“Twilight!” Applejack burst through the library door without knocking. Twilight Sparkle looked up, surprised, and Spike knocked into a bookshelf, causing its contents to fall onto his head. Applejack paused and took a deep breath to calm herself. “Apple Bloom says she saw Rainbow Dash fly into the Everfree Forest some time ago, but she ain't come out yet. Tell her Apple Bloom.”
Behind Applejack were the three Cute Mark Crusaders, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Bell, and Scootaloo. Apple Bloom nodded, and stepped forward looking uneasy.
“Well, us Cute Mark Crusaders were just passin' through town, as usual, looking for things we could do to help us get out Cute Marks. We saw Rainbow Dash––”
Scootaloo pushed past Applejack and interrupted. “––and she was flying around like she usually does, zooooommmm, and she went way up high, and then she dove down right into the Everfree Forest!”
Sweetie Bell moved forward next to her two friends. “We waited for her to fly out again, but she never did.”
“Alright, let's be logical about this.” Twilight said, in her matter-of-fact voice. “You're sure she never came out of the forest again?” She looked skeptically down at the three.
“Mmhmm.” Apple Bloom nodded her head furiously. “Rainbow Dash always leaves a rainbow-y streak across the sky when she flies. We woulda seen it!”
“That is true.” Twilight said thoughtfully. “What if Rainbow Dash is just playing a prank of some sort?” Not a very good one. she thought.
“Well, I already thought o' that, Twilight. But Dash didn' know the girls were watching her.” Applejack shot down Twilight's second theory. “Darnflabbit Twilight, we're wastin' time!” she said, stamping a hoof. “What if Dash is hurt? You know how reckless she is!”
“You may be right. You get the others, and I'll gather supplies.” Twilight said, with an edge in her voice.
“Sure thing Twilight!” Applejack started to run out the door when she remembered the Crusaders. “You girls go home. Ya can all stay at mah place with Apple Bloom if'n ya like. But don't say nothin' to anypony about Dash bein' missin', ya hear?”
“O-Okay Applejack.” Apple Bloom replied. The Crusaders had already been to the Everfree Forest once, and knew what a dangerous and scary place it was. Once was enough for them...for now.
Applejack ran out the door to alert the rest of her friends. No use arousing everypony about Rainbow Dash, just in case this does all turn out to be a prank. But deep down, Applejack feared the worst.
* * *
Everyone gathered at Twilight's house. Applejack had already briefed them on what was going on. By the time they were all together and packing to go, it was late afternoon, just a couple hours before the sun would set. Not that it mattered, the Everfree Forest was always dark, day or night. Rarity had brought saddlebags for them to carry all the supplies in. Last time they had all gone to the Everfree Forest, there had been one more member in their party. Each of them was anxious. Twilight was busy gathering last minute information from her books, grabbing extra things she thought she might need. Pinkie Pie was jumping around, but not in anticipation this time. Applejack was trying to make sure that everypony's saddlebags were packed accordingly to what everypony could carry, but that was hard with Twilight adding things last minute. Fluttershy just stood in a corner, watching everyone in their chaotic preparations.
“Okay.” Twilight finally said. “Is everypony ready?”
Everypony nodded in agreement, and Twilight moved past them to lead the way out the door.
* * *
They paused before heading into the Everfree Forest, each taking a deep breath. There were untold dangers and uncharted territory in the forest. But they had to face it. For Rainbow Dash.
“Now, I've made a rough map of the Everfree Forest.” Twilight said, pulling a map out of one of her saddlebags and using magic to make it float in front of her. “Zecora's house is at the top, because we haven't explored much beyond that, so we don't know where the forest goes from their. I've used measurements to predict where Rainbow Dash would have landed, according to where the younger ponies saw her enter the forest. Calculating her velocity and trajectory––”
“Uh, Twi? I think we all trust you to lead us in the right direction.” Applejack interjected. None of them knew what Twilight was talking about, but they all knew that Twilight knew what Twilight was talking about.”
“Right.” Twilight said sheepishly, rolling the map back up and slipping it back into place. “We need to head northwest, firstly. If we don't––” she paused, careful to choose the right words. “If we don't find any sign of Rainbow Dash there, we'll try Zecora's. Everypony nodded once in agreement, and followed Twilight.
When they reached the sight Twilight had marked on the map, they spread out to search. All they found were a few blue feathers, which Twilight suggested could have come from birds instead. But everyone knew that they were Dash's feathers. No pony wanted to say what was on everyone's mind. Dash had been here. Those were her feathers. Panic was rising in all of them, fear....that something had gotten Rainbow Dash.
* * *
The only place left to check was Zecora's. After that, there were no leads, no clues...Even if Dash was alive somewhere in the Everfree Forest, none of them knew where to look.
Zecora didn't seem surprised to see them. She had three small cauldrons sitting to one side of the room, two of which had fires under them.
Once they were all inside, Zecora spoke to the searchers.
“I knew dat you would all be comin' here. Der is no use in hidin' da truth. This is all I have for you.” She walked over to a corner and picked up a small bag. She was silent as she laid the bag before the five. “You're not going to like what you see.” Zecora back away, continuing with her project.
Twilight Sparkle stepped forward, gulping as she slowly opened the bag with her magic. Inside were feathers. Lots of feathers. Blue feathers. Some of the tips were stained crimson where they had been pulled away. Mixed in with them was a bunch of hair, long enough to be Rainbow Dash's tail, the long strands tied at both ends so it would all stay together.
Twilight Sparkle backed away from the bag, her eyes wide.
“Twi?” Applejack prodded.
Twilight pushed past Fluttershy, still moving backward, not watching where she was going, until she got to the wall. Then she slumped down, her head in her hooves. “No. No.” she kept whispering.
Applejack drew up her courage and glanced at what Twilight had seen. “Ooooh.” Applejack had half expected there to be bones, but there wasn't. That was all that was left of their friend. Applejack went to comfort Twilight as best she could.
Pinkie Pie and Rarity went together, Pinkie Pie creeping forward with her head down as if something might spring from the bag, and Rarity trying to turn her head away to avoid looking, but knowing that she had to see. Pinkie Pie didn't say anything. She just sat on the floor right there, staring at a vacant spot on one of the walls. Rarity turned her face away and covered her mouth, suppressing the urge to vomit.
Fluttershy was the last. She crept forward, and then crept back. Two steps forward, one step back, until she had finally reached the somewhat gruesome sight. The small amount of blood on the feathers made her woozy. Any amount of blood made Fluttershy woozy. She stood for a moment, and wobbled. No one came to help her, because no one noticed. Fluttershy fainted and fell to the floor with a light thump.
Zecora came over and removed the bag, setting it aside. She moved Fluttershy to some blankets against one of the walls.
Twilight and Applejack still sat against the wall. Neither of them cried. Twilight was too shocked, and Applejack was busy trying to comfort Twilight to think about herself. Pinkie Pie's trance didn't last long, and she walked over to look after Fluttershy. Rarity had run outside to get some air after a few moments.
Zecora sadly surveyed the four ponies in her home, each dealing with grief the best way they knew how.
* * *
After awhile Zecora got out several small bowls and filled them with something from one of the cauldrons. Rarity had come inside, and ever since she had been pacing back and fourth between Fluttershy and Pinkie, and Twilight and Applejack, trying to find something she could do to help.
“Rarity.” Zecora called. Rarity quickly came over, eager to do something. “This is a special tea. Please help me give some to everyone.” Rarity picked up all of the bowls at once using her magic, and moved around the room, passing it to everypony.
“Here sugar cube. This'll help.” Applejack lift a bowl to Twilight's lips, and she sipped at it.”
Pinkie Pie drank hers slowly, still solemnly staring at Fluttershy.
Zecora came over and gave a little of the tea to Fluttershy. It woke her, and she coughed a couple of times before her eyes opened. Pinkie nearly dropped her tea, grateful that Fluttershy was alright.
Zecora helped Fluttershy drink the rest of the tea, which seemed to make her perk up. Zecora filled gave everyone more tea when they needed it, and Rarity helped.
After awhile Twilight stood up. Her eyes were still slightly puffy from the tears she had finally shed. Applejack sniffed and cleared her throat, following Twilight. “Is everypony ready to go?” Twilight said, looking around the room. No one replied, but there was no objection. Twilight picked up the bag of Rainbow Dash's remains using her magic, and placed them in one of her saddlebags.
She turned to Zecora, who had begun to clean up the bowls around the room. “Thank you, Zecora.”
Twilight walked to the door, and everyone followed. She took a deep breath before opening the door. Once they left, they would enter the outside world. A place where they had jobs and duties, and where there were other ponies. There was so much to do to cover up what was lost. Somepony would have to break the news to everypony, someone would have to take care of the weather in Ponyville. Out there was a place full of ponies that couldn't understand what they were going through.
The real world was a place where they would have to move on.
Five years later...
Zecora walked into Ponyville, now a regular visitor to the town. She was clothed in her normal hooded cloak, but her hood was usually down like it was today. But today, there was something different. Today, a hooded pony walked beside her. Her cloak was long, and dragged on the ground, covering her entire body. The hood was large, and left a shadow on her face, so that her features were indiscernible.
They both headed in the direction of Twilight Sparkle's house.
Zecora knocked on the door, and Spike answered. “Oh, hey Zecora.” It was then that he noticed Zecora's hooded fried, standing just behind her. “Who's this?”
“In a moment Spike.” she replied. “I must speak with Twilight Sparkle. She is at home?”
“Oh ya, come on in!” Spike walked away and left the door open for the two visitors. “Twilight!” he called.
Zecora walked to the middle of the room, glancing around for Twilight.
Twilight Sparkle's head popped up over the railing on the second story of her tree house. “Oh, hello Zecora. I didn't expect to see you today.” She made her way down the stairs. “What did you––” She paused at the foot of the stairs, noticing Zecora's cloaked friend, who was huddled by the door.
“Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize you'd brought someone with you.” she smiled. “Who do I have the pleasure of meeting?” she asked, making her way to Zecora. She smiled at the newcomer, who remained shrouded under the cloak.
“Twilight Sparkle, this is a pony from your past, whom I've brought to you at last.”
The other pony stepped forward. A hoof came out and reached to her hood. Twilight's smiled faded when she saw the blue leg, such a familiar blue... The hood was pulled back to reveal that familiar messy multicolored mane.
* * *
“It's been...awhile.” Rainbow Dash kicked at the floor with her foot.
“Rainbow Dash!” Spike yelled, running over and throwing his arms around Dash's neck.
“Heya Spike! Looks like you've grown a bit.”
Spike looked down at himself. “Oh ya, I guess so. But Rainbow Dash, we all––we all thought––” He threw his arms around her neck again, and she put a hoof around his torso.
“Twilight! Twilight it's Rainbow Dash!” he said, turning around to look at Twilight Sparkle.
“I don't believe it.” she whispered.
“Maybe you would if I explained things.” said Rainbow Dash, slipping off her cloak. She walked closer to Twilight, who backed away, shocked.
“It's me, Twilight. I'm not a ghost.” she sighed.
“I wanna know where you've been Rainbow Dash. And why...you left like you did.” said Spike.
Rainbow Dash sat down on the floor, and Zecora sat nearby. Spike pulled a book close and sat on it like a cushion. Twilight Sparkle tentatively came closer, but not nearly as close as Spike and Zecora, and sat down herself.
“That day that I flew into the Everfree Forest...I thought I was a goner. I had planned to swoop back up right before I hit the trees, but I mis-timed. I ended up hitting the trees, and if I hadn't been going as fast as I was I would have probably just gotten caught in them. But since I couldn't stop myself, I fell all the way to the forest floor. All the way down, everything hurt. The branches tore at my skin, giving me a lot of cuts. Gashes, really. But the worst part was...well, by the time I reached the ground, I couldn't fly anymore. I didn't have...I didn't have any wings. I would have come home even with all my scrapes. But I...I just couldn't face you guys if...if I couldn't fly...No, that's not it.” Rainbow Dash put a hoof to her face, pausing. She lowered it as she continued.
“You guys just couldn't see me without my wings. Maybe that was...I don't know, vain of me, like if Rarity went bald, she would probably never come out of her house. I knew that you all would still be my friends no matter what, but I just...I just couldn't. I would be out of my element. I wouldn't have a job. I just...I wouldn't know what to do with myself. And everypony would just...they would have just felt bad for me, and tried to make things better while I was grounded. I'm not one who likes attention, Twilight. I would have been out of a job. Flying is the only thing I'm good at. I couldn't...I couldn't let everypony see how broken I was. I'm always playing the tough guy, but...without my wings, I just...I had nothing. I was nothing.”
Rainbow Dash paused and shuddered, remembering the incident, always so fresh in her mind. Twilight Sparkle debated getting up and coming over, wrapping her neck around her friend's. But Dash continued.
“I woke up in Zecora's house. After seeing myself...I told her I didn't want to be found. I was going to run away, to live my life on my own until my feathers grew back. But Zecora promised to keep my secret. That whole time you guys were in her house...grieving for me...I wanted so badly to come out of the next room and tell you the truth.”
“Zecora nursed me back to health. I've been practicing my flying, so that I could get to be the way I used to. The way everyone remembers. But the thing is...if...if you guys can't forgive me for what I did...what I put you all through...I mean, I get it. I wouldn't blame you if you guys weren't still my friends. I realize that I died five years ago, and maybe things have turned out better off that way in Ponyville. But I...” she sighed. “I'm sorry Twilight. I'm sorry to everypony. I'm just......I'm sorry.” She bowed her head, and Spike saw a couple drops of liquid fall to the floor.
* * *
“Rainbow Dash...” Twilight Sparkle suddenly got up and ran over to her, throwing her neck around Dash's. “All we've wanted since you left is for you to come back to us.”
After a few moments the hug got awkward for Rainbow Dash, but she let Twilight Sparkle have her moment.
Rainbow Dash cleared her throat before she spoke again. “So, how have things been in Ponyville while I...was away?”
Twilight finally let Rainbow Dash out of her hold, and Dash saw that her eyes were already red and puffy from crying. Twilight turned around and took a deep breath, trying to compose herself before she spoke.
“Well, for the first couple of years after...after...the incident, I took care of the weather with my magic. When Scootaloo became old enough, she started helping me. It took some of the weight off my shoulders. Now she's the full time weatherpony, although she's much lazier than you were, and not quite as fast. But...sometimes I mistake her for you, when she's up there kicking clouds and practicing back flips...”
Rainbow Dash nodded, waiting for Twilight Sparkle to continue on and tell her what she really wanted to hear.
“As for the others...Everything is almost normal with the exception of Pinkie Pie. She hasn't pulled a prank since. And she created a special cupcake in your honor. It's called a Dashcake, but it's basically just a rainbow cupcake. They were served...they were unveiled at...your funeral.”
Twilight paused, and Rainbow Dash looked away guiltily. But Twilight wasn't done yet.
“That day was extremely overcast, which was fitting, I guess. Without you controlling the weather, things got out of hand. Everypony in town was there, though. Even some ponies from Cloudsdale came. I even saw Gilda, but I don't think anypony talked to her. I had a special request sent to the Wonderbolts, and they did a flyby.”
“You—You guys did all of that...just for me?” Rainbow Dash's mouth hung open.
“Mhhmm.” Twilight sniffed and nodded. “You were—you ARE one of our best friends Dash. We never wanted to let you go or forget you. And Pinkie's special cupcakes...They helped us to never forget.”
“Twilight...you're gonna make me cry.” said Dash, sniffling.
“Oh Rainbow Dash...you already are.”
Rainbow Dash rubbed a hoof across her face to dry it. “I'm just...so glad to be home.”
“Have you told anyone else that you're back yet Dash?”
“No. I thought that...maybe you could help me figure out how to break it to the others. A...A bit smoother than how I handled things with you.”
Twilight Sparkle looked upward as she thought, and a sniffle escaped her. “Well...I know something that may not be better, but...it'll get it over with all at once.”
“What's that Twilight?”
* * *
“A party? I...don't follow Twilight.”
“A party to welcome you home! That way, you can tell everypony at once. It'll be casual, and hopefully not as awkward. What do you think?”
“I don't know Twilight...That seems kinda extravagant, don't you think?”
“Nonsense! You're like the prodigal pony! We thought you were dead, and at long last you have returned home to us. We shall killed the fatted calf and...”
“Uh...not that last part. Why don't you stay here while I go talk to Pinkie Pie?” Twilight Sparkle headed for the door.
“But...won't you have to tell her?” Rainbow Dash said, still unsure of the whole idea. But, once Twilight Sparkle set her mind to something, wild horses—or something of that sort—couldn't drag her away from it.
“Hmm...” Twilight Sparkle stopped to think. “Well, no, not really. Pinkie Pie has never needed an excuse to throw a party. I'll tell her that an old friend of ours—well, mine—has come for a visit. All she'll need to know is that it's a welcome party.”
“If you're sure about this.”
“Trust me. This will be perfect.” And with that, Twilight Sparkle was gone out the door.
* * *
Twilight Sparkle had the party set at her house. Rainbow Dash waited upstairs, carefully watching out the window as everypony made their way to the party. Pinkie Pie wasted no time in planning parties. It was amazing that she could whip up a party and hand out invitations all in one day, and still have most of Ponyville show up. She hadn't lost her touch.
Was the part even bigger and more festive than she remembered? Were there more balloons, streamers, snacks? Rainbow Dash hadn't been to any sort of party in a long time. The sight of it all made things seem...normal. The way they used to be. She and all five of her closest friends, laughing together.
Rainbow Dash shook her head. She hadn't spoken to anypony except Twilight Sparkle yet. She had no idea if everypony would take her back. Things had worked out fine with Twilight, but...perhaps nopony else wanted her around anymore. What if everypony hated her for what she did?
Dash shook her head again and took a deep breath. It had to be almost time to break the news. She had been thinking about it all day. There wasn't much else to do cooped up in Twilight's house until evening. She had also been confined to the upstairs portion of the house while Pinkie Pie, Twilight, and Zecora set everything up in the afternoon, which was even worse. Rainbow Dash had never liked being cooped up. It came with being a Pegasus, she guessed. Always having the wide open sky, able to go wherever one wanted...
“Rainbow Dash?” Twilight Sparkle had appeared at the top of the stairs. Dash had been busy looking out the window, lost in thought. She turned at the sound of Twilight's voice.
“Are you ready?”
“I'm always ready, Twi.” Dash said, though Twilight could hear the nervousness in her voice.
“I'll announce you, so be ready.” Twilight said as she turned around and went halfway down the stairs.
“Show time.” Rainbow Dash said, moving closer to the top of the staircase.
* * *
“Fillies and gentleponies! The time has come for me to introduce the guest of honor!” Twilight turned around and looked at Rainbow Dash, who was just far enough behind the first step to be seen by anypony but Twilight.
Rainbow Dash gulped and took a deep breath, and then put her hoof down on the first step.
Everypony gasped as she came into view, and she hear murmurs from those that still recognized her. She went and stood by Twilight Sparkle, now in full view of everypony.
Rainbow Dash cleared her throat and prepared to speak. She had been thinking of what to say all afternoon, and Twilight hadn't been there to help her with the right words. Her mouth felt dry and her cheeks felt hot. She wanted to run back up the steps and fly out the window. The room went silent when she cleared her throat.
“I know it's been a long time since I was last in Ponyville. And the way that I left...well, it wasn't the best, heh. I'm sorry to everypony for what I put you all through. I'll never do something like that again. I had to...I had to take care of some things, that were really serious. For me, I mean. It's nothing that anypony else needs to worry about.” Rainbow Dash coughed nervously. “Uh, anyway, I'm here to stay now, for good. I mean, that is, if everypony can forgive me. And I wanna give my thanks to Twilight for hosting this great party. And for Pinkie Pie...” Dash quickly searched the crowd until she found her friend. “...because she still throws the best parties!”
There were a few moments of silence when nopony knew what to say. Many ponies were a bit shocked, and those that hadn't been close to Rainbow Dash or who had moved to Ponyville in the last five years were a little confused. Rainbow Dash didn't know what she had expected to happen after her little speech. Thinking quickly, she decided to just “go with the flow.” This was a party, after all!
“Hit it DJ!” yelled Rainbow Dash, jumping into the air and gliding down into the midst of the party goers.
Everypony welcome Rainbow Dash back of course, and she repeatedly had to tell her story. And, later, after giving Pinkie Pie a hug, Dash initiated a high five, which resulted in Pinkie getting a shock to the hand from a hand buzzer Dash held.
“I heard you've lost your touch, Pinkie.” Dash said with a laugh. Laughing was something that Dash hadn't done in a very long time.
“We'll see about that!” said Pinkie Pie, glaring at Rainbow Dash before they both burst into laughter again. Pinkie Pie reached over to the food table, grabbing a Dashcake and shoving it into Rainbow Dash's face. Rainbow Dash licked some of the cake off of her face.
“Pinkie, I thought this cake was supposed to be a reminder of me.” she scowled.
“What's the matter with it Dash?” Pinkie Pie started to look hurt.
“I'm not this sweet.” Rainbow Dash smiled.
Dear Princess Celestia,
Today I learned that sometimes life can surprise you in ways you never imagined. A friend may sometimes do things that you don't quite understand, but it's important to always be ready to listen to their reasons. Nopony is ever perfect, and some mistakes are bigger than others. Most importantly, I now know that friendship lasts forever, even with the rough times.
Your faithful student,