Lightning Dust’s life has been a perpetual mess. As she struggles to put her life back together and repair her relationships, the last thing she needs is another version of herself appearing on her doorstep.
Lightning Dust’s life has been a perpetual mess. As she struggles to put her life back together and repair her relationships, the last thing she needs is another version of herself appearing on her doorstep: young, stupid, and ready to make the same mistakes all over again.
Based on the almost incomprehensible album Stomachaches by Frank Iero.
I’ve been thinking of the application questionnaire lately.
See, there’s this long laundry list of questions you have to answer to get into the weather patrol: background checks, medical records, have you ever had a job before, were you ever arrested, did you get fired, blah, blah, blah. It’s ridiculous and mind-numbing.
But even now that I have the power to change it, I find myself at a loss as to how to do it. Sure, I maybe streamlined some parts and removed some old, outdated, stupid questions, but on the surface it’s the same exam that I had to take when I first signed up years ago.
And that’s what bothers me. Because one of the first questions we ask is “what do you want from life?” And I don’t know.
Of course, I don’t have to worry about passing that exam now. I doubt I’d get in anyways. Who’s ever heard of a one-winged cloudbucker? But that silly little question comes back to haunt me in moments of silence. I can feel it lurking right around the corner, staring at me through windows and hiding under my floorboards. What do I want from life?
A part of me wants to say nothing. And the ponies I know look at me in shock and go, “Well, Lightning, that’s ridiculous! How could you not want anything at all?”
And that makes me know it isn’t true. Because, yeah, I do want stuff. I want my wing back. I want to not be a complete buffoon when it comes to day-to-day activities. I want to change the past.
But obviously I can’t do any of those things. And that leaves me here. Staring into a bathroom mirror and trying not to throw up the two pieces of toast I had for breakfast.
It’s always an absolute blast to stand there and stare at yourself, wondering how the hell you got here. But I guess it’s pointless, because I know exactly how I got here. I got here because I’m stupid, because I’m ignorant, and because I place myself miles above everyone else. Just mention the name “Lightning Dust” anywhere in a hundred mile radius of the Wonderbolts Academy and you’ll get my rap sheet.
I cough a few more times, squeezing my eyes shut and trying to get my stomach to stabilize. With a few more heaving breaths, I wipe the resurgence of toast from my mouth and sigh. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
I can barely see my own reflection through the tears clouding my eyes. If I squint hard enough, I can almost pretend that I’m looking at the mare I was twenty years ago, young and stupid, but still in one piece. It’s a fun game to play while you’re crying yourself to sleep at night.
A quick swipe of my hoof clears up my vision. I turn on the sink and splash some water on my face, feeling it soak through my skin as that darned question comes to light again. What do you want from life?
I don’t bother answering. I kill the faucet and grab a towel, trying to pretend like the question isn’t weighing on my mind. With one final look at my reflection, I hang the towel on the rack and trot out of the bathroom.
It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dimness of my room, but when they do, it looks the same as it always does. Piles of clothes in the corners of the room. Tossed up sheets on my sweat-stained bed. Piles of plates and bowls in my sink.
My room didn’t look like this two months ago. Hell, I wasn’t even living here two months ago. A quick glance at the clock tells me I’ve wasted too much time reminiscing already. I suck in a breath and rub circles into my stomach, as if I can somehow just will all the pain away.
I head for the door, grabbing my padded brown jacket, hat, bandana, and messenger bag on the way out. As I kick open the door, something makes me hesitate and glance back into the room. Shadows dance across the floor and walls, and everything suddenly looks a lot more depressing.
What do you want from life?
I slam the door shut on my way out.
The town outside is as alive as it always is. Early-risers like me are heading down the roads, mentally going through everything they need to do before the sun sets.
Work is nice like that. It gives you something to throw yourself against. Another mask for you to wear, so you can drown everything else out.
The bad part about my line of work is that it’s like trying to drown yourself in a shallow puddle. There really isn’t a whole lot to being the coordinator: you just have to assign patrol routes, check the flare signals from the forward scouts, then wait for something to happen.
But I guess I can’t complain, at least it’s something. And it’s not like there are many lateral options for a one-winged pegasus in weather work besides administrative positions.
I sigh. Mom used to say that I hit the ground flying, and dad used to say I was born to fly high. Funny to think that all I’m good for now is pushing papers around and playing angry wannabee drill sergeant. But I do my best not to think about those things nowadays. Instead, I just stare forwards and tune everything else out, going through my mental checklist of things I have to do today.
I get about five seconds of peace and quiet before I’m pulled out by someone calling my name. “Mornin’, LD!”
Of course it’s her. I slap on a smile and wave back. “Morning, Fiddle.”
Fiddlesticks beams at me, trotting towards me as that white hat of hers bobs up and down. “Headed into the office?”
“Yeah,” I reply, nodding slightly. “What about you?”
“Runnin’ a few errands,” she replies, stopping in front of me. “Got a busy day on the farm after that.”
A stab of pain flares up in my stomach again. “It’s always a busy day with you, isn’t it?”
“That’s just how it is,” Fiddle answers with a smile. “Work waits for nopony.”
“Yep.” And just like that, I find myself floundering again. There’s a rush of blood to my head and a pounding pain in my chest, and I’m caught in that stupid moment of indecision. Where I know what I want to say, but I can’t say it.
Fiddle’s smile starts to fade, and she paws at the dust. “You, uh… you never did come ‘round the farmhouse. Y’know, I’ve still got that box of your stuff sittin’ there. You ever gonna get it?”
I cringe and avert my eyes. “Oh, shoot. Right. I, uh, I was going to. Just kept forgetting, I guess.”
It’s a lie, of course. The truth is that I haven’t stopped thinking about Fiddle ever since I moved out. The truth, no matter how hard I want to deny it, is that I can’t forget her. Not after everything we’ve been through. Not after everything I did to her.
“I’ll come by soon,” I say to her. “Promise.”
Fiddle smiles again and nods. “Alrighty! Sounds like a plan then.”
My eyes dart up and down the street, and I adjust the strap on my bag. “Yeah, sure.”
“How’s your stomach by the way?” she asks. “Is it still botherin’ you?”
Yeah. More than you could ever know.
“No, it’s been alright lately.”
“Ah, that’s good to hear. Hope you get better soon,” Fiddle replies, adjusting the brim of her hat.
“Thanks, Fiddle,” I say with a smile. I wish it felt real.
Fiddle tips her hat at me. “No problem, LD. See ya soon.”
I return the motion, and we go our separate ways.
But even as she walks away from me, the ghost of her face latches on to my mind and refuses to let go.
My life has had far too many bad days for my liking. Getting booted from the academy, the Washouts getting axed, losing my wing… it makes me wonder how much bad luck a mare is due. But the day that Fiddlesticks and I broke up was something different entirely.
Sure, every one of those things hurt, but that breakup made everything else look like a papercut. And thinking back on it now, it’s probably because I thought she was proof that I’d changed.
Because I hate who I used to be. Before I lost my wing, before I came here, I thought I had something. Thought I was someone. I thought I had grown bigger than the Wonderbolts, and that my future lay with the Washouts.
Then, in a stupid attempt to prove myself to the world, I strapped a kid to a rocket and pissed off the board of Certified Competitive Flyers. Got us banned from every flight competition in Equestria and lost the respect of everyone I had left.
I came to Appleloosa as a broken mare. I came here because I figured I could start new here, in a place where nopony could have heard of my screw-ups.
And then I met her.
To this day I don’t know what drew me to her, but there was something that just captivated me. I saw her playing at a bar, ripping into that fiddle of hers as fierce as any competitive flyer I’d ever seen. Sitting there, wasted and miserable, I suddenly felt that I had to prove myself to her.
I don’t know why she took me in. But she did, and that was the difference I was looking for.
She gave me something to live for. She gave me a reason to prove myself again. Even when I lost my wing, Fiddle was there. Fiddle became my reason when flying became impossible.
But now she’s gone.
What do you want from life?
Honestly? I want what I can’t have. I want to be smarter, I want to be a better pony. I want my wing back, I want to go back in time and smack my younger self silly. I want Fiddle back.
But I can’t have any of those things.
So no. All I want is nothing. Nothing at all. And that’s the hill I’ll die on.
First thing I do when I get to the weather office is beeline it right for the coffee machine. My second-in-command awaits me by the boiling pot. “Morning, chief!” Whitey greets with a big smile.
“Morning, Whitey,” I reply with a nod.
“How’s the stomach, chief?”
“It’s getting there,” I lie, fetching my cup from the counter. “It’ll get better with some of that coffee though.”
“I hear you. One White Lightning special, coming up!”
It’s times like these that make me really appreciate having a mare like her around. Ponies working weather out here like to call us Twin Lightning. She’s got a good head on her shoulders, and I can’t thank the Princesses enough for that.
She fills my cup, and we head back through the bullpen for my office. “But seriously, your stomach still sucky?”
“Yeah,” I confess, sipping from my mug. “Meds are helping a bit.”
Whitey shrugs. “Hope you get better soon, chief.”
“I’ll get there,” I say. “But enough about my gut, let’s talk weather.”
“Righto,” Whitey replies, holding the door open for me as we enter my office. “Gave a glance at the night patrol’s reports from ground scouts and the graveyard shift. Odd clustering of clouds in sector twenty-four, air is shifting up in sector fourteen. Prime dust devil breeding grounds.”
I frown as I ease into my chair. Dust devils are small whirlwinds that rip across the desert plains. Small ones come and go all the time and nobody bats an eye, but out here they have a tendency to get real big real quick. “Thinking we send a team down to keep an eye on it?”
“Read my mind, chief,” Whitey replies. “Quiet night besides that.”
I nod in thanks and start skimming through my ‘in’ tray. Weather work out here on the frontier is somewhat different from the bigger cities. The buffalo tell us that the weather moves differently out here, and so far they seem to be right. The winds can be unpredictable, clouds like to move of their own accord, and rain avoids us like the plague.
That, of course, means it’s nearly impossible for the Weather Factory to give us any help. So instead, some of the few pegasi founders created the Stormchasers to handle dust devils, monsoons, flash floods, and other fun mishaps.
We use a combination of ground scouts and pegasi to keep an eye on the plains outside of town, arming them all with flare guns to signal whenever something big is coming. But beyond that, most of our duties include cloud shunting to build up a water reserve and waiting for things to happen.
“Nothing from our buffalo friends either?”
“All quiet on the western front,” Whitey confirms. “But, uh… I wanted to ask you something, chief.”
I glance up from the papers in my hooves. My stomach starts writhing in pain again as I see the look on her face. “Shoot.”
“Have you… talked with Fiddle yet?”
I sigh, pretending to consider the question as I shuffle some papers around. “I… no, not yet. It’s… look, I don’t think she wants anything to do with me anymore.”
Whitey raises an eyebrow. “Chief, what in Equestria are you on about? You two are practically made for each other!”
“Well, clearly we’re not,” I mutter. “Otherwise we’d still be together.”
“You’ve gotta stop thinking like that, chief,” Whitey snaps. “You’re just going through a rough patch, that doesn’t mean it’s over forever!”
I groan, rubbing my temples in frustration. “Look, what do you want me to say, Whitey? I miss her, I want her back, but that isn’t going to happen.”
“Why the hay not?”
I glare at her. The voice in my hand offers an answer: Because she doesn’t want me back. And even if she did, I’d just find some way to let her down again. I squeeze my eyes shut and forcibly exhale. “Whitey… I just need time, okay? I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
I hear Whitey’s hoofsteps on the wooden floor, coming around the desk before she lays a hoof on my shoulder. “I get it, chief,” she replies softly. “Hope you can figure it out.”
With a small nod, I open my eyes and look around at my office. I never really thought much about how… saturated it is with memories. There are photos of us together hanging on the walls and decorating my desk. I still have both wings in some of them.
I had a friend back then. Now I have an enemy, even if that enemy is myself.
What do you want from life?
I stand up, squaring up some papers against the side of my desk. “Thanks, Whitey. Come on, let’s get ready for the morning brief.”
Two hours and many cups of coffee later, I find myself leaning back and yawning, having made a nice dent in the day’s paperwork. Whitey’s off checking in with ground patrols, so that just leaves me in charge along with a few pencil-pushers in the building.
If I close my eyes and ignore the burning pain in my stomach, I can maybe just pretend that everything is normal and okay.
My stomach rumbles again, forcing me to sigh and hop out of my chair. Clock tells me I’ve got two and half more hours to go until lunchtime.
I stumble my way through the bullpen and into the bathroom. Quickly I heave myself over the sink as my stomach fights against me, making the room spin around faster than a hurricane.
“Easy girl. Breathe. Breathe.”
I force air down my lungs and squeeze my eyes shut. I try to ignore the discomfort running through my body and force the bile back down to where it came from.
Some days I wonder why, out of all the ponies in Equestria, every single thing seems to come crashing down on me.
“Probably because I deserve it,” I mutter, spitting into the sink.
My mom had a saying she used to whisper to me at night. She said, “Lightning, there are a million stars in the sky. It’s only a matter of time before one of them falls on you.” Of course, she meant that in the positive sense: that success was bound to hit me someday.
Looking back on it, I guess she was right. But stars falling from the sky aren’t a blessing. More of a curse. Because they hit you hard and shatter your entire world, burning your life down around you as you sit and watch. And I’ve had more stars fall on me than I’d like to admit.
My mom used to tell me that stars were a sign. A sign that things were going to get better. That there was always tomorrow. I think she is right, stars are a sign. But they don’t mean anything good. In fact, they probably just mean that Equestria is sick and tired of me.
“Or it just means I’m stupid,” I grumble as my stomach lands another blow against my sides. Through a veil of tears I look up at my reflection. If I squint hard enough, I can see the Lightning Dust I was all those years ago. The Lightning Dust who had just gotten into the Wonderbolts Academy. The one that still had both wings and was going places.
Then I rub my eyes, and the vision fades. What’s left is an older Lightning Dust, with a stump for a right wing and scars covering her body. A Lightning Dust that’s weaker, a Lightning Dust whose body gave up on her years ago.
I smash a hoof into the counter. The sound echoes through the bathroom as pain shoots through my system. It makes me laugh, because it’s the only thing I can do to make me feel anything anymore.
I want to scream. I want to cry. But I can’t.
This is who I am now. And I have to live with it for the rest of my life.
“Red flare! Red flare!”
My ear twitches as I hear a chorus of voices calling from the bullpen. I quickly steel myself up, take a deep breath, and head out the door. There’ll be time to hate myself later. For now, it looks like I’ve got work to do.
There’s a group of ponies waiting outside the weather office as I burst out the doors. I quickly locate the signal flare, off to the north-east corner. It spirals up into the air, a column of red lingering in the air.
Seconds later, Whitey appears on the horizon, dipping down and landing feet away from me.
“What’ve we got?” I ask, glancing at the flare in the distance.
“Scouts reported some type of storm headed right at us,” Whitey says. “Doesn’t look natural.”
I raise an eyebrow. “What’re you thinking, then? Magical?”
“Possibly,” Whitey admits. “You could feel it in the air, chief. Even from miles away. Something… something ain’t right about that.”
I exchange a glance with the other gathered Stormchasers. Time for me to make a choice. “Let’s play it safe, then. Code three alarm, general shelter notice. Move!” I bark.
The gathered ponies nod and take off. One of them charges back into the office, and a few seconds later raid sirens start blaring, along with an automated message. “This is a message from the Appleloosan Weather Patrol. Please seek shelter immediately. Say again, seek shelter immediately.”
From there, the town erupts into a sort of organized chaos. Thankfully everyone here has been through more safety drills than they’d like, so everything is more second nature than anything else.
The other Stormchasers hop to the air, some headed for the storm to see what they can do while others assist in getting everyone to shelter.
“I’ll take the market,” I shout at Whitey. “You go townhall!”
“Got it!” Whitey replies as she shoots into the sky again. I take off running down the streets, yelling at some stragglers to get inside.
“What’s the news, Lightning?” someone calls as I run by.
“Don’t know!” I call over my shoulder. “Just get safe first!”
There’s a crowd of ponies at the farmer’s market when I get there. The sheriff’s deputies and a few Stormchasers are already on scene, reminding people not to panic but to seek shelter urgently.
A few of the more experienced stall keepers are shutting down their stands, locking up products and taking their valuables before bailing. The newer ones fumble with their lockboxes and knock over shelves, so we get them going early. Their lives are more important than their crop, even if they won’t believe that.
My ear twitches, and I turn around. Fiddle trots up to me, a concerned look on her face.
“What’s going on? Dust devil?” she asks.
I sigh, scanning the market for any stragglers. “I don’t know yet, Fiddle.”
“Don’t know?” She gasps, holding a hoof to her mouth. “Is it bad?”
I manage to muster a smile. “I don’t think it’ll be bad, Fiddle. But you better get going, we don’t know what we might be dealing with.”
She nods, then grabs my hoof. “Lightning… stay safe. Please.”
“I will. Don’t worry about me. Now go!”
She turns away reluctantly, galloping towards the nearest public shelter.
I watch her go before snapping out of it. I’ve got a job to do.
I take off down the street again, looping through Main Street, and head back for the weather office. The blaring of alarms fills my ears as the streets empty out. Ponies out here will let anyone into their basement in an emergency, but I think I’ve got enough time to beat the storm.
“Go, go, go!” I shout at a group of foals on the other side of the road. They nod and run faster, yelling and giggling to each other before ducking into a house.
Another scan of the street shows it’s empty now. I take a deep breath and continue my run.
Then, a sharp crack of thunder nearly destroys my eardrums. I stumble and look up to see a swirling mass of pink and purple clouds above, occasionally lit up by a bolt of lightning.
“Crud! It’s right on top of us!” I kick myself into high gear and run as fast as I can, barreling down the deserted roads for safety.
A harsh wind whips through my mane, threatening to knock me over. The bright blue sky is completely masked by misty clouds, and a strange, tingling sensation runs through my body.
“Come on, Lightning,” I pant. “Nearly there!”
The town’s lit up by a flash of lightning, and I almost stumble again. The weather office is just a few more feet in front of me. As my heart soars way above normal tempo and blood screams in my ears, I put on one final burst of speed.
Then there’s white.
I don’t feel it hit me, but it did. The impact sends me flying through the air before I hit the ground.. Vaguely, I can feel my body get bruised by some loose rocks and pebbles, and a cloud of dust obscures my vision.
Through the ringing in my ears I hear the angry cry of a thunderclap. I taste iron in my mouth and hold a hoof to my nose. It comes up bloody.
I pull myself to my hooves, shakily looking up at the sky again. The pink and purple is wavering now as it passes by, and I can see flickers of blue beyond it. I grunt in pain and take a step forward, before realizing there’s a strange hazy lump in front of me.
It’s a pony. My breath hitches in my throat, and I turn them onto their back, checking for a pulse.
Where the heck had they come from? My path to the office was clear! I hadn’t seen a single soul in the street! And why weren’t they in shelter?
Questions race through my mind, even as I feel a pulse thumping throughout her system. I scan their body for injuries, but I don’t see any blood staining their light turquoise coat. I see a set of wings on this pony. They’re wearing some sort of flight suit, but the dust obscures some of the details.
Weird, though, I don’t know of any turquoise pegasi currently living in Appleloosa.
“All clear, all clear!” I hear the loudspeakers sound off again as the sirens cut out. Ponies start poking their heads out of their homes, looking up and down the street.
“Chief!” White Lightning gallops over to my side, gasping as she sees the downed pony. “Hey, someone go find Doc! You alright, chief?”
“I’m good,” I reply automatically, still focused on the injured pegasus. Something about her seems familiar. “Whitey, are you… are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
White Lightning bends over to get a look at the pony when she suddenly freezes. Her eyes go wide, then she glances up at me. Slowly, she pulls off the pony’s hood, revealing her face for the first time.
My heart stops. I look at the pony’s face and nearly fall backwards. “That…. That can’t be….”
“It is, chief,” White Lightning replies. “That’s you.”
“I said I’m fine!”
The nurse backs away, holding up two hooves apologetically.
“Stop ragging her for doing her job, chief.” Whitey smirks. She folds her forelegs across her chest, leaning against the doorframe.
I grunt, sitting up on the medical cot. “I’m not worried about me. I’m worried about the… other me. Is she alright?”
“I’ll go check,” the nurse replies, ducking out of the room.
I sigh again, rubbing my face and glancing at Whitey. “Whitey, I’m not dreaming, right? This isn’t some stupid sick prank?”
Whitey shakes her head, her smirk morphing into a frown. “I don’t know, chief. Brae’s been on the telegraph with Canterlot, trying to figure out what the hay just happened. But as of now, we have no idea why a young you just showed up out of nowhere.”
I sigh, sinking back into the uncomfortable cot. “Why does all of this stuff happen to me, Whitey?”
She gives me a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “Just some rotten luck, chief.”
I hold a foreleg over my eyes. “I think it’s more than that. I don’t think I can blame bad luck for every single thing I’ve done…”
“Chief, you can’t let that get you down.”
“How can I not?” I ask. “Whitey, what am I living for anymore?”
I look up to see Whitey biting her lip and glancing down. “Sorry,” I quickly apologize. “That’s a tough one to spring on you. Didn’t want to dump all my problems on you…”
“Is it that bad?” Whitey blurts out, looking up at me again.
I sigh, meeting her gaze. Yes, I’m tempted to say. Yes, it is that bad. And no, it’s not getting any better. “It’s not, Whitey. I’m just… a little tired.”
Whitey exhales slowly. “Well, if you say so. Sorry. I didn’t mean to push you like that.”
“Not your fault,” I mutter, rubbing my face with both hooves.
“Chief, you know I’m here to help you, right?” Whitey asks. “If this whole thing is wearing you out, just talk to me. Let me know.”
I feel something awful churning in my stomach again but I swallow it down and just nod.
Whitey lowers her head and sighs. “I just want to help you,” she says slowly. “But you need to let me in. You need to tell me what’s bothering you.”
I only offer a grunt in response. The truth is that I don’t want to weigh Fiddle or anyone else down with more of my problems. I don’t want to make myself a thorn in their side. I don’t want them to depend on me, because I know I’ll find some way to let them down again.
“I’m trying, Whitey,” I whisper, squeezing my eyes to hold back the tears. “I’m trying.”
She nods and takes a seat at the side of my cot.
“So, what do we know about that storm?” I ask, voice still wavering slightly.
Whitey shrugs. “Not much. It came from the northeast, almost like it was coming straight towards us. I got close to it with Hailstorm and Stormy Night. We all felt some magic in there. Something ran right down our wingtips. It was… electric, I guess.”
“I may have some answers,” comes a voice from the doorway.
Every time I see him, I swear that Braeburn gets five years older. I guess politics can do that to anyone. He looks a lot more ragged since we first met and doesn’t smile much, or even laugh. Being the mayor really has taken its toll on him.
I sit up, eager to know more about this stunt double of mine. “What’ve you got?”
“Got some telegrams from Canterlot,” Braeburn answers. “Apparently what hit us was some sort of magical discharge from the Everfree Forest. The Ponyville Weather Team didn’t know what to do with it, so they tried to get rid of it. Darned thing just kept goin’ and goin’ until it got here.”
Whitey rolled her eyes and huffed. “Of course it was the Ponyville team. They never do anything right.”
“Princess Twilight will be here soon to look into it,” Braeburn continues.
“And what about the other me?” I ask. “Where does she fit into all of this?”
Braeburn runs a hoof through his graying mane. “Well, the Princess thinks that the storm opened some hole in the, uh, space-time continuum. Put a tear right into another dimension. She used a lotta words that I frankly don’t understand, but she thinks she can get it squared away right quick.”
I frown, rubbing my chin. “So… it’s another version of me. From an alternate dimension.”
Braeburn shrugs. “Stranger things have happened.”
I sigh, avoiding his eyes. Braeburn… still scares me, especially after he threatened to kill me when I broke up with Fiddle. Brotherly love, I guess.
“Brae, LD,” calls a voice from the door. “The patient’s awake now. Reckon you might want to talk to her.”
Braeburn nods. “Thanks, Doc. C’mon, let’s try and sort this out.”
She's the Prettiest Girl at the Party, and She Can Prove it With a Solid Right Hook
We cross the hall into the emergency room. Before I can even make it out the door, something rams into my side. “Thank the Princess you’re okay!” Fiddle exclaims as she wraps her hooves around me.
I manage a smile and awkwardly hug her back. I’ve missed this. I’ve missed this so much. I never want to let you go. But I do, and give her a reassuring nod. “Yeah, I’m perfectly fine, Fiddle. Don’t worry.”
Fiddle looks me over before sighing. “I was so worried when I heard you were hurt.”
“Frankly, I’m more worried about that other me,” I reply, glancing at the door.
“Come on, Fiddle,” Braeburn beckons. “You might as well come along.”
Fiddle nods, and the three of us head in.
Sitting on the examination table, rear legs dangling over the side, is me. Her mane, coat, cutie mark… it’s all the same. The only difference I can see is that she looks a lot younger than me. The other Lightning glances up as we walk in, and I see her tense up as she notices me.
“Howdy, howdy. I’m Doc Holliday, this here is Mayor Braeburn, White Lightning, Fiddlesticks, and… well, Lightning Dust,” Doc says as we file into the room.
Other Lightning inhales sharply. “Where the heck am I?”
“You’re in Appleloosa,” Braeburn replies, “but from what I’ve heard, you ain’t exactly home.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Doc asks.
Other Lightning scrunches up her face. “I was… I was at the Academy. We were doing the flag hunt, Rainbow called out there was a flag near the bottom of the ravine. She said something… I don’t remember what, but we both dived down towards it. There was this cloud we passed through… then I ended up here.”
And just like that, everyone’s eyes are on me. I take her in again, remembering the color of her flight suit and the familiar gold pin on her chest. “You…” I swallow nervously. “You were at the Wonderbolt Academy?”
“Of course I was!” other Lightning replies, voice rising. “I’m the best flier in Equestria! Where else would I be? Shouldn’t you of all ponies know that?”
A bout of nausea strikes me. “I… I need a minute,” I stammer before stumbling out of the room.
The hallway blurs around me as I lean against the wall for support. A whirlwind of memories rips through my mind. The Academy. The lead pony pin. The expulsion. Things I thought I buried a long time ago. It crashes down around me in a downpour.
“Hey.” And just like that, there’s a beacon of light. Fiddle’s soft voice reaches out to me, and I feel her hoof rest on my shoulder. “You alright?”
“I…” I force myself to focus by taking deep, ragged breaths. “Dear Celestia, Fiddle. She’s me. From all those years ago, before I got kicked out.”
Fiddle nods. “I get it. This is a lot to take in. Here.” She guides me over to a nearby bench and has me sit down.
“Fiddle… what if this is my chance?” I ask. “A chance to fix everything I’ve done wrong? She… she still has an opportunity to become the pony I never was.”
I look up at her and see her smile. It hurts me in more ways than I could ever describe. “I think you’re right,” Fiddle replies. “I reckon you’d be pretty good at talkin’ to yourself.”
She chuckles, and I do my best to return it.
“But really, Dusty, I believe in you,” she says.
And that alone is enough to kill me. Because her words hurt. The nickname, her confidence, her just saying that she believes… it hurts, and it hurts more than any crash I’ve had. It hurts more than the building that I was thrown into, and it hurts more than waking up in a hospital with one wing.
“Thanks, Fiddle,” I reply with a ghost of a smile. “I… Thank you.”
With that, I get off the bench and try to steady myself. I reach for the doorknob and notice that my hoof is shaking. Without thinking, I look over my shoulder. Fiddle stands behind me, giving me a reassuring nod.
I look away and open the door, walking back into the room.
Doc, Braeburn, and Whitey glance at me as I reenter. I clear my throat and jerk my head to the exit. “Could I, uh, have a minute with her?”
The three understand. They nod, gather their things, and head out. Whitey slaps me on the back as she passes. “Good luck, chief,” she whispers.
As the door shuts again, I sit down in a chair next to younger Lightning, trying to figure out how best to approach this.
“So,” I say, searching my mind for fragments of memories, “how are you liking the Academy so far?”
Younger Lightning shrugs. “It’s… alright, I guess. Wish it were more challenging, everything we’ve been doing so far is super easy.”
I nod blankly. “Sounds great. I remember those days.”
“So what the heck happened to you?” blurts younger Lightning. “Why do you only have one wing?”
I grimace at that. “Oh. Well, I got into a bit of an accident years ago. Dust devil tore through town. A huge tornado with a lot of dust. Flew too close to it, and it threw me clean through a building. My wing was pretty much screwed. They had to cut it to get me out.”
Younger Lightning tilts her head in confusion. “Wait, so… you’re not a Wonderbolt?”
I let out a scoff. “No. No, I’m not. I got… kicked out of the Academy. Made a lot more mistakes along the way. And now… now I’m here.”
A weird look came across younger Lightning’s face. “Kicked you out? What, are they out of their minds? How the heck do they kick Lightning Dust out of the Academy?”
“Let’s just say I made some mistakes,” I answer, rubbing my foreleg.
Young Lightning rolls her eyes. “Lame.”
“I guess.” I clear my throat, looking her over again. It’s really disconcerting to look at. Was I really that small when I was younger? Did I really look like that? “Look, the fact is… I was where you were a long, long time ago. And I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve done things I regret. And I want to make sure you don’t do the same things.”
Young Lightning is quiet for a second. “What kind of mistakes are you talking about?”
“Let’s just say that I… didn’t play well with others.”
Young Lightning raises an eyebrow. “What the hay does that mean?”
I sigh, rubbing my chin with the back of my hoof. “To fly with the Wonderbolts, you’ve got to understand it’s about more than yourself. I… Well, we, I guess, have a hard time with that.”
“We?!” Young Lightning smirks at me, leaning back in her cot. “Don’t associate me with you, old mare!”
“What are you talking about?” I ask. “We’re the same pony.”
“As if!” Young Lightning spits. “There is no way that a pony of my caliber would get kicked out of the Academy! They’d be cutting their own wings off!”
I raise a hoof warily. “That’s exactly the kind of thinking that’ll get you kicked out. They don’t care how fast you are if you’re a rotten pony.”
“So you think I’m a rotten pony?”
“What?” I scrunch up my face. “I’m saying that I’m you!”
Young Lightning laughed again. “No way! You wish you were me, buddy. But I’d never end up as pathetic as you are right now.”
My eye twitches as she smiles at me smugly.
“You see this thing?” She taps the lead pony badge affixed to her chest. “It’s a sign. A sign that nothing in the world is going to stop Lightning Dust.”
I take a deep breath to try and stew my anger.
“Kid, look. That kind of thinking… it isn’t going to be good for you. Trust me. I was there once.”
“No. No, you weren’t,” young Lightning replies. “You and I are nothing alike. I’m not a quitter, and I’m not growing up to be some poor, weak old mare.”
That gets a snarl out of me. “What part of this do you not get? If you don’t listen to me, you’re going to end up exactly where I am!”
Young Lightning shoots up from the cot and jabs a hoof towards my eye. “Oh, shut up, you blithering idiot!”
“I’m trying to help you, you arrogant little—”
I barely even realize that young Lightning’s moved, but the next thing I know, my vision goes black, and I’m sent sprawling across the floor.
Even as I raise a hoof to feel my jaw, I catch a hint of a turquoise blur flying through the door.
The others surge in after that, startled cries and shouts coming from the hallway. “Dusty!” Fiddle’s by my side in a second. “What happened?”
“Did she…” I finally get a hoof up to my jaw, as a faint taste of iron fills my mouth. “Did she just punch me?”
“Shut up.” I press the ice bag deeper into my jaw while glaring at Whitey.
She stifles a giggle and waggles her ears at me. “Sorry, chief. It’s just there aren’t many ponies out there who can say they’ve been punched by themselves.”
I grumble, shooting daggers at her from across the room. “Come closer to me and say that to my face.”
Whitey laughs again. I know she means well, but I can’t lie: it makes me feel worse.
There’s a knock at the door, and Braeburn pokes his head in. “Hey, got some word in. Our renegade was last spotted heading east, towards Antelope Canyon.”
Whitey and I exchange glances. That isn’t good. The canyon is notorious for flash flooding and all sorts of other maladies.
“We better dig her out before she gets herself killed,” I mutter, tossing the ice pack aside. “Whitey, go get some kits ready. Let’s try and bring her home before sundown.”
“On it, chief!” Whitey answers with a salute. She nods at Braeburn and heads out of the room.
Braeburn gives a sigh, taking off his hat and running a hoof through his mane. “You alright, Lightnin’?”
“Yeah, think so,” I mutter, getting to my hooves.
“Now hold up a second,” he says. “I’d like to think that I know how to read ponies. And my read on you is that somethin’ ain’t right. That true?”
I try and match his stare, but it only takes a few seconds for that mask to waver. “No, no. Everything’s fine,” I lie, scraping a hoof against the ground.
Braeburn gives me a weary glance. “My cousin is the Element of Honesty, Lightnin’. I can spot a liar a mile away. What’ve you got on your mind?”
“Well…” I feel something turning in my stomach again as the words start to trickle out. The truth is that I know exactly what’s wrong. I’m tired, I’m miserable, and I’m tired of being miserable. “It’s nothing, Brae. I swear on it.”
Braeburn frowns, tapping his hooves together. “I think we both know that ain’t true.”
I sigh and rub my head as the pain crawls up my throat and into my head. “I’ve just been doing some thinking, you know? Wondering if it’s smarter for me to just cash out.” I lean against the wall and fold my forelegs across my chest. “I just need some time to figure stuff out.”
A rather pregnant pause fills the room. “Let me pose you this question. Are you happy here?” Braeburn asks.
No, I want to say. No, I’m not. Because every single day I’m reminded of what I’ve lost. It hurts, and it bleeds over. That anger, that frustration. All of it.
“I’m perfectly happy here,” I lie. “Let’s just… Let’s just worry about the younger me right now.”
Braeburn holds me with a steady, heavy gaze, before he finally relents. “Fine, then. I still think you’re the best shot at this, even if she booked on you. You know where you went wrong and you mean well. You know yourself better than any of us can. If there’s anypony in Equestria that can set her straight, it’s gotta be you.” He flashes me a weary smile. “I trust you Lightnin’. Always have.” With that, he jerks his head at the door. “Better get goin’ now. Best of luck, Lightnin’.”
I offer him as strong a smile as I can. “Thanks, Brae.”
Fiddle’s waiting for me on the other side. She raises an eyebrow when she sees my face. “She clocked you good, didn’t she, Dusty?”
And just like that the stomach pain’s back again. That nickname, that stupid nickname murders me like it always does. Because with it I can feel the love it used to bring and all the memories it’s embedded with.
I shove it down and nod. “Yeah. I’m going to give her a piece of my mind when I find her. You coming with us?”
“Eeyup!” Her smile radiates with a warmth as strong as the sun.
I think back to what I said in my conversation with Braeburn.
“You’re not happy here, are you?”
“Right now? No. No, I’m not.”
A part of me wants to leave. To run away from all of these memories before they kill me. To run away from her ghost that clings to my shadow. But I realize now that’s hopeless. Because there’s only one place I belong in Equestria, and that’s with her.
“Sounds good. Just don’t get lost on me, you hear? I’m not going to stop for you,” I reply, giving her a playful poke.
She shoots me a competitive smirk. “Right, I think you’re the one who’s going to have to keep up with me, Dusty!”
Braeburn coughs from behind us. I give him a glance, and I see the look he gives me. The one that says, “Talk to her, spell it out. Tell her what she needs to know.”
What she needs to know is that I’m sinking fast. What she needs to know is that I’m near my breaking point. And that I want to know if she still cares.
“Everythin’ alright, Lightnin’?” she asks.
I swallow my thoughts and nod. “Yeah. I’m alright. Let’s go find this idiot before she gets herself killed.”
As I lead the way down the hall, that sentence just echoes down my mind.
“I need you to know I’m alright. I need you to know I’m alright. I need you to know. I need you. I need you. I need you.”
It doesn’t take us very long to reach the outskirts of Appleloosa. From there it’s about a fifteen minute hike to Antelope Canyon, where hopefully young Lightning still is.
We meet up with a few buffalo scouts on the way there.
“Howdy, Strongheart!” Fiddle calls.
Little Strongheart raises a hoof. “Greetings!”
“So you guys saw her heading for Antelope?” asks Whitey, getting down to buisness.
Little Strongheart nods. “Yes. Our scouts saw a pegasus pony matching that description heading towards the canyon. We have not seen her leave yet.”
I sigh. “Best we head there quickly, before she decides to run for it.”
The others agree, and we set off down the dusty trail.
Whitey takes point, hovering in the air at an easy pace. Little Strongheart leads the way, with myself and Fiddle falling into step behind her.
“Oh, Lightning, is your stomach still upset?” Strongheart asks without breaking stride.
I instinctively start rubbing circles into my chest, as if I can somehow rub the pain away. “It’s… getting there.”
“Have you considered my offer? I can guarantee the traditional methods of the shaman will grant results,” Strongheart says.
I wave her off. “Thanks, but I think I’m fine.”
Strongheart nods, smiling. “Of course. After all, you have Fiddle to look after you, don’t you?”
That makes the entire party flinch. Strongheart looks around nervously. “Did… did I say something wrong?”
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know.
Fiddle and I exchange awkward glances, as if we were yielding so the other could speak first.
I bite my tongue hard, eyes going wide to let Fiddle finish. Embarrassingly, she does the same and neither of us speak.
“They’re… not together anymore, Strongheart,” Whitey finally offers.
Little Strongheart blushes, pinning her ears back. “Oh! Oh. I’m… sorry. But… may I ask why? You two were perfect for each other.”
And just like that, everyone’s eyes fall on me. I scuff a hoof against the dusty trail beneath my hooves. “I… it…” I stumble over my words, and it feels like I’m plummeting out of the sky all over again.
“It’s still a bit of a tender topic,” Whitey offers.
Strongheart dips her head. “I understand. I apologize.”
“Yeah, no, it’s fine,” I mutter. “Let’s just… focus on what we’ve got on hoof right now.”
Everyone nods in agreement. “Can’t believe that you actually got punched by yourself,” Whitey says, giving me a teasing wink. “I guess even you can’t deal with yourself, huh?”
Fiddle chuckles. “She’s a bit of a hooful, that much is true.”
I manage to offer a smile. But Fiddle sees it, and her grin fades away.
My heart skips a beat. She’s on to me.
“Well, as you ponies say, you’ve built this bridge, now you have to lie in it,” Strongheart remarks.
Whitey chuckles. “Not quite, Strongheart. Not quite.”
Fiddle slows her pace, and I see the worry creeping into her eyes. “Dusty, hold up.”
I suck in a breath. Here we go. “What’s up?”
“We need to talk,” she whispers.
We slow our steps to get some distance between Strongheart and Whitey.
“Lightnin’... how are you? Really. Tell me,” Fiddle says.
“I’m fine, Fiddle,” I answer, scuffing my hoof against the dust again. “Really. I’m fine.”
Fiddle sighs. “Dusty, look at me.”
I carefully move my eyeline up from the ground and end up staring just past her right ear.
“Look at me, Lightnin’.”
Finally, I do. I look into her brilliant blue eyes, and I see pain. I see hurt. I see longing.
And that’s enough to break me. It’s enough to make me want to collapse onto the road, right here and now. It makes me want to dry heave and toss up all of my internal organs, if that makes the stomach pain go away.
“I… Fine, I’m not okay,” I grunt. A wave of nausea and weariness hits me, like I’ve been flying for a week without stopping.
Fiddle closes the gap and holds my hoof. “What’s wrong?”
“Everything,” I answer. The world around me starts to blur as something rises in my chest. I let it out in a pained sigh and my tear ducts start to leak. “Everything’s wrong.”
“Talk to me,” Fiddle says, cupping her hooves on my cheeks and gently lifting my head up. “Talk to me, Dusty.”
I suck in a deep breath and feel the words come leaking out. “I’m so tired of everything I put you through. I’m so tired of letting you down and failing. I’m tired because I’m not changing, Fiddle. I’m static. I’ve always been this arrogant, intolerable, insufferable excuse of a pony, and every time I think I change for the better…” I blink back tears. “I fail. I just fail.”
“You didn’t fail, Dusty. You’ve changed,” Fiddle insists. “I’ve been with you every step of the way. You’re not the same mare that showed up all those years ago.”
“But I am!” I glance up again. “I am! Fiddle, I hate who I used to be, but I hate who I am now! I’ve always been my own worst enemy, I just didn’t realize it back then. But even if I know it now… it doesn’t change anything!”
Fiddle is quiet for a second. “Does it not? I think it does, Dusty. Just knowin’ that means you’re smarter now than you were before. It means you’re changin’.”
“But what does it matter if the result is the same?” I run a hoof through my mane. “Fiddle, I’m so scared of letting you down. Because that’s all I ever seem to do. I just… I’m a world destroyer, Fiddle. And I don’t want to destroy yours.”
I wipe the tears from my eyes to see Fiddle’s soft eyes staring back at me. “Dusty, you ain’t a world destroyer. In fact, my world’s been better ever since you came into it,” she whispers. “You’re a better pony than you were before. I promise.”
“I just…” I almost choke on my words as tears fall to the ground. “I remember the week before the accident. I was confident in myself again. I finally felt like I belonged somewhere. And then… and then I got cocky. Started thinking about getting revenge on Rainbow and the Wonderbolts. Look where it got me.”
Fiddle sighs, lowering her head. “Lightnin’, hear me out. You’re smarter than you think, you’re better than you think, and even if you can’t see it, you’re not who you think you are.” She pauses for a second. “I… I love you, Lightnin’, and I know you’re so much better than what you believe you are.”
I nod, biting my lip nervously. “I don’t see what you see in me, Fiddle.”
“I know, but please. You gotta believe me.” Fiddle points out at the mountains, towards the canyon. “If not, then do it for her. You said it yourself, Lightnin’. You can help her. You can stop her from makin’ the same mistakes you did.”
“I… yeah,” I mutter, wiping the tears from my eyes. “You’re right. I can’t just sit by and let her end up like me. She… she has a chance. She deserves better.” I steady myself with a deep breath and lift my head up.
Strongheart and Whitey are waiting further down the path.
Fiddle gives me a solid pat on the back. “Come on now, Dusty. Let’s get a move on.”
“Lead the way,” I answer.
It didn’t take too long for us to reach the canyon. Strongheart takes point. “Be careful. This is a dangerous place.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice,” mutters Whitey, ears folding back.
Little Strongheart gives her a comforting pat on the back. “No worries, friend. We won’t be here any longer than it takes.”
“How about we split up?” Fiddle asks. “We’ve all got flares, sound off if someone finds her?”
All of us exchange nods. “Sounds like a plan,” I say. “Let’s do this.”
Fiddle and Whitey head to the right side of the canyon while Strongheart and I go left.
It’s a pretty breathtaking view from the top. The ground seems to split in half, leaving behind two giant walls of stone. The cuts and cracks are intricate and subtle, but it all adds up to make one beautiful wonder of nature.
I spent a lot of time racing through this canyon back when I had both wings. But I found myself coming back afterwards, with Strongheart herself to act as my guide. She taught me the buffalo names for every nook and cranny, and how you could watch the sun fall through the cracks at a certain time of day.
I guess it makes sense younger me would be drawn here.
“I hope I didn’t offend you earlier,” Strongheart says, glancing at me.
“No, no. Not at all,” I reply. “We’re… we’re working it out.”
Strongheart nods in understanding. “For what it’s worth, you two are some of the kindest ponies I’ve had the joy of knowing.”
That gets a laugh from me. “Heh. Thanks, Strongheart. You’re pretty great, too.” I raise a hoof, and she bumps it, a trick Braeburn apparently had to teach her.
“I take it that’s not something your younger self would say?” Strongheart asks.
“Sadly, no. Young Lighting is a bit of a bonehead.”
Strongheart laughs again. “I think perhaps we all were.”
I carefully sidestep a rather large rock embedded in the dust. “Maybe, but I think I was exceptionally stupid back then.”
“Hmm… that may be true, but maybe it isn’t the best approach?” Strongheart runs a hoof along the canyon wall. “I mean, I think that you truly know yourself the best, Lightning. How do you plan to talk to her?”
I hadn’t really thought about that. “That’s a good point. I tried to be upfront with her, but I should have known that wouldn’t work. I always hated other ponies trying to tell me what to do.”
“Perhaps you should try to find some common ground?” Strongheart offers. “A connection with her would likely increase your chances of succeeding.”
I tap my chin in thought. “I think you’re onto something.”
Strongheart suddenly pauses, training her eyes on the ground. “Lightning, look.” She points out a series of hoof tracks in the dust.
“Think it’s her?” I ask.
“I’d say that’s a reasonable guess,” Strongheart replies. We follow the tracks down the hills and rocks of the canyon, past natural landmarks and desert plants. Eventually, the tracks break away from the path and into a cave.
Strongheart and I exchange glances. “Lightning, perhaps it is best that you walk this path alone,” she suggests.
I nod, steadying myself with a deep breath and summoning up what little courage I have left. “Sounds good. Signal the others and shout if a storm’s coming.” I pass her my flare gun and head off into the cave.
As the cave gets darker, a cool wind blows through my mane. I hesitate and glance behind me as Strongheart fires a flare into the sky. It leaves a streak of green in its wake, spiraling up towards the sky before the cave’s mouth blocks off my view.
From what I remember, the buffalo call this cave the Mouth of the Monster. They say the sharp edges near the entrance are like teeth, and the rocky path that leads deeper into it is its tongue.
Sure does feel like I’m headed into the belly of a beast right now.
I shudder, pulling the zipper of my bomber up a bit higher. The sound of dripping water echoes through the cave. Shadows creep and dance in the corners of my eyes. Sunlight trickles in from cracks in the ceiling, shimmering in the damp air.
I’ve got a lot of thoughts to chew on as I make my way through the Monster’s Cave. The conversation with Fiddle hangs heavy in my head, but I try to focus on finding young me.
“Can’t approach her like I know everything, or that I even know what’s best for her,” I mutter. “She’s got something to prove. She’s angry at the world. Use that.”
The wind suddenly carries with it a different sound. My ears perk up as they detect the distant sound of crying.
Sitting in the dim light of the afternoon is young Lightning, facing away from me and shaking slightly.
I take a silent, deep breath. Here we go.
We both wince as my voice cracks slightly. Young Lightning turns her head to glare at me. She tenses up, but otherwise doesn’t move. “What do you want?”
I hold up a hoof. “I just want to talk.”
“Yeah?” She scoffs. “You want to tell me about how I should listen to you because you know better?”
“Nah. Not exactly,” I answer. I take a step closer to her. “I know you hated it when I said that we were the same. I think you’re right, it was wrong of me to just assume we are.”
Young Lightning ruffles her feathers and raises an eyebrow. “So why are you here?”
“I want to find some common ground,” I offer. “See how related we really are?”
She rolls her eyes and crosses her forehooves. I sit on the rock next to her, but she doesn’t reply.
“Stop me if anything’s different,” I say, easing back onto the smooth surface of the rock. “I was born and raised in Cloudsdale. My family wasn’t all that well-off, but I still got off better than most.”
Young Lightning continues staring at the wall. I have no idea if she’s even listening, but I have to hope she is.
“My mom… my mom was great. Always supported me, no matter what. Saw things in me that I could never see in myself. She always said it was only a matter of time before a lucky star fell on me. But my dad…” I sigh, glancing up at the cave wall in front of me. “My dad was the other way around. He never understood taking the risk to dream. The want to be better. It never made sense to him.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see young Lightning glance at me. I can only hope that’s a good sign.
“So that put me in a weird place. I got it into my mind that my mom was right, but if I could prove it to my dad, then all of my problems would have gone away. Found my calling in speed and flying. Did those joyrides they’d hold at midnight and flew until the sun came up. Great fun that was. Dad didn’t like it though. He didn’t understand what was so wrong with a comfy, safe job in weather administration.”
Young Lightning nods her head slightly. That gives me enough confidence to keep talking.
“Left me in a weird state. And it kind of molded how I viewed my life. It just… it felt like I owed it to mom to be that successful. And that I had to prove dad wrong.” I let out a sigh before continuing, “Problem was… I never was much of a team player. All that mattered to me was being the absolute best. Whatever the cost.” Slowly, I turn to look at her. “Any of that sound familiar to you?”
She hesitates, and I can see the tips of her wings twitch nervously. Her eyes shift to my back, and I can tell she’s staring at my scar. Finally, she takes a shaky breath and nods.
I let out a soft chuckle. “I guess you’re the same way then. When I got accepted to the Academy… It was the best day of my life. My mom was so, so proud of me. I thought I had finally made it, all by myself. And what did my dad have to say to me?”
“What the hay is a Wonderbolt.”
I blink and look at young Lightning. A few new tears are shimmering in her eyes now.
“He… he didn’t even know. How could he not have known?” she mumbles.
I hum in agreement. “Dad never was the type of pony who was up to date with the times. Mom did her best to pull me up, but that shook me pretty badly. But… he sat me down that night, told me that he would always be proud of who I was. Even if he didn’t quite understand it.” I chuckle again, glancing up at the cave roof. Small bits of dust drift about in the glow of the sun. “If only I was smart enough to know what that meant. To me, Lightning Dust was a winner. Lightning Dust was unstoppable, and nopony would get in her way.”
Young Lightning perks up at that. Guess that sounds familiar to her. Then she sees my wing scar and the unease claims her mind again. “How… how did you get kicked out of the Wonderbolts?”
“Heh. What a story, that one.” I lean back and flex out my remaining wing. “They had us working in teams again. We were tasked with… breaking up some clouds if I remember correctly. I had the genius idea of whipping up a tornado and using it to blow out the competition.”
Young Lightning’s eyes light up. “That sounds awesome!”
“It was, for the five or so seconds I had it under control. Then it slipped out. Got away from me. Bowled right over some of Rainbow’s friends in a hot air balloon nearby.”
“Huh?” Young Lightning scrunches her face up in confusion. “How was that your fault? Shouldn’t they have not even been there in the first place?”
I shrug. “It doesn’t really matter, because it just proved Rainbow’s point. That I was reckless and had no regard for my own actions.”
Young Lightning pauses. “What does that mean?”
“Well… think of it like this. Each one of the Wonderbolts might be impressive individually, in some way or form, right?” She nods, and I continue, “But they’re impressive because of what they do as a team. They’re impressive because of their ability to work together. Pulling off maneuvers like the Mythic Moonshot and the Seer’s Gambit take more than one pony, after all.”
Young Lightning bites her lip, trying to process that thought. “So… you’re saying they’re strong because they’re a team?”
“Remember what they told you on day one?” I ask. “Being a Wonderbolt is about becoming more than yourself. I never understood it, but looking back… I wish I had.”
“But… that sounds hard. Having to worry about others besides myself? There are hardly any ponies on the face of Equestria who can keep up with me.”
I nod in understanding. “Right, but after I lost my wing, I learned something else. That maybe it wasn’t about everyone keeping up with you. Sometimes you have to slow down for others. And when you do move at someone else’s pace… you really do learn a lot.”
Young Lightning hesitates before giving my back another look. “What about your wing? How’d you lose that?”
A small smile falls upon my face. “After I got booted from the Wonderbolts, I spent a lot of time wandering around Equestria, my faith in myself and my sense of direction shattered. Spent some time founding my own stunt flying team, actually.”
“That sounds cool!”
“We barely lasted a month before the Equestrian Flyer’s Association shut us down for reckless endangerment.”
Young Lightning blinks at that. “Oh.”
“Yeah, it… wasn’t my finest hour. When the Washouts burned out, it made headlines everywhere. I ended up scrambling to find a town where ponies didn’t know my name or face, and were willing to give me a chance.” I glance up at the cavern roof again. “And I ended up out here, in Appleloosa.”
I glance down at my bomber again, pulling the zipper down slightly.
“The weather team was hiring, and at that point it was the only thing I knew how to do. So I spent some time learning how to buck clouds and how to counter-spin a dust devil. But for a long time I wasn’t happy. I was still lost, bitter, and angry at everything. Then one day… one day I met Fiddle.”
Young Lightning is quiet.
“Something about her fascinated me. And just like that, I had someone to prove myself to again. Fiddle was a strange challenge, though. She was an earth pony and didn’t really care for my fancy flying tricks. But she was a good sport, took me up on offers to have a friendly race.” I glance down to my right, drawing a circle on the rock with my hoof.
“She sounds like a cool mare.”
I laugh. “Oh, she is. She really is. After a few years… I got comfortable again. I felt like I was myself, and… that meant I got cocky.” I blink a few times, turning to look at young Lightning. “You remember what I said earlier about the dust devil?”
“We were called in to break up an oncoming storm. Of course by this time I had gained a bit of a reputation amongst the fliers. A lot of them looked up to me. So when I sized up the storm, I figured we could take it head on. What a disaster that was.” My voice drops a bit lower as I continue. It’s never an easy thing to remember. “Ended up going… right into the heart of that thing. It… it didn’t stop. Just got bigger and bigger. But of course, I was too arrogant to quit. So I kept going. Ended up getting thrown straight through the side of a building.”
Something warm presses into my shoulder. I blink and realize young Lightning’s tenderly put a hoof there. “I… that sucks,” she mutters. “It sounds horrible.”
I shudder as some of the memories bubble to the surface. “Yeah. It was. Look… I think it’s safe to say we got off on the wrong hoof when we first met. But I hope you’re really getting what I’m telling you here.”
Her ears fold down. “Yeah… sorry about that. It’s just… when I first saw you, I was scared. I didn’t know where I was, then I saw an older version of myself with only one wing… and then I had to listen to all the things you were telling me. That I wouldn’t be a Wonderbolt. That I’d get kicked out of the only thing I cared about. It just… it scared me. In a way not a lot of things can.”
I sigh and nod. “Yeah, I think I came in a little hot then. I was scared too. You came out of nowhere, you know? But, listen to me, kid. You have a shot here. You can be something great… far greater than I ever was.” I pause again and take a deep breath. “Because… I hate my weaknesses. But at the same time, they’ve made me who I am. I am my own greatest enemy.”
Young Lightning taps her chin before hesitating. “You… you really think I still have a chance?”
“I know it,” I answer with a nod of my head. I reach over and pat the lightning bolt on her flight suit. “As long as you don’t do what I did… you’ll make a great Wonderbolt.”
She smirks at that. “Heh, never a doubt in my mind.” The smirk falls away pretty quickly though. “But… what you’re telling me to do, it sounds hard.”
“It is hard, kid. Nopony ever said that changing yourself would be easy. It took me years and years to realize that the world was bigger than me, and by then it was too late.”
Young Lightning sighs. “Thanks, I guess. Being a Wonderbolt, being the best I could be… it’s all I ever wanted.” She shoots me a sympathetic glance. “I can’t imagine just losing it all like that.”
“Don’t worry about me, kid,” I say, ruffling her mane. “You just do what you do best.”
She smiles again, then tackles me in a hug.
“Thanks,” she whispers, wiping away a few stray tears.
“No problem, kid,” I answer, hugging her back.
A voice calls from the cave’s mouth, “Chief? Strongheart says we better get moving!” Whitey rounds the corner, pausing when she sees us. “Everything good?”
“Yeah,” I answer with a grin. “Everything’s just fine.”
“Come on, old mare! Is that all you got?” young Lightning shouts as she does a loop in the air.
“Who you calling old?” Whitey replies, right on her tail.
The two shoot off into the air again, leaving the rest of us in their dust. Whitey is estatic that she finally has someone to race with, even if young Lightning is demolishing her right now. It’s probably the most fun Whitey’s had in years.
And of course to celebrate my success… I’m throwing up into the station trashcan while the janitor gives me the stink-eye from the corner.
I shudder, squeezing my eyes shut and trying to do absolutely anything to dispel the nausea.
Someone gives me some comforting pats on the back. “You good, Dusty?” Fiddle asks.
“Fine, yeah,” I reply neutrally. “I’m just, y’know, throwing up in the trash can. As one does.”
Fiddle sighs. “I thought you said your stomach wasn’t that bad.”
“I may have lied to you about that,” I mutter, pulling my head out of the can and wiping my mouth.
As my vision clears I see Fiddle staring at me, holding me in a concerned gaze. “Lying? Dusty, tell me the truth.”
My stomach grumbles in discomfort, and I feel my ears droop. “I… Yeah, it’s not good, Fiddle. My stomach is still just murdering me. I haven’t slept well in ages. Haven’t done much either. I’m just… I’m so tired.”
“Oh, Dusty,” Fiddle whispers, lifting up my chin. “You sure that’s all that’s bothering you?”
I know the answer. After all, I’ve been asked this question dozens of times already today. But now I don’t have the strength to lie. I chew my cheek, feeling another rumble in my stomach. “No. I miss you, Fiddle. And I’m sorry I wasn’t enough for you,” I whisper.
Against the odds, she hears me and frowns. “Dusty, you were there for me. That was all I ever wanted. You were there to listen, to understand, to talk to me… that was more than enough.”
I wince, feeling a warm blush forming on my face. “I… thanks, Fiddle. You’ve just done so much for me… I wish I could do the same for you.”
“You already have, Dusty,” Fiddle answers. “Hey, why don’t you swing by tonight? Finally pick up that box of stuff that’s been sitting around.”
I manage a smile. “Yeah. Sounds good. I’ll be there.”
We tip our hats at each other, and she turns away. I watch as she trots away before a thud from my right distracts me.
“Is that the mare you were talking about?” young Lightning asks, pulling up her flight goggles. I nod. “Yeah, that’s her. Fiddlesticks. She’s my… well, she was my world.”
Young Lightning chuckles. “Was? Look, I’m definitely not as sappy as you are, but I can tell you still love her. Did she break it off or did you?”
“I did,” I reply with a raised eyebrow. “I just… I didn’t feel like I was good enough for her.”
“Really?” Young Lightning narrows her eyes. “From what I saw, I think she still loves you. And if you still love her, what are you waiting for?”
I turn around to face her. “What the hay are you on about?”
Young Lightning jerks her head towards the platform. “You want her back, don’t you? So why don’t you just go get her? You’ve been telling me to face my fears, so how about you go and face yours?”
I try to respond, but my brain sputters out.
Young Lightning pokes my chest with a competitive grin. “What’s wrong? You scared?”
“Me? Scared?” I puff out my chest and laugh. “I’m Lightning Dust. I’m not scared of anything!”
We exchange a chuckle before Whitey stumbles to the ground next to us.
“Dear Celestia,” she pants, pointing an accusing hoof at young Lightning. “She… is fast.”
I smirk as Whitey picks herself off the platform. “Told you, I was wild in my prime.”
“Lightnin’,” calls Braeburn from behind us. He quickly trots down the platform, with a waving form of violet and a contingent of guards behind him.
Our eyes all widen, and we instinctively kneel. “Princess Twilight! I thought you’d be coming by train,” I stammer.
She laughs. “Oh, I find it much quicker and easier to teleport. Lightning Dust, I’m glad to see you’re doing well.”
“I… thank you, Princess,” I answer.
Young Lightning raises an eyebrow in confusion. “You’re not Princess Celestia.”
Princess Twilight laughs again. “No, I’m not, although I do have large horseshoes to fill.” She turns to me with those wide, kind eyes and smiles. “Lightning, I must say I was shocked to learn about your wing.”
I flinch a little bit. It’s not everyday you have the Princess in front of you asking about an old injury. “Oh… thank you, Your Highness.”
“Please, call me Twilight,” she answers. “But you do know there are prosthetic options in Canterlot? The development has really picked up over the years, and the technology is now safer than ever.”
My ears pin back, and I glance around the platform. “I… I have looked into it, Twilight, but I could never afford them.”
“I would be happy to help cover the cost,” the Princess insists. “I think that every pony deserves a second chance.”
I scuff my hoof against the wooden platform. “Wow. I’m… I’m honored. Really, this is like a wish come true for me. It’s just…” I pause again and look behind me. I can make out Fiddle and Whitey, watching me curiously. “I don’t know if I deserve it.”
The Princess blinks in confusion. “Oh? What makes you think that?”
I squeeze my eyes shut and take a deep breath. “I… I think I’ve had plenty of second chances already. And I don’t think I need another one. Your Highness—Twilight, I think I’m happy with what I’ve got right now.”
A strange look crosses her face. “Are you certain? Is there truly nothing that you want right now?”
I nod confidently. “Yes, Twilight. I’m sure.”
She tilts her head but smiles. There’s an odd twinkle in her eye as she speaks again. “Then it seems you have learned a lot, Lightning. That makes me proud. Very well. It is your choice, but know that my offer still stands. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything.”
I nod, and she turns to young Lightning.
“Now then, I must apologize for your unexpected interdimensional travel. My personal student still has a long way to go, but Luster is very sorry for dragging you here.”
Young Lightning waves her hoof dismissively. “Wasn’t a problem… I think I might have learned something from all of this.”
She trots over to me and extends a hoof. I laugh and return the gesture.
Princess Twilight giggles. “That truly is great to hear. Now, I think it’s time we try and get you home.”
Young Lightning looks around and nods. “Sounds good to me, Princess.”
The Princess’s horn lights up, and a hazy purple circle appears, slowly growing larger and larger to form a portal. “I’ll make sure everything goes correctly,” she says. “But don’t worry, you’ll be completely safe.”
“I wasn’t scared for a second,” young Lightning replies, pulling down her flight goggles. She steps up to the mouth of the portal before looking back and grinning at me. “Hey, other me. I think it might do you good to lose some weight. Can’t have future me looking like a hog now, can we?”
I scoff and roll my eyes. She laughs and sticks out her tongue. Then, she scans the crowd and fires off a salute, before hopping through the portal, followed by the Princess.
As soon as they're gone, I exhale in relief. I hear the sound of hooves behind me.
“Sounds like you did good, chief,” Whitey declares.
“I can only hope so,” I reply. “But I’d like to think I made a difference.”
Fiddle nods. “Hey, how about we head back to my place? I think Brae can take care of things from here.”
I shrug, glancing up at the sky. Looks like a few clouds are rolling in. The sun’s starting its descent over the horizon, drenching the world in a warm red and orange.
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
A chorus of crickets start their song from outside the farmhouse. Their sound rises and falls in the wind, echoing through the endless sea of sand and dust before coming through the orchard.
Other than that, it’s quiet.
I ease back into the armchair, gently pressing my hoof against the glass of a photograph. This was taken a long time ago, at one of the Appleloosa County Fairs. Fiddle and I are laughing, with me hoisting a giant plush teddy bear above my head. A prize for winning some silly carnival game.
Wonder where that bear is now.
I tap the side of the photograph in thought as Fiddle reenters the room. She sets a tray of tea on the table and sits on the sofa next to me. “What’s on your mind, Dusty?”
“Something young Lightning told me before she left,” I reply. “She pointed out that if I was telling her to face her fears, I should be facing my own.”
Fiddle sips from her cup and nods.
“I think… I think I’ve realized something from that.” I set down the photograph and look around the living room. A few months ago this used to be my living room, as much as it was Fiddle’s.
It still feels like home.
“I’ve been running away from these fears for a long time, Fiddle. When I couldn’t deal with them anymore, I just… left. A part of it was because I was scared. But… I don’t know. I think more of it was just wondering. Wondering if everything was going to magically get better or not after I’ve dealt with what I’m scared of.”
I pick up the photo again and turn it over in my hooves.
“I… I don’t think they will just get better. But it’ll be a start.”
Fiddle sets her cup down and regards me carefully. “Lightnin’... what are you scared of?”
I lower my head into my forehooves. “Myself, mostly? I… I’m scared that I’m going to get confident again. That I’m going to regress to who I was before. And when I do… what if I hurt someone else? What if I hurt you?”
“Listen to me, Dusty. You ain’t gotta worry about that.” Fiddle slides off her chair, trotting over to me. “You were able to talk some sense into yourself, weren’t you? To me, that just means deep down, you’re a great pony.”
I sigh, giving her a wary smile. “Heh. If only you could hear the dreams I’ve had… then maybe you’d see.”
“See what?” Fiddle asks.
“See me for what I really am. I’ve always thought you saw a lot in me. And I could never figure out where it came from. I mean, just look at me, Fiddle. I’m a mess. I’m handicapped, miserable, stuck-up, my stomach is trying to kill me…”
Fiddle puts a hoof on my shoulder and shushes me. “Dusty, you said it yourself. You’ve been runnin’ from your fears for a long time. But I want to help you. Whitey wants to help you, so does Strongheart. We all do. So please, Dusty, stop runnin’. Come home.”
I look around the living room again. A peaceful wind comes through the window, carrying the echoes of crickets and sounds from the town. I can see the silhouettes of the apple trees from beyond the window, becoming mere shadows in the night.
“Fiddle, do you think that all our best days are behind us?” I ask, tapping the picture again. “Just gone? Trapped in these photographs?”
“I think we’ve still got a long way to go,” Fiddle whispers.
I bite my lip and sigh. “I… I hope we do.” Slowly, I look up into those pale blue eyes that have held my heart captive for so, so many years. “Fiddle… I’ve missed you.” I waver.
“I’ve missed you too,” she answers.
And that’s really all I need to hear.
“Can we…” My vision starts to blur and my voice cracks, but I don’t care. “Can we start again?”
“I’d love to.”
I get off the couch and hug her. We squeeze each other, as if we’d fade away if we let go. I bury myself in her mane and let the tears flow. She sobs into my shoulder, and we stand there, crying and shaking in the living room.
I’ve spent a large part of my life reaching for stars that I’d never catch. But those stars never did reach back out to me.
My life’s been a mess. I’ve been a world destroyer, and I’ve been my downfall. I’m missing a wing, and I’m weak. My stomach is still tied in knots, and my heart aches for a life I could have had.
But tonight, my head feels clearer. The knots in my stomach finally unclench. I feel like I can breathe again.
I’ve traveled a long way, just to end up back home. And honestly, I couldn’t be any happier.
What do you want from life?
I have her back. So right now?
All I want is nothing. And that’s a hill I’ll die on.