With an accompanying sound stronger than any thunderclap, a brilliant halo of colors rippled across the horizon.
The Sonic Rainboom could be seen for miles around--possibly even worldwide. It touched the lives of ponykind everywhere, in ways that could be immediately seen, and in ways that wouldn't be known to anypony for years.
Truly, it was one of Equestria's greatest miracles.
But since she was at its point of origin, young Rainbow Dash wasn't aware of any of this. All she knew is that she'd finally showed those bullies what for, and Fluttershy was now safe!
She flew back to the starting point of the race where she'd challenged them, and saw them already there, sulking and licking the bruises they'd gotten from the Rainboom's shockwave.
"That's right, you cowardly colts," Dash taunted in a scratchy, yet spirited, voice. "Who's in charge of the skies now? Rainbow Dash, that's who! And my first order as ruler is that you and your pals never mess with..."
She looked for her friend as she said her name, and came up with... nothing?
Where was she?
In the space of thirty seconds, she'd covered the entire flight camp and still not seen her anywhere. Then she remembered--Fluttershy's traction was never that good, and she'd been standing on a pretty small cloud when the race had started!
She returned to the race site, then flew below sky level as fast as she could. Greenery could be seen everywhere. Grass, trees... honestly, how could finding something yellow amongst them possibly be this tough?
Just as she was about to give up her search, she saw a large group of ground animals clustered around in a meadow.
Fluttershy had always loved things from below. She'd once told Dash she'd envied them--they had firm ground under their legs all the time, and never, ever had to worry about falling...
...yellow! There! She saw it!
She was there in an instant, clearing the land creatures away. "Get outta here! Move, move! You're on top of--aha! Yes!"
There she was. Fluttershy, looking as peaceful as ever. A little too peaceful, actually... eyes and mouth closed, rear limbs twisted in an odd fashion...
She leant close, putting her ear to Fluttershy's mouth.
Fluttershy wasn't breathing.
"Fl-... Fluttershy...? C-... c'mon, this isn't... if this is some lame attempt at a get-back prank..."
Her heart wasn't beating. Her limbs, limp.
"...then it's not... funny... no... no, no...!"
And just like that, everything hit young Rainbow Dash at once.
What had happened... how it had happened... and who was to blame.
Rainbow Dash awoke in Ponyville's infirmary, tearful, sweaty and breathless. Her heart was racing and no matter how many deep, fast gasps she took, they were never enough. She tried to run, tried to fly, but shooting pains throughout her body quickly put a stop to it.
All her speed, all her power, yet there wasn't anything she could do! Why not? She fell back to her bed, defeated, paralyzed by equal parts pain and sadness.
Suddenly, a voice cut through the panic as something clasped her foreleg.
"Dash, Dash! It's okay, Dash! She's still alive! She's always been alive!"
The words managed to reach Rainbow Dash, and she slowly calmed down enough to wonder who'd pulled her from the brink.
The second she saw who it was--Gilda in her own cot, right next to hers--she realized she should have known. They'd both gone through this routine before... right down to the part where, seconds later, she was enveloped reassuringly in Gilda's wingspan.
"Still having that dream, I see," said Gilda as she held the pegasus close. "Geez, Dash, I keep sayin', you've gotta let that go."
"I... I can't," Rainbow Dash said as her breathing finally went back to normal. "You know I can't. It's what makes me me."
"There's a lot of stuff Dash keeps from you ponies. Way more than you deserve, if you ask me," Gilda told Pinkie Pie and the others. "When she has a bad day, week, month, whatever... I get to hear about it, so she doesn't have to bottle it up. It's been like that ever since we met. Sorta just stayed like that when she moved here."
Twilight Sparkle--clearly the nerd of the bunch, Gilda figured--gasped, being the first to finally get it. "So when you two broke off after the party, and stopped seeing each other..."
Applejack was next. "...she'd been so used to you that she didn't feel like she had any place else to turn! Oh my stars, it all makes sense now! When she told me off, she... looked like she wanted to just talk to me, but..."
"Yeah," said Pinkie Pie. "I just thought she was really, really easygoing! Like, even more than me!"
Gilda nodded. "Don't worry; she never told me anything super-private about you guys behind your backs. And she let me vent whenever I needed to, too." She looked at Rainbow Dash, and as she did, Twilight could see softness in even Gilda's eyes. "Whenever we got angry at life... we rode through the storm together. If there's one thing this episode has taught me, it's that I really need to be careful in order to keep what I've got."
The other ponies nodded in understanding.
"Question from the crowd," said Rarity, raising a hoof.
"You get one, and only one."
Rarity fought the urge to bristle. "What happens when either of you 'gets angry' at your chosen confidant?"
Gilda made sure she'd understood the unicorn's question, then snickered, and gestured around the entire room with her wings. "Sister, welcome to it."
"This is my fault," Gilda said as the two continued to share their embrace.
"What is?" asked Dash.
"Duh. All of this. Had a lot of time to think about it while we were both recovering. I should have just kept my temper in check when..." Gilda sighed, and closed her eyes. "Look, Dash, apologies ain't easy for me. But you're my best friend, and the only one I've still kind of got, so here I go. I acted like a jealous doof the last time I was here. I snapped at your oldest friend, treated Ponyville like my own personal buffet, and then, instead of just pulling you aside and talking things out like we usually do, got mad in front of all of your other friends. You've worked hard to get where you are down here. Me, I was just a guest, and I totally screwed it up. So... I'm sorry."
Rainbow Dash let that sit for a while, before finally shaking her head. "I appreciate it, G, but... no way. Some of this was my fault too. I could have handled things a lot better. I should have paid more attention to how you and Pinkie Pie were acting around each other. I saw everything, but I didn't say anything until it was too late, either. Then I got mad, you got mad..." Rainbow sniffed. "...it all just happened so fast..."
"...and now we've got a million billion bruises each," Gilda finished.
"Y-yeah," said Dash with a rueful chuckle. "But you don't have to swallow all your pride for my sake. You don't have to deny who you are. Who you are is who I became friends with!"
"You might be right... but I don't care," said Gilda, firming her grip on Dash just a little more. "It sucks without you around, plain and simple." She smiled, looking straight into Rainbow Dash's eyes, and brushed away the last of her dream-induced tears. "So if it keeps you in my life, I can swallow as much pride as I need. If I mess up, I've got a lot more to lose than you do."
Softness. Emotion. These were sides of Gilda that Rainbow Dash rarely saw. Only in the darkest of times, when they'd been drifters, just the two of them against all of Equestria; and stuck in storms even she couldn't control. She said as much in reply.
"Heh. And I don't normally see you calling forth monsoons in rage," said Gilda. "So we're even. Don't worry, we'll all be back to normal and awesome tomorrow. Speaking of which, we've been told we can leave then if we're up to it. We didn't break anything."
"Just a lot of sore spots everywhere." Rainbow Dash groaned, then sighed. "I've got so much apologizing to do tomorrow."
"Yeah. I think I've got a bunch of messes I need to clean up, too."
"Oh, gotcha." Rainbow Dash nodded... then realized. "Wait, you mean-"
"If I'm going to keep being your friend, it'll probably be easier if the rest of yours don't hate me. But no promises."
Rainbow Dash smiled up at her friend. "Wouldn't expect any."
Early the next morning, around the time she knew Carousel Boutique was to open for business, Rainbow Dash was the first at the entrance.
"Rarity? Rarity, it's Dash!" she said, knocking on her door. "Got a minute?"
Silence followed for quite some time, the door never being answered. Maybe Rarity wasn't home? She sometimes made house calls. Or maybe she was just still mad? Rainbow Dash would never blame her.
"Oh, my, would you look who it is?"
Just as she was about to give up and leave, Rarity opened the door, surprising Rainbow Dash with sheer energy and enthusiasm!
"Rainbow Dash!" she said with a gasp. "I'm so glad you're back! Sorry, was in the middle of the whole personal grooming thing. You know how it gets. Must always set an example for the clients, lest they lose faith!"
"Uh... yeah," Rainbow Dash said, her surprise still obvious. "Look, Rarity, I wanna talk. About last week... well, I wasn't completely right in the head, and I said a lot of stuff that-"
"-say no more, go no further," said Rarity. "I've already pushed that dreadful incident out of sight and out of mind."
Rainbow Dash did a double-take. "What? But... are you sure? I remember really being really out of line, and it just wouldn't be right not to square-"
"Oh, pish posh!" Rarity waved a hoof in dismissal. "I will hear absolutely none of it! You want to posture before some other ponies, be my guest--but Carousel Boutique is and always has been a place of forgiveness, be they for fashion crimes or otherwise!"
"...you really mean it?"
"Absolutely! Everypony has their off days, and you're clearly no different. Now run along. I'm sure you have others who are far less easygoing than I am to tend to."
Rainbow Dash could easily feel the weight lifting off of her heart. "Yeah, I guess I do. Thanks, Rarity! You're totally the best!"
Rarity nodded. "Yes, I'm well aware. The usual time next week for your Pegasus Special?"
"Absolutely! I promise not to do anything to spoil what we've got again. See ya!"
With a huge smile on her face, Rainbow Dash flew out of the boutique's window and skyward.
So happy was she that she didn't notice a far more mischievous smile crossing Rarity's lips...
Hours later, after after taking care of her weather duties, lunch, and catching a quick nap, she was ready to go to Applejack's.
At least, that's what she kept telling herself. The truth was that she was far more afraid of how this would go. Rarity may have had indignance down to a fine art, but Applejack had proven more than once that stubbornness and anger were on her side, and she wasn't afraid to use them. And for once, Rainbow Dash knew she deserved both barrels.
She wandered around Sweet Apple Acres, actually a little lost, until she saw a wooden cart in the distance seemingly moving by itself.
Wait a second. Carts didn't do that. It had to be her. She flew closer and indeed was able to make out Applejack, hauling a huge pile of apples towards her house. "Applejack!" she called out.
Upon seeing Rainbow Dash, Applejack let out the smallest of smiles, and waved. "Hiya, sugarcube! Gimme a few, I need to get these inside."
"I hear you! Lemme help you unload 'em, then!"
"Really? That's mighty sweet o' you! Put 'em in the kitchen, if you could?"
"Got it!" Using a saddlebag in her mouth to speedily scoop out bunches of apples at a time, Rainbow Dash was able to unload the wheelbarrow before Applejack even reached the house. Pony and pegasus then met in the kitchen themselves afterwards. Applejack marveled at the pile that had just been in her cart. It was larger than she was used to hauling at once, but she hadn't wanted to take two trips.
"Whoo! Thanks a bunch, girl. Y'all really saved my bacon, there. I was looking forward to about fifteen more minutes of pullin' an' gruntin'."
"Oh, well, glad I could help."
"So what brings y'all here? I see you're lookin' a little better from your hospital trip!"
"Thanks! Wish I could say I felt completely better too. I'm sore all over."
"Heh. I've been there. S'just what happens when you give yourself a real workout. You were a demon up there! Even I was kinda jealous. I'm good at keeping the ground doin' what I want, but sometimes I look at you in the sky, and..." Applejack trailed off. "...never mind, I'm gettin' off track. What can I do ya' for?"
"Well..." said Rainbow Dash, "Look. We've been friends a while, right?"
"Hmmmm." Applejack made a mock show of giving it some thought. "Well, I'd reckon so! Sometimes friendly rivals, but... yeah. Definitely."
"Well, I want it to stay that way. A little while back, I did and said a lot of stuff I didn't really..." She stopped. Darn it! Why was this so much tougher with Applejack than with anypony else?
"You wanna say 'that you didn't really mean,'" Applejack finished for her.
Wordlessly, Rainbow Dash nodded.
"But y'did mean 'em. And that's what you're feelin' all bad about."
Rainbow Dash nodded again, amazed. Applejack had hit the nail on the head far better than she could have herself.
"Well, I've got news for you, Dash. You ain't perfect--and neither am I. We all got those things we bury deep inside ourselves. Heck, I'm sure you've gotten mad at me for better reasons lots o' times! And the same goes for me. All this means is that you're normal."
"'Everypony has their off days,'" Rainbow Dash said, repeating Rarity's surprisingly similar perspective. Odd, that. Applejack tended to agree even less with Rarity's way of thinking than Dash's own.
"Darn tootin'! And ain't no shame in being normal, sugarcube. In fact, right now I think you're better'n normal. Cause it takes a mighty big pony to admit when they done wrong. Having the bravery to own up to your mistakes is somethin' I'll always respect. And respect is what I have for all of my friends."
Rainbow Dash merely gaped. "Wow. That's... that's pretty deep."
Applejack smiled. "Been told I can do that at times, yes."
"Well, thanks. I'll take that as apology accepted," Rainbow Dash said... just before adding something she regretted the very second the words left her mouth. "Sure there isn't anything I can do to even things out? I did sort of mess up that cake of yours."
"Oh, I'm so glad you asked that, Dash," Applejack said with an even larger grin.
Applejack gestured out the window, towards her family's barn. "Hey, y'all offered! No take-backs. And I'm sure you know the life of a farm hand is full o' hard work an' spitshine! I sure could use somepony to help me clean the barn, scrub the cellar, help me get caught up on my apple pickin', get a storm going over the orchards, give the house a good sweepin', mow the lawn, gather the hay, survey some new land, massage Big Macintosh's hooves after a long day--he can only do so much, y'know-"
"All right, all right, I get it!" Rainbow Dash let out a long sigh. "I guess there was no getting out of this easy. When do I report in, Sergeant Applejack?"
Applejack giggled. "Awww, don't be like that. 'Specially since I was about to say, there is somethin' y'all could do in place of all o' that..."
"What?" Rainbow Dash asked just a little too speedily. "What is it?"
"Well, I had to postpone the Apple Family Gathering--don't worry, wasn't your fault. Few invitations got lost in the mail, hadta resend. But this time around, I'd love it if you could join us."
"Wait, stop. I was mean to you... so in return you're inviting me to a whole night of free food and fun and ponies?"
And then there was that twinkle in Applejack's eye.
"...in a manner of speakin'."
She held up an outfit. Rainbow Dash held back her lunch.
"No! Anything but that!"
Said outfit was full-length, black with white frills... and had an apron as its centerpiece.
"I need an extra hoof to help cater. Someone who can handle a giant-sized hungry Apple Clan with speed n' efficiency! Figure it may as well also be somepony who'd look simply scrumptious in this..."
"F-flattery is not going to work here, Applejack," Rainbow Dash said, fighting a blush. "Honestly, what sick twisted mare gave you this idea?"
"Fluttershy, actually, when she gave you that apron for your birthday! So a couple days ago, I asked Rarity to make one of these for you. She was plum tickled enough by the idea to do it--busted this out in record time, even! I ain't never seen that gal work so fast! Like she was downright possessed!" She winked. "So, how'd your apologizin' to her go?"
Rainbow Dash backed away, now understanding everything. The softballing Rarity had given her... it'd been because she'd known about this in advance. She and Applejack were in on this together. "You knew. You knew I'd be back to apologize!"
"'Course we did. Like I said, you're a normal pony like the rest of us--and I know you have a kind heart. It was just a matter of time. Check and mate, as Twilight would say."
Rainbow Dash sighed in defeat, and grabbed the outfit. "I will remember this so hard."
"Look on the bright side. It could be so much worse than it is. Plus, do well enough maybe and I'll treat you to dessert when it's all over. No family, no noise... just the two of us, sharin' one big, moist, delicious apple pie..."
"Now you're officially teasing me," said Dash.
"No, I'm promisin' you. 'Cause I also want to talk to you then. A long talk." She placed her front hooves on Rainbow Dash's sides. "I wanna to make sure you know you've got more'n one friend who you can turn to when things getcha down. You don't have to be afraid of bumming us out. 'Cause we've all been where you were this month. And we all got through it with somepony else. Even when Gilda ain't around, you're hardly outta options. Y'hear me, girl?"
Rainbow Dash turned her gaze to the ground as her face flushed warmly. "Thanks, Applejack."
"Anytime, Rainbow Dash. See you soon."
Taking her new outfit, Rainbow Dash slowly flew off, her mind now less fearful--but far more cluttered--than before.
As sunset made itself known across Equestria, Gilda stood atop a cliff overlooking Ponyville. The small town was as idyllic as ever, but even she had to admit its beauty as it gradually became awash in orange hues.
She wasn't sure how much ground she'd managed to cover as far as reforming herself in the eyes of the townsponies; but at least only half of the town had given her slanty eyes as she'd given herself a tour and even bought a few snacks from Sugarcube Corner. Applejack had told her a little while ago that there was a strange striped horse who carried a curse wherever she went, causing the entire town to evacuate itself whenever she came to call.
So... she was at least of higher standing than a cursed pony. One step at a time, she supposed.
"We're just in time, girls!"
Gilda instantly turned around when she heard the soft voice. She knew that soft voice: Fluttershy. She couldn't see her or anyone else yet, though. They hadn't reached where she was. But they were close:
"As soon we reach this peak, you'll be able to see the best sunset ever!"
Now that was strange. From what Dash had told her, Fluttershy wasn't usually one to seek out heights. She considered simply flying off, but her paws and talons found themselves rooted to the spot out of a strange curiosity.
One of the "girls" spoke next. "Fluttershy? How come you're not keeping up?"
"I, um... I like making sure the ground is stable! Yes, yes. It's very slippery up here," Fluttershy said with a nervous laugh.
Now that was more like it. Gilda held back a snicker, and just in time--a small orange filly had reached the peak at that moment, ahead of everypony else. "Come on, Fluttershy! We need you with us to--GAH!"
The yell got Fluttershy flying the rest of the way. She and two more fillies were soon at the peak as well.
"Scootaloo, what..." a young white pony began, before she did know what it was. "...oh my gosh!"
The orange filly backed away. "It's a griffon, Sweetie Belle! Run!"
"She'll eat us!" said Apple Bloom, the last of the three.
The three turned to run, but Fluttershy stood in their way. "Now, girls, that is not how you treat a guest of Ponyville."
The three slowly turned back around, staring at Gilda head-on. "A... a guest?" said Apple Bloom.
Fluttershy nodded. "That's right. Her name is Gilda, and she's-"
Scootaloo's outburst echoed across the sky--and finally snapped Gilda into responding. "Um... yeah. That's me. What, you know me or something?"
Scootaloo darted closer, and began running around the griffon, her fear from moments ago having clearly evaporated. "Whoa! I can't believe it! The Gilda? You're... you're the 'super-awesome friend' Rainbow Dash talks about!"
Gilda blinked in mild surprise. "She does?"
"Yeah!" said Scootaloo, her smile as wide as Ponyville. "She says when the skies are open and free, you're the only one who can ever beat her in a race! And you've got wicked air moves! And you don't let anypony get to you! And-"
Gilda put up one talon. "Whoa, stop, stop, please. A blushing griffon is not a pretty sight. What's your name, kid?"
"Scootaloo!" she said, still all smiles. "One day, I'm gonna be as fast and awesome as you guys!"
Finally, Gilda allowed herself to return Scootaloo's smile with a small one of her own. "Well, keep up that attitude, and I don't doubt it. Either way, glad to see my reputation isn't completely shot here." She turned to face the others. "What about you guys? Still think you're my dinner?"
"Don't worry, guys!" Scootaloo said. "She's totally okay! She and Dash are like that!" She slapped her front hooves together.
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle gingerly stepped forward, then stood alongside Scootaloo and Gilda as they gradually became more comfortable.
Fluttershy was the last to move up... and now, for reasons she couldn't explain, it was Gilda who felt pangs of nervousness.
"I probably owe you an apology." Gilda's words were barely audible. "We sort of got off on the wrong hoof. Twice."
Fluttershy didn't answer, simply stepping to the side of Gilda. Lined up in a row, the ponies and griffon enjoyed the last of the sunset. Only then did Fluttershy speak.
"From one of Rainbow Dash's childhood friends to another: I know she needs you in her life. She needs all the friends she can get. However, the same doesn't go for me and you."
Gilda gritted her teeth, ready to retort. However, before she could...
"But if you're willing to try so hard to be accepted amongst ponies... just for the sake of one of them... then the least I can do is return the gesture."
And, so lightly that Gilda barely felt it, Fluttershy wrapped her forelegs around Gilda's frame.
"Whoa, now, hey," said a surprised Gilda. "Wait a minute-"
The Cutie Mark Crusaders followed suit mere seconds later, huddling around her legs. There was now officially no escape from friendship.
"...tch." Gilda wrapped her wings around them as best she could in supreme embarrassment... and a tiny bit of happiness she refused to acknowledge. "So glad I'm hundreds of miles from home right now."
Finally, in the starry evening, there was one.
Twilight Sparkle floated once again in her balloon, telescope at the ready. She looked through it while using unicorn magic to take silent notes--beamed directly from her mind--using a magically floating pen and paper. Sometimes, studying was way more fun than anypony gave it credit for.
As she scanned the universe around her for new constellations, suddenly, a wild Rainbow Dash flew directly into her telescope's sight.
"Dash!" Twilight looked up happily... for about one second. Then memories reawakened, and she backed away just a bit, nervously. "Um..."
Rainbow Dash sighed. She'd expected as much. "It's okay, Twilight. I'm no longer crazy."
"I can prove it. Or at least, try to make up for it?"
With that, she brought her front hooves forth. Held within them was...
"...a rock?" Twilight looked puzzled at first, then peered closer at it. Upon ten seconds of close study, her eyes finally went wide. "Wait... is that what I..."
"Yep. It's a piece of a shooting star." Rainbow Dash beamed proudly as she saw Twilight's face light up, and hear her gasp in delight.
The unicorn levitated the meteorite before her, turning it every which way, examining it from every angle she could, then let it fall onto her hooves so she could touch it, believe it. "This... this is really..." she looked up at the sky, exhaled ecstatically, then looked back at Rainbow Dash. "One question: how?"
"I saw one fall last month, so I followed it. Took hours of me giving it all I had, but I finally found where it landed." She blushed sheepishly. "I was saving it for your birthday, but I'd rather keep our friendship long enough for that to roll around--hey!"
She was cut off by Twilight outright tackling her in mid-air. "Ohmygoshdashthisissogreatiloveitiloveitiloveititsawesomeyoureawesomeilove-"
"T-T-Twilight! Careful there, you're rocking your boat!"
"Whoa!" Twilight said as she noticed her balloon's basket indeed tipping over. She got back in, and righted herself. "Thanks. So much. I just... this is so great I... I'm just sorry you felt you had to spoil your birthday surprise for this."
"Hey! This is supposed to be my apology!" Rainbow Dash joined Twilight in the balloon. "Sorry, Twilight. All of that 'slow' talk from before? Pretend it never even happened. You're totally my speed. Always have been. Even if you are the Princess's Pet," she said with a wink.
Twilight giggled. "Thanks. That means a lot to me. Life here in Ponyville would have been a lot tougher starting out, without you there to give me that extra push."
The two looked out at the stars together. "Believe me, I've been there. So I'll do that as many times as I need to! But, look: if you ever think I need to slow down, just tell me, and I'll do it. I left you hanging once... and I never want to do that again. Okay?"
"You have my word. Thanks... Dash."
The two ponies met eyes, and inwardly, Rainbow Dash sighed in relief.
Once more, they understood each other completely. That was just how Dash liked it.
And that's it, Rainbow Dash thought to herself as she flew away from Twilight's balloon, and crossed the unicorn's name off of her list. That's everyone I snapped at over the last few weeks. Mental note: never do that again, 'cause cleaning up these messes is tiring work! Well, I'd better get back to my place. Gilda's probably waiting for me. I just wish we didn't have to say goodbye so soon...
In a streak of color, she zoomed back to her sky castle.
Meanwhile, some distance away, a yellow pegasus pony followed at a much slower pace...