At school the next morning Pound picked a spot farthest away from Drill Bit and his buddies to practice flying. He focused more on wing-ups than actually trying to get off the ground.
Drill observed him from afar, unsure what to say or how to get the ball rolling. He didn’t really know how to be nice to ponies like Pound. Other ponies were all competition. If they were comparably skilled then trading banter to psyche one’s self up was the way to go. If they were inferior then they were beneath notice except to drive that point home. That was why he and his friends got along so well. They all kept each other on their hooves because they were all pretty skilled.
In the end Drill didn’t get a chance to talk to Pound before class ended. He would rectify that before the end of the day.
During lunch Drill Bit came up to Pound while Pumpkin and Masky were playing together. “Hey there.”
Pound gave him a dirty look. “Hi,” he said darkly.
“Can we talk?”
Pound shrugged. “Whatever. You guys continue on without me.”
They went by the patch of trees where Pumpkin had attacked herself. Pound sat against a tree, saying disinterestedly, “So what do you want with me?”
Drill sat against the tree next to him. “I don’t know yet.”
Pound’s head turned slightly. “What does that mean?”
“You remember I told you that my brother was part of the Royal Guard in Canterlot?”
“My brother is on medical leave from the Royal Guard, and I told him about you. He then told me about his accident, and I found out it was so much worse than I thought it had been.”
Pound listened as Drill told the story of his brother’s near death experience, his disinterest turning to concern and fear when Drill Bit got to the point where Noble was buried alive. From there on he paid closer attention.
“I don’t understand my brother’s feelings…” Drill scratched the back of his head, looking uncertain. “He seems to think that things will be better with his new way of thinking, but I just don’t get it.”
“Because it’s not the way I grew up. Our only goal is success, no matter what it takes.”
“Even if you have to cheat?” Pound asked with a scowl.
Drill shook his head. “That’s the one exception. If you have to resort to cheating it only means you didn’t really win and that you were afraid of your opponents.”
“So what do you want from me? Why bother telling me all this?”
“Because I want to see if it makes a difference. He’s saying all this stuff about changing, but he’s not going to be able to go back to the Royal Guard until his bones heal, so he can’t even try it out to prove one way or the other if it’s better.”
“What do you care?” He knew he shouldn’t protest Drill wanting to adopt a better attitude, but he really didn’t get it. “What difference does it make to you?”
Drill chuckled, his smug grin returning. “Because Noble is another competitor. He has age and experience on his side, but I’m not going to lose to him. With him stuck in the house this gives me the perfect chance to finally get a lead on him in something.”
Pound growled. “Do you even realize how aggravating it is that you turn everything into a contest of who’s better or worse? There’s more to life than competing in everything!”
Drill’s expression grew neutral. “Oh, settle down. I was only being half-serious. I really do want to know if there’s anything special in changing the way I interact with ponies. Beating my brother to the punch is just icing on the cake.”
“Still seems to me like you’re only doing this to show up your brother.”
Drill shrugged. “What do you want me to say? I was born into a competitive family. If there’s a challenge to be met then I’m going to meet it. I can’t really put my all into something without a reward to gain from excelling, even if that award is only in my head.”
“So, basically, you can’t imagine acting differently unless you think of it as a contest between you and your brother?”
“Something like that.”
“Hmph.” Pound set his head on a hoof. “For someone who talks about fair play you’re taking advantage of someone that can’t even fight back at the moment.”
Drill chuckled. “If you want my help I’d suggest you keep those observations of yours to yourself.”
Pound had to ask himself whether he even wanted Drill’s help. He bit his lip, remembering his conversation with Twilight. She had put her trust in him to help Drill Bit, and he had accepted her request. Flying lessons were the only thing that would give him time to interact with Drill Bit for the time being, so if he rejected Drill now he wouldn’t be able to keep his word to her.
“Alright, fine,” Pound said. “Let’s just start over and pretend yesterday didn’t happen.”
“Sounds good.” He put a hoof out, and Pound met it. “Great. Tomorrow we’ll begin your lessons again, um… soon-to-not-be-flightless wonder.”
An awkward silence went on between them before Drill suddenly stood up and walked away.
After a few moments Pound stood up too, saying under his breath, “Well, it’s a start.”
The next two days were full of awkward moments like those. In trying to be more polite he only came off as more annoying. His shift in attitude was less ‘being a team player’ and more ‘a kinder arrogance.’ His praise either sounded very forced or simply came off more insulting than complimentary with gems like ‘you didn’t look nearly so pathetic this time’ or ‘you’re close to basic competency.’
Pound couldn’t really fault him for the way he was acting. Though it was clear his words weren’t genuine Drill Bit was at least attempting to be nicer, even if he was going about it in the wrong way.
On their third day of working together since their fight they finally had a breakthrough.
After another failed attempt at hovering, Drill Bit scratched his chin. “This problem of yours of losing control when you get in the air… we have to fix that.”
“How?” asked Pound. “I’m not doing it on purpose. It just… happens.”
“My parents told me that visualization is very important for victory. You can’t just go into it with blind desire. You have to have your goal firmly in your mind and see yourself succeeding.”
He sucked on his cheek. “This is going to require a little help.” He turned to his friends and said sharply, “Hey! You four get over here!”
The four of them stopped their activities and walked up to him. “What’s up?” asked Sandstorm.
“Surround him,” Drill ordered, pointing at Pound.
Pound’s heartrate went up a few octaves at the command, but otherwise he made no reaction to it.
When they were in place Nimbus asked, “Okay, now what?”
“Now pick him up.” Drill said.
So the four of them all put their hooves under him and lifted him off the ground.
“Now, each of you move your hooves so you’re holding onto a leg.”
Pound wasn’t sure where all of this was going, but he willingly stretched out his legs for them to hold onto.
“Okay, runt. Now listen closely. If you want to fly it all starts with your mental state. So this is where we start your visualization exercise. So start flapping your wings.” When Pound complied he continued, “That’s all you need to do physically. Mentally, I want you to imagine that you’re flying.
“And to help it feel more real: you four start trotting forward.”
It seemed pretty silly to Pound at first. Or, to be more precise, pretty embarrassing. This pretend flight just seemed to emphasize how far behind he was behind everyone else. It was like going around on a bike with training wheels. However, after a short time he went back to Drill Bit’s instructions. He focused on his burning goal. Forcing himself to ignore that he was being helped he kept his head forward, trying to imagine that he really was flying. That became easier when Drill ordered them to take off. They only went up a few feet in the air before leveling off, but it felt wonderful.
He wasn’t weak. He wasn’t a loser. He was a pony with boundless potential just waiting to be unlocked. Here he was, flying like he was supposed to. Nothing was stopping him but his own doubts.
Drill Bit eventually called them to a stop, and they slowly landed. Pound was still flapping, as if he was just hovering. The expression on the colt’s face was one of more confidence.
Struck by an idea, he waved to his friends. There was something he wanted to figure out. When they all looked at him he raised his hoof up high like the rest of them, then quickly lowered it. “Got it?” he said. They all nodded. “Good. Now take off again, but be careful not to drop him, okay?” More nods.
Just like before they started off trotting before unfurling their wings and heading upwards a few feet.
‘This is me!’ Pound thought strongly. ‘This is who I’m mean to be. I just have to believe in myself.’
“Good,” Drill Bit called out. “Now go a little bit higher, and do IT.”
As they ascended another few feet Pound was so focused on his goal that it took him a few seconds to notice the sudden absence of pressure beneath him. When he did he immediately looked down and noticed the four colts all a foot beneath him.
He immediately panicked, and quickly headed toward the ground, but he was caught by the four.
When they all landed Pound was breathing heavy, but Drill Bit was looking exceedingly smug.
Drill Bit laughed. “Thought so.”
“H-huh?” Pound asked, feeling his heart racing. “What did you do that for?”
“You don’t get it, do you? It’s like I told you at the start: your mental state is key. When you were focusing on your goal and the others let you go you sustained yourself just fine.”
Pound blinked. “I… I guess I did.”
Drill Bit clapped a few times. “Well, it’s good to know that you’re not defective. Two seconds isn’t much, but it’s certainly better than none, hmm?”
Pound grinned widely. “It sure is!” He really meant it. Even if it had only been for a single second, just to know that he had flown unsupported for any length of time was a massive boost to his confidence. It meant he wasn’t doomed to be flightless, and that some of his issues with flight were purely in his head.
They practiced the same way for the rest of class. They’d lift him off the ground, and then at some random point they’d release their support of him. Pound was a bit panicked the first five times they did this, but he came to trust that they weren’t going to let him fall and get hurt.
There was always a sense of anticipation once they got up in the air. He never knew when they were going to withdraw their support from him. Once he started to believe in the others ability to catch him he was able to keep more mental focus on his wish to fly, allowing him not to get so distracted.
Pound was in high spirits during lunch, humming and bopping his head as he ate.
“You sure look happy,” Pumpkin noticed.
“Sure am,” Pound said as he threw a piece of carrot in his mouth. When he swallowed he said, “Training’s going good. Drill Bit came up with a different method that’s been very effective. I was able to hover for a few seconds.”
“Wow! That’s great, Pound.” Pound had been so down in the dumps about the whole flying thing, so she was really glad he was making some real progress.
When he finished his lunch he headed outside to find Drill Bit and continue practicing. He steadily improved in his stability, to the point that Drill Bit stopped taking him by surprise to force flight out of him. Now the four of them just held him up, and at Drill’s command they’d all lower their hooves.
Pound fixed his mind on his desire, letting it consume him. He had ironclad proof that he was capable of sustaining himself in the air, so there was no more left to fear. He pictured them helping him to fly, pretending it was the real thing.
“Ready…” Drill lifted his hoof, and then after a few seconds swung it downwards.
As one the four colts lowered their hooves. Pound felt the sudden weightlessness beneath him, but he didn’t immediately fall. He was getting better at not getting panicky about the sensation, but he couldn’t help his attention immediately being partially divided into staying afloat, no matter how much passion he was feeling.
At the end of recess Drill Bit said, “Hey, it’s a start. At least we found a method that’s working for you. Who knows? Maybe in a few weeks you’ll be just a below-average flier instead of a ‘flightless wonder.’” With that he turned and started walking away.
Cumulus ruffled his mane as he walked by. “Good job today, Pound.”
The other three threw a compliment his way too as they left.
For a minute Pound just stood there, a few solitary tears coming down his eyes. Compared to the rest of his class he was hopelessly behind, but it was irrelevant to him. No matter how good or bad the rest of his class was it didn’t matter in the slightest to him right then. He had had a little assistance in getting there, but those seconds, every one of them, were his and his alone. And that was something he could be proud of.
He was still very much an ugly duckling, but he had started the process of growth. A few of his duckling feathers had fallen out, replaced with swan ones.
Pound was a bundle of energy, having trouble sitting still during their final class. It was a terrific relief when they were given their free time.
It was even more of a relief when school ended and he was allowed to go back outside to burn off some of the energy within him.
Pinkie watched Pound hopping around with an amused expression. It was the complete opposite of the previous day. She leaned over to Pumpkin and asked, “Did you give Pound a Pinkie potion?”
Pumpkin giggled. “No. Pound’s just happy because-”
Pound suddenly stopped and spun around. “NO!” he said firmly. “Don’t spoil it. That’s MY secret.”
Pumpkin shrugged. “Well, Pound’s just really happy. I guess that’s all I can say.”
“Ooooohhhh!” Pinkie looked intrigued. “A secret, huh?”
Pound hopped up and down a few times. “The sooner we get there the sooner you’ll find out.” He moved up and down on his hooves. “And believe me I really, REALLY want to tell, but I want my whole family to be there for it.”
“Well, if that’s the case…” Pinkie grabbed the two of them, throwing them on her back. Pound held onto Pinkie, and Pumpkin onto Pound, as Pinkie ran full out toward Sugarcube Corner, eager to know what was causing Pound’s elation.
She was a little out of breath by the time they arrived, but she didn’t stop to catch it. She bumped the twins off her back, catching them and setting them on the ground.
Pound entered, hearing the familiar ding of the bell. “Dad! Mom!” Pound called out, jogging up toward the register. His father was usually in the back baking, but right now he was in the front filling some display cases.
“In a moment, Pound,” Cup said distractedly. “I have a customer.”
Pound’s legs were moving on overdrive. “But I can’t wait!” he said loudly. “What I have to show you is the single most important, spectacular, most amazing thing that’s ever happened in my entire life!”
The green colored mare at the counter chuckled. “I can wait a minute. Your son looks like he’s going to explode if he doesn’t get his news out.”
“Okay, Pound,” Cup said, turning to him. “You’ve got the floor. I don’t know what could be so earth-shattering.”
Carrot set the dish he was carrying on the counter, coming around to stand in front of him along with Cup.
Pinkie still felt short of breath, but now it was out of anticipation. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him so excited.
Pound took in a few breaths to steady himself. He really hoped he didn’t blow it in front of all of them. He just had to believe in himself. He had done it before and he could do it again.
He unfurled his wings, stretching them a bit and rotating them in their sockets. Then, with one last slow in and out, he bent his knees, focused his thoughts, and jumped up. When he reached the peak of his jump he calmly but rapidly flapped his wings. To his relief he stayed airborne.
He didn’t think about staying up, since that would lead to him focusing on failure. He just mentally began counting the seconds. ‘One… two… three… four… five… s-’
The floor came up to meet him, and he gently landed. “Ta-dah!” Pound said proudly. “Five whole seconds! It’s not flying yet, but I only started with two seconds at the start of the day.” He beamed, then began tapping his hooves on the floor in excitement.
“Wow, Pound!” Pinkie said, looking just as excited as him as she gave him a tight hug. “I’m so proud of you!”
He hugged her back, but quickly pulled away to see his parents reactions, and was dismayed to see both of them were teary eyed and looking sad. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Aren’t… aren’t you happy for me too?”
Cup gulped, walking up to him and hugging him tenderly. “Of course we’re happy, Pound.” She nuzzled his face. “You’ve been so miserable and full of self-doubt because of being the least skilled in your class.” She sniffed, wiping away some tears. “And now look at you.”
Carrot rubbed his head. “Saying you didn’t want to go to school or even be a pegasus, feeling like we loved you less than your sister because you hadn’t yet started to fly… you were in such pain, and we couldn’t do anything to help you. But now… now you’re on your way. Soon you’ll be flying.”
Pound gave a hearty nod. “I don’t care about that anymore. Pumpkin can be better with magic than Twilight herself now, and it wouldn’t matter. I’m me! The only me that I want to be!”
His smile growing wider he put his hooves out. “Group hug!”
As one they all surrounded him, and Pound felt a sense of elation as they put their hooves around him.
With the progress he had made he was filled with endless inspiration. Besides practice at school he spent a lot of his free time doing wing-ups to continue strengthening his muscles. Progress was slow, but steady. It felt like every day he got just a little bit further.
With a week to go before his birthday he still hadn’t properly flown, as he didn’t have freedom of movement yet, but he was able to sustain hovering for a whole two minutes before he had to land. He had to rely on the upward momentum from jumping to even get there. He couldn’t yet gain air while hovering, and he couldn’t really move forward while hovering. He’d go for about ten feet, then usually he’d crash.
He saw some small changes in Drill Bit as they went on. His praise stopped sounding quite so fake. He didn’t really get a chance to talk with Drill Bit during practice, as he was all business during training.
As Pound landed from his latest hovering practice Drill Bit clapped a few times. “Well done. You’ve gotten quite consistent about your air time.”
Pound grinned. “Thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Pound rolled his eyes, not losing his grin. “I have something to ask you.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
Pound had thought it over for a while, wondering whether he really wanted to do this. After considering what Drill had done to help him excel, and his more polite attitude, he thought that it felt appropriate.
“Next week is me and Pumpkin’s birthdays.”
“Well, I want to extend an official invitation to our birthday party.”
Drill looked taken aback, looking at Pound curiously. “Are you serious?”
“Why would I joke about that?”
Drill’s lower lip jutted out as his head tilted, his eyes looking away. “Well, I, like, appreciate the offer and all, but I’m not interested. Like, at all.”
Pound’s face fell a bit. “Oh. Why not?”
Drill looked back at him. “I did what my brother asked. I tried being nicer, and trained you because it was what a team leader does. I even asked my friends to help out when my help alone wasn’t enough. Training the competition isn’t exactly something I ever expected to be doing.
“I don’t find you nearly as annoying as I did before we started training, especially since you’re finally making real progress. However, like I said that day at the park, the two of us are just helping out one another, and that’s all. That doesn’t make us friends.”
Pound let out a heavy breath. “Oh…” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“It was interesting and all, but I still don’t understand what my brother was going on about. I still want to win and excel no matter what it takes with the sole exception of cheating. That’s why I’m always hanging out with those four. They push me to work harder, and those are the kinds of friends I want, those that are around my skill level.
“You… well, I’m sorry, but you’re far below my level and have no thirst for competition. I don’t even think we have anything in common. I’ll keep training you if you want, but that’s about it. And, honestly, there’s not much left for me to do. You already have the basics down. All that’s left is mainly on you with practice, practice, and more practice.”
Pound let out a heavy sigh. “I understand.”
Drill Bit awkwardly tapped a hoof against the ground. Pound looked so defeated. He seemed to be taking the rejection hard. “I guess that’s not what you were expecting to hear.”
Pound shook his head. “No… but I guess you’re right. We really don’t have much in common. I mainly asked as a reward for all your help.”
“Well, um… thanks…”
An awkward silence reined between them for the next ten seconds, neither of them looking at each other.
Pound finally spoke again. “I’m… gonna get back to practicing.”
“Sounds good. I’ll… go demolish Nimbus in a hoof wrestle, I guess.”
The two of them walked away from each other. Pound tried to get back to hovering, but he just didn’t have the spirit to focus. He landed after just a few seconds with a sigh and mindlessly began doing wing-ups.
Pumpkin noticed his miserable attitude during their final class, but he just told her he didn’t want to talk about it.
After school, as they started walking home, Pound looked towards the Crystal Castle. “Auntie Pinkie, I’m not going home today.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, pausing.
“I want to go see Twilight.”