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A Precious Rainbow

This fan fic is an alternate ending to the story 'cupcakes'.


-THE RESCUE-

"Dash. Daaash. Wake up." Rainbow Dash managed to give her a modicum of weak acknowledgment.

Pinkie reached into the medicine bag and produced a large syringe.

"Alright, time for the last round."

Dash looked at the needle, and Pinkie took that as a question as to what it was.

"Something to take the pain away." she informed as she walked around to Dash's ruined back side. She stuck the needle into the lower part of her spine. Dash flinched.

Coming to the front again, she told her friend, "In a few minutes, you won't be able to feel anything below your ribcage. Then you'll be able to stay awake to watch the harvest."

Dash started to cry again.

"Pinkie." she trembled out.

"Yeah?"

"I want to go home." she openly sobbed.

"Yeah, I can see wanting to do that." the party pony replied. "Sometimes, I just wanna give up, say 'I'm done with this mess' and go to bed. But you know what? You can't shrug off your responsibilities. You got to pull yourself up and meet the challenges head on. That's the only way you're gonna get ahead in life."

Dash cried.

Minutes passed and the drug took affect. Dash was numb from her chest to her flanks. Aware of this, Pinkie approached with her scalpel.

Suddenly, the door to the room burst open, and Pinkie whipped around to face the intruder.

Applejack burst into the basement, and took a split-second to take in scene that greeted her. The room reeked of urine, blood, and death, and there were pony skulls, medical knives and needles all around. And at the center of it all, was Rainbow Dash restrained to wooden planks, and Pinkie, eying her with the scalpel.

"Pinkie, 'ah don't know what you're thinkin', but I'mma give you one chance to drop that knife, now."

Pinkie looked dumbstruck for just a moment; as if AJ was out of line for giving her orders in her basement. After a couple seconds, she blinked, and gave an enraged scream as she charged AJ with the scalpel.

Applejack, remaining collected, took a small leap forward, swiftly rotated 180 degrees on her front legs, and gave the insane Pinkie a full force buck to the chin with both back hooves. The move sent Pinkie airborne, back-flipping wildly towards the back right corner of the room, where her head slammed into a wooden table with knives on it. The momentum broke her neck on contact, and the pink pony landed limp in a heap on the floor, completely motionless.

Dead.

As several knives on the table clattered to the floor from the crash, AJ quickly approached Rainbow, growing more wide-eyed the closer she got.

"Oh, Equestria..." she said disbelievingly. It seemed that Rainbow wasn't aware of anything that had happened in the last few seconds, her eyes wandering aimlessly.

AJ grabbed the dropped scalpel, and went immediately for the leather straps restraining Rainbow to the planks. First the legs, then the arms, and Rainbow collapsed onto the cobblestone floor, where her body began to go into shock.

"Rainbow? Dash? Stay with me, Rainbow, ya hear? Stay with me. Rainbow!"

Applejack desperately fought back the panic. If she didn't do something, and fast, her friend was going to die. Answers for this horrific sight would have to wait. Rainbow needed help, now.

Before dropping the scalpel, she quickly cut through the copper wires that were wrapped around nails that had been hammered into her back hooves and connected to a power box on the far wall.

Spotting a discarded bucket nearby, she resisted the nausea as best she could, and placed Rainbow's dismembered wings and cutie marks into the bucket before placing the unconscious Pegasus on her back, taking the rope handle of the bucket in her mouth, and raced out of the basement as fast as she could.

She came bursting out of Sugarcube Corner into the black of night. Making sure to keep her friend balanced on her back, she galloped as fast as she could to Ponyville Urgent Care.

Minutes later, she came bolting through the doors of the care center, dropping the bucket on the tile floor and screaming for help. The desk attendant quickly alerted two orderlies, and they rolled out a gurney into the lobby, placing the unconscious Rainbow Dash onto it, and rolled her into the ER, quickly signaling for a doctor's immediate attention. Applejack's eyes were locked on her friend all the way to the shutting ER doors; the last sight of her was blood starting to trickle from the Pegasus' mouth.

The events of the night finally catching up to her, Applejack resisted the urge to vomit one last time, and passed out in the lobby.

PONYVILLE LIBRARY

ONE HOUR LATER

Twilight Sparkle's sound sleep was interrupted by a rapid pounding on her front door. Yawning, she made her way down the stairs to greet whoever wanted her attention at 2 in the morning.

She opened the door to a panicked Fluttershy and Rarity.

"We need to get to Ponyville Urgent Care right now! Something serious has happened!" Fluttershy quickly told her.

"What's going on?" Twilight asked, still waking up, and her concern growing.

"We don't know. The messenger pony didn't say anything specific. Just that two of our friends were at the care center, and one of them had been admitted to the ER. I went to get Rarity and then you. Come on, we need to hurry!"

Together, the three of them raced to Ponyville Urgent Care to see what the trouble was. When they ran into the waiting room, it was empty, save for Applejack, sitting in the row of chairs next to the doors to the ER, with her hat resting on the chair next to her.

She looked like she had seen a ghost.

"Applejack? What's wrong? What's happened?"

The farm workhorse turned to her friends with tired, desperate eyes. Tears pricked the corners of her eyelids, and her lips trembled.

"It's Rainbow..."

"What's happened to her?"

"'I...'ah don't know for sure..."

Twilight looked around the waiting room again.

"One of us should go find Pinkie Pie."

"No...no ya don't." Applejack answered.

"Why not? What's going on?"

AJ swallowed hard, and prepared to do her best at describing what she had just seen earlier that night.

By the time she had finished explaining the last hour or so to her three friends in the waiting room with her, each of them looked as confused and horrified as she.

"Wh-why would she do such a thing?" Twilight shakily asked.

"Ah haven't the faintest idea, Twi'. I didn't mean to kick her so hard either. I just saw Rainbow, and when Pinkie came at me with that knife, I just made a split-second decision. And judging from what was in that room, I don't think Rainbow was the first victim. Not even close."

"I just hope they can help her..." Fluttershy said softly.

"Ah really hope so, too, Fluttershy. She didn't look good when they took her in there. Not good at all." AJ said.

It was another 30 minutes before a nurse pony came quietly trotting out into the waiting room. The 4 friends were immediately on their feet, anxious for any news.

They prayed it was good.

"Well?" Applejack asked.

"We managed to stabilize her. You got her here just in time." the nurse reported.

"Oh thank Celestia..."

"But I'm afraid it's not looking good. She was clearly tortured. We removed the nails from her back hooves, and administered antibiotics. Hopefully that will stop any infection. Her heart's been jolted by prolonged electrocution, so we're keeping a very close eye on that, to see if there's any permanent damage to her heart. As for what you...brought in with her...we were able to sew her cutie marks back on. Hopefully those will heal up, and be no worse for wear, and the muscle tissue that was removed from that area will hopefully heal too. But...I'm afraid we weren't able to do anything about her wings..."

"No...are you sure?"

"I'm sorry, I don't know what to say. We smoothed down the jagged edges from where they were broken. If her skin heals up, they'll just be small stubs on her back. She might be able to pass for an earth pony, but...I'm sorry, we've never dealt with anything like this before. We did the best we could. Aside from the doubtless psychological harm, she'll carry some of these physical scars for the rest of her life. But...but at least you got her here alive."

AJ collapsed onto her back haunches, looking like she was about to break down into tears.

"Can we see her?" Rarity asked.

"I wouldn't recommend that. At least not until morning. She's asleep. Once we're sure she's stable enough, we'll move her out of Intensive Care to a private room tomorrow, and then you can see her. And as far as I know, Royal Guards have quarantined off Sugarcube Corner, so hopefully we'll get some answers soon."

"Th-thank you, nurse." AJ shakily said.

The nurse nodded. "Again, I'm so sorry." She then walked back into the ER, and left the four friends alone in the waiting room.

The events of the night finally coming to a climax, AJ's shoulders heaved, and she quietly wept. With there being no words to say yet, Twilight, Rarity, and Fluttershy gathered around her, put their arms around each other, and held each other silently.

-SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS-

PONYVILLE URGENT CARE

7 HOURS LATER

The next morning, Applejack awoke to a gentle touch on her shoulder, and looked up to see the nurse.

"Rainbow's been moved to Room 104. She's still sleeping, but you can go and see her if you want." she quietly said, as the other three were still sleeping.

"Thank you, ma'am."

"And I thought you'd like to know that the investigation at Sugarcube Corner is now underway, and Pinkie's body has been moved to a secure location to be examined. Hopefully they'll get some answers for these atrocities."

With that, the nurse returned to her rounds, and Applejack went about waking her friends, and they immediately made their way down the private wing to Room 104.

Upon entering the room as quietly as they could, they shared a hushed gasp as they looked at their friend.

Rainbow Dash lay silent in the hospital bed; chest slowly rising and falling. An oxygen mask was strapped around her muzzle, and was connected to a wheezing respirator next to the bed. Her mane was still unkempt and frazzled from the electrocution. Suction-cupped wires went from her chest to a slow but steadily-beeping heart monitor. Her entire midsection was wrapped in gauze bandages, joined with her flanks, back hooves and calves.

Applejack slowly approached the side of the bed.

"Oh Sugarcube...if only 'ah had gotten there sooner..."

Twilight came up next to her and placed a hoof on her friend's shoulder.

"You got her out of there alive. That's the best you could do."

"Thanks, Twi'. Would one of y'all mind letting Big Macintosh know to try and do what he can at the farm? If he can't, just put it on hold. I ain't leavin' her side until she's on her feet."

"We'll get another messenger. I don't think any of us want to leave her."

And so they sat there silently, waiting for their friend to come to...and wondering what was next.

Feeling slowly returned to Rainbow Dash's body. Her vision faded in and out, and by the time it cleared completely, she found herself staring at a pasty white ceiling, and she heard a raspy wheezing sound, and steady beeping.

"Hey everypony, I think she's waking up." she heard a familiar voice say.

Rainbow very slowly lifted her head off of the pillow, and saw four of her friends around the bed. She noticed the heart monitor and respirator next to her bed before returning to the pillow. She didn't utter a word yet. No doubt everything was still a haze.

"How ya feelin', sugar?" Applejack asked. Rainbow turned her head to the left side of the bed and locked eyes with her friend, slowly reaching a hoof up and removing the oxygen mask and allowed it to hang around her neck.

"Wh-what...h-happened?" Rainbow asked, her voice hoarse, not even above a whisper.

"Well, ya told me you'd come by the farm for some apple pie last night, and when you didn't show up, I thought somethin' was up. I asked around Ponyville at sunset, and no one had seen you or Pinkie all day. I went to Sugarcube Corner, and found the place dark and empty. I was about to leave when I heard a faint scream come from under the floor. It sounded like you, so I found the trap door under one of the rugs, and I got to you as fast as I could..."

Rainbow took it all in, and shuddered at the all-too-fresh memories of the horror she just experienced.

"P-Pinkie...? Is...she...?"

AJ silently shook her head.

"She's gone, Dash. When I saw what she was doing to you, I took matters into my own hooves. I just hope my hasty decision doesn't keep us from getting answers to why she was doing this."

Rainbow shakily exhaled. She rolled over on her side towards Applejack, and immediately noticed what they were all afraid she'd notice.

"M-my...my wings..." she said, her eyes tearing up.

Applejack swallowed hard, placing her front hooves gently on Rainbow's.

"Ah'm so, so sorry, Rainbow. They did everything they could for ya."

Rainbow's eyes widened at the horrifying, life-changing realization. She shuddered, and rolled onto her other side, looking away from her friends and revealing her bandaged back. There were two round red stains on the gauze where her wings should have protruded from her body. She covered her mouth and tried to suppress a sob, her shoulders heaved.

"Rainbow, ah'm...a'hm so very sorry..." AJ softly said, her voice uneasy, placing a hoof on Rainbow's shoulder, gently rolled her back over and pulled her into a hug.

Rainbow returned the hug, threw her front legs around Applejack, and burst into an uncontrollable sob, burying her face into AJ's shoulder, clinging to the workhorse as if for dear life.

"Now don't you worry none," Applejack shakily told her, beginning to cry herself. "We'll find a way through this. It'll be okay, ya hear?"

Fluttershy, Rarity, and Twilight stood by silently, tears flowing down their cheeks, all of them collectively sharing this pain, watching as the two friends held each other and cried.

When the nurse came in a half-hour later, and suggested that they let Rainbow get some rest, Rainbow was the first to refute her, claiming they could stay for as long as they wanted, and she'd rest easier with them there.

The nurse pony gave in, and said that if all goes well, Rainbow would be out of the hospital in a day or two, and be able to recover abroad.

When that night came, the time came for her friends to insist that she be left alone for some rest, but assured her that they'd be just out in the waiting room, and that they weren't going anywhere. Fluttershy was the last one out, and Rainbow softly called her back.

"F-Fluttershy?" Rainbow softly called her.

The light yellow Pegasus turned, and walked to her friend's bed.

"Yes, Rainbow Dash? Do you need something?"

"I'd like you to do me a favor, if you can."

"Of course, Rainbow. Anything. What do you need me to do?"

Fluttershy was the last one to join her friends out in the waiting room for the night, and they noticed the slightly concerned look on her face.

"What is it, Fluttershy?" Twilight asked.

"Rainbow just asked me to move some stuff out of her home, and have the Cloudsdale movers take it back up.

"Well, that was certainly fast." Rarity commented.

"Maybe she's trying to accept it and move on." Fluttershy offered.

"Or maybe she doesn't want to have to see it when she gets outta here..." Applejack stated.

Rainbow Dash trying to live the life of an earth pony. No one could fathom it yet. But they were going to have to, and quickly.

Then Rarity was hit with an idea.

"Twilight, could you help me with something?"

"Sure, what do you need?"

"I know one of us should be here at all times, but I just had a brilliant idea that would lift Rainbow's spirits when she gets out of here. If Fluttershy is going to be busy at Rainbow's house, could you take the first watch, Applejack?"

"Don't y'all worry. I ain't leavin'." AJ answered.

"Fantastic. Twilight, I'm hoping you could get me a meeting with the Princess!"

"I...suppose that can be arranged. But what can she do?"

"She can set up a meeting with someone who can help me."

"So...you want me to set up a meeting to ask if you can set up a meeting?"

"I know if anyone can do it, it's you, Twilight."

-GET WELL SOON-

PONYVILLE

THE NEXT MORNING

Fluttershy silently walked through the living area of Rainbow Dash's cloud home above Ponyville. She spotted her golden tiara from the Grand Galloping Gala in it's polished oak display box. She picked it up, examined it thoughtfully, and gently closed the box and put it in her saddlebag, joining her neatly folded gala dress and a few Wonderbolts posters.

Rainbow had asked her to gather up a few sentimental items from her home, and then allow the Cloudsdale Movers to take the whole cloud formation back up to Cloudsdale.

She couldn't help but continue to question her friend's decision to do so. It felt like she was giving in. Flying was her passion, her life; it was who she was, and Pinkie had taken it all away, for reasons that were still unknown.

She took one last glance around Rainbow's former home, and exited through the front door. Before taking off from the front step, she took one last item from her saddle bag, an empty glass jar. She took off the lid, and walked over to the gently flowing rainbow fountain, and placed the open jar under the flowing spectrum of colors until it was three quarters full, and then closed the jar and flew back to Ponyville.

CANTERLOT

1 HOUR LATER

"I'm certainly impressed that you were able to schedule a short meeting on a night's notice, Twilight. How do you do it?"

"Being the Princess' protege has it's perks sometimes. But what exactly do you have in mind?"

"Oh, I don't want to spoil any surprises, or get anypony's hopes up."

The two unicorns strolled into the Princess' castle, and were immediately summoned to her audience chamber, where she was waiting at the top of a short staircase lined with a red carpet. They approached and gave a bow.

"Twilight, Rarity; a pleasure to see you two again. I wish it was under better circumstances. My complete sympathies to you and your friends, and especially Rainbow Dash. It seems we've found our source of the disappearances in Ponyville over the past few months. I've got my top investigators working on it."

"Actually, Princess, Rainbow is why we're here. Rarity has a favor to ask."

Rarity stepped forward.

"Your highness, I'm not sure how much you know of what's happened to her, but her life will never be the same. I'd like to make a garment for her to hide her...deformity, and also to lift her spirits. But I need permission to use the pattern, as well as a little help. I'm wondering if you could put me in touch with a certain someone."

"I'll certainly see what I can do, Rarity. Who do you need to see?"

PONYVILLE URGENT CARE

Big Macintosh walked into the main lobby of the care center just after dawn, with a picnic basket, and gave it to a waiting and yawning Applejack.

"Thanks, Mac. I know she'll like this better than the food they're wheelin' around in here."

Macintosh nodded at her sister.

"Eeeyup. Hope she gets out of here soon. We don't want things to start backing up at the farm."

"Well, let it back up, brother. As long as it doesn't get as bad as last year's Applebuck season, Rainbow is the priority right now."

The siblings parted, and AJ headed for Rainbow's room.

The rainbow-maned pegasus looked half-depressed, yet half-grateful to be alive.

"Appplejack, you don't have to do this." Rainbow said, not wanting to be a bother.

"Nonsense. What better way to get you on your feet sooner than to get you some farm-fresh breakfast?" AJ responded, opening the picnic basket on the nightstand, and coming up with a plate of apple cinnamon crisp, and a shiny, freshly picked red delicious apple.

"Did ya sleep well?" AJ asked her friend as she started into the tart.

"No, not really." Rainbow said, taking a second bite of the tart.

"I'm scared, AJ. What...what am I gonna do now?"

"Anything. Anything you want, Sugarcube. Now I know it ain't the easiest thing to do right now, but try and think on the bright side. A fresh start. Try not to view things as how you lived as a true Pegasus. I hope you don't take that the wrong way. I know this is devastating for you."

Rainbow didn't reply to that, and merely continued eating her breakfast.

"Also, Rainbow, where are ya gonna stay when you get outta here?" AJ asked.

Rainbow shrugged, popping the last bit of crisp into her mouth.

"I...I hadn't really given it any thought. I'm sure there's a inn somewhere in Ponyville that'll give me a night or two."

"I just want you to know, that my door is open anytime. Anytime, Rainbow. I'd be honored to have you as my guest. I don't think this is nowhere near a good time for you to be anywhere alone. There'll always be a room available for you. Just keep that in mind, alright?"

Rainbow nodded.

"Thanks, AJ. I will."

CAROUSEL BOUTIQUE

6 HOURS LATER

Twilight watched Rarity as she expertly fed fabric through her sewing machine, preparing her new garment for Rainbow.

"I'm surprised the Princess made it happen so fast. I'd be thrilled if I could finish this in time for Rainbow getting out of the hospital. I don't want everypony looking at her bandages. She'll need to be able to relax, and not worry what all of Ponyville is thinking of her if she's going to make a speedy recovery."

"Even if she's the most relaxed pony in Ponyville, I doubt her recovery will be anything but speedy. Who knows what happened to her down there..."

"Which is why I'm hoping that this will help lift her spirits and make the emotional recovery a bit easier."

"I can't imagine why it wouldn't, Rarity. I know she's gonna love it!"

PONYVILLE URGENT CARE

2 HOURS LATER

Applejack hoped that Rainbow was released from here soon, because she looked bored, depressed, and annoyed by the constant beeping of her heart monitor. She hoped a friendly face would help, when Fluttershy walked in to see how she was doing.

"Hey Rainbow. I gathered up what you wanted me to. I put it at my house until you figure out where you're going."

"Thanks, Fluttershy. I appreciate it."

"Hey, where'd Rarity and Twilight run off to?" Applejack asked.

"They went up to Canterlot this morning. They haven't been seen since."

A nurse on her rounds came in to check up on Dash.

"Heart rate's slowly getting better...blood pressure is normal. If everything stays good, I'd say you could be out of here sometime tomorrow morning. I'll be back in a few hours, let us know if you need anything."

Dash sunk her head back into her pillow with a sigh.

"I want to know what happened to Pinkie. What caused her to do this..."

"I hope they find something," Fluttershy began. "The fact that she did this without any kind of explanation, to so many ponies, is frightening."

"I wonder..." Rainbow began, looking deep in thought for a few moments.

"What is it, Dash?" AJ asked.

"Remember when we threw that surprise party for her a few months ago?"

"Yeah."

"When I went to go get her, something...wasn't right. She had placed all these inanimate objects at the table, and were talking to them and making up their own voices like they were alive. It was just...creepy. I wonder if that had anything to do with it. I'd never seen her like that before."

"At least it's over. Even if we don't get any clear answers, she'll never hurt anypony else." Fluttershy said.

"There had to have been something wrong. She acted like her normal happy and joyful self when she was doing those...things to me..." Rainbow recalled, shuddering, not wanting to think about it.

As evening came, Applejack and Fluttershy were asked by the staff to return to the waiting room, and they encouraged her to try her best to rest, and if all goes well, they'd help her get going in the morning.

But as she left the room, AJ couldn't get that depressed look in Rainbow's eyes out of her head.

-RAINBOW RELEASED-

PONYVILLE URGENT CARE CENTER

THE NEXT MORNING

When Applejack woke up in the waiting room the next morning, Fluttershy was at the desk, making sure everything was good for Rainbow leaving the hospital today, and sitting in the chairs across from AJ, were Rarity and Twilight. Rarity looked like she hadn't gotten much sleep.

In her hooves, was a white gift box.

"Ya got it done that quickly?" Applejack asked, giving out a yawn. Rarity returned one.

"Yes indeed. It took most of the night, but I wanted it to be done in time for her getting out."

Fluttershy returned from the reception desk.

"They just have to do one more check-up, and then she's good to go. I just hope she can walk out of here. Especially with those back hooves..."

"I'm sure she'll do fine. She's stubborn like that." AJ reassured.

A half-hour later, a nurse came from around the corner from the private wing, and behind her, came Rainbow, walking uneasily, but gave her friends a small smile as they came over to her.

"Miss Dash, I still don't know why you won't take a wheelchair for the first few days." the nurse said.

"I can walk just fine, see?" Rainbow responded, wincing at her next step.

"Rainbow, maybe she's right. Maybe a chair would be best until-" Twilight began, only to be interrupted by the Pegasus.

"If I can't walk out of here, then I'm not leaving yet. I'm not letting all of Ponyville see me roll through town in a wheelchair. The bandages are bad enough..." she mused.

"Well then Rainbow, I've got just the thing for you!" Rarity chimed in, presenting her the gift box.

Rainbow gave a small, friendly sigh.

"Rarity, if you've made me another frou-frou, lacey outfit that I have to-" Rainbow began to protest, but then Rarity slowly opened the box, and Rainbow stopped mid-sentence.

Inside the box, was a neatly folded navy blue hoodie, with a yellow lightning bolt pattern going down the back and chest. Rainbow immediately noticed it as the pattern for the Wonderbolt flight uniforms.

On top of the hoodie, was a pair of silver goggles, with a lightning bolt between the two lenses.

"Twilight and Princess Celestia pulled some strings, and got me a meeting with Spitfire. We explained what had happened, and she decided to make you an honorary Wonderbolt!"

Rainbow bit her bottom lip, as tears quickly filled her eyelids.

Dash was absolutely speechless. She looked at Rarity, before tears ran down her cheeks, and she began quietly and joyfully weeping. Rarity handed the box to Twilight, and she came in and gave her a gentle hug.

"You don't need to say anything, darling. I was happy to do it, and so was Spitfire."

Releasing Rainbow from the embrace. Rarity grabbed the shoulders of the hoodie and lifted it from the box, it unfurled as she lifted it, and together with Applejack, they got it over her head and on her without causing any pain to her bandaged areas, and once it was on completely, her back and chest were completely concealed. Only her bandaged back hooves and part of her flanks were visible. Then Applejack gave the goggles black elastic a stretch, put them over Rainbow's head, and let them hang loosely from her neck.

"Perfect. Now, if everypony stares, it'll be because of how amazing you look!"

But the nurse still had a job to do, and instructions to give her newly released patient.

"Now Miss Dash, you need to be back here in 2 days so we can replace all your bandages. And stay off those back hooves as much as you can. Drink plenty of fluids, and get some rest."

Rainbow finally acknowledged the nurse, nodding. But all her friends knew that Rainbow didn't like to sit still for very long. And if she wouldn't be flying, what would she be doing?

"So where are you staying, Rainbow?" Twilight asked as the group exited through the front doors of the Care Center, out into the morning sun. It was the first rays of light Rainbow had gotten in 4 days.

"Well, tonight I'm staying at the Ponyville Traveler's Inn. After that, I...I really don't know where I'm going yet."

"Well, Applejack told us about her offer, and each of us are extending it. You can stay with any of us, Rainbow. We don't care who you stay with, but we don't think it's a good idea for you to be alone." Rarity said.

"Thanks guys, but now that I'm out of there, I need some time to myself, to figure out where I'm going to go from here."

Each of her friends silently disagreed, but it was her choice. They weren't going to force her. The four of them walked her to the Traveler's Inn, and the innkeeper gladly gave her a room for the night free of charge. News was starting to spread throughout town that Rainbow was the first to come back after mysteriously disappearing the past few months.

Then, deciding to honor her request for time alone, they each gave her a hug, and said goodbye, reminding her that she could come to any of them if she needed anything.

Outside the inn, before they went their separate ways to go about their day, her four friends were all still concerned about her well-being.

"It's not a good idea for her to be alone." Applejack protested.

"We all know that, AJ, but we can't force her to spend time with us. No doubt she's still devastated by what's happened to her." Twilight replied.

"Don't worry everyone. She'll come around. I...I hope." Fluttershy unconvincingly said.

PONYVILLE TRAVELER'S INN

THAT NIGHT...

Rainbow rested her chin on her hooves, leaning on the windowsill. The room was a very simple rustic style. Not too many furnishings. A table, nightstand, bed, bathroom and shower.

She had done nothing all day. She was still physically and mentally exhausted, and literally did not know what to do with herself. She felt so limited; felt like she was in the wrong body. Here she was, watching the sun slowly dip below the horizon. She glanced back at the twin bed, neatly made with a red comforter. She might as well try and get some sleep.

All throughout Ponyville, neither Twilight, Fluttershy, Rarity, or Applejack fell asleep easily that night. Before retiring for the night, Applejack stood outside the front door of her farmhouse, as the sun dipped below the hills, offering a stunning silhouette of Ponyville a few miles down the road.

"Rest easy, Rainbow. We're here if ya need us."

PONYVILLE LIBRARY

11:30 PM

Spike was having trouble sleeping soundly due to the constant rapping of hooves on the floor, as Twilight paced by her bedroom window.

"Twilight, honestly, just lay down." he grumpily said from under his blanket.

"I can't sleep, Spike. I'm worried about Rainbow."

"I'm sure she'll come to us if she needs help" the dragon mumbled, still trying to doze off.

"Well, I'm not sure about that. We all know how stubborn she can be. Even with the horrors she just went through..."

After another 15 minutes of pacing, and keeping Spike up, she decided to go down to the ground floor and read a book, as at least that way, Spike could get some sleep.

PONYVILLE TRAVELLER'S INN

"No! Ahhhh!"

Rainbow shot up in her bed, frantically looking around, and realizing where she was. She clumsily went to turn on the lamp on the nightstand, but in her haste, knocked it over, and it hit the floor with a clang, forcing her to sit in the dark until her eyes became acclimated to the dark, the only light available being the moonlight coming in from the window. She curled up in her bed and shivered.

She felt worse here than she did at the hospital. She thought for sure that it would be better once she was out on her own, but it was just worse. The nights were even more sleepless now; there were no sleeping aids the nurses could give her. The nightmares were unfaltering, and every time she woke up in a sweat.

As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she began to cry. She felt so cold...so alone. Then, something in her head clicked.

What was she doing here? Every single one of her friends had offered her a place to stay, and each told her it wasn't a good idea to be alone.

She threw the covers to the side of the bed and got up, and walked to the window, looking at the full moon illuminating Ponyville.

She made up her mind, slowly and carefully tugged on her new hoodie, and left her room, leaving a few bits on the front counter as a thank you for the generosity.

SWEET APPLE ACRES FARMHOUSE

Applejack woke up to a ferociously-barking Winona. After gaining her composure, she realized her dog was barking at a knocking at the front door. She walked down the hall to the small foyer, where Winona finally calmed down now that her master was present. She opened the door, and at her doorstep was Rainbow Dash, tears pricking her eyelids, and overall looking like she had a very rough night so far.

Several seconds passed without a word between the two friends, and Rainbow finally broke the silence.

"I-I'll take that room if it's still available." she said softly, with a small, greeting smile.

Ignoring the fact that Rainbow had walked nearly 2 miles from the inn to the Acres with her bandaged hooves in the middle of the night, Applejack chose not to chastise her recovering, broken friend, and simply smiled in return, and not saying anything, gently embraced the rainbow Pegasus, and welcomed her inside.

-2.1 – THE SLEEPOVER-

SWEET APPLE ACRES FARMHOUSE

THE NEXT MORNING

Applejack was up bright and early at the crack of dawn. She went straight to the kitchen, and began preparing breakfast. Twenty minutes later, she quietly came into the guest room, where Rainbow was just getting up with a yawn.

"Rise n' shine, Rainbow. Got ya some breakfast here." Applejack greeted, setting a tray of hay, oats, a fresh apple, and apple juice on the nightstand next to her bed.

"How'd ya sleep?" she asked.

"A little here, a little there. Just tossed and turned all night." Rainbow replied, starting into her breakfast.

"Also, when you're done eatin', here." Applejack said, setting a hairbrush next to the tray on the nightstand.

"A brush?" Rainbow inquired.

"Yeah. Your hair's a mess. Might want to fix that." AJ answered with a chuckle.

"I'mma get Apple Bloom off to school. Give a holler if ya need anything."

As Applejack left the room and left the door open, Rainbow took a sip of apple juice, grabbed the hairbrush and got out of bed, walking over to the dresser and sitting in front of the mirror, slowly brushing her unkempt mane. Over a few minutes, the random, tangled spectrum of colors got sorted out, and her mane looked much improved, and Rainbow gave a small smile at herself. It felt a bit better, to look halfway decent. She returned to her breakfast, and ate heartily.

Down the hall in the kitchen, Applejack was getting Apple Bloom her breakfast and getting her ready for school.

"Applejack, why is Rainbow here?"

"Why Apple Bloom, if I wanted you to know that, I would've told you, now wouldn't I?" her older sister said, in a feigned astonished voice.

"Seriously. Is she alright?" Apple Bloom asked.

"You mind your business. She's here to rest. That's all you need to know. Now finish your breakfast and get off to school."

With that, Applejack left Apple Bloom to her breakfast, and went to check on Rainbow, who was now back at the night stand nibbling on some hay, her mane now clean and kept. She gave a soft smile.

"Well, I'mma go get some chores done, let me know if you need anything at all, okay?"

"Will do, AJ. Thanks."

Applejack noticed how Rainbow was trying her best to fake contentment and happiness. She'd give her the time and space she needed, and hoped she would slowly improve as the days passed.

It wasn't too long before Twilight was walking around the Acres looking for Applejack.

"Howdy there, Twilight. What can I do for ya?"

"Looking for Rainbow. I checked the Traveler's Inn this morning, and she wasn't there. I checked with the others, and no one's seen her."

"Yeah, she's here. Walked all the way here in the middle of the night with those back hooves, if you can believe it."

"How's she doing?" Twilight asked, walking with AJ around the Acres as she tended to various aspects of the farm.

"Well, she's not sleeping well. Ya can tell that just by lookin' at her. And I know she's trying to look happy, but I can see right through it. I'm...well, I'm trying my darndest to be patient with her. I know this is gonna take time. At least she's here."

"I think that's all we can give her at this point, is time."

Twilight went in to visit with Rainbow for a few minutes, who just sat at the window, staring out at the orchards. Twilight knew she must be going crazy following the doctor's orders; staying off her feet as much as possible, especially considering her long walk last night. Rainbow again tried to put on a smile for Twilight, but she, just like the farm workhorse, saw right through it, and played along for now.

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the others came by. Rarity was thrilled that Rainbow was still wearing her hoodie, and Fluttershy came by with some of her animals. They both shared Applejack's concerns, and likewise decided to give her time. They were all confident that Rainbow's loyalty to her friends would bring her around sooner or later.

By the time afternoon rolled around, Applejack was relaxing in the kitchen, when there was a gentle but frantic knock at the door. Going to answer it, she was greeted by the cheesy grinning faces of Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo.

"Oh no..." she mused.

"Time for the CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS SUPER SLEEPOVER! YAY!" the three Crusaders said in obnoxiously loud unison.

"That was today...?" Applejack asked.

"Of course! I told you about it earlier in the week, remember?" Apple Bloom told her.

"Yeah, now I remember." she muttered.

"Look, y'all. You need to keep it down around the house. I've got a guest resting."

"A guest? Who?" Sweetie Belle asked.

This astonished Applejack, who looked at Apple Bloom.

"You mean you didn't tell'em? For once, you kept something to yourself?"

"Oh yeah! Rainbow's staying here, guys!" Apple Bloom blurted out.

Applejack facehoofed.

"Rainbow Dash? Really?" Scootaloo asked, her eyes widening with excitement.

"And you three are to leave her alone, is that clear?" AJ sternly instructed.

"Huh?" Scootaloo gave a puzzled look.

"Y'all don't need to know why she's here except that she's here to rest. Stay away from her, that's the end of it. Now go out to your clubhouse and stay out of trouble, ya hear?"

She got slow, puzzled nods from the three Crusaders, who made their way around the west side of the farmhouse to the forest patches, where the old clubhouse was.

Throughout the last few days events, AJ had completely forgot about the sleepover the Crusaders had planned for tonight. She wasn't entirely comfortable with three fillies running around the Acres when she had a wingless, depressed Pegasus recovering in the guest room. She didn't consider Rainbow a burden at all, but it wasn't something fillies needed to see at their age. She hoped, for once, that Apple Bloom and her friends would mind what she told them.

She went to the fridge and fetched another cool bottle of apple juice, and took it to Rainbow, who seemed slightly annoyed at being waited on hoof and flank.

"Remember, plenty of fluids." AJ reminded. Giving in, Rainbow sipped at the straw poking out of the bottle.

"So, why did you come here when everyone offered you a place to stay?" Applejack asked.

"Huh?"

"Don't worry, I'm thrilled you're here, but out of all the places, you walked 2 miles out here to the Acres."

"Well, for a number of reasons. I didn't want to disturb Fluttershy's animals, I would've been Rarity's living mannequin, and I'd be even more bored to tears in the library with Twilight. You have a lot of space out here, fresh air, and well..."

Applejack waited for her to continue.

"You saved my life, Applejack. When I recover enough to be a little more active, I'd like to help you around here. It'd give me something to do, and it seems you always need more help. I owe you."

"Aw, Sugarcube, I appreciate the offer, and you're welcome to once you recover, but 'ah want you to know, you don't owe me anything."

CRUSADER CLUBHOUSE

LATER THAT NIGHT

"Alright, where can we get a giant slingshot?"

"Scootaloo, if a cannon didn't work last month, why would a slingshot work?" Sweetie Belle rebuked.

The Crusaders' attempts for Cutie Marks had grown sillier and more obscure as time went on. It made much of Ponyville wonder whether "talents you're good at" had really sunk into any of their heads.

"I keep on wondering what Rainbow is doing here." Scootaloo stated.

"Well, maybe it has to do with her cloud house above Ponyville." Apple Bloom offered.

"What about it?"

"Um, it's not there anymore?"

"Maybe there was something wrong with it."

"Then why is she resting? Why is Applejack telling us to not even go near her?"

"Well, why don't we find out for ourselves? Find out what more and more ponies are talking about in town?" Scootaloo said.

Apple Bloom started to agree, but Sweetie Belle wasn't so sure.

"But, we were told to leave her alone."

"And we will. We'll just peek inside her window and come right back here." Scootaloo said.

"Come on, let's go!" Apple Bloom said, and they set off, Sweetie Belle still a little uneasy about playing around what Applejack told them.

FARMHOUSE

10 MINUTES LATER

Owls and crickets could be heard throughout the Acres as night set in for the next several hours. Applejack made her checks around the house, making sure everything was just so, before heading towards her room down the hall.

Passing the closed guest room door, she heard a muffled commotion on the other side.

Silently opening the door, she quietly came up to the bed, as Rainbow shifted uneasily in her sleep.

She found herself restrained to the planks again. Fear crept into every vein in her body.

No. No! No no no no no not again!

"Time to get started." she heard a cheery voice from nowhere.

Black was all around her as she tried to fight against her restraints.

"Dash...Dash. Rainbow, wake up." Applejack said, gently shaking Rainbow's shoulder.

"No...please no..." she mumbled in her sleep.

"No! Please no!" she pleaded.

She felt a presence behind her, stretching out her right wing, ready to bring down the knife...

Rainbow's uneasy shifting became more apparent. Suddenly, her sleeping body jolted, the covers rippling. She gave a short scream.

"No! Please!" she yelled from the dream world beyond.

"Rainbow! Wake up!"

Pain shot through her back as her right wing fell into the blackness, and her left wing was stretched out. She felt the teeth of the hacksaw grind against her bone.

"No!" she screamed in pain.

"Rainbow Dash!" a voice from beyond called her in the darkness.

"Rainbow Dash!" Applejack yelled to snap the Pegasus out of her nightmare.

Rainbow bolted up with a scream, frantically looking around.

"It's alright, it's alright. It's me!" Applejack quickly said, attempting to calm her frightened friend.

Then, came another scream, a muffled one, from outside her bedroom window. Both ponies looked in surprise.

When Scootaloo saw the red bloody areas of Rainbow Dash's bandaged back, her pupils contracted, and her whole body went cold as she let out a blood-curdling scream, and immediately turned tail and ran back into the forest towards the clubhouse, followed quickly by Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle.

Tears pricked Rainbow's eyes, and it only took a split second for Applejack to put the pieces together, seeing the three fillies run back into the darkness of the forest, and her face became one of disbelief and anger.

"Wait here, Rainbow. I'll be right back, promise."

With that, she left the room, and was quickly giving chase back out to the clubhouse.

Scootaloo was cowering in her sleeping bag, and the other two crusaders were confused and scared as they stood in the safety of their clubhouse.

It hadn't even been a minute since they got back before the door slammed open, getting a startled scream from each of them.

There stood Applejack in the doorway, a furious look in her eyes.

"How...dare...you." she said, just above a whisper.

"W-we're sorr-" her younger sister began to apologize, before being harshly cut off.

"Shut it! You think I tell you these things for no reason at all? That I tell you 'no' for fun?"

The Crusaders looked at her, frightened.

"W-we were just curious why Rainbow-"

"I told you to leave her alone. I told you to not go near her! A lotta good your 'curiosity' did you tonight!" she yelled at them.

Not another word came from the three fillies.

"I don't want to hear another peep. If there's another hoof out of this clubhouse for the rest of the night, you'll be out of school before the next sleepover. Understood?"

All she got in return were teary-eyed nods from them. Scootaloo shuddered in the corner. AJ left without another word.

FARMHOUSE

10 MINUTES LATER

AJ returned to the farmhouse and brought a cool glass of water to the guest room, where Rainbow had her back to her, sitting on the bed, sobbing openly.

Saying nothing, Applejack gently set the glass on the nightstand, and when she took a seat next to her on the bed, the Pegasus got up and went to the window.

"I-I...I can't take this anymore...I can't even look at them anymore..." she sobbed, looking at the starry sky from her window.

"The fillies?"

"No..." Rainbow sniffled. "No, the stars, the sky, my Cutie Marks. Every...everytime..."

She turned to Applejack with something of a frustrated, scared look in her eyes.

"I'm tired of being reminded of who I was! What I loved doing! What Pinkie took away from me! How...?"

She collapsed onto her back haunches, in tears.

"How am I ever gonna be able to move on if that reminder is always there...?" she sobbed, her tears and gaze falling to the floor.

Applejack stared at her friend for a moment, before getting off the bed and sitting next to her, putting her front leg around her friend.

"Sugar...do you think it's gonna be that easy? Just...just throw away all of who you used to be and start new? Well, that's not gonna happen, hun. You have to remember who you were, and adapt to your new life. That doesn't mean you have to change who you are entirely, or forget who you used to be."

Rainbow continued to cry, but it let up a bit.

"What did she do to you, Rainbow?"

The Pegasus sniffled and shot her a bothered glance.

"I don't think I'll ever be ready to talk about that. Besides, you of everypony should have the best idea."

"It was all a rush, Rainbow. I didn't really take it all in when I got you out of there. But maybe you're having these nightmares because you're keeping it all inside."

Nothing more was said for a minute while AJ continued to silently comfort Dash with merely her presence.

"She drugged me."

"Drugged you?"

"Yeah. With something in her cupcakes. I woke up restrained to planks, and all around the room were these...decorations...of parts and bones and organs of ponies."

Applejack said nothing, just listening to her friend.

" She said that she needed more special ingredient for her cupcakes, and that my number came up. She started with my Cutie Marks. Cut both of them off of my flanks. Then she took off my wings."

Rainbow shuddered again, fresh tears rolling down her cheeks.

"The first thing she did was take away what made me special. What made me, 'me'."

AJ continued listening intently.

"Then she...she...ate part of me. Part of the muscle in my right flank. It didn't even phase her. Like it was normal."

Another few moments passed while Rainbow tried her best to keep herself composed and recalled that horrific night all too recently.

"I blacked out several times, and she'd just inject me with adrenaline. Then...then came the nails. Burning hot; hammered right into my back hooves...attached to copper wires. She electrocuted me until I blacked out again. It...it felt like every inch of my body was on fire..."

"Then...then she gave me a painkiller, and I couldn't feel anything below my ribs. She said it...it was time for the last round, and I'd be awake to watch the harvest. And then...then you showed up."

Applejack held in her horrified reaction, and simply wrapped her arm tighter around Dash's shoulders, tears began to fall from her eyes as well.

Rainbow began weeping again.

"Ap-Applejack...if you hadn't shown up when you did...I..."

There were no more words to say as she just sat there, head lowered, crying.

AJ wrapped both arms around her friend, crying with her.

"Rainbow...I...I'm so sorry you had to go through that. And mark my words, sugar. I swear on my life, if there was any way..."

She searched for the right words.

"I would give up the farm; my livelihood; I would give all I am if it meant making you whole again."

-2.2 – HEART-TO-HEART-

SWEET APPLE ACRES

THE NEXT MORNING

None of the Crusaders got a lot of sleep after the incident last night. At the crack of dawn, Applejack was at the clubhouse, rising the three fillies, still shaken from last night.

"Apple Bloom, go back to the house. I'll be taking your friends home." she said sternly.

"But why-" she started to protest.

"I don't think you want to be questioning anything I tell you right now. Go to the house and stay in your room. Is that clear?"

Apple Bloom simply nodded, and began to make her way out of the clubhouse.

"Come on, you two. Hurry and get up."

Applejack had other motives for going into town today. Other than getting the Crusaders back and explaining last night's incident to their parents, she also remembered that the nurse had instructed Rainbow to return and get her bandages changed, and she didn't want her to go two miles back and forth, and she had dealt with farm injuries before, so changing gauze was no big hassle.

FARMHOUSE

Applejack returned an hour later with a saddlebag. Big Macintosh was busy making breakfast.

"Apple Bloom in her room?"

"Eeeyup."

AJ made her way to the guest room, where Rainbow was just beginning to get up, due to her restless sleep last night.

"Good news, Rainbow. I went and got the gauze, so you don't have to walk all way back to Ponyville to get'em changed. And we can see if you're starting to heal up, too."

Rainbow gave AJ a small smile.

"Applejack...thanks for last night. I think that helped."

"No problem at all, sugarcube."

Rainbow tossed the covers aside, and sat up. Applejack set her saddlebag beside her, and began to unwrap the gauze around Rainbow's mid-section. She was relieved to see that the stubs where her wings used to be were no longer the bloody, oozy mess that it was when she was first treated. The first layers of skin had now formed.

"Looks to be coming along well enough." AJ commented, gently applying some ointment, and then wrapping them up in fresh, sterile gauze.

She then moved down to her flanks, and unwrapped the area around her cutie marks. Again, there was much improvement. Her cutie marks had reattached where they had been cut off; fresh scar tissue formed a circle around them, but they appeared to be healing.

"I don't think I even need to re-bandage that area." Applejack happily said. She moved to her right cutie mark, where part of her muscle had been removed by Pinkie, and she gently pressed with her left hoof.

"How's that feel, sugar?" she asked.

"Still a little numb, but I can feel it." Dash replied.

"Good sign."

Then, Rainbow turned around in a sitting position, her back legs half-dangling off the bed. Applejack carefully unwrapped the gauze around her back hooves, and inspected the healing areas.

"These look the best of all. I'd say you'll be good to go in a week at most, Rainbow. And I'll even go one further right now, and won't insist that you stay in bed." Applejack said, replacing the bandages on Rainbow's back hooves.

"Good, 'cause I want to go talk to Apple Bloom."

"And what do you need to tell her?"

"Something that'll only work coming from me."

For the first time since arriving, Rainbow Dash joined Applejack, Big Macintosh, and Granny Smith out in the kitchen for breakfast. Both Big Mac and Granny Smith were equally optimistic about the rate of Rainbow's recovery. After breakfast, Rainbow took a tray of food down the hall and gently knocked on Apple Bloom's door.

"Come in." she said somberly, expecting her big sister and some more chastising. Instead, Rainbow walked in.

"Oh, uh...hi Rainbow. Look...I'm...I'm really sorry about..."

"Relax, Apple Bloom. I'm not mad. Applejack has every right to be mad because you disobeyed, but I just want to talk, that's all." Rainbow reassured her.

"I brought ya some breakfast." the recovering Pegasus said, setting the tray next to the filly laying on the bed, resting her chin on her hooves.

"We were just curious as to why you were staying here. She didn't have to yell at us like that." Apple Bloom pouted.

"Look, Apple Bloom. I was your age once, and I hated being told no too. But...what you three saw, fillies your age really shouldn't have seen. Curiosity isn't always the best thing to have."

"But she's always bossing us around! Telling us that we can't do things, and not telling us why!" the young yellow filly complained.

"Apple Bloom, AJ's trying to protect you. You should be grateful that you have her. I...never had any siblings to grow up with. And I'll tell you something..." Rainbow said, taking a seat next to her on her bed.

"If not for your big sister, I wouldn't be here right now. She saved my life, Apple Bloom. So I know it's not fun being punished, but you need to appreciate the fact that you have your sister here."

Apple Bloom didn't answer, just stared silently at her twin bed's comforter, and began to eat her breakfast that had been brought to her.

"Well, just think about it. I'm headed into town."

"To do what?"

"Talk to another Crusader. I imagine we have one freaked out and frightened Pegasus on our hands right now."

Rainbow went one door down to her room, and tugged on her hoodie, and told Applejack she was going into town.

"Just take it easy on those back hooves, alright?"

"Don't worry, I will."

And with that, she left the farmhouse, and trotted to Ponyville.

PONYVILLE OUTSKIRTS

30 MINUTES LATER

Rainbow, with her Wonderbolt hoodie, walked up to a brick home in one of the outskirt neighborhoods of Ponyville, and knocked on the door. Seconds later, a light-purple Pegasus opened the door.

"Rainbow...nice to see you." she said, trying to hide the surprise in her voice.

"Thanks. I know Applejack probably told you about what happened last night. I was wondering if I could talk to Scootaloo."

"Yeah, that probably would be best. She's in the back yard with her scooter. Take it easy, she's still a bit...shaky."

Rainbow nodded, and walked around the house to the back yard. Scootaloo had a screwdriver in hoof, adjusting the back wheel of her scooter.

"Hey there, Scoot." Rainbow greeted as she walked up to her.

Scootaloo turned to her nervously.

"Uh...R-Rainbow. What are you...doing here?"

"I came to talk to you." Rainbow replied, taking a seat on the sidewalk next to her and her method of transportation. Scootaloo still looked uneasy.

"Scoot, I'm not mad. I just wanted to see how you were doing. I know what you saw last night must have been pretty...scary."

"I know I should've left you alone. But all I've been hearing around town the last few days is how you 'survived', and everypony wondering how you're doing, and how the investigation is going."

"Well, it's not really for filly ears. But since you already saw what happened to me, I'll answer whatever I can if it helps put your mind at ease."

Scootaloo nervously glanced at her back, covered by the hoodie.

"D-does it hurt? Or feel weird?" she shakily asked.

"It doesn't really hurt anymore. And of course it still feels weird, considering I had wings all my life."

"But a-aren't you...scared?"

"Absolutely." Rainbow said softly, placing a hoof on her fan's shoulder.

"Scoot, I was very scared when I realized what had happened; that they couldn't fix me. When I laid there in the hospital at night; even when I moved in with Applejack, I cried myself to sleep because I didn't know what to do with my life anymore. It's something I'm still figuring out. There are still times I'd give anything to just fly again...or just feel like I'm flying. But it's something I'm going to have to accept eventually, and move on. Right now, I'm just grateful that I'm alive. And life has those scary moments, where you don't know what to do or where to go next. So sometimes...I can't believe I'm gonna say this...sometimes you just have to look at what scares you, and laugh."

Scootaloo's nervousness was still apparent.

"And I'd say you're never too young to learn life lessons, so I guess here's one right now. Don't take anything for granted, Scoot. Because hardly anypony realizes what life would be like without the things they take for granted. When you finally find your life's calling, and your cutie mark, just don't embrace your talent with all your heart, but embrace everything you do. Every day. Because tomorrow, it may not be the same. It can all change in an instant. And I'm not trying to scare you, but with what I went through, I'm viewing life more and more as a gift not to be wasted."

Scootaloo looked up at her and gave her a smile, and hugged her.

"Thanks, and I'm sorry, Rainbow."

"It's alright. Just don't let curiosity get the best of you next time."

"No, I mean...I'm sorry that this happened to you."

"Yeah...me too. But it's something I have to learn to live with, and I certainly don't want everypony going around pitying me. So chin up, okay Scoot?" she said, tipping the filly's chin up with her hoof.

"You got it, Rainbow Dash!" she said confidently.

Rainobw smiled, said goodbye, and right before she departed, Scoot called her.

"Hey Rainbow!"

"Yeah?"

"Well, have you tried diving?"

"Huh?"

"When me and Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle tried to get our cutie marks several months ago, we tried diving and swimming. It felt like flying to me, moving through the water. Well, I think it feels like flying. Guess I'll find out when my wings grow enough. Maybe if you want that flying feeling back, you could try swimming."

Rainbow smiled.

"Maybe I will try that. Thanks, Scoot."

And with that, she departed.

Rainbow wasn't quite ready to depart the town yet. Before heading back out to Sweet Apple Acres, Rainbow stopped at Fluttershy's tree home, and gently knocked on the door. Her quiet, gentle childhood friend answered the door.

"Oh good, you're here. Thought you might be out with some of your animals." Rainbow greeted.

"I was about to be," Fluttershy replied, smiling upon seeing her friend.

"What can I do for you, Rainbow?"

"I just came for my stuff, then I'll be on my way."

"Oh?" Fluttershy asked, glancing back inside. There was a saddlebag sitting neatly next to the couch.

She walked over to the couch and slung the saddlebag over her back.

"I'm not about to have you walk all the way back to the Acres carrying this. I'll go with you."

"Fluttershy, it's alright, I've-"

"Nope, I won't hear it. You're recovering."

"Fine, Fluttershy. You win."

The two of them set out, heading out of Ponyville with a small handful of woodland creatures in tow.

"So how are you liking it over at Applejack's farm?" Fluttershy asked.

"Well, I'm glad she finally gave me permission to move around and actually do some stuff. I was going insane in that guest room. Especially after what happened last night."

"Oh? What happened?"

"Apple Bloom and two of her friends saw what happened to me last night."

"Oh...oh my."

"That's partly why I came into town, to talk to Scootaloo and see how she was doing. I think she'll be alright."

"I hope so. She always looked up to you as a role model."

"So how do you do it, Fluttershy?" Rainbow asked, after they got out of Ponyville, halfway back to the farm.

"Do what?"

"Spend so much time on the ground? You never did take much to flying. Didn't you ever think it was part of who you are?"

"Well, the animals just mean a whole lot more to me than flying, Rainbow Dash. I know flying meant a lot to you, but maybe that's what you have to do – find something that means just as much to you as flying did."

"Well, that's the thing. My cutie marks symbolize my love for flying. So how can I find something that means just as much to me?"

"Rainbow, there's something undeniably special about the cutie marks. With what's happened to you, if your cutie marks were only about flying, I don't think they'd be healing so quickly."

Rainbow considered this.

"So what do I do?"

"For now, I'd just think back to how your cutie mark appeared. That's the best place to start, I think."

When they arrived back at Sweet Apple Acres, Fluttershy greeted AJ, and then took Rainbow's possessions into her guest room.

"Thanks again, Fluttershy."

"Oh, not a problem at all, Rainbow Dash. Good luck. See you later!"

For the better part of the day, Rainbow sorted through her possessions that Fluttershy had gathered from her home. Hanging her dress in the closet, setting her gold tiara from the Best Young Fliers Competition on the dresser, followed by the jar of liquid rainbow, and lastly, her hooves came up out of the saddlebag with a very precious item; her Harmony Necklace; gold, with a jeweled, ruby lightning bolt in the center. She gently set that down on the center of the dresser.

She began to think back to the day she got her Cutie Mark, after racing the two bullies at Summer Flight Camp. How she had been shoved off course, and made up for it by going faster than she ever had before, and hit the lowest checkpoint loop going so fast she made a Sonic Rainboom, that hadn't been seen in generations. On her way back up to the finish line, her Cutie Mark appeared.

"So if it's not flying, then...what is it?"

-2.3 – A RAINBOW IN WATER-

SWEET APPLE ACRES

ONE WEEK LATER

Rainbow stood at the shore of the small lake, about a half-mile from the farmhouse. The sun hadn't even come up yet, and it looked like rainclouds on the horizon.

She didn't mind. She was going to take Scootaloo's suggestion, and give this a try. After all, it had been nearly a week since she had bathed, and this would prove to be refreshing.

She turned her head and looked at her back. Her stubs had begun to heal, the first layers of skin forming. She was sure they'd be fine. She'd removed all her bandages for this swim. Slowly, she stepped into the water.

The water felt cold on her back hooves, but she quickly adjusted to the temperature, stepping deeper in, the water now halfway up her legs. Her hooves glided on the pebbles and wet sand on the bed of the lake, and she began a slow trot deeper into the water.

Now it was up to her chest and belly, almost up to her flanks. She grabbed her silver goggles hanging around her neck, and strapped them on over her eyes, took a deep breath, and leaped forward, diving into the water.

She went under with a splash. She looked at the clams and pebbles on the bottom of the lake, and went deeper. She reached forward with her front hooves, and pulled back, propelling her body through the water.

It felt so refreshing. With a grin, she repeated the stroke, and spun in the water. The world above was muted and muffled. It wasn't the wind rushing through her mane, around her body; but Scootaloo was right, this was a lot like flying. She let her legs go limp, lazily lifting up as she let herself list in the depths. This was a peace she hadn't felt all week. With a gurgled, bubbly laugh, she pushed up with her hooves a few times, and her head broke the surface of the lake, and she took a few deep breaths. She tread water for several moments before taking in another deep breath and going under again.

FARMHOUSE

1 HOUR LATER

When Applejack rose out of bed an hour later, the weather had changed considerably. With the rush of rain pelting the roof and windows, she got out of bed with a yawn, and went to check on Rainbow, only to find the bed empty, and her bandages in the waste bin next to it.

She immediately went to the kitchen, where she found Big Macintosh at the stove making breakfast.

"Hey Big Mac, where's Rainbow?" she asked.

"Said she was going swimming out by the lake. That was about an hour and a half ago."

"What? It's pourin' rain out there!"

"Wasn't pourin' when she went out. Still, if she was gonna come back when it started raining, I think she'd be back by now. It's been coming down like this for a good 45 minutes now."

AJ sighed.

"Oh, what am I gonna do with her?"

With that, Applejack went out into the thunderstorm, making her way to the lake.

LAKE

15 MINUTES LATER

With no more than an hour in the lake, Rainbow Dash had turned into a fish with legs and a mane.

She had tried all kinds of strokes, and so far, her favorite one was swimming up fast enough to where she almost had her whole body out of the lake before splashing back in again. She had seen a variety of fish and sea life at the bottom of the lake. It was a whole world she hadn't been familiar with.

She dove deeper and deeper. Brushing past a patch of seaweed on the bed of the lake, she angled herself up, and swam as fast as she could to the surface. When she came up for air the next time, she heard a voice over the splashing.

"Rainbow! What are you doing out here?"

She turned and saw Applejack at the shore some 30 feet away, and gave her a smile.

"What does it look like? Swimming." she greeted.

"It's rainin' cats and dogs!"

Rainbow just giggled.

"Yeah, so? I'm already entirely wet."

Applejack halted her chastisement of Rainbow when she noticed her entirely carefree demeanor. For the first time since arriving, she didn't seem depressed and down.

"So you just decided you'd come out before a thunderstorm and take a swim?"

"Yep!" Rainbow replied happily, taking a short dive under and immediately coming back up again, her rainbow mane soaked and flat against her forehead and neck.

"I went into town to talk to Scootaloo, and she suggested swimming if I wanted to feel something close to flying again."

A rumble of thunder rolled over the lake area, and lightning flashed the hazy morning sky.

"Besides, I've spent years making thunderstorms. About time I got wet in one, if ya ask me." Rainbow said with another giggle.

Applejack was so astonished that Rainbow had suddenly returned to something resembling her former self, and all it took was a dip in a lake.

"Besides, I've been doing some thinking out here." Rainbow said, coming out of the lake onto the shore, dripping wet, with still more rain coming down. Lifting her goggles up onto her forehead, Rainbow started taking a long route back to the farmhouse, through one of the Acres' apple orchards, with AJ right beside her.

"Thinking about what?"

"About my Cutie Marks. Fluttershy told me that they're more special than I think, and that they still have meaning in my life. They're healing pretty fast, so I'm wondering if they reflected my love of flying at all."

Applejack pondered this as well, looking at her friend's flank.

"A cloud and rainbow lightning bolt. What else could that mean?"

"I don't know just yet. But maybe what I needed was some time out in the rain."

"Why, so you can catch a cold?" Applejack half-jokingly asked.

"No, to grow." Rainbow replied.

"Huh?"

"Well, your trees need an equal amounts of sunshine and water to produce these apples. So maybe in order to grow and move past this, maybe all I need is some rain. Who says plants are the only things that need a little rain now and then?"

The farmhouse came into view, and the rain began to let up. It didn't quit completely, but came down to a light drizzle. The clouds began to part, and rays of sunshine began to descend on the acres, and coming to the front door, the pair of ponies saw a rainbow materialize in the parting rainclouds.

"Well whad'ya know..." Applejack said, staring up at the rainbow.

"What is it, AJ?"

The workhorse motioned up to the rainbow.

"Maybe that's what you're cutie mark represents. That no matter what storms you go through, you'll always come through. I'd say this is sure a fine example."

Rainbow took another look at the sparkling rainbow, and then over to her friend, and they gave each other a hug.

"Thanks, AJ."

"No problem at all. Now let's go get dried off."


-A CRACK IN THE CASE-

Two sets of hooves raced down the dirt path towards the finish line. One set light brown; the other set cyan blue. Neither was giving an inch. The uproar of cheers from all around grew louder as the finish drew ever closer.

"I'm not gonna just give this to ya, Rainbow. I respect ya too much to do that. You're gonna have to take it."

SUGARCUBE CORNER

ONE WEEK EARLIER

When Twilight walked into Sugarcube Corner, she was surprised to see a few ponies making purchases.

"Oh, why hello there, Twilight. What brings you here today?" Mrs. Cake greeted.

"Well, I heard the crime scene investigation is complete, they got everything cleaned up, and that they allowed you two to open shop again. Just thought I'd stop by and see how everything's going."

Mrs. Cake finished the transaction of the current customer at the pony and bid them a good day.

"It's been a little slower than usual, which I suppose is to be expected. But the general belief around town is that we didn't have anything to do with what Pinkie was doing down in the basement, and for that, we're very grateful. We were afraid all week that we'd have to close up shop. But that's not going to be the case."

"I'm so glad. Ponyville wouldn't be the same without your sweets."

"I just wish there were signs of what Pinkie was up to. She was flawless at inventory, so we just left her in charge of keeping inventory in the basement. So many lives could have been saved."

"Don't trouble yourselves with it. None of us saw this coming. At least it's over. Anyways, I'd like to place an order for tomorrow morning. Can you do it that fast?"

"Absolutely, dear. What's the occasion?"

SWEET APPLE ACRES

THAT NIGHT

The starry night sky hung over the Acres, providing the lake with a rich, ambient moonlight. The only sound that could be heard above the crickets was the sloshing of water, as the cyan Pegasus went from one end of the lake to the other, uneasily floating on her back.

"Somepony certainly seems to be out late." came a tender female voice from above.

The voice out of nowhere surprised Rainbow, causing her to flail and sink momentarily before her head popped up again above the surface of the water. She looked up, and above the lake hovered a grayish-purple Alicorn pony. Rainbow swam to the nearest shore, and her visitor floated down and landed to meet her. Rainbow gave a short bow.

"Princess Luna, what a surprise." Rainbow said, dripping from her late night swim.

"How have you been, Rainbow Dash?" the younger royal sister asked.

"Improving, slowly day by day."

"I see you've taken to swimming."

"Yeah, I need a little more practice. But I couldn't sleep tonight, so I came out here to try and relax. So what brings you here, your highness?"

"I wasn't going to come by until tomorrow, but I was flying overhead, and saw you swimming, so I figured, why not now?"

Rainbow waited for Luna to continue.

"I'm leading the investigation into what happened, Rainbow, and we think we've come to the most logical conclusion."

"Really? Why did she do this?"

"Our coroner analyzed Pinkie's brain with a cat scan, and determined that she had developed a split-personality within the past few months."

Rainbow's eyes widened.

"Did we cause this?" Rainbow asked.

"What do you mean?"

"A few months ago, we had planned a surprise birthday party for her, and in order to keep it a surprise, we had to lie to her about coming to one of her parties. Right before the party, I came to get her and bring her to the barn, and she was...different. Very different."

"How so?"

"Her poofy hair was all flat, she talked to inanimate objects as if they were alive, and it didn't change back until she realized that the party was for her birthday."

"Yes, when her 'happy' side resurfaced, I don't think that other side simply disappeared. In fact, I think it slowly, unknowingly resurfaced. I think that's why she didn't seem to think she was doing anything wrong to you, or her other victims. To her, it seemed normal. So to put it bluntly, burying that other side of her caused her to slowly go insane."

"So we did do it." Rainbow realized, a look of sadness overcoming her.

"No, please don't look at it that way, Rainbow. You couldn't have known what would happen. Just a string of coincidences. No one is to blame for this."

"A-alright...thanks for telling me this, your highness." Rainbow replied.

"So what will you do now?" the royal night mare inquired.

"I'm...I'm not sure yet. I've been thinking about it a lot, and I might stay here. Help run the farm with Applejack. Seems appropriate enough. She's one of my best friends, she saved my life, and she could always use another set of hooves to lighten the workload."

"Well, whatever it is that you'll do, I'm sure you'll be great at it. Have a good night, Rainbow Dash."

"Thank you, your highness, and I'll tell my friends what you found out."

Luna nodded with a smile, and gracefully ascended into the starry night.

Still dripping wet, Rainbow shook herself off as best she could, and headed back to the farmhouse to try and get some sleep.

SWEET APPLE ACRES FARMHOUSE

THE NEXT MORNING

Rainbow awoke with a yawn, and was startled to see her 4 friends around her bed.

"W-what's going on, guys?" she said, fighting off the grogginess of the morning.

"Well, you don't actually think we forgot, did you?" Twilight asked.

She got up, and followed her friends into the kitchen, where a three-layer cake was front and center on the table. It was decorated with an entire spectrum of colored frosting, and had an arrangement of candles on top, along with the words "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, RAINBOW DASH."

"Oh wow, I can't believe I forgot!" Rainbow exclaimed happily.

"Well, that's why ya have us around, Sugarcube."

Rainbow looked at the colorful cake, and proceeded to blow out the candles. None of her friends or the Apple family present seemed to object to having cake for breakfast.

"Thanks guys, I guess with everything that's happened, it kinda slipped my mind."

Slices of cake were served up, and everypony ate heartily.

"Hope you didn't have any plans today, Rainbow." Twilight said in between bites of cake.

"Why? You guys have plans for me?"

"You could say that." Rarity added.

Applejack gave a short whistle, and four uniformed ponies came into the kitchen doorway.

They all wore goggles on their foreheads, and wore light blue swim trunks.

"The Ponyville Swim Team!" Applejack announced.

"Their competition season is over, so we asked if they could come to the farm and give you some swimming lessons. They were happy to." Fluttershy said.

"Yeah," one of the swim team started, a turquoise earth pony.

"You've been through a horrible, life-altering experience, and we're thrilled that you've taken to swimming to help you relax and adapt. And we're here to help you enjoy it even more, Rainbow Dash!"

The turquoise pony stepped forward, and shook the overjoyed Rainbow's hoof.

"I'm the Team Captain. They call me Torpedo."

Torpedo motioned to the other three, an Earth pony and two Unicorns.

"That's Surf, Tidal Wave, and Fin."

"Wow guys, I...I don't know what to say!" Rainbow replied to her friends, as well as the new guests.

"Well, Applejack showed us where the lake is, so whenever you're ready, we'll meet ya out there."

After the swim team left the farmhouse out to the lake, Rainbow took the last bite of her cake.

"Thanks, everyone. I can't tell you what this means."

"Well, quit burnin' daylight, and get out there and get wet!" AJ encouraged. Rainbow nodded, and happily trotted out to the lake.

-REMATCH-

SWEET APPLE ACRES

ONE HOUR LATER

"Your technique is coming along great, Rainbow. But you're just pulling yourself along with your hooves. You'll get farther per stroke if you put your whole body into it." Torpedo instructed, before showing her how to maneuver her body along with her strokes.

Twilight, Applejack, Fluttershy, and Rarity were relaxing on the shore of the lake, soaking up the sun, while Rainbow and the Ponyville Swim Team were busy in the lake.

"She sure has taken a liking to it." Fluttershy observed her friend's new hobby.

"That's for sure. If I didn't know any better I'd say she's part fish." Rarity added.

"What got her into this in the first place?" Twilight inquired.

"Apparently Scootaloo suggested to her. She said it felt like flying, even though she'd never done any flying of her own yet, heh. I'm just thrilled that it's gotten her out of that emotional rut she was in that first week. " Applejack answered.

"Wonder if there's something in the water." Fluttershy joked, giggling.

LAKESHORE

THAT NIGHT

Applejack walked into the clearing, and saw Rainbow sitting on her haunches, staring up at the night sky. Coming to her side, she saw her friend with a lighthearted smile.

"Today was quite the day."

"That's for sure. Thanks, it means so much to me."

"Well, don't just thank me. We all had a hand in getting those guys here."

"Well, not just for today. For your hospitality. For being here. Because...well, the real reason I came here..."

Applejack waited for Dash to continue.

"You cared enough about me to come looking when I didn't show up for something as simple as a slice of pie. If you hadn't, I wouldn't be here right now. You're one of the most caring, loving friends I've ever had."

Rainbow leaned into AJ and rested her head on her shoulders, closing her eyes.

"That's why I'm here. I feel safe around you. I know when I go to bed every night, you won't let anything happen to me."

Applejack gently put an arm around her friend.

"If my Cutie Mark really symbolizes making my way through the storms in life, well, I don't think I'm out of this storm yet. It's still sinking in that I'm never going to fly again for the rest of my life. And yet, I still feel like I have to prove myself. I'm just really, really glad that I have you to help me through this."

Applejack gave the cyan Pegasus a soft squeeze.

"Sugarcube, you have got to be the most stubborn, determined, thick-skulled pony I've ever met. And that's what 'ah love about you. And you don't have to prove yourself to no one. Not no more. Because whenever life knocks you down, you get up and keep on running, even after all that's happened."

The lightbulb above Rainbow's head clicked on.

Running...

"That's it!"

She sprang to life, leaping up from her sitting position.

"That's it that's it that's it!" she exclaimed excitedly.

"What's it?" AJ asked, honestly clueless.

"That's what I have to do! The Running of the Leaves! It's next week! I'm gonna run it again, and this time, I'm gonna win it!"

"Are you sure that's a good idea, Rainbow? You're still recovering."

"AJ, I have to do this! It's how I can prove to myself that I can make it without wings. And you and I can have a rematch!"

"Say what?"

"Last year we tied for last, remember? Well this year, we'll have a good clean race, and I want you to give me all you've got!"

"Ah'm not so sure about this, Rainbow. I'd rather you make a full recovery first..."

"Please, Applejack? Make this another birthday present to me. Promise me you'll give me all you've got!"

Loving to see Rainbow once again so full of life, Applejack gave in, and smiled.

"If it means that much to ya, Rainbow, you're on."

SWEET APPLE ACRES WEST ORCHARD

THE NEXT AFTERNOON

"Come on, AJ! Just let me buck a couple'a trees! I gotta learn how to do it if I'm gonna help you run the farm!"

"For the third time Rainbow, NO. Letting you run in the race next week is as far as I'm budging. I ain't having you slammin' those hooves against trees while you're still recovering. When you're back up to 100% and fresh as a daisy, THEN I'll teach you about applebucking."

Rainbow got a pouty look on her face from losing the argument, muttered "Fine," then resumed doing laps around the orchard that Applejack was currently bucking.

On her third lap around, she passed Twilight, who gave an astonished look at the galloping Pegasus, and then went into the trees to find Applejack.

"Hey AJ. What's Rainbow up to?" she asked.

"Training." the workhorse replied.

"Training?" Twilight repeated in question form.

"Yep, for the Running of the Leaves next week."

"What? She's running in that?" Twilight was surprised.

"Apparently. Got the idea in her head last night, and she's determined to prove something to herself."

"And you think that's a good idea?"

"Well, no. Not really."

"So you're gonna just let her do it?"

"Well, I'm racing her in it."

"So you're encouraging her to do this."

"Twi, I voiced my objections, but her mind's made up. And you know Dash, once she makes her mind up about somethin' ain't nothin' gonna change that girl's mind."

"Well, if you're sure she'll be okay..."

"What about you? Gonna try for 4th place this year?"

"Oh no, I'm helping Spike announce it this time. He asked me to."

"Yeah well, good luck with that, Twi."

"I just hope you two aren't gonna need the luck."

-IN HER MOMENT OF DOUBT-

"I'm not gonna just give this to ya, Rainbow. I respect ya too much to do that. You're gonna have to take it."

The two ponies ran neck-and-neck, closer and closer to the finish line. Applejack took one last glance over at her friend, and the look on her face was one of pain.

"Rainbow, are you okay, sug-"

One of Rainbow's back hooves made contact with the ground the wrong way, and she let out a scream and went down, the rest of the racing herd was too close behind, and Applejack lost sight of the grounded Rainbow in a cloud of hooves, dust, and dirt.

"Rainbow!"

Applejack woke up in a sweat, found herself short of breath, and her heart pounding. She must have been tossing in her sleep, because Winona was whining at the foot of her bed.

"I'm alright, girl. I'm alright. Just a bad dream, that's all."

AJ got out of bed and quietly made her way to the guest room, where Rainbow was sleeping soundly.

She was more unsure than ever of her decision to allow Rainbow to enter the race, which was now less than two days away. That dream instilled the fears even deeper that Rainbow might badly injure herself in the race. Applejack wasn't a doctor, but Rainbow was here, at her farm, and was undoubtedly in her care.

She was Applejack's responsibility for now.

"Rainbow, this is not a good idea." she whispered, so as not to disturb the sleeping Pegasus.

THE NEXT MORNING

Rainbow Dash rose the next morning and came to the kitchen in her hoodie to find Applejack making breakfast in the kitchen.

"Hope you're making something hearty, AJ. We gotta eat good for tomorrow!" she said happily.

"Rainbow, about tomorrow..."

"It's gonna be so awesome! I can just feel it! This is what I need!"

"Listen, Rainbow."

Rainbow held in her excitement to allow AJ to speak.

"Rainbow, I...I don't think this is such a good idea after all. I mean, I know you want to enter the Running of the Leaves to prove you can make it without wings, but...the truth is Rainbow, you're still recovering from serious injuries. If you're in the middle of the herd when and if something happens, you could get trampled."

"AJ, I know you're worried about me, but...but something inside is just telling me that I have to do this! I can't really explain it, but I'm running in that race, and means the world to me that you're doing it with me."

Applejack realized that this was not going to be easy.

"Rainbow, knowing the risk you're taking, I cannot support your decision to run by doing it with you. I'm sorry, but I'm dropping out. As long as you're here, you're my responsibility."

That last statement hit Rainbow hard. Her eyes widened, and Applejack could tell that she had been immediately hurt by what she said.

"I...I can't believe you. You...of all ponies..."

"Rainbow, I'm sorry, but your health comes fir-"

"No! I don't want to hear it! I guess asking you to trust me and have faith in me is too much to ask right now!"

Tears quickly filled her eyes, and the Pegasus turned tail and ran out the front door.

"Rainbow, wait!"

Rainbow didn't stop, or look back, and just galloped out past the front fence of the Acres, back towards Ponyville.

Applejack sat down at the kitchen table with a heavy sigh. Rainbow was too stubborn for her own good.

Later that morning, before high noon, Applejack went into Ponyville to look for Rainbow, instead running into Twilight outside the library.

"Hey Twi', you seen Rainbow around?"

"Not since this morning, when she told me what happened, in tears."

Applejack gave a frustrated sigh.

"Can't she see that I'm looking out for her best interests?"

"Maybe not, when you decided to support her decision a week ago and wait until the day before the race to change your mind."

"Then what do you suggest I do, Twilight?"

"Run with her in that race tomorrow."

"But that would show her that I agree with her running in it, when I clearly don't!"

"No, it shows you care enough about her to support her even when you don't agree with what she's doing."

"I...I don't know if I can do that, Twi. If she gets hurt in that race..."

"Then there'll be nothing you can do about it. It's her choice, and unless you're willing to drag her back to the farm and tie her to the bed, I doubt you'll be able to change her mind."

Applejack exhaled and shook her head.

"I...I just can't. I stand by what I said earlier this morning. It's not a good idea."

"Well, then you have until tomorrow at noon to figure out what you're going to do, AJ." Twilight said, and then was on her way.

SWEET APPLE ACRES

THAT NIGHT

Applejack was making her rounds of the house, making sure everything was tidy and picked up, and started down the hall to her room, when she came to the doorway of the guest room.

The bed was still unmade from that morning, and Applejack walked over to the dresser where a handful of Rainbow's belongings rested. Her eyes paused at the shimmering gold necklace in the center, with the ruby lightning bolt emblazoned on the crest.

"And Rainbow Dash, who could not abandon her friends for her own heart's desire, represents the Spirit of Loyalty!"

Thinking back to the Element of Harmony she represented, she suddenly realized where she had gone wrong today.

"Applejack, who reassured me when I was in doubt, represents the Spirit of Honesty!"

Honesty.

She had made Rainbow a promise to run with her in that race tomorrow, and this morning she had just gone back on that promise. Applejack realized that she could use someone to reassure her when she was in doubt herself.

"Maybe it's time I showed Rainbow some loyalty of my own..." Applejack said to herself, picking up the Harmony Necklace, admiring it in her hooves.

That settled it. It was Rainbow's choice, and Applejack decided she would be there to support her no matter what. Regardless of how she felt, a promise was a promise, especially when it came to one of her absolute best friends.

"I'll see ya at the start line, Rainbow Dash."

THE RUNNING OF THE LEAVES OPENING CEREMONY

THE NEXT MORNING

"Good morning, Ponyville, and welcome to the opening ceremonies of the Annual Running of the Leaves! This is your eye in the sky, Spike! Along with my new co-host, last year's fifth place finish, Twilight Sparkle!"

"Thanks, Spike. It certainly looks like this year's Running of the Leaves will be one to remember. In no small part to a generous donation by the Cloudsdale Weather Factory!"

"That's right, Twilight. This morning, the Pegasi factory workers brought down an entire cauldron of liquid rainbow to the opening ceremony, and the race's spectators and participants alike have dipped a hoof in the cauldron to show their support for Rainbow Dash!"

"Ever since what's now being known as the Case of the Cupcake Kidnappings having been closed, everypony attending the Running of the Leaves are showing their gratitude that the last victim managed to make it out alive. And despite some concerns about her recovery, Rainbow Dash has decided to enter the Running of the Leaves again this year, and she's determined to win it!"

While Twilight and Spike commented on the pre-race festivities above, Rainbow Dash was making her way through the crowd, mingling with spectators and other racers, thanking them for their concerns and support. Everypony around had a rainbow spectrum on one of their front hooves. Rainbow was quite touched, although she was trying her hardest to keep her composure, and stay focused on the approaching race.

"Ready for a good, clean race?" a familiar voice asked, approaching from behind.

Rainbow turned, and saw Applejack. Her front two hooves had been dipped in liquid rainbow, and there was a racing number on her flanks.

"Change your mind again?" Rainbow asked with a small smile.

"Yes. I'm still worried, but it's your choice, and it was wrong of me to go back on a promise that I made you. I'm here, and I'm giving you all I got."

Rainbow and AJ shared a hug, and then during the next few minutes, the racers got situated on the starting line.

"On your marks, racers!" Twilight announced.

Applejack and Rainbow, right next to each other, put their hooves on the starting line, and bent down, ready to bolt off with all the others.

"Get set..." Spike continued.

Rainbow licked her lips, and the two friends gave each other a short glance, and nodded at each other.

They were ready.

"GO!"


-EPILOGUE-

THE IRON PONY

Two sets of hooves raced down the dirt path towards the finish line. One set light brown; the other set cyan blue. Neither was giving an inch. The uproar of cheers from all around grew louder as the finish drew ever closer.

"I'm not gonna just give this to ya, Rainbow. I respect ya too much to do that. You're gonna have to take it." Applejack managed to say through her heavy breathing.

"I...don't expect anything less!" Rainbow replied, equally tired, ready for this to be over.

The cheering came from all around. From the spectators to the left and right, from the front behind the finish line...

Even the racers behind them were cheering the two leaders on. It was almost deafening.

The race had been just like last year's, except without all the trickery that had caused them to tie for last. To be sure, this was going to be a race to remember. The finish was just seconds away. Rainbow's heart pounded against her chest.

A photo finish pony stood at the side of the finish line, ready with a instant-develop camera, ready to snap away the moment the first hoof crossed the finish line.

The pair of ponies came closer...closer...

Just two strides away, Rainbow let out an exhausted grunt as she lurched forward to touch the checkered dirt first.

There was the flash from the camera, and there was cheering all around as Applejack and Rainbow clumsily skidded to a halt; Rainbow somersaulting a few times in her exhausted state.

As Applejack helped her friend to her feet, making sure she was okay, the spectators quieted down for a moment, as the photographer blew on the freshly developed photo, waiting for the image to appear, to reveal the winner. He squinted at the photo, and then his eyes widened as he raised the picture to the sky.

"It's Rainbow Dash by a nose!"

The crowd returned to it's overpowering volume as tears of joy overcame Rainbow, falling back on her haunches, and Applejack congratulated and hugged the wingless Pegasus.

"You did it! You did it!" she screamed over the uproar of the crowd.

The other racers came and tiredly congratulated the overwhelmed Rainbow as they came across the finish line and caught their breath. The cyan Pegasus joyfully sobbed as her breaths slowly came to her easier. Twilight and Spike descended from the weather balloon, and likewise congratulated Rainbow on her stunning victory.

As more racers crossed the finish, the cheering slowly died down, and space was made for the Top 3 podium, and minutes later, the Medal Ceremony began. Princess Celestia came through the crowd from her chariot, had three medals to give out.

Rainbow was taken aback for a moment, as she noticed the Princess' left hoof was dipped in the liquid rainbow, along with everypony else's.

She first awarded the Bronze to the third place finisher, who gave a short bow afterwards, and then she walked to the other end of the podium to the waiting Applejack.

"Applejack, I understand that you've been housing Rainbow down by the farm. It takes a strong friendship to support a friend's decision when you don't always agree with it. Congratulations." the Princess said, placing the Silver medal around Applejack's neck, and then came to center podium, where Rainbow stood still breathing a little heavily, tears still streaming down her face.

"And Rainbow Dash, it is absolutely astounding what you have accomplished. You've not only fought a rigorous physical battle of recovery, but an emotional one as well."

She gently hung the shimmering Gold medal around Rainbow's neck, and placed her rainbow-covered hoof on her shoulder.

"Congratulations."

The top three gave short bows, and Celestia nodded in return, and went to greet other race-goers.

"I did it...I really did it..." Rainbow said to Applejack, both of them hopping off the podium.

"You sure did, Iron Pony." Applejack said, and the two shared another hug before their other friends came to congratulate Rainbow.

"Rainbow that was amazing!" Fluttershy said, rather assertively.

"So where should we go celebrate?" Spike asked.

"Yeah, where would you like to go, Rainbow?"

"Actually guys, I'm worn out. And even though I ignored everypony's advice by running this race, you guys are right. I'm not fully recovered yet, and I need to still rest up. So I think I'll be heading back to the farm with Applejack."

She turned to her friend, the silver medal hanging around her neck.

"If that's alright with you."

"Why of course it is, Sugarcube."

The pair of ponies began walking back to the Acres, now just half the distance due to the location of the race. As they walked through the front gate, Applejack put an arm around Rainbow's shoulder.

"That was a fantastic race, Rainbow. Even though I initially disagreed, I'm proud of you for following what your heart told you."

"Thanks, AJ. And thanks for not letting up. I thought you'd be mad for me storming out yesterday."

"Not at all. It wasn't right of me to break my promise like I did."

Rainbow smiled at her friend.

"Well, at least I still can beat you in one thing..." AJ teased as they passed the horseshoe sand pit.

"Oh yeah? Care for a rematch of that too, Applesnack?" Rainbow asked, flipping a horseshoe up with her front hoof and catching it with her mouth, standing at the throw line.

AJ scoffed.

"You might inch one out in running, girl, but you ain't out-throwing the Apple family horseshoe champ."

AJ picked up a horseshoe, and joined Rainbow at the throw line, the Pegasus smirking at her with hers still between her teeth.

Applejack took aim, lowered her head down in preparation, and threw.

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