Chapter 4: Life
The morning visit to the town hall turned out to be quite the success. The mayor's staff had a long string of little odd-jobs that needed doing, and far too few ponies volunteering. It turned the inquiry into a double success; not only did he have little competition for jobs, they paid quite well in an attempt to entice volunteers. The work was quick and easy, the first day consisting primarily of flying about and setting a few banners and decorations for the upcoming Summer Sun Celebration. Not only was he done by that afternoon, but he had earned a tidy sum of bits. It wasn't as much as his work on the farm had earned, but it was still quite good.
He trotted into the library looking particularly happy with himself, the bag of bits swaying from his mouth, as if proudly declaring, "look how well I did today." Even in the middle of her book, Twilight took note.
"You got paid already? It's barely lunch."
"Mmmhmm! Mmm-" he paused, then dropped the bag into his hooves. "I guess I'm just that quick! Got a whole day's pay in just a few hours!"
She rolled her eyes, but was smiling. "You sound like a certain other pegasus I know."
"What, Fluttershy?" he joked. "I always knew she was good at what she did."
She chuckled, shaking her head as she returned to her book.
Sky floated up to the nook that had become his temporary home, the bag jingling as he tossed it onto the bed, and drifted back down. "Good book?"
"Most are," Twilight responded absently. "Applied Magical Photokinetics. It's all about the basic mechanics of refracting, amplifying, and frequency-shifting light in an applied manner, to reconstruct desired visual effects."
"I didn't understand a word you just said," he said, still sounding quite happy.
She smirked at the unusual tone. "Illusions," she clarified. "It's a subject I've been somewhat lax about studying, and I'm trying to rectify that."
"Sounds interesting, at least," he said. "I'd always wondered just how unicorns do all that fancy magic stuff. I mean, I've always wondered for as long as I can remember, anyway."
"I've got plenty of books on the subject if you were curious," she said, gesturing her horn toward the shelves.
Thoughts of flying about through the sunny afternoon were, surprisingly, shoved aside. "Yeah, I am! Could I?"
She looked up from her book, looking first surprised, then amused. "Well of course. This is a library, after all." Her horn lit up, and a moment later another book floated over to him. "If you're looking for a good place to start learning about magic, this should do. Ariel's Basic Magical Theory. Thirteenth edition. It's one of the first books I read, even before I became Celestia's pupil."
He snatched the book from midair, setting it opened on the table as he took a seat. "Cool. Thanks, Twilight."
She nodded, and the two began reading. It was several minutes (And he was already getting a little lost by some of the introduction) before he noticed she had stopped, and was looking at him with an odd smile.
He looked up, a little nervous. "...What?"
She chuckled softly, seeming a bit embarrassed at having been noticed. "Oh, nothing. It's just been a while since I've had a study session with anyone else there. Makes me think of being back in Canterlot."
He noted a hint of wistfulness to her voice. The memory must be a good one. Hardly surprising, he supposed, for somepony who got to spend so much personal time with the princess. "How was it, learning from the Princess?"
The smile that brought out was full and heartfelt. "Some of the best times of my life."
He smiled back, and without another word, they returned to their books.
He wasn't sure who was more uncertain to see him back on the farm early the next morning, Applejack or himself. He stood sheepishly in the sudden silence after his arrival, while the orange mare seemed to consider what to say.
"Well, Ah'll be honest," she said, slowly. "Ah didn't expect to see yah come back. Yah headed out lookin' like yah got ran over by a stampede."
"Yeah," he said slowly. Idly, he wondered if a stampede would have been gentler. Quicker, certainly.
She seemed hesitant, that questioning look returned again. He felt his jaw reflexively tighten, a moment of irritation rising in him. Why did she always look at him so suspiciously? The moment passed as her look softened, and her voice now carried just a hint of concern, low and gentle. "Havin' a hard time finding a job, then?"
"No," he replied. He actually had a great job, and part of him wondered yet again why he was here. "Actually, I've got a great job. Sorta-job. I guess. I just do odd things for the town hall, but it pays well. I just... I wanted to come back."
That questioning look had morphed into an incredulous "are you insane?" look.
"I know, I know, but... Well, you still need the help, right?"
"Ah guess," she said reluctantly. "But Ah can always find some other pony to help out. No need for yah to beat yourself up for it."
Part of his mind was urging him to take the offered escape, head out, take the usual easy day off. That part seemed rational, sane. The part urging him to wear his body down to a jelly-like consistency seemed to be nonsensical. And yet, it had won out, and dragged him here, and he wasn't about to back down now even from his own stupidity.
"I want to help," he finally said. "Yeah, I'll probably be all worn out tomorrow. And yeah, I didn't like how worn out I was last time." And now comes the insane part of his brain to dig him in even deeper. "But it was kinda fun. I mean, yeah, it sucked after, but I actually did something. I pushed myself harder than I thought I could, but I did it."
"And besides..." he gave a little shrug and a smirk. "If I get worn out that easily, maybe I could use the exercise."
She stared at him for a long moment. Yep, I'm insane, he thought dryly, but then a small smile crept out from behind that guarded expression. "...Well all right, then. Let's get to work."
The days slid by smoothly. He returned to the Sweet Apple Acres every few days to help out more, and he was fairly certain his endurance was already improving. At the very least, his legs weren't so rubbery the next day. Most of the other days he spent doing the various little tasks posted at the town hall, or occasionally kicked back and relaxed, with an eye to the sky, enjoying the "job" of monitoring the weather.
That job finally offered some work, at least for a day. "Seems kinda odd to make it rain in the middle of summer," he mused, as Rainbow gave him instructions, the pair of them currently hovering beside a mass of clouds brought in for the occasion.
"Eh, we've got to bring some rain sometimes. Plants still need water and all that, and some of the ponies like the chance to cool off a bit. And hey, it's easy! Just set up a few scattered clouds, let them trickle just a bit, and nudge them on their way." She grinned and floated a little closer, talking a little quieter, almost confidentially. "Besides, scattered rain, plenty of sun, you know what that means?" She turned, shaking her butt, and by extension, her colorful tail. "Rainbows! It's like painting the sky in my favorite color!"
Sky smirked. "Wouldn't that be all the colors? Being a rainbow and all?"
Rainbow turned back to him and frowned in mock severity. "Yeah, you might have been hanging out with Twilight a bit much."
Sky just laughed lightly. "I could think of worse things. Besides, I kinda got sucked into a few of her study sessions. All sorts of stuff about how magic works. I don't understand half the things she's reading up on, but it's still kinda neat."
Rainbow Dash was grinning now, "Ohhh, so you're a little egghead-in-training, huh?" She floated over, mockingly tussling his mane.
He pushed her back, scowling a little, while she chuckled. "Hey, it's fun," he said, defensively.
She came to rest against a cloud, and grinned back. "Fun? Hah, I tried reading some of those big researchy books she's got. You don't know what you're missing. I've got some books that blow those lame old things away."
For a moment he felt indignant at her calling those fairly interesting books "lame," but the promise of even better books put that in check. "...Really?" he asked, sounding unintentionally dubious.
"Heck yeah!" she said, and gave a quick loop. "Action! Adventure! Excitement! You know, cool stuff like that!"
"Well... That does sound cool," he said, still somewhat skeptical.
"What, don't believe me?" She smirked, placing a hoof on a cloud. "Well, c'mon. Let's get this done, then I'll show you some real books."
Sky had been in the great palace of Canterlot, and that still did not prepare him for seeing Rainbow Dash's home.
"Wow," Sky intoned, looking over the huge home. It towered several stories above the cloud base, great pillars supporting the structure, several rainbows arching between the home and the clouds around it. Liquid rainbow formed small pools, cascading down in small waterfalls. The whole thing was ridiculously large and amazingly beautiful. It wasn't as grand as the Canterlot palace, but it was something monumentally unique.
They swooped down to alight on an upper landing, Sky looking all over. "Man. This place is huge. And it's yours?"
"Yup," Rainbow said proudly.
"Wow," Sky repeated. "You inherit this from your folks or something?"
"...Something like that," she replied evasively, as she walked toward the door.
"Oh. They live here too or something?"
"Yeahhhh, we're not talking about that," Rainbow said flatly, with an air that made the finality of that statement clear.
Sky mouthed a silent "oooh-kay" to her back, and followed along.
"Hey Tank!" she called, the moment they were inside. "I'm back!"
Sky cocked his head as she plopped down next to the aforementioned pet, patting it lovingly on the shell. "...is that turtle wearing shoes?"
"Tortoise," she corrected habitually. "And duh, of course." She thumped a hind-hoof against the cloud that formed the floor. "Got Twilight to enchant them up so he wouldn't go falling."
"Oh," Sky replied, feeling a bit like an idiot. "Pretty clever of her."
"Hah, you think that's good? You should see him fly!" She reached back and lifted a small contraption, a pair of rotors attached to a simple harness. "I got the idea from this weird flying machine Pinkie made once. Got her to make this, Twilight used a little magic to make it go, and bam! Coolest flying tortoise ever!" This earned an affectionate nuzzle from Tank.
Sky mentally noted that Tank was probably the only flying tortoise ever, but wisely did not say so.
"Anyway, books!" She gave her pet a final pat and hopped up, trotting down the hall with Sky following along.
Her book collection was far more modest than Twilight's, just a few dozen books on a small shelf in one corner of her bedroom. It seemed even smaller for the impressive scale of the room, which mirrored that of the rest of the house. This place must have cost a fortune. He almost asked about that, before remembering how the previous questions in that vein had ended.
A poster caught his eye. A trio of pegasi in colorful flying uniforms, with several more flew by in formation. He panned down to read the title along the bottom. "Oh! So that's the Wonderbolts! Huh, pretty cool."
Rainbow had just retrieved a book from the shelf, and now hopped over to him. "Cool? Try totally awesome! They're a team of the best fliers from all around Equestria. You wouldn't believe the stunts they can pull. I'm going to be a part of that someday, soon as I can prove myself. I even got to hang out with them a couple times!" She was practically bouncing at the memory, and Sky couldn't help but smirk at the energy she was showing. Who would have thought it? The brash and tomboyish mare was a complete fanfilly.
He nudged her side. "Well, if they're looking for the best, I'd think the fastest flier in Equestria should have an easy shot at joining up."
"Heh, yeah," she said with a struggling smile. She seemed to deflate just a bit. "Not quite that easy, I guess."
Sky frowned, not expecting such a sudden swerve of emotion. "Well, I'm sure you'll have a good chance. Heck, you're easily the best flier I've seen."
"In what, all two weeks you remember?" she said dryly, though at least now she was smirking again. Sky grunted and rubbed a hoof against the bridge of his nose. He was getting really tired of all the expressions a lack of memory spoiled.
"Eh," she grumbled, then said, "I kinda get the feeling they think I'm too young. So I'm just going to keep practicing and getting better. Faster, better stunts. Someday I'll show them I've got what it takes." That enthusiasm was coming back.
"Stunts, huh? With the maneuvers I saw you pulling during our little chase, I'd really like to see that."
"Oh you would, huh?" She grinned. "Then you should come by tomorrow. I was planning on spending it practicing some tricks. You can come and help out!" Then she added in a lighthearted tone, "Even if it's just to make me look better by comparison," and nudged him in the side.
He poked back. "Hah, we'll see about that." The fact that he was certain who would win that contest didn't seem important to him at the moment. He was fortunately distracted from his future humiliation by the book Rainbow had slapped against his chest.
Taking it in his hooves, he read the cover aloud. "Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone."
"First book in the series, and the first book I read, too." She pointed back to the other books. "Got the whole series, plus a few others I liked, but Daring Do is still my favorite. I think you'll like her. She's a lot like me!"
Ground and sky spun around as Sky threw himself into a tight loop, then spiraled down toward the ground. At the last moment he pulled up, skimming over the field before arcing into the sky. "Hah! I got that one, easy!"
"Pfft, sure," Rainbow said teasingly. "Maybe you can try doing it fast, sometime."
Abruptly she dove into a stoop, and he dove after her. Her lead built up quickly, and soon she threw herself into a corkscrewing dive, spiraling toward a hill. His eyes were fixed on her, watching each move as he mimicked the dive. Next she was sweeping down only feet above the slope of that hill, swiftly descending on the lake beneath it. Hooves kicked out at the bottom to send up a plume of spray, glittering in the summer sun, and then she was rocketing up along the hill on the other side.
Exiting his dive, he skimmed down the hill's slope, a few blades of grass slapping at his hooves as he followed her course. Pulling up at the bottom, he swept out over the water, and kicked out, throwing up a huge spray.
And as the water pulled back on his hooves, he pitched forward, and plummeted into the water.
He surged back up to the surface, coughing and sputtering. He could already hear Rainbow laughing as she dove back down. By the time he had caught his breath and wiped the water from his face, she was pulling up to hover just above him. "Hah. Don't tell me that those "easy" tricks are too much for you," she said, grinning down at the soaked pegasus.
He stuck out his tongue. Okay, so some of these maneuvers were harder than he thought. Harder than she made them look, certainly. Perhaps he shouldn't have been quite so dismissive of them when he said he could pull off any of the tricks she was doing. Not that it was going to stop him trying, of course. He bobbed up, wings sending out sprays of water as he hauled himself up out of the lake.
"I'm just out of practice," he shot back, quite aware of how poor of an excuse it was.
Rainbow just laughed. "Yeah, that's it. C'mon!"
Again she shot off, and he gave chase.
When he found himself tangled up in the limbs of a tree an hour later, to yet more of Rainbow's laughter, he figured it was time to call it quits for the evening. Ignoring her amusement as his predicament, he finally extracted himself from the tree, choosing the much more comfortable resting place up in the clouds. Rainbow joined him soon enough, kicking back on the cloud beside him.
"Got to give it to you, Sky, you certainly make practice more entertaining."
"Well, at least I did something right," he replied.
She snorted, then shoved at his side. "Did better than a lot of ponies could," she said, and then added, with rather more amusement, "Not my fault I make everypony look bad by comparison."
He rolled his eyes, despite his chuckle.
"So anyway, you start that book yet?"
He grinned at that. He'd started the book as soon as he had returned home, and had stayed up late in order to finish it. She had been right, it was a great story, and soon the two were going over their favorite parts and laughing.
"I actually did that once," Rainbow said eagerly. "I mean, sure, there was a bridge right next to it, but how often do you get to go swinging on a vine with a bunch of ponies chasing you?"
Sky laughed, not even thinking to question why the ponies were chasing her. "So you said it's a series, right? There are more?"
"Yep, and I got them all!" she said, proudly. "If you're planning on coming out again tomorrow, I'll bring it along for you!"
As he was about to answer, another voice from far below interrupted. "Rainbow?"
Sky blinked, then peered over the edge of the cloud to see who was shouting up at them. He spotted his answer easily enough, standing on the hill right below the cloud they were resting on. "Oh! Hey Applejack. What's up?"
She seemed surprised to see him answer. "Sky? Er, hey. Rainbow up there?"
He looked over to Rainbow Dash, mouth already opening to answer, when he saw her silently shaking her head. "Uh..." Well, he'd already made the answer clear enough just by his reaction. "...she says no."
"Traitor," came the muffled reply, followed by Rainbow's grinning face peeking out over the edge of the cloud. "Heya AJ. What's up?"
"What's up is that our south field didn't get any ah that rain yesterday," Applejack replied. "Ah know it was supposed to be scattered showers, but the trees need the rain. Think yah could give 'em a bit, for me?"
"Um, lemme see." She leaned back, out of sight, waited silently for a few seconds, then leaned back into view. "Hey, good news! Sky volunteered to go get you some rain, so we should be able to get you all set!"
"Traitor," Sky echoed.
"Better get going," Rainbow said as she rolled onto her back, kicking back in a very relaxed pose. "Good thing you were here to help, would be a shame to have to miss my nap to go hauling clouds around for a couple hours."
Sky rolled his eyes. Oh well, at least it's a paying job.
Even empty, the apartment was small. The living room wasn't even the size of the bedroom he had first woken up in a few weeks ago, and the bedroom would be barely large enough for a good bed. A tiny bathroom and a nook that had been granted the lofty title of "kitchen" rounded out the place. The whole place could have fit inside the main room of Twilight's library, or Fluttershy's living room. Heck, it would have fit in Rainbow's bedroom. It was small, and empty, and as unimpressive as an apartment could be.
Sky couldn't be prouder.
He stood in the living room, looking around with a happy smile. Yes, it wasn't much, but it was his. He had something, something tangible. Or at least, he did as long as he paid rent.
Twilight stepped up beside him, smiling softly, not for the place itself, but to see him so pleased. "So, you did it."
"Yep." He slowly paced through the room, his room. He did it. He had his own place, good work, plenty of free time, and good friends. His life was coming together. It might take some time to discover his special talent, to find where he fit in the world, but now he had all the time he could want.
More hoofsteps came from the entrance, dominated by the thump, thump of Pinkie hopping across the room. "Ooh, cozy," she said, and promptly started pulling party supplies out of her saddle bags.
Spike was eying the amount of supplies and ponies entering the room. "Are we going to all fit in here?"
"It is kinda small," Rainbow said, walking for once, likely due to the lack of room to hover. "But not bad."
"I think it's nice," said Fluttershy. "And you saved up for it so quick, too."
Applejack chuckled, but there was a bit of a bitter sound to it, as if she didn't like to say what she did. "Well, he did work pretty hard for it." More clearly, she added, "Least, long as he wasn't lazin' about with Rainbow."
"Hah. If you think weather duty is so easy, I'd like to see you do it sometime," Rainbow retorted.
Rarity was looking around with a critical eye. "Yes, cozy. We'll have to do something about getting it nicely furnished, though."
"Not now!" Pinkie said happily. "Because now it's time to party!"
Sky was chuckling now. The moment Pinkie had heard that he was getting his own apartment, she had immediately started making plans for a housewarming party. It was a good thing she had kept it to just them, as the place couldn't have handled much more than that. The place was already cramped enough with all the treats and drinks set on a folding table, the music box, the games, and all the other supplies Pinkie had, with the help of a couple others, brought along.
And Sky was eager to celebrate.
Sure enough, Pinkie knew how to throw a party, even if it was so much smaller than the last. Soon the music was playing, treats were shared, games were played, and laughs were had all around. He even followed Pinkie Pie into dancing, caught up in the energy of the moment.
Perhaps it was a good thing he didn't own any furniture yet. He'd hate to have broken it on his first day, with how wild the dancing got. Pinkie was, yet again, full of boundless energy, and he, naturally, did his best to match it, much to everypony else's amusement.
"Somepony's sure enjoying themselves," Rainbow called out with a laugh, before going rather wide-eyed as both the crazy-dancing ponies' attentions were drawn to her. "What, what-"
"C'mon!" Sky said as he dragged her out with him, accompanied by Pinkie's cheer. Despite her protests, even she wasn't able to fend off the two of them, being dragged through their dancing, to the laughter of all their friends.
Even with all that energy, the dancing had to eventually come to an end, the three of them collapsing into a heap, panting. Rainbow seemed the least exhausted of them, having been largely dragged through the dancing by them. As she panted lightly, she raised a foreleg and lightly knocked a hoof against the top of Sky's head. "You're one crazy pony, you know that?"
Sky grinned back at her.
Pinkie was already back on her feet, all signs of fatigue already gone. "Whoooo's ready for cake!"
A unanimous call of approval met the question, and soon she was serving out slices to everypony.
A small green spark flickered on the wall behind the folding table.
Despite the fatigue, Sky happily took a slice, taking a big bite as soon as he had it. It certainly showed that Pinkie worked in a bakery. The cake was wonderfully rich, chocolate with a delicious strawberry frosting in the inner layers. He could tell from the sounds all around that everypony else approved, as well.
The flame crept out. A cold shock shot through his body as he saw it spreading. Rarity was complimenting Pinkie on the wonderful cake. He scrambled back from the table as the fire washed over it. Rippling green flame shot out across the walls, burning them away in moments. It was as if tearing away a paper-thin disguise, revealing the unworked rock face of the small cave around him. The others were screaming now, scrambling away from the flames.
The fire surged forward, engulfing his friends, silhouettes amidst the flames.
He tried to scream, but no sound came, even as the fires swept away, leaving nothing but cinders.
Laughter echoed through the small chamber. It was cruel and sadistic, and yet happy, terrifyingly happy. He looked to its source, knowing what he would find.
She was there. Chrysalis, the changeling queen, emerged from the swarming flames, her burning eyes fixed on him, a small, smug smile on her face. She enjoyed this, every single moment, as he cringed, cowering in the corner.
The flames surged one last time and winked out, casting the room into a deep gloom, lit only by the glowing fire of her eyes. She stared into him as she casually approached. When she stopped, there were only inches between them.
He curled against himself, eyes clenched shut against whatever horrors were to come.
Her hoof touched the side of his neck.
He screamed, twisting aside, and landed on the wooden floor.
Scrambling, he threw himself back against the softer surface behind him as he looked around in a raw panic. Those burning eyes were gone, leaving the room in darkness, and his dulled mind sluggishly tried to make sense of what little he could make out. Bare and undecorated wood floors, walls, ceiling, a single door, and the small cloud that served as a bed. A bedroom. My bedroom, he thought.
Slowly, uneasily, he got to his feet. Thoughts were still sluggish, slowly crawling to the surface through the growing ache in his brain. He staggered through the door and into the living room. The remnants of the party remained, the table with the half-eaten cake and nearly-empty punch bowl, a few streamers and bits of confetti still lay scattered about the floor, a couple forgotten cups sitting in the corner.
He sank down to his haunches, a soft shudder going through him. Just a dream. Just another damn dream. Nothing was burnt. Nopony was hurt. Just a dream.
Just a dream, here, in his new home. The one thing that was his, the one place everything should be safe, should make sense. He sank down until he lay on the floor, head pounding, a feeling of utter violation weighing down on him.
Just a dream.
He no longer saw Canterlot in his dreams. That was no longer his life. Now his life was Ponyville, and his dreams stayed there. It would have been a pleasant change to note, if not for the nightmares of fire and changelings that followed him here. Good sleep was increasingly hard to come by. It didn't help that he had to get rid of the cloud and get a "proper" bed, with the only model he could afford being far less comfortable than the wonderfully-soft and perfectly-conforming cloud. His landlord would not be happy if his newest tenant let a cloud condense all over his apartment.
Despite the unpleasant nights, the week had passed by wonderfully. The new field at Sweet Apple Acres was finally cleared out, celebrated by an extra-large dinner and a couple pies the family sent home with him. He had spent time with his new friends, as well as doing his best to mingle around town, meeting new ponies. And the afternoons he had free from work, he invariably spent with Rainbow Dash.
He still tried to match her stunts or keep up with her in a race, not that he had any chance of comparing. Even fully recovered, he couldn't hope to match her speed, and while she had reluctantly allowed that he was "fairly agile" -- which he was starting to recognize was high praise from this particular mare -- she still surpassed his ability. Not that it had stopped him from trying at every opportunity. Neither of them seemed willing to admit defeat in these unannounced competitions, which would typically continue until one, or more commonly both, had found a comfy cloud to kick back and relax on.
These afternoon naps and the time around them had become some of Sky's favorite times, and not only because of his often restless nights. He enjoyed all the flying, soaring freely through the skies, moving precisely with every little twitch of his body. It was a grand and exhilarating feeling, a perfect expression of both freedom and control. Nothing he could imagine could compare to it. Having somepony to share in it made the experience even better, and he had the feeling that Rainbow must appreciate having somepony else around who felt so strongly about flying, as well.
Such were the thoughts that ran through his head when he lay half-dozing on a cloud in the warm afternoon sky, while Rainbow lay nearby, napping. It was such a perfect way to spend the day, he thought. Easy work, easy life, doing what he wanted, what he loved to do, sharing time with friends...
With increasing frequency, that brought his thoughts to the friends he had made, and in particular, the blue pegasus dozing nearby. Each of them were great in their own unique way, but he had been spending more and more time around Rainbow. It wasn't hard for him to see why. She loved flying as much as he did, probably even more, and he was the only other pegasus that tried, if poorly, to match her enthusiasm. Sure, she might be cocky, but he found it hard to hold it against her when most of what she claimed turned out to be perfectly true. Sure, she might be abrasive at times, but she had a blunt honesty, and was often quite funny. She was also determined, and athletic, and energetic, and really, uniquely attractive-
It was almost a week of such thoughts before he jolted himself out of his dozing with the sudden realization. I have a crush on her.
He looked over to Rainbow. Her chest was slowly rising and falling in time to the soft breathing. Lithe, athletic, colorful... Slowly he lay his head back down, eyes still on her. He could feel his heart pounding inside his chest in excitement. A crush. He had a crush on the most athletic and attractive pony in town. Spending time with her was the highlight of each day. Of course he had a crush. His life was coming together, everything was going perfect. To have somepony else to share that life with...
A faint doubt crept into his thoughts, softly echoing through the happiness that filled his mind. She might not feel the same way. They hadn't known each other a full month yet. She hardly knew him; heck, he hardly knew himself. Would this be too sudden? Was this just some passing crush, natural enough between two ponies that shared interests, yet destined to never be anything more?
She was so much better of a flier than him, with dreams of joining a team of fliers without equal. Would he hold her back from that?
He lay his head back, trying to calm his thoughts. There was no denying that he had... feelings for her. It just felt so sudden. Maybe it was a passing thing. Maybe in time the feeling would fade. He hoped not. He sighed softly, closing his eyes as he tried to relax, but the pounding of his heart stubbornly refused to subside.
Too sudden, yes. Too much impulse. This couldn't be rushed. He had his whole life ahead of him, and as much as it felt like he would love to spend it with her there, he knew he should take it slowly. Wait and see if this was a lasting feeling. Wait and see if she might feel the same.
Wait, and hope.
He tried to push those thoughts from his mind as they soared through the sky. Rainbow was practicing some new tricks and stunts she wanted to show off to everypony tomorrow. Distracting himself wasn't going to help her practice.
"How was that?" she called out, the triumphant sound in her voice making her own evaluation clear.
"Needs more of a flare when you come out of the roll!" he called back, before going through the same maneuver with far less elegance than she had.
"Bah!" she called back with a dismissive wave of her hoof. "It was perfect." Despite that, Sky was pleased to see that she listened to his advice on her next practice run. The day had proceeded much like that, her going through a maneuver, him offering critique or advice, or even just compliments, all while doing his own mediocre attempt at mimicking her stunts.
She was particularly driven, today. For the first time, the afternoon nap was skipped, as she soared through her maneuvers, pushing herself constantly. He pushed himself as well, though he wasn't sure if he was driven more by pure stubbornness, or a desire to not look weak in front of her. Probably both.
The sun was setting as they alighted on a cloud, both pegasi exhausted. Rainbow was gazing out at the sunset, a proud and happy look on her face despite the panting. "...So, what do you think? Good stuff?"
Rather than trying to speak past all the panting, he just nodded.
She grinned. "Ah, they're going to be so impressed tomorrow. I can't wait to show my moves off. A few more perfect moves, and then..." She trailed off, but watching that distant, happy gaze, Sky could imagine exactly where that thought went.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the sunset as they caught their breath. Slowly the fatigue of flying was overtaken by a more thorough kind of exhaustion. Eventually, Rainbow let out a long yawn and stretched her legs out. "Oof. Well, I'm going to go home and crash. See you tomorrow morning?"
"Yeah," he said wearily. "Assuming I don't crash before I get home. I gotta admit I'm feeling a bit wiped out after all that."
Rainbow smirked at him. "After? You were looking kinda worn out when you started. You not sleeping well or something?"
He winced. He had hoped she hadn't noticed that. "Not really. Stupid dreams." He flopped back with a faint groan, eyes closing. "...On second thought, I think I'll just sleep here. Oof..."
There were a few moments of silence before Rainbow spoke. He could hear the smirk in her voice. "Yeah, doubt that's going to help you sleep any better. C'mon, you can spend the night at my place, it's right over there."
"Oh, sure," he said, a moment before his mind had fully processed the offer. His eyes shot open, heart suddenly beating harder in his chest as he realized she had just invited him to spend the night at her house. It's not like that, he reasoned to himself. Just a friendly offer, don't go expecting...
He shook his head and quickly sat up, trying to conceal his reaction. "I mean, it wouldn't be imposing, would it?" he said, scrambling to conceal his eagerness.
"Pfft," came her dismissive response. "Isn't like I'm hurting for room. C'mon!"
She took off, and he wearily followed. The trip was thankfully short, and before long they flew in through the broad window of Rainbow's bedroom.
Rainbow wasted no time in hopping onto her bed with a loud groan. "Oof. Sleep." Absently, she waved a hoof in one direction. "Bathroom is down the hall if you need it, kitchen's downstairs if you get hungry."
"Thanks," he said, then asked, "Where should I sleep? You got a spare bed somewhere?"
"Nope," Rainbow replied, and rolled onto her back. "Only got the one bed, and it's mine."
His heart kicked up its pounding a notch.
"Oh, um..." he shifted awkwardly. His thoughts went back to a scene from the book she had lent him; he felt very much like he was walking on a floor that was about to give out from under him at any moment. "Are we... sharing, then?"
He hadn't expected her to laugh. "Everything's made of cloud, you know. You can sleep wherever you want."
"Oh," he said, and immediately regretted the hint of disappointment that had snuck into his voice.
Rainbow was looking at him with a strange, questioning expression. Crap, she noticed. He did his best not to fidget, even as she rolled off the bed and walked toward him. His heart pounded harder each moment, and he had this sudden, terrible urge to run.
She came face-to-face with him, his head drawing back a bit. She peered at him for a terribly long, uncomfortable eternity. Then she smirked. "You're not going to make this weird, are you?"
CRAP. He quickly turned away, certain he was blushing. That had gone... poorly. She knew. She knew, and had shot him down. She was laughing now as she turned away, and-
...and he was absolutely sure she had intentionally flicked her tail across his face. He blinked, looking back to her. He couldn't see her face, but he could tell from her cheeks that she was smiling, and -- and she's swaying her hips at me! No, no she always struts when she walks... But sweet Celestia, this time she's strutting and swaying her flank right at me!
He was still staring as she rose, forehoofs on the bed, and looked back to him with a sly smile. He flinched, quickly looking away, and she climbed into bed with a much-too-audible snicker.
He lay down on the other side of the room, very purposely laying to face away from the bed.
He was back in Canterlot.
Chaos reigned in the streets. The shadows of changelings swarmed through the streets, streaks of fire raining from the sky. He stood in the middle of a churning mass. Confusion had turned everything into a wild blur, impossible to make out any one detail. A grand struggle raged around him, shadow and fire encircling the scene.
She was coming. He knew she was coming. Without any decision, he turned to see her arrival.
Even expecting the arrival did not prepare him. She stepped out from the shadow and flame, but he had not expected what he found this time. Magenta eyes glared at him with violent determination. He stared in horror as Rainbow Dash reared up, grin flashing wide in eager excitement, enjoying the battle. Then those hooves came crashing down upon him...
Sky jerked awake with a strangled gasp, returning to the dimly-lit bedroom in the clouds. He shuddered, slowly curling in on himself. He clutched his forelegs around his head, muffling the wild, sobbing breaths as best he could, letting the feeling of soul-crushing terror slowly fade.
Morning was awkward.
For him, at least. "It's not funny," he said over his breakfast for what must be the tenth time, while Rainbow smirked.
"It's kinda funny," she retorted. "I didn't know an orange pony could blush that much."
"It's not funny," he said for the eleventh time, feeling his cheeks burning again, and absolutely refusing to acknowledge the little part of his mind that was laughing along. The worst part was not knowing if the teasing was supposed to be encouraging or discouraging. Rainbow was certainly having to much fun to have answered that question, even if he had asked.
He was quite happy, then, when they finally left for the morning's demonstration. Hopefully she would be less likely to tease him there. Yeah, because she hates to have an audience. He grumbled to himself, hoping that she'd be too distracted by the flying for such things. He tried to focus, eyes fixed on her rainbow-colored tail as he followed her to the field.
...and that's not helping.
Twilight was arriving as they flew up. Punctual, of course. They landed, making their greetings. Thankfully Rainbow didn't overtly tease him, but she did seem much too amused. If Twilight noticed, she didn't say anything. Hopefully she would just pass it off as excitement for the demonstration Rainbow was going to give.
Soon everypony else had gathered, and a small picnic was set out. Armed with snacks and drinks, the friends kicked back to watch Rainbow's newest stunts and tricks. Sky, for once, remained on the ground with them. He was too lost in his own thoughts to focus much on the flying, though it seemed everypony else was impressed.
He kept thinking on her teasing. She hadn't teased him in front of her friends. That had to be a good thing, right? If the teasing had been meant as encouragement, surely she would keep it more private, rather than potentially embarrassing him in front of their friends? Right? Except... she was always so brash and forward, why would she hide her interests then? Was she worried that they would encourage it, if they found out, but she didn't want them to?
Or was he over-thinking this? It was quite possible she just hadn't given it any thought.
"Hey," Rainbow called out, and he looked up, abruptly breaking out of his thoughts. "You just going to sit there all day, or are you going to get flying?"
He stared at her for a few moments, caught by surprise. "Erm... I thought the whole point was for you to show off," he said, awkwardly. "I'd just be in the way."
This earned a laugh. "Hard to be in the way when you're so far behind me," she said. "C'mon, let's see how well you can keep up!"
He fidgeted a moment. "Ehh..." He struggled to come up with a good reason to turn down the offer, one that could be more convincing than "I don't want to."
She rolled his eyes. "Aw, come on, Sky, it's easy!" With that, she turned around in mid-air, shaking her flank at him, the rainbow tail swaying. "All you gotta do is chase my tail!"
He blinked, feeling the heat rush to his face. "Oh, that's it!" he shouted before leaping into the air after the laughing mare. His wings pumped furiously as they both shot up into the sky, and soon she dove into the first of many crazy maneuvers, with him following as closely as he could manage. Soon she was laughing and whooping and cheering. There was no more teasing to it, just the genuine joy of the wild flight. "C'mon!" She called back as she rolled into a tight turn, diving toward the ground, and he followed, grinning happily.
They climbed and dove, flying tight loops and sharp turns. She ran through maneuver after maneuver, with him following behind; slower and less precisely, but following all the same. They skimmed down over the lake to send up plumes of water -- he had learned the trick to keeping himself from taking another unplanned swim -- and shot through clouds. They dove with tremendous speed, pulling up to skim just over the ground before shooting back up into the sky. They sped along the ground, twisting and slaloming between trees-
Until, pushing his luck a bit too far in his attempts to keep up with the speeding blue pegasus, he took a turn too fast. He plowed through the edge of the branches, the glancing impact sending him tumbling, five startled mares scattering as he crashed to the ground between them.
And then, nothing.