S P R I N G
The mare felt the cloud beneath her hooves, springy and a little moist. These clouds were durable and tough, not fluffy and soft. The beating of a dozen wings belonging to the world’s greatest fliers would chew through anything else. But not these clouds. That’s why they paved the derbies with them.
And it was a beautiful day for a derby. Really, she couldn’t have asked for anything better. The sun beamed down on the track and there wasn’t even a breeze. Not that she minded crosswinds, but she always flew better on still days. That was one less thing to worry about, one less thing distracting her from squeezing every ounce of speed out of her feathers. That was why the crowd loved her, why they cheered her on right now.
“Lightning Dust! Lightning Dust! Lightning Dust!”
The turquoise mare grinned and lowered her stance, flexing and flaring her wings. This was the biggest Wonderbolts derby of the year, a five hundred lap test of speed and endurance. It wasn’t enough to be the fastest around the track on lap one; the only thing that mattered is who was the first to finish lap five hundred. And Lightning planned to lead every single one of those laps.
At her left, Spitfire and Soarin’ lowered their noses, wings twitching as they waited for the order to start. She wasn’t worried about them, though. Spitfire lacked endurance, and Soarin’ lacked speed. She knew she’d be able to put fifteen or twenty laps on each of them by the time she won. She didn’t even think about Misty or Fleetfoot on her right. There was only one pony she knew who had the speed and stamina to keep up with her, one pony she was determined to not yield an inch of cloud to.
Lightning glared at Rainbow out of the corner of her eye. That mare had almost cost her her chance at becoming a Wonderbolt. Her and Spitfire both. But she’d shown them. She’d worked her tail off, clawed her way back to the top. Everypony knew that they couldn’t keep her out of the Wonderbolts forever. She was the best flier they’d ever seen, and they needed her. The Wonderbolts couldn’t call themselves the greatest fliers in Equestria if they left her out. And now here she was, ready to get some payback.
The flag pony fluttered out over the clouds, the green flag held between his teeth. Lightning lowered her goggles over her eyes and leaned forward, barely inching her nose over the starting line. She’d need every bit she could get if she was going to keep Rainbow Dash behind her.
Her eyes locked with the green piece of fabric. That was her world now. Even the cheering of the crowd began to fade into the background. But she knew whose name they were chanting.
“Lightning Dust! Lightning Dust! Lightning Dust!”
She flexed her legs, wings angling for the optimal angle of attack…
Lightning jumped and opened her eyes. Gone was the Wonderbolts’ derby, the cheering of the crowds, the stadium around her. Gone were the ponies at her sides, the greatest fliers who ever lived. Gone was her rival, the mare she was so determined to beat. Instead, there was only an open sky populated with a few clouds, lazily drifting across the horizon, put into place by the local weather team with care.
And then Lightning’s eyes snapped to the slightly pudgy mare in front of her. She wore a white vest against her navy coat and yellow mane. She held a clipboard, that damnable clipboard, against her chest, and the frown she was born with only sharpened when Lightning locked eyes with her. Whenever she spoke, Lightning Dust felt like the mare used her words to beat her over the head.
Swallowing, Lightning timidly waved a hoof at her boss. “Ummm…. Hey there, Storm Surge.”
“You daydreaming again, hotshot?” Storm barked at her, making Lightning shrink back. “You’re behind schedule. Again. You’re supposed to have areas seventeen through twenty-nine staged with seeder clouds before two o’clock. And here I find you, hoof up your ass, in twenty-six at one thirty.” Her glare hardened and she looked at her clipboard. “You don’t think weather is serious business, do you, hotshot?”
Lightning swallowed hard and tried to stand proud like she once did in front of Spitfire years ago. “No, ma’am—I-I mean, yes, ma’am, I take my job seriously,” she said, trying to stomp any wavering out of her voice.
Storm Surge raised an eyebrow at her. “Do you? ‘Cuz you already have two write-ups this month. First with the lightning shipment, then the uncontrolled twister. And now you’re gonna put the rain behind schedule for the Oranges’ farm during planting season?”
Lightning forced herself to bite back a retort. The twister incident wasn’t even her fault, but Storm Surge wasn’t about to hear any of that. “I can finish my placements in twenty minutes, ma’am,” she said, already desperately trying to figure out the fastest route to get all her clouds placed before she ran out of time. “You can count on me.”
The weather manager sighed and lowered her clipboard. “Like Celestia’s glittering ass I can. Just do your job, hotshot. If I can’t have you on lightning duty or tackling storms, and I can’t even get you to push a cloud with any dedication, then what am I supposed to do with you, huh?” She jabbed a hoof into Lightning’s chest, forcing her to sit on the cloud. “We take our jobs seriously at the Manehattan Weather Control. If you ain’t committed to your job, then we ain’t committed to you. I can take a shit off a skyscraper and hit a pegasus who’d make a better cloud pusher than you. We ain’t got time for laziness, got it?”
“G-Got it, ma’am,” Lightning said, raising a wing in salute. “I’ll do my best.”
Storm snorted. “Right. Uh huh. I’d hate to see your worst.”
The older mare flew off, likely to harass the next pony she came across, leaving Lightning alone on the cloud. Sighing, the former Wonderbolt prospect spread her wings and took to the skies once more, making a beeline for the staging area. As much as she hated her job, she couldn’t afford to lose it. It was all she had left.
And so she toiled and toiled until finally, finally, the sun set and she was allowed to go home. She barely took the time to hang up her blue vest in her dingy, banged-up locker at the office before she flew off toward downtown, just trying to put as much distance between her and that miserable prison in the sky as possible. Angling her wings, she banked down between two streets, landing in front of an old brick building with dusty windows and a broken neon sign. She didn’t even spare a glance at the dim red lettering that once spelled ‘The Tap’ before walking inside.
Her mood immediately brightened upon seeing the stallion behind the counter. She pulled out the nearest barstool with a happy sigh and dropped a small pile of bits on the polished wood. “Get me a gin, Gin,” she said to the stallion, masking a snicker with a hoof.
The stallion, a middle-aged unicorn with a pale coat and thinning brown mane, rolled his eyes and slid an already made glass of gin and tonic down the bar toward Lightning Dust. “Almost two years you’ve been making the same joke every time you come here, Dusty.”
“Almost two years I get you to roll your eyes every time,” Lightning shot back, smirking. Her feathers wrapped around the glass and she lifted it to her lips, taking a few sips before setting it back down. She sighed in contentment and put her forelegs onto the bar, leaning against them while Gin poured himself a drink and tucked it low and out of sight. “Work sucked today.”
“Did it?” Gin asked, eyebrow cocked. “You make it sound like it sucks everyday.”
“Well, you’re not wrong about that,” Lightning said, shaking her head. “It’s just that… like, today was the perfect day to go flying, you know? And I’m stuck pushing clouds and getting yelled at by Storm. I wanted to be out there doing stunts, not working my tail off for something pretending to be a livable wage.”
“Seems pretty livable to me with how much time and money you spend here.”
“Shut up.” Lightning took another sip of her drink and set it aside, tapping her hooves on the bar. “Pretty quiet tonight, isn’t it?”
Gin shrugged and took a drink from his own glass. “It’s a Wednesday. I think everypony’s just lying low until the Bolts get into town.”
“The Wonderbolts are coming?” Lightning asked, a note of disgust in her voice.
Gin cocked his head a little. “You didn’t know? I thought you kept tabs on everything the Bolts were up to.”
Lightning frowned and hung her head, staring into her drink. “No,” she said, though that was a lie. There was always that tiny voice in the back of her head that still cared about them and kept her awake at night. One of these days, she hoped that drink would kill it. But she’d been trying for almost two years since leaving the academy and she hadn’t silenced it at all.
Gin just slowly shook his head. “Don’t down it too fast,” he said, flickering a sad smile at Lightning before heading back to the other end of the bar were a few ponies waited with empty drinks. Lightning watched him go through her drooping amber mane and let her shoulders sag when he wasn’t looking at her anymore. Great, now her night was ruined. The sad thing was, she wouldn’t even remember it come tomorrow. Thursday’s disappointments would come and go, and she expected tomorrow night to be even worse. Maybe she should just stop at the liquor store on the way home. It’d beat coming to the bar and listening to ponies talk about the weekend’s derby.
The bell above the door rang, and at first Lightning didn’t pay it any mind. The Tap was a popular bar for the locals, small enough to hide from tourists and vacationers but good enough to have its own reputation among the Manehattanites. Apart from twitching her ears, Lightning didn’t react at all. She simply continued to stare at the mare at the bottom of the gin with a messy mane and tired eyes.
The newcomer sat down a few stools away from Lightning, right in the middle. They idly tapped their blue hooves on the counter while they waited for Gin to finish his conversation at the far end of the bar, and in a minute he’d moved over. “Oh!” he said, sounding surprised. “Why, I didn’t expect to see you here! I thought the Bolts weren’t in town for another day. I’m honored!”
“Eh, don’t be,” the Wonderbolt said, and Lightning stiffened at their—her familiar voice. Swallowing hard, she looked up to see a pegasus with a rainbow mane and tail sitting a few seats down, directly under one of the lights, bathing her sweaty mane in an incandescent glow. “I’m just another pony without the uniform. And yeah, the rest of the team isn’t in town yet, but I’ve got a place here so I figured I’d slip in and crash early before the press ponies start flocking outside my windows. You’d think having the spotlight on your shoulders all the time would be pretty awesome, but it loses its fun when they start trying to snap pictures of you in your bathrobe burning pancakes on a stove you hardly know how to use.”
Gin chuckled. “That from personal experience, or…?”
“I’d love to say I’m making this stuff up, but nooooo,” Rainbow said, shaking her head. Chuckling once more, she pointed to the liquor behind Gin. “Figure since I’m in the city, can you fix me up a Manehattan? I tried to get one at a place in Baltimare, but the colt working there didn’t have any idea what that was! Can you believe that?”
“Well, your first mistake was going to Baltimare,” Gin said, his smile making Rainbow shake her head. “Manehattan’s where all the good things happen. I’ve spent the last thirty-seven years of my life here after growing up in Fillydelphia. I’ll give you three guesses as to which city I prefer.”
“I always liked Manehattan, too. I mean, it’s no Cloudsdale, but there’s no place in Equestria that’s more happenin’ than this!” She snatched the drink Gin set in front of her and took a few gulps. “Great stuff! I’m glad I found this place! I might have to take the team here after the derby!”
“I certainly wouldn’t mind the publicity and money,” Gin said, chuckling. Then, stepping away from the counter, he nodded at the Wonderbolt. “If there’s anything you need, call me over. Name’s Gin Rickey, by the way, and I keep the booze flowing.”
“Maybe I’ll see you once or twice or five times tonight,” Rainbow said with a laugh. “Can’t drink until after the derby once the team is officially in the city! Those are the team rules!”
Gin walked away with a shake of his head, leaving Rainbow to her drink. At the end of the bar, Lightning looked down at hers, wondering if she could possibly finish it and slip out before Rainbow noticed her. But as soon as she thought it, it was too late. Rainbow’s eyes drifted around the bar, ultimately crossing over Lightning Dust, before the Wonderbolt sputtered and rubbed her eyes. “Lightning Dust?!” she exclaimed, quickly sliding off her bar stool as the weathermare inwardly cursed. “What are you doing here?”
Lightning’s nostrils flared. “Oh, hello, Rainbow Dash,” she growled, venom dripping from her words. “I live here. Why else would I be here?”
Rainbow blinked. “What, like, at this bar?”
“No!” Lightning exclaimed, although Rainbow was a lot more accurate than she would’ve liked to admit. “Manehattan! It’s where I live!”
“Yeesh, sorry,” Rainbow said, setting her drink back down on the bar. Lightning suppressed a groan as the mare who’d smashed her dreams hopped onto the stool next to her. “Didn’t mean to make you all upset.”
Lightning found herself grasping onto the last few remaining straws of civility she possessed. “It’s been a long day…”
“Yeah, I know that feeling,” Rainbow said, smiling faintly, a smile Lightning just wanted to smash in with her hoof. “So, uh, what do you do? I haven’t heard your name in years.”
While I’ve heard yours everywhere, Lightning thought. “I’m on the weather team here. I get by.”
Rainbow brightened at the mention of the weather team. “Oh, awesome! I used to be a weathermare myself before the Bolts! So, like, you’re a manager, then? Regional coordinator?”
“Cloud pusher,” Lightning spat, scowling into her drink. She’d never be a manager or a coordinator in a million years. She could hardly hang onto the pushing job. “You know, after I nearly killed the Element Bearers with a runaway tornado, not a lot of ponies are really eager to offer me a job. Funny how that works.”
“O-Oh,” Rainbow said, uncomfortably glancing away. “Well, uh, to be fair, that was really reckless, and you did almost kill all my friends.”
“You think I don’t realize that?” She spun to face Rainbow, and even though she tried to put on an angry scowl, she could feel a wet heat pricking at the corners of her eyes. “Spitfire kicked me out of the academy because of a mistake! Me! Just me! It wasn’t even fair!”
Rainbow blinked. “What do you mean?”
“‘What do I mean?’” She nearly knocked her drink over as she swung her wing to point at Rainbow. “You helped me make that tornado! We both did it! It wasn’t just me! It wasn’t just you! We did it as a team! And then because you complained to Spitfire afterwards, she went and kicked me out of the academy and promoted you to lead pony of an empty team! And now you’re a Wonderbolt, and I’m a fucking cloud pusher because I can’t land anything anywhere else! Explain to me how that’s fair!”
Lightning huffed and huffed, and slowly she settled her flared wings back down at her sides. The bar, suddenly so quiet, began to pick up conversation again, and soon enough it was like nothing had happened. Disgusted, Lightning turned away from Rainbow and finished the rest of her drink in two gulps. “Just… leave me alone,” she muttered, frowning at the empty glass between her hooves. “You ruined my life. Don’t rub it in anymore with your presence.”
Rainbow Dash, who everypony knew as a loud mare, was suddenly silent. Bitterly satisfied, Lightning started looking for Gin, but he was at the other end of the bar ignoring the outburst behind him. Suddenly, Rainbow sighed and put her forehooves on the bar. “You’re right,” she said, much to Lightning’s surprise. “It isn’t fair. Spitfire shouldn’t have kicked you out of the academy without giving you a chance to redeem yourself, prove that you can learn from your mistakes. And I shouldn’t have walked away from it unscathed. We both should’ve been punished for what we did.”
Raising an eyebrow, Lightning angled her head to the side and gave Rainbow a curious glance. The Wonderbolt stared down at her own half-finished drink, likely really thinking about what’d happened for possibly the first time. “You were a great flier, Lightning Dust, and… well, I really enjoyed flying with you at the academy. Obviously I was a little bit pissed with you when your—our tornado nearly smashed my friends to pieces. But, to be completely honest, I’ve never flown with a pony like you before.” Smirking, she added, “There’s not many ponies that can go one on one with me and keep up.”
She couldn’t help it, but the smallest beginnings of a smile touched her muzzle. “Keep up with you? That’s not how I remember it.”
Rainbow snorted. “Oh yeah, that’s right. I guess you were a little far behind me on some of those warm-up laps.”
“Shut up,” Lightning said, shaking her head. Gin turned around and she waved at him, pointing to her empty drink, and within seconds it’d been replaced with a new one. Taking a sip, she carefully set it aside so she wouldn’t accidentally knock it over. “Those were the best days of my life—while they lasted.” She glared at Rainbow, and the Wonderbolt shrank on her seat. “But, well, you’re right. Flying with you was a lot of fun. You and I basically stomped the rest of those cadets into the clouds. It wasn’t even close.”
“You can say that again,” Rainbow said.
“Eh, sure, I will. It wasn’t even close.”
The two of them chuckled together, something that Lightning Dust thought wouldn’t even be possible after what’d happened between them. But when it died again, only awkward silence filled in the gap, stretching on uncomfortably long.
But eventually, Rainbow broke it. “Hey, listen,” she said, brushing her drink aside. “I’m… I’m really sorry about what happened two years ago.”
“Don’t be,” Lightning said, feeling her usual melancholy drape over her like a suffocating, bleak blanket. “It’s in the past. It’s done.”
“Well… maybe not really.” Lightning gave Rainbow a sidelong glance, though Rainbow was staring ahead in thought. “We already finished tryouts for the academy like a month ago, but come next spring… I can put in a word with Spitfire. I can try to get you back in.” She snickered. “Sure, you’d be with the newbies, but I think you’d just wipe the floor with them. Then it’s right into the reserves, and I know Wave Rider is going to be retiring soon. Give it a year or two, and…”
Lightning felt her heart quicken. A second chance? She’d all but written it off when none of her protests or letters to Spitfire had ever gotten a reply. It was almost too good to be true, too much to hope for. “But… I’m already twenty-three,” she said. “In two years, I’ll be twenty-five. I don’t know how many good years I’ve got left in me. I’m already in my prime.”
Rainbow just shrugged. “So? Better late than never! And with skills like yours, I imagine you can compete with the newbies until you’re forty!”
“But I haven’t been practicing,” Lightning protested, fidgeting with her drink. “I… I gave up on being a Wonderbolt. I blew my shot, and I didn’t think there was any reason to keep hoping for the impossible.”
“Well, knock knock, LD, the impossible’s here,” Rainbow said. “And trust me. In a year, we’ll have you back in top shape. You’ll be ready to stomp the competition at the tryouts, and then stomp them at the academy. Just… no tornadoes this time, okay?”
Lightning chuckled. “Yeah, sure. I think I can do that.” She paused to down a gulp of gin, and setting it aside, she looked at Rainbow with a hopeful but timid smile. “So you’re gonna help me out? Get me back in form?”
“Heck yeah I can do that!” Rainbow exclaimed, grinning. “The spring is derby season, but once we hit summer, then it’s just stunt shows and publicity tours, and there’s only like one or two of those every month. I’ll have plenty of time to get you back in form. But honestly?” she asked with a wink, “I don’t even think you’ll need my help.”
“I’d certainly appreciate it, regardless,” Lightning said, shuffling her wings. “So, uh, when should we get started?”
“Tell you what. How about we talk about this before the derby?” Rainbow asked. “Derby pre-show stuff is always so boring. I could use somepony to really talk to besides the other Bolts. They’re too busy trying to figure out how to beat me to really hold a good conversation.”
Lightning rubbed her neck. “I don’t know, I really don’t have the money to get a ticket. Being a cloud pusher doesn’t pay all that well.”
Rainbow waved her hoof. “Pssh. I can get you a ticket in ten seconds flat. Just be there, and I’ll find you, okay?”
The weathermare blinked. “Really?”
“Yeah, totally! Sure, we pack the grandstands, but they never sell out! I’ll get you in, piece of cake.” She picked up her glass in one wing and held it out toward Lightning. “So, how about it? You in?”
Lightning took her own glass and clinked it against Rainbow’s. “Eh, sure, why not. It’s better than just sitting at home by myself.” Tilting her head back, she swallowed several gulps of her drink before she set it back down and waved a wing at Gin to order another one.
Only this time it was to celebrate, not to forget.