When Lightning Dust and Rainbow Dash meet in a bar, Lightning begins a journey of redemption, discovery... and love.
Two years ago, Rainbow Dash stole Lightning Dust's dream from her. While the Element Bearer went on to become a Wonderbolt, Lightning Dust faded into obscurity. She worked what jobs she could find, but, bitter and broken, she spent more of her evenings inside the bar than outside of it. For two years, her dreams of becoming a Wonderbolt were just that: dreams, shattered and empty.
Then one night, Rainbow Dash reentered Lightning's life. The conversation that followed would lead Lightning on a second chance to achieve her dreams. But she never could have imagined what else she'd find along the way.
Editing and Prereading provided by Hap and SolidFire Cover art by 8BitAmy Honorable Mention in Jake the Army Guy's Horseword Extravaganza
The mare felt the cloud beneath her hooves, springy and a little moist. These clouds were durable and tough, not fluffy and soft. The beating of a dozen wings belonging to the world’s greatest fliers would chew through anything else. But not these clouds. That’s why they paved the derbies with them.
And it was a beautiful day for a derby. Really, she couldn’t have asked for anything better. The sun beamed down on the track and there wasn’t even a breeze. Not that she minded crosswinds, but she always flew better on still days. That was one less thing to worry about, one less thing distracting her from squeezing every ounce of speed out of her feathers. That was why the crowd loved her, why they cheered her on right now.
“Lightning Dust! Lightning Dust! Lightning Dust!”
The turquoise mare grinned and lowered her stance, flexing and flaring her wings. This was the biggest Wonderbolts derby of the year, a five hundred lap test of speed and endurance. It wasn’t enough to be the fastest around the track on lap one; the only thing that mattered is who was the first to finish lap five hundred. And Lightning planned to lead every single one of those laps.
At her left, Spitfire and Soarin’ lowered their noses, wings twitching as they waited for the order to start. She wasn’t worried about them, though. Spitfire lacked endurance, and Soarin’ lacked speed. She knew she’d be able to put fifteen or twenty laps on each of them by the time she won. She didn’t even think about Misty or Fleetfoot on her right. There was only one pony she knew who had the speed and stamina to keep up with her, one pony she was determined to not yield an inch of cloud to.
Lightning glared at Rainbow out of the corner of her eye. That mare had almost cost her her chance at becoming a Wonderbolt. Her and Spitfire both. But she’d shown them. She’d worked her tail off, clawed her way back to the top. Everypony knew that they couldn’t keep her out of the Wonderbolts forever. She was the best flier they’d ever seen, and they needed her. The Wonderbolts couldn’t call themselves the greatest fliers in Equestria if they left her out. And now here she was, ready to get some payback.
The flag pony fluttered out over the clouds, the green flag held between his teeth. Lightning lowered her goggles over her eyes and leaned forward, barely inching her nose over the starting line. She’d need every bit she could get if she was going to keep Rainbow Dash behind her.
Her eyes locked with the green piece of fabric. That was her world now. Even the cheering of the crowd began to fade into the background. But she knew whose name they were chanting.
“Lightning Dust! Lightning Dust! Lightning Dust!”
She flexed her legs, wings angling for the optimal angle of attack…
Lightning jumped and opened her eyes. Gone was the Wonderbolts’ derby, the cheering of the crowds, the stadium around her. Gone were the ponies at her sides, the greatest fliers who ever lived. Gone was her rival, the mare she was so determined to beat. Instead, there was only an open sky populated with a few clouds, lazily drifting across the horizon, put into place by the local weather team with care.
And then Lightning’s eyes snapped to the slightly pudgy mare in front of her. She wore a white vest against her navy coat and yellow mane. She held a clipboard, that damnable clipboard, against her chest, and the frown she was born with only sharpened when Lightning locked eyes with her. Whenever she spoke, Lightning Dust felt like the mare used her words to beat her over the head.
Swallowing, Lightning timidly waved a hoof at her boss. “Ummm…. Hey there, Storm Surge.”
“You daydreaming again, hotshot?” Storm barked at her, making Lightning shrink back. “You’re behind schedule. Again. You’re supposed to have areas seventeen through twenty-nine staged with seeder clouds before two o’clock. And here I find you, hoof up your ass, in twenty-six at one thirty.” Her glare hardened and she looked at her clipboard. “You don’t think weather is serious business, do you, hotshot?”
Lightning swallowed hard and tried to stand proud like she once did in front of Spitfire years ago. “No, ma’am—I-I mean, yes, ma’am, I take my job seriously,” she said, trying to stomp any wavering out of her voice.
Storm Surge raised an eyebrow at her. “Do you? ‘Cuz you already have two write-ups this month. First with the lightning shipment, then the uncontrolled twister. And now you’re gonna put the rain behind schedule for the Oranges’ farm during planting season?”
Lightning forced herself to bite back a retort. The twister incident wasn’t even her fault, but Storm Surge wasn’t about to hear any of that. “I can finish my placements in twenty minutes, ma’am,” she said, already desperately trying to figure out the fastest route to get all her clouds placed before she ran out of time. “You can count on me.”
The weather manager sighed and lowered her clipboard. “Like Celestia’s glittering ass I can. Just do your job, hotshot. If I can’t have you on lightning duty or tackling storms, and I can’t even get you to push a cloud with any dedication, then what am I supposed to do with you, huh?” She jabbed a hoof into Lightning’s chest, forcing her to sit on the cloud. “We take our jobs seriously at the Manehattan Weather Control. If you ain’t committed to your job, then we ain’t committed to you. I can take a shit off a skyscraper and hit a pegasus who’d make a better cloud pusher than you. We ain’t got time for laziness, got it?”
“G-Got it, ma’am,” Lightning said, raising a wing in salute. “I’ll do my best.”
Storm snorted. “Right. Uh huh. I’d hate to see your worst.”
The older mare flew off, likely to harass the next pony she came across, leaving Lightning alone on the cloud. Sighing, the former Wonderbolt prospect spread her wings and took to the skies once more, making a beeline for the staging area. As much as she hated her job, she couldn’t afford to lose it. It was all she had left.
And so she toiled and toiled until finally, finally, the sun set and she was allowed to go home. She barely took the time to hang up her blue vest in her dingy, banged-up locker at the office before she flew off toward downtown, just trying to put as much distance between her and that miserable prison in the sky as possible. Angling her wings, she banked down between two streets, landing in front of an old brick building with dusty windows and a broken neon sign. She didn’t even spare a glance at the dim red lettering that once spelled ‘The Tap’ before walking inside.
Her mood immediately brightened upon seeing the stallion behind the counter. She pulled out the nearest barstool with a happy sigh and dropped a small pile of bits on the polished wood. “Get me a gin, Gin,” she said to the stallion, masking a snicker with a hoof.
The stallion, a middle-aged unicorn with a pale coat and thinning brown mane, rolled his eyes and slid an already made glass of gin and tonic down the bar toward Lightning Dust. “Almost two years you’ve been making the same joke every time you come here, Dusty.”
“Almost two years I get you to roll your eyes every time,” Lightning shot back, smirking. Her feathers wrapped around the glass and she lifted it to her lips, taking a few sips before setting it back down. She sighed in contentment and put her forelegs onto the bar, leaning against them while Gin poured himself a drink and tucked it low and out of sight. “Work sucked today.”
“Did it?” Gin asked, eyebrow cocked. “You make it sound like it sucks everyday.”
“Well, you’re not wrong about that,” Lightning said, shaking her head. “It’s just that… like, today was the perfect day to go flying, you know? And I’m stuck pushing clouds and getting yelled at by Storm. I wanted to be out there doing stunts, not working my tail off for something pretending to be a livable wage.”
“Seems pretty livable to me with how much time and money you spend here.”
“Shut up.” Lightning took another sip of her drink and set it aside, tapping her hooves on the bar. “Pretty quiet tonight, isn’t it?”
Gin shrugged and took a drink from his own glass. “It’s a Wednesday. I think everypony’s just lying low until the Bolts get into town.”
“The Wonderbolts are coming?” Lightning asked, a note of disgust in her voice.
Gin cocked his head a little. “You didn’t know? I thought you kept tabs on everything the Bolts were up to.”
Lightning frowned and hung her head, staring into her drink. “No,” she said, though that was a lie. There was always that tiny voice in the back of her head that still cared about them and kept her awake at night. One of these days, she hoped that drink would kill it. But she’d been trying for almost two years since leaving the academy and she hadn’t silenced it at all.
Gin just slowly shook his head. “Don’t down it too fast,” he said, flickering a sad smile at Lightning before heading back to the other end of the bar were a few ponies waited with empty drinks. Lightning watched him go through her drooping amber mane and let her shoulders sag when he wasn’t looking at her anymore. Great, now her night was ruined. The sad thing was, she wouldn’t even remember it come tomorrow. Thursday’s disappointments would come and go, and she expected tomorrow night to be even worse. Maybe she should just stop at the liquor store on the way home. It’d beat coming to the bar and listening to ponies talk about the weekend’s derby.
The bell above the door rang, and at first Lightning didn’t pay it any mind. The Tap was a popular bar for the locals, small enough to hide from tourists and vacationers but good enough to have its own reputation among the Manehattanites. Apart from twitching her ears, Lightning didn’t react at all. She simply continued to stare at the mare at the bottom of the gin with a messy mane and tired eyes.
The newcomer sat down a few stools away from Lightning, right in the middle. They idly tapped their blue hooves on the counter while they waited for Gin to finish his conversation at the far end of the bar, and in a minute he’d moved over. “Oh!” he said, sounding surprised. “Why, I didn’t expect to see you here! I thought the Bolts weren’t in town for another day. I’m honored!”
“Eh, don’t be,” the Wonderbolt said, and Lightning stiffened at their—her familiar voice. Swallowing hard, she looked up to see a pegasus with a rainbow mane and tail sitting a few seats down, directly under one of the lights, bathing her sweaty mane in an incandescent glow. “I’m just another pony without the uniform. And yeah, the rest of the team isn’t in town yet, but I’ve got a place here so I figured I’d slip in and crash early before the press ponies start flocking outside my windows. You’d think having the spotlight on your shoulders all the time would be pretty awesome, but it loses its fun when they start trying to snap pictures of you in your bathrobe burning pancakes on a stove you hardly know how to use.”
Gin chuckled. “That from personal experience, or…?”
“I’d love to say I’m making this stuff up, but nooooo,” Rainbow said, shaking her head. Chuckling once more, she pointed to the liquor behind Gin. “Figure since I’m in the city, can you fix me up a Manehattan? I tried to get one at a place in Baltimare, but the colt working there didn’t have any idea what that was! Can you believe that?”
“Well, your first mistake was going to Baltimare,” Gin said, his smile making Rainbow shake her head. “Manehattan’s where all the good things happen. I’ve spent the last thirty-seven years of my life here after growing up in Fillydelphia. I’ll give you three guesses as to which city I prefer.”
“I always liked Manehattan, too. I mean, it’s no Cloudsdale, but there’s no place in Equestria that’s more happenin’ than this!” She snatched the drink Gin set in front of her and took a few gulps. “Great stuff! I’m glad I found this place! I might have to take the team here after the derby!”
“I certainly wouldn’t mind the publicity and money,” Gin said, chuckling. Then, stepping away from the counter, he nodded at the Wonderbolt. “If there’s anything you need, call me over. Name’s Gin Rickey, by the way, and I keep the booze flowing.”
“Maybe I’ll see you once or twice or five times tonight,” Rainbow said with a laugh. “Can’t drink until after the derby once the team is officially in the city! Those are the team rules!”
Gin walked away with a shake of his head, leaving Rainbow to her drink. At the end of the bar, Lightning looked down at hers, wondering if she could possibly finish it and slip out before Rainbow noticed her. But as soon as she thought it, it was too late. Rainbow’s eyes drifted around the bar, ultimately crossing over Lightning Dust, before the Wonderbolt sputtered and rubbed her eyes. “Lightning Dust?!” she exclaimed, quickly sliding off her bar stool as the weathermare inwardly cursed. “What are you doing here?”
Lightning’s nostrils flared. “Oh, hello, Rainbow Dash,” she growled, venom dripping from her words. “I live here. Why else would I be here?”
Rainbow blinked. “What, like, at this bar?”
“No!” Lightning exclaimed, although Rainbow was a lot more accurate than she would’ve liked to admit. “Manehattan! It’s where I live!”
“Yeesh, sorry,” Rainbow said, setting her drink back down on the bar. Lightning suppressed a groan as the mare who’d smashed her dreams hopped onto the stool next to her. “Didn’t mean to make you all upset.”
Lightning found herself grasping onto the last few remaining straws of civility she possessed. “It’s been a long day…”
“Yeah, I know that feeling,” Rainbow said, smiling faintly, a smile Lightning just wanted to smash in with her hoof. “So, uh, what do you do? I haven’t heard your name in years.”
While I’ve heard yours everywhere, Lightning thought. “I’m on the weather team here. I get by.”
Rainbow brightened at the mention of the weather team. “Oh, awesome! I used to be a weathermare myself before the Bolts! So, like, you’re a manager, then? Regional coordinator?”
“Cloud pusher,” Lightning spat, scowling into her drink. She’d never be a manager or a coordinator in a million years. She could hardly hang onto the pushing job. “You know, after I nearly killed the Element Bearers with a runaway tornado, not a lot of ponies are really eager to offer me a job. Funny how that works.”
“O-Oh,” Rainbow said, uncomfortably glancing away. “Well, uh, to be fair, that was really reckless, and you did almost kill all my friends.”
“You think I don’t realize that?” She spun to face Rainbow, and even though she tried to put on an angry scowl, she could feel a wet heat pricking at the corners of her eyes. “Spitfire kicked me out of the academy because of a mistake! Me! Just me! It wasn’t even fair!”
Rainbow blinked. “What do you mean?”
“‘What do I mean?’” She nearly knocked her drink over as she swung her wing to point at Rainbow. “You helped me make that tornado! We both did it! It wasn’t just me! It wasn’t just you! We did it as a team! And then because you complained to Spitfire afterwards, she went and kicked me out of the academy and promoted you to lead pony of an empty team! And now you’re a Wonderbolt, and I’m a fucking cloud pusher because I can’t land anything anywhere else! Explain to me how that’s fair!”
Lightning huffed and huffed, and slowly she settled her flared wings back down at her sides. The bar, suddenly so quiet, began to pick up conversation again, and soon enough it was like nothing had happened. Disgusted, Lightning turned away from Rainbow and finished the rest of her drink in two gulps. “Just… leave me alone,” she muttered, frowning at the empty glass between her hooves. “You ruined my life. Don’t rub it in anymore with your presence.”
Rainbow Dash, who everypony knew as a loud mare, was suddenly silent. Bitterly satisfied, Lightning started looking for Gin, but he was at the other end of the bar ignoring the outburst behind him. Suddenly, Rainbow sighed and put her forehooves on the bar. “You’re right,” she said, much to Lightning’s surprise. “It isn’t fair. Spitfire shouldn’t have kicked you out of the academy without giving you a chance to redeem yourself, prove that you can learn from your mistakes. And I shouldn’t have walked away from it unscathed. We both should’ve been punished for what we did.”
Raising an eyebrow, Lightning angled her head to the side and gave Rainbow a curious glance. The Wonderbolt stared down at her own half-finished drink, likely really thinking about what’d happened for possibly the first time. “You were a great flier, Lightning Dust, and… well, I really enjoyed flying with you at the academy. Obviously I was a little bit pissed with you when your—our tornado nearly smashed my friends to pieces. But, to be completely honest, I’ve never flown with a pony like you before.” Smirking, she added, “There’s not many ponies that can go one on one with me and keep up.”
She couldn’t help it, but the smallest beginnings of a smile touched her muzzle. “Keep up with you? That’s not how I remember it.”
Rainbow snorted. “Oh yeah, that’s right. I guess you were a little far behind me on some of those warm-up laps.”
“Shut up,” Lightning said, shaking her head. Gin turned around and she waved at him, pointing to her empty drink, and within seconds it’d been replaced with a new one. Taking a sip, she carefully set it aside so she wouldn’t accidentally knock it over. “Those were the best days of my life—while they lasted.” She glared at Rainbow, and the Wonderbolt shrank on her seat. “But, well, you’re right. Flying with you was a lot of fun. You and I basically stomped the rest of those cadets into the clouds. It wasn’t even close.”
“You can say that again,” Rainbow said.
“Eh, sure, I will. It wasn’t even close.”
The two of them chuckled together, something that Lightning Dust thought wouldn’t even be possible after what’d happened between them. But when it died again, only awkward silence filled in the gap, stretching on uncomfortably long.
But eventually, Rainbow broke it. “Hey, listen,” she said, brushing her drink aside. “I’m… I’m really sorry about what happened two years ago.”
“Don’t be,” Lightning said, feeling her usual melancholy drape over her like a suffocating, bleak blanket. “It’s in the past. It’s done.”
“Well… maybe not really.” Lightning gave Rainbow a sidelong glance, though Rainbow was staring ahead in thought. “We already finished tryouts for the academy like a month ago, but come next spring… I can put in a word with Spitfire. I can try to get you back in.” She snickered. “Sure, you’d be with the newbies, but I think you’d just wipe the floor with them. Then it’s right into the reserves, and I know Wave Rider is going to be retiring soon. Give it a year or two, and…”
Lightning felt her heart quicken. A second chance? She’d all but written it off when none of her protests or letters to Spitfire had ever gotten a reply. It was almost too good to be true, too much to hope for. “But… I’m already twenty-three,” she said. “In two years, I’ll be twenty-five. I don’t know how many good years I’ve got left in me. I’m already in my prime.”
Rainbow just shrugged. “So? Better late than never! And with skills like yours, I imagine you can compete with the newbies until you’re forty!”
“But I haven’t been practicing,” Lightning protested, fidgeting with her drink. “I… I gave up on being a Wonderbolt. I blew my shot, and I didn’t think there was any reason to keep hoping for the impossible.”
“Well, knock knock, LD, the impossible’s here,” Rainbow said. “And trust me. In a year, we’ll have you back in top shape. You’ll be ready to stomp the competition at the tryouts, and then stomp them at the academy. Just… no tornadoes this time, okay?”
Lightning chuckled. “Yeah, sure. I think I can do that.” She paused to down a gulp of gin, and setting it aside, she looked at Rainbow with a hopeful but timid smile. “So you’re gonna help me out? Get me back in form?”
“Heck yeah I can do that!” Rainbow exclaimed, grinning. “The spring is derby season, but once we hit summer, then it’s just stunt shows and publicity tours, and there’s only like one or two of those every month. I’ll have plenty of time to get you back in form. But honestly?” she asked with a wink, “I don’t even think you’ll need my help.”
“I’d certainly appreciate it, regardless,” Lightning said, shuffling her wings. “So, uh, when should we get started?”
“Tell you what. How about we talk about this before the derby?” Rainbow asked. “Derby pre-show stuff is always so boring. I could use somepony to really talk to besides the other Bolts. They’re too busy trying to figure out how to beat me to really hold a good conversation.”
Lightning rubbed her neck. “I don’t know, I really don’t have the money to get a ticket. Being a cloud pusher doesn’t pay all that well.”
Rainbow waved her hoof. “Pssh. I can get you a ticket in ten seconds flat. Just be there, and I’ll find you, okay?”
The weathermare blinked. “Really?”
“Yeah, totally! Sure, we pack the grandstands, but they never sell out! I’ll get you in, piece of cake.” She picked up her glass in one wing and held it out toward Lightning. “So, how about it? You in?”
Lightning took her own glass and clinked it against Rainbow’s. “Eh, sure, why not. It’s better than just sitting at home by myself.” Tilting her head back, she swallowed several gulps of her drink before she set it back down and waved a wing at Gin to order another one.
Only this time it was to celebrate, not to forget.
The whole world blurred past Lightning Dust’s eyes as she rolled out of the apex of her loop, zooming through the guide rings. Her wings ached from days, weeks of flying along the bleeding edge of their limit. Lightning Dust the stunt flier was still alseep somewhere inside of her, but that mare was stirring. Muscle memory guided her feathers along every loop, through every dive, along every bank. This is what she was meant to do. To do what other pegasi couldn’t and make it look easy.
Ahead of her, Rainbow Dash flew up, down, and around the clouds scattered in front of them. Lightning flapped her wings and trimmed her feathers back two inches to hold her position through the turbulent air Rainbow kicked off of her wings. Although every instinct told her to pass the Wonderbolt, Lightning narrowed her eyes and pushed those instincts down. This was formation flying, not a race, and if she strayed too far from Rainbow’s flank then she failed. And this wasn’t even the hard part.
They spun around cloud pillars they’d erected earlier in the day, Lightning holding her position on Rainbow’s left despite how close it put her wingtip to the clouds. She had to cut back on her speed just a little bit since she had the shorter radius, as otherwise she would’ve pulled alongside her lead pony. Then they cut back again, only this time Lightning was on the outside, and she had to speed up to keep alongside Rainbow. Rainbow certainly didn’t make it easy on her; Lightning was sure that Rainbow sped up to purposefully make it harder for her.
She smiled. She loved the challenge.
They left the cloud pillars behind, and Rainbow swiftly rolled onto her back and pulled her nose down into a dive. Lightning mimicked the action after precisely one second of delay, staying exactly where she needed to. They were several thousand feet off the ground, and Lightning knew what Rainbow was going to do next. Tucking her wings against her sides so the tips touched just over her tail and leaving only the curled crests out to generate lift and speed, Lightning followed Rainbow into a breakneck plunge to the earth below.
She swallowed hard, her body dumping adrenaline into her veins. Her heart pounded in her chest, strong and excited as it hammered blood to her wings, and she could hear every beat inside her skull. The air she knifed through tried to tear open her wings and get her to slow down, but Lightning held them stiff as a board, only twitching her shoulders by imperceptible margins to make the tiniest corrections to her dive. Her forelegs may as well have been glued to her chest, and her hind legs were straight and streamlined, minimizing surface area for the air to hold her back. And far below them, an emerald green field shimmered and rippled in the breeze.
Though she kept her head straight, Lightning’s eyes flicked from the ground to Rainbow’s left wing. She honed in on the blue feathers, completely ignoring the ground she was diving to meet. Formation flying was all about follow the leader, and she wasn’t going to break off her dive until she saw Rainbow’s wings open. She trusted Rainbow to leave her enough space off the ground to react and level off; her life was entirely in the Wonderbolt’s hooves, and if Rainbow peeled out of the dive too late, Lightning would slam into the ground and die.
But she knew that wasn’t going to happen. As soon as Lightning noticed the hills in her peripheral vision, Rainbow’s wings snapped open, and Lightning immediately followed suit. The two fliers whizzed across the long grasses for several hundred feet, the stems brushing against Lightning’s hooves, before Rainbow began to climb again. Lightning stayed by her side the whole way up until Rainbow finally slowed down and alighted on a nearby cloud.
Panting lightly, Rainbow moved her goggles up her forehead and shook her sweaty mane out. “I love running that drill during practice. It’s a lot crazier when you’re at the tail position of a five pony wing. Like, even though you’re supposed to be watching the second or third pony, you can still see the leader break off, but you have to hold a beat longer before you do as well, otherwise you’re above the rest of the formation. The average pony might not notice that you messed up, but any stunt flier would be able to tell. So we practice and practice until we’ve got it all down perfect.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything else from Equestria’s greatest fliers,” Lightning Dust said, grinning. “That’s why you’re the best.”
“I can’t call ourselves the best if we don’t have the best,” Rainbow said, lightly cuffing Lightning’s shoulder. “We’re not a complete team yet.”
Lightning cuffed Rainbow back. “Stop, you’re going to make me blush.” Shaking her head, she ran a hoof through her mane and looked at the sky. “Sun’s getting low. We should get dinner soon.”
“And a shower,” Rainbow said with a laugh. “Phew! I can smell the weatherpony we’re burning off of you!”
“Are you saying I got fat?” Lightning asked her, raising an eyebrow.
“I sure ain’t saying that you got thinner!”
Laughing, the two mares sat side by side, their eyes on the clouds drifting across the sky. “We’re going to have to break this stuff up before it makes its way to the city,” Lightning said, looking behind them at the glistening towers of Manehattan. “Storm Surge would be pissed.”
“Didn’t you quit that job?” Rainbow asked her, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah I did!” Lightning proudly proclaimed. “Screw her and her fat, feathery ass! I’m done with the MWC! I’m gonna be a Wonderbolt!”
“And in the meanwhile you’re just gonna crash at my place like a freeloader?” Rainbow deadpanned, though the upturned corner of her muzzle said something different entirely.
“It was your idea,” Lightning said, grinning at Rainbow. “You said that you hardly use the place enough, so I might as well make myself at home.”
“Well, I didn’t mean literally, but eh, what can you do.” She brushed a few strands of rainbow hair out of her face and frowned at the obstacle course clouds still around them. “Hey, LD, wanna race?”
“An honest to Celestia race?” Lightning asked, her ears perking. She rubbed her forehooves together and flexed her wings. “You better not hold anything back. I wouldn’t want you to embarrass yourself if I just blew by you.”
“Me? Hold back? Rainbow ‘Danger’ Dash doesn’t hold anything back!”
Lightning snickered. “You still call yourself that?”
“Oh, shut up,” Rainbow said, shaking her head. Then, standing up, she flexed her wings and wiggled her tail a bit as she settled her hooves into the cloud for a good launch. “We’ll run the course again from start to finish. Loser has to bust the clouds before we go home.”
Lightning stood up and got herself ready for the launch as well. “When was the last time you had to bust clouds? Still remember how to do it?”
“No, I think I’ve forgotten,” Rainbow said, smacking Lightning’s side with her feathers. “It’s been so long!”
“Then you better learn fast!” Lightning exclaimed just a split second before she launched herself into the air. But instead of giving herself a lead to work with, Rainbow’s nose was hardly farther back than Lightning’s shoulder as they climbed toward the first loop.
“What, you think that’ll work on me?!” Rainbow shouted over the air roaring past their ears. “Think again, LD!”
Lightning gritted her teeth and pushed herself toward the cloud rings demarcating the loop. She had to start strong and build a lead before she got to the dive, otherwise she’d lose. Rainbow was the only pegasus in Equestria who could pull off a rainboom. If Lightning could gain some ground during the loops and the turns, then maybe she could hold off Rainbow and her speed in the final leg.
Bursting through the ring, Lightning pulled her wings back to start on the uphill section of the loop, Rainbow Dash right behind her. Even though she was in the lead, Lightning felt like she had to go faster, faster, just because Rainbow was right to her inside and pressuring her. The turquoise mare grunted and put all her energy into a powerful flap at the apex of the loop, trying to recover the momentum she’d lost in the climb before gravity aided her on the descent. Her joints and shoulders ached with exertion, but she pushed past it, determined not to yield a hair of sky to Rainbow.
She sped through the dual rainbow and lightning trails they’d left in their wakes at the bottom of the loop and banked hard for the clouds. But Rainbow cut inside of her, and now the two were neck and neck, nose to nose as they angled for the next stage. Lightning only spared a quick glance at her competitor before she turned her attention back toward the clouds in front of her. This was her chance to really make up ground.
Around and between the clouds they went, Lightning’s feathers skimming their surfaces, cloudstuff running down her back as she turned. After the first few clouds, she had a neck on Rainbow, and by the time they exited, her lead had grown to a tail. Then came the dive, the final stretch.
Lightning tilted her head down and tried to streamline her body again. It wouldn’t count unless she got low enough to touch the grasses, and the fastest way to do that and get to the finish line was to go rocketing straight down. This time, she tried to flap her wings as she dived, but anything other than the most efficient and streamlined movement would cost her speed. Already she could feel herself hitting a wall where she couldn’t push herself faster no matter how hard she tried.
But Rainbow Dash didn’t have that problem. The slimmer and smaller pegasus appeared at the edge of Lightning’s vision, and when she glanced to the left, she saw Rainbow almost lazily pulling up alongside her. She hovered by her side, even spinning around her once in a brazen display of cockiness, before she winked and suddenly pulling off to the side. Lightning frowned, but immediately gasped as she realized she’d gotten a lot closer to the ground than she wanted to. She tried to pull up, but she couldn’t clear it completely. Her hooves brushed the earth and the tall grasses clipped at her wings, and her desperate attempt to flap and gain altitude ended when her wingtips jammed into the dirt and she tumbled across the open field, spinning head over hooves at least a dozen times before she came to a groaning stop on her back.
“Shit!” It took Lightning’s dazed mind a second to place the voice as Rainbow’s, but within a few moments, the Wonderbolt was standing over her, her head blocking out the sun. “Yo, LD, you okay?”
Lightning groaned and sat up. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Nothing broken. Another split second and it would’ve been my neck hitting the ground, not my wings.” She rubbed them with her hooves for a second before folding them against her sides, but she winced as she did so. “I’ll be fine, they’ll just be sore for a few days.”
Rainbow Dash fidgeted in place. “I’m so sorry,” she said, stepping closer to Lightning. “I shouldn’t have crowded you like that.”
“I’m fine, Dash,” Lightning said, though when she waved a wing, a wince accompanied it. “I’ve been banged up worse.” She looked up at the sky, at all the clouds still in it, and suppressed a grimace. “Well, you won, so I guess I’ll get right on that. Just... gimme five.”
She opened her wings to take flight, but Rainbow pushed one back down to her side. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it,” she said, and popping her own wings open, she pulled her hooves a few inches off the ground. “I’ve busted my fair share of clouds. I used to be the weather manager for Ponyville. I’ll have these skies done in no time!”
Lightning blushed a little and dipped her head. “You’re too awesome for your own good, you know that, right?”
“Psshhh! There’s no such thing as ‘too awesome!’” She flew up a little higher and gave Lightning a tiny salute. “Just stay put! I’ll be back soon!”
Then, with a burst of rainbow color, Rainbow Dash soared off into the sky, angling for the cloud pillars first. Her trail darted between them like a zigzagging pinball, and each one exploded in a little puff of vapor before disappearing. Lightning Dust simply watched her work, mesmerized, as the colorful trail made the clouds disappear one by one.
Smiling, she laid back down and spread her wings at her sides. She felt like she could just watch this forever. It was…
Lightning Dust groaned as her alarm went off. Though she usually was up before the sun, the longer and longer nights of autumn made her want to sleep in more. And besides, it was a weekend. Weekends were meant for sleeping, a reward for all the hard work she’d put in during the week!
She fumbled around the nightstand with a wing, just trying to shut the damn thing off, but instead knocked it onto the floor. Cursing, she forced herself to roll out of bed, though it took her a few seconds to wake up enough to fully stand. After covering a yawn with her wing, she quickly spotted the alarm clock and kicked it until it shut off.
“Stupid clock,” she grumbled, turning around and arching her back until her spine popped. Yawning again, she walked across the bedroom and used her forehead to push open the door to the bathroom. She looked up and a tired, turquoise pegasus stared back at her through the mirror, complete with bags under her eyes. Why was she up before seven on a Saturday, again?
At least she had time to relax in the shower. Stepping inside, she set all the knobs to exactly how she liked it, then retreated as cold water dribbled out of the showerhead. Within seconds, it’d warmed up, and sighing, she spread her wings and fanned her feathers out to clean them off with the warm water blasting them. She even turned on the jets in the shower walls, wincing as they pelted her sides but then relaxed as they massaged sore muscles. If there was one thing she really loved about Rainbow Dash’s place, it was the shower. You just couldn’t afford luxury like this without having a lot of bits to throw around.
It was only a quick, military, five minute shower, but once she’d left it and dried off, she spent the next twenty minutes in front of the mirror, using an obscene amount of hair gel to slick her mane back how she liked it. Tilting her head back and forth, she hummed to herself before pulling a few locks down with her hoof so it wasn’t all just one piece.
“Perfect,” she said, smirking at her reflection. Then she tossed the empty hair gel bottle into a bin with a few others and went to the kitchen.
She walked around the kitchen on autopilot, pulling things out that she needed without really thinking: a pan, some butter, some eggs, two different kinds of cheese, and some orange juice. Cracking the eggs together in a bowl, she scrambled them, added some cheese, and dumped them in the pan. She let them sizzle on the pan for a minute as she fluttered across the room, opening the blinds to let in the morning sun. Manehattan’s skyline greeted her, just beyond the tiny patio and garden attached to Rainbow’s penthouse suite.
Fluttering back to the eggs, Lightning grabbed the handle of the pan and flipped them over with a jerk of her head. While the other side cooked through, she poured orange juice in two glasses and set them aside. She was just about to slide the eggs off of the pan and onto a plate when her ears twitched at the turning of a key in its lock. A second later, the front door opened just around the corner, and Rainbow Dash staggered into view, ragged and tired beneath the pressed suit she wore.
“Hey, there you are,” Lightning said, setting the plate full of eggs in front of one of the glasses of orange juice and tossing more in the pan. “How was the tour?”
“It was good,” Rainbow said as she stifled a yawn. “The Las Pegasus tour’s always fun. Wish I could tell you more, but you know what they say…”
Lightning chuckled and gestured to the plate sitting on the island behind her as Rainbow walked up to it. “Yeah, sure. I bet you’re hungry though, so eat up.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Rainbow said, sitting down at the island. “I could’ve made my own.”
“Yeah, but you just flew back here all the way from the academy. Was the sun even up when you left?”
“Exactly.” Lightning flipped her own eggs, and then slid them onto her plate. “I bet you’re looking for a nap… and to get out of that suit.”
At the mention of the suit, Rainbow’s wings began to fidget. Grumbling, she loosened the tie and undid the top buttons. “I hate this thing,” she muttered, sighing with relief once she’d finally loosened it. “Naked or in uniform, I’m fine, but suits are evil.”
“Could be worse,” Lightning said as she shut off the stove and sat down next to Rainbow. “Could be a dress.”
“Eugh…” Rainbow shivered and stuck her tongue out. “Fair point.” She shoved some of the eggs in her mouth and hummed. “These are good. Not as burnt as I’m used to.”
“That’s because I’m a better cook,” Lightning said with a smirk.
Rainbow chuckled. “Yeah, maybe you should’ve gone to chef school instead of trying for the Bolts.”
Lightning rolled her eyes. “I mean, I’m not that good of a cook,” she said. “When I still worked my weather job, I lived entirely off of sandwiches, eggs, and instant noodles.”
“Jeez,” Rainbow said, blinking. “No wonder your ass was huge.”
Lightning swatted Rainbow over the back of the head, leaving the Wonderbolt snorting and giggling. “Was that the first thing you noticed about me?” she asked.
“No, no, I was mostly just surprised to see you,” she said. “It was only after the initial shock wore off that my eyes drifted toward center of mass… center of ass…”
She ducked under Lightning’s swing and stuck her tongue out at her. Sighing, Lightning put her head between her wingtips and shook it. “You’re lucky you’re wearing that suit, otherwise there’d be egg in your face right now.”
“Silver linings,” Rainbow proudly proclaimed. Shoveling the rest of her meal down her gullet, she burped and stood up. “That was good, LD.”
Lightning snorted. “I’m offended.”
“Fine. Great. Happy?”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.” She waved a wing and began to finish off her own meal. “Go take your shower and get changed and whatever. You got any plans?”
Rainbow shook her head. “Nope. Lazy Saturday. You?”
“Same,” Lightning said, and she absentmindedly stretched her right wing. “I twisted some feathers while practicing yesterday. My wing’s still a little sore, so I figured I’d let it heal before practicing again.”
“Cool.” Rainbow walked back down the hall, though she stopped when she got to the bedroom. “Were you using my bed?!”
“You weren’t using it!” Lightning shouted back at her. “And it’s comfier than mine!”
“But it’s my bed!”
“The guest bed is like a mattress stuffed with cinderblocks!”
“What did you do to my alarm clock?!”
“I shut it off!”
“You broke it!”
“That shut it off, didn’t it?”
Rainbow grunted in frustration and slammed the door to her bedroom shut behind her. Lightning Dust had to press a hoof to her muzzle to stop herself from laughing too loudly. Messing with Rainbow was just too easy.
She finished off her plate and dumped both plates in the sink. She thought about cleaning them now, but today was supposed to be a lazy Saturday. That meant no work whatsoever. So, humming to herself, she grabbed a cider out of the refrigerator and cantered out the back door. The air was still a bit chilly out, but as the sun rose, it’d get comfortable soon enough.
She walked over to one of the two lawn chairs and sat down on it, placing her cider on the table at her left. Mornings in Manehattan were always something spectacular, something fascinating. Sure, she couldn’t hear any birds or get lost in the trees, but the city had its own peculiar sights and sounds and smells. Already she could hear taxi carts as they rumbled along cobblestone streets, accentuated by steel-shod hooves clacking and clattering up and down the roads. Occasionally she’d pick out a laugh or a word or two from an energetic conversation, but the ponies of the city were little more than a dull roar, completely out of sight from sixty stories up. The only ponies she saw were pegasi flying above the rooftops of the skyscrapers, darting in and out of her vision as they went along with their lives. And on top of all that, she could smell fresh bagels at the bakery on Seventh Avenue, just around the block. If she hadn’t already eaten, she might have been tempted to fly down and get some.
The sliding door opened behind her, and Rainbow Dash stepped out onto the patio. Lightning didn’t turn her head to see her, but she heard Rainbow shiver at the cool breeze. “Thought you were gonna take a nap,” she said, picking up her cider bottle in a wing and taking a sip.
“Maybe later. I wanted to see what you were up to,” Rainbow said. Her blue coat appeared in Lightning’s periphery, and she snorted as she glanced down at the table. “Drinking? Already?”
“Lazy Saturday,” Lightning sung, though she couldn’t keep a giggle down.
“…You make a good point,” Rainbow said, and her colorful tail flashed as she turned around. A few moments later, she reemerged onto the patio and sat down in the other lawn chair, her own bottle of cider at her side. She took a sip from it, then sighed and slouched back on the chair. “Tastes just how I remember it.”
“Like apples?” Lightning asked her, an eyebrow raised.
“No, like home.” Rainbow tilted her head back and watched the early morning clouds drift by above them. “Now that tour season’s done with, I’m probably gonna go back for the fall and winter. I can’t miss the Running of the Leaves, and it’s almost cider season again.” She lifted up the bottle and wiggled it back and forth between her feathers. “It’s good bottled, but nothing beats that first batch, fresh from the Apple Family Farm.”
Lightning thought for a moment. “They’re known for their apples, though. Wouldn’t it be an orchard?”
“Applejack isn’t…” Rainbow thought for a moment. “I mean, they grow actual crops besides apples, too…”
“Eh, fair enough,” Lightning said with a shrug. She reclined in her chair and put her hooves behind her head, simply enjoying the sun and the air. “Ponyville sounds nice. You’re always talking about it. Though I don’t know if your friends would be happy to see me again after the tornado.”
Rainbow waved a wing. “They’d be fine,” she insisted. “They know I’ve been helping you train and all that. Twilight’s always been big on second chances and that sort of thing. It’s probably filed away in a friendship lesson or something.”
“That’s still just so weird to me that you knew Princess Twilight before she got the wings,” Lightning said. “Who knew so much could happen in such a little town?”
“Yeah, it is kind of funny, that,” Rainbow said. Her eyes scanned the horizon for something that she couldn’t find between the taller skyscrapers around them, and she shrugged. “I mean, Cloudsdale will always be my home, where I’m from, but Ponyville? That’s my home.”
“Heh. I guess you’re lucky then,” Lightning said, crossing her forelegs over her stomach. “I’ve never really had some place I could call a home. I mean, there’s my parents’ place in Cloudsdale and all, but I’ve always been a lone wolf, you know?”
“I guess that explains why you were always so hungry for that number one spot in the academy, then.” Rainbow grunted as she shifted on her chair, and she glanced sideways at Lightning. “Wolves hunt best in packs, not alone.”
Lightning chuckled. “You didn’t come up with that one yourself, now did you?”
“Eh, I know a mare who works with animals,” Rainbow said. “You learn a few wise tidbits of advice disguised as animal facts from her if you stick around long enough.”
“I can imagine.” Lightning took another sip of her cider, and the two mares’ ears perked at the banging of carts down below and angry stallions shouting at each other. When it finally died down, Lightning turned toward Rainbow. “Thanks, Rainbow, for all this.”
Rainbow waved a wing. “It’s nothing, really! I’m just trying to make up for being a lousy wingmare back at the academy.”
“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t usually involve giving somepony personal flying practice all summer long and letting her live at your place when she’s an idiot who quits her job and can’t afford to live by herself,” Lightning remarked. “I’m just… well, embarrassed, really.”
“Just…” she hesitated, her teeth toying with her bottom lip as she tried to order the words in her mind. “I don’t know. I hate feeling like a freeloader. I shouldn’t have to depend on other ponies to get by.”
Rainbow shrugged. “Yeah, I mean, I get where you’re coming from… but we all need a little help to get by sometimes, right? The bigger the fall, the more help we need.”
“I just wish that I didn’t need the help… but thanks.” Fidgeting, she added, “Not just for the practice and the place to crash, really. But… well, I haven’t had a friend like you in a long time.”
The Wonderbolt raised an eyebrow. “You getting sappy on me, LD?”
Lightning rolled her eyes. “No, seriously. It’s funny that like a year ago, I used to imagine beating you up over what’d happened. And now here we are, enjoying cider together on the patio at eight in the morning on a Saturday like two alcoholics. I don’t think you could get a bigger change than that.”
“You’d certainly have to try hard,” Rainbow agreed. Taking her bottle in her wing, she held it out toward Lightning, and the two clinked the necks together. They both took a big gulp and sighed before they set their bottles back down on their tables. “It really was a fun summer, wasn’t it?”
“Definitely.” She smiled and went back to watching the clouds drifting above, imagining the weather team getting ready to corral them back as a foundation for the day’s weather. “I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it.”
“I certainly could,” Rainbow said. “Hopefully next summer, you’ll be a part of it.”
“Yeah…” Lightning hummed to herself, imagining where she’d be in a year. With any luck, she’d be donning a blue and yellow uniform, even if it was the trimmed down cadet version. Just to be back at the academy again, watching the greats fly around her, was something she’d give anything for. And she knew she wouldn’t blow the second chance Rainbow Dash was giving her.
Rainbow’s chair rattled as the mare shivered. When Lightning raised her eyebrow, Rainbow just crossed her forelegs and rubbed them with her hooves. “I’m still in Las Pegasus mode and I just got out of a hot shower,” she said, licking her lips. “It was still the height of summer down there.”
Lightning rolled her eyes and slid her chair closer to Rainbow’s. “Here,” she said, extending her wing. “A blanket for the baby.”
Rainbow gave the offered wing a hesitant look. “Gee, LD, I didn’t know you swung that way,” she teased.
Lightning Dust smirked at her, a faint heat building in her cheeks. “I would say the same, but for some reason I’m not surprised.”
“Har-har,” Rainbow said, though she quickly angled her face away as a rosy shade started to settle over it. Biting her lip, she sighed and slid against Lightning’s side, keeping her face averted to hide the coloration in her cheeks. Lightning’s turquoise wing wrapped around her shoulders, and Rainbow sighed as she stopped shivering. Neither said anything more as they sat together, side by side, watching the day mature around them.
All was snow and ice by the time the two pegasi spotted lights in front of them. The gray clouds were like a ceiling to the world’s tallest room, and the snow formed an almost impenetrable wall of white. But down below, the lights of a small village burned, a beacon to guide the two travelers home.
Rainbow Dash pointed to the ground, and Lightning nodded. The two began to circle through the snow and the wind, and gradually, the streetlights became clearer and brighter. Thatched-roof cottages appeared through the malaise, and between them, Lightning Dust could see the snowbanks piling in the streets. The weather pegasi here had really outdone themselves to bring such a thick and thorough cleansing blanket to the town. Lightning knew that Manehattan’s team was probably struggling to put a uniform dusting together without shutting down the arteries of the city.
They landed in front of an enormous crystal tree, and Lightning had to rub her eyes once she saw it. “Princess Twilight lives in that?” she asked, looking at Rainbow in disbelief.
“Would you believe me if I told you it sprouted out of the ground in like two seconds?” she asked. Then, shivering, she shook snow out of her wings and trotted up to the door. “Now come on, I’m freezing my butt off out here!”
“You’re the one who wanted to fly instead of take the train,” Lightning grumbled.
“You needed the long distance flight time,” Rainbow said. “Gotta stay in shape for spring. Plus, flying in the cold builds character.”
“Or destroys it,” Lightning said, fluffing up her wings. “I can’t feel my alulae anymore. I’m pretty sure they’re iced over.”
“It’s a good thing we’re here, then.” Cantering up to the door, Rainbow knocked three times and likewise took the opportunity to fluff her wings. Lightning noticed her bite down to stop her teeth from chattering in the frigid air.
Then the door opened, momentarily bathing the snow outside in warm yellow light. A familiar pink pony blurred out of the door and nearly tackled Rainbow in a crushing hug before rubbing noses with her. “Dashie! You’re back! Oh, I missed you so much!”
Rainbow managed to wriggle free of the pink mare’s death grip and gently held her at bay with an outstretched hoof. “Pinkie, I’ve been gone for like, what, a week? I just had stuff to take care of back in Manehattan before the party. The Wonderbolts had their own Hearth’s Warming party that I had to be at, too.” Smirking, she added, “Though it doesn’t have anything on a patented Pinkie Pie party!”
Pinkie Pie squealed with excitement, and Lightning worried she was going to burst. “I’m glad to see that Dashie still knows who the master of the party is!” she exclaimed before bouncing to the side. “Twilight and the others are all inside! We’ve even got hot cider to get you all nice and toasty! You look like you could use it!”
Then she spun toward Lightning Dust and gasped. But instead of a cold or frosty welcome like Lightning expected, Pinkie Pie dashed up to her and gave her a hug too. “You came too!” she exclaimed, slowly cracking Lightning’s ribs one by one as she squeezed. “I was worried you weren’t gonna come! This is super-duper awesome!” She suddenly gasped and let go of Lightning, who immediately staggered and sucked frigid air into her lungs. “I can hold a ‘Lightning Dust isn’t a Jerk Anymore’ party inside of my Hearth’s Warming Party! It’ll be a party inside of a party!” She froze mid-bounce, her hooves somehow levitating a few inches over the snow. “Hmmm… there’s a market to be exploited there, I’m sure of it.”
But then she landed back on the ground and beamed at Lightning. “But super thrilled you’re here! Come inside! We’ve got all the best everything!” Her smile turned into a mischievous smirk, and she leaned in closer to the two pegasi. “Maybe if we crack open the hard stuff we can get Twilight drunk and then she’ll start complaining about her love life!” Then, giggle-snorting, she spun around and bounced back into the castle.
Lightning glanced at Rainbow, who chuckled and shook her head. “Pinkie’s gonna Pinkie. Now come on, let’s get inside. I’m freezing my tail off out here.”
The two stepped inside and Rainbow shut the door behind them. Lightning sighed in relief as the warm air began to soak through her feathers, and she stripped her winter gear off one item at a time and tossed it in a pile near the door. She shook her wings again, sending melted snow flying in a little cloud around her, and she looked up at the massive vaulted ceiling above. “Celestia, this place is enormous!”
“And crystal-y,” Rainbow said, fluttering up a foot or so and hovering above the ground. “This place used to be a lot more boring and shiny before me and the girls helped decorate it for Twilight. Turns out that shiny castles just sprouting from the ground like… well, trees, they don’t have a lot of decoration and furniture inside.” Then she waved down the hall and began to glide toward the light and laughter coming from the next room over. “Come on! Food’s this way!”
Lightning trotted after Rainbow Dash, keeping her hooves firmly on the ground. She didn’t know how Rainbow did it; her wings were too sore after that flight to hover around when she didn’t need to. Maybe Rainbow Dash was right; she did need some more long-distance flying.
Rainbow Dash darted into the next room, flying up high enough to be noticed and spreading her forelegs out. “Guess who!” she shouted, dropping down right into the middle of several colorful mares. “I hope I’m not too late for the egg nog!”
“Rainbow!” Twilight exclaimed, hopping up from her seat and trotting over to hug the stunt flier. Within a few seconds, all of her friends had gathered around for hugs, while Lightning Dust stood awkwardly in the archway between the foyer and the main hall.
Rainbow chuckled and stepped back from her friends when the hug ended. “Yeah, yeah, it’s good to see you girls, too. We had a long and cold flight from Manehattan. There was a pretty bad blizzard along the way, so we lost an hour or two flying around it.” She looked over her shoulder and waved Lightning Dust in. “Come and say hey, LD. I’ll even introduce you! This is—”
“Rarity, Fluttershy, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Princess Twilight,” Lightning said, lowering her head some. “You girls have been in the papers too much for anypony to not know who you are. And… well, we did kind of already meet two years ago…”
“Yeah, when ya almost killed us with that freak tornado,” Applejack said, frowning. “Didn’t even care none whether we were hurt or nothing.”
“You were kind of, um…” Fluttershy started, immediately averting her gaze.
“A jerk is what I believe Fluttershy is trying to say,” Rarity said, narrowing her eyes at Lightning. But after a moment, her gaze softened. “Although from how I hear it, you and Rainbow have made up, and now she’s helping you train for the Wonderbolts again.”
Lightning nodded and looked at Rainbow, who offered her a supportive smile. “Yeah, we ran into each other back in spring and… well, talked some things out over a few drinks. I’ve been staying at her place in Manehattan since then.” Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and hung her head. “And I know I was an asshole and all that back then, and I wasn’t really thinking about anypony other than myself, but I’m really, really sorry for what happened. I’m just glad that my dumb stunt didn’t get you all killed.”
Rainbow stepped over to Lightning Dust and wrapped a wing around her shoulders. “Our dumb stunt, you mean.”
“Yeah, but it was my idea,” Lightning said with a shrug. She looked up at Rainbow’s friends, who all watched her with neutral expressions. “So… yeah, I’m really sorry and all, and I hope it’s not sappy or shallow, because I was trying to think of what to say the whole flight here, and—”
“Oh, Lightning Dust, it’s okay,” Twilight said, walking over to the nervous pegasus. “What’s important is that you realized just how, well, wrong you were acting, and now you’re sincerely apologizing for your mistakes.” She stopped a pace away from Lightning and held out her hoof. “No hard feelings, right?”
“Yeah! Water under the bridge!” Pinkie exclaimed from the background, bouncing up and down. “Best apology ever!”
“Well, heh, no hard feelings on my part, then,” Applejack said, adjusting her hat. “To be honest, I forgot about the whole ordeal after a few weeks.”
“Well, certainly, no harm, no foul,” Rarity said, tossing her mane back, and Fluttershy nodded as well. Her magic picked up a glass of champagne and brought it to her lips. Swallowing, she pointed to the bottle on the table. “Please, do enjoy yourself, darling! It’s just us tonight. And Spike, of course,” she added, smiling as the purple dragon walked back into the main hall with a tray full of fresh cookies in his claws.
A small smile crept onto Lightning’s muzzle, and she delicately took Twilight’s outstretched hoof. “T-Thanks,” she stammered, slowly stepping forward as Twilight led her toward the middle of the room. “That means a lot to me. I’m just so sorry for everything.”
“You already said that, silly filly!” Pinkie said, giggling and bounding over to Lightning’s side. “Now enough of that sad stuff! We’ve got cupcakes and cookies and all sorts of awesome stuff! Can’t celebrate Hearth’s Warming Eve Eve without getting stuffed on sweets and absolutely trashed!”
Lightning giggled. “Really?”
“Well, tomorrow’s the actual Eve, and the castle’s open to the public for that,” Twilight said. “We like to enjoy our own little gathering before then.”
“Plus, the hangover guarantees we won’t overdo it tomorrow when appearances are everything,” Rarity said, refilling her champagne glass. “It’s crude, but fun and effective—though you certainly won’t be hearing me say that tomorrow once my liver reminds me of what I’m doing right now.”
“Rarity’s great when she’s drunk,” Rainbow said, sliding up alongside Lightning. “All that ladylike talk? That’s just completely gone. She swears worse than a sailor once she’s had too much to drink.”
Rarity narrowed her eyes and took a measured sip from her champagne. When she set it down, she crossed her forelegs. “Rainbow, my dear, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure, Rares,” Rainbow said with a chuckle. She pointed with a wing to the kitchen. “Let’s go see what Twilight’s got in there, huh? I’m sure she’s got gin for you.”
Lightning licked her lips, already imagining the warm fire of a gin and tonic in her gut. “I could really use one right about now…”
The night beat on, lively and fast. They played a few games, mostly different card games, and they only got louder the more they drank. After the first fifteen minutes, Lightning felt completely at home with Rainbow’s friends, and together, the seven were telling stories long after Spike had gone to bed, too tired to keep his eyes open any longer.
“So I told him, ‘No, sir, and if you don’t like it, then that’s just fine by me! I’ve already put the bits in the bank!’” Rarity laughed and wiped a tear from her eye, the champagne in her glass sloshing dangerously close to the rim. “Oh, he was so mad! Never heard back from him either! No skin off my back; I already had a dreadful backlog to get through!”
Lightning Dust and Rainbow Dash chuckled as they sat side by side on the sofa. Rarity had held the floor for the past half an hour, rattling off story after story of the kind of customers she had to deal with at her various boutiques. Lightning had enjoyed them all, and she’d worked her way through yet another gin and tonic by the time that story had ended. Frowning, she picked up her empty glass and staggered back to the kitchen, sliding her glass onto the counter. But before she filled it up, she decided she really needed to use the bathroom. If only she knew where it was.
Picking a random doorway, she set off down the halls of the castle, looking for any sort of sign or indication that there was a bathroom nearby. It took her several minutes of navigating the numerous hallways and resorting to opening every door she came across, but she finally found what she was looking for. When she emerged, another challenge arose: finding her way back.
“Fuck me,” she muttered, her addled mind struggling to retrace her steps. She wondered if she was going to die alone in the castle, never to be found. But thankfully, she quite literally bumped into Rainbow Dash as she wandered around a corner.
Rainbow stepped back and sloppily rubbed her nose with a wing. “Oh, there you are,” she said, shaking her head. “We were wondering where you went.”
“Just got lost,” Lightning said. “This place is big.”
“I told you,” Rainbow said. She turned around and waved a wing. “Come on, let’s get you back to the kitchen. Wouldn’t want you to spend the rest of the night wandering from place to place, completely lost.”
“Me neither,” Lightning said, and her wingtips flexed around a phantom drink. “And I need more gin.”
The pair made their way back to the kitchen with Rainbow’s guidance, and soon enough, Lightning had a drink in her wing. But when they returned, nopony was in the main hall. “Where’d they all go?”
“Over here!” Twilight shouted from in the foyer. Raising their eyebrows, Rainbow and Lightning made their way into the foyer, where they saw the other mares standing just beyond the open door. Twilight turned back to them and grinned. “The skies cleared up for a bit and we can see the stars! Don’t worry, I’ve got a spell up to keep the cold air off us. Come on!”
Lightning looked at Rainbow, and Rainbow shrugged and trotted out the door, Lightning close behind her. Together, they joined Rainbow’s friends as they stood on the snow, looking at an almost perfect hole that’d opened in the sky.
“That’s awesome,” Lightning said, craning her neck to look at the stars beyond. She’d never been one for stargazing, but the bright and quiet beauty of the night sky through the partition in the clouds stole her breath away. She even saw a shooting star dart across the gap, a fiery and blazing spark of splendor that vanished as quickly as it appeared.
They stood around for almost ten minutes before the gap in the clouds closed up again, and one by one, Rainbow’s friends went inside. Soon, it was only Lightning, Rainbow, and Twilight standing outside, at least until Twilight stifled a yawn.
“Sorry, girls,” she said, moving toward the door. “I’m gonna head back inside. I’ll have to stop the spell, so you might want to come in, too.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Rainbow said, standing up. She offered Lightning a hoof to stand which Lightning happily took. Using a turquoise wing to brush the snow off of her rump, she followed Rainbow and Twilight back inside the castle and shut the door behind the three of them.
When they were inside, Twilight turned to Lightning and hugged her. “I’m really glad you came,” Twilight said, smiling. “It’s been fun. And tomorrow, we have the big party to look forward to!”
“I’m definitely excited for that,” Lightning said. “I’m just glad that I showed up for the little gathering beforehoof. It might have been a little overwhelming otherwise.”
Rainbow waved a wing. “Eh, you’d get used to it. You’re just like me; we love crowds.”
“Only if there’s space to show off in it,” Lightning added with a chuckle.
Twilight giggled and shook her head. “You two…” Yawning again, she rubbed her temples with her wings. “Ugh… I might have to turn in earlier than I was planning. I’ll have to oversee all the decorations tomorrow and everything. She looked again at Lightning Dust. “You have a place to stay? I can offer you one of the guest bedrooms if you want.”
Lightning held up a hoof. “Oh, no, that’s okay. I was just gonna stay at Rainbow’s place.”
Twilight blinked. “Rainbow, I didn’t know that your place had a guest bedroom. I thought it only had one bed?”
“It’s made of clouds, Twilight,” Rainbow said, smirking. “The whole thing is basically a bed.”
“Well, suit yourself, I guess,” Twilight said with a shrug. “But if you really want an actual bed…”
“I’ll be fine, Princess, don’t worry,” Lightning said, waving a hoof. Just then, there was a crash from the other room, and Lightning pointed in its direction. “You, on the other hoof, might want to go check that out.”
Twilight groaned and started walking back toward the main hall. “Yeah, yeah. I swear to Celestia, if it’s Rarity…”
Rainbow and Lightning chuckled as they watched her go until it was only just the two of them standing at the doorway. Sighing, Rainbow shook her head. “I miss the girls when I’m out of town,” she said. “But it’s just like the good old days whenever I’m back. I’m super grateful for that.”
“I can imagine.” Lightning stifled a yawn and shook her head. “I’m gonna sleep well tonight, I can already tell.” Then, arching her back, she looked up—and froze.
Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “What?” she asked, following Lightning’s gaze upwards. But as soon as she saw it, she stopped as well. Hanging from the arch above the door was a bundle of green leaves and white berries, gently rocking back and forth.
Lightning swallowed and looked at Rainbow, heat building in her cheeks. “Aren’t ponies supposed to kiss under these things?” she asked.
Rainbow cleared her throat and rubbed her muzzle, obscuring her own cheeks with her foreleg. “Uhh… something like that. If you refuse a kiss, it brings bad luck or something.”
“Huh.” Lightning bit her lip and glanced at Rainbow, though her eyes darted away when they made contact with the Wonderbolt’s. “I could certainly use all the luck I could get to get back into the academy…”
Rainbow nervously laughed and rubbed her neck. “Maybe it’s good luck to kiss, then?”
Lightning felt like her cheeks were about to light on fire. “Are you offering me a kiss?”
Rainbow blushed back. “Are you refusing?”
“I-It’d be bad luck to refuse, right?”
“Yeah,” Rainbow said, stepping closer. Lightning could feel her breath on her neck. “I-It is, isn’t it?”
All was quiet save for their breathing. Further down the hall, Twilight shouted something at Pinkie, thoroughly distracted with whatever was happening in there. Out by the door, it was just Rainbow and Lightning.
Closing her eyes, Lightning parted her lips and leaned in. Rainbow tilted her chin up to reach the taller mare. Their lips locked, gingerly at first, afraid that the other would pull away and laugh, saying it was all a joke. But when neither did, they both inhaled and pressed them more firmly together. This time, their lips interlocked, and the hair on their noses tickled each other as they inhaled the other’s scent.
Then they broke apart, suddenly and abruptly. They each took an embarrassed step away, and their cheeks burned bright red. Swallowing, it was Lightning that spoke first. “That… T-That wasn’t s-so bad…”
Rainbow breathed and nodded. “Y-Yeah… Not bad at all…”
They looked at each other again, and then up at the mistletoe hanging above them. “We’re still standing under it,” Lightning said.
“Mmhmm…” Rainbow smacked her lips together, still tasting Lightning on them. “Should we… do it again, just to be safe?”
A tiny, timid smile jumped onto Lightning’s muzzle. “Better safe than sorry, right?”
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
They met again, but this time, they pulled each other closer. Breast to breast they stood, wings extended and feathers interlocked. They reared up on their hind legs, resting their hooves on each other’s shoulders, parting only to breathe. And then they kissed again, their tongues fencing for position as they moaned and grunted softly. Eventually, they broke off, still in each other’s embrace, still standing under the mistletoe, as the world around them lost its meaning.
Lightning chuckled and lowered her head, her forehead brushing against Rainbow’s, as the warmth in her cheeks became more comfortable. “How long have we been leading this on for?”
“I don’t know,” Rainbow murmured back. “Since the fall, at least. There’s certainly been a lot of wing hugging in between, hasn’t there?”
“Mmmm…” Lightning looked into Rainbow’s bright eyes. “Wonder why it took us this long, then.”
“Even Wonderbolts get scared,” Rainbow said, smirking a bit. “I guess I didn’t want to chase you off or something.”
“Yeah. Something dumb like that.”
The two pegasi separated and went back to standing on all fours. Flashing a brief smile, Lightning looked out the window to the snowy wonderland outside. “So… I guess the single bed thing at your place isn’t gonna be a problem anymore, is it?” she asked with a chuckle.
Rainbow chuckled back. “No, I guess it isn’t,” she said.
The two fliers smiled and pressed their necks against each other. “It’s… not too late to drop it,” Lightning said. “Just in case… you know…”
Rainbow shook her head. “A Wonderbolt doesn’t give up. And I think we can make this work.”
Lightning hummed and nuzzled Rainbow’s shoulder. A second later, Rarity’s drunken laughter from the other room drew their attention away, and the two stood side by side, smiling at the light and warmth pouring out of the main hall.
“Should we tell them?” Lightning asked.
Rainbow smirked and shook her head. “Nah. Let’s see if they can figure it out first.”
“Heh. Works for me.”
They looked at each other one more time, and smiling, they pecked each other on the lips. Then, side by side, they walked back toward the others, wings brushing and hooves a little bit lighter.
Lightning Dust watched the latest prospect take to the skies for his tryout. Already she was taking points off in her head; the liftoff was sloppy, but he quickly straightened it out as he built altitude. She knew he was a good flier—every pegasus here today was—but nerves had cost him a few valuable points before his routine had even began.
Her wings fidgeted at her sides, her wingtips touching the paper of the numbers taped over her flanks. She stood under a tent with two dozen other prospects and their friends and families, waiting for their numbers to be called out. A hundred feet away, the tarmac runway of the academy practically glistened, the heat radiating off of its surface rippling the air in the springtime sun. And next to the runway, a table with blue and yellow tablecloth stood, behind which sat the three judges: Spitfire, Soarin’, and Fleetfoot.
A friendly blue wing nudged Lightning’s side, and she turned to see Rainbow standing next to her. “Nervous?” Rainbow asked, a cup of water in her feathers.
Lightning chuckled and shrugged. “Pre-show nerves, maybe. But it’s not that I’m worried I’m going to do poorly. It’s just that, well, last time I was here, I didn’t leave on the best of terms with everypony. Especially Spitfire.”
Rainbow wrapped her wings across Lightning’s shoulders and pulled the mare closer. “Relax, LD. I’ve already talked to Spitfire and the others. As far as they’re concerned, you’ve got a clean slate. Just do well today and you’ll be back at the academy in no time!”
“Well, that’s good then.” Lightning sighed with relief. “That was about the only thing I was worried about.”
“See? You got it, girl.”
A scattered applause momentarily distracted Rainbow and Lightning, and they turned to see the stallion from before land and start trotting back to the tent. By the runway, Spitfire and the other judges jotted some notes down on their clipboards, then moved the top paper to the growing stacks at their sides. Then, Spitfire picked up a microphone and spoke into it. “Number twenty-three, you’re next!”
A yellow mare with red and white stripes in her mane stood up, nuzzled her family and friends, and then flew out to the tarmac to await instructions. Shifting in place, Lightning glanced at the number on her flanks again. “Guess I better get ready to go next, then.”
“Psshh. If you ain’t ready now, LD, then I don’t know what we spent all of last year training for,” Rainbow said, rubbing her wing along Lightning’s shoulders. “You got the best training money could buy. For free!”
“Well, not for free,” Lightning said, pecking Rainbow on the nose and sticking her tongue out. “Some terms and conditions apply.”
“Certainly nothing to complain about,” Lightning said with a teasing smirk. Sighing, she leaned against Rainbow’s petite frame and looked at the rest of the prospects under the tent with them. “Most of these kids are nineteen or twenty. I feel so old.”
“That just means you’ll be the wise old leader for them this summer,” Rainbow teased. “Whoever ends up being your wingpony is gonna be really lucky.”
“Yeah. Maybe I won’t make them try a tornado with me this year,” Lightning said. She shook her head and trained her eyes on the tail end of the prospect’s tryout. “You’re gonna be at the academy this summer, right?”
Rainbow nodded. “I mean, it’s during our mid-summer break where we get a few weeks off from shows before hitting the west coast, but yeah I’ll be here. It’s always fun to watch the new recruits fluster about, absolutely star struck just to be there.” Chuckling, she added, “It reminds me of how I felt when I got here for the first time, almost three years ago. But this year will be even better once a certain somepony shows up.”
She waggled her eyebrows at Lightning, who just flicked her ear with her wingtip. “Don’t you mean special somepony?”
“Right, that too.”
Pretty soon, the latest prospect landed on the tarmac to applause and cheers from her family and friends. The judges briefly chatted with each other, and smiling, shook the prospect’s hoof. “She’s probably getting in,” Rainbow said, watching the judges’ reactions.
“Good,” Lightning said, flexing her wings. “I can easily beat that.”
A minute later, Spitfire’s voice crackled over the speakers again. “Number twenty-four! You’re up!”
Smiling, Lightning took a step into the sun, Rainbow right at her side. “Here goes nothing,” she said, flashing a grin at Rainbow. “Gimme a kiss for good luck?”
“Who needs luck when they’re you?” Rainbow asked, but she leaned in and offered her lips anyway. The two kissed and parted after two seconds, and Rainbow pressed her wing against Lightning’s.
“Ah, you got me. I just really wanted a kiss before I go,” she said with a wink. Then, spreading her wings, she flew off to the tarmac, her heart light and fluttering.
As soon as she touched down in front of the judges, she snapped to attention and waited. Spitfire, Soarin, and Fleetfoot glanced at each other, but ultimately it was Spitfire who leaned in. “So, Lightning Dust. You’re back. I wasn’t sure if we’d see you again after the incident at the academy.”
Lightning took a deep breath to steady her voice. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever be back, ma’am. I have Rainbow Dash to thank for getting me here today.”
“So we’ve heard, so we’ve heard.” Examining her papers, Spitfire brushed them aside after a second and leaned back in her chair. “I remember your first tryout three years ago. You were a wicked good flier back then. If that same flier’s still in you, then this should be a breeze.”
“She’s not, ma’am,” Lightning said, making Spitfire raise an eyebrow. A second later, she added with a cocksure smile, “She got better.”
Spitfire chuckled. “Been awhile since I’ve trained somepony with your dedication, Lightning. But enough standing around.” She picked up her pen in her wingtip and set it on the paper in front of her. “You know the course already. Get it done.”
Saluting, Lighting turned around and trotted over to the center stripe painted on the landing strip. She spread her wings, plotted out her flight path in her mind, and stretched her wingtips out as far to her sides as they could go. She knew this course by heart; she’d flown it so many times with Rainbow at her side. She could probably do the whole thing with her eyes closed.
Taking a deep breath, she looked off to the side one more time. Her eyes locked on the colorful blue mare standing just in front of the tent, watching her with a proud smile. When they made eye contact, Rainbow winked at her and mouthed something from across the field.
Get it done.
That was all she needed. Goggles down and chin held high, Lightning Dust aligned herself with the first ring of the first loop. Now was her time. A time she never thought she’d have until her marefriend led he back to where she belonged. She was no weathermare. She was a stunt flier. And nothing was going to stop her from chasing that dream.
Wings extended, Lightning swung them down with every ounce of strength in her body…