Act III: The Grandfather Paradox
Part 1: Gilda
BURAQ ACADEMY FOR PEGASI
YEAR 994 OF CELESTIA'S REIGN
(6 YEARS BEFORE NIGHTMARE MOON)
Gilda the griffin flew over the lawn, examining all of the other students, her plate of asparagus casserole held tightly in her beak. What they were doing wasn't really any of her business, she knew. Besides, most of them were just eating in small groups without talking, which was hardly the kind of thing worth spreading rumors about. Yet Gilda watched anyway. She considered it her job to know what was going on around the school, the good and the bad. Especially the bad, which was a lot more fun.
Unfortunately, they were all just eating asparagus. Gilda's stomach turned at the thought, and she wondered if she would have time to hunt before lunch period ended. She would have to be discreet about it, like always, and she couldn't be caught leaving or returning to campus. None of the teachers took the news well when they figured out what she had been doing. And it wasn't something she could ever easily explain to them, either. She wasn't even sure she understood it herself. But she knew what was food and what wasn't, and asparagus wasn't.
Having flown the entire length of the field, she prepared to circle back around and find a good spot to preen when she noticed the pony eating alone. Gilda recognized her from that morning; she was the transfer, the new kid. It wasn't sympathy that made Gilda change her plans, but curiosity. The new kid had transferred halfway through the semester, which had struck Gilda as a bit odd, and worth investigating.
The pony was too busy eating to notice Gilda as the griffin touched down behind her. All of her attention was on her food; she had managed to tune out the world around her. Gilda briefly pondered the best way to frighten the pony but then paused. She wanted to learn about the newcomer, and watching her, undisturbed, was definitely the least bothersome way to do that.
Her rainbow mane stretched down the whole length of her neck, but the hairs themselves were cut short, sticking out like the bristles on a pine cone. She ate her hay sandwich with her head lowered, oblivious to her new surroundings, not even caring to explore her new home. Her stillness, almost like death, unsettled Gilda.
Figuring there was nothing else to learn, Gilda tapped her on the shoulder. Her original plan to startle the pony and make a fearful first impression had been forgotten. When the pegasus turned, however, she nearly dropped her food.
Gilda laughed, and the filly's eyes narrowed in anger. She had a certain spunk, an attitude that Gilda didn't see very often and made her smile. A plan formed.
"I bet you're not that good of a flier," teased Gilda. Instead of reacting as expected, the rainbow pegasus's attitude vanished as she clenched up, shutting her eyes and turning away. The response caught Gilda completely off guard.
"You okay?" she asked, not sure what to make of the newcomer. The filly, however, had already recovered.
"I'm okay at flying," she said. "Not the best."
Gilda smirked. "Well, aren't we modest? How about a race to the bell tower and back? I need to stretch my wings anyway. Bet you can't beat me."
The thought of competition seemed to bring about a sudden motivation in the filly, who rose out of her chair and set her food down. Gilda made a mental note of exactly what had caused this reaction. She wasn't sure why, but she knew she would want to see it again.
"We'll see about that," taunted the pony before she took off to the sky.
In the filly's absence, Gilda took the hay sandwich and began chewing on it. It wasn't as good as meat, but it sure beat asparagus. She counted off the seconds until the pony realized she wasn't following.
Eventually, the pony returned. "What's wrong?" she began to tease before she realized what was happening to her lunch.
"This stuff is terrible," complained Gilda. "Don't you have anything better?" She watched the pony's lip quiver. Was she about to cry? That would certainly make things interesting. But a pity, too. Gilda's high hopes were about to be dashed.
Instead, the griffin felt the filly's hoof strike her face, the blow knocking her to the ground. She groaned, rubbing the spot to soothe it and check to see if she was bleeding.
And then Gilda began to laugh. The new kid had that spunk after all. She continued to laugh for a while, while the new kid stared. "Name's Gilda," she finally managed to get out between guffaws. "I think we're going to get along just fine."
BURAQ ACADEMY FOR PEGASI
YEAR 996 OF CELESTIA'S REIGN
(4 YEARS BEFORE NIGHTMARE MOON)
"I'm fine," insisted Gilda for the fifth time as Rainbow Dash slowly brought the damp cloth out of the water. The pegasus wrung it, squeezing out the water, and examined her friend's face, trying to figure out how to best apply it to the numerous cuts.
"I think you've got some gravel in there. We need to get it out."
"I've been through worse," Gilda insisted, but she relented. To prove her point, she didn't utter a single complaint as the cloth stung against her skin. The chill of the water made her tense, and the cuts, although small, were many, causing her face to itch. Still, Gilda forced herself to sit quietly while Rainbow Dash cleaned her.
When Dash finished, she felt immensely relieved and began to laugh, casting her smile up at her friend. "You're crazy, you know that?" she said through her giggles, and then her voice dropped. "Why did you do that?" she whispered.
"Because if I didn't, you would have. I saw those looks you were giving him."
Rainbow Dash glanced over her friend incredulously. "You beat him up so that I couldn't?"
"Well, I figured if I could keep him occupied he'd leave you alone."
Satisfied with the cleaning job she'd done but not with Gilda's explanations, Rainbow Dash set the cloth down. "You're still crazy," she murmured, but the humor in her voice was gone.
"What did he say, anyway?" asked Gilda. "I've never seen your feathers get ruffled like that before."
Dash's eyes instantly fell as the floor became extremely interesting. She was mumbling under her breath, and Gilda could tell she wasn't interested. "Come on," the griffin teased. "I know everything that happens at this school. If you don't tell me, I can always ask him."
Rainbow Dash forced herself to return Gilda's gaze. "Don't do this," she begged. "Don't be a jerk."
"Hey. Who's the one who just took on a stallion for you?" Gilda raised a talon and felt along her face. "Damn, he could pack a punch."
"I didn't ask you to do anything, Gilda. And I certainly didn't ask you to beat up Sunburst." Gilda's interference had actually given Rainbow Dash enough time to rethink her decisions and make her realize the foolishness of her actions. Irritated by Gilda's recklessness, however, she didn't feel like opening up about that. "I don't need your help to get by," she said instead.
"So we're at the 'I don't need your help' stage now, are we? Must be something pretty serious."
"And private, thank you."
Neither spoke. Eventually, Rainbow Dash stood, picking up the bowl and the cloth with her mouth. She gestured toward the door, indicating that she was going to return the supplies to the nurse.
When she finally returned, she appeared to have mellowed out a little bit. "I'm sorry," she confessed to the awaiting Gilda. "It's just that when I came here, I thought I was leaving a lot of things behind. Things I thought would never find me. But if it could catch up to me here, it could find me anywhere. I don't think I can just keep running from it."
Gilda was at a loss for words, but she eventually found one. "What?"
"I want to tell you the truth, Gilda. Because you're going to find it out eventually, and I want it to be from me. I trust you, more than I've trusted anypony in a long time. I want to share my secret with you."
The griffin realized how her intrusive actions must have appeared to Rainbow Dash, and she backed off, feeling weighed down by her guilt. She no longer needed nor wanted to know what could make her friend this despondent. "You don't have to do that," she stammered, panicking.
"But I want to. It's who I am, really. And I can't be your friend if you don't know me."
"Does this have anything to do with the reason you don't like to fly?"
Rainbow Dash was stunned into silence. She was surprised Gilda had even noticed.
"Oh, please," said Gilda. "Don't think I haven't noticed you walk to class whenever you can."
Rainbow Dash nodded sullenly. Was she really that easy to read? Or was Gilda just a special case? If Gilda could see right through her, reader her fears and secrets right off of her face, who else could? Had Sunburst really been told what had happened, or had he just figured things out on his own? Rainbow Dash suddenly felt laid bare for the world to see her for what she really was. A fraud. A forgery.
There was no point in trying to hide the only remaining parts of her history that hadn't already been discovered. Rainbow Dash wagered that the whole school would know everything by Wednesday. "I actually love flying," she confessed. "That feeling of the wind between your wings, hugging your body tightly. There's nothing like it. It's the best thing there is. Ever. And it's a way to escape, when things get out of hand at home." She paused, and her demeanor shifted from wistful to pained and condescending. "But that's all it is. An escape. When I fly, I leave the world behind. Go someplace else. And I can't let that happen. Because then I might miss something."
Gilda waited for Rainbow Dash to continue, but it soon became clear that she wasn't going to. The stillness and silence began to disturb the griffin. And she wracked her brain to figure out what to do. She extended a claw to Dash, who took it, collapsing into her chest, the pegasus's front hooves wrapping around her shoulders and locking her into her friend's embrace.
"I killed somepony," said Rainbow Dash, trembling.
Gilda had long since recognized that her friend was hiding something. The symptoms were obvious: a sensitivity regarding her personal life and a blanket that was spread over her history, concealing the offending topics but leaving glaring holes in the record. Gilda had spent nights wondering what had happened, but none of her theories had even come close to the truth.
Now, thrown completely out of the realm of her wildest imaginings, all she could manage was a drawn-out "Shiiiit."
Rainbow pulled away from Gilda's grasp and backed away, terrified. Gilda realized that whatever the proper response was, hers wasn't it.
"It was an accident!" Dash cried. "I didn't mean to, I swear!" Now that the barricade was broken down, the details came out in torrents.
"Her name was Fluttershy."
BURAQ ACADEMY FOR PEGASI
YEAR 998 OF CELESTIA'S REIGN
(2 YEARS BEFORE NIGHTMARE MOON)
Gilda walked with her wings outstretched, carrying a bag atop each one and a third in her mouth. As she approached the door to her shared dormitory, she spun, kicking it open with a hind leg. While the doorknob was available and functional, she figured it would not have made for such an interesting entrance.
"Dash!" she called, surprised that her roommate was not immediately in view.
No response. Gilda began to wonder if she was even home. She had to be; the door was unlocked.
Beginning to worry, Gilda set the bags down on the coffee table by the door. The dorm had two rooms, a living room and an adjacent bedroom. The door to the bedroom was closed. Gilda began to make her way to the next door, calling, "Dash? You there?"
The air was thick with the odor of... alcohol?
"Oh, no," Gilda muttered under her breath as she rushed to the door and shoved it open. "Oh, no no no..." She found Rainbow Dash lying on her bed, limbs splayed awkwardly in different directions, cradling a square glass bottle in her right forehoof. "What are you doing?" cried Gilda in horror. At first, Rainbow didn't even seem to recognize her roommate's presence; she merely stared at the wall, sighing contentedly.
Gilda lunged for the bottle but found Rainbow Dash's grip to be stronger than she had expected. "Give me that," she hissed as she attempted to wrest it from the pony's grasp. Dash finally let go, and the sudden release bowled Gilda over. "What is wrong with you?" the griffin nearly shouted as she righted herself.
"Don't see why you like the shtuff," mumbled Rainbow, her speech slurred. "It'sh awful. Could barely shtomach it." She glanced down at the hoof that had held the empty bottle. "We're gonna need shome more." She sputtered a bit as Gilda picked up her by looping arms beneath her shoulders and pinning her against the wall.
"Listen to me, pipsqueak," she said. "I'm not even supposed to have any of this. I hide it because I could get expelled. And now all it takes is someone to see you drunk off your fat ass and I'll take the rap."
"I'm not drunk," protested Rainbow. "I know when to quit." She stumbled over the last word and required multiple tries to get it right. "It'sh jusht one bottle." She tried to push herself out of Gilda's grasp. When that failed, she began pounding on Gilda's side, but her blows were far too weak to have any effect.
"Yes. One bottle of vodka. You don't even know the difference, do you?"
Rainbow Dash stuck her tongue out. "I'm not a baby," she protested. "Shtop making such a big deal out of things; you drink it all the time. So shtop being such a buzzkill."
Physical attacks were something Gilda could handle. Even calling her ugly or stupid were things she could live with, since they were both probably true. But being called a buzzkill finally reached her. "I'm not a buzzkill," she said. "Who's the one who taught you the meaning of being cool?"
"Then why are you shuch a jerk all the time?" asked Rainbow Dash, making a face as if she had just swallowed something sour. "My best friend'sh a big bully," she muttered under her breath.
"I'm not a bully, Rainbow Dash. A bully is someone who hurts others for their own amusement."
"But you do hurt others! How many times have you told me things about the other shtudents behind their backs?"
"I don't say that to their face!"
"Then what about the time last week when you shoved Brolly into the wall?"
Oh. That. "I didn't expect him to start crying! I wanted him to fight back."
"Not everyone is like you, Gilda."
"Besides, dude, he was totally creeping on you. He was totally after you, and not in the cool way."
Rainbow looked hurt, and she snarled. "And what does it matter to you?" she asked. "It was nice. He was paying attention to me. And now he won't even talk to me because he's shcared you're going to throw him off a balcony or something."
Gilda paused as she thought about what Rainbow Dash had said. "Is that it?" she asked at last. "Is that your definition of nice? Putting up with other ponies' shit? Not saying what you really think? And I suppose a bully is someone who doesn't slow down? Someone who acts helpless because the ponies around her are weak? If that's how you look at it, Dash, then fine. I'm a bully. You happy now?"
Rainbow Dash didn't respond, and merely looked up at Gilda, unamused.
"Let me tell you something, Rainbow Dash. The whole world isn't flowers and clouds. Bad things happen, and you have to be tough to handle it. I'm not going to go all soft so that I don't step on other ponies' fragile little feelings. It's not who I am. It's not good for me, and it's not good for them in the long run. You see, I'm not lucky like the rest of you. I don't get to be happy and innocent. That's why I can drink, and you can't. Because you're not me."
Silently she added the rest of her tirade. You're better than me.
"Well I wish I was you, then," said Rainbow Dash, still bitter.
Gilda felt like she had just been hit, and she felt herself getting angrier. "No. You don't. Trust me on that one. You don't know what it's like in the Griffin lands."
"Because you never tell me!" squealed Rainbow Dash, pouting in a manner that reminded Gilda of a small foal. Then again, what Rainbow said was true. "Let me come with you next time you see your family," continued the pegasus.
"Hay no. There's a parasprite's chance in a bonfire I'm letting you come. It's too dangerous."
"And why not?"
An endless list of reasons scrolled through Gilda's head. Where to begin?
"Because some griffins eat ponies," she told Rainbow Dash. Technically, all griffins ate ponies, or were supposed to, but Gilda decided to put off sharing that distinction. "And you don't know my siblings. You think I'm mean? I'm a saint compared to them. Griffith would eat you if he got hungry enough. Giszell would eat you even if she didn't. And Grimm..." Gilda searched for the best way to describe Grimm. Monster. Savage. Plays with his food. "You're not coming," she announced firmly.
"Grimm?" Rainbow Dash grinned for the first time in their conversation. "You're brother's name is Grimm? Sounds hokey."
"Try saying that to his face."
Rainbow Dash giggled softly, and her laughs quickly escalated into hearty chuckles. She was nearly bursting at the seams laughing when she froze, stared right through Gilda, muttered, "Uh, oh," and promptly vomited over the both of them.
It was times like this, in the middle of an absurd conversation and covered in vomit, that Gilda remembered why she chose Rainbow Dash to be her friend. Even if the girl had her doubts, she was nice. Innocent. Things Gilda could never hope to be.
She just needed to be tougher. And Gilda would be there to help her with that. They would be loyal to each other until the day they died.
BURAQ ACADEMY FOR PEGASI
YEAR 1000 OF CELESTIA'S REIGN
(2 DAYS AFTER NIGHTMARE MOON)
Gilda was sitting out on the balcony, watching the moon, when Rainbow Dash returned carrying a plate of lettuce in her mouth. She set in down on the floor and turned to her friend.
"Still imitating a werewolf?" joked Rainbow Dash, trying to lighten the mood. She tried to laugh, before it occurred to her that even she didn't find the joke that funny. "Okay. That was lame. But seriously, dinner's ready. Come eat."
Gilda swiveled her head halfway, the rest of her body remaining rigidly immobile, and she examined Rainbow with a single eye. Rainbow groaned softly; she was never able to get used to seeing that. Without any expression, Gilda turned back to the moon.
Not satisfied with the response, Rainbow Dash crossed the room, climbing over their discarded uniforms, towels, and other items that neither of them had any plans of picking up. Keeping a clean living environment wasn't in either of their lists of top priorities at the moment.
"You don't need to keep looking at it," Rainbow Dash tried again. "I mean, I'm pretty sure it's not going anywhere."
"It's different," remarked Gilda quietly.
Rainbow Dash made her way out onto the balcony and sat down next to her friend. Even in the unnatural nighttime, the sky was beautiful. The stars were burning more brightly than Rainbow Dash had ever seen them before, dazzling pinpricks that seemed to change shape when she moved her head just right. Bands of green light danced across the sky, and the distorted sight of the stars though the aurora left Rainbow Dash breathless.
"It's beautiful," she countered. "I know it's wrong, and it shouldn't look like this, but I don't mind. Maybe it won't be all that bad, Equestria under, what did she call herself?"
"Queen Nightmare. And I wasn't talking about the sky. The moon. It's different."
Rainbow Dash looked and saw that Gilda was right. In her entire lifetime, the moon was one thing Rainbow could count on to never change. Sure, it went through the phases, but the picture it held, the shadows made by what she learned to be craters, that always stayed the same. Until now.
"The Mare in the Moon is gone," said Rainbow.
"A Mare? I've always been told it was a rabbit."
The pegasus had to hold back her giggling. "Really?" she asked teasingly.
"That's what the griffins believe. There's a white rabbit that lives on the moon making food. He taught the first Griffins how to defend themselves."
"Now I know you're pulling my wings."
The pair smiled at each other, caught in the moment of the absurd image. For the briefest of moments, Rainbow felt like things were back to normal. Then she remembered where she was, what had happened.
"You really should eat."
Again, Gilda brushed off the request. "Who do you think she is?" the griffin asked. "She seemed to know what was going on. Like she was waiting for this moment."
"I don't care who she is," said Rainbow Dash. "I just don't like how she claimed this place for her own. Like it was always hers. 'It's good to see my school again', she said. Blasphemy. She can't get away with this, can she? I mean, she's just one pony. No henchponies or anything. That's why she needs us."
"You saw what she did to Doctor Burner. I don't think she needs any of us. We're all expendable to her."
"Well, she won't want me," said Rainbow Dash, forcing a chuckle as she did so. "I'm a terrible flier."
Gilda bared her teeth, and then calmed herself. Rainbow Dash knew she wasn't supposed to say that. "Don't try to talk me up," the pegasus said quickly. "I know I'm terrible. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
"Don't say that," muttered Gilda in a chilling monotone. "You're amazing in the air. I've seen you. You just want to be bad. That's why you still don't have that freaky magic ass tattoo, or whatever you call it."
"Flying is not my special talent." hissed Rainbow Dash, self-consciously examining her blank flank. "It has to be something else. I'll find it." She knew it was unheard of for a pony of her age to still not have a cutie mark, but nothing she ever did seemed to work. Whatever her talent was, it continued to elude her. But she knew there had to be something she was good at. Something that wasn't flying.
"Forget it," said Gilda. "It doesn't really matter anymore. Whatever plans we may have had, they're gone now. This isn't a school anymore. I give her a week before she turns the whole place into a training ground."
Rainbow Dash understood. The Buraq Academy was no longer going to provide her with her Weather Engineering degree, and Gilda's job as a grounds-keeper, should she be allowed to keep it, was sure to become decidedly less pleasant. "Where are you going to go?" Dash asked.
"Haven't decided yet. Probably wherever you go. There's no way I'm gonna leave my best gal hanging."
Rainbow Dash was going to have proposed the same thing. Equestria didn't have many griffins, and Gilda was going to be hard pressed to fit in. The fact the Rainbow could count on her hooves the number of times Gilda had left the Academy since they were fillies in the middle school level didn't help matters much either.
"I'll be there," Rainbow promised. "To help, no matter what."
"I'm not scared of the outside world, Rainbow Dash," groaned Gilda, giving her friend a stern look.
"No. But it's scared of you. I don't know what kind of job you can get."
"Whatever ponies are willing to pay for. I don't care what I have to do, as long we stick together. I can probably find something. There have got to be ponies are there with bigger concerns than whether the girl they've hired has a beak, even if it's stuff that normal ponies won't do."
"You mean stuff that's illegal."
"If that's what it takes," responded Gilda flatly, leaving the rest of the sentence unsaid but understood by both.
"It won't," said Rainbow, becoming weary from the conversation. "There are other ways to put food on the table."
"There were. Use your brain, blockhead. Without a sun, food isn't going to grow. Ponies are going to starve. But not you. If we both work together and pool whatever we can get our claws on, there should be enough for you."
"And what about you?" asked Rainbow Dash, feeling the anger wash over her. "What are you going to do, go hungry?" She once again noticed the lettuce she had brought. "Eat your food, stupid," she ordered. "I'm not going to bring you food if you won't eat."
Gilda glanced over the vegetable. She really didn't want to have the conversation now, but there was no way out. "You know I don't eat that."
"Now is hardly the time to be picky!" Rainbow nearly screamed.
"Now is exactly the time to be picky," countered Gilda. "I don't need to eat it. You do. I can find other food."
Hunting. The one aspect of Gilda's life that Dash tried to pretend didn't exist. "That's inhumane," said Rainbow Dash flatly.
"It's practical. And it's not cruel if the animal's already dead." There was no way Gilda was going to limit herself to eating carrion; she had no stomach for it, and she knew she wouldn't be able to find enough. The food would have to be eaten fresh. Gilda decided not to mention any of this, however. It would only complicate matters, and Gilda would prefer a little misdirection and implied falsehood to a fight with her only friend any day.
"So what?" said Rainbow Dash, thoroughly disgusted. "That's like eating Doctor Burner. Or what's left of him."
Gilda was about to harshly respond when she stopped, closed her beak, and thought the claim over. After a great deal of consideration, she began again. "And what," she said, "would be wrong with that?"
Rainbow, in shock, lost her ability to breathe. "You're kidding me," she finally managed. "That's sick."
This level of intolerance was too much for Gilda. "Well forgive me for trying to do my best to save lives by not using up all the food," she screeched.
Rainbow's gaze had become iced over. She breathed deeply and heavily, and her face was contorted, straining as if it was holding back an explosion. "You know what else would keep you from eating good food?" she asked in a lifeless monotone. Then she abandoned all inhibitions, letting her rage carry her past the boiling point. "If you would just drop dead!" Her energy spent, Rainbow Dash dropped to onto her haunches. "I don't understand you, Gilda," she muttered. "Maybe it's because I'm not a griffin, because I haven't seen what you have, but nothing you do makes sense. Why are you still here? You've graduated already, so why are you working as a groundskeeper? You hate other ponies being the boss of you, so why in Equestria are you working for them? Isn't that boring? Doesn't that drive you insane?"
Gilda suddenly felt as if she were treading on eggshells. She kneeled down and lifted Rainbow's face so that they were looking into each other's eyes. "You're right," she said, speaking slowly, the only way to really talk to Rainbow Dash and get the message across. "The world is boring. Dull, mind-numbingly boring, filled with boring folks going about their boring lives. I don't care about it all. Why stay? But why leave, either, when it's all the same old gray, everywhere you go? Don't you get it, numbskull? There's only one reason I stayed here, worked for someone else. I stayed for you, featherbrain. I never cared about others before. They could all just lay down and die for all I cared. Gods, they were dull. And then I met you. And for the first time since I left home, I wanted someone else to succeed. And I wanted to be there to see it."
Rainbow's gaze was filled with confusion, bordering on the faintest levels of comprehension. "I don't understand," she said slowly.
"You idiot. You never understand, do you? You're thick. So fascinatingly thick that you can't see what's right in front of you."
Silence fell as Rainbow tried to make sense of what was happening around her. "Gilda?"
Gilda smirked as she lifted Rainbow Dash up and set her back on her feet. "You ain't got nothing to be sorry for, pal," she said, chuckling.
"But I do. I told you..." began Rainbow Dash, but she was interrupted when Gilda swept her into a tight hug.
"You don't have to say anything," cooed Gilda. "Just promise me we won't fight again. We're better than this."
"Right," agreed Rainbow Dash quietly. Then she lifted her head, her eyes twinkling with newfound determination. "There's another way, you know. A way we won't have to leave. A way you won't have to..." she trailed off, leaving the rest of the sentence unsaid. "Some of us have decided we aren't going to take this lying down. Like I said before, she wouldn't have come here if she didn't need us. If she wasn't dependent on us in some way. Maybe, if enough of us banded together, we could take her. She's only one pony, and we're a school of hundreds."
Looking up into Gilda's eyes, Rainbow Dash's resolve crumbled as she watched her friend struggle to express herself.
"No," the griffin managed to utter, and Dash frowned. Was her friend... crying? In all their years of friendship, Gilda had always been the one to pony up, to never back down. Dash had never seen her cry, and she now felt as if she were looking at a different griffin altogether. A griffin that was scared, fragile, and naked for the first time before the world.
"We can do this," promised Rainbow Dash.
Gilda shook her head. "No, we can't." She remembered the torn and broken figure of Doctor Bunsen Burner, and despite her attempts to stop herself, she imagined the body with a rainbow mane. "If something happened I don't know what I would do."
Dash felt her anger start to flare again, and she consciously stopped it, remembering her promise. "What else are you going to do then?" she asked, her voice fluctuating between bitterness and fear. "Run away?"
Rainbow froze, unable to wrap her mind around Gilda's suggestion. "I don't believe it!" she cried. "The great and fearless Gilda the Griffin is a coward!"
If the conversation hadn't become so serious, the insult would have stung. But Gilda, focused on discouraging Dash, used the words to her advantage.
"Running from an impossible battle isn't cowardice, Rainbow Dash. It's smarts. It's using your brain, which is something you've certainly never done." She paused, forcing herself to calm down. "There's no harm in running away, Dash. It's a lesson I almost didn't learn. And if I hadn't, I wouldn't be here. Please, Rainbow Dash. I don't want you to die."
"I know," said Rainbow Dash, hugging Gilda more tightly. "I don't want to die either. But we can't just sit on our flanks and do nothing." She squirmed out of Gilda's legs and made her way to the edge of the balcony. "And one thing I think I've learned is this: If we aren't willing to die, then we don't deserve to live." She flared her wings and prepared to lift off.
"Where are you going?"
Rainbow Dash didn't turn around. "I don't know. But if I stay, you're going to try to change my mind."
"I will," said Gilda. "Because this is stupid. I don't want to lose you."
Rainbow tried her best to maintain her composure. "I'm sorry, then," she said softly. "I didn't know you were so selfish." She lifted off the ground slowly, unable to find the energy to move at her normal pace.
"Please," begged Gilda. "I promise I won't try to change your mind. But I can't let you go like this. This fight, I won't let it be our last conversation. Don't go yet. Just stay the night. For me."
Rainbow Dash sighed before lowering herself back to the ground. Gilda was right. This wasn't the way to end their relationship. They both knew there was a chance she wouldn't make it out of this alive, and the least Rainbow could do would be to make peace with her friend before she left. She returned to Gilda, who wrapped a wing around her.
"You know I love you," murmured Dash. "You're my best friend."
Gilda paused, trying to parse her friend's meaning. "Yeah. I know. Right back at you. Best friends forever, right?"
Rainbow Dash nodded. "Forever."
"Just one request. Make me proud. Save the world. I expect the sun to be back in the sky by Tuesday."
BURAQ ACADEMY FOR PEGASI
YEAR 1002 OF CELESTIA'S REIGN
(2 YEARS AFTER NIGHTMARE MOON)
Gilda plodded along the wreckage, ducking under the pillars of petrified cloud. The lingering moon shone partially through the material, which scattered the light, producing a hazy image of the other side. She liked to come here often, whenever she was uncertain about what to do. The entire northeast wing of the academy had been completely destroyed by Nightmare Moon's rage and had fallen to the ground in pieces. This particular chunk of the building had been chosen to serve as sort of tombstone, since the erection of any real memorial would have been quickly torn down and those responsible for its creation severely punished.
Instead, one brave pegasus had made sixteen marks into a pillar that stood above the rest. Sixteen. That was the number of pegasi has hadn't turned and ran at the first sign of danger. That was of number of pegasi truly loyal to the school.
Gilda stopped in front of the pillar with the notches.
"Hello, Rainbow Dash," she said, as if her friend were right next to her. For some reason, when she came here, she felt as if her friend could hear her. "I know you probably aren't too happy with what I've done with my life. In fact, I know you aren't. You never would have stooped this low. And I think a part of you rubbed off on me. I can sense your disapproval every time I agree to a new job." She removed the folder she had been carrying under her wing and opened it, revealing a close-up photograph of a violet unicorn.
"I need to stop coming here. It's not good for me. I need to get over you and move on. But I can't. I got another job the other day. I don't even know who it's really from. Some pony powerful enough to hide his tracks, that's for sure. I'm supposed to kill a unicorn named Twilight Sparkle. She's a scientist, sort of. I'm supposed to steal something from her lab. Don't know why, but it's not my job to ask questions."
Gilda sat down and watched the clouds rolling by in the distance. She didn't know how much time passed. The moon never moved.
"I know you thought that some ponies would just rise up and take Equestria back. You were always the optimistic one. But it's not going to happen. I hoped, for two years. I believed in your dream because you can't anymore. But I give up. She's won. There's nothing we can do.
"That's sort of why I came. I hope you're not too mad at me. I just wanted to let you know that I tried. I held out as long as I could. I dreamed like you did. But now it's time for me to wake up. You won't see me again." She shook her head. "You haven't been seeing me at all. You're dead, Rainbow Dash. Nightmare Moon killed you because you stood up to her. And it's time I accepted that. Goodbye, Rainbow Dash. I don't think I'll be coming back here."
Part of Gilda secretly hoped that Rainbow Dash was one of the deserters. But the griffin hadn't seen the pegasus in two years now. Besides, after the display of confidence Rainbow Dash had displayed during their final night together, Gilda knew that Rainbow was one of those sixteen.
If there was one part of Rainbow Dash Gilda could trust to never fade, it was her loyalty.