The counselors took a clear stand on the issue from the first day of summer flight camp: any pegasus caught flying Cloudsdale Circuit after hours would face permanent expulsion. The miles of towering cloud-link fences and red "NO ENTRY" signs surrounding the Circuit enhanced the gravity of the counselors' warnings. On this particular afternoon, the miles of thunderheads churning out of the weather factories did what they could to help drive daredevils away, and most campers were happy to comply with the camp staff's policies.
Rainbow Dash wasn't like most campers. As soon as she heard the instructors had closed the Circuit two hours early, that meant private track time all for herself. How generous of them.
Little more than a cyan blip beneath the darkening curve of the sky, the pegasus quickly tunneled her way beneath the fence sequestering the Circuit's southeastern hairpin. Emerging from below with bits of cloud lodged in her prismatic mane, she shook them out and surveyed the track before her.
A double line of nimbus rings rose up to her from below, forming the course's tallest point where they came together. To her left, the double heads of Lark's Head Loop swayed in the mounting wind. To her right loomed the large, rising stretch of Titan's Curve.
Rainbow Dash stamped her hoof. Just that morning, she had been on the verge of setting a new personal record for the Circuit's hardest test of stamina—only to have her run sabotaged by them.
She was never sure how they got away with it. The instructors would be elsewhere, or occupied with another pony, but they would never, ever be watching.
The air pulsed with electric potential, standing Rainbow's coat straight up, and every breath of its petrichor galvanized her heart as it beat against her chest. She stared down the descending line of rings to her right, opened her wings in the unstable air, and squatted into a ready stance. All she heard was a pounding in her ears.
A lightning bolt ripped the sky in two; the thunder shattered what remained, and she hurled herself into space.
With her wings thrown wide, Rainbow Dash pointed her hooves through the first ring and let gravity take care of the rest. The wind whistled in her ears, her mane played from side to side, and the first drops of rain bumped against her forehead.
Flying was so much easier alone. She didn't have to worry about bumping into other ponies. Nor did she have to worry about other ponies bumping into her. Which was exactly what had happened—one of them had snuck up behind her and bucked her wing while the instructors were looking elsewhere. None of them had been willing to look into the matter afterward, either, claiming she had only suffered a normal cramp.
This was her second year at flight camp, but she was still treated like a newborn. Her pinions had yet to grow out to their full lengths, and even the instructors would sometimes try to send her away from the Circuit until they realized she was no yearling. She thought being the only pony in Cloudsdale with such a colorful mane and tail like hers would make her easier to remember.
She could think of only two ponies for whom that worked out.
The course banked her to the right way too soon, and she found herself staring up at the impossibly long arc of Titan's Curve. She knew enough to power through its first rings with the momentum she'd built up, but there was no mistaking the mounting ache in her shoulders and chest before she'd reached the halfway point. Her wings simply could not put out as much lift as the others, and the extra flapping wore her out by the time she passed, winded and wheezing, into Swayback.
Rainbow Dash let that part of the course drop from her mind as she navigated the four generous turns that welded Swayback together. She could have cared less about what times she posted along Titan's Curve. The part she had really come for—the part for which she knew she risked her whole future at camp—lay further ahead.
Beyond the exit of Swayback's final bend, the nimbus rings fell away in a ballistic arc toward Cloudsdale Meadows. Rainbow Dash's stomach did a little flip as she approached Long Gone Drop. No pegasus—not even a Wonderbolt, a member of the Princess's hoof-picked cadre of elite fliers—entered the world with an innate love for free fall.
Blinking against the growing precipitation, Rainbow Dash aligned her hooves with the rings below her. The sky spasmed in white fury, and the pegasus plunged with the thunder.
A scream swelled within her lungs as ring after ring whizzed by her head. If the descending straight from the southeastern hairpin was a mane-raiser, Long Gone Drop went for scaring ponies bald. Rainbow Dash's hooves shuddered as she fought to maintain her line.
The turn-out for End-Around announced itself quickly as a barricade of black and yellow arrows and flashing "THIS WAY" signs leading up and to the right. With the right line, a pony could bleed her momentum all the way around to the home stretch without pumping her wings once.
Rainbow Dash had flown this section only one time before as a first-year, but that had been enough to notice the other trail of rings hidden behind the barricade. An instructor had hovered there the previous summer to guide campers along the right path, as well as call down swift punishment on those who dared to try and break through.
The dare itself was as old as the camp cafeteria and just as familiar to anypony who passed through the campground's front gates. Glory would be the friend of the pony who succeeded, respect their companion. It represented the best in a good challenge: simple in theory, crushing in execution.
Survive Deadmare's Dive.
No other section of Cloudsdale Circuit held the honor of ending more racing careers, inspiring more campfire tales of vengeful shades, or inciting more nightmares in the sleep of young campers. Condemned by the city and ignored by maintenance crews, Deadmare's Dive was nothing more than a wild chute of wind and velocity: a ninety-degree charge toward green and solid oblivion, anchored mere yards above the grass by a solitary ring.
The rain had started to come down heavy by then, and the flashing lights at the End-Around turnout urged her to reconsider. It was still not too late to turn away. Long Gone Drop was scary enough for only her second time through, and she still had the rest of the summer to come back and try again.
Rainbow Dash gulped—not an easy thing to do when the wind whipped her lips against her cheeks. Maybe she was getting in over her head. Deadmare's Dive didn't look that intimidating from afar, but staring down its throat was something different.
Better fliers than her had perished down there.
When will you get another chance to try it? cried a petulant voice in the back of her mind. Get real. This is your one and only chance to make history.
Yeah—in the history of bad ideas, maybe! she argued back. I dunno if I'll make it!
But what if you do make it? You'll shut those bullies up for good.
They'll never believe me. Rainbow Dash thought about flexing her wings to take her up.
Keep those wings where they are, Rainbow. You came out here for a reason.
One moment of hesitation was all it took the little filly to whip past the turnout. The horizon lurched out of her vision, and the wind roared her mistake in her ears.
Ohmigoshohmigoshohmigoshohmigosh. Rainbow's pupils contracted into tiny black dots as she blasted past ring after creaking ring. Her stomach floated somewhere behind her, and the air fought to shake itself free from beneath her hooves.
Just hold on! she urged herself.
And then the world flashed in stark color beneath a new volley of lightning: the greens and browns of the fields below, the blues of the creeks and brooks, the rings white as bright snow—and a yellow and pink blip clinging onto one of them like a gemstone on a bracelet.
Rainbow blinked. That blip had been a filly.
She turned her head to bail out. She barely turned it back in time as several rings screamed past the tip of her muzzle, warning her that she'd be cut to pieces the next time she tried that. Panicking, she splayed her hooves and rammed her wings perpendicular to her the wind as hard as she could.
Her head snapped down, and her shoulders exploded in pain. It wouldn't be enough. The other filly filled up her vision like a drop of oil on a lake, and the scream raging within her chest finally wrenched itself free.
The other filly whipped her head skyward. Another blast of lightning lit up the pink mane covering one half of her face and the terrified teal-green eye on the other.
Rainbow braced herself and prayed it wouldn't hurt.
Stars exploded behind her eyes as her head crashed into the other filly's wing with a sickening crack. Blinded on one side, Rainbow saw rings tumbling around her as she caromed off of them like beans in a rain tube. The other filly tumbled just a few yards over her head, her neck and limbs horribly limp.
"Oof!" The wind left Rainbow's lungs as she landed belly-up on the cottony contours of a cumulus. The other filly joined her a moment later and lay still beneath the falling rain.
Seized with regret, Rainbow Dash rolled over to check on the other filly, but a dark splotch exploded in her vision and laid her back out in no time flat. Her hooves went to her eye to press away the pain.
"Are you two all right?"
Rainbow Dash tensed—she knew who that voice belonged to. It was gruff and edged with irritation, as if rescuing two fillies from a condemned section of a racetrack in turbulent weather was the last thing he'd wanted to do. Answering his question felt like lifting the moon in her current state, so Rainbow settled for a moan instead.
"The head counselor's gonna want to speak with you two," said Amber Swift, Team Firefly's lead counselor. He began to pull the cloud with the two fillies back up towards Cloudsdale. "I hope you've enjoyed your last day at flight camp, ladies. I don't think you two are coming back."
The Cloudsdale summer flight camp office was a shack, and that was using the term generously. It was more like a box somepony had thrown together using squares of cheap sheet clouding, with only the barest of struts and rafters on the inside shoring it up against storms like the one raging outside. A small reception room greeted ponies who walked in through the front door while the head counselor worked in the next room over. A lantern housing only four or five aging fireflies provided the only light in the reception area, and a plain clock on the wall saluted every second as it arrived, never betraying surprise or boredom. Two benches flanked the door to the head counselor's office, and at that moment, they were occupied by two quiet fillies.
Shivering beneath a blanket, Rainbow Dash alternated between keeping a cloud compress against her eye and shooting venomous glares at the other filly. The both of them had come away from the collision somewhat roughed up, and things would be sore for a week or two, but they were otherwise in fine shape. In turn, the other pegasus tried to make herself disappear into the corner where her bench met the wall, and her mane draped over the near side of her face. The thin line of her back heaved every so often, but Rainbow Dash couldn't hear any crying.
What was she thinking? Of course that cirrushead was crying. She had never seen a more pathetic pegasus in her life—those yellow legs, ungainly and thin, and her wings were large enough to swallow her flanks like curtains. Now that she thought on it, Rainbow had seen that pegasus sneaking around camp a couple of times before. She wasn't from Cloudsdale, that much was certain—they'd never met outside the campgrounds. She was no good even on the training course, and her idea of flying a straight line suggested she needed glasses. Thick ones, like the glass on the bottoms of cider bottles. No pegasus could ever be that bad at flying otherwise—could they?
"Why the hay were you even out there?" growled Rainbow. She allowed herself a snort as the other pegasus flinched. "I was that close to making it through Deadmare's Dive," she continued, bringing the tips of her hooves close for emphasis, "but no. You and your terrible flying just had to beat me to it, huh? Was that what it was? Were you trying to prove something out there? Were you just trying to pull some stupid stunt and get yourself hurt? Huh? Well, look where you got us, featherbrain!" She lasered her compress directly at the other filly's head, but, being a cloud, the compress merely bounced off of her mane.
"Thanks for ruining my life." Rainbow crossed her front legs across her chest and turned around, pouting.
From the other side of the room, she heard a tiny sniffle.
Ha! Rainbow Dash broke into the largest grin she'd had that evening. Take that, you dumb filly. She couldn't resist peeking back over her shoulder to see just how much she had gotten to that spineless sack of feathers.
The other filly had laid herself belly down along the length of the bench. She poked at the floor for a little bit, her mane spilling all over the side of her head. And then she lay where she was, ceasing all movement save the in and out of her breath—and even then, she looked for all the world like she wanted to cease that, too.
Rainbow Dash stared at the clock. While its second hoof completed two or three trips around its blank face, the other pegasus remained still the whole time.
Words bubbled up in Rainbow Dash's lungs. She was fed up of listening to the rain drum against the walls and the ticking of that clock. She needed to talk.
"So, um..." Rainbow's gaze slid to the floor. The words in her lungs had suddenly turned as heavy as lumps of granite. Only with some effort could she regurgitate something approaching coherence. "What do you think's gonna happen?"
The other pegasus made no reply, choosing to curl up on her side instead. The clock sent its second hoof around another time.
Rainbow knew she'd had it too easy. The pony on the other bench was way too fragile, and Rainbow had only needed to give her a good glare and a quick insult or two to put her down. Sure, she'd done the same thing to other ponies before. Her smallness practically demanded it for her survival. Here though, her victory meant nothing coming from an unworthy opponent—she might as well have declared her supremacy over a butterfly.
Really, what was the point of that?
"Well." Rainbow Dash tapped on her bench. "You haven't talked much tonight. In fact, I don't even remember hearing you say a word. As in, ever. You're around this camp a lot, aren't you? You can talk, can'tcha?"
The other filly turned toward Rainbow Dash and propped herself up on a foreleg. However, her gaze was still leveled at a square on the floor, almost as if somepony was going to punch her if she took her eyes off of it for the thinnest of moments. She gave up and released her pose moments later, laying her cheek back on the bench.
Right. You couldn't expect anything different from ponies her type. Rainbow lay back herself, kicking around spare thoughts like cirrus tangles. Maybe that pegasus was born without a tongue. Was that even possible? Living without a voice? Cold tendrils of guilt began to weave through her insides. Not only had she utterly shattered the self-esteem of a bad flier, but she had also done it to a mute, too. There was absolutely nothing to gain there.
"Hey, uh." Rainbow Dash tapped her hoof while she weighed her next words. "I know you're feeling kinda grounded right now, and that you don't feel like talking a lot, so I'll just ask you to do this for me. Okay?"
No response. Still, Rainbow soldiered onward.
"If you were born without a tongue, nod your head once." She craned her neck out toward the other pegasus, her ears extended as far forward as she could put them. But despite her best efforts to reach across to the other filly, all she received was silence. Snorting, she turned her body toward a window, and took to watching the rain dribble down the glass.
Rainbow's ear flicked, unsure of what she just heard. For a moment, she thought it was a creak coming from the walls under a sudden gust, but the noise would have had to been much lower pitched than that. She relaxed after a little while and resumed her gaze out the window.
Yes, there it was—a cross between a squeak and a whimper. A squimper! It was definitely coming from the other pony.
"What?" said Rainbow Dash, turning toward the other pony. "I can't hear a thing you're saying."
The wind suddenly picked up outside the shack, jiggling the window panes in their settings as a fresh surge of raindrops pelted the roof. For a while, Rainbow Dash wasn't sure if the other pegasus had answered her during that time, or if she still needed some encouragement to do so. Should she ask again? Should she wait? She groaned. Why were ponies so frustrating at times?
A door latch clicked between the two ponies, and Amber Swift poked his head into the reception room. He beckoned them into the office with a hoof, his brown mane still plastered to his neck with rainwater.
"All right, ladies. Come on in."
Rainbow Dash hopped to her hooves at the same time as the other filly—and she froze where she stood.
Celestia, were fillies allowed to grow that tall? She hadn't been able to tell while they were sitting around, but boy. If that pony ever bothered to raise her head, she could have reached Amber Swift's jaw. Rainbow Dash barely came up to the top of his withers.
She followed the other two ponies into the head counselor's office without a word. There he waited for them, his dun mane cropped short against his gray coat with a whistle hanging from his neck. A bank of filing cabinets, all of them gray and boxy like his eyes, lined the wall behind him. His desk annexed the center of the office like a large altar, and a name plate screwed into its front face read "Wind Storm, Head Counselor."
Two manila dossiers lay beneath his hooves; two thin chairs seemed to bow before his desk. Rainbow clambered onto the one on the left and immediately found a part of the floor to study while the other filly got herself seated.
Wind Storm spoke. "I take it you ladies know why we're talking with each other tonight?"
"Yes, sir." Rainbow muttered it, the other filly barely whispered.
"It's a pleasure to see you here, Miss Dash. Again." The head counselor fixed her with a flat-browed, flat-lipped look as he opened her dossier, allowing the heavy thud it made on his desk to speak for his true thoughts. He skimmed a few pages. "Since you've came to us last year, you've been in ten incidents of threatening other campers, picked fights on five of them, you're constantly defying your counselors, and the instructors tell me you're reliably absent when you're supposed to be on the training course. And now Amber Swift here is saying he caught you trying to fly Deadmare's Dive after Circuit hours." It wasn't a question.
"And as for you—" Wind Storm skimmed his other dossier. Rainbow noticed it was significantly thinner than her own—only two pages to her novel. The head counselor's brow furrowed. "Well, now. You've been a well-behaved camper, Miss Fluttershy. I must say I'm... bewildered to see you here tonight."
Fluttershy? Rainbow Dash bit back a snicker before it landed her in even more trouble. She'd never before heard of a more appropriate name for such a scaredy-pony, ever. Fluttershy. Really.
"Nevertheless." Wind Storm raised a hoof before his mouth and cleared his throat. "The both of you were reported missing for dinnertime earlier this evening. That we found you tumbling down a condemned segment of Cloudsdale Circuit should speak for itself. You two should be thankful to even be sitting in those chairs right now.
"So. Before I send the both of you back home, I would appreciate some answers." The head counselor leaned back in his chair and pressed his hooves together. A couple of seconds staggered by as if they were clutching gut wounds. "What were you two even doing out there at that hour, when you knew we would be shutting the Circuit down early? Miss Dash?"
Rainbow Dash's insides crystallized into impossibly thin tendrils. The slightest jolt would pulverize them into powder. And yet, she sank into her chair, unable to provide the answer that would expel her from flight camp forever, terrified of remaining silent and prolonging the inevitable. Even she would rather spend the rest of her summer in this tiny office, sitting beneath a light with too few fireflies, than to leave it all behind and never set hoof on the campgrounds again.
Recognizing he would not receive satisfaction from the cyan pegasus, Wind Storm turned his attention on the yellow one. "What about you, Miss Fluttershy? Would you kindly explain what you were doing out on the Circuit just now?"
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes.. She already knew first-hoof how difficult it would be to extract a single word from that filly, much less a complete sentence.
"Well, sir, I— um. It was all an accident."
Rainbow's brows flew in a double take. Her sudden movement forced a squeal from the filly's mouth, who covered it up with her hooves.
Wind Storm whirled on Rainbow Dash. "Did you have something to say?"
She couldn't give him the "I'm fine" wave quickly enough.
The other pegasus—Fluttershy—glanced over at Rainbow Dash with some of the hugest, wavering eyes the latter had ever seen. What in Equestria? Was she asking for permission or something? Rainbow Dash didn't care.
"Anyway, Mr. Wind Storm, sir..." Fluttershy fidgeted in her chair. She sounded a little sick, but even though she spoke very, very quietly, she enunciated well. Her voice carried a self-conscious kind of music in her words. "Skylark took my group to the Circuit to work on improving our top speed, so she had us flying Long Gone Drop the whole afternoon. And, um. Everypony was having a lot of fun... but I wasn't. I don't like going very fast, you see." She gave the counselor such an embarrassed smile that it actually squeaked.
Rainbow Dash couldn't believe what she was hearing. A pegasus who didn't like going fast? Everything she thought she knew about this world was slowly crumbling around her ears.
"By the time the thunderheads started appearing, we had all lined up for one last round. I was at the back of the line. One of the fillies ahead of me hit a ring next to the turn-out, so Skylark had to fly over and help her finish the rest of the course. I didn't know she did that until I started down the track. When I didn't see her at the bottom, I panicked—and that's when I shot past the turn out. That's how I wound up in Deadmare's Dive, and by that point, I was too tired to fly my way back up."
Fluttershy paused to look at one of her wings. Seeing it unfurl up close sent a burning blush through Rainbow's cheeks. Yeah, she had noticed they were a little big on the filly back in the reception room, but she had not thought about how heavy and awkward they were to use. They were beautiful wings, even after the accident—her feathers gave off a soft glint in the light, and they all tapered smoothly toward their ends—but Rainbow Dash understood that it would take a while before she became strong enough to use them to their fullest.
Wind Storm tapped his chin. "Hmm. Skylark should have been there to help you. That's the job we hired her to do."
"Oh, don't take it out on her," Fluttershy implored. "She was already trying to help another pony, and I'd been flying, well, not exactly fine for the entire day, but I was managing. She couldn't have expected me to end up where I did."
The head counselor chuckled. "Don't you worry about Skylark. We'll get things sorted out with her. We're all here to improve ourselves, after all, and that includes the counselors. So, then—you're sure that what happened in Deadmare's Dive was all an accident?"
"I see." Wind Storm flipped through the filly's dossier once again. "As I've said before, you're a well-behaved camper. You've never gotten into trouble in your three years here, and neither do you go looking for it. Perhaps we can make something work out, if you're interested in hearing what I have to say."
"What? Now wait just a minute!" The words escaped from Rainbow Dash's lips before she could stop them. Her hooves clamped over her mouth.
"You have something to say this time?" Wind Storm's brows pressed themselves flat.
"I, uh." The filly's eyes darted over to Fluttershy, who was cowering in her chair. Sudden outrage flared up in Rainbow Dash's mind, and she lowered her hooves. "Yeah. I do have something to say. Why are you going easy on her? Amber Swift there comes by telling us we're going home, you say the same thing—" and here she jabbed a hoof at Fluttershy— "then she gets off easy because her weak flying got her into trouble in the first place?
"I don't get it. I had Deadmare's Dive on lockdown before she got in my way. Take me back out there. I'll show you I can fly it without any problems, and yet you're going to make a deal with her? That's not fair!"
The glare the head counselor leveled at Rainbow Dash was hair-thin, but its passage through her eyes left her fury scattered like bowling pins in a strike frame. Her body obeyed.
Wind Storm rubbed his temples amid the ensuing silence. He poised himself after a moment and continued. "Frankly, Miss Dash, you've been in here enough. I'm tired of dealing with you. The counselors are tired of dealing with you. Where we've sent other ponies home for less, you remained. You know what I think? It's time you moved on."
"Flight camp just isn't for you anymore. Amber Swift will show you to your tent, and you can pack your things." He dismissed her with a wave of his hoof. "Farewell."
Rainbow Dash whipped her head around the counselors. Fluttershy's hoof hovered in the air in pleading. Suddenly conscious of attention, her ears folded along with the rest of her, until she was more mane than pony. "Um... I'm sorry, Mr. Wind Storm. I didn't mean to interrupt."
"Not at all, young lady. Speak your piece."
Fluttershy floated a glance over at Rainbow Dash, who returned it with a flat face and an arched eyebrow. What was she going to say now?
"I... oh dear." The yellow pegasus shut her eyes. "I mean... I don't think you should expel Rainbow Dash."
Wind Storm made his own contribution to the raised eyebrow collection. "Is that so? How do you figure?"
"She's, um. She's nice."
The mind boggled. The air could have turned into solid ice, and yet that would not have been anywhere near as stifling as the silence that followed the filly's claim. The only explanation Rainbow could come up with for what she just heard was that Fluttershy was some kind of space-pony who had somehow wound up far away from her home planet.
"When I was alone out there in Deadmare's Dive," Fluttershy continued, "I was too tired to call for help. I was barely hanging onto one of the rings, the rain was really coming down, and there was thunder and lightning everywhere. It was awful."
"That was when I heard Rainbow Dash coming up behind me. I suppose she could've been the teensiest, eensiest bit more careful when we crashed into each other. But seeing another pony out there on the Circuit with me for that moment—I was so happy to see her there. Somepony found me. I was going to be okay. The next thing I know, I'm awake here in the office, safe and sound."
"Because Amber Swift brought the both of you here."
The tip of Fluttershy's mane bobbed up and down with her head. "That's right. But—and this is just my own, personal, unimportant opinion here and everything..." She let off an embarrassed smile. "If Rainbow Dash hadn't yelled like that when she saw me in her way, I don't think he would've noticed us to come to the rescue."
Wind Storm leaned back in his chair. His hoof tapped his chin. "Amber Swift?"
The junior counselor nodded. "No offense, Rainbow Dash, but you weren't born with a 'quiet' setting."
"You—!" Rainbow Dash rose in her seat. She'd hardly felt like clobbering somepony this bad before—but Wind Storm rose from his chair and levelled a hoof at his subordinate before she could deliver her vengeance.
"That was out of line. You know better than to spout that kind of garbage."
Wind Storm grunted as he sat back down. "You'd better be. Now then—did Miss Dash's yelling tip you off to her presence there?"
Amber Swift looked off to the side, and did something with his head that could have been construed for a nod.
"And would you have known Fluttershy was stranded out there had it not been for her?"
"Well, maybe." The counselor dragged a hoof through his mane. "I was patrolling the northern end of the Circuit close to the Dive. I bet I would have seen her anyway. Rainbow Dash just made me aware of her sooner."
"What?" Rainbow Dash glared at Amber Swift. "Were you even out there the same time I was? It was pouring! There's no way you could've seen her in that mess!"
"This isn't a courtroom, you little—" Amber bit down on his lip. "Mmph. Sorry." He shook his head and continued. "Anyway, like it or not, I caught you two on the Circuit while it was closed, and the both of you are lucky to have even made it back here. Honestly, if it were up to me, the both of you would've been outta here half an hour ago. We have rules for a reason, Rainbow Dash, and you don't need to be here if you refuse to follow them."
"You wouldn't have seen her if I hadn't been there!"
"All right, you two—that's enough!" Wind Storm ground his teeth in agitation. "Hundreds of heapin' humid haystacks, you two argue worse than my fillies. Anyhow." He laid his hooves on top of his desk. "Amber Swift is correct, Miss Dash. It's not all that clear that your presence saved Miss Fluttershy. And Fluttershy, I'm not deaf. I heard this pony yelling at you through the wall earlier. Though I respect your willingness to stand up for her, she doesn't share that same respect. I'm not certain she deserves yours."
Rainbow Dash slumped in her chair. "But—"
The head counselor shook his head as he closed Rainbow's dossier. "I don't think there needs to be any more discussion. Miss Rainbow Dash, I hereby expel you from flight camp. Kindly pack your things and clean your tent. You're going home tomorrow morning."
Most campers learned to leave their alarm clocks at home by their second year—why bother packing the extra weight when the camp reveille did the job fine enough? Campers tottered out of their tents every morning in ones and twos, their hooves jammed in their ears as they made their way down to the lake. There they saluted the Equestrian flag, sang the national anthem, and stood around bored and restless for several minutes as the instructors announced the upcoming day's schedule.
Rainbow Dash slept through it all, as she always did.
When she did wake up, the left side of her face throbbed like an overinflated water balloon. Though she didn't have a mirror in her tent—what kind of camper worried about having one, anyway—she guessed she would be walking around that day with a doozy of a shiner over her eye. She wasn't able to open it quite all the way, and the area beneath it was swollen and warm to the touch.
She was expelled from flight camp. For good. As far as thoughts to start the day off with went, that was not the one she wanted to have in her head.
She sat up in her cot and glanced over at her saddlebags, which lay rumpled on the floor by the wall. Aside from a towel, a few comics, and her very own pair of Wonderbolts flight goggles, she had not brought much with her to camp, and everything had packed quickly.
Even her possessions were trying to get her out of there as fast as possible.
Rainbow rolled out of her cot and winced as her face throbbed with warm pain. She couldn't go outside looking like she'd run into a wall, could she? After some thought, she spat into one of her hooves and tried to flatten her mane over her left eye. It wasn't a perfect cover by any stretch of the imagination, but she hoped it would ward off the suspicions of most ponies.
She suddenly wished she had a mirror so she could have been sure. Oh, well. It would have to do.
The little filly squinted as the mid-morning sun hit her eyes on her way out of the tent. With nothing else to do as she adjusted to the light, she paused to take in one last view of the campgrounds. Fed by three different rainbowfalls, Rainbow Lake sat in the middle, anchoring everything else on its iridescent shores. The boxy, thirties-era exterior of the cafeteria squatted near the edge of the lake a quarter-loop away from the campers' tents, while streams of campers navigated the training course on the lake's opposite banks. The staff stayed in cottages off to the left, and a large schoolhouse separated the staff lodgings from the campers.
Rainbow Dash snorted and set off toward the cafeteria. Dumb place. Even if they were kicking her out, she was entitled to one last meal on the house. However, she'd only gone a few steps before her eye and ears started to flit around like radar dishes. If at all possible, she wanted to get there unseen.
Her vigilance paid off: by the time she left the campers' area, she had done so undetected. The trail leading down to the lake doubled back on itself multiple times during its descent—had this been any other day, she would have glided all the way down to the cafeteria as easily as leaving a letter to drift on the wind.
Once she'd descended by the lake side, Rainbow Dash began passing little knots of ponies as they converged on the cafeteria, or emerged from it. She kept her gaze fixed on the path just in front of her hooves, taking in every subtle curve, every sidestep it made as it meandered around the lakefront. In time, she found herself anticipating parts of the path before she reached them, plucking them from two years of camp as her hooves touched a familiar bump, or shuffled over a grainy patch she knew to expect. Of all the memories she would take from this camp! Why was her brain trying to put the walk back to the cafeteria in with them?
Before long, she found herself at the cafeteria's front doors. The chatter of a hundred campers rattled from within, suddenly spiking in volume as a trio of fillies filed their way out. Rainbow Dash dove to the side and waited for them to pass before she could even think about it. One of them told the others a joke, and their mutual laughter prevented them from noticing the filly squatting on the other side of the door.
Hold on a minute. Sneaking around? Avoiding other ponies? Being quiet? She got back on her hooves. Since when did she become that kind of filly? Her eyes hardened. Nope. Uh-uh. She was going about this all wrong. If this was to be her last day of flight camp ever, she was going to go out in style.
She turned around, braced herself on her front legs, and yelled at the top of her lungs. "Hee-yah!"
Her back hooves blew the door open, and the diners fell silent as they turned in their seats. Rainbow Dash stepped through the open threshold with her head held high, basking in the gazes of her peers as her hooffalls echoed through the building. The high windows shone like spotlights, lighting her way as she sauntered up the middle aisle.
The younger campers shrank back from her as she passed; the older ones fixed her with flattened ears and hard frowns. Foals. What did she care about their opinions anymore? Flight camp was stupid. If they couldn't handle how hardcore she was, that was their problem.
"Well, well, well! If it isn't Rainbow Crash."
Two colts stepped in front of her path—colts she'd had plenty of... dealings with by that point. She always thought their necks were sufficiently thick enough to act as support columns at the Cloudesseum. The taller one, tan like dirt, reeked of cheap deodorant, and the shorter one with the darker brown coat didn't even bother putting any on. She smirked.
"Hey, Buster. Hey, Buck." She brushed past them like they weren't even there.
"Where're you going in such a rush, Rainbow Crash?" The taller one, Buck, stuck his hoof between her legs. One of them snagged for the shortest of instants, but it was enough to interrupt her stride. A murmur spread throughout the cafeteria.
Rainbow Dash's grin faltered, but she caught it quickly enough to hold onto her pride. "Me? I'm not in any hurry." She faced her adversaries to prove it. "What do you want?"
"We're not looking for much," said Buster, closing in. Despite lacking the vertical presence of his musclebound cohort, he still towered over the filly by at least half a head. "I just wanted to know something, Rainbow Crash."
Rainbow Dash held her ground beneath his slitted blue eye. "I'm all ears."
Buster grinned, revealing an array of disgustingly white teeth. "I heard it on the slip stream this morning that you were caught flying on the Circuit after it was closed."
Rainbow Dash cackled and rolled her eyes. "Ugh, seriously? You just heard about that? You're faster at growing pimples than you are about hearing the news. And it's not even big news, either. I fly the Circuit when it's closed all the time."
"Well, you can't be very good at it, Rainbow Crash." Buck leaped over her head and boxed her in on the other side. He reached for the part of her mane hiding her black eye. "When did you get this, an—"
Rainbow Dash lashed out with a head feint. "You lay a hoof on me, and I swear to the Princess that I'm gonna lay you out." Her cheeks flushed.
"Aww, is Rainbow Crash getting upset?" Buster crooned from behind. "Does Rainbow Crash not like getting touched?"
A pair of heavy hooves landed on her flanks and pushed her off balance. She careered face-first into a chest reeking of Foal Spice, and a burst of tight pain swarmed the left side of her vision.
"That hurt, you jerk!" she cried, whirling on her attacker. "How about you have the guts to do that to my face next time, wi—"
Another push from behind. She stumbled on her hooves amid a storm of nasal guffawing. "Cut it out!"
"Never, Rainbow Crash," sneered Buster. "This is too much fun!" He pushed her again, and she tottered precariously on her back hoof.
"Think fast!" A final shove on her wings sent her over the top, and before she could do anything else, her face crashed into the floor. Both of the colts were outright howling with glee.
"I'm sorry," Buster scoffed, running his hoof through her mane. "Did we interrupt you, Rainbow Crash?"
An epiphany entered her mind like a heavenly choir as she bolted back on her hooves. She was already expelled from flight camp, right? Nothing she did from this point forward mattered. The staff wouldn't be able to touch her, which meant that finally—after having to suffer through two summers of endless assaults on her height, flying skills, and future prospects from some dumbbells with swamp gas for brains—she could finally get even. She spoke her next words slowly and clearly to maximize the chance that as they went through one ear and out the other, they would leave behind a swath of head trauma.
"The name is Rainbow Dash." She scratched her hoof back along the floor, unable to care less that her voice chose that moment to break like a window. "And I am gonna kill ya!"
She charged. All she needed was one punch, and not even the coroner would be able to identify the mealy pulp she left behind. The oaf wasn't even bothering to move out of the way—surprise lit up his big, stupid mug like a bawdy Manehattan billboard.
"Rainbow Dash, stop!"
A pink and yellow blur rushed into the vengeful filly's vision, driving spikes of adrenaline straight into her wings. With a mighty wrench, Rainbow Dash tore herself back just enough so her hoof stopped a mere whisper in front of the newcomer's muzzle.
"F-Fluttershy?" she stammered as she touched back down on the floor. "W-what were you thinking, cutting in front of me like that? I could've sent your teeth on a one-way trip to your brain!"
"Then I'm glad you didn't."
The sudden hardness in the filly's voice caught Rainbow flat-hoofed. She glanced up at her eyes and found herself backing away—those teal-green rounds bored into her brain with the same intensity the head counselor had unleashed on her the night before. Her wings snapped shut against her sides. "But I— I, uh..."
"Shh, shh." Fluttershy's voice resumed its normal, quietly musical tone. "Let's find a place to sit, shall we?"
She led the stupefied filly past Buck, who moved aside without seeming to notice he did so. A fly buzzed in to investigate his teeth, and was able to do so free of difficulty and inconvenience. The other ponies in the cafeteria immediately brought heads and hooves close together and exchanged furious whispers.
The two fillies found a corner when the campers there quickly cleared their places. Rainbow Dash took a seat with her back against the wall while Fluttershy entered the breakfast line, returning with a bowl of oats, a plate of apple slices, and a cup of carrot juice.
Rainbow Dash stared at the food for a minute and knew the gesture was wasted—a huge stone was plugging up her stomach, and she pushed the tray away without touching anything. "Why did you stop me?"
On the other side of the table, Fluttershy's mouth collapsed into a tiny "o". "Why did I?" she squeaked, tapping her hooves together. "Well... you see. I didn't want to see anypony get hurt."
"Really, now?" Rainbow didn't bother to rein in the rising of her voice. "And you didn't think those swamp whompers weren't hurting me back there? That's great. Wait to step in until Rainbow Dash's the bad guy, huh?"
"Um..." Fluttershy fidgeted in place. "That wasn't what I really meant at all..."
"Of course you didn't. You open your mouth and say some stuff, but you don't have the guts to back it up."
"Rainbow Dash, there's something I need to tell you—"
"And I've got something to tell you," snarled Rainbow, pounding the table with her hoof. Some carrot juice spilled onto the oats. "Stay out of other ponies' businesses if you know what's best for you. Do you know how long those two have been yanking my feathers?"
Fluttershy shook her head.
"Ever since I've been here," Rainbow answered. "And it was all because I beat them in a sprint during my first week of camp."
"Maybe they keep bullying you because you keep reacting to them." Then Fluttershy's eyes shot wide open, and she clapped her hooves across her mouth. Too late. She had offered herself up with those words. Rainbow stood up and tore into her like a starving dragon.
"Reacting? You think it's because I'm reacting to them? Are you kidding me? You think those morons would go away just because I ignored them? That only works for a little bit. When I wouldn't respond to them, they turned on the other ponies until they wouldn't hang out with me anymore. Once they got me alone, they just turned it up from there."
Fluttershy bit her lip. "I... I don't understand. Why would they even go that far?"
Rainbow threw her hooves up and sank back into her seat. "I don't know." Her anger left her in a sigh, leaving behind a hollow melancholy in her chest. "If I did, they wouldn't be bothering me anymore, would they?"
By that point in the conversation, business had returned to normal in the cafeteria. Somepony spilled their tray on the other side of the building, drawing enthusiastic applause from the other campers. The sun had advanced into the windows on the far wall, from where it shoved oblivious light into Rainbow Dash's eyes.
"This place stinks," she muttered, rising from her seat. She gazed over the other campers as they left the cafeteria in larger and larger clusters. "The rules stink, the staff stink, the ponies stink. Everything stinks. Wind Storm was right. It's time I headed home."
"Rainbow..." Fluttershy reached her hoof out, but she was too late. Rainbow left her breakfast tray where it was, made her way over to the side exit, and stepped outside.
Her tirade in the cafeteria had drained her. Just by putting one hoof after another, step by step, she found herself halfway up the path to the campers' tents without remembering how she got there. She looked out over the lake and saw strings of foals threading through the rings of the training course.
Yep. She turned back around. It all stinks.
She flicked her ears. That sounded like Fluttershy's voice. Then again, that filly spoke so quietly that there was no way her voice could have carried all the way over from the cafeteria. Nevertheless, Rainbow lingered and listened for a few more moments, just in case she had heard correctly.
Nothing followed. She just needed to leave camp already. Shaking her head, she started up the path once more, determined not to hesitate again.
Her hoof rose to her face before the voice finished calling her name. That pony just didn't give up, did she? She turned around in place, flicking her tail from side to side, as Fluttershy galloped up the path.
"What is it this time?" Rainbow called down.
Fluttershy's head lowered in a fit of panting by the time she drew even with her. "Why'd you leave?" she asked from behind her mane. "I didn't get the chance to tell you..."
"Tell me?" Rainbow Dash's ears perked up. "Tell me what?"
"About what happened at the office after the counselor led you away."
Fluttershy gulped. "Well... now I'm not sure if you'll be glad to hear this, since, um... you said it was time for you to go home." She shifted her hooves as if she were standing on hot embers. "I mean, if that's what you really want to do, I suppose I can't stop you or anything. In fact, maybe I should be encouraging you to take your own path and—"
Rainbow moaned and pressed a hoof against the other pegasus' mouth. "Spit it or save it."
A squeak escaped from Fluttershy's lips as she crouched low to the cloud. "Please don't be mad at me for doing this," she babbled, "but I went ahead and convinced the head counselor to let you stay here after all. I—I hope that's okay with you, and that you're not mad at me! Eep!" She shut her eyes and clasped her hooves over her head.
A whomping, however, was the last thing on Rainbow Dash's mind. Her head flitted to the far off horizon, the words she just heard failing to find hoofholds in her brain before they were swept out of her head. She was certain she had misunderstood. "I'm... not expelled?"
Fluttershy's chin made a little rut in the trail as she shook her head. "I just assumed you really did love being here, and that you love to fly and go fast and do all sorts of wonderful things in the air and if I'm wrong about that, I'm so sorry—I shouldn't have assumed anything."
Rainbow Dash did the only thing for a pony to do in her situation: she sat down. Something drained away through her spine, and its absence spread a strange kind of warmth throughout her body. Her vision still struggled to focus on anything closer than a thousand yards off, but her hoof came upon a trembling shoulder and tapped it.
"Hey," she said. "You really did it? You got the counselors to back off?"
The terrified pegasus looked up at Rainbow from under her mane and gave the barest hint of a nod.
A breeze rushed up the hill and over the two fillies. Rainbow felt the spaces in her head expand to twice their normal volume, and her mind cleared out the debris from her encounter in the cafeteria. Her mane played out behind her like a small, cheerful flag.
For the first time that day, a smile—a real one, rooted in a clear and untroubled present—emerged onto her face. "Wow." She looked back out over the camp with new vision, spotting a trio of pegasi planing strands of rainbow from the lake's surface with their wingtips. "That's something."
She leaned over, wrapped her hooves around Fluttershy's neck, and pulled her close. The soft-spoken pony's coat was warm, and the silky heft of her mane caught Rainbow off guard. Flight camp just wasn't one of those places where personal appearances were worth keeping up. And yet, Rainbow Dash caught herself wondering what would happen if she groomed herself more often.
Not that she was about to fly to Manehattan and buy herself a bunch of Fifth Avenue conditioners, of course. She didn't have time to worry about that kind of girly business. Nevertheless, she wondered.
"Why help me?" She helped the other filly to her hooves. "I... I was really mean to you last night."
Fluttershy flinched. "Oh. Um. Well, I remembered what you said about me ruining your life and everything..." Her eyes slid to the side.
Rainbow Dash cringed.
"No, no, it's okay," said Fluttershy, waving her hooves. "You were right to be angry with me. If I hadn't been in your way, you probably would've flown Deadmare's Dive just fine." Her tail flicked repeatedly as she dug for more words. "It—I felt bad for keeping you from your goal. That's when I asked the head counselor to let you stay." Her eyes drifted toward the sky in apprehensive recollection. "Besides... despite hitting me, and yelling at me, and throwing stuff at my head, you seemed—nice."
All Rainbow Dash could do was stare. Did this filly ever carry a grudge? Did she even know what one was? A long moment of silence passed between them.
"I..." Fluttershy tapped her hoof on the cloud. "I guess I'll be going, then." She turned to walk back down toward the lake.
"No!" Rainbow put a hoof to her mouth, but her outburst had already sent the filly into a hunch. "I mean—wait up." She trotted over to the skittish pony and raised a hoof across her chest so she couldn't run off right away. What did she even want to say? Words were some other pony's talent. She expressed herself best in the sky, where her wings spelled out a language she understood better. Fortunately, Fluttershy remained where she was, one teal eye looking down at her with quiet attention.
Rainbow Dash knew what she wanted to say was in her head, but she couldn't get to it with her huge brain just standing there in her way! She clenched her teeth and tore through her gray matter like a werewolf—or was that more a zombie's doing?—and all that did was leave bits of brain scattered on the floor of her mind.
Well, she accomplished more than that. The words she wanted to say wobbled from the debris like thin smoke, and she managed to glimpse one word of it before it faded into the background. "Thanks," she said, lowering her hoof. She started picking at a little lump on the path, realized what she was doing, and shook her head out.
"Um. You're welcome." Fluttershy began making her way back to camp, and this time, Rainbow didn't bother saying anything else. She shook her head and headed toward her tent, unable to articulate why she suddenly felt so out of it all.
She needed a nap.
Yeah, a nap would do nicely.