Rainbow Dash shivered slightly—just slightly!—as Twilight's soft fur brushed gently against her belly and the insides of her haunches. Twilight's coat and mane smelled like old scrolls and fresh paper. Rainbow Dash barely stopped herself before rubbing her cheek against Twilight's back. Fine coats like Twilight's were only found on ponies who spent a lot of time indoors, so Rainbow Dash rarely found herself up close and personal with one. Twilight's sides, where Rainbow Dash's forelegs rested, were soft too.
Even with the balcony curtains drawn and the lights out, the room was still bathed in dimmed sunlight, coloring Twilight in warm shades of maroon. The aging hotel was empty except for the unicorn and pegasus sharing this top-story unit; everypony else had been evacuated.
Twilight seemed to be too preoccupied with adjusting the straps on her harness to notice Rainbow Dash's interest in her mane and coat. She had loosened and then re-tightened her left front brace five times now. Normally, Rainbow Dash would be annoyed, but this time she could understand; any negligence with those straps could result in Twilight going for a parachute-less skydive from several thousand feet.
Rainbow Dash didn't bother checking her own harness. It was little more than an organized chaos of padded red webbing, carefully arranged to hold Twilight against her chest and belly. Dash had used this equipment hundreds of times already, and there was no difference between then and now.
Well, maybe it wasn't no difference. This type of single-pony harness was usually used to carry bags of fertilizer or mail. Rainbow Dash had never strapped another pony into one. She slid her hooves into the stirrups at Twilight's sides and softly squeezed her dear friend. Most ponies would refuse to fly through such dangerous conditions while carrying such precious cargo.
In the dim half-light, Rainbow Dash saw Twilight's head turn as she shifted their combined weight.
“You're heavy. Good thing we're friends.”
“Yeah. Good thing." Friends, Rainbow Dash thought, giving in to temptation and brushing the side of her face gently against Twilight's mane. Friends was an okay word.
A pause, and then: "Are you scared, Rainbow Dash?"
She took a fraction of a second too long to answer. "Who do you think you're talking to?"
Twilight just laughed softly. "Guess not. That makes one of us."
Rainbow Dash realized that it was only right to tell Twilight everything, if the unicorn half of the pair was going to bet her life on Dash's wings. Besides... no matter how strong of a flyer she was, Dash knew that this might be her last chance. She took a deep breath, and felt herself shudder halfway through it. Damn! Facing death was nothing, but this was turning her stomach?
Rainbow Dash dipped her head towards her payload's ear and whispered her name. “Twilight.”
“I wish we had backup,” Twilight blurted out in reply, her voice trembling. "Why did it have to be just us against a medium frigate?"
They both knew the answer, of course. A fleet couldn't be hidden inside an abandoned hotel. A mounted cannon couldn't pull a quick, precise loop up and over the deck to get a brief, clear shot at an airship's engines and rudder.
Rainbow Dash would've embraced Twilight if they weren't already bound tightly together. “Twilight, I need to tell you something, just in case we don't make it back. I... I'm going to be counting on you out there, and I just...”
Wrathful thunder suddenly filled the room, as if an avalanche were passing through just outside the hotel.
“That's it! It's here!” Twilight yelled. “Get ready!” She plodded awkwardly backwards with Rainbow Dash hanging off her rump, putting as much ground as possible between herself and the window leading to the balcony.
Even with her head next to Twilight's, Rainbow Dash could barely hear anything over the noise. She tried to tell Twilight the secret that they both deserved to have out in the open before throwing themselves out that window and into hell, but she couldn't even hear herself over the din. Her lips formed the words and her breath made the sounds, but Twilight didn't notice.
Twilight backed out through the room's only door and into the hallway. “Time to fly, Rainbow Dash! Mental comm-link's going up... now!”
Rainbow Dash's ears suddenly buzzed with imaginary noise, sending an involuntary shiver down her spine. She never did manage to get used to the idea of somepony magically poking around in her head.
[Link established!] Twilight said, from inside Rainbow Dash's brain. [Launch sequence engaged!]
Right. Time to save Equestria. All they had to do was make sure the source of that noise didn't make it past Appleloosa. No sweat. Just a unicorn tied to a pegasus versus a giant warship.
Rainbow Dash lifted her rear hooves and leaned all the way forward onto Twilight's back.
[Got it! Let's go, Twi!] Speaking to Twilight with her mind instead of her lungs wasn't so hard, and it would be impossible to yell at each other over the rush of wind in flight anyway.
Twilight lowered her head and took off towards the balcony. At first she had difficulty running, but only until Rainbow Dash opened her wings. With one flap, Rainbow Dash lifted off, and was no longer mounted awkwardly on Twilight's back, but gliding above and holding on tight with her forehooves in their stirrups. Twilight charged in earnest, pulling Dash along like a kite.
A moment before Twilight's horn would have crashed into the balcony doors, an explosion of violet fire tore curtains, wood, and glass asunder, punching a hole through the door and into the arid Appleloosan air. Twilight leapt over the balcony's low railing, and flew sharply upwards into the sky. Rainbow Dash grit her teeth and flapped hard, forcing herself and her hanging rider into a climb.
The sky suddenly roared, and the world flashed white as something crashed into the wood and glass behind them. Then the balcony, the hotel room, and the top three stories of the hotel exploded.
“Shield!” Rainbow Dash yelled in a panic, temporarily forgetting about the mental link. She needn't have bothered—by the time the word left her mouth, there was already a glimmering shell of energy around them, deflecting flying chunks of roof and balcony. As the shield winked out, Rainbow Dash drove higher to get them away from the flaming wreckage as fast as possible. With luck, the ship responsible for that blast wouldn't see their escape.
Rainbow Dash thought she felt a soft gasp in Twilight's chest as the floating fortress that was their enemy came into sight. Above what was left of the hotel, the looming hull of an airborne galleon filled the sky. A few menacing chunks of solid black stone jutted from the wooden underside like broadside cannons, except angled to bombard the ground. One of them, the one pointed at where Twilight and Dash had been mere minutes ago, glowed red-hot.
As Dash flew deeper into the vessel's shadow, she could see the fires controlling the enormous gas-filled balloon keeping the warship afloat. She ran through the loop maneuver in her head a few times more. Just a sharp left bank and an aerial somersault. She'd once pulled this move literally in her sleep. Easy, right? This was going to be easy.
[Get ready, Twi!]
[Affirmative, Romeo Delta! Weapons primed!]
Romeo Delta. That had a nice ring to it. What would Twilight be? Rainbow Dash tried to remember the words for T and S. Tasty Sprinkle?
The familiar singing of Twilight's magic was drowned out by the cacophony all around, but Rainbow Dash heard it in her mind as she saw a purple horn just at the bottom of her field of vision start to glow.
[Just a little closer. Almost there...] Rainbow Dash brought them close to the wooden underside of the ship, nearly brushing the surface with her left wing. Things were going well so far. It looked from here like the ship hadn't even launched their—
[Fighters!] Twilight cried as a blue slash of energy seared the air beneath them, missing her by inches.
Rainbow Dash gave herself a quarter of a second to feel sick about the close call. Then she peeled away from the ship, banking nearly ninety degrees to the right. Another bolt struck the airship's hull behind them, leaving a black scar.
[Hold on tight, Tasty!]
[Holding on is your job, Romeo! Um, wait. Tasty? I—Ahh!]
Rainbow Dash clutched Twilight and twisted sideways into a barrel roll, then a steep climb that took them nearly to the level of the warship's balloon. Rainbow Dash looped and banked like a drunken bumblebee, never travelling in one direction for long. Blue lasers ignited the air all around, but Rainbow Dash was untouchable, dancing through the air like an acrobat.
The world was blurred by acceleration, but Rainbow Dash got several good glimpses of what she was up against. There were three of 'em in formation. She'd seen those little flying machines plenty of times—metal cages with seats and handles like bicycles, kept aloft by a smog-belching engine and a whirling propeller.
[I can't take G-forces like you can, Romeo Delta!] Twilight complained.
[Excuse me for saving our flanks! Get ready to let 'em have it!]
Twilight might have replied, but Rainbow Dash was too focused to hear what she had to say. Poorly aimed weapons fire made the air crackle as Rainbow Dash rolled and swerved. Suddenly, she pulled up so hard that she nearly keeled over backwards into a loop. The enemy fire ceased. Of course it did. Those rusters could barely even steer, much less keep up with the likes of Rainbow Dash.
She twisted when she couldn't push any higher without stalling, and then bombed straight towards the suckers who'd been firing blue death at them. All three of the two-horned, bar-eyed rutters looked up from their controls when they saw the pony missile coming their way. One of them opened his mouth to say something—probably “oh crap”—in his native Goat tongue. Didn't matter. Rainbow Dash's passenger was about to shut him up.
[Do it! Take their faces off!]
Twilight was happy to oblige. Her head swept from left to right as she fired three bursts of magical payback. Each one smashed into a different target. Below, three parachutes opened as the flying machines all went down in flames.
[I love it! Nice shooting!]
[We're not done yet!] Twilight pointed left and up with her hoof, where an entire swarm of stuttering, buzzing helicopters were closing in from above. Worse, the open deck of the ship below was crawling with goats running to the huge weapons mounted on the railings.
Death above and death below. This was turning out to be a fun day.
[Gonna take us in close! Strafe the deck! No mercy!]
[I've got to save power for the last shot at their engines!]
[Won't matter if we get fried by those mounted guns!]
The brief argument between wings and weapons lasted long enough for Rainbow Dash to dip beneath the envelope, dodging steel lines and rope ladders. Twilight strafed beautifully, pounding a straight line of craters into the deck as Rainbow Dash flew her past. The warship's crew dove for cover, and the few who were brave enough to return fire with their hoofguns couldn't hope to lead a speeding stunt flyer.
As she flew out from underneath the shadow of the balloon, Rainbow Dash forced herself into a dizzyingly abrupt vertical U-turn, taking Twilight for another pass over the deck. This time, Twilight managed to smash two of the port side guns as she swooped past. Retaliatory small-arms fire still flew hopelessly wide of the swooping unicorn air raid.
Rainbow Dash closed her wings mid-flight, turned completely around in the air, and flared hard, coming to a near stop in reverse. Four rear hooves landed on the wooden surface. The helmsgoat's unreadable Goatish eyes widened at the two-pony fighter squadron that had just landed on his ship. He got to stare for solid one second before Twilight flattened him. With him out of the way, Twilight had a nice view of the entire deck.
“Get some!” Rainbow Dash hollered at the top of her lungs.
“Hyaaaaaaaah!” Twilight added, in more of a panic reaction than a battle cry.
Rainbow Dash had expected a furious machine-gun of violet. Instead, her unicorn weapons platform loosed a blast worthy of an artillery shell. Twilight's body pushed Dash back into the air with the recoil of launching a sphere of magic that tore into the deck like a cannonball. Chunks of wood and a few unlucky crewgoats flew so high from the impact that they bounced off of the balloon above.
[Now get us out of here, Romeo!]
Rainbow Dash complied, but too late. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the crew grab a discarded gun off the ground in his teeth and point it at her. No no no! Not with Twilight rearing on the deck, head and torso on full display! Dash lifted off and forcefully wrenched them both sideways into a banking position, with her own body between Twilight and the shooter.
A spark of energy clipped Rainbow Dash's right wing as she turned to fly overboard. She growled through her teeth and nearly went into a tailspin over the edge of the ship as an electric shock arced from her wingtip to her spine. The pain didn't last long, though. A glow of magic suddenly enveloped her wing, and despite the ugly scorch, she could feel borrowed strength surging through it.
[Don't! That's gonna take too much power!]
[Won’t matter if we get fried because you're too slow to dodge, Romeo!]
[Stop calling me that!]
[Just circle around and give me a shot at the engines! We're right there, and the deck guns are down!]
Rainbow Dash stabilized and dipped under the ship. All she had to do was fly along the underside, then pull over the deck again so Twilight would be looking straight down at the engines. Easy. Easy.
She dipped under the ship only to find herself staring straight into a world of hurt. This time she didn't bother counting. The entire remainder of the ship's fleet of fighters was staring her in the face, all of them hovering in place with the guns mounted on their steel frames pointed straight at her.
Rainbow Dash thought she could feel the pain of Twilight's exertion through the communication link when a shield swam to life around them, so dense that Dash could hardly see through it. A dozen or more shots ricocheted off the barrier, each one setting off a shower of sparks where it hit the domed surface.
[Teleport! Behind them!]
[Are you crazy? I—]
[Yes, I am! Do it!]
The shield dropped, and Rainbow Dash thought she saw a blue flame flying towards her face an instant before the world became a wash of white. When she could see again, she was behind the hovering goats. They didn't even know where she'd gone, but they were directly between her and the enemy capital ship. Twilight might be able to shoot them all down before they knew what they had coming, but then again, she might not. There were eight... no, nine of them, and...
[Hey, Romeo Delta... I'm sorry.]
Rainbow Dash felt a pit open in her stomach. She had a feeling she knew what Twilight was sorry about.
[We're running out of time. You were right about me holding your wing together. I don't even know if I can destroy the ship's engines now.]
One of the goats turned his head and spotted Rainbow Dash and her passenger. He bleated at the others, and the entire swarm started to turn around as fast as they could, which wasn't saying much. Rainbow Dash's eyes flicked from the goats to the engines powering their capital ship.
[I'm out of ideas, Romeo. I'm sorry.]
Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. She saw a way. Twilight didn't see it, because she wasn't a pegasus. Also, Twilight wasn't crazy.
[Twilight. Do you trust me?]
[With my life, Rainbow Dash.]
Rainbow Dash felt a grim little thrill. That was, unfortunately, the exact answer she'd been looking for.
[Then un-fix my wing and get ready to bust those engines.]
[You got it.]
Rainbow Dash closed her eyes as the magic faded from her wing. She refused to wince when the pain came back. Just hovering hurt a little, and what she had in mind was going to hurt a lot more.
[Twilight, in case we don't make it, I wanted to—]
[We will make it through this, Romeo. Whatever you're planning, hurry!]
Rainbow Dash flapped with perfect form despite how each wingbeat sent searing pain across her wing and back. She was aiming for a gap in the enemy ranks. With any luck, she'd catch them when they were right in the middle of turning, so they wouldn't gun her down either on her way in or her way out. She wasn't counting on that, though.
Acceleration pressed cold air against Rainbow Dash's face and mane as she speeded straight towards the platoon of heli-goats. She thought she could almost see the gold of the lead goat's eyes.
[Warm up the good stuff, Twilight. This is it!]
Twilight didn't answer, except by lighting her horn. The glow was fainter than before.
As Rainbow Dash broke through the line of enemy aircraft, a few of them swerved in the air channel she left behind. As she passed through, she rolled to her back, so that Twilight's hooves pointed awkwardly up towards the sky. Blinding, sickening pain nearly made her instinctively snap the injured wing shut. Instead, she forced herself to climb slightly, pointing her flight path at an upward arc.
She reached for the straps on the harness keeping Twilight hugged against her underside, and tore the first two straps free. A lance of blue arced past them.
Rainbow Dash felt Twilight's shock through the mental link, but only for a moment. Then she felt something much stronger: a kind of impossible, deep peace. No, not peace. Trust.
Four straps left. Dash loosed all four at once with a deft motion. Her wing screamed, but she held herself steady with control worthy of a veteran stunt flyer. She kept Twilight cradled between her legs for just long enough to kiss the back of her neck. Even after being taken for a ride through suicidal danger, Twilight’s coat was soft, and her mane smelled like old scrolls and fresh paper.
Rainbow Dash launched Twilight off of her body with all four hooves, sending her flying through the air.
Twilight gently rotated from the force of the throw until she was perpendicular to the ship, horn pointed straight down, directly over the rear part of the ship’s deck... directly over the ship's engines. The psychic link didn't reach far enough, but Rainbow Dash saw the same peaceful faith in Twilight's eyes as she sailed unaided through the deadly skies, forelegs spread wide like an acrobat or a diver.
Rainbow Dash stopped flapping and curved downwards an instant before disaster. The dark wood of the warship's underside rushed past, inches from her face. Flashes of weapons fire pounded into the hull all around her.
Suddenly, the ship tilted sharply to the starboard as its engines exploded with a resounding thump, like the entire hull was a bass drum that had just been struck. Then there was a deep rumble, the sound of giant machines failing and shaking themselves apart. Without the propellers, the ship would be dead in the air. It looked like Twilight had done some work on the fires controlling their altitude, too. They had done it. The battle was won. Dash did her best to feel happy about that.
The bolts of artificial lightning had stopped, either because there was now the hull of a ship in the way or because the goats were distracted by their capital ship being sunk—probably both.
Dash's wing felt like it was about to tear free of its socket, despite the fact that she was just gliding now. She told it to shut up. It couldn't fail now. She wouldn't let it. She dipped under the slowly falling ship and curved back up, yelling out loud with the pain. Almost done. There was just one more step, but it was the most important one. She continued to glide on her back, watching for...
There. Twilight was drifting through empty space, falling away from the wrecked ship like an angel of destruction leaving a wake of smoke and fire. Rainbow Dash threw her head back and curved downward so that she would meet Twilight in her fall.
Dash matched Twilight's falling speed so that, relative to each other, they stood face to face, upside down. Rainbow Dash managed a smile, then reached out and hugged Twilight in a crushing embrace. She buried her face in Twilight's shoulder as she rotated and tried to level out with her belly towards the sun. Her wing didn't hurt any less, but that didn't matter any more. The mental link activated again, and Twilight spoke.
[Th-that was amazing! I can't... I can't believe it! We did it! We did it!] Even though the mental link, Twilight was laughing, almost sobbing with adrenaline-soaked joy.
Rainbow Dash tried to laugh too, but it was too hard. Her wings trembled. She could barely even hold them straight. Their momentum was starting to change, but too slowly. Much too slowly. Even Twilight could tell.
[Turn over! Why are you trying to level out upside down?]
Rainbow Dash didn't answer. Twilight gasped as she realized what was happening. If Rainbow Dash righted herself, then Twilight would be the one closer to the ground.
[Don't you dare, Romeo Delta!]
It was too late anyway. Turning over would take too long, even if they weren't already falling so fast.
[I mean it! I won't let you do this!]
They were at maybe thirty degrees now. Rainbow Dash couldn't see how close they were to the ground, but she knew it was close. Thanks to her long experience, she could almost count down the seconds until impact if she wanted to.
She felt a wetness against her neck as Twilight rested her head there. They were almost horizontal now. So close... maybe she would even pull this off, and there would be no need...
[You always were—]
Rainbow Dash didn't see the ground rush up to strike her in the back of the head. She didn't feel it, either.
The Battle of Orange Creek would forever be remembered as the day Equestria showed the world the meaning of air superiority. Heroines were made on that day, and some of those same heroines were also lost.
The stories would be told for generations, but the most famous tale of all would be about how two ponies, the fastest flyer in Equestria and the most powerful unicorn of her generation, swayed the battle by destroying an enemy frigate before it could reach the front lines. Just two ponies alone, without any kind of backup—only their own skill and faith in each other.
They were both awarded the Crest of Heroism for their courage in the face of impossible odds.
Only one of them was present to receive the award.
“Please, ma'am, we don't understand it either.” The grey-maned doctor cleared her throat and set her clipboard aside. “Frankly, some of the doctors don't believe your report. They think you're remembering the story wrong because you were in a warzone at the time.”
Twilight thought she heard Applejack snort, so she turned her head just enough to shoot the other four Elements of Harmony a look. “I know exactly what happened. Just because there weren't any other witnesses...”
“I know. I'm one of the ones who believed you. Still...” She pointed to her clipboard where it sat on the desk. “Your partner suffered life-threatening blood loss just from the abrasions on her back. Her skull, spine, and shoulders literally shouldn't be in one piece, let alone her wings. And then there's—”
Fluttershy whimpered, and Twilight had to agree.
“I was there, thank you,” she snapped, holding up a hoof. “Can we see her or not?”
The doctor nodded. “It's against regulations because of the danger of infection, but I received a letter instructing me to let you visit her. All five of you, actually. Being best friends with the heroine of the hour comes with privileges, it seems.”
Twilight didn't smile. “I want to see her.”
The doctor hurried ahead and opened the door leading into a tiny hospital room. Twilight entered, followed by the other four.
Rainbow Dash was breathing deeply, looking for all the world like she was just taking one of her famous mid-afternoon naps. Well, except for the IV, the neck brace, the bandages covering her entire torso, and the fact that no bed containing Rainbow Dash had any business being so neatly made. Four of Rainbow Dash's closest friends crowded around the bed, while one of them stood back with her horn glowing softly.
[I know you're in there, you little showoff. Enjoying the attention?]
[Hey, don't give me away. You'll ruin the suspense.] The words were distant, like a weak radio signal.
[Too stubborn to die? Or did the reaper decide she wasn't ready to deal with you and your crap?]
[Too awesome to die.] Rainbow Dash's sleeping face twitched. [Hey... Twilight?]
[When they let me outta here, there's something I need to tell you.]
[Then make sure you get out soon, so that you can tell me. I'll be waiting.]
Twilight's horn winked out as she leaned down to kiss Rainbow Dash on the cheek.
With a tiny, imperceptible twitch of facial muscles, the edges of Rainbow Dash's mouth curled upward.