Part 41 - Aerobatics
Soarin's lonely vigil wore on into the night, and his eyelids were beginning to droop as he sat on the pillowy tuft of cloud and fought back the urge to nod off. A nagging sense of obligation kept him from curling up and going to sleep, as badly as he both needed and wanted to, a desire to face Baron Redtail when he and his retinue arrived. If he arrived. As dearly as Soarin wished to avoid the duel entirely, it somehow felt wrong to assume the griffins' late showing meant he was off the hook.
The gentle, cool breeze off the bay and the low murmur from the Pegathalon's racer's camp below was doing him no favors, and his chin began to inexorably drift toward his chest. He slouched in his seat, just beginning to drift off, when he suddenly woke with a start to a voice speaking behind him. "Uh... Y'got a minute to talk a li'l bit, Lieutenant?"
Soarin rubbed his eyes and turned to see Shootin' Star standing a short distance away on his own little cloud, the hood on his Wonderbolts flight suit folded back over his withers and a grave expression on his dusky purple face. He averted his eyes as the older stallion turned to face him. "If'n y'don't mind, that is."
The sky blue veteran pegasus hid a yawn behind an upraised hoof as he rotated his cloud toward his former teammate. He gave a slight nod. "Sure, rook. Pull up a cloud. What's on your mind?"
Shootin' Star gave a diffident shrug. "Quite a few things, since th' last time we... uh... th' last time we uh... met in Appleloosa. I guess I just wanna square things up twixt th' two of us."
Soarin pursed his lips and looked at the younger stallion warily. "Okay..."
The rookie Wonderbolt pawed at his cloud. "Well, th' long n' short of it is that I reckon I earned th' whuppin' ya laid on me at th' Salt Lick fer bein' such an ornery varmint t' ya when..."
The veteran stunt flyer raised a hoof, cutting him off. "Take a step back, kid. What I did back there wasn't about me. It was because you laid a hoof on the mare that I love. You coulda kicked me in the head all night. Hail, I probably would have deserved it for all the times I screwed up or slacked off while we were in the 'Bolts together."
His eyes narrowed with a dangerous gleam in their depths. "But if you or anypony else puts a bruise on my sweet Apple, then you'd better pray for a tailwind 'cos there will be a cyclone on your six."
Shootin' Star swallowed hard and bowed his head. "I understand, Lieutenant. I surely do. And I hope at th' end of this here race you'll consent t' let me give yer gal a proper apology for th' wrong that I done her."
The tension ablated from Soarin's posture as his expression softened. "That's a better way to start, rook."
The younger pegasus gave a nod. "And I still wanna apologize to ya fer all th' other harsh words n' rough treatment I done gave ya over th' years."
He fidgeted and averted his gaze. "Dash n' th' Cap done gave me an earful 'bout bein' true t' yer team mates, and I guess I didn't do such a good job of it. "
His wings drooped as he continued, a slight hitch in his voice. "Y'know, y'all were one o' my heroes when I was just a li'l colt. Y'all were part o' the whole reason I wanted t' be a Wonderbolt myself. But when I finally made it up t' yer level n' saw y'all havin' th' troubles y'were havin', I guess ya kinda fell offa th' high cloud I'd set ya on. I reckon I let my pride get in th' way and couldn't see ya needed a helpin' hoof, and not a buck in th' rump."
A weary smile crossed Soarin's features as he edged his cloud over to Shootin' Star's with a beat of his wings, allowing the two tiny cumulous puffs to merge into a single mass. He laid a hoof on the young stallion's shoulder. "Listen, kid. I think I owe you an apology for bein' such a disappointment. You and everypony else who expected the best of the best and got a washed up, out of shape has been instead."
Shootin' Star gave another shrug as he scrutinized the cloud at his hooves. "Aw shucks. I don't think anypony's got much call t'say yer washed up or a has been after all you done in this consarned race. And that especially counts fer th' righteous rump buckin' y'all gave me."
The corner of Soarin's mouth cocked into a wry grin. "Well, I don't think either of us would want that in the record books, so how about we just let the past settle out and run the rest of this steeplechase as friends, huh?"
The younger pegasus brightened, a smile of his own warming his dusky purple features. "Not just friends, Lieutenant. Squaddies. Now n' from here on out."
He raised a fore hoof, spat on it, and extended it to his erstwhile teammate. Soaren gave him a fond grin, spat into his own hoof, and accepted the hoofshake. Their eyes met, and a spark of camaraderie passed between them as they set their hooves down on the cloud again.
Shootin' Star's brow furrowed as he gave a nod toward the Southern horizon. "Yo. I think them griffins y'been waitin' for are approachin' yonder."
Soarin turned to look, and saw a pair of beaked, leonine figures approaching, the clear moonlight casting a silvery sheen across their wings and reflecting on their goggles. They drew a small sky cart behind them, with a third griffin wrapped in blankets and riding as a passenger.
He turned back to the young stallion with a nod as he stood and flared his wings to take off. "Yeah, better go meet 'em. I guess I'll catch you later, kid. Best o' luck on the rest of the race."
Shootin' Star shook his head and stood. "Nuthin' doin', Lieutenant. I'm comin' with ya."
Soarin gave a shrug. "It's too late at night to argue with ya, so okay. Come on."
The trio of griffins came in for a landing on the outskirts of the racers' camp, yawning and stretching their wings as Soarin and Shootin' Star touched down and stepped forward to meet them.
The sky blue pegasus drew himself up and gave a nod in greeting. "Hello, Baron. I couldn't help but notice that you're running kinda late."
The red plumed griffin gave him a stiff necked bow in return. "Lieutenant Soarin. I humbly apologize for the delay, but my maidservant injured her ving, and ve had to acquire proper transport for her in Los Pegasus."
At this, his burly batsgriffin Gunther grumbled under his breath. "Ve could have just left her there."
The Baron rounded on him, the feathers on his neck bristling like a pine cone as he bared his teeth in a snarl. "SILENCE! Vun more vurd out of you and ve vill see vhat parts of you get left behind." The two pegasi stallions recoiled slightly from the savagery of the noble griffin's response, as Gunther crouched in supplication.
Greta's soft, pleading voice cut through the harsh tension in the air as she reared up with her claws on the leading edge of the cart, the blanket falling down from her shoulders to reveal her bandaged wing. "Your excellency, please... Gunther is right, I am a burden to you like this."
The griffin aristocrat let out a long, weary sigh, his hackles relaxing as he rubbed the bridge of his beak between thumb and foretalon. "I'll decide vhat is a burden. Just... just make yourself useful and help Gunther unload the cart, Miss VonBeakstein."
As his servants got to work, he took a step forward and gave another bow. "I apologize for that outburst, it has been a long, veary flight, and I am unaccustomed to pulling a cart."
He straightened up and met Soarin's gaze. Now that he was close, the sky blue pegasus could see that the griffin was looking a bit worse for wear, with dark bags under his eyes and a general impression of frazzled exhaustion in his disheveled feathers and slightly matted fur.
The Baron summoned what dignity he could and addressed him. "I am ready to discuss the terms of our duel, Lieutenant." He gave a nod to Shootin' Star. "Is this your second?"
The younger pegasus stallion answered before Soarin could. "Durn straight I am!"
Soarin rounded on him with a look of consternation on his sky blue features. "Hang on a minute, rook. Pip already made me that offer and I said yes."
Shootin' Star shook his head. "With all due respect, Lieutenant, I'm sure he's a fine feller n' all, but ya need a natural born flyer backin' ya."
He met Soarin's gaze with a matter of fact stare. "And more t' th' point, this is squad business. Ya throw down on one o' th' 'Bolts, ya throw down on 'em all."
The sky blue pegasus reached up a hoof to rub his temple. "Okay, the three of us will talk this over later."
He turned to face Baron Redtail. "I move that we save this 'til morning. I could use some sleep, and if you'll pardon my saying, your excellency, you look like a week's worth of wintery mix right now."
The griffon noble pursed his beak and self consciously smoothed back some of the ruffled feathers on his cheek. "I've been a bit... distracted... of late... and... vell..."
He cast a glance over his shoulder at Greta and Gunther, gave a furtive look toward Shootin' Star, and then leaned forward and spoke in a low voice to Soarin. "Can ve talk? Just between the two of us, Lieutenant?"
Soarin reached up a hoof to cover a yawn. "Well..."
Before the sky blue pegasus could finish his answer the Baron was hustling him away, several yards down the beach toward the edge of the water. When they came to a stop he reared up and grasped Soarin by the lapels of his flight jacket, a frantic edge creeping into his voice as he spoke in a harsh whisper. "Vhat have you and your mate done to me, pony? Vhat have you done?"
Soarin held up a hoof to stop Shootin' Star as the young Wonderbolt made to come over, then turned to the griffin noble with a cocked eyebrow. "Uh... What have we done?"
Redtail let him loose and started pacing in a tight little circle. "You have thrown everything into an uproar, that is vhat you have done. My thoughts are disordered. It is as if I am mad, or under a spell. Vhy do I care how soft and sleek my maidservant's pelt is? How graceful the tapering of her primary feathers. The vinsome shyness of her smile. The sveet music of her voice. Vhy do I notice the color of her eyes, or how the sunlight shines in their bottomless depths? Vhy am I talking in bad poetry all of a sudden?"
He stopped and turned back toward Soarin, sitting heavily onto his haunches and wringing his talons as he spoke. "I am her lord and master, she is my faithful lackey, and yet I pull her for hundreds of miles in a cart vithout a second thought because I suddenly cannot bear to be parted from her."
The stricken griffin ran his shaking claws through his disheveled crest, a haunted expression on his face. "Vhy couldn't you just use my debt to you from the prison fire to veasel out of our duel? Vhy did you have to make me... make me... listen to that... that b-beautiful creature? Vhy did your mate have to encourage her to bare her heart to me?"
Soarin gave a noncommittal shrug. "Well, she's the Element of Honesty. It's a pony thing."
He cocked an eyebrow at the slightly trembling griffin. "I can tell you're upset, your excellency, but I'm kinda not understanding why. Greta seems like a nice enough girl, cold claws and cloudside mannner notwithstanding. It seems to me like you've fallen for her, and she's crazy about you too. What's the problem?"
The Baron slumped his shoulders, carving furrows in the gravel with his talons. "You've destroyed me, Vunderbolt. As surely as if you'd plunged a spear through my back. How can I carry on as a noble varrior vhen I... I fear death?"
Soarin's brow furrowed as he met the griffon's wavering gaze. "Well... who doesn't?"
Redtail shuddered. "I didn't used to. I vas prepared to go bravely to vhatever grave avaited me as long as it vas from an honorable end. Now..."
He swallowed hard and took a sidelong glance toward his servants, his gaze lingering on the svelte figure of Greta as she stole her own glance in their direction. He met the pegasus stallion's eyes with a pleading look. "Now I am terrified of the thought of leaving her... leaving her alone vith a broken heart."
A snarl bunched his brow as he hissed bitterly at the retired Wonderbolt. "If I thought that you two ponies had done this to me on purpose, I vould be so cross vith you."
Soarin cleared his throat uncomfortably and pawed at the ground. "Uh... Well, for what it's worth, I'm not in too much of a hurry to bite the dust either, Baron."
He put his hoof down firmly on the gravel beach. "Look... Where does all this angst leave us? You wanna call this whole stupid duel thing off now? I'd be more than happy to let the whole thing drop if you do."
The disheveled griffin gave a fitful shake of his head. "N-no... No. I cannot. I am still a scion of the noble aeries. I cannot stain my honor that vay. I demanded this challenge, I cannot back down from it, no matter vhat sort of personal crisis I might be having. It is the vay of my people."
Soarin drew himself up with a snort of frustration. "Well ya know what? I'm sick of flying this corkscrew with you. I don't give a flying hailstone about all this 'noble warrior' sleet. If you insist on dying for whatever birdbrained idea of honor your people cooked up to thin out the flock, that's your lookout."
He stepped forward and poked at the Baron's chest with a hoof. "We're gonna settle this once and for all, and you'd better bring your top tier game tomorrow..." He pointed toward Greta, who sat forlornly watching in the distance with Gunther and Shootin' Star nearby. "...for her sake, cos' I plan on living for the mare who loves me. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go write her a letter, and then get some shuteye. I'll see you here at dawn."
With that, he wheeled and took to the air, leaving Redtail staring after him in a slouching daze. Shootin' Star started at his former team mate's sudden departure, gave a halting nod to the Baron's servants, and went fluttering after him.
In the small hours of the morning, Spike slept soundly as the rumbling of his snores rippled the canvas of the small but sturdy tent he'd curled up under for the night. Nearby, Quillina's pink and yellow pavilion sat, with only the faintest buzz of the dragonette's dainty snore forming a soft counter rhythm.
The deep, grating noise was broken up into sputters and snorts of partial wakefulness as the hoof of a silhouetted pegasus rapped on the young drake's forehead. His heavy lidded eyes blinked open, gleaming green in the darkness as he mumbled in confusion. "Twilight?"
The pegasus ruffled his wings and proffered a bound scroll. "Spike. It's Soarin. Sorry to wake you but..."
The dragon's head flopped back down on his pillow, his eyes rolling closed. "You're not Twilight..."
Soarin prodded at his head with a little more force. "Spike. I need a favor. Can you send a note to Applejack for me?"
The green eyes edged open again, his voice thick and drowsy. "Applejack?"
The winged pony silhouette nodded, producing a lumpy bag that he set down by Spike's slightly smoldering pillow. "Yeah. If you can just send her this note, I'll give you the last of my stock of Sweet Apple Acres apples."
The dragon shifted his bulk with a sigh followed by an intake of breath. "Deal."
With that, he puffed out his cheeks and blew a jet of green flame, illuminating his and Soarin's faces in its glow. The sky blue pegasus gingerly held out his scroll and dipped it in the fiery stream, flinching back with flared wings as it sublimed into sparkling ash.
A moment later the flame faded, plunging them into starlit darkness once more. Soarin gave a nod and tip hoofed away. "Thanks, pal. I appreciate it. G'night."
Spike murmured to himself as he rolled over, scooping the bag in a claw and cradling it to his leathery chest. "mmmmm apple cobbler with a citrine crust... Don' mind if I do..."
Dawn broke over Vanhoover with a cool, clear light, stretching shadows westward from the hooves and talons of the assembly of ponies and griffins standing on the pebbly beach, their low murmur of conversation accompanied by the wash of the tide. A pair of small clouds, not even twenty hooves across, hovered in place a few wingbeats in the air.
The Harmony Aeronautics team and the Wonderbolts stood to one side conferring among themselves as they clustered around Soarin. Baron Redtail, and Greta stood facing them, the griffin noble and his maidservant wearing guardedly anxious expressions while Gunther busied himself at a table laying out an assortment of dueling weapons and scowling resentfully at the colorful equines.
Pip drew himself up with a frown on his handsome face as his gaze flicked from Soarin, to Apple Bloom, to Shootin' Star, to Twilight and Rarity. There was great reluctance in his tone of voice. "All right. Mister Shooting Star can be Soarin's second. I bow to your ruddy superior arguments."
The sky blue pegasus laid a hoof on the young earth pony's shoulder. "Don't take it so hard, kid. You and me have been wing to wing for hundreds of miles now, this'll be just a quick loop de loop over the bay, then we can get back on the skyway together."
Twilight nodded. "Right, and since our primary goal is getting you and the Luna Moth across the finish line, Pip, I think it's more prudent for you to sit this one out."
Apple Bloom nestled up to his side, entwining her tail with his and giving him a sidelong smile. "And I'm gonna want somepony t' hold hooves with me so I don't start bitin' on 'em. I got a feelin' this is gonna be a humdinger of a fight."
The youthful stallion's cheeks flushed a bit redder as his eyes went slightly out of focus. He shook it off and turned to Shootin' Star, extending a hoof to him. "I'll be expecting my chum here back in one piece, sir, or you and I will have words after this is all said and done."
The dusky purple pegasus stallion shook his hoof with a wry grin. "I reckon' how many pieces he'll be in is up t' him, fella. I aim t' have his back all th' same."
Spitfire furrowed her brow with a nod, muttering under her breath. "Yeah, you better."
Pip turned his attention to Soarin and took his hoof, his voice hitching slightly despite his stiff upper lip. "Best of luck, old bean. Or should I say, 'Clear Skies.'"
The sky blue pegasus gave him a smile and a nod. He reared slightly, his wings ruffling a bit, as Apple Bloom stepped forward and planted a sisterly kiss on his cheek. She grinned at him as she stepped back beside Pip. "That there's a placeholder fer when A.J. can get her hooves on ya. On behalf o' th' Apple family."
A sly smile appeared on Rarity's face, and she stepped up and gave Soarin a peck on the cheek as well, then turned toward Twilight and Rainbow Dash and bobbed her horn toward the startled pegasus. "And here's one for luck from Harmony Aeronautics... and the Elements of Harmony. Eh, girls?"
The lavender unicorn and cyan pegasus mares exchanged a wry glance, and both took their turns giving the blushing stallion a good luck kiss. Then Spitfire surged forward and gave him a full on smooch on the lips. When they disengaged, she met his dazed stare with a chuckle. "And that's from the Wonderbolts. Now go make us proud."
Soarin shook off his befuddlement with a wide grin, then turned to meet Shootin' Star's deadpan gaze. The younger stallion gave a flick of his tail. "I ain't kissin' ya."
The sky blue pegasus cleared his throat, and nodded toward his patiently waiting opponent. "Lets get this thing started."
The two stallions advanced at a trot toward the middle ground between the two groups, where they were met by Baron Redtail and Gunther, who greeted them with formal bows. The red plumed noble griffin gestured toward toward the table, the faintest tremor in his voice. "It is customary for the challenged party to select the veapons."
Soarin pursed his lips as he looked over the lethal assortment of blades, spears, javelins, wrist crossbows, nets, spiked draglines, and rotary glaives arrayed on the table. After a few moments of grim consideration, he reached out a hoof and pointed toward a pair of relatively simple curving blades that were roughly five hooves in length, with adjustable straps along the trailing edge.
He met the Baron's appraising gaze with a nod. "These."
The griffin aristocrat smiled. "Ah, vingsabers. A personal favorite, and a most excellent choice, Lieutenant."
Soarin gave him a curt nod, and turned to Shootin' Star. "Okay, Star. Help me get these things on."
In a few short moments both duelists had strapped the blades to the alulae of their wings with the sharp edges peeking out from underneath their leading primary feathers. Shootin' Star took a step back and looked wanly at the razor points of the wingsabers as Soarin half folded his wings. "Watch yer flanks there, compadre. Y'don't wanna jab yerself in th' cutie marks with them things."
The sky blue pegasus gave him a wry, sidelong smile. "Is that another crack about my weight, rook?"
A half beat later his brow furrowed as a thought seemed to strike him, and he turned and cast a thoughtful look at the Baron as Gunther tightened the straps on his own monogrammed set of sabers.
Once armed, the pegasus and griffin stepped up to one another and gave a formal bow, then met one another's eye as they straightened up.
Baron Redtail opened his beak to speak, but before he could a mournful cry sounded from Greta as she made to bound towards him, her forelegs spread to take him into a last embrace. She stopped short as Gunther rounded on her with a growl, freezing her in her tracks with a baleful glare. "You keep out of the vay, you meddling egg varmer. You've done enough damage."
As she quailed and slouched to her haunches with a sob, the burly griffin's hackles raised with a chill as a voice like an alpine winter sounded from his master. "Speak to her like that again, schveinevogel, and I vill show you how much damage I can do."
Redtail cast a longing look toward Greta as his batsgriffin meekly groveled at his feet, then turned his attention back to Soarin. He swallowed hard, and drew himself up to face his opponent. "I... I wish you the best of luck, Lieutenant."
Soarin's eyes narrowed as he gave a slight bob of his head. "And I wish you'd wise up and call this stupid thing off." He nodded in Greta's direction. "We both have better things to do."
The Baron's talons dug furrows in the gravel. "As I said. I c-cannot. I'm afraid I..."
The sky blue pegasus cut him off with a toss of his head. "Yeah, you are. But since you can't seem to get over it lets get on with this life or death aerial duel of yours."
The red plumed griffin's face hardened, and he gave another brief bow. "Very vell. Let us begin."
With that, they each took wing with their second in tow, heading toward the two small clouds that hovered above the edge of the water. The duelists took up positions facing one another, their wings flared and gleaming along the leading edge with steel, as Gunther and Shootin' Star pushed the tiny cumulous puffs out over the bay until they were about the length of a hoofball field apart. The two seconds shook hoof or claw with their leaders, then wheeled away and returned to shore, giving one another a formal bow and then turning toward the field of honor.
Gunther produced a bright red clawkerchief emblazoned with the Baron's crest, and held it forth in his talons as he and the young pegasus from Appleloosa hovered high over the gravel beach. The burly griffin gave Shootin' Star a nod, then bellowed at the top of his lungs. "Eins!"
The assembly of onlookers had grown as the formalities had proceeded, as more Pegathalon racers, support crew, and fans turned up to watch the proceedings. They drew in a collective breath as Gunther's deep voice rang out. "Zwei!"
Soarin pawed skittishly at the billows of his perch, a surge of nervous energy crackling up and down his spine. He felt a warmth in his chest, as the smiling, freckled face of his beloved appeared in his mind's eye, mouthing three words to him that he read easily on her lips despite the rush of his heartbeat and the faint whistling of the ocean breeze in his ears. A resolute look settled on his face. "Drei!"
The clawkerchief dropped toward the waves as a thunderous roar echoed over the bay. "GO!"
The two combatants sprang from their clouds and launched into a steep dive, meeting mere hooves above the swells with a clash and spark of steel on steel, and then climbing sharply with powerful beats of their wings as they both rolled and looped to reorient for another pass.
The Baron wheeled and shot toward Soarin with his blades ringing in the wind as they sliced through the air streaming around his wings. His deadly serious expression dissolved into one of amazement as the pegasus executed a complicated aerial backflip, the tip of his trailing tail sheared off by the griffin's wingsaber as it sliced through otherwise empty air.
The bottom of the sky blue pegasus' loop brought him alongside the startled griffin, and he banked closer, lashing with a swipe of his own blade that took off the ends of some of the red tipped feathers on the Baron's plume, and would have taken more if the aristocratic duelist hadn't ducked.
Redtail called out, a note of awe in his voice as brought his blade up to parry another swing. "Touché, Lieutenant."
He let out a squawk of pain as Soarin nicked his unscarred cheek with a deft slash. "No backsies, Baron!"
The Baron's beak pulled back in a snarl as he deflected another swipe from his foe. "This isn't a game, Vunderbolt."
The former stunt flyer rolled his eyes as his wingsaber's edge ground along the griffon's blade. "No foolin'. If only you'd figured that out over Horseshoe Bay. I guess you're kinda slow on the uptake."
The griffin's eyes flared with tiny pinpricks of red in their depths. "How... how dare you?"
Soarin gave him a savage grin. "I dare a lotta stuff. Now try to keep up, catbutt!"
With rapid beats of his wings, Soarin poured on the speed, his breathing labored but controlled as he pulled ahead of the griffin. With a few answering beats, Redtail had pulled alongside, his face a livid as a trickle of blood ran down his cheek, and they proceeded to trade parries, slashes, thrusts, and feints as they soared in ever more complex loops, corkscrews, and wide banking turns over the bay.
From his vantage point high over the beach, Shootin' Star's eyes narrowed as he watched Soarin and Redtail go through their paces, the flash and spark of blades punctuating their intricate flight path. He murmured to himself thoughtfully. "Wait a second... why do I get th' feelin' I recognize that flight pattern?"
At his side, Gunther clenched his talons with a look of gleeful excitement on his face. "I have never seen such flying before."
The young Wonderbolt gave a distracted shake of his head. "Me neither.. but..."
Down below, Rarity brought a hoof to her forehead at a particularly daring corkscrew turn. "Gracious me! The excitement is simply overwhelming." With that, she reared back with a fluttering gasp and dropped to the pebbly ground with a soft crunch.
A few beats later she climbed back to her hooves, a flush of red on her face as she huffed petulantly and brushed gravel off of her flanks with her tail. "One of you was supposed to catch me." She stomped a hoof, fuming as the rapt crowd continued to ignore her.
Rainbow Dash's maroon eyes widened as she stared at the complex flight path Soarin was leading the Baron through, and she nudged Spitfire. "Cap... that's... I recognize that routine!"
The blaze yellow mare's wings flared as her jaw dropped. "Just... just like his final show in..."
A look of stunned realization spread across Shootin' Star's face. "F-fillydelphia! Th' goldurned Hippodrome! He's... he's gonna do it on purpose this time..."
Sitting a ways off from the crowd of ponies, Greta brought her talons to her beak with a gasp. "G-gerhard! Look out!"
High above, Gunther howled in dismay. "Pull up, your excellency! Pull up! NOOO!" His eyes rolled back in his head as his wings went limp, and he dropped to the ocean below, landing with a distant splash as a slow, sly smile spread across Shootin' Star's face.
He placed his hooves on his hips and shook his head, letting out a wry chuckle as cheers echoed up from the ponies below. He watched as a distant sky blue shape dropped into a leisurely dive toward the churned up surface of the waves below. "You magnificent sonova stormcloud..."
A short while later, after the hugs and hip hip hoorays and pats on the back and more kisses from every mare in reach, a still slightly out of breath Soarin trotted down the beach to the huddled, dejected forms of three griffins.
Redtail slouched with a glazed look on his face, a blanket draped around his shoulders with his splinted wings held at odd angles from his sides. No two of his feathers were pointed in the same direction, and in addition to the white bandages around his forehead and wrists, a scattering of seagull down and splinters of wood were mixed in with his plumage, which was still damp with sea water and stained with squid ink.
Unconcerned with his filthy, disheveled state, Greta nestled close in by his side, purring as she preened him and nuzzled his cheek.
Gunther, sat staring out to sea, his soaking wet fur and feathers adding to an overall air of complete despondency as his wings drooped and his jaw hung loose.
Soarin' cleared his throat as he approached, and set his loaned wingsabers down next to the snapped set laying on the gravel by the trio of griffins. He gave an tentative bob of his head as the Baron met his gaze. "So... uh... I guess I won, huh?"
The stricken griffin aristocrat nodded dumbly. Soarin cleared his throat and gave him an apologetic smile. "I... I didn't mean for you to slam into that rowboat like that. For what it's worth, I was hoping you'd just ditch in the ocean."
Redtail let out a raspy chuckle. "It doesn't matter. I cannot svim. Thank you for saving me from drowning like a rat."
A pensive, haunted look settled on his face. "That vould not have been a good vay to go. I... I suppose I owe you my life vunce again, Lieutenant."
The sky blue pegasus considered that for a moment, before a slow grin spread across his face. "Okay. I guess I'll collect on that right now, if you don't mind."
The bedraggled griffin glanced toward the blades lying on the beach, then turned a befuddled gaze on Soarin. "V-vhat? Vhat do you mean?"
The veteran stunt flyer drew himself up with a grin, and jabbed a hoof in Redtail's face. "I'm taking your life. It's mine now."
He turned and pointed toward Greta, his smile widening as a spark played across it. "And now I'm giving it to her." He gave the griffoness a wink as well. "With me and my fiancée's compliments."
A look of profound consternation spread across the Baron's features, as his maidservant drew herself up, every feather quivering with elation as pure joy blossomed on her face. She laughed and drew her beloved mate to be into a tight embrace. "Don't vorry, Gerhard. You can have my life."
Redtail glanced from the griffoness to Soarin and back, struggling to form a response out of clucks and cheeps as several forms of shock and incredulity washed across his bruised face. Finally, he relaxed with a profound sigh of sweet release, draping an arm across Greta's shoulders and drawing her closer.
He gently nuzzled her cheek, then looked to Soarin with a wistful grin curling the corners of his beak and extended a slightly shaking claw. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Somehow, I feel as though ve both came out as vinners today."
Soarin accepted his clawshake with a warm smile. "It's the only way to play, friend."
Applejack wore a resolutely neutral expression as she made her way from apple tree to apple tree, checking each one carefully for any signs of damage from pests or disease. The fruit was ripening fast in the sun kissed glens and hillsides, waiting for apple bucking season to roll around as it had for years.
In spite of her placid exterior, her mind and heart had been racing. A burst of green flame over her bed had roused her from a fitful sleep in the wee hours of the morning. It had been through a tremendous act of her considerable willpower that she'd managed to keep from reading it until breakfast, knowing that if she did she wouldn't get a lick of sleep for the rest of the night and then she'd be dragging around the orchards like she'd done that one harvest season where she'd refused all help after Big Macintosh had busted his ribs over tightening a girdle for reasons neither of them preferred to elaborate on.
Of course it had been from her beau Soarin, brief and sweet maybe a little more intimate than she was comfortable sending through the mail, even Spike's magic dragon burp mail, whatever it was called. He was nervous about his duel, but confident. Wishing she was there.
She wished she could have been there too, but there was a farm to tend and since she didn't know when he'd be arriving in Vanhoover and it being so far away, she'd opted to just sit and stew at home and wait for news with a prayer in her heart and constant thoughts of his handsome face, his sweet smile, and his simple, steadfast courage in a continual loop in her mind.
As she stood, her thoughts and prayers jangling something fierce since reading that note, she was startled out of her reverie by another green flash and swirl of sparkling flames that coalesced into a note. She let out a gasp as she watched it gently drop to the verdant grass at her hooves. She dropped to her haunches and reached out to pick it up in a shaky grasp.
After a long, trembling pause, she unrolled it and started to read, mouthing the words to herself as her glistening green eyes scanned the brief message:
See you in Canterlot. Love you with all my heart.
P.S: AB, Pip, Twilight, Rarity, Dash and the rest say Hi.
P.P.S.: Gerhard and Greta would like us to attend their nest crafting ceremony. I took the liberty of inviting them to our wedding.
All the leaves in the vast orchard shook, a few early apples dropping to the turf below, as the trees of Sweet Apple Acres echoed with a resounding "YEEE HAW!"
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.