• Published 8th Feb 2014
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Brothers and Sisters - Alphacat



To find a missing Princess Luna, Private Lucky Break, batpony soldier of the Night Guard, must breach the gulf of a thousand years of guilt to repair an all-too familiar bond between siblings.

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Chapter 6

Canterlot

Celestia’s balcony shouldn’t be this cold, thought Lucky as he stared at the city below. It was an excellent view, of course. The people would demand no less, that Celestia could step out onto her balcony and see not just the splendor of her royal city, but the vast landscape of Equestria stretching far out into the horizon.

A gust of wind swept past the balcony, and Lucky hunkered down into the corner between the balcony railing and the outer wall. The cold bit through his coat and stung at his eyes, but he set his jaw and kept watch on the balcony doors.

Celestia was in there. He could see her shadow pacing back and forth across the glass. Every so often the shadow would stop, and he imagined the its head was looking directly at him. Then it would turn, look elsewhere, and resume pacing.

How long could he keep waiting out here? Would Celestia come out to talk to him, just because he wanted her to? Did he have more determination than their seemingly-immortal ruler, or the patience to outwait the sun itself?

The badge around his neck jingled softly, and he brought a hoof up, clutching it to his chest. The cold silver stung his skin, but its heft was a reassuring presence, a companion to his momentary loneliness.

In the middle of the badge was carved a silver crescent moon, and above and beneath was the Night Guard’s motto: Per Acerbus Noctis, Contegimus.

Though the dark of night, we protect.

Every Night Guard recruit swore an oath to live in service of that motto. It was a pledge to stand firm and resolute in the hardest of times. To never waver, if only a single candle flame shining in the dark.

Lucky slipped the badge off and held it up, letting the moonlight play over the embossed letters. For him, those words were more than a simple vow.

It was the fulfillment of a different promise he had made to himself long before joining the guard. A promise to always take action. A promise to look out for others. A promise that he would never let himself fail again.

Celestia’s shadow loomed large on the balcony doors before they slowly swung open, admitting the princess onto the balcony. She stepped up to the railing, surveying the kingdom. Eventually she looked up to the twinkling stars. “It’s a beautiful night tonight, isn’t it?”

Lucky stepped out of his hiding spot, squinting as he crossed into the doorway’s light. “It is. Did you do that or did Princess Luna?”

“Oh, I could never create a night sky as beautiful as Luna’s. Even with a thousand years of practice, mine could never compare to hers. It has been a joy to watch her practice her craft once more.”

They watched the sky in silence. “You lied,” he said after a time.

Celestia inhaled, a long and slow breath hissing faintly as she drew it in through her nostrils. Her wings fluttered as she let out an equally slow exhale. “Yes.”

“Wh—Wait, what?” Lucky frowned, watching Celestia’s back.

“Does it surprise you, my little pony, to learn that I am capable of falsehoods?” Celestia’s voice was quiet and subdued, and she did not turn to address Lucky directly.

Lucky shook his head. “Well, no. I just didn’t think it would be that easy to get you to admit it.”

“It would have been inappropriate for me to divulge the truth at the pageant. You understand this, correct?”

“I do. But that’s not what I’m talking about.”

Celestia remained silent.

“Where is she?”

“If you are referring to Luna, I am afraid I do not—”

Lucky stomped his hoof. “Horseapples! You know her better than any other living pony.”

Celestia finally turned to deliver a reproachful stare, brow creased in concern. “While I discourage undue reverence from my subjects, you would do well to remember you are addressing a princess of Equestria, Private.”

“Then act like one!” Lucky stood tall and resolute, meeting Celestia’s gaze head on. The bedroom’s light cast him in shadow, but his eyes still glittered with reflected moonlight. “You kicked me off the search and since then you’ve done nothing to find her. That’s your sister out there! She needs help, and you’re just sitting here not doing anything!”

Celestia’s disdain fell away to carefully measured neutrality. “There are not many who would dare to speak to me as you have just done.”

“Yeah, well, drag me up in front of the Tribunal if you want. Just tell me where Princess Luna is.”

Celestia slowly shook her head. “It is not your concern. I have absolved the Night Guard of any responsibility in this matter.

“Or blame,” she added as an afterthought.

“This isn’t about the guard. It’s about Princess Luna.”

“You should be well aware of Luna’s low tolerance for fanaticism.”

“Look, this isn’t—” Lucky rubbed the bridge of his nose. “This isn’t about Mother Moon, or the Guard, or any of that. It’s about Luna. It’s about a pony that almost flattened me this morning that needs some help.”

Celestia regarded him silently for a long moment. “What is your interest, then?”

Lucky dropped his hoof, considering his words. “I’ve been where she is. A long time ago I hurt someone I cared about.” His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat before continuing. “I nearly destroyed myself. If it hadn’t been for some really good friends… I don’t know what would have happened.”

He stood up straight, his shoulders square and his voice firm. “But Luna doesn’t have anyone right now. She’s out there, somewhere, all by herself, and the only pony who can help her isn’t doing anything! You’re the older sister! You’re supposed to look after her!”

Celestia’s head slowly swung away to the horizon. “If only…”

“If only what?”

“If only a great deal of things, Lucky Break.” Celestia strode past the pegasus into her bedroom. “Please join me for a moment, if you would.”

Lucky let Celestia pass by, then stepped through the doorway. A wall of comfortable heat greeted him as he passed over the threshold, permeating right through to his bones. He took a moment to savor the warmth as it chased away the accumulated numbness of his cold vigil, stretching and testing each limb in turn. When he was sufficiently warm, he took in the room.

He had expected something grand and ostentatious, but the room was surprisingly homey. A fireplace burned cheerily on the far side of the room, and a soft carpet cushioned his steps as he followed the princess.

By the fireplace, perched on a stand, a bird with brilliant gold and crimson plumage watched him with a curious but intent stare.

Celestia lowered herself to a pillow in front of the crackling fire, gracefully folding her legs beneath her. She inclined her head to a smaller pillow, and Lucky took a seat. Between them sat a small table, and Celestia levitated a small tea set onto it, the dishes making a faint clink as they settled.

“Do you drink tea, Lucky Break?” asked Celestia. Under the guidance of her magic, the settings rearranged themselves.

Lucky rubbed the back of his neck. “Sometimes, when Rose is in Canterlot. But not usually, no.”

“Would you care to join me for a cup?” A plain white mug set itself down in front of Lucky.

He stared down at the cup, frowning as he thought. “I’m… honored, that you would offer, but…”

“You are concerned about Luna. I understand.” Celestia looked away, into the dancing flames. The far-away look flickered across her features for a moment, before they returned to her carefully neutral mask. “But if you would permit me to be selfish, I would ask a small favor of you, to grant me a moment of your time.”

Lucky watched Celestia as the crackling flames filled the silence, but she did not return his gaze. Instead, he studied the mug before him. It had seen a lot of use. There was a faint ring around the inside of the mug that no amount of washing would remove, and on the rim there was a barely noticeable chip.

“Of course, Princess.”

Celestia smiled. It wasn’t the careful and cordial smile Lucky had seen so much of since his posting. It wasn’t the maternally proud smile she had greeted her subjects with at the pageant. This one was small and fragile, shy to be suddenly put on the spot.

“Thank you, Lucky Break. It is rare that I am able to entertain a guest in this manner.”

Celestia removed the kettle from its cozy and filled up the two mugs. She added a splash of milk and a spoonful of sugar. Lucky followed suit with two spoonfuls and slowly took a sip.

His nose crinkled up as the bitterness overwhelmed his tastebuds and hastily swallowed. “This is strong.” The warmth of the tea raced to his stomach and chased away the last of the lingering cold from his bones.

“Yes,” said Celestia as she calmly sipped from her mug. “Is it too strong for you?”

“No, it’s fine.” Lucky stirred another heaping spoonful of sugar and took another sip, letting the flavor play over his tongue. “This is black tea, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.”

“So when you said you rarely get to entertain guests like this… How rare is ‘rarely’?” In the back of his head, something was buzzing. There was a puzzle piece just out of reach, for a puzzle he didn’t know the shape of yet.

Celestia took a long drought from her mug, studying its remnants as she gave them a gentle swirl. “Let me answer your question with another. What does the public think of myself and tea?”

Lucky blinked and stared down into his mug, mentally prodding the tea to divine an answer for him. “Well,” he said slowly, “everyone knows it’s your favorite drink. It represents class and refinement. It…”

He grasped for words as he kept staring at the cup. It was, as far as he could tell, simple black tea. He could have made it at home, although probably not as well.

“That’s not the whole picture, is it? There’s something missing.”

Celestia set her mug down and leaned in. “May I share a secret?”

Lucky’s ears perked up, followed by the rest of his head. “Wha— A personal secret? Are you sure I’m the best pony for that?”

“If I had not been sure, then your reaction would have told me everything I needed to know.”

Lucky swallowed hard. “Okay then. If you’re sure.”

Celestia glanced sidelong to Philomena and then leaned in closer, gesturing with a hoof for Lucky to do the same. “The truth is… I love tea.”

“But that’s not a secret.” Lucky frowned. “Everybody knows you drink it.”

Celestia sat back up with a small shake of her head. “Not quite. The general populace knows that I drink tea. They know that I enjoy it. It is, as you said, a mark of class and refinement, and who is more refined than Princess Celestia?

“I take it in the socially prescribed way when I attend functions. I accept tea as a gift with measured gratitude. I have staff members whose sole duties involve the preparation of tea. Everything in precisely controlled amounts.

“But the truth is, I love tea. The many variations, the subtle nuances between different blends, and even its preparation.” Celestia held the tea cosy and teapot aloft in her magic, slowly examining it. “Do you know how many cultures have their own rituals for preparing tea? And each one produces a subtle variation in the flavor.

“The Neighponese tea ceremony, for instance, is practically a performance art. Every step happens with a deliberate purpose, from the arrival of the guests, the preparation of the tea itself, to the conversation. Ponies spend lifetimes studying and mastering these ceremonies, of which there are many variations. Not a single movement is wasted. But I cannot simply partake of such a thing. My last state visit was surrounded by attendants and briefings and reminders of protocol. And the press always watches, whether from near or afar.”

“So… Let me get this straight. Everyone knows you drink and appreciate tea, but they don’t know that you also really love it. They don’t know… because of manners?” Lucky shook his head to himself. “No, the nobles do it all the time. That means you don’t. Or…”

He tapped his forehead as he thought and stole a glance at Celestia. She was wearing the quiet, expectant smile of a teacher watching a student puzzle over a problem.

“You’re the princess. You can do almost anything you want. But there’s expectations. Obligations. Consequences…”

He lowered his hoof and met Celestia’s watchful stare. “You can’t tell them. Can you?”

“That is correct.”

“Why?”

“Because ponies take notice of what I do. If I were to express a direct preference for one type of tea over another, it would affect buyers and sellers of tea, as well as other goods, particularly the commodities related to tea. It would affect imports and exports. International trade, once affected, would exert influence on foreign relations, and all of the politics that entails. External politics inevitably affect internal politics, and the cycle begins anew.”

Celestia poured herself more tea and sipped it while Lucky thought. Finally, he asked, “What happened?”

“A depression. It was swift but severe. Once I realized what was happening, I took corrective measures, but the damage was done. The unsteadiness almost provoked a war with the gryphons, who saw a weakness they thought they could exploit. And later, when I was investigating the cause, I realized it all sprang from one careless comment made to exactly the wrong pony.”

“All of that because of tea.”

Celestia nodded. “Quite so. It was but one of many lessons I had to learn, and one of many changes I had to make to myself. Little by little, I became as you see me now.”

“As you are now… Then what were you like before?”

“Before Luna was banished? Times were much different. Equestria was recovering from Discord’s reign and trying to rebuild. There was discontent everywhere as ponies tried to seize the fragments of a shattered nation for themselves. What Equestria needed then was bold, decisive leadership. Luna and I both were proud ponies, unafraid to secure Equestria’s future with a strong hoof.”

“So you were more like Luna back then…” Lucky stared at his hooves. “I’m sorry for what I said, Princess. I think I understand what’s going on a little better now.”

Celestia gave a long roll of her head against her shoulders. When she settled again, the weight of centuries bore down on her shoulders, and a slow melancholy crept into her voice. “Do not apologize. The truth is, Nightmare Moon was the failing of both Luna and myself. Had I not been blinded by my arrogance… or had there been a pony like you brave enough to speak his mind, perhaps the last thousand years would have been very different.

“Or perhaps not,” she added after a moment’s contemplation. “A single word can change the tide of history, but it is folly to dwell overmuch on the past. I understand this better than most.” She cast her eyes downward, then turned to look at Lucky. “A lesson I suspect you are familiar with as well.”

Lucky shuffled his wings uncomfortably. “Some days I understand it better than others.”

“An honest answer, Lucky Break.”

“Princess? May I ask a question?”

“Please do.”

“Why tell me this? I mean…” Lucky shifted on the pillow. “I’m not anypony special. I’m not some royal advisor or something. Honestly, I think I might be in over my head here.”

“Squawk!”

“Philomena!” admonished Celestia gently, quickly trying to hide a smile behind her hoof. “That’s not a nice thing to say.”

Philomena let out a chirp, ruffling her wings.

“That doesn’t matter. Now be nice.”

The bird’s head turned in a way that Lucky could only interpret as an eyeroll.

“Nice to know I’ve got the support of the peanut gallery,” he said dryly.

Celestia schooled her face back into a neutral expression. “Now, then. As I have said, I must always take pains to present the right image to the public. I have a responsibility to the ponies I rule. And as much as I would love to throw everything else to the wind for my sister… sadly, I cannot.

“Even with those that are closer to me, I must wear some masks and follow proper social protocols. There are very few that I allow this close, who will understand, really understand, and be capable of seeing an old mare for who she really is. It is a great relief to be able to speak so frankly.”

“Oh, well…” Lucky bowed his head. “I’m honored you choose to trust me with this.”

“In truth,” said Celestia with a small, wry smile, “you choose yourself by appearing on my balcony tonight.”

Lucky rubbed at the back of his neck. “So what now? Princess Luna still needs help.”

“Indeed she does. Please understand, Lucky Break. While I planned for a thousand years for my sister’s return, I knew there would be no perfect way to console her, or to absolve her of her guilt. I can merely offer my support, ensure she has a place in this new age, and give her time and space to come to terms with all that has transpired.”

“So is that what this is? The ‘time and space’ part?”

“Yes.”

Lucky shook his head. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave her alone just now. Without someone to talk to, she could self-destruct.”

Celestia winced, turning her head away. “I believe my presence would only serve to exacerbate her upset state.”

Lucky rose to his hooves. “Then send me.”

Celestia stared deliberately into the fire. “To use your words, she ‘almost flattened’ you this morning. I could not ask you to take that risk.”

“You don’t have to ask.” Lucky stood tall and squared his shoulders. “I’m volunteering. No matter how dangerous it is, I have to try. It’s… well, not quite my talent, but it is my purpose.”

“Your duty as a guard does not obligate you to take this risk.”

“Maybe not, but my duty as a pony does. Look, I did a lot of soul searching when I was younger. My talent was for flying through storms, and I thought that I would just grow up and become an amazing aerobat. Then… well, then I hurt someone I cared about, and I had to ask myself what I was doing with my life.”

Lucky clutched the badge hanging around his neck with a hoof. “I decided that if my talent let me get through dangerous situations, then maybe I should use that ability to help others. To be a pony who could step forward when someone was in trouble and see them through safely.

“Please, Princess. Tell me where she is. She deserves to have someone who can be there for her like I had. I understand now if that can’t be you, yet, but someone has to be there for her.” Lucky took a deep, gulping breath and let it out slowly. “I know it might be dangerous, but even so, I have to try.”

Celestia gave Lucky a long, appraising stare. “Very well, then. Luna has returned home.”

“Returned home? But she’s not—”

Celestia watched expectantly as Lucky tapped his forehead. “Of course! I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner!”

Lucky turned and galloped to the door. He skidded to a halt on the balcony and looked back over his shoulder. “Thank you for the tea, Princess. And the talk. I promise I’ll do everything I can to help your sister.”

Celestia rose and strode to the doorway, bowing her head in gratitude. “I wish you a swift and safe journey, my little pony.”

Lucky leapt over the railing and spread his wings, cruising off into the night sky.


Manehattan

“This sucks!”

“Ssh, keep it down. Slip’s still sleeping.”

“Well, it does,” said Lily quietly.

“I know, I know,” said Lucky. He shifted awkwardly, his hindleg in a cast and his wing now thoroughly bandaged. “And the doctor said absolutely no flying or using my wing this time.”

Lily pushed her textbook away, laying her chin on her forehooves. “So we can’t even practice for the race now. Why’d you have to break your leg?”

“Hey, it’s not like I planned on this, you know.” Lucky lifted his hindleg, adjusting the pillow underneath it. The damage wasn’t severe, but the rest of the healing had to take place naturally. His wing would take longer to heal—the tear had grown much longer with the strain he’d put his wings through.

“Your aerodynamic profile was probably off-kilter because of your injured wing,” offered Glimpse.

Lucky rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I got that, thanks.”

“Did the doctor give a prognosis?”

“A what?”

“How long did he think it would take your wing to heal?”

“Oh. The doctor thinks that it’ll take about two months for my wing to completely heal.”

“Hmm.” Glimpse consulted a calendar. “That barely gives you a month to practice and prepare for the race, but that doesn’t take into account the time you’ll need to get your wing strength back up to normal.”

“I know, I know,” said Lucky. He shifted again, trying to get comfortable. “If my brother wasn’t such a wimp, all of this wouldn’t have happened. Heck, if it weren’t for him, I’d be in school with you guys, where I belong.”

“Tell me about it,” said Lily. “You’re the best sparring partner I have. And now you’re all laid up.”

“I told you I’d be more than happy to substitute,” said Glimpse.

“Yeah, except you keep trying to bring magic into it.”

“Your enhanced strength and endurance are magical, you know.”

Lily rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but they’re not magic magic.”

“Yet you’re always happy to take my assistance with studying.” Glimpse arched an eyebrow from behind his glasses.

Lucky tuned out the old debate as he prodded at his classwork.

It was going to be a long two months.

* * * * * * *

The last two months had been torture for Lucky. The only good that had come from his injuries had been a seemingly more permanent truce between himself and Stormcrasher. Apparently an injured pegasus wasn’t a fair target.

That, or Stormcrasher had believed his bluff. If it had been a bluff.

The cast had come off in short order, and once the doctor had declared his wing mended, it was time to continue his training in earnest.

His backyard had become a makeshift gym and training area, and he had assisted with spotting and other minor tasks while recuperating.

Lucky took a controlled breath through his nose, greedily sucking in the energy-giving oxygen before letting out a steady exhale. His hooves moved in a stationary trot, all four hooves tapping out a staccato rhythm. His muscles ached, liquid fire burned through his veins, sweat matted his coat and his mane kept falling into his eyes, but he didn’t dare stop running in place.

Lily slowly paced around him, a whistle hanging from her neck. She didn’t use it anymore, not after waking up Slip the first time, but she kept it to complete the look. “Get that left hindleg in line!”

Lucky wordlessly counted off the four-beat gait, shuffling through an awkward skip to force the left hindleg back into the right pattern.

“Good, good… Get ready and… Pushups! Go!”

The pegasus dropped to the ground, kicking out his hind legs. He caught himself with the forelegs and started a series of quick pushups.

Lily leaned on his back, pressing him down further. “All the way down. Work those muscles.”

Lucky grunted as his friend applied extra pressure, his muscles straining to meet the demand. Slowly he rose all the way up again and lowered himself for another repetition.

“Gallop!” demanded the filly.

Lucky pulled his legs up underneath himself and settled back into the four-beat gallop. His forelegs trembled, but he forced them to keep moving. He had to get back into racing shape, whatever it took.

“Buck!”

You’re killing me here! Lucky leaned forward onto his front hooves. They tried to slip, but he locked the muscles in his legs tight to keep them rigid. He lifted his hindquarters up, his body temporarily and precariously balanced for a fleeting moment. With a growl he kicked his legs straight out, driving them into the hanging bag behind him. His body pitched forward as his legs straightened, and with a frantic yelp he forced his forehooves forward to stop his fall.

Lily snorted and prodded his chest after he steadied himself. “You call that a buck? Watch your base and try that again!”

Lucky reached down inside himself and planted his hooves again, striking fast and true with every last ounce of force he could muster. The force of the blow traveled up through his body and down into his forelegs, but he didn’t topple forward. The bag rocked back away from his strike, and he resumed his run.

“Better!” called Glimpse from behind the bag.

“Better,” agreed Lily with an approving nod. “Almost done, Lucky. Give me…”

He tensed, and then forced himself to relax. Anticipating would only mean false starts.

“Right wingover!”

A wingover was one of the most basic flying maneuvers. It involved a pegasus flying straight up and making a turn without a roll, such that their wings traced out a fat horseshoe in the air, and the pegasus changed directions.

Lucky unfolded his wings, still sore from an earlier repetition of wingups, and jumped into the air. A quick flap and a turn of his body found him flying straight downward. The blood rushed to his head for a brief moment before he pulled up, landing in a four-point stance. All four knees flexed as he absorbed the impact of landing, and then quickly resumed running. He took a big gulp of air and then forced himself to breathe properly.

“Good! Last one. Left wingover!”

Lucky rolled his eyes and huffed. He dutifully crouched down low, and with a leap and a flap of his wings propelled himself into the air. His body turned, and he adjusted his wings to keep his trajectory stable.

His left wing suddenly gnarled with a twisting, searing pain. He spun out of control, the world tumbling around him. Gravity brought him crashing into the grass, and he tumbled and rolled before coming to a stop.

“Lucky!” Glimpse and Lily rushed to their friend’s side.

The pegasus pushed himself upright with a frustrated grunt. Everything smarted, and now he had bruises on top of his aches. “Dammit! My stupid wing cramped!” He twisted his head, trying to get a better view of his back.

“Stop moving,” said Lily firmly. “Glimpse, get the bottle. Getting some more electrolytes in you will help with the cramping.” She gently grasped the offending wing with her hooves and teased it flat. She gently massaged the muscles with small, circular motions, starting at the shoulder joint and working her way out along the wing.

Glimpse telekinetically fetched a bottle of sports drink from the porch and offered it to Lucky, who guzzled it down.

Lucky wiped his muzzle dry with a hoof and passed the bottle back to Glimpse. “I hate this! How can I compete if I can’t even do a bucking wingover without cramping my wing?”

“You’ve been pushing yourself really hard, Lucky. Stuff like this happens. Just keep your head in the game, and keep your eyes on the prize.” Lily released her friend’s wing. “There. Try that and see how it feels.”

He gave the wing a slow flap. It moved to his command, but there was still a small resistance. “Better. But it still feels too tight.”

“Stretch your wings out gently while you take a few cooldown laps. We don’t want anything else cramping up.”

Lucky clambered up to his hooves and started to jog around the perimeter of the backyard. “I hate this. All this time wasted because of that stupid Stormcrasher. Because I had to take care of my stupid brother.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself. Your performance is almost where it was two months ago, right Glimpse?”

The unicorn nodded, levitating a clipboard and flipping through it. “Better, in some areas.”

“See? And we got a week to keep working on it. You’ll do fine.”

Lucky stomped viciously on a clump of dirt as he trotted past. “Great. I’m back where I started. And Comet has had two months to train and get even better than I was when I started.”

“Actually,” said Glimpse, “I believe that he may have relaxed his training regimen a bit, with the news of your injury spreading around the school. If you make significant improvement in the coming week, you may catch him by surprise.”

“I hate this. Everything’s all screwed up because of that stupid school.” Lucky kicked a rock, sending it clattering into the fence. “I just want my sun-forsaken life back.”

* * * * * * *

The moon was high and bright, and background chatter filled the air. Lucky surveyed the field where the competitors of the triathlon were gathering. There was a large turn-out; there always was. Lucky had watched the last few years, but this was the first year he was old enough to participate.

The crowd was predominantly nyctan, although there were a few meran ponies in attendance. The triathlon had gathered more attention in recent years, and more and more dayponies were showing up to compete. Lucky wasn’t sure how he felt about that. If they wanted to compete on the Nycta’s turf, well… he could respect that. But part of him still didn’t like having them around.

The triathlon was based on an ancient Nycta ritual, a rite of passage given to a group of three foals just coming of age. Their task would be to overcome a treacherous challenge, often navigating the harsh lands of the Frozen North in the process. Tradition dictated a pegasus, earth pony, and unicorn be given the challenge together, to teach them about each other’s strengths and weaknesses and foster creative problemsolving skills that couldn’t be developed alone.

The modern triathlon had lost its significance as survival training, but participation still marked a milestone in a young Nycta’s life. The triathlon was a relay race run by a team of three, and part of the challenge was to decide which leg of the race to use each team member’s talents on.

Lucky stretched his wings and gave them a few experimental flaps, the test eliciting a pause. He flapped the left wing again. Did the muscle feel tight? Suddenly his stomach felt cold and leaden, and he took a few deep, slow breaths.

“Hey, Lucky! Good luck!”

Lucky turned to see his mother and brother descending from the sky. He stepped forward to embrace them both. “Hey, guys. Slip, what’re you doing up? Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

“I wanted to see you race! Mom said I could stay up, just this once.”

“It is a weekend, after all. And you didn’t think we’d miss your big day, did you?”

Lucky smiled, and his stomach lightened. “Thanks guys. I really appreciate it.”

Evengale kissed her eldest son’s forehead and give him a tight hug. “Your father would be here too, if he could.”

“Yeah, I know. Thanks.”

A shrill whistle cut through the area, and one of the race officials started shouting directions.

“Guys, that’s me. I gotta go. My section’s lining up.”

Slipstream jumped up and wrapped his forehooves around Lucky’s neck. “Good luck!”

Lucky ruffled his younger brother’s mane. “Thanks, bro.”

“We’ll see you at the finish line, dear.”

Lucky took off for the starting area. He was running the third leg of the race, whose path lead through Thunder Canyon to the finish line. Glimpse and Lily had taken the first and second legs, respectively.

Thunder Canyon was an area prone to intense magical weather, which tended to manifest as constant thunderstorms. Their starting line wasn’t quite at the mouth of the canyon, but the rolls of thunder echoing from it were still close.

It was a dangerous area, but that was why there were race officials and medics standing by. If a pony couldn’t stomach a little danger, a nyctan triathlon was not the place for them.

There were several earth ponies and unicorns joining him at the starting area. Pegasi had an advantage in dealing with the weather, of course, but the other races had their own talents. Earth ponies had resilience and fortitude, and were especially well-grounded to withstand the buffeting winds. Some unicorns knew shielding spells, and could ward themselves against the inclement weather.

Also joining the starting area was a pegasus he hadn't seen in a while.

“Comet.”

“Lucky.” The cinnamon-brown colt pulled a sleek pair of goggles into place. “I’m glad you’re here. I heard you’d turned into a sunkisser.”

“Not on your life, pal. Those the goggles you put up?”

Comet smirked. “You bet. Crystal lenses, weathertight seal, adjustable strap, and a water-resistant finish.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll put those fancy goggles to good use after I show you how flying’s really done.” Lucky pulled his much simpler goggles into place and took up position at the line, starting to stretch.

“Yeah, right. I’m gonna hang these babies on the wall next to your poster. Maybe I’ll get ‘em signed by a Wonderbolt, too.”

“We’ll see.”

Comet started to stretch. “I heard about your little ‘accident.’ Hope your wing’s good to fly.”

“Don’t worry about me. My wings are at a hundred and ten percent.” Lucky flapped his wings, lifting himself off the ground for a moment. He landed and gave his left wing a few more test flaps, turning his head to inspect it.

Comet leaned over. “So, is it true?”

Lucky folded his wing back into place. “Is what true?”

“I heard you got into a fight with fifteen sunponies.”

A grin tugged at the edge of Lucky’s mouth. “It was only six…”

“Who won?”

Lucky shook his head. “Nobody ‘won.’ We should’ve found a better way to resolve our differences.”

Comet rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, but seriously. Who won?”

Lucky broke into a full grin. “I did. Come on, there were only six of them, and Lily’s my trainer. You know what she’s like.”

“Nice. That’ll show ‘em what we’re made of.” Comet held out a hoof.

Lucky bumped his hoof with the other colt’s. “Thanks.”

The race started, and Lucky turned to watch for Lily. She appeared in the second group of scattered runners, galloping at a full tilt. She skidded into place besides Lucky and transferred a baton from her saddlebags to his.

“Good run so far?”

“Yep!” Lily slapped Lucky’s flank. “Bring it home!”

Lucky bolted off at a dead run. Once he cleared the staging area, he spread his wings and took off in flight, speeding towards the canyon.

* * * * * * *

Lucky coasted along the path, passing over several runners steadily making their way forward. He mentally checked them off and kept cruising towards Thunder Canyon. No sense using more energy than necessary now; he’d need it to navigate the canyon itself.

The path beneath him started to descend down the side of the ravine, and the pegasus spilled air from his wings, following the path. The rumble of the canyon was louder now, rising to a roar as Lucky slipped beneath the canyon’s insulating cloud cover.

Magical flares lit the winding path down into the valley. Racers weren't allowed to shortcut the path, but Lucky skirted each turn as tightly as he could, squeezing past an indignant unicorn before reaching the canyon floor.

More magical flares lit the way ahead, shining with an ethereal green light against the darkness. Several ponies watched from the sidelines, glowing vests that marking them as race officials. Stinging, bitterly cold rain pelted Lucky as he entered the canyon proper. Visibility was poor; even with the goggles on, Lucky had to keep a watchful eye out for the race markers.

A sudden gust of wind pulled at his wings, sending him spinning out of control. He immediately braked, regaining control and making contact with the ground. He leapt back into the air, wings beating fiercely as he attempted to pierce the howling gales, only to find himself effortlessly repelled. With a frustrated grunt he dropped back to the ground, yet immediately sprung forward, skimming along the surface.

They’re forcing us all down to the same elevation, he thought. But I can work with this.

Lucky skittered along the rocky canyon floor, weaving through the brush. A turgid river flowed nearby, offering fewer obstacles, but he resisted the temptation to fly over its waters.

Nothing nice lived in Thunder Canyon.

The tip of Lucky’s tongue tingled, and he slammed all four hooves into the ground, wings braking hard. Far ahead, a bright lance of electricity struck the ground, briefly illuminating the canyon, its thunderous roar washing over him.

He stared at the scorched rock, heart hammering in his chest. His left wing twitched, and he stilled it as best he could. Keep your head together! This is your moment!

“Interesting strategy!” shouted Comet as he flew over.

Lucky launched himself back into flight, tailing his rival. I can’t beat him at a flat-out sprint. I have to outmaneuver him and keep that lead. He’s not going his full speed because of the lightning and wind; I’ve got a chance to overtake him.

The two fliers tore through the canyon, passing several other racers. Lucky felt his tongue tingle again, and pushed forward, muscles straining. Comet slowed to avoid the impending lightning strike, but Lucky steered around it, taking a fragile lead. With each bolt he inched further and further ahead.

Up ahead the winding path ascended out of the canyon. Lucky tackled the incline, wingtips digging furrows in the dirt as he banked sharply left and right. He spared a glance to the side as he rose. Comet was just behind him.

Lucky put his wings to work as he broke over the lip of the canyon. There was a slow sting in his back and wings; sustained flight without the aid of thermals and against a headwind was grueling. He had pushed himself harder than he wanted to eke out a meager lead over Comet—now was the time to use the rest of his reserves. Wings pounding furiously, Lucky bolted down the track.

The checkered finish banner appeared from behind the crest of a hill. A large crowd was gathered, and as he broke over the hilltop, a cheer went up. Lucky allowed himself a small smile, pushing his straining wings onward.

A second, more sustained cheer went up. Lucky knew, with certainty, that Comet had just appeared over the last hill. He didn’t dare look: turning his head would ruin his aerodynamic profile.

Lucky kept his eyes locked on the goal. His muscles burned with fatigue. His lungs filled with fire.

Up down up down up down.

A second pair of wingbeats reached his ears. Lucky pressed on, ignoring his fatigueas he fought for one less iota of drag. One more chance to pull away.

The crowd at the finish line cheered and hollered. Only the sound of wingbeats filled Lucky’s hearing. The racetrack stretched out before them.

Perfectly straight. No tricks. No maneuvers. Only speed.

Lucky clenched his jaw. Everything else faded away as he concentrated on the tape. All that mattered was his forward momentum.

Updownupdownupdown.

Lucky didn’t remember passing the finish line. It loomed before him, and suddenly it was gone. He was gliding; why did he stop flapping his wings? There were ponies shouting at him to stop.

He dropped his legs, stumbling with an awkward gallop until he caught his stride. His wings were stiff, and he let them hang at his sides as he slowed into a trot. He gasped for breath, trying to get the stars in his vision to go away.

Comet and Lucky slowly came to a stop. They looked at each other, and then at the race officials.

“Who won?” they both demanded.

Lily and Glimpse came running up, along with Comet’s team members.

“C’mon!” demanded Lily.

A unicorn with a clipboard stepped up. “Comet pulled ahead just before the finish line. Victory goes to his team.”

Lucky fell to his haunches. “No way. That means…”

“Second place,” confirmed the official. “Still, good race, both of you. You both gave it your all. You should be proud.”

Comet shared a congratulatory round of hoofbumps with his teammates. The surrounding crowds started to close in on them, but the he stepped away and approached Lucky again.

Lucky closed his eyes, taking deep breaths to calm his pounding heart. I was an idiot to think that I could pull ahead in a straightaway like that. Not against Comet.

Comet smirked, buffing a hoof on his chest. “Hey, Lily. Whaddya think of my moves now?”

“Ah, stuff it,” said Lily with a snort. “You just got lucky, that’s all.”

“Oh yeah? Well your boy Lucky there choked.” The smile fell away from his face for a moment. “Never expected that from you, of all ponies.”

Lucky shook his head. “I don’t know what happened.”

Lily shoved Comet back with a quiet scowl. “Hey. You won already, so cut the crap! Making up lies won’t make you look any better.”

“He’s not lying,” said Lucky in a small voice.

Lily tensed up. She slowly turned, leveling a flat stare at her friend. “What?”

“I choked. Just once. On the first lightning strike. I…” He gestured uselessly with his hooves. “I thought my wing wasn’t up to it, so I stopped. It cost me the race.”

Quiet, deliberate breathing filled the silence. Comet looked at Lily and stepped carefully away. “Just drop off your poster whenever you can.” He rejoined his teammates.

Lucky snuck a guilty glance up at his friend. “Lily, I—”

“Save it!” The filly slammed both forehooves into the dirt, nostrils flaring as she took deep, angry breaths. “We busted our tails off for months to get ready for this race. I worked you to the bone for a month to get you ready! All that, and we came in second just because you choked?!”

Lucky drew back. “Hey, I—”

“I don’t want to hear it! You’re not the only one who wanted to win. You’re not the only one that had something riding on this! I can’t believe you let us down like that! You just… Ugh!” Lily’s tail lashed around as she turned on a hoof and stomped away.

Lucky silently watched her go.

“You know she doesn’t mean any of that,” said Glimpse softly, resting a hoof on Lucky’s shoulder.

When Lucky didn’t respond, Glimpse withdrew it. “Look, I’ll go talk to her.” He chased after their friend.

Lucky closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, trying to get his heart under control. The most damning thing, as thought as he played over the race in his mind, was that he couldn’t disagree with Lily’s words. He had failed them, and cost them their victory.

So much for their perfect year.