by GaPJaxie

Chapter 1

She had a holster on one leg and a stallion on the other, a newsboy cap flat on her head and a pair of silver clips over the base of her wings. She had a gleam in her eye, and about her, a sense of motion, captured mid-step. Her wings were just beginning to spread, her grin in the early stages of its life, her spine held at an angle that left the shake of her hips so delicately implied. And how those hips were framed, for while stallions may seek a long tail and a brushed mane, her flyer’s cut and short crop promised that they could seek for themselves. Her coat was a shiny sky blue, her mane and tail bleached sheet-white, and there on her flanks: a roaring lion and a martini glass.

“Alcohol!” the poster read, in steel-pressed letters that spoke of electrofied modernity. “Because no great adventure ever started with a salad.”

There she was again, all lightning and motion. She was wrapped in armor, the ball clasped under one shoulder, held tight by her leg, her opposite hoof thrust forward like a spear to complete her airflow cone. The exposure on the photograph was wrong, creating jagged shadows and harsh illumination, but somehow it all worked out just right. Any picture would have revealed the lightning around her, the drops of rain smashing against her face, the dark clouds and the whirling wind, but only the high-contrast film showed the shapes within those clouds. Pegasi warriors, leaping to tackle her at the last moment. All could be clearly discerned, not just by sight, but by the smell of the sweat and the ozone and the interceptor's cry of frustration as their hooves just brushed her tail hairs.

“Lightning Bowl XXVI,” the poster said along the bottom, in a suitable dramatic flair.

And there she was for the third time. Lying out on a couch, muzzle tucked into the pillows, white mane unbrushed and white tail done up in a functional scrunchie. She was watching TV. And there was a mare on the TV who looked very much like her.

“Didn’t you hear me? I said, ‘whatever,’” Rainbow Dash insisted, a tremor clear under her defiant tone. “I don’t know if you’re here to cheer me up or what, but I’m fine.”

There was a knock on the trailer door, and Barnstormer glanced over towards it. She didn’t move or reply at first, but when the knock came again, she managed an unenthusiastic: “Come in!”

“Rainbow Dash. Your winter is going to be”—Fluttershy built up a breath—“petless.”

The trailer door opened, and Butter Up walked in, a parcel and a bundle of papers clasped in her teeth. Barnstormer rubbed at her face and sat up, straightening her spine and tucking her wings against her side in the proper fashion. “Oh, hey, Butter Up,” she said, “Is it noon already? I kind of lost track of time.”

“Iff haheaven…” Butter Up put her parcel and papers down on the little folding table. “It’s 11:50,” she said, as on the screen, Rainbow Dash’s eyes popped open, looking left and right as though to seek anything that might get her out of her situation. “I can come back if you’re busy.”

“No, don’t be silly. I was just watching reruns.” Barnstormer pulled herself up off the couch and stretched, as on screen, Rainbow Dash sat up. She trembled a moment as her eyes watered, trying to hold it all back. Then she cried. Then she sobbed, fumbling for her pet and hugging him tight against her chest.

“That’s the… pet one, right?” Butter Up asked, glancing at the screen. “Where your turtle died?”

“Tortoise,” Barnstormer corrected. Her spine popped, she let out a sigh, and with a flick of a hoof she turned off the television just as the camera was panning over to Rarity. “And, well, kids-show died. I was just…” She waved vaguely. “Happy with how that one turned out. I really thought I was going to need the fake tears, but it all went pretty naturally.”

“Yeah, you did good. If the opinion of another first-timer counts for anything.” She smiled, and Barnstormer smiled as well. “I brought the garlic.”

“Great. I’ll get started.” Barnstormer took the parcel with a wing, hesitating a moment as she glanced at Butter Up. “There’s uh… some glazed oats and toast if you want them.”

“Yes, please,” Butter Up said, finding her way to the little folding table with a sigh. “My therapist has me on a high calorie diet but my stomach revolts if I eat too much at once, so I’ve been grazing all day.”

The trailer’s kitchenette was surprisingly well appointed, particularly given how sparse the rest of the space was. The large main room that most actors would devote to a home away from home instead contained only a couch, a folding table, the TV, and a laptop left in the corner. The kitchen, by contrast, meant to be a repository for the occasional snack, overflowed with shiny stainless steel, every implement and tool kept in immaculate condition.

It wasn’t hard to see why. After depositing Butter Up’s gift on the counter, Barnstormer worked quickly. The stove was fired up, the oven set to warm, knives were inspected and one rapidly sharpened. Toast was browned, butter laid out, and ice crushed. A silvery martini shaker served as the final resting place for a shot of freshly crushed beetroot juice, a dash of vinegar, fruit juice, and just the right amount of vodka. It wasn’t yet noon when the little folding table in front of Butter Up was properly arrayed, a salt-encrusted martini glass surrounded by bread and butter and oats and all the other fixings a guest might reasonably want.

Butter Up didn’t say a word. She sipped her drink, gave a little nod, and then grazed on the toast as Barnstormer got back to work. Her eyes weren’t there though, nor was her attention, as she watched Barnstormer zip around the kitchen.

It was Barnstormer who finally broke the silence: “Did you like my essay?”

“I liked it, yes,” Butter Up replied, briefly glancing down at the papers on the table. Though they were bound up, and the text side turned away, the red pen correction marks were clearly visible through the thin sheets. “I think it needs a bit of work.”

“Yeah, I know.” Words formed around the handle of a knife, as Barnstormer rocked her head back and forth across the cutting board’s length. “I was thinking about it earlier, and I think I kind of messed up. Like, it’s not bad, it’s just kind of superficial, and if you include more context I’m not sure the argument actually holds water. Like, my comparison between middle-period concepts of martyrdom and classical Thessalonian pretty much ignored the cultural shift from helplessness in the face of natural forces to helplessness in the face of the divine, which is not a small change. So, the shallow analysis holds them at odds pretty well, but there may actually be a lot more cross-applicability there than I’d thought.”

“Yeah,” Butter Up agreed. “But that wasn’t my main critique. I just don’t feel it’s what the applications board will be looking for. The prompt was, ‘What does heroism mean to you?’ and you wrote a fifteen page single-spaced analysis of the influence of aero-hellenic notions of heroism over time vis-a-vis contemporary culture.” She paused. “And I’m not sure that really answers the question they were asking.”

“I’m not writing some fluffy tear-jerker bullshit about an uncle who died of cancer or something,” Barnstormer insisted, with an edge to her tone. “I need to show I’m smart. I don’t want them thinking I’m another dumb-jock athletic scholarship.”

“I know.” There was a brief silence, and Butter Up twitched her ears once, her wings fluttering in turn. “You can show you’re smart without ignoring the prompt. I didn’t say you should start over. I have specific suggestions and I think we can save a lot of the good material.”

No answer came from the kitchen except the sound of something frying in a pan, and with it, a distinct and pleasant aroma. Butter Up sat in silence for the first few minutes, and then spoke up: “So, I’ve really been enjoying that copy of Civil War: A Narrative you lent me. War books aren’t normally my thing, but I really appreciate the way he puts the battles in their larger socio-economic context.” Another pause hung for a moment, with no answer from the kitchen. “Particularly the Battle of the Bloody Horseshoe. It’s all good, but by bringing the Great War into it and drawing a connection to the better known future conflict, I feel that’s where his style really comes together.”

Butter Up kept talking in that vein for nearly half an hour, without any reply save the occasional grunt of acknowledgement. She talked about specific battles, and leaders, and which source was the most definitive. She considered aloud the mechanics of steamship production and cannon and the evolving role of pegasus air support. And as she did, items gradually appeared on the table: cutlery, two empty glasses, a pitcher of water, salt and a pepper grinder, a steaming fresh cross-cut garlic loaf, and finally, two plates of pasta covered in a white sauce full of oddly shaped pink flecks.

“What is that?” Butter Up asked, squinting down into the plate.

“Shrimp,” Barnstormer replied. “I’ve never eaten meat before. I was curious how it tastes. And I heard it goes well with garlic, so if you’re bringing high-quality ingredients, it seemed the time.” She took her own seat, the only glass in front of her filled with water. She swallowed, then said, “Thanks, Butter Up. Really.”

“Hey, Ms. Roaring Twenties,” Butter Up replied, with just a touch of harshness to her tone. “Shut up and eat your food. You’re like a PSA poster for the effects of low blood sugar.”

Barnstormer laughed quietly, and they both ate and drank. They said it was good, then there was silence again, but this time, the two ponies at least made eye-contact with each other. It also didn’t last nearly as long, and only a few minutes passed before Butter Up took the initiative: “So are you going to tell me what’s wrong, or do I have to pry it out of you?”

“I…” Barnstormer’s wings and ears sunk for the briefest of moments, but then she sat back up with proper posture, and held them both firm. “I’m not sure college is the right direction for me after all.”

“That’s a big change from how you felt before.” Butter Up licked a bit of sauce off the end of her nose, and a small smile appeared on Barnstormer’s face, even if it didn’t last. “Did something prompt this?”

“I had a talk with my parents.” She shrugged.

“A talk?”

“An argument.” She let out a long breath through her nose. “I’d be walking away from a lot of money.”

“Are they pushing you to keep acting? Or flying?” Butter Up asked, her voice quiet and her tone level as they stared at each other across the table.

Barnstormer shook her head. “Not in the sense you’re thinking. They barely kept any of the money for themselves, and they’re not the Lifelong Childhood Trauma Team like First Take’s parents.” She prodded at her food, using a bite as an excuse to slow the conversation a moment. “It’s just giving up a lot. They’re worried about me.”

“So,” Butter Up summarized, “your parents called, made a nice and loving suggestion about how to manage your finances, and that’s enough to put you in your trailer in a fugue?” The raised eyebrow at the end was entirely unnecessary, her tone already having done its job.

“Stop pushing,” Barnstormer let out a sharp breath, not waiting before she added, “I don’t want to talk about it anyway. It’s arrogant.”

“I’m okay with arrogant.” Butter Up gestured vaguely in the direction of the studio. Barnstormer snorted, and her lip curled half a degree before her eyes flicked down to the table.

“It’s…” She hesitated, started to speak, then hesitated again. “Everything I’ve ever touched has turned to gold, you know? Little filly me wants to be cool? Boom, cutie mark for awesome with a side of jazz and I can buy alcohol underage. Teenage me goes, ‘Hey, flying is fun!’ Boom, two years later, pro-circuit. My agent calls and says, ‘Hey, you liked that Friendship is Magic show as a filly right?’ Boom, one year later, we’re all up on stage getting that Equus. Director asks if the whole cast can sing? Turn out I can! Night school won’t schedule the time I need? That’s fine, skip the classes, I’ll just take the exams. 4.0 GPA.”

She reached a hoof up to rub her face. “It’s like, basically, I won the genetic lottery. Hard work? Patience? Fuck that, kid! You’re going to be amazing at everything you do without trying. And just to round off the total, you’re going to be hot. Not much tail, sure, but we’ll give you a nice ass to make up for it.” She glanced to one side briefly. “I mean, not as nice as yours, but—”

“Don’t talk about my butt,” Butter Up interrupted, her words clipped and curt.

“Right. Right, sorry.” Barnstormer shook her head. “And I just… you know. It’s great, but…” She waved vaguely with a hoof, and the pace of her words accelerated. “Pride goeth before the fall. I can’t take leave of my own judgement. The lightning has struck four times in a row, so of course on some level I expect it to strike the fifth time. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to! And even if it does, even if I am as smart as I think I am, and even if I am a really good physicist, there’s a lot of smart ponies studying physics. I can do everything right and still be unremarkable.”

“That’s true.” Butter Up nodded, leaning across the table. “And how does that make you feel?”

“Afraid. Angry. How do you think it makes me feel?” A ripple of feathers traveled down her wings, and she forcefully turned her head to look out the window. Her expression hardened as she went on, and her tone hardened along with it: “Because I know on some level that the thing that’s messing me up so much is normal life for like ninety-nine percent of the population and I’m being an overprivileged mule. But I also know that every foal prodigy is a thirty-year old bitter burnout waiting to happen. And that’s not me, you know? That’s not gonna be me. Not ever.”

She drew in a shaky breath. “The future only gets better.”

Butter Up frowned, her ears tilting back a few degrees. “I’m not sure that’s true.”

“We make it true,” Barnstormer insisted, a firmness in her tone and a tightening of her wings serving to hold her ground. She stared firmly out the window, not meeting Butter Up’s eyes.

“Okay.” Butter Up glanced down at the table, took in a deep breath and let it out. “Okay.” After another breath, she reached out and broke off a piece of the garlic loaf. Barnstormer glanced her way, her ears tilting down and then back up as the pony across the table nibble. “It’s good,” she explained, and Barnstormer’s ears tilted the rest of the way down.

Finally, the chunk of bread was gone, and Butter Up said: “Well, I can offer you advice on how to best achieve your goals, but I can’t tell you what you want out of life. I’m pretty sure if you choose to stay an actor or an athlete, you’ll be special. Notable, as it were. You’ll also be rich. And the odds are that physics won’t give you either of those things. Is there something you want out of physics that acting can’t give you?”

“Mmph.” Barnstormer looked back at Butter Up, then back out the window. “I don’t know. Do you believe in destiny?”

“Like…” Butter Up hesitated, her muzzled scrunching up. “What? Prophetic naming?”

“Prophetic naming is bullshit.” Barnstormer shook her head. “Look at you.” She gestured across the table, her tone turned from firm, to harsh. “You’re named Butter Up, and your special talent is making toast. Which would be all nice and neatly packaged if making toast was what you wanted to do with your life.” She continued on at a sharp clip, oblivious to Butter Up’s sour expression. “Except no, because no matter how delicious your toast is, and no matter how much you enjoy making it, that’s not what you choose for your time on this earth to be and so your real special talent is clearly sociology.”

She gestured sharply again, but not at anything in particular, and her hoof hit the table flat. “And you know? Barnstormer is like that too. Because Barnstormer is a stupid name for a pegasus, because the real barnstormers were earth ponies.” Her words were shaky, but she pressed on, still with a hard edge to her tone.

“They were earth ponies who traveled around the country doing aeroplane stunts”—a broad sweep of her hoof encompassed the sky, the motion as swift and rigid as her cadence—“usually with planes they built or maintained themselves. And everypony came to watch, because that was the first time they’d ever seen an earth pony leave the ground. It was mechanical flight. And ‘death defying stunt,’ may be a cliche these days? But back then they meant it, because for pilots back then, parachutes were not a thing. They made a real mistake? They crashed and died. They got a serious malfunction? Their planes exploded. And sometimes that ‘malfunction’ was in air-quotes, because more than one pegasus decided they were going to teach a lesson to these upstart m-word ponies who thought they could rise above their station.”

She drew in a shaking breath, and lifted her hooves up to rub at her jaw. “And I know for most ponies, flying is flying? But it’s not. Because barnstormers risked death, but went on to become fighter aces, or they founded airplane companies, or they carried the first transoceanic air mail. And the pegasus racers making fun of them risked getting sweaty, and then burned out and became gas station attendants. There’s a reason the flying circuit starts with teenagers. Optimum age for speed flying is sixteen to twenty-two. Some of the very best ponies make it to mid-twenties, but by thirty? Stick a fork in ‘em, they’re done.”

Barnstormer let out a breath, and glanced across the table at Butter Up. She looked down at the floor, and slumped her wings. “And…” She went on, her tone abruptly shifting from hard to faint. “And at the end of the day, one team wins and one team loses, you know? It’s not like building a bridge. You don’t build it, there’s not a bridge there. Somepony else isn’t going to magically appear to do it for you. When you build it, you’ve done your little part to make the world better. And that’s…”

She made a half-formed gesture with a hoof, but her leg slumped before she could finish it. “And that’s good. I just—” Her voice cracked, and it took her a moment to go on. “You shut your eyes and you feel the flow of history around you. And you’re just one little part of this unimaginably vast machine but that’s okay, because you know, prophetic naming is bullshit and we do choose our own destiny and sometimes no matter how big and strange and awful the world can be, one pony does make a difference and makes the whole thing just a little bit better. And there’s a lot of ponies like that. And so the future only gets better. Better every year.”

Her hoof went still, and she stared at it as she went on. “But, you know, not everypony gets to be a part of that. Sometimes it looks like everything is going to go so right and it all goes so wrong. You do everything you were supposed to do and then, I don’t know. Economies collapse. Empires fall. You’re born in a third world country. And you never get your chance. So if you’re one of the ponies who did get a chance you have to use it and…” She swallowed. “And sports? Half of the teams always win their games. And acting? This town is full of cute mares who can sing looking for their break. I’m not…”

Butter Up rose and came around to Barnstormer’s side of the table. They met eyes, Butter Up gestured, and they hugged, legs awkwardly wrapped around each other's shoulders as Barnstormer squeezed tight. “I’m sorry,” she said, ever-so quiet.

“It’s okay,” Butter Up said, gently letting go so they could both settle back down. “Barnstormer, you know I like you for you, right? Not for Barnstormer, Fifth Ranked Hoofball Charger, or Barnstormer, Jailbait Alcoholic, or Barnstormer, Tie-Dye Element of Loyalty, or any of the other characters you play, right?”

Barnstormer didn’t answer, and after a few seconds of silence, Butter Up pressed: “I need to ask. Do you… enjoy acting?”

“Yeah,” Barnstormer nodded. “It’s nice to be somepony else for a little while. I’m not crazy method like Deep Cover or anything, but I feel it, you know? Even when it’s something stupid like doing a touchdown dance and pretending I’m a dumb jock. Because yeah, Hoofball-Barnstormer isn’t the most intellectual, but you know, she’s fun. And she’s nice. And granted, she and Rainbow Dash are pretty much the same character, but I kind of like doing kids TV. I can do more than this. I think I could be a real actor. But it’s sweet and friendly and it… it feels good.”

“See, you say that,” Butter Up gestured with her muzzle. “But you literally look like you want to cry right now.”

“Of course I do.” Barnstormer wiped at her face, then shook out her mane and her wings. “I mean, that’s just life, isn’t it? You always want to cry. But if you actually cry, you’re weak. So you just… keep smiling and work to take your mind off things and take the little moments when you can find them. Like good food, or acting, or going for a really intense flight.”

Butter Up scrunched up her muzzle, drawing in a stiff breath. Then she settled down by Barnstormer’s side, and let the breath out. “You know, you’re really mature. It’s easy to forget you’re a teenager sometimes?”

“Heh,” Barnstormer managed a faint smile. “Why do I sense that’s not entirely a compliment?”

“Because teenagers are emotional and dumb.” Butter Up chuckled back, leaning over a few degrees. “And… hey. Look. Ms. Lady Red Baron. You’re bizarrely obsessed with history. First car made by assembly line?

Barnstormer twitched an ear, “Everypony knows that the Model T—”

“Wrong.” Butter Up’s words were quick, but her tone was light, and she smiled just a bit brighter as she reached out to rub Barnstormer’s shoulder. “The first car ever made by assembly line was the Curved Dash, by a pony named Ransom. He invented the entire automotive assembly line idea, and it was a huge success. But it turns out that while Ransom was great at designing car factories, he wasn’t very good at designing cars, and the Curved Dash was kind of a lemon. But then a certain earth pony who would later go on to design the Model T took a tour of Ransom’s factory with a notebook in hoof, and, well…” She nudged Barnstormer with a hoof.

“He took detailed notes you might say. And now the Model T is legend, and Ransom is forgotten except by us academics. But the world is a very different, better place for him having been born.” She gave a little half-laugh. “And, Ms. Speakeasy Fetish, while it’s easy for you to sit here and idolize the barnstormers, they sure as hell didn’t have your sense of things. Sure, they made a big difference in the end, but they didn’t know that was going to happen. They were traveling performers! I’ll bet you not a day went by that one of them didn’t count his meager tips and wonder what he was doing with his life.”

“They weren’t paid with tips. They—”

“Don’t change the subject.” Butter Up’s tone was firm, and Barnstormer fell silent. “Look, Barnstormer… we all want to make the world better, okay? We all feel it. Maybe you feel it stronger than most of us, and that’s part of why I like you. But we don’t get to know the full impact of our decisions when we make them. We just do what we can here and now, and… yeah. Sometimes a pony gets in the plane, and flies off, and the plane explodes. Like you said, that’s life.”

“I guess,” Barnstormer agreed, but her eyes went down to the ground.

“Guess nothing,” Butter Up pressed, both with her words, and with a hoof on Barnstormer’s shoulder. “I will guarantee you that those flyers felt the same way about doing barrel rolls as you feel about doing your stupid touchdown dance. But you don’t just have to sit there and pray for it all to work out in the end. You can do things here and now to feel better. Heck, that’s why ponies do things here and now!”

Butter Up softened her tone. “You want an example? Deep Cover is starting a charity. And because she’s clearly a changeling wearing a dead pony’s skin, rather than picking a cause she cares about, she just figured out what causes give the most suffering removed per dollar and then gave a bunch of money. I just started volunteering at an animal shelter. Don’t make the Fluttershy joke.” She lifted a hoof to intercept Barnstormer’s words, and Barnstormer giggled just a little.

Butter Up rolled her eyes, but went on: “And yeah, maybe Deep Cover does a lot more good for the world than me, but at the end of the day I think I feel better about it than her. And you can split the difference. You can find things that you think will really help, and you can find things that make you feel good, and you put them together in whatever ratio works for you. Is that a compromise you can live with?”

“Maybe,” Barnstormer looked over at the essay. “Do you think I should go to college?”

“Do you enjoy physics for its own sake, inherently?” she asked, emphasizing the pauses between words to give the sentence a blunt edge. “If you knew, with absolute certainty, that you would never make any meaningful contributions to the field, would you still want to study it?”

“I… think so,” Barnstormer nodded, albeit it slowly.

“Then yes, I think you should go to college.” Butter Up reached out, and pushed the collection of papers back to Barnstormer. “And I think you should keep acting. Because you can’t speed fly forever, but you can keep playing characters you like. And goodness knows that without something to keep you busy you’re going to go develop a cocaine habit or something.”

“Okay, little too much tough love there. Tone it down.” Barnstormer laughed awkwardly, and held the marked-up papers to her chest with a leg. “Thank you, Butter Up. I’m sorry I was kind of a sack of crazy today. You were a good friend.”

Butter Up shook her head. “Don’t worry about it.” She glanced up at the clock. “I need to be back on set in like ten minutes. Are you going to be okay?”

“Oh…” Barnstormer let out a little laugh. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. You should go. And bring the rest of the loaf with you. Pan Flash loves that stuff.”

“I will.” Butter Up stepped up, and the two shared a quick hug. She swept up the tray of bread and stepped towards the door, pausing as she did. “Oh, one last thing.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Let me know when you have the next draft. And when you’re rewriting it? You might want to consider including some of what we talked about today. Barnstormer, Academic Prodigy is a fun character too, and I like her performances, but a little authenticity doesn’t hurt.”

Barnstormer looked down at the papers. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Sure. No pressure.” Butter Up nodded, spread her wings, and swept out the door. It closed behind her with a thump, and Barnstormer was alone in the trailer.

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