Normally, the plateau of the Wonderbolt Academy would sound with whistles and shouts, the air filled with the buzzing of wings as the instructors put the recruits to the test. Today, the skies were almost empty, the cadets swarming on the training area, whispering excitedly. Every pony’s eyes were focused on the solitary figure lining up on the track, and the flame-maned mare holding the stopwatch.
“You ready?” Spitfire asked. Fleetfoot glanced at the crowd- the crowd that had turned out to watch her- before looking at her friend.
She smirked. “I was born ready,” she said. Even through her goggles, she could see Spitfire roll her eyes, but Fleet had known Spitfire since the Academy. She recognized the eagerness in the boss’s grin. Even when she was pretending to be exasperated, Spitfire couldn't hide her expectations.
Fleetfoot looked ahead. She heard the first shout and braced herself. The second; she lowered herself into the starting position, spreading her pale blue wings. Behind her wall of concentration, she could hear the murmur from the crowd. She could feel the excitement in the air as if it were lightning, stroking at her feathers.
She could feel a thick bead of sweat rolling down her face. She swallowed.
Her body reacted almost before she could, years of training springing into action. She galloped. The flags lining the track whipped behind her. She left the sound of the crowd behind for a moment, the only noise that of her hooves ringing against the tar; the only feeling, the wind, and the heat.
The track cut out in front of her, opening into the clear blue sky. As she approached the lip of the mountain, she reached her forelegs out, and jumped.
For a moment, Fleetfoot felt weightless, held between the jump and gravity. She felt the wind riding beneath her wings. For half a second, she almost forgot about the crowd behind her, about the clock in Spitfire’s hooves, ticking away.
Almost. But half a second was a long time when it came to the fastest Wonderbolt.
So instead, she focused again, and began to fly.
The momentum from her jump had carried her pretty far; a few beats of her wings, and she was approaching the track wall. She drew close to the thick barrier of cloud outlining the track- close enough to skim the edge of it with her feathers. She turned, the sudden action slingshotting her further down the track. She wove between the hoops almost as an afterthought; Fleet had run this track so many times that she didn't even have to keep her eyes open for it. She just let her body react; left, left, right, up, left, down. Easy. She didn't so much as brush a ring with a feather.
The makeshift track dove beneath the academy, circling the mountain; through a fissure; down to the cloud floor, to rise on the other side. Fleet ground her teeth together, trying to ignore the sun glaring even through her tinted eyepieces, and the fire spreading across her wings. She passed the lip on the other side of the track.
She kept flying up. The cadets, the recruits, even Spitfire expected more than just a fancy lap time when Fleetfoot was on the track.
Her wings pressed against her sides, the speed she had already worked up carrying her on. She began spinning; at the height of the jump, she spread her wings again.
She was too far to hear the reaction below, but she could feel the heat of the sun on her back and her wings. She smirked.
She dove forward, faster than before to make up for the stunt. Her wings flapped pushing her further, faster. The wind past, almost faster than she could stand- Fleet could feel it tearing at her mane, her tail, her wings. Just ahead of her, she was sure she could see something start to form, like a cone or an aura, stretched almost to breaking point…
Then it vanished. Fleet felt the ground beneath her again as her hooves touched the tarmac. Spitfire just ahead, and the eager, adoring crowd past her. As Fleet approached them, she angled herself, one wing high in the air, the other low, and turned herself.
She crossed the finish line in a skid, her horseshoes sparking behind her. She glanced over her shoulder at Spitfire, flashing a grin.
“So, what’s the time boss?”
Spitfire rolled her eyes again, and again, Fleet could see that look on her friends face. She muttered the words to herself as Spitfire spoke. “That’s a new academy record, Fleetfoot.” Fleetfoot grinned as the cadets cheered.
“Hit the shower, Fleet. You earned it.” Spitfire’s grin vanished in an instant as she turned on the cheering ponies. “And what are the rest of you standing around for? Get moving! If you don’t beat that lap time, you can look forward to doing twenty more!”
Fleetfoot laughed at the sudden groan that went up from the ponies as they suddenly ran for the edge of the track, all of them already resigned to the fact they’d be doing twenty… except, maybe, the rainbow-maned pony in the middle of the pack…
She put the thought out of her mind as she entered the academy building. It was almost completely empty; the Reserves were with Soarin’, the Cadets with Spitfire. Anypony left inside were probably in their bunks, trying to nurse the aches and pains that came at Wonderbolt boot camp. Even so, Fleet forced her face to stay steady until she reached the locker room.
She took a quick glance, just to make sure she was alone.
When she was sure, she finally let out her breath, and collapsed to the ceramic floor.
Fleetfoot groaned, dragging the dead weight that was her body to a bench. Her wings hung limply around her; she tried moving them, and all she got was a twitch and another spasm of pain. A lot of the feathers were out of place; some looked like they might even be broken. Those would have to be removed when she was preening; a minor pain, comparatively, but not something she was going to look forward to. She bit a lip, and forced her wings to full-size again, stretching and curling them up. Muscle exercises were supposed to help.
It didn't help. It just sent pain flashing through her shoulder blades.
She looked at her hooves. The shoes looked worn and battered, and they’d have to be replaced. Another thing to not look forward too; Fleet had always had sensitive hooves. It was why she wore horseshoes so much to begin with; having to get them removed and a fresh set put in was going to hurt.
She let out a long, ragged sigh, and leaned against the wall of the changing room. She closed her eyes, trying to drift away for a little while.
Showing off had been dumb. Fleetfoot knew that. Fleetfoot knew it before she’d even done it. But she’d still done it. She’d had to. It was what everypony expected from the fastest Wonderbolt…
It felt good, not to be running for once. Or flying. Or racing. Standing still, letting the water run through her mane and tail- a chance to be alone. It was relaxing. It was rare. And it was a moment that was going to be gone all too quickly.
Fleet sighed, turning off the water and drying off. If somepony had told her when she was a foal, that one day she’d be thankful for an empty gym shower, she’d probably have laughed at them. Of course, she reflected, Daintyfoot was going to be a dancer. When your parents enrolled you in classes from when you started trotting, they had a pretty definite career path in mind.
They’d supported her when she decided to sign up for the academy though. They might have wanted a dancer, but they’d stood by Fleet every step of the way.
Fleetfoot had always been light on her hooves, even when she was Daintyfoot; that was what her cutie mark, a horseshoe, meant. Growing up, though, Fleet had always paid more attention to the wings that were attached to it. She knew her cutie mark wasn't just about having gentle feet; it was about flying. But it was when she started focusing on her speed that it started to feel less like a ‘special talent’ and more like a part of who she was. It was her speed that got her into the Academy; it was her speed that attracted the attentions of the old guard, and got her on the main team. It was her speed that made her a Wonderbolt, let her get the longest winning streak in Cloudsdale racing history, got her into the best parties, made her famous…
Speed. Everything that she had came down to that. Everything she had- and everything she was- was because she was fast.
The headlines picked up on that. They called her the Wonder Mare; the fastest filly in Equestria. Fleet’s parents collected them all in a big scrapbook; she even had a few pinned around the photo in her locker.
It was one of those that caught her eye. She kept them, partly from pride, partly from reminder. This one- and the one pinned beneath it- were neither.
The top was an article from some journal. Fleetfoot didn’t know which one; she’d never gone in for that sort of thing. But she’d still leapt at the chance to participate when they asked for her help. Fleet had pushed herself further than she’d thought possible, flew faster than any pegasus had ever flown. She started hitting speeds even she’d never thought of reaching. According to the eggheads, that meant the conclusion was pretty reliable; if the fastest pony in Equestria couldn’t do it, the Sonic Rainboom was just a myth.
Beneath it was an article taken from the Cloudsdale Young Fliers competition. In the centre was a picture of a pale blue mare, with a rainbow streaking behind her.
She slammed her locker shut, not that it helped. Ever since the contest, Fleet had seen that rainbow streak, any time she closed her eyes. Everypony focused on how incredible it was that Rainbow Dash had actually produced a sonic Rainboom. Sometimes,Fleet thought she was the only one who realized just what the Cloudsdale contest meant:
Fleetfoot wasn’t the fastest filly in Equestria anymore.
Rainbow Dash was.
Despite that, everypony expected Fleet to be the faster; faster than the pony who had broken the sound barrier, and done what Fleetfoot couldn’t.
Not that she hadn’t tried. Ever since that day, Fleet had doubled her training; she got up earlier than anypony else, and kept at it longer. But all that had done was prove what she already knew.
It made her wings ache. It made her hooves crack.
But it didn’t make a sonic rainboom.
She left the locker room, staring at the trophy case.
It was impossible to leave without looking at it. It was meant to be a reminder to everypony who walked through those doors; a reminder of the standard every stallion and mare who pulled on Wonderbolt blue-and-yellow was supposed to live up to. Any Wonderbolt worth her salt had at least one on display in the cabinet; most members got used enough to it that they didn’t even noticed it. But more and more, Fleetfoot had found her attention drawn to it, her eyes finding and gluing themselves to the large trophy, adorned with a Pegasus in mid-flight.
The Cloudsdale Derby Cup. On the base were plaques, of all the ponies who had won it… at least, up until the bottom five.
After that, every plaque had the name “Fleetfoot”.
Ponies thought that a string of trophies meant she was the fastest pony in Equestria. That was the reputation she had to uphold. If she lost..
She had further to fall than most ponies thought. She wasn't on the Wonderbolts because she was the second-fastest pony in Equestria. She was a Wonderbolt because she was the fastest.
It was just becoming harder and harder to stay that way...
Fleet looked up at the sound of hooves marching over tiles. The doors opened, and the cadets streamed inside, chased by the barking of Spitfire somewhere in the rear.
Fleetfoot fixed the smirk on her face.
The recruits all looked battered; their mane were unkempt, their uniforms sticking with sweat. A few nodded respectfully to her as they passed; a few dared to shoot a vicious, angry look.
Despite herself, Fleet chuckled. Looks like I still have the Academy Record. Most of the ponies trailing themselves in just avoided looking at her completely. It wasn’t out of shame; none of them could have seriously expected to beat a lap time Fleet set.
At least… most of them couldn’t.
As the cadets marched past Fleetfoot, she caught sight of a rainbow-maned mare in the middle of the pack. Rainbow Dash looked back at her, and for a second, the stoic look was replaced by a glint in her cerise eyes, and a broad grin.
Fleet recognised the look. It was one she’d worn often enough when she was younger than she’d learnt to fake it pretty well these days. It was a look of competition.
She hesitated for half a second, before the smirk came back, and she responded with a nod. Instead of deterred, Rainbow seemed more energised by it; she turned back to the hallway, seeming somehow more invigorated than before.
“Move it, move it, move it!”
The moment was interrupted as Spitfire screamed, stomping behind the stragglers. “Bad enough you ponies put on the worst lap times I’ve seen in years, now you want to take your time? Take in the sights? Get moving before I flunk every last one of you out of the academy right now!”
She glared as the last pony chased after his friends, and closed the door tight behind him. She kept the angry look up for a moment or two, before removing her glasses, and turning to Fleet.
“You know, I think we’ve got a winning year this time,” she said.
Fleetfoot laughed, leaning against the wall. Spitfire grinned, approaching her friend and doing the same. She undid her tie, letting it hang loosely around her neck.
Spitfire was good at picking up the drill sergeant act; better than Fleet would have expected, considering what she’d been like at the academy. Fleet couldn’t begin to count the number of times Spitfire had been made to do wing-ups in the rain for talking back to their coach. Since graduating, Spitfire had tried taking a soft-hoofed approached to training, but that hadn’t worked out so well. Going the other way, and being so intimidating no pony dared to talk back, though… that worked.
Spitfire noticed the trophy case, and her grin broadened. “So, you’re going to be bringing that big old thing home again this year, right,” she said.
She looked at Fleet. Spitfire wasn’t really expecting an answer; she knew what it was going to be. And Fleetfoot knew what it had to be.
She smirked. “Sure am, boss.”
Spitfire nodded. “Great. I mean… it’s kind of a tacky eyesore, but I’ve gotten used to it. And it’d suck for you to break your winning streak now.”
The pair stood in silence for a moment. It wasn’t an awkward, uncomfortable thing; it was the comfortable, easy quiet, of friends who didn’t have to talk to enjoy one another’s company. It was a shame Soarin’ wasn’t there to enjoy it.
After a moment, Spitfire laughed. Fleetfoot looked at her, and raised an eyebrow.
“I was just thinking. Can you believe where we all ended up?” The boss shook her head, smiling. Fleet smiled back.
She remembered their academy days. Most of the current Wonderbolts had graduated the same year. Fleetfoot knew and trusted Surprise, Rapid Fire, Chill Wind, and the rest with anything.
Even more than them, though, she’d trust Spitfire and Soarin’. They were her best friends.
She shifted her weight, and felt a wince of pain in her hooves.
When Spitfire showed at the Acadmy, Fleetfoot didn’t think much of her. Fleet had been fast, even back then; Spitfire wasn’t. Spitfire didn’t have any particular tricks, nothing that made her stand out amongst the recruits. Fleet had expected her to wash out.
It took her a while to realize what Spitfire’s special talent was. The flame on her friends flank… Spitfire was one of the most determined ponies Fleetfoot had ever met. Even when things were at their darkest, she didn’t give up. Fleet remembered, during their first year, when she’d been caught breaking a rule, and Spitfire took the fall.
Their drill instructor hadn’t been fooled. He made Spitfire do wing-up’s in the rain. And since it was a bright, sunny day, he made Fleetfoot get the cloud and dance on it while Spitfire pushed herself up and down in the mud.
Spitfire didn’t blame Fleetfoot for it, though. Even more than her own determination, that was Spitfire’s talent; being able to inspire other ponies. She might not have been the best flier, but there was a reason she was the Wonderbolt’s greatest leader.
There was a sound of hooves on tiles again. Spitfire sighed,straightening her tie. She glanced at Fleet, raising an eyebrow. Fleet grinned, speeding out and around the corner. She waited a minute, until Spitfire began railing into the recruits. Then, she spread her wings, and zoomed back to the main hall, grinning at the looks of shock on everypony’s faces.
Spitfire harrumphed. “Well, congratulations slackers,” she said in a tone barely removed from a growl. “Fleet only managed ten laps of the building when you were getting changed. She must be having a slow day. Lucky for you, since you have to do the same.” She paused. “What, are you waiting for an invitation? Hustle! Now!”
The group ran out of the building so quick that they were almost flying. Spitfire and Fleet swapped grins as they did. As she followed the group, Spitfire stuck out a hoof towards Fleet. Fleet smiled- not a smirk- and punched the hoof with her own.
She waited until Spitfire was gone to wince and try to shake the pain out of her hoof. Her green eyes flickered to the trophy in the case again as she did, her expression setting.
Everypony was expecting her to win it again. The Fans. The Announcers. The Gamblers and the Papers.
She knew her parents would be expecting it. Now Spitfire was too.
Whatever happened, Fleetfoot was going to win. Whatever it took.
She wasn't going to let Spitfire down.
Pegasus architecture was beautiful at night. The clouds absorbed a little of the light floating from the stars and the moon; it left the buildings and streets with a soft glow, like a nightlight. Fleet remembered the long, quiet nights in her room, when she was lulled to sleep by that glow.
She grinned. Tonight was not going to be one of the quiet nights.
Fleet grinned as she floated through the cloud, pretending to ignore the cameras clicking around her as they spoke with Surprise. She was doing a better job of hiding her excitement than the white Pegasus, who almost seemed like she was bouncing on the clouds.
Of course, Surprise always seemed like she was bouncing on the clouds, so maybe that didn’t mean anything.
“Opening night,” she said again, for what had to be the sixth time in an hour. She grinned, balancing on the clouds one hoof at a time. “I can’t believe we’re at the premier of Hinney of the Hills!”
Fleet grinned. The crowds lining either side of the glowing cloudway gave a cheer as Rapid Fire and Misty Fly followed behind them. “I think you’re not the only one,” she said, turning and looking at one of the reporters. She stopped trotting, and gave her signature smirk, raising an eyebrow to the bright flashes.
She laughed, and kept walking down the runway. Constuction ponies had been busy. Clouds weren’t exactly a stable material to work with and any pony walking down the streets of Cloudsdale- or any other Cloud cities- got used to keeping an eye on the floor for any loose pieces, ready to trip you. But this was extraordinarily smooth, almost silky beneath her hooves. After the days training she’d been having, walking on floors like this was almost as relaxing as a cool bath.
Fleetfoot looked back at Surprise, who had taken to the air, and was staring at one of the camera’s like they were the most interesting thing she’d ever seen. Upside down, of course; if Fleetfoot was known for speed, her friend had a reputation for her unusual flight patterns.
Fleetfoot walked towards the barricades, close enough to see the pony’s grins widen. She reached out, bumping hoofs with a few fans. One or two were waiting with a poster, of the Bolts or Fleetfoot herself, asking for signatures. Just ahead of her and Surprise, Spitfire and Soarin’ were busy, their attentions divided between talking to fans, and talking to the manager of the theatre. The latter looked almost overwhelmed, as if he hadn’t thought that getting the Wonderbolts as special guests for a premiere of one of Equestria’s biggest shows was going to be a big deal.
Some ponies could be really dumb sometimes. Fleet grinned, signing autographs.
Lights. Cameras. The cheers of fans. Signing autographs, and fielding questions.
This was the life.
“Hey, Fleet!” Surprise floated towards her friend. “I’ve got some ponies I want you to meet!”
Fleet stared as two tiny heads popped out from Surprises shoulder. Two small foals, both wearing caps with Fleetfoot racing on them, and both looking exhausted. It had to have been past their bed time; as soon as they saw Fleetfoot, though, they suddenly brightened.
Surprise smiled. “See,” she said, twisting her neck almost further than should have been equinely possible. “I told you I could introduce you!” She set the two foals on the clouds, and they continued to stare at Fleet… and now more than just their heads were visible, Fleetfoot could see the Wonderbolt jersey’s they were both wearing, her number printed on the back.
“Chocolate Chip, Peanut Butter, this is Fleetfoot. You know who Fleetfoot is, don’t you?” The two colts nodded, but didn’t say anything. Surprise frowned a little, whispering. “They’re big fans of yours. I thought they’d like to meet you, but they’ve gotten all tongue-tied...”
Fleet grinned. “Course they know who I am,” she said, a little louder than maybe necessary. “They don’t look like idiots to me.” She knelt, getting eye to eye with the pair. “Hey kids. Ignore Surprise. She’s a little dumb sometimes.”
She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue. The two ponies started to smile- probably helped by Surprise nodding behind them. “I don’t know up from down!”
“Um…” Fleet looked back as the pair nudge one another. One of them- Chocolate Chip, if the coat colour was any indication- swallowed nervously. “Uh… Ms Fleetfoot? Are you really faster than Celestia? Because there were some foals at school who said you weren’t.”
Fleetfoot pursed her lips. “Am I faster than Celestia? Hmm. Well… what do you think Surprise?”
The yellow-maned ponys grin grew. Fleet resisted the urge to shake her head; Surprise didn’t get the whole ‘pretend’ thing. “Well, there was that race you did a few years ago.”
“Oh yeah, that. The one to raise money for disadvantaged foals. Who was I racing again? I remember she was kinda tall, had a white coat, and a sun on her butt…”
The two foals leaned in closer. “Princess Celestia!”
“Oh yeah. Yep, that was the Princess. And… you know, thinking about it, I did win that race…” She tapped a hoof to her chin in thought, before looking at the two foals and grinning. She reached out, and scuffed the pair on the chin. “I’m so fast, I left Princess Celestia in the dust.”
The two foals squealed with excitement, as Fleetfoot smirked. Sure, it was a race for charity, but that didn’t change the result- even if Fleet did wonder sometimes if Celestia had really given it her all. Either way, it got the two foals talking, as they began rambling; about Fleet’s races, her tricks, the Wonderbolts aerial shows.
Fleet waited a moment, before holing up a hoof. “Hold on a sec,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “I have to ask something. What are those shirts you’re wearing?”
The two ponies fell silent, as if they had been caught stealing pieces of the floor to made a castle. “It’s… yours?” one of them said. Fleet frowned, tilting her head.
“Hm… nope. Not mine,” she said, shaking her head. She glanced at Surprise, who grinned, and reaching into a pocket. She pulled out something, and passed it to Fleet. “My shirts have my name on them, so ponies don’t take them. So… where should I put it?”
Getting the two ponies to stay still long enough for Fleetfoot to sign their jerseys was a problem, but she got there in the end. Both of them grinned, thanking her over and over again, their tiny wings buzzing as they flew back to their parents.
Fleetfoot and Surprise signed a few more autographs, and answered more questions. Most of them were directed at Fleetfoot, and most of those had to do with whether or not she’d be competing in the Cloudsdale Derby this year. She glanced over at Chocolate Chip and Peanut Butter, standing on the other side of the divider, and grinned.
“No,” she said. She let that hang, long enough that she could almost feel the crowd deflate. “I’m going to win it this year.”
That got them another burst of applause- and a few shouts from within the crowd, as colts- and a few fillies- told Fleetfoot how much they loved her. Fleet laughed, as they club manager shook their hooves, and ushered the group inside the building, directing them towards the roped off VIP area.
As they entered the building, Fleetfoot looked back, caught sight of Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip, and waved at them.
There were pressures and stress which came with being a Wonderbolt; long hours training and injuries were the least of them. Still, at a moment like this- for moments like this- Fleetfoot wouldn’t give up for her flightsuit for all the bits in Equestria.
Fleet flew past the finishing line and glanced at the cadets. They were all still doing wing-ups. She grinned internally, already knowing what that meant.
“Seriously?” Spitfire roared, marching up and down the line. Fleetfoot grimaced a little. “She’s hung over, and you still can’t do twenty wing-up before Fleet does a lap? Unacceptable!- Forget flunking the Wonderbolts, how about I just send all of you right back to Flight Camp?”
Spitfire blew the whistle around her neck, and Fleetfoot grimaced again. The tiny, metallic sound made the millions of wings battering around inside her head flap even harder. The cadets, on the other hand, all recognized the sound as ‘Do twenty laps on the double’ and leapt to their hooves, running for the track. Spitfire rolled her eyes, before look at Fleet, frowning.
“Uh… hey, Fleet? You don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine,” Fleetfoot muttered. “Drank too much.”
“Well, don’t say we didn’t warn you,” the fire-maned pony said, grinning. The pair stood for a moment, watching the cadets as they looped through the sky, before she spoke again. “So, Fleet... how’s practice going? For the Derby? Surprise and the others said you haven’t been in the gym so much lately.”
“Yeah… I’ve been practicing on my own,” she answered. “Don’t want you guys to learn all my tricks, you know?”
She smirked. She also didn’t want Surprise or Rapid asking why she was favouring one wing over the other, or for Misty to catch a glimpse of her limping out of the locker room. Not to mention Soarin’.
“I figured that,” Spitefire said, smiling. “I also figure it’s probably pretty hard for you to practice with us slow ponies. What did you once tell me- that when you’re racing us, it’s like we’re all standing still?”
“Hey, don’t blame me for telling the truth,” Fleet said with a laugh. She smirked, but inside-
Inside, she felt something growing in her stomach, like a pit. Fleetfoot knew Spitfire well enough to know when she was building up to something, and she was a good enough flier to know how to judge headwinds. Fleet had a feeling she didn’t like the direction this conversation was blowing.
“Well… I was wondering. How would you like to race someone who might give you a challenge?”
“Why,” Fleet said, keeping the smirk on her face. “You got Filli-Second somewhere?”
Spitfire grinned. “Actually, I was thinking of Rainbow Dash.”
It wasn’t a pit. Fleetfoot felt as if the clouds had opened beneath her, a thin chill running up her back and along her battered wings, freezing her- freezing them- and leaving her to fall.
Spitfire didn’t seem to notice; she continued. “Rainbow is entering the Derby too; I figure she’s got second place pretty firmly in the bag. But I’ve heard her bragging about it to the other cadets. Let’s face it, the only pony I’ve ever seen faster than her was Lightning Dust- and you, obviously.”
But you’ve never seen me be faster than Rainbow, Fleet thought. You just expect me to be faster than her.
“Anyway, there’s no way I’m letting Lightning back, so I thought… how about you? I’m sure you could use someone who might actually put up a challenge, and I think it’d be good for Rainbow's ego to get taken down a peg. What do you say to a friendly race?”
No. No. No. I can’t do it. Spitfire, I- I can’t beat Rainbow Dash. It takes everything I have to keep my own best times. She’s faster than me. She’s better than me. If I race her, I’m going to lose.
Fleetfoot hesitated- then smirked. She rose into the air.
“Give me a time, boss. I’ll take her back to flight camp.”
Fleet stayed just long enough to see the nod from Spitfire before turning, flying back to the Wonderbolts Academy.
She couldn’t get rid of the feeling in her stomach. That feeling that she was falling and about to crash.
Fleetfoot paced around the track. The sun was starting to set, turning the clouds orange and red. She kept looking, at the sun, and then back to the Academy, then to the groove she was wearing into the cloud.
The ‘track’ outside the academy was for training the recruits. Being able to change direction, or make your way through hoops were important skills when it came to flying- but not the kind of thing you found littering most race tracks.
As soon as Spitfire mentioned a race, Fleetfoot knew she meant at the Cloudessium. It was one of the Wonderbolts training sites; a giant collesium, similar to the one the Cloudsdale Derby would take place in. Usually, Rapid Fire, Wind Chill or one of the other ‘Bolts would be practicing in the giant centre field, while Spitfire raced along the outer track.
No pony else was here now, know. It was probably why Spitfire had asked Fleetfoot to meet her and Dash so late; Fleet had been a habit of training alone in the run-up to big races. For Fleet, it was so that nopony would see her miss a lap time, or the pain in her body. Spitfire probably figured she was doing her friend a favour, by scheduling a race during her ‘normal’ training time.
What am I doing, she thought, picking up her pacing again. She knew the answer to that though; she was trying to live up to the image of Fleetfoot, the Wonder Mare.
Spitfire didn’t know that she wasn’t that pony anymore, but Fleetfoot did. She knew. She couldn’t beat Rainbow Dash.
“No,” she said quietly. “No,” she repeated, louder, firmer. She couldn't go into a race thinking that. She couldn’t let herself go into anything thinking she was going to lose. She couldn't afford it. If she started this race thinking that she was going to lose, thinking about how each flap of her wing felt like they were tearing, how each hoofstep felt like stepping on rocks…
Maybe Rainbow Dash wouldn't even show up. Spitfire did say sunset; it was sunset, and no one was here. Maybe Dash had said no when Spitfire asked her-
No. Fleetfoot knew Rainbow Dash; she’d seen the look in her eye. Rainbow Dash wasn't the type of pony who would ever say no to a challenge.
Sure enough, it only took a few minutes before Spitfire appeared out of the clouds, Rainbow Dash beside her. “Sorry Fleet,” she said touching down; she was still wearing the officer uniform, but the tie was gone, and she wasn't wearing the mask of the drill sergeant, even with her cadet right behind her. “Paper work ran long.”
Fleetfoot didn't look at her; she was looking at Rainbow Dash. Any hopes she might have had that Rainbow was going to back out vanished.
That grin; the way her eyes flashed when they met Fleetfoot.
For the first time, Fleetfoot realized what other ponies must have thought when they were racing against her. Any other pony would go into a race with Fleet expecting to lose; Rainbow Dash was expecting to win.
Fleet swallowed- then flashed a smirk. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, leaning against a cloud. “I was starting to think you might have chickened out.”
“What? No way!” Rainbow Dash scowled, zipping up into the air. “Why would I back down?”
Spitfire grinned. “She’s very excited,” she said with a laugh.
“Yeah well… me too,” Fleet said. The ground felt like it was rushing closer. She smirked. “I mean, getting to to a race where I’m only gonna lap you three or four times? That’s kind of new. No offence Rainbow Dash.”
Rainbow scowled; “None taken.”
Spitfire laughed again. “Come on Fleet; let’s drop the trash talk. We’re all Wondebolts here. More or less,” she added quickly, glancing at Rainbow.
Dash didn’t seem to notice the tacked on part at the end; the scowl was replaced by a broad, childish grin, her eyes almost lighting up with glee.
Fleet frowned a little. She recognized that look from the mirror, too. She even recognized the way that Rainbow coughed to cover it, her protests that it was no big deal.
“Yeah! What she said! No reason to be talking trash,” she said with a shrug. She paused, then grinned again. “Even if I am going to clean the skies with you.”
“Big words tough mare. Let’s see you back them up.”
“Alright! So what are we waiting for; let’s get this started already!”
“Cool your jets Rainbow Dash,” Spitfire said. “We still need to wait for Soarin’.”
“Wait. Soarin’s coming?”
Spitfire looked at Fleetfoot. “Uh… yeah,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “There’s two of you, so me and him are both timing you. What’s the big deal?”
“Nothing,” Fleet said quickly. “Just didn't know he’d be here.”
Spitfire shrugged, and started talking to Rainbow Dash. Some tips for racing Fleet, or a last-minute reminder not to be disappointed when she lost, probably. Fleet was fine with that; it gave her a minute to wrestle with her thoughts in private.
It didn’t take long for the pale blue stallion to appear on the horizon, setting down in front of his team mates. He was wearing his usual broad smile, despite the sweat running down his face. Fleet glanced at his wings- the feathers were all ruffled.
“Hey! I thought you guys said you were gonna wait up for me,” he protested, mock-hurt in his tone. Spitfire grinned.
“Well, we would have, but if we did that, Fleet would be as old as Celestia by the time we got here.”
“Hah! Good thing you aren't the one racing Fleetfoot, huh Soarin’?” Rainbow Dash laughed, poking the stallion in his side with a hoof. Soarin’ gave a low whine of self-pity that quickly broke into a laugh alongside the other two.
Fleet frowned. The scene was familiar; Spitfire giving Soarin’ a hard time, Soarin’ taking it, and the three laughing it off. Except that Rainbow Dash was the one laughing with them instead of Fleetfoot.
She rustled her wings a little bit. Soarin’ looked up at her, and grinned again. “Hey, Fleet!”
Fleet made herself stand a little higher, and ignored the pain in her hooves as she did. “Oh, hey Soarin’,” she said, resisting the urge to wince. That kind of forced-casualness would go over with Spitfire- but ti was the kind of thing Soarin’ would see through in an instant. Sure enough, she saw the start of a frown on Soarin’s face.
She smirked, looking back at Spitfire and Rainbow Dash. “So, Soarin’s here, which means you’re out of excuses. You still want to do this, Rainbow Dash?”
“You bet I do,” the blue-mare answered. Spitfire grinned as the two ponies walked to the starting line. She turned, pulling Soarin’ off to the sidelines.
Fleet took up her mark. She tried to ignore the pony in the next lane, her mark just a little behind Fleets, but it was tough; Fleetfoot could feel the soft reverb through the cloud when Rainbow Dash pawed it in impatience.
She looked ahead. She pulled her flight goggles over her eyes, staring at the track. The large oval stretching out in front of her- that was what was important. That was all that was important. Getting to the end of that in one piece, without ever seeing the rainbow pony behind her.
Fleetfoot could do that. She heard a shout from Spitfire; her hooves winced as she braced herself. She winced as her wings spread, the chill evening wind cutting through the feathers like an icy knife.
She put everything else behind a wall. Spitfire; Soarin’. Rainbow Dash.
She felt a thick bead of sweat rolling down her face. She swallowed.
Her body reacted almost before she did, years of training springing into action. She galloped, ignoring the pain pounding through her hooves, and the burning ache stretching through her legs.
She felt wind rushing through her wings, and began to beat.
She sped forward. As she approached the first corner, she turned getting close enough to the cloud wall to dip her feathers into it, then peeling away. She heard a rush of wind behind her.
Fleetfoot didn’t look back. She pushed harder, willing herself further ahead. She felt her wings beginning to ache.
She ground her teeth, and buried the pain behind the wall.
The second turn, and she crossed the finish line. One lap; four to go. She willed herself on.
By the time she finished the fourth lap, she still hadn’t caught sight of Rainbow Dash. Her wings felt like they were going to fall off- and Fleetfoot was sure she wasn’t going to be able to get back to the academy on her own wingpower- but all that was second.
She was winning.
Despite herself, she managed a rough grin. She reached her hooves forward, and took the first corner.
She raced down the straight, beating her wings harder than ever.
Slowly- so slowly that Fleet wasn’t sure if she saw it or was just hallucinating- a thin contrail materialized in front of her.
Fleetfoot swallowed. She beat her wings harder, and reached for the sound barrier.
She could feel it; just on the other edge of pegasi magic, on the other side of the sound barrier.
Close. So close. All Fleetfoot had to do was reach out; grab it. Her wings hurt- pain rushed up and down her spine; behind her goggles, her eyes felt like they were going to burst;- but she ignored it. Pushed past it.
A Sonic Rainboom.
She didn’t care if it tore her apart. She could do it. She could.
Fleetfoot could be the fastest pony in Equestria again. She could still be a Wonderbolt.
Fleet groaned; she could feel feathers being pulled. She could feel lightning cross her fur, and fire burning through her wings.
She ground her teeth, and pushed forward- and the cone of air, stretched to breaking point…
Then it vanished. A blur passed Fleet. Her wings skipped a beat at the same time her heart did
Fleetfoot stopped, sinking to the cloudfloor, as Rainbow Dash passed her, passed the finish line, in a contrail of rainbows.
Fleetfoot hung her head, as Rainbow Dash soared into the sky. She heard a shout from her rival. She sounded excited. Of course she was.
It wasn’t every day the wonderbolts met the fastest mare in Equestria...