Fluttershy spread her wings wide, riding the air current. She was so far above Ponyville that individual ponies were merely brightly colored dots, less than ants, just mites crawling along the streets. Up here she could soar above all the meaningless little tangles of their lives.
It was how eagles saw the world, dispassionate from the throne of the sky. It made it so easy to think of what was below as merely prey.
The only prey Fluttershy wanted today was the airspeed record.
Falcon, she thought to herself. They were the fastest birds in the world, and they’d told her all their secrets. Her wings snapped to her sides, all four hooves tucked in tight against her body, making her a smooth bullet cutting through the air. This high up, she had plenty of time to fall safely. Plenty of time to perfect her form.
Gusts smacked into her like waves, trying to rock her from one side to the other, but found nothing to catch on with that perfect, deadly shape. The rush ahead of her turned from buffeting into a solid wall of wind, shoving back against her as hard as gravity pulled. Terminal velocity. If she was just a stone instead of merely falling like one, that would be her limit.
The tips of her wings spread just a little. Pegasus magic flowed, shoving her forwards. She could taste it. The limit, just ahead of her.
Something flickered at the center of her vision. She pushed harder. It was white, like a cloud caught just ahead of her, instantly torn apart but--
She’d gotten distracted. The ground was right there, and she was still accelerating!
Scared duck! She practically quacked as she tried to pull up at an impossible speed, her smooth bullet turning into a frantic mess of flailing limbs and flapping wings before she hit the turf hard enough to bounce.
Fluttershy eventually came to a stop and pulled off her goggles. The world spun around her, and it was taking a lot of effort to hang onto it and not go flying off.
Blue hooves set down next to her, and before she could even try to get up, Fluttershy was pressed against the ground by one firm hoof, a second shining a bright light into her eyes.
“Pupils normal,” the other pony noted. “No visible injuries.”
“Rainbow, I’m fine,” Fluttershy said. She tried to stand, but the pony half-standing on her kept her from managing it, subtly leaning into her in the same way a cat could seem to slowly increase its weight to crushing levels.
“You had a nasty crash, Fluttershy,” Rainbow said. “I don’t think you have a concussion. Does it hurt anywhere else?”
“No,” Fluttershy sighed, giving up and just letting the examination happen. Rainbow was only doing it because she cared. Because she cared and because she was scared for her, in equal parts.
“Move your back hooves. Good. Now wiggle your forehooves. Wingtips. Twitch your tail. Good. No difficulty?”
“It would be easier if somepony wasn’t holding me down,” Fluttershy grumbled. “Come on, Rainbow, I told you I’m fine. I had it under control.”
“Smashing into the ground isn’t control,” Rainbow said, finally stepping back and putting things away in her saddlebags. “I’ve seen Wonderbolts shows, and very few include lithobraking.”
“That sounds like a word you learned from the Princess,” Fluttershy said, getting to her hooves and shaking herself off.
“I bought a thesaurus to make my medical reports more interesting,” Rainbow retorted. “There’s only so many times a mare can write ‘Fluttershy crashed, again’ before the paperwork all starts to blur together.”
“I don’t crash that often!” Fluttershy protested.
“I’d go get your file, but my bad wing is already sore from busting my flank out here to make sure you didn’t hit anything denser than your head,” Rainbow said, unconsciously rubbing her left wing. The scars at the base were just visible, creeping out from under her saddlebags.
“That’s why I practice here instead of over the rock farm.”
“Because of the rocks?”
“That and because if I put a divot in the Pie family fields Limestone would bury me in it,” Fluttershy said. “I swear she’s got something against me.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Rainbow said, rolling her eyes. “Maybe it has something to do with pigeons.”
“They’re not pigeons, they’re rock doves,” Fluttershy corrected.
“They’re the only rock anything she doesn’t like. If Pinkie hadn’t vouched for you, you’d be banned from the farm for good.”
Fluttershy grumbled, kicking the dirt. “It was just a little prank. It was Pinkie’s idea!”
“You moved all the rocks out of the west field and had birds sit where the rocks used to be. Then when Limestone came out to roll the rocks around, they flew away and you tried to convince her that the rocks hatched like eggs.”
“Pinkie thought it was a good idea.”
“Pinkie went along with it because she’s our friend.”
Fluttershy winced. “Okay, okay. I’ll make it up to her. Somehow.”
“Great. Now we have to be at Applejack’s cafe in ten minutes, so if we leave now--”
“Ten minutes?” Fluttershy asked, hovering up, her wings a blur. “Perfect! I can get one more run in before we leave if I angle it towards Ponyville!”
“No, that’s not what I--” Rainbow started, but Fluttershy had already shot up into the sky and well out of hearing range, as if reason and arguments had ever worked on her when it came from a pony instead of a bird.
Rainbow instinctively flapped, about to take off after her, and her shoulder twinged. She winced and rubbed it, thinking better of it.
“She just better not crash again,” Rainbow muttered.
Rarity glanced up as they entered the cafe.
“Oh no! What happened?” she asked, running over and looking at Fluttershy. “You didn’t get into a fight with that awful griffin again, did you?”
“I told you, that’s just how she flirts,” Fluttershy said quietly, her cheeks red. She couldn’t meet Rarity’s eyes while she spoke. She tried to back away, but Rarity summoned an array of mirrors, crystal planes floating around them and reflecting her disheveled appearance.
“Fluttershy decided to invent a new way to land using only her head,” Rainbow said. “It was so brilliant she needed to test it twice. We’re a little late because we had to leave a note for Golden Harvest about the damage to her fence.”
“That does explain her mane,” Rarity muttered, doing her best to put the mare back in some kind of order. “You need to take care of yourself, darling.”
Fluttershy scuffed a hoof against the ground, uncomfortable with the attention. “I didn’t get hurt.”
“I meant your appearance,” Rarity corrected. “You’re practically part of Princess Luna’s entourage now! I may be her personal student, but we’re all heroes of Equestria! The paparazzi are everywhere!”
Fluttershy finally looked at herself in the mirror. There was enough dirt and grass in her mane to fill a small flowerpot. She sighed.
“I’ve got just the thing!” croaked a pony who spent more time with cauldrons than her friends. Twilight cleared her throat. “Sorry. Frog in my throat. Literally. I’ve been working on a spell for a client and there were some side effects.”
Fluttershy spread her wings, just a little. Wary Goose. “Side effects?”
Twilight cast the spell before Fluttershy could actually tell her no, and a whirl of magic whipped around the pegasus, tugging her mane in every direction before finally snapping with a sensation like being hit by a wet towel in the Wonderbolts shower.
“Perfect,” Twilight said.
Fluttershy looked at herself in Rarity’s crystal mirror. She looked like she’d had a professional style her mane. Which, technically, she had.
“Please fill this out when you have a chance,” Twilight whispered, giving her a feedback card. Fluttershy nodded and stuffed it under a wing with absolutely no intent on ever returning it.
“Thank you, Twilight,” Rarity tossed her head, and the mirrors vanished.
“If I’ve asked you once, I’ve asked a dozen times,” Applejack called out from behind the counter. Her Manehattan accent was strained. “Don’t cast untested spells in my cafe!”
“Come now, Applejack,” Rarity said. “Twilight is the most fastidious spellchecker in Equestria. She almost never has accidents!”
Applejack put a plate of pastries down on the cafe table in front of Pinkie. “‘Almost’ is why I had to buy a new broom after mine turned into a threat to all of Equestria and had to be put down.”
“I was just trying to get you a little help around the cafe!” Twilight protested. “It passed all my QA testing! How was I supposed to know mis-speaking a command would--”
“If you two are going to fight, let me grab a fresh roll of bandages,” Rainbow cut in. “I only brought enough for one featherbrain.”
Pinkie cleared her throat. Everypony turned to look at her.
“These are really good tarts, Applejack,” she said, quietly. “It would be a shame were they spoiled by friends fighting friends.”
“You’re right,” Applejack said. She sighed. “I’m sorry. I’ve just been worrying about… well, Rarity, it’s really your show, you should explain.”
“I’d love to, darling!” Rarity smiled and picked up a scroll from the table. “So, girls, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this, but many years ago, there was an ancient holiday called the Summer Sun Celebration.”
“I can guess why that went out of style,” Fluttershy whispered.
“It is hardly a secret why.” The cafe door dramatically swung open behind her.
Fluttershy made a sound like a startled auk and reared up, flapping wildly and crashing into Rainbow.
“Woah, calm down,” Rainbow said quietly, grabbing Fluttershy’s hoof and squeezing. She could feel her pulse racing from the sudden shock.
A cloaked pony stood in the doorway, the sun bright behind her, casting her in shadow as she stepped inside. She was a head taller than Fluttershy, and stopped just slightly too close for comfort to the pegasus before removing her hood, revealing a pure white coat and flat pink mane.
“Princess Celestia!” Rarity said, subtly nudging Twilight out of the way via the age-old tradition of literally picking her up with magic and depositing her elsewhere. “I apologize. My assistant was supposed to come ahead of you after meeting you at the train station to announce you properly.”
She bowed, and the other ponies did as well, some of them looking less happy about it than others.
“You don’t have to bow to me,” Celestia said. “You six saved me from what I had become. I am forever in your debt, yet shamefully I come today to ask once again for your help.”
“Sorry, Rarity,” Ember said, the dragon stepping in behind the Princess. She flipped the sign behind her to ‘Closed’. “She insisted on making a dramatic entrance.”
“I thought it would help lighten the mood. I have more than enough caretakers at the palace going ahead of me and announcing everything with great pomp and dignity.” Celestia shook her head. “My sister is much more invested in formality and rules than I ever was.”
“Princess Luna relayed your request,” Rarity said. “You wanted help with recreating the Summer Sun Celebration like in the old days.”
Celestia nodded. “It was her idea. Apparently she thinks I’m ready to return to my responsibilities.”
“So how are we supposed to help?” Rainbow asked, still calming Fluttershy down. She’d mostly gotten back to normal, which around ponies she didn’t know well meant keeping her distance. At least she wasn’t perched up in the rafters.
“Well, I can tell you that I’m helping by baking my flank off,” Applejack sighed. “I have a sampling tray over on the table, your highness.”
“Thank you, Lady Applejack. I could use something after my journey.” She smiled. “Such a wonder. Days of travel completed in mere hours. In my time, only the pegasus ponies could move about so easily.”
Her horn flickered with gold, and with some obvious strain, she lifted a bite-sized tart topped with a rosette of apple slices. She delicately took an experimental bite, then ate the rest in a single gulp.
“Ah! I chose well in asking for your aid. You have a true talent for this.”
“That sounds like a royal sign of approval,” Ember muttered, walking over to sit next to Pinkie Pie and snatch a few of the flaky pastries. “Could use some extra sapphire.”
Pinkie smiled and held up a small bag. “I brought a few fresh from the farm for you.”
“You’re the best, Pinks,” Ember said, snatching the bag.
Applejack bowed politely, the same way a lead actor would at the end of a play. “Thank you, your highness.”
“I have come here to ask for your aid in reviving the Summer Sun Celebration,” Celestia said. “I can think of no better place to hold the first in a thousand years than here in Ponyville.”
“We would be honored to help, Princess,” Rarity said.
“Thank you,” Celestia said. “I have tasks for each of you. Catering, construction, development of a spell to protect against harsh sunlight, and coordinating with the town mayor.” She looked at Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Twilight, and Rarity in turn. “Lady Rarity, while I am away, I would like you to be my voice in this. You have my authority, and you know modern times better than I.”
“Oh, Princess Celestia, I’m not worthy,” Rarity said. “But I will try my best to live up to your expectations.” She paused. “Ember, are you taking notes?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ember sighed, finding a scroll and jotting things down, holding a sapphire in her teeth and sucking on it while she wrote.
“As long as ponies are enjoying themselves, I will be pleased,” Celestia assured her.
“Excuse me,” Twilight cut in, stepping between Celestia and Rarity. “When you say ‘protection against harsh sunlight’, how harsh are we talking, exactly?”
“Ah… well…” Celestia hesitated. “I’m not sure, exactly.”
“You’re not sure?” Rainbow asked. “But you’re the Princess of the Sun. Nopony would know better than you.”
“Unfortunately, you’re right,” Celestia agreed. “As I said, my sister wishes for me to begin reassuming my old duties. I cannot, like this.” She looked down at herself, putting a hoof to her chest. “When the Elements freed me, they also broke my connection to the Sun. If I am to take up my role as a true Princess of Equestria, I must reclaim it.”
“That sounds fascinating!” Twilight said, completely ignoring Celestia’s somber mood. “Is it a kind of ritual spell? I’ve been wondering exactly how--”
“It requires a dangerous journey, and… I fear to make it alone. I am as weak as a foal. Lady Fluttershy, Lady Dash, I beg for your aid. I wish for you to come with me.”
"Rainbow," Rainbow corrected. "I don't use my last name." It reminded her too much of what ponies called her after the accident.
"I apologize. Lady Rainbow, then."
“Why us?” Fluttershy asked.
“The place where we need to go is outside Equestria, at the peak of a mountain. It is the place spiritually and physically closest to the Sun. Only a winged pony could make the journey safely. There are no trains that go there, no signs showing the way, not even a trail on the mountain.”
“This seems like a job for the Royal Guard, right?” Rainbow asked. “Isn’t it their only job to protect you?”
Celestia looked down. “The place is… private. I don’t wish to travel there with strangers. I know we are largely such to each other, but I know I can trust you, and I wish to show that you can trust me as well.”
Rainbow gave Fluttershy a look. Fluttershy took a deep breath.
“We’d be happy to help,” Fluttershy said. “Nopony should have to face something like that on their own.”
Celestia looked up again and smiled. “Thank you. It means a lot to me.”
“Whatever,” Rainbow sighed, scratching her mane with her forehoof. “I’d better come along too. This featherbrain will only get you in trouble, Princess. Just don’t blame me if I’m not happy about flying long distances.”
“I could teach you some soaring techniques this albatross showed me,” Fluttershy offered. “He was surly as Tartarus, but really knew his stuff.”
“Maybe next time,” Rainbow said. “So when do we leave?”
Fluttershy saw the hard landing coming. Not for her, but for Rainbow. She reared up and caught her, guiding her to the ground. The grass under them was scraggly and brown, half-dead and waiting for the rainy season to revive it. It was the same everywhere in this part of Equestria, scrublands dotted with green in the rare places where ponies took care of the land.
“Are you okay?” Fluttershy asked.
“I’m fine,” Rainbow said, sweat dripping down her neck. “It was just a little cramp.”
“Maybe we should--” Fluttershy started.
“I’m the one in school for a medical degree,” Rainbow said sharply. “I know my limits.”
Celestia set down next to them. She didn’t look as strained as Rainbow, but was sweating nearly as much simply from effort. “I am still learning mine. A rest would be welcome for a few minutes in any case.”
Rainbow sighed. “Fine. I’m just gonna…” she winced. “I’m gonna walk this off and look around. I can’t believe we have to fly all the way to Mexicolt...”
Fluttershy frowned, but nodded. Rainbow trotted off.
“This used to be grassland, with fine green grass that reached above my head,” Celestia whispered, digging at the scrub and sandy ground with a hoof. “Luna had to guide me through it because she was just tall enough to see over it.”
“That... must have been a long time ago,” Fluttershy said, finding a knee-high rock and perching on it, feeling more comfortable being elevated at least a little above the ground.
“Ages. Literally ages,” Celestia sighed. She forced herself to smile and turned to Fluttershy. “Since we have some time, I should like to get to know one of the ponies who saved me. Tell me about yourself.”
“About me?” Fluttershy asked.
Celestia nodded. “I know a bit about Lady Rarity from my sister’s stories, but less about the rest of you. I’m told you have a brother of some importance?”
Fluttershy couldn’t keep the look of disgust off her face.
“Ah,” Celestia said. “A sore subject.”
“I don’t like talking about him,” she muttered. “Buck knows enough other ponies do.” She blushed. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to swear in front of you, Princess--”
Celestia laughed, covering her mouth with a hoof to try and hide how much she was smiling. “I am not a delicate flower, Lady Fluttershy. I know swears that would turn your ears inside-out.”
Fluttershy composed herself, flapping her wings a few times until she felt settled. “If you really want to know about my brother, just talk to my parents. That’s all they ever talk about.”
Celestia’s expression fell. “Ah. I understand too well.”
“He’s their miracle foal, after all,” Fluttershy said scornfully, rolling her eyes. Her anger was just enough to overcome her shyness. “He’s so fragile and delicate that we don’t have time for you Fluttershy, just go out and play with your friends! As if I even had any friends!”
“I apologize if I brought up unpleasant memories,” Celestia said.
Fluttershy forced herself to calm down, her fluff slowly smoothing out. “It’s fine.”
And with the matter settled, her anger faded and her timidness came to the forefront again.
Celestia looked around for a wild change in topic, and spotted a distant bird. She grappled for a moment to find something they could speak about. “Ah, so. While we were in the air, I noticed you don’t fly like other pegasus ponies.”
“Oh!” Fluttershy’s mood immediately brightened. “That’s because I learned from my bird friends! I was alone all the time, so I ended up watching the birds that would come up to Cloudsdale. I learned how to fly from them.”
She lifted a wing.
“Part of it is the way their wings are shaped.” She flexed her wings, and Celestia watched in surprise as the feathers shifted. It was like a magic trick. “Soaring birds have long, narrow wings like this. Diving ones are more of an angled, sharp shape like this. Making them wider and more rounded lets you maneuver in bursts…”
“That’s a very impressive talent,” Celestia said.
Fluttershy blushed. “Thank you. Anypony could learn to do it if they tried.”
“Perhaps you can teach me, someday,” Celestia said. “If the birds do not mind their secrets being shared.”
“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind,” Fluttershy said. “I’d be happy to give you some pointers.”
“Just don’t teach her how to land!” Rainbow said, stomping up to them with a folded square of cloth. “Here. I found some berries that should be good to eat. We brought food, but no sense in wasting something fresh on our flight path.”
“Oh! These are wolfberries!” Celestia said, with a smile. “You have a good eye. I haven’t had these in… a very, very long time.”
She lifted one with her magic, popping it into her mouth. She chewed slowly.
“Any good?” Rainbow asked.
Celestia nodded. She wiped tears from her eyes. “They remind me of better times.”
Rainbow considered for a long moment, aware of the huge gap of time and society between them. She reached across that gap and put a hoof on Celestia’s shoulder.
“I must sound like a foal,” Celestia said.
“Nah. I’ve had whole days like that,” Rainbow said. “But you know, they make medicine for it.” She reached into her saddlebags, rummaging around.
“I don’t think a poultice or pill will improve things,” Celestia said.
“You’re right about that,” Rainbow agreed, producing a metal flask. She uncapped it and took a long sip before passing it over. “Here.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow and took a sip. She coughed and sputtered like it had gone down the wrong pipe. “That is very strong medicine,” she said, her voice a little hoarse. She took a second, longer sip now that she was prepared for it, then gave it back.
“It helps with a lot of things, like settling my nerves when I see Fluttershy do something featherbrained,” Rainbow said.
Fluttershy reached for it, and Rainbow pointedly put it away.
“It’s dangerous to drink and fly,” Rainbow said.
Fluttershy blew a raspberry at Rainbow and flitted away, wings buzzing like a hummingbird.
“Hey, how far is it, your highness?” Rainbow asked.
“You can just see the mountain range on the horizon,” Celestia said, pointing. It was only barely visible through the heat haze on the great plain. “At this pace, we can be there in a few more hours.”
“That’ll mean we get there after dark,” Rainbow noted.
“Yes, that would normally make sense, wouldn’t it?” Celestia asked. “You shall see.”
They stopped again at the base of the mountain. It was a spire of black, burned rock reaching towards the sky. The shape was less like a normal mountain and more like the earth itself had been pulled straight up like soft taffy. The peak seemed to reach right up to the sun overhead, hanging at the apex of the sky like it was noon, even though it should have been nearly midnight.
“Why isn’t it dark?” Fluttershy asked, holding a hoof to shield her eyes and then looking straight up at the sun. She winced and turned away, rubbing her eyes. “Why did I do that? I knew it was there and I looked right at it…”
“This is the place closest to the sun,” Celestia said. “It is never night here. The way up will be difficult.”
“How hard can it be?” Rainbow asked. “It’s a mountain. We have wings. This seems like a solved problem.”
Celestia shook her head. “The heat of the earth’s burning heart is close to the surface here, and with the sun baking the stone from above, the winds are uncertain and dangerous. Flying without care would mean bashing ourselves against the rock or worse.”
“How much worse could it get?” Rainbow asked.
“The vultures in this place feed well,” Celestia said, looking up at the circling carrion birds. “If something falls in the wrong spot, they can even enjoy a cooked meal.”
“Maybe if I ask, they’ll tell us how to fly around the mountain safely,” Fluttershy suggested.
“That’s a better idea than figuring it out ourselves,” Rainbow agreed. “Buck, it’s hot…” She wiped her forehead, sweat dripping down her face. “It’ll be better once we’re up there.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Celestia warned her.
“Uh, I might not be a geologist, but I know the tops of mountains are colder than the bottoms,” Rainbow said.
“Normally, you would be correct, but this is no mere mountain,” Celestia said. “It is a locus of the sun’s energy.”
“I’ll be back,” Fluttershy said, flying up towards the circling vultures.
Celestia watched her go, shaking her head after a moment.
“She really is speaking to them, isn’t she?” Celestia asked. "When she said she learned from birds, I thought she meant she just watched them..."
Rainbow clicked her tongue. “She talks to birds more than she does to other ponies. If she likes you, she’s fine, but around new ponies? She just freezes up. The joke at Flight Camp that went around said she was raised by wild birds.”
“Foals can be cruel.”
“Yeah, but they weren’t wrong,” Rainbow said. “She’d agree with them, if she could work up the courage to speak to a total stranger. And she’d probably have preferred it over her actual parents.”
“...She mentioned them to me,” Celestia admitted. “Were they that neglectful?”
“They didn’t mean to hurt her. They just forgot that both of their kids were special.”
“Yes…” Celestia nodded. “I know what that feels like.”
They stood in silence, watching Fluttershy circle in formation with one of the vultures overhead before she broke away and came back, picking her way through the air carefully.
“There’s a stream over that ridge,” Fluttershy said, when she returned. “It’s cooler there. Mister Vulture says he’ll show me where the safe thermals are, but it’s going to take a while. You two can rest there while I follow him.”
“Thank you, Lady Fluttershy,” Celestia nodded.
“Don’t push yourself,” Rainbow warned.
“I’ll be soaring the whole way,” Fluttershy said dismissively. “I could practically take a nap.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Rainbow said. “If you fall from that kind of height because you’re too tired…”
Fluttershy rolled her eyes. “I’ll be careful.”
“I want you--” Rainbow started, before Fluttershy took off again. “Getting some actual rest,” she finished, her best friend already out of shouting range.
“She’s really pushing herself,” Celestia said.
“Fluttershy does this all the time, Princess,” Rainbow said. “It's... She doesn't make friends easily with ponies, so she'll do anything to avoid letting down a friend she does have. She’s gonna end up getting hurt one of these days.”
“Should I go after her?”
“No, it’ll just make her double down on it.” Rainbow trotted up the slope and whistled appreciatively. “At least this is a pleasant surprise.”
Celestia followed her. Just over the ridge of rough, black rock, the temperature immediately dropped. A waterfall, only a few paces wide, cascaded down the mountain from above. Cool mist hung in the air, and scraggly, rough-looking trees that seemed to be made entirely of knots perched around the grotto.
Rainbow hopped down, almost losing her balance when pebbles cascaded down around her hooves. She stepped up to the water and struggled for a moment with the straps of her bags before sighing and looking back at Celestia.
“Can you help me with this?” Rainbow asked.
Celestia eased the saddlebags off her back with her magic, hanging them on a scraggly tree branch.
“Thanks,” Rainbow sighed. She flexed her shaking wings, every joint shuddering for a moment as she stretched. “I swear somepony snuck bricks into them a few miles back.”
“Even a small burden grows in size the longer you carry it,” Celestia agreed.
Rainbow stepped into the stream. “Oof. That’s cold. Don’t drink any of it, okay? I had to learn about all the diseases ponies can get from contaminated water and some of them are pretty awful.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Celestia joined her. The water came up to their knees, flowing smooth and ice-cold around them. “This does feel nice.”
“I’m surprised you don’t like the heat more,” Rainbow said. “You’re the Princess of the Sun, right?” She walked up to the waterfall, the water getting deeper until it reached her belly.
Celestia laughed. “I wouldn’t do well in the far north, but I also couldn’t go bathing in magma. I’m not a dragon.”
“True, you’re a lot better behaved than Ember, your highness.” Rainbow stretched, the scars on her back bright and angry-looking from how much she’d been straining herself on the long flight.
Celestia couldn’t help but stare, thankfully not where Rainbow could see her doing it. “What happened?” Celestia asked.
Rainbow shifted her wings, covering up the worst of the scarring. “It’s not important.”
“It causes you pain. That makes it important to me. If you’ve been suffering because I asked you to come along…”
Rainbow sighed. “It would hurt worse if I stayed at home when Fluttershy was going off halfway around the world. You can probably take care of yourself, but she’s reckless. She pushes herself too far.”
She dipped her head into the rushing waterfall, the ice water soothing new hurts but not old ones.
“It happened at flight camp,” Rainbow said, eventually, when she pulled her head out of the torrent. “Fluttershy used to get bullied all the time. You saw how she flies? It’s not like a pegasus. She’s great in the air, but at flight camp there were these specific exercises and tests, and she just couldn’t do them.”
“Eh. It’s like… she’d already learned a lot, and they were asking her to go against her instincts. It’s harder to unlearn bad habits than to learn something from scratch. Even though she could outfly just about anypony, she was always getting yelled at by the instructors, and she wasn’t good with ponies, so she didn’t know how to stand up for herself.”
“She seems to be better now.”
“Yeah, but back then she was a mess all the time. She barely even spoke to anyone if they weren’t a bird.” Rainbow scoffed. “I thought it would be a good idea to stand up for her and challenge the worst bullies to a race.”
Celestia nodded. “That seems like a noble endeavor.”
“Noble and stupid. We were in flight camp! We barely knew how to stay up in the air correctly!” Dash shook her head. “I pushed way too hard and lost control. Plowed right into the ground. I didn’t even know how dangerous that was! I thought it would be like hitting a cloud!”
Celestia’s eyes trailed to the scars on her back.
“They almost had to amputate. It took six surgeries to get them back together, and, well…” she shrugged. “I can fly, thanks to some really good doctors and therapists who spent years helping me. They made me realize it’s what I wanted to do with my life. Not go around fighting bullies, but helping ponies who really need it.”
Rainbow trotted out of the water, shaking herself dry. She patted her saddlebags where they were slung over the branch, the burlap emblazoned with a red cross.
“I’m going to be a doctor someday. The best doctor in Equestria!”
Celestia smiled. “I have no doubt.”
She tugged the saddlebags on. “Don’t tell Fluttershy about… what happened to me,” Rainbow said.
“She doesn’t know?”
“She knows I got hurt. She doesn’t know it was because…” Rainbow sighed. “She’d blame herself. So don’t tell her, okay?”
“As you wish.”
The vulture screeched. Fluttershy started coming down, thankfully taking it in a slow spiral instead of diving towards the rocks like Rainbow had half-expected. She landed in one of the trees, the dry wood creaking when it took her weight.
“How’d it go?” Rainbow asked.
The vulture set down next to Fluttershy, flapping its wings a few times. Rainbow did her best to pretend it didn’t look annoyed that they weren’t on the lunch menu yet.
“The thermals here are weird,” Fluttershy said. “It’s hard to gain altitude unless you follow a really specific route. Thankfully, Mister Vulture has been living here for a while and was able to help me get started.”
She nodded politely to the big, ominous bird perched next to her.
Mister Vulture screeched.
“Will we be able to get to the peak?” Celestia asked.
“Mm.” Fluttershy nodded. “Just stay close to me.”
Rainbow muttered to herself, shaking the last of the water out of her mane. “Great. This’ll be fun. A mile straight up.”
“We’ll take it slow,” Fluttershy promised.
“I’m going to die,” Rainbow gasped. Her wings were shaking, cramping up like somepony had a vice around her bones. “Or I’m gonna kill somepony. I don’t know which!”
“Just a little further,” Celestia said, almost as tired. “I can see the crater rim!”
Fluttershy had taken it slow, but it was still a struggle. Thin air. Oppressive heat. Punishing updrafts. Rainbow had never flown anywhere more hostile. It was as bad as the early days of physical therapy and relearning how to stay in the air.
Fluttershy set down first, watching Celestia and Rainbow with her head slightly tilted. She looked like she was just staring, but Rainbow could tell with the way her hooves were planted she was ready to launch into the air and help them at a moment’s notice.
Rainbow got there a minute later, landing badly and having to hop a few times to bring herself to a stop. One wing refused to shut, dragging along the ground as she collapsed, breathing heavily.
Celestia’s landing was slightly more graceful, but only because she forced herself to remain standing in front of her subjects. She wouldn’t admit that she’d nearly passed out, even with her hooves shaking from exhaustion and her vision narrowed to a tunnel.
“Rainbow!” Fluttershy gasped, flying over to her.
“I’ll be okay,” Rainbow said, between breaths. Her extended wing twitched. “The joint’s just locked up. It’ll be fine once I can rest it for a minute.”
“Let me…” Fluttershy rubbed the long bones in Rainbow’s wing, massaging the joints until they unlocked and Rainbow could hold it normally against her side.
“It wasn’t that much of a struggle the first time,” Celestia said, her voice tight. “This place is making me prove myself. Or perhaps it’s punishment for what happened the first time.”
“The first time?” Fluttershy asked.
Celestia nodded and motioned for them to follow her. The peak of the mountain was concave like somepony had scooped out a mile-wide ball of rock, and they were standing on the edge of the crater.
Inside the bowl was a city, from one side of the rim to the other, the buildings ornate and overwrought with gold and gems. They were like something out of a Ditzy Do story, stepped pyramids and huge statues of mythical creatures.
And it was abandoned.
“When I came here the first time, it was bustling with ponies,” Celestia said, carefully walking down the narrow stairway from the crater’s rim. “They had built this city waiting for a prophesied savior to come, somepony who was going to bring the sun back.”
The streets, up close, were cracked and sun-beaten. Celestia’s and Rainbow’s hooves echoed, and Fluttershy flew a little higher, trying to peek over into the next street like there would be somepony waiting there for them.
“I was foalish enough, in both senses of the word, to think I could be that pony,” Celestia said. “My sister had established a connection with the moon already, and I wanted to match her achievement.”
“What is this?” Fluttershy asked, touching down at the edge of wall. “All the roofs are made of dirt.” The dirt was cracked and broken, and there were a few long-dead remnants of weeds, but it was an odd design choice.
“The ponies here were self-sufficient,” Celestia explained. “They had to use every inch of space they had, including gardens on rooftops.”
“What happened?” Rainbow said. A whisper of hot wind rattled around them, carrying the scent of dust and rot.
“When I took on the mantle of the sun…” Celestia swallowed. “I was too young. Too inexperienced. It was too much.”
A wide crack went from one side of the next street to the other, running right up a wall and destroying whatever the murals there had once shown. The air was fouled, stinking like rotten eggs.
“Luna took up her mantle so easily,” Celestia said. “It was easy for her. Everything was easy for her. I thought I could do the same. After all, I was born to it, was I not? It was my purpose. My special talent. My birthright.”
“It didn’t go well, did it?” Rainbow asked.
“It was like trying to swallow gallons of liquid fire,” Celestia said.
“Sounds like a dare I made once with Pinkie Pie about which one of us could drink more liquid rainbow,” Rainbow said. “I lost bad, but neither of us really won.”
“I was able to withstand it. Barely. But I couldn’t truly control the power I’d gained. The Sun became swollen and hot, like a constant summer. Ponies blamed me for scorching the land, ruining crops… and they were right. And in the end, when my sister’s nights were the only thing that soothed them, I grew jealous. You know the rest of the story.”
“Daybreaker,” Fluttershy said. Celestia winced at the word, but nodded.
“And your plan, let me see if I’ve got this right,” Rainbow said. “Your awesome plan is, let’s do the thing that ruined your life, again, just to see if it sticks this time?”
Celestia frowned at her. It was the kind of look that would have sent a noble scurrying off to some dark corner until he was sure his transgression had been forgotten.
“Don’t give me that,” Rainbow said, standing her ground without blinking. “I’m practically an expert at making awful choices in life. I know one when I see it.”
Fluttershy perched above them, looking uneasy. “Mm. You shouldn’t… you shouldn’t let other ponies force you to do something. Just because Princess Luna asked, you don’t have to say yes.”
“It’s what I must do,” Celestia said. “Not for my sake. For Luna’s.”
Celestia looked up at the sun, squinting.
“She had to carry my burden for so many centuries. I have to take responsibility for this.”
They walked in silence for a time, until they came to a building that had seen better days. The golden walls looked like they’d actually gotten hot enough to run like warm butter, rivulets streaming down to the stone floor of the crater to pool along the edge.
“This is the place,” Celestia said, ascending stairs set into the ziggurat, the uneven and damaged ruins forcing her to move carefully.
“I got a real bad feeling about this,” Rainbow said, following her up on hoof.
Fluttershy put down the damaged pith helmet she’d found on a rooftop and followed, keeping pace and flitting from one ledge to the next as they walked to the top.
The top of the ziggurat had been flat, but time and heat had warped the stone. The sun was directly overhead, and it felt so close it was like Rainbow could reach up and touch it. Not that she wanted to -- it felt like an angry, judging eye staring at them.
“So… how does it work?” Rainbow asked.
The edge of Celestia’s mouth twitched upwards in a tiny smile. “I am informed that it’s a mass of incandescent gas.”
Rainbow groaned. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“I have to call upon the sun,” Celestia explained, more seriously. “If it finds me worthy again, I will reclaim my mantle. If not... “ She swallowed. “If not you will need to carry word back to my sister.”
Fluttershy looked at Rainbow. “You say that like--”
Celestia was enveloped in a sphere of burning solar fire. Her hooves sank into the suddenly-molten stone around her. The temperature of the whole crater city spiked, the sun overhead looming larger.
“Is it crashing down on us?!” Fluttershy squeaked, trying to hide in Rainbow’s shadow.
“She’d better have this under control,” Rainbow whispered.
“Your mane--!” Fluttershy gasped.
Rainbow smelled the burning hair the same second Fluttershy saw it. She slapped at it, putting it out. “Down to the next level!” she shouted. “It’s getting a little too hot up here!”
They jumped over the edge, landing on the dirt roof below.
“She’s going to burn up!” Fluttershy said. “She was already so weak! She brought us here to help, we can’t just leave her!”
“We can’t even get close to her,” Rainbow said. “What are we supposed to do, clap our hooves and tell her she’s doing a great job?”
Fluttershy shrugged. “It probably wouldn’t hurt.”
Rainbow sighed, and they hopped up to peek over the wall at the inferno. “Honestly not sure how to be positive about this,” she admitted.
“It doesn’t have to make sense. We just have to let her know we’re here for her,” Fluttershy said. She took a deep breath. “You can do it, Celestia!”
Rainbow winced as a wave of heat surged over them, like some fraction of the sun had turned its attention to them. Maybe that meant it was working. “Believe in yourself!” Rainbow shouted. “If you believe in yourself you can do anything!”
“Don’t do it for other ponies, or because you have to, do it because it’s what you want!”
“You can do anything, even if it hurts! You just have to keep going!”
The light flared, suddenly becoming blinding like a spotlight had turned on them. Fluttershy squeaked, and Rainbow fell back, surprised.
It slowly faded, and the edge came off the heat, like a fire had been extinguished and only the embers remained, slowly cooling. Rainbow gingerly hopped back up, taking Fluttershy’s offered hoof to help her.
Celestia pulled her hooves free. They’d left prints in the stone itself. Her mane flowed around her in slow waves, bands of blue and green streaming along with the pink. It was hard to look directly at her, like silver threads had been woven through her coat that caught the light and glinted whenever she moved.
Rainbow shielded her eyes with a hoof, squinting at the princess.
“I think you got taller,” she said.
“Are you…?” Fluttershy asked.
“I’m in control,” Celestia assured them. The oppressive heat died down, and instead of standing in front of a bonfire, the heat faded to a sunny summer day.
Her voice was an octave deeper, fitting since she looked less like an overgrown filly and more like an adult now, towering over Rainbow and Fluttershy at almost twice their height.
She spread her wings majestically, took a step, and immediately stumbled.
“It might take some time to get used to being this size,” she admitted.
“That makes two of us,” Rainbow said, helping her stand.
“Princess, um…” Fluttershy hesitated. “You look good,” she said.
Celestia smiled. “Thank you. For the compliment, but also for being here for me. I don’t know if I could have gone through with it if you hadn’t been here to cheer me on.”
Fluttershy nodded. “I know… what it’s like when other ponies aren’t there for you. And how much the support of ponies you care about can matter.” She looked at Rainbow.
“Yeah, yeah,” Rainbow said, blushing. She pulled out her flask and took a long drag from it. “This whole thing was risky. If one thing had gone wrong…”
“I’m sorry for putting you at risk,” Celestia said, looking down.
“Let me finish,” Rainbow said, gesturing with the flask. “Next time you do something this dangerous, you better make sure you take me along then, too. Otherwise there won’t be anypony to make sure it goes right.”
“Ah,” Celestia said, smiling. “I understand. Of course.”
“Good,” Rainbow said, nodding sternly.
“...You two wanna race on the way back down?” Fluttershy asked.
“Fluttershy, those thermals are still--” Rainbow started.
“Three two one, go!” Fluttershy yelled, taking off.
“Wait for me!” Celestia shouted, flapping her wings and almost turning over entirely before getting control of herself and giving chase.
Rainbow nearly dropped her flask, shoving it into her pack before taking off after them. “You better not be dead when I catch up!” she shouted.