Best Pegasus

by forbloodysummer

Best Pegasus

Spitfire trudged up the dark, narrow wooden stairs, one wing firmly wrapped around the hoofrail to steady herself against the swaying as the train chugged along. Her wings ached even more than usual, but that had nothing to do with why she felt so weary. She pulled her way up to the top and paused there for a second to collect herself, before sliding open the compartment door. The room revealed was low and cramped, with the only light coming from a window that started level with the floor and barely came up to her chest when she was standing. Rather than seats, boxes and suitcases were laid out before her, which her sore body weakly protested at the sight of.

But it still beats sitting downstairs.

Sadly the compartment was somehow not empty of other ponies. The rest of the train was hardly packed, with Spitfire seeing plenty of free seats when sneaking through to get to the upstairs luggage loft of the double-deck carriage. It was technically open for ponies to sit in anytime, but so restrictive compared to downstairs that it was only really used during peak journey times, and most otherwise forgot it was there. Since that made it the quietest bit of the train, Spitfire could understand the presence of the off-white earth pony sleeping in one corner. In the dim light away from the window, Spitfire almost mistook that pony for Soarin, despite the lack of wings, but a second glance confirmed her to be a mare and have a multicoloured musical-themed cutie mark very different to Soarin’s familiar lightning and waves emblem. Thankfully it sounded like she snored quieter, too.

So the sleeping, Spitfire could totally get. But what would have prompted the grey pegasus with the blonde mane to sit up here, staring out of the window, when the seats downstairs were more comfortable and offered much better views?

Spitfire dragged herself into the compartment – not physically dragged, this time (although she did have to half-flare her wings at one point to keep her balance as the train lurched on rickety wheels) – and headed over to a free patch of wooden carriage floor amid the sea of suitcases. She wished it hadn’t been in front of the window, directly opposite the grey pegasus, but it looked like the biggest empty spot of bare floor to stretch out in.

The pegasus finally broke her attention away from gazing out of the window as Spitfire gingerly lowered herself into her newly-found ‘seat.’ Spitfire smiled apologetically as the pegasus met her eyes, not wanting to have disturbed her or to be disturbed in turn. She hoped they could both enjoy the journey by politely ignoring each other, as Spitfire vaguely remembered ponies happily doing from the days before she became a Wonderbolt and had her life changed by the fame that came with it, and as the slumbering earth pony was setting such a good example of.

Except then she got a good look at the pony sitting across from her. That light grey coat and sandy blonde mane were familiar, with Spitfire having seen the pony before during her time at Rainbow Falls. Hadn’t she been among the Ponyville team? Except she hadn’t been on the podium when Spitfire had given Rainbow her Wonderbolt pin; Rainbow had been up there with the shy yellow one Spitfire remembered from the Cloudsdale water transfer in Ponyville a couple of years before, and the monstrous white stallion with the tiny wings. But this mare was a pegasus, and Spitfire remembered seeing her flying, so it wasn’t like she was afraid of heights or something. Could she really be a less confident flier than the other two?

And then Spitfire realised, and felt like an idiot for not guessing it right away. As if she needed more things to feel bad about that day. ...Which wasn’t really how the leader of the fastest team was meant to feel the day she qualified, she was pretty sure. But yes, the pony across from her was surely the third pony replacement for the Ponyville team brought in when they had thought Rainbow was out of action. And that meant Spitfire owed her an apology.

“Hey,” she said, clearing her throat, “you stood in for Rainbow Dash on the Ponyville team, right?” She tried to mask her reluctance with what she hoped was a friendly smile, making sure her voice held some warmth.

The grey pegasus, who had returned her attention to the landscape passing by outside while Spitfire had tried to narrow down her identity looked startled at being spoken to, almost jumping where she sat. A faint blush quickly followed across her muzzle.

“Y-yeah, that was me,” she stammered, clearly still recovering from the shock. Then she squeezed her face into a goofy smile, trying to cover her awkwardness, Spitfire guessed, but it didn’t look insincere. “I’m just hiding up here from all the gawking fans.”

Spitfire grinned back, hoping her distaste at the humbling apology she was psyching herself up for didn’t show through and put the other mare off. First taste of fame? Nothing else like it. She remembered her own experience of the same: occasionally uncomfortable, but mostly so flattering it almost made her feel giddy just thinking back to it, the ghosts of butterflies past fluttering in her stomach.

“Me too.” Was there any helpful advice she could offer from experience, if the poor pony was hiding up here already? “You get used to the stares, if it helps,” was the best Spitfire could come up with, filling it with enough bravado and camaraderie to make up for it being a bit useless.

“Yeah,” came the reply, but it sounded downbeat and lost. The mare looked somewhere around Spitfire’s hooves as she said it, and that was when Spitfire noticed her peculiar eyes. She stomped down on her instinct to widen her own eyes in surprise, catching it just in time, and then fought off the contradictory dual instincts both to stare and to swiftly avert her gaze. Trying really hard for it not to be strained or anything she wouldn’t do naturally, she leaned her head forwards slightly, tilting it a little, offering the uninvolved concern of a well-intentioned stranger, and made sure she looked at the mare’s face as a whole, not just her eyes.

Where do you normally look on somepony’s face? What do you focus on, if not the eyes? And how come I haven’t thought about this until it’s important and I need an answer?

“But they still bring me down,” the other pony finished, not lifting her gaze to meet Spitfire’s.


The emotional drain she’d already been feeling was suddenly joined by an ache in her throat. Poor thing must get stared at all the time. And that was why she was hiding in what amounted to the baggage car? Retrospectively, Spitfire realised that the bit about gawking fans had probably been a joke, internally wincing at how she’d said the other mare would get used to it.

Spitfire could hardly call herself medically qualified, but crossed eyes were largely just a cosmetic problem, as far as she understood. There’d been a pony in her year at school with the same thing, and the colt in the local music shop had had it much more prominently. Neither of them had ever appeared to have any trouble doing anything as a result, as far as she knew. But then they’d both been earth ponies, and if there was one area where steady vision and depth perception were crucial...

“It affects your flying, I presume?” she asked, speaking softly as if the subject were delicate literally as well as metaphorically. Thankfully the pony didn’t show much emotional reaction to the question: no shock or offence, but no weariness either, so perhaps it wasn’t something she was asked too often, or perhaps Spitfire’s status as a professional flier earned her some leeway in being curious about it.

“There’s definitely a reason Bulk Biceps made the team before I did, yeah.” The mare looked Spitfire in the eye as she said it, but her voice was dull, and after her gaze slipped away again after she’d finished speaking.

Both ponies winced as a blast of the train whistle echoed through the carriage, uncomfortably loud with how close they were to the engine. A petulant groan came from the direction of the sleeping earth pony, but no movement or further sound. The grey pegasus returned to watching the landscape slide by outside while Spitfire tried to work out how to phrase her response in a way that wouldn’t come across as simply patronising.

Once she thought she had it, she said, “I was really impressed with how graciously you stepped down when Rainbow came back.” For a flier so under-confident to have been thrust into the spotlight like that must’ve been nothing short of terrifying, but she’d stepped up with aplomb, from what Spitfire vaguely remembered happening to see of the Ponyville training routine. And then the mare had had it ripped away from her again at the last minute. All that effort, all those nerves, all for nothing. And Spitfire hadn’t heard whisper of a single complaint.

The blonde pony blushed at the compliment, looking off to one side at the floor, but again, her eyes darted to Spitfires’ when replying. “I was just glad to be included.” She gave a kind, genuine smile as she spoke, and had humility in her tone, but also eagerness and gratitude. She really had been glad just to be on the team for a bit, then.

Spitfire recalled the closest she’d ever felt to something like that, when Wind Rider had been set to step down as captain, with herself next in line to succeed him. And then at the last minute he’d decided to stay on another year, giving a speech about a last hurrah. She hadn’t meant to inadvertently put another pony in a similar position, especially not one who’d just got her hopes up from believing it hadn’t ever been possible.

You really screwed up this time, Spitfire.

“I’m sorry you were messed around like that,” she said, feeling the weight of it settling on her, “that was my fault for stealing Rainbow away for Cloudsdale.”

For a brief second, the grey mare looked astounded, frozen in wide-eyed disbelief. But she quickly recovered, softly beaming in her improvised seat, with compassion in her eyes Spitfire had never seen from someone she’d just met before.

“That’s ok,” the other pony answered, and either she was a scarily good liar, or she really meant it. The reply didn’t brush off Spitfire’s apology as something given or taken lightly, but didn’t hesitate to forgive either.

Hopes raised then smashed, chiefly my fault, and that’s ok? Somehow, the grey pony lived in Ponyville but wasn’t the Element of Kindness. What did that say about how nice the real Element Bearer had to be?!

When Spitfire’s own widened eyes had recovered from the shock of those musings, she noticed that her conversation partner was looking conflicted, rubbing and pulling at one ear. When Spitfire gave a questioning look, she received an apologetic one in return, and the mare’s mouth hung open, as if she wanted to say something but wasn’t sure where to begin.

Spitfire tried her hardest to make sure her own expression was as kind and patient as it could be.

“I... I didn’t understand w-why you needed to do it, though,” the pony began.

Spitfire’s questioning look leapt back onto her muzzle of its own accord, but she managed to stop her eyebrows from drawing down into a frown, even if it would have been from puzzlement rather than anger.

“You guys are Wonderbolts,” the mare explained, still looking like she half-regretted saying anything, “it’s not like you had to worry about not qualifying.” She gave a nervous laugh. “That’s why they had to get me to replace Rainbow – most Ponyville pegasi were competing in other events instead, just so they didn’t have to go up against you guys.”

Though it was impossible over the chugging of the train, Spitfire could have sworn she heard the whooshing noise of the air leaving her lungs. She sat, poleaxed, while her brain tried to get over the stumbling block a random pony on a train had just thrown her way.

The Wonderbolts had chosen the relay, of course, because team flying was their thing. However strong each of them might have been individually, they were better as a unit, with their real advantage of their synchronicity making them greater than the sum of their clichéd parts. And, knowing that, I tried to replace one link in our chain with a newbie we’d never flown with before?

Spitfire felt her stomach hit a whole new low as the impact of that thought sunk in.

Why had she tried to trade an established team member for an unknown one, in a team-based competition? And the grey pegasus was right – it wasn’t like they’d needed the advantage. They were Wonderbolts – they could have won while flying blindfolded! And even if Rainbow Dash had been able to offer some one-pony competition, they both still would have gone through anyway, as the top two teams qualified.

What had she been thinking?

“I don’t know, really,” she said, staring at her hooves, trying to find words – any words at all – and coming up short. ‘I don’t know’ wasn’t an answer worthy of a Wonderbolt, though, when called on to explain her actions, let alone of their captain. They were meant to be better than that. And maybe that was the answer? “You just get locked into the mindset of doing whatever it takes, when your whole career revolves around being the best.”

Oh, that is a depressing truth...

Would she be able to avoid it in future, now she knew of the pitfall? Was that attitude truly inevitable, in her line of work? Perhaps it was necessary, being the thing that pushed her harder than others. Or perhaps her team didn’t really deserve to think of themselves as the best, if those were the depths they had to sink to to maintain it?

Confusion, concern and possibly mild condemnation warred on the mare’s face, with sadness ultimately winning out. “That doesn’t sound nice.”

“It isn’t,” Spitfire shrugged, voicing without hesitation something she knew to be the case, but hadn’t consciously acknowledged before. Not from that angle, at least. She’d overheard the newbies whispering about her plenty of times before, and ‘not nice’ was about the kindest they’d ever described her. She recalled the same response she’d made on those occasions, paraphrasing it to fit the situation.

“Most of the ponies on this train are nice. I’m not. I’m Spitfire. And it’s me they’ll tell their friends about seeing when they get home.”

‘Nice’ was hardly a unique selling point. Anypony could be nice. To a certain part of her, the idea even felt boring in its normalcy. If niceness was what the grey pegasus wanted in a conversant, well, then she’d have been better off spending the journey talking to somepony else. Perhaps anypony else.

As it was, the mare looked aghast, with her brow wrinkled in worry.

“A-and being in the Wonderbolts...?” She left the question hanging.

Spitfire took a guess that the rest of the question was meant to have been something about whether any of them were nice, or whether they were nice to each other or something similar, and so elected for an answer that covered most of those possibilities.

“If your biggest care is friendship, then it’s probably not for you.”

It sounded miserable, phrased like that. It wasn’t to say that it held no friendships at all, just that they weren’t necessarily always given the highest priority. A race was a race, and in those moments it didn’t matter how close you were to the other racers; they were your opponents. Even if it was just the smallest of derbies. The rest of the time might be spent bonding as a team, but the competitiveness could test whatever friendships formed. Not that Spitfire wouldn’t have considered most of her team friends, and in Soarin and Fleetfoot’s case, best friends, but still: that environment didn’t put friendships first, and as a result could sometimes tax them.

Evidently it sounded miserable to the grey mare as well. Her eyes held nothing but pity; Spitfire wasn’t sure Wonderbolts had generated that response before.

“But if it’s winning?” the pony said. “That’s what matters most to you?”

Not what matters most, but... It did come across that way, didn’t it? She’d always strived to win, of course, always felt the thrill of it, but was that really the most important thing to her now? She’d sometimes found herself in the past looking down on those who lived only to win, unimpressed by the co-dependence of their self-worth being tied to how they stacked up against others. Was that who she’d become, too?

That wasn’t why I joined the ’Bolts. That’s not why I lead them.

Her first ever race, back in flight camp. First race as a reserve. First as a full recruit. First show as captain. In every case, winning wasn’t the part she remembered.

“Flying’s what matters most to me,” she breathed. Her gaze sank. How did I get so lost? “Winning’s just something I got used to.”

“It sounds trite to say it,” the grey mare responded, “but there’s more to life than winning.” Her eyes drifted to the view rolling past the window, and she added almost to herself, “For some of us, there has to be.”

In Spitfire’s head, the words were echoed in Soarin’s voice. It was just the sort of thing he’d have said, and so it cut all the deeper. If she hadn’t listened to... No, I can’t blame Fleetfoot. She’s an individualist and I’ve always known that. Spitfire could usually predict which ways her friends would lean, with Soarin going towards team play and Fleetfoot personal glory. Ideally she herself sat somewhere between the two. Much more importantly, though, she was the team captain, and that meant the responsibility was hers. It didn’t matter who she listened to for advice: what advice was heeded was her decision.

She’d made the wrong call, put winning first, and been blind to the consequences – including those that they were competing in a team event, where their familiarity with Soarin would have helped them more than Rainbow Dash’s speed.

Spitfire mentally kicked herself. Again, she was focusing on winning, and on how having Soarin on-side would have helped them as a team. That mentality had done enough damage for the day, with the strain it had put on her friendship with Soarin, with Rainbow, and even with Fleetfoot, since they’d probably both feel too guilty to comfortably look each other in the eye for the next few days.

And the grey pony in front of her? What had she done to deserve what Spitfire’s competitiveness had wrought?

“I’m sorry,” she said for the second time, and her voice cracked. “You shouldn’t have had to suffer for that.” She passed a hoof over her eyes for a moment and shook her head to herself. “Nopony should have, but least of all one I hadn’t even thought about being connected to it.”

“It’s ok,” the mare said immediately, “everypony makes mistakes.” Her kind smile was back, and again there was no doubting her sincerity. The effect was reassuring, sure, but also disarming.

Despite all the galas, the press appearances and the fan meet-and-greets, Spitfire hung out with her team almost exclusively, and everypony she knew closely was a Wonderbolt. And this behaviour would be unheard of from any of them. There was no promise of later ridicule, and no suggestion of a forfeit to make up for failing.

“How are you so forgiving?” Spitfire asked, dumbfounded, looking at the other pony as if she were a puzzle to be solved.

The grey of the mare’s ears flushed with a tint of red, and she smiled bashfully, almost as if she felt guilty for being worthy of a compliment.

“I don’t exactly always get things right myself,” she said, more cheerfully than Spitfire would have expected. “As we’ve said, I don’t fly so well, which makes me kind of clumsy, and I end up breaking stuff.” There was a little bit of shame evident in how the pony’s ears drooped, but not nearly as much as might normally accompany that kind of admission; her shoulders no more hunched than before. “I don’t want ponies to hold that against me, so I try not to hold things against others.”

But Spitfire felt she did rather deserve to have it held against her. If not by this stranger caught up in the events, then at least by Soarin, who’d been at the heart of it, and hurt by her directly. And while she hadn’t wanted that, it had been an unavoidable consequence of the decision she’d made, one she’d known would happen when weighing the options. And sure enough, she’d chosen to go ahead with it, and he’d suffered, and nothing else had worked out in her favour and that was that. Which felt like something one ought to feel guilty for.

That must’ve shown on her face, because the grey pegasus spoke up again. “Look, beating yourself up over it won’t achieve anything.”

Nothing at all? That couldn’t be right, or surely ponies wouldn’t do it. There had to be some purpose for why ponies felt remorse, and acted accordingly, didn’t there? Obviously it was an internal feeling, and wouldn’t affect the outside world; but it could colour how you chose to act in future.

“What if it drives you to make amends? Or to try harder not to let it happen again?”

The look Spitfire received was patient with a touch of exasperation, but the voice the mare replied with was still calm and upbeat.

“If I get something wrong, then sure, I try to fix it as best I can. But I don’t hate myself for messing up. It’s natural.”

But I’ve always pushed myself to be better than that, to be something more. Boundaries imposed by nature were things to slam yourself against until they broke, not to be seen as hard limits. Messing up might be natural, but so were established pegasus flight agility capabilities, and Spitfire had smashed them into smithereens in front of paying audiences. How could one strive for perfection but be so unaffected by falling short?

And, it was kind of morbid and masochistic as a thought, but, in a way, suffering for doing something wrong felt like making up for it. It felt more like the forgiveness, when it did come, had been earned. Otherwise it was a bit like getting something you’d normally buy for free – it was great, everypony loved free stuff, but you never quite felt like you deserved it as much as something you’d paid for.

“How do you just accept that?” she asked, looking at the grey pony but with her eyes only half-focused.

The mare gave the happiest shrug Spitfire had ever seen, a carefree gesture the complete opposite of a helpless admission of defeat.

“I am just a pony. I make mistakes from time to time.”

Was that it? Could the answer really be that simple? Could a pony make mistakes, in the way that an idol on a pedestal never could? And if that pedestal status had previously been her defence, did that mean she had to make an effort to be nicer sometimes?

Soarin thought of himself as being just a pony, she’d be willing to bet. Fleetfoot anything but. Soarin was probably the happier of the two, and certainly the easier to get along with. But he’d also been the one left behind in the hospital bed, because others hadn’t been as kind. And Fleetfoot was undoubtedly the faster flyer, though how much of that was down to her attitude was debatable.

‘Pushing ourselves in the right direction’ had seemed like such a straightforward platitude when she’d said it to Rainbow Dash the year before. But the reality, she now realised, was a constant balancing act. Pushing the team to do better without pulling them apart. Too much competitiveness here, too little camaraderie there. But go too far, and she’d find too much friendship here, too little flying there.

Will I ever know where the right equilibrium is? Or will I always be feeling it out as I go? And accepting that sometimes I’ll get it wrong?

“Thanks,” Spitfire said, with a soft smile, “that’s really good advice.” It wasn’t often you sat down on a train and had a conversation that saw a merging of philosophies and changed your outlook, especially not when you sought out the emptiest car in an effort to be alone. “I’m sorry,” she brought a hoof to her mouth, blushing, “I didn’t catch your name.”

The grey pegasus blinked, stationary for a moment, and then snorted in amusement and shook her head. The old rule about the time limit on asking for somepony’s name during conversation existed for good reason.

“I’m Derpy,” she said firmly with a grin. “Derpy Hooves.”

“Hi Derpy,” Spitfire answered with a grin of her own, able to put a name to the pony at last, “I’m Spitfire.”

I am just a pony. I make mistakes from time to time. Well, I definitely have the second bit covered; I can work on the first. Behind her, the off-white earth pony whickered in her sleep, and Spitfire glanced to the window where the world sped by, feeling the train start to slow for the next station.