PART 28 - Any Landing You Can Walk Away From
Rarity made an entrance in her usual style, a vision of fabulousity in white silks and sapphires that reflected the vista of blue waters and fluttering white sails on Horseshoe Bay that filled the panoramic windows of the Ambrosia's forward ballroom. The towers of Baltimare were visible out the starboard side, lit up by the bright morning sun that turned their windows to gleaming gold.
An elegant brunch was being served by pony chefs in spotless white caps and tunics off to one side, but the finely dressed passengers of the massive airship were crowding around a large blackboard mounted on an easel in the opposite corner.
Her curiousity piqued, Rarity plucked an apricot from one of the silver bowls, giving the attendant a warm smile and a bob of her glittering horn, before making her way across to the milling group with the fruit trailing in her wake like a phoenix chick behind its mother. The high class ponies stepped aside and gave her plenty of room, with a murmur of convivial morning greetings.
A faint crease appeared on the unicorn mare's alabaster brow as she saw the board held a list of the race's participants, listed under their teams. She hovered the succulent fruit to her lips and bit into it, chewing pensively as she read. Several names had been struck through, both team names and the names of individuals.
A groan went up from the onlookers as the Zenith Sporting Society was crossed off the list by a unicorn attendant in a blue tunic. Of the top listed pegasi teams, only the Cloudsdale duo and the Wonderbolts were still flying with a full roster. Half of the Los Pegasus team was still active, namely Golden and Granola Bay. The griffon teams had fared much better, both being complete, with only a report of a sprained talon for Guillaume LaFish in the carnage of Manehattan. Of the rest, the negasi from Hollow Groves were still in the running, Lulong the kirin was out, Flies Like Thunder was questionable, depending on how flight worthy he'd be after he'd been de-glued, and Quillina the dragoness and her crew of pegasi hirelings was still in.
Rarity allowed a tiny smirk to flit across her lips at this last name, hidden behind dainty dabs of a napkin. Last night she'd gotten a bit of a report from Twilight about Spike's budding interest in the graceful draconic heiress, which the alabaster mare had found endlessly charming despite the ambivalent tone she could read in her old friend's observations. It was almost enough to make her wish she were down with the crew in the cramped confines of the Friend Ship rather than travelling in high style on the Ambrosia.
While she considered the work she was doing courting potential investors among the elite spectators on the airship to be vitally important to Harmony Aeronautics, the idea of taking a hoof in the romantic affairs of two dragons, especially helping as dear a dragon as her Spikey Wikey court a clearly well bred and brought up young jewel of that ancient race, was just too delicious for her to contemplate.
She suppressed a giggle under the cover of a clearing of her throat, and her expression became businesslike once more as her sapphire eyes settled on two teams separate from the rest of the pack, with odds scrawled out beneath them.
Right now, due to their commanding lead, the nefarious brothers Professor Destiny and Doctor Insanity were the favored contestants in the Royal Charter challenge. There was a lot of gossip about whether they would be disqualified for the shenanigans they'd pulled, although no official statement had been made as of yet. A minor thrill had gone through the airship the prior night as the green flames of their rocket propulsion streaked past and out over the bay, leaving black smoke trails like erratic strokes of ink across a page saturated with reds, oranges, and purples.
It was a tribute to the elegance of Twilight and Apple Bloom's design, as well as her own skill at networking, that there were more bets placed on the dark horse, so to speak. Rarity took a bit of comfort seeing the names P. Squeak and Lt. Soarin clearly written on the board, silently praying that they'd stay there.
The elegant mare was shaken of her reverie by a deep, mannered voice at her side. "Mmmyes, a tad morbid if you ask me, keeping a tally like that, but I suppose our cadre of amateur bookmakers needs to get their... ahem... 'hot tips' from somewhere."
She turned with a cheerful smile to face the imposing unicorn who stood beside her, hovering a monogrammed hoofkerchief in the magic from his prominent horn to clean the lenses of a golden pince nez before settling them on the snowy white bridge of his snout and scrutinizing the blackboard with an air of bemusement. He was the type of stallion upon whom the years rested with dignity, becoming more handsome and distinguished as time added broad white streaks to his mane and lines of care and laughter to his face.
Rarity greeted him fondly, her dulcet voice carrying years of warmth and conviviality for an old friend and patron. "Good morning, Fancy Pants."
She gave him a knowing wink. "I must confess, I'm a trifle surprised to hear as avid a sporting stallion as yourself expressing disinterest in getting a 'piece of the action', as it were..."
The unicorn magnate let out a chuckle, a look of feigned indignation on his face. "Why my dear Rarity, I'm shocked... shocked that you would insinuate such a thing."
He gave a flick of his horn toward the board as a wry smile curled the corner of his lip beneath his tapered mustache. "My bookmaker is a professional of the highest caliber."
Rarity responded with a chuckle of her own. "Ah, and here I would have thought the 'phone in your stateroom was only for sending your affection to your lovely wife and darling children."
Fancy Pants returned her wink. "Who do you think I had placing the bets for me in Canterlot, my dear?"
He let out a sigh. "Although if circumstances permitted I would much prefer to either be there with them or have them here with me. I do miss them so when I travel, but there was nothing I could do. The boys have their classes and Fleur's schedule was simply too tightly packed for her to get away."
His mildly glum expression shifted to a smile that glinted in tandem with his pince nez. "Not that I regret coming along on this junket. This promises to be a supremely fascinating journey."
The alabaster coated mare gave a nod toward the board, steering the subject to more cheerful topics. "So might I take the liberty of asking whom you favor?"
A canny look settled on the dignified stallion's face. "Well, a gentlecolt keeps his cards close to his vest, but let us suffice to say I've lost said vest and the shirt beneath it enough times at the Wonderbolts Derby to a certain mare of my acquaintance to have learned never to bet against her when there's a race ahoof."
Rarity favored him with a scintillating smile of her own. "I'm sure she would be quite gratified to hear it, darling."
Fancy Pants cocked an ear as an announcement came crackling over the speakers. "Attention! The racers have been sighted by our lookouts, and will be passing by in five minutes. I repeat, the racers have been sighted, and will be passing our location in five minutes."
The distinguished stallion gave her a genteel bow, and gestured toward the expansive scene of waves and whitecaps stretching out from the harbor on the airship's port side. "Well, speaking of the race being ahoof, perhaps you'd care to accompany me."
She returned his bow with a curtsey. "I'd be honored, darling. Lead on."
With that, she fell into step beside him as they approached the windows. The milling herd of society ponies parted readily, allowing Fancy Pants and Rarity to step right up to the railing.
There they all waited, the excited chatter subsiding to a tense, murmuring buzz as the expected moment edged closer and closer. A surreal calm, like the serenity before a thunderstorm filled the air, as the spectators held their breath.
The assembly of ponies exploded in cheers and shouts of encouragement, rapping hooves on the boards beneath them as a shoal of brightly colored winged shapes shot past, winding between the sails of the tall ships and making for the open waters of Horseshoe Bay.
Now began the most challenging leg of the Pegathalon, a long stretch over the waves, followed by the trackless woods of the Haysead and then skirting the dreaded Badlands over the Macintosh Hills. The next time the racers touched hooves down in civilized lands would be in distant Appleloosa, in preparation for a grueling leg over the arid expanse of the San Palomino desert.
Rarity floated her opera glasses to her eyes and picked out the purple, deep blue, and white of the Luna moth. She whispered to herself under the nattering of the crowd. "Luna and Celestia speed you on your way, darlings..."
The waves and swells surged far below Pip and Soarin's hooves as they lanced through the bright morning sky, the wind whistling past their ears as the smell of salt and fresh air filled their nostrils.
The sky blue pegasus took an occasional glance at his youthful partner, always gauging what he saw with a formation flyer's eye. Pip seemed rattled, a bit tentative, a bit preoccupied.
The team had camped out a short distance up the coast from Baltimare, getting a good dinner and ostensibly a good night's rest. Soarin had corraled a loose cloud and settled in, keyed up from the day's events. Only the promise of dreams featuring a spice and apple scented kitchen and the golden haired mare who kept those home fires burning had dragged him off to a blissful sleep.
He'd snapped awake with the dawn the following morning. After an intense round of air cav calisthenics and a brief warmup flight over the rural coastline of southeastern Equestria, he'd returned to camp to check on his team mates, hoping they were awake enough to get breakfast going. The mares had bedded down in the Friend Ship's gondola, while Pip and Spike had laid out beside a warm fire that the young dragon had whipped up the night before. His stomach rumbled softly as he found them all still asleep.
Spike was sleeping like a log, and snoring like one too if the log were hollowed out and a drum roll struck up on it with mallets. Pip, on the other hoof, gave the veteran flyer pause as he hovered softly overhead. The young stallion laid curled up on his side, whimpering softly in his sleep as his hooves fitfully twitched. Soarin had almost been tempted to float down and shake him awake, but decided against it. Any sleep, even troubled sleep, would serve the spotted earth pony in good stead as they flew over Horseshoe Bay.
He'd asked Pip about what he was dreaming about after the camp had stirred to wakefulness and gone drowsily about their morning preparations. The young stallion had said he didn't remember, but there was a haunted look in his eyes, made graver by the dark bags and still healing shiner he'd received in Manehattan. His movements seemed almost mechanical, as if he were just going through the motions as they got ready to set out.
All these thoughts and observations settled in Soarin's mind like clouds crawling across a high pressure front, with darkening thunderheads approaching behind them with a low cadence of thunder trailing in their wake.
He pushed a smile onto his face as Pip glanced in his direction. "Hey Pip, how's it handlin'?" He silently gave thanks that Doctor Sparkle's "Just Between Us" spell allowed him to inject a little warmth into his tone rather than shout the question over the howling wind.
The spotted test pony gave him a grey smile. "Steady as she goes, old sock. Steady as she goes."
Soarin gave a nod and widened his own smile. "Good. We've got a lotta leagues ahead of us, so let me know if you feel tired or anything."
Pip replied with a strained chuckle. "Not likely, mate. The wings are doing all the work, I'm just hanging from 'em like laundry."
The sky blue pegasus laughed, but his reply faded on his lips as another figure soared into his sights beyond Pip, flying on his nine. It was a speckled, greasy looking griffin in threadbare work clothes sporting a red plaid bandanna and a necklace of shark and whale teeth that matched the gap toothed grin he gave the two ponies.
A rustle of wings on Soarin's three o' clock caused him to look and see another griffin decked out in the same fashion, a sneer of tense expectation on his wickedly beaked face. He remembered Twilight mentioning them in the briefing in Manehattan. The LaFish brothers? Seemed like kind of a sketchy bunch when he saw them at the starting line.
The smiling griffon gave them a wave with a taloned fore claw. "Good day, mes amis!"
Pip shared a quizzical glance with Soarin, then called out to the creature at his wing. "Er... Hello?!"
The veteran pegasus cocked an eyebrow and called to the griffin. "What do you guys want?"
The grinning LaFish brother gave them an earnest look. "Mes freres and me, we just want you to know, this thing we gonna do, it isn't personal or nothin', eh? It's just business, okay? Okay, then."
With that, he and his brother wheeled away to either side, as Soarin and Pip looked at each other uneasily.
A piercing cry split the air as a third griffin dropped like a striking hawk from above, slamming with his hind legs into Pip's back with a groan and crunch of snapping wood and raking the purple wings of the Luna Moth with his scaly yellow talons. The young stallion's rising shriek of terror rang out accompanied by a sickening sound of ripping cloth.
Soarin' gritted his teeth with an ozone tinged pegasi curse and bunched his hind legs, lashing out backwards with his rear hooves to connect with beak, bone, and sinew. A clipped squawk sounded as talons raked a glancing blow across his flanks leaving hot pinstripes of sharp pain in their wake, followed by a dusting of loose feathers in the air around him. He dared a split second glance over his shoulder to see a feline body tumbling, clutching at its face as it plummeted.
He shouldered into a barrel roll toward Pip as the griffin on his back raised his clawed forelegs for another raking blow. The young earth pony was staring wide eyed with terror at his attacker as they hurtled forward in an erratic tailspin.
The sky blue pegasus plowed into the speckled hybrid predator with his fore hooves braced like battering rams, carrying the shrieking attacker off of the stricken earth pony's back into a headlong free fall toward the waves below. The griffon regained his wits with avian rapidity and gripped Soarin's shoulders in his talons, digging in with more pointed incisions as he brought his clawed rear legs up to kick at the pegasus' belly.
The former Wonderbolt was faster, and lashed out with a rear hoof, connecting a bit below his foe's leonine breadbasket. A sound somewhere between a bell struck by a hammer and a walnut shell crunching seemed to ring out as the griffon's eyes bulged and went crossed, his whole spine going stiff from his withers to the tip of his tufted tail.
Soarin shrugged out of the griffon's nerveless grasp with a forceful shove of his fore hooves and wheeled to bellow up at his companion. "FLY FOR IT, PIP! I'LL HOLD 'EM OFF!"
The young earth pony struggled to level out and come to a stop, daylight visible through the rents in his purple cloth wings as he hovered unsteadily with his legs dangling stiffly beneath him. Soarin cursed under his breath, uncertain as to whether Pip was looking at or through him.
He caught sight of the LaFish brother he'd bucked in the beak recovering from his fall and wheeling for another strike from below. About ten yards up the formerly smiling griffon who'd addressed them was watching the battle with a frown on his face, clutching one of his taloned forelegs to his feathered chest. The veteran pegasus let out a snort as he gauged the reticent LaFish's potential actions. He seemed uncommitted, a coward among cowards.
A chill shot up Soarin's spine as the voice of the third griffin rang out, sounding a bit more in the peregrine falcon range than a lion or eagle. "Gillaume! Get the little one before he gets away! Stop letting us do all the work, eh?"
The sky blue pegasus summoned a roar from the tips of his hooves and lashing tail that cracked across the boundless waves below like the report from a thunderstrike. "PIP! GO!"
A shock ran through the young stallion's frame as he jolted into action, flailing in the air with his hooves as he made a break for it with purple tatters trailing from his winged harness.
Soarin beat his wings in a steep climb as he moved to intercept the formerly smiling griffin, who'd launched into a dive toward Pip's fleeing form with a single claw outstretched. He felt his heart go cold, knowing in its depths that he wasn't going to clear the distance in time as he subconsciously calculated the vectors with his pegasi instincts.
A harsh cry rent the air, as a dark winged shape struck Gillaume LaFish from above, driving him downward like a bit of cloth wrapped around a stone. Soarin nearly threw his back out screeching to a midair stop, an impression of the sun glinting off of a steel helmet and red tipped plumage shooting past like the point and fletching of an arrow. The winged newcomer broke away and leveled off, canting into a long, lazy upward curve as the spotted griffin tumbled like a limp limbed ragdoll and splashed down in a blossom of spray and foam far below.
Soarin gave a clipped cry and spun as a surge of wingwash blew past behind him on a downward vector. He looked down to see a burly, black tunic clad griffin bearing down on the wide eyed figure of the LaFish brother he'd kicked in the nethers. He winced at the impact as the newcomer connected with his target in an explosion of speckled feathers, and then another feathered and furred body was dropping bonelessly toward the waves.
His head whipped around at the sound of the third brother's ragged voice calling out in dismay. "Gaston! Gillaume! Zut alors!" The scrawny brigand was so distracted by his brothers' plight that he hadn't noticed the whiplike figure of a female griffin diving toward him, her hawk like eyes narrowed beneath the aerodynamic crest of her helmet. A moment later, the thud of a midair collision, and the final LaFish brother was on his way down in a daze.
Soarin hung in the air, wobbling a bit on his wings as the adrenaline faded to an all over body shiver. A stern faced griffin with bright red tips on his reddish brown wings rose up into a casual hover before him. A smirk stretched the pink, lightning-like scar on the left side of his face as he fished in the pocket of his tunic and brought out a monocle, which he set in his right eye socket. He regarded the sky blue pegasus before him with an appraising glance, saying nothing.
Soarin finally broke the silence with a halting voice. "B-baron Redtail, right? Th-thanks, your... uh... your excellency."
The griffin cocked his head, then barked over his shoulder at his servants. "Gunther! Clean up the dregs! Greta! First aid!"
He leveled his glinting gaze on the shaken stallion. "I did not do this for you, Vunderbolt. I did this for my people's honor. I vill not have these treacherous sons of vultures and catamounts disgracing our proud heritage."
He cast a disdainful glance as his burly male servant rose ponderously into the air with three limp, dripping figures hanging by their tails from his taloned grip. He snapped a clawed finger. "Take them back to Baltimare and give them to the pony authorities. They transgressed pony rules, they vill face pony justice. Ve vill rendezvous in the Macintosh Hills."
Gunther gave a curt bow and wheeled in the air, dragging the unconscious LaFish brothers behind him in the direction of the port city they'd left behind earlier that morning.
Soarin met the Baron's gaze. "Well, your excellency, whatever your reasons, I owe you one." He glanced toward the opposite horizon, the tiny figure of Pip rapidly vanishing in the distance in an erratic, headlong flight. "Now if you'll pardon me, I need to catch up with my partner."
He let out a yelp as he was suddenly grabbed by the scruff of his neck and shoved face down into a puff of cloud as a harsh female voice spoke up. "You go novhere until I see to these vounds, pony."
He let out a slightly higher pitched yelp as a pair of cold, taloned hands began to dab at his flanks with something that stung and smelled acridly chemical. Soarin craned his neck and looked past his splayed wings to see the griffin female swabbing streaks of blood away from shallow, parallel slashes across his cutie marks. He blinked in dumb amazement, realizing he'd taken some damage in that scuffle.
His head whipped around as the Baron's thoughtful voice chimed in. "You say you owe me vun, Very well. I vill accept a duel as repayment."
The pegasus stallion's eyes widened, his pupils shrinking to pinpricks. "What?"
An avid smile further scrunched up the griffin noble's scar. "Yes. Long have I dreamed of matching my skills against vun of Equestria's famous Vunderbolts. That vill be quite satisfactory."
Soarin struggled to push himself up off of the cloud, only to find himself roughly shoved back down. He looked back frantically at the sound of cloth tearing to see Greta had slashed the sleeve of his flight jacket open with a talon and was applying more stinging antiseptic to the bleeding puncture wounds in his shoulder.
He dithered, before turning his stunned attention back toward the Baron and stammering a reply. "H-hey... Ow! Hey! Wait... Wait a sleet buckin' minute here! I'm... Ow! I'm retired! I'm not a Vunder... I mean a Wonderbolt anymore!"
The red crested griffin gave an airy wave of a claw. "You fly like vun. You fight like vun. That is all that matters. I do not care vhat uniform you vear, all I vant is a duel vith a flyer of your obvious skill."
The sky blue pegasus waved a forelegs in exasperation. "Well, we're both kind of busy at the moment, don't ya think?"
He let out another yelp as Greta's freezing cold talons wrapped around the one she'd been working on and dragged it forcibly back down to the cloud, almost rolling him onto his side. "Ow! hey watch it, lady!"
She gave him a smack on the flank that sent needles of pain straight to his spine and a blush to his cheeks. "Quit skvirming!"
The Baron tapped a claw to his chin in thought. "Yes. You have a point. Ve are already engaged in a contest. Not vun of skill but of endurance, though. You're in no shape to face me now, and ve vill both be a bit shagged out after flying over the vilderness ahead of us."
His beetle brow furrowed over his monocle. "I vould vant to face you at your best. You must have time to prepare."
He gave a decisive nod. "Yes. Ve vill postpone our duel until ve reach Vanhoover. The easy flight up from Los Pegasus should give us both time to refresh ourselves. And the mountains vill be a more suitable backdrop at any rate."
Soarin scowled at the griffin noble. "Hey, I haven't agreed to this yet. What if I refuse?"
The griffin's face bore a mirthless smile as he leaned in, fixing Soarin with his glittering eagle's gaze. "Vhat indeed, my little pony? Vhat... indeed..."
Soarin's head whipped around to the harsh sound of canvas ripping as Greta moved to his other side and tore open his other sleeve. "Hey! Quit that!"
He turned his attention back to Redtail, wincing as she applied more antiseptic to his shoulder. "You're nuts!"
The griffon casually examined the tips of his talons. "And you, as you said, owe me vun. So vhat vill it be, Vunderbolt?"
The pegasus stallion snorted through his nostrils. "My name is Soarin. Lieutenant Soarin, to you. And ya know what? I will take you on, just to teach you what kind of cyclone you're bucking when you throw down on the 'Bolts."
The Baron threw back his head and gave a bark of laughter. "HA! Vell spoken, Lieutenant Soarin." He extended a claw. "I look forvard to facing you on the field of honor."
Soarin snarled back as Greta finally allowed him to push up into a seated position. "And I look forward to shoving that smug face of yours down your gizzard." He took the griffin's talon and gave it a firm shake.
Redtail chuckled, removing his monocle and pushing it back into the pocket of his tunic. "Ah Lieutenant, already you have spiced up this bland bankvet of a race for me. I vill see you in Vanhoofer."
He wheeled with a triumphant cry and soared away over the rippling blue expanse of the bay. Greta gave Soarin a curt bow and followed her master, slinging her first aid kit onto her back as she fell into formation.
Soarin let out another snort, then slouched in his seat on the small puff of cloud as he let out a shudder and brought his hooves to his forehead. "Sweet Celestia's immaculate undercarriage, what the thunder did I just get myself into? AJ's gonna trample me into fertilizer for this."
He spent a minute breathing rapidly in and out, before shaking it off and taking a look around. "Okay, get it together sleet head. One problem at a time. Where'd Pip get to?"
He scanned the horizon, his brow furrowing with concern as he saw no sign of the young pony. With a sigh, he craned his neck back and fumbled at the flap of his backpack. After a moment of rooting around inside, he produced one of the emergency flares that Doctor Sparkle had formulated in her alchemy lab. Biting down on the fuse cap, he gave it a tug, then held it away from his face as it fired a sparkling projectile skyward.
Twilight was taking a reading with her astrolabe on the Friend Ship's front platform when her attention was drawn by a flash over the horizon. She looked up to see a glittering firework explode into the shape of a pink, six pointed star, then turn into a blue diamond, then a globular red outline of an apple, before finally resolving into a bright orange arrow pointing downward toward the source of the flare.
Apple Bloom was suddenly at her side, her hooves hooked over the railing and her amber eyes wide with alarm. "That's th' distress signal, ain't it?"
Twilight nodded, a note of concern on her voice. "Yeah, it is. Power up the turbines, I'm gonna adjust our heading." She wheeled away to head through the hatch into the cabin. "Spike! Give us some fire. We need to gain some altitude!"
They drifted up to find Soarin sitting morosely on a tiny puff of cloud, dried blood streaking his sky blue coat and his canvas jacket hanging in tatters.
Twilight was at the railing with a look of shock and alarm on her face, her eyes wide and her ears laid back. "Merciful princesses, what happened?"
Apple Bloom joined her, her pale yellow features going a shade whiter. "Where's Pip?"
The sky blue pegasus sighed wearily. "Dunno. I was hoping he'd see the flare and come back by now."
He held up a hoof to silence a torrent of questions. "We got jumped by the LaFish brothers. Don't ask me why. Baron Redtail and his crew took 'em out, but not before they did some damage, as you can see."
He gave a rueful nod toward the western horizon. "Pip got away, but I dunno how far he made it 'cos the Moth kinda took a beating."
Before Twilight could gather her thoughts to respond, the sound of a bell rang out from the Friend Ship's cabin. She wheeled and ducked inside, plucking the bakelite cone off of the 'phone receiver and perching it on her horn.
Rarity stood anxiously beside the 'phone in her stateroom, her elegant hat discarded on the bed as she bounced on the tips of her diamond shod hooves. A look of relief washed over her alabaster features as the cone on her horn flickered with purple light. "Twilight! What's going on? I was at tea with Lady Opulence and Fancy Pants when I saw the distress flare go up. What? What do you... WhaaHAAAH!"
She let out a trilling scream as a burst of magic and displaced air popped forth a lavender unicorn mare with a panicked expression on her face. "Rarity! We need you on the Friend Ship right now!"
Before the alabaster fashion designer could stutter a response she and Twilight vanished in two more bursts of magical energy, leaving the gilded cone to drop against the wall of the cabin and dangle at the end of its cord.
Twilight landed on her hooves on the platform as she winked back to the Friend Ship. Rarity appeared at her side with a squawk, landing on her soot stained face between the scholarly mare and Apple Bloom with her alabaster rump and frazzled violet tail in the air. She began to curse in a thoroughly ladylike fashion as she thrashed and kicked and struggled to regain her hooves.
The surprisingly well enunciated invective died on her lips as she caught sight of Soarin. She surged to the railing, shoving a stray curl out of her eyes as they went wide with alarm. "Darling! You look awful! What happened?"
The sky blue pegasus gave her a rueful grin as he climbed painfully to his hooves on the little cloud. "You ought to see the other guys."
Twilight turned to her business partner with a grave expression. "They got attacked. Pip's missing. We need you to help us find him, and probably lend a hoof with repairs on the harness when we do."
Apple Bloom spoke up in a small, trembling voice. "If'n we do find him."
Twilight fixed her with a glare. "When we do."
She turned back to Rarity. "I can beat you on range and depth, but your gem finding is so much more sensitive than mine, if we link up our wavelengths we should be able to pinpoint that amethyst you sewed into the hem of his jacket."
Apple Bloom looked at the two unicorn mares with a cocked eyebrow. "The what now?"
Rarity gave a toss of her mane. "Oh, well it was just a little idea I had while we were getting ready for the race. It was more for good luck than anything."
She gave her partner a smile. "I only mentioned it to Twilight in passing. I'm always impressed with your memory for tiny details, darling."
The scholarly mare nodded back to her and wheeled away from the railing toward the cabin. "Well, lets just hope it works. Apple Bloom, where are your wire cutters?"
Moments later the purple balloon was sailing along with turbines at full power. Spike and Soarin coasted along ahead of it scanning the waves for any sign of Harmony Aeronautics' wayward test pony. Twilight and Rarity stood with their hooves over the rail with their faces scrunched up in concentration. The bakelite cone from the 'phone perched on the alabaster fashionista's horn, with the partially stripped cord trailing from the lavender scholar's, bare copper winding around the spiral groove and sparking with purple magic. Apple Bloom stood at the wheel, an anxious expression on her youthful features as she steered the craft in response to Rarity's directions.
As the far coast of Horseshoe Bay came into view, Soarin called out to the Friend Ship and wheeled into a dive toward the ocean. The others watched intently as he grabbed something from the waves and circled back up to the balloon in a long, lazy arc.
Rarity let out a gasp and raised a hoof to her mouth as Twilight's ears laid back. Apple Bloom shouldered her way to the railing between them, ducking beneath the wire as she craned her neck to see. "What? What is it?"
In Soarin's fore hooves he clenched the rear lobe from the Luna Moth's right wing, cracked at the connection point with its spars visible through the tattered purple fabric. A wail of horror escaped from Apple Bloom's throat as she slumped back on her haunches, a ragged sob surging up her throat. She covered her eyes, her tears streaming around her hooves.
Rarity leaned far forward to peer over the railing, going up on tip hooves on her hind legs with a look of intense concentration on her face. "I'm not getting a contact down there."
She jerked her gaze forward and pointed with a fore hoof. "It's that way, toward land! Forward!"
Twilight bobbed her head and took hold of the telescope, pointing it in the direction Rarity had indicated. She hiked her tail as she called out urgently. "I see the rest of it! There, on the beach!"
She turned and gave Apple Bloom a shove. "Get to the tiller! Go!"
Galvanized from her misery, the young mare scrabbled to her hooves and galloped into the cabin, grasping the wheel and opening up the throttle on the balloon's turbines.
Soarin and Spike landed on the beach with a light quartet of taps and a heavy thud, and hurried over to where the flattened butterfly wings of the Luna Moth lay splayed on the beach, the rich purples, blues, and whites standing out against the yellow beige of the sand. The tangled straps of the harness lay like a bundle of flotsam seaweed, some snapped and some unbuckled.
The sky blue pegasus bent down and examined the battered, broken flying machine. "Well, he made it to shore alive from the look of things."
He cocked his head curiously as his adolescent dragon companion spoke up. "Yeah, I'd say. Gross!"
Spike pointed to a fetid puddle of half digested breakfast he'd discovered a few hooves up the beach from the fallen harness. The young dragon kicked sand over the mess and trotted toward the breakers as the Friend Ship came drifting down for a landing. He flapped his leathery wings in a leap as he caught a rope tossed to him by Twilight.
Soarin's attention was drawn to something else lying up the beach. He walked toward it with his brow furrowed, as he heard three sets of mares' hooves striking the sand one after another behind him.
As the pegasus stallion approached, he saw that it was Pip's flight helmet, the chin strap snapped, with his discarded brass goggles lying beside it. A few steps beyond, he saw the young pony's purple scarf, and beyond that, almost blending into the sand, his flight jacket, lying crumpled alongside a weaving, stumbling trail of hoof prints. The erratic path disappeared at the edge of the woods that rustled softly in the breeze coming off the water.
He walked over to it and turned it open with a hoof. The lapel pocket was empty. Wherever he'd gone, Pip had taken the feather that the veteran flyer had given him for luck.
Soarin raised his head as he became aware of Rarity standing at his side, her horn glittering with pale blue magic. She raised a hoof to her mouth in dismay. "Oh dear. Here's his jacket! I can sense the amethyst. And there's his backpack, and his scarf! Oh dear oh dear, why would the poor colt wander off without a stitch of clothing on his back?"
Twilight's voice was solemn as she came up beside her business partner. "Um... Rarity, ponies don't normally wear clo..."
The alabaster fashion designer cut her off with a stomp of her hoof. "I KNOW! All right? I know! Can we please move on?"
Apple Bloom trotted past them and stopped at the edge of the woods. "He went in here. C'mon!" She turned and called into the dim, sun dappled gallery of trees beyond. "Pip! Where are ya, Pip?"
The others exchanged a glance, and followed her, calling out the young stallion's name as well. Twilight glanced over her shoulder at Spike. "Go back and watch the balloon, we'll be back when we find him."
The young dragon gave a nod, well aware from the tone of her voice that she'd brook no argument. "I'll dig out the first aid kit."
A few steps into the woods, Apple Bloom raised a hoof for silence. "Quiet, y'all. Just let me take a lissen t' these here trees..." The pegasus and two unicorns fell quiet, their own ears straining as the young earth pony mare closed her eyes and inhaled and exhaled a deep breath through her nostrils. She scuffed at the soft, mossy ground with a hoof, absently flicking her tail.
Her amber eyes snapped open, and she nodded past the clearing to a mass of foliage beyond. "There!"
They found Pip curled up beneath a large juniper bush, shivering and sobbing softly to himself like a lost foal. Soarin's sky blue feather was clenched tightly between his fore hooves and clutched to his heaving chest.
A flinch coursed through his body as Apple Bloom reached a shaking hoof out and laid it on his shoulder. His eyes snapped open, coming into focus as he met her gaze. She let out a sob of her own as she took him to her breast, gasping as he surged up onto his haunches and wrapped his forelegs around her in a tight embrace.
His voice was a ragged croak as he let her rock him back and forth. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry about everything..."
Soon they'd gathered on the beach. Soarin and Spike busied themselves setting up a rudimentary campsite, piling some wood for a dragon lit fire and breaking out some food and drink from the balloon's stores. Rarity and Twilight busied themselves doing triage on the wreckage of the Luna Moth, sitting mournfully in the sand over the shattered wings and examining the tears in the fabric and the broken framework. Pip sat a short distance away wrapped in a blanket, staring numbly out to sea with Apple Bloom at his side, her head on his shoulder.
Presently, Soarin approached the young earth ponies. He laid a gentle hoof on the red maned mare's shoulder. "Uh, hey Apple Bloom, Twilight and Rarity could really use your help with the harness."
She looked up at him with glistening, red rimmed eyes. "But... Pip..."
He leaned in to whisper in her ear. "Go fix his wings. Let me take a pass at fixing his head. Then maybe you can get to work on his heart. Okay?"
Reluctantly, the handymare got to her hooves and made her way over to where the unicorns stood, casting uncertain glances over her shoulder as she went. Pip cast a longing glance after her, eventually pulling his gaze away to stare at the breakers once again.
Soarin' rustled his wings as he took a seat next to the young stallion. He looked over at Pip's coltish profile, the spotted pony's ears drooping, his shock of brown mane tangled and limp across his furrowed brow, tracks blazed by tears through the dirt on his cheeks.
The veteran flyer cleared his throat and spoke up in a gentle voice. "Y'wanna talk about it?"
Pip sighed. "What's to say? I've gone and made a ruddy great muddle of everything. That's all I seem to do no matter how hard I try."
He drew the blanket tighter around his shoulders and stared at the sand. "I try to go out and make my mark on the world, and I wind up back home sweeping out chimneys. I try to be bold, and the first sign of real trouble I freeze up and you have to drag me out of it. I try to be brave, and I leave you in the jaws of danger while I tuck tail and run crying like a little foal. I try to be a gentlecolt, and wind up carelessly trampling the feelings of the only mare who's ever shown any interest in me."
Soarin blinked at that last one, but shook it off and decided now wasn't the time to go into it. He flicked an ear as he slowly nodded. "So now what?"
Pip's brow furrowed, and he looked at the sky blue flyer out of the corner of his eye. "Not sure I follow you there, mate."
Soarin shrugged. "So you tried, and for lots of reasons it didn't work out. What next? Give up? Stop trying? Don't you still want to make your mark? Do you not want to be a brave, bold, gentlecolt anymore?"
Pip hung his head. "I don't know. I used to think I had a firm grip on it all. Chin up, grin up, carry on with a song and all that rot. Then I find out I've been going about it all wrong and ponies I care about start getting hurt, and I start wondering if it all isn't just a jolly mask hiding a lot of quiet desperation and failure."
Soarin rolled his eyes. "Don't talk to me about failure 'til you've fallen as far as I have, kid. Hasn't been too long since I was nothin' but a washed up bum blubbering into my gut 'cos I couldn't hack it as a big flashy carnival hero. I couldn't even see the top of my crater, I was so low. And don't talk to me about masks. Mine was blue and yellow with lightning bolts on it, and it got ripped off like a flag in a cyclone when I let my rump get too big to squeeze into the bodysuit that went with it."
He fixed the young stallion with an earnest green eyed gaze. "Then this wonderful mare said to me: 'When ya hit the ground, ya get up and get at it again.' And she didn't say that for the sake of the suit, or the stunts, or the celebrity. That stuff comes and goes like drizzle. It's a soap bubble in a strong wind, beautiful while it lasts but gone in a pop."
He wrapped a wing around Pip's shoulders. "She said it 'cos the pony inside the suit is what needs to keep goin'. A pony with legs that need to stand, wings that need to stretch out and fly, and a heart that needs to keep beating. A pony that cares for other ponies with that heart, and wants to be the best pony they can be, even when it seems like it's really hard to pull off."
He nodded over his shoulder toward where Rarity, Twilight, and Apple Bloom were working on the harness. "I think you might have a wonderful mare like that who wants to care about this pony." He gently poked the young stallion in the chest. "But you gotta quit worrying about keeping up the mask and show her that heart of yours."'
Pip gave him a sheepish sidelong look. "But... but what if I muck it all up again?"
Soarin shrugged. "Then you patch up what you can, learn from your mistakes, and get back at it."
He nodded down toward Pip's side where his cutie mark would be under the blanket. "How do you suppose that flag got on top of that mountain on your flank? Do you think a pegasus flew it up there? Or maybe a unicorn winked it up to the top with their magic."
He smiled as he shook his head. " No way. Somepony, probably somepony very much like you since it's your cutie mark, had to climb up that mountain step by step until they reached the top. Maybe they slipped a few times. Maybe they rolled all the way back down and wound up with a sore tail and a lump on their head. But there's that flag there, so obviously the mountain wasn't too tall to climb, and they wanted to plant that flag bad enough that they eventually made it all the way."
Soarin folded his wing and stood, extending a hoof to Pip with a smile. "What do ya say, Pip? You wanna dust off and get climbing again?"
The young earth pony got to his hooves and accepted the pegasus' hoofshake, a tentative glimmer stealing into his smile as he did so. "Yes, my dear chum, I do believe I'd like to give it another go."
As they turned and made their way toward the little conference of mares, Apple Bloom looked up and waved to them with a hopeful smile. "Hey fellers! Good news! Th' damage ain't so bad as all that, and we reckon with a l'il work it can be fixed up right proper!"
Pip cleared his throat, shared a glance with a grinning Soarin, and stepped forward with the blanket draped across his withers like a penitent's cloak. "Er... yes. Miss... Um. Apple Bloom, on that note, would you care to talk in private for a moment?"
Rarity and Twilight looked at Soarin with a searching gaze as the two young earth ponies trotted a short distance down the beach together and began an earnest conversation.
Twilight cocked an eyebrow toward him. "So what's the forecast, mister weather pony?"
Before he could reply Rarity let out a silvery chuckle and bobbed her horn toward Apple Bloom and Pip. "Seems like sunny skies to me, darling."
The young stallion and mare were standing face to face, their necks arched forward in a tender kiss, as the clouds blew out to sea overhead.
The older ponies all shared a smile, then turned their attention to repairing the winged harness.
The characters depicted in this fiction are copyright and trademarks of Hasbro, Inc. This is a work of fan fiction, and the author makes no claim on Hasbro's copyright or trademarks.