"Ah can't believe ah'm saying this, Big Macintosh, but we're actually ahead of schedule. Way ahead!"
The big stallion nodded in agreement to his sister's statement. For the first time in longer than he could remember, the apple groves had been bucked in a fraction of their usual time. While a goodly portion of the trees still carried their fruits, those particular ones would not be ripe for another couple weeks, leaving the family with only the most routine chores left to do. Most of which only took an hour or two at most to complete.
"Ah guess we've earned ourselves some well deserved time off." Applejack mused, breaking Big Macintosh out of his reverie. He nodded his agreement, deferring to his younger sibling. He might have been the eldest, but Applejack usually made most of the decisions concerning the farm's well being. Before he could add any comment, another voice interrupted him.
"Awesome!" Rainbow Dash cried, her face split into a wide grin. After the past few weeks of applebucking, a respite from the work was more than welcome. "And I know exactly what we're gonna do!"
Applejack flinched at the words, looking up from her breakfast-filled plate. She frowned at Rainbow, who was staring at her. "Ah dunno, ah still think it's too risky..." she said, but her argument was waved away by the pegasus.
"Since when did you turn into such a worry-wart? You'll be fine! It's not like I'm gonna start by throwing you off a mountain."
"Ah sure hope not." a worried Applejack replied. Meanwhile, Big Macintosh just stared at the two mares, totally lost.
"What're you two talking about?" he asked, eyeing the pair. Applejack seemed to wilt, her ears drooping.
"She wants to teach me to use these things!" came the glum reply, as Applejack pointed to the blue wings adorning her side
Big Macintosh's mouth gave a small upward quirk "She wants to teach ya how to fly?"
"I sure as hay do!" Rainbow interjected. "If I can't put those babies to good use, somepony else has to!"
Applejack's glare switched to her brother as he gave her a reassuring pat on the back. "Ah'm sure it'll be fine," he said, straight faced, then proceeded to hide his face by digging into his plate.
Applejack eyed the other two ponies one more time, her gaze lingering on the big stallion. She just knew he was laughing behind that plate. Sighing, she put her face in her hooves. This was going to be a long day.
"The first element of flight is wing movement!" Rainbow Dash stated, pointing a hoof at Applejack as the pair stood on a small hill. Dash had chosen the spot as the small incline would be perfect for the most basic type of flight: a glide. Plus, it was out of the way, so nopony would be around to disturb them, which suited Rainbow just fine. This day was going to be awesome.
Since she had realized that Applejack wasn't keeping her wings active, Rainbow had insisted on spending time every day just moving them, and at the same time get Applejack used to the feeling of the muscles being used, and the appendages' movement. Determined to help Applejack fly, Rainbow had helped with the movement herself, showing by example the way things would go. This meant she had handled the wings in her hooves once again. Every free moment she could scrape up found her at Applejack's side.
Thankfully, the awkwardness of that first massage had faded after a few days. She doubted her face could have kept blushing that long if it hadn't, and she was glad she was finally able to look her friend in the eye once more... though she had caught herself lingering in that gaze a lot more often nowadays... Feeling the heat rise to her cheeks once more, Rainbow Dash pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind, and focused on the task at hoof.
"I spent the last week and a half helping you move those things." She said, a training cap on her head and a whistle dangling from her neck. "Now let's see you move them yourself! Show me what you've got!"
Applejack sighed, knowing she had no choice. She'd attempted to make many excuses while on the farm, fabricating tasks she knew didn't need doing. Unfortunately, Rainbow Dash was very much like herself in one respect: stubbornness. The pegasus had been relentless, even helping out in the tasks that Applejack had made up, until she had simply run out of ideas. At this point, it was probably easiest to just go along with the demands.
Closing her eyes, Applejack tried to identify the wings on her body. The time Rainbow Dash had spent moving them had made them appendages she was aware of, rather than just being a presence she felt but was unfamiliar with. Straining, she felt the wings give a twitch, then slowly start to move. They unfolded, the wingtip reaching out as far as it could, the wings stretched out to their limit. Opening her eyes, she stared in surprise. They actually moved!
"Good!" Rainbow Dash grinned. "Now try moving them down." she ordered, stifling a laugh as she watched the orange pony close her eyes, scrunching her face in concentration with her tongue sticking out. It looked so adorably silly that she was almost distracted from Applejack's efforts, but Rainbow Dash's grin widened into a real smile as Applejack managed to lower the wings. "Okay! That was your first wing flap. In ultra slow motion maybe, but still a wing flap! Now keep going!"
Applejack frowned, choosing to ignore the backhanded comment. She continued to move the wings, feeling them tingle as she flexed them in ways she had not even considered before. Each flap required a large effort, burning up more energy than she had thought possible. Grimacing with effort and with sweat beading on her head, she redoubled her efforts to increase the speed. If those lightweight pegasi could make it look so effortless, she could do it too!
Suddenly, the shrill sound of a whistle interrupted her concentration, leaving the wings to drop down at her sides, still unfurled. Rainbow Dash was staring at her, a concerned look on her face.
"You okay there AJ?"
"Yeah," the farm pony gasped, panting for breath. She realized she was more winded than she'd thought.
"Are you sure?" Rainbow asked, stepping closer to her exhausted friend. "You didn't hear me when I told you to stop," she explained, lifting up the whistle. "Had to use this to snap you out of it."
Applejack simply nodded, sitting down on her haunches. "Ah think... Ah just... got too into it..." she panted, trying to slow down her breathing.
Rainbow chuckled. "Good, at least you're not worrying anymore! But don't overwork yourself," she said, putting a hoof on Applejack's shoulder. "You're doing great though. Just gotta get used to the motions!" She eyed her friend's face, beads of sweat clearly visible on her coat, and used her... well, Applejack's tail to wipe it off. "You wanna stop for today? You look pretty beat-"
"No!" Applejack interrupted, vehemently shaking her head. "Just gimme a few minutes. If you pegasi can do this, so can ah!"
Rainbow could only grin as she watched. She hadn't expected Applejack to get so absorbed in this, especially after her initial complaints, and now the fruits of her labor were showing. Spending the time to exercise the wings by hoof was paying off.
Things were going awesomely.
Things were not going awesomely.
What had started out as a great rate of progression had tapered off on the following days, reducing the sessions to a mere crawl. Applejack had spent the time repeating the first day's exercises, strengthening her understanding and control of the blue appendages. They had even attempted a short glide, but it failed when Applejack couldn't focus on being in the air, or feeling the wind, or controlling where her hooves were pointing. Trying to keep the wings straight with all that had just been flat out impossible.
And Rainbow Dash didn't know what to do.
She had never been in that situation; having grown up with the wings, every last inch of them were familiar, every little sensation and feeling was known and identified - if not at a conscious level, then at a subconscious one. She just knew the limits of her body, and kept striving to overcome them.
But Applejack... she couldn't even begin to imagine what she was going through. The wings were fully grown, and strong. She just couldn't control them well enough for real flight. It reminded Rainbow Dash of something else...
No... of somepony else, she thought, her gaze shifting in the direction of a familiar cottage near the Everfree Forest. She frowned, the idea forming in her head not being one she really wanted to consider. But... as much as she didn't want to admit it, she was at the end of her rope.
Mastering the sky, performing tricks, she could do all of that. But just getting into the air in the first place? That was... more than second nature. It was like breathing. She never even thought of it. She never even considered that there was any thought to it. It just happened.
Applejack halted her wing-beats, noticing how quiet Rainbow Dash had gotten. More than just the quiet, she had noticed the pegasus' mood over the last couple days. Rainbow was growing increasingly frustrated, and Applejack was quite sure she knew what was the cause. She trotted over to her friend, and sat down next to her. "You okay there sugarcube? You've gotten pretty quiet..."
"Huh?" Rainbow blinked, turning her head to end up face to face with Applejack. Their eyes locked, the gaze holding for what seemed like an eternity. In them, Rainbow could almost see what the earth pony was feeling. Strength, determination, but also worry and concern. Concern for her. "Yeah," she replied, breaking the gaze and facing away. "I'm just thinking..."
"Ah'm not doing too well, am ah?" Applejack asked quietly.
"What? No, you aren't! I mean, you are!" She stopped, trying to sort out her thoughts. "I mean, you're doing great... it's just..." she said, faltering.
"I just don't think I... I can teach you right." She finished, her ears drooping.
Applejack sat quietly, watching Rainbow. She had never imagined the brash, loud and cocksure pegasus would admit something like this... not without her friends' prompting. "Ah'm sorry..." she mumbled, sure that her lack of progress was to blame. To her surprise, Rainbow shook her head vehemently.
"It's not your fault. I'm just missing a step here. I'll get you flying yet!" Rainbow said angrily, determination returning to her attitude. She stood up, facing the forest. "And I think I know who can help."
Applejack smiled, glad that Rainbow's spirits seemed to have returned, and followed her towards their destination.
The cottage was alive with the sound of fauna, the various creatures and critters filling every nook and cranny of the home. Not a one was sleeping, for it was the most important time of the day: feeding time.
Fluttershy smiled as she drifted through her living room, dishing out seeds to the various birds nesting within. With that done, she fluttered back to the kitchen, seeking a bag of carrots. With the birds fed, the bunnies were next. Focused on her daily ritual, she did not catch a glimpse through the window of the two mares approaching along the path.
Rainbow Dash gulped as she and Applejack trotted up to the door, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. She wasn't scared, never scared. She didn't think Fluttershy could even do anything to scare her, come to think of it. She simply found the idea of needing help hard to swallow. She was certainly not above asking for help, or as the case may have been in Ghastly Gorge, shouting for it. But those circumstances had been extreme. This... somehow felt harder to do. She stared at the door, almost willing it to open on its own, then gathered her courage and knocked.
Fluttershy squeaked at the unexpected noise, dropping the carrots she had been carrying. Gathering herself, she trotted over to the door, flinching as whoever was outside started knocking again. Cracking the door open a mere inch, she sighed in relief to see Applejack and Rainbow Dash on the other side, and opened the door wide. "Hey girls. What's up?" she smiled.
"Hey Fluttershy, we uh..." Rainbow started before hesitating. Fluttershy's smile wavered as she looked at the fellow pegasus, sensing that she seemed troubled. Rainbow closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. "We need your help."
Fluttershy's eyes widened in fear. "D-Did something happen? Are the girls all right? Are the crusaders okay?" She gasped as a thought struck her. "Is Discord back?!" she squeaked, covering her head with her hooves as she started trembling.
The other two ponies blinked at the spectacle, used to it after knowing Fluttershy for so long. Rainbow Dash sighed, putting a hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder. "No, silly. I'm trying to teach Applejack to fly but..." Rainbow paused once again, struggling with the words. As much as she was loath to admit it, she was out of options. "I don't think I can do it on my own. I need your help."
Fluttershy stared at her friend, dropping her hooves from her head. She glanced at Applejack, who was staring at Rainbow Dash with an unreadable expression, then back at the cyan pegasus. "H-how could I help?" she asked, confused. "You're the best flier in Equestria!" she exclaimed, immediately regretting the statement. "Oh... I'm sorry..." she whispered, her eyes wandering to Rainbow's conspicuously wingless sides.
Rainbow Dash frowned momentarily, then shook her head. "It's okay. I just remembered you having... trouble... flying during our summer flight camp. You're fine now, so I figured you might have some ideas...?"
"Oh!" Fluttershy exclaimed. "I'd be glad to help! If... that's okay with you, I mean..."
"Don't ya worry, sugarcube." Applejack said, speaking for the first time since their arrival. "Ah'm sure your gentle touch will help!"
"Okay... if you're really sure..." Fluttershy said, to which Applejack nodded. "Let me just finish feeding the animals."
A few minutes later, the trio left the cottage and made their way back to the practice hill, where the pair of pegasi sat, observing the winged earth pony. Applejack demonstrated how she flapped the wings, earning a quiet cheer of approval from Fluttershy, and silence from Rainbow Dash.
Lining up at the top of the hill, Applejack took off in a short gallop, and leapt into the sky. She flapped her wings, the feathers catching air, and held them steady. For a merest second, she was once more airborne. That second seemed to stretch forever, the sensation of defying gravity robbing her breath away. But all too soon, her eyes tracked downwards, and her legs locked up. Her wings refused to make the minute corrections that would keep her aloft, dropping her hooves to the ground. Thankfully, she had not crashed again, like the first few attempts. But she could not prevent feeling some disappointment in herself at her inability to do better.
"That was amazing!" a voice exclaimed softly, causing Applejack to turn towards the source. Fluttershy was trotting towards her, a look of wonder in her eyes.
Applejack glanced past her, noticing the frown on Rainbow Dash's face. Their gazes met, but soon broke as the rainbow maned flier turned her head away. What's wrong with that pony? she thought, confused at Rainbow's attitude. Focusing once more on Fluttershy, she gave the timid pegasus a wry grin. "Honey, I flew for maybe one second. That there's not really flying."
Fluttershy shook her head. "But it is! You've only been trying for a few days, haven't you? That's great!"
"Ah still need to do better though." Applejack replied, glancing once more at their silent companion.
Fluttershy noticed the glance, and turned her head to follow Applejack's gaze. Rainbow Dash was still facing away, seemingly lost in thought. Fluttershy smiled as she turned back to the earth pony. "I did notice some things you can change... if you want to hear them."
Applejack blinked, then nodded emphatically. "Spit it out, sugarcube!"
Fluttershy nodded, and took a deep breath. "Well, your wings seem strong enough you don't need a running start for it; just try to jump as high as possible instead. Also, your legs are splayed out; they need to be tucked in a bit for better aerodynamics. You keep your wings too stiff when trying to glide; you can flap them a little to keep airborne without trying to get lift. Oh, and try not to look down, look straight, or even up." Fluttershy blinked, shrinking back into herself as she saw Applejack staring at her in shock. "I mean... you don't need to follow my advice if you don't want to..."
Applejack's mouth hung agape, her mind still catching up to everything Fluttershy had said. Once she did, her open mouth changed into a wide smile. "Well now, you sure ain't pullin' no punches. And here ah thought this was gonna be easy! Ah'll give it a try!" She turned back to the top of the hill, but paused before taking another step. Looking back at Fluttershy, she grinned sheepishly. "Um... can you list all that again?"
Giggling, the yellow pegasus stepped in next to Applejack as they trotted to the top of the hill, explaining each point in further detail.
True to Fluttershy's gentle nature, progress advanced at a slow, but steady pace. That first day, she spent her time coaching Applejack on her wing control, helping her to notice how the wings caught and interacted with the air around them. Contrary to Rainbow's more instinctual and subconscious understanding of flight, Fluttershy's early troubles with it had given her a more academic knowledge of the mechanics behind it, allowing her to see the root of Applejack's problems and address them. By the time exhaustion eventually caught up to her, Applejack's flight time had increased by several seconds. It seemed like a tiny amount, but to a normally earthbound pony, those few seconds of controlled flight let her glimpse at a world she had never considered outside of daydreams.
More importantly, Fluttershy had one advantage that made a world of difference: she could actually show what she meant by providing an example, fluttering around Applejack and demonstrating techniques and tricks she had learned. Over the next several days, Dash found herself giving less and less input, mostly content to watch Applejack's efforts.
Mostly. She was certainly happy to see Applejack going to such lengths and showing such enthusiasm for flying. But at the same time, she felt something nagging at the back of her mind. She had clammed up, becoming almost surly when she did speak, something that had been noticed around the Apple family table. She herself was aware of it, but couldn't dispel the emotion. Even after she'd found Applebloom's handiwork on the guest room's door, a little apple shaped sign saying "Rainbow Dash's Room" in brilliant colors. While it had brought a smile, it had not lasted long enough.
Back on the hill, her emotions continued to clash. Every time she watched Applejack take off, that feeling of discontent surged, robbing her of the enjoyment she should have felt seeing her friend glide. Even watching Fluttershy in the air tore at her.
Dangit, I need to fly!
Realization froze her mind and body as the thought jumped into her mind. Jealous. She was jealous. Of Fluttershy, and of Applejack. Of what Rainbow Dash herself had been born with but was now missing.
She needed to fly. It wasn't so much a desire as a need, a craving, a hole that had to be filled somehow. Now that she knew what the feeling was, it stayed with her, an itch that couldn't be scratched. Living on the farm and spending her time applebucking had been a welcome distraction, but she was a pegasus. It was in her flesh, her bones, her very soul to fly. And she couldn't.
But I know somepony who can help, she thought, her mind wandering towards Ponyville.