I pawed at the ground impatiently. We were all lined up and the guest officiant - Long Winded - hadn't finished his speech yet. I was already having a hard time keeping my nerves under control without seeing the flashes of pink and yellow through the crowd.
"Oh, come on!" shouted Rainbow Dash. "Let's just start the race already!"
Long Winded frowned but waved his hoof. "I declare this year's Running of the Leaves," he drawled. "Begun!" Pinkie fired off her party cannon and we leapt from the starting line.
For most of the race, it was just keeping up with the other ponies, seeing the wake of our passing tugging leaves from the trees. Most of us were just running for the fun, some for the tradition and some just for the experience.
AJ and Dash were racing seriously for the seventh year in a row. Apparently, they needed a tie-breaker for their past races. I don't know why they waited to do this the same time every year when the route is open year round. Maybe I'll ask one day. I just hope she's not too tired to pull off that stunt I asked for.
I kept going, maintaining a steady pace just above a canter. I was hoping to keep my place in the middle of the herd until we neared the end, then break out into a full gallop across the finish, just as Twilight and Dash had helped me train for. It had been a hard two weeks, but it was worth it. I wanted to do this, to be seen participating in an Equestrian event despite what anypony might say. I was done hiding. This was my act of defiance, my flag of challenge.
I rounded the midpoint, the blue and orange specks that were AJ and Dash far ahead of us. I was glad they weren't officially in the race, otherwise the first and second place finishers would have been determined already. I kept my legs churning, but I was starting to feel the fatigue build.
Unicorns aren't built for physical stamina. We weren't any better or worse at doing things than any other pony, but physically, we were kind of small. The Pegasi didn't fare much different because while mostly athletic, their power was concentrated in their wings. Earth ponies had the advantage here, being connected to the earth and stockier than the rest of us. It didn't matter, though. The race was long enough to challenge all, even those that weren't in the best of shape.
The last leg of the race was a blur in my eyes. I was just focused on running, just keeping one hoof in front of the next. I crossed the finish line and stumbled into a sprawl on my back, panting. I heard somepony say something to me, but the sound of my lungs greedily sucking in air made it hard to hear.
"What?" I panted.
Twilight leaned into my field of vision. "You made fourth place!" she beamed as she helped me to my hooves. "Congratulations!"
A shiny bronze medallion floated over and settled onto my neck. I looked at it in awe as I felt a wing slide over my back.
"Congratulations, Sunset," Fluttershy breathed in that quiet voice of hers. "I'm happy for you."
"Hey, traitor!" a stallion shouted. "You shouldn't have been allowed in this race! This is only for loyal ponies!"
A soggy tomato flew through the air and suddenly froze in my reddish aura of magic.
Twilight turned, her wings flaring out. "Who threw that?" she demanded.
"Yeah," Dash swooped in, making motions as though she were pushing sleeves up her forelegs. "Step forward."
"That's alright," I said softly, setting the soft fruit down and stepping forward. Fluttershy looked at me in confusion. I gave her a wink and was rewarded with a warm smile.
"I'm sure you all read the editorial about me and my reason for being here," I said, hearing some jeers from the crowd. "I didn't want to face it before because I thought it would just blow over and I could ignore it. Apparently not.
"It's true, that I did commit a crime some years back," I admitted. "But it wasn't anything treasonous. The crime was not realizing how good I had it, for having ponies that wanted the best for me. I ran away, and refused to see things that were right in front of me all the time. Princess Twilight and her friends helped me see where I went wrong, and when I returned here, Celestia was constrained by her own laws to either try me for the act of defiance of a request she made of me or to pardon me for it.
"Twilight and her friends stood up for me, and that should be good enough for you," I smiled gently as I heard the jeering stop. "Don't believe one editorial written without even consulting the ponies involved. Judge me by my actions and not for rumors you might hear. If you're not sure of something, feel free to ask. I'm not Nightmare Moon, you know."
Some laughter rippled through the crowd, and I turned away, walking back to my friends, hoping that someone wouldn't throw anything at my back. As I passed under Twilight and Dash's wings, I saw a wistful smile on Fluttershy's face as she moved to meet me.
"I knew you could do it," she said.
"We need to talk," I said. "There's something I have to tell you."
She looked confused, but as the crowd slowly moved to the location where the three top racers were celebrating, we had a moment of privacy.
"Fluttershy," I started, my nerves starting to twitch. "Ever since I came back, you've been nothing but kind, always trying to draw me from my shell and get me to move past my mistakes. I thought I had done that already, but well..." I chuckled.
"But I was worried," I said, twisting a hoof in the dirt before me. "I kept thinking that it was because I was a guest of Twilight's and you felt obligated to. I didn't examine it too deeply. But then, the night where I felt the most lost, I woke up warm, covered in a blanket and protected from the weather. You didn't have to do that, but you did. And the lunches and tea times, even the one with Discord, they were all fun."
She looked at me, her eyes wide as the words tumbled out faster than I could think.
"I really enjoyed them, 'Shy," I said, taking one of her hooves in mine. "I'd like to keep doing them. I'd like to see you more often. I..." I froze as she rested a hoof against my lips.
"Are you trying to ask me to be your marefriend, Sunset Shimmer?" she asked playfully. "Because you sure have danced around the issue and the hints I dropped since you've been back."
I smiled. "I guess I have," I said. "I had to find my place here first before I could realize what's happening."
She gave me a smirk. "You still didn't answer my question, you know."
"I suppose I haven't," I admitted.
"My answer's yes, by the way," she whispered to me.
I smiled. "So's mine," I joked, leaning in to nuzzle her. As her wings spread slightly, I heard a crack like fireworks overhead, and glancing up, I saw Rainbow bank and dart up through a multi-colored cloud of smoke, speed building until with a loud boom, an arc of colors started spreading slowly.
Fluttershy smiled that gentle smile, looking at the fading Rainboom. "She did her first standing up for me, you know," she said.
"I heard," I agreed, smiling as she slid a wing across my shoulders.
The sun was heading for the horizon, but its majesty paled in comparison to the rest of my view. I was back in that grove of trees again, but I was smiling this time because next to me was a butter-yellow Pegasus, her eyes closed in sleep. We were laying on that blanket that started it all, the fallen leaves drifting across us in the breeze.
I closed my eyes, and sighed, letting nature cover us in a mantle of red and gold.