A Mate for Dash

by Appending_fic

Rainbow Dash ducked her head deep under cover of the foliage of the apple tree she was sitting in. Below her, Big Macintosh dragged a cartload of tools towards the barn. Sweet Apple Acres was bathed in early-afternoon sun, the cloudless sky a testament to Rainbow Dash's productive morning. It was a beautiful midsummer day, the orchards fresh and green and ready to produce the season's bounty. Still, it was hot, which was part of the reason Rainbow Dash was hiding in this tree.

"Land sakes," Applejack said. She passed between the trees to stop next to her brother. She was dripping on the ground under the nearest tree, even her saddlebags water-stained and dripping. "I haven't seen such a downpour. Goodness, it's bright here. Y'all aren't having any problems, are you, Mac?"

"Aa...nope," Big Macintosh drawled.

"Great. Now, I gotta check on the stores. You can stay out here as long as it stays nice. I can't imagine it will, though. It was cloudy as midwinter this morning. And Rainbow Dash was telling us the other day to be ready for a real downpour; somepony'd gotten a little behind on the precipitation quotas-" Applejack paused mid-word, and turned up towards the treeline. Rainbow ducked down a little more, knowing it wouldn't do any good if Applejack looked in her direction. If there was a downside to being Rainbow Dash (and Rainbow would die before admitting that there was one), the fact that there were very few environments in which she could effectively hide would be it.

Applejack eventually looked down, apparently unperturbed. "Well, it's a lucky thing the weather's nice enough to get work done out here. I'll see you when the rain reaches the farm."

"Eeeyup."

And with that, Applejack trotted away. Rainbow Dash sighed in relief. It wouldn't do for Applejack to find her like this. She'd get the entirely wrong idea, and Rainbow had already gone to a lot of trouble for Applejack, and didn't want any more if she could avoid it.

She waited until Big Macintosh was out of sight and then dropped to the ground. Rainbow cautiously brushed a few twigs out of her mane before trotting towards the main house. When she reached the door, however, she slowed and stopped. Rainbow took a deep breath, trying to settle her stomach. It wasn't, she thought to herself, that she was scared. Just uncomfortable.

But the best way to deal with that was to power through.

Rainbow stepped forward and rapped on the door.

It swung open to reveal Applejack, who gave Rainbow Dash a long, measuring look before she smiled widely. "Good afternoon, Rainbow Dash. What brings you to my humble little home?"

"Ah..." Rainbow looked away from her friend rather than risk Applejack seeing how nervous she was. "Well, I was just in the area-"

"Doing a little unauthorized cloud-kicking?" Applejack asked slyly.

Rainbow felt her cheeks heat at the realization she hadn't been nearly as sneaky as she'd thought. "I...might've."

Applejack made a thoughtful noise. "Hm. I won't ask what you're up to, but it better not do anything to hurt the farm."

"Hey, I wouldn't do that to you, AJ!" Rainbow protested. "I know how much you care about this place. In fact, that's sort of why I was out here this morning." She grinned weakly at Applejack. The earth pony watched her, eyes narrow, and Rainbow felt her heart sink at the sight. This wasn't going to work if Applejack was suspicious of her. "Can I come in?"

Applejack shrugged. "You know y'all are all welcome here whenever you please. Come on in, sit a spell."

Rainbow trotted into the house. The sturdy, weathered beams that made up the Sweet Apple Acres main home were dark, the air smelling of cinnamon, sweat, sugar and, of course, apples.

Applejack closed the door behind Rainbow and followed her to the kitchen, where a plate of sliced apples was laid out. Applejack tilted her head at the plate. "You're welcome to them; if you spent all morning clearing the sky, you deserve it."

This was it. Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. "Not really. I didn't do it to be nice - or not just to be nice, you know? I wanted to ask you a favor, and so I thought what better way to, ah, smooth the way, than doing you a favor first?"

"A favor." Applejack nudged the plate of apples towards Rainbow. Rainbow took a slice and chewed on it while Applejack watched her thoughtfully. "Well, I can't promise you anything, sugarcube. But I owe you a listen, at least."

"Oh. Good." Rainbow Dash sat down next to the table and swallowed her bite of apple. She glanced sidelong at Applejack and cleared her throat.

"Go ahead and spit it out," Applejack urged.

Rainbow sighed and dropped her head to the table. "Look, it's a little...embarrassing." The last word she whispered, but by Applejack's abruptly kind expression, she'd heard. Rainbow resisted the urge to sigh again. She knew she should have just come right out and said it. "You know how I've been writing to Spitfire?"

"You might have mentioned it once or twice," Applejack replied, smiling. "It was right nice of her to stay in touch."

"It's not that surprising. I'm the best flier coming out of Ponyville or Cloudsdale; it's natural the Wonderbolts would keep an eye on me." Rainbow tossed her head. "But that's not the point. Spitfire told me Soarin's getting married."

Applejack nodded, but when Rainbow didn't continue, she tilted her head at her friend in curiosity. "Is that...good news?"

"Course it is!" Rainbow said. "She's apparently really nice, and everypony's excited about it. It just...made me think." She folded her hooves under her head. "Spitfire invited me to tryouts next fall, said I have a really good chance. But once I've gotten that dream - what's next?"

"Oh, sugarcube," Applejack said, walking around to nuzzle Rainbow's head. "There ain't any need to trouble yourself with that. You can spend a little time being proud of what you've accomplished already."

"I know that," Rainbow said, shoving herself up and away from Applejack, heart tight with frustration that she wasn't getting her ideas across. "I just thought...well, it's a nice thing to think about."

"What is?"

"Meeting a...you know, a...special pony." Rainbow winced at the awkwardness of her words. "Gah, you know what I mean!" She ducked her head down, covering it with her hooves.

Rainbow could feel Applejack's gaze resting on her. She didn't look, aware that if Applejack laughed at her, she was going to abandon this whole plan as a stupid idea and just go home.

"Sugar - Dash - you gotta know I don't know all that much about-"

"Yeah, but you're the best help I got," Rainbow replied. "Twilight wouldn't have any advice that's not in a book written a hundred years ago. Pinkie Pie'd get everypony involved. I love Fluttershy, but she's such a wallflower she wouldn't be any help at all. And Rarity...she'd suggest a makeover." Rainbow spat out the last word with as much venom as she could muster. Rarity was sweet, but Rainbow had to admit they had very little in common.

"Glad to hear I'm at the top of such a distinguished list," Applejack drawled. She sounded amused, but Rainbow could only hear the words themselves, disappointed in her.

"I can't help it if you're the most level-headed pony around aside from me," Rainbow said, sitting up. She met Applejack's eyes, trying to force as much sincerity as she could into her expression. She smiled, but it felt like it lacked her usual bluster. "To be honest, I thought of asking your advice first. It was only after I realized you'd be the best one to go to, anyway."

Applejack smiled at Rainbow; try as she might, Rainbow couldn't see any mockery in it, so she relaxed.

"Well, if you're going to be looking for that special pony, I'll wish you the best of luck. But I don't see what sort of help you're after."

"I gotta tell you something, AJ, but you gotta promise you won't tell anypony."

"Cross my heart and hope to fly, Dash," Applejack said easily. "Shucks, you gotta know I wouldn't break a promise like that. So out with it."

"I've never really...beenonadate."

"Pardon?" Applejack asked, one ear swiveling towards Rainbow.

Rainbow crouched down and, biting her lip, repeated. "I've never even been on a date. There! You happy?"

"Can't say I'm surprised," Applejack said. A flare of heat rushed through Rainbow's chest, and she leapt to her feet. Applejack shied away from the sudden movement, but when she met Rainbow's furious gaze, her green eyes softened. "I don't mean it like that, sugarcube. The time you ain't asleep or with us, you're training. I can't imagine you were any different as a filly."

Rainbow settled back, mollified, but also a little embarrassed that Applejack seemed to know her well enough that Rainbow's lack of experience wasn't a surprise. Did the others think the same thing?

"It ain't all that hard, though. Just find somepony you might like to see more of and ask them out," Applejack continued. "Just don't expect to find the right pony on the first time out."

Rainbow sat, expectant, until it was clear Applejack was done giving advice. "Is that it?"

"Well, yeah." Applejack nudged Rainbow playfully with a hoof. "Did you think there was some big secret?"

"Course not!" Rainbow scoffed. "Only...what'm I supposed to do?"

"On a date?" Applejack asked. Rainbow nodded and hunched down, certain Applejack was going to laugh at her. "Whatever you want, sugarcube. No one's gonna dock you points if you want to go flying or something instead of dinner and a show."

"Oh. Well. Thanks, then." Rainbow turned to leave, but paused as a thought struck her. "You said ask out a pony I wanted to know better. Do you think...would you mind if I asked out Big Macintosh?"

Applejack glanced away for just a moment before shrugging. "Ain't no skin off my muzzle, sweetheart. I just - are you sure?"

"Why not? He's big, strong, not a stupid jerk who calls me 'Rainbow Crash'. Isn't that the sort of stallion a mare's supposed to look for?"

Applejack turned back to the table, shuffling plates around. "I guess so, sugar. Just don't go overboard, or you're gonna end up getting somepony hurt."

"Overboard?" Rainbow grinned at Applejack, or would have if the farmer had been looking at her. Rainbow settled for tugging at Applejack's tail, earning her a reproachful look from her friend, but at least it was the attention she'd wanted. "When have I ever gone overboard?"

Applejack opened her mouth to respond before snapping it closed. She just gave Rainbow a weak smile. "I'm sure you know what you're doing, Dash."

"Darn right," Rainbow growled before tipping her head at Applejack and trotting outside.

3 3 3

Rainbow Dash found Big Macintosh taking a break next to the barn. The draft stallion was lounging against the wall, red bulk blending with the paint. He glanced up when Rainbow drew near, giving her a lazy smile.

"Afternoon, Rainbow Dash," he said.

Rainbow paused, braced herself, and gave Big Macintosh a wide smile. "Hello, Mac," she said. "How're you doing?"

He blinked, silent, before staring uncertainly at Rainbow. "All right, I guess."

"Good." Rainbow looked down. Big Macintosh looked comfortable, but sitting down next to him seemed like it would be awkward. "Nice day, right?"

"Eeeyup?" he asked.

"Anyway," Rainbow Dash said, sitting down next to Big Macintosh. "I was wondering if maybe you'd like to...hang out with me sometime. You know...maybe dinner or something. Kinda like a...date." At first she thought Big Macintosh hadn't heard her, because he didn't say anything for several moments that dragged on. But then he turned to her. His normally placid gaze was thoughtful, eyes narrow rather than relaxed.

"Applejack say it was all right?" he asked.

Rainbow Dash leaned away from Big Macintosh, confusion giving way to awkwardness; this was not how this was supposed to go. "And what if she didn't? You'd say no?"

"Eeyup. Wouldn't want to upset her," Big Macintosh said tersely.

"Fine." Rainbow dropped her head onto her folded legs. "She's fine with it. Wished me the best of luck, if you must know. So...how about it?"

Big Macintosh gave Rainbow a considered look. "All right. Tomorrow night," he declared at last.

Rainbow Dash grinned and hopped to her feet. "You are going to have the best time ever; I promise!"

Big Macintosh's expression slipped back to a lazy smile. "I bet," he said.

3 3 3

Rainbow Dash put it off for as long as she could, but by the next afternoon, she'd admitted to herself that if she wanted to make a good impression, she had to at least make a token attempt at...dressing up. She'd dragged herself to the Carousel Boutique, the pink-and-purple checkered roof and ostentatious pillars themselves a sign of everything Rainbow Dash didn't have time or inclination to worry about. But as much as Rainbow Dash declared herself a fan of the wind-blown look, not everypony was. And maybe...this was what the whole dating thing was about. Finding how to make other ponies like you better.

Rainbow lowered her head and knocked it against the front door.

The door swung open, admitting Rarity's head, framed in exquisite violet locks as she looked around. When her eyes rested on Rainbow, they brightened.

"Rainbow Dash! So good to see you. What brings you to my humble home?"

Rainbow took a deep breath. "I need a little help."

Rarity's eyes crinkled at the edges, giving her normally polite smile a fond, indulgent appearance. "Well, I'm so glad you came to me, then. If you would step inside..."

Rainbow glanced once around the street before darting inside. Date or not, she had a reputation to uphold, one that would not be helped by being seen going to Rarity for help. She stopped inside, and stopped immediately at the mess. Cloth was scattered over every available surface, and Rarity's models were strewn among the chaos. One of them was missing a leg.

"So sorry about the clutter," Rarity said, picking her way around a spilled box of pins before gathering them up and settling them on a nearby table. "Someponies decided to try out Cutie Mark Crusader dressmaking. You can imagine how well that went."

Rainbow chuckled. She didn't mind the young fillies' single-minded drive, although she was aware enough to realize that it was mostly due to their inability to encroach on her normal flying grounds, and Scootaloo's adoration of Rainbow Dash. "I could come back later, if you'd like-"

"That's very considerate, Rainbow Dash-" Rarity jerked her head around, staring at Rainbow. "A little more than I'm used to. What are you here for?" she demanded.

Rainbow rolled her eyes. "It's nothing sinister, Rarity. I just need a teensy little favor."

Rarity's eyes narrowed. "Teensy."

"I just need a little..." Rainbow found the words wouldn't come, so she sighed and tried a different angle. "Look, you can't tell anypony, but I've got a, sort of...date."

"That's wonderful, darling!" Rarity said. "Anypony I know?" She gave Rainbow a sly, sidelong glance that awoke a flight response in Rainbow. Rather than shying away, she steeled herself and tried to affect a nonchalant air.

"Sure. I asked out Big Macintosh yesterday, and I want to make a good impression. Nothing too girly, you know, but...nice. I thought you'd be able to do it."

Rarity's smile took on a frozen quality as she stared blankly at Rainbow. "Macintosh. I see. Well, yes, of course I can give you just the sprucing you need. Hold still."

Rainbow bolted backwards when a pair of scissors flew at her face. "Whoa! Pointy things away from Rainbow Dash! This flank works best without any holes in it."

"Oh, do settle down, Rainbow Dash. This is for your mane."

"Even worse!" Rainbow snapped. "You can brush and primp as much as you want, but keep your knives away from my hair."

"Hm." Rarity began a slow circuit around Rainbow Dash; Rainbow tried to track the unicorn, but somehow, Rarity stayed a few steps ahead of her until Rainbow became dizzy and stopped. When Rarity returned to Rainbow's front, she tapped her chin with a hoof thoughtfully. "I'd spent every day knowing you assuming you had no idea what your hair looked like. You can imagine my shock at discovering you actually like it that way. So, if I'm not allowed to cut it, what would you like me to do with it?"

"I don't know," Rainbow said, kicking at the floor. "Just make it look cool."

Rarity's right eye twitched. Rainbow took an uncertain step backward. "Um...Rarity? Can we go somewhere with fewer...points?"

"No," Rarity growled. "You are going to sit perfectly still and I am going to make you look gorgeous. If it kills us both."

What followed was quite possibly the most torturous experience of Rainbow's life. It wasn't that she had to sit still; Rainbow was still sometimes. She slept, didn't she? And she'd dressed up for the stupid Gala, hadn't she? The problem was the intrusiveness of the comb running through her mane and coat, again and again. Rainbow couldn't imagine what Rarity had to do that required running the same brush through the same part of Rainbow's coat a dozen times would accomplish. And she couldn't help twitching every time Rarity got near her mane. It had to be a week for deep, personal revelations. True, the fact that Rainbow...liked the way her mane looked probably didn't rate up with Rainbow never having had a date before, but she'd planned to take both facts to her grave.

When Rarity stepped away with a declaration of, "Done!" Rainbow gave out a gusty sigh and tried to drop to the floor. Rarity caught her with her magic. "Nuh-uh, darling! I have spent an hour making you look fantastic, and you are not to ruin it unless absolutely necessary!"

Rainbow glared at Rarity until the unicorn dropped her to her feet. Then Rainbow ventured to the full-length mirror set up to allow customers to examine Rarity's handiwork. Rainbow had to admit she looked...good. Smooth. Sleek. Rarity had brushed Rainbow Dash's mane and tail until every strand ran in the same direction. She'd brushed the dust and occasional twig from Rainbow's coat and combed it until it shone. And...Rainbow scowled at her Cutie Mark. "Is that Cutie shadow?" she demanded.

"You're so proud of that Mark, I thought you'd appreciate me making it pop," Rarity said.

"Huh." The powder Rarity had applied did make Rainbow's lightning bolt stand out even more than it normally did. "Okay. I have to admit: I look pretty awesome."

"I'm hurt you thought anything else," Rarity drawled. "You may feel free to heap me with accolades."

"Nah, I'm fine," Rainbow said. "But..." She stepped close and patted Rarity's shoulder. "Thanks a ton. I owe you one." She darted for the door.

"You can start by telling me how the date goes!" Rarity called after her.

Rainbow was already gone, though. She landed almost immediately, realizing that the amount of work she'd gone through would be ruined if she took off the way she normally did. Rainbow glared at her hooves as she stood outside of the Carousel Boutique. It looked like she was going to walk to meet Big Macintosh.

Celestia, the sacrifices she made for love.

3 3 3

"So, did you have a nice day?"

"Eeyup."

Rainbow narrowed her eyes at Big Macintosh. She knew he had a bigger vocabulary than two words. But he hadn't said anything other than those two words since he'd greeted her with a genial, "Evening, Dash."

She sighed. The Cheval Cadeaux was almost suffocatingly quiet; carpeted in velvet, walled in mirrors, and staffed by snooty stallions in suits; it made Rainbow feel like everypony was watching her when she spoke above a whisper. And from the looks of the other patrons' plates, neither she nor Big Macintosh was going to be getting much of a meal.

"You know, if you don't want to be here, you don't have to be," Rainbow said. "I've got better things to do than spend time with people who don't appreciate me."

Big Macintosh dropped his gaze, and when he looked back up at Rainbow, his green eyes were half-lidded, but slanted out in a more apologetic expression. "Sorry, Dash. I'm not used to talking much."

"You don't say," Rainbow said with a chuckle. "Come on. What've you been up to? Even AJ gets off the farm every now and again."

"Me and the fellas have been running through the Everfree Forest," Big Macintosh said. "Plus I've been working on my painting."

"Painting?" Rainbow squinted at Big Macintosh, who'd never struck her as the artistic type. Not like Rarity, or Ponet. "You any good?"

"Nope. But Granny always said Cutie Marks are guidelines. No shame in trying something new, she always said."

"So you paint, even though you're no good at it?" Rainbow scrunched up her face before remembering she was supposed to be nice. "That's...good, I guess."

"Come on, darling, you gotta practice something you're not good at."

Rainbow scoffed. "Not a chance. I'm an ace." Big Macintosh snorted, earning him a glare from Rainbow. "What's that for?" she demanded.

"Sis tells me stories, you know. You're not much of a runner, are you?"

"Ooh, let me tell you about Applejack!" she snapped back. "That no-good cheating-" She broke off when she realized Big Macintosh was laughing. She paused, confused as she watched him shake. "What are you doing?"

He shook his head helplessly. "Sorry, Dash. Just the way the two of you go at it, sometime, like a couple of foals. 'sfunny."

"Oh, laugh it up," Rainbow said. "I bet you never got into any embarrassing scrapes when you were small. Er."

Big Macintosh's smile took on a wicked edge as his eyes gleamed. "As a matter of fact..."

3 3 3

Rainbow Dash was still giggling as she followed Big Macintosh out of the restaurant a few hours later. He might have been taci...didn't talk much, but he'd had nearly as many adventures as Rainbow and her friends. And even if he seemed to feel Rainbow's own occasional (practically rare) mishaps were funny, he was...nice.

The only problem, Rainbow thought, giving her date a sidelong glance, was that she didn't feel a...spark. The sort of thing books (not that Rainbow read those sorts of books. Not often, at least) said was supposed to happen when you met that special pony. Weak knees. A fluttering heart. The inability to pay attention to anything other than that pony.

It took a few minutes for her to realize they were walking towards Sweet Apple Acres. "Um...Mac?"

"Hm?"

"I had a great time. Really. I don't know why I never hung out with you before - you're pretty cool. But..."

"You're not bad yourself, Dash."

Rainbow stopped mid-sentence. A part of her wanted to rant at being rated as poorly as 'not bad', but the rest felt...a little fluttery at the casual compliment. Nopony went out of their way to compliment her. They agreed with her when Rainbow declared herself to be awesome, but no one went out and said it just because. She shivered from her head to tail, and before she could think, Rainbow darted forward and kissed Big Macintosh's cheek.

He took a startled sideways step, eyes a little wild. "Whoa there, little filly."

Rainbow Dash's breath froze in her throat. The panic only held for a moment before she felt a flare of anger. "What do you mean hold on? Is this a date or isn't it?"

"Ah, well, I thought you wanted a little company," Big Macintosh said. "You're a nice pony, just not..." His cheeks darkened and he ducked his head, glancing away from Rainbow. "Sorry, Dash."

"It's all right," Rainbow said airily, tossing her head. "I'm too young to be tied down by anypony, even a stud like you."

"Dash!" Big Macintosh choked out, his entire face flushing a much darker shade of red.

She fell back, laughing at Macintosh's embarrassment. "You should see your face, Mac!" she laughed. "The unflappable Big Macintosh, brought low by a little colorful language."

He just set his jaw, face still darker red than the rest of him, glaring at Rainbow until she settled down. She sat up at that point and grinned at him. "So," she asked. "Are you sure you don't want another shot at this fine figure of a mare? I'm sure a stud like you can handle it."

He glared at her again, but the expression lacked heat, or any real embarrassment. "Nope," he replied. Rainbow snorted and clambered back onto her feet.

"Well, seeing as this date is officially over, I think it's time for me to walk you to your door," she declared. Big Macintosh gave her a level stare. "What?" Rainbow asked. "You don't think I can keep you safe from ruffians out here?"

"You're a weird pony," Big Macintosh decided. "Come on."

Rainbow followed him, still chuckling. It wasn't a long walk to Sweet Apple Acres, which was good, because Big Macintosh seemed to have used up most of his words for the evening. And the alternative to talking was thinking. Rainbow wanted a moment alone to herself before she started that.

When they reached the edge of the orchards, Big Macintosh nodded at Rainbow. "Evening."

"So long!" she said before taking to the air. As soon as she was sure she was out of sight, Rainbow broke into a sprint, reaching her cloud home in almost no time at all and throwing herself onto her bed with a frustrated shout. She couldn't understand how that stupid date had gone wrong. She'd been charming and funny and - Rainbow Dash. What had gone wrong?

She rolled onto her back and glared at the ceiling, light clouds hidden in the shadow of night. The rolling forms could entertain Rainbow for hours if she felt like picking out shapes in them, but she wasn't in the mood. She resisted the urge to kick anything; rebuilding her house was more work than she was willing to put up with right now. Plus, no matter what she kicked, she'd still be a failure at this romance thing. Staring at the ceiling proved to not be entertaining, but as the night dragged on, Rainbow Dash, unable to sleep, found herself counting swirls in the clouds just to keep from going insane. She must have gotten some sleep, because she awoke well after dawn, but she still felt irritable and dejected.

Rainbow finished her work with usual speed, if not with her usual flair, and on finishing, flapped to Sweet Apple Acres, where she settled on one of the trees. She caught sight of Big Macintosh working near the far edge of the orchard; he seemed busy clearing loose branches, and didn't come anywhere near Rainbow's perch, for which Rainbow was grateful. She wasn't certain if she could talk to him normally, at least until she'd calmed down.

"Rainbow Dash, if you keep sleeping up here, I reckon I ought to start charging you rent for my apple branches."

Rainbow snorted at Applejack's teasing words. "Leave me alone," she grumbled.

"I told you not to get your hopes up, sugarcube," Applejack chided. Rainbow turned away from Applejack. She wasn't in the mood to talk to Big Macintosh, but she was even less of a mood to be lectured by Applejack. After a few moments, Applejack sighed. "Dash, I know you must be disappointed-"

"Disappointed? Why'd I be disappointed? I just realized all this stupid stuff isn't for me."

"Dash..." Applejack paused, and Rainbow heard her pacing on the ground under the tree. "Look, you can't expect everypony you like to feel the same. It ain't your fault, sugarcube."

Rainbow raised her head to poke it over the edge of the branch down at Applejack. The earth pony had sat, and was staring up at Rainbow. For a moment, Rainbow thought she saw a pained glimmer in her friend's emerald eyes, but then Applejack smiled at her.

Rainbow just snorted again. "You think I should blame Mac?"

"Mac - no, Dash! It ain't anypony's fault. Just because Big Macintosh didn't like you as much as you like him-"

"I don't like him!" Rainbow snapped. "I..." She trailed off, burying her head under her hooves again. "This is stupid. I thought he liked me, and he didn't. And how in the hay am I supposed to find a stallion I like, anyway?"

"Well, for one thing, I wouldn't kiss a stallion unless I liked him, else you're liable to end up in a mess," Applejack said. "But you gotta just keep trying, Dash."

Rainbow rolled over and off the branch, landing neatly next to her friend. "And you think if I just keep doing that, I'll find the pony I'm looking for just by chance?"

Applejack's smile went a little soft at that; Rainbow decided she'd take time to grill Applejack about her obvious romantic side later, when Rainbow wasn't still asking for her help. "Most ponies seem to manage that way," Applejack said. "Maybe you should find somepony you have something in common with?"

"Pft. Maybe later. This all sounds like a lot of work." Rainbow stretched her wings and nodded at Applejack. "Catch you later, AJ." She took off, heading generally towards her house. Halfway there, though, Rainbow reconsidered. Somepony she had something in common with? It seemed like Applejack was suggesting Rainbow trying meeting a nice pegasus pony; they'd both enjoy flying, after all.

Rainbow changed direction, taking a direct flight to Cloudsdale. Once just outside the city limits, Rainbow stopped, staring at the pegasus ponies winging around it. Where was she supposed to find a nice stallion she had something in common with? It struck her only a moment later, and Rainbow slapped her forehead with her hoof, amazed she hadn't realized it immediately. She soared down towards the public practice courses, landing easily on the strip next to them.

Almost immediately, however, the plan started going wrong.

"Hey, it's Rainbow Crash!" Rainbow winced at the teasing voice. Of all the stupid places for Hoops and his buddies to be hanging out. The three pegasi - orange, brown, and gray - fluttered to land in a circle around Rainbow. Hoops grinned at her, nudging Score. "We better warn the other ponies out there to land."

"Are you looking for a black eye?" Rainbow snapped.

"Naw, but I know somepony's getting hurt if you take off again," Hoops chortled.

"That's it," Rainbow growled. She pawed at the clouds, readying for a fight. "Get ready for a pounding."

"Hey! Leave her alone!" Rainbow's fight was forestalled by the arrival of a pale, blue-haired stallion with an umbrella Cutie Mark. He landed between Rainbow and Hoops, glowering at the other stallion and his jock friends. Crouched combatively, he set his hooves as if ready to charge. Dumb-bell smirked and took a step forward; the newcomer snorted and reared, causing all three of the others to shy away.

Rainbow laughed. "If you can't handle the wind, boys, stay on the ground!"

"Oh, yeah?" Hoops demanded, darting around the white stallion, only to receive a sharp kick in one of his front legs for his troubles. Rainbow snorted and stayed back, enthralled by the novel experience of watching a fight instead of being in the middle of it. Not that it was much of a fight. Hoops, Dumb-bell and Score flapped off after one kick, although not without one last jab from Hoops.

"You can have the filly-fooler if you want, dude!"

"You want to say that to my face?" she demanded, launching herself after Hoops, only to stop when the pale stallion rose in front of her, hovering.

He tilted his head at her, smiling gently. "Maybe you ought to let them go," he said. "They're sort of jerks, you know."

"You don't have to tell me." Rainbow gave Hoops and his friends one last considering look before dropping back to cloud level and shrugging. She didn't actually want a fight right now. "I've known them since I was a foal."

"My condolences."

"Anyway, I'm Rainbow Dash." Rainbow stuck out a hoof.

The newcomer tapped it. "I know. I saw you at the Best Young Fliers' competition. You know three-quarters of the foals at flight school keep trying to break the light barrier because of you."

Rainbow tossed her mane and grinned at him. "I'm not surprised; who wouldn't want to be like Rainbow Dash?"

"Anyway, I'm Brolly," the stallion said. He smiled nervously at Rainbow. "You out here to fly?"

"Naturally." Rainbow glanced at Brolly sidelong, giving him a confident smile. And then she realized: he was a fan. He didn't think she was a clumsy screw-up. "But I was also thinking I wanted some company for dinner. You know, suitably cool company. You look like you might fit the bill. Want to join me?"

Brolly's grin went wide. "I'd love to!"

"Great; let's go," Rainbow said. "But I've been living in Ponyville for a while, so you're going to have to show me the coolest place to eat."

3 3 3

Rainbow hit the door of the Sugarcube Corner hard enough to force it open. She landed in front of the counter and slammed her front hooves down onto it.

"I want a glass of the sweetest thing you can mix, and a rainbow cupcake!" she snapped.

Mrs. Cake looked out from the kitchen. "Are you sure, darling?"

"Of course she's sure!" Pinkie Pie declared, popping up from behind the counter. "Rainbow Dash always asks for rainbow cupcakes when she's in a bad mood, and this looks like a doozy!"

"Enough talking, more sugar," Rainbow growled.

Pinkie winked. "Okie Dokie Loki!" She vanished, reappearing a moment later with a plate holding a multi-colored cupcake and a glass full of something that didn't slosh when she set it on the counter, so much as it oozed. "On the house, Dashie!"

Rainbow downed the cupcake and followed it with a gulp of the drink to offset the burn that was just about to hit her taste buds. She coughed at the taste of the drink, however. It was sickly sweet and burned going down. With the cupcake's flaming spice, it set Rainbow's whole mouth aflame.

She coughed, choked, and spat, trying to clear the fire from her mouth, but to no avail. So engrossed was Rainbow in trying to calm her burning throat that it took her nearly a minute to realize Pinkie Pie was on her back, laughing uproariously.

"Why, you!" Rainbow tackled the pink earth pony, sending them careening into a table and overturning a tray of muffins. "All that nice talk was just show!"

"Of course it wasn't, Dashie!" Pinkie laughed. "You see, I saw you coming along and you looked really mad, so I thought you needed cheering up. And what cheers ponies up - other than a party, which I obviously didn't have enough time to plan, even thought it would have been awesome - other than a good laugh?"

Rainbow fell back, staring at Pinkie, amazed. "You played a prank on me...to cheer me up?"

"Of course I did!" Pinkie's face abruptly fell. "Unless you thought a party would have been better?"

"Course not," Rainbow replied. "I'm actually feeling a little better."

"A good laugh always does the trick," Pinkie agreed. "Now, come on!" She tugged Rainbow to her feet and led her to a small table at the corner. "The next best thing for a bad mood - after a party and after a good laugh - is telling somepony about it."

Rainbow felt her fragile, lifting mood plummet. She dropped her head on her hooves, glowering at the wall. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Not even your bestest, cheeriest friend Pinkie Pie?" Pinkie gave Rainbow a wide-eyed stare, pink irises glittering with unshed tears. Her jaw quivered. Rainbow held out for three seconds - nearly twice as long as she'd manage against the same sort of pleading expression from Fluttershy.

She sighed. "Fine. I was out on a date-"

"Ooh!"

"Rein it in, Pinkie," Rainbow grumbled. "It didn't go that well. I was hanging out by the flight school-"

"I thought you said you were on a date," Pinkie said.

"I was. Anyway, Hoops and his stupid bronies were picking a fight, and this stallion stepped in. He actually got into a fight with them - I couldn't have done much better myself. Pretty cute, too."

"Wait a minute." Pinkie held one hoof up, pausing Rainbow's story. "I want to get something straight. Were you on your date yet?"

"No."

"Okay. Good. Continue." Pinkie rested her head on her hooves, smiling expectantly.

"So I ask this stallion - Brolly - out-"

"Waitwaitwaitwait," Pinkie said. "I'm officially confused."

"Why?" Rainbow asked. "This is a new millennium, Pinkie; nopony thinks twice about a mare asking a stallion out. At least mostly." Her mood darkened again and Rainbow dropped her head. "Lousy stupid..." She shot her head back up and glared at Pinkie. "He was holding doors for me. Pulled out my chair. He even tried to order for me at the restaurant."

Pinkie's expression turned serious. "Well, that's not right. What if you're in a mood for something spicy, and he orders you a mild salad? Or if you want a bowl of fruit, and he thinks you want a hay sandwich? And what about drinks? He just met you; he can't possibly know how much sugar you like!"

"Thank you, Pinkie. I know that. And now Brolly knows it. And, for that matter, most of the restaurant." Rainbow grinned briefly and insincerely at Pinkie Pie. "I think the date ended at that point."

Pinkie nodded, head blurring with the movement. "I'm so sorry, Dashie!" She lunged across the table to hug the pegasus. "Are you sure you don't want a party? I could invite a ton of cute...stallions who totally wouldn't try to tell you what to do."

"Nah." Rainbow waved lazily at Pinkie. "This is the sort of thing I'm supposed to work out on my own."

Pinkie set her face back into a serious mood, eyes narrow in concentration and mouth a hard, flat line. "Of course. A mare has to find her perfect match without any outside interference. But..." She grinned and leaned in close to Rainbow. "Can I give you some amazing, not-meddling advice?"

"Knock yourself out, but Applejack's been my go-to mare for this."

Pinkie opened her mouth, ready to reply, but no sound came out. She closed her mouth and stared at Rainbow, tilting her head, presumably to get a better look at Rainbow or something. Then she carefully reached a hoof up to her mouth and twisted it before reaching out and making a throwing motion. She nodded once, decisively. "The pony that would make a great partner also makes a great friend." She winked at Rainbow.

"That's not exactly - wait. You're saying I shouldn't go out on dates if I don't like the pony? But I already went out with Big Macintosh, and he said he wasn't interested! This is complicated."

Pinkie's expression went slack as Rainbow spoke. She stepped away from the table and slammed her head into one of the display cases, causing it to rattle alarmingly.

"Pinkie Pie?" Rainbow asked. "Are you all right?"

The pink earth pony grinned at Rainbow. "Sure! Just doing my exercises."

Rainbow chuckled. "Pinkie Pie, you are so random."

"Yep, that's me!" She grinned a little wider. "But maybe you ought to set your sights a little wider."

"Yeah, that's right," Rainbow said. "I can't figure out how to get a really good date until I have a bunch more. Thanks, Pinkie!"

As Rainbow left, she thought she heard a drawn-out yell. She didn't give it a second thought, as Pinkie had been experimenting with primal scream therapy for most of a year.

It was not, however, an auspicious meeting. It set off a string of - not disasters, because nothing went quite as poorly as the date with Brolly. But they were far from successful. Rainbow was pretty good at getting a stallion to agree to go out with her. But either he'd turn out not to like Rainbow that much, or Rainbow turned out not to like him, or, and this only happened once, but Rainbow was still considering it a definite possibility for future dates, Pinkie would pop out of a centerpiece and scare the stallion off.

Once it became clear Rainbow Dash was not failing at the whole dating thing because of a lack of experience - she had more than enough to say that there was a remote possibility Rainbow may not have been the greatest at romance - Rainbow realized she had only one option left.

She had to brave the library.

3 3 3

She picked a time right after lunch, when the fewest possible number of ponies would be at the library. Rainbow landed out back in the shade of the other trees near Twilight's home and crept around to the front, moving as silently as she knew how. She paused near the entrance before poking her head through the door, carefully canvassing the place for any potential interloper-

"Hi, Rainbow Dash! Are you here to see Twilight?"

"Yagh!" Rainbow tripped and fell into the library, ending up at Spike's feet. He smiled and waved at her.

"Should I tell her you're here, Rainbow?"

"Go ahead," Rainbow muttered from the floor.

Spike turned. "Hey Twilight!" he bellowed. "Rainbow Dash is here!"

"Oh, good Celestia," Rainbow said, covering her eyes with her hooves. Now everypony would know she'd gone to the bookmare for help.

"Hi, Rainbow Dash." Twilight trotted carefully down the stairs to Rainbow's side. "Are you okay? That doesn't look very comfortable."

"I'm fine," Rainbow ground out, scrambling up from where she'd landed. "I just came to see you."

Twilight smiled and gave Rainbow a playful nudge. "Is that why you were lurking out back?"

"You...saw that?" Rainbow felt a surge of panic at the thought that anypony could have seen her sneaking into Twilight's.

"I hate to tell you, Rainbow, but your mane is...sort of noticeable." Twilight gave her a wan smile. "If you'd like, I could lend you Some Observations on the Art of Invisibility. I haven't had a chance to use any of the tricks yet, but Lord Winstallion Girthville-Pipe is supposed to be the expert."

"Maybe later." Rainbow took a few uncertain steps towards one of the nearest stacks of books. "I sort of came for some...other advice."

"What sort of advice?"

"Um...it's sort of...personal." Rainbow found she couldn't keep her eyes off of the floor. "You see, I've been having some bad luck with...dating."

Twilight drew away from Rainbow. "I'm not sure I'm the best pony to ask for advice about...that," she said. "There aren't very many books written on the subject - or at least not many reliable ones. And even if there were, I'm not certain how applicable they are to your situation."

"My...situation?" Rainbow frowned as she considered the words. "Is that some sort of jibe? I know I haven't had the best luck at dating, but that doesn't mean I've got a situation!"

"Whoa, calm down, Rainbow." Twilight trotted uncertainly around her friend, biting her lip. "I didn't mean there's anything wrong with you. It must just be...difficult."

"Of course it's difficult!" Rainbow snapped. "No one ever told me about any of this! My parents just taught me about...you know, flying and stuff."

Twilight's left eyebrow twitched. "Uh...flying? Are we talking about-"

"Flying!" Rainbow said. She flapped her wing for emphasis.

Twilight's expression relaxed. "Oh," she said, smiling more gently at Rainbow. "Well, in any case, I don't really have very many books on the subject."

"Look." Rainbow stepped close to Twilight, pursuing even after Twilight's first nervous step away. She pressed her face close to Twilight's, meeting the purple unicorn's panicked gaze. "I. Am. Desperate. So I will take any book you've got."

Twilight's expression eased. She gave Rainbow a long stare before nodding. "I think I can manage, Rainbow. Just don't be upset if it doesn't have everything you expect, okay? Um...just in case you were wondering, I don't have any books about...flying."

Rainbow stared at Twilight, and then at the empty space after she practically galloped into one of the back rooms to find whatever book she thought would help. Twilight was weird. And wrong; she'd found that book with the wing spell in it, plus Rainbow had found a couple of adventure novels about pegasus soldiers in Spike's bed, once, so there were totally books about flying in the library. Maybe Twilight was embarrassed about it, like unicorns weren't supposed to think about flying.

"I cannot believe how deeply this was buried," Twilight said as she returned to the room, Spike behind her carrying a stack of books taller than he was. "It's actually a little embarrassing; I try to be a cosmopolitan librarian, and here the only books on sensitive subjects are tucked in a corner. Here you go, Rainbow."

Rainbow stared at the book Twilight was holding out to her. An Analysis of Alternative Sexualities in Equestria: History and Discussion of Modern Attitudes and Lifestyle. She crossed her eyes at the words, but they didn't make much more sense the second time around.

"What is this?" she asked.

Twilight glanced away, cheeks darkening. "Well, I understand these sorts of feelings can be confusing and-"

"I'm not a filly, Twilight. I know about..." She paused, catching sight of Spike. "Making foals," she concluded awkwardly.

"I know that. But these feelings are supposed to be extra-confusing-"

"Maybe they wouldn't be if I had any idea what you're talking about!" Rainbow snapped.

"Oh! Twilight's trying to say...she loves and supports you even if you are a filly-fooler," Spike chimed in eagerly.

Rainbow felt her jaw drop open of her own accord. She thought her brain might have actually turned off for a second.

"Spike, that's not a very nice word," Twilight muttered.

"Yeah, well, let's call a spade a spade," Rainbow growled. "Let's snicker behind Rainbow Dash's back and talk about how she'd rather be with her marefriends. Let's tease her best friend and call her names and make her move to the next town over just to get a moment's peace!" Rainbow snapped her mouth shut the moment she realized she was yelling, but by then the whole outburst was over. Spike was hiding behind Twilight's forelegs, eyes wide in palpable fear of Rainbow. Twilight's expression was...sympathetic. Her eyes looked wet, and her chin quivering.

"I didn't know," Twilight said softly. She suddenly took a step forward, posture set in a new resolve. "But I promise you I won't hear a word against you as long as I'm in town."

"That's all well and good, Twilight, but I'm not a filly-fooler!"

Twilight nodded, but her expression hadn't changed, and Rainbow suspected she was being humored. "If you tell me that, I'll believe it. But Rainbow: if you tell me you aren't, I want it to be because you're not attracted to mares, not because you're afraid of what people will say if you are. I want you to be happy, and if you are...if you do...hiding it won't make you happy."

Rainbow had planned to make a smart remark, but she was tearing up by the end of Twilight's speech. And then Spike had to hug her leg.

"I don't see what difference it makes," he said. "Unless you've got a crush on..." He gave her a narrow look. "Do you have a crush on somepony? Who is it?"

"Hey, get off." Rainbow shook her foreleg to dislodge the baby dragon, an effort that met with only partial success. "I don't have a crush on anypony, okay?" she said. "And even if I did, and even if I were a - if I preferred mares - which I haven't said I do - I would not have a crush on Rarity. Can you imagine what she'd want me to do? Grooming and spa treatments? Blech!"

"Heh heh, yeah," Spike said, dreamily. His eyes widened abruptly, and he clapped his hands over his mouth. "I mean-" he mumbled.

Rainbow snickered. "Don't worry about it, kid. I'm not going to tell anypony about you and Rarity. As long as you don't tell anypony about this discussion." She prodded the baby dragon's shoulder, causing him to giggle.

Twilight must have sensed the edge in Rainbow's voice, because she took that moment to speak up. "We wouldn't talk about something that private! Anyway, it wouldn't matter if you're not...don't prefer mares."

"Bad enough that I was talking about it, for someponies," Rainbow growled. "So I don't need to give them anything else to talk about." She pawed anxiously at the ground, nervous under her friends' attention.

"But you'll think about it, won't you?" Twilight asked. She stepped closer to Rainbow, tilting her head inquisitively.

"Sure," Rainbow said dismissively.

"No, I'm serious," Twilight insisted. "You don't have to - talk to anypony. But if you can't tell me right now, you need to figure it out." She bit her bottom lip and looked up at her friend, obviously worried. "I don't think you can be happy if you don't know what you want."

"So what about you?" Rainbow pulled away from Twilight and began to circle her friend.

Twilight backed away, or tried to; what with Rainbow circling her, she just ended up moving in a circle. The look she gave Rainbow was a pale, wary wide-eyed expression. Rainbow stopped moving once she realized she was upsetting Twilight.

"What about me?" Twilight asked.

"Where did you get all this insight about this stuff? Are you a filly-fooler?"

"Wha - no!" Twilight shied away from Rainbow. "Not - not that there's anything wrong with that. I just...a couple of my friends back in Canterlot were." She gave Rainbow a reassuring smile. "So no matter what you decide, you know I'll be behind you 100 percent."

"Yeah, enough with all this mushy stuff," Rainbow muttered. "I gotta go."

"Just...think about it, okay?"

Rainbow paused at the door to the library and looked back at Twilight, who looked so bucking earnest Rainbow couldn't muster the energy to give her anything but a sincere reply.

"Sure. And Twilight? Spike? Thanks."

She bolted before either could reply; Rainbow wasn't going to sit around for more talking about feelings. At least...not with Twilight.

3 3 3

Rainbow pounded her head against the door again. Nopony had answered the first knock, but, driven by Twilight's plea that Rainbow figure this out, she'd knocked again.

The house, set near the edge of town, was a small, neat little one-story home surrounded by wild weeds. A neat bow was tied around the mailbox, giving the home, painted a cheerful yellow, an incongruous sort of beauty among the mess engulfing it.

Not that it was ugly. It was...wild, untended by anypony, giving the home the air of the Everfree Forest. Something that would make anypony think twice before approaching.

"Hello?" Rainbow stepped back to avoid the door as it swung open a few inches. An earth pony with a pale cream coat and elegantly curved dark blue mane poked her head out of the house. The pony stared at Rainbow Dash for a few moments, frowning thoughtfully. "You're...Rainbow Dash, right?"

"Yeah." Rainbow glanced at her hooves, feeling suddenly embarrassed. This didn't seem like a good idea anymore. Of course, that had never stopped Rainbow before. And it was for that reason that she squared her shoulders and raised her head high. "That's me; champion young flier and rising star of the competitive flying circuit. And you're Bon Bon, right?"

The earth pony nodded smiled genially at Rainbow. "I...it's nice to meet you."

Rainbow nodded, finding herself tongue-tied. The silence dragged for a few moments, at which point Bon Bon began to shift her hooves.

"Um...it's very nice to meet you," she said. "But I don't...I don't see why you're here."

Rainbow took a deep breath. "Well, I sort of wanted to talk to you. A friend of mine suggested I...think some things over. And I wanted to talk to somepony, and none of my friends would really understand..." She trailed off, aware that she was making no sense. "That is..."

"Why don't you come inside? That is, if you'd like to." Bon Bon stepped away from the door, giving Rainbow room to enter. Rainbow paused at the threshold. The inside of Bon Bon's house was more like the exterior yardwork (or lack thereof) than the building itself. Here and there, Rainbow could see attempts to improve the place's decor - a nice lamp, a picture hanging on the wall - but overall, the place was overwhelmed with clutter. Rainbow took a step forward and nearly stumbled over a pile of papers.

"Whoa, and I thought I was messy!"

Bon Bon gave Rainbow a weak smile. "Sorry. Lyra gets after me to clean up more often, but she's a lot better at that than I am."

Rainbow nodded absent-mindedly, eyes drifting around the mess - papers, bags, plates and scraps of clothing scattered everywhere. Her gaze fixed on a photo, and she almost immediately glanced away. It was a picture of Bon Bon and another pony - a mint-colored unicorn with a light blue mane - sitting under a huge oak tree. The two were entangled with one another, only Bon Bon's flank visible enough to see her Cutie Mark. They were both grinning, and the unicorn's horn was glowing, suggesting she was the one holding the camera. It felt too intimate to be hanging on a wall, where anypony could see.

Well, anypony that came to visit, and if the mess was any indication, Bon Bon didn't get many visitors.

"Well, this is...nice," she said.

Bon Bon laughed. "That's sweet of you to say, Rainbow - do you mind if I just call you Rainbow?" Rainbow nodded. "Anyway, it is a mess. I know."

"Mhm." Rainbow found her gaze, traitorous as it was, had drifted back to the photograph that had caught her notice.

"Oh! Do you like it? Lyra hates having it up; she thinks it's embarrassing."

Rainbow snorted. "If you want to have a picture in your house showing you with the pony you love, I don't think anypony ought to get offended by it."

"What?" Bon Bon raised one eyebrow. "I meant she thinks the picture's terrible. Thanks for the sentiment, though. I personally like it."

"It's...eye-catching," Rainbow choked out.

Lyra smiled at Rainbow. "Never seen a picture of two mares enjoying each others' company before?" She winked at Rainbow, who felt her cheeks heat.

"I...no." Rainbow looked away from the earth pony, eyes fixing on a pile of what looked like musical scores. "That's not the point, anyway. It's a nice picture."

"Well, then. Take a seat; I'll get us some tea-"

"Wait!" Rainbow snapped, cutting off the other mare. "Look, I know this is totally random, and you've got no reason to help me, but...I wanted to talk to you about something..." Rainbow dropped her head down and covered it with her hooves. "Oh, this is so embarrassing."

Rainbow started when a hoof patted her back. She sat straight up, staring at Bon Bon, who stared at her with a wide-eyed, sort of nervous smile.

"You don't need to be nervous, Rainbow. We won't - well, I won't bite."

Rainbow sighed. There was no reason she should be so nervous. "I wanted to ask a question. Probably a lot of questions, but it's just one." She took a deep breath. "Howdoyouknowifyoulikemares?"

Bon Bon snorted. "The same way I know what my special talent is."

Rainbow felt her thoughts stutter to a stop. "There's a Cutie Mark for fi-that?"

"No, silly!" Bon Bon laughed. "But the way you were looking for it, I think you shouldn't be too confused on the point of liking mares." Bon Bon pushed Rainbow's head aside from where it had fixed on her flank; Rainbow, still a little too shell-shocked to speak, let the earth pony move her with no protest.

Nevertheless, the words caught up to her. Eventually. "Hey! I am not a-" The word died in her throat, half because it would have been beyond stupid to throw that word around in Bon Bon's own home, and half because...well, Rainbow wasn't sure. It was the whole point of this visit, anyway. "Or, I..."

"Celestia, you are confused," Bon Bon said. "But I wasn't being cute; I can't tell you the answer, any more than somepony else can tell you what your Cutie Mark is. And just the same...when you figure it out, you just know."

"Yeah, but how did you know?" Rainbow demanded.

"Oh." Bon Bon's cheeks darkened. "My." She smiled slowly. "The first time I ever laid eyes on Lyra."

"Aw, come on," Rainbow said. "I don't have anything like that." Bon Bon didn't answer, so Rainbow waved a hoof past her eyes. "Hello? Equestria to Bon Bon."

"Sorry," the earth pony said, shaking her head. "Lost myself for a moment."

Rainbow gave an explosive sigh. "Well, I guess you weren't exactly unhelpful...anyway, I gotta go."

"No, wait." Bon Bon stepped into Rainbow's path before she could leave. "Look, Rainbow. It's not a huge mystery. You just gotta close your eyes and think about it. Do stallions...do it for you? Or is it an attractive mare, slim athletic flanks and delicate shape..."

"Bon Bon?"

The cream-colored mare darkened from her head to hooves. "Sorry," she said.

"No problem. If I had a mare who liked me that much, it'd be awesome to know she thought about me that much. You know, not that I'd blame her."

Bon Bon gave Rainbow a considering stare as her blush faded. "Well," she said. "I can safely say you don't lack confidence." She chuckled. "I think anypony you give your heart to is lucky."

"Yeah, thanks for the talk, anyway." Rainbow walked to the door, now unobstructed, but one hoof out, she stopped and turned. "Hey, Bon Bon?"

"Yes?"

Rainbow swallowed. "Would you like to hang out sometime? Get lunch or something? Not like a date! Just, you know, being friends, not, ah..."

"I don't think it's a date just because we're both mares," Bon Bon said, smirking. "I've got news, kid: I'm head over heels for the unicorn in that picture over there, and I wouldn't leave her for anything."

"Is...that a yes?" Rainbow asked, feeling a little (not that she would admit it to another soul) weak in the knees at Bon Bon's declaration.

"What? Oh, yes, certainly," Bon Bon said. "I'll even keep my being distracted by thoughts of Lyra to a minimum. Just for you." She winked again, and Rainbow, her cheeks warm, stumbled out of the house with a strangled "Bye!"

Rainbow took to the air almost immediately after leaving Bon Bon and Lyra's home; she settled on a low-flying cumulo-nimbus and sat back to think, staring at the higher cloud formations as she did so.

The million-bit question was, of course, did stallions...do it for her? Or was it mares?

Rainbow scrunched up her face, trying to think of a handsome stallion. Nopony she'd tried to date, of course - all of those ships had sailed. But there'd been a few nice-looking stallions in the Best Young Fliers' Competition. Rainbow tried to imagine kissing one, or getting...closer.

It was a nice thought, Rainbow supposed, but she didn't see how it was supposed to do anything. So she switched to thinking about a pretty mare. Not, she affirmed, one like Rarity. But somepony athletic, energetic, a little bit competitive, who might be willing to argue a little, or tussle before Rainbow pinned her and pressed her lips-

Rainbow jolted her whole body upward, her wings snapping outward.

"Oh, horse apples," she growled, burying her head into the cloud. "I'm going to have to tell Twilight I was wrong."

3 3 3

Rainbow landed at the edge of the clearing in which Fluttershy had built her home. A host of animals looked up from where they'd been grazing or sprawling, and just stared at her. Rainbow spread her wings, trying to look intimidating, but then a rabbit she hadn't noticed before hopped to the end of a branch he'd been standing on and slapped her flank.

"Hey!" Rainbow turned to glare and met Angel Bunny's beady eyes. "Why you..." She grabbed the offending rabbit by the scruff of his neck, but he responded with a quick bite and, when Rainbow dropped him in shock, he fled at top speed towards Fluttershy's house.

"Get back here, you stupid bunny!" Angel burst through the low swinging door set in the entrance to Fluttershy's house, and Rainbow, pursuing, skidded to a halt just as the front door swung open to reveal Fluttershy's delicate form. Her blue eyes were a hardened, icy shade, but when she saw Rainbow, she took a step back, eyes snapping open into wide, frightened orbs.

"Rainbow Dash? What are you-? Angel Bunny, were you pestering Rainbow Dash?" The rabbit stuck out his tongue, to which Fluttershy narrowed her eyes. "Don't look at me that way, Angel; I know that look. You were trying to get her in trouble! Well, you can just sit over by your hutch until dinner. I'm so sorry, Rainbow. Angel Bunny has just been in high spirits lately."

"He tried to eat me," Rainbow said, and shot the rabbit a threatening glare. He stuck his tongue out at her.

"Um, Rainbow, Angel Bunny is an herbivore. Like ponies."

"Sure he is," Rainbow growled.

A cough drew Rainbow's attention away from the unrepentant rabbit and up to Fluttershy, who was watching Rainbow carefully. The yellow pegasus looked slightly more nervous than usual; she kept shifting away from Rainbow every time Rainbow looked her way.

"Is something wrong, 'Shy?"

Fluttershy yelped and shook her head. "Oh, no. I'm just...if it's not too rude, can I ask what you're doing here? Not that I'm not delighted to see you. But you usually don't come to visit. I know it's my fault, having such a down-low house, but...well. Um?"

Rainbow winced, but shook off the moment of guilt. Now was probably not the time. "I sort of came to tell you something, Fluttershy. Something important."

"Oh! I'm sorry for going on." Fluttershy sat, sending Angel skittering to the edge of the room. "Go ahead; I'm listening."

Rainbow, mouth open, ready to talk, snapped it closed when Fluttershy turned towards her, the very picture of demure attentiveness. "Um..." She felt her ears heat, and knew her coat was turning an unattractive violet shade. "It's sort of..."

"Would you like a cup of tea? Or coffee? Only, you look sort of..."

"I'm a filly fooler," Rainbow said.

"Oh!" Fluttershy took a step back from Rainbow, wings twitching nervously. "That's...um, very nice, Rainbow."

Rainbow watched her friend try her best to put distance between Rainbow and herself and felt her heart sink and twist into a pained knot. It was possible Twilight and Spike's unsolicited show of support had been more surprising, but this pain would stick with her forever. The thought of Fluttershy not liking her anymore because...

"Yeah, okay. Sorry to bother you," Rainbow muttered. "I'll see myself out."

Fluttershy's head snapped up; she stared at Rainbow with wild eyes, herself frozen in place, but when Rainbow started towards the door, Fluttershy exploded into motion, throwing herself between her friend and the exit.

"Wait wait, what are you doing?"

"Leaving," Rainbow snapped. "Since obviously I make you so uncomfortable-"

"No!" The volume of the shout was enough to stop Rainbow, at least for the crucial moment it took for Fluttershy to block the door. Her wings were ruffled, making her look twice her normal size, and when Rainbow met Fluttershy's eyes, they had the hardened, dazing look of the Stare. "You stay right here, Rainbow Dash."

"Hey! Cut that out!"

Fluttershy yelped and folded in on herself, freeing Rainbow from the compulsion of the Stare, but also compelling Rainbow to stay just to make sure Fluttershy wasn't upset.

"Fluttershy?" she asked. "Are you ok?"

"You're mad at me," Fluttershy murmured. "And I'm sorry, Rainbow Dash. You're a wonderful pony, and I think you're lovely, and I do love you with all my heart, but...I just...think we shouldn't...date."

Rainbow stared at the cowering pegasus for a few shocked moments before she asked, slowly, "Date? Not that you aren't cute, Fluttershy, but what made you think I was asking you out?"

Fluttershy raised her head and stared speculatively at Rainbow. "Well, I thought, since you already knew I preferred mares, you might...maybe have thought..."

"You what?" Rainbow demanded. "How was I supposed to know that?"

"I told you," Fluttershy said. "I can understand if you didn't remember-"

"No, I'm sure I'd remember something like that," Rainbow replied. "When was this?"

"After we graduated from flight school?" Fluttershy said uncertainly. "We left that party early?"

"Was that what that was about? I thought you were telling me you didn't want to live in Cloudsdale anymore."

Fluttershy smiled gently. "Well, maybe a little. But I tried to tell you that I...felt different from other fillies." She giggled, only to flush, mortified, as soon as the noise escaped her throat. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh at you."

"It's all right. I guess it is a little funny," Rainbow replied. "I mean, here I was worrying about what you'd say..."

"You were...worried?" Fluttershy asked. She leaned in to nuzzle Rainbow's neck. "You're one of my friends, Rainbow Dash."

"I...know that." Rainbow stepped away from the gesture, but smiled, she was certain a little uneasily, at Fluttershy. It made her a little ashamed to realize she'd doubted Fluttershy, who aside from being a lot more like Rainbow than she'd ever thought, was the gentlest soul Rainbow knew. "But maybe not well enough."

Fluttershy smiled brightly at Rainbow. "Then I guess I'll have to remind you. You're my friend, Rainbow Dash, and I love you...no matter what."

"We all do!"

"Yagh!" Rainbow recoiled, and Fluttershy bolted, from the sudden appearance of Pinkie Pie. The pink earth pony grinned widely at both of them from her seat on top of the table. There was nothing that Pinkie could have been hiding behind, unless you counted the small vase of flowers next to her. "Where did you come from?"

"A rock farm, silly!"

Rainbow opened her mouth and then let it shut closed. There wasn't much point in arguing, anyway. "So random," she mouthed at Fluttershy.

"Anyway, I hope you realize we all love you so much, Dashie! And nothing'll ever change that, not ever! I bet you'd believe nopony cares whether you like stallions or mares if we had a giant party for you! A coming-out party! Only not the old-fashioned kind, where everypony's in tux and tails. I wonder why they're both called coming-out parties?"

"No!" Rainbow snapped. "We're not having a party, Pinkie Pie. I don't want you - either of you - to tell anypony. If anypony figures out, it's because I told them, all right?"

Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie exchanged a look, and Pinkie produced a pair of frosted cupcakes. "Sure thing, ok, Flutter? Cross our hearts and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye." Fluttershy joined in the ritual, somewhat less enthusiastically than Pinkie Pie at the last line. "And if you want to tell everypony yourself, you might want to hurry, cause I'm pretty sure most everypony thought you were a filly-fooler before you started going out with all those stallions. Why, just last month Mrs. Cake asked me when you were going to find a nice mare to settle down with, and I told her, 'Dashie'll settle down when she's good and ready, just like me, except I'm going to settle down with a stallion if I ever settle down. Or two, maybe. I always thought things would be more fun that way-"

"Pinkie, just be quiet for a second - two?"

Pinkie grinned unabashedly at Rainbow. "Well, it's hard to have a party with just two ponies, after all."

Rainbow could see Fluttershy's cheeks were stained scarlet, and she was certain she looked just as embarrassed. A part of her wanted to ask Pinkie for more information, but the rest of her just didn't want to know. So Rainbow compromised.

"What do you mean, everypony thinks I'm a filly-fooler?"

Fluttershy shrank back, but Pinkie just bounced to Rainbow's side, slinging a leg over her shoulder. "Don't worry about it, Dashie, nopony who's anypony thinks it's anything to worry about. I admit, you threw us all for a loop when you started going on dates with stallions, but I say, let bygones be bygones-"

"Okay, Pinkie, shut up for half a second, okay?" Rainbow insisted. She began pacing in a distracted circle. "I cannot believe everypony in town-"

"Not to forget Cloudsdale!" Pinkie interjected.

"Not to mention Cloudsdale, thought I was a filly-fooler."

"Um, Rainbow Dash, I don't mean to be rude, but aren't you-"

"That's not the point!" Rainbow snapped. "I'd gotten enough of all that whispering and rumor-mongering when I was a filly without knowing everypony around here was doing the same thing!"

"I don't...think it's the same thing at all," Fluttershy murmured.

"Yeah, Dashie, nopony was making fun of you for it." Pinkie nudged Rainbow's side hard with her head. "At least nopony I ever heard. And if I did hear it, I'd give 'em such a talking to they wouldn't know what happened to them. They'd be like, 'oh, I feel so contrite for making fun of Rainbow Dash's love of sweet filly rump-'" Rainbow heard a choked sound from Fluttershy. "'I guess there's nothing left to do but beg her forgiveness and throw her an awesome party!'"

"No parties, Pinkie," Rainbow repeated. "Even if everypony already thinks I prefer mares."

"At least...you know...how people react thinking you're a...filly fooler," Fluttershy said. When Rainbow looked in her direction, Fluttershy kicked nervously at the dust.

"Oh, Celestia, don't make me say this, Flutter," Rainbow groaned.

Pinkie Pie sidled up to Rainbow and leaned close, grinning. "Come on, Dashie, you know you want to," she said in a sing-song voice. "I even know a song for a moment like this-"

More worried by the prospect of Pinkie singing than the embarrassment of discussing emotions, Rainbow spoke hurriedly. "Look, Fluttershy, I...love you. And I know all your friends do, too. I can't think of a single pony who doesn't think you're the sweetest thing alive. I can think of a list of ponies the length of your wingspan that'd be ready to pound some sense into anypony'd who'd say a mean word to you about that, and I'd be the first on that list."

"Oh." Fluttershy's voice was nearly as quiet as Rainbow had ever heard it, and her eyes, shielded by her hair, were fixed on her hooves. "I'm sure you don't need to do anything like that," she added.

"And let somepony hurt my girl Fluttershy?" Rainbow asked. "What kind of pony do you think I am?" She strutted forward and got in Fluttershy's face; the pale pegasus pulled back, but didn't make a noise. "I am not the sort of pony that leaves a friend hanging, especially not my oldest, kindest friend who never hurt anypony in her life."

"Eep?"

"Dashie's right, Fluttershy! There's no reason anypony'd think any different of you when they all still like her." Pinkie Pie exploded up between the two pegasi, throwing her legs around the both of them into one, Pinkie-themed hug. "Maybe we could have a party for you!"

"Oh...no, thank you anyway, Pinkie," Fluttershy said. "I'd like to tell ponies myself, if it isn't too much trouble."

Pinkie Pie dropped onto all fours again, face scrunched into a mildly concerned expression. "All right. But I'm beginning to think I'm never going to get to throw a party."

Fluttershy gave Rainbow a helpless look, so Rainbow shrugged and, pulling Pinkie Pie after her, waved good-bye to Fluttershy. "Hey, nopony said you had to throw a party for me or Shy. I mean, you're Pinkie Pie. Since when do you need a reason to throw a party?"

Pinkie Pie nodded seriously. "You may have a point. Soo...since you're at loose ends, do you want to get up to some pranking?"

"Sorry, Pinkie, but I got a couple of things to do," Rainbow apologized.

Pinkie gave her a curious, piercing look. Rainbow took an uncertain step back, but then Pinkie shrugged and gave her a blinding grin.

"All right. I know you've got a lot to think about. But you gotta promise to let me throw you a party sometime."

Rainbow rolled her eyes. "Fine. You can throw me an engagement party if I ever settle down."

"Ooh! Really?" Pinkie Pie bounced forward and nuzzled Rainbow. "I'm going home and start planning."

"Have fun!" Rainbow said, and watched Pinkie bound off into the distance. Then she took to the air, alighting on a cloud not far from Fluttershy's. The day was darkening, sun sinking towards the clear horizon, and Rainbow, rolling onto her back, took a moment to watch it without thinking, something she'd been doing too much of, in her opinion.

The attempt lasted only a few minutes before Rainbow's thoughts drifted. Fluttershy...Rainbow hadn't seen that coming. It gave her a little burst of confidence regarding her own recent revelation. If Fluttershy, frightened of her own shadow, could deal with the uncertainty of being...a little abnormal, Rainbow should be able to take the whole thing in stride.

That is...if all of her friends were understanding. If Pinkie was right, everypony already thought they knew all about her. But still, there was an uncomfortable knot in Rainbow's stomach. Now that Pinkie and Fluttershy...and Spike and Twilight had expressed their whole-hearted support for her, there seemed not very much to worry about. But Rainbow was acutely aware that not all of her friends had declared acceptance for Rainbow's revelation; Applejack, in particular, was set in her ways, and if she thought it was gross, or wrong...there wasn't much Rainbow could do to change it.

Still, it seemed it couldn't hurt to butter her up a little before telling her.

Rainbow rolled right-side up, grinning. It had worked last time, hadn't it? In fact, she had the absolute best idea! It was going to take planning, hard work, and totally awesome stealth.

3 3 3

Early the next afternoon, Rainbow knocked at the door to Applejack's home. After a moment, it swung open to reveal Big Macintosh. He took a long look at Rainbow, loaded down with the packages it had taken her all morning to collect, before drawling, "Applejack's out."

"Good," Rainbow said. "I didn't want to see her right now, anyway."

Big Macintosh narrowed his eyes at Rainbow, mouth twisting into a distinct scowl. "Rainbow, I thought I was clear I'm not gonna date you."

"What? No! No, I got that message loud and clear," Rainbow protested. "I was just here to ask you for a little favor, nothing big. You see, I'm planning a surprise for Applejack, to thank her for being such a great friend, and I wanted to borrow your kitchen. And maybe ask you to stay out of our manes tonight, and maybe find somewhere to keep Applebloom busy?"

Big Macintosh stared at Rainbow for several tense moments. She tried not to squirm under the attention, but the Apple clan had talent for a unique, penetrating gaze. She'd heard from Twilight how a wide-eyed pleading look from Applebloom could have melted Nightmare Moon's heart. Big Macintosh's stare made her want to blurt out the whole story, from beginning to end, even though she knew she wasn't guilty of anything.

"A thank-you dinner?" he asked.

"Yeah," Rainbow said, lifting up one of the bags. "I've got a cookbook and a buncha stuff from Pinkie Pie. Soo..."

"Ayup. I'll be back at dawn," Big Macintosh said. "Try to be out of the way by then." He winked at Rainbow before grabbing the strap of a bag sitting by the door and stepping out past Rainbow.

"Dawn?" Rainbow demanded at Big Macintosh' retreating back. "What the hay are we going to be doing until dawn? It's just dinner!"

"Have fun, Dash!" he called.

Rainbow stared after Big Macintosh for a few minutes, until she was sure he was gone, and then grabbed her bags and trotted into the kitchen. She set the cookbook on one of the tables and stared at it. She took a deep breath. This was for her friend; she could do this.

"Step one," Rainbow read, "peel one pound sweet apples..."

Two hours passed relatively uneventfully; Rainbow found that there were few mistakes you could make while cooking that couldn't be worked around with the right spices, or taking a knife to offending portions of a meal. All that was left was the pudding, which Pinkie Pie had assured Rainbow was foalproof.

She poured the sugar, butter, and water together before realizing she didn't have corn starch, and she had no idea where to start looking. Luckily, Rainbow found a few cobs of corn she mashed up and added to the sugar mix. It looked sort of like butterscotch already, although the mixture didn't thicken on the stove so much as brown. Still, she thought as she tipped the mixture into her pan with the apples and flour, it smelled sweet, and that was all it needed.

Rainbow began carrying plates to the table as the dessert cooked, only to freeze when the door opened, admitting Applejack. The orange earth pony paused in the door, staring at Rainbow, who had submitted to an apron once a pot of tomato sauce had nearly exploded over her coat.

"Hey, AJ," Rainbow said.

"Sugarcube, what're you doing?" Applejack peered around Rainbow into the kitchen. "You didn't stash Big Macintosh anywhere, did ya?"

"What? No," Rainbow scoffed. "He said it was all right for me to use your kitchen."

"For a date?" Applejack demanded. She tensed, eyes narrowed as she glanced suspiciously around the kitchen.

"For you," Rainbow said. Applejack's eyes widened, scanning the room for a startled second before settling back on Rainbow. She bit her lip and stared at Rainbow Dash, again giving the pegasus the uneasy feeling of having somepony staring through her.

"It this...some kind of joke, Dash?"

"Of course not! I know you're probably sick of hearing about this whole thing, but you helping me with this whole dating thing was pretty awesome of you. I know you didn't have to, so I thought I'd surprise you with a little dinner." Rainbow grinned at Applejack, whose belligerence gave way to a weary smile.

"Well, I can't imagine turning down such a kind offer, especially since you went to...a lot of trouble." Applejack took a long glanced at the kitchen; Rainbow glanced behind her, only now seeing the pots and pans scattered across the kitchen counters, the sink full of dirty silverware and measuring cups, and the fallout from the occasional rogue splatter of food painted liberally along the walls and floor.

"Heh heh," Rainbow chuckled. "Well, I don't expect you to clean up. Come on, I got everything almost ready!"

Applejack approached the table cautiously while Rainbow gathered the rest of the plates. She set them down on the table one by one, giving them a proud examination before looking to Applejack. The earth pony had a stiff smile on her face; when she caught Rainbow looking at her, she gave the pegasus a warmer smile.

"It's a mighty fine spread you put out, Dash. I reckon you must have put a lot into it."

"It was nothing. So go ahead and eat."

Applejack chuckled. "That's mighty gracious, Dash. Why, a mare could get used to treatment like that."

She bent down and took a bite of the salad. Slowly, Applejack chewed, eyes fixed on the salad. Applejack took another bite.

"Great, huh?" Rainbow asked, leaning in.

Applejack made a thoughtful sound. "It's edible. Which, to be honest, was more than I was expecting."

"What? Why wouldn't I be awesome at cooking?"

"Sugarcube, when's the last time I'd've seen you cook?"

Rainbow let her jaw snap shut. She smiled weakly at Applejack. "Heh-heh. Well. I guess you've got a point." She groaned when that thought brought to mind the fact that she still had to talk to Twilight.

"What's the matter, hon?" Applejack asked.

"I still gotta tell Twilight she was right," Rainbow said. "And she's going to be insufferably supportive about it, so I can't even be annoyed with her about it."

"Well, it ain't going to do you any good sitting here moaning about it," Applejack said, snapping up the sauteed (and only slightly blackened) vegetables. "You could practice on me, if you thought it'd do any good."

Rainbow looked up from her plate, a slight warmth coiling in her stomach. She couldn't have asked for a better opportunity to tell Applejack; Applejack liked her food, appreciated the gesture of Rainbow cooking for her, and had practically asked Rainbow to tell her what Rainbow was thinking about.

"I think I gotta tell you something, first," Rainbow said. "All this dating thing has made me do a lot of thinking - I mean, a lot of thinking. And with one thing and another, I...well, I sort of...like mares."

"Come again?"

"I'm a filly-fooler," Rainbow said. She paused, not certain her usual bluster would work here. She couldn't even think of what she could say, beyond that simple statement. She wasn't here to look for advice, so the whole vanilla-frosting story wouldn't be a good idea. Besides, Applejack knew most of it already.

Applejack hadn't replied, the interior of the house almost dead silent. Rainbow looked at Applejack, who had dropped her eyes to the table, hat shielding her green eyes, and in fact, whole expression, from Rainbow. Rainbow could see Applejack was shaking, just a bit.

"Applejack?"

"And you thought you'd make me a nice dinner to tell me?" Applejack asked. "Get me to settle down so you could drop the news on my back?"

"You're my friend, Applejack-"

"I reckon I know that!" Applejack snapped back, finally raising her head to meet Rainbow's stare. Her cheeks were a dark orange, nearly red all the way through, and her eyes were narrow, barely-visible green chips fixed on Rainbow. And Rainbow thought she could see tear tracks on her friend's face. "So I don't need to hear every apple-bucking detail about it! All right?"

"Applejack?" Rainbow asked cautiously. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Applejack said, voice even although Rainbow could see she was still shaking. "I...think you'd better leave, sug-Dash."

Rainbow's heart sank. "AJ, you don't mean-"

"I wanna be left alone right now, Dash," Applejack repeated. "Do you need me to say it plainer?"

Rainbow stared at her friend, hoping that the other mare would take it back, or say it was a joke, but Applejack's stern glare remained firm. "I..." Rainbow found her words stuck in her throat; she didn't know what she could say to Applejack that could change the earth pony's mind. "Fine," Rainbow growled. "I've got plenty of other friends if you don't want to be seen with me." She stalked away from the table and out the door, only to stick her head back into the house to add, "And I'm not cleaning the kitchen!"

Rainbow fled the farm as fast as she could, taking refuge in a cloud near the edge of Ponyville, high enough that Fluttershy would be hesitant to visit her, and just far enough from the town that nopony should even look for her.

Rainbow collapsed into the cloud and glared at the sky, unwilling to let go of the heat of anger in her breast. She didn't know who she was angry with - Applejack, herself, Twilight - but she was certain if she let her anger slip for even a moment she'd start crying. And Rainbow wasn't going to cry just because Applejack was an ass. She had at least four other friends who didn't care that Rainbow preferred mares - five, if she counted Bon Bon among her friends. It wasn't as if she could expect all of her friends to feel the same way.

Rainbow growled at that thought and rolled onto her back. Of course it was different. Sure, it was sweet that, say, Twilight and Spike had come right out and said they supported Rainbow no matter what. But it had been talking to Fluttershy, Pinkie...Applejack, that had twisted Rainbow's stomach in knots. Her oldest friend, her best friend, and the closest thing Rainbow had to an equal around here. It was a shock to find that, for all that Rainbow had come to expect from Applejack, it was she who'd turned on Rainbow first.

"Well, at least she was honest about it," Rainbow muttered.

"Excuse me?"

Rainbow scrambled to her feet, heart pounding as her eyes darted around, looking for the intrusion into her embarrassment. She sighed when she saw a grey pegasus fluttering just next to the cloud.

"Ditzy," she sighed. Ditzy Doo was the least likely pony to go off and rat that Rainbow Dash had been trying not to cry into a cloud. At least, the least likely to do so intelligibly. "What do you want?"

Ditzy tilted her head, yellow eyes fixed on Rainbow in a show of focus unusual for her. "You're...not Rainbow Dash," she said.

"Ditzy, we work together every year at Winter Wrap-Up," Rainbow said, exasperated. "Not to mention emergency weather work."

The grey pegasus shook her head. "No, Rainbow is different. She's not sad." She fluttered onto the cloud next to Rainbow and nudged Rainbow's head, sending Rainbow shying away from her.

"Hey! Keep your distance!" Rainbow snapped.

Ditzy's mouth flickered upward, and she seemed to relax, allowing her eyes to drift as they were wont to. "You are Rainbow Dash," she said wonderingly. "But you're sad Rainbow Dash. Which is silly."

Rainbow almost told Ditzy to leave, but the cheerful dismissiveness of the other pegasus' words gave her pause. "You think I can't be sad about things?"

Ditzy tilted her head, considering Rainbow...or possibly the sky, or her dinner. It was hard to tell with Ditzy. "You have a lot of friends," she said. She smiled at Rainbow. "I don't have a lot of friends. But Dinky keeps me from being sad."

Rainbow snorted. It was usually a good idea to ignore Ditzy, but Rainbow normally didn't, because if it wasn't worth a laugh, there was a chance she'd come out with something worth listening to. "And what if my friends are the problem?" She was struck with a sudden burst of courage; she'd experienced the best and the worst possible reactions from her friends already. What could she possibly fear from Ditzy? "One of them hates me because I told her I'm a filly-fooler."

"Oh. Are you sure?" Ditzy asked. "All of your friends are very nice." She frowned momentarily. "Mostly."

"Well, then you've never gotten on Applejack's bad side," Rainbow retorted. She dropped back onto the cloud with a gusty groan. "What am I supposed to do?" she asked.

"Can you stop wanting to kiss other mares?" Ditzy asked.

Rainbow shot Ditzy a contemptuous glare which seemed to go right over the other pegasus' head. "I wouldn't do that just to keep Miss Close-to-the-Earth from feeling uncomfortable. Ha! I don't let anypony tell me what to do!" She flinched away at Ditzy's wide smile. "Yeah, I know," she muttered. "There it is. Don't be ashamed about it." She dropped her head onto her hooves and sighed again. "But it still hurts."

Ditzy nodded and then took a deep breath. "People think I'm strange, but when they see Dinky, they know we're happy. Maybe..." She paused, squinting her eyes as she tried to draw out the words she needed.

"What about you? Do you think it's weird?"

Ditzy frowned thoughtfully. She looked up, although one of her eyes drifted down to fix on Rainbow as Ditzy thought. At last, the grey pegasus shook her head. "Everypony has a different favorite type of muffin." She made a 'tsk' noise. "And some ponies don't like muffins. Nopony should hate you for being happy." She took a step forward, and bent down to nuzzle Rainbow again. Rainbow, emotionally exhausted and feeling grateful for Ditzy's advice, didn't pull away. "I think..." She stepped back before speaking up again. "Be Rainbow Dash. Applejack likes Rainbow Dash."

"But-"

"Sorry; I gotta go." Ditzy winked at Rainbow. "But don't worry. Like Coach always said: it'll work out if you just power through." Her wings blurred, sending Ditzy rocketing off.

Rainbow watched the retreating contrail, a bemused smile drifting onto her face. Maybe Ditzy was right; she seemed to be so more often than not, at least when it didn't come to directions. Rainbow had to admit, it was an attractive suggestion to just give Applejack time to adjust. And if Rainbow found just the right mare, maybe Applejack would come around.

Come to think of it, Rainbow had an idea of the perfect opportunity...

3 3 3

"Hey, Twilight!" Rainbow kicked the door to the library a few times, experimentally, but with no result. She dropped her hooves and glowered at the wood. "Come on," Rainbow muttered. She butted her head against the door, which at last caused it to swing open. "Finally!"

"Who?"

Rainbow stared at the owl, who must have been perched on the doorknob on the far side of the door, as he peered around at her.

"It's me, Rainbow Dash," she said. "Is Twilight in?"

"Who?"

"Rainbow Dash, the unicorn who runs the library? Has a little dragon following her everywhere?"

"Who?"

"Oh, come on, now you're just messing with me!" Rainbow snapped. "And aren't you noc - don't you sleep during the day, anyway?"

"Yes, he does, but someone thought it was a good idea to give him coffee." Twilight appeared behind the owl, sending him fluttering back into the library. "What can I do for you, Rainbow?"

Rainbow took a deep breath and then shoved her way past Twilight. "First, you have to promise you won't be insufferable about this."

Twilight tilted her head, confused, as she stared at Rainbow. "I'm sorry?"

"Just promise!" Rainbow snapped.

Recoiling, Twilight gave Rainbow an uneasy smile. "OK. Just...what's this about?"

Rainbow looked at the wall as she answered; she couldn't bear to see anything approaching smugness on Twilight's face. "You were right. About me. And...mares."

"I'm glad you feel comfortable enough to tell me, Rainbow Dash-"

"And I was thinking, now that I've told you, you can introduce me to your friend in Canterlot!"

Twilight shied back, shaking her head emphatically. "No. I don't think that's a good idea, Rainbow."

"Why not?"

Twilight opened her mouth, and then let it close without speaking. She glanced at Rainbow, and then at the floor. "It's...hard to explain. I just think...you really...wouldn't get along."

"Aw, c'mon, how do you know if we don't try? You could be keeping your friend from true love!" Twilight opened her mouth to protest, but Rainbow decided now was the time to play dirty. She tapped into the filly she had once been, and opened her eyes wide, letting them tear a little. "Please?"

Twilight sighed, dropping her head in defeat. "Fine. But I can't promise you'll like her."

"Aw, don't worry. Everything's going to be perfect!"

3 3 3

Rainbow shivered at the mare began to pace around her, piercing eyes fixed so intently on her, she was certain the other mare could see into her soul.

"Um-" Rainbow began.

"So!" Princess Celestia snapped, cutting Rainbow off. "We understand you wish to court our sister."

Rainbow tried to smile at Princess Celestia, but the expression lost some of its bluster in the face of the sun goddess, who had a glare that could burn toast. "Well-"

"SILENCE!" the goddess roared. "We understand that among ponies of your generation, you are...lax with concepts of commitment and fidelity. So I will warn you, pre-emptively. If you hurt my little sister, you'll spend TWO thousand years on the moon!"

Rainbow recoiled from the force of the glare. "I-"

And then Celestia burst out laughing. "Oh, you should have seen your face! Really? Two thousand years on the moon?"

"Heh heh," Rainbow said weakly. "I guess that is a little silly."

"Of course! You'd suffocate after ten minutes!" Celestia chortled.

Rainbow gulped. "So...you wouldn't really send me to the moon, right?"

"Of course not," Celestia said, patting Rainbow's head. "I'd plaster your tormented image into the stars so that ponies a thousand generations from now will remember the price of crossing Princess Luna." Her eyes grew dark and flinty, and voice was, by the end of the litany, a harsh, sputtering hiss, like the sound of an all-consuming fire.

"Can we just leave for dinner?" Rainbow squeaked. "I made reservations for 8 and it's late already-"

Celestia's face lost its vicious edge, returning to the placid expression she normally bore around her subjects. "Oh! Of course; let's not keep my sister waiting."

Ten minutes later, Rainbow and Princess Luna were settled at their table at the Horned Dorset, possibly the fanciest restaurant Rainbow Dash had ever set foot in. Rainbow gave the princess a weak smile.

"So..."

"I have heard from my sister that you are quite a skilled aerobat," Luna said.

"Aero - you mean, flying? Oh, sure! I'm the best!" Rainbow agreed. "I've perfected the Sonic Rainboom, only the awesomest aerial maneuver in Equestria!"

Luna nodded. "Of course; I'm fascinated by the concept. I always theorized that because the speed of sound, light, and magic are so similar, surpassing those barriers would lead to an astromagical event with truly phenomenal properties. If properly harnessed-"

"Hey! Look, it's our waiter!" Rainbow waved down one of the sheep who delivered food, in the hope that food would distract Luna from babbling.

"Oh, yes!" Luna turned to the server. "We demand your finest preparations, server! If your efforts are in good faith, you will be well rewarded with our grace!"

Rainbow sighed, dropping her face to her hoof. Attention was all well and good, but...apparently, Luna hadn't quite adapted to modern life yet. "You might want to turn down the volume a bit, Luna."

"How dare you - oh, yes, of course, Rainbow." Luna smiled at Rainbow again.

"Um..." Rainbow scratched the back of her head, floundering for ideas. "I bet you're a good flier, right?"

"Oh, no. Not in that way," Luna replied. "I fly as the night does, on silent wing. My sister's flight is the speed of the hunter - although, to be honest, I don't think she's ever broken the light barrier." She leaned in close for the last line, confirming that Luna knew what an indoor voice was.

"Well, I know I'm awesome. What do you do for fun, then?"

Luna sighed. "My sister has insisted I learn the evolution of Equestria's politics and economics over the past thousand years. So in my free time, I watch over my friends."

"Friends?" Rainbow asked. She could have smacked herself when the words escaped her lips. "I mean-"

"No, I understand," Luna said with a brief smile. "The moon is not known for its social scene. But I spent that time caring for the stars - the one thing over which I had any control on the moon. I say control, but of course, how much control can one really have over the night? Leo and Taurus are docile enough, but just try getting Scorpio to go to sleep at dawn."

"You sound like-" Rainbow let her mouth snap closed before she could complete the sentence. Luna reminded her of Fluttershy, for all her godlike power and sister-complex. And thinking like that - well, Rainbow couldn't see this going anywhere. She loved Fluttershy, but they didn't have a lot in common. Rainbow suspected she had a lot less in common with Princess Luna. And as for somepony she did have something in common with...

Rainbow started once she realized she'd been staring into space for longer than was remotely polite. Luna's expression was soft, and there was a light smile on her face. "I know that look, Rainbow Dash."

"What?"

"The night is not just the realm of stars and night creatures," Luna said. "I was once known as the goddess of secret desire." She leaned close. "And I can see writ plain on your heart that your heart lies elsewhere."

"You can? It does? Then why the hay don't I know about it?"

Luna's smile grew softer, giving her an enigmatic, distant expression. "You do, Rainbow Dash. In your heart of hearts, when you meet a pony, you see what is lacking, how she compares poorly to the one you love."

Rainbow scoffed. "That's ridiculous! If I know what I want, how come I haven't figured it out yet?"

Luna shrugged. "Ponies hide from themselves for many reasons. But I suspect, if you think on it, you'll find that you know exactly what you want. Oh, thank you." She nodded to their waiter as he dropped the plates on their table. The sheep paused, staring dazedly at Luna for a moment before flushing and trotting away. "How about we dig in? I've missed eating."

"Sure." Rainbow dug in, but found herself distracted by Luna's words. How could she possibly know what she wanted? All she knew was what hadn't worked. She wanted someone who liked her, who didn't belittle or patronize her, who shared her interests, who could maybe keep up with her, and...

"Oh, horseapples," Rainbow growled. "Luna?"

"I'll tell them to wrap up your dinner," Luna said with a smile. She then winked at Rainbow. "Plus, I'll keep Celly from going too overboard."

Rainbow paused, already half-rising from the table. "Oh. Thanks. Hadn't thought about that."

"No problem," Luna said. "If anything, it's my responsibility to keep Celly level-headed." She winked at Rainbow. "Good luck."

"Yeah," Rainbow said. "I'm going to need it," she muttered.

3 3 3

Big Mac stared at Rainbow Dash, who was almost recumbent under the weight of her baggage. "Now, normally, I'd reckon it'd be a poor idea letting you in here, after the snit you put Applejack in-"

Rainbow wilted under the colt's attention. "Sorry. But-" She abruptly rallied, glowering at Big Mac. "She's the one who kicked me out!"

"That don't matter none; she's family," Big Mac replied.

"Yeah. So that's why I'm back here. I need the house for the night."

Big Mac's stare didn't shift. "Another thank you dinner?"

Rainbow opened her mouth to retort, but snapped her mouth shut and shook her head before she could let the whole thing slip. "It's personal," she said.

"Personal?" Big Mac leaned in close, peering carefully at Rainbow. "What kind of personal?"

"Personal personal!" Rainbow snapped. She could feel her cheeks heating under Big Mac's scrutiny. "What's it to you, anyway?"

"She's my sister," Big Mac replied. But he was smiling. "In any case, I reckon I've got errands to do. Try not to leave Applejack in such a state this time, all right?"

Rainbow gulped and nodded. "I'll try."

Once Big Mac left her alone, Rainbow sighed and took out the cookbooks she'd borrowed from Pinkie. This was bigger than a thank-you dinner, and, given how badly the last one had gone, she knew everything had to be perfect. No burned apples or soggy salad.

Two hours later, Rainbow stepped back from the meal and gave it an appraising look. It wasn't perfect, but it was a damn sight better than the last meal Rainbow had made. Now just to get the presentation right-

Rainbow nearly leapt out of her hide when the front door opened. "I'm about ready to collapse, Mac, so I hope you weren't planning on me making - what in tarnation are you doing here, Rainbow?"

Rainbow hadn't remembered Applejack's glare being so fierce, but then again, the last time Rainbow had seen it, she'd been doing what Applejack asked, instead of invading her home again. But Rainbow Dash wasn't a coward. She wouldn't back down from Princess Celestia, so one of her best friends couldn't be any worse. Right?

Rainbow gulped and tried to flash Applejack a weak smile. "Surprise?"

"Rainbow..." Applejack sighed, head drooping. "Don't..." Rainbow stared; she'd expected Applejack to be furious, to shout and rave. That's what Applejack did when Rainbow made her mad. She didn't fold in on herself and look sadder than a deflated Pinkie Pie. It didn't make any sense. Applejack had been the one to throw Rainbow out. She shouldn't look so miserable.

Rainbow shook herself, refusing to dwell on the incongruity. She had something to do, and she wasn't leaving until she'd done it. "Look, you don't have to eat anything if you don't want to, but just hear me out, okay?" Applejack nodded almost imperceptibly, but she was still staring at the floor. "I'm sorry that I made you mad or uncomfortable or anything, but I can't change who I am just because you might not like it-"

"What?" Applejack's head snapped up. Her eyes had a wild, unfocused look. "I didn't - I wouldn't hate you because of that!" She let out a weak chuckle. "I wouldn't deserve the Element of Honesty if I did, sugarcube."

"Oh." Rainbow's heart lifted a fraction. "Well, that's good. That's...great." She couldn't quite resist beaming at Applejack. The earth pony stared at the expression, tilting her head and focusing an uncertain stare at Rainbow. "But I gotta say this, Applejack. I know you're crazy from me running all over trying to find the right pony - right mare - for me. But that's done. Search over. Finis!"

Applejack's frame shook with the force of her exhalation. "Of course. And you wanted to run right down and tell me. That's great, sugarcube, but I'm real tired-"

"You're not listening!" Rainbow snapped. "I found the mare I wanna spend the rest of my life with! Luna was right; every time I went out, it didn't feel right because nopony else could measure up to h - to you!"

"Luna? You're really cutting your way through the dating pool, aren't you, sugar-" Applejack's words trailed off. She took a cautious step toward Rainbow, who, though shivering to her core and having fixed her eyes at the ground, didn't move a step. Applejack bent her head to meet Rainbow's eyes. "Dash? What did you say?"

"I said nopony mea - I mean, I said I love you, AJ." Rainbow almost collapsed with the effort of getting the words out. "And I said nopony measures up to you. I mean, if I'd thought that one out, I'd have come to you first. Who's the most awesome pony around here, besides me, of course?" She tried to chuckle, but the sound was choked.

She looked at Applejack, who had dropped her head again. The earth pony wasn't moving, and it took a careful look to see she was breathing. "I know it's a big shock, and a bigger honor, but I think in time you'll get used to it." Rainbow realized with a moment of horror that she was babbling. With that one big confession out, she was going to just keep talking until she got a response or her jaw fell off or-

Applejack's lips were pressed against Rainbow's.

That.

That'd do, Rainbow thought vaguely, as she took a tiny step closer and kissed, really kissed Applejack. The kiss probably only took a few seconds, but Rainbow would never be sure. She lost track of - well, everything in that moment. And then Applejack stepped back. Rainbow whimpered, and Applejack, whose expression was nearly unreadable, smiled.

"I was gonna ask if that was ok, but I think you answered already, eh, sugar?"

"I - you - you kissed me!" Rainbow declared; she felt indignant, but wasn't certain why, exactly. She'd probably planned to be the one to kiss Applejack, but given the haze in her mind, she couldn't be sure.

"You seemed to like it, Dashie," Applejack replied. Rainbow shivered at the husky tone Applejack had taken, as well as the familiar nickname.

"Did - did you?" Rainbow choked out.

Applejack's smile widened. "Not all of us have wings to, ah, show it, sugar, but I assure you, I did. Very much." Applejack's grin had something of a hungry wolf in it, and Rainbow began feeling a little out of her depth, and, inexplicably, nervous.

"Does that mean - I mean..." She trailed off, realizing she didn't know how to ask in the face of this new, almost feral Applejack.

Applejack's expression softened into a more familiar fond smile, and the earth pony stepped back next to Rainbow, nuzzling her cheek. "Course I love you, Dashie. Don't doubt it for a second."

Rainbow tried to reply, but there was something stuck in her throat. When her vision blurred, Rainbow realized she was crying, like some stupid filly in a stupid-

"Dashie? Don't tell me you're - stop it, Dash, right this second or I'm gonna..." Applejack sniffled, and that set off Rainbow to giggling, which itself caught Applejack. When that died down, however, Rainbow found she was grinning ear-to-ear at Applejack, who had a similar smile.

"Say, I've got an idea," Rainbow said. "Seems somepony left a perfectly good dinner sitting on your kitchen table. Now, this may be a little forward, but heck, I'm always one to go for broke. Would you like to join me for dinner?"

Applejack snickered. "Sure thing, sugarcube. Even if you made that monstrosity with the corn again."

"Cause you love me, right?"

"Yeah, sugarcube." Applejack grinned at her.

"Love you too, AJ. And who knows? Play your cards right, and you might get lucky tonight."

"Well," Applejack said, trotting toward the dinner table, brushing against Rainbow as she did, "don't let it get to your head or nothing, but I think I already have."

Rainbow preened, but because Applejack was still her best girl, replied, "Me, too."

3 3 3

"No."

"Please? I have to show that pegasus that there are consequences to toying with my little sister's heart!"

"You are not sending Rainbow Dash to the moon," Luna declared. "Not even a little bit!"

Celestia pouted. It was an expression that had lost nothing over the twelve thousand years since Celestia was a foal. Luna smirked at her.

"How about a compromise? You can get revenge, but only a little bit. No fires, no tricking someone into thinking they killed your pet, and no sending anybody to the moon!"

Celestia's pout gave way to a wicked grin. "Excellent."

Luna rolled her eyes. Sisters could be so weird, sometimes. Still, she wouldn't trade her for anything in Equestria.