• Published 18th Dec 2012
  • 5,658 Views, 431 Comments

Our Time to Fly - Shokinaw



Flight and life lessons mix for Rainbow Dash, Spike, Scootaloo, and all of their friends as everpony reaches for the sky, supporting each other's dreams and hopes no matter where they may lead them.

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Chapter 5: Feeling the Strain

Chapter 5

Feeling the Strain

"Whew, looks like we're takin' home quite the haul today!" Applejack grinned widely as she wiped the sweat from her brow. It was a bright and early morning, the sun hadn't gotten too high, but in the craggy rock lands where Rarity usually picked her favoured gems amidst the many, it had already gotten fiercely hot. Things had been working out so far for their efforts, selling the gems to Rarity's contacts in the quarries and gem cutters were beginning to make a tidy profit, but nowhere what Applejack thought it would.

Low quality.

She began to despise that word when she first began all this treasure hunting because it was the first word out of every buyer’s mouth. She thought she'd be rich enough to buy a new farm with the cart loads they had been bringing back, but apparently Rarity's years of picking through the land had already grabbed almost all of the high quality gemstones around. The diamond dogs in the area prevented deeper digging besides. The ponies may have put them in their place that once, but neither Twilight nor Applejack had any intention of stirring up that trouble again.

"Yer actually gettin' pretty darn good at this Twilight, you'll be better than Rarity soon." Applejack commented to the tired looking unicorn as she pointed out another bunch with her horn.

"Oh, I don't think so. I still can't figure out the difference between their values like she can. It’s only working out because we're doing things in bulk. I really wish I could help more on the physical side of things. I was bushed before we even had the cart half full!"

"Now don't you worry none about that, Sugarcube. Yer doin' plenty enough as it is. You just sit back an' take a break for as long as yah need tah, and let me do the heavy liftin'. That's what Ah'm here for after all."

"Maybe, but I still feel bad about only pointing the gems out and then letting you do all the work. Digging is a lot tougher than I thought, Spike always makes it look so easy."

"Well yer sure right about that. Diggin' through this here rock ain't nuthin like diggin’ at the farm. Ah think Big Macintosh's plow woulda broke the first day out tryin' tah get even a foot down. A couple dragon claws would be right useful out here just tah break the surface a bit."

"I know, but I promised him the time to work with Rainbow Dash, and I think they're really counting on him with this whole Fledgling Fliers thing. I didn't think it would be a full time job when he signed up, but you know Dash when it comes to flying."

"She does have a tendency tah go overboard Ah admit, but ain't none better tah learn flyin' from. If she says full time work is what it’s gonna take, she'd be the one tah know. I just kinda miss the li’l fella. I ain't seen him round town or the farm for weeks now."

"I hardly see him myself, Applejack. After looking for gems, going over the details of the farm, making the checklists, running the library, and my magic studies I'm usually so tired that I'm asleep before he gets back from his flight lessons, and we barely see each other when we get up. We have just enough time to have some breakfast before we're both out the door."

"Sounds like yer really overworking yerself just tah help me out Twilight, I wish I knew how Ah could pay yah back. It seems like Ah'm holding yah back from everything most important tah yah." A frown creased her features as Applejack realized just how much out of her way Twilight had to go for all this extra work on top of her number one assistant off messing around with Rainbow Dash.

"Please don't think about it like that! The truth is that Sweet Apple Acres going into debt would be devastating for all of us. The way I see it, by helping the out Apple Family with its finances I'm helping all of Ponyville! The reason I study so much is because I want to help out other ponies like this when they need me. This is probably the most important work I'll do all day! Anyway, this is my disaster prevention allotted time slot on my schedule. I’ve always kept my duties open for just this kind of occasion. The thing is, when I’m normally out helping out the town I have Spike to keep things in order back home. Now... well now I don't."

"Yah really miss him don'tcha?"

"Of course I do, but it's more than that. I'm kind of surprised how much I've really come to depend upon him. He keeps the library tidy and organized when I'm deep into my studies, he knows the hidden areas and shelves of the library better than I do, and he normally finds the books I need before I can. Without him the checklists take twice as long to make, letters to Princess Celestia have to wait to be delivered until he comes back at night, and that's not even counting the cooking and librarian duties."

"Or when he's out helping us fend off whatever trouble comes lumberin’ Ponyville's way." Applejack added in agreement. "We always said yah were lucky tah have an assistant like Spike. Not sayn' nuthin bad about yer owl friend, mind yah."

"Yeah, Owlicious tries really hard to help out, but I normally have to supervise him. It doesn't help that he sleeps mostly during the day, and without Spike to help out I'm too tired to stay up to let him know what needs to be done. Spike really is irreplaceable not just as a friend, but as an assistant too. I told him something like that before but I'm not sure even I understood just how much."

"Ah'm sure he misses working with yah too Twilight. Ah know Ah sure miss gittin' up with the family and helping ‘em all out with the mornin’ chores. Comin’ out here is more important, no doubt about that, but mah family ain't none too pleased about me bein' gone right after breakfast. They count on me to get a whole bunch done round the farm, just like yah do Spike. Ah guess Ah'm right lucky that cousin Braeburn is in town gittin’ Apple Bloom's advice on putting up barns. He's been picking up where Ah've had tah let go. Seems like its only cause o' friends and family like ya’ll that we're gonna be able to figure this whole situation out. Ah don't like admittin' we needed help, but Ah‘m sure glad we have ponies like you we can depend on when we’re in a tough spot."

Twilight closed her eyes and gave Applejack a genuine smile in thanks. There really was nothing better than the feeling after helping out a friend. Spirit renewed the purple unicorn pointed to another patch of ground ahead of them. "There's another patch of gems! I think this one will be enough to fill the cart the rest of the way."

"Right then, lets get to it! Ah wanna get you back to that library quick as Ah can so you can get back tah the rest o' yer day."

"Then I better help dig with this one." Twilight Sparkle grinned as she determinedly reared up and stomped hard on the patch of ground. The sight of her dirty hooves gave her pause and set her giggling.

"What?" Applejack smiled looking around for what set off her friend, her giggles contagious effect already beginning to catch on.

Twilight raised a dirt covered hoof, chipped and worn from the constant pounding they received during these morning excursions.

"I was just picturing Rarity trying to get gems before Spike was around to volunteer."

Applejack paused, staring at her own hooves as well for a moment before she began a growing chuckle too. The two friends ended up erupting in laughter over the simple mental image of the indignant expression Rarity would be wearing at the attempt. It was just so unexpected and abrupt that they had to stop digging and let the giggle fit pass. It was just a simple joke between best friends. It probably didn't warrant as much amusement as the two ponies seemed to take in it, but friendship has a way of making the simplest things mean so much more. The joke left the two attempting to 'daintily' dig at the dirt patch for another half hour in spite of themselves.

Twilight was in a good mood when she arrived back at the library, wiping her hooves on the doormat. She was still laughing quietly to herself as she entered into her empty abode.

“I’m home!” She called out habitually; her usual greeting to her faithful assistant who she knew wouldn’t be back yet.

“Welcome home!”

A very startled Twilight Sparkle jumped a good couple feet in the air at the unexpected reply! The voice was so quiet she almost thought some pony spirit of a previous librarian had decided to begin haunting the tree!

“Oh dear... I’m so sorry Twilight, I didn’t mean to startle you.” The familiar shy pony hesitantly stepped out into the open past the kitchen door.

“Fluttershy?” Twilight sighed in relief as her friend came into view. “What are you doing here?”

“Well... you see.... this morning I found this on my doorstep. I think Spike must have dropped it off on his way out to Old Lake.” Fluttershy picked up an envelope in her mouth before trotting over to pass it to Twilight.

“A letter? Who is it from?” An aura of magic took it, and flipped it over for Twilight’s inspection. The unmistakable flowing script of Rarity’s signature was written in the middle. Rather than answering outright, Fluttershy instead gestured to the letter. Twilight frowned before she magically emptied its contents to read for herself and hovered the letter over. She quickly skimmed it in a few seconds her eyes widening as she read. She had to repeat it out loud just to confirm it to herself.


Dear Fluttershy

It may seem a little strange to receive a letter from me after only being away for a bit more than a week, but I have the most urgent request that simply cannot wait until I’m back again. News has reached me of a certain secret project in which our dear Twilight Sparkle has become irrevocably involved. Furthermore Spike has sent me a letter expressing worry over the furthering state of exhaustion he has found her in night after night, often falling asleep before she can find her way to her own bed. I fear her studies and librarian duties combined with her secret project has left the poor dear utterly exhausted.

I understand you’ve been out cheering on Spike and Scootaloo at the lake, however I was hoping you could exchange this current arrangement with Pinkie Pie and instead assist Twilight with the library. I remember her saying you did such a good job before with the help of your little friends when we were competing for the Gala tickets. Could you perhaps be persuaded to do so again until Spike has completed his flight training? Or until this vague project is finished? I would ever so appreciate it, and I’m sure Twilight would gladly accept your help given her current circumstances.

Your Loving Friend,

Rarity


Twilight looked up from the letter frowning. She didn’t know Spike had sent Rarity any letters. She wasn’t at all sure about how she felt about Rarity asking for help on her behalf either. She was about to crossly tell Fluttershy that all this was completely unnecessary, when she caught the pegasus’ sad expression.

“Please let me help you when I can Twilight.” She pleaded, “I couldn’t stand to think that you could be getting sick or hurt. I can look after the cleaning and cooking. And I’ll be very quiet, I won’t interrupt your studies at all! Oh! And I promise to be extra naive too! It will be really easy to keep any secrets from me, so you can work on your morning project thingy and I won’t ever know what it is.”

“Oh Fluttershy...” Twilight hugged the caring pony tightly, “Of course you can help me, but only when you can spare the time. I don’t want this to affect your business at the cottage or Sweetie Belle’s lessons, alright?”

“It’s a promise. We already cleaned the library while you were out this morning... I hope you don’t mind.”

“No not at all. Everything looks great!”

“Oh good. I wanted to wait until you got home to ask, but Angel Bunny was being very insistent.” The rabbit in question had helped itself to a carrot out of Twilight’s fridge. It handed the shy pegasus a note as it walked past her to sit in the largest chair of the room, grabbing the nearby newspaper off the end table to read as it finished its treat.

Twilight shook her head at the strange bunny before looking at the note Fluttershy was skimming through.

“What is it?”

“Um... well... it’s a grocery list...? I think my friends may have taken a lunch break...”

Twilight winced. The stock of food in her home had always been carefully budgeted down to the very last detail. It was a habit her and Spike arranged since they were living together in Canterlot, a necessity for his regular diet of gems. Even with Rarity close by they had always stuck to their routine, and now with Rarity gone most days she was glad they had. An empty would throw everything off, and she was already mentally adjusting her checklist. Checklists that were already taking a large toll on her time schedule in their making.

Still... Fluttershy might make an excellent resource for her time management! Rarity was right. She did need help. The princess didn’t send Spike along as her assistant without reason. Certainly it irked her a little to know she couldn’t do everything on her own, even after she told herself she could and would, but the proof was right there in front of her. There was no denying that she was getting tired out faster and faster each day. It was a little confusing at times, she could remember being on the way upstairs to retrieve books that she never remembered reading. She assumed that somewhere along the way she’d absentmindedly found her bed instead. Instead, it seemed Spike would find her asleep somewhere in the library and would tuck her in.

She sighed out loud, half in exasperation, half in wistful thought. She should have known Spike would be worried for her. He always was. It warmed her heart a little to be reminded that even if she couldn’t see him, or talk to him throughout most of the day, he was still there watching out for her like her silent, steadfast guardian in the night. It had gone unnoticed in her weariness that her study material were put away, and the place was a little bit tidier every morning then she left things the night before. He was probably up hours after her attending to his own duties. Never good at waking up right away, she assumed his fatigue in the morning was just his usual nature. It occurred to her now that he might be as burnt out as she was. She silently thanked him and reprimanded herself. She was interfering in his lessons in spite of trying to prevent exactly that. Well it wouldn’t continue any further! She’d just have to accept Fluttershy’s offer.

"Actually Fluttershy, now that I think about it, you'll be perfect for my temporary assistant! Thank you for offering.”

"I'll do my best!" Fluttershy cheered in a near whisper. "How can I help?"

“Well, the first thing I need to do today is make up a checklist of all the things I need to do.” Twilight smiled thoughtfully to herself.

“Oh, okay. Well what should we do first?”

“Well, groceries for one.” She giggled a bit at the bunny in her chair leaving Fluttershy blushing sheepishly for him, as she moved over to one of the scrolls in a bin labeled ‘checklists’ and began to write.

“Nuuumber ooone: groceries!” She looked back to Twilight waiting for the next item. It was an expression that reminded her very much of what Spike would do each time when he was just beginning. The memory tugged on her heartstrings enough that she made a spur of the moment decision, that she hoped Applejack and Rarity would forgive her for later.

“Number two, tell Fluttershy everything about secret morning project.”

“Everrryyythiiiing abooouuut.... seeecret mornin-wait what?”

“I was going to eventually ask your help for it anyway, I guess this just moved it up on my planned schedule.."

“Are you sure Twilight? I mean... if its really something super secret... maybe, I think... I might prefer not knowing.”

“No way Fluttershy. If you’re going to be my assistant, even a temporary one, I’ll need you fully informed or else you won’t be able to help.”

“Well... if I have to... I guess it’s okay. W-what is it ?”

“Well it was supposed to be number two on the list, but you’re right it should take priority over groceries. We’ll need to talk to all of the animals and insects around Sweet Apple Acres. We have to somehow convince them to forage for food somewhere else for the next couple of years."

"Umm... I see. I'm not sure how well that will work out Twilight... Applejack grows such lovely vegetables, sometimes they can't help but have a little taste, and I simply could never talk to every insect on the farm all by myself."

"We have to try." Twilight responded quickly while looking out her window towards the local farm, "Sweet Apple Acres may go out of business if we don't give it our all."

"Oh no! But then they'll never be able to eat at Applejack’s again!" As Fluttershy gasped, Angel Bunny moved the newspaper aside and watched the two, their conversation suddenly very pertinent to his interests.

"Neither will we. Ponyville makes almost everything it has through the export of agriculture. Our town won't be here for very long if we have to import food like we import almost everything else!"

"Well... maybe... if it's only for a couple harvest seasons I could convince them.” The usually angry bunny nodded quickly in agreement. “But all of the little crawlies... I simply don't know them well enough."

"Alright..." Twilight grimaced. "I guess that will have to do, but if that's the case we're going to have to cut a lot of corners elsewhere. I was really counting on the crops not being eaten, but insects make up for a larger share of ruined crops than animals."

"Well, I don't know them well enough... I'm not even certain I’d know where to look, but I may know a pony who does!"

******

“Fledglings, assemble!” The dust didn’t even clear from Rainbow Dash’s landing before the call went out, nor had it finished wafting away before the two members of the flightless flight team had lined up saluting her.

“Present!” Scootaloo called out with ever growing confidence.

“Yeah, here!” Spike followed up while fighting off a yawn. Rainbow Dash eyed her tired pupil with annoyance.

“Seriously Spike? Again? I can’t afford to send you home, we don’t have time for this every stinking day!”

“Hey, you know I’m good for it! Besides, I can’t just leave Twilight hanging. Yesterday she fell asleep on a ladder! A ladder! I’ve fallen asleep in some pretty weird places, but a ladder? Come on, what was I supposed to do?”

“Well there’s something to be said for team loyalty, I just wish you had half as much for the actual team.” Dash shook her head, there really was no helping it. Twilight was going to overwork herself as long as her assistant remained here, and her number one assistant wasn’t going to just lay down and let it happen. He wasn’t kidding about being good for it at least, this dragon was tough! She’d seen him take tired spills several times that would leave a pegasus broken and hospitalized for months. The young dragon would barely notice the hard landing, stand up, dust himself off, and was headed for another try with hardly sparing a moment’s thought. He also succeeded at some of the most amazing landings she’d seen in her life!

It was all due to his physiology of course. Landing upright had a lot of advantages when it came to the higher angles it turned out, even when caught in tailspins. She decided Spike would be a holy terror when he finally showed up completely awake. Her mind turned back to the first time she took them into a tailspin. The terrified look of the two teammates as she grabbed the top end of the zip line during the middle of their descent and began spinning! She knew they could handle it, and felt the surprise was good for them, it kept them on their game. Every now and then through the rest of the week, she surprised them again and again with the sudden spiraling plummet towards the ground. At first they would scream in terror, and only a few days later the dragon and pegasus were screaming in surprised delight. The same couldn’t be said for Fluttershy, who would continue to scream in terror the sidelines.

Thank goodness for the switch up. The exchange from Fluttershy to Pinkie Pie was a stroke of genius on Rarity’s part as far as Dash was concerned. Pinkie was easily the best cheerleader in the world, as long as whatever she was cheering for could keep her attention. Usually the fledglings managed to do that just fine.

For Scootaloo’s part she might as well already be a stunt pony. It was almost too impressive how she seemed to adapt to every twist and turn so quickly. Rainbow asked her to bring along her scooter so she could watch the stunts Scootaloo was capable of on the board. Her interest was piqued to see how flight and scooter stunts might work with each other. Ground sports were never really her thing but after watching Scootaloo’s natural balance control she was beginning to change her mind. There might be something to this. She was disappointed when she found out her scooter had been trashed.

It would not do. She not only wanted that thing back in Scootaloo’s possession, she wanted Spike on one. If he could learn the maneuvers Scoot could pull off, they’d be a real contender for that grand prize. If Scoot actually managed to get her hooves around that trophy, it would be one awesome looking feather in both their caps! Scoot gets the MVP, and Rainbow Dash takes her first team to the cup! The Racing Committee would have no choice but to acknowledge her then!

“Alright team,” She fixed them both with a measuring look, “you’ve landed low, you’ve landed high, you’ve landed wet, and you’ve landed tired! You’ve landed slow, and you’ve landed fast! You’ve landed backwards, forwards, sideways, and upside down! Why you’ve even landed in a straight downward spiral. There is no crash landing you have not been prepped for, no weather condition you cannot save yourself from, no piece of air or terrain you cannot walk away from!”

Spike was grinning. This was it, so what if a week ago he never cared about flight? This was happening now, and a thrill ran up and down his spine. But his was mild compared to Scootaloo. As Rainbow Dash paced back and forth while calling out each of their achievements, Scootaloo was bouncing on her hooves, looking for all the world like she was literally vibrating with the excitement as Rainbow Dash built up towards what they all knew was coming. The whole time Spike could hear Scoot beside him whisper to herself as quietly as she could.

“Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

“Beatings, bruises, cuts, scrapes, exhaustion, and terror, I have attempted to break you with every tool at my disposal!” Dash continued revving them up, “Each and every one of those tools lay broken to pieces at your hooves. You’ve conquered them all! Pain will not distract you! Exhaustion will not dissuade you! Fear will not control you! You have earned your wings and it’s high time we put them to use! Now…”

Rainbow Dash turned to face the fledgling fliers and leaned in, as if telling a secret that only they three would know. Her voice got low and quiet, yet remained full of passion, “Who wants to taste that sky?”

“YES!” Scootaloo jumped up with a gigantic unassailable cheer, leaving Spike and Rainbow Dash laughing, as the young pegasus landed on her back, eyes rolled back to her skull and swiftly fainting from pure fervour. Spike waved a hand in front of her.

“Out cold.” He announced.

“Guess I overdid it?”

“Ya think?”





“You want us to run off a cliff?!” Spike exclaimed an hour later thoroughly unimpressed by the idea.

“Just a tiny one.” Their Captain smiled, enjoying the worried expression that crossed the young dragon’s face.

“I thought we were practicing gliding today, not more crash landing!”

“Oh stop being such a scaredy cat Spike, there’s a lake at the bottom and everything.” Rainbow Dash gestured to the picturesque landscape below. It was still Old Lake but now they stood at the highest point where the small waterfall gushed off the higher plateau before splashing into the lake below, something Spike was pretty sure he’d be imitating soon.

“You can do it!” Cheered Pinkie Pie who was down in the lake swimming, snorkel and goggles obscured her face as she waved cheerfully up at the trio on top of the cliff. Scootaloo and Spike waved nervously back.

“You two Fledglings just need to spread your wings as wide as you can, and follow my directions as I call them out. Do that and we should be able to slip right past this side of the training within the week!”

“About this gliding thing Rain- er… Captain, I’m not sure dragons can, our wings are more like a bats and from what I read i-“

“Enough Fledgling! We’re doing this by trial and error! You already know how to turn any fall into a decent landing, so stop with the stalling! Now we’ll take turns just like before. Once you get the hang of hanging in the air and following the rope, we’ll advance to putting everyone on the same rope in a small game of follow the leader. Remember to keep your flapping to a minimum. I only want to see a wing beat when absolutely necessary. Try to keep them at the same timing as mine until you understand how to hold your own weight better. Scootaloo, you’re up first.”

“Yes Captain!” Scootaloo nabbed the nearby rope by the end and waited excitedly. This was it, finally some real flight training that actually involved staying in the air!

“Okay, hang on tight, run with it while giving all you got, and make as big a leap you can off the cliff. There are lots of air currents coming off that lake so we’ll try to keep right above it. All set?”

“Yep!” her voice came out muffled behind the rope.

“Alright Fledglings, game on!” With that Rainbow dashed off the cliff, the lengthy piece of rope dangling from the harness on her back suddenly grew taut, tugging the filly along. As soon as she felt the rope go tight Scootaloo sprinted towards the end of the cliff before rocketing off its edge in a gigantic leap of faith. She felt the rope give way between her teeth as a sudden heave caught her off guard. She snapped her jaw closed, gripping the flying lifeline so hard her jaw strained with the effort. Tumbling quickly towards the ground, her eyes went wide as she swung downwards. Her training kicked in, and her wings quickly opened to slow the descent, trying to turn the swing into a controlled fall. That was when she felt her wings suddenly hoist her upwards high into the air above the lake. The strain on her wings was extraordinary, like nothing she ever felt while on the zip line, outside of the tail spins that is.

She fought to keep her eyes open and watch ahead of her as Rainbow Dash towed the line. How did she do this all so casually?! It looked so easy, but the strain Scootaloo felt on her wings, just holding them out like that was immense! This was Fluttershy’s favoured form of flying?! Then a rush of wind came flooding through her ears, as if she was going hundreds of miles an hour instead of only gliding along. The world seemed to spin around her, gravity seemed to shift, and she no longer knew which way was up and which was down! Trying to keep up with her spinning sense of vision, her wings reflexively began to attempt to straighten out, but only flapped up and down in an awkwardly uneven and jarring fashion. She found herself quickly degrading into a flailing mess before she splashed down, breaking the surface of the lake with an unceremonious flop. Scootaloo swam herself to the surface easily and came up face to face with an unimpressed flight teacher who hovered above the water.

“You got it backwards.”

“Ummm… What?”

“Most foals panic on the first try during the downward swing and hit the water because they can’t get a hold of the air properly. You panicked after you caught the wind. You want to explain that to me?”

“I’m not sure, it hurt my wings when I got pushed back into the air, but then everything just messed up!”

“What does ‘everything’ mean exactly?”

“Well… it means everything, I got right dizzy, and I couldn’t tell which way was up and down, and then there was that blaring wind in my ears that felt like it went right through my head. I wasn’t scared or anything, but it felt like it was pounding inside my skull!

“Really? A deafening wind, that’s what you said right?” Rainbow took on a thoughtful expression.

Scootaloo nodded while she began to swim towards the shore, her captain hovering above.

“Well Squirt, it sounds like you just had your first case of vertigo. Its not uncommon, but its dangerous for flying, completely throws off your wing rhythm and sense of balance.”

“Wing rhythm? What’s that?”

“It’s the balance you have to find between yourself and those wings of yours. You’re not gonna be able to keep yourself in the sky without it, and no pony can tell you what yours will be like. We can offer hints, like a heavier pegasus will most likely have to throw a flap in more often, and a lighter pegasus tends to be able to glide a lot longer. But there’s an exception to every rule, and you need to find what’s right for you. That’s what this training is all about. You have to slow yourself down, and learn how to ride the wind instead of struggling with it. It’s not your enemy, and it’ll stop hurting you the moment you stop fighting. Got it?”

Scootaloo nodded as she took her Captain’s outstretched hoof to be hauled out of the water and flown to shore. She may have nodded but understanding was still far out of reach. Wing rhythm, she was sure it was just a matter of wing coordination, right? She always had a difficult time getting the timing of her wings. That rush of wind always seemed to throw her completely off when she was trying on her own, and the next thing she knew she’d be eating gravel off the sidewalk with the laughter of Diamond Tiara ringing in her ears. She began to trudge her way back up the cliff. Why could no pegasus just tell her how to flap? That’d be so much easier! Every time some pony would say the words you have to ‘figure it out yourself’, it seemed like a certain sign of failure coming on. Honestly it sounded too close to what ponies told them when getting their cutie marks, and look how that turned out!

She looked up to watch as Spike leapt from the cliff, spreading his wings as wide as he could, only to immediately plummet into the lake, he didn’t manage to stay in the air even as long as she could. The difference being his weight pulled his captain down with him!

The two came back up for air, coughing and sputtering out water. Rainbow Dash made for the shoreline before shaking off, but Spike was having a harder time of it.

“Spike, I knew you couldn’t fly, but you said you could swim!”

“I can swim, I just can’t swim fast! Give me a break, there’s a lot more of me than there is of you and I have to drag it all back to shore!” He complained loudly as he continued to push himself through the water.

Rainbow Dash sighed. This was going to be a very long day.

******

It was a small humble doorstep Twilight next found herself standing on hesitantly. There was a small garden to either side, and the home she found herself in front of was little more than a hovel. Very simple, very plain, in need of repair in a few areas where maintenance efforts were obviously still in progress, mostly unfinished patch jobs with the tools used to perform them still scattered about lazily. The lawn was fresh and green but very tall and overgrown, almost as if it was never cut or paid any attention to. The stone pathway to the front doorstep was the only way you could get to the door without trying to plow your way through it. Everything about the house and the yard left Twilight even more uncertain than she was when Fluttershy first mentioned his name.

“I can’t believe you convinced me this is a good idea.” She whispered harshly to her friend who was trailing behind her.

“Oh it is Twilight, I mean... if you want to convince the little crawlies, he’s the one you want to talk to.”

“But i-it’s Snails!”

“Nopony knows more about garden variety insects then he does.” Fluttershy nodded encouragingly as she spoke around the checklist scroll in her mouth, its paper dragging along several feet behind her. “You will be very surprised!”

“Well if you’re vouching for him I’ll trust you, but I don’t have to like it. After that whole mess with Trixie, and dragging that Ursa Minor into Ponyville...”

“Five years is a long time Twilight. Look at Snips, Rarity even has him run her boutique when she’s gone.”

“Admittedly Snips hasn’t burnt the place down or anything yet, I suppose that’s a vote in his favour. But he’s been working as her apprentice for years! Snails isn’t anyone’s apprentice, he’s not even interested in anything.”

“I think he’ll be interested in this.”

“I just hope you’re right.” She sighed and knocked on the door, feeling like she was signing her name on a disaster waiting to happen.

There was no answer.

Twilight knocked again.

Again there was no answer.

“Snails? Are you here? Its Twilight Sparkle, I need to talk to you!” She knocked a third time, pounding on the door.

“Oh yah. I’m here.” A disembodied voice answered in a slow but cheery tone that hadn’t come from inside.

Twilight turned around to survey the yard, peering hard into the jungle of a lawn where the voice seemed to drift from. She jumped back abruptly as the answering pony’s head suddenly jutted out from between several of the thick blades of grass as he poked through a newly made gap in the overgrowth.

“Dah, Hi!”

“Snails? Why didn’t you answer when I knocked?”

“Uuuh....” He paused staring upwards as he thought very hard about the question before coming to an answer, “Cause I wasn’t home, eh?”

“But you were right here! You knew we were looking for you, why did you just stay quiet after I knocked?”

“But uh, I couldn’t figure out how to answer da door while I’s outside.”

Fluttershy laughed quietly as Twilight slapped her hoof against her forehead. This had to be a mistake. It was better to just hurry up and get the whole thing finished.

“Never mind Snails. Listen, could you talk to every bug out in Sweet Apple Acres? Would you be able to convince them to leave her crops alone for a few years?”

"Dah yeah! I could do dat." The young brownish orange unicorn nodded his head back and forth agreeing to Twilight's request easily without any semblance of thought. His ocean green hair rocked back and forth with his happy nod, partially covering a pair of half lidded, dull-looking, beady eyes that made her question if he even heard her right. She gave him a pained smile she hoped wouldn’t offend as she glanced back to Fluttershy looking for further confirmation. As if she hadn’t made certain of this idea no less than 10 times already, Fluttershy responded with the same wide, distracted smile and nod as every time before. She was showing more concern in attempting to sort out the ridiculously lengthy checklist that she managed to tangle herself up with somehow since the last time Twilight looked. Twilight sighed and turned back to the young unicorn.

“You’re sure? Fluttershy said there were probably millions of bugs all over the farm.”

“Well yah. I jus’ said I could.” Snails gave her a questioning look. She clenched her eyes shut trying not to think about how he just now questioned her intelligence. It couldn’t hurt to let him try could it? “Have you ever talked to that many bugs before?”

“Uuh...”

She swore she could hear the gears grinding together as he sought to remember if he ever had.

“Nope. Never needed to.” He finally managed an answer.

“Then how do you know you can?”

“Uuh...” Snails started again.

“Never mind Snails. ” Twilight interrupted him, a hint of exasperation showing cracking through her facade, “When can you be ready?”

“Dah, ready for what?”

“The bugs! Talking to the BUGS!” She could feel pieces of her mind imploding somewhere in the back of her head.

“You want me to talk to the bugs?”

“Yes! About everything we just discussed!”

“Oh okay, I thought you just wanted to know if I could, eh?”

“Alright, will you do it for us?” Twilight strained to keep her smile and prevent another face hoof that beckoned to her.

“Yah, I’ll do dat in a few weeks.”

“What? Why not this week?”

“Cause dat’s when dey’ll be ready?”

“Ugh! Fine, two weeks will be fine.” She found herself at her wit’s end, “You’ll have to let me know when you go to do it.”

“Dah, okay. Den you’ll see, it’ll be AWESOME!”

******

One week and a few thousand splashes later found Rainbow Dash at the end of her rope as two very waterlogged fledgling fliers stood before her at an end to another hard day’s training.

“I think we’re about done here for a bit guys.” A soaking wet Rainbow Dash began as she confronted her students. “Obviously our current lesson plan isn’t cutting it. I need to look into where we can take it from here. The rope work fly-by is pretty basic stuff, and until we can get us all on one tow line we might as well call off any chance we had at entering the Fledgling Flier Contest. Frankly, I’ve given you both every tip I can think of for the standard master flier, and its going nowhere. Considering that, I need options.”

“I’m giving you guys next week off actual flight practice, and instead we can just train our flight muscles with some core exercises until we can get you into the air. That sort of training will only last half a morning though, the rest of the day you’ll have free. I want you to use that time to search for anything to help you guys out, and if you find something, bring it to me. I’ll see if I can work something out.”

“You want us to find our own way to fly? I’ve been trying to do that since I was a tiny filly! I don’t even know where to start!”

“It’s not the same as before Squirt. You know some basics now; you know how to land without killing yourself, so practice isn’t going to hurt anymore. You also already flew for the most part every time you slid down that zip line. If you can just get that same feeling back as you did on the line you’ll be free for the sky. Scootaloo, you especially need to find a work around. Hang back for a few minutes after you're dismissed, we got something we need to discuss.”

“Uh, okay I guess.”

“Wait a minute, you’re just sending me home?” Spike muttered leaning his head to one side in attempt to drain the water from his ear. “I’ve got nothing to go off of here.”

“Sure you do! Look at these things.” Rainbow Dash unfolded one of his wings and began running her hoof along its outstretched ridges, folding it easily on top of itself. The hoof along his wings felt strange, and he wasn’t too sure he liked it, though he refrained from pulling away.

“You actually have a fair knack for flying Spike. I know it looks like you’re doing worse than Scootaloo, but it’s actually the opposite. You have a good measure of how to catch the wind. If you were a pegasus, you would probably already be flying. What you don’t have is any way to deal with that tail of yours. It’s supposed to be helping push you along, but instead it’s just dragging you down. Check out these wings Spike, you got a whole whack of joints in them! When you do get up there you’re gonna have more control over the wind then I ever will. You’ll never have my speed, but flight is going to be a lot easier for you.”

“So it’s just a matter of my tail?”

“Well your whole body weight in general, but mostly your tail. Like 75% tail issues. Keep it in mind as you look around for ideas. Just manage to keep that body of yours straight, and find something to do with your tail, and I bet you’ll be golden and flying in no time.”

“Okay, I guess I’ll see what I can find in the library books.”

“Alright fledglings. Class dismissed, and good luck out there, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what you find.”

Rainbow Dash watched the water logged dragon begin to trudge his way home. She felt upset by the whole situation. This was not how she planned to teach them. They were supposed to persevere pass the obstacles of landing, and then take off into the sky while she gave lessons on how to follow the wind currents, and maybe even begin towards full fledged flight towards the end of the week. None of the fillies in her old class had any trouble like this. Her respect for her old grumpy coach had begun to grow after the last week of watching her team fail again and again and again. He brought all of her classmates up to the level of training that some arrogant filly could come along and push them all even further easily. Admittedly these were two very unique students compared to any of her old class, but that wouldn’t be any kind of excuse a Wonderbolt would use.

“Umm… Captain?”

Scootaloo’s voice interrupted her thoughts away from the departing dragon, and redirected them towards the young pegasus at her side.

“Yeah, Squirt. I need to talk to you about your umm… difficulties.”

“Don’t kick me out! Please Captain, I’ll do better, I promise!”

“Kick you out? I only have two students, and I’m here to help both of them along. I don’t plan on giving up on either of you. You got that?”

“Phew!” Scootaloo let our a relieved sigh, “I thought I was in trouble.”

“What in the world for?”

“Well… this is kinda like staying after school right?”

“School? Hey, I’m your Captain or Coach, don’t talk like you’re supposed to bring me an apple in the morning or something.” Dash shuddered at the thought that she was coming off to the filly as boring as an old school teacher. She felt her coolness factor plummet rapidly. “No way. I just wanted to talk to you about what it is that’s giving you all this grief when flying. The loud wind thing.”

“Okay…. Well what do you want to know about it?”

“I already know plenty about it Squirt.” Dash chuckled a little affectionately, “I get it all the time.”

“Really, you get it too? I thought I had some kind of defect.”

“Well, it might hamper you, but believe me you’re going to be the envy of other pegasi some day. You’ll mostly get it right when you’re about to take off, or when you get any sudden urge to fly. When I perform a Sonic Rainboom I don’t have any chance of hearing anypony else, and when it comes on strong its all I can do to not take wing right then and there. All the best fliers have to go through it. It’s called the Sky’s Call.”

“Wow! I have something like that?”

“You sure do, but getting past it isn’t easy. You have to find a way to focus past that wind roaring in your ears. Don’t and it’ll overtake you every time. You’re going to need a whole whack of concentration to pull it off, but once you do, once you can find the center of that windstorm, you’ll hear it.”

“Hear what? What will I hear? What does it sound like?”

Rainbow Dash frowned thoughtfully as she stared up at the clouds, taking a moment to think of how to describe it.

“I-Its like a tug at your heart, or a pull at your soul. One shiver through your fur then your ears lean back, and when you close your eyes, you can feel the wind all around you, carrying you. Your wings begin to move on their own, and you just feel like you can do anything! That there’s no force that can hold you down and no storm that can push you back from touching that sky… its just…amazing. And when it goes away it’s everything you can do to not try to pull it back and keep it inside without ever letting it go. If you can capture it, it feels like… well… it feels like its welcoming you home after years of being away.”

“That sounds incredible!” Scootaloo’s eyes widened and sparkled as she tried to imagine the feeling.

“Totally.”

“But how do you block out the storming wind part?”

“Like I said, it isn’t easy. You have to find a way to fly with it and through it. All of the best fliers have their own signature styles because they each have their own way to find their center of the storm. Some used ancient meditation techniques until the raging storm could no longer distract them, others found a way to flow with it somehow, and then there are ponies like yours truly. I fight with it, wrestle it down, and push myself right past it with pure brute force! I’ve tried to teach you how I do it, but it hasn’t been working. Maybe the noise is stronger for you, or maybe punching through it just isn’t going to be your way of dealing with it. Either way, you got to find your way and it is not something I can just show you how to do.”

“Wait, so you’re saying I have to figure it out on my own, just like my wing rhythm?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Try looking into things that will help you concentrate with loud noises going on around you. After you can manage that, we’ll give flight another try. Until then, you and Spike need to get yourselves in as good as conditioning as possible. That way when you do get past these obstacles, you’ll be able to take off a lot easier.”

“Isn’t this going to put us behind? What about the competition?! I have to win Captain! I just gotta!”

“Settle down fledgling, we’re not gonna be behind, not yet anyway. I was planning to build on your flight muscles with actual flight experience. We’re just changing the schedule so we work on them before we grab air. Just give this all you got and we’ll be in the preliminaries easy.”

“Oh… Alright.”

“Well if you get it, get moving! I want to see you both in the sky pronto!”

“Yes Captain!” A quick salute and Scootaloo was on the path following Spike, leaving Rainbow Dash standing on the edge of the cliff her poor students had dubbed ‘the high dive’ over the week of constant failure.

None of her classmates had this much trouble flying, not even Fluttershy! And these two weren’t even trying to fly yet, she was just trying to get them to glide! How could she be a better coach when she was a little filly than she was now? The training was exactly the same, so what was the problem? At least Spike was a dragon, she didn’t completely understand why he couldn’t hold himself in the air yet, but it’s a whole new area of flying no pony had ever even attempted to learn. But what about Scootaloo?

Hearing the Sky call was rare alright, but she should have been the perfect teacher for dealing with that sort of thing. She had to go through it herself after all.

“Gah! This is impossible! A whole week! We’ve spent an entire week just trying to stay more than a minute in the air! And Scootaloo still can’t keep a wing beat to save her life!” She cried out to the vibrant pink bystander who
continued to smile cheerfully beside her.

“I’m sure she’ll get it eventually, after all she’s got the Best Young Flier Champion as her Captain!”

“The Best Young Flier isn’t the same as being the best young coach Pinkie Pie. I’m supposed to have all the answers for them, and now I got nothing for either? What am I gonna do?”

“Ooo! Ooo! Ooo! I have an idea, you can bake a cake!”

“Would you stop thinking with your stomach for two seconds? I’m being serious here. A cake is not going to help teach them to fly!”

“Of course not, but it will be extra super duper delicious after they learn how for themselves!”

“No Pinkie, you don’t understand. I should be helping them somehow.”

“You can help them? Then just do that! Phew, when you told Scootaloo she’d have to figure it out on her own, I thought you meant she’d have to figure it out on her own. But your coaching is on such an amazingly super top notch level that I must not have even been close! What you actually meant is that she has to figure it out on her own with your help!”

“No I meant it, I can’t help her. I should be able to though, I had some trouble with my sky call too when I was a filly. I should be the best at showing her how to focus past it, but I can’t!”

“Great!”

“What do you mean great?! How can me being a crummy coach be great?”

“That’s not great silly, that’s not even true. The great part is where you were right!”

“Where I was right?”

“You said you couldn’t help them, and you couldn’t. That makes you right!”

“So which part of that is not the crummy coach part?” Dash deadpanned at her overly cheerful friend.

“Well duh. It’s the part where you believe that they can learn it for themselves, and we all get to party when they do!”

“You really think this is a good idea? Just leaving it to them like this?”

“Of course! Think of how proud they’ll be when they figure it out. They’ll be all like ‘Yay! We’re so awesome and super great fliers now, and we can do anything! The coolest team Captain ever knew we’d be able to, and even helped bake a cake for us!’

“It might be a stale cake by the time they get into the sky.”

“That’s no way to think about it silly. I’m sure they’ll be super quick at it!” She suddenly gasped loudly, and grabbed Rainbow Dash by the shoulders, “They might even be done already! We’ll have to be super duper fast if we want to make a super duper spectacular cake in time! Let’s go!”

A moment later found Rainbow Dash quickly being pulled towards the pink pony’s abode via sugar rush express. She felt a small smile grow in spite of herself. Maybe Pinkie was right? She tried and taught them everything she could think of, so maybe right now it was her job as team Captain just to believe in her team.

******

Two weeks passed without any sign of progress, though not for lack of trying. All of the Cutie Mark Crusaders attention had been focused towards this one thing, and while the deadline to the preliminaries was less than two months away, it was a different deadline on their minds. This was the last week they had left together. Five years didn't seem like much to most ponies but it might as well have been their whole lives for Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo, and it was all coming to its end. Rarity would soon be on her way back home to make the news about her grand opening and Sweetie Belle`s apprenticeship public. They had booked time off from their lessons and held what would be their final slumber party for years to come all so they could get up early and spend their last days together on their last crusade. Tales like this were supposed to end in one final victory, that last leap to success to prove that the magic of friendship could overcome any obstacle that came its way.

Unfortunately it didn't seem to work out that way. In spite of all their efforts more bruises added to the hundreds they’d incurred over the years, and Scootaloo was still left grounded. She was so excited to tell them about the Sky Call, and how the best fliers in Equestria had it too, but no matter how they tried, Scootaloo was unable to block out the thundering winds rumbling around in her head every time she lifted off the ground by her own power. Their small cart left outside Sugarcube Corner told the story of their failures. Within it a pair of earmuffs lay discarded, a broken stereo sat in pieces beside the albums of the loudest rock songs that ever graced pony ears, and even a hundred or so popped balloons dotted the bed of the cart. Now the sun was setting, and the crusaders watched their discouraged friend drown herself in the sweet nectar of the establishments’ sugary drink.

"... and I don’t know which was worst, the howling wind or constantly crashing into the lake!” Scootaloo punctuated the end of her tale with a large swig of soda, before slamming the empty bottle down on the counter.

“Well... at least you’re a lot cleaner now?”

Scootaloo glared at Sweetie Belle’s attempt at comfort while Apple Bloom hid a laugh on her other side.

“Get me another Mr. Cake!”

“Uh, maybe you had enough?” The yellow earth pony had been trying to break the steady flow of sodas away from the young pegasus to no avail.

“I told you to keep them coming!”

“Yah sure about that Scoot? Ah don’t think Rainbow Dash is gonna appreciate yah takin’ all her effort trainin’ yah up only to lose it all to a bottle.”

“Training? Training?! You call this training? I’m supposed to figure it out on my own! How is that training?! That’s like the opposite of training!”

“Actually the opposite of training would be-” Sweetie Belle paused mid-sentence at the withering glare she received from her friend.

“What am I gonna do guys? It’s been weeks since we stopped zip lining and neither of us can hang in the air for more than half a minute! I’ll be a laughing stock, and thanks to that bet I made, I’ll be a laughing stock all over Equestria!” She threw her forelegs up in dramatic despair before collapsing them on the counter, and hiding her head against them.

“Can’t say Ah rightly know. Just hearin’ yah talk ‘bout all this flying stuff is givin’ me a headache. Ah’m pretty sure all that weight yer gonna put on if this keeps up isn’t gonna help any though.” Apple Bloom gestured to the corner of the room where a large pile of empty soda bottles towered to twice the height of a full grown pony. “I ain’t even sure where yah put it all as it is.”

Scootaloo shrugged and added her latest casualty to the top of the pile with a practiced toss.

“Aw who cares? I might as well face it, I’m doomed. Sky Call my horse feathers! Greatest fliers of Equestria? Yeah right! I’ll never touch the sky with that howling going on in my head. I wonder if Diamond Tiara is gonna make me wear clown clothes or if I’ll be funny looking enough as I am...”

“Is there anythin’ we ain’t tried yet?”

“Earmuffs, rock ballads going on full tilt in the background, ear plugs, ear plugs AND earmuffs.” Scootaloo listed off each without looking up from her arms. “We even strapped the stereo to my head once. Nothing works because the howling comes from inside my head, how can you block that out?”

“Well, what does it sound like?” Sweetie Belle asked as a thought played out on her mind.

“I already said! It sounds like a howling wind.”

“Yeah but what does the howling wind sound like?”

“You’ve never heard a howling wind?”

“Of course I have, but I’ve never really listened to one.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I won’t know until you tell me, will I?”

“Well, I guess it sounds like this, uuh. Woosh woosh woowoowoosh, woooooooosh woosh wooowooowooooooosh!” Scootaloo blew as hard as she could doing her best to mimic the blasting wind and the pitch each blast took while they whistled through her head. Sweetie Belle closed her eyes and began listening closely. Every time Scootaloo stopped Sweetie would quickly gesture for her to keep going, but Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were starting to feel embarrassed as they started attracting the attention of the other patrons of of the pastry shop. Sweetie Belle seemed almost lost in the wooshing sounds though; she began swaying and even humming, utterly oblivious to the stares and giggling of the others around them.

“So that’s what it sounds like, can we go now?” Scootaloo covered her face in her hands in order to hide her blush. “I know I’ll be doing comedy routines for the rest of my life but I don’t need to start right now!”

“That was... that was beautiful! Is that really what it sounds like? You are so lucky!”

“I think you’re confused.”

“Tomorrow! You have to come with me tomorrow, alright? Meet me at Fluttershy’s. This is going to be fantastic! I gotta go prepare, just make sure to show up tomorrow! This crusade is not over yet!” Sweetie Belle excitedly bounced out the door without so much as a good bye, still humming as she left.

“Uh, alright. Not like I have any training or anything... what was that all about?”

“Yah got me.” Apple Bloom shrugged, “But if Ah were you, Ah’d be there. That pony’s got somethin’ in mind, and if Ah weren’t helpin’ cousin Braeburn with designin’ up that new barn o’ his Ah’d be there too. We gotta bunch o’ supplies in towards the construction efforts today, an’ they’re startin’ tah miss me back at the farm.”

“You’re designing barns again? I thought you’d be bored of that after helping with the town hall.”

“No way! There’s always something new tah put in, or some new obstacle tah work around. Really works the ol’ noggin gettin’ around ‘em all. For instance, Appleoosa is havin’ a hard time with the buffalo herds stampedin’ right through the orchards. The barns keep keelin’ over with all that ruckus about. Ah ain’t sure if it’s the land they’re built on or the barns themselves that ain’t holdin’ their own, but Ah’ll figure it out.”

“That’s great Apple Bloom. It’s gotta be awesome to have a cutie mark you can be totally proud of.”

“Thanks Scoot. Ah reckon yers is gonna be one ya’ll be right proud o’ too.”

“Oh come on, mine is gonna be about a scooter. Everypony knows it and it’s just a matter of time. I’ll admit doing a few cool stunts with a board beneath my hooves feels great, but it isn’t exactly the most useful talent of all time. Yours is going to be all about helping ponies out, and Sweetie Belle’s will be all about pulling the heartstrings of everypony around. Compared to that, a sweet move or two on a board is pretty lame.”

“Aww Scootaloo, have yah been draggin’ these thoughts with yah this whole time?”

The young pegasus took a long swig of soda in silent reply.

“Well no wonder yah ain’t got yer cutie mark yet, yer scared tah get it ain’t yah? Tah be tied down to a talent yah ain’t even sure yah want.”

“I guess...” she admitted to herself with a sour note left in her mouth.

“Ah wish yah had o’ mentioned it before Scoot, that’s a right easy conundrum tah figure around.”

“Easy? There’s nothing easy about not liking your cutie mark!”

“Darn tootin’ there ain’t, so it’s a good thing you like yers, yah just don’t think it’ll be useful. That’s a lot easier tah figure out. All yah gotta do is turn it into whatcha want it tah do. Ah like tah help ponies, but Ah could be jus' focusin’ on makin’ our own farm better. Ah don’t cause Ah wanna help out more’n that. Sweetie Belle could stick tah not singing in public like she’d rather, and she has tah struggle with that side of her talent. Heck, look at her sister! Her cutie mark helps her find pretty rocks, but she didn’t become a miner or anythin’ obvious like that, she decided to sew ‘em to dresses! We just need tah figure how to use scootin’ around in a way that’s more suitin’ to what yah want outta it.”

“I’m not even sure what I want anymore.”

“Who you kiddin’? Ah can tell yah what yah want right now easy as pie.”

“Oh yeah? Just what is it I want then ‘Mrs. I-know-everything’?”

“Yah wanna fly. Why any pony with eyes can see that.”

“And just what can a scooter have to do with flight?”

“Ah may jus’ have an idea on that actually. How much do yah weigh?”

“I’ll lay off the pop, I got it, alright? Sheesh.”

“No Ah mean it, how much do yah weigh?”

“What for?” she arched her eyebrow suspiciously.

“Wouldja jus’ humour a pony?”

“Around two bushels.”

“Two apple bushels, got it, thanks. Seeya later!” Apple Bloom smiled a mysterious smile before running out of the shop. Scootaloo knew what her friend looked like when inspiration struck, but what could possibly have found its way into her mind Scootaloo had no clue. She’d find out soon enough, she was sure. For now she was more concerned with whatever it was Sweetie Belle had planned for her tomorrow.

“My two best friends are crazy.” Her contract with Diamond Tiara still hanging on the wall of the pastry shop caught her attention, leaving her shaking her head as she paid her tab and made to leave the shop. “But then again, so are theirs...”

******

Every time she entered the palace it always left her in such a state of awe. The tall white walls trimmed with gold, the elegant patterns on tapestries hanging down in long gleaming sheets of carefully woven fabric. The source of their glimmer took their shape from the historical designs on stained glass windows which rained a delightful array of colours dancing along the interior. Rarity was always left at a loss of words as new fashion designs flittered through her mind with each step she took. She felt rather small between the two large and handsome guards who escorted her down the hallway. They were very polite and well mannered, but their stoic, silent devotion to their duty left them seeming very distant to her, and not at all comforting. This wasn’t exactly the greeting one would hope to receive when you’re already as nervous as she was. She had always wanted a royal entrance, but now that she was in the middle of one everything about it seemed not so much glamorous as it was so very cold...

The guards had let her pass without any objection whatsoever, but it still seemed like a bit of a stretch for her to actually consider Spike’s letter a true invitation. She passed it over to the guards and they never bothered to open it, instead sending it along inside. It wasn’t long after she’d been summoned. Now she felt very alone walking these great halls, as her escorts hoof steps echoed in the large, empty corridor. Only once had she visited the palace without her friends at her side, or at least close by. It felt wrong somehow to be treading this sacred place without them. The large doors to the throne room opened and a horn sounded from the side somewhere as a crier announced her entrance.

“Presenting Miss Rarity! Element of Generosity, twice saviour of Equestria and loyal friend to Princess Celestia!”

Rarity looked up at the Princess who stood before the throne, her multi-coloured mane flowed in the non-existent wind as it always did, her stature tall and graceful, slender and beautiful, eyes full of mirth but with a strength shining behind them. Rarity bowed, lowering her eyes respectfully.

“Thank you.” The Princess nodded to the guards, who all seemed to take this as a sign to leave. Princess Celestia then turned to the still bowed form of the unicorn in front of her and smiled widely, “Please, stand. It won’t do to have such formalities between friends. It is good to see you again Rarity. Are you enjoying your stay here in Canterlot? I had not heard you were coming or else I would have had a room prepared for you.”

“Oh! Well that would have been marvelous Princess, but I simply must refuse.” Rarity stood up, a little more comfortable now without the guards around, but humbled in the presence of divine royalty. Probably for the best she decided. Humility was great for keeping one to their manners, and the request she had come bearing would have a very real chance of offense as it was. “You see, I will be joining the Canterlot society on a more permanent basis soon, and I’m in the middle of setting up a little shop here in town. I really could not accept accommodations in the middle of my transition, no matter how beautiful it was during my last stay.”

Rarity’s eyes drifted wistfully towards the tower where she had once been a royal guest. She was working night and day to unpack her boxes and put together the clothes racks, making every little detail perfect in her shop and residence that she almost wished she could accept the vacation living here in the castle towers would be. Servants at beck and call, and the reputation just staying at the palace would garner was a very enticing offer. Still there was so much more to do, and far be it for her to rest while so close to her dream’s completion. Such wants could wait for another time. Well that was what she hoped for as she turned back to the princess. “I must thank you for seeing me Princess; I know Spike’s letter isn’t exactly worth the same as a royal invitation.”

“You’re right, it’s not.” The princess said seriously making Rarity stiffen slightly before hiding a laugh as Celestia leaned down to whisper conspiringly, “It’s worth far more. I’m glad to hear your business is doing so well. I always found your designs quite inspired.”

“Thank you Princess, I do try my best.”

”And such a wonderful job you do. Cadence can barely be talked down from wearing her wedding dress again and again. She tells me she can’t wait to see your next line.”

“It was such an honour to work on it Princess, I felt bad taking bits for it. Most mares can be very …” Rarity held the last note for a moment as she thought of the right way to phrase the next word, “micromanaging about their custom made dresses. Princess Cadence was more than amiable to try every design I came up with. It was a pleasure and one I’d gladly have again if she ever wishes to come by for more casual wear.”

“She’ll be thrilled, though judging by Spike’s letter I do not believe dress design is what you came by to discuss.”

“Oh yes, of course. Look at me, mention one word about fashion and I lose all train of thought. Well as you have read, I believe you may have noticed something somewhat amiss between its lines.”

“Yes my most faithful student seems to be quite exhausted, though I did not believe the loss of her assistant for such a short while would have her quite at the state he describes.”

“Yes, about that...” Rarity let out a nervous laugh, “It may be somewhat my doing. I’ve made a promise to one of our other friends that I wouldn’t tell anypony about her troubles, but Twilight is currently assisting her with them on my behest. She really is the most perfect pony to help, so perfect I don’t believe any other pony would work, but I’m afraid it’s my fault that she has stretched herself so thin.”

“I see.” The princess nodded with a slight smile of comprehension dawning. “That does explain things a little more. And you believe there is a way I could be of assistance?”

“Why yes Princess, in fact I believe you’re the only one who can! Twilight Sparkle is such a wonderful mare, as you know, and she’s very organized, but she simply cannot stop until she’s finished everything on those checklists of hers. In her current state of affairs there’s simply no capability to accomplish everything she’s trying to. I was wondering if it was at all possible to maybe strike off the one object on all of her lists that takes the largest allotment of her time. Even if for a short while?”

Rarity winced at the quiet squeak her voice had turned to by the end of her question. Come now Rarity, when did you become such a scaredy cat? She cleared her throat as the thought passed through her head before turning to the princess to await reply, trying for all the world to look more confident about the idea then her tone would have lead a pony believe.

Celestia simply smiled in return once more.

“She always has had the problem of over tasking herself, hasn’t she? Yes, I believe her magical studies are due for a vacation anyway.”

“Oh thank you so much Princess! I’m sure you’re the only one she would listen to on such matters.”

“Often not even me. If I expressly forbid it however, even she will put down her study guides for a time I think. There was something more about the letter that piqued my curiosity though.”

“Oh? Well I can’t imagine what about it would...”

“All of it, actually. From every dotted ‘i’ to every crossed ‘t’. You must understand my little pony; Spike had been taking my dictation for a decade before he left with Twilight.” Celestia closed her eyes picturing the young purple dragon first scrawling playfully with her quills on parchment she had put out for him. She pulled out Spike’s letter to Rarity and smiled softly as she took a moment to appraise its craftsmanship. “I know his writing backwards and forwards, and while I know this is indeed his, it’s only because of my familiarity with his style. Otherwise I wouldn’t have believed it. Could you follow me?”

“I-I certainly could...” Rarity wasn’t expecting this turn of conversation at all, “May I ask where to?”

“Spike’s old room. There’s something there I think you’ll find quite interesting. Maybe something he will as well.”

“He could not have been anymore than twelve, when he left?” She had to wonder what in Equestria a child’s room could hold that would hold her interest.

“Fourteen in pony years, actually.” Celestia corrected, Rarity thought she heard a bit of a sigh, a small hidden thing. “They certainly grow fast.”

“Yes, I hear that about foals. I don’t think I really believed it until I watched Sweetie Belle in the past few years. She has really grown into her own, especially now during her apprenticeship years.”

“I was referring to dragons.”

“Oh... uh, right... Sometimes I forget he is one, to tell you the truth.”

“Good.” Celestia nodded to herself, and Rarity suddenly wondered if any other response might have turned this conversation sideways. She was detecting something odd about the tone the Princess was taking, something odd and more than a little unnerving.

“I practically raised him you know? And not once has he ever written to me in such a masterful way.”

“Oh he’s just a darling, isn’t he? You did such a marvelous job with him. A true gentle colt, through and through.” If only she had babysat for Prince Blueblood more often. Rarity silenced that thought, her smile never dipping.

”Gentle drake.” Celestia corrected again, her own smile matching Rarity’s.

“Ahem, yes. I can’t help but feel you wish to impress that point upon me.” Rarity frowned slightly.

“I might be. Please understand when I say Spike is very dear to me.” Celestia’s tone seemed to emphasize the last six words of that sentence. “Although he seems to have sent his deepest affections towards you. Tell me, will you be able to go cheer him on, if he makes it to the qualifications as he plans?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it! They would never forgive me if I did. Rainbow Dash is far more sensitive about her confidence then she lets on. I’m certain Spike and Scootaloo will be a bundle of nerves themselves. I only wish I could do more for them!”

“Yes, such competitions take a lot of support from our dearest friends, but I was asking about you supporting Spike in specific.”

“I erm... yes, you were, weren’t you?” Rarity tripped over her words slightly. Steering the conversation towards the others had abruptly met with a brick wall, and she was beginning to believe she knew why. It seemed like she found herself talking more to a protective mother than the Princess of Equestria and Goddess of the sun. Considering the invitation she came here with, it probably wasn’t out of line either. She also began to suspect the Princess was not fully interested in Rarity’s presence at the competition. She took a breath to steady herself as she attempted to choose her next words very carefully.

“Spike is one of my most treasured friends, and I have come to see what it is Twilight Sparkle adores so much about him. Time and again over the years he’s been there to laugh with us, help us, and comfort us. Why, add with it that he’s both courageous and absolutely adorable, and I’m sure that every pony who has ever been close to him is proud to hold that honour. I really don’t know what future he looks for himself, but I’m happy he’s finally started looking. I would be glad to support him in whatever endeavor he chooses to work towards at least as much as he has supported my own. It was always a joy to have him fuss over me as he has, but right now what’s best for Spike I think, is for him to figure out what he wants to do with himself and see where things go from there.”

“It seems my dear Spike has very good taste in friends. Your words show much wisdom behind them.” Princess Celestia nodded approvingly.

“I’ve had a lot of time to think after I decided to move to Canterlot.” Rarity explained, “All of my friends, each and every one, they’re all very precious to me. I thought of what I could do for them while still pursuing my own dreams. It isn’t easy to help them from afar, but I have no regrets. I can’t be beside them forever, but that doesn’t mean I have to refrain from giving them as much assistance as I can whenever I am able. They each have their own dreams, except little Spike. Fourteen... I’d always wondered why you sent him out so young. I didn’t know he was already in his apprentice years at the time. He never seemed much like any of the other foals when they began theirs.”

“Dragon, not pony.” Celestia repeated with a sing song tone to her voice. “They don’t have cutie marks to let them know where their natural talents lie. He has to find them on his own, and will never really be certain if they truly are what he thinks they are. There will never be any confirmation for him outside of the encouragement of his family and friends.”

“I suppose that’s true isn’t it? Perhaps I hadn’t thought about everything as much as I should have.”

“Do not think badly of it Rarity, sometimes it takes somepony else to see things from a different perspective for the truth to present itself. It says much that you have trouble seeing him as what he is over who he is. This is normally something very admirable, but I fear it is something that you more than any other pony must overcome.”

“I’m sorry Princess, is not the Who more important than the What?”

“It is, but it doesn’t mean we can simply disregard the What. Who he is will tell you much of how he will deal with his problems. Remembering What he is will tell you of the many problems he will have to face. Problems that may be very different from what any pony will ever know. Problems that he will have to be very creative to overcome, and some of them he will not be able to overcome on his own.”

Rarity walked on in silent thought as they continued towards the royal chamber area. The beauty of the palace that had her so transfixed before barely registered now. She kept walking after the princess, rolling the new information over in her mind.

“Princess, I’m not certain I understand. Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because you have a very important decision to make Rarity. One that will affect your life considerably and his just as much or even more. I do not believe I need to tell the pony with her name as the heading of this letter what that decision might be.” Said letter floated in front of Rarity, leaving her to admire the script one more time. She reached out with her own magic instinctively taking it and holding it carefully out ahead of her.

“I-I see. You’ve given me much to think about.”

“I am certain whatever choice you make will be for the best. Perhaps you can in turn lend me some of your own perspective to a problem I’ve been having. You see, while not so finely crafted as yours, my young scribe has sent me some hastily scribbled letters of his latest challenges in Rainbow Dash’s lessons. Ones I don’t believe he wishes to tell you about.”

“Problems he wouldn’t tell me? Hmph. Some decisions might be a bit easier to make than a pony would first think.” Rarity pouted.

“Don’t think harshly of him.” Celestia smiled warmly, “He wants you to see his best side, where he shows all of his strengths. I envy your letter a little as it gives me a chance to see what he is capable of. Mine shows how much he trusts me with all his fears and vulnerabilities.”

“As impressive as mine may be, I think I prefer the content of yours.” Rarity frowned, still somewhat displeased at the missing details from her own letter.

“Trust is something earned very carefully. Perhaps if you helped him with the solutions to his problems he would be more agreeable to sharing them with you.”

“I was willing to face down three dragons with nothing but my hooves for him! I’m not quite certain how much more I could do to earn his trust!” She answered somewhat cross now.

“And he undoubtedly is forever grateful. But to ask someone to share their vulnerabilities is something very personal, and I doubt you have shared any such things about yourself with him in turn.”

Rarity’s quiet frown was the only reply the Princess needed before continuing.

“As it happens, the problem I could use your perspective on has to do with putting into place a solution to one of his. He’s having trouble keeping his tail up while flying. I think learning to swim better will help him practice moving it as he needs. He was never very good at swimming however, and I simply don’t know any way of teaching him.”

“I could!” Rarity’s eyes went wide after only a few moments pondering as realization hit her with a sudden strike of inspiration.

“You can?”

“Well no, not me directly, but I know just the one that could! He somewhat owes me a favour. I’m not sure if he’ll assist me, but I don’t see why he wouldn’t.”

“Then I came to the right pony for help. When is your next visit home?”

“Tomorrow I’ll be taking a week’s vacation to say my farewells.”

“A bittersweet moment for everypony involved I’m sure.”

“One that can be broken up with some time at a beach, I think. I’d rather not spend the whole time in tears. It always leaves my eyes in such a state afterwards.”

“I’ll trust it to you then.” Celestia smiled as she opened a door. Within it was a colourful room, something put together for a young colt. A crib was in the corner and a small bed on the other side, with a picture of a knight from a fairy tale of old sewn into the comforter on the bed. It looked very realistic, right down to every last detail. Probably historically accurate as well, Twilight Sparkle had a hoof in this Rarity would wager. On the far wall sat a worn classroom desk, scratches and colours covered the desktop. Carvings were torn deep in the wood in many places, mostly the name Spike over and over again. These are things you could find in any foal’s room. What was so startling were the hundreds of pictures done up in crayon lining the walls almost as if they were wallpaper. It was almost dizzying taking them all in. They were each very different but one thing they each had in common became very evident when put side by side like this.

“What in Equestria is all this...?”

“I answered a question for you, and you answered one for me. I think its time we answered one for Spike. He’s always had a dream to chase. I fear he may have forgotten it under Twilight Sparkle’s tutelage. His dream seems far fetched, perhaps too much so for somepony as pragmatic as Twilight. It may only seem like a childhood fantasy, but this is what he always wished for himself.”

“It’s amazing... my stars; no it’s more than that. It’s perfect, it’s him completely. Oh and it’s her as well.” Rarity picked one of the pictures off the wall, wiping away a tear. “Even if she does refuse to see it that way.”

“It’s all of you.” Rarity felt the Princess lay a hoof on her shoulder. “Each and every one of you and your friends. Could you take them back with you? Please, help him remember everything he once wanted to be.”

“Of course! Oh absolutely, I’d be delighted to.” She looked up at the princess with a grateful smile, holding the picture close to her chest.

Author's Note:

What? This isn't at all the date I posted in my blog for this chapter... isn't that weird? That's weird isn't it? Maybe I should take it down, but then it's already up, and I am pretty lazy~