"There ya go, Tank," Dash said affectionately as she settled the tortoise down in his new enclosure. "I know it's not as big as Fluttershy's yard, but it's only for nighttime or when I'm on a trip. I'll make sure to let you out every morning before I go on weather patrol."
Tank turned his head and gave his mistress a smile, albeit both at an exceedingly slow pace. Despite her love of speed, Dash couldn't help but smile in return as she took a step back to admire the space she'd managed to set up in her house. Despite what most ponies thought, pegasi could and did have items in their houses other than clouds, albeit most of it had to be enchanted to stay supported by the otherwise immaterial vapor. Rainbow had spent some of her hard earned savings on such items as well, including the twenty-five square foot enclosure for her new pet would live in.
But only some of the time, Dash reminded herself as she turned to canter towards the kitchen in order to get a bowl of water. I know I wouldn't want to be cooped up all the time, and even a tortoise like Tank will want to wander around. I'll make sure he gets out like I promised.
Of course, she could always leave the little magic-driven helicopter she'd gotten for her pet attached to him all the time, but the tortoise had shown a definite preference already to having it taken off when play time was over with. Rainbow gave herself a mental shrug and decided that it was probably like a tow harness in that it was something that fit well enough, but nothing you'd want to wear constantly. Though Big Macintosh always wears that plow harness everywhere. Maybe I could ask him how I can make the 'copter more comfortable for Tank?
The pegasus added that on her mental list of things to do in the morning, after breakfast and letting Tank down on the ground to run around. Or meander as the case may be, Dash thought with a chuckle as she reached the kitchen and used her mouth to pull a portion of dark, heavy cloud from a larger clump stored in her pantry. Having acquired what she came for, Rainbow turned around and walked back into what was best described as the living room of her home, since it was the largest space and it could hold several ponies in easy comfort. Of course, some of that space was now taken up by Tank's enclosure, but Dash seldom had anypony over and she doubted she herself would notice the difference after a few days.
Rainbow chased such thoughts from her mind as she reached the small pen and lowered her head to set the clump of cloud to rest against the musty layer of soil that Fluttershy had told her would be best for Tank to rest on. Already the cyan pegasus was liking how the earthy smell complimented but didn't overpower the normal clean-smelling scent of crisp, cool, wet air that normally permeated her residence. The soil also caught hold of the moist cloud fairly well, and Dash appreciated that as she released the miniature cloud and then reached a foreleg into the enclosure to press her hoof into the clump, deforming it into a rough bowl shape. Then, carefully and with the lightest touch, Rainbow tapped the inside edge of the cloud bowl, and within seconds the cloud lost some of its dark tint as the middle filled up with fresh water.
"Here's some water, Tank" Dash said, stepping back again and watching with newly acquired patience as the tortoise slowly turned and walked over to the proffered bowl. Even though she owed her pet a great deal of gratitude, it had still been a fairly large adjustment to her sense of time to get used to Tank's gradual movements, but in the week since the incident in Ghastly Gorge the pegasus had come to appreciate the tortoise's style. Like I said in my letter to the princess, he may take a while, but he won't stop. Dash glanced to the Wonderbolts poster she hung up in the living room and nodded to herself. Just like me.
"Okay Tank, I'm going to let you have some time to adjust," Dash said, remembering the other reason she'd finished her weather patrol early today. Well, early for me, anyway, she thought with a brief, sheepish grin. "I'm going to go into the den and relax. I'll check in on you in a little bit and see how you're doing." She waited until the tortoise gave her another slow smile and a nod of his head before she smiled back. "Alright, see ya soon." With that the pegasus turned and walked over to a door set into an interior cloud wall. Unlike the other doors in her house, this one was made of wood rather than cloud, and it was set in a frame made of the same material. The frame was enchanted, of course, as was the wood paneling that adorned the entire inner surface of the room it opened into, a room that was revealed as Dash pushed the simple swinging door inward and reached a hoof to flip up a switch.
The cyan pegasus blinked her eyes to adjust as the light fixtures came on; simple bars of rarefied gas that glowed from the inherent electrical charge that gathered on the bottom of her cloud home. Like many other pegasi before her, Dash had sought to prevent accidental lightning discharges from her cloud abode, though unlike most others she had strung some wires through the walls to act as conductors to the upper layers to even out the potentials. Of course, she also tapped those wires to draw current and power the few electrical devices she had a particular liking for.
Those devices were kept in this room, as well as quite a bit of other things as well. Although not every pegasus liked to collect regular items from the ground, the few who did like Rainbow often found that it was too expensive to enchant large collections, and creating a room such as this to hold and protect such items was not unheard of.
Not that I'll ever let anypony know about it, Dash thought as she moved into the room and let the door swing shut behind her. If they saw the kinds of things I collect, the books and movies, I would just die of embarrassment. I'd never be able to show my face in Ponyville again. I'd- Dash shook her head out of this train of thought as she walked to a small bookcase that was filled with small boxes of silver discs rather than books. She felt a little devilish today, so the cyan pegasus picked out a particular recording, nudging it away from its fellows with the delicate touch of a wing before she grabbed the case with her mouth and pulled it out to place it on the floor in front of the furnishing that held up the television and disc player. A few deft movements of wings and hoofs had the silver disc out and placed in the player's tray, its colorful title face up. Another tap of a hoof pushed the tray inward and Dash quickly reached up with her head and used her snout to flip the TV's on/off toggle.
The title screen came up immediately, and Rainbow smiled as she tapped the play button with a hoof and then turned to walk towards the single couch that sat in the middle of the room. It was of earth pony construction, of course, since she wouldn't dare consider bringing cloud furnishings into this room. Dash settled on it with a mild feeling of reluctance due to its lack of luxuriousness, though this feeling disappeared as the video started playing.
Rainbow Dash stretched out on the couch and grinned in guilty pleasure as the action started up right away. Part of her wondered if she should just ignore the outside world so readily, but Dash dismissed that thought out of hoof. Her home was high and safe from random visitors, save pegasi, and most of them never came by, anyway. The door to the room didn't even have a lock: she had never seen the reason to have one as the few times she invited guests over she just covered the door over with cloud to hide it until the visitors left, and nopony was going to just saunter into her house uninvited.
* * * *
"Are you sure you should just pop up there unannounced?" Spike asked of Twilight Sparkle as the lavender unicorn was levitating some items into her saddlebags.
"Spike, I'm only going to be there for a few minutes to drop off the pictures Rarity took of the pet contest last week and Pinkie Pie's cupcakes," Twilight replied evenly as she finished packing and used her magic to close and buckle the bags. "Besides, I can't wait to tell Dash that the library is going to start carrying music and I want her input since she's the one in our group who listens to it the most."
"Yeah, all rock and roll," Spike replied with a huff. "Didn't Princess Luna give you a long list of that stuff already?"
Twilight shook her head as she levitated the saddlebags onto her back and then tightened the strap between them to maintain a good hold. "The princess gave me a list of Metal albums. I'm not sure what the difference is, but she assured me there is a significant one even though she was quick to say both genres were good in her book." Twilight then paused and her countenance became unsure. "Although she did glance to the side after that and muttered something about 'death to the false metal.' It was kind of creepy."
The purple dragon gave Twilight a look. "Are you sure she's not going to turn back into Nightmare Moon?"
"I'm positive, Spike," the lavender unicorn replied with a bit of laughter in her voice. "She's just passionate about the music. Or so I would assume, since Celestia herself told me that half the reason Luna was out of the public eye for so long was because she was attempting to catch up with culture. Apparently she became quite enraptured by the new music styles."
"Well, if you say so," Spike said with a shrug. "Still, are you sure you won't be bothering Rainbow? I mean, Fluttershy did say that Dash finished her work early to have some off time today."
Twilight shrugged a bit at the question. "I'm sure it won't be a big problem. I'll just teleport up there, drop off the pictures and the cupcakes Pinky made, ask her to think of some suggestions for music she could make once she's had time to consider, and then I'll be gone. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes, tops."
"Alright then," Spike agreed, finding little to argue with. "I guess I'll start dinner while you're gone. What do you want?"
"Nothing special, just so long as it's edible," Twilight replied. "Now hush for a moment, I need to cast the cloudwalking spell." She waited until her friend and assistant fell silent, and then closed her eyes and concentrated. Soon enough her horn glowed, and this glow expanded to encompass her whole body for a moment before it faded away. Twilight opened her eyes and nodded in satisfaction. "There. I must say it's much easier to do it the more I practice."
"And to think you almost didn't see that entry in The Old Pony's Almanac," Spike observed. "Good thing you decided to double check it."
"At my assistant's urging, yes," Twilight replied with a sheepish grin. "Thank you again, Spike. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"But of course, milady," Spike said in a fake accent, and then bowed.
Twilight laughed at his minor antic and then nodded. "Alright, I'm off. See you soon!" With that, she closed her eyes again and the glow around her horn returned. It was only there a moment though before a brilliant purple bubble encapsulated the mage and then vanished, leaving only empty air behind.
* * * *
Twilight opened her eyes and had to blink them several times to adjust to the brighter light of the outdoors. The late afternoon sun was especially bright thanks to her new position on the cloud portico that stood affixed to Dash's floating home, and Twilight breathed a brief sigh of relief that both spells had worked perfectly. I should have more trust in my own abilities, but that last little bit of doubt never quite leaves my mind, the unicorn thought, as she trotted across the soft cloud and up to the front door. There she raised a hoof and knocked against the entrance and then waited patiently.
She was still waiting two minutes later with a frown on her face. That's odd, Rainbow usually answers right away, Twilight thought, having come to experience Dash's response time with several visits following the unicorn's discovery of the cloudwlaking spell. "Rainbow?" Twilight called out, knocking again. "Are you there?"
The door shifted open slightly as she finished knocking, and Twilight frowned at it. Does that mean she's home, or does that mean she just forgot to secure it? The lavender unicorn asked herself. Should I look inside? I don't want to violate her privacy, but at the same time I don't want to just turn around and go home without seeing if she's here.
Twilight stood still and considered her options for two full minutes before she shrugged to herself. I'll just open the door and look in without crossing the threshold. I won't be intruding and I'll be able to see if there's any indication that she's home. Part of her worried about the idea all the same, as some ponies could be quite protective of even such a tiny glimpse. Yet Twilight knew her friend well, and she felt that a small peek wouldn't hurt anything. Thus she raised a foreleg and gently pressed her hoof against the door, nudging it open further until she could get a good look into the living room.
A small noise startled Twilight just then, and she yipped and jumped in place. Then she saw the source of the gurgling sound and smiled. "Oh, Tank, you startled me," the unicorn said to the tortoise, her voice raised to carry over the dozen or so feet to the pet's enclosure. The tortoise slowly smiled at her and Twilight giggled a bit. It's hard not to feel happy when Tank smiles, the unicorn thought as she took a step forward, just enough to poke her head and neck over the threshold. She craned her head back and forth but saw nothing that indicated that anypony had been inside recently. "Is Dash here?" The unicorn asked, looking to the tortoise.
Tank slowly nodded his head and then gradually gestured to the side. Twilight followed his subtle movements and noticed a wooden door she had overlooked due to its mundane nature. Mundane on the ground, though, the unicorn thought to herself as she became curious and unconsciously walked into the house. Here in a cloud building? That's unusual enough, but I've been here before and I've never seen it until today. Is this new?
"Dash?" Twilight called, her voice lowered to a more appropriate 'indoor voice'. Again, no reply came, though now that she was inside the lavender unicorn heard unintelligible noise coming from behind the wooden door. Twilight felt her curiosity rise higher, and she slowly walked over to the door. Some clarity came to the noise, and she recognized the beat and rhythm of music overlaid by indistinct voices speaking to one another in excited tones. "Yeah, give it to her!" A third voice said more clearly, instantly recognizable as Rainbow Dash.
What in the world? Twilight thought in confusion. Did Dash hear me? Who is she speaking to? A glance at the door showed that it lacked any lock or bolt, and Twilight reached up with a foreleg to push it open. She stopped herself just as her hoof touched the door, though, and started to reconsider. Maybe I should just go? Rainbow clearly is busy with something, and I've already intruded enough for today.
Slowly, Twilight started to retract her leg. An instant later, though, her curiosity was piqued again as the music rose to a crescendo and several unfamiliar new sounds and voices rose to match it. Ever the student and seeker of knowledge, Twilight realized that she had to know what was going on or else it would eat at her thoughts for weeks, if not months to come. Besides, the unicorn thought as she returned her hoof to the door and started to slowly push it open. Rainbow didn't even put a lock on this thing, so it can't be that private, right?
The door opened easily and silently on well-oiled hinges, and Twilight felt her confusion turn into surprise at seeing the various earth pony furnishings in the room, including laden bookcases and shelving. What drew her attention most of all, however, was the couch in the middle of the room whose occupant was only seen by the way one of her wings which was now fully extended above the back of the seat. Then her eyes swiveled to watch the television, whose screen was even now showing something so shocking that Twilight felt her jaw drop open in sheer astonishment.
"...Mahō no ponī notatakai, go Celestia goooo!" The song emanating from the television set matched up with the highly stylized cartoon of a massive mechanical figure firing various beam weaponry, over which credits flashed. Both song and image faded into black beneath the last set of credits briefly before they, too, faded to black. A few seconds later the screen abruptly changed to a silent menu display, and Twilight startled ever so slightly as Dash climbed off of the couch, bringing herself into full view of the unicorn.
"Now that's just what I needed," Dash said to herself as she crossed over to the disc player and pressed the 'open' button with her hoof. She sat on the floor as the tray opened and carefully lifted the disc and placed it back into its protective case, all without looking behind her.
Twilight watched the pegasus in silence, feeling a growing sense of unease at her unintentional spying. Finally, the unicorn closed her mouth, swallowed, and then spoke up. "Dash?"
"AUGH!" The pegasus screamed in pure fright, and then shot upwards out of reflex. Unfortunately, reflex forgot about the impenetrable ceiling, and Dash slammed into the wood paneling in a half second before taking another half second to slam back to the floor a few feet away from where she had taken off from, right in front of a bookcase. This one was filled with books rather than little discs, and the jarring impact jostled three of them to topple out of their perches and fall down, all landing on Rainbow Dash's head one after the other.
"Ow-ow-oowww," Dash groaned as she lay spread-eagle on the floor. Carefully she brought up a foreleg and rubbed her hoof gently over the bump on her head. "What the hay- Twilight?" Dash said, blinking to focus her eyes as she looked up at the intruder. "Wh-what are you doing here?"
"I was just coming to visit," Twilight explained as she took a step forward and offered a hoof to her friend. Dash reached up and grabbed the limb easily, and despite her lack of physical training Twilight managed to pull the pegasus upright. "You didn't answer the door and it was unlocked and I thought you might be home so I nosed in just to see and then Tank startled me and I asked him where you were and he nodded over here and I never saw this door before and..." Twilight paused then to take a deep breath to allow her deoxygenated body to recover. How does Pinkie do this all the time? She wondered briefly before refocusing her attention on the perplexed, pensive pegasus perched in front of her. "Were you watching japonymation?"
"Uhh," Dash replied inarticulately, reaching up to rub her head with a hoof again, this time in doubt. "Well, you see, uhh..."
Twilight felt the embarrassment rolling off of her friend, and the unicorn glanced down in hopes that breaking eye contact would let Rainbow recover. Instead, though, Twilight found her attention drawn to the books lying on the floor, and an idea hit her. "Here, let me help you with these," she said, using her unicorn power to levitate the books up.
"N-no, that's okay," Dash said quickly, reaching out with her still-raised hoof. "I can take care of that."
"It's the least I could do," Twilight replied earnestly. "I do live in a library you- Wait, what?" The unicorn interrupted herself as she finally read the titles. "The Clouds of Steel by Haysaac Stablov? Starship Ponies by Herbert Hooflein? At Basilisk Depot by Webly Cloudwalker?"
"Gimme those!" Dash snapped, her irritation finally overcoming her fear and embarrassment. Quickly she stepped forward and swept the books out of the air with her upraised leg, and then turned to set them on the couch. "It's none of your business anyway!" Rainbow added, as she turned to give her friend a hard stare. When she looked back where Twilight had been standing, though, Dash only saw the open door and belatedly realized that the unicorn had walked past her to look further into her den.
"You have the entire manga of Ponikira? And the movie?" Twilight said, almost to herself as she continued absorbing this paradigm-altering information. Her eyes then alighted on a row of disc cases that had a gap in it. "Is that the entire run of-?"
"Mecha Battle Dragon Suit Celestia, yes!" Dash interrupted in a voice that was borderline panic. This seemed to get through to the unicorn, and Twilight turned to regard her friend with new eyes. "Oh my gosh. Dash, you're a nerd."
"That is the black hole calling the sun dark and you know it!" Dash hotly retorted, her wings raised up and out to emphasize her annoyance. The pegasus then blinked as she realized what she had said, and then closed her eyes and pressed a hoof to her face. "Ugh, I did not just say that."
"Yes, you did," Twilight replied, her mind still much in a state of shock. "Rainbow, how... How long?"
Rainbow Dash sighed, and then lowered her leg to the floor. Her head lowered as she cast her gaze towards a spot on the floor. "Please, don't tell anypony," she said, and then looked up at the unicorn. "I'll tell you everything, just please keep this a secret."
Twilight felt her heart ache at the expression of concern on her friend, and she quickly stepped over to wrap Dash in a single foreleg hug. "I promise I won't tell anypony," she said quietly. "Even if you don't want to explain a thing. But please, Rainbow," Twilight added as she broke the hug and stepped a respectful distance back. "Let me be your friend. This is obviously something you're worried about, and I'm here to listen if it will help."
Rainbow looked to the side at that, and she fell silent for several moments as she fought to regain her composure. Finally, she turned back to her friend and nodded. "I think I'd like that."
* * * *
A short time later alfalfa had been laid out in Tank's enclosure, and both ponies were sitting across a table from one another in Dash's living room, both resting on the springy, comfortable cloud floor. The table was another enchanted item, and a useful one at the moment as it held Pinkie Pie's cupcakes and the photos that Twilight Sparkle had come to deliver in the first place. Both friends had taken time to sample the fine confectioneries, and one had even been set in the enclosure for Tank should he take a liking to it.
Now, though, Rainbow cleared her throat and gave Twilight an awkward look. "I guess I should get started," she began. "Do you remember a few months ago when Scootaloo, Applebloom, and Sweetie Bell asked for my cutie mark story?"
"I would be hard pressed to forget, Rainbow," Twilight replied with a smile. "Realizing our close friendship went back even further than we all thought was something special."
Dash chuckled and then smiled back. "Yeah. Well then, you remember me telling you how the speed and adrenalin of racing made me realize my special talent, right?" Dash waited for Twilight to nod. "Well, don't you think that was a little odd? That a talented flier like me didn't know right off the bat that my talent would involve flying?"
"I just assumed you were like every other pony and didn't quite understand it until then," Twilight replied. "But I suppose this is leading to your explanation?"
Rainbow nodded at her friend's question. "Well the truth is before then, I didn't just not understand it, I was completely clueless."
"Just like Scootaloo and her friends?" Twilight asked with a smirk.
"Worse, even," Dash replied with a chuckle. "The problem was that as a little foal, I showed some traits that made me the center of every bad apple's attention. Partly that was my raw talent with flying, but chiefly it was because I was smarter than them.
"I'm sure you've realized by now that I'm a bit brighter than I let on?" Dash asked, and then received a nod from Twilight. "Well unfortunately, that doesn't get you popularity on the school cloud. I was made fun of constantly, picked on, called names, the whole nine yards, yanno? It made me mad, and you know how my temper can be. As a result I never really had any friends for the first few years of my life, not outside my family, anyway. So instead I turned to books, but where you went studying magic and science, I started reading fiction and watching goofy TV shows. My dad's stuff at first, but then my own tastes as I went on. You can imagine that didn't exactly make me more popular," Dash added, frowning a bit as she looked at the center of the round table she was laying next to. "The bullies really loved learning that I like that sort of thing.
"Then came that day at flight camp," Dash said, her eyes misty and her voice sounded wistful. "I raced, and I realized that flying and speed were what I was born to do, what I could do better than anypony else. But it got better than that," Rainbow added, closing her eyes as she worked to remember old memories. "Suddenly I wasn't an object to torment anymore. Suddenly I was popular, and ponies wanted to be my friend." Dash opened her eyes and then fixed Twilight with an even look. "I knew most of them were just shallowly latching on to me because of my fame. But I found some real good ponies then too, whom I wouldn't have met had I not become who I was meant to become."
"Like Fluttershy?" Twilight asked.
"Like Fluttershy," Dash agreed with a nod. "That summer I decided that I didn't want to be friendless again. I discarded my old ways, my old personality, and I became Rainbow Dash, ace flier and outspoken braggart." Dash chuckled at that, and then shook her head. "I played dumb. Or at least, I started downplaying just how much I understood. Over time, it got easier and easier, until I realized that's who I was."
"When you wear a mask long enough, you become it," Twilight interjected, and then waited for Rainbow to nod. "But that isn't the whole story, is it?"
The cyan pegasus paused for a moment to sigh. "That room over there shows it isn't," Rainbow said, casually flicking a wing towards the closed wooden door. "I couldn't turn my back entirely on who I was before. I mean, don't get me wrong, I am interested in flying, speed, and yes, even joining the Wonderbolts. That part of my public persona is very much true to the real me. And hay, I am proud of my accomplishments and skills. But the real me also still loved those books and stories, and as I grew older my interest hasn't waned."
"Then why hide it?" Twilight asked earnestly. "You're a grown mare now, nopony should give you any problems for reading whatever you want."
"You'd think so," Dash said with a shake of her head. "But even after my rainboom and the new attention it and my increasingly spectacular stunt flying got me, ponies still looked at me strange whenever I wanted to talk about anything that wasn't flying. It got even worse when I wanted to talk about science fiction or animation or comic books. Either they started thinking of me as a shut-in with no real flight skills who got lucky with the rainboom, or they called me foalish and told me to act my age.
"So I got sick of it and stopped trying. By the time I was eighteen the mask had become part of me like you said, and I can't say it bothered me any. A few ponies still remembered what I had been like, though, and my family certainly wasn't keen on letting me forget either. Fortunately, Fluttershy had moved to Ponyville the year before and had been writing me to praise the town, and I decided I needed to finish my change with a fresh start." Rainbow paused to gather her thoughts and breath, and then shrugged at Twilight. "And that's it, really. I've been like this since, working while I train to hopefully take a spot in the Wonderbolts someday."
The room fell quiet as Dash finished speaking. Twilight just stayed laying on her legs in silence and absorbed her friend's words, her mind clicking over various tidbits. "You know, I had always wondered why you had bullies picking on you," Twilight said, looking over to the pegasus. "Those three big stallions that harassed you in Cloudsdale, I mean. They all seemed the athletic type, and well, you're athletic. It didn't make sense that they would pick on you so much."
"Yeah," Rainbow Dash replied with a light grunt. "Dumb-bell, Hoops, and Tackler, they remember me from way back. They're not as dumb as they look, they know not to use the past against me because most ponies won't believe it, but they still make it a point to grind on me whenever they can."
Twilight thought for a moment, and then shook her head. "It just seems so terrible."
"Meh, I can handle 'em," Dash replied, smirking a bit. "Especially after the Young Fliers' Competition."
"No no, not them," Twilight said. "Or rather, not them alone. I mean your whole story, Dash. You changed yourself, who you were, just so you could fit in. It's so very sad."
Rainbow's face hardened at that, and she gave the unicorn a stern look. "Twilight, I may have changed some parts of me, but I am still me." The pegasus stood at that and then turned and raised a wing to show her flank. "This cutie mark isn't any more fake than yours. I love flying, speed, and being the best at it. Or near enough anyway," Rainbow added as she turned back to her friend and laid down again. "And I'm not the element of loyalty for nothing, yanno. I know how hard it is to find good friends, the kind who will stick with you through troubles and worries and help you when you need it. I learned a long time ago how important they are to me, and that's why I'll never betray a friend or leave them hanging."
Twilight blushed a bit at that, remembering that it hadn't been too long ago in her life when she'd learned that lesson. "I know, Dash. Anypony who watches you fly and do tricks knows you absolutely love it. And if I had any reason to doubt your loyalty, then I wouldn't even be here." Twilight paused at that and frowned. "But now I'm sitting here, and I'm seeing a whole new side of you that was hidden before. A side of you that not only intrigues me, but..." Twilight paused and then looked to the side as she blushed again. "It comforts me as well."
"Comforts?" Dash asked, frowning in confusion now rather than annoyance. "How?"
"Because I don't feel so alone anymore," Twilight replied, looking back at her friend. "All this time I thought I was the only one who liked these sorts of things, who had these problems with alienation and mockery. And now I find out you've been like this the whole time." The unicorn's face fell a bit, and she gave Dash a peering stare. "Why didn't you tell me?" She asked, her voice sounding hurt.
Rainbow cringed at that, and she glanced to the side with an expression of shame. "Twilight, I-" she said in a false start. Dash closed her eyes at that and then shook her head. "I told you, I had tried talking about my non-flying interests to other ponies before, to those I thought shared them, or at least would be open minded about it," Rainbow explained, opening her eyes and looking to her friend as she spoke. "I learned the hard way that if you make a mistake in letting down your guard, then you regret it. When you first came to Ponyville, I thought you were just another unicorn like the others. Smart enough, decent, good-hearted, but ultimately another pony who wouldn't 'get' me. Then Nightmare Moon attacked and we were thrown through a bunch of trials, and we became the closest of friends without even thinking about it.
"By that time, I just couldn't see how I could drop the mask without making myself look like a two-faced liar," Dash continued, dropping her gaze to look at the table in front of her. "And I have to admit, I'm actually a bit intimidated by you."
"Me? Intimidate you?" Twilight asked in shock. "How would that even work?"
Rainbow sat silently for a moment as she thought. "I told you, I'm not as... simple as I seem," she said carefully. "I've always taken comfort and even a bit of pride in being smarter than most of the ponies I meet, and never letting them in on it. I guess that kind of feeds into my whole arrogant braggart bit, too,"' she admitted, with a brief, sheepish grin. "But while I may be smarter than average, you're a downright genius, Twi. We may like a lot of the same things, but you live and breath knowledge, and you read massive, obscure tomes of history, science, and magic for fun." Dash glanced down and rubbed her forward right hoof against the other foreleg. "For the first time I met a pony who was smarter than me by such a large margin that there was no doubt at all about who was better at it. I guess it kind of made me feel insecure, and I started pumping up the flying antics to compensate."
"And the ego too, I'll bet," Twilight observed. The smile on her muzzle robbed her words of any sting, however.
Dash found herself smiling back. "Yeah, something like that," the cyan pegasus agreed. Then she dropped the smile and shifted uncomfortably on the patch of cloud she was laying on. "It's been getting me into problems, especially since I just act according to the mask. Last week was some of the worst it's been, actually," Dash added, and then lowered her head down to rest it on the edge of the table. "Looking back, I just feel awful for what I put those animals through. Especially Tank," she added, and then lifted her head to look towards her tortoise's enclosure. Much to her relief, the animal had withdrawn into his shell and seemed to be sleeping, and so Dash resumed speaking. "I was starting to get bully-bad. So yesterday I arranged it so I could take time off today after finishing my patrol early, and..." She shrugged and then waved a wing towards her den again. "I wanted to reconnect with myself, to ground my ideas so I could hold the mask back up again without fear of hurting somepony else."
"Then it's probably a good thing I found out," Twilight said, and then stood. Dash stood up as well as the unicorn walked around the table towards her. "You don't have to be alone anymore, Dash."
"I'm not," Rainbow replied with a smile. "I got five best friends, and a dozen more less close but still wonderful friends. Not to mention the best, pet, ever."
The two ponies shared a chuckle at that. "I know, but I meant up here," Twilight said, and then reached a hoof up and lightly pressed it against Rainbow's forehead for a moment. "You have good friends, but you're not sharing all of yourself with us. As far as you've told me, I don't think you're sharing that with anypony." The lavender unicorn paused at that to glance down and shake her head. "I can't imagine how hard that is on you, when you're so open and carefree with everything else. To constantly be wearing a mask between yourself and the world, to never show who you really are deep down and pretend you're somepony you're not, that just sounds terrible."
Dash's face lost all mirth as Twilight spoke, and when the unicorn finished Rainbow turned on her feet to face away from her friend. "Tell me about it," the cyan pegasus muttered. "I can be in the middle of a crowd, at a party or a concert or at work, and I'll still feel different, separate, alone. I found I could forget about it, though, if I throw myself into whatever's going on around me. If it's work or flying practice, I plow into it. If it's a party, I party like there's no tomorrow. If it's a concert, I just let the music carry me away." Dash paused at that, took in a deep breath, and then slowly let it out to calm herself. "Do you know what that's like?"
"Actually, I do," Twilight replied, reaching out to place a hoof on her friend's shoulder. "I had no real friends before I came to Ponyville. Spike and Princess Celestia were like friends, of course, but the air of official business always kept things distant between the pricness and myself, and Spike is more like a little brother than a friend," Twilight explained, in a faintly regretful tone. "Everywhere I went at the university, the castle grounds, all throughout Canterlot, I was always surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of ponies. And the whole time I felt alone. It wasn't until I moved here and learned to share myself and my interests with my friends and share in their interests in return that I finally felt like I was accepted.
"And that's what I mean about you not having to be alone anymore," Twilight continued as Dash turned around to face her again. The lavender unicorn took a step back to keep a comfortable spacing between them as she continued speaking. "You don't have to keep hiding parts of yourself, not from us. Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and myself, we're your best friends, and we will never ever treat you as anything less just because your hobbies and interests are unusual or different from ours.
"So please, let your friends in," Twilight continued. "Don't separate yourself from us anymore. You've taught us all the value of loyalty, and you will always have ours until the end of time. No matter what happens, no matter who turns their nose up at you, we'll always be there. Just like you would be if it were one of us. You're our friend, and we only want you to be as happy with us as you make us happy to have you."
Silence fell between the two ponies as Rainbow Dash absorbed her friends' words. Twilight felt an awkwardness start growing, but it was mercifully stopped when she saw Dash's eyes mist over, and before she knew it the unicorn was being held in a tight two-foreleg hug by the pegasus.
"Thank you," Dash whispered, her voice hoarse. "Thank you so much, Twilight."
"You're more than welcome, Rainbow," Twilight replied as she returned the hug. She felt the pegasus start to shake, and the unicorn stayed quiet as soft sobs left the cyan muzzle of her friend.
They stayed like this for some time. Neither pony could say exactly how long, as neither had any inclination towards checking, but eventually the sobs died down, and a sniffling pegasus disengaged herself from Twilight. "I... I don't often do that," Rainbow said, blushing a bit.
Twilight laughed lightly. "Neither do I, but Rarity insists that everypony needs to cry now and then. Even stallions, though I never would believe it."
"Not unless you hit them real hard, first," Dash agreed with a chuckle. Then she saw her friend giving her an odd look. "What?"
"Just how much do you cover up with the mask?" Twilight asked, curiously.
Dash blushed again and gave the unicorn a sheepish grin. "I've always been aggressive, if that's what you mean," she replied evenly. "Being able to act out on it is one of the benefits of what I've been doing."
Twilight chuckled. "Now that's the Rainbow Dash I've always known," she said, and then grinned at the pegasus. "I just hope the rest of her stays around."
"I might be able to arrange that," Rainbow replied with a grin of her own. "In fact, that Dash wouldn't mind if you wanted to stay a bit and watch the next episode of Mecha Battle Dragon Suit Celestia."
"I think that would be great," Twilight replied, and then chuckled again. "Oh, that name is so silly. What's it about, anyway?"
Dash blinked at her in surprise. "You really don't know? You seemed familiar with it."
"I've heard of it before, but I've never gotten to watch it or read a synopsis," Twilight admitted with a light shrug. "So, how is it?"
Rainbow Dash chuckled and then waved a wing at the unicorn to follow her towards the den. "It's absolute cheese, and it revels in it," the pegasus merrily said. "It's a series about Princess Celestia somehow getting tossed into another reality, one where ugly ape-things called 'humans' are fighting giant monsters for some reason, and Celestia gets a giant battle suit that amplifies her magic so she can defend the humans while they search for a way to get her home."
Twilight paused at the threshold to the den, and then burst out laughing. "My goodness! That sounds absolutely insane."
"What else do you expect from Neighpon?" Dash asked with another chuckle. "Come on, it's better than it sounds."
"I can't wait," Twilight replied, following her friend.
* * * *
Dear Princess Celestia,
Today I learned that no matter how close you are to a friend, she can still surprise you with hidden depths to her mind and soul. Sometimes this is because of a simple misunderstanding, though other times it can be due to a fear of rejection and loneliness that comes between her and those who care about her. But one never needs fear rejection if your friends are true, and all it takes to banish the loneliness is an outstretched hoof offered with the love that only friends can have for one another.
Your faithful student,
P.S. On a completely unrelated note, my friend Rainbow Dash wants to know if you will sign her copy of the Mecha Battle Dragon Suit Celestia manga the next time you visit? She says it will make it 20% cooler.