Cloudsdale was not a city of many secrets. There are things to be said for cities on hills which apply even more to cities in the sky, and chances were that if you were a pony living somewhere in Equestria, you could look up on a clear day and spot the pegasus settlement swaying in the atmosphere.
But looking at Cloudsdale was not the same bag of oats as being in Cloudsdale, and for those who ate and played and slept and lived within its borders, theirs was a sight not even the Princesses, dwelling within their twilit spires of ivory and stained glass galleries, could lay claim to.
Cloudsdale enjoyed two sunrises a day. This was not a secret, but a fact, and facts are rather boring. This was only the natural consequence of overlooking two horizons: the one far in the distance that welded earth and sky together in a blue line wider than vision, and the one running along the edges of the city's hoofprint.
The city's secret, rather, lay with that second sunrise like the dew beading on its roads, fora, and parks. In the early morning, this dew rose into the air in thin curtains a wandering pony could part in place. A brief interlude followed these ascensions when everything stood still—no breeze dared stir such perfect air, nor any sound move the immense silence.
Then rose the sun.
Walls of golden light surged forth from its top edge over the streets and houses, reducing the dewy curtains to prismatic haze with kinetic efficiency. In the moments before the haze faded away, they threw that light in all directions such that the walls and terraces danced with swirling magentas, baby blues, and greens. It was during those moments, when light caromed off the clouds and illuminated the gaps in between, that Cloudsdale itself seemed to take its first waking breaths.
Rainbow Dash stood transfixed beneath the arching gates of Cloudsdale Circuit's main entrance, unable to tear her eyes from the auras rising above Titan's Curve. A brisk northern wind swept across her body and tugged at her mane. She barely noticed.
"Why didn't you tell me mornings had stuff like this?" she asked, rounding on the pony standing next to her. "Why did you never wake me up earlier?"
Fluttershy wilted under Rainbow's gaze. "I-I'm sorry! I thought you enjoyed sleeping, so I didn't want to wake you up too early..."
"It's cool," said Rainbow. "Ha, I just never thought about being a morning pony before. Come on. Today's the day we bring down sweet justice on a pair of deserving jerks." She held out her hoof for a bump.
Fluttershy obliged her. "I know you can beat them," she said.
Rainbow Dash flared her wings as she walked her way toward Cloudsdale Circuit's starting line—they felt as light as paper and as sharp as the edge of a sword. They hungered to carve up the sky, and it was all she could do to keep herself contained as she stepped onto the track. Buster and Buck were already out there waiting for her arrival.
"'Sup, guys?" she said.
"Ooooh, check out Rainbow Crash!" cooed Buster. "She thinks she's so big and tough, doesn't she?"
"We're gonna pound you down to size," Buck added, swinging a slow hoof at Rainbow's head.
She ducked it without even noticing it. She was in the zone, and nothing would shake her out of it. Not this time.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm here." The filly turned with a grin and snapped her tail against Buck's muzzle. Ooh, that got him mad. "Let's go ahead and get this done," she continued, taking her place behind the line, "while there aren't as many ponies to watch you two crash and burn."
She looked to either side of her. The grandstands running along the sides of the starting line gleamed in the morning light and were large enough to accommodate a hundred times the current enrollment of flight camp. A few clusters of campers had already taken seats along the front rows and whispered excitedly amongst themselves.
"Hey, Klutzershy!" Buster had noticed the gangly filly lurking off to the side. He tossed a checkered flag at her head—only to provoke gasps from the audience when she caught it between her teeth.
"Her name's Fluttershy." Rainbow's grin at that moment threatened to tear her face apart. "And she's a hundred times the cool you two dweebs will ever be combined."
Buster spat to the side. "Hmph." He ponied up to the starting line with the others. "One lap. First pony across the finish line wins."
Fluttershy flapped over to the starter's cloud only a few yards in front of the starting line. She gave her friend a worried look from beneath her mane.
Rainbow, in turn, pulled the corner of her lip up and nodded once. Her heart pounded against the base of her throat like a jackhammer.
"You're going down!" Buck taunted, jabbing his hoof at her.
"In history, maybe! See you boys at the finish line!" The words had come to her as naturally as blinking. She was a machine today.
Shaking their heads, Buster and Buck turned their attentions to the course before them. Rainbow did the same, tracing the starting stretch leading into Circle Slalom with her eyes as adrenaline gnawed at her insides. The cloud beneath her hooves was firm and suitable for an explosive start, and the breeze tumbled over her back.
Fluttershy raised her head, her eyes screwed shut, and the world stopped to balance on the edge of a checkered flag.
Rainbow licked her lips. This was it. This was her chance to show the world what she was made of.
The flag fell.
The opening straight vaporized behind her in a heartbeat, and a snarl etched itself onto her face as she tore between the pillars leading into Circle Slalom. The first gate rose up several wingspans off to her left, but no sooner did she tilt toward it was it directly before her, and then behind her. She swung right like a greased shuttle on a loom, passed through, swung back left, passed through, again and again.
She had no time to think. She had no time to doubt. Her wings had gained minds of their own, and they tossed her back and forth with careless perfection every time.
Entering the hairpin leading into Lark's Head Loop, she took a glance over her shoulder and saw Buster and Buck lagging behind by several lengths. The short one was already beginning to sweat, and his teeth ground together so hard that she could even hear them from where she was. She looked ahead once more, just in time to bank her wings and brush a safety pillar with her belly as she screamed through the turn.
Buster was not so lucky. Unable to rein in his speed, his head punched through the pillar with an air-splitting clang. When Rainbow exited the first loop of the section, she saw him with his eyes rolling in his head and his tongue hanging out like a banner.
She pumped her wings hard going into the second loop and rolled onto her side, catching a glimpse of the forest below becoming a floorless wall to her left. She had an instant to consider what she was doing. It passed, and she pulled her head back.
The hard hoof of inertia slammed into her like a train, and dark fringes immediately crawled into the edges of her vision. No—she had to hold onto her speed, no matter what happened, and she kept pumping her wings all the way through the turn even as her blood drained from them. And just before she slipped away, a spark in the back of her mind told her to level out, and she rolled back upright just as the next line of rings snapped into place in front of her.
Her maneuver paid off: rings, flags, and an occasional spectator whizzed past in seconds on her way to the top of the southeastern hairpin, and she crested the top of the turn with plenty of momentum to spare for the descent. On the other side of the turn, her only remaining rival struggled to gain altitude, having run out of speed halfway up the incline.
"Hey, Buckyballs!" she called. "How do ya like my wake?"
The bully shouted back something rude.
Rainbow Dash didn't hear it. She was too busy being awesome as she rolled right and glided through the first ring of Titan's Curve. The second ring came and went as easily as the first, as did the third. By that point, she had to flap a little harder to maintain her speed, but that was an improvement over the beginning of the summer by far. Fluttershy's preening accounted for some of that, definitely—but the rest of it had evolved over their long hours of flying together, building the younger filly's stamina a little higher with every day.
She could enjoy all of this, now: the speed of the wind, the adrenaline shooting through her heart and wings, the wind whistling in her mane—the sky was her domain, more so than any other pegasus. A smile dawned across her features as she made this realization, and by the time she had left Titan's Curve behind to wallow in sad mediocrity, her cheeks had begun to ache.
Swayback's generous turns fell away behind her as she wove her way through them, one, two, three, and four. Long Gone Drop yawned seductively behind the final ring. She leaned to her left in preparation, and—
Pow! A hard tackle sent her skidding off course. She barely hauled herself up short of a section of grandstands, the red and gold insignia of Cloudsdale Circuit mere inches from her muzzle.
"Haha! Later, Rainbow Crash!"
"Hey!" The fouled filly glared at the larger bully as he saluted her from the top of the course's ultimate speed straight. Now she was the one chasing after him, and he already had a sizable lead going into the Circuit's final stretches.
You can't let that jerk win, she told herself, angling her body toward the ground. All you've got left is End-Around, and—waitaminute. What is he—?
The familiar warnings and arrows pointing ponies into the Circuit's safety flyout closed on the speeding colt with shocking velocity, and soon he would be going too fast to heed their directions. Rainbow Dash relaxed her dive a little, only to realize her mistake a heartbeat later.
He wasn't going to play it safe.
He smacked one of the warning arrows with a hoof as he shot past.
He was running Deadmare's Dive.
You're not gonna get away from me! Rainbow Dash stretched her front hooves out as far as they would go, dropping into the Circuit's condemned section only a couple of seconds behind her enemy.
She saw him copying her pose off to the side, but her attention suddenly turned elsewhere. As she streaked through ring after ring with increasing force, the ground below her loomed large like a tidal wave of fields, forests, roads, and rivers.
She willed herself on, suppressing the fears crawling along the sides of her brain. This was her sky. Her wings had carried her this far.
They would carry her wherever she needed to go!
Her wings lashed the air with redoubled tenacity, and the ground up ahead shuddered in response.
She was gaining.
The last of the guiding rings had fallen away. First bit by bit, then length by length—Rainbow Dash was closing the gap faster with every passing moment.
More! She implored her wings to flap even harder, and they answered. Her heart pounded against her ribcage like a tap dancer on a stage.
Individual trees rose from the forests below, gaining detail and dimension as the racers drew closer.
He's still too far off! Faster! Her lungs began to burn as her windpipe throttled her breath. Faster!
A shining wall of air shimmered into existence before her hooves. Before she could blink and wonder at it, it begin to push back at her.
Rainbow Dash could not believe this was happening to her—of all the times for this to happen, it had to pick that moment? She had not come this far only to be turned back, and as much as she wanted to scream in frustration, the wind would only jam her voice back down her throat.
So be it. That rage stayed inside her, swirling like a terrible hurricane, and it charged her breath with new-found energy.
She pushed back at the shining wall in front of her, and pushed, and pushed—and it yielded enough to allow her a glimpse of her rival as she ripped past his head.
"Whoaaaaaaa!" Buck's voice modulated as Rainbow's backwash swept him up, up, and out of sight. It was the sweetest music she'd ever heard, and a tune she would keep with her forever.
The ground advanced upon her at a steady pace—she could pick out lanterns and flower patches planted near the roads below. However, she also saw the last ring of Deadmare's Dive at the very bottom of the track: under-maintenance and overexposure had stained its exterior a dirty blue. To any pony, it looked like it was ready to move on to whatever afterlife clouds believed in.
Rainbow Dash understood her duty then: to be the ferrymare who shuttled that decrepit circle of cirrus to its new life.
How quickly could she go before she hit the ring? Sure, she had put the other two out of commission, but how else would anypony truly know she won if she didn't leave a memento of hers to be remembered by?
She urged her wings onward. Her chest felt hollow and her eyes stung in the wind as it howled against them. The air began pushing back at her with a vengeance, as if somepony had placed a trampoline against her hooves.
The ground was definitely close now, and growing larger in a hurry. Before she could worry about making a pony-sized crater in the grass, though, she saw it just beyond the air she pushed against: a circular distortion of colors like what she'd seen only minutes earlier at sunrise, all of them as vibrant as her mane. She knew she had to reach out and touch it, and if she wanted to do that, she had to work even more.
Tears were ripped from her eyes as soon as they formed. The veil of color was just an inch away from her hooves! Even as the blue ring closed in impossibly quickly, even as it looked like she had no chance to pull out of her dive—she knew it would not end like that. All she had to do was reach out just a little bit further.
The wall of air buckled beneath her hooves, and the veil transformed into a luminescent cone that swirled and buzzed all around her. Her body stretched to impossible lengths and shuddered, and her wings were beating so fast they were beginning to hum.
C'mon, c'mon, c'mon! Her entire body wanted to shake apart. And maybe that would happen. But it wouldn't happen at that moment. She knew she was on the cusp of touching greatness, and the laws of physics would step back to grant her that greatness.
Her hooves touched the veil.
The world exploded in silence, accompanied only by a light of immeasurable white that subsumed everything it fell upon. Rainbow Dash's vision filled with swirling colors that spun around each other like water reflections on the ceiling of a cave. Her mind had turned peaceful, and her body felt free of gravity's nattering call.
I did it, echoed the words in her head. She floated around for a few more seconds until she heard them again. I did it.
A whistling, faint at first, began to creep into her ears, and she gradually became aware that her hooves were still locked in place out in front of her. She blinked, and each time she did so made the sky above a little bluer.
She was still flying. Somehow. She looked back over her shoulder.
A massive ring of color sprawled over the land beneath her and continued to spread outward like a wave thrown into a pond. Trees bent and rocks split in its wake. A rainbow-colored contrail originated from its center, and the filly traced it up from there all the way to—herself.
Whatever that thing was down there, she had been responsible for it. The words sprang unbidden to her mind, and she knew right away what to call her signature move.
Her momentum had shot her well up to Cloudsdale's height, and she crossed the finish line at Cloudsdale Circuit only as a side thought. She left behind the cheers and celebrations of the other campers as she careered ever higher, higher than the camp, higher than Skyhead Falls—higher even than the cirrus sheets forming the very ceiling of the sky.
She stopped only when the air turned dark and her ears brushed against the cold edge of space. Far into the distance, the sun rested upon the bright blue arc of the planet like a signal fire, large and powerful. Mountain ranges like frosted chocolate drops danced with little cottonball clouds beneath her hooves. The only sound she heard was her breath in her ears. It was just her and the border of the great ghastly cosmos, breathing, soaring. Living.
A smart tingle stitched itself along her flanks. Rainbow Dash turned to look and gasped. There, tattooed into her coat until the day she left for the Summer Lands, was her cutie mark: a lightning bolt, trisected into the three primary colors, bursting forth from a cloud.
She lingered for one last moment as her contrail faded into nothingness—the infinite, the world, and herself in between, and she wished for a moment that she could stay there. But gravity extended its hoof out to her, and she had no choice but to accept its gesture. She took her time gliding down, feeling no heavier than a shadow, and the grandstands of Cloudsdale Circuit soon fixed themselves in her vision.
By the time she touched down by the starting line, the scattered campers had become a throng, as if the entire camp had assembled to witness her victory. A rainbow-colored mob moved in toward her from all angles, every one of them competing to make themselves heard over their neighbors.
"Congratulations, Rainbow Dash!"
"Way to go!"
"That was totally awesome!"
But Rainbow Dash knew who she was looking for the most. She quietly pushed the other ponies out of the way as she made her way toward the main entrance. She beat her bullies, pulled off some crazy rainbow thing, and had earned her cutie mark in the space of a morning. And she wanted to share her best day ever with the one pony responsible for keeping her there.
The filly froze in place. That wasn't Fluttershy's voice.
Wind Storm's voice called out from over by the main gates with her camp bag at his side. The stallion skewered her with a gaze that could have turned a circus into a cremation, which was exactly what the little filly felt was happening to her insides the moment she heard her name.
Gotta fly, she thought, just before a hoof hooked itself over her back. When Rainbow looked up, the stern eyes of Amber Swift looked back into hers. He escorted her over to Wind Storm without a word.
Rainbow searched the ponies behind her as the head counselor took her back out of the circuit. But alas—the pony with the yellow coat and pink mane she'd gotten to know so well, the pony who'd never spared any kindness to her, the pony who had always been there for her in times of need—was nowhere to be found.
"I know, darling—these spa treatments are always over too soon!" The white-coated unicorn threw a curl of her immaculate purple mane onto the other side of her neck as she walked down the hall.. "Lotus and Aloe are the best of the best, though, so I always make sure to enlist their services whenever I come by. I do hope you enjoyed yourself?
"I did, um, Miss Rarity."
"Oh, please, dear, how many times must I say this? There's no need to be so formal around me." Rarity stopped before the door leading into the main reception room, as if to linger in the comfortable, jasmine-laced air for a moment longer before stepping outside into the dirt and dust of the world once more. "I understand the stress of moving into another town that isn't your own. Perhaps you'd like to make this a weekly thing for now, to get you comfortable while you're here? I mean—if you say you're going to be working with animals—" She let the implication hang in the air.
"They're not all bad," said Fluttershy, pushing the door open for her spa partner. "A lot of them are quite skilled at cleaning themselves. Besides, I made the mistake of bathing a cat once—never again."
"You're too nice a soul to be dealing with such creatures on a regular basis," sniffed Rarity.
Fluttershy blushed and hung her head as she passed through the door.
"Aaaaand I want that one. No, wait—gimme that one instead. Orrrr was it that one? Hang on, that one's part of a set? Just grab me something that comes in one bottle. Aw, haystacks, I don't even know what I'm doing here."
The pegasus's head bounced back up as she stopped in her tracks. She knew that voice from somewhere.
"Rainbow Dash?" Rarity gasped.
The noise of glass bottles shattering on tile filled the air. "R-R-Rarity? Boy, of all the ponies I had to run into today, I just—"
Fluttershy's eyes grew wide at the same time the other pony's voice died away. They gaped at each other for a moment that could have spanned the life of a glacier. And then Fluttershy broke out into the largest smile she'd smiled ever since she moved to Ponyville.
"Rainbow Dash!" She launched herself across the room just as the other pegasus threw her hooves out wide, and the two of them embraced as if the years after their last meeting had never happened at all.
"I-I-I can't believe this!" Rainbow's voice sang in her ear. "Fluttershy! I looked for you everywhere after I got kicked outta camp! You live here now?"
Fluttershy's throat tightened in ecstasy. "I moved here last month, yes."
"Ahhhh! Get outta here!" Rainbow hugged her all the tighter, and the two of them moved toward the front door. "You've gotta tell me what you've been up to all this time!"
Behind the animated chatter of their reunion, Rarity reached up and scratched her head. "Goodness, Rainbow Dash," she sniffed, surveying the broken bottles by her hooves. "I, well... hm. If you wanted to get the right conditioner for your mane, all you had to do was consult me on the matter and I could've saved you all this trouble."