For all the horseflies in my life.
“Okay, and this pipe goes into this socket…gawd, this contraption just had to come with Chinese instructions, didn’t it?”
To say that Applejack was having a rough time with her “hobby” would be a Clydesdale of an understatement. She had been up on Cape Howl for close to three days now hammering, wrenching, and trying to translate the directions that came with her AeroGlide 2600 hang glider. Now it was down to just double-checking everything so she wouldn’t fall right out of the harness and end up flatter than an apple cookie.
She had saved her pennies for weeks, taking on odd jobs from all over Ponyville, to afford her new hang glider. Even though it had been tough doing her chores at the farm and working a full shift at the bakery, it wasn’t nearly as difficult as facing that smug pegasus pony at Celestia Castle-Town. He had been so smug when he showed her around, saying “these are the most popular with earth ponies this year.” It had taken all of Applejack’s patience not to kick the punk so hard he’d go cross-eyed.
Still, she had to admit that it was a pretty nice glider. A nice 10 meter wingspan, comfortable wool-padded harness, and he had even thrown in a helmet and flight suit. The thing was dang hard to get into, but up on the cape it sure did keep a pony warm.
Cape Howl was about as far from Ponyville as somepony could get, jutting out into the Amethyst Sea from clear on the other side of the Everfree Forest. It was out of the way enough that Applejack was sure none of her friends would stumble upon her – especially the one pony she didn’t want knowing about this in particular. After that whole Iron Pony fiasco, Applejack didn’t want to endure the teasing she’d get for this. All that talk of flying had hit too close to home, though, and Applejack couldn’t get it out of her head. At some point or another, every earth pony wanted to be a pegasus or a unicorn, but they’d usually grow out of it once they hit their teens and discovered that everypony was special in their own way. Applejack thought she had as well, but there was obviously some lingering sourness that needed to be straightened out.
Thus, the hang glider.
Applejack twirled her mane around until it was wrapped up neatly on her head so that the helmet would fit correctly. The goggles were a bit trickier, but some clever hoofwork got them on. Finally, though, she was ready! The glider was checked and double-checked, she had the running takeoff maneuver mastered, and there was a great south-easterly wind that would keep her from going out over the ocean. Applejack maneuvered herself into the harness and trotted back a few dozen yards from the edge of the cliff.
Boy, those waves sounded like they were crashing pretty hard down there. Applejack gulped and forced herself to take another step back for a better running start. Her brain was telling her that if she just followed the directions from the hang gliding book she couldn’t crash, but her heart…
There was the clatter of hooves on rock and before Applejack knew it she was over the edge. Her body had just moved while she was overthinking things, like always, and the earth pony was glad it had thought for her. The initial falling rush had her feet flailing around as they hung limply from the harness, but Applejack had reached out and bit the bridal that was dangling down from the metal structure of the glider and shifted her weight back, bringing the nose up. She sored upwards, catching a roaring sea breeze, and stabilized a few hundred feet from her takeoff point.
It was glorious! Her body was still wracked with nervous shakes, but nothing could dampen how wonderful a feeling being in the air was. The glider was cutting through the sky as easily as any bird or pegasus! Carefully, Applejack let the stabilize bit fall from her mouth and she craned her head all around to see things from her new perspective. The long stretch of beach below her went on for miles and the Everfree Forest was a solid patch of green that blanketed the ground like a fluffy carpet.
This had to be what pegasus’ got to experience every day. Applejack had always looked down on earth ponies who couldn’t give up their childish jealousies, but now she understood it. How could anyone be happy running around on the ground when they could do this?
She stayed far from Ponyville, but Applejack followed the main road from the little village until it hit Ponington a few miles away. Pegasus ponies usually stayed low to the ground so they could sweep away clouds easier, so Applejack wasn’t noticed as she stayed up high with the sun to her back. Every once in a while she could make out one or two ponies that were adventurous enough to try and see what it was in the sky, but a quick climb deterred them. This high up the air was pretty cold and regular ponies just wouldn’t—
“Ha, is that a new AeroGlide 2600? Pretty nice!”
Oh no. No no no no no! It couldn’t be! Applejack had taken so many precautions to make absolutely sure that she wouldn’t be found-out! She was miles from Ponyville!
Nevertheless, gliding along just under her glider’s right wing, was none other than Rainbow Dash. The brightly-colored pony was looking at the metal and fiberglass contraption, examining the harness and straps. It took a moment, but Applejack realized that her friend hadn’t recognized her yet – the flight suit covered her cutie mark and her hair and freckles were under the helmet. The only thing giving her away was her khaki coat and blond tail that was in a long, tight braid; there were plenty of ponies around with blond hair and khaki fur.
The pegasus had rolled over to the other wing and was getting closer. “Hey,” she yelled, louder than the first time, “can you hear me? I said it’s a nice glider!”
“S-Sorry! I was just surprised!” Damn her accent! Applejack tried to copy how the city ponies spoke and lowered it like the ponies in Muleford. No way she could remember all the slang they used, but she could get the sound right. “You really think it’s nice?”
“Sure! It’s the newest model – a real piece of work. I’ve heard it turns on a dime.”
Rainbow Dash really did sound impressed which was odd coming from the proud pony. Usually Dash was too busy to actually stop and look things over long enough to be impressed by something, but this pegasus hanging in the air beside Applejack didn’t act at all like the Rainbow Dash she knew. There was an easy, even lazy, smile on the pony’s face and she only kept pace with a few beats of her wings rather than the hectic flapping she normally did on the ground.
Applejack’s co-flier dipped over and lightly nudged her, startling the pony so much that the glider wobbled. “Hey, I know I’m cute and everything, but you don’t have to stare.”
Cute?! Where the hay had that come from? “I wasn’t staring at you! I was…watching those clouds over your shoulder. I don’t want to fly into them!” Applejack didn’t like the way her face was starting to heat up and she turned away to look off into the sky on the other side of the glider. “Don’t say weird stuff like that.”
“Aww, you’re blushing! You’re about the shyest stallion I’ve ever seen!” The pegasus beat her wings and streaked towards the ground. “Come on, let’s see what that bucket of bolts can do!”
Relief and anger were battling it out in Applejack’s head as she dipped down to follow Dash’s dive. She was mad at being mistaken for a stallion – why did someone always do that at least once a month? – but also grateful because now Dash would never figure out who she was actually flying with. Another part was insulted that her glider was called a “bucket of bolts” when it was honestly the best on the market.
Rainbow Dash plunged through a puffy white cloud and looped upwards, somersaulting into it another two times before running out of space. “Beat that!” she yelled as Applejack roared past.
Now, tricks on a hang glider weren’t covered in the beginner’s book Applejack had memorized, but she wouldn’t be outdone! She grabbed the bit again and pulled it straight down so that she was in a total plunge. If she could pull off the move she had done at takeoff it would be pretty cool! A few hundred feet from the forest canopy she pulled up hard and struggled to keep her body ridged as the glider shook and cut upwards, pulling off a wide summersault. To her surprise, the glider evened back out effortlessly and, struck with that familiar competitive spirit, Applejack pushed the tip back down again. This time she banked to the left, rolling over at the top of the loop so that she pulled in behind Rainbow Dash.
Applejack just couldn’t resist. “Move it or lose it, slowpoke!” When the very shocked pegasus pitched to the side, Applejack rolled with her and the two found themselves circling each other in wide arcs. Tighter and tighter they went until finally Dash slowed and pitched over so that she was again a little below Applejack’s left wing once the glider-bound pony had evened out.
“That was so cool!” Dash shouted. Now she was acting more like the pony Applejack knew. Her face was awash with her adrenalin rush and her chest was heaving, though she looked ready for more. “You just pulled off the best rolling scissors I’ve ever been in!”
Even though Applejack didn’t quite know what a rolling scissors was, she figured it was a compliment. “You weren’t so bad yourself! I didn’t even know I could do that in a glider!”
“You mean you’ve never tried that trick before? That was flawless!”
“I mean this is the first time I’ve actually been up.”
Rainbow Dash actually stopped flying for a second and fell a few dozen feet before frantically catching up again. “You’re bullshitting me!” she yelled, arms waving about. “No way did you just pop your cherry today!”
Did Dash really have to be so colorful?! “You don’t have to believe it, but it’s the truth! I ain’t no liar!” The heat in her words was defeated by her, though.
The pegasus seemed to notice she’d pushed things a bit too far. “Sorry, it’s just that you’re a total natural! You were born for this! I haven’t had this much fun in a long time. You’re a good guy, uh…” Rainbow Dash’s face scrunched up a bit. “I don’t know your name, do I? I’m Rainbow Dash, but you probably already know that. I’m the best flier in Ponyville, you know.”
Darn it, did Dash really have to think of that? Applejack scrambled to think of something that sounded appropriate and looked around. “I’m…I’m…Cloudkicker.” That sounded so stupid!
As lame as Applejack thought it sounded, Dash still bought it. “Well Cee-Kay, you want to do something else? I’m off-duty today.”
Doing more tricks certainly didn’t sound like a bad idea! “Yeah, sure.” Maybe, just maybe, running into Rainbow Dash like this wasn’t a bad thing.
“Great! I know just the place where we can grab some lunch!”
Then again, nothing was ever simple with Rainbow Dash...
When Rainbow Dash had suggested getting lunch, Applejack had expected them to land in Ponington or maybe Ponyville. Certainly, she hadn’t expected anything quite like this! They were literally going to a giant restaurant/club that was carved out of a cloud that was sitting above an active volcano. It was called the “Trojan Horse” and Dash said she came here all the time.
“You could call it the biggest pegasus hot spot in the area!”
After a few childish snorts, Dash managed to explain that it was a lot like Canterlot Castle: only pegasus ponies could come and go as they pleased and anyone else needed someone to bring them and thus be invited. Applejack asked and her friend had reluctantly said not many earth ponies were there. Typically, only unicorns mingled with pegasus’ enough that they’d be really good friends, but there was a first time for everything! Applejack had to wonder why Dash had never mentioned this place to her friends back at Ponyville, but she didn’t have time to think about it as navigating the hot updrafts from the volcano took all her attention.
Trojan Horse really was something special. There were hundreds of pegasus ponies of every shape, size, and color flying around the landing platforms. Verandas carved out of the thick, smoggy clouds dotted a massive two story cloud structure in the middle. Applejack had thought Dash’s own cloud house was amazing, but this place put it to absolute shame. It was like a floating, smoldering city!
Rainbow Dash had to help get the glider to touchdown on one of the platforms as there really wasn’t anywhere large enough land safely. The rainbow-colored pony had put her hind legs on the front of the glider and put on the airbrakes as Applejack pulled the nose up. It swooped up like a paper airplane and then fell back softly on the cloud on its back, leaving the poor earth pony’s feet flailing around in the air until Dash could undo the straps. By that time they had drawn a pretty big crowd and quite a few laughs.
“Ignore ‘um,” Dash said, trotting ahead. “Come on, we’ll get a table at the top. You can go on up while I order. There are some stairs inside.”
Reluctantly, Applejack followed along. There were so many firsts today: hang gliding, going out to eat with a friend (even if they weren’t aware of it), and now walking on a cloud. It was spongy under her hooves and she wasn’t entirely convinced that it wouldn’t give way and send her to a fiery doom in the volcano below. Conscious of the looks she was still getting, the earth pony swallowed her fears and rushed after Dash as quickly as she could without looking stupid.
If the outside had been amazing, inside the Trojan Hours was just overkill. There were two layers of balconies surrounding a giant ash plume that had burst its way up from the floor all the way to the ceiling. It was slowly revolving and random flashes of lighting lit it up every so often, but it looked safe. There were ponies fluttering about all around it.
Applejack spotted Rainbow Dash a few feet away at a bar, talking to a spiffy-looking unicorn. They were laughing and it looked like Dash wasn’t going to be done anytime soon, so Applejack decided to go on and find the tables the pegasus had mentioned. She passed a few more unicorns on the stairs and all gave her looks. Even though she still had on her helmet and flight suit it was clear to see there were no wings on her back or horn on her forehead.
The upper floors were packed with ponies all chatting over tables and eating fine hay and vegetables. There was music coming from somewhere and Applejack guessed that the speakers were in the walls somewhere. It was thumping with a deep bass that rumbled through the floor as Applejack walked past the swarm of tables to the second set of stairs.
At the top the view was much better. There was a giant deck surrounding the mushrooming cloud of ash, but some unknown power kept it from dusting the tables – they were all spotless. Applejack took one near the railing where no one was around and leaned against the cloud post provided. She didn’t quite feel like sitting after spending a few hours in a harness.
Rainbow Dash joined her a few minutes later, trotting along with a big smile on her face.
“It’s official, Cee-Kay,” she announced. “You’re the first earth pony to visit Trojan Horse! I asked the bartender and he said he’s never seen on as long as he’s been working here.”
“Oh, that’s who that guy was. I thought that—” Applejack didn’t really know what she thought, but Dash had looked pretty friendly with that unicorn. “I mean, you looked pretty happy to see him.”
Dash kicked up a bit of the floor and flopped down onto it, making a nice lounge to stretch out on. “Me and Jack go waaaaaay back. He was the guy who told me about this place.”
Again, this was something Rainbow Dash had never mentioned back in Ponyville. “You’d think this would be a hard place to keep secret. I mean, there must be hundreds of ponies here. Isn’t there, you know, anyone that would notice you running off?” There had to be a reason that Dash hadn’t ever told anyone back at Ponyville about this place!
Applejack’s friend didn’t seem to catch the hint, though. Her smile sharpened a little bit and her eyes gleamed. The earth pony couldn’t look away, just like a squirrel stuck in a stampede barreling towards it. “Was that a subtle way of asking if I have a boyfriend? You’re a sly one! I’ve got to watch you, Cee-Kay.” The moment was broken and Dash reached across the table to playfully push Applejack’s shoulder.
This was getting awkward. Applejack almost wished that she had just owned up and told Rainbow Dash who she was rather than go through this! If the pegasus ever found out she was acting like this with her sometimes-friend-sometimes-rival then it would ruin them.
There was a soft touch from under the table that made Applejack’s back go ridged. “The answer’s ‘no’, by the way.”
Oh hayseed. “H-Ho boy, is it hot in here or is it just the volcano?” There was nowhere to run as Dash was already trotting around to the other side of the table.
“You know, that helmet must be pretty hot.” Rainbow Dash was already kicking up a couch large enough for both of them to sit on, though Applejack scooted over as far away as was polite. “Why don’t you just take it off? You’re not expecting to just fly away after lunch, are you?”
“N-n-no! I-I mean, I wouldn’t—!” She was starting to get hot under the horse collar, but it didn’t have anything to do with the restaurant’s location.
Applejack was saved from any more embarrassment by the waiter bringing up their drinks and meals. Rainbow Dash had taken the liberty of ordering Applejack’s food which was a nice conflagration of grass and apples. Dash thankfully scooted over to a respectable distance to eat her meal and that left the distressed earth pony time to think as she nursed her juice.
There had to be a way out of this that – one, didn’t hurt Rainbow Dash’s feelings and two, didn’t result in being discovered.
“So, how did this place get built?” Applejack asked, eager to buy herself more time.
“Well, the volcano isn’t all that active. It’s just hot enough to spew out a steady amount of gas to keep the building together, but not enough that our super-secret-pegasus-magical-arts can’t keep the poison and stuff away from the customers.” She looked at her companion’s face and burst out laughing after a beat. “Ha! You should see how you look! I’m just pulling your tail; the unicorns actually took out all the poisons and gas from the ground before we built the place. The ash just works as an extra-large cloud and all the heat is funneled through the middle so we don’t roast.”
That gave Applejack an idea – one that wasn’t too boring! “So, the heat is still there? It’s just away from the club? There must be updrafts all over the place, then.”
“…you wanna go ride them? I knew you were a pony after my own heart after seeing that first somersault!” Dash had jumped up from the table and was stretching out her wings. “I do that every time I come here! The drafts are to die for here!”
Dash grabbed Applejack by the straps of her helmet and yanked her up from the table and down the stairs in her enthusiasm. There were a few catcalls and whistles from the crowds and Applejack realized the sight they must make with Rainbow Dash leading her along, her lips so close…Applejack just closed her eyes and let herself be led, burning something fierce. Her lunch was flopping about in her stomach like a herd of cows stuck in a room full of snakes, but she endured. Oh, did she ever endure.
Finally, Dash let her go out by her glider. The pegasus was bouncing up and down, egging Applejack to go faster as the earth pony strapped herself into the harness. There wasn’t time for a double-check as Dash was making a mad rush for the edge of the platform and Applejack let her feet gallop toward the edge as well.
The sheer rush hit of falling into the crater of a smoldering volcano beat anything Applejack had felt in her life. More than winning her first rodeo, more than being one of the elements of harmony, more even than meeting Celestia for the first time. Feeling the air rush by her face, seeing the glowing fire below, was beyond words.
“This is so much fun!” Dash screamed, following Applejack’s lead into the depths of the volcano. Her wings were swept back and a look of pure joy was on her face – one that Applejack had never seen before.
With a shudder, the earth pony gripped her bit and pulled up. That thought shook Applejack badly and the glider wobbled dangerously in the air as Dash’s blur faded into one of the clouds of ash below. This was crazy, what was she doing?! She was hang gliding in a volcano with Rainbow Dash who thinks she’s a guy and she just thought her friend was beautiful.
The air. It had to be the air. She needed air. She needed lots of air!
“Hey! Where’d you go? You missed the best updraft ever!” Dash had somehow gotten back beside her and Applejack looked over at her on autopilot. “Whoa, you don’t look so good. You okay, Cee-Jay? You’re turning pretty green.”
No, don’t look at me like that! “I’m good – fine. I just need—hey, back off!” Dash had edged closer and tapped Applejack with her hoof, but it sent the greenhorn flier lurching away like her horseshoe was white hot.
“Wait, no! Your strap!”
It was too late, though. One of the key clasps on the main anchor hadn’t been snapped correctly and it popped out of its ring. Applejack let out a terrified holler as her entire harness gave way and she plunged downward.
Down, down, down into the hot clouds of ash and gas. Applejack watched her glider sail on without her until it also disappeared into the murky crater. Two pairs of legs wrapped around her, locking at the knees, but her fall wasn’t slowing much.
“Rainbow Dash, let me go! You can’t lift us both!” The legs held on tighter. “Lemme go! Let me go!”
It was a fleeting protest, though. The sudden drop was too much – Applejack passed out on the way down. Rainbow Dash’s strained face and the frantic beating of wings were the last things in her head as her eyelids slid shut as well as the horrible guilt for dragging the pegasus down with her.
It seemed like no time had passed before she was awake again. Applejack coughed and struggled to lift her head off what felt like a rock digging into her neck. Indeed, she was sitting on a pile of rocks, all of them sharp and poking her side. Someone was nearby. Applejack couldn’t see them because her eyes were still watering from the ash, but she could hear them heaving and panting a short way off.
“R-Rainbow Dash? Is that you?”
The panting stopped. A soft, “Yeah, it’s me,” answered back.
Applejack flopped back onto the ground. The pain from the rocks was the best thing in the world – it meant she was alive. “You could have died. You should have listened to me.”
It was a long moment before the silence was broken. “Yeah, well, if I did that I wouldn’t represent loyalty to my friends, would I? At least one of us should embody our element.”
Wait. Rocks digging into her head. Where was her helmet?! Applejack shot up on her haunches and fumbled around with her hooves, only to feel her long blond mane against her skin. ”
“Looking for this?!” Rainbow Dash must have thrown the helmet as Applejack felt something hit her flank. She heard the pegasus get to her feet and storm over. The earth pony forced her eyes open and saw that they were on the rim of the volcano. Trojan Horse was hanging in the background, but Applejack’s immediate field of vision was filled with the face of her very angry friend.
“You must think I’m a real idiot for acting like an ass, right? Just one big joke on Rainbow Dash! Were you ever going to say anything or were you just going to let me throw myself at you more? Maybe go back and tell everyone what a stupid idiot I was being?”
“No! I just—”
“Shut up! Just…just shut up!” Oh no, Dash was doing the one thing that the pegasus should never do. There were angry tears poking through her narrowed eyes and she looked ready to throw herself into the volcano. “I thought…I thought that finally there was someone who liked flying as much as I did! Of course it would turn out that it’s you! Of all ponies it had to be you! This entire thing was a setup, wasn’t it?! The hang glider, meeting me near Ponington; all of it!”
Applejack couldn’t take it. She was winded, but not winded enough to not be able to push her friend over before the pegasus really got going. Dash put up a struggle, but Applejack had her pinned good.
“Now you listen here! I’m sorry that I didn’t say anything, but…but…I knew that if you found out you’d make fun of me! I’ve always wanted to fly! And then you come along with your pretty little wings and you’re always around!”
“You were jealous of my wings?! You did all this so you could get back at me for—”
“I wanted to be able to follow you into the sky!”
The shouting echoed off the crater walls below them like gunshots. Dash had stopped struggling, but Applejack wasn’t moving. They just stayed there, gasping for breath. Dash’s breath was pushing up Applejack’s mane with every huff; her braid had come undone and a screen of golden hair shielded them from some of the heat.
Slowly, Dash’s head craned upwards in halting jerks. “Idiot,” the word whispered across Applejack’s lips like the first breeze on top of the cape hours before, “why didn’t you just ask me to stay on the ground?”
“B-because it’s m-my fault. I’m just a stupid, redneck earth pony and—”
It was her first kiss. There weren’t fireworks and time didn’t stop, nor did the need for air, but Applejack was fine with suffocating if only it could go on for another second. Just a few minutes after having the best rush of her life up to that point it was already being surpassed – that was just what Rainbow Dash did.
Dash pulled away first and gave a push. Applejack leaned back enough for the pegasus to get up, but didn’t go far. They were still both pretty shot from the rush and fall into the crater. The two leaned on each other and looked out over the rim, letting the tension drain.
“You know, I wasn’t lying when I said you were a natural. You don’t have to stay on the ground if you don’t want to.”
Applejack looked into the smoke. “I lost my wings,” she said. “They’re probably already melted.”
There was a playful nip at her neck that made Applejack forget about her lost glider. “That’s a-okay,” Dash whispered. “My wings are good enough for the both of us.”