Part 34 - Boarding Passes
Rarity's face flushed a bright red, her sapphire eyes flashing with fury as she stomped her hoof for emphasis. "What do you MEAN I'm not allowed to come back on board?"
The unicorn ship's purser's own eyes narrowed suspiciously beneath the shiny black brim of his white cap as he glanced between the passenger manifest floating in a cloud of yellowish sparkles and her pouting face. "Well, Miss 'Rarity', if that is your real name, which I very highly doubt, I have no record of you disembarking from the Ambrosia, therefore you, or should I say, the real you, that is, the mare you're trying to impersonate, is still on board as far as we're concerned."
The frazzled fashionista ground her hooves in the grit and hiked her tail behind her as she fought to maintain an even tone of voice and found herself on the ropes with a standing eight count. "And as far as I am concerned, sir, you are being hopelessly obtuse, for I am very clearly out here, when I should be in my stateroom catching up on several nights of lost beauty sleep."
The stallion's eyes narrowed further. "Oh, you'd like me to think you're out here, but that's just what your kind would say if you were trying to convince me that you were."
Rarity opened and closed her mouth as her overwrought, under-slept brain struggled to comprehend the purser's reply and formulate a counter argument. Failing to find a suitable strand of logic, she fell back on umbrage. " My kind? My kind? My kind, sir, is the finest kind you can find. Just whom do you think you're talking to?"
The burly stevedores who were busily loading palettes of supplies onto the heavy winches hanging from the airship's cargo hold all paused in their work and looked over at the two unicorns as a piercing shriek echoed over the railroad freight yard. "A CHANGELING!? HOW DARE YOU ACCUSE ME OF BEING ONE OF THOSE BEASTLY CREATURES!?"
High above, in the glass lined forward ballroom where brunch was being served, the flawless image of Diamond Tiara nearly vented the contents of her thoracic sac when the faint echo reached her ears over the subdued chatter of the blithely unaware ponies around her.
With practiced casualness, she carefully set her fork down beside the plate of saffron quiche she'd been picking at as if she'd realized she wasn't really that hungry, a bit of acting at once difficult, for she was lust gnawingly ravenous, and grub's play, because anything with eggs in it made her want to retch herself straight out of her carapace.
She stood and ambled seemingly without purpose over to the windows, allowing a waiter to clear away her dishes with an imperious toss of her currently lavender and pearl streaked mane. She reared up to lean her hooves on the railing and peered down to see if she could spot the source of the screaming.
Her eyes went wide, the glinting green irises shrinking to pinpricks, as she spotted a gleaming white unicorn with curling violet hair and a triune diamond for a cutie mark. In spite of herself, she crouched down behind the rail, peeking over it as she fought to hold her meal in the specialized compartment that her kind had developed to convincingly feign eating organic matter.
It was her! The shrill dressmaker who was one of the hated Elements of Harmony. Congeniality or something, she could never keep them straight. She was usually too busy running for her life when the rainbow blasts started splitting the air. Was the white unicorn alone?
The imitation Diamond hunkered down further, to the point where she was beginning to get bemused looks from the other finely dressed patrons still at their tables. No... The rainbow one with the mean right cross was in the race thing that the pathetic ponies on board were all constantly jabbering about over plates of their noisome food and drink.
She'd seen the multicolored ring of the pegasus mare's signature attack on the distant horizon as the Ambrosia made its way toward the pony city of Appleloosa. Ever since she'd seen it, her segmented tongue had been working at the empty space in her jaw where one of her pseudomolars had been, reliving painful memories of an old confrontation long suppressed.
Were the rest of them at hoof as well? The orange one who could send an armored changeling drone sailing a hundred hooves with a kick? The yellow one with those... those eyes that made you want to drop glamer and apologize to everypony in earshot ? The... the pink one? Oh, sweet mother of pods, the pink one! Or worst of them all, Twilight Sparkle? That insufferable, un-foolable, prissy know it all with her implacable vendetta. Were they on to her? Were they coming for her? As love starved as she was she knew she wouldn't be able to fend them off at all. And her minions were now too far away to swarm to her rescue.
The ersatz princess dropped to her belly and scuttled for the doorway, not caring a whit for the sudden shocked silence and the stares that followed her. She didn't care what her "husband" would say, she had to get out of sight, preferably under something solid, perhaps sealed with some adhesive mucous.
The purser wore the general expression of a dog getting the business end of a garden hose brandished in its face, as Rarity drew in a deep breath and embarked on an epic dressing down of the hapless officer. "I've never been so insulted in all my life! I am the one and only Rarity, a complete original from my horn to my hooves, and for you to stand there and say that I am some sort of copy is just as gauche as to compare one of my sublime creations to a cheap prêt-à porter knockoff!"
She began to pace back and forth in front of him. "And furthermore, my company paid big bits for my ticket, allegedly for the very best that your airship line has to offer, and I scarcely think that spurious accusations of me being some sort of tacky, style biting insect qualifies as good customer service by any stretch of the imagination."
She stopped pacing and rounded on him, rearing up imperiously. "I have a mind to write a strongly worded letter to your board of directors to let them know just how ineffably rude their staff can be. Why, when I think..."
They were both rescued as a sturdily built earth pony with a dappled grey coat and a royal blue uniform jacket came trotting up. "Excuse me, Mister Drawstring. Is there a problem over here?"
He turned and gave the disheveled alabaster mare a smile. "There you are, Milady Rarity! The stewards have been wondering where you'd gone. You haven't been back to your room since we left Baltimare."
She turned to him with a pleading look on her face. "Sterling! Darling! Please tell this... this pony that I really am who I say I am."
Sterling cocked an eyebrow and looked to the purser quizzically. "Why wouldn't she be who she says she is?"
The unicorn officer held up his clipboard as a shield between himself and Rarity's flashing glare. "There's no record of her leaving the ship. I suspect she, or should I say it, is a changeling trying to worm its way onboard so it can suck all our brains out."
The pale mare bit back a comment about being unable to do so since clearly somepony had beaten her to it in the purser's case, and instead continued to make puppy dog eyes at the earth pony porter. "I already explained that to him. My good friend and business partner, the famous Doctor Twilight Sparkle, who's a trusted confidant of both Princesses, I might add, winked me off of the ship to help with an emergency."
The unicorn stallion rolled his eyes and snorted. "A likely story."
Rarity's eyes narrowed and her left eyelid twitched dangerously as the sky overhead flickered a bright vermilion around a deep red sun, causing a bit of uproar among the ponies around her. The alabaster unicorn kept her gaze leveled at the purser, generating her own red from within. "I'll tell you a likely story, pal. It involves my hoof and your face..."
Sterling moved to interpose himself between them with a nervous clearing of his throat as the sky overhead returned to a yellowish blue. "If everypony would just calm down, I think I can vouch for the lady here, if she'd just answer me a question."
He turned to her with a smile. "Did you enjoy the mane wash that the stewards managed to turn up?"
She blinked at him, tears beginning to pool at the corners of her eyes. "I... I haven't even gotten to wash my mane for two whole days... A lesser mare would have just snapped under that sort of privation."
The earth pony porter's eyes narrowed. "But did you enjoy it when you did?"
She quailed slightly, sleep deprivation making her a bit slow on the uptake. "Er... yes. It was very... nice, a very suitable essence of lilac with just the barest hint of gardenia as an undertone. It went ever so nicely with the lavender bath powder."
A relieved smile spread across Sterling's face as he turned to his senior officer. "She's the real deal, Mister Drawstring. I'd be happy to escort her to her stateroom and let you get back to restocking the ship's stores."
The purser didn't look entirely convinced, and stared long and hard at Rarity before acquiescing. "All right, Sterling. Get her aboard and out of my face."
The earth pony nodded and gave a salute. "Yes sir. If you'll please come with me to the boarding platform, milady."
A warm smile spread across Rarity's tired face, and she leaned in to plant a kiss on Sterling's cheek, causing a faint blush to spread across his dappled features. "Oh, you are an absolute treasure, darling. You have my eternal gratitude. Please do lead on."
With that she turned and fell into step beside him, canting her horn back as she raised her snout in the air and gave the purser a cold shoulder that was icy enough to make a windigo think about putting on a scarf. She hiked her mildly tangled tail behind her in majestic disdain and sashayed along with Sterling toward the lifts.
A much more congenial farewell was underway at the Appleloosa train station, as a large crowd of friends and family gathered to see Applejack off on her train ride back to Ponyville.
A thoroughly crabby Rarity had drawn on what little remaining reserves of vivacity she could muster to give the blonde farm mare and Soarin another round of congratulations, wish her partner and employees of Harmony Aeronautics best of luck, and give Rainbow Dash a fond farewell before bustling off to see about getting back aboard the Ambrosia.
The rainbow maned stunt flyer had come by with Spitfire in tow, gave their former team mate a quick hug and bumped hooves for luck, and then hurried away to pick Shootin' Star up at the doctor's where he was getting an examination to determine if he was in good enough condition to continue after the injuries he'd recieved in the Salt Lick brawl.
Twilight, Apple Bloom, Spike, and Pip took off soon afterward, citing the need get ready for the next leg of the race. Apple Bloom gave her sister a warm hug and a hastily written letter to convey her best wishes to her grandmother, her brother, and his family, while Twilight nodded toward the town's clock tower and told Soarin to be back at the Friend Ship in an hour.
Most of that time had been tied up by a milling crowd of aunts, uncles, and cousins who'd stopped by to wish Applejack and her newly announced fiancé their best and secure promises of invites to the eventual wedding, whenever that was going to happen. By the time the last of the Appleloosa branch of the extensive Apple family tree had dispersed to their work in the orchards, the conductors were beginning to board the Ponyville express to the shrill wail of the train's whistle.
Soarin and Applejack parted from a tender kiss, with the sky blue pegasus smiling into his beloved's freckled face as he reached up a wing to brush her cheek. "Well, I guess this is so long 'til I land in Canterlot. If I land in..."
She reached up a hoof and touched it gently to his lips, silencing him. "I'll take a when, not an if, darlin'."
Her voice caught in her throat as she reared up to hug him. "I'm so durn proud o' ya, Soarin. I knew y'were gonna make it after that night we talked in th' orchard."
He nuzzled her cheek as he did his best to commit her touch, her smell, her voice, her softness and warmth, and the boundless strength he could feel beneath it all to memory. "You're my inspiration, Applejack. It's easy to go the distance when I know you're gonna be there waiting at the end of it."
She choked back a small sob as she hugged him tighter. "You know it, sweetheart. Sure as there's roots on a tree, I'll be there."
The voice of the conductor rang through the already stifling dust and heat on the platform. "All aboard!"
The pegasus stallion and his earth pony mare separated, reluctantly, with longing looks in two sets of green eyes as she wheeled and cantered toward the passenger car's entrance, leaping aboard as the engine hissed and started to chug forward.
Soarin stood on the platform and watched the train pick up speed, carrying his beloved back to the home he yearned for. But the time for yearning was past. Now was the time to strive.
With a resolute nod toward the sky he turned and prepared to take wing, stopping before the downbeat when he noticed a pair of figures wearing heavy cloaks underneath dark, broad brimmed hats step up onto the platform and hurry into the shade, huddling against the ticket office beneath the tiny building's eaves. He couldn't help but notice the dark cloth of their capes shifting over pairs of bat like wings.
Folding his own wings and cocking his head in curiousity, the sky blue stallion crossed over to the furtive creatures, his gaze meeting two pairs of squinting, slitted yellow eyes as he approached.
The larger of the two, who indeed was larger than most ponies and equal in size to some of the smaller buffalo he'd seen in town waved a greenish grey hoof. "Father! Look. It is our pegasus friend, Father!"
Soarin returned their wave nonchalantly as he stepped up. "Hey, Junior. Mister Fleiderhaus."
The slender negasus cleared his throat pointedly and pursed his lips. "Fleidermaus, Lieutenant Soarin."
The feathery winged stallion blushed. "Oh, sorry."
He cleared his throat and changed the subject. "So, uh... You guys are dropping out of the race, huh?"
The darkly swaddled pony of the night nodded sadly and let out a sigh. "Yes. Sadly, our light proof suits vere burned up in the jailhouse's evidence room vith everythink else. Ve vouldn't be able to stand the burning sun of the desert crossing vithout them, and so ve are forced to concede and go home."
Soarin cocked an eyebrow. "Didn't you pack spares?"
Fleidermaus shook his head. "Alas, they vere made of grey recluse cave spider silk, of vhich there vas only so much to be had. No other fabric blocks sunlight as effectively, and yet is light and flexible enough to allow us to fly unhindered."
He cast a wry smile at his son. "And it took a fair bit of the cloth that ve had to make a suit that vould cover Junior properly."
The sky blue pegasus nodded with understanding. "Well, I'm really sorry to hear it. You guys had a really good run."
Junior pawed at the planks beneath their hooves, looking downcast. "Not good enough, Pegasus! Now father must come up with another vay for me to impress Princess Luna! So that she vill have me as vun of her knights!"
Soarin drew himself up. "Seriously? That's why you guys entered the Pegathalon?"
Fleidermaus gave another nod. "Yes. Ve hoped that Junior vould draw her serene higness' attention vith this trial."
Another wan smile in his hulking offspring's direction. "What he lacks in style or subtlety, he makes up for in tenacity, endurance, and enthusiasm."
The former Wonderbolt gave them both a grin. "Well hailstones, you should have said something sooner. You know that Princess Luna is Harmony Aeronautcs' patroness."
The slender negasus nodded. "Yes, ve vere avare. Her favor vas vhy I vas villing to let you lead my colt into that terrible fire."
His son clenched his eyes shut and gave a shake of his head. "Fire bad!"
Soarin's grin widened as he leaned in conspiratorially. "Well listen, I got a couple things to say to that. One, word from my boss is that your boy here is already on the short list of Night Guard candidates, and two, me and my employers would be more than happy to let her highness know how brave, strong, and helpful Junior was last night. I bet bits to breezes that she'd be impressed."
Fleidermaus the elder drew himself up, a look of hopeful incredulity spreading across his pale face. "You... you vould do this for us?"
The sky blue stallion shrugged. "Sure! Heck, everypony who was in that jail owes you their lives, both for kicking down a steel door like it was made of cardboard and for leading us all out of the smoke. It's the least I can do for ya!"
Without another sound save for a tiny sob, the younger negasus reared up and wrapped his stalactite thick forelegs around him in a hug that crushed all the air out of his lungs. Soarin's eyes bugged out as he rasped out a response. "O-okay, you're... welcome. You... you can let go now."
Fleidermaus beamed with paternal pride and gratitude. "You honor us, Lieutenant. This means very much to my son and I."
He smiled and winked at the sky blue pegasus, who was becoming a bit bluer in his son's embrace. "Just as long as you remember to get his name right."
He smiled wider as Soarin replied with a rattling wheeze. "Will... do... Need to... breathe... soon..."
The bat winged pony reached out a hoof and tapped his son on the shoulder, the barest nod of his head prompting the hulking brute of a negasus to release the smaller pegasus. A sheepish grin flickered across Junior's face as Soarin weaved slightly on his hooves and tentatively rustled his wings to make sure his spine hadn't fused.
His father extended a hoof. "Ve vish you the best of luck on the remainder of your journey, Lieutenant."
Soarin took it and shook it with a warm smile on his face. "Thanks."
The Wonderbolts team had returned to their support wagon after retrieving Shootin' Star from Doc Sawbones' office, where two of their faithful roadies, Key Grip and Gaffer Tape, awaited them with fresh flight suits and slightly stale donuts served with fortified apple smoothies to wash them down.
The young stallion's demeanor had been uncharacteristically quiet and reserved since he'd regained consciousness yesterday afternoon. He accepted the uniform with a reluctant nod and minimal eye contact, and refused any food, claiming his jaw was still too sore to eat. He took himself some distance away, laid the folded blue and yellow garments on a flat rock, and stared out over the rustling orchards, before starting in on his warmup exercises.
Spitfire ruffled her wings as she watched him sluggishly stretch his limbs, a satisfied smirk on her face as she leaned in to murmur to Dash after taking a long, slurping pull from her drink. "Aw. Lookit' the poor baby. Seems like he's lost his appetite. I guess he couldn't handle all the humble pie Soarin served him for dinner last night."
The rainbow maned mare cocked an eyebrow at her blaze yellow comrade, her lips compressing to a thin line as she silently regarded her. The grin fled from Spitfire's face as Dash finally spoke. "Looks like a squaddie down to me, Cap. You gonna drop hooves for a pickup or just fill in the crater?"
The Wonderbolt's captain reared back indignantly, sputtering her response. "Wh... what the hay do you mean? You can't tell me you feel sorry for that loud mouthed..."
Dash interrupted her. "Teammate?"
She shook her head and cast a glance toward him before meeting Spitfire's outraged gaze. "Look... I'm not saying he hasn't been begging for the beatdown that Soarin' dropped on him for a loong time, and I'm not saying he isn't one of the bigger jerks I've met in my day, and that's even counting myself, but he wears the blue and lightning like us."
Her expression became earnest as she cast a pleading look at her compatriot. "He earned that spot on the team. I think we owe it to him, and to what the Wonderbolts stand for, to get him back up and flying right instead of just pointing and laughing while he augurs himself into the dirt."
The lean yellow mare stared back at Dash, her face a battleground of emotions as her mind thrashed and bucked against acquiescing to her star flyer's point. She let out an exasperated sigh as she tossed aside her smoothie with a petulant flick of her tail. "Fine. Let's go see if we can straighten him out."
Both mares paused as a stallion cleared his throat behind them, and they turned to see a haggard looking Braeburn standing there regarding them with his hat in hoof, turned out in a fine jacket and brocaded vest that bore the rumples of having been hastily and carelessly donned.
He cleared his throat again, plainly working up the courage before he spoke. "Um... I'm powerful sorry t' be interruptin' y'all, but I was wonderin', Miz Dash, if'n I could get a moment of yer time for a li'l conversation."
The pegasi stunt flyers traded a glance, a slight smirk playing across Spitfire's features before she let out a sigh and waved a wing in exasperation. "Okay, I'll go see if I can straighten Shootin' Star out."
She looked back and shook a hoof at the chromatic pegasus as she walked reluctantly over to where the pegasus stallion was doing wing pushups in the dust. "But don't ever say I don't pull my weight as Captain of this outfit."
Dash rolled her eyes and nodded, then turned her attention to the fidgeting earth pony, a blush beginning to form on her cyan cheeks as she rapidly added up what he could possibly want to talk about. "Um... Hey there, Braeburn. What's up?"
He cleared his throat a third time, his normally discursive manner considerably subdued. He looked like he was ready to swallow his slightly frazzled mustache. "Er... I just... Aw shucks. I just wanted t' apologize fer whatever I mighta said while I was... overcome by last night's goin's on. Nurse Splint declined t' go into detail, but I reckon it was a mite embarrassin' fer th' both of us."
The rainbow maned mare pawed at the ground and ruffled her wings, a shy smile forming on her face. "Well... after the initial shock wore off, I guess it was kinda... flattering. I guess."
She gave a shrug. "Anyway, you don't have to apologize. We were all having a pretty rough night, I don't blame you at all for... losing it a little."
Braeburn shifted his footing a bit, as if fighting the urge to wheel and run off. "Well... uh... well what if'n I told ya that I meant whatever I said. I... well... I know ya probably hear stuff like this from yer adorin' fans n' whatnot all th' time, but I think yer a right special kinda mare."
He drew himself up, gaining momentum. "Fact is, y'been more n' more in my thoughts ever since y'all came out t' do that show fer Appleloosa's ten year anniversary jamboree. Ya plumb lit up any room y'were in when ya weren't out lightin' up th' sky."
The golden maned stallion brought his hat up to his chest, hoping it would muffle his heartbeat so he could hear what he was going to say next. "So... uh... would a mare like you ever... ahem... d'ya think it could work out for a fella like me if'n I set t' courtin' ya?"
Rainbow Dash let out a small sigh, regretting what she was about to say before she even said it. "Right now... I'm afraid I'd have to say..."
She shook her head sadly. "No."
Her wings drooped slightly at the disappointment that welled in Braeburn's eyes, and she reached out a hoof and laid it gently on his shoulder. "Listen, it's just that I'm very much a mare in motion at this point in my life. I can't be tied down to one place, I've got a lotta sky to pass under my wings before I settle down."
She gestured with a wing toward the apple orchards in the distance, her primaries pointing toward a majestic patriarch of a tree dominating the highest hill overlooking town. "Let me tell ya, I've been to a lot of places where ponies are quick to lay out the welcome mat, but nopony slams it down quite as hard, or with even half as much pride as you do for anypony who comes to Appleloosa. You love this place, Braeburn. Pulling you away from it would be like uprooting Bloomberg there and putting him back on the train."
Dash lowered her wing as the hoof she rested on his shoulder rose to stroke his cheek. "Forcing you to choose between me and this town would be just as bad as forcing me to choose between you and the road."
Appleloosa's mayor drew in a breath and puffed it out in a long sigh, setting his hat back on his head as he brought his moisened eyes up to meet the cyan mare's gaze. "Well shoot. I thank ya most kindly fer bein' straight with me, Miz Dash. In fact, I reckon yer doin' me a favor, since I won't be up nights anymore wondering what y'would say if'n I just worked up th' courage t' ask. Takes th' ol' bushel off my back, so t' speak."
He reached out a hoof with a fragile smile. "I hope we can at least keep on bein' friends n' all."
Dash shook her head and let out a chuckle. "Y'know, I don't often get to tell somepony else to slow down, Braeburn. And you can just call me Rainbow anyway."
She took his hoof in hers. "We pegasus ponies have a little saying: 'Whatever takes off has gotta land sometime.' I can't say when or where that might be for me, but who knows? Maybe someday I'll want to find a place where I can put my hooves down for good, and maybe the place I pick is gonna win out over all the others 'cos somepony who really loves it will persuade me it's the best place to be."
Braeburn's smile grew stronger as he shook Dash's hoof. "Well, Rainbow, I don't reckon there'll be much of a contest. If'n ya do decide t' settle in Appleloosa, it'll be th' best place in Equestria as a matter o' course 'cos then you'll be livin' here."
Her own smile widened as she pulled him closer. "Well one thing this town's got going for it is the mayor certainly knows how to turn on the charm."
She let out a chuckle as she craned her neck and gave him a kiss that sent a candy colored lightning charge through his lips. It barreled through his brain like a runaway stagecoach and careened down his spine where it came to a splintering crash at the root of his tail, causing him to snap a kick into the air with his hind legs that would have bucked fruit, leaves, and branches off of a stout apple tree.
He weaved on his hooves as she stepped back, his eyes spiraling in their sockets with a dopey smile on his face. A moment later he shook it off, and leapt up with a loud whoop, clicking the his front and back hooves as he hovered in midair before drifting back down again.
Dash blushed a bit hotter as she let out a chuckle. "Well, I've got a race to win and all, so I guess I'll be seein' ya around, Braeburn."
The earth pony stallion reached up and doffed his hat, releasing a cloud of steam and little floating hearts from underneath as he gave her a deep bow. "Y'all come back soon, Rainbow. Y'hear? I'll be waitin' t' show ya th' best this ol' town has t' offer."
She gave him a wave of her wing and a wink as she trotted toward her team mates.
While Dash was having her heart to heart with Braeburn, Spitfire was marching toward Shootin' Star with a barely repressed scowl on her face. Over the past few days her mild disdain for the cocky young stallion had grown to out and out dislike, but there were several things she disliked even more, and chief among them was being in the wrong and knowing it.
The litany of his arrogance, his boorishness, and his callousness kept scattering like birds against the icy blast of knowledge that as his commanding officer, it wasn't just her duty to punish him for his infractions, but to steer him toward better behavior. She'd failed in that duty, and so she strode forth to see if she could make amends, silently cursing her rainbow maned headliner for complicating what should have been a simple case of self righteous schadenfreude.
She came up beside him, a snappy remark fading away to nothing on her lips as she saw tears running down his dusky purple cheeks. She kept her voice level as she spoke to him. "Okay, rook. What's on your mind?"
Shootin' Star stopped his stretching and hung his head, dragging a foreleg across his snout as he tried and failed to suppress a sniffle. "N-nuthin'."
She pawed at the ground, pursing her lips with mild annoyance at his evasion. "There's gotta be somethin' up there, there seems to be a lot of it leakin' outta your eyes."
He averted his gaze with a huff. "I don't wanna talk about it."
Spitfire flicked an ear. "Neither do I, but here we are, so spill it. Permission to speak freely granted. I can't fix things if I don't know about 'em."
Shootin' Star turned to face her, his voice somewhere between a sob and a sneer. "Huh. I thought y'all only cared about fixin' Soarin's problems."
Her wings flared as she bristled at him, then refolded as she fought back her fiery temper and maintained her even tone of voice. "Ya wanna explain that, rook?"
The young stallion looked away and bunched up his withers, a tight lipped frown on his face. "I used t' get so riled at him. Every time he'd blow a routine, or show up late fer practice if'n he showed up at all, or all th' times he'd make a slob outta himself in public. He was a danged disgrace t' th' uniform that I busted my hump t' get th' right t' wear."
He drew himself up, coals of anger burning deep in his glistening eyes. "But what was worse was y'all circlin' 'round him like a bunch o' mother hens, coverin' for him every time he screwed up, tellin' me t' shut up anytime I had somethin' t' say about it. Well I figgered out right quick y'all had yer favorites and there weren't no way fer me t' get inside that circle, in spite o' all th' blood, sweat, n' tears I shed t' get into what I thought was th' top tier."
His voice broke over a welling of emotion as he averted his gaze again. "I know y'all're happy he whupped th' snot outta me."
The young pegasus' brow furrowed as he fought down a sob. "Well... well I'm happy 'bout it too, 'cos now I don't gotta wonder how I ever coulda looked up t' that stallion when I was just a li'l tad.
He cast a miserable look towards the town. "And all it took t' set me straight was havin' my sorry rump hung from a chandelier in front o' everypony in my hometown, t'show me who th' bigger colt was, and how I never had a chance in th' first place t' live up t' th' dream."
More tears streamed from the corners of his eyes as he waved a shaking hoof toward the folded uniform sitting on the rock. "I don't reckon I'll be puttin' that suit on again. Y'all can keep it fer somepony worth it."
Spitfire hung her head and let out a sigh. "Oh rook... Shootin' Star... I'm... I'm sorry. I really blew it."
She picked up the suit from the rock and clutched it to her chest, then raised her eyes to his and held it out to him. "Resignation denied. We both have too much to learn about being on a team for either of us to toss the towel right now."
He looked down at the yellow and blue bundle, then up into the blaze yellow mare's own moistened eyes. "But... but..."
She shoved it at him, forcing him to take it in a foreleg. "But nothin'. I already suffered through havin' to bounce one good stallion off the team because I was too wrapped up in the past to see what was goin' wrong in the here and now, and I'll be stuffed face first in a smokestack if I let another one go down without a fight. You got that?"
Shootin' Star attempted an awkward salute as he struggled to keep the suit in the crook of his foreleg. "Y... yes, ma'am."
They both looked over as Dash came walking up to them, a wistful expression on her face. She met their gazes with a smile. "How's it goin' over here, guys? Is everypony leveled out?"
Spitfire shared a glance with the young stallion, and gave her a shrug. "I think we're outta the stall, at least. There are still a lot of course corrections to make."
Shootin' Star gave her a tentative nod. "Yeah, I reckon so."
A grin spread across the rainbow maned mare's face. "Well then what are we waiting for? Lets suit up and grab some sky."
A grey pegasus clad in a magenta pink flight suit stomped a hoof impatiently as he scowled at his employer past dangling gold tassels. "Lady Quillina! We need to get going! We're burning daylight!"
The elegant dragoness waved a dainty claw at him. "Oh, just wait a little ol' minute, Mister Vent. I'll be along shortly."
She turned with a petulant sigh, bowing her tapering neck apologetically to the young dragon who lounged in the shade of a pink pavilion decorated with Quillina's clan rune worked into the brocade, sharing a fresh bushel of Appleloosa's finest apples. "I'm sorry we have to cut our little chat short, Spike. I do so enjoy the company of a gentledragon of your wit and refinement."
Before the adolescent drake could reply, his cheeks and eyes bulged, and a thunderous belch shook the tassels of the pavilion as a gout of green flame poured out of his mouth over their brunch.
Quillina reared back, decorously clearing her throat as Spike tried to stammer an apology. The green flames attenuated and spiraled in on themselves, then popped forth a cylinder of parchment bound in red ribbon with a gold seal. This hovered in the air and dropped lightly onto the few apples remaining in the bushel.
Spike's slitted green eyes went wide as he plucked up the missive. "Oh wow! A letter from the Princess!"
The dragoness' eyes lit up with excitement. "Really! Oh Spike, that's evah so excitin'!" She wrinkled her graceful snout slightly as the smoke dissipated in the peak of the tent. "A little gross, but excitin' nevah the less."
He unrolled the message and glanced it over, his aural spines flexing. "Holy guacamole!"
He rolled it back up and met his hostess' quizzical expression. "I'm sorry, Quilly, but I have to go and deliver this to Twilight."
The dragoness glanced up toward the small group of pink clad pegasi milling outside casting her irritated looks. She reached across and laid her hand on his, causing a tingle to run along the spines on his back. "Well, it seems duty calls for the both of us."
Before he could reply, she darted her slender neck and gave him a peck on the cheek. "I hope to see y'all in Los Pegasus. Until then, send along my best wishes to your friends."
It took Spike a moment before he could process new information, as he involuntarily reached up to touch a claw tip to the spot her lips touched. He rose shakily to his feet and gave her a bow. "Farewell, milady. Until we meet again!"
She waved after him as he hurriedly stumbled out of the pavilion and took wing.
A bustle of activity surrounded the Friend Ship as the Harmony Aeronautics team set about preparing for takeoff. Soarin had stopped in town to acquire a sturdy, buff denim jacket to replace his flight jacket, and now went through his overdue stretch routine, Apple Bloom helped Pip settle the moon crescent festooned wings evenly on his back, adjusting the joints with her socket wrench and making sure the straps were comfortable for the long and perilous journey ahead. Meanwhile, Twilight ran a final diagnostic scrying on the Luna Moth, her shimmering purple magic forming grid like patterns over the canvas as it searched for tears or breaks waiting to happen.
Twilight turned with an annoyed look on her face as Spike came in for a heavy landing next to her, jarring her concentration and causing the glimmering lines radiating from the tip of her horn to sublime into the dry, dusty air. A tsk and a testy reproach faded on her lips as she saw the adolescent dragon held a scroll in his clawed hands, a gold sunburst glinting from the ribbon that held it closed.
Apple Bloom craned her neck in curiousity, her wrench held loosely in her teeth. "Izzat a wretter from the Prinfeff?"
The lavender scholar sparked her horn to life again and whisked it out of the young dragon's claws, unfurling it and drawing it close as her violet eyes scanned the flowing script she knew so well.
She cleared her throat and read aloud. "My faithful friends at Harmony Aeronautics. I write to inform you that your rivals, the so called Professor Destiny and Doctor Insanity, have been disqualified from the competition for cheating, assault, hazardous material violations, and general mayhem. I am hereby withdrawing my patronage of their team, pursuant to their arrest.
Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I and my sister and co-regent, her highness Princess Luna, offer the Royal Charter to your company for the development and manufacture of your wonderful invention.
It is yours as soon as you return to Canterlot. We're so proud of you all.
Yours in perpetuity. Princess Celestia of Equestria's Day"
Twilight lowered the parchment with a blank look on her face, flicking an ear absently as Apple Bloom let out a whoop and leapt up to throw her forelegs around Pip's neck and give him a squeeze. "WhooeeEEE! We got th' charter!"
The spotted young stallion laughed merrily. "Jolly good show! Oh, that's just SUPER!"
Soarin stepped forward, a pensive look on his face as he met Twilight's gaze. "Doctor Sparkle?"
She rolled up the parchment with her hooves as she responded with a tentative smile. "Oh... oh, yes. I suppose I should be really happy about this..."
The sky blue pegasus ruffled his wings and nodded in understanding. "Uh huh. But it's... kinda... kinda, anti-climactic, isn't it?"
Apple Bloom let loose of Pip and shared a glance with him, both young ponies' grins fading to thoughtfulness. The red headed mare picked her wrench up off the ground and tucked it into her tool belt. "Yeah. Does seem kinda sudden, don't it? Th' whole thing just droppin' into th' basket fer us, and us only half way through the race."
Pip furrowed his brow, scuffing at the ground with a hoof. "Indeed. Doesn't seem like a proper win at all."
He looked toward the shimmering blue sky overhead, putting a foreleg around his young marefriend's shoulders. "Seems to me like we ought to press on and finish this business fair and square. Win the challenge to the letter of the wager, so to speak. That'd be my vote."
He cast a glance back at his cutie mark, and gave Apple Bloom a wink. "I fancy you've noticed that there's no flag half way up the mountain on my flank."
He gave them all a grin, a spark glinting merrily on his teeth.
Soarin smiled back. "Yeah, and I still have that stupid duel with Baron Redtail. If I'm gonna go as far as Vanhoofer, I think I can go the rest of the way."
The sky blue pegasus chuckled as he met Apple Bloom's gaze. "And your sister would probably have something to say about takin' the easy way out." The young mare rolled her eyes and nodded in agreement.
Pip chimed in, patting the pocket of his lapel where he kept the feather that Soarin had given him. "You'll be needing somepony to stand as a second for that, old bean. I'd be glad to serve in that capacity."
Apple Bloom jerked her head toward the folded purple wings on the young stallion's back. "Well, if'n yer gonna keep riskin' your neck, I figure I oughta tag along t' keep fixin' this wreck."
Twilight let out a chuckle. "I don't know who'd be prouder to hear you say that, Apple Bloom, me or Zecora."
She drew herself up, hiking her tail. "I think we're mostly in agreement, and since Rarity's going to be riding the rest of the way on the Ambrosia, I think we can call it unanimous for our purposes."
The lavender unicorn turned to her draconic number one assistant. "Spike, kindly take a letter."
When the young dragon had produced quill and parchment, she continued. "Dear Princess Celestia and Princess Luna. We are grateful for the offer of the Royal Charter and will be in Canterlot to accept it in a few days. We apologize for keeping you waiting, but we're going to be taking a rather circuitous route to get there.
We'll see you at the finish line. Sincerely yours, Harmony Aeronautics."
She reared up, kicking her forelegs toward the western horizon. "Lets go, team! San Palomino awaits!"
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.