The first classes of flight school were about to begin, and despite her earlier humiliation, Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but be excited. Now that she actually bothered looking at her curriculum, most of it seemed pretty cool. Of course, some of the classes, like “Introductory Gliding”, were so far beneath her current skills that she would probably find them mind-numbingly boring, but that was the price of being so awesome. “Weather Hazards” sounded like a lot of fun, though, and she supposed that “History of the Weather Industry” was important, even if it would probably be pretty dull.
“You girls have fun with your classes!” called Dazzle as she flitted off towards a separate section of the campus. “You too, Echo! I’ll see you all this afternoon!”
“Aren’t you going with Dazzle, Fluttershy?” asked Rainbow Dash. “You know, for your second year classes?”
“Um, well, actually…” mumbled Fluttershy, prodding at the cloud with one hoof. “Actually, I’m taking Introductory Gliding again this year.”
“Ah, that’s okay,” said Rainbow, giving Fluttershy a gentle nudge. “Flight school is supposed to be hard. Failing one class is no big deal.”
Fluttershy squeaked unintelligibly, gnawing on her lower lip.
Rainbow sighed. “How many classes did you fail, Fluttershy?”
“I… I passed Bird Migration Management. That’s a very important class for ponies who want to work on the ground. There are dozens of different animal species down there, and the pictures are all so beautiful! Um… that’s all.” Behind her, Gilda buried her face in her talons.
Rainbow Dash stepped closer to Fluttershy and laid a hoof on her shoulder. “It’s cool, Fluttershy. Now that I’m here, I’ll make sure you pass everything, even if I have to keep you up to midnight every night to do it.”
Fluttershy’s face brightened. “Really? You’d do that for me?”
“Of course! I’d never leave you hanging. What are friends for? Besides, there’s no way it’ll take that long. We’ll have you flying in no time.”
Fluttershy hugged Rainbow tightly. “Oh, thank you! Thank you! This is going to be so much better than last year! Being in the same class as Hoops and Dumb-bell was just horrible. They always made fun of me and Dazzle… mostly me. I just know it’ll be different with you here. With all of you,” she said, smiling nervously at Echo and Gilda.
“Hey, of course,” said Gilda. “We freaks have gotta stick together, right?” Echo nodded in agreement.
“Alright, let’s do this, then!” exclaimed Rainbow. She draped a wing over Fluttershy’s shoulder as they trotted off to their first class.
Introductory Gliding took place in a large cloud field not unlike the Cloudiseum. Students stood on a raised bank of clouds on one side of the field, and attempted to glide across to the opposite side without falling into the lowered clouds in the middle. The drop was far enough to put students on edge and give them an extra incentive not to fall, but not nearly enough to hurt anypony.
Rainbow Dash raced to the front of the class, eager to be the first to show off her skills. Obeying the letter of the teacher’s instructions, she leapt off the edge of the clouds and spread her wings, gliding across without twitching a muscle. There was even a warm updraft within the field, making the crossing foal’s play, at least in Rainbow’s mind. She reached the other side of the field and flipped over using just one wing, touching down on all four hooves at once. Echo cheered loudly, and the cheer was taken up by several other students. Rainbow shook out her mane and bated her wings, glad to be back in the spotlight again, even if only among her fellow first-year students.
The rest of the class took their turns. Echo showed no fear of the drop, but seemed to have difficulty holding his wings steady during his glide. He coasted across the field and had to scrabble with all four hooves to mount the opposing bank, but eventually settled himself safely. Gilda’s flying technique was very different from the pegasi’s, with her massive wings which were powerful but clumsy. She clearly had no difficulty flying across the gap, but actually gliding took a great deal of effort. Still, a few circuits of the field saw her technique improve.
Fluttershy was shivering in terror by the time the rest of the class had made their attempts, and was trying to back away from the field without being noticed. The instructor would have none of it, though, and blocked her path, pushing her back towards the drop. She looked up at the instructor with wide eyes. “Do I really have to do this?” she pleaded.
The instructor’s harsh expression softened briefly. “This is flight school, Fluttershy,” he said, patting the filly on the shoulder. “You’re here to learn to fly. Unless you want to spend the rest of your life on the ground, you’ll have to learn sooner or later. Didn’t I teach you anything at all last year?”
Fluttershy stared at the cloud beneath her hooves. “I guess I don’t want to disappoint you, sir,” she mumbled.
“That’s the spirit!” exclaimed the instructor. “Now get out there!” He hooked one leg behind Fluttershy’s rump and hoisted her up and out into the cloud field. Fluttershy whinnied in panic, and her wings snapped shut as she plummeted to the cloud bank below. Rainbow groaned as she edged forward to see if her friend was alright.
A pale gold filly with teal hair snickered and pointed at Fluttershy, where she was struggling to stand up again after falling into the cloud. “Hey, Hoops was right! Fluttershy really can hardly fly!”
Unfortunately, this was all it took to bring the rest of the class forward, pointing and laughing at the poor yellow filly, who whimpered and tried to hide her head in the clouds. “Fluttershy! Fluttershy! Fluttershy can hardly fly!” they chanted, heedless of her distress, or of how many of their own number could hardly fly either.
“That’s it!” yelled Rainbow Dash. “Echo! Gilda! Let’s teach these punks a lesson!” She dove across the field, bringing her full flying skills into play as she crossed the gap expertly and crashed into the filly who had started the teasing, sending them both skimming across the cloud bank. “You leave Fluttershy alone!” Behind her, Gilda eagerly waded into the fray, roaring and bating her wings at anypony who didn’t back away from her. Echo rushed along behind Rainbow Dash, and did his best to look brave, but held back from engaging. Below them, the instructor had alighted next to Fluttershy and was helping her back up onto the cloud bank.
By the time Fluttershy and the instructor surfaced, two colts and a filly were clinging to Gilda’s back, trying to restrain the enraged griffon. Rainbow Dash was sitting on the gold filly’s chest, shaking her by the shoulders. “Nopony messes with Fluttershy, you got that? It’s not like you were much better! You want to pick on somepony for her flying, try it on me!” Echo was standing behind Rainbow Dash, spreading his wings in what he obviously thought was an intimidating fashion, keeping the other children from interfering.
The instructor set Fluttershy down on the cloud bank and blew his whistle harshly, then propelled himself into the crowd at an impressive pace, throwing Gilda over his shoulders and depositing her on a separate crowd. “Break it up, kids, break it up!” he shouted, landing next to the fight. “Raindrops! Rainbow Dash! You two stay away from each other. Gilda, see me in my office after school. Now let’s all get back to practice!”
The four friends walked back towards the middle of the campus after their last lesson of the day. “Introductory Weather Crafting” was a breeze for Rainbow Dash, often literally, and she had spent most of the class showing off her skill at handling rainbows to the other fillies. That was something Hoops and his cronies could never take away from her, her love of rainbows. Fluttershy had a good grasp of the theory of weather crafting already, and her practical skills, though still subpar, were better than they had been the previous year. Gilda probably wouldn’t have paid any attention if not for Rainbow Dash’s encouragement, but she ended up learning a lot. Echo tried his best, but simply didn’t seem cut out for the life of a weather pony.
“I don’t see why you’re the one in all the trouble,” grumbled Rainbow Dash to Gilda as they went to meet up with Dazzle. “Raindrops started it, and I’m the one who jumped on her. How come you have to see the teacher after school?”
Gilda rolled her eyes. “Mom said I had to be on my best behaviour at school, because it’s not like being around other griffons. I’m supposed to ‘set a good example for pony-griffon relations’ and junk like that. I guess that’s her job, being the ambassador to Equestria and all, but it’s just so lame. Plus I’ve got these.” She held up a front leg and flexed her talons. “And these,” she continued, indicating the claws on her hind paws. “Oh, and this,” she finished with a snap of her wickedly curved beak.
“Y….eah,” commented Rainbow Dash, eyeing her new friend’s beak warily. “You could do some serious damage with those things. Is it weird, trying to fit in with ponies when you’re used to hanging out with griffons? I mean, we’re pretty different and all.”
“Kinda,” mused Gilda. “Sometimes it’s cool, when I meet ponies like you. We hang out, fly, laugh at jokes and stuff. Everyone does that. But sometimes it’s like I have to spend my whole life pretending to be something I’m not.” She swished her tail idly. “Do you know what that’s like?”
“Uh, maybe a little bit,” admitted Rainbow, hastily changing the subject. “Hey, there’s Dazzle. You’d better get to your detention now. I might catch you after I unpack my stuff, okay?”
Gilda agreed, gave Rainbow a hoofbump with her furled talons, and flapped off to the school offices. Dazzle leapt down from a raised cloud and glided in to meet Rainbow, Fluttershy and Echo. “Hey girls! And Echo, sorry, I keep doing that! You all ready to move in to the dorms? I brought some more of those nice floral wall hangings you like, Fluttershy.”
Fluttershy cleared her throat nervously as the four friends began walking towards the dormitories. “Um, actually, Dazzle, I was wondering if you’d mind, if it’s okay if I roomed with Rainbow Dash this year?” She smiled apologetically, poking at the cloud with one hoof.
Dazzle seemed taken aback, but smiled. “Well… of course I don’t mind, Fluttershy! Why, though? I thought Rainbow would want to room with Gilda or one of the other first-years.”
“Oh, well, you see, it’s actually a bit personal,” Fluttershy whispered, and Echo obligingly stepped away from the fillies. “Can you keep a secret?”
Rainbow Dash’s eyes went wide. Fluttershy isn’t about to tell Dazzle everything, is she?
Dazzle nodded. “Of course I can, Fluttershy. I promise I won’t breathe a word to anypony else.”
Fluttershy smiled happily and laid her head against Rainbow Dash’s flank. “Oh, good. You see… Rainbow Dash is such a great flier because she practises so hard, and she always has, since she was little. Sometimes she trains too hard, though, and she injures herself. A couple of years ago, she tore her left supracoracoideus muscle in training, and it never quite healed properly. It doesn’t slow her down, but it does hurt a lot sometimes, doesn’t it, Rainbow?”
Rainbow nodded stupidly, giving a weak grin. “Yeah, uh, it totally does.” I have no idea where Fluttershy’s going with this, she thought, but she’s never let me down before.
“So she needs somepony to massage her wing muscles just right every morning, and, well, I know how to do it right, and what ointments to use and all that. I just think it’d be better for Rainbow if I roomed with her, so I can take care of her properly. She’s always been like a little sister to me.”
“Oh, Fluttershy, that’s so sweet of you!” said Dazzle, beaming in delight. “Of course you and Rainbow should room together! I can find a new roommate, no problem.” She stepped over to Rainbow Dash and pressed her head against her neck, eliciting a blush from the cyan filly. “You’re lucky to have such a good friend as Fluttershy.”
“Yeah, don’t I know it,” Rainbow agreed. “Come on, let’s go find our rooms.”
An hour later, Rainbow Dash dragged the last of her suitcases up into the dormitory room she would be sharing with Fluttershy for the next ten months. Fluttershy was sitting upright on her bed, hanging up a poster of Princess Celestia on the wall. Rainbow tossed her suitcase onto her bed and closed the door behind her, then dove across the room and caught Fluttershy in a fierce hug.
“Eep!” squeaked Fluttershy, startled, but she quickly returned the hug, nuzzling her oldest friend joyously. “Oh, Sonic, it’s so good to see you again! I’ve missed you so much!”
“I missed you too, Fluttershy!” said Rainbow, curling up next to Fluttershy on the bed. “You’re my best friend, and everything was just so different when you went away.”
Fluttershy sat up against her pillow and took Rainbow’s fetlock between two hooves, squeezing it gently. “I hope it wasn’t too bad, Sonic. I mean, Firefly. Oh, I mean, Rainbow. I’m sorry, so many names…”
Rainbow Dash laughed, cuddling close to her friend. “It’s Rainbow Dash now. It’s Dad who sponsored me for the school, so I can’t dodge the family name. Firefly is okay around Dazzle and Echo, just not Hoops and his goons. But not Sonic. That’s… y’know. A colt’s name.”
Fluttershy nodded happily, arranging herself comfortably against Rainbow’s head and body. “Of course. And just look at you!” She ran one hoof through Rainbow’s multi-coloured mane. “Your new mane and tail are just gorgeous! Why didn’t you stick with your old colour, though? I thought it looked fine.”
Rainbow grinned and tapped the poster on the wall. “Remember when we saw Princess Celestia at the Best Young Flier competition? The day you convinced me to wear my dress in public for the first time? The first time I saw her, I knew I wanted to look just like her. I asked Dad about the Princess’s hair, and he showed me one of his weather history books. It had a picture of something called the ‘aurora borealis’, that looked just like her mane, but the book said that the aurora hadn’t been seen in Equestria for a thousand years.” She chuckled, patting her mane with one hoof. “And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t something you could buy from a factory, either, so I did the best I could.”
“You’ve always loved rainbows,” agreed Fluttershy. “It really suits you, Sonic… um, Firefly. The way the hot colours are at the front of your mane makes you look all brave and adventurous. Which you are. I ran into some of the other fillies from the choir today, and they all talked about how much fun they had with you last year. Oh, Firefly,” she cried, sweeping Rainbow Dash into her embrace again and hugging her fiercely. “I’m so proud of you. I always knew you could be the filly you wanted to be.”
“Hey, cut it out,” mumbled Rainbow Dash, although there were tears welling at the corner of her eyes too. “No need to get all sappy on me. I couldn’t have done it without you, after all. You showed me how to do my makeup, you made me all those dresses… and look! I’m wearing that flight suit on my croup to hide my,” she coughed awkwardly, looking at the ceiling, “my colt bits, without even wearing a dress over it!” Rainbow Dash stroked Fluttershy’s back with her front hooves, hugging her tightly. “If it weren’t for you, I’d still be Sonic Dash, muddling through life trying to figure out why nothing felt right.”
Rainbow released Fluttershy from the hug and shuffled down the bed, looking squarely at her friend. “So what about you, Fluttershy? What was last year like?”
The yellow filly started toying with her blankets as she answered her friend. “Oh, well… it was… oh, Firefly, it was horrible! I can’t fly! I’m never going to be able to fly, and the other ponies tease me all the time! Hoops and Dumb-Bell are so mean, and I thought I’d have my cutie mark by now but I don’t think I ever will!” She buried her face in her fetlocks, crying pitiably. “I’m a failure as a pegasus!”
Rainbow Dash cautiously stroked Fluttershy’s shoulder with her hoof. “You’re not a failure, Fluttershy. You’re… different. We’re all different, but we’re all ponies, remember? We are a circle of pony friends…”
“A circle of friends we’ll be ‘til the very end!” Fluttershy smiled and snuffled, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. “You’re right, Firefly. I don’t have to be like the other pegasi. It’s okay if I’m different, just like it’s okay if you’re different.”
“See?” said Rainbow. “Now, don’t you worry about Hoops and Dumb-Bell. Gilda and I will keep them off your tail. What really matters is getting you flying. What’s holding you back?”
Fluttershy slowly extended her wings and gave them a flap, then relaxed them by her side again. “Coach Hurricane says that I need to build up my wing muscles more, because I didn’t get enough exercise when I was little. But every time I go to the gym, Dumb-Bell is there, and…” She trailed off, shuddering.
Rainbow Dash pounded her front hooves together. “That’s it. Gilda and I are definitely gonna take care of that. Those two aren’t going to bother you anymore once we’re done with them.”
“Oh, Firefly, please don’t hurt them,” Fluttershy squeaked. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. I just want them to leave me alone. That’s all.”
“Ugh, fine,” sighed Rainbow Dash. “If they start giving you trouble, let me or Gilda know and we’ll chase them off. It’ll be okay. Now, we have to get you flying properly. What do you say to an extra hour of practice every night, after dinner, just you and me?”
Fluttershy’s eyes brightened immediately. “You’d do that for me? Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” Fluttershy hugged her friend again, then bounced around the room happily. “I knew everything would be better when you got here! This is going to be the best year ever!”
Thus it was that the little ponies and their griffon friend settled in to the daily routine of Cloudsdale Flight School. Compared to the classes at their local elementary schools, the pace was gruelling. Five hours of flight practice and three hours of theoretical classes were interrupted only by an hour-long break for lunch, six days per week. Many of the children at the school had thought that learning to fly would be easy, just like learning to walk. After four weeks at flight school, after which even the best students could barely stay aloft for thirty minutes, they were roughly disabused of this notion.
The pace was especially hard on Fluttershy and Echo, neither of whom was strongly athletic to begin with. Echo had always fancied himself a performer rather than a flier, and had only come to flight school at the insistence of his parents. After a week of training, he had been ready to quit the school and live on the ground for the rest of his life. A pep talk from Rainbow Dash had changed his mind, though, and he was determined to stay at school for long enough to be able to survive in Cloudsdale, at the very least. Having Rainbow Dash in his class seemed to give him all of the motivation he needed to improve his flying.
Fluttershy needed more than simple motivation to get along at the school. Even with an extra year of experience over the rest of her class, her wingpower was too weak to give her much lift at all, or even support her weight when gliding for long distances. True to her word, Rainbow Dash spent an hour after classes every day helping her to practise. Despite the blue filly’s best efforts, though, Fluttershy hardly seemed to improve. The best she could accomplish was to hover for several seconds, before falling on her face in exhaustion. Even that accomplishment only came after several weeks of constant practice.
Dazzle was progressing about as well as the other ponies in her class. Like Echo, she had dreams of being a professional singer, but she told Rainbow Dash that the stress of flight school kept her from pursuing her dream except in the holidays. She was no athlete, but kept to the school’s training regimen well enough that after one month of her second year at the school, she could navigate around the various clouds and layers of the school without exhausting herself. In spite of her moderate flying skills, she retained the socially central position she possessed in her old school, attracting followers, admirers and hangers-on from her own class and, indeed, the whole school. Her core social group was still Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Echo and Gilda, though, and they were all grateful to have such a loyal and popular friend amongst their number. Rainbow Dash, in particular, was overjoyed to be in Dazzle’s circle again, and when she wasn’t determinedly honing her skills or teaching Fluttershy, she happily followed in Dazzle’s wake, enjoying the sense of energy and sophistication she brought to their herd.
Gilda’s relationship with flying was a bit unusual, being a griffon instead of a pony. Her large wingspan gave her a great deal of power, but worse manoeuvrability than a pegasus pony. Still, the Cloudsdale Flight School was the best in Equestria, and Gilda had a personal tutor who, according to gossip around the school, had once taught a baby dragon to fly. He taught her how to dive, glide and soar like a pegasus, while capitalizing on her griffon strength to achieve higher speeds than ponies her age. Gilda’s unique brand of flight soon drew the attention of the students who really cared about speed, including the leaders of Falcon Squad. Slowly, she began to overcome the suspicion that went with being an outsider in pony society, at least in the eyes of the keenest fliers in the school.
As for Rainbow Dash herself, the blue filly’s progress was not what she had hoped. Training with her father had developed her skills fantastically, but so many of her first-year classes felt like covering old material. She knew a lot of the theory already, too, from watching both her mother and her father working. As a result, she could feel the other students catching up with her, slowly but surely. By the end of the year, she might not be anything special at this school – just another wannabe Wonderbolt, waiting to graduate and move out into a job in the weather factory or on the ground. Something was wrong, she was sure of it. Something was holding her back from achieving her destiny. She didn’t even have her cutie mark yet, which she had expected to earn on the first day of school. Granted, nopony else in her class had theirs either, but that was no excuse. She was falling behind on her dream, and she knew it.
One Sunday, about a month and a half into the semester, Dazzle didn’t appear at the herd’s usual breakfast table. “Has anypony seen Dazzle?” asked Fluttershy, over a plate of hay and carrots. “She wasn’t in her Bird Training class yesterday, and she loves that class! We’ve been teaching a flock of sparrows to sing show tunes!”
“I dunno, Fluttershy,” admitted Rainbow Dash. “I haven’t seen her all week either. I always keep an eye out for her between classes – she’s pretty hard to miss. Maybe she’s sick?”
“I hope not,” said Echo. “Come to think of it, I didn’t see her around last Sunday either, or the Sunday before that. Did you guys?”
“No idea,” said Gilda. She was sitting a little away from the ponies, engrossed in a plate of food that none of her friends wanted to examine too closely. “I’ve been too busy with extra practice to go looking for her. If I keep working on my high-speed turns, I think I’ve got a shot at Falcon Squad next semester.”
Rainbow perked up. “Falcon Squad? Really? No way! That’s awesome news!” Gilda grinned and nodded, talking about how April Showers had complimented her on her routine the previous Sunday.
After breakfast, Rainbow Dash and Gilda were out on one of the cloud courses, practising their dives and swoops. “So you really think you’ve got a shot at Falcon Squad, huh, Gilda?” asked Rainbow, as she glided in from a particularly impressive stoop and recovery.
“Totally, Dash,” said Gilda, pumping her wings in anticipation of another dive. “You’ve seen how hard I’ve been practising on Sundays. I mean, not only do I want to be a better flier, but it’s the only way to get these stupid ponies to take me seriously. Apart from you guys, I mean. You’re awesome.”
“Yeah. We are. Hey,” said Rainbow, hovering near Gilda uncertainly. “Did, uh, did April say anything about me when she was talking about the squad?”
“Oh, gee, Dash,” mumbled Gilda. “I mean… yeah, of course she mentioned you. She still thinks you’re the best first year flier in the school. Totally.”
“Then why isn’t she getting me to come in for another tryout? Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for you, but what about me?”
Gilda scuffed one of her lion paws against the cloud, not meeting Rainbow’s gaze. “Well… the thing is, Dash… April said that you don’t really push yourself enough to make it on Falcon Squad.”
Rainbow Dash flapped backwards ten feet in surprise. “I don’t push myself enough? Me? I push myself all the time! I don’t goof off like Echo and Dazzle with their concerts and stuff. I practise every night!”
Gilda waved a taloned hand in the direction of the dormitories. “No, Dash, you help Fluttershy practise every night. Big difference.”
“What?” yelped Rainbow, her voice cracking. “Glida, how could you… Fluttershy is my best friend! She’s your friend too! She needs all the help she can get, or she’ll never graduate, and she’ll have to live her whole life on the ground, with lame earth ponies and boring unicorns! I can’t let that happen to her.”
“I know, Dash, I know,” said Gilda, as she draped a front leg around Rainbow’s shoulders. “I like the little squirt too, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to see her crash and burn, but what choice do we have? She’s the runt who’s holding back the whole flock. Herd. Whatever.”
Rainbow Dash flitted forward out of Gilda’s grasp and tilted her head to one side, looking at the griffon quizzically. “Is this a griffon thing, Gilda? Because ponies don’t work like that. Sure, if there’s a runt in the herd – and I don’t ever want to hear you calling Fluttershy that again – we push her hard to make sure she doesn’t slow the herd down. That’s what I’m doing - whether she likes it or not, I’m going to make sure Fluttershy is a great flier by the end of school. I’m not going to leave her behind, to… to die in the snow! Even in the bad old days before Equestria, we weren’t like that.”
Gilda sighed and threw herself down on the cloud, looking up at Rainbow Dash. “Yes, Dash, it’s a griffon thing,” she muttered, scraping a talon idly through the cloud surface in front of her. “The place I grew up isn’t like Equestria. We’ve got dragons, Dash. Actual giant fire-breathing dragons that can take out a whole flock of griffons without breaking a sweat. There’s this story that every griffon knows, about a family who insisted on raising this chick of theirs, even though he could hardly fly and was only ever going to slow the rest of the flock down. When a dragon came for the nest, the whole family died because they couldn’t move quickly enough.”
Rainbow Dash stared at Gilda, standing still on her hooves. “That’s awful! But what were they supposed to do, leave their own chick behind? If that happened to a pony family, there’s no way they’d leave a foal to die. I know Dad would do anything to make sure I was safe.” He might not understand me, but he’d die to protect me. I know that for sure.
“Yeah. Every pony I’ve told that story said that they’d do the exact same thing. It’s just so different here. Maybe it’s better. I dunno.” Gilda rolled over onto her back, keeping her wings against her flanks. “I’m not saying we should let her die, or make her live on the ground for the rest of her life, but I’m worried about you, too! She’s holding you back. You’ve got to see that. What’s the point of carrying her dead weight all the way through flight school if it means you never get to do anything for yourself? You want to stand behind a bench making snowflakes for your whole life?”
“Of course not!” retorted Rainbow. “I’m going to be a Wonderbolt one day! I just… I can’t leave Fluttershy hanging. She’s my oldest friend. She’s done stuff for me that I can’t even talk about, but it’s important. We’ll… graduate together, I guess, and then I’ll get ready for the Wonderbolt Academy, and she’ll… do whatever she’s going to do with her life. And I’ll get my cutie mark somewhere along the way.” She trailed off uncertainly, looking over her shoulder at the blank blue fur on her flank. Maybe Fluttershy really was holding her back.
“Hey girls!” came an excited voice from above them. Rainbow Dash looked up to see Dazzle gliding down to meet them, wearing what looked like an old-fashioned earth pony farmer’s dress. “Guess what happened to me today!”
Rainbow Dash galloped over to meet Dazzle with a joyous nuzzle, glad to see her friend again. “Dazzle! Where have you been? Nopony’s seen you all day!” Gilda pushed herself up onto her feet and nudged Dazzle in greeting.
“I was at the theatre!” she replied, flitting back and forth excitedly. “The Cloudway Theatre is doing Pegasus on the Roof, and…”
Rainbow groaned and rolled her eyes. “Ugh, this again? Dazzle, you’ve got to take your flying seriously! Goofing off to watch musicals is… do you wanna end up failing everything like Fluttershy?”
Dazzle looked upset, and Rainbow immediately felt the pang of hurting somepony important to her. “I hardly consider it ‘goofing off’, Rainbow Dash,” she said haughtily, turning up her muzzle a little. “Besides, I wasn’t watching musicals, I was performing.”
“Performing? At the Cloudway Theatre? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s amazing!” Rainbow embraced her friend and nuzzled her affectionately, and Gilda happily allowed herself to be dragged into the hug.
Dazzle laughed happily, then drew back so she could talk to her friends properly. “It really was amazing. I mean, I was only playing Little Bird, so I only had a solo part in one song, but still! Community theatre is one thing, but Cloudway is just… it was worth skipping classes to be in it. I just know that this is what I want to do with my life!”
“Yeah?” asked Gilda sceptically, although she was still hopping in excitement for Dazzle’s success. “How can you be so sure?”
The vivid green pegasus filly flared her wings dramatically and kicked out with her hind legs. Her peasant’s dress flipped up over her haunches, revealing a bright yellow pair of musical quavers on her flank.
“Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh!” shrieked Rainbow Dash, leaping around Dazzle triumphantly. “You got your cutie mark! When did it happen?”
“It was when we were on stage, taking our final bows. I realised I was probably going to be in a lot of trouble when I got back to school, and yes, I’ve been setting aside my flying practice for this, but I just knew that it was worth it. To see the admiration of the crowd, to feel their applause shaking the floor… this is truly what I was born for!”
Rainbow Dash laid her head against Dazzle’s neck, taking comfort in her closeness to the pony who had been a good friend to her ever since she realised that she was a filly herself. “That’s so awesome. It must be great to have your cutie mark, finally.”
Dazzle turned her head and gently licked Rainbow’s cheek. “You’ll get yours in good time, Rainbow. Remember that Fluttershy and I are a year older than you.”
“I guess. And Fluttershy doesn’t even have hers yet. We’ve got a practice session in a few minutes – I should go meet her now. Are we done here, Gilda?”
Gilda sighed and waved a hand at Rainbow Dash. “Yeah, we’re done. Just think about what I said, okay, Dash? You’re gonna have to pick up the pace sooner or later if you want to make it as a serious flier.” With that, she spread her wings and launched herself out towards another cloud.
Dazzle watched Gilda depart, then looked back at Rainbow. “Is everything okay? It sounded like you two were arguing.”
Rainbow shrugged as she looked towards the flying course where she planned to meet Fluttershy. “Just about Fluttershy. I want to help her be a better flier, but Gilda says she’s holding me back. I don’t know what to do.”
Dazzle draped a wing over Rainbow’s shoulders, leaning against her comfortingly. “You’ll do the right thing, Rainbow. You always do. I’ll never forget the way you stood up for me – for all of us – when Hoops was saying those horrid things outside the Cloudiseum. You’re such a good friend to Fluttershy, and to me. We’re lucky to have you in our herd. Now go on. You don’t want to be late for your meeting with Fluttershy.”
Rainbow Dash reluctantly stepped away from Dazzle, after nuzzling her cheek. She spread her wings and descended to the obstacle course below. She kept turning Gilda’s words over and over in her mind. She wanted to help Fluttershy, but Gilda was right about Falcon Squad, and the Wonderbolts weren’t likely to be any different. If she wasn’t careful, her whole dream could slip through her hooves. Fluttershy’s welfare meant an awful lot to her, though. But how much? And why was Dazzle’s approval suddenly so important to her?
“Come on, Fluttershy! Just a few more inches!”
Rainbow Dash called out to Fluttershy as she coached her through another training session. Rainbow had instituted the Sunday morning sessions after witnessing Fluttershy’s lack of progress in their first month at flight school together. Sadly, today’s training wasn’t proving to be more fruitful than any other.
Fluttershy was flying about two feet above the flat expanse of cloud beneath her. Being close to a solid surface meant that she gained a generous amount of extra lift from the compression of air between her wings and the cloud – the so-called “ground effect” in their textbooks. Every inch Fluttershy rose above the surface would reduce her lift, and Rainbow Dash had initially set a target of four feet.
By halfway through the lesson, Rainbow would have been happy if Fluttershy could have achieved two and a half feet. She shouted encouragement, she bit her hooves, she flew alongside her friend and showed her the best way to beat her wings and hold her body, and yet Fluttershy couldn’t maintain any altitude higher than two feet.
Finally, the yellow filly could take no more, and she collapsed onto the cloud, her wings and legs sprawling out at all angles. “I’m sorry, Rainbow Dash,” she whimpered, between gasps for air. “I just don’t think I can do it.”
Rainbow Dash sighed and pressed a hoof against her forehead. “Come on, Fluttershy!” she groaned, her patience fraying. “I know you’ve got the muscles for this. We’ve been working out together. I’ve seen how much weight you can wing-press. I just don’t get why you’re not flying like the rest of us by now!”
“I don’t know how anypony else does it!” said Fluttershy, rolling onto her side and trying to get her breathing under control. “You make it look so easy, you and Echo and Gilda and everypony else.” She let her head slump against the cloud. “Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a flier at all.”
I gave up my shot at Falcon Squad for this? thought Rainbow Dash, fighting to get her temper under control. “Alright, look. Just… let’s try something else,” she said. She flitted over to a series of cloud rings, hanging in the air. “You should be able to get through at least one of these rings. The lowest one is only five feet off the ground. You’re not trying to maintain a constant altitude, just reach that height, get through the ring, and descend on the other side. Even you can…” She stopped herself just in time, and took a deep breath. “I know you can do this, Fluttershy. Show me what you’ve got, okay?”
Fluttershy smiled weakly, pushing herself up onto all four legs. “Okay! I’ll do it!” She looked up at the cloud ring, then swallowed hard and bunched up her legs while flapping her wings. She gave as mighty a jump as her little body was capable of, and sprang into the air, beating her wings as hard as she could. Her body slowly rose as she caught the air with her wings, and she pushed her hooves forward as she got ready to pass through the ring.
Rainbow Dash groaned as Fluttershy barely got her head level with the bottom of the ring, latched her legs around it, dangled awkwardly for a few seconds, then fell back onto the cloud bank with a startled squeak.
Fluttershy looked up at her friend, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “I can’t do this, Rainbow Dash,” she said, hanging her head in shame. “I’m never going to fly. I’m never going to graduate. I just can’t do it. I’m so sorry.”
Rainbow Dash paced around Fluttershy angrily, kicking at the cloud beneath her hooves, until something snapped inside her. “You’re sorry? You’re sorry? No, Fluttershy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you’re obviously not even trying to learn to fly! I’m sorry that I’m wasting my time foalsitting you…”
“I’m a year older than you,” Fluttershy managed to whimper, curling up into a ball and trying to hide from Rainbow Dash’s outburst.
“Then act like it! I’m not going to hold your hoof for the whole of flight school! I’m done coaching you. Gilda was right – I can’t let you ruin my chances at being a champion flier. You can pass flight school on your own, or you can go live on the ground like a lame earth pony for the rest of your life. I don’t care anymore.”
Fluttershy peeked up at Rainbow Dash from behind her long pink mane, her eyes filled with tears. “But Rainbow Dash…”
“But nothing!” snorted Rainbow, trotting away from the yellow filly. “I’m done with this! I’m done with you!”
Rainbow Dash took five steps towards the edge of the training area, before she heard the clop of galloping hooves behind her, and a weight slammed into her back, shoving her face first into the cloud.
“Don’t you walk away from me, Sonic Dash!” shrieked Fluttershy, pinning Rainbow against the cloud and flailing at her with her front hooves. “You think you can just turn your back on me after everything I’ve done for you?”
Rainbow Dash was too startled to fight back as Fluttershy pummelled her. She had never seen Fluttershy angry in her life, let alone violent. “Ow! Haven’t I done enough for you? Wait, what did you call me?”
“You heard me!” Fluttershy whinnied angrily, tears streaming down her cheeks. “If it weren’t for me, you’d still be a colt! You’d still be Sonic Dash, stuck trying to figure out why your whole life was a mess, without me to give you all the answers! I did everything for you, and I won’t let you leave me!”
“What, and you think you can just hold that over me for the rest of my life?” retorted Rainbow. She gritted her teeth and bucked Fluttershy off her back, quickly taking to the air. “Well, you can’t! I’ve got lots of friends now, and a future! It’s not my fault that you can hardly fly. You… you’re just… I don’t need you anymore!”
Rainbow Dash flew away from the training field as quickly as she could, trying to ignore the screams and sobs behind her, and trying to convince herself that the tears in her own eyes were just from flying too fast without goggles.
The distraught blue filly flew around the perimeter of the school twice before taking stock of her location. She was hovering just south of the dining hall, watching small groups of students filter in for their midday meal. The majority of students ate lunch together, although plenty ate at different times, if their personal training or leisure activities carried on past noon. Rainbow Dash thought about diving down to get something to eat, but she spotted Echo, Dazzle and Gilda chatting around one of the outside tables. Despite her best efforts, she started to imagine what they would say if they knew what had happened between her and Fluttershy.
“How could you?” said Echo, staring at Rainbow Dash in disbelief. “I never thought you could say something like that to Fluttershy! I looked up to you, and this is how you treat your best friend? I thought you were better than this!”
“I am most disappointed, Rainbow Dash,” chided Dazzle, shaking her head. Rainbow swallowed hard and pawed at the cloud beneath her hooves, unable to meet the green filly’s gaze. “I honestly thought better of you. Fluttershy has done so much for you! I expected this sort of behaviour from that ruffian Hoops. Perhaps you aren’t so different after all.”
“Seriously, Dash, what the hay?” Gilda asked, shoving her beak in Rainbow’s face. “I said you needed to think about your own career before you wasted all your time on Fluttershy, not that you should tell her she’s useless and throw her out of the nest! Come on, ponies. We’d better go find Fluttershy before she does something stupid.”
Rainbow Dash’s friends all flew away from her, without looking at her. “Come back!” she cried, reaching out a hoof towards them. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt her, I swear!”
A chill came over Rainbow Dash’s body, and she shivered. Her friends weren’t going to like this at all. And they were right. Fluttershy was her oldest friend, the pony who had been there for her since before she could remember. She didn’t want to think about where she’d be now without her best friend’s guidance. Suddenly, the thought of losing Fluttershy’s friendship forever took hold in her mind. What would she do without Fluttershy? Nopony else understood her the way Fluttershy did. And what would Fluttershy do without her?
Sighing, she wheeled around in the air and started flying back towards the training area. Hopefully, she hadn’t damaged their friendship irreparably. Maybe they could come to some sort of compromise, and Rainbow could pursue her own advancement while still giving Fluttershy the help she needed.
Rainbow Dash slowed down as she reached the area with the cloud rings, looking around for Fluttershy. Knowing her as she did, the yellow filly probably hadn’t gone far – Rainbow would probably find her curled up behind the nearest building, crying. Just imagining it made Rainbow’s chest feel tight, knowing that it was all her fault.
Instead, Rainbow saw Fluttershy precisely where she left her, underneath the cloud rings. As Rainbow watched, Fluttershy sprang upwards and beat her wings, trying to gain enough lift to carry her through the ring. To Rainbow’s amazement, Fluttershy managed to plant her front hooves on the inner surface of the ring, and seemed about to fly through it. I knew you could do it, Fluttershy! she thought, grinning to herself. I’m sorry I ever doubted you.
Rainbow’s joy turned to concern as Fluttershy pitched forward, falling onto the cloud slope under the rings and sliding down, only to careen into the air again, collide with a flag, and come to rest on another cloud.
Rainbow carefully flitted towards Fluttershy, not wanting to embarrass her by calling attention to her accident, and still not sure if her presence would be welcomed at all. Fluttershy seemed to be alright, wounded only in her pride…
… until two laughing colts touched down in front of her, one amber, one brown. Hoops and Dumb-Bell! Rainbow wasn’t about to let those two jerks tease her best friend again, and she picked up her pace, streaking across the sky to land just in front of Fluttershy. “Leave her alone!” she yelled, flaring her wings menacingly.
“Ooh!” jeered Hoops, leaning forward and narrowing her eyes at Rainbow. “What are you gonna do about it, Rainbow Crash?”
I’d do anything for Fluttershy. I just forgot that for a little while, that’s all. “Keep making fun of her and find out!”
“You think you’re such a big shot?” asked Dumb-Bell, stepping forward alongside his friend. “Why don’t you prove it?”
“What do you have in mind?” Rainbow Dash shot back.
“How about another race?” said Hoops, smirking. “Since you think you’re such a hot-shot flier. We’ll have a flying race to settle this once and for all.”
“Um, Rainbow Dash?” whispered Fluttershy, creeping to her friend’s side. “Why are you doing this? I thought you said…”
“What I said was stupid,” muttered Rainbow Dash. “I’m sorry, and you’re my best friend, and I’m trying to make it up to you.” She nudged her head against Fluttershy’s briefly, then locked her gaze with Hoops’s again. “Alright, let’s race! If I win, you two leave Fluttershy alone. Not just for today, but for the rest of flight school. She doesn’t need you two jerks making everything harder for her.”
Dumb-Bell raised an eyebrow, surprised, while Hoops just grinned. “And if one of us wins… you stay out of Falcon Squad for the rest of school. Deal?” He spat on his hoof and held it out to Rainbow, looking the filly squarely in the eye.
“Deal,” said Rainbow, spitting in her hoof without hesitation, and she sealed the bet with a shake of Hoops’s hoof. If I can get these two off Fluttershy’s tail, that’s worth the risk. And if I lose, Fluttershy’s still going to need my help. Falcon Squad might be the first step to being a Wonderbolt, but I’ll find another way if I need to. Fluttershy’s more important.
Once again, the race was set up quickly. Pegasi loved races, after all, and by now Rainbow Dash was certain that Brolly was pulling strings with the faculty. The course Hoops and Rainbow had chosen was a senior racing track, with no cloud beneath it to catch students who fell. Rainbow had no intention of falling, though. Not this time.
“You’re going down!” sneered Hoops as they formed up at the starting line. Most of the school had converged to watch this race, aware of the rivalry between Rainbow Dash and Hoops, and eager for a rematch. Dazzle, Echo and Gilda stood beside the track, cheering excitedly.
“In history, maybe!” Rainbow said, smirking at the colts beside her. “See you boys at the finish line!”
Despite her outward bravado, Rainbow Dash’s mind was working frantically. Hoops and Dumb-Bell were both on Falcon Squad, which meant that they were training constantly, whereas Rainbow Dash had been relaxing her own training in order to help Fluttershy. They also had an extra year of experience over her. The last time she had raced against Hoops, she had lost, by no small margin. How could she make up the gap? What was different this time?
Rainbow turned to face the track, and fixed her gaze on Fluttershy. For some reason, she had insisted on being the starter for the race. She’s what’s different this time, Rainbow thought to herself, setting her muzzle in a determined grin. I was racing for myself last time, just to show off and so I could enjoy beating Hoops again. This time I’m racing for her. For my best friend.
Fluttershy waved the flag, and the three ponies shot forth from the starting line like so many slingshots. Rainbow Dash kept her eyes closed for the first few seconds, trusting in her instincts to keep her flying straight, and powered ahead as quickly as she could. Her wings started to ache almost immediately, but she pushed the pain to the back of her mind, for her friend’s sake. When she reckoned herself as approaching the first cloud ring, she opened her eyes, expecting to see at least one of her rivals threading the loop ahead of her.
The track ahead of her was completely clear. Rainbow dared not turn her head, but she couldn’t see Hoops or Dumb-Bell in her peripheral vision. She was winning! She stopped thinking about her last race against Hoops, and instead went back to her very first one – standing up to Hoops to defend Dazzle. It had been a moment of triumph for her, championing the friendly, charming filly who was the first to speak to “Firefly” on her big day out. Everything had been perfect on that day, just as everything was perfect right now, with the wind in her mane and loyalty to Fluttershy in her heart. How could she possibly lose?
The second turn came up quickly, and Rainbow Dash took it with almost contemptuous ease. She risked a look behind her as the crowd groaned in sympathy, and she caught a glimpse of Dumb-Bell getting caught in Hoops’s slipstream, missing the turn and barrelling straight into a pillar. Her friends all cheered as she streaked along the course, waving their hooves or talons exuberantly. There was no way she was going to let them down. This was for all of them, as well – the beautiful and generous Dazzle who inspired her and helped her to be a better pony, the soft-hearted but hard-working and loyal Echo, and Gilda, the perpetual outsider who kept her striving her hardest, who knew what it was like to be different from the ponies around her. She was going to win this race for them, and for Fluttershy.
As Rainbow Dash passed through what must have been the eighth cloud ring, she was suddenly knocked off course by a shape slamming into her from her left. She beat her wings rapidly to regain her balance, and looked left to see Hoops flying alongside her, throwing her a mocking salute. “Later, Rainbow Crash!” he called, going into a dive towards the next ring, which was perilously close to the ground.
“Hey!” shouted Rainbow, diving after Hoops. How did he catch up to me so quickly? Did I stop paying attention, or did he cut some corners? There weren’t any more spectators at this part of the course, so Hoops could easily have skipped a few of the obstacles and cut straight through to hit Rainbow. It didn’t matter, though – what truly mattered was that Hoops was in the lead now, just like he was in their last race.
But this wasn’t like their last race. Now, she was defending Fluttershy’s honour, and standing up for all of her friends who were tired of being pushed around by ponies like Hoops. She had to win. There was no other choice.
Time to show these ponies what loyalty really means.
Rainbow Dash stopped thinking about Hoops. She thrust her hooves out in front of her body and flapped her wings faster than she ever had before. She hardly even noticed when she streaked past Hoops, sending him off the track and into a spin, putting him out of the race. All that mattered was reaching the finish line, showing her rivals what she was capable of and her friends what she would do for them. She was flying faster than she thought she would ever have been capable of, and still she kept gaining speed.
The air in front of Rainbow’s hooves started to feel strange as she accelerated – heavier, thicker, almost like trying to swim through water rather than fly through the air. Her eyes streamed with tears as the wind tore at her face, though the discomfort was nothing compared to the exhilaration she was feeling. Had anypony ever flown at this speed before? Dad had told her about the theoretical limit of pegasus speed, the so-called “sound barrier” at which the air would literally not be able to get out of a pony’s way. Several attempts had been made to break the barrier, but each one had ended with the air snapping back against the flier and throwing them into an uncontrolled spin.
Rainbow felt the air threatening to do just that to her, but she fought it. The pressure against her face and hooves built up until it was almost unbearable, but she kept her wings beating against the thick, sluggish air, refusing to give up. If she was ever going to do the impossible, then it was today – today, when her friends could see the victory she was winning in their names.
The final cloud ring waited for her, a tiny distance above the ground, and she angled her flight towards it, gritting her teeth against the wind and the pressure. As she passed through the ring, the pressure vanished, and her entire body felt weightless. The world almost seemed to slow down around her as a ring of brilliant colour spread out from her body. She adjusted her wings and executed a sharp one-hundred-and-twenty-degree turn as if momentum meant nothing to her, and soared back up into the sky. She looked behind her, and saw both the ring of colour expanding across the land beneath her, and a bright, undulating stream of rainbow streaking out behind her like a Wonderbolt’s smoke trail, merging with her mane and tail.
A Sonic Rainboom?
There was an old legend, of a pegasus who once broke through the sound barrier, and left a wave of sound and rainbow in her wake. Other ponies who tried to fly faster than sound had often hoped to duplicate the feat, but centuries of failure led most ponies to think that it was nothing but an old mare’s tale. If this wasn’t a Sonic Rainboom, though, then what else could it be?
Rainbow Dash laughed as she casually flew past the finish line of the racetrack, accompanied by the frantic cheers of the spectators, and soared up to fly all the way over Cloudsdale. Dad would have a fit if he saw this, she thought, grinning to herself. His “good little weather stallion”, trailing rainbows everywhere. Still, I wish they could both see this. I know they’d still be proud of me, the first pegasus to break the sound barrier in centuries, or maybe ever.
As Rainbow Dash curved back around towards the starting line, her adrenaline faded to a calm confidence. That was the most amazing thing ever. I always enjoyed racing, but I never knew it could be like this. I just got Hoops and Dumb-Bell off Fluttershy’s tail forever, broke the sound barrier, proved that the Sonic Rainboom isn’t just a legend and found out I can make rainbows happen by myself.
I’m never going to give up on racing, and I’m never going to give up on my friends again.
Even with the wind whipping at her body, she felt a distinct tingling on her flank. She turned her head, once more admiring the rainbows trailing from her mane and tail, and saw another rainbow – a red, yellow and blue lightning bolt forking out of a cloud, depicted on her flank.
Her cutie mark.
Best day ever.
Slowing down to subsonic speeds was almost as difficult as breaking the sound barrier in the first place, Rainbow found. As she approached the barrier from the other side, the wind threw her body around roughly as the usual laws of momentum and air resistance seemed to start paying attention to her again. Her body seemed to weigh five times as much as it had, and her wings suddenly started aching. It was all she could do to glide in for a landing near the starting line.
The crowd erupted into cheers as she landed. Gilda, Echo and Dazzle rushed towards her and hoisted her up onto their shoulders. “That was amazing, Rainbow Dash, simply amazing!” gushed Dazzle, beaming brightly. “And to do all that for Fluttershy, to keep that beastly Hoops and his crony off her tail – I couldn’t be more proud of you!”
“I knew you’d win, Rainbow!” said Echo, nodding along with Dazzle’s sentiments. “You’re the greatest flier in this school, no matter what anypony says!”
“Cool moves, Dash,” said Gilda, trying to seem laid-back, but still beating her wings in triumph. “About time somepony put Hoops and Dumb-Bell in their place.”
Rainbow grinned and tried not to blush, basking in the adoration of her friends. “Yeah, well… I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been thinking about you guys. You and Fluttershy. Say… where is Fluttershy, anyway?”
Dazzle chewed her lip awkwardly, and Gilda looked at the cloud beneath them.
Rainbow hopped down from her friends’ shoulders and looked around. “Guys? What happened to Fluttershy? She was right here, wasn’t she?”
“She, um…,” began Dazzle. “Rainbow, there was an accident. When the three of you flew past her at the start of the race, she…”
Rainbow suddenly noticed that there were marks on Dazzle’s face where tears had dried. Her elation at the events of the race drained from her, and she felt her mouth go dry. “She what? She fell?” Rainbow ran to the edge of the cloud and looked down. There were a few tiny clouds dotting the air beneath them, but nothing that would support a falling pegasus’s weight. “Hang on, Fluttershy,” she cried, springing into the air. “I’m coming!”
Before Rainbow could dive more than a foot, she felt a taloned hand wrap around her tail and yank her back onto the cloud. “Dash, dude, are you crazy?" said Gilda, holding Rainbow's tail in an iron grip. "What are you gonna do? Fly all the way to the ground, find Fluttershy and carry her back all by yourself?”
“Yes! I have to! This is my fault!”
Gilda slowly dragged Rainbow back onto the cloud and pushed her into a sitting position. “No it’s not, Dash. It was an accident, and it was as much Hoops and Dumb-Bell’s fault as yours. Look, as soon as it happened, April Showers went and fetched the teachers. They’re down there looking for her right now. If she’s… I mean… yeah, they’re gonna find her, and bring her back safe. You’d just be in the way, especially when you’re all worn out like this.”
Rainbow Dash stretched out her wings and winced. “I guess you’re right, Gilda. I’ll stay here.”
Gilda nodded. “Good plan. Look, you did great out there. And congrats on getting your flank-thingy. Must be nice.”
“It’s pretty cool, yeah. I just hope Fluttershy’s okay, or it won’t be worth it.”
Dazzle and Echo came over to comfort Rainbow Dash as the four of them waited anxiously for any word of Fluttershy. Finally, after an agonizing hour of worrying, a medical wagon came into view below them, pulled by two of the school’s teachers. At the front of the wagon sat Fluttershy, seemingly uninjured and none the worse for her ordeal.
As soon as the wagon touched down on the cloud, Rainbow Dash galloped over to meet Fluttershy, with their other friends hot at her hooves. “Fluttershy!” the blue filly cried, leaping up onto the wagon and laying her neck against her friend’s. “I’m so sorry! You could have been killed!”
“Oh, but I wasn’t, Rainbow!” said Fluttershy, nuzzling her friend. “It all turned out for the best! I met lots of new animals. I never knew there were so many different kinds of birds in Equestria, and I met some animals I’d never even heard of! And look!” She sprang off the wagon, flapping her wings idly and hovering gracefully in the air.
“Oh my gosh, Fluttershy, you’re flying!” said Rainbow, hopping from hoof to hoof. “That’s amazing! It looks like you’re hovering without getting tired – that’s a really big step!”
“Hmm?” said Fluttershy, looking down at the cloud several feet beneath her. “Oh, I suppose I am. I don’t know when that started happening – I just felt so good when I learned to communicate with the animals on the ground that I didn’t even realise I was flying. No, I meant this!” She angled her body around and displayed her flank to her friends, so that they could see the three butterflies depicted on it.
“Your cutie mark?” shrieked Rainbow Dash. “That’s incredible! I just got mine, too! And so did Dazzle! This is just the best day ever! I’m sorry it started out so bad, though.”
“Me too,” said Fluttershy, nuzzling Rainbow again. “I’m sorry I said those things about… your name and stuff. You go way out of your way to help me, and it’s not fair to you.”
“Hey, Rainbow Dash,” said a voice from behind them. Rainbow turned around to see April Showers addressing her. “Sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to talk to you about that Sonic Rainboom you did.”
“Heh, sure thing,” said Rainbow, running one hoof through her mane and recovering a bit of her old nonchalant demeanour. “It was pretty cool, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” agreed April. “And I got the whole story from Dazzle here about why you and Hoops and Dumb-Bell were racing to begin with. I gotta say, I’m impressed. Listen… Falcon Squad won’t be doing any more racing for a month or so. Brolly is facing suspension for abusing his influence with the faculty, and I’m on detention for the foreseeable future. We’re not going to run any more races without faculty oversight, and after what might have happened to Fluttershy, that’s probably for the best. Anyway, once we’re back in the air, we’d love to have you on the squad. What you did for Fluttershy is the sort of spirit we like to see, and with that Sonic Rainboom, we know you’ve got the skills. What do you say?”
Rainbow Dash scratched her head and looked between April and Fluttershy, pondering. “Oh, don’t say no on my account, Rainbow Dash!” said Fluttershy, shaking her head vigorously. “You belong in Falcon Squad. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
Rainbow turned back to April. “Falcon Squad will still be here next year, right?” she asked. April nodded. “In that case, I’ll join up next year. I want to make sure Fluttershy gets up to speed this year. How does that sound?”
“That sounds good to me,” said April, nodding. “I’d better go – the faculty want to shout at me some more. I’ll see you on the squad next year, Rainbow Dash. And I’ve still got my eye on you, too, Gilda. Catch you later!” With a graceful flip of her wings, she took off towards the faculty buildings.
Fluttershy threw her front legs around Rainbow Dash’s shoulders. “Oh, thank you, Rainbow, thank you! I feel much better about my flying now that I have my cutie mark and I know what I want to do with my life, but I still need a lot of practice. I promise I’ll work as hard as you want.”
Rainbow Dash tousled Fluttershy’s mane with one hoof. “I know you will, Fluttershy.” She turned to smile at the rest of their friends. “We’re all in this together, guys, and if we’re always here for each other, we can get through anything.”
The four ponies held out a front hoof each and placed them atop one another, and Gilda followed suit with her furled talons.