S U M M E R
The whole world blurred past Lightning Dust’s eyes as she rolled out of the apex of her loop, zooming through the guide rings. Her wings ached from days, weeks of flying along the bleeding edge of their limit. Lightning Dust the stunt flier was still alseep somewhere inside of her, but that mare was stirring. Muscle memory guided her feathers along every loop, through every dive, along every bank. This is what she was meant to do. To do what other pegasi couldn’t and make it look easy.
Ahead of her, Rainbow Dash flew up, down, and around the clouds scattered in front of them. Lightning flapped her wings and trimmed her feathers back two inches to hold her position through the turbulent air Rainbow kicked off of her wings. Although every instinct told her to pass the Wonderbolt, Lightning narrowed her eyes and pushed those instincts down. This was formation flying, not a race, and if she strayed too far from Rainbow’s flank then she failed. And this wasn’t even the hard part.
They spun around cloud pillars they’d erected earlier in the day, Lightning holding her position on Rainbow’s left despite how close it put her wingtip to the clouds. She had to cut back on her speed just a little bit since she had the shorter radius, as otherwise she would’ve pulled alongside her lead pony. Then they cut back again, only this time Lightning was on the outside, and she had to speed up to keep alongside Rainbow. Rainbow certainly didn’t make it easy on her; Lightning was sure that Rainbow sped up to purposefully make it harder for her.
She smiled. She loved the challenge.
They left the cloud pillars behind, and Rainbow swiftly rolled onto her back and pulled her nose down into a dive. Lightning mimicked the action after precisely one second of delay, staying exactly where she needed to. They were several thousand feet off the ground, and Lightning knew what Rainbow was going to do next. Tucking her wings against her sides so the tips touched just over her tail and leaving only the curled crests out to generate lift and speed, Lightning followed Rainbow into a breakneck plunge to the earth below.
She swallowed hard, her body dumping adrenaline into her veins. Her heart pounded in her chest, strong and excited as it hammered blood to her wings, and she could hear every beat inside her skull. The air she knifed through tried to tear open her wings and get her to slow down, but Lightning held them stiff as a board, only twitching her shoulders by imperceptible margins to make the tiniest corrections to her dive. Her forelegs may as well have been glued to her chest, and her hind legs were straight and streamlined, minimizing surface area for the air to hold her back. And far below them, an emerald green field shimmered and rippled in the breeze.
Though she kept her head straight, Lightning’s eyes flicked from the ground to Rainbow’s left wing. She honed in on the blue feathers, completely ignoring the ground she was diving to meet. Formation flying was all about follow the leader, and she wasn’t going to break off her dive until she saw Rainbow’s wings open. She trusted Rainbow to leave her enough space off the ground to react and level off; her life was entirely in the Wonderbolt’s hooves, and if Rainbow peeled out of the dive too late, Lightning would slam into the ground and die.
But she knew that wasn’t going to happen. As soon as Lightning noticed the hills in her peripheral vision, Rainbow’s wings snapped open, and Lightning immediately followed suit. The two fliers whizzed across the long grasses for several hundred feet, the stems brushing against Lightning’s hooves, before Rainbow began to climb again. Lightning stayed by her side the whole way up until Rainbow finally slowed down and alighted on a nearby cloud.
Panting lightly, Rainbow moved her goggles up her forehead and shook her sweaty mane out. “I love running that drill during practice. It’s a lot crazier when you’re at the tail position of a five pony wing. Like, even though you’re supposed to be watching the second or third pony, you can still see the leader break off, but you have to hold a beat longer before you do as well, otherwise you’re above the rest of the formation. The average pony might not notice that you messed up, but any stunt flier would be able to tell. So we practice and practice until we’ve got it all down perfect.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything else from Equestria’s greatest fliers,” Lightning Dust said, grinning. “That’s why you’re the best.”
“I can’t call ourselves the best if we don’t have the best,” Rainbow said, lightly cuffing Lightning’s shoulder. “We’re not a complete team yet.”
Lightning cuffed Rainbow back. “Stop, you’re going to make me blush.” Shaking her head, she ran a hoof through her mane and looked at the sky. “Sun’s getting low. We should get dinner soon.”
“And a shower,” Rainbow said with a laugh. “Phew! I can smell the weatherpony we’re burning off of you!”
“Are you saying I got fat?” Lightning asked her, raising an eyebrow.
“I sure ain’t saying that you got thinner!”
Laughing, the two mares sat side by side, their eyes on the clouds drifting across the sky. “We’re going to have to break this stuff up before it makes its way to the city,” Lightning said, looking behind them at the glistening towers of Manehattan. “Storm Surge would be pissed.”
“Didn’t you quit that job?” Rainbow asked her, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah I did!” Lightning proudly proclaimed. “Screw her and her fat, feathery ass! I’m done with the MWC! I’m gonna be a Wonderbolt!”
“And in the meanwhile you’re just gonna crash at my place like a freeloader?” Rainbow deadpanned, though the upturned corner of her muzzle said something different entirely.
“It was your idea,” Lightning said, grinning at Rainbow. “You said that you hardly use the place enough, so I might as well make myself at home.”
“Well, I didn’t mean literally, but eh, what can you do.” She brushed a few strands of rainbow hair out of her face and frowned at the obstacle course clouds still around them. “Hey, LD, wanna race?”
“An honest to Celestia race?” Lightning asked, her ears perking. She rubbed her forehooves together and flexed her wings. “You better not hold anything back. I wouldn’t want you to embarrass yourself if I just blew by you.”
“Me? Hold back? Rainbow ‘Danger’ Dash doesn’t hold anything back!”
Lightning snickered. “You still call yourself that?”
“Oh, shut up,” Rainbow said, shaking her head. Then, standing up, she flexed her wings and wiggled her tail a bit as she settled her hooves into the cloud for a good launch. “We’ll run the course again from start to finish. Loser has to bust the clouds before we go home.”
Lightning stood up and got herself ready for the launch as well. “When was the last time you had to bust clouds? Still remember how to do it?”
“No, I think I’ve forgotten,” Rainbow said, smacking Lightning’s side with her feathers. “It’s been so long!”
“Then you better learn fast!” Lightning exclaimed just a split second before she launched herself into the air. But instead of giving herself a lead to work with, Rainbow’s nose was hardly farther back than Lightning’s shoulder as they climbed toward the first loop.
“What, you think that’ll work on me?!” Rainbow shouted over the air roaring past their ears. “Think again, LD!”
Lightning gritted her teeth and pushed herself toward the cloud rings demarcating the loop. She had to start strong and build a lead before she got to the dive, otherwise she’d lose. Rainbow was the only pegasus in Equestria who could pull off a rainboom. If Lightning could gain some ground during the loops and the turns, then maybe she could hold off Rainbow and her speed in the final leg.
Bursting through the ring, Lightning pulled her wings back to start on the uphill section of the loop, Rainbow Dash right behind her. Even though she was in the lead, Lightning felt like she had to go faster, faster, just because Rainbow was right to her inside and pressuring her. The turquoise mare grunted and put all her energy into a powerful flap at the apex of the loop, trying to recover the momentum she’d lost in the climb before gravity aided her on the descent. Her joints and shoulders ached with exertion, but she pushed past it, determined not to yield a hair of sky to Rainbow.
She sped through the dual rainbow and lightning trails they’d left in their wakes at the bottom of the loop and banked hard for the clouds. But Rainbow cut inside of her, and now the two were neck and neck, nose to nose as they angled for the next stage. Lightning only spared a quick glance at her competitor before she turned her attention back toward the clouds in front of her. This was her chance to really make up ground.
Around and between the clouds they went, Lightning’s feathers skimming their surfaces, cloudstuff running down her back as she turned. After the first few clouds, she had a neck on Rainbow, and by the time they exited, her lead had grown to a tail. Then came the dive, the final stretch.
Lightning tilted her head down and tried to streamline her body again. It wouldn’t count unless she got low enough to touch the grasses, and the fastest way to do that and get to the finish line was to go rocketing straight down. This time, she tried to flap her wings as she dived, but anything other than the most efficient and streamlined movement would cost her speed. Already she could feel herself hitting a wall where she couldn’t push herself faster no matter how hard she tried.
But Rainbow Dash didn’t have that problem. The slimmer and smaller pegasus appeared at the edge of Lightning’s vision, and when she glanced to the left, she saw Rainbow almost lazily pulling up alongside her. She hovered by her side, even spinning around her once in a brazen display of cockiness, before she winked and suddenly pulling off to the side. Lightning frowned, but immediately gasped as she realized she’d gotten a lot closer to the ground than she wanted to. She tried to pull up, but she couldn’t clear it completely. Her hooves brushed the earth and the tall grasses clipped at her wings, and her desperate attempt to flap and gain altitude ended when her wingtips jammed into the dirt and she tumbled across the open field, spinning head over hooves at least a dozen times before she came to a groaning stop on her back.
“Shit!” It took Lightning’s dazed mind a second to place the voice as Rainbow’s, but within a few moments, the Wonderbolt was standing over her, her head blocking out the sun. “Yo, LD, you okay?”
Lightning groaned and sat up. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Nothing broken. Another split second and it would’ve been my neck hitting the ground, not my wings.” She rubbed them with her hooves for a second before folding them against her sides, but she winced as she did so. “I’ll be fine, they’ll just be sore for a few days.”
Rainbow Dash fidgeted in place. “I’m so sorry,” she said, stepping closer to Lightning. “I shouldn’t have crowded you like that.”
“I’m fine, Dash,” Lightning said, though when she waved a wing, a wince accompanied it. “I’ve been banged up worse.” She looked up at the sky, at all the clouds still in it, and suppressed a grimace. “Well, you won, so I guess I’ll get right on that. Just... gimme five.”
She opened her wings to take flight, but Rainbow pushed one back down to her side. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it,” she said, and popping her own wings open, she pulled her hooves a few inches off the ground. “I’ve busted my fair share of clouds. I used to be the weather manager for Ponyville. I’ll have these skies done in no time!”
Lightning blushed a little and dipped her head. “You’re too awesome for your own good, you know that, right?”
“Psshhh! There’s no such thing as ‘too awesome!’” She flew up a little higher and gave Lightning a tiny salute. “Just stay put! I’ll be back soon!”
Then, with a burst of rainbow color, Rainbow Dash soared off into the sky, angling for the cloud pillars first. Her trail darted between them like a zigzagging pinball, and each one exploded in a little puff of vapor before disappearing. Lightning Dust simply watched her work, mesmerized, as the colorful trail made the clouds disappear one by one.
Smiling, she laid back down and spread her wings at her sides. She felt like she could just watch this forever. It was…