’d learned a huge amount. Probably more than she would in class all that afternoon.

She was just about to thank her friends and probably say something embarrassingly mushy to them when the cafeteria doors flew open with a bang, and Adagio Dazzle casually walked in.

Immediately, Rainbow grabbed her chance and jumped to her feet. Her friends had managed to cheer her up again, but she’d probably still be a bit down over the whole Friendship Games thing for the rest of the day. Winning against Adagio could be just what she needed to be smiling until she fell asleep that night. And there was no risk of that battle being unfair, she thought, at least not to her advantage. Adagio had made it all too clear again and again how good she was at their game, and from her smirking, appeared to enjoy it, too.

“Don’t do it, Rainbow,” Rarity said, looking up at her.

“It ain’t worth it,” Applejack agreed.

Fluttershy didn’t say anything and just looked at her with huge eyes, begging her not to go.

Rainbow ignored them, and started walking towards the middle of the room. She needed to do it. She had to. It was too important not to.

“This won’t end well,” Sunset called after her, louder than the others, but not so loudly that Adagio would hear it on the far side of the cafeteria where she was filling a plate with whatever food was left yet to be served.

Rainbow kept walking. She looked from side to side, seeing something like half of the tables still with people sitting at them chatting, although everyone had finished eating. More than enough of an audience for the word of her winning to travel throughout the school.

It was finally time. In one blow, she’d gain a new victory to replace the Games, which she could no longer really call a win, and she’d deal with the problem that’d been bugging her for so long.

For weeks, Adagio had been twisting Rainbow’s words into implying she was a lesbian, and that she had a crush on Adagio. Not that there was anything wrong with having a crush on a girl, and if Sunset liked Aria then that was great, but that wasn’t what was happening with Rainbow, and Adagio obviously knew that.

Rainbow had stayed up for hours thinking of her comeback, the perfect witty line to imply that it was Adagio who was the lesbian, not Rainbow, and do so in a way that would stick in everyones’ minds. At last she’d found it, and now she was going to use it. If she were in a video game, she’d be hearing her superweapon charging up for the killshot.

Adagio had finished loading her plate, grabbed some cutlery, and was just turning towards the centre of the room to head to a table.

Rainbow took a deep breath.

Then she called out to Adagio, not quite shouting, but loudly enough to carry across the whole cafeteria, for Adagio to hear and everyone else in the room to overhear.

“How’s it going, Avagio?”

Adagio stopped walking. She didn’t instantly freeze in place, but she stopped her movement and stood with her legs together, plate in hand, looking at Rainbow across the room, not saying anything. Her expression didn’t change either, and Rainbow had the idle thought that being speechless must be a new experience for her. She didn’t look speechless, her mouth wasn’t hanging open or anything, or moving up and down as if trying to make words. But she wasn’t saying anything either, which was close enough to speechless to do.

Nothing else in the whole cafeteria moved or made a sound. Every single student was fixed in place, with only their eyes moving, flicking back and forth between Rainbow and Adagio. No one laughed, or made ‘oooh, sick burn’ noises, they were all just waiting to see how Adagio would react. Rainbow had a feeling most of them were even holding their breath.

And then, after a pause that felt like forever, but couldn’t actually have been longer than a second or two, Adagio answered, with a smile that looked real.

“All the better for seeing you, Rainbow Gash.”