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Fire and Sky (Complete)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 03:50:36 AM

  1. > "You know this one's a bit of trouble? You're going to have to keep an eye on her."
  2. > "So I've been told. You can control her, though?"
  3. > "Yeah, just crank the collar up if she gives you any real problems. These things can take a good jolt."
  4. > "Noted."
  5. > The voice in the background are nothing unusual.
  6. > After how long you've been in here, they're something you barely notice.
  7. > Not even worth raising your head from the remains of the rough cloth bedding.
  8. > Booted feet stopping in front of the tiny, wire-twisted entrance to your cage and nudging it with one steel-capped toe, though?
  9. > That's unusual.
  10. > "Hey. Miss attitude, wake up. Someone wants to see you."
  11. > The cramped confines barely gives you room to stand, and certainly not enough to view the humans' entire body even if you were to crawl towards the door.
  12. > Instead another human takes the place of the market employee in front of the cage and squats down, peering inward with inquisitive but wary eyes.
  13. > On the one hoof, it was nice that you wouldn't have to crane your neck to try and speak up to them.
  14. > On the other hoof, you'd have to speak to them now.
  15. > "So. What's your name?"
  16. > Your name is fuck off, I don't want to talk to you.
  17. "My name is Spitfire."
  18. > "Hmm. Been told you can fly pretty well."
  19. "Could."
  20. > "You any good with weather? Monitoring it, figuring out what's coming?"
  21. "A bit. Your weather's screwy."
  22. > "What about navigating?"
  23. "Not awful."
  24. > Navigating by stars, wind patterns, and landmark alike was a prerequisite for getting into the Wonderbolts.
  25. > But if you bored him, the human might go away again.
  26. > "You got a particular reason for the attitude?"
  27. > Or maybe not.
  28. "Yeah, I'm a slave in a cage. Why, surprised?"
  29. > Only the presence of the market-owner keeps you from adding a few choice adjectives for your interrogator to the answer.
  30. > As it is, the sarcasm is thick enough you half hope he'll choke on it.
  31. > "You wanna fly again?"
  32. > You can't help it.
  33.  
  34. > Wings stiffen, muscles going rigid at even the mere memory of coasting freely among the clouds-
  35. > Laughter - human laughter - cuts into the fantasy.
  36. > "Figured. Alright, pull her out. I'm want to see her for real."
  37. > Mentally you curse.
  38. > That wasn't what you'd planned on.
  39. > He was supposed to go away, not-
  40. > Hinges squeal as the cage door is pulled side.
  41. > With careful hooves you creep from it and stand upright at last before anyone can get any ideas about making use of the collar on your throat for 'encouragement'.
  42. > Instinctively you stretch, muscles trembling and several somethings popping appreciatively.
  43. > Boots thud on the concrete floor as he circles you, the market owner hanging just behind him.
  44. > He's got the look of most of the ones who come back here, not as fancy as the ones who you used to see sitting in on the auctions.
  45. > A lose shirt-jacket, faded but not awful looking, hangs over a T-shirt and pants; his face has the look of someone who fails to be surprised by most things in life anymore.
  46. > "So, you're going to buy her, then?"
  47. > "No visible injuries I can see, no limp when she came out... yeah, fuck it. I'm in."
  48. > Wait, what?
  49. > That fast?
  50. > "You know she's not going to be easy? I don't want you coming back because she decided to-"
  51. > "Second time you're saying, and I knew the first. Yeah, I understand. You lied to me about her skill, though, I'll be coming back to give you a piece of my mind. That enough money?"
  52. > "Yep. She's yours. You got a controller for that collar?"
  53. > "Yeah."
  54. > Fuck.
  55. > Not your plan at all.
  56. > A chain snaps to the back of the heavy collar locked about your throat; the buyer doesn't bother giving you a tug, simply turning for the exit.
  57. > For a second you consider making a scene - planting your hooves and refusing to move.
  58. > That'd go nowhere good, though.
  59. > Glowering, you force your legs into motion to pull up behind him.
  60.  
  61. > Faces peer out from the cages you pass, pouring out a mix of jealousy, sympathy, and occasionally silently begging to be taken with.
  62. > Closing them out proves easy; you've become an expert at locking out unwanted emotions.
  63. > Exiting into the sunlight leaves you squinting after so long in the cage.
  64. > What follows is a long walk through a city you barely know the name of.
  65. > Humans hurry past, not even glancing up at the sight of one sentient creature being owned by another.
  66. > A few even have ponies of their own walking by their sides.
  67. > Again you force back a wave of emotion - this time your own.
  68. > "So."
  69. > Your owner's voice is rough and somewhat tired-sounding now; he hasn't bothered to look down at you.
  70. "So, what?"
  71. > "So, thinking about getting to fly again?"
  72. "I'm a slave. I don't get to have thoughts, and certainly not hopes."
  73. > "Funny. Let's try answering for real."
  74. "Let's try looking at who you're talking to. I'm not a machine, you know."
  75. > It comes out more snappy than you'd intended, but it feels good to do so.
  76. > To your surprise, he does - looking down with a small half-smile, as though something you'd said was intensely amusing.
  77. > "Sorry. Habit in my line of business - eyes go elsewhere first."
  78. > Huh.
  79. > An actual reply.
  80. > You hadn't expected that.
  81. "Whatever. What's your name, or is it just 'master'?"
  82. > "Anonymous. You're Spitfire, yeah?"
  83. "Yeah."
  84. > Finding your attempt at needling him stymied, you try a different tactic.
  85. "What'd you want me for?"
  86. > "I need a navigator and weather expert. You fit the bill."
  87. > Great.
  88. > Glorified weather pony - that's your life now.
  89. "Where we heading?"
  90. > "Home."
  91. > 'Home' turns out to be a large, square building behind a fence the two of you have to be waved through.
  92. > Must not be very wealthy, if he's living in a place without windows, and-
  93. "Oh, fuck no."
  94. > Coming around a corner had brought you to a prompt halt.
  95.  
  96. > An aircraft - rust-streaked in places, with a broad wing slung high over a curved central body - sat in the center of a hangar.
  97. "Tell me we're not going on that?"
  98. > "Yep. Home sweet home."
  99. > Yet again a curse is stifled from escaping your mouth.
  100. > You hated human aicraft.
  101. > Anonymous walks a slow circle around the contraption; unwillingly, you follow behind.
  102. > He speaks as he does, laying out what he'd bought you for.
  103. > By the end, you're increasingly wondering if you got bought by a madpo- madman.
  104. "So, let me get this straight. You want me, to watch the weather for you."
  105. > "And navigate, yeah. Plus some other stuff. My last copilot... left and it's too much work, not enough eyes with just one person."
  106. "And you understand that I'm kind of pissed about this whole being-sold-as-property thing."
  107. > "Yep."
  108. > Ruffling your wings slightly, you try and focus on him again.
  109. > Resting loosely against the side of the aircraft, Anonymous is watching you again - the chain to your collar swinging as one hand toys with something in his pocket.
  110. "You're insane, you know that? I know what they've got listed on my profile. Doesn't respond well to discipline, obedience problems, yada yada yada."
  111. > "Yeah. I read it before buying you."
  112. > He's infuriatingly hard to provoke, this human.
  113. > Much more difficult than the one who'd run the market you'd been bought from.
  114. "And you still want to put me on that kind of duty flying."
  115. > "Yep. And I'm going to tell you right now: I'm not going to put up with any bullshit from you. You work, things go okay. You give me trouble, I'm full well going to give it back."
  116. "And what makes you think I'm not going to make it miserable enough you send me back?"
  117. > "I end up sending you back, they're probably going to ship you out to the nearest labor farm pretty soon just to get rid of you. We both know what those are like."
  118. > Unfortunately, you do.
  119. > Suppressing a shiver, you force a neutral face that hopefully isn't too artificial.
  120.  
  121. "So, I'm supposed to be happy that you own me like a piece of furniture or something?"
  122. > "No, you're supposed to be happy they don't have you breaking rocks until you waste away and collapse, or have you on some high-mortality job."
  123. "Kind of a raw deal."
  124. > "Isn't it? Life's a bitch sometimes, but I think you'll figure it out."
  125. > Pushing off the side of the aircraft, he starts climbing up into the interior.
  126. > "Come on. I'll show you the inside."
  127. > A few beats of your wings settles you on top of the main hull, where your owner is pulling a hatch open.
  128. > Slipping in after him, you climb through into the aircraft's interior.
  129. "Looks like a pile of rust and junk."
  130. > "Hey, it'll make point-five past lightspeed."
  131. > You shoot a glance at his back.
  132. "...what?"
  133. > "Nevermind. Silly reference... anyhow, this is an old warbird. Long legs, and can land damn near just about anywhere."
  134. "A warbird? Tell me you're not some kind of mercenary."
  135. > A loud, cracking laugh is your response.
  136. > "Hell no. I do cargo, passengers occasionally, out to rough airstrips and remote locations. They need it there fast, I move it."
  137. "So, I'm going to be a glorified delivery pony. Delivery pony slave."
  138. > One finger is raised in counter to your suggestion.
  139. > "Aerial delivery pony."
  140. "...that makes me feel so much better."
  141. > "Glad it helped. This way - I'll show you our 'quarters'."
  142. > Stepping carefully behind him, you find yourself unwillingly rolling your eyes at his sarcasm.
  143. > Moving back through what you presume is the cargo area, reveals a pair of beds stacked to either side of a central corridor.
  144. > Each is partitioned off by a sliding cloth cover on a rail,
  145. > "Yours is on the starboard, mine on the port."
  146. "My own room? Wow, the luxury."
  147. > "Hey, if you'd prefer I can get a cage or something. Have to be made out of paper, though, because I can't take extra weight."
  148. > Despite the wit, you can't help but be actually surprised.
  149.  
  150. > Going from a cage to sleeping areas equal to your owner's - even though not really private - was more than you'd expected.
  151. > Climbing up on the bed, you find it surprisingly good for being in such a rough machine.
  152. > Across the passage, Anon also takes a seat - lacing his fingers together and watching you quietly.
  153. > After a few moments you pause from testing the bed and shoot a questioning look in his direction.
  154. "What?"
  155. > "Just watching."
  156. "You like seeing a mare in bed?"
  157. > Again a small smirk touches the edges of his mouth.
  158. > "For someone who didn't even want to get aboard, you seem to be enjoying the bed."
  159. > Raising a hoof to point at the shock collar about your throat, you roll your eyes just in case the first gesture wasn't enough.
  160. "Not exactly giving me a ton of choice here. May as well find the best of it."
  161. > "Point."
  162. > His hands come un-knit; Anon leans back against the far wall of the aircraft.
  163. > "Keep that attitude, you'll do alright. I'll reward you for good work."
  164. > About what you expected, really.
  165. > Better than being used in other ways.
  166. "Well, like I said. Not much choice."
  167. > For now, anyhow.
  168. > If he was flying alone as he'd said, he'd have to have a tool box somewhere.
  169. > Maybe something in there could go through your collar...?
  170. > "Right, well. Beds fold up when we need extra cargo space, though there's a small storage area beneath yours - don't go messing with that."
  171. "Got it. Anything else?"
  172. > "Yeah. There's a small kitchenette just ahead of this, though you might have a bit of trouble using it - I don't have any flatware good for ponies."
  173. > Figures.
  174. > "Up from there's the old engineer's cabin, though now I just use it for extra cargo space. Back are the rear hatches - I'll need you to watch from those from time to time. Even further forward is the cockpit and nose position - I'll show you those later."
  175. "Right. When do we go?"
  176.  
  177. > "Couple of hours. I need to go finalize a few things, so you get a some spare time. When I get back I'll introduce you to your duties and we can get moving."
  178. "Fine. Whatever."
  179. > Standing, he takes a moment to padlock your chain to a structural member before departing.
  180. > Evidently he doesn't trust the threat of later punishment to keep you still just yet.
  181.  
  182. --------
  183.  
  184. > The chain is maybe four, five feet long.
  185. > Enough to let you leap from the bed and peer through a hatchway into the next cabin forwards.
  186. > Doing so doesn't really reveal much, unfortunately.
  187. > To one side sits a compact hot-plate with a number of pots and pans fit around it; the other holds some unidentifiable piece of machinery - maybe a small engine?
  188. > Aside from that, it's mostly empty.
  189. > Well, he had said it would be mostly cargo eventually, hadn't he?
  190. > Other cabins are visible further forward, including a step up to what you suspect is the aircraft's control area.
  191. > You're not able to pick out much detail, though.
  192. > The rear hatchway isn't quite reachable, but you suspect there isn't much back there besides more open room anyhow.
  193. > Out of options to investigate, you climb back on the bed - privately relishing its softness against the ragged blanket that had been your bedding in the cage - and try to catch some rest.
  194. > It's little use.
  195. > Even the mere thought of being in the sky again has made your heart beat a little stronger, and sleep has never been so distant.
  196. > Flopping onto your belly with a hefty sigh, you stare glumly at the wall just past the head of the mattress.
  197. > As much as the thought of being off the ground filled you with a bit of anticipation, the circumstances poison any real enjoyment of it.
  198. > Sure, it could've been worse.
  199. > But it could've been better, too.
  200. > At least you were out of the cage, though.
  201. > Being able to actually stretch your wings out fully was nice, no doubt.
  202. > Might even finally have a shot at getting some news on where any of the other 'bolts ended up.
  203. > Chatter in the cages had been limited at best; most of the ponies in there had been prisoners for so long 'the outside world' didn't really mean much to them anymore.
  204.  
  205. > Apart from the occasional wildfire rumor - Princess Luna was dead! Princess Luna was coming with an army of immortal vamponies to rescue everypony! Princess Luna had married the human ruler! - recent news was rare.
  206. > But the prospect of fresh news was poor comfort, a drop of honey in an ocean of vinegar.
  207. > Even if he did let you out to fly on your own, for instance, it'd be on his terms.
  208. > ...okay, most of the flying you'd done with the Wonderbolts hadn't exactly been on your terms either.
  209. > The captain didn't get to make every single decision, after all.
  210. > That had still been different, though.
  211. > Had you wanted to, you could've hoofed over your resignation and lived comfortably on your savings for the rest of your life, flying whenever you wanted.
  212. > That you were still the captain was a statement to your dedication, if anything.
  213. > Had been.
  214. > There wasn't much of a Wonderbolts left to be captain of now.
  215. > Squeezing your eyes shut as your stomach twists unhappily at the thought, you wriggle about in the bed once more - trying to find a better position to tempt sleep.
  216. > Each new one proves just as useless as the last.
  217. > Instead you focus on quietly meditating to pass the time.
  218. > Silently mouthing another thanks to whoever had included this in your training.
  219. > It had been a boon when you were in the Wonderbolts - a way to calm your mind and block our physical strain.
  220. > But it had been a miracle in the cages, enough to keep you from going totally insane.
  221. > "Hey, wings. You awake?"
  222. > ...he was back already?
  223. "I have a name, you know. In fact, you do know - so quit being a jerk and use it."
  224. > Your owner snorts from his spot leaning against the doorway.
  225. > "Sure thing, wings. Got you some stuff."
  226. > A ball of cloth lands nearby you.
  227. "What's that?"
  228. > "Clothes. Jacket, legwarmers, knit hat, some other stuff. You might be good to fly up there yourself, but the cabin can get cold when you're just sitting in one place."
  229.  
  230. > Uncurling your legs, you nose through the pile.
  231. > None of the fabric looks new, but it's not junk either - good, thick garments that will do plenty to keep you warm.
  232. > And - what looks like a set of earpieces, connected by a thick band?
  233. > Seeing your confused look, Anonymous shrugs.
  234. "You're going to have to talk to me. Fortunately they make them in pony size; here, I'll show you how to get them on."
  235. > Letting him pull the headset on, you find them thankfully lighter than any armor you'd worn of the same size.
  236. > Even better, the band looped around your ears to hold the earpieces on, instead of simply covering them and crushing the delicate structures flat.
  237. > Nudging the microphone until it's in front of your mouth, you look back up.
  238. "Thanks, I guess. For the stuff."
  239. > "Thank me when we're not freezing our asses off at ten thousand feet."
  240. > Unlocking your chain from the wall, he motions towards the front of the aircraft.
  241. > "Come on. Time to learn your duties."
  242. > Climbing up into the cockpit reveals a pair of seats with what you suspect are near-identical controls; he climbs into the left; on instinct, you flap your wings to loft yourself into the right.
  243. > Poking lightly at one of the computers mounted to the front of the cockpit, you glance over to your master.
  244. "Looks fancy. I thought you said this was old."
  245. > "It is. Previous owners overhauled the flight controls and installed new electronics for single-person operation. Oh, and first rule: Don't touch controls unless I tell you to."
  246. > You'd only tapped the screen, not the controls.
  247. > Even so you retract your hoof, eyes roving around the myriad controls and displays lining the small space.
  248. > How one person could ever operate this, you've no idea...
  249. > But then, humans were universally insane by your estimation, so who knew.
  250. "I thought the first rule is don't try and run away. That mean I can go now?"
  251. > "Hilarious."
  252. "So if it's good for one person then why bother with me?"
  253.  
  254. > "Difference between can and should."
  255. > The click of a lock signals the return of being literally chained to your job.
  256. "What, don't trust me not to go through the glass?"
  257. > "Frankly, no. You earn my trust, you get off the chain. Until then..."
  258. > You'd just have to wait .
  259. > "Right. In time, you're going to do a whole bunch of things for me. A lot of those I'm going to have to train you for over time, but we'll start with what you can do without training."
  260. > Shifting to try and find a comfortable way to sit in the human-made chair, you nod to show you're listening.
  261. > "First job, is observation. I fly on visual flight rules fairly often, so you're another pair of extra eyes. In the air, you watch for other aircraft or clouds. On the ground, you watch to make sure I'm not hitting anyone and give me range estimations."
  262. "Got it."
  263. > "Second, you'll be keeping an eye on the instruments for me. You see anything that's wrong or unusual, point it out. I'll train you to read them first, that will take the least time."
  264. "Now?"
  265. > "No. First we have to get off the ground; I need to be somewhere soon and I already spent thirty minutes doing the exterior checks while you were off in la-la land."
  266. > Snorting, you go quiet to let him do his work.
  267. > It turns out that when a human says 'get off the ground', they mean 'spend twenty minutes fiddling with the controls and chattering with their radio before even moving an inch'.
  268. > Only after what seems to be an eternity is the aircraft even rolled out of a hangar to let him start the engines.
  269. > The cacophonous, roaring thrum is ear-achingly loud even from within the cockpit - if not for the headset, you'd have to scream to talk to him - but at the same time sends a little thrill through your blood.
  270. > Finally, to be in the air again!
  271. > Rolling out onto the runway itself seems to take a whole second eternity - but when the moment comes, there's no mistaking it.
  272.  
  273. > Engines roar, the ground slides by, and even seated still you can feel the moment when you're airborne at last.
  274. > Anonymous isn't paying any real attention to you - too busy talking to the radio again - so instead you peer from the cockpit window.
  275. > The ground was rapidly falling away, a distant pegasus in a bright-yellow propelling himself alongside the aircraft as it departed.
  276. > Some kind of escort out?
  277. > It's too far away to really make out details, so instead you settle back in the seat and relish a little in the feeling of-
  278. > "You seem to be having a good time."
  279. > ...whoops.
  280. > Let yourself go a bit too long there.
  281. "Piss off."
  282.  
  283. --------
  284.  
  285. > "Okay, what's this dial?"
  286. "Course deviation indicator."
  287. > "Good. And this one?"
  288. "Horizontal situation indicator."
  289. > "Still good. What's it say?"
  290. "Intended heading is one-seven-three, approaching the beacon. We're off by two degrees."
  291. > "Excellent. How about this one?"
  292. "Fuel flow meter."
  293. > "How long is our fuel supply good for?"
  294. "Uh, judging by what you told me at launch..."
  295. > Quickly you run the math in your head.
  296. "...roughly another 4 hours, at current consumption rates. You said we'll be landing at around 14:00... so we're good, with plenty of spare fuel."
  297. > "Excellent! A's across the board. You're learning fast."
  298. "Aww, thanks. Do I get a gold star or something?"
  299. > Four days in, and your owner had thrown you into a crash-course of learning the aircraft's controls.
  300. > He'd started with what he called the 'screamer dials'.
  301. > "Because if you see something bad on them, start screaming."
  302. > This one tells you how fast we are ascending or descending, this is our altitude, this how hot the engines are and these tell you the pressure in the systems that control the aircraft...
  303. > You wish you'd had something to write them down with, but simple memorization is no new trick for you.
  304.  
  305. > While a new Wonderbolts recruit might have struggled some, captaincy demanded you be able to keep a wide variety of names, techniques, locations, and even machinery in mind.
  306. > Absent any duties for this particular moment, you find yourself instead letting your eyes roam over the instruments - trying to fix the names and functions he'd mentioned to you in your mind.
  307. > Despite his claim the aircraft could handle a single person, it was clearly meant for two.
  308. > Many of the displays were little more than mirrored copies, duplicated so they could be checked from either of the seats without craning the neck.
  309. > Similarly the controls are in many cases split apart - each engine having its own switches for the same function.
  310. > Managing them all still seems like a madmare's task, but your owner seemed capable - barely.
  311. > For all of that, however, you'd been little more than a captive passenger.
  312. > True, you'd been in the air again and that was nice, but...
  313. "So, this is real thrilling and all, but where's all that navigational or weather skill you were asking about earlier come in?"
  314. > "When I actually have a chance to teach you how to navigate, for one. Doing it right by our rules isn't just like flapping your wings and going."
  315. "Then why bother asking if I'm good at that at all?"
  316. > "Because what I just said isn't always true. Right now I'm flying basically under remote orders - I hold the controls, but someone else is telling me when to turn and how high to go."
  317. > You'd sort of figured that out.
  318. > While the rapid fire chatter between Anonymous and the various controllers on the radio had mostly been jibberish to you, it'd become increasingly clear that he was essentially taking orders from them.
  319. "So, sooner or later you get away from them, huh?"
  320. > "Yep. A lot of the runs I fly are out to rough airstrips, with none of the fancy control mechanisms. If I'm lucky I get a simple omnidirectional beacon; if I'm not, I get a guy on the ground with a radio in his hand."
  321.  
  322. "I'd have thought you'd have that stuff everywhere."
  323. > "Heh. What, you never had to use an unplanned runway or whatever?"
  324. > You shoot him a dull look.
  325. "I'm a pegasus. I fly when I please, where I choose. At least, when some asshole hasn't chained me to a hunk of metal."
  326. > "Easy there, mouthy. Don't get pissy with the guy who owns your life; it's bad for your health."
  327. "At least I know how to work as part of a team..."
  328. > The words had been muttered under your breath, but the microphone picks them up all the same.
  329. > "Oh yeah? Didn't know that. Must've been a hell of a team if they were like you."
  330. "Shut up. They were the best I ever had, and-"
  331. > "What was a compliment, Wings."
  332. > His compliment overrides any annoyance at his continued non-use of your name.
  333. "A compliment?!"
  334. > "Yeah. You're keeping yourself steady in a rough situation, for one. A bit mouthy, yes, but I haven't had to actually discipline you seriously."
  335. > "You're also learning fast. I've been shoving down what ought to be a few weeks of various courses down your throat at once, and you're managing to keep up."
  336. "...wait, so you're not supposed to be training me this way?"
  337. > "Fuck no. We do everything in stages - building up from the start. But, there's no training plan for a pegasus, so..."
  338. > He shrugs.
  339. > "I'm teaching you the most relevant things first. You'll still be missing a lot at first, but I'll handle that. You've already proved you're good at navigating, so..."
  340. "...you just fill in the rest with what you're teaching me."
  341. > "Yep. First the dangerous things to look out for, then general flying and navigation stuff, and then a whole bunch of other stuff."
  342. "And when that happens, you'll finally start letting me out of the plane on the ground?"
  343. > Anonymous barks a short laugh, shaking his head.
  344. > "That's got more to do with that tongue of yours."
  345. > A sharp response comes to your lips, but you stifle it - snapping back to that particular point probably wouldn't be the best reaction.
  346.  
  347. > Noticing your reaction, Anonymous shoots you a knowing grin.
  348. > Pointedly you ignore it, though your mind does wonder about the implications of his words.
  349. > Aside from when you were 'on duty', Anonymous had mostly left you to your own devices aboard the aircraft.
  350. > That mostly meant leaving you collared to your bed, though he'd at least extended the chain to give you a little room to walk around.
  351. > But it still didn't give you any chance to really get out or stretch your legs.
  352. "So, if I promise to shut up and not bite anyone, you'll let me off?"
  353. > "Maybe. You wanting to get off that badly?"
  354. "Nah, not really. I'm only a free-flying creature who's been basically trapped inside a metal box for over four days."
  355. > "Heh. Well, our next few jobs are actually going to take us out of the controlled areas - give you a real taste of where I do most of my work. So, maybe then."
  356. > That would be a welcome change.
  357. > So far, his 'jobs' had been mainly just seeming to fly from airport to airport.
  358. > Nothing really special about it, as far as you could tell - no different from the other aircraft that inevitably buzzed around the airports like gigantic metal insects.
  359. "Yeah, I admit I've been wondering about that. You don't seem to be doing much."
  360. > "It's an off moment. Those happen - since I pick up small jobs, things that can't be handled by a helicopter usually, I have to wait for someone to contract me on the job site."
  361. "That rare?"
  362. > "Yeah. Most cargo is done by the truck these days, or helicopter for rough terrain. I'm kind of a niche operation with this old bird - I take things that need to go too far for a helicopter, but can't wait for a truck."
  363. > You're thinking of a way to respond when he speaks again.
  364. > This time, however, his words bring a sour taste to your mouth.
  365. > "Why, what'd you used to do? Before you got picked up?"
  366. > Picked up?
  367. > That's seriously their euphemism for being enslaved?
  368.  
  369. > Like you were a piece of fruit, just picked up in the field and sent to market?
  370. "I'd rather not, if you don't mind."
  371. > "Seriously. I'm curious now, especially with that team comment of yours."
  372. "...we were a show team. Acrobatics."
  373. > "No shit? Huh, how about that. You do a lot of tours and suff?"
  374. "All over Equestria. Touring, training, aiding with weather projects..."
  375. > No mentioning the Wonderbolts were a military branch, though.
  376. > He didn't seem aware you'd been in the Guard; no need to tip him off.
  377. > "Must've been nice."
  378. "Yeah. It was pretty good - not just the thrill of flying, but that we got to see that we were inspiring ponies to, y'know, do better? All of us - together. Much better than flying alone to nowhere at the beck and call of others."
  379. > He doesn't respond immediately.
  380. > The thrumming rumble of the engines fills the awkward silence between the two of you.
  381. > Finally glancing over, you find his eyes staring distantly out the front window.
  382. > "...you must miss them."
  383. "Oh, y'think? Only got taken away from the closest thing to family I've had since my parents, thrown into fucking slavery, treated like less than an animal, and sold as property, and literally chained to my job. Nah, no reason to miss them at all."
  384. > This time, he just doesn't respond.
  385. > Settling back down into your seat in a huff, you fluff your wings and fix your eyes out the cockpit's windshield.
  386. > As the fire in your blood dies, though, the impact of your little tiff become increasingly clear.
  387. "That... probably isn't going to help with you trusting me not to snap at anyone if you let me out, huh?"
  388. > "No."
  389. > Well, that was about what you were expecting, you suppose.
  390. > With a whining groan you let your head roll back against the headrest, eyes squeezed shut in frustration.
  391. > A single moment you'd let your discipline go, and it'd cost you.
  392. > "But that doesn't mean you can't earn it back. Prove that I can trust you."
  393. "...fine."
  394.  
  395. > Looking around the cockpit again, you settle your eyes on the dials spread in front of the two of you.
  396. "Want to run down the controls again?"
  397. > "Better. When we come in for landing, run through the steps with me and I'll see how much you remember."
  398.  
  399. --------
  400.  
  401. > It wasn't really what you'd been hoping for, but admittedly the short trip out of the aircraft was a nice change.
  402. > Having landed in the new airport, Anonymous had promptly dragged you off to some kind of hotel that gave discounts to pilots.
  403. > The room had still been minuscule - even he'd made a crack about it - and the mattress highly suspect, but critically it had included a shower.
  404. > Anonymous had taken his turn first, of course, but when it had been yours you'd lavished beneath the steamy flow of water for a blissful eternity.
  405. > The bottle of mane and coat wash - which you suspected was meant to last for weeks - had been nearly a quarter empty by the time you finally felt clean
  406. > Though your skin stung from the effort of repeated - probably excessive - rub-downs, it'd been gratifying to see your coat lighten several shades to the familiar incandescent red and yellow.
  407. > Two wingbeats had brought you up to perch on the edge of the sink, where some quick work with your hooves and wingtips had returned your mane to something akin to its old windswept look.
  408. > It wasn't much, a vain little touch that still somehow left you feeling more yourself.
  409. > That moment of glory passes when you'd looked down and found the collar still firmly anchored on your neck.
  410. > What were the odds that the shock device in it would be ruined by the water?
  411. > Not good enough to risk it, you'd decided.
  412. > Shame had bubbled in your stomach at that thought, but you'd forced it back down.
  413. > You hadn't surrendered one bit, but there was no point in jumping at foolish hopes.
  414. > Next had come laundry, which was every bit as boring as it had been at home.
  415. > Rest, unfortunately, had not been so easy to find.
  416. > Taking the sole bed, Anonymous had left you to first try curling in a chair before abandoning it to nest in a pair of blankets on the floor.
  417. > Not anywhere near as good as the cot aboard the aircraft, but better than nothing.
  418. > Which brought you to this morning.
  419.  
  420. > Anonymous had left you outside while he helped get the cargo organized aboard.
  421. > Unfortunately, you were still on a leash - the chain padlocked through a ring set into the aircraft's exterior some distance away.
  422. > And the air wasn't too pleasant either, reeking of metal, smoke, and whatever fuels they used for their machines.
  423. > But it was open air, and for that alone you were thankful.
  424. > You'd even done some tight, close loops near the ground, though the chain made an awful racket when you did so.
  425. > It did leave you plenty of room to watch the mixed team of men and ponies dragging crate after crate of cargo aboard a hatch that had opened up beneath the tail.
  426. > Struggling, swearing, and grunting they wrestled each one aboard before finally pausing to take a break.
  427. > One of the earth ponies ponies all but collapses on the ground nearby you, his sides heaving as sweat runs down between creases his ribs form and the straps of the harness they'd fitted him with.
  428. > Pausing from the task of realigning the feathers of one wing, you glance over at him - unable to keep your eyes from lingering on the thick cords of muscle running just beneath his coat.
  429. > Hey, after many weeks alone in a cage, you were allowed to look.
  430. > Unfortunately, your eyes had lingered just a bit to long; his own gaze falls on you.
  431. > One hoof rises to give a shaky wave.
  432. > "Yo."
  433. "Hey."
  434. > "...y'look like some kind of guard dog, you know that?"
  435. "Huh?"
  436. > "Yeah. Scowling away over there, watching everything we do."
  437. > Had Anonymous left you outside to do just that?
  438. "Wasn't meaning too."
  439. > You give the chain a meaningful kick.
  440. "Just not too pleased about being chained down all the time."
  441. > "Don't blame you. Least he takes you up, though."
  442. "I guess."
  443. > "Hey, can't be that bad. Where you from, anyhow?"
  444. "Cloudsdale."
  445. > "Oh - no, not that far back. I mean, like - where'd you fly here from?"
  446. > That brought you up short.
  447. > You'd have thought he'd be more interested about where you'd come up against.
  448.  
  449. "Uh - some place called Deer Park. That was just a stopover; he hasn't had me for long enough to figure out where he stays most."
  450. > "Huh."
  451. > Your surprise must have made themselves known on your face, because a moment later he adds:
  452. > "Sorry. I just... don't think about Equestria too much anymore."
  453. "I don't think I could ever stop."
  454. > He eyes you strange, and you aren't sure if it's a mix of sadness or regret.
  455. > "Ah, yeah. I've seen a lot of ponies like that. For me, it was easier to stop. Just let, just focus on the here and now. It keeps me going."
  456. > That was, you realize, probably why he hadn't recognized you yet.
  457. "I couldn't live like that. It'd be... like losing myself."
  458. > "I don't think I could live without it. Yeah, the work's rough - but when it's done, it's done and I can do what I want without regrets.
  459. > He props himself upright to sit on his haunches, giving a wistful smile.
  460. > "Even got a nice little fillyfriend they let me spend some personal time with - at least until my contract is up here."
  461. "Contract?"
  462. > "Yeah. They rent me out to whoever needs some muscle, so in a few months I might be going somewhere else entirely."
  463. > Inwardly you shudder softly.
  464. > What kind of life was this pony living?
  465. > No - he wasn't even living.
  466. > Any residual disgust at your decision not to risk an escape attempt earlier has faded, discretion no longer seeming so cowardly in the face of this pony's total surrender.
  467. > Suppressing any outward signs of your disgust, you just nod.
  468. > "Yeah. Well - good for you."
  469. "Hey - thanks. Don't worry - your master seems like a nice guy, I'm sure it'll get better once you relax."
  470. > Even through his confidence, you detect the slightest hint of desperation in his voice.
  471. > Carefully hidden tones that scream, 'it has to get better, even if it just gets better in your mind'.
  472. > Idly you wonder how deluded this pony actually was, but before that line of thought can go far a sharp call interrupts you.
  473.  
  474. > "Hey, wings. We're taking off in an hour, and I want you to do the navigation plan with you."
  475. > Rising to your hooves, you give the pony a parting nod.
  476. > Much of the interior of the aircraft was now occupied by assorted well-strapped-down boxes, but the compartment directly behind the cockpit had been left untouched.
  477. > A table on one side held a series of maps and a small computer he'd set up; by rearing up you find you're able to see the screen without much trouble.
  478. "So, what kind of job is this?"
  479. > "A stupid one."
  480. "Oh? Where we going?"
  481. > "Here."
  482. > And your stomach falls right out.
  483. > His finger had landed on the screen firmly in the ocean off the western coast of the continent - at least, by your estimates, six hundred miles north-west from your current position.
  484. "You're joking."
  485. > "Wish I was."
  486. "What in Tartarus is out there that needs all this stuff?"
  487. > "Oil - and the ships that pump it out."
  488. "Tell me we're not flying tanks of oil back or something."
  489. > "God, no. That'd be stupid in so many ways."
  490. > Good.
  491. > One of the few things ancient Pegasi warriors rightly feared was oil - it'd cling to your feathers, ruin your flight ability, and if it should catch alight...
  492. > Even if not aflame yourself, the smoke could choke even the hardiest of pegasi if they weren't careful.
  493. > "No, no oil. A drillship busted something critical that they can't replace. Company doesn't want to turn it around, and it's too far out for any helicopter they can find on short notice."
  494. "...so, you."
  495. > "So, us."
  496. "Why's the job a stupid one then?"
  497. > "Controls on this thing aren't daintiest to begin with - and nosing up to something is tricky in smooth waters. They'll probably have a smaller boat to help us offload, but it still isn't going to be fun."
  498. > Comprehension belatedly dawns on you.
  499. "And if it's rough in calm water, then at sea..."
  500.  
  501. > "Now you're getting it. This is where you're really going to shine - having someone who can fly tow ropes over is going to be a godsend. In the meantime..."
  502. > He smacks the papers on the desk.
  503. > "I want a flight plan. Major airways, fuel calculations, any weather warnings - the works. GPS coordinates for where they're supposed to meet us are here-"
  504. > Several papers are shoved in front of your face.
  505. > "-and this is our load and expected fuel rates."
  506. "...trust me already?"
  507. > "I'll be checking your work."
  508. > Rolling your eyes, you loft yourself up onto the table and grab a pen in your jaws.
  509. "Anything else?"
  510. > "Yeah. Give us 10% spare flight time on top of fuel requirements you come up with, just in case. I'll be outside doing the exterior checks; yell if you need something."
  511. > Not until much later - after being thoroughly corrected on the mistakes in your flight plan and having left the airport long since behind - do you realize that you'd never thought to ask the pony about the other Wonderbolts.
  512. > It'd been the best moment:
  513. > A semi-private conversation with a pony who worked at a human airport, and who might have heard gossip from who knows where else.
  514. > But the thought hadn't even crossed your mind.
  515. > You hadn't even identified yourself, even though he'd almost certainly have remembered the 'bolts.
  516. > What did that say about yourself, you wonder?
  517.  
  518. --------
  519.  
  520. > The flight had, once you left the coastline behind, seemed to go on forever.
  521. > That you knew to be a trick of the ocean.
  522. > Stretching out beneath you in an interminable, shining plane broken by the scalloped lines of rolling waves, it seemed to reduce your travel speed to nothing.
  523. > If not for the clouds rolling past, the illusion would be complete.
  524. > The white, puffy shapes scuttling by struck a pang of homesickness in your chest, memories of Cloudsdale's well-drilled weather teams assembling storms bubbling up.
  525. > Not even that, however, could quash the rising discomfort in your belly.
  526. > Growing as the flight stretched on, you were forced to repeatedly force it down - yet each time it boiled back up again, a smoldering sickness that would not be extinguished.
  527. > Even Anonymous notices it after a while, glancing from his controls to raise an eyebrow towards you.
  528. > "You alright, Wings? If you're sick or something, tell me so you can go be sick in back."
  529. "No, I'm not sick, I just..."
  530. > Shuddering softly, you hunker down in the seat and grimace.
  531. "...I don't like being this far out over the ocean, okay?"
  532. > "What, you afraid of the water or something?"
  533. "If your plane has a problem, it's a long way back to land. Nothing for hundreds of miles around, even if I could keep the sun up to guide me."
  534. > Even back when you were with the Wonderbolts, a flight like that would have been stretching your limits.
  535. > After so long without practice, you could feel your body was no longer the carefully-kept powerhouse it had once been.
  536. > Admitting it to your owner was beyond your pride, but there was no way you'd survive the flight if you couldn't find low clouds to rest on and drink from.
  537. > And those might carry you even further from safety.
  538. "...I just don't like the idea of running out of juice and drowning in the middle of the sea, okay?"
  539. > "Hah. That - that is understandable."
  540. > A moment later, he adds:
  541.  
  542. > "Okay, judging by the GPS, we're no more than half an hour out. Get out those binoculars; you'll need them shortly."
  543. > As you fumble for the binoculars, Anonymous jabs the transmit button fixed to his control wheel.
  544. > "Maersk Venture, this is N803AA, flying replacement parts in for you. We are approaching your listed position, requesting your current actual position and heading."
  545. > "Copy that N803AA, we see you on screen. Current position is 51 degrees, 44 minutes, three seconds north by 134 degrees, 34 minutes, 18 seconds west. Current heading is three four-nine at six knots."
  546. > "Wings, get that into the GPS and see what it gives us. Uh, Maersk Venture, requesting weather conditions."
  547. > Plugging the numbers in distracts you slightly as the ship rattles off wind speed and direction.
  548. > But when the words 'waves one and a half to two feet' reach your ears you nearly drop the stylus all the same.
  549. "They want us to land in the middle of that?!"
  550. > The sharp glare Anonymous shoots you drives your mouth shut, but does nothing to halt the roiling fear that has returned in full.
  551. > "Maersk Venture, we are beginning our descent. Request you launch your small boat and hold that heading at minimum speed to maintain course; we're going to try and touch down on your leeward side."
  552. > "Copy, N803AA. We'll get a boat down as fast as we can."
  553. > "If I don't see that boat down there, I'm not going to touch down. I'm a flying boat, not a flying submarine."
  554. > "Copy that. It'll be waiting for you."
  555. > The softly muttered 'it'd better be' doesn't escape your ears.
  556. > Your eyes settle on Anonymous; when he catches them, however, his voice snaps out:
  557. > "Wings, don't sit around. Grab those binoculars and spot me that ship."
  558. "Didn't they just tell you-"
  559. > "Always double check. Always."
  560. > Questioning his orders doesn't seem like a smart idea; squeezed between your hooves, the binoculars are lifted to your eyes.
  561. > The ship isn't hard to spot.
  562.  
  563. > It sticks out like a sore hoof in the midst of the ocean, a colorful, light-spackled, angular fortress against the water surrounding it.
  564. > Drawing closer, more details can be made out:
  565. > The platforms and towers seemingly haphazardly thrown together, cranes mounted on both sides of the vessel...
  566. > And none of the grace of anything Equestria's shipyards had ever rolled out.
  567. "That is one ugly ship."
  568. > "Wings. Focus."
  569. > His hand lightly cuffs the back of your head.
  570. > "He got his boat out yet?"
  571. "Looks like - yeah, there it is. He's got a boat, trailing in the water to the right."
  572. > "Starboard. Okay, listen up. As soon as we touch down, I need you out of the plane."
  573. "Wait, what?!"
  574. > "You heard me. Use the bow compartment's hatch; no prop wash up there."
  575. "So I can fly straight into the propeller instead?"
  576. > "You'll be starting off at the same speed the aircraft is. You'll be fine."
  577. "Are you completely insane?!"
  578. > "Yes."
  579. > Ignoring the nonchalantly-delivered confirmation, he goes on:
  580. > "Now, you head straight for that boat. They'll give you a mooring clip and line; you come right back and get that clip onto the mooring post fast as you can."
  581. "You really are insane."
  582. > "If you don't, the waves and wind are going to catch me even in that ship's shadow. They'll grab me, spin me around, and pull me away. I can't wait for that boat to pussyfoot around closing in."
  583. "There's no way my chain will reach out to-"
  584. > With a click and jangling thumps, the chain falls away from your collar.
  585. > Touching it with one hoof, you're unable to keep the blatant surprise from your face.
  586. > Catching your look again, Anonymous shrugs.
  587. > "You said it yourself: Nothing but water for well over a hundred miles around."
  588. > Right.
  589. > Of course that's why he'd 'risk' letting you 'free'.
  590. > Another glance - and you realize his knuckles are pale, fingers gripped tightly around the wheel's padding.
  591. > His jaw is set hard too, and eyes firmly locked ahead.
  592. > He's as scared as you are.
  593.  
  594. "You know, we don't have to do this. I don't know what your job contracts say, but I'm fairly sure suicide isn't in them."
  595. > "Suicide pays well, though."
  596. "I'm not getting paid."
  597. > "I am, and if I don't get paid you go to a labor farm. Now, get down there and do your job. There's a headphone jack down there, so plug in until you jump clear."
  598. > Pulling your headphones' jack free with your jaws, you clamber from the seat and - cursing him beneath your breath - down into the bow space forward and beneath the cockpit.
  599. > That idiot was willing to risk you getting butchered by the propellers for what... just one job?
  600. > An extra round of invectives against humans in general, the human government, and slaving humans in particular flies from your lips.
  601. > Slamming the jack into its plug, you pause to spit and clear your mouth of the lingering taste - thank Celestia Anonymous wouldn't see it.
  602. > "I can hear that, you know. You're plugged in."
  603. > Fuck.
  604. > Peering upwards at the hatch, your eyes roam for the relevant device.
  605. "Okay, I'm down here. Let me find the latch..."
  606. > "Red handle, left side. Pull and twist, same as all the others."
  607. > Oh, just pull and twist.
  608. > So easy for a species with fingers.
  609. > On the third try you're able to hook the inside edge of your hoof on the latch and give it a sufficient tug.
  610. > Almost as soon as the lever releases, the hatch thuds under the impact of air.
  611. "Hatch is unlocked."
  612. > "Don't open it yet. We're going to kick up a lot of water when we touch down."
  613. > As if you needed another reason to be worried.
  614. "This will hold up her when we hit the water, right?"
  615. > "Wings, shut up and get ready to do your job. Five hundred feet up, still dropping."
  616. > Without any windows - and no way to tell how close you are - the descent seems to go on forever.
  617. > You can hear him talking on the radio - explaining what you are going to do for the ship's crew - but that's barely enough to tune out the rising worry.
  618.  
  619. > Pegasi were not made to be trapped in small, falling spaces, damn it!
  620. > Down here even the engines sound louder, more menacing - even though you're only a few scant feed from where you'd been sitting moments before.
  621. > Anonymous is chanting beneath his breath, murmuring to the aircraft in some kind of half-encouragement, half-prayer:
  622. > "Come on, don't stall; come on, don't stall; come on, don't stall..."
  623. > Why couldn't he have let you out earlier?
  624. > "Get ready, Wings. Almost there!"
  625. > When the impact happens, it happens hard.
  626. > Shudders and groans run through the aircraft; for a horrible, lurching moment you're temporarily airborne again before crashing into the water a second time.
  627. > The noise is... incredible, a repeatedly rising rushing roar as swells are parted by the bow.
  628. > "...okay, we're down - go now!"
  629. > You don't need to be told twice.
  630. > Slamming the hatch open and discarding the headphones, you spare just enough time look around and verify that the wind is low enough to be safe before leaping into free air.
  631. > In that second, everything changes.
  632. > No longer are you a slave chained to a hateful metal contraption.
  633. > No more are you bound by the whims of anyone.
  634. > You are the undisputed master when on wing, free from confines physical and mental.
  635. > Each beat of your wings carries you up and further away.
  636. > And the air!
  637. > Rushing, twisting, weaving all around you - feathers spread to feel the wind rushing between the primaries as you dance through the air.
  638. > It's a like a drug flooding your system, euphoria rushing in-
  639. > The collar pops; your limbs jerk as the current surges through your flesh.
  640. > Not a severe shock, but enough to rip the daydream from your hooves and remind you of the situation at hand.
  641. > You hadn't even seen the control in the cockpit, but clearly your owner had his finger on it.
  642. > Shoving away the pang of emotion that mourned for the lost dream, you angle for the small boat.
  643.  
  644. > Those on deck had been watching with a touch of surprise and awe at your brief acrobatics.
  645. > Now their still slack-jawed gaze follows you down until your hooves touch the slick deck.
  646. "Hey. One of you - I need that mooring clip and a line, fast."
  647. > Evidently you'd still retained a bit of your old command voice, because they hop to it without question.
  648. > The clip is handed over, looped around one leg and clutched between your forehooves.
  649. > Flying it across, you're again made aware of how weak your muscles had become.
  650. > Though the rope couldn't have weighed more than full-grown mare, you're straining with the effort to bring it across in time.
  651. > But bring it you do - the clip producing a satisfying snap as it locked around the post emerging from the aircraft's nose.
  652. > Climbing back inside, you're immediately met by a furious Anonymous.
  653. > "What the hell was that, Wings? I send you out and you just start putting on a fucking dance? This isn't the show circuit or whatever you used to do."
  654. "Look, I'm sorry-"
  655. > "Sorry doesn't cut it in a job like this. You let your mind wander, you get hurt. Don't do that again."
  656. > Bowing your head, you grit your teeth and spit the words out:
  657. "I understand, sir. I apologize, sir."
  658. > It feels like being sent back to boot camp again.
  659. > Yes, the mistake had been real, but...
  660. > You'd been up there for what, five, ten seconds at the most?
  661. > Not to mention the reminder of the collar's function set your hackles rising.
  662. > "...yeah, I'm sure you are. Alright, get in back and help them pass over more lines. They're going to need it when they pull in closer."
  663.  
  664. > After that brief moment free in the air, everything else seems...
  665. > Mundane.
  666. > Sure, you left the aircraft several times more, helping pass cables around to towing points.
  667. > But nothing had recaptured the magic of that first return to flight.
  668. > Every time you felt that twitching in your wings, the urge to burst into true flight again, you squash it down.
  669. > Slaves do not get to hope, after all.
  670. > Pulled along by the boat, the aircraft bobs sickeningly as it is taken by each wave.
  671. > Even with the bulk of the larger vessel rising up to shield you from the wind, you can feel its power.
  672. > Pulling alongside allows the ships' crew to go to work.
  673. > A crane had been unfolded from its side and a platform lowered to the boat beneath.
  674. > With practiced, skilled motions a team went to work retrieving the crates through the hatches in the aircraft's tail.
  675. > Each moved to the deck of the boat, and then loaded on the sling hung from the crane.
  676. > Lashed tightly together as the plane and boat are, there's surprisingly little movement between the two.
  677. > You can't help but shudder as you glance down on occasion at the churning, foamy waters below.
  678. > At least now the ship's crew could probably retrieving you if you fell in...
  679. > As each crate vanishes out the hatch, Anonymous has you carrying ballast up from the nose compartment.
  680. > The metal slugs are heavy, but nothing compared to the crates that are being hauled out.
  681. > Some part of you still rebels at the notion of being given lesser work, but it's squashed away along with all your other put-away emotions.
  682. > At last, though, the task is done and the boat pulls away, its tow line twisting the aircraft around one last time to face into the wind.
  683. > Without the weight of your cargo, the lurching induced by the waves has noticeably increased.
  684. > Although Anonymous is going through the actions of taking off with a practiced familarity, you can't help but notice the little tells in his actions again.
  685.  
  686.  
  687. > Grips squeezed until his knuckles turn pale, jaw set hard, deep and heavy breathing...
  688. > Admittedly the actual takeoff process is equally - if not more - nerve-wracking for yourself.
  689. > Now once more linked by the chain to the aircraft, any mistake of his would be fatal for you as well.
  690. > Pointedly you keep your mouth shut this time; no need to distract him.
  691. > Or invoke his wrath again.
  692. > Not until you're well into the air and climbing still do either of you allow yourselves to release the tension that had been building within.
  693. > Even so, the first hour or so of the flight is conducted in total silence apart from occasional neccessary radio transmissions.
  694. > When Anonymous does finally speak, you nearly jump in your seat in shock.
  695. > "Hey, Spitfire."
  696. "Yeah?"
  697. > "Putting the fuckup aside for a second... that was some rough business back there."
  698. > Unsure of what to make of the statement - was he just rambling, or probing you for a response - you decide to keep politely quiet.
  699. > It's not until several minutes later that it occurs to you this was the first time he'd used your actual name.
  700. "...thanks."
  701.  
  702. --------
  703.  
  704. > There was nothing quite like sleeping on a cloud.
  705. > No bed - despite how soft, how comfortable, how well it conformed to your body - could match the sensation of sleeping slumped over the fluffy girth of a cloud.
  706. > Resting on it - adrift amid they sky - you feel perfectly at home, free of any concern or worry.
  707. > As secure as any earth pony or unicorn in their citadels or a griffon in its aerie.
  708. > The sun shone strong, warming your back and wide-spread wings with its rays.
  709. > Waves of heat massaged and soothed the residual aches in your muscles, washing the last remnants of exercise from your body.
  710. > This - sleeping calmly and warmly after a bout of solid flight - was the closest thing to heaven you could imagine.
  711. > Foldings your wings against your side, you roll to expose your belly to the sun's heat-
  712. > And instead found yourself tumbling to the aircraft's solid floor in a tangle of limbs and blanket.
  713. > Nothing like a good fall to wake a pegasus up.
  714. > Rubbing the aching bump on your head with a hiss, you glances across to ensure Anonymous was still sleeping.
  715. > Though you could not see him through the curtain spread in front of his bunk, his breathing remained unchanged and soft - apparently oblivious to the tumble you had taken.
  716. > Snorting softly with flared nostrils, you climb back onto the mattress and settle back down.
  717. > Sleep is far from your mind now, however.
  718. > Groaning, you pull the pillow over your head.
  719. > The effort goes to waste, as all that fills your mind now are thoughts of Equestria past.
  720. > ...would you even ever get to sleep on a cloud again?
  721. > Even if he let you off the chain more often, would he allow you to fly that distant before he used the collar to stop you?
  722. > Giving said chain a vicious, but pointless kick you pull the blanket around yourself as some kind of armor against the intruding thoughts.
  723. > Not much use either.
  724. > Already you can feel the anger welling up again.
  725. > Anger, and fear.
  726.  
  727.  
  728. > Fear that you would spend the rest of your life - certainly, the rest of your time as a useful slave - chained to this contraption.
  729. > Anonymous called you by name now, sure.
  730. > And in the last few weeks he'd allowed you a few more 'adventures' outside the aircraft on various duties.
  731. > But compared to the dream whose memory now taunted you, that was nothing.
  732. > Cursing softly, you lay down again and try to steady your breathing.
  733. > That, at least, was something you still had.
  734. > A part of the training every Wonderbolt was to learn how to squash their fear down.
  735. > You cannot fly when paralyzed with terror at every maneuver.
  736. > It works - your breathing slows - but something cold and wet runs down your cheek instead.
  737. > Another oath breaks your lips; how long had it been since you'd cried?
  738. > Not when they'd first dragged you into the cage or set the collar on your throat.
  739. > Rage had ruled those moments, not sadness.
  740. > But now...
  741. > You shudder softly.
  742. > Now it was harder to put the fear aside.
  743. > You'd already been getting on in racing years, nearing the end of your peak.
  744. > It wouldn't have been too long before you'd have been finding a new Captain for the Wonderbolts.
  745. > If you were kept chained down here for too long, you'd miss the last prime years you had left.
  746. > Not to mention the rest of your life...
  747. > What if he kept you until you were too old to effectively work anymore?
  748. > The thought of never getting back into the sky until your wings ached with arthritis and you could barely reach the clouds was enough to send terror spiking back into your heart.
  749. > Normalcy, you realized - that was what had changed.
  750. > When you'd been in the cages, it had been just oppressive enough to prevent your mind from wandering.
  751. > Keeping your sanity had been a constant and endless struggle, but no you recognized it as something of a merciful distraction.
  752. > Now that you'd settled into a normalized routine of work, however - now you couldn't avoid thinking about the future.
  753.  
  754. > Again quieting another shudder, you hunch closer to the bed and try to focus on your training.
  755. > It wasn't wrong to be afraid.
  756. > That was the key, they'd taught you.
  757. > Don't try to push the fear away; fear was natural.
  758. > A reminder that you were alive.
  759. > But don't let it control you.
  760. > ...
  761. > Easier said than done.
  762. > Especially when you were literally owned by another now, shackled to his home.
  763. > At least so far these moments had only hit you in private.
  764. > Letting your master see you like this...
  765. > It wasn't something that your pride could stand.
  766. > What little pride there was anymore.
  767. > So instead you grit your teeth and let a few shameful tears run down your cheeks.
  768. > Again your hindleg delivers a vicious kick to the collar's chain, spite lending the blow its strength.
  769. > Only then do you sink down again, rolling aside-
  770. > Muscles lock as you freeze.
  771. > From this angle, you realized the curtain separating Anonymous' bunk had slid back slightly.
  772. > Just enough to see part of his face.
  773. > And for there merest moment, you'd have sworn there was a glint of moonlight reflecting on his open eyes.
  774. > Had he seen you?
  775. > Been spying on you?
  776. > If he had...
  777. > Muffling your hooves against the metal floor and the clinking of the chain as best you can, you slip again from the bed.
  778. > Four careful steps bring you across to face his bunk.
  779. > At that height, his head was only slightly below yours.
  780. > Muscles itch with readiness, urging you to spin around and lash out to punish him for intruding on your moment of vulnerability.
  781. > No, for all of this.
  782. > For the hell he put you in while pretending to be civil.
  783. > It would end here, too.
  784. > One good solid blow to the head and - then what?
  785. > A quick death, if you were lucky.
  786. > The labor farm, more likely.
  787. > A few minutes of mental tussle, you conclude he was either fast asleep or exceptionally good at hiding it.
  788. > Turning, you climb back to bed one last time, and-
  789. > "Spitfire?"
  790.  
  791. > Breath catches in your throat.
  792. > "What were you doing, Spitfire?"
  793. "Nothing."
  794. > Even as the words are leaving your lips you realize how stupid they had to sound.
  795. > From the way he was speaking - clear, and unslurred - he had to have been awake for some time.
  796. > No way he missed all of it.
  797. > How had you missed him being awake, for that matter?
  798. > A pony's ears were far more sensitive than any human's.
  799. > You should have heard his breathing was wrong!
  800. > While your sense of smell may have been deadened by constant stench of oil, metal and fuel your hearing had been far better protected.
  801. > Collapsing on the bed with a groan, you bury your head in your forehooves.
  802. > This wasn't what you needed right now.
  803. > "You know, people get mildly concerned when someone comes and lurks over them in the middle of the night."
  804. > ...but it seemed to be what you were getting anyhow.
  805. "And ponies get 'mildly concerned' when we're forced into slavery and kept chained up all day long."
  806. > Again you don't quite manage to bite your tongue until the words have already flown out.
  807. > Lifting your head just enough to expose an eye, you find moonlight now very definitely catching in on his open eyes now.
  808. > Falling back down until your jaw meets the mattress, you roll to face away from him.
  809. > As if your back and wings could block out his gaze.
  810. "Can we not do this right now? I'm sorry, if that's what you want to hear."
  811. > "Yeah, that's great. Except for the bit where I need to know if I have to shorten your chain or something."
  812. "How about no, huh? You already keep me trapped inside here; if you're going to make it even shorter why don't you just buy a cage like you threatened to?"
  813. > Now the words are flying even faster, moving before you can get a handle on them.
  814. > Surprisingly, you find yourself no longer properly caring, though.
  815. > If he was going to push this now, then you didn't have any reason to hold back either.
  816.  
  817. "Better yet, how about you leave me be, huh? Just for one night? For that long, can you give me a break and forgive me for being a little frustrated when I can't sleep as well as I used to because I'm chained to my bed?"
  818. > At some point you'd found yourself standing on the mattress, wings spreading and tail swishing wildly in a classic pegasus aggression stance.
  819. "Or is it your order that I have to sleep peacefully as well? 'cause, y'know, I'd appreciate not being given impossible tasks if you're going to insist on keeping me around."
  820. > "And it's a common pony thing now when you can't sleep to go creeping up on-"
  821. "Oh, go bite a thundercloud. Fine, I woke up and was thinking about whether I could get away by kicking your head in. Are you happy? Do you think that idea hasn't run through my head a hundred other times?"
  822. > Sneering, you bare your teeth in a vicious mockery of a grin.
  823. "You think just because you're letting me off the chain once in a while I'm going to be all chill and happy the rest of it? Wake up, bud. You bought a slave. We're not a cheery bunch, and the ones who are have lost their minds entirely."
  824. > Anonymous had propped himself up on one arm as you went on, his face neutral in the streaming moonlight.
  825. > Still the words spill from your lips, new thoughts being caught by the raging stream of emotions and pouring out.
  826. "In case I haven't mentioned it enough to get through your skull, I really miss being free. I miss sleeping on a cloud at night; I miss really flying. I miss waking up to calls of Cloudsdale's guard changing and getting up to stretch with my teammates. I miss laughing when we all pulled off a new stunt together."
  827. "So for one night, can you just let it go and accept I'm not going to sleep perfectly well?"
  828. > You're left shaking and panting by the end of the rant.
  829. > Across the cabin, Anonymous simply stares a moment longer before nodding and slumping back down into his bed.
  830. > "Go back to sleep, Spitfire."
  831. > Wait.
  832. > That was it?
  833.  
  834. > That's all he was going to do?
  835. > Somehow you were expecting... a lot more.
  836. > The curtain is drawn back over his bunk, leaving you alone with your thoughts.
  837. > Some portion of your mind had been hoping to actually make him a little afraid - or at least angry - because it meant that at the very least he'd be recognizing your what you said.
  838. > As far as you knew now, though, he'd just ignored you!
  839. > For a second you consider yelling out again before dismissing the idea.
  840. > Satisfying it might have been, but not helpful.
  841. > While anger drains away, doubt soon fills your mind in its place.
  842. > Losing your temper like that...
  843. > You couldn't have tolerated blowing up like that while you were with the Wonderbolts.
  844. > Learning how to lock frustrating away until it could be properly worked out of your system was something you'd learned early on.
  845. > When had you become this weak?
  846. > What was this human doing to you?
  847. > The moon - drifting through the window set just above your bed - catches your eye.
  848. > Even it seemed cold and distant compared to Equestria's - a stranger gliding through the sky.
  849. > Briefly you wonder if Princess Luna truly was dead, as the rumors had sometimes claimed.
  850. > Or if she'd given up all hope too.
  851. > For the briefest second the thought flickers through that you'd almost be pleased if she'd cracked.
  852. > At least then you would not feel so much shame for the chinks appearing in your armor.
  853. > And then it is gone - viciously crushed out.
  854. > You were not so far gone you'd wish that on another pony.
  855. > A few ponies in the markets had been like that - relishing in the misery of others, for at least their own situations were not that bad.
  856. > But even if you were cracking, you would not fall that far.
  857. > With your eyes tracking the moon's slow traverse through the aircraft's tiny window, you set about seeking sleep once again.
  858.  
  859. --------
  860.  
  861. > The following morning comes far to soon, and far to early.
  862. > You're surprised to be woken by the sun creeping in through the window, still nestled in your blankets on the bunk.
  863. > Half of you had been expecting to wake up with all your legs shackled together and a wingbinder around your barrel.
  864. > The sounds of cooking coming from the next cabin section drag you from the bed at last.
  865. > Anonymous is standing over the tiny hot plate, peering into a small pot.
  866. > He glances up only briefly when you appear in the doorway, still dragging your chain behind you.
  867. > "Oh, hey. It's oatmeal today. Apple-raisin, since that's what I had left. Hope that's good."
  868. "...thanks..."
  869. > It still all seems slightly surreal after the previous night.
  870. > When he splits the mix into a second mug and wanders into the back to hand the mug to you, though, you still reach up and clasp it carefully between two hooves.
  871. > Blowing softly into the still-steaming mix within, you keep a careful eye on Anonymous as he takes a seat on the opposite.
  872. > He barely waits, pouring a little more water into pot to cool it before grabbing a spoon and rapidly scarfing down his half.
  873. > Setting your mug down, you take a deep breath to steady yourself before speaking:
  874. "Okay, look. I know I'm not in a position to be asking for things, but can we not leave this hanging over my head?"
  875. > "Mmmmph?"
  876. "I know I fucked up last night, and I know you're going to punish me. Can we just get that out of the way? This... pretending everything is cool business is going to drive me nuts."
  877. > Now he puts the pot aside too, looking at you with a slight tilt to his head.
  878. > "Didn't you ask me to just leave you be?"
  879. "Well, yeah, but-"
  880. > "Isn't that what I did?"
  881. > It was, you have to admit.
  882. "Yeah. But, I mean, I did kind of yell at you and admit I was thinking of killing you?"
  883. > Making a dismissive noise, Anonymous grabs his pot again.
  884. > "Were you, really?"
  885. > Was he joking with you?
  886. "Of course. I don't-"
  887.  
  888. > "No. I mean, were you actually getting ready to do it? Or just thinking about how much you'd like to be able to get away with it?"
  889. > Opening your mouth to answer, you hesitate.
  890. > Had you ever really been planning to kill him?
  891. > Catching your pensive look, your owner lets a smirk creep across his face.
  892. > "Thought so. Yeah, look. You probably figured out I was awake for that whole thing, yeah?"
  893. "Yes."
  894. > "So, I saw - you didn't turn around like you were going to buck at my head, didn't rear up to come down on me. You just stood there."
  895. > Scooping up another spoonful of oatmeal, he points it at you as he speaks:
  896. > "If you'd actually gone and gotten ready to hurt me, we'd be having a pretty different conversation. I can't stop you from wanting to be free, though. So, yeah. No punishment."
  897. "And if you're not awake next time?"
  898. > "It's not about being awake. It's that I don't think you're not dumb - or desperate - enough to kill me when there's no escape."
  899. "That's a pretty big bet. You could be wrong."
  900. > "Then I die, you probably die shortly afterwards, and we all go to wherever."
  901. > Spooning oatmeal into his mouth, he speaks around it:
  902. > "Gotta take some risks. We're all going to die some day anyhow."
  903. "...that doesn't mean you can straight up ignore me. You're kind of a stupid slave-owner if you do."
  904. > "Look, do you actually want me to beat you or something? Because at this point it sounds like you're making excuses to get me to."
  905. > Again, your immediate reply is brought up short.
  906. > Were you hoping to be beaten?
  907. > Once more your thoughts from the prior night come to mind.
  908. > If normalcy was destroying you... were you trying to force him mistreat you, just so you could be sure of your position?
  909. > When you manage to gather your thoughts again, to your surprise he hasn't come up with any comment nor is he smirking at you.
  910. > Instead Anonymous watches with a tilted head and watchful eyes, apparently still waiting for a reply.
  911.  
  912. > Though you want to answer him - need to, even, just to prove him wrong - you find that you can't quite do so.
  913. > "Like I said, Spitfire. I'm not going to try and force you to love me."
  914. > Standing, Anonymous moves to duck into the next section forward.
  915. > "Trust me on this too: We're all going to make the wrong bet eventually, so it's best to keep gambling for the best results and take what wins you get."
  916. > Easy for him to say.
  917. > He still has control of his life.
  918. "You tend to live longer when you're not gambling like a madmare."
  919. > "No - we all pull the wrong cards eventually."
  920. > His tone is shifted, a distant note entering it.
  921. > Quickly he shakes his head, voice going back to normal.
  922. > "Anyway, finish up your breakfast. Our charter today is passenger, so you're going to help me get everything packed away so they can come put in the seating."
  923. > And then he's gone.
  924. > Briefly anger flares within you at being dismissed so easily.
  925. > In your imagination, you consider leaping after him before he got too far for your chain and tackling him - forcing him to respect you.
  926. > Crushing that fantasy, you return to polishing off your meal.
  927. > No point in doing something that stupid; it'd leave you satisfied for all of five or six seconds before he used the shock collar to disable you.
  928. > Raising the mug to let the last bits of oatmeal slide into your throat, you set it down and go through a brief stretching routine before peering into the next cabin section forward.
  929. "Alright, I'm done. Now what?"
  930. > "Now, we get the bunks folded away."
  931. > This proves to be a more complicated process than merely tilting them up.
  932. > Blankets and sheets were carefully removed, the beds unbolted from the framework that supported them, and swung up into a stowed position before being re-bolted to keep them there.
  933. > At least he let you off your chain for this process.
  934. > Beneath each sat a series of boxes and rigid suitcases - storage for the relatively meager possessions Anonymous traveled with.
  935.  
  936. "What do we do with these? Just wire them down in place, or...?"
  937. > "No, we'll move those up to those nose compartment. We're going to be putting a lot of weight into the back, so we can afford to be a a little nose-heavy. Move the smaller ones up to the cockpit but leave the big ones here; we'll have to take them around the outside."
  938. "Got it."
  939. > With a great deal of careful balancing and delicate movements, you're able to shift one of the smaller boxes onto your back and work your way up to the cockpit.
  940. > On returning you find your owner in the next section back, grunting and swearing as he levers a suitcase out one of the bubble-canopied rear hatches.
  941. > Snorting softly, you select another box and begin to move it onto your back - this time one from beneath your bunk's side.
  942. > Just as it finally slide into place nestled across your withers, however, a sharp bark nearly makes you jump out of your hooves.
  943. > "Hey!"
  944. > Jerking our head around, you find Anonymous pointing a sharp finger at you.
  945. > "Leave those. Don't touch them."
  946. "Hey, you said to take the smaller ones-"
  947. > "I also told you when you got aboard: Don't touch the old boxes beneath your bed. Just leave those for me to take care of."
  948. "What, are they dangerous or something?"
  949. > "No, just - leave it, okay?"
  950. > Frowning, you carefully set the box back down and go looking for another.
  951. "Okay, okay. I got it... don't pull your mane out or anything."
  952. > The next time you stop in the cockpit to carefully set down a box, you peer back down the length of the aircraft from a distance.
  953. > Anonymous was still back there, crouched over the box you'd almost taken; his hand was flat against it, yet he didn't seem to be checking anything about it.
  954. > What was that about, anyhow?
  955. > Putting it from your mind, you squeeze the box down through the access hatch and return for another.
  956. > As it turns out, that is your only duty for the day.
  957. > Installing the actual seats is left to another, outside crew.
  958.  
  959. > "They need to be assured of the safety, but since I need to take the seats out and make room for cargo anyhow I just let them come in and do the installation themselves."
  960. > Shrugging at your owner's explanation of the situation, you point towards one of the entry hatches with one wing.
  961. "If I don't have to be here, can I wait outside?"
  962. > "Get our flight plan ready as best you can and I'll get you back outside when we're done, yeah."
  963. > The only good news you could derive from the flight planning is that at least this one wouldn't be over water.
  964. > When the chairs arrive, however, you're less than impressed by their appearance:
  965. > They seem to be little more than frame of metal with fabric and the absolute bare minimum of padding stretched across each.
  966. > Poking one with a hoof, you glance to Anonymous with a raise eyebrow.
  967. "This is what they're paying to travel on? It's... kind of bare. I think our beds are thicker."
  968. > "It's cheap, light, and the harness will keep them from falling out."
  969. > He slaps one of the seats, raising an alarming amount of dust.
  970. > "...and in need of a cleaning. Can you just beat them out or something?"
  971. "Yeah, yeah."
  972. > "Good. I'm going to go do the external checks."
  973. > Find a brush isn't hard, and frankly after a short while you find beating the dust from the seats to be a reasonably decent way to work out your stress.
  974. > Not as good as flying out to bust up some clouds, but you'll take what you can.
  975. > Unfortunately there's only twelve seats and a lot of frustration for you to work through; by the time you reach the end you've only just broken a sweat.
  976. > Well, maybe if you were done there'd be a chance he'd let you stay outside - and, more importantly, off the chain - a little while longer.
  977. > Spinning around to head for the exit, you're suddenly made aware of the griffon who had appeared in the hatchway as you nearly clobber her with the broom handle.
  978. > "Watch it, pony!"
  979.  
  980. > Instantly you are on-guard, falling back to a tense, spread-legged stance as you spit the broom handle from your jaws.
  981. > A fraction of your mind wonders if whatever meager luck you'd been running on had finally run out.
  982. "...watch it yourself, birdbrain."
  983.  
  984. > Quickly your eyes roam over the griffon, taking in several quick, critical details.
  985. > Female, with cords of muscle and tendon showing just beneath the fur-covered latter half of her body.
  986. > No doubt her feathered half was just as well-built.
  987. > Bright golden eyes - not an uncommon color among griffons - now narrow in suspicion and focus on your flank.
  988. > Her colors were perhaps the opposite of yours:
  989. > A muted grey-and-black (or perhaps dark blue) that would do well to conceal her among the craggy ranges that were the griffons' homelands.
  990. > Predator's colors.
  991. > Most important, however, was the vest strapped around the griffon's midsection - rows of empty pockets and webbing straps placing a worrying hint in your mind.
  992. > The hint grows to a burning suspicion as you take another look at her stance.
  993. > Prepared, but not fearful; cautious without being aggressive.
  994. > Not just hotheaded, then - and quite possibly former military.
  995. > Instantly you shift your wings down to conceal your cutie mark, but it's too late.
  996. > Those intense golden eyes lock back up to meet yours, her beak widening in a cruel facsimile of a smile.
  997. "...what are you doing in here?"
  998. > "Coming aboard. That is what we paid to do."
  999. > We?
  1000. > Celestia help you, if there were more of them...
  1001. > There isn't much room to circle each other inside the cramped cabin, so instead you settle for shifting your stance and trying to read the hen's reaction.
  1002. > A name-patch is stitched to her chest: Giselle.
  1003. > Not a name you recognize, but even so.
  1004. "I wasn't told there'd be any of you coming."
  1005. > "Oh? And your owner tells you everything, I suppose?"
  1006. > Snarling at the way her tone had lingered on your owner, you spit out a retort:
  1007. "Enough that he'd warn me if we were going to be taking on 'hazardous cargo'."
  1008. > Your jibe, unfortunately, fails to produce any notable reaction in the hen.
  1009. > Damn.
  1010. > Well, it didn't seem like you'd been recognized yet, so best to step outside and have a quiet little chat with-
  1011.  
  1012. > "Hey, Spitfire! Are you done in there yet? Passengers are showing up!"
  1013. > A silent oath falls from your lips Anonymous' voice fades away and Giselle's grin widens.
  1014. > "I thought it was you. I was trying to see your mark to be sure, but I suppose that confirms it. Since we're talking about hazardous things on this plane, then, I wonder - how much does your master know of you?"
  1015. > You can feel your eyes narrowing as your gaze again settles on the griffon.
  1016. "You'll keep your beak shut about me, you understand? I don't need the war's aftermath dragging me down."
  1017. > Even though you'd kept your voice from rising, Giselle's eyes sparkle with amusement at your predicament.
  1018. > "He doesn't, does he? No idea what's riding with him every time he goes up?"
  1019. "He knows enough."
  1020. > "So, he wouldn't be upset if I were to tell him exactly who he's flying alongside..."
  1021. "...he'd say absolutely nothing. If you'll excuse me, some of us have things to be doing. So, if you could kindly get out of my way?"
  1022. > Shouldering past her, you tuck the brush under one wing and issue a brief prayer to Celestia that there'd been enough confidence in your tone for your bluff would hold.
  1023. > Anonymous is busy conversing with a small crowd of humans, behind which sits a cart carrying what you suspect is their luggage.
  1024. > Trotting to his side, you look up and wait for an opportune moment to speak up:
  1025. "Sir, can I have a word a moment?"
  1026. > Before an answer can come, one of the passengers interrupts:
  1027. > "Whoa, man. You got yourself a pony? C'mon, Eddie would be flipping out right now if he knew about this."
  1028. > Jabbing a finger at the speaker, Anonymous shoots out a sharp retort.
  1029. > "Hey, you don't talk shit about Eddie. Besides, she's competent. I'm still training her on the aircraft itself, but she's learning."
  1030. > "I know, I know. Just saying, that's still kind of a downgrade."
  1031. > "Hey, if you're willing to pay me to hire someone properly trained, feel free to."
  1032. > Laughing, the passenger shakes his head.
  1033.  
  1034. > "On my salary? Hell, no."
  1035. > Turning to face you, Anonymous folds his arms.
  1036. > "Anyway, there a problem Spitfire?"
  1037. "Yeah. Look, can I just talk to you a sec?"
  1038. > Pulling him off to the side, you loft yourself up to face height with a few beats of your wings.
  1039. "Look, they brought a griffon with them."
  1040. > "And?"
  1041. > You nearly fall out of the air in shock.
  1042. > How dense was he really?
  1043. "Oh, you know. Just the war that they dragged you into, the one that resulted in me being made a damn slave? She's already tried to start something with me about it. It could be dangerous."
  1044. > "Well, yes. I figured about that, but if that's it, then ignore her."
  1045. "And if I can't?"
  1046. > "Then you come and let me deal with it."
  1047. > That was not what you'd been hoping to hear.
  1048. > If 'Giselle' figured out who you were, your could lose whatever little freedom this arrangement allowed you.
  1049. "Then I'd appreciate it if you let me stay in the cockpit for this one, Sir - and kept them out of it. There's... a lot of bad blood still between us."
  1050. > Rubbing his head with one dirty glove, Anonymous eyes you an uncertain look.
  1051. > "Okay, fine. I'll deal with the luggage, it's delicate stuff anyhow. Get up front, do the rest of the preflight. Keep out of Giselle's way if you can."
  1052. > Another lance of annoyance shoots through you.
  1053. > He even knew her name, and he hadn't told you?
  1054. > At the same time, though, you know it's just about all you could expect to get.
  1055. > It's not what you'd hoped for, but good enough.
  1056. "Thank you, sir."
  1057. > Opting to skip the passenger's cabin and slip straight back into the cockpit, you get back to work.
  1058. > With the door to the passenger section shut, it's barely possible to shut out the noises of cargo being brought aboard - including the grating voice of your avian passenger.
  1059. > Unfortunately, even that barrier does little to shut out your own thoughts.
  1060. > What was a griffon doing here?
  1061. > Was she a slave too?
  1062.  
  1063. > Those had been rare and far between - the griffons had 'requested' the humans get involved in their conflict with Equestria first, after all.
  1064. > And they seemed to fare better under human control as well.
  1065. > Maybe something about being naturally prone to group hierarchies?
  1066. > You really didn't know - or care.
  1067. > But if they happened to figure out who you were...
  1068. > Hissing softly through your teeth, you bury yourself in checking over the aircraft's systems.
  1069. > So distracted are you that you don't even hear Anonymous climbing into the cabin - not until he speaks to you.
  1070. > "So, is this some kind of personal grudge, or what?"
  1071. "No - not that I remember, anyhow. It's just... left over bad blood, from the war."
  1072. > He grunts quietly - dismissively, in your opinion.
  1073. > "Well, I don't expect any problems from her. I've flown this lot before; they're a good bunch.
  1074. > That explained how he knew their names, you suppose.
  1075. "Who are they even?"
  1076. > "Bunch of government scientist types. The airstrip we're flying out to - I'm guessing you saw, it's basically in the middle of nowhere?"
  1077. "Sort of. There used to be a portal there, right?"
  1078. > "You got it."
  1079. > He motions to the back.
  1080. > "There's a scientific outpost there, looking to keep an eye on any lingering effects even after that particular portal closed. About twenty people."
  1081. "And a griffon, evidently. I'm surprised that's all; the portals were watched around the clock back in Equestria."
  1082. > Anonymous snorts.
  1083. > "Evidently you've never seen a human government in action. If it can't be exploited, they don't fund it. As long as other portals are opening, this one's just a scientific curiosity."
  1084. "Figures. If you can't rob it, you ignore it."
  1085. > To this Anonymous just laughs.
  1086. > "You said it. Anyhow, any problems?"
  1087. "No. Everything is looking good up here. Do you need me to look at anything outside?"
  1088. > "No, I checked that all. Take ten, we're not scheduled to take off for a little bit."
  1089.  
  1090. > With that he rises and heads into the back into the main cabin.
  1091. > Peering after him, you briefly catch a glimpse with Giselle.
  1092. > The griffon's eyes widen in surprise at your appearance - confidently seated in the cockpit, with the headset in place.
  1093. > A touch of a smirk reaches your lips as you deliver a wink before turning away from the hatch.
  1094. > The little touch feels exceedingly petty, but still leaves you in a considerably better mood.
  1095.  
  1096. --------
  1097.  
  1098. > "Windspeed?"
  1099. > Peering in at the tiny screen, you rattle off the reading.
  1100. "Two-seven knots, direction one-three-three."
  1101. > "Damn, that's brisk. Okay, does your belt need to be adjusted?"
  1102. "No, it's tight."
  1103. > Unfortunately.
  1104. > The seat's straps were made for a human, and dug harshly in against your shoulders - not to mention keeping you from spreading your wings.
  1105. > At least he'd agreed to keep your collar un-chained, though that didn't help settle your mind much.
  1106. "...do I need to start praying for Luna to come down and guide us in?"
  1107. > "Hey, if you think it would help. Just be ready to answer if I need you to."
  1108. > Rolling your eyes, you return your gaze to the windshield.
  1109. > The unnaturally clear sky stares back at you, driving a shiver through your wings.
  1110. > Human weather was so... wrong.
  1111. > In Equestria, a sky like this never would have drawn up a wind this strong unless a storm was on its way, but there wasn't a cloud to be seen in the sky.
  1112. > "Eyes right, Spitfire. You should be seeing the runway any minute now."
  1113. > It's almost a relief to have an actual job to do - though the ground wasn't any less confusing.
  1114. > At this low altitude, you could see distinct patches of familiar - yet alien, for the landscape - plants scattered among the hills.
  1115. > Equestrian flora that must have drifted through in the years when the portal was open.
  1116. > Even the glimpse of such a familiar landscape awakens a spark of homesickness in your heart, but you ruthlessly crush it before it can grow.
  1117.  
  1118. > Slaves did not get hopes, after all, and certainly not to see home again.
  1119. "Okay, I see the runway. Uh, two o'clock, maybe fifteen miles out."
  1120. > "What's the angle?"
  1121. "Looks... forty-five off our current course, to the left."
  1122. > "Yeah, that's it. Good spot."
  1123. > You don't reply.
  1124. > The day's events have left you in a foul mood, and your owner's simple compliments seem hollow after being so unpleasantly reminded of your position.
  1125. > "Going to do one pass-over at two-fifty feet. Tell me if there's anything on the runway, I need to keep this plane straight."
  1126. "Got it."
  1127. > The runway itself is clear, although its appearance isn't reassuring:
  1128. > Little more than a cleared patch of dirt on a flatter section of hill, and flanked by a number of small, low buildings - probably the scientific outpost.
  1129. "Nothing in our way; there's some kind of a metal tower on the right and buildings on both sides. Runway itself looks clear."
  1130. > "That's the radio tower. We'll take a north approach and pass it early."
  1131. "Okay. I see... at least two people on the right, just standing there."
  1132. > "No wave-off, then. Good."
  1133. > Coming in is an unpleasant experience, as the aircraft slides in at a sharp angle into the wind.
  1134. > Nothing you've not felt before - but that was on your own wings, with every twitch of a feather reassuring you of the wind's presence.
  1135. > Going through the motions without feeling the wind is something else entirely.
  1136. > A touch of motion sickness curls in your belly, followed by a much-strong surge of disgust.
  1137. > If anyone ever heard that the legendary Spitfire got sick from flying...
  1138. > The feeling persists, though, even after the wheels touch the ground with a rough crunch of loose rocks and dirt.
  1139. > Anonymous is cursing under is breath as he wrestles against the wheel, forcing the plane to submit to his will and stay on (mostly) straight path.
  1140.  
  1141. > Not until the plane finally comes to a halt - shuddering, rumbling, and threatening to but never quite swerving from its course - does your stomach unclench.
  1142. > "Spitfire, get out there and help them get the chocks down."
  1143. "On it."
  1144. > In truth, you're relieved.
  1145. > The wind may be sharp, but the second you slide from the cockpit and feel it brush through your coat once again you're at home.
  1146. > Even as you work, looking over the undercarriage with a screwdriver clasped in your jaws, you find yourself enjoying the sensation of wind rippling against your feathers.
  1147. > As with so much of your existence now, it's these tiny tastes of pleasure that serve to barely keep you sane.
  1148. > It's a feeling that lasts right up until you catch a flicker of blue and white in your vision and turn to find Giselle resting on the ground a short distance away, claws crossed over each other.
  1149. "...is stalking others a regular habit of yours?"
  1150. > Growled around the screwdriver still stuck in your jaws, the words come out garbled - but still intelligible.
  1151. > "Yeah, it can be - but only when they're trying to avoid me."
  1152. "Well, the point of that is usually to, y'know, avoid you."
  1153. > Giselle gives a harsh, barking laugh.
  1154. > "It is, but I wanted to talk to you."
  1155. > With a moment's hesitation, you jab the screwdriver's tip down into the ground and turn to face the griffon entirely.
  1156. "Look, if you want a fight or something, go somewhere else. I can't be dealing with-"
  1157. > "Relax, Spitfire. I'm not looking for a fight. I still have a bit of respect for a fellow athlete."
  1158. > Wait, what?
  1159. > Giselle tilts her head birdlike, obviously noting your confusion.
  1160. > "You really don't remember me, do you?"
  1161. "Can't say I do."
  1162. > "We flew against each other at the Equestria games. The last real one before everything went to Tartarus."
  1163. > Oh.
  1164. > OH.
  1165. > Recognition comes flooding back; Giselle nods in satisfaction as your recognition shows.
  1166.  
  1167. > "That's why I was trying to get a look at your mark back there. Wasn't sure if it was you or not."
  1168. "So, wait. Once your recognized me, why bother with all that 'knowing if I'm dangerous' stuff?"
  1169. > Gaze falling to the ground, Giselle runs a claw through the feathers covering the back of her head.
  1170. > "Well, with how you reacted to me, I thought you were still caught up in the war and everything. Might have actually been dangerous."
  1171. > To your surprise, she actually looks slightly bashful.
  1172. > "That was... my mistake."
  1173. "Have to admit, I was guessing you were just going to pick a fight whatever the circumstances, especially after you caught my name - so, both of us missed the point back there."
  1174. > Shrugging with your wings, you settle on your haunches.
  1175. "I try not to think too much about... what happened, though. If I did, I'd go insane. I'm close enough with thinking about it as little as I do. Your side got the humans involved, war ended, and that's how it is."
  1176. > "Yeah..."
  1177. > Shifting to the side, Giselle pulls her vest aside - revealing the band of cloth fastened around her throat.
  1178. > "...didn't end to well for all of us either. Brought in the dragon to deal with the timberwolf, as the saying goes, and then the dragon decided it wanted to run things for us too. Some said no, and the rest is history."
  1179. "That was stupid."
  1180. > "We were a proud race. But yes, it was stupid."
  1181. > A smile finally works its way onto your face.
  1182. > Proud - but then, so had Equestria been, in a way.
  1183. > Sympathy of a sort rises within you; no longer was this griffon a nameless aggressor.
  1184. > Now you saw a fellow athlete, first caught by the snares of warfare and then the same slavery that had entrapped you.
  1185. > Gesturing to the side of the plane, you turn and take a few steps towards it to settle on your belly nearest the centerline - where the pointed keel fell closest to the ground and cut off the most wind.
  1186.  
  1187. "Come on. If we're just going to be standing around talking, let's move underneath here where it isn't so cold."
  1188. > Glancing quickly aside to see if anyone is watching, Giselle follows - settling on to her belly and wrapping her tail catlike around her hindlegs.
  1189. "So, what changed your mind?"
  1190. > "Huh?"
  1191. "About me being dangerous."
  1192. > "Oh. Well, honestly - I, uh, was kind of watching you work this whole time-"
  1193. "You really are a compulsive stalker or something, you know that?"
  1194. > "-and I noticed how he treats you. He lets you up there while he's flying, trusts you to work on his equipment?"
  1195. > Giselle shrugs.
  1196. > "He couldn't do that if you were stuck in the past. I had to go through the same thing - working until they trusted me."
  1197. > Now more than ever you are thankful Anonymous had decided not to link the chain to your collar for this flight.
  1198. "Yeah. I guess that is one way to think about it."
  1199. > Pausing, you struggle with the next words:
  1200. "You were right about one thing, though."
  1201. > "Oh?"
  1202. "He has no idea about me. Doesn't know I was an officer in the EUP, doesn't know about the Wonderbolts or anything. I've told him I was part of an acrobatics team, that's it."
  1203. > Glancing up at Giselle, you find her watching you with an inscrutable look.
  1204. > "You should tell him. He's going to find out sooner or later; I won't be the last to recognize you."
  1205. > With another small shrug, she adds:
  1206. > "I'm just telling you what worked best for me."
  1207. > The implications of her statement settles in after a moment:
  1208. "You were an officer?"
  1209. > "Officer? No, not an officer. But I was upfront with them about what I'd done, and they trusted me after a while. It's worked out pretty well - I get a lot of duty that lets me get out and fly."
  1210. > Your face must have shown some reaction to that, because Giselle gives another questioning head-tilt.
  1211. "...I just wish I could get out and fly that much. Being up in the air is great and all, but it's a big tease when I can't actually get out and fly that much."
  1212.  
  1213. > "Really? He doesn't let you?"
  1214. "No. Not often. The last time I really got to fly... well, it involved landing on a rough sea and running an anchor line over."
  1215. > Giselle shares a sympathetic shudder when you explain the circumstances.
  1216. > "Can't really tell you what to do, aside from work with him. He doesn't sound sadistic, so if you open up some you might actually get somewhere."
  1217. "Easy for you to say."
  1218. > One hoof taps the collar on your neck.
  1219. "Forgetting what this means isn't so easy, though."
  1220. > "Well, don't know what to say. I know I'm in a pretty place - I get to fly, I get to hunt. Work's rough, but not too hard."
  1221. "I'll admit to being slightly jealous. I miss when we could just fly for show and competition."
  1222. > "So do I."
  1223. > After that, the conversation peters out.
  1224. > The irony of the moment is not lost on you:
  1225. > Two former enemies, huddled for protection beneath the creation of those who had enslaved them.
  1226. > All the same, the moment is bound together by that irony.
  1227. > In a way, you're almost thankful to it for letting you see Giselle as a fellow, rather than an enemy.
  1228. > "Hey!"
  1229. > Your master's voice catches you by surprise.
  1230. > "If you two lovebirds are done over there, we're going to be taking off again pretty soon."
  1231. > Rolling your eyes, you rise and flutter your wings to let some air in beneath them.
  1232. "Well, I guess that's that."
  1233. > Next to you, Giselle stretches luxuriously - the pop-pop of her back audible even over the wind.
  1234. > "Yeah. Didn't think I'd be saying this at first, but - honestly good to see you're still hanging on, Spitfire."
  1235. "...the same, to both. If the disease hadn't happened, the war hadn't come, and the humans..."
  1236. > Shaking your head morosely, you sigh.
  1237. "Anonymous said he makes this flight a lot. If you're still here next time, maybe we'll be able to arrange a race, for old times' sake."
  1238. > "I'd like that, yeah."
  1239. > Just as you're turning to leave, something comes to you.
  1240.  
  1241. "Oh! Speaking of making this flight again - have you flown with him before?"
  1242. > Again cocking her head slightly, Giselle nods.
  1243. > "Yeah, why?"
  1244. "Who was Eddie? I heard someone mention the name earlier..."
  1245. > "He hasn't told you that yet?"
  1246. "No."
  1247. > "Eddie was his copilot. I don't know the whole story - but, honestly, if he hasn't told you he probably has a reason. Should try opening up to him, maybe he'll tell you some things too."
  1248. > Vaguely the memory of Anonymous saying something when you were first bought, about his copilot having 'left'.
  1249. "Huh. Well, thank you."
  1250. > As you trudge back to your owner, thoughts swirl in your head.
  1251. > True, you'd not told him much about yourself.
  1252. > But how much did you honestly know about him?
  1253.  
  1254. ------
  1255.  
  1256. > As your craft climbs away from the rough airfield - another load of a dozen scientists, though thankfully no other griffons - riding in back, you keep a wary eye on your owner.
  1257. > He's the image of concentration, eyes flicking over the instruments and hands occasionally adjusting dials as he keeps the aircraft's course steady.
  1258. > And yet, you can't help but see an enigma now.
  1259. > It'd been how many weeks since he'd... purchased you, and only now thinking about it do you realize how little you know of him.
  1260. > Perhaps some of that had been your own choice:
  1261. > You'd wanted to see him as just 'a slaveowner', an antagonist you could fight against.
  1262. > So you'd neglected trying to pick up any other details.
  1263. > Now, though...?
  1264. > You wonder if you hadn't been going about that the wrong way.
  1265. > Maybe the best chance you'd have to escape would be to figure him out - try and get inside of his head.
  1266. > Unfortunately, you've got startlingly little to go on.
  1267. > Your gaze drifts down to the nose space just ahead of the cockpit - to the boxes that had been placed down there.
  1268. > What about those ones he didn't want you handling?
  1269. > Maybe those had been his private things?
  1270. > You hadn't minded the other 'Bolts handling your hooflockers if needed, but then you had all been a team - trust was essential in every way.
  1271. > Returning your gaze to Anonymous, a slight frown makes its way to your lips.
  1272. > It did make sense - in a worrying way.
  1273. > And-
  1274. > "Hey, Spitfire. I know I'm a sexy beast and all, but eyes on the cockpit."
  1275. > Ripping your stare from your master, you find any train of thought thoroughly derailed.
  1276. "Oh, like I'd ever sleep with a human. Keep on dreaming."
  1277. > "Aww, come on. You know you want this."
  1278. "Pffft. You'd have to order me to do it."
  1279. > "And if I did?"
  1280. > Despite his earlier order, you turn to fix Anonymous with a sharp stare.
  1281. > Did he expect you to give him some kind of exploitable answer?
  1282.  
  1283. "Then you'd be an even bigger monster - and a smaller dick - then I ever imagined."
  1284. > To this he laughs, shaking his head.
  1285. > "Relax; you're safe. I only take what I can catch on my own anyway."
  1286. "Good."
  1287. > Even if that matter was settled, your mind is not.
  1288. > Hours later, when you've finally returned to the airport you'd originally departed from, your mind is not settld.
  1289. > And when the crews have removed the seating with just as much efficiency as they had been installed, your mind has not settled.
  1290. > Anonymous crawls from the aircraft, slipping a PDA into his jacket pocket and turning back to glance at you.
  1291. > "Hey, if I leave you in there... you going to be alright for an hour or two? I need to go see about payment and making sure they aren't going to short me on anything, then go see about more work."
  1292. > Glancing down, at your collar - still unchained from the aircraft - you raise an eyebrow.
  1293. > Catching your look, he laughs.
  1294. > "Just stay here, okay? I trust you not to do anything stupid, get run down by another plane or something."
  1295. "Hah, hah."
  1296. > You briefly consider taking a stroll around the field, seeing if there were any other ponies to talk to.
  1297. > But no, some flicker of discipline - self discipline and not from your owner, you pointedly remind yourself - keeps that choice from being made.
  1298. > Instead your crawl back into the aircraft.
  1299. > Unfortunately the cots had not yet been returned to their normal positions, so instead you curl up in the co-pilot's seat and let your eyes linger on the fading afternoon skies.
  1300. > Once more your mind wanders back to Giselle's words.
  1301. > Be more open with him...
  1302. > How did she do it?
  1303. > Forget that she was still a slave, no matter how much 'good treatment' they gave her?
  1304. > Maybe griffons just adapted to humans better than ponies did.
  1305. > 'Be more open with him and he would with you' - honestly, did she think he'd ever view you as his equal?
  1306. > Open...
  1307.  
  1308. > Unconsciously your gaze had drifted down to the nose space just forward of the cockpit, the hatch leading down to it opening invitingly between the two cockpit seats.
  1309. > The luggage Anonymous hauled around was still down there - including the mysterious ones he hadn't wanted you touching.
  1310. > Open them?
  1311. > You could try.
  1312. > Nobody was there to stop you, and if you ever wanted to figure this man out you would need some hints.
  1313. > Climbing from the seat, you carefully work your way down into the darkened nose space.
  1314. > Fumbling fruitlessly in the dark, you eventually give up and find the nose hatch's release instead.
  1315. > Unfortunately, shoving it open produces a clang that in your mind seems to resonate across the entire airfield.
  1316. > Nervously raising your head to peer from the hatch, you wait several minutes before assuring yourself that no, it had not been heard.
  1317. > With the last dregs of sunlight filtering in, you're now able to find the luggage - still stowed and secured in place with strong straps.
  1318. > Finding the correct pieces of luggage isn't problematic - they had been carefully and neatly stacked on top, despite certainly not being the last things moved over.
  1319. > Releasing the straps that hold them in place, however, absolutely is.
  1320. > Tightly secured with numerous strong, elastic cords, you're ultimately forced to retrieve a wrench from the tool kit aboard and use it to lever the cords' clasps free of the points they had been anchored to.
  1321. > At last they come free, and you pull the topmost box forward enough, ready to open it... and find to your frustration that it was padlocked as well.
  1322. > In a fortunate turn, however, Anonymous had for some reason chosen to lock them with combination padlocks.
  1323. > With a grin you settle your head next to the lock and lay one ear back to focus on it.
  1324. > This lock might have been an obstruction to humans, but a pony's hearing was far superior to theirs.
  1325.  
  1326. > Yet, for just a second your hoof pauses.
  1327. > Not out of concern for your safety - although you were well aware of the danger - but by simple decency.
  1328. > However far fallen your situation was might be, you liked to think of yourself as a mare of some principles.
  1329. > And you knew how bad it could be if one member of a team violated the privacy of another.
  1330. > Working so closely demanded a careful balance between prying just enough to know when a problem was developing, but not so far as to be needlessly intrusive.
  1331. > But you and Anonymous were not a team.
  1332. > He was your owner, and you his slave - no matter how familiar he might be sometimes.
  1333. > If he wanted your respect, he shouldn't have bought and chained you up.
  1334. > A careful hoof turns each of the tumblers, ears pricked for the minute difference in sound the correct position is marked by.
  1335. > Though much frustration is to be had, a rush flows through you as the lock clicks open.
  1336. > Breath held in anticipation, you open the box...
  1337. > ...nothing.
  1338. > Spare clothes - good ones, by the look of them.
  1339. > Some of them quite good ones, if human fashion was anything like Equestria's.
  1340. > Digging further, you only find several files of documents.
  1341. > Most of them are, by your estimation, regarding his ownership of the aircraft; others might be medical forms.
  1342. > Replacing the contents and lock, you move on to a second trunk.
  1343. > This one, too is closed with a combination lock and just like the last one is opened with the assistance of an ear pressed to the lock's body.
  1344. > Disappointment floods through you as opening the lid reveals only more cloth.
  1345. > As you lift the cloth out of the way, however, something feels slightly wrong with it.
  1346. > Stiff, almost.
  1347. > Lowering your head to the fabric, you suck in a whiff - and are immediately assaulted by the unmistakable, iron stench of blood.
  1348. > It's old and faded, but there's no missing what is staining this fabric.
  1349.  
  1350. > Shifting back into what little light still filters in through the open hatch confirms your suspicion.
  1351. > Now, too, you see that what once might have been a human's shirt was badly shredded - torn ragged at multiple points across the front.
  1352. > Setting the shirt aside, you dig deeper.
  1353. > Next out comes another jacket, just as heavily stained with blood and also torn around the edges - though not nearly as badly.
  1354. > Beneath that, however, the contents become more confusing.
  1355. > A headset, meant for a human and quite worn - inscribed on the underside with the letters 'E M'
  1356. > E - for Eddie, perhaps?
  1357. > ...had this belonged to his copilot?
  1358. > Digging further seems to confirm your suspicion; inside a thick envelope are several pictures carefully kept in glass.
  1359. > Anonymous is in all of them, but so is another man - shorter, but also even more slim and with longer, blond hair.
  1360. > After that emerges - wrapped in a rag - a carefully-sheathed knife.
  1361. > Though the blade has been cleaned, the scent of blood still lingers around the grip.
  1362. > Most likely it was covered in a great deal of the stuff at some point, and had impregnated the grip before it could be washed off.
  1363. > Putting that aside and rummaging through the remaining contents of the box leaves no doubt in your mind these things had once belonged to your owner's friend.
  1364. > More than a few appeared to be various aircraft-operation licenses, all of which helpfully confirmed the name.
  1365. > Much more was various keepsakes, though; a box of cigars, a compass - cracked but still accurate, as far you could tell - a pair of gloves...
  1366. > With the contents spread out before you, a worrying thought begins to make its way through your mind.
  1367. > Clearly 'Eddie' had been badly injured - the sheer amount of blood still on them testified to that.
  1368. > But why was Anonymous so tight-lipped about it?
  1369. > With the knife - had he been a part of it?
  1370.  
  1371. > That didn't seem possible; a slaver he might be, but nothing your owner had done suggested a temper that could kill.
  1372. > If not that, though...
  1373. > What was his obsession with keeping you aware from the box?
  1374. > None of this was delicate; it wasn't like you could break them by mishandling the trunk.
  1375. > Carefully replacing each item in the order you remember having removed them, you then return the box to its place on the stack and return the tiedowns to something close to the position they'd been in.
  1376. > Replacing the hatch is almost done in a trance, as is climbing back up to the cockpit.
  1377. > Curling down into the seats, you fold your legs beneath you and huddle low - wings shifting as if they could cover and shield you.
  1378. > No matter how unlikely it seemed, a fear is growing in your heart like a sickness.
  1379. > Thinking back to the first moments you'd met Anonymous in the shelter, he'd said he knew you might 'misbehave' and were one return away from being sent to a labor farm.
  1380. > What if he'd bought you because you were - expendable?
  1381. > There were supposed to be rules against just killing ponies, but you knew it happened anyhow.
  1382. > 'Accidents' might happen in mid-air, especially with a pony known to be stubborn...
  1383. > Another shudder runs through you.
  1384. > There were other explanations, of course; nothing here definitively pointed towards murder.
  1385. > But it was a stark reminder of your position, that you were property and not citizen.
  1386. > Shuddering softly, you sink down a bit further and try and banish the thoughts from your mind.
  1387.  
  1388. > By the time your owner returns, your mind has quieted considerably.
  1389. > Undoubtedly something... unusual had happened, but he showed no signs of being violent towards you.
  1390. > You could keep a wary eye out for any warning signs, you'd decided, and still remain safe.
  1391. > If he did show some, then much as you hated the idea alerting the other human authorities might not be an awful idea.
  1392. > All that remained then to be done is put away the more irrational fears, and that only needs time and patience to be accomplished.
  1393. > Something that you have had plenty of by the time Anonymous returns.
  1394. > Climbing aboard with a grunt, he shoots you a wide, toothy smile.
  1395. > " 'lo there again, Spitfire!"
  1396. "Well, you're in a good mood."
  1397. > "Every reason to be. Turns out we've got a day or two off, and then a nice little milk run."
  1398. "...you haul milk?"
  1399. > "It means an easy flight, simple stuff. C'mon, help me get the stuff out of the nose space and put the beds back in place."
  1400. > A flicker of fear reignites in your stomach as he goes down to unstrap tiedowns, but if he sees anything wrong with how you've replaced them he doesn't say.
  1401. > Working silently to drag the boxes back to the sleeping compartment does leave you time to think, though.
  1402. > An easy run, a milk run...
  1403. > ...but where did that money go?
  1404. > For that matter, he'd made it abundantly clear that he took on dangerous jobs; was he never paid for that?
  1405. > Was all of it tied up in maintaining this aircraft?
  1406. > If so, why would he keep pouring that much into what was obviously an old machine?
  1407. > Sighing softly, you wonder to yourself if it would be best to chalk it up to the species-wide insanity humans seemed to be posessed by sometimes.
  1408. > At last, though, the job is done: Trunks and bags returned to their proper places, the beds lowered and bolted securely.
  1409. > Flopping thankfully on the mattress, you groan and roll to your back.
  1410. > "Feeling that burn?"
  1411. "Oh, shut up. I've felt worse back when I used to fly."
  1412.  
  1413. > A tiny part of your mind whispers that - if something had happened between Anonymous and his last copilot - antagonizing him might not be the best idea.
  1414. > Right now, however, you're a little beyond caring.
  1415. > Frustration with the entire situation had once again built up inside you, and in any case you were reasonably certain there'd be some warning signs before he potentially murdered you.
  1416. > "Well, if you're feeling up to a little excitement, I fly out of here often enough to know a decent bar. I'm heading over, you want to come?"
  1417. > Alcohol?
  1418. > How long has it been since you'd actually had a drink?
  1419. "No leash?"
  1420. > "Uh, yeah. Sorry, Spitfire, but there's a limit to how far I trust you - especially when I'll be a bit tipsy."
  1421. > Great.
  1422. > Just what you needed, to be paraded around like an animal.
  1423. > "Your call. Pride or going somewhere new, pick one."
  1424. "So, feel like Tartarus now, or feel like Tartarus in the morning. At least if I'm drunk I might forget about it now."
  1425. > Anonymous hikes his way out of the aircraft into the chill evening air; you follow, though not before locating the jacket he'd purchased for you and shrugging your forelegs into it.
  1426. > Holes had never been made to accommodate your wings, which are for now trapped beneath the cloth - but at least they're warm.
  1427. > Stepping out into the night air, you quickly manage to catch up with Anonymous and put some slack on the chain lead he was linked to you with.
  1428. > "So, feeling a little rough tonight? What happened, your chat cat-bird still got you down or something?"
  1429. > Let's go with that.
  1430. > Safe enough to let him think that was the issue.
  1431. "Yeah, yeah. She gets to fly, y'know, on her own. Hunt, even."
  1432. > Though you can't suppress a small shudder at the idea of it being enjoyable to hunt another living thing.
  1433. > Chasing and racing was one thing; pursuit to kill was another.
  1434. > "Jealous?"
  1435. "Abso-fucking-lutely. It was only my whole life back home."
  1436.  
  1437. > "She also works out in the middle of buttfuck nowhere. And probably hasn't given her handlers any trouble."
  1438. "Have I given you any?"
  1439. > He pointedly doesn't respond to that, and you let a small smirk touch your lips.
  1440. > Continuing his slow stroll to the edge of the airport and beyond, you at last amble up to what is to be the evening's entertainment.
  1441. > The bar in question turns out to be a thankfully reasonably clean place, if a bit cramped.
  1442. > Earthy, warm tones dominated an environment lit by pools of light pouring down from conelike lamps.
  1443. > At some point the wood paneling might have been quite elegant, but it's begun to show its age now; the entire place has the faint smell of heavy laquer used to cover up the worst of the damage.
  1444. > Thankfully it seemed to be tolerant of extraterrestrial clientele, judging by the ponies seated at tables off to one side of the room.
  1445. > It was also, you were reasonably certain, a business meant specifically to attact pilots.
  1446. > What with the decor and images of what you assumed to be assorted famous aircraft on the walls.
  1447. > That does give you a bit of an idea, something you'd been meaning to do for a long time but hadn't a chance to yet.
  1448. > Glancing up at Anonymous - and squinting against against the harsh light cast down from bulbs above - you nod towards the bar itself.
  1449. "Can I go wander around, or do you need a chaperone to keep from getting too drunk?"
  1450. > Rolling his eyes, Anonymous motions dismissively and disconnects the leash.
  1451. > "No, I'm good, thanks."
  1452. "Then in that case, can I at least have my ID so they don't throw me out if I ask for something?"
  1453. > It takes a bit of fishing in his pockets, but Anonymous quickly finds the card.
  1454. > Briefly pressing it to his phone, he taps something in - presumably how much money he was alloting you with - before slipping it into one of your jacket's pockets.
  1455. > "Have a ball. Just don't pick any fights and be able to walk back to the plane, okay? I'm putting you on a money limit."
  1456.  
  1457. "Fine by me."
  1458. > "And if you try and bolt for the door, the bouncer's going to stop you."
  1459. > Neither fleeing, fighting, or heavy drunkenness were your intent anyhow.
  1460. > Instead you wait until he has a drink and someone to talk to, ensuring his attention is well and fully off of you.
  1461. > Only then do you approach the bar, leaping up onto a chair to perch on it with all four hooves.
  1462. "...uh, beer. Something not too rich; I'm not looking to get drunk fast."
  1463. > "Gotta see a card before I can serve an indentured."
  1464. > Swallowing the sour taste of humiliation, you retrieve the card to present it.
  1465. > Gingerly taking it from your jaws, the bartender regards the plastic square dispassionately for a moment.
  1466. > "Y'owner here tonight?"
  1467. "Yes, over there."
  1468. > One hoof raises to point out where Anonymous is standing in a small crowd.
  1469. > "If I go over there and ask him, he going to say it's okay for you to drink?"
  1470. > The tone of your response is probably a bit more stinging than it needed to be.
  1471. "Well, he brought me in here, didn't he?"
  1472. > For a second the bartender seems almost about to start something, but in the end swipes your card and passes it back.
  1473. > Soon after, a bottle joins it.
  1474. > Tucking the drink beneath one wing, you wander off to the 'equestrian section'.
  1475. > The cast is, you notice, quite varied:
  1476. > Ponies of all races and genders, even a Crystal mare whose coat showed its distinct sheen this far from home.
  1477. > Some had wrapped themselves in complete outfits, while others were bare except for their ID collars.
  1478. > Slipping into a seat, you pop the lid on you bottle and begin to nurse it along - and then you put your eyes to work.
  1479. > It was an immutable law of bars, you'd long since discovered, that every table was held by one alpha - one dominant personality.
  1480. > Rather than barge in to their domain, however, you simply waited until you could a few gazes and set the bait.
  1481.  
  1482. > Success came quickly enough - a grey-coated pegasus rises from another table and approaches, his face set in a confident grin.
  1483. > More importantly, his entourage of loyal followers trails behind him.
  1484. > " 'lo there, love. You're lookin' a bit lonely over here tonight."
  1485. > The urge to roll your eyes is staggering, but still can be resisted.
  1486. "Actually, I'm looking for a bit of information. Was wondering if any of you might be regulars here, might have heard something."
  1487. > Seats have been filled around you at the table as the other ponies settled in, and you can tell you've got their attention.
  1488. > "Oh? What about, love?"
  1489. "The Wonderbolts. Was wondering if any of you have heard anything about them."
  1490. > From somewhere in t back comes a whispered comment:
  1491. > "Holy shit, that's-"
  1492. > It's cut off with a hoof to the ribs, but you can't help but give a small chuckle.
  1493. > Turning back to the pegasus who'd lead the small crowd over, you cock your head slightly and flick an ear at him.
  1494. "Well?"
  1495. > "Why, you a fan of theirs or something? C'mon, why don't you come sit over here-"
  1496. > His hoof taps the seat closest to him.
  1497. > "-and we can talk about it a bit more?"
  1498. > "Hey! Windy - Windy, don't you know who you're talking too? That's Spitfire!"
  1499. > Eyes go wide as another speaks up and you hear at least two sharp intakes of breath.
  1500. > Figuring a bit of theatricality couldn't hurt now, you shrug off the jacket and stretch your wings - just in case there was any question.
  1501. > Hey, a mare has a right to show off a little bit.
  1502. > "...oh, wow."
  1503. > Backing up a bit, the stallion pauses, the gives you a tentative smile.
  1504. "So, yeah. I'm looking to find out where the rest of my team - the rest of my family - might be. I don't suppose any of you might have been able to help?"
  1505. > "Uh, sure. Windy Peaks, by the way. Wow - it's really good to see you. Rumor was that you'd been, uh, put down a while back..."
  1506. > Shaking your head helps hide the small shudder at how close you'd come to that fate.
  1507.  
  1508. "I got stuck in a market for a while, but I'm out now."
  1509. > "Damn, that'll be a story to tell. Well, look - I'm not the one to ask here, but there's another stallion who's a regular here, he might know something. When he comes-"
  1510. > "I'm here, Windy. Watched you make a fool of yourself."
  1511. > A pang of sympathy for Windy Peaks runs through you as he squirms - you hadn't seen the stallion approaching from behind him either, and you were facing the pair!
  1512. > Quite the specimen too - a middle-aged unicorn of impressive build, slight tuft of a beard, and a rigidity to his stance that instantly sets a suspicion in your mind.
  1513. > Leaping from the chair, you hold a hoof out in greeting.
  1514. "Spitfire - I'm guessing you heard what I'm asking about?"
  1515. > "I did, yes."
  1516. "I need that information, if you have it. The 'bolts were like family to me."
  1517. > To your surprise, though, rather than take your hoof in greeting he opts to strike his chest in salute.
  1518. > "Stolid Stride. Good to see another face here, captain."
  1519. "Not a captain any longer, unfortunately. You were with the guard?"
  1520. > "Yes, I was - lieutenant, before it all fell apart."
  1521. "You looked it."
  1522. > "Heh. Well, you're still trying to look after your team - still makes you a captain to me."
  1523. "And you?"
  1524. > "Had to keep doing my job or I'd go mad, so now I look after these idiots-"
  1525. > He throws a hoof around Windy Peaks' shoulders, who throws on a painful-looking grin.
  1526. > "-who work around here and make sure they don't get in too much trouble. They bunk us all in the same complex; I manage it."
  1527. > Nodding in understanding of why you'd be directed to this pony, you lean back in the seat and hook a hoof around your bottle.
  1528. "Surprised they'd let you do that. You know, with your past and all."
  1529. > "Eh, I keep the trouble down and they give my ponies some breathing room. It works for the both of us."
  1530. > Stolid's eyes drop to your throat, to the shock collar around it.
  1531.  
  1532.  
  1533. > He's measuring you, you realize.
  1534. > Having seen the collar and knowing it meant somepony who had probably given the humans a lot of trouble, he was trying to gauge if you'd have a poor reaction to his cooperating.
  1535. "That's fair enough, I suppose. We all do what we have to."
  1536. > Seat creaking as he leans back, Stolid nods.
  1537. > "That we do. Now, as for your team..."
  1538. > Yellow magic raises his glass as he rubs at his chin.
  1539. > "I can say for sure about two. Blaze and Misty Fly were on the east coast, supposedly doing something for the government. Wave Chill I heard was down south, doing search and rescue. I've heard all kinds of rumors about Fire Streak, Surprise, and Fast Clip - with how far apart they're placed, any or all of them could be right."
  1540. > Refusing to show any emotion, you keep your face stolid and unchanging as he rattles off names.
  1541. > "Lightning Streak and High Winds, well, the word I keep hear is that they were with a smuggling group, trying to get ponies back to Equestria. Nobody's seen them, of course, but it's a known thing. And Silver Lining..."
  1542. "Tell me."
  1543. > "Dead. Got shot trying to break out of the facility they were keeping him in."
  1544. "Certain?"
  1545. > "As can be without seeing proof myself."
  1546. "You thought I was dead too."
  1547. > "I thought you were. I know he is."
  1548. > Clenching your jaw, you nod sharply.
  1549. "Anything about Soarin', or Fleetfoot?"
  1550. > "Just random rumors, no basis. They've as much chance of being the next princess of Equestria as being any of the things I've heard. Nopony's seen them for sure in months."
  1551. > Nodding one last time, you turn up your bottle and down a quarter of it in one go.
  1552. > In Silver Lining's memory, you tell yourself.
  1553. > When it slams back to the table, Stolid has an eyebrow up.
  1554. "...needed to hear that, but I think I need a drink too."
  1555. > "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you more. Or better news."
  1556. "I am too. But, the one I'm with - he flies around, so I'll keep trying."
  1557.  
  1558.  
  1559. > To this one of the others at the table perks up - a youngish mare barely old enough to have her cutie mark, eyes hollow but alight with hope.
  1560. > "Can I ask a favor of you, miss Spitfire? Help getting a message through to someone else?"
  1561. "Can't tell you where exactly I'm going to next, but I'll try."
  1562. > "S'fine. Here."
  1563. > A piece of paper - crudely sealed with tape at its edges - is passed to you.
  1564. > "There's an address on the back. If you ever get down to a city called Vegas, there's a place there. If you can..."
  1565. > "Now, Willow, don't you go weighing that mare down with any of your messages."
  1566. "It's okay. Family of yours?"
  1567. > "Yes, miss Spitfire. My mother; we were split up there."
  1568. "I'll do it if I can."
  1569. > "Thank you. Um... please don't open it, miss Spitfire. It's really private. If, um, someone else tries to take it, please tear it up."
  1570. > That is a bit surprising to you, but still you stretch a wing out and lay it lightly on her withers.
  1571. "Don't worry. It'll be as safe as I can keep it."
  1572. > "Thank you."
  1573. > "So, who brought you in here anyhow, Spitfire?"
  1574. > Finding your owner at a distant table - seems like he's found a few similarly dressed humans to chat with.
  1575. "Him. Owns a plane, I help him with the planning and checks. Wish he'd let me fly on my own wings more, but it's definitely not the worst that could be happening."
  1576. > "Hmm. He's looking a bit wobbly."
  1577. > Anonymous is, indeed, clearly drunk - though not yet disturbingly so, all his motions have that kind of excessive animatedness that comes with alcohol.
  1578. > "Not surprised. Pickings are thin tonight for his kind of company."
  1579. "Huh? He's got a few table-mates there."
  1580. > Stolid laughs sharply.
  1581. > "Y'think he comes here to talk with those? Any of them come to a fancy place like this just to talk? Nah - they see airplanes all day long; why come to a bar with higher prices and pictures of more?"
  1582. > Something clicks in your head - what Anonymous said earlier, about only taking what he can catch himself.
  1583.  
  1584. "...he's looking for female company."
  1585. > "Yeah. They all come in here like that - and if they can't find anything, buy drinks for themselves instead."
  1586. "Great. At least he doesn't have to fly tomorrow."
  1587.  
  1588.  
  1589. > By the time Anonymous gives up hope on finding any female company this night, he's been drinking for some time.
  1590. > That much is obvious by the time he staggers over from his table, following a winding path to your side.
  1591. > Halfway through he gives up and wave you over, his voice slurred.
  1592. > " 'ey. 'ey, Spitter... c'mere. We're goin'."
  1593. > Rolling your eyes sharply, you rise from the table - your sole bottle long since empty - and wave to those ponies still remaining.
  1594. > Stolid had long since departed, tugging a chagrined-looking Windy Peaks with him.
  1595. > A few others had remained, and now they murmur soft 'goodnights' as you depart.
  1596. > Trotting to your owner's side, you try and keep your nose from wrinkling at the smell of alcohol.
  1597. "I'm here. You need a helping hoof getting up?"
  1598. > "No. I got this. Just - just lemme..."
  1599. > It takes him several attempts to reattach the chain to your collar, but he manages.
  1600. > Following your stumbling, lurching owner out into the chill night air, you pull the jacket tight around yourself.
  1601. > The walk back, you can tell, is going to be a lot longer than the one too the bar.
  1602. > And the stench...
  1603. > Urgh.
  1604. > To a human it might have been just a whiff, but to your nose Anonymous positively reeked of several kinds of booze.
  1605. "Listen, this might go a little bit faster if you just let me lead you."
  1606. > "Lead...?"
  1607. "Yeah. Show you the way. Guide you. Keep you from stumbling all over creation."
  1608. > Mouthing 'guide' a few times, Anonymous suddenly yanks your lead quite hard.
  1609. > "Spiff... Spill... Spit. Spitfire. Listen. You gotta do something really, really important with me."
  1610. > Great.
  1611. "...yeah?"
  1612. > "If... If I try and fly th'plane... y'gotta stop me, 'kay? Don' let me. Bite me or something."
  1613. > Shoving down another groan, you start walking again.
  1614. > To your surprise, he lets himself be pulled after you - still stumbling, but in a rather straighter path.
  1615.  
  1616. "If I bite you, you'll use the collar on me. I'd like to keep myself safe, sir."
  1617. > "I won'. I'll remember. I told you, don' let me try t'fly."
  1618. > As if he could.
  1619. > You somehow doubt Anonymous could even get the plane started, much less off the ground.
  1620. > Still.
  1621. "Fine. I won't let you kill both of us."
  1622. > After a considerable amount of time pondering your statement, Anonymous apparently concludes that it fulfills his request.
  1623. > "...thank you."
  1624. > To that, you don't respond.
  1625. > The plane, when you arrive, is unfortunately not much warmer than the night outside.
  1626. > It does, however, come with a nice set of blankets which you make full use of, burying yourself within them.
  1627. > You're halfway asleep when your name reaches your ears.
  1628. > "Ey. Ey, Spitter. I gotta ask you something."
  1629. "What is it, Anonymous?"
  1630. > "Do y'hate me?"
  1631. "I am a slave. I'm not in love with you."
  1632. > To this he doesn't immediately respond, but when he does the words immediately wake you back up.
  1633. > "If - if y'could. Would y'kill me?"
  1634. > Stiffening beneath the sheets, your eyes fly open.
  1635. > There's no sound except for the brushing of wind against the aircraft's skin; your gaze bores into the bulkhead facing your bed, unwilling to look at him.
  1636. > What was he asking?
  1637. > If you said yes, would he kill you first?
  1638. "...if I killed you, they'd put me down in an instant."
  1639. > "What - what if y'could get away wi'it? No questions, just. Y'can get away completely free, fly away an' leave me dead. Would ya?"
  1640. > Your mouth opens but no sound comes from it.
  1641. > Thoughts are still whirling in your head, thoughts trying to organize themselves amid the slight haze of alcohol.
  1642. > Responding feels as tricky and delicate a process as threading through the funnel of a tornado.
  1643. > Was he testing you, and if you answered wrong would he kill you first?
  1644. > What even was 'wrong'?
  1645. > ...for that matter, would you even kill him?
  1646. > Anonymous was a slaver, sure, and you'd been in the Guard.
  1647. > But he wasn't the worst by far.
  1648.  
  1649. > Did you have any right to judge that, though?
  1650. > He was still helping them, though.
  1651. > By the same merit, though, did you have any right to condemn him to death?
  1652. > ...
  1653. > How long has it been since he asked his question?
  1654. > Had he seen you hesitate?
  1655. "No, I wouldn't. Killing you... I want to be free. But I'm not a murderer."
  1656. > "Y'hesitated."
  1657. "I did."
  1658. > Again there's an extended silence.
  1659. > Beneath the covers, muscles coil - ready to leap to safety if he came for you.
  1660. > With how drunk he was, there was a fair chance you could evade him.
  1661. > Unless he got to the control for your collar.
  1662. > "S'good. If y'just said it without thinkin', you might be lying."
  1663. > Collapsing on his bed with a heavy thud, Anonymous stares at the ceiling.
  1664. > "Would y'stop and save m'life? If it meant you wouldn't be able to get away."
  1665. > Well, he seemed to want honesty, didn't he?
  1666. "I don't know."
  1667. > This time your answer comes up with somewhat more confidence.
  1668. "I could just say yes, but... damn. If I could get away, even have a shot at finding the other 'bolts... Celestia above, I'd want that."
  1669. > To this Anonymous doesn't respond, though you could hear telltale breathing that indicated he was awake.
  1670. > Eventually it goes quiet, though, and soon after sleep claims you as well.
  1671.  
  1672. --------
  1673.  
  1674.  
  1675. "So. This 'milk run' of yours, where's it going?"
  1676. > Breakfast had been had at a nearby restaurant today - nothing special, but it beat instant oatmeal by far.
  1677. > Having returned, you were now laying half-draped over a table, your right legs dangling from the edge and a pen clutched between your jaws for tapping at Anonymous' computer.
  1678. > Revelling in the comfortable feeling of a full breakfast steadily digesting.
  1679. > "Goin' to Richersville."
  1680. > Typing in the name, a frown forms on your lips as none of the results appearing show any sign of being remotely close.
  1681. "Where's that exactly?"
  1682. > "Sorry - uh, put in Vickersville."
  1683. > Anonymous moves to your side, a mug of cooling coffee clutched in one hand as he rubs at his eyes with the other.
  1684. > His early-morning misery draws a chuckle from your lips; considering you'd once woken regularly before Celestia's sun rose, this was downright luxurious.
  1685. "Okay, Vickersville..."
  1686. > "Yeah. Sorry. Richersville caught on as a name for it ages ago."
  1687. "Why?"
  1688. > "The kind of people who live there. Bunch of rich assholes decided modern society was too sinful and immoral for them.
  1689. > Slumping into a nearby seat, Anonymous downs a hefty gulp of his awakening elixer.
  1690. > "So, they founded a nice little community well away from everything else where nothing could 'pollute' their lives. Kind of thing only money can pull off. So, Richersville."
  1691. > This time you don't bother to disguise the roll of your eyes.
  1692. > You'd seen those types before.
  1693. "So everything's too impure for them, but they're not averse to having you deliver stuff."
  1694. > "Not averse? Hell, there's a road into town. Utilities, too. They just like having everything flown to them, so nobody has to drive all the way out."
  1695. "That's idiotic."
  1696. > "It is. But, words of wisdom from a friend of mine: Do not trifle in the affairs of rich idiots, for they are not subtle and quick to part with their money."
  1697. > There is a certain cynical logic in that, you can see.
  1698.  
  1699. > Glancing away from the screen, you peer down the length of the aircraft, where numerous well-cushioned boxes had been brought in by the ground crews and anchored into place.
  1700. "So, they pay you to fly all the way out there with... what?"
  1701. > "New things for them, mostly. Basic supplies can be brought in from nearer towns, but luxury stuff I have to bring in from further away."
  1702. "So, be careful on the landings."
  1703. > "Mmm-hmm. At least the strip is paved; they keep it nice and neat."
  1704. "They, or their slaves?"
  1705. > "Hah, hah. Come to think of it, I've never seen a pony out there, actually."
  1706. > That's... surprising.
  1707. > By the time you actually get off the ground and into the air, it's much later in the morning.
  1708. > Anonymous is no longer looking like he'd crawled from a shallow grave, which is rather reassuring when he pulls the yoke back and the wheels leave the ground.
  1709. > What the sun hadn't done, however, was remove the brisk chill from the air.
  1710. > Even with the cockpit's heaters on, you're acutely aware of the lingering iciness seemingly waiting to strike again - especially as you gain altitude.
  1711. > Anonymous definitely seems to be feeling it worse, however.
  1712. > He's bundled up in a jacked just the same as you are, but every few minutes you see him shift in his seat uncomfortably.
  1713. > Heh, maybe the heater had gone out on his side.
  1714. > That'd be funny, if the slave was the one who was actually warm for a -
  1715. > "...hey, Spitfire."
  1716. "Yeah?"
  1717. > "Can you hold the controls for a second?"
  1718. > ...wait, what?
  1719. "Wait, what?"
  1720. > "Can you. Take the. Controls."
  1721. > That wasn't something you'd ever expected to come out of Anonymous'mouth.
  1722. > He actually wanted to put his plane - his livelihood and home - in your control?
  1723. "Are you crazy? I don't know how to-"
  1724. > "No - just, hold on to the controls and don't let them go anywhere. Keep us straight and leve. Can you do that?"
  1725. > With a fair amount of trepidation you reach out and grab the wheel.
  1726. > How were you supposed to do this?
  1727.  
  1728. > It'd been designed for something with fingers to hook around the edge; you, unfortunately, were stuck with hooves.
  1729. "I don't know. I wouldn't be able to control it very well, if something happened..."
  1730. > Looking over, you find that Anonymous is actually looking kind of pale and sweaty.
  1731. > Was he sick?
  1732. > If he was, you were in trouble.
  1733. > "Just - just hold it steady, okay? Keep your eyes on the screamer gauges and make sure nothing goes really bad. We're on a nice straight portion of the flight now, so you'll be fine."
  1734. > He was going to be persistent about this, wasn't he?
  1735. > With a bit of experimentation, you find that by hooking your hooves over the Y-like radial bars and pushing against the outer ring, you're able to keep a reasonable grip on the wheel.
  1736. > When it's not moving, that is.
  1737. "I - I think I've got it. But I'm really not sure-"
  1738. > Anonymous is getting out of his seat before you can finish your reply; turns to rush out the cockpit door, you hear a low mutter:
  1739. > "...fuckin' dunkin donuts coffee going right through me..."
  1740. > You're reasonably sure your peals of laughter could be heard through the entire cabin.
  1741. > So, that's why he'd been looking so pale!
  1742. > Still snickering, you shake your head and unconsciously repeat and adage from your Wonderbolt days:
  1743. " 'Always empty out before you head out.' "
  1744. > Occasional giggles are still bubbling up when your headphones pop to life.
  1745. > "...N803AA, be advised of navigation changes due to unexpected traffic in your area. Descend to ten-thousand and maintain altitude."
  1746. > Laughter dies in your throat, a lump as icy as the wind outside replacing it.
  1747. > Shit - now what?!
  1748. > You could read the altimeter fine - that was a three-thousand foot drop - but working the wheel?
  1749. > That was well beyond you.
  1750. > "N803AA, please acknowledge: Descend to ten thousand and maintain altitude."
  1751. > Shit, shit, shit.
  1752. > Anonymous had told you to keep it steady - but he always followed the given directions.
  1753. > "N803AA-"
  1754.  
  1755. "Uh, standby. We hear you, standby-"
  1756. > If you screamed, would Anonymous hear it?
  1757. > "N803AA, who is this? You're a single pilot aircraft, but you sound different."
  1758. > Fuck!
  1759. "Anonymous! We've got a problem! I need you back in here-"
  1760. > "N803AA, you need to remember your proper radio protocol. I'm right behind you, Spitfire."
  1761. > Whirling around, you spot Anonymous crouched in the cabin directly behind the cockpit, bearing a colossal, ruthless grin.
  1762. > As you boggle, he begins to laugh himself.
  1763. > "Ho-lee shit, Spits. You were freaking out there."
  1764. > Unplugging his headset from the intercomm port there, he climbs back into his seat.
  1765. > "Real ATC would have identified themselves. Also, they would've said 'over' after each order."
  1766. "...you are a complete and total nutjob. What if I'd actually done it?!"
  1767. > "I was right behind you; I'd have stopped you. And besides, the controls on this old thing are tough - I doubt you'd be able to do anything too crazy before I stopped you."
  1768. "That's - no! You put your life at risk!"
  1769. > "I was plenty close. I could've stopped you."
  1770. "That's not the - oh, never mind."
  1771. > Once again, you'd forgotten just how insane this human was.
  1772. > "Hey. You don't want me to do it again, don't laugh the next time I have to go to the bathroom."
  1773. "Is that what this was about? Seriously?!"
  1774. > "No. It was about trusting you, really."
  1775. > Any response dies in your throat.
  1776. > "I trusted you'd keep the plane steady until I could get back. Well, I got back."
  1777. "...with all due respect, sir: Don't ever test your 'trust' in me like that again. Please."
  1778. > "Fine, fine."
  1779. > Despite his tone, you have to admit he was right.
  1780. > Increasingly, Anonymous had been trusting you with greater and greater duties.
  1781. > That alone is enough to settle your mind somewhat - proof that your decision to go along with him for now was yielding results.
  1782. > "Hey Spitfire?"
  1783. "What."
  1784.  
  1785. > "You can stop hanging on to the wheel for dear life now."
  1786. > Cheeks burning with shame, you release your grip on it and settle back in your seat.
  1787.  
  1788. --------
  1789.  
  1790. "VOR beacon is set."
  1791. > "Good, I see it. Two thousand feet."
  1792. > Anonymous hadn't been kidding when he described Vickersville as isolated.
  1793. > The community practically leapt out from the rocky bluffs it was built between, an island of even green fields among the miles of orange, white, and red rock.
  1794. > Nor was he mistaken about the way they kept the airstrip.
  1795. > Even from this distance away, the black tarmac was clearly visible.
  1796. > "Consider yourself lucky we're coming here in the winter this time, Spitfire. Landing out here is hell on Earth in the summer. The trip radiates all that heat straight back up."
  1797. "Didn't consider that when they built it?"
  1798. > "Nah, they don't care. It's all air conditioning for them."
  1799. > Again marveling at the awesome hubris that had built this place, you place a quiet note of thanks that at least Anonymous hadn't seen any ponies here.
  1800. > Somehow you doubted they'd be given the same consideration as their owners.
  1801. > Passing over the city itself only reinforces your opinion on the absurdity of the place.
  1802. > Each and every house seemed to come with a grassy square; a few lines of trees have even managed to be forced into place around the edges.
  1803. "Sweet Celestia, I can't even imagine how much water you have to ship around - and without Pegasi to do it..."
  1804. > "You said it. A monument to greed, wretched excess, and the sheer power of hypocrisy."
  1805. "Huh?"
  1806. > "Like I said, they came out here because the rest of our society is apparently too 'impure and corrupted' for their liking. They take a rather particular reading of our religious traditions."
  1807. > Pausing to bank and line up with the runway, Anonymous continues:
  1808. > "One that apparently neglects the whole 'be meek, humble, kind and so on' bits. Y'know, so they can keep their consciences clear and all that."
  1809. "...says the one telling it to a slave."
  1810. > "Yeah, yeah. I didn't enslave you; I didn't start this. It was me or a work farm; remember that."
  1811. > Your only response is a snort.
  1812.  
  1813. > Hypocrisy and clear consciences indeed.
  1814. > At least the landing was smooth.
  1815. > No jolting, or jostling to be had; it was as gentle a run as any of the airports you'd flown from now.
  1816. > They even had a hangar prepared for you; Anonymous cuts the engines as you roll to a halt in front of the cavernous building.
  1817. > A small truck rolls out to collect you and travel the rest of the way.
  1818. > Feelings of thankfulness for the service begin to fade as the interior comes into view, however.
  1819. > Like everything else here, it seemed to exist solely to show off its owners' property.
  1820. > A half-dozen small aircraft reside in it, each a gleaming, chromed testament to their owners' wealth.
  1821. > Despite being as much Anonymous' property as the aircraft he flew, a touch of inferiority at the creaky, slightly rusted appearance of his plane tinges your thoughts.
  1822. "Well, they certainly like flying in style."
  1823. > "What, these things?"
  1824. > Anonymous chuckles softly.
  1825. > "Don't gotta feel to bad about them. They're pretty and all, but loaded down with too much gear. None of them have our altitude, or legs for more than hops to the nearest strips. Rich fools' shine."
  1826. > Pointing to one in particular, he gestures to the twin engine pods mounted to its tail.
  1827. > "You see those? Turbojets; he doesn't have the facilities out here to really service them, though, so he's probably spending a bunch of time somewhere else having work done. Me, my stuff doesn't have to be fancy and pretty as long as it works."
  1828. > Briefly you wonder if that applies to you as well.
  1829. > Fancy and pretty certainly aren't words you'd apply to yourself, after all.
  1830. > "Alright. Set the brakes, get everything shut down in here, and calculate our fuel usage. Then do an exterior check; I'm going to be outside getting the stuff unloaded."
  1831. "Got it, got it."
  1832. > Already hatches are being unlocked by ground crews, quick to unload their employers' bounty from your cargohold.
  1833.  
  1834.  
  1835. > Taking a brief moment to peer from the cockpit window, you see Anonymous leap out and head straight for the edge of the hangar.
  1836. > Three figures were striding in to meet him, and immediately Anonymous' demeanor changes.
  1837. > No longer is there any sign of the dismissive, mocking way he'd described them to you.
  1838. > Instead he throws his arms open and enthusiastically shakes each of their hands.
  1839. > "Greg! Greg Latimer, feels like years since I saw you last! How're you doing? How's the young ones?"
  1840. > "Oh, you know, you know. Growing up way faster than it's seem possible for them to. Found my second eldest sneaking around some nudie sites a few weeks back..."
  1841. > Huffing, you set about finishing your duties.
  1842. > The annoyance at your owner's own hypocrisy sets a small fire burning in your heart, but that's something you can focus around - keep your mind centered as you chew through the tasks he'd given you.
  1843. > By the time you're done, the grunting and creaking from the cabin behind you have ceased.
  1844. > Evidently the hired muscle had finished unloading the cargo, though their smell - stale cigarettes and fresh sweat - had not.
  1845. > ...funny, you'd stopped noticing Anonymous' scent.
  1846. > Hadn't even noticed when it had happened.
  1847. > Rising from the seat pulls a powerful yawn and several smacks from your lips.
  1848. > Hopping from the aircraft, your ears detect the distant, animated chatter between your owner and several of the locals.
  1849. > You know...
  1850. > He'd told you to run an exterior inspection after you were done with the paperwork, but that determination had left you done faster than normal.
  1851. > A few fast beats of your wings carries you up to the top of the cabin, between the two massive engine pods - each still radiating a fair amount of heat - and touch down softly to avoid your hooves clicking too loudly on the metallic skin.
  1852. > Walking along the aircraft until the tail rises from just behind the glass-covered blisters is like pacing along the back of some beached, behemoth shark.
  1853.  
  1854.  
  1855. > No shark would have the horizontal stabilizers mated to said tail, however, and climbing atop one provides the perfect place to watch your owner from.
  1856. > Settling down with your hooves tucked beneath your belly and head ducked to keep your fiery mane from being too obvious, you peer just over the edge of the tail and down to where a number of figures are clustered together.
  1857. > Anonymous' patron seems to have fallen off on a tangent - something about how the country was ruined because it wasn't being governed by 'people who let their beliefs guide them' or something.
  1858. > For his part Anonymous seems to be just nodding away, throwing in the occasional line about how 'that's why he's always happy to fly out here and help you'.
  1859. > You're torn between the conflicting urges to be audibly sickened by his patronizing, or laugh at it.
  1860. > Or keep your mouth shut and out of trouble.
  1861. > He'd probably appreciate that.
  1862. > ...though at the moment, you're not sure you care what he'd appreciate.
  1863. > After all, this just seems to build on top of the hypocrisy he'd shown-
  1864. > Something latches tight onto your tail and pulls hard.
  1865. > With an undignified squeak you're pulled from your comfortable perch, spinning about in midair to face your assailant.
  1866. "Hey, what gives?!"
  1867. > Standing on top of the plane and clutching your tail in one meaty fist is one of the ground crew who'd unloaded the aircraft earlier, an ugly grimace on his face.
  1868. > "Mister Latimer don't like no one spying on him."
  1869. "Oh, go bite a thundercloud. I wasn't spying; I'm supposed to be here."
  1870. > Grabbing your tail between both forehooves, you rip it from his grasp and drop down to the hangar floor.
  1871. > Two thuds sound as the goon jumps down after you, again snagging your tail.
  1872. > A second later a greasy arm wraps itself around your barrel and pins you - and perhaps more importantly, one of our wings - to his chest as well.
  1873.  
  1874. > Even aside from the ache of twisted muscle and ligament, you can feel feathers being shoved out of alignment - the delicate arrangement that made flight possible disrupted.
  1875. > Flying's going to be awkward, if possible at all.
  1876. > "No, y'ain't. I dunno where you come from, but if y'wasn't spying, why were you hiding up there?"
  1877. "The hell I'm not. I came on this plane!"
  1878. > Unable to spread your wings and pull away into the air, you settle for a far baser pony instinct.
  1879. > Both hindlegs lash out in a double kick; while one misses entirely, the hits his thigh with a satisfyingly meaty thunk.
  1880. > You're certainly no earth pony and not in shape to boot, but even so your assailant staggers back with a cry and allows yout to slip free.
  1881. > Seconds later a fist sails over your head fast enough to whisk through your mane.
  1882. > The next blow comes downward, as he awkwardly tries to compensate for your lower height.
  1883. > That one too is easily dodged, as is the third - you might not be the fastest anymore, but you've certainly still got the skill.
  1884. > Staggering forward to the aircraft's side hatch just forward of the wing, you're about to climb in when a fist closes around your mane and pulls hard.
  1885. > Again your hindlegs lash out; though both land hits and pull a pained grunt from his lips this time, it's not enough to kick you free.
  1886. > "You ain't going nowhere, beastie. I got you-"
  1887. > "Hey, what the fuck? That's my damn copilot!"
  1888. > Anonymous' voice cuts through the haze of the fight.
  1889. > Despite the pain it causes you, somehow you get your head twisted around to spot him.
  1890. > Three other men beside him had appeared, each looking as surprised - if not more - than he had.
  1891. > One of them you recognize as his patron, Latimer; the others you only vaguely remember seeing enter with the first.
  1892. > "Let her go. Spitfire, get the fuck down. What the hell is going on here?"
  1893. > "You know that thing, Anonymous?"
  1894. > "Know it? Hell, Greg - I own its ass!"
  1895.  
  1896. > At least his order had resulted in you being put down; hissing, you painfully flex your wing before folding it back against your side.
  1897. "Thank you! See, if you'd just listened to me in the first place..."
  1898. > "Quit being mouthy, Spitfire. What the hell were you doing?!"
  1899. > "She was spyin' on you, boss."
  1900. > Rolling your eyes at the hired muscle's protestations, you raise a hoof to point towards the tailplane.
  1901. "I was outside doing an inspection, just like you told me to!"
  1902. > "...have to say, Anonymous, I didn't take you to be keeping around one of their kind."
  1903. > Narrowing your eyes at Latimer's comment, you decide that now might be an optimal time to shut up.
  1904. > "Something wrong with having her around? I own her, she works for me. Nothing more."
  1905. > Anonymous' voice still maintains its jovial, friendly tone - but there's something else layered beneath it, a hint of a warning.
  1906. > Greg Latimer misses it entirely.
  1907. > "Works for you? Don't - you didn't seriously get her to take over for Eddie?"
  1908. > "Not everything, but she's learning. That an issue, Greg?"
  1909. > "Her kind aren't anything but trouble. We keep 'em out of Vickersville, I thought you'd be smart enough to keep them out of your life as well."
  1910. > "Hey - you see this?"
  1911. > Anonymous' fist closes around your collar, jerking it around to put bring the shock pod into full view.
  1912. > You wince at the sudden movement, but don't protest.
  1913. > "This means she's mine. She makes any trouble for me, I can take her down. Understand?"
  1914. > One of Latimer's friends steps forward, jabbing a finger at you.
  1915. > "That doesn't matter. Their kind isn't saved; they ain't supposed to be here."
  1916. > He seems about to go on, but a hand on his shoulder and a shake of Greg's head halts him.
  1917. > Shaking your collar a bit more, Anonymous growls out.
  1918. > "Spitfire, go ahead and apologize to the man for attacking him."
  1919. > Apologize?!
  1920. > But they were the ones being unreasonable, and he went for-
  1921.  
  1922. > Spotting Anonymous' hand in his pocket and suddenly very, very aware of the shock collar pressing into your throat, your swallow heavily to force down the biting reply you'd wanted to give and duck your head submissively.
  1923. > You'd forgotten; you were the slave and he was a human.
  1924. > And the slave was always in the wrong.
  1925. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have attacked you; it won't happen again. That was my mistake."
  1926. > The taste left in your mouth by the words makes you want to spit, but that wouldn't help.
  1927. > Anonymous, at least, sounds relieved.
  1928. > "See? No problems. Are we cool, Greg?"
  1929. > "...look, Anonymous. I know you've done a lot of good work for us, but I'm really going to have to ask you not to bring that thing back again. First time here she started a fight; what'll it be next time?"
  1930. > Offer denied, your owner's tone turns rather harder.
  1931. > "She's my crew, Greg, like it or not. Now, you want to settle up out for that little scuffle earlier, I'm willing to forgive your guy for going off on my property. But I can't throw her out of here."
  1932. > His face turning stormy, Latimer scowls darkly and snarls.
  1933. > "Eddie would be raging mad if he knew you'd got... that pony in place of him. You should've given that position to someone who really needed it!"
  1934. > A pause while he slowly returns his face to normal, and then goes on:
  1935. > "Tell you what, Anonymous. Whatever you payed for her, I'll pay on to you plus a bit. Then you can take on someone who actually deserves that seat."
  1936. > Your stomach clenches at that.
  1937. > Before the feeling can go too far, however, Anonymous pointedly shakes his head.
  1938. > "No. I'm sorry, Greg, but she's my crew. I've got her able to handle things onboard; finding another copilot, training them up, and getting them to the point where I can trust them? It'd take too long."
  1939. > "...you won't be flying in to Vickersville on business anymore, Anonymous. Not as long as you have her around."
  1940.  
  1941. > "I can handle loosing a job. I can't handle being grounded while I train another copilot."
  1942. > Wait.
  1943. > Anonymous had been flying even before he bought you.
  1944. > He'd told you as much.
  1945. > Was he lying to Greg to protect you...?
  1946. > Sighing with a shake of his head, Latimer frowns deeply.
  1947. > "Well. We'll clear you to take off, then, and you can call me when you've got your head screwed on straight again. Mark my words, Anonymous, she'll turn on you."
  1948. > "And I'll be sure to give her a good jolt when she does, right before I throw her out. Now, if you could clear me out?"
  1949. > Your collar is released and immediately you're climbing back into the plane.
  1950. > No need to stay here one second longer.
  1951. > Anonymous follows moments later, crawling into the captain's seat opposite you.
  1952. > His stony gaze is firmly kept on instruments and windshield, though - barely a glance is sent in your direction.
  1953. > Not until the hatches are sealed and a truck is again pulling you out does he actually face you.
  1954. > Instantly you know you're in for it now.
  1955. > "What the actual fuck was that, Spitfire?"
  1956. "He just came up and-"
  1957. > "You started a fight! You don't ever start fights, you understand that?"
  1958. "I didn't start-"
  1959. > The slap comes hard and fast; though you'd seen it coming, somehow your reflexes hadn't quite been up to snuff.
  1960. > Cheek stinging and head wrenched to the side, you slowly turn back to face him.
  1961. > "You. Started. A fight. If you can't solve it by apologizing, you call me and let me deal with it. You do not pick a fight with the people who are paying me!"
  1962. "So, it was a fight because I didn't give up and let him hit me? That is the dumbest logic I have ever heard."
  1963. > "It is. But it's the logic of someone in your position. I can't afford to have you pissing off my employers; do you have any idea what you just cost me?"
  1964. > It's a slave's logic, he means.
  1965. > That knowledge puts a bitter taste on your tongue and a sick feeling in your gut.
  1966. > "What'd you even do to start that, anyhow?"
  1967.  
  1968. "I was up on the plane, and he just grabbed my tail and pulled me off!"
  1969. > "And what were you doing up there, huh?"
  1970. "Doing the exterior check! Just like you told me to!"
  1971. > Again Anonymous looks back to fix you with a fierce glare, and you squirm like a rookie being chewed out on her first day of training.
  1972. > Pride and honesty wrestle inside of you, but all the time you know there's only one winner.
  1973. > Your pride crippled its own cause; you'd never been good at lying.
  1974. "...fine. I might've stopped for a bit to watch you, but I wasn't quitting my work."
  1975. > "And so when you got accused of spying, you decided to wrestle it instead of apologizing and getting back to work. Fucksake..."
  1976. > Hand running through his hair, Anonymous slumps back in his seat.
  1977. > "You know why I told you to do an exterior inspection, Spitfire? Because it'd keep you busy. Out of trouble. I could've told you to just wait in the plain, but you'd have gone and gotten inquisitive."
  1978. > He isn't wrong about that, you'll admit.
  1979. "Fine. Next time I'll just let someone beat your copilot senseless and you can deal with it then."
  1980. > "I'd rather be grounded while I look after your recovery than be out of work because you're picking fights."
  1981. > That brings you up short.
  1982. > Did he actually care for your well-being...?
  1983. > If so, he certainly had a strange way of showing it.
  1984. "Hey. Anonymous... I got to ask you something, though. When you said you couldn't sell me off... did you lie to cover for me? You told me you could still fly alone, it was just harder."
  1985. > For a long time he doesn't answer; instead, he waves the truck away and starts to kick the engines on with their typical whine-cough-rattle.
  1986. > Nor does he say anything more than absolute necessary as you taxi into position and lift off from Vickersville.
  1987. > Only when you're at altitude and steady does he finally respond with a heavy sigh.
  1988.  
  1989.  
  1990. > "Yes... and no. I lied in that I can fly this thing solo if need be. But, I didn't lie in that I can't really afford to throw you out."
  1991. > Your eyebrows rise in surprise.
  1992. > He's got to know he's shooting his own threats about being sent to the work camps in the foot.
  1993. > "You think I let you off your chain, have you work alone, let you hold the controls just for giggles? I'm pissed right now because I thought I could trust you not to be petty and stupid, Spitfire. I can find another trained copilot, but finding someone I can rely on? That's a lot harder."
  1994. > You don't really have an answer to that.
  1995. > Mostly because his words - you could hear yourself saying them.
  1996. > How many times had you chewed out an over-eager pegasus, too ready to trade being part of a team for some personal achievement?
  1997. > But you weren't a team.
  1998. > He was your owner.
  1999. "And if I'm not going to just be a 'trusted slave'?"
  2000. > "If you keep shooting me in the foot, I really will have to get rid of you and Greg Latimer will be right."
  2001. > Before you can respond, he adds in a softer voice:
  2002. > "I don't want him to be right. You've been a good copilot so far, Spitfire."
  2003. > ...
  2004. > What had Giselle said?
  2005. > If you were more open with him, maybe he would be open with you?
  2006. > Sure sounded like he was being open.
  2007. > Just maybe, you could put aside your pride for a moment as well.
  2008. "I'm sorry."
  2009. > Saying it twists your insides, but you manage somehow.
  2010. "I'll... try and remember this the next time something like that happens."
  2011. > "...appreciated."
  2012.  
  2013.  
  2014. > The remainder of the flight is spend in relative silence.
  2015. > Even long after you touch down and all through the dinner found at a nearby restaurant, you keep your thoughts to yourself.
  2016. > Now you were resting in bed, your eyes staring sightlessly through the window mounted above it.
  2017. > Anonymous was somewhere forward, still pouring over his computer and trying to determine the best route of jobs for your next few days.
  2018. > You were almost glad for his absence; there was a lot to think about, after all.
  2019. > Did he really trust you that much?
  2020. > In retrospect, there had been signs.
  2021. > He hadn't just let you off the chain inside the airplane, but let you walk freely even in places where you might have fled - only using the chain when he had to.
  2022. > Traitorously a little voice whispers that he still held the control to the shock-collar, and didn't need a chain to keep you in line.
  2023. > But you didn't see that.
  2024. > He'd given you money to buy drinks with too, and put you in charge of his safety when he'd had too much.
  2025. > And what was it he's said?
  2026. > 'I'd rather be grounded caring for you than be grounded without you'.
  2027. > Would he care for you?
  2028. > A little thrilled shudder runs through you at that; how long had it been since you'd been anything but a slave, and before that a soldier?
  2029. > How long since you'd been a teammate?
  2030. > A friend?
  2031. > You wanted to be cared for again - but by a human?
  2032. > Traitor, the voice whispers.
  2033. > That's what you were for wanting to work with one of them.
  2034. > Wanting to be friends with a slaveholder.
  2035. > That whisper, you can't deny so easily.
  2036. > It was nice to be appreciated, though.
  2037. > You weren't becoming a slaver by appreciating his attention.
  2038. > Were you?
  2039. > "Hey, Spitfire."
  2040. > His hand descends on your withers, and your wings shoot out.
  2041. > Withdrawing his hand sharply, Anonymous takes a step back.
  2042. > "Woah, there. Just wanted to say I'm turning in for the night."
  2043. "...thanks."
  2044.  
  2045. > He turns to crawl into his bunk, but before he can pull the curtain across it you speak up again:
  2046. "Hey, Anonymous?"
  2047. > "Yeah?"
  2048. > Lips part, but no words come from them.
  2049. "Nevermind."
  2050. > You don't know what to say.
  2051. > No, that's a lie.
  2052. > You know exactly what you want to say, but can't bring yourself to say it.
  2053. > Am I really that important to you, or just a slave?
  2054. > Sighing heavily, you roll over in a flop and stare at the ceiling instead.
  2055. > Who were you even?
  2056. > With that question dancing in your head, your eyes close and somehow find sleep.
  2057. > The following morning, Anonymous shakes you awake late.
  2058. > Long since having risen, the sun had opted to shine in through the window and form a warm little square you could rest in - a nice feeling, considering the chill night - and actually getting up was difficult.
  2059. > Immediately upon doing so, you're met by your jacket being tossed through the air.
  2060. > "Brush your teeth and bundle up. We're going to be doing a short hop closer to a major city, do some real fast errands, then pick up a bigger job there."
  2061. "What kinds of errands?"
  2062. > "Shopping, mostly."
  2063. "Do I at least get to be off the leash outdoors this time?"
  2064. > "...yeah, shouldn't be a problem in most places. I'll carry it on me just in case someone does get pissy, but why not."
  2065. > That's a relief, at least.
  2066. > He could still stop your with a collar, but it's marginally less demeaning to be held in check by an invisible leash than a chain one.
  2067. "Thank you."
  2068. > "Thank me after I get you fit up for a good harness and saddle bags."
  2069. "Wait, what?!"
  2070. > A few hours later finds you standing in a pet store - of course it's a damn pet store, it's not like they couldn't distinguish you from common dogs and cats - scowling heavily as Anonymous pokes and prods at the straps circling your barrel.
  2071. > It's not just the situation but also that he's having you hold your wings at full extension as he fiddles with the buckles.
  2072.  
  2073.  
  2074. > Typical human, completely clueless about the rather provocative meaning of such a display in combination with the harness.
  2075. > And of course it hadn't been built so a pony could quickly take it on and off; the buckles were in all the wrong places!
  2076. > Eyeing about, you issue a silent wish to Celestia no other ponies looked too closely at what was happening.
  2077. > Or recognized you here.
  2078. "Tell me you're done down there already?"
  2079. > "Hold your horses. It's not chafing at all, is it?"
  2080. > You're tempted to lie and claim it is, just to get the whole thing off.
  2081. "No. It's fine."
  2082. > "Great. Let me just pop a couple bags in place..."
  2083. > Rolling your eyes, your wings fan out for a moment longer as he snaps the bags on to the harness.
  2084. > At least they weren't too large; you could comfortably settle your wings over the entire rig.
  2085. > That, and your foul mood fades quickly under the pressure of hopping from shop to shop gathering the things Anonymous needs.
  2086. > An eclectic list of everything from replacement specialty light bulbs for his aircraft to replacement bottled water.
  2087. > The focus of immediate work to do is one you'd long used to get your mind off worse problems, and this is no different.
  2088. > Especially when you realize that Anonymous is rejecting the temptation to fill your saddlebags to the point of bursting before taking on anything himself; his own bags are loaded just as heavily as your own.
  2089. > The tiniest surge of approval runs through you.
  2090. > He was shouldering the burden as much as he was asking you too.
  2091. "So, where's our next joint?"
  2092. > "Supermarket. Got to pick up some spare breakfast materials."
  2093. > Great.
  2094. > You hated human supermarkets; the inevitably seemed to come with a meat section which was inexplicably open to the air, rather than behind convenient sealing glass doors or plastic wrap to keep the scent away.
  2095. > Humans might not have noticed the scent, but it drifted through half the store to you.
  2096. > Including, unfortunately, where the lines for paying were.
  2097.  
  2098. > Your stomach was strong, but it was none too pleasant.
  2099. > Briefly you entertain the fantasy of shoving your owner's head in his aircraft's latrine - which always held an unpleasant mix of waste and chemical wash - to show him how it felt.
  2100. > The supermarket wasn't his fault, though.
  2101. > "...you doing okay, Spitfire? Making some funny faces."
  2102. > Promptly your face is shoved into a neutral expression.
  2103. "Just the smell getting to me."
  2104. > Anonymous laughs softly.
  2105. > "We'll have a chance to grab some eats before we take off."
  2106. > Not what you meant.
  2107. > Eating in here would actually be rather hard with that scent wafting-
  2108. > You freeze.
  2109. > Eyes had been roving across the shelves of meaningless junk food and magazines you couldn't care less about next to the registers, but now a rack of postcards several lines down had firmly caught your attention.
  2110. > Without hesitation your take off in a gallop, ignoring Anonymous' frantic calls behind you and the gasps and whoops of surprise around you.
  2111. > Your collar sparks and pops; you stumble, but the setting is not high enough to make your muscles seize, entirely.
  2112. > Gritting your teeth you keep pushing until you skid to a halt - hooves screeching on the floor - before the postcards.
  2113. "Sweet winds, that is him..."
  2114. > A familiar face stares back out at you - blue eyes, white coat and mane of varying shades of orange that had earned him his name.
  2115. > Spinning about to face Anonymous as he runs up, you jab a postcard with a hoof.
  2116. "I need this. Please."
  2117. > He seems ready to chew you out on this spit, but your preemptive request halts him.
  2118. > "You need it? Why?"
  2119. "That pony -"
  2120. > Again you jab at the face on the card.
  2121. > "-I knew him. His name's Fire Streak."
  2122. > He seems ready to deliver a snarky reply - the familiar smirk already on his lips - but none ever comes.
  2123. > Slowly it dawns on your owner, as he studies your expression, that this is important.
  2124. > Very important.
  2125. "Please. We were close."
  2126. > "I ain't ever heard you say 'please' like that before."
  2127.  
  2128. > Picking up the card, he turns it over.
  2129. "Remember how I told you we were a performance team? He was one of my teammates."
  2130. > "Heh. For Disneyland. Figures they'd have you guys down there..."
  2131. "Disneyland? What is it?"
  2132. > "Amusement park. This is advertising a new pegasus performance team they're launching."
  2133. > Performances?
  2134. > Your breath hitches, and you take another look at the card again.
  2135. > Little details leak out at you.
  2136. > His smile wasn't the forced, shell-like smile you'd seen on so many ponies.
  2137. > There was genuine happiness there, a sparkle in his eye you knew well.
  2138. > Might even have been the reason you'd recognized him from so far.
  2139. > The other two ponies flanking him aren't familiar, but they also look pleased.
  2140. > ...had you really been left behind by him?
  2141. > He couldn't be happy as a slave - he'd been a soldier just like you were!
  2142. > Beside you, Anonymous sighs.
  2143. > "Look. I can't promise we'll ever be in the area - it's a bit south for me. But, if you really want me to buy this, I can do that."
  2144. > Retrieved from your bout of self-pity before it could go too far, you look up at him.
  2145. "I... thank you. I'd like that, yeah."
  2146. > "C'mon, then. And don't ever run off like that again."
  2147. > There's something perfunctory about his warning, though - like he knew he had to give it, but understood why you'd done so.
  2148. > Catching your look, Anonymous shrugs.
  2149. > "I get wanting something to remember friends lost."
  2150. > Oh.
  2151. > Yeah.
  2152. > The pictures of Eddie.
  2153. > You'd forgotten about that entirely.
  2154. > A simple nod is your response.
  2155. "I won't. Thank you."
  2156. > "Come on, though. We need to hurry back to the plane and get this stuff stowed away before the cargo shows up."
  2157. > As you follow him, questions run in your head.
  2158. > That look of understanding - when he'd realized what you were doing - that was something you...
  2159. > Liked.
  2160. > Maybe you didn't have to be so terse around him?
  2161. > Unwelcome shudders run through your body, again driven by the prospect of being friendly with a slaver.
  2162.  
  2163. > Even slavers had feelings, though.
  2164. > You couldn't deny that.
  2165. > Did feelings excuse what he did?
  2166. > Normally you'd have said no, but already you'd convinced him to get something for you.
  2167. > Could it be that much worse to be a little more open with him?
  2168. > Trekking back to the plane, the thoughts continue to swirl in a never-ending loop - even as you work to stow away the purchased supplies.
  2169. > "Hey, Spitfire! Cargo's here; get that last stuff put away and then pull out all our blankets and stuff; we might need them."
  2170. > Thoughtlessly you go to the task.
  2171. "We going to have a crew get the cargo aboard?"
  2172. > "Nah, this cargo'll get itself on."
  2173. > ...huh?
  2174. > Yanking the blankets out from the bin that kept them, you follow Anonymous out of the plane.
  2175. > Pausing in the opened, bubble-like canopy you spy him off speaking another woman, but other voices on the far side drag your attention off-
  2176. > And your blood freezes, stomach seeming to solidify into a solid, heavy ball.
  2177. > No.
  2178. > You wouldn't do this, no way.
  2179. > On the far side of the hangar, a good two-dozen foals sat roped together by their collars, eyes wide in a mix of fear, awe, and expectation as they studied the plane.
  2180. > Ice turns to fire within you, the old ire rising again.
  2181. > You might have been thinking that it wouldn't be too bad to be open with a slaveholder, but there was no way you'd ever be involved in helping it yourself.
  2182.  
  2183.  
  2184. > "I'll have to show you how to secure them safely, but go ahead and start getting them aboard."
  2185. > Anonymous' voice snaps you back to reality.
  2186. > Shit, how long had you been standing there boggling?
  2187. > He was already climbing in the opposite hatch behind you, looking up just in time to see you tear away from the opening and start forward up towards the cockpit.
  2188. > No way you were going to let yourself be involved with any bit of a job like this.
  2189. > "Hey, Spitfire - would you get those blankets laid out-"
  2190. "No."
  2191. > Skidding to a halt beside the navigation table, you open one wing to spin around and plant all four hooves in a wide, steady stance - ears flattened, wings half-open to make yourself seem larger, and jaw gritted tightly.
  2192. "I won't have anything to do with this. Not at all."
  2193. > "Oh, fucksake - what, because they're ponies?!"
  2194. "Yes! Exactly! Because they're ponies! I'm not going to be a slaver - not going to sell out other ponies like that!"
  2195. > "So, what - was Giselle different, then?"
  2196. > Well, yes.
  2197. > You hadn't been sure if she actually was a slave at that point, for one.
  2198. > But answering that would turn this into a semantics argument.
  2199. "Not the point, Anonymous. I'm not doing anything here. You can't make me."
  2200. > Not strictly speaking true either.
  2201. > If he'd been fiendish enough, you're sure Anonymous could have found a way to get to you.
  2202. > That wasn't a possibility you wanted to even consider, though.
  2203. > For his part, Anonymous just rolls his eyes.
  2204. > "Fucksake - do you really think this makes you a slaver? Are you owning any of them?"
  2205. > He begins to advance and automatically you begin to back away - not wanting to give him any chance to get close enough to grab you.
  2206. "Yes! Yes, it does - I'm not going to be responsible for transporting a bunch of foals so their entire lives can be taken away from them!"
  2207. > Feeling your way up into the cockpit backwards requires a careful combination of memory and tentative, probing steps.
  2208.  
  2209. > It's not helped by Anonymous hissing back deliberately muted replies.
  2210. > "Do you think refusing will set them free somehow? That if I quit this job they'll be set free, and they won't just find someone else to make the flight?"
  2211. "Do you think I care? I know I can't really stop it alone - but I'm damned if I'm going to play any part in anything to do with slavery."
  2212. > "Play any part-"
  2213. > Abruptly Anonymous breaks out in choked laughter.
  2214. > "-my God, you don't get it, do you? You think you can isolate yourself from this? It's wrapped up in everything now, Spitfire! You think any of those flights we've done so far have been for emancipation groups?"
  2215. > You're rapidly running out of room now, having backed all the way up into the cockpit; descending into the nose compartment in reverse seemed like a good way to get hurt.
  2216. "I'm sorry, Anonymous. I understand what you're saying, and I understand what you've done for me. I'll work for you, but I've still got some pride in me. I won't do this. I won't be a slaver."
  2217. > "Do you think anyone I'm flying for - barring Vickersville - isn't holding contracts for ponies themselves? You've been feeding the system all this time, Spitfire. Too late to back out now."
  2218. > Lips draw back as your final plea is brushed aside.
  2219. "Then consider this being woken up to how fucking stupid I've been."
  2220. > Your snarled words are accompanied by your hindquarters bumping into the engine control block.
  2221. > Out of room.
  2222. "You know how you were talking to me about trust? I wanted to trust you too, to think that you wouldn't push me to hard if I worked well! Not to drop anything like - like this on me!"
  2223. > Desperate to keep away from Anonymous' rapidly closing grasp, you turn aside and leap up into one of the seats - spinning around to face him again.
  2224. > Despite your best efforts, your tone is rising.
  2225. "I guess that's just too much to ask, isn't it?"
  2226. > "I get you. You want everything to make sense."
  2227.  
  2228. > He standing right in front of you now, well within grasping range but not yet reaching out to seize you.
  2229. > "That's what you're used to - you're an athlete; you push yourself, hold yourself to certain standards, and get recognized for it. You take the easy route, you get tossed out."
  2230. > Slumping down into the captain's seat, Anonymous leans forward until he's practically nose-to-nose with you.
  2231. > "But that's now how real life is. Real life is bullshit happens, you get shitty jobs you don't like, and it sucks. You try and bend life to fit your rules, it'll push you aside and move on without you."
  2232. > For a moment, his voice grows distant and your owner seems to be somewhere far away.
  2233. > "You think everything's going great, and just when it's at it's best - just when it's all dandy - life comes and sucker-punches you back to reality."
  2234. "That's your excuse? That you're too spineless to stand up for anything when bad things happen?!"
  2235. > "It's being practical and realizing you can't 'make everything right' by throwing a temper tantrum and pouting."
  2236. > Several moments pass before you're able to form a coherent response.
  2237. > Any hope of keeping your voice down is now long since passed.
  2238. "That's what you think I'm doing? Throwing a temper tantrum, because I don't want to be a traitor to my own species?!"
  2239. > "Absolutely. I want to keep flying this thing-"
  2240. > He stands to motion round the cockpit with a hand.
  2241. > "-and if I had my way, I'd be doing nothing but lazy milk runs and passenger hops. But you know what? I can't. I have to take the ugly, risky, messy jobs."
  2242. > Ending the gesture with a sharp finger jabbed in your direction, he reaches out at last and seizes collar with his free hand.
  2243. > "I have to risk my life doing open-ocean landings, I have to work for assholes like Latimer, and sometimes I have to take jobs that make my stomach turn while I look them in the eye and smile all the same."
  2244.  
  2245. > You're too boggled to react fast enough, by the time you do - extending your wings to batter at his torso - he has leverage on his side and you soon here the familiar metal click of your collar being snapped to its chain.
  2246. > "If you want to get anywhere, if you ever want to help another pony, you're going to have to accept that you're going to have to take ugly jobs too. So sit down, swallow your pride, and do your damn job."
  2247. > Scowling heavily, he reopens the cockpit door and departs in a heavy huff.
  2248. > Despite his departure you still shake your head as if to refute the words still hanging around your head.
  2249. > Yes, he had a point about taking bad jobs - if he thought you were that naive, he didn't know a thing about what being a showpony had been like.
  2250. > But that didn't mean you had to be a Celestia-damned slaver.
  2251. "No. No, I won't."
  2252. > Nevermind that he was gone; just saying the words somehow makes you feel more sure of yourself.
  2253. > Surety is needed, after feeling as though you'd been thrown off a cloud with your wings bound.
  2254. > Curling up in the seat - your collar's chain coming to rest across one hoof - you shut your eyes as you feel a hot, shameful tear dampen your cheek-fur.
  2255. > How could you have been so stupid, thinking he'd treat you anything like a teammate?
  2256. > Sweet Celestia, you can't believe how you debased yourself in that store, pleading with him to buy the postcard.
  2257. > You'd forgotten everything this whole damn world had taught you to play pretend-friends with a human.
  2258. > Forgotten the most basic lesson of all:
  2259. > Slaves don't get to have hopes.
  2260. > They have opportunities.
  2261. > Brief moments to snag back the sensation of feeling equine again before the crushing weight of reality comes back down on them.
  2262. > You hadn't been ready for it.
  2263. > Stupid, stupid, stupid!
  2264. > How did you even convince yourself of anything like that?
  2265. > When did you become so blind to what he was?
  2266.  
  2267. > "Woah!"
  2268. > The voice drags you from your self-pitying stupor, blurred vision focusing on a blue-shaded blob standing in the cockpit hatchway.
  2269. > The blob blinks, and so do you - when your eyes reopen, there stands an earth pony colt with his forehooves up on the hatchway leading into the cockpit.
  2270. > His eyes meet yours.
  2271. > "Hey! Who're you?"
  2272. "An idiot."
  2273. > Hopefully your growled response would be enough to dissuade him from any further inquiries.
  2274. > Instead it only seems to encourage him - with hopping, grunting effort he struggles to heft himself into the cockpit proper.
  2275. > "Is this where he controls this thing from? That's really cool! I've never been in a plane before. Do you know what these controls-"
  2276. "Hey, listen short stuff - I said I'm not interested. Go. Away."
  2277. > Biting and steel-edged, your tone surprises the colt to the point he misses his grip on the hatchway and tumbles to the floor.
  2278. > For just the briefest moment you feel a flicker of satisfaction - good, let him be a little afraid - before it is subsumed in a tide of shame.
  2279. > Hadn't you promised yourself you'd never become somepony who enjoyed another's suffering?
  2280. > Had Anonymous really destroyed so much of you that you'd forgotten that?"
  2281. > Stretching out your neck, you call to the colt who'd already turned to despondantly trot from the door.
  2282. "No, look - I"m sorry. I'm... having a rough time right now; I didn't mean to snap at you."
  2283. > "Oh. So... can I come in, then?"
  2284. > Pausing, you consider:
  2285. > Anonymous would probably be angry if you let a random colt into the cockpit.
  2286. > But then, fuck what he wants right now.
  2287. "Yeah, come on in. The other seat's free."
  2288. > After a bit of struggle, the colt manages to scramble into the cockpit and up into the captain's seat.
  2289. > "Cooool..."
  2290. > He's barely tall enough to reach the steering yoke, but still reaches out for it.
  2291. "Careful with that. The controls aren't locked, so they'll see them moving."
  2292. > "Awww."
  2293.  
  2294. > Instead he starts to peer over the switches, mouth working silently as he sounds out the names of each.
  2295. "What's your name anyway?"
  2296. > "Shady Daze. What's yours?"
  2297. "Spitfire."
  2298. > That pulls a double-take from him.
  2299. > "Wait, like Spitfire of the Wonderbolts?"
  2300. "Uh-huh."
  2301. > To your surprise, rather than adoration or shock a deep sadness crosses the colt's face.
  2302. "What's wrong?"
  2303. > "My momma used to talk about you a lot. She still said that you were still free, hiding out there somewhere and trying to get ponies back home."
  2304. > And the ponies at the bar had thought you were dead.
  2305. > You get stuck in a cage for a few months, and suddenly everyone assumes you're gone...
  2306. "Afraid not, kid. Sorry."
  2307. > Studying you, Shady's eyes suddenly grow wide.
  2308. > "Wait - is that - did they put a shock collar on you?"
  2309. "Huh yeah, why?"
  2310. > For the second time, his response isn't the one you'd expect.
  2311. > "Coooool..."
  2312. > This colt's reactions, really.
  2313. "...cool?"
  2314. > "Yeah. They only put those on ponies who give them trouble. That must mean you're still trying to get away!"
  2315. > Your heart wrenches once more; if he knew how you'd almost accepted this life...
  2316. > But you're still a Wonderbolt, and one of the core duties of a 'bolt was to inspire.
  2317. "Any time I can. They don't give me a lot, but I try."
  2318. > The lie rolls off your lips, leaving bitterness in its wake.
  2319. > "Then you're still cool, I think."
  2320. > His tone is rich in appreciation - honor, even - of being in your presence.
  2321. > Being praised for the lie only makes the taste worse.
  2322. > Another of the Wonderbolts' core tenets was that you did not falsify success - ever.
  2323. "Thanks, I guess?"
  2324. > "Does it hurt? When they use the collar?"
  2325. "A little bit. Only if I've made them really angry."
  2326. > Desperate to push the topic somewhere not quite so painful, you try and bring up something else.
  2327. > Peering back into the main cabin, you now find it suddenly empty.
  2328. "Where'd all the others go?"
  2329.  
  2330. > "Oh, the man who's going to fly us was really upset when he found out someponies needed to go to the bathroom. He made them take everypony out, but I snuck away and got back in."
  2331. > The memory of Anonymous' own recent mishap pushes a light smile to your lips.
  2332. "I can understand why."
  2333. > "Are you going to be flying us too? Is that why you're up here?"
  2334. > Your heart does another painful twist.
  2335. > This colt seemed possessed of the unique skill of the young to bring up the most painful topics in the most innocent of ways.
  2336. "...I don't want to."
  2337. > The words fly out before you can stop them.
  2338. "I don't want - want anything to do with this! I don't want to take you to somewhere so they can split you up and sell you off like dirt!"
  2339. > You're shaking now, but it feels good to let it out to another living thing.
  2340. "Little jobs, just moving things I can deal with... but you aren't things, and I can't think of you-"
  2341. > Abruptly breath whooshes from your muzzle as you're tackled into a hug.
  2342. > Despite being not nearly full-grown, the colt is already bearing his earth-pony strenght; his forelegs are locked tightly around your barrel.
  2343. > After a moment, one of your own wings extends to wrap around him as you lean down to nuzzle into his mane.
  2344. "Thanks."
  2345. > "Momma always said to try to help a pony who needed it."
  2346. > The two of you hold the pose for a moment before breaking; scooting aside to make room for Shady, though, you keep your wing around his withers.
  2347. > "Thank you too."
  2348. "It's fine. You're right; I needed that."
  2349. > "I could tell."
  2350. > He fidgets slightly.
  2351. > "I look after the younger colts and fillies sometimes, so I have to know when somepony's hurting."
  2352. "Do you have any idea where you're going now?"
  2353. > "You don't know?"
  2354. > Shaking your head, you offer a pained smile.
  2355. "I kind of got in a fight with my owner over taking you at all before he could tell me."
  2356. > To this Shady returns an even wider smile.
  2357.  
  2358. > "Woah. I wish I was brave enough to do that... but it's okay. We're not going anywhere scary. They're actually taking us to a new school."
  2359. > That raises your eyebrows.
  2360. "A school?"
  2361. > "Well, sorta. None of us have our cutie marks yet, so they're going to teach us a whole bunch of different things and see if any of us are good at them."
  2362. > His smile widens, even as it adopts a slightly apologetic note.
  2363. > "They're telling the others it's like a summer camp, but since I help out sometimes they told me everything."
  2364. "Are you worried?"
  2365. > "Not really. I mean... I'm scared and stuff, but - we don't get hurt or anything. It's going to be okay, I think."
  2366. > Sighing fondly, you nod.
  2367. "Just keep looking out for the others, okay? That's something we had to teach everyone back in the Wonderbolts."
  2368. > And something you sometimes needed to be reminded of.
  2369. > "I got it, for sure!"
  2370. > After that some silence holds between you; you can hear voices outside now, but not what they are saying.
  2371. "You should get back to them pretty soon, before they get angry."
  2372. > "They won't get angry. They like me too much."
  2373. > With a cheeky wink, he leaps from the seat.
  2374. > "Long as I keep doing okay and helping with the other ponies, they trust me."
  2375. > Trust...
  2376. "Shady, one question."
  2377. > "Huh?"
  2378. "When you're with the other foals... do you like the humans who are with you?"
  2379. > "The teachers?"
  2380. > This requires some thinking on his part before an answer is forthcoming.
  2381. > "Kinda? I mean, I miss my mom real bad..."
  2382. > Here he pauses to rub at his muzzle with one hoof before continuing:
  2383. > "...and sometimes they can't keep everything they promise, but mom said that nopony - er, nobody - can do that 'cept the princesses and the teachers pretty nice the rest of the time. So I guess yeah, I do."
  2384. "But - you trust them not to hurt you just because they can."
  2385. > Now his nod is far more confident.
  2386. > "Yeah, I do. That's why I try and help. They see I am, so they go easier on everypony."
  2387.  
  2388. > He leans in conspiratorially, as if passing on a secret of tremendous importance:
  2389. > "Sometimes, the old guy who actually owns us comes in after all the others have left and gives us gifts. He tells us not to tell anyone, but I don't get why since he makes all the rules anyway."
  2390. > Another aspect of the insanity humans seemed gifted with, perhaps.
  2391. "...why don't you go see to them now? They must be nearly ready to get back on."
  2392. > "Oh, yeah. I'd better! Thank you!"
  2393. > With that, he is gone - once more leaving you alone with your thoughts and the collar around your throat.
  2394. > The conversation had left you confused, to say the least.
  2395. > Shady Daze had seemed so pleased to know you were still resisting at all - like you'd somehow instantly become a role model for him.
  2396. > Considering what his parent had apparently told him of your activities...
  2397. > Yet, he was also working with his captors to keep the others in line.
  2398. > A part of your mind wonders if that made him a traitor too?
  2399. > But as best as you could tell he wasn't helping them out of any desire for recognition or being elevated over his foalmates.
  2400. > He seemed to genuinely want to look after the foals he was kept with.
  2401. > Didn't that contradict his admiration of you for your 'resistance'?
  2402. > Then again, so had Solid Stride at the bar - looking after the ponies who worked around that airport.
  2403. > Yet, he'd greeted you with some measure of pride as well.
  2404. > No thought had been given to it at the time; there'd been nothing to throw in your face the obvious-in-retrospect truth that he must have been cooperating too.
  2405. > But now you wonder, how had he managed to hold on to his pride?
  2406. > There'd been something Solid Stride had said - 'I have to keep doing my job, or I'd go mad'.
  2407. > What was that job, though?
  2408. > In time gentle noise from the aircraft's cabin returns - voices both low and high, captors and captives.
  2409. > Laying your ears down, you try and block it out; your mind is already in enough turmoil.
  2410.  
  2411. > Unfortunately there's little to be done, especially when Anonymous returns to the cockpit.
  2412. > He takes a single look at the displays and shoots you a sharp glare.
  2413. > "You didn't do any of the pre-flight setup."
  2414. > It's not a question, and you don't dignify it with a response.
  2415. > He doesn't take it any further either, simply settling into his own seat and beginning the process of setting the instruments for flight.
  2416. > No words pass between the two of you, though out of habit you pull on the headset and plug it in.
  2417. > At some point during the flight curiosity gets the better of you.
  2418. > Leaning out into the space between the seats, you peer back into the cabin.
  2419. > Many of the foals seemed to be resting, secure in padded harnesses strapped around their barrels to keep them steady.
  2420. > Even so, several sets of eyes peer straight back at you.
  2421. > You find Shady Daze's.
  2422. > He smiles at you.
  2423. > You feel sick and pull back before he can do anything more.
  2424.  
  2425. --------
  2426.  
  2427. > The lake is long, blue, and shining from this altitude - a curving band of glitter in the late afternoon sun surrounded by deep rolling forests.
  2428. > Your cheek is pressed to the window as the plane curves over it, the glass cold and firm against your coat.
  2429. > It's something steady and calming against the turmoil still raging in your mind.
  2430. > The pose required to keep your head against it isn't the most comfortable, but even the ache in your muscles helps keep your mind focused on something else than two dozen foals in the back.
  2431. > Anonymous hasn't said a word to you throughout the entire flight.
  2432. > You don't know if he's too furious to do so, or is waiting for your temper to cool as well.
  2433. > For your part, you're just wishing you could contact Stolid Stride somehow.
  2434. > He'd managed to somehow balance living like that; you'd been stupid to not ask him more about it when you could have.
  2435. > But that was nothing more than a wish.
  2436. > Even if you'd been able to get your hooves on a telephone and called the bar you'd met him at, the odds of finding him...
  2437. > No.
  2438. > You were alone now.
  2439. > ...you hated being alone.
  2440. > The lake is growing close now, your owner bringing the plane down to skim bare feet from the surface.
  2441. > Hydraulics' whining fills the plane at Anonymous' touch, the floats mounted to the edges of each wing swinging down to be ready for meeting the water.
  2442. > You can see the 'school' now - a series of low buildings perched on the water's edge amidst a small clearing.
  2443. > Describing it as something like a camping area isn't totally wrong; certainly the landscape is idyllic enough.
  2444. > Except, of course, that the pupils being taught there were being groomed to...
  2445. > Shaking that thought before it can work its way too far into your mind, you lift your head from the glass.
  2446. > Just in time too; the hull rattles and roars as it plows into the water and bounces like a skipping stone.
  2447. > Once, twice - on the third time the plane comes down smoothly at last.
  2448.  
  2449. > You can hear shrieks from the back - of delight, not fear.
  2450. > Not of horror at arriving here.
  2451. > Now the nose is truly digging into the water, throwing up twin sprays as it angles in towards the dock.
  2452. > Anonymous is speaking on the radio, though his words are a blurred jumble to you.
  2453. > He looks to you - once, only once.
  2454. > Judging if he can ask you to help, maybe?
  2455. > If so, apparently he felt not - instead again talking to those waiting on the dock.
  2456. > Pulling up to it is a complicated dance, nearly ramming into it and only turning aside at the last moment - swinging the tail around to bring the body lined up with the wooden walkway for lines to be thrown across.
  2457. > Now you understand Anonymous' difficulty - how much easier it would've been if you could have flown a line out like you had done before?
  2458. > But he felt this was not something he could do, apparently - and you were thankful.
  2459. > It wasn't something you were sure you could bring yourself to do either.
  2460. > The engines sputter to a halt, their absence seeming to lift a pressure from your head.
  2461. > In their absence there's only a slight creaking as the plane swayed against the mooring lines being thrown to and from it and the yells of men reeling it closer.
  2462. > Somewhere further back, a sharp scraping issues as a gangway is run out to connect the two.
  2463. > Leaning forward, you rest your forehead against the control yoke and squeeze your eyes shut.
  2464. > When you dare to raise it again, the foals are being herded along the dock and up towards the buildings.
  2465. > Shady Daze is looking back and the plane still; when he spots you in the cockpit window, he waves wildly.
  2466. > Somehow you manage to wrench your face into something crudely resembling a smile and wave back.
  2467. > The second he turns away, it collapses like a house of cards in a hurricane.
  2468. > Anonymous returns eventually, sliding back into the cockpit seat with only a mere glance to you.
  2469.  
  2470. > Restarting the engines, he taxis further out into the lake - close to the opposite shore.
  2471. > To your surprise, he doesn't turn around again to take off but noses up to a buoy there.
  2472. "We're not taking off?"
  2473. > "Too late. They said I can stay here, take off tomorrow."
  2474. > It's the first words he's exchanged with you, and somehow you feel thankful that he'd responded at all.
  2475. > Descending with great effort into the nose compartment, Anonymous throws the nose hatch open with an audible clang and emerges from it with a rope.
  2476. > Watching him work, again understand why he'd purchased your help; clearly this was a task that would've been far, far easier for you.
  2477. > It takes several attempt to successfully snag the buoy, but he manages - tying off and returning to the cockpit.
  2478. > With practiced, easy motions he shuts the aircraft down, but there's a certain sharpness to his actions that makes it clear just how troublesome this is.
  2479. > You'd seen it many times before, when a pegasus was having a hard time during practice or training and frustration turned each of their actions just the least bit jerkier, the tiniest sliver more aggressive.
  2480. > Unfortunately, in this case you rather suspected it meant there'd be no relief for you.
  2481. > That fear is borne out when he reaches over, detaching your collar from its chain and pointing rearwards into the main cabin.
  2482. > "Get in back."
  2483. > No point arguing here; without a word you leap from your seat and retreat backwards to the living area.
  2484. > The blankets are still laid out on the floor, as are the cords that had been used to anchor the living cargo in place.
  2485. > Passing by them, you find your way up on to bed - judging by the cords laying over it, it'd been used for some of the foals as well - and turn to face Anonymous.
  2486. > Thankfully standing on the bed has mildly negated the height advantage he has on you.
  2487. > You've a feeling you're going to need it, as Anonymous stood facing you with his legs in a wide stance and arms folded.
  2488.  
  2489. > "...right. Before we go anywhere else, I need to know exactly where we stand."
  2490. "What's there to say?"
  2491. > Lightly shrugging with your wings, you manage to force yourself to look up and meet his gaze.
  2492. "I... I'd forgotten. The position I'm in, I mean. I don't know why - I guess maybe I wanted to. Wanted to think that I could just end up being your friend, not a..."
  2493. > Lips stumble on the word; your owner finishes the sentence for you.
  2494. > "Not a slave."
  2495. > Wordlessly you nod.
  2496. > "Well, you coulda fooled me. Half the time you seem to treat me like I'm your enemy or something; the other half, like I'm your best friend. Those two don't mix too well, you know."
  2497. "Yeah, yeah."
  2498. > "So, the real question is, what happens now?"
  2499. "I can't be your perfect little worker. Throw me out, beat me, use the shock collar, do whatever. You can't change me, though."
  2500. > To this Anonymous snorts heavily.
  2501. > "I'm not going to beat you or anything, Spitfire. You're right, I can't change you. That'd only make you angrier and I can't have someone in the cockpit I can't trust to not attack me."
  2502. "Trust? You want to talk about trust? I was captain of the Wonderbolts; we had to put each others' lives in our hooves each time we flew a show or practiced. I know about trust."
  2503. > "Do you, really?"
  2504. "And what is that supposed to mean?!"
  2505. > "It means you didn't lead anything but a pack of schoolyard bullies with that attitude of yours. Certainly not any kind of team."
  2506. > Rearing up on the bed to actually match him face-to-face, you growl out:
  2507. "You want me to treat you better, try not being a slaver. That's a good way to start; trust is something you earn, not buy at a market."
  2508. > "God damn it, Spitfire, if you keep going this way I'm going to have to find someone to take you off my hands. I don't want to, but if you're going to be fighting me - especially in front of others like that-"
  2509. "Then do it."
  2510. > Unable to hold the pose any longer, you fall back down onto four legs.
  2511.  
  2512. > The words should be heavy, as you know you're essentially condemning yourself to a slow death on a work farm.
  2513. > Somehow, though, they come out easily; as if you'd been waiting to say this for along time but been too afraid to do so.
  2514. "Spare both of us the pain and time and effort. Just put me back in a cage, because I can't be half-free, half a slave."
  2515. > "Spitfire, just bear with me for a second - because I honestly don't want to see you sent to a labor farm - and think about this: Maybe you don't have a monopoly on shitty stuff happening to you."
  2516. > Despite your earlier reluctance to argue, you find your voice rapidly rising.
  2517. "Have you fucking forgotten who you're talking to? My entire life got taken away, the closest thing I had to family was split up and enslaved, one of them is dead-"
  2518. > "I'm not asking you to forgive life, Spitfire. What's happened to you is shitty, no way of getting around that. I'm asking you to trust me - just me - when I say I know how much it hurts."
  2519. "The hell you do. I'm replaceable to you, disposable. I'm nothing but a tool for you. You said it yourself; you just wanted me so you could keep flying."
  2520. > Throwing up his hands in exasperation, Anonymous turns away from you at last.
  2521. > "You know what? I fucking give up. I've tried to help you, I really have but if this is the way it's going to be-"
  2522. "Really tried to help me? No, you patted me on the head like a good little slave who did her work and kept your investment safe. But in the end, I'm just a tool for you - something to be thrown away when I'm worn out."
  2523. > Leering up at him, you narrow your eyes.
  2524. "That's why you bought a slave, isn't it? Because we're easier to dispose of. So go ahead - send me off to die. Wouldn't be the first time you murdered your copilot, after all."
  2525. > Shock rolls across Anonymous' face as he spins back around.
  2526. > Instantly you regret the words, but by then it was far, far too late.
  2527.  
  2528.  
  2529. > The first swing of his fist comes sailing straight to your skull, but the wind-up had left you an eternity to duck the blow.
  2530. > Instead it slams into the bulkhead, drawing a hiss of pained breath from Anonymous.
  2531. > His face had cycled past the pale of shock and was now well into an enraged red.
  2532. > Your lips part to apologize, but no sound comes from them.
  2533. > Instead you're forced to dodge his second swing; it's just as easy to duck as the first, but in the third he finally wises up:
  2534. > Rather than your head, he aims to hook an arm around your barrel and pin you to the bed.
  2535. > Slipping beneath his grasp is an easy task, but when you spin about to face him instead of a fourth blow coming you suddenly find yourself on the floor convulsing.
  2536. > Vision goes a blurry, blinding white; you're dimly aware of your screaming, which seems odd as your lungs feel as though they're wrapped in iron.
  2537. > How long the collar continues its agonizing jolting you aren't sure of, only that when you come to the cabin is sideways and your head feels as though someone had stuck you face-first into a thundercloud.
  2538. > An attempt to return to your hooves is forestalled by a booted foot slamming into your ribs.
  2539. > Tumbling head over tail, you halt only when you come in sudden and violent contact with the bulkhead frame.
  2540. > One of your legs takes the majority of the impact; something pops in your fetlock as the hoof twists awkwardly.
  2541. > With a strangely clouded detachment you note it was probably a sprain, not violent or painful enough to be a break.
  2542. > No respite is given, however; once more Anonymous' boot slams into you.
  2543. > This time it lands in your stomach, leaving you winded and nearly vomiting.
  2544. > Unbidden words pour from your lips, despite how stupid an idea you knew provoking him to be.
  2545. "Thought you weren't going to beat me, huh? Not..."
  2546. > Pausing, you spit to the cabin floor; it comes out bloody.
  2547. > Must've bit your cheek or something.
  2548. "...not much for keeping your word, are you?"
  2549.  
  2550. > Your reward is another fist driven into your shoulder.
  2551. > Now the blows come without any real aim, landing across your body.
  2552. > Somehow you retain enough wits to tuck your wings into your sides to spare them, but any attempt to do anything more - stand up, curl up defensively, anything - is met by ruthless application of the shock collar.
  2553. > At last he heaves your head up, both hands wrapped tight around your throat.
  2554. > "Don't you ever, ever talk shit about Eddie, understand?"
  2555. "Why?"
  2556. > One eye is beginning to swell, you ache all over, and your sprained leg is very definitely swelling.
  2557. > You still find the strength in you to smirk at him.
  2558. "Think he'd be proud of you, beating up a mare after you shock her silly? That the kind of thing he-"
  2559. > His fingers tighten at your throat, choking your words off.
  2560. > "I don't think he'd be proud of me at all. But he was still a fucking better copilot than you'll ever be, he was still my responsibility, and if it'd bring him back I'd kill you right now."
  2561. > Straining against his grip, you're barely able to spit out a reply.
  2562. "Be a... real killer... then."
  2563. > "Yeah, I'd be a murderer for sure then, but I'd have him back. Just like you told me you'd kill me if you could get away, I'd kill you to bring everything back."
  2564. "Didn't... murder him... already?"
  2565. > For an eternity it seems like you stay there, eyes locked - his blazing with anger against your defiant gaze.
  2566. > At last he releases you; bonelessly you collapse against the floor again.
  2567. > Everything aches; one eye is half-shut and it hurts to breath.
  2568. > Your hearing is fine, though, and the thud-thud of his boots signals his stepping away from your side.
  2569. > "God, I wish I knew for certain. I - I think I could face it then, you know? Just to be sure of what I am, I could face that. I think even Eddie would..."
  2570. > He's only half speaking to you, his voice muffled.
  2571. > Even so, you can hear it crack - his words as forced as yours had been when his hands had been about your throat.
  2572.  
  2573. > But it wasn't a physical assault that was stopping him.
  2574. > Heaving your head up, you twist about to spot your owner.
  2575. > Anonymous is sat on the edge of his cot, head in his hands.
  2576. > "Supposed to be the ground crew's fault, I know, but - fuck it, he was my crew. Fucking newbie, should've looked after him better."
  2577. > Responsibility?
  2578. > Did he even understand that...?
  2579. > Lifting his head, Anonymous catches sight of you watching him.
  2580. > "You don't get that yet, Spitfire. God knows why, you still think life's going to reward you perfectly for every drop of sweat and pain."
  2581. > Trying to reply, you only manage a soft croaking noise.
  2582. > "But that's not how it is. Life's a bitch; you've got to take whatever it gives you. I'd think you'd understand that, with what happened to you and your team..."
  2583. > Again you struggle to get out a word, but Anonymous waves you off.
  2584. > "Don't even try to talk to me, unless you're deliberately trying to get me to beat you to death or something."
  2585. > Standing, he turns to head for the cockpit and wordlessly leaves - not even bothering to look back at you.
  2586. > With him gone, you just let your eyes close and wait for the pain to go away.
  2587. > It ebbs away with all the speed of a sleep-deprived snail, but somehow the process is somewhat therapeutic to you.
  2588. > Working until your body screamed for relief was nothing strange to you, after all, and as it receded the pain seemed to take all your anger and fury with it.
  2589. > Considerable struggle is needed before you're standing again, but you manage.
  2590. > Tentatively putting weight on your injured leg, you hiss softly and withdraw it.
  2591. > Looks like you were a tripod for now.
  2592. > Scanning the cabin, you find your eyes drawn to something laying on Anonymous' cot.
  2593. > The controller to your collar - discarded at some point in the tussle.
  2594. > Staring at it brings on the realization that you were for all intents and purposes free.
  2595.  
  2596. > No longer shackled to anything, the control far from where he could get it, and judging by the chill breeze running through the aircraft an open hatch at least somewhere.
  2597. > Unsteadily making your way to the cockpit reveals the hatch in question - directly above the captain's seat, it had been thrown open and left that way.
  2598. > Tempting, luring you with the evening sky visible just beyond.
  2599. > Climbing through it and up onto the body above, you pause.
  2600. > As if to remind you of the opportunity, wind flits through your feathers and sets them dancing.
  2601. > Just one quick jump, and you'd be flying free once more, out across the lake...
  2602. > Or...
  2603. > Quarreling thoughts wrestle in your head.
  2604. > In the end, though, there's only one right thing to do - one thing to let you be true to who you were:
  2605. > Spitfire the captain, the flyer, the teammate of the other Wonderbolts.
  2606. > Not Spitfire the slave.
  2607. > Cursing your pride with every oath and swear you know, you turn around and beat your wings once to carry yourself up.
  2608.  
  2609. > Finding Anonymous isn't hard.
  2610. > Your owner had climbed up on top of the single, massive wing - leaning back against one massive engine pod and stretching his feet out towards the other.
  2611. > Somehow he hadn't looked up when you climbed out, maybe lost in his own thought.
  2612. > This you use to your advantage.
  2613. > A few beats of your wings carry you beneath the aircraft's wingspan.
  2614. > Muscles ache, but even so you manage to drag yourself up and around to touch down next to him - landing awkwardly on three legs and folding your wings with an admittedly nervous shuffle.
  2615. > There's no way he could have missed your arrival, but still Anonymous does not acknowledge you presence for some time.
  2616. > A bottles sits in his hand, you realize, and judging by the shape probably not of water.
  2617. > Awkwardness begins to fill the air between the two of you, settling down like a waterlogged blanket.
  2618. > Maybe he hadn't missed you climbing out, but simply didn't care?
  2619. > He cracks first though, sighing heavily and wrenching his focus from the evening sky.
  2620. > "What are you doing up here, Spitfire? You know I came up here until I could cool my head."
  2621. "Owning up to my mistake."
  2622. > If you didn't have his attention before, you do now.
  2623. > Gathering yourself up, you try and pull your legs in somewhat - present a proper pose, attentive and clear.
  2624. "I... screwed up. No other way of putting it. Let my anger get the better of me. Shouldn't have thrown that at you."
  2625. > Your tail flicks nervously as you try and put words to what thoughts scramble through your mind.
  2626. "If you still don't want me around... well. I did kind of tell you too get rid of me, I guess, and you've got a good reason to be pissed enough now."
  2627. > Though if he said he was, you aren't sure if you could keep yourself from trying to flee.
  2628. > Thump, thump, thump goes your tail against the wing.
  2629. "Like I said, I screwed up good throwing that at you. So... whatever happens, I guess I just wanted to apologize."
  2630.  
  2631. > Anonymous' face suggests he's considering whether you've completely lost your mind.
  2632. > In all fairness, you think you might have too.
  2633. > "So you came all the way up here, risked me deciding I was going to beat you silly again, to tell me that?"
  2634. "Yeeeaaah."
  2635. > Stretched out to give you time to think of something more to say, the affirmation instead trails off awkwardly and leaves you with something that still sound frankly stupid.
  2636. "I... I'm kind of a proud mare, alright? And - something you said kind of stuck with me."
  2637. > Anonymous doesn't answer, but he doesn't stop you either; that seems to be signal enough to continue.
  2638. "You were right. No way I could've lead the Wonderbolts with this kind of attitude. By the time I was captain, I trusted them enough to reign me in when I was getting out of control."
  2639. > "But I'm not your teammates."
  2640. > There's a bit of acid in his voice, and you wince.
  2641. "No. You aren't. But frankly I'm not the same pony who was their captain, either."
  2642. > To that he does not reply.
  2643. "I liked that mare, though - a lot better than I like me right now. Killing me won't bring Eddie back, and killing you won't bring my team back. But... maybe I can try to bring something of that pony back."
  2644. > "By apologizing."
  2645. "It's... a start. What I would've done when I was a captain, not... whatever I've become since all this."
  2646. > "Figured you hated me, the way you were talking."
  2647. "I hate being a slave. Throwing that blame at you individually, though?"
  2648. > Hesitating, you steel yourself and force the next words out.
  2649. "You've lost someone too. It wasn't right of me to throw that in your face."
  2650. > Silence once again settles between the two of you, but somehow it's not quite as heavy - the tension having ebbed ever so slightly.
  2651. > Finally Anonymous grunts and takes a heavy swig from his bottle.
  2652. > "So, now what?"
  2653. "I... go, I guess."
  2654. > Rising and turning to face the lake, you're surprised when a heavy sigh and an unexpected order issues from behind you:
  2655.  
  2656. > "Come over here and sit down, Spitfire."
  2657. > Exactly why you hesitate, you aren't sure.
  2658. > There's no reason too, after all.
  2659. > Best to get in the air and as far as possible while the alcohol was still in him; no way he could fly after you now.
  2660. > Even so, you find yourself moving to his side.
  2661. > The engine cowling he rested against is still radiating heat, and wards off the chill of the encroaching night.
  2662. > Anonymous doesn't say anything more, instead downing another mouthful of liquid.
  2663. > Nothing is said, though, so after waiting a while you decide to open the conversation yourself:
  2664. "What happened to him?"
  2665. > "Cargo started shifting as we took off. He went back to put some additional tiedowns on it while I came back around for a landing. One let go, tore straight through the strap holding it. Straps' ratchet caught him across the chest. Didn't stop him, though - he just cut up his shirt for a bandage and kept everything in place until we were back on the ground."
  2666. > Flat and atonal, his delivery suggests someone trying to put the bare minimum of thought into what he is talking about.
  2667. > "Supposed to be the ground crew's fault in the end. Used the wrong kind of ratchet to hold it. We check our own shit, though. Always check yourself."
  2668. > Another heavy swallow.
  2669. > "Thing is... we split the job doing that. And, for the life of me, I can't remember if I checked that side or he did."
  2670. > Even if you knew what to say now, you shouldn't.
  2671. > "If I did... hell, even if I didn't, I should've. My plane, I'm supposed to look after him."
  2672. > With that said, he goes quiet.
  2673. > Taking the opportunity, you nod.
  2674. "I understand. How you're feeling, I mean. That's why I came up here."
  2675. > Head whipping about to face you, Anonymous' face darkens into a scowl.
  2676. > The last glimmers of sunlight are just enough to let you see the glimmering streaks of tears.
  2677. > "The hell you do!"
  2678. "No, just shut up and-"
  2679.  
  2680. > Groaning, you slam a forehoof - the one not sprained earlier - into your forhead and squeeze your eyes shut.
  2681. "...sorry. Look, just hear me out and then you can decide, alright?"
  2682. > As before, no affirmation is given... but neither does he say no.
  2683. "I - I was captain, and yeah - we did have accidents. A couple ponies didn't come back after some of them, and yeah - officially they weren't ever my fault. Freak accidents, clear-air turbulence, rookie pulled a stupid stunt, somepony made a mistake they should've know not to."
  2684. > Lowering your hoof back down, your legs fold one over the other and chin drops to rest on top of them - belly pressed to the cooling metal and eyes maybe on the rippling surface of the lake.
  2685. "But - captain is captain, and you don't ever stop wondering if you'd pushed a few more safety regs, if you'd payed a bit more attention, if you hadn't pushed them quite as hard - if you'd done something, would it have stopped it."
  2686. > Wind rushes in from the lake, rippling your and mane, bringing with it a renewed chill.
  2687. "So, yeah. I get how you feel. And, fuck - I should've asked you about this ages ago because now I'm pretty certain I'm a pile of shit for throwing that at you."
  2688. > Abruptly the bottle thunks down in front of your head, liquid within sloshing.
  2689. > "Have a drink. You're probably aching a bit; it'll help."
  2690. > Lifting your head, you awkwardly curl one hoof around the bottle and bring it to your lips.
  2691. > The alcohol is burning and heavy, but returns some of the warmth the wind had stolen.
  2692. > Setting the bottle back down, you offer a nod to him.
  2693. "Didn't think you'd believe me."
  2694. > "I know what hurting sounds like."
  2695. > Taking the bottle back, Anonymous grunts softly.
  2696. > "You realize, though, that this isn't going to automatically make everything perfect between us."
  2697. "I'd be more worried if you thought it would."
  2698. > Laying your head back down on your legs, you shrug with your wings.
  2699.  
  2700. "Giselle said I should be open with you. Should've listened to her then; would've saved me a beating."
  2701. > One of his eyebrows rises questioningly.
  2702. > "If I'd known smacking you around a bit would've made you see sense, I would've done it before. Could've gone a bit lighter on you then."
  2703. "How about no."
  2704. > A chuckle - bitter and pained, but still a chuckle - escapes your lips.
  2705. "I needed to get my ego kicked down a notch; I can go without getting my body getting the same."
  2706. > The bottle comes rather more slowly to his lips now.
  2707. > "S'fine. Beating up someone like that ain't exactly something I'm happy about either."
  2708. "So, I get to stay, then?"
  2709. > "Yeah."
  2710. > He sighs mightily, arms folding to pull his coat closer about himself.
  2711. > "I'm probably a softhearted idiot for doing this, but yeah."
  2712. "Softhearted idiot and hardheaded fool of a mare. Hell of a pair, aren't we?"
  2713. > To this Anonymous actually laughs - a real, happy laugh.
  2714. > "Damn right we are."
  2715. "If we're being open, though... it's fair you know. We weren't just an acrobatic unit."
  2716. > "Branch of the guard?"
  2717. "You knew?"
  2718. > "Had a hunch. You had the look of it around you; I've seen enough ex-air force types in the industry."
  2719. "Wait, are you-?"
  2720. > "Military? No, not me. You think I'd be flying this thing if I could get on a job that paid anything real? Not sure how they missed that in your profile, though."
  2721. > Snorting softly, you shake your head.
  2722. "Probably wanted to get rid of me so bad they 'forgot' it."
  2723. > "Heh, figures."
  2724. > Screwing a lid onto the bottle, Anonymous pulls his legs in and looks to you.
  2725. > "So. We better now?"
  2726. > Rising from your prone position, you look across the lake - its waters sparkling with the lights of the 'school' on the far shore.
  2727. "Not going to lie and say yes. Still hate this-"
  2728. > A hoof rises to tap at the collar.
  2729. "-and still wish I could get out of it. But, fuck it - with my record, you've given me a lot more than I expected."
  2730. > Nodding, Anonymous points down to your swollen forehoof ankle.
  2731.  
  2732. > "That's got to hurt. Probably sprained."
  2733. "No probably. It is."
  2734. > "Come on. I have a kit beneath my bunk. We'll get it wrapped up and something to support it, then some food for the both of us. Booze feels good, but it ain't dinner."
  2735.  
  2736. --------
  2737.  
  2738. > Dinner cooked on the tiny plane's hot plate was never the best - often over-salted and under-cooked.
  2739. > Tonight, however, for some reason the steam rising from the metal pot seemed to be the most desirable thing in the world.
  2740. > The immediate pain of your encounter had faded - being replaced by the duller, constant ache that was accompanied by a wave of exhaustion.
  2741. > Or that might have been the alcohol doing something to you.
  2742. > Either way, it was as if all the energy had fled when you'd decided to stay.
  2743. > Between that and your lamed hoof, Anonymous had declared that he didn't want you working on the hot plate.
  2744. > Instead you were left to be tormented by the smells of upcoming dinner.
  2745. > The offending limb was currently stuck straight out to avoid twisting the swollen section; seeking to take your mind off food, you roll onto your back and examine the bandages tightly wound over both leg and splint.
  2746. > That... had been a surprise.
  2747. > Not that he'd treated it, but that he'd been so calm about it.
  2748. > Maybe the fight had sucked the energy from him in the same way it had you.
  2749. > "Hey Spitfire, dinner's done."
  2750. > A bowl is set at the edge of your bed; rolling over to face it, you abandon any semblance of dignity and bury your muzzle directly into the steaming pasta and cheese.
  2751. > ...okay, in retrospect, it smelled better than it tastes.
  2752. > Too much salt again.
  2753. > Even so, the warmth in your belly is more than welcome.
  2754. > Finishing the meal in record time, you lick your lips clean of the last bits and promptly slump back over.
  2755. > Gentle chuckling from the opposite bunk draws your eye.
  2756. "Am I really that funny?"
  2757. > "Sorry - but yeah,you kind of are."
  2758. > Grumbling obscenities under your breath, you twist about to lay on your stomach again.
  2759. > It's an awkward position, with your injured foreleg still stuck straight out, but somehow feels less embarrassing if you aren't presenting your stomach to him.
  2760. > "You going to be ready to fly in the morning?"
  2761.  
  2762. "I should ask you. Even pound-for-pound, you still drank way more than me."
  2763. > He hadn't meant physically ready, you suspect, but neither had your answer.
  2764. > "Heh."
  2765. > Anonymous pops a weary grin of his own.
  2766. > "Point there. But yes, I will be."
  2767. "Then I will too. Tonight, though..."
  2768. > "Yeah. Rest."
  2769. > Taking your bowl and turning to head forwards, Anonymous heads up forward.
  2770. > "Lights out now, okay? Batteries are going to run down if we leave all them on, and I still want some charge for the morning."
  2771. "S'fine. I don't think I could stay up for much longer anyway."
  2772. > Switches snap audibly as the interior of the aircraft goes dark section by section; climbing into his own bunk, Anonymous fumbles around for a bit - changing, you presume - before going still.
  2773. > Yet, despite your words sleep proves frustratingly evasive.
  2774. > Though you might have come to a conclusion about your situation at last, there was still a great deal on your mind.
  2775. > Laying sprawled on your belly, your ears still prick with the sound of waves slapping against the hull and occasional distant creaks and pop of cooling metal.
  2776. > ...
  2777. > Twisting around again, you nose into the tiny locker that held what you thought of as 'your things'.
  2778. > The headset and jacket were there, of course, but tucked away beneath was the postcard with the image of Fire Streak.
  2779. > Keeping your hooves silent against the metal floor was all but impossible, but even so you drop out of the bunk.
  2780. > If Anonymous was awake to hear it, he didn't react.
  2781. > The copilot's seat was cool against your coat and - though the bare sliver of a rising moon didn't provide much in the way of illumination - some light eked in through the windows.
  2782. > Carefully balancing the card on your hooves, you twist about to let the bit of moonshine fall on the image on it.
  2783.  
  2784. > It's familiar enough; the familiar orange-cream mane and white coat, a grin whose one corner turned up to give him a confident look, his goggles kicked up on his forehead so that the strap wraps around the peak of his mane...
  2785. > All of these leap out at you, all things you had seen so many times before - and at the same time all so alien to see on him in this image.
  2786. > Whispers in the back of your mind insist that there was no way this was truly the Wonderbolt you'd known.
  2787. > It had to be a doppelganger or something.
  2788. > But that was stupidity.
  2789. > Fire Streak was there, no doubt.
  2790. > And one way or another you had to reach out to him.
  2791. > Long do you sit there, occasionally shifting as the moon climbs further into the sky to keep its light best on the card.
  2792. > Up here, the lake's gentle slapping seemed closer somehow.
  2793. > Even though you'd made the choice to stay here, it still felt better to be that little bit closer to the open air - even if it did come at the cost of the cockpit being chillier.
  2794. > You even fancied you could hear the soft buzzing of insects on the nearer shore, though surely none were out in this weather.
  2795. > All of that was a distraction, though, from the real thoughts pressing in on your mind.
  2796. > For what seemed like an eternity your list of priorities had been reasonably concise:
  2797. > Find a way to break out of the cage, find the other Wonderbolts, find a way back to Equestria, and bring anypony else you could back with you.
  2798. > Without compromising your dignity.
  2799. > Exact details and minutiae - let alone the absurdity of the whole idea - could be put off as long as you focused on taking one step at a time.
  2800. > Of course then Anonymous had gone and thrown a thundercloud in your path by pulling you out of that cage himself, and everything after that...
  2801. > You were well on the way to taking your first step towards that second objective, but after that?
  2802. > What would you do when you saw Fire Streak now?
  2803.  
  2804. > If you managed to get the other 'bolts together?
  2805. > Stolid Stride had said that Lightning and High Winds were already smuggling ponies; could they help you?
  2806. > ...would they help you, knowing that you'd chosen to stay with Anonymous?
  2807. > Leaning back, your head reaches the cool glass of a window - pressing down against your scalp and ears.
  2808. > It feels good - as though all the thinking you'd been doing had actually lit a fire between your ears.
  2809. > Eyes fall shut as the soothing coolness goes to work, your thoughts spiral back down.
  2810. > There wasn't any doubt that you had kept yourself sane by setting an impossible goal - something you would always be able to work able towards and focus about.
  2811. > But you were just as certain that now, such plans wouldn't do anymore.
  2812. > After all, assigning Anonymous an impossible goal in your mind had nearly gotten you killed.
  2813. > Now you'd have to put one hoof forward and face the reality of things; no longer was it enough to keep focused on where you stood.
  2814. > Unfortunately, beyond your current position lay a chasm of uncertainty.
  2815. > 'Tell Anonymous', a voice in the back of your head whispers.
  2816. > 'He could help you.'
  2817. > Tell him what, though?
  2818. > 'Hey, just so you know, I'm want to break a bunch of other ponies free and sneak them back into Equestria. Just FYI.'
  2819. > ...yeah, no.
  2820. > Not that bluntly anyhow.
  2821. > What, then?
  2822. > Well, you could always leave out the whole break-them-free-and-smuggle-across-the-border bit.
  2823. > That idea is discarded in an instant as well, though.
  2824. > Keeping him in the dark wasn't what a teammate would do either, and not a few hours ago you'd resolved to stop treating him like your personal enemy.
  2825. > But if you said nothing, odds were you wouldn't ever find any of the others...
  2826. > Frustratedly, you raise your head and kick at the open air with a hindleg - imagining your troubles suffering a hoof to the jaw for what they'd inflicted on you.
  2827.  
  2828. > Unfortunately, the open air is all your hoof actually strikes; you issue a frustrated groan in reply and lean back against the window again.
  2829. > The airplane creaks distantly, as if in sympathy for your troubles.
  2830. "Heh..."
  2831. > Patting the seat softly, you issue a small grin.
  2832. "Least you seem to have treated me alright."
  2833. > An answer comes in the form of a distant metallic pop and the continued hiss of waves on steel skin.
  2834. "...nah, I don't blame you. You're just carrying me around. This ain't your fault."
  2835. > Holding a conversation with an inanimate object would have earned you more than a few strange stares in most cases, but right now you don't care.
  2836. > You'd chosen to stay a slave; for tonight, absurdity could have a seat aboard.
  2837. > ...
  2838. > The next thing you know is sliding from the seat as you tip over.
  2839. > Catching yourself with a stifled yell, you're temporarily thrown off by the moon having jumped noticably in the sky.
  2840. > Must've dozed off...
  2841. > Recovering the postcard and carefully clutching it between teeth, you make your way back to the bed.
  2842. > You might not be certain of a lot of things still, but right now you did know one thing:
  2843. > None of this couldn't wait until morning.
  2844.  
  2845. --------
  2846.  
  2847. > The next morning comes with a strange kind of normalcy too it.
  2848. > Rising early in the morning, you find that the previous night's beating had left you with a truly painfully aching body.
  2849. > On most mornings you'd be up and stretching early, but on this particular day you're content to stay curled beneath the blanket while Anonymous heats a pot of instant oatmeal.
  2850. > Depositing a steaming cup in front of you, he finally speaks at last:
  2851. > "Hey, you good to go outside and do a few exterior checks?"
  2852. > At first you only nod, but then decide words may help as well:
  2853. "Yeah, I can. Won't need every leg all the time. Just... give me a bit to get myself up."
  2854. > "S'fine. M'gonna be a little while myself.
  2855. > He rubs at his own bleary eyes, and it occurs to you that Anonymous must be dealing with his own troubles.
  2856. > After all, considerably more of that bottle had ended up inside of him than you.
  2857. > Pushing yourself up on to your haunches with the blanket still hanging over your head and starting to dig at the mug of oatmeal, you find your eyes again wandering out the window.
  2858. > If you craned your head a little bit, the 'school' complex was just in view - and even from this distance, the small moving forms walking between buildings.
  2859. > Unfortunately, procrastination could only take you so far; shrugging the blanket from your body and fluttering your wings to feel how stable they were, you find enough feathers still present to support you.
  2860. "Alright. I'm going outside to stretch up, and then I'll get started."
  2861. > "Mmm."
  2862. > Emerging up to the top of the plane is somehow relieving - the fresh air, however chilly, a welcome feeling as you try and stretch the ache from your legs and wings.
  2863. > Though you busy yourself with performing the numerous examinations of ailerons, lights, oil levels and more, you can't help but find your gaze straying back to the school.
  2864.  
  2865. > And yet, you also find you don't wish to linger here any longer than necessary, quickly slipping back inside when your job is done.
  2866. "It's all good out there."
  2867. > "Mhmm. Alright, get everything stowed away. We're taking off soon."
  2868. > The actual flight is characterized by a similar degree of limited interaction.
  2869. > Anonymous spoke to you as little as necessary to perform your job, and you the same to him.
  2870. > Under other circumstances it might have been said to be an awkward silence - the avoidance of some friction between the two of you.
  2871. > After the previous night, however, you think it's just that you don't have anything left to say right now.
  2872. > Not for now, anyway.
  2873. > Much as you'd spent the previous night in thought, odds were Anonymous also had a lot to sort through as well.
  2874. > Even when you taken off - water flying up from the aircraft's hull in two huge gouts as it drags itself through the air, engines straining - and your gaze was fixed through the side window at the rapidly vanishing school.
  2875. > Not even then had Anonymous commented, though he'd surely be more pleased if your attention was on the task at hand.
  2876. > Only when you're already on the ground at your destination, taxiing towards a hangar, do you speak up.
  2877. "Hey, Anonymous?"
  2878. > "Yeah?"
  2879. "What're we doing now?"
  2880. > "Well..."
  2881. > Heaving hard on a brake lever, he swings the aircraft's tail around hard - corning tightly around another pair of parked aircraft.
  2882. > "First we're going to get you to a doc."
  2883. "...I hate doctors."
  2884. > "So do I, but I want to know how badly I fucked up your leg."
  2885. > There was that.
  2886. > The sprain hadn't gotten any worse as far as you could tell, but your ankle was swollen appreciatively and you'd kept it hanging loosely when touching down.
  2887. > If the bandages came off, you were reasonably certain it would be the same unpleasant purple beneath your amber coat that your other bruises were.
  2888.  
  2889. > Thus you found yourself squirming in a waiting room with Anonymous beside you as the line for a physician's attention crawled forward.
  2890. > He peers down with one eyebrow cocked.
  2891. > "You really hate seeing the doc that much?"
  2892. "I hate these seats. Doesn't matter what planet you're on, doctors seem to love making you hate whatever you're sitting in."
  2893. > "Hah. Can't really disagree with you there."
  2894. "No, I'm serious. In Cloudsdale they'd somehow managed to figure out how to make clouds uncomfortable. Don't ask me how."
  2895. > "No, really - that bad? How?"
  2896. > Your eyes roll hard enough they seem ready to roll right out of the sockets, but any further retort is cut off by Anonymous being called in.
  2897. > Rising, you trot alongside him with an odd hop-limp gait - one that raises the doctor's eyebrows as soon as you enter the room.
  2898. > His eyes aren't the only ones widening, though - you're not quite able to hide your surprise at the white-smocked, brown-coated unicorn stallion seated at the examination table.
  2899. > "...ahah. Well, I suppose we can see the issue here."
  2900. > "Mmm-hmm. So, do I leave her in here with you, or...?"
  2901. > "You are welcome to stay if you that is what you wish, Mister Anonymous."
  2902. > The unicorn's tone suggests that he doesn't think it would be a good idea, but doesn't have a choice.
  2903. > Preparig to shoot a pleading look at Anonymous, you're surprised when he preempts you with a shake of his head.
  2904. > "No, it's fine."
  2905. > "In that case, I will have you called back in a bit later."
  2906. > Once the door shuts, the physician turns back to you.
  2907. > "Well then - my name is doctor Well Wish. If you'd get up on the table, Miss Spitfire?"
  2908. > Flying up to touch down gingerly elicits a nod of approval.
  2909. > "...well, since your wings seem fine I suppose we'd better look at that ankle first."
  2910. > Unwinding the bandages proves your earlier estimation right:
  2911.  
  2912. > A richly-mottled band of purple and blue showed straight through your coat, and as the pressure leaves an unwelcome thudding sensation arrives in its place.
  2913. "...just sprained, I think. Not broken."
  2914. > "My estimation you'd be right. Tell me if this becomes too painful."
  2915. > Rising your hoof in the field of his magic, he takes to turning it lightly this way and that - bending the joint whatever tiny amount the swollen flesh allows.
  2916. > All the while one ear is kept solidly tilted towards your head even as his muzzle remains fixed on your limb - listening, you presume to how your breathing reacts to his probing.
  2917. "...you know, normally I'd ask a colt to buy me dinner before he holds my hoof."
  2918. > "Hah."
  2919. > There's an actual note of mirth in Well Wish's voice.
  2920. > "Do most of your dinner dates involve injuries like this, Miss Spitfire?"
  2921. "Only the ones with colts I like."
  2922. > "Well, if they realy did I'd tell you to lay back for a while. It's a moderate tear of the sesamoid ligament. You'll heal with some time."
  2923. > The degree of relief you hear at that is surprising.
  2924. > Even if you didn't race anymore, a sprain could've been... bad.
  2925. "How much time are we talking about?"
  2926. > "Two to three weeks for the swelling to go down entirely, another two for it to heal up, and some beyond that before you try putting real strain on it."
  2927. > Turning back to his table, Well Wish snags a pen and begins scratching away.
  2928. > "I'm going to request a prescription for some anti-inflammatory cream and strongly suggest a rigid ankle brace for you immediately."
  2929. "Request a prescription?"
  2930. > Your voice is perhaps a bit harder than it needs to be; despite only halting for an instant, the pen's pause in its scratching motions is evident to you.
  2931. > "I can't confirm a prescription myself. You'll have to take it up to the front desk to be approved."
  2932. > Ah.
  2933. > The front desk - not staffed by ponies.
  2934. "...gotcha."
  2935. > Even though your reply is only one word, the tone it is delivered in says all the rest:
  2936.  
  2937. > Speaking to an understanding of the discrimination evident in that requirement.
  2938. > Setting his pen down, Well Wish returns to your side and stretches out one on of your wings to examine it.
  2939. > The sensation of his magic running between feathers is a strange one - like tiny streams of sand playing over your wings - but not enough to make you more than shift in place.
  2940. > "Miss Spitfire, if I may ask - how did this sprain happen?"
  2941. "A fight."
  2942. > "Please be honest with me, Miss Spitfire. How were you injured?"
  2943. "No, seriously. We got into a fight."
  2944. > No need to say who 'we' is.
  2945. > "I didn't see any bruises on him."
  2946. "He got the jump on me."
  2947. > "A fight, then, or-"
  2948. "Yes, a fight. I provoked him."
  2949. > Much as you'd like to say he deserved it.
  2950. > Beside you, Well Wish gives a thoughtful hum.
  2951. > "Miss Spitfire, your collar - you have slight burns from where he used it. It must've been on quite a high setting."
  2952. > A flicker of agony, no more than a second, rolls through you - but the doctor had not touched you.
  2953. "...yeah, he did."
  2954. > "So, a fight?"
  2955. > Sighing, you pull your wing in from the doctor's grip and twist around to face him.
  2956. "Look, Doctor - I'm not trying to brush you off or anything, but I know what happened. The whole reason I'm wearing a shock collar is because I'm not afraid to stand up for myself."
  2957. > A bitter half-smile forms on your lips.
  2958. "I'm not some blind little mare stuck in a bad relationship. Besides, even if I was - what could you do?"
  2959. > "I didn't think you were."
  2960. > Well Wish's voice is low and soft - his eyes averted.
  2961. > "I know a way out of the building, and out of the city from there. There's a group - some ponies and people, who will move anypony for the right price. I can get you free, Spitfire."
  2962.  
  2963. "No."
  2964. > The answer comes without any need to think about it."
  2965. > "Spitfire-"
  2966. "Doc..."
  2967. > Sitting up on the examination table, you turn to face him fully - settling your wings across your back.
  2968. "Look, it's not like I don't appreciate the offer."
  2969. > You laugh softly - the tone still slightly bitter.
  2970. "Tartarus - if you'd asked me a couple days ago I would've said yes absolutely."
  2971. > "What changed?"
  2972. > 'I bucked him in the emotional balls, he bucked me in the literal ribs, and then we started actually talking to each other.'
  2973. > Yeah, no. Let's not say that.
  2974. "I realized that I can l-"
  2975. > Live, you'd been about to say.
  2976. > But no, you can't really live like this.
  2977. > Not really.
  2978. "-survive with him. I'm not about to fall to pieces inside; this is the worst thing he's ever done to me, and he was pretty upset about it too. Point is, I'm not going to be hurt if I stay."
  2979. > Well Wish doesn't seem convinced, his ears turned down and nostrils flared.
  2980. > "Surviving isn't the only thing you can aspire to, Spitfire. I may not be a licensed psychologist, but that sounds pretty worrisome to me."
  2981. "Look, Doctor - you've probably seen far, far worse off ponies come through here before me, right?"
  2982. > He hesitates, but nods a cautious affirmative.
  2983. > "Yes. Sometimes..."
  2984. "You don't have to tell. I believe you. Point is, there are ponies who are going to need to get away quite badly. Save this for somepony who needs it. Don't risk everything for me."
  2985. > "I'm not unused to risk, Spitfire. I was in Manehattan when the sickness came, and then the fighting."
  2986. "Then you understand triage. I'm a soldier and an officer at that; I lived in a cage for Celestia knows how long and stayed sane-"
  2987. > Though some would dispute that, undoubtedly.
  2988. "-so I can definitely deal with this."
  2989. > Not until the words are already out of your mouth do you consider what you had just said.
  2990. > 'I am' - not 'I was'.
  2991. > Hadn't you told Stolid that you weren't captain anymore?
  2992.  
  2993. > ...then again, now you had a fighting chance of being the captain your 'bolts deserved again.
  2994. > "Well - I can't force you, obviously. But at least let me give you the name and how to contact them. If you change your mind..."
  2995. "If I find somepony who needs to get away, I'll give it on to them."
  2996. > Pursing his lips, Well Wish nods.
  2997. > "That's about what I could hope for, I guess."
  2998. "Look, Doctor... it's not that I don't appreciate it. I just - there are other ponies who are going to need your help. Not me."
  2999. > Nodding with a fractional smile, Well Wish stil doesn't seem entirely convinced.
  3000. > "If you insist."
  3001. > Pulling the jacket Anonymous had bought back on, you look back to the white-coated medical pony.
  3002. "I do. Thank you, Doctor."
  3003. > Outside, Anonymous looks up from working on his computer.
  3004. > "You done in there?"
  3005. "Yeah. Got a prescription for something to deal with the swelling and a proper brace for my ankle."
  3006. > "That it? Okay, let me get these signed off on and we can go deal with them."
  3007.  
  3008. --------
  3009.  
  3010. "Ow!"
  3011. > "Oh, now you're complaining? Hold still; I need to get this rubbed in through your coat."
  3012. > Grumbling, you stick out your leg again and allow him to continue rubbing the cold, slimy stuff into your swollen joint.
  3013. > Truthfully, it was your pride that was hurting more than anything else.
  3014. > Sure, you had one bag leg - but that doesn't mean you couldn't look after yourself!
  3015. > But no, Anonymous had insisted on applying the ointment himself.
  3016. > So now you were slumped on the bed, injured leg stuck out to allow your owner to attempt his treatment.
  3017. > Part of you wondered if it was a pride issue for him too - that he should 'fix' what he'd 'broken'.
  3018. > That would be understandable, you suppose, though still a bit odd.
  3019. > He was being rather gentle, after all - surprisingly so.
  3020. > You'd seen him work cautiously plenty of times before - adjusting a knob only a fraction of a degree, or testing how tight something was.
  3021.  
  3022. > But it seemed more accurate to call his current actions 'gentle' than anything else.
  3023. > "Alright, I think that's enough for now. Let me just see how to get this thing on you now..."
  3024. "Anonymous, seriously. I can handle this on my own. I know how to put a brace on."
  3025. > "Yeah, but I want to be sure."
  3026. > Hands working carefully, he slips the brace up over your ankle and tightens it strap-by strap.
  3027. > Fortunately Well Wish hadn't demanded one of the full-boot kind that slipped over your hoof; instead, a single strap ran from front to back, fitting snugly into your frog and leaving you plenty of traction.
  3028. > Some of the pain actually seems to recede as the straps are tightened.
  3029. > "Alright. Try it out."
  3030. > Rising on the sheets, you test your weight on the ankle.
  3031. > Ache thuds within it, but not the sharp and surging pain that would have come if you'd tried it unsupported.
  3032. "...it'll be okay."
  3033. > "Good."
  3034. > Looking genuinely relieved, Anonymous nods.
  3035. > "If you're feeling up to it, I'm going outside to take a look at the brakes. Could use a hand."
  3036. "Yeah, let me just get my jacket."
  3037. > By the time you step outside, Anonymous was already in place - crouched beneath maze of piping and struts that supported the huge tire.
  3038. > Keeping on your wings despite the bracy, you settle across the top of the tire and peer down at the tubing he was toying with.
  3039. "So, what exactly are we doing?"
  3040. > "Checking for all kinds of wear, especially on the brakes. Water landings sometimes foul the whole thing up, so I like to check it over after each."
  3041. > He points to a tool kit resting on the nearby ground.
  3042. > "Just be ready to hand over any tools I need. If you don't know it, I'll describe them."
  3043. "Got it."
  3044. > Again a moment of sort of terse silence settles between you.
  3045. > This time, however, you aren't content to let it be.
  3046. > The question that is lingering on your mind, however, is not so easily asked.
  3047. > Ultimately Anonymous is the one to speak up first, though:
  3048.  
  3049. > "You know, I can tell you're thinking about something from over here. What is it?"
  3050. "...trying to think of a way to say something."
  3051. > "Go ahead. I'm not going to flip out on you unless it's something spectacularly stupid. Also, I need the long-handled flathead."
  3052. "Just -"
  3053. > Hesitation dogs you for a moment longer as you dig through the tool kit with your good hoof.
  3054. > You re-gather your courage and - passing him the tool in question - voice the question that had been on your mind:
  3055. "What was he like?"
  3056. > No answer is immediately forthcoming, but eventually Anonymous does reply:
  3057. > "In a word, eager. Guy knew exactly what he wanted to do in life, and threw himself at it 110% all the time. If he hadn't been so damn nice, it might've even been a bit creepy how focused he was."
  3058. "You find him, or...?"
  3059. > "Kinda. Hex key, three-eights inch?"
  3060. "Got it."
  3061. > "Thanks. So, this guy - there places out there, where people looking for a job can post up their profiles."
  3062. "He was on one of those?"
  3063. > "He was on four of them. I ran into him hanging around an airport, though; he was trying to pick up a job there too. Green as hell, but had a kind of energy to him and knew the basics. Locking pliers?"
  3064. > Passing the tool on a hooked hoof, you tilt your head.
  3065. "And me?"
  3066. > "Huh?"
  3067. "Was that what you saw in me?"
  3068. > "Not - not exactly. He was always moving, always doing something. You, you're more like a coiled spring - always watching, waiting for something to go and things to kick into gear."
  3069. "Guess that's pretty accurate."
  3070. > Anonymous doesn't reply to you, but instead unleashes a string of profanity; raising your head to peer down into the mess of equipment his head was inside, you fail to see exactly what's brought it on.
  3071. "Problem?"
  3072. > "Kind of. The brakes are all full of shit again. It builds up during water landings."
  3073. "Is that safe?"
  3074.  
  3075. > "It's not good, but I've landed this thing with the brakes in worse shape. What it does mean is we should be taking it in for servicing at some point soon. They're going to have to take the whole wheel off, so nothing more I can do here."
  3076. > Not knowing what to say about that, you settle back down across the top of the wheel and wait.
  3077. > "What about your team?"
  3078. "Huh?"
  3079. > "What were they like?"
  3080. > That question, you hadn't been expecting.
  3081. "...oh - well, there were a lot more of them, for one. Twelve main fliers, including myself, but we had the cadets pull backup flying for some shows."
  3082. > "Cadets - you all military then?"
  3083. "Sorta. They all went through basic, but had a civilian training camp set up too."
  3084. > "Huh. Must've been a fucking mess getting the two to cooperate."
  3085. > Grunting, Anonymous whips his hand about and shakes it angrily.
  3086. > "Fuck, this won't go back in. Spitfire, can you come hold this pliers while I get the bolt back in?"
  3087. "Let me see..."
  3088. > Peering down, you climb up on to one of the struts and - perching awkwardly, your wings spread for balance - carefully grip the pliers' handle between two forehooves.
  3089. > The metal is cold against your unprotected belly, and our bandaged leg aches a bit.
  3090. > But after a bit of adjustment, the tool is firmly within your grasp.
  3091. "I think I've got it."
  3092. > "Okay. Just hold it there one second, then..."
  3093. "Alright. Anyway, everypony got trained pretty much the same, and the ones that really couldn't get along just didn't make it. When you fly like we do, you have to trust your wingpony completely."
  3094. > "Guessing you never had any problems, then."
  3095. > Tightening the wrench one last time, Anonymous scoots out from underneath the gear and nods.
  3096. > "You can let go now."
  3097. > Releasing it and slipping back down to the ground, you shake your head.
  3098. "Well, I wouldn't say no problems whatsoever. Never felt afraid flying alongside them, though."
  3099. > "Hmm. Grab the oil and follow me a sec; I want to see something else."
  3100.  
  3101. > Walking around to the rear of the aircraft, underneath the tail, he works a hatch just underneath the aircraft's huge tail open.
  3102. > It falls open at an angle, hinges squealing wildly with a scream that forces your ears down.
  3103. > "You think you can fit in through this thing?"
  3104. "Through that?"
  3105. > Frowning, you fly up and onto hanging-down hatch, poking your head up into the space beyond.
  3106. > It's poorly lit and smells musty and stale.
  3107. "What's in here?"
  3108. > "Nothing, except the tail control linkages. You have to go in through another hatch in the back of the bathroom. Can you climb in, though?"
  3109. > Hunching down, you find there's barely enough room to do so with your legs curled beneath you - but, by squeezing down and using your hooves to push against ridges in the metal, you're able to make your way inside.
  3110. > You aren't sure if being able to stand up comfortably offsets the discomfort of the strench assaulting your nostrils.
  3111. > Considering how little humans use their nose, Anonymous might not even notice it; you certainly do, though.
  3112. "Alright, can I come out now, or-"
  3113. > The screech of the hatch closing makes you jump, nearly hitting your head on the top of the tiny space.
  3114. "Hey!"
  3115. > "Sorry - sorry, just trying to see how loose this is. I don't use it a lot; storing anything heavy back here would unbalance the plane. Uh, come on out now."
  3116. > Barely turning around, you find squeezing out is consideably easier - in part because of how the hatch slopes down.
  3117. > Tumbling onto the ground below, you look up to see Anonymous giving a pleased nod.
  3118. > "One last thing - see if you can push this hatch shut, while in the air."
  3119. > In the air?
  3120. > Not certain of the purpose for this, you nonetheless go to a low hover and plant your hooves against the metal - straining to push the hatch back into place.
  3121. > It doesn't budge, however, and Anonymous quickly calls you off.
  3122. > "Okay, forget about it. I'm probably going to have to hit those hinges with a bit more than a little WD-40."
  3123.  
  3124. "What was that about, anyway?"
  3125. > "Remember when I had you jump from the plane right as we were landing?"
  3126. "It'd be quite hard to forget."
  3127. > The hatch is slammed shut again with a grunt and another metallic shriek.
  3128. > "Yeah, that's all good and fine when we're actually on the ground - or water, whatever - but not so much for in the air. I'm really not comfortable with you jumping out forward of the propellers, and the blister hatches would be hell to shut in mid-air."
  3129. > So instead you'll crawl over a toilet and out a hole I can barely fit through.
  3130. "...well, you'v got a point about being in front of those propellers."
  3131. > "Mmm-hmm."
  3132. > Picking up the can, he grins slightly.
  3133. > "And hey, you might get to actually fly some. On your own, I mean."
  3134. "Fair enough. So, where are we going now anyhow?"
  3135. > "To pick up another couple jobs, then there's a business that flies planes like this for firefighting. They'll work on mine, though it'll cost a fucking fortune."
  3136. "We're leaving now?"
  3137. > "Unless you've got something better to be doing."
  3138. "...I'll go start doing the checks."
  3139.  
  3140. --------
  3141.  
  3142. > In the end, 'a couple more jobs' turns out to mean 'go two weeks before doing anything about the brakes'.
  3143. > Not that the problem had been forgotten.
  3144. > The screeching, squealing noises on each landing make sure of that, but even so Anonymous rejects doing anything about it even as he has to lean on the brakes ever-harder to steer the plane about on the ground.
  3145. > So, too, had you education in the ways of human flying resumed at full speed.
  3146. > If anything, that was something of a welcome relief:
  3147. > Something you could put your mind to - devouring articles like a starving mare in a field of fresh hay - and, admittedly, feel as though you were actually doing something to help Anonymous without compromising who you were.
  3148. > At last, though, Anonymous can no longer deny that the brakes were moving from inconvenience straight into full-on hazard territory - admitting as much while hunched over his navigation table tallying the week's costs.
  3149. > "Well, there's no two ways about it, Spitfire. We're going to have to take this bird in for a bit of work. Can't put it off any longer."
  3150. > Thank Celestia for that.
  3151. > Nearly sliding off the end of the runway while taxiing into a turn wasn't something you cared to go through again.
  3152. "Whereabouts are we going, exactly?"
  3153. > "Right about here."
  3154. > Turning aside, he points to a spot on the map displayd on his laptop.
  3155. > "Southern California. Right about here -"
  3156. > A finger taps a spot, almost at the bottom near the line marking it off from the next country.
  3157. > "- and then we'll see where there's more work. I know an area little ways east of there that usually has some good jobs available."
  3158. > His words, however, had entirely passed your ears by.
  3159. > Your attention was still firmly on the map, locked in place.
  3160. "...wait, isn't that..."
  3161. > Catching your look, Anonymous nods.
  3162.  
  3163. > "Yeah. Right about where your friend is. I figured you'd ask about it, so I looked into the travel time to get over by car and - well, there's a chance. I won't swear to anything."
  3164. > Grimacing, you nod.
  3165. "I understand."
  3166. > One of his eyebrows goes up.
  3167. > "Just like that? I'd have expected a bit more of a push for it."
  3168. "Won't lie, if I don't get to see him I'm going to be pretty pissed. It's just another reminder of where I'm stuck right now, that I can't even choose to see a pony who's essentially family to me."
  3169. > The collar seems heavier around your neck as you speak - weighed down by your thoughts and words.
  3170. "But, I'm trying to... keep things in perspective, and I understand you can't control how tight things are. You didn't cause it."
  3171. > Not entirely true, you admit to yourself.
  3172. > He still had some control.
  3173. > Anonymous seems to take your comments to heart, though - nodding slowly at them.
  3174. > "Thanks, yeah."
  3175. "I'm guessing you're going to want to leave pretty soon? It's going to be a long flight down there, even without having to skirt the big cities."
  3176. > "Nah. If we go now, we're not going to be arriving until late evening. I'm licensed to fly at night, but it's already been a long day."
  3177. "Huh. I'd have figured you'd have wanted to get ahead of the storm."
  3178. > "...storm?"
  3179. "You can't feel it? Or look at those predictions you have?"
  3180. > Spinning back around to face his computer, your owner pulls up another map... and promptly swears up a storm.
  3181. > "That was not there when we landed!"
  3182. "I'm really surprised you can't feel it."
  3183. > Leaping up onto the table to peer at the screen, you try and mentally estimate the multihued blotches slithering across the map.
  3184. "You don't have magic or anything, yeah, but the pressure..."
  3185. > "Yeah, I guess I was too focused on the pressure in my head to feel it out there."
  3186. > Slumping back into his seat, Anonymous rubs his forehead.
  3187. > "Okay. Your estimation, looking at these predictions. How long is it going to stick around?"
  3188.  
  3189. "The storm itself?"
  3190. > Over and over the patches - clouds, rain, and wind in all their complexity reduced to a simple set of colors - do their skittering, looping dance.
  3191. > At some point you'd even started chewing on the side of your tongue, a nervous habit long since thought broken.
  3192. "I can't say exactly when they'll pass, but most of tomorrow at least will be rotten. That cold air it's going to bring down with it, though? At flight altitudes, we might have winds all through Thursday because of that."
  3193. > Leaning back in his seat, Anonymous scratches his head.
  3194. > "You're certain?"
  3195. "Certain enough. We may have kept the weather in line, but that didn't mean it didn't try to slip out of our control any chance it had. You had to know what a storm was going to do if you let it out of your sight."
  3196. > "Sounds about right."
  3197. > Running a hand through his hair, Anonymous gives a hefty sigh.
  3198. > "Alright. I'll go take a look over the exterior; put together a flight plan. I hope we can get it in soon enough they'll let us off the ground before it all hits."
  3199. "On it."
  3200. > Fortunately, in a rare moment of favor shining on your efforts, takeoff was achieved with the sun still above the horizon - though not by far.
  3201. > Climbing to altitude and turning south to outrun the approaching front, you glance off towards the west and promptly find what you'd ben searching for:
  3202. > A series of dark, heavy-looking clouds hung high in the sky; though still miles and miles away, they already seemed menacing.
  3203. > "Hmm. That was a good call back there. Thanks for that, Spitfire."
  3204. "Welcome."
  3205. > Besides, getting down there a bit earlier might give you more of a chance to slip out and see Fire Streak.
  3206. > Thoughts wandering, your eyes drift back out the clouds.
  3207. > They were beginning to occlude the sun now - halos of orange and yellow igniting around the edges of the storm as the firey ball sank behind them.
  3208. > "Looks like you, a little bit."
  3209. > Apparently Anonymous had noticed it too.
  3210.  
  3211. "Have to admit, I did always love these moments. Dawn and sunset - we were up a lot for both, training and preparing. There's always something special about them."
  3212. > "Like, the world slows down a bit?"
  3213. "Yeah, actually. Everything slows down if you look around and actually take in the view."
  3214. > "Trust me, I know that feeling. I know it well."
  3215. "I'm surprised you can, with how much you keep your eyes on flying."
  3216. > "Hey, why do you think I wanted another up here?"
  3217. > Laughter obvious in his tone, Anonymous turns to jab a finger at you - a grin on his lips.
  3218. > "Besides, you obviously managed somehow when you were on your own wings."
  3219. "It's a bit easier when your body does most of the flying for you."
  3220. > "Have to take your word on that one. I'd tell you to use the back hatch and show me, but it's going to be a long flight and I'm still damned if I can figure out how to get you back in again while we're in the air."
  3221. > Wait, had he just said he'd be willing to let you out of the plane to fly alongside - just for the sake of it?
  3222. > That was... new.
  3223. > He had said he'd be willing to give a little more back, though...
  3224. > "Hey."
  3225. > Abruptly your attention is pulled back by a hand settling on your shoulder.
  3226. > "I meant what I said earlier, Spitfire. That was a good call on that storm; if you hadn't said anything, I wouldn't have found out until far too late."
  3227. "Yeah."
  3228. > Words stick in your throat - you feel the need to say something more, but your brain is not cooperating with your lips at the moment and nothing comes.
  3229. > Perhaps fortunately, Anonymous notices your situation and gives an understanding look.
  3230. > Unfortunately, it comes with a light ruffling of your mane.
  3231. "Ack! Hey!"
  3232. > "Sorry, sorry! Habit."
  3233. > Yeah right, it was.
  3234. > "If you want to catch a bit of shut-eye once the sun goes down, feel free; I'm on a fresh cup of coffee, so dozing isn't an issue. I'll give you a nudge when I need you again."
  3235.  
  3236. "Got it."
  3237. > Even so, however, you remain staring out the window - gazing at dimming embers of distant clouds as night rolls in.
  3238. > Your thoughts, of course, are even further away than that:
  3239. > There's another growing pressure around you, even heavier and more difficult to ignore than that of the approaching storm.
  3240. > Despite what Anonymous had said about swearing to nothing, you're quite certain that you were going to have - and give - answers to a lot of difficult questions very soon.
  3241.  
  3242. --------
  3243.  
  3244. > "Okay, Spitfire. Ease the throttle down, just like I showed you."
  3245. > The wheels touch down with a squeal and hiss against the tarmac, engines whining down as the levers shift beneath your hooves.
  3246. > As expected night had long since fallen, transforming the runways into constellations of lights.
  3247. > His own attention focused firmly on staying in the courses of safety they demarcated, Anonymous had assigned you to the throttle controls.
  3248. > Balanced on your hindlegs with wings outstretched to reach for the controls makes for an awkward pose; silently you curse whoever thought it was a good idea to put the main engine controls on the roof of the cockpit.
  3249. > But you manage to bring them back even so, albeit with great effort.
  3250. > "Slow, Spitfire. Slow."
  3251. "Trying!"
  3252. > You hiss the word through gritted teeth, but the throttle levers click against the guard - pushed as far as they can go.
  3253. > "Good! I'm going to have to figure out something with those levers to get you a better grip, though."
  3254. "Also would be better if I didn't have to stand up."
  3255. > "Can't help that too much, unfortunately."
  3256. > Now Anonymous reaches up himself to open one of the two throttles and swing the aircraft into a turn off the main runway.
  3257. > "That was good, though. You're getting faster, even with having to reach for the controls."
  3258. "Hmm."
  3259. > Following the instructions waved by a marshaller on the ground - a pegasus stallion, glowing strips strapped to the muscled leading ridges of his wings - Anonymous pulls the aircraft into a parking spot.
  3260. > Setting the brakes and killing the engines, he releases his own seatbelt and stands.
  3261. > "I"m going to go set the chocks; get everything closed down here and then check the back."
  3262. "Got it."
  3263. > When both those jobs are done, however, you can't help but take a little detour to climb up into the dark, hollow space within the central pillar that supports the wings.
  3264. > Muzzle pressed to the cold glass of one window, you peer off to the southwest.
  3265.  
  3266. > Somewhere out there - only a few miles distant - was Fire Streak.
  3267. > From the map you'd stolen a look at, it couldn't have been more than twenty miles.
  3268. > Not even five minutes, if you'd decided to put some speed on - the kind of flight you'd used to make just to get an easy workout.
  3269. > And yet it was so far away still.
  3270. > A line of hills even blocked any hope of actually seeing the larger city, as if conspiring to keep you from even having a glimpse of the place.
  3271. > All that was left was the lights on this side of the valley, glittering in the darkness.
  3272. > With steady, even breaths you try and pace yourself - remind yourself that Anonymous hadn't said no yet, and there was a chance.
  3273. > If you couldn't see him this time, always a chance in the future too.
  3274. > It's cold comfort, though; a nervous excitement burned in your chest.
  3275. > This was he closest you'd been to any of your 'bolts - any of your family - since coming here.
  3276. > Even if you could go - what would happen then?
  3277. > How would he react to his one-time captain reappearing out of the blue?
  3278. > ...what would you even say to him?
  3279. > You'd been so focused on the 'if' that the 'what then' hadn't even occurred to you yet.
  3280. > "Hey! Spitfire! We're not done yet, and I know it doesn't take you that long just to check things."
  3281. > A thought for another time, apparently.
  3282. > By the time you have finished securing the plane against the oncoming weather, it's far too late to be walking off in search of food.
  3283. > Instead Anonymous begins to heat up a pot's worth of packaged food on the hot plate, leaving yout o finish a last bit of paperwork and then collapse onto your bed.
  3284. > From the next compartment forward, Anonymous' voice drifts through the bulkhead door.
  3285. > "So, since we got down here a day earlier than I thought we would, I think there'll be time to head on in."
  3286. > Relief and nervousness both flood through you at once, contradicting waves of emotion that somehow fail to conacel each other out.
  3287.  
  3288. > Stars above, you haven't been this nervous since the last time you planned a major tour!
  3289. > Still wrapped in its brace, your lame hoof sends a sympathetic pang up your leg.
  3290. > The swelling may have gone down somewhat and the discoloration visible through your coat had shifted from a dark purple to merely mottled maroon and mauve, but even so explaining that to Fire Streak is going to be a good one too.
  3291. > Curling your tail around and tucking it in between your hindlegs, you glance out the window again.
  3292. > The first elements of the storm front had already rolled in, drowning out what few stars were visible through the already glaring airport lamps.
  3293. "Any idea how long we'll have?"
  3294. > "I can't promise the whole - especially since I'm going to be sleeping in tomorrow after this - but it'll probably be forty-five minutes to get down there, so you'll have a while."
  3295. > A flash of indignation runs through you - of course your time was going to be limited so he could be the one to sleep in.
  3296. > If you'd had your choice about it, you'd have been out at the crack of dawn - weather be damned.
  3297. "No chance I could get out early in the morning, fly myself over, meet up with you later on?"
  3298. > "Nope. Sorry."
  3299. > Well why not?, you want to yell.
  3300. > Did he still think that poorly of you that he felt the need to have you in his sight all the time, even after you'd chosen to stay with him?
  3301. > ...no.
  3302. > No; he'd as much as offered to let you out of the plane during flight, and didn't show any aversion to leaving you alone to do your own work.
  3303. > It wasn't a trust issue on his end, and frankly you should've known better than to allow your anger to slip away like that.
  3304. > Anger at your position wasn't an excuse to vent on him; you'd promised yourself that.
  3305. > At the same time, though... maybe a bit of time to think about what you were going to say to Fire Streak wouldn't go amiss.
  3306. > "Spitfire?"
  3307. > Peering around the bulkhead, a pair of bowls in his hands, Anonymous looks slightly concerned.
  3308.  
  3309. > "Everything alright?"
  3310. "Yeah, fine. Just thinking."
  3311. > "Ah, okay. You went quiet, so I wasn't sure."
  3312. > Levering yourself upright on the bed, you carefully fly over to grab one of the bowls between your forelegs.
  3313. > The contents might not be the most appetizing thing you've ever had, but the act of eating is somewhat comforting - giving you a chance to think in between mouthfulls.
  3314. > "Something on your mind, Spitfire?"
  3315. > And, apparently, broadcast that you were thinking as well.
  3316. "Yeah, just - now that we're actually here, not sure what I'm going to say to him."
  3317. > Nor are you exactly sure why you're confiding this to Anonymous, aside from that he was apparently willing to listen.
  3318. > "Heh. I know that feeling. Don't worry about it too much, though. Best way to do it sometimes is just go for it - not everything has to be a plan. I'm sure you'll find something."
  3319.  
  3320. --------
  3321.  
  3322. > The bus rumbles over another bump in the road, sending another jolt through you.
  3323. > Normally you might have been upset at this, but your mood was already foul enough.
  3324. > Having left the plane behind at an airport under the tender care of a team of technicians, you and Anonymous had departed for the city of Anaheim - at which point you'd received an unwelcome reminder of your status:
  3325. > Anaheim had leash laws.
  3326. > According to Anonymous, you'd have needed a special tag to get excused from them... and that was only available to residents.
  3327. > What would have been a biting indignity at the very least had been made considerably worse by the addition of the quite unwanted attention of the others on the bus.
  3328. > The adults were offput by the combination of your shock collar and the length of chain Anonymous used as a leash, as if it made you automatically a thundercloud waiting to strike.
  3329. > The children insisted on treating you like a dog, to be pointed at or occasionally petted (something Anonymous found intensely amusing and refused to prevent).
  3330. > The dog kept trying to sniff your marehood.
  3331.  
  3332. > Even the sole other pony on the bus looked at you with a combination of pity and apology, seeming to have realized the source of your annoyance.
  3333. > Normally that commiseration would have been a relief, but you wanted to be left alone - not pitied.
  3334. "We almost there?"
  3335. > "Easy, Spitfire. Another fifteen minutes, I'd say."
  3336. > Grunting, you drop your head back down to the seat and try to ignore the eager panting of the dog behind you.
  3337. > If that creature was anywhere near as tightly disciplined as you were 'kept under control', there wouldn't be a problem.
  3338. > By the time the buss pulls into a screeching halt in the middle of the city, you're thankful for any chance to get out at all.
  3339. > As soon as you've cleared the doorway you leap into the air, hovering at head-height next to Anonymous as he starts down the road.
  3340. "Thank Celestia! I thought I was going to die in there!"
  3341. > "If you think that was bad, wait until you see the park itself."
  3342. > Not that it was hard to spot.
  3343. > For one, somepony hard parked a cloud - an actual sculpted cloud, worked with a reasonable degree of talent - over one portion of the park.
  3344. > That raised your spirits a bit; maybe you'd have a chance to get off the leash and really stretch your wings!
  3345. "So, how do we get in?
  3346. > "There's a ticket booth. Let's just hope it's not - fuck. One hundred? Really?!"
  3347. "Do you absolutely have to come in with me?"
  3348. > "Maybe. Maybe not; technically you don't have to pay, but..."
  3349. "But?"
  3350. > You land in front of Anonymous, and to your surprise he kneels down to your level.
  3351. > "If I can get you in there, Spitfire, I'm going to need a promise out of you."
  3352. "I'm not going to run."
  3353. > "I know you aren't. You didn't run when we were in the middle of nowhere, you aren't going to run in the middle of a city full of police that will track you down; I know you aren't stupid."
  3354. > That's a complement, you suppose.
  3355.  
  3356. > "No - look, Spitfire. What I'm going to need you to do is play really, really nice with everyone in there. I'm trusting you to go on your own in there, but that means you've got to keep yourself under control and follow the rules..."
  3357. "I can keep my temper in check, Anonymous."
  3358. > "...no matter what your friend might say to you, good or bad. If anything happens, you come out to me and you don't start a scene."
  3359. > That actually gives you a longer pause than merely the admonition about 'playing nice'.
  3360. > In the end, though, there's really no choice.
  3361. "I'll keep my mouth shut."
  3362. > "Good. It's around... eleven now. I'd like you back out no later than two."
  3363. "Understood."
  3364. > "Then let's see if we can't find a sympathetic guard..."
  3365. > To your actual surprise, he does.
  3366. > It still isn't easy, taking a lot of pleading on Anonymous' part:
  3367. > 'Oh, yes, of course you knew exactly where you were going to meet them! It's right here on the map...'
  3368. > 'No, she won't be a problem at all. Very well trained!'
  3369. > That last bit forces you to keep your muzzle pointed submissively at the ground.
  3370. > Mostly in the hope that it'd help mask the grinding of your teeth.
  3371. > In the end, though, an extra tag - one indicating your purpose in the park and that you were cleared to go in - is added to your collar and your saddlebags are checked for the 'special allergen-free' food you were supposed to be delivering.
  3372. > The interior is something of a shock - a whimsical, almost absurd place.
  3373. > Music - sickeningly bubbly, yet somehow grating all the same - is omnipresent, and virtually every sign you see seems to be trying its utmost to be as joyful as possible.
  3374. > You realize it's meant for children, but still some of the 'attractions' seem mildly ridiculous all the same.
  3375. > Costumed figures strut about in exaggerated outfits; even with the cooler temperatures, you're reasonably certain they must be boiling inside of the thick fabric.
  3376. > So, too, do a number of ponies in equally exotic getups.
  3377.  
  3378. > ...there's even a trio done up as the leaders of the three tribes at Equestria's founding.
  3379. > That somehow angers you more than anything else - a formative event in the history of ponykind, reduced to something to be gawked at for the paid entertainment visitors.
  3380. > Hurrying past it, you try and keep focused your objective.
  3381. > The map clearly showed where the air shows were based out of - naturally, parked right in the center of 'fantasy land', as if pegasi were somehow less than real - so you know exactly where you're going.
  3382. > Your old training is thankfully useful here; blocking out distractions and focusing on simply getting from on place to another in the fastest possible time was familiar territory to you, after all.
  3383. > So tight is your focus, however, that you turn a corner and find yourself nearly running into the stage in question.
  3384. > Your heart goes straight past hammering and seems to freeze completely.
  3385. > A trio of pegasi are up on a stage, while another three engage in simple flight maneuvers over the open square.
  3386. > Some part of your mind takes note of the sound issuing from the speakers; they must be going over the basics of pegasus flight and magic.
  3387. > That is barely a flicker of a thought against the overwhelming, urgent realization screaming through your mind:
  3388. > He was there, front and center on the stage, his wings outspread and a confident grin on his muzzle.
  3389. > The flight suit he wore was the same white-and-blue that seemed to dominate this place, but aside from that detail he was the very image of a Wonderbolt.
  3390. > From the way his goggles sat on his forehead to the familiar swoop of his orange-and-white mane, there was no mistaking Fire Streak.
  3391.  
  3392. > Somehow you manage to keep control of your hooves.
  3393. > Not to force them to carry you forward - somehow you doubt it would be possible to stop that - but to keep them from carrying you into a flying gallop towards Fire Streak.
  3394. > It despite the obvious reality of the situation, everything seems dreamlike.
  3395. > On some level you'd given up on ever really seeing any of the Wonderbolts ever again.
  3396. > Some corner of your mind had insisted that you weren't really going to be able to find any of them.
  3397. > Yet there he is, and as you plod forward - dodging between the legs others listening to his presentation - his eyes sweep the crowd to fall on you.
  3398. > You can see the shock ripple through Fire Streak; wings extend and eyes widen in surprise.
  3399. > Even so, he goes on talking - lecturing about pegasus weather magic as the three ponies above do a simple demonstration of passing a small cloud back and forth between them.
  3400. > In an instant, you understand.
  3401. > He wants to leap from the stage just as much as you want to hurl yourself towards him.
  3402. > But he is still bound to the rules his owner has set down, just like you, and he cannot interrupt the show for such a thing as the captain back from the dead.
  3403. > With this now in mind you sit back on your haunches, tucking your tail about your hooves and waiting for the show to finish.
  3404. > Judging by the schedule signs posted about, it couldn't be that much longer - and sure enough, in a few minutes the display wraps up with a brief single-lap race and simple acrobatics above from a quartet of pegasi.
  3405. > Certainly nothing like what the Wonderbolts had used to do, and far below Fire Streak's level.
  3406. > Perhaps that had been why he'd not participated in the race.
  3407. > As the crowd breaks up, you try to unobtrusively keep off to the side and ensure nobody notices that you aren't leaving as well.
  3408. > Before any of them can spot you, however, a voice from behind calls out to you.
  3409. > "Captain?"
  3410. > It's Fire Streak - but something is wrong.
  3411.  
  3412. > His voice is calm, flat even - with not even a hint of emotion to be heard in it.
  3413. > "Please follow me, Captain."
  3414. > Before you can examine him further Fire Streak turns tail and walks back around behind the stage, where a door has unobtrusively opened in one of the numerous buildings lining the open plaza.
  3415. > Despite his invitation, you hesitate.
  3416. > He didn't seem pleased to see you, and now you were supposed to follow him through a random door?
  3417. > Your wings still worked if you needed to flee, but there were other reasons besides Anonymous' admonition that you'd prefer to keep from raising a scene.
  3418. > ...no.
  3419. > What were you thinking, susptecting a teammate like that?
  3420. > Forcing down a lump in your throat, you follow close behind him.
  3421. > The room beyond is relatively spartan compared to the outrageously decorated exterior - a work space, barely furnished and clearly not meant for visitors.
  3422. > This observation is interrupted by a delighted cry breaking out as the door closes.
  3423. > "Spitfire? Captain?! Hayfeathers, I - I can't believe it's really you!"
  3424. > Your reflexes are undiminished and serve you well.
  3425. > Spinning, you barely catch Fire Streak as he leaps to tackle you into a bodily hug - all four limbs wrapping around your chest and barrel.
  3426. > Still staggering under the impact, you laugh and raise your wings to hug him back, nuzzling against his muzzle.
  3427. "Good to see you too, Streak."
  3428. > "Are you alright?! You're limping, Cap - are you hurt?"
  3429. > Damn, had he seen that still?
  3430. > It's been so long since you were really around another pony that you'd forgotten how many little things like that humans would miss unless it was blindingly obvious.
  3431. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just sprained my ankle; it's healing up alright now."
  3432. > "That's a relief! I mean - how'd you even get here? You just fell out of - everything! I couldn't find any word about you!"
  3433. "I was... kind of isolated for a while."
  3434. > The pained note in your voice says enough, and Fire Streak doesn't push further.
  3435.  
  3436. > "Well - wow! Are you going to be here a while, or...?"
  3437. "I've got a few hours, if you do?"
  3438. > "I have to do another show in fifteen and another after that we have a break time to catch up in."
  3439. "Sure. Can I just wait in here, or...?"
  3440. > "Yeah - you got a tag?"
  3441. > Lifting your neck to show the tag that had been attached to it produces a confident nod from Fire Streak.
  3442. > "Okay. Hold on just a moment, then."
  3443. > Trotting up to the sole overseer in the room, Fire Streak dips his head submissively.
  3444. > "Excuse me, Mistress. I'd like to ask, if it's not too big of a problem, if my friend could stay in this room until I have a chance to finish my business with her?"
  3445. > Regarding you with dispassionate eyes, she raises a hand to rub her chin.
  3446. > "She's on a job?"
  3447. > "Yes, Mistress. She has an entry tag, and her Master does not need her back for some time yet."
  3448. > The exchange has you on edge, but even so you raise your head to show the additional tag attached to it.
  3449. > "She's got a shock collar. There aren't going to be any problems, are there Fire Streak?"
  3450. > "No, Mistress. We're old friends."
  3451. > "Then it's fine, I suppose. But if there's any trouble for any reason, it's on your head. And you'll still have to perform."
  3452. > His head falling into something that to you uncomfortably resembles a bow, Fire Streak nods.
  3453. > "I understand, Mistress."
  3454. > Then he returns to you, and a grin to his face.
  3455. > "See? All done."
  3456. "What was that about? All that bowing and Mistress stuff?"
  3457. > Fire Streak shrugs carelessly.
  3458. > "Eh, the cost of getting our way. Anyway, listen - I have to go see to the others. Just stay in here, and if anyone asks you're waitin for me to finish up and it's been cleared with Miss Chatham. Nobody will give you a problem."
  3459. "...sure."
  3460. > "Great."
  3461. > Flashing an apologetic smile, Fire Streak motions to the other ponies he had been performing with.
  3462.  
  3463. > "I just have to go talk to them a bit."
  3464. > Settling in an unobtrusive corner, you tuck your legs beneath your belly and watch Fire Streak meeting with his 'team'.
  3465. > They're lean and muscled... but not racers; not in the way the Wonderbolts had been.
  3466. > Yet, he's calm and confident with them - obviously the one in control, lecturing and managing them quite effectively.
  3467. > He's become a captain in his own right.
  3468.  
  3469. --------
  3470.  
  3471. > "So he's actually teaching you to fly the thing?"
  3472. "In a fashion, yes."
  3473. > "That's pretty insane, honestly."
  3474. > Fire Streak speaks around a mouthful of sandwich, his eyes wide.
  3475. > His performances done for the time being, he'd rejoined you in the back room to grab a bite to eat.
  3476. > The remaining pegasi on his 'team' sat at a distance, watching you with a mix of nervousness and admiration and voices dropped to hushed whispers.
  3477. > You got the feeling from the glances they periodically shot in your direction that he'd been telling them about you some.
  3478. "Tell me about it. I know I'm good at flying, but I don't get how he expects me to pull those controls. They're just not meant for ponies."
  3479. > "Well, you said he's not been too rough on you."
  3480. "...yeah."
  3481. > The exact reason for your limp hadn't come up yet.
  3482. "What about you? They've been keeping you busy here?"
  3483. > "Oh yeah."
  3484. > Motioning to the others with one wing, Fire Streak chuckles.
  3485. > "Training them to fly anything remotely like we used to wasn't easy, but that's what they wanted."
  3486. "At least you get to fly. On your own, I mean. Anonymous is being more willing to let me out to fly now, but there aren't too many chances."
  3487. > Streak nods.
  3488. > "Yeah. I have to admit, once I showed I could perform - well, they've been surprising easygoing with me. Got myself a marefriend, they actually give us decent rooms to stay in-"
  3489. "A marefriend? No, really - you?!"
  3490. > Rolling his eyes at your good-natured ribbing, Fire Streak nods all the same.
  3491. > "Uh-huh. A marefriend, me. We'd be married, but..."
  3492. "...yeah.
  3493.  
  3494. > "I mean it, though - they've really given us a lot of breathing room. I mean, they don't even make us wear collars as long as we're in here."
  3495. > His flight suit had concealed the lack of anything about his throat, but now that it's been pointed out it seems obvious in retrospect.
  3496. "Wait - no collar at all?"
  3497. > "Well, we have tags to get in and out-"
  3498. > He pats a slight bulge beneath the neck of the suit.
  3499. > "- but that's it. Apparently they thought collars wouldn't fit well with the image they wanted to send, so they got them off pretty quick."
  3500. > Of course that's what it was.
  3501. > Not any actual concern for anypony's wellbeing.
  3502. "Can't you just fly out of here, then?"
  3503. > "Of course. But, they know I won't. I've got too much here to run away. We're actually building a safe place here. I had my hooves full training them up - had to learn a lot myself, for that matter."
  3504. "I noticed."
  3505. > Reaching out and resting your hoof on top of his, you offer a small smile.
  3506. "You're doing good with them. I"m proud of you."
  3507. > His cheeks flush and Fire Streak looks down at the table top.
  3508. > "Thank you, Captain. Means a lot, coming from you. I just-"
  3509. > Hesitating, his voice breaks.
  3510. > "-I just wish..."
  3511. "..go ahead. You know I never had a problem with anypony speaking their minds."
  3512. > "I just wish you'd been here too."
  3513. "I wish I could've been with you too. Tartarus, I wish I could've kept all the 'bolts together."
  3514. > "You could always ask - what'd you say his name was? Anonymous? Ask him if he'd be willing to let you-"
  3515. "He wouldn't. Trust me on that. Besides... I don't know if I could stay here."
  3516. > Surprise ripples across Fire Streak's face, his ears falling wings drooping, and you hasten to add:
  3517. "Not you, Streak. Celestia knows, I'd love to stay with you. But - I couldn't stay in one place doing the same simple show day in and out for crowds who barely understand how little they're seeing."
  3518. > "...we could do more, Spitfire. If we could get more ponies-"
  3519.  
  3520. "Can you really? I mean - look at what you had to go through just to let me stay for a little while. Would they really listen if you started pushing bigger ideas?"
  3521. > He looks away in silence, and you have your answer.
  3522. "I'm sorry, Streak. I'm glad you've built something here, but living like this - I couldn't. I can't bow and grovel for the little things with no hope of ever seeing anything but another day as a slave."
  3523. > "Is that what this is really about?"
  3524. > Voice barely a mutter, Fire Streak still can't bring himself to meet your eyes.
  3525. "It's not just that. I - I can't be still, Streak. I have to have a goal, or I'd go mad. I've always been that way, and you know it."
  3526. > His voice is heavy with a sigh.
  3527. > "Yeah. Yeah, I do. That's why you were Captain."
  3528. "I wish I could've been here
  3529. > "Is that why you vanished for all that time?"
  3530. "...I was locked in a cage for Luna knows how many months, Streak. I didn't have a choice."
  3531. > "You always have a choice, Captain. Even if it means bowing and scraping a bit to get out."
  3532. "It's not about that. It's about not having anything more to look forward to. I don't want this for the rest of my life!"
  3533. > "Didn't you say you'd come to an agreement with Anonymous?"
  3534. "Yes."
  3535. > The word escapes alongside a hefty sigh.
  3536. "Yes, I did, and he's doing right for me. But he treats me like a real teammate and not a slave, Streak, and even then I need to have some greater goal to-"
  3537. > "Goal? For what?! To do what?"
  3538. "I don't know, okay! For now - now I'm just trying to find the other 'bolts. Then maybe - I don't know. Get back to Equestria, if I can."
  3539. > "And what are you going to find there?"
  3540. > Voice steadily rising, Fire Streak places both his forehooves on the table between you and rises on his hindlegs - wings spreading as he does.
  3541. > "Even if you can somehow get us back and safe, what will we do then? The Equestria we had is gone, Spitfire; the sickness and the fighting saw to that. Going back isn't going to make it return."
  3542.  
  3543. "Damn it, I know!"
  3544. > So, too, is your own voice rising.
  3545. > "Then what do you think we're going to find there? We have lives here. Sure, they're not the best - but we have them! What is there for us back there - scraping out a bare existence for the memory of something that won't return?"
  3546. > Now it's your turn to look away, no answer coming to you.
  3547. > Absent an answer, he goes on:
  3548. > "You should've been here when I was getting started. I needed you to be here, Spitfire. Not off chasing a dream."
  3549. "So I'm not allowed to hope for anything anymore, is that it? Not allowed to wish I can be free some day?"
  3550. > Both of you are practically shouting now; thankfully, the building seemed heavily-built enough to muffle any of the altercation within.
  3551. > "No! No, you aren't - we can't afford dreams. We have to fight for everything and hold on tight to what we do have."
  3552. "I can't."
  3553. > Shaking your head firmly you set your jaw and go on:
  3554. "I've always lived for that dream, Streak. Join the Wonderbolts, fly faster, fly higher, make Captain, break all the records - be free. Maybe it'll kill me some day, but even so I can't let go of it."
  3555. > You tap your collar with one hoof.
  3556. "Anonymous, I can trust. But this - I can't live with this forever."
  3557. > Fire Streak lays his forehooves down on the table and his head on top of them, sighing.
  3558. > "...Fleetfoot said the same thing. More or less, anyway."
  3559. "Fleetfoot was here?!"
  3560. > "With High Winds about a month and a half ago, yeah. They're free, pulling some stupid plan they didn't want to talk about."
  3561. > Stolid Stride had said High Winds was part of a group trying to smuggle ponies back to Equestria, you remember.
  3562. > Was Fleetfoot wrapped up in that too?
  3563. "I... haven't seen them. You were the first of the 'bolts I could reach."
  3564. > "Sir? It's nearly time for us to go out again."
  3565. > One of his other pegasi - a slim thing with a sky-blue mane and tail - had appeared at the side of the table.
  3566.  
  3567. > Looking over at her, your eyes fall on the others waiting just beyond.
  3568. > They'd seen all of that, you realize.
  3569. > And compared to the reverent glances they'd been shooting you earlier, it's a fair bet their opinion has... changed.
  3570. > Fire Streak nods at her, then looks back to you.
  3571. > There's a sharp, needing look in his eyes and the tone of his voice.
  3572. > "Captain... please. I know it isn't the best, but at least see if you could get transferred-"
  3573. "I'm sorry, Streak. Even if I could - and I can't, someone already tried - I don't think I could stay here."
  3574.  
  3575. > "...it's not as bad as you think, Captain."
  3576. "Streak, if you'd caught word that I was in town, would you have been able to get some time off to come out and see me?"
  3577. > "Well, we have a schedule we have to hold to and-"
  3578. > Your sharp looks serves as an adequate reminder that you'd never tolerated excuses as a captain, and weren't about to start now.
  3579. > Fire Streak looks away, a cowed expression on his face, and you soften your own.
  3580. > Placing a hoof on his shoulder again, you offer a soft smile.
  3581. "Don't be too hard on yourself. You're doing good; these times are hard on all of us, but you've built something to be proud of."
  3582. > "Thanks, Captain."
  3583. > The reassuring touch turns into a full-on hug as he shifts forward, neck crossing your own to rest his chin on your withers.
  3584. > His suit smells of artificial plastics, with the barest hint of fear's sharp tang among the more dominant scent of old sweat
  3585. > Extending a wing to slip around his shoulder as well, you close your eyes and wish that your words could have been more true.
  3586. > Of course you didn't hate him or anything, but... the way he was acting, bowing and scraping - it wasn't the way a member of the EUP force should have been acting.
  3587. > You'd have said as much, except that some of what he'd said had resonated with you.
  3588. > Fire Streak hadn't been as strong as you had, relying on you for guidance.
  3589. > The experience had clearly broken him to some degree, and even if you hadn't been the one locking your cage shut for all that time you did feel somewhat responsible for him.
  3590. > "I'm sorry, Spitfire. I didn't want seeing you for the first time again to be like this."
  3591. > Sighing heavily, you release him.
  3592. "Neither did I, but... it's how things happened. I'll manage - find some of the others. Pass on word you're doing alright."
  3593. > "Thanks, Captain."
  3594. > This time your smile is rather more genuine, and you know it shows.
  3595.  
  3596. "Least I can do. Now, go out there and give 'em a good show, alright? For all of the 'bolts."
  3597. > "Will do. You going to stick around and watch?"
  3598. "I've got a little while longer, but I'll have to go after that."
  3599. > "Yeah. Thanks, Captain. For everything."
  3600. > Bumping hooves, you offer a slightly
  3601. > "Okay. Come on then, everypony - let's get outside and into our positions!"
  3602. > Returning to the bright, chaotic square outside - with its churning mass of guests and bubbly, peppy music being piped in from every corner - is like stepping in to another world.
  3603. > So, too, does it seem somepony else has stepped in to replace Fire Streak as he was moments earlier; a wide and joyful smile paints his face as he enthusiastically waves with one wing to the crowd.
  3604. > Just for a moment, though, he turns to look back at you and the flash of sadness in his eyes tells you that the same flier you'd known still lurked beneath that mask.
  3605. > Despite your promise you can't bear to stay and watch the entire display.
  3606. > Having seen how he was forced to act outside of the shows, it now left a sick, churning feeling in your stomach.
  3607. > The enthusiasm in his voice and smile on his muzzle as he played his part summoning images of how low he'd bowed for the promise of safety.
  3608. > Even so you wait until a moment when Fire Streak was in the air and not able to see you breaking your promise as you turn to leave, forcing yourself into a fast trot despite your braced leg to put some distance between the memories and yourself.
  3609. > The guard attending the exit gate barely looks at you, only scanning the bar code on the tag you'd been given before ripping it off your collar and shooing you out.
  3610. > Anonymous stands from his spot resting against a nearby building.
  3611. > "Hey there. Have your fill of fun in the happiest place on Earth?"
  3612. > The sarcasm in his tone draws a low, growled reply from you.
  3613. "...let's just go."
  3614.  
  3615. > Evidently your tone sufficiently conveys your emotional state, as Anonymous clips the chain onto your collar and starts off without another word.
  3616. > Ironically, following someone is actually somewhat relieving; freed of the need to think about exactly where you are going, your mind is free to wander.
  3617. > Anonymous largely leaves you alone for the time being as well, not speaking until you're once again on a bus.
  3618. > Fortunately this one is rather more empty, affording you a seat with no one else nearby to overhear your conversation when he does speak up:
  3619. > "I'm sorry."
  3620. "Huh?"
  3621. > "I know you were looking forward to this, and it obviously didn't go well."
  3622. > For the briefest moment you almost ask him why he cares, but that thought is squashed quickly.
  3623. "Thanks."
  3624. > "Can I ask what happened?"
  3625. "He was..."
  3626. > You hesitate, then launch into a slow description of what had occurred between yourself and Fire Streak.
  3627. > Anonymous sits and listens quietly; when your stop comes, he only interrupts you briefly to step off onto the sidewalk.
  3628. > To your surprise you find yourself continuing to talk as he sets off on foot - the words pouring from your mouth now like a river that now refused to be dammed up.
  3629. > It felt good - the frustration, shame, and sadness you'd pent up during the encounter now venting freely.
  3630. > No thought is given to the fact that you are venting to the one holding the end of your chain.
  3631. > He had asked, after all.
  3632. > By the flow of words and the emotions they bore is done, however, you find yourself left feeling empty - as though the thoughts trapped within you had been the only thing supporting you.
  3633. > When Anonymous' hand comes down to rest atop your mane, you almost shrug it off.
  3634. > Almost.
  3635. > "I'm sorry. I mean it. Despite the... situation, that's a shitty thing to run in to."
  3636. "You know, of anyone who I could blame, I think you're the last one I'd go for."
  3637. > That puts him quiet again - at least until you arrive at a hardware store.
  3638.  
  3639. > "We've got a few things to pick up in here, and then we'll be heading home."
  3640. "Going to have to use my saddlebags, huh?"
  3641. > "Absolutely."
  3642. > Squeezing your shoulder reassuringly, he adds:
  3643. > "Just a few things. Nothing major, and then we can head back to our room for the day. I've picked out a hotel for us to stay in near the airport."
  3644.  
  3645. --------
  3646.  
  3647. "Hey, Spitfire?"
  3648. "Yeah?"
  3649. > "Can I see one of your hooves for a second?"
  3650. > Looking up from the instruction guide you'd been pouring over, you quirk an eyebrow at the request.
  3651. "What, is this some kind of a fetish thing?"
  3652. > "Hah, Hah."
  3653. > Climbing out of the cockpit, a blackened rag being used to wipe his hands, Anonymous rolls his eyes at you.
  3654. > "No, seriously though - I need to take a couple measurements."
  3655. > Shifting aside on your bed, you extend a hind leg out over the edge for him.
  3656. "This work?"
  3657. > "Yeah, that's fine."
  3658. > They're certainly not in the best shape they've ever been - you've not been able to really properly care for them for a while.
  3659. > Thankfully you'd avoided any more serious cracks abscesses.
  3660. > While you'd have thoroughly chewed out any of your bolts for letting their hooves reach that point, there's no shame in letting Anonymous see them like that.
  3661. > He'd seen a lot worse, after all.
  3662. > Even so, you shiver when he runs his fingers over them - especially when he touches the sensitive frogs.
  3663. "You have to do that?"
  3664. > "Yeah, sorry. I just need to see... Okay, that wide and... just about that long. Got it!"
  3665. > Setting your hoof back down, you twist about to look over your shoulder.
  3666. "What was that about?"
  3667. > "You'll see. Finish up what you're reading and come see me when you're done."
  3668. > When you do make your way into the cockpit, the sight you're greeted is so bizarre it actually forces a snort from your nostrils.
  3669. > In the couple of days since the repairs on the aircraft had been completed, Anonymous had been quite busy with some additional project he'd been quite reclusive about.
  3670.  
  3671. > You'd also thrown yourself into learning and work - forcing your mind off the encounter with Fire Streak.
  3672. > While you'd put some thought to what he'd been up to, nothing had prepared you for this.
  3673. > He had somehow managed to flip himself upside-down, his hips resting against what would normally be the edge of your seat and feet pointing up towards the cockpit roof.
  3674. > His torso is curled painfully in the hollow where his legs went, though yours were far too short to reach the pedals down there.
  3675. > Emphasis on 'were'.
  3676. > In their place were now anchored a pair of metal bars extending out towards the seat itself.
  3677. > Mounted on their ends were a pair of carefully-sized pedals; another pair had already been anchored to the control yoke at an angle.
  3678. "...you're joking."
  3679. > "Nope. I've been watching how you have trouble getting a grip on the controls, so hopefully these should rectify it somewhat."
  3680. > Rolling aside pulls his legs from the chair; they now slope across the open space between the seats instead.
  3681. > "Sit down, have a pull. See if it's any better."
  3682. > Climbing into the copilot's seat is awkward enough, but by awkwardly sitting on your haunches you find the wheel can actually be held on to now - the raised edges of the pedals he had fixed to it serving to grip your hoof.
  3683. "I think... this might actually work. I can even get a bit of control with one hoof. Reaching up for the throttle or pitch levers are still going to be awkward, but it's doable."
  3684. > "Excellent! I'm going to see about getting you some time to practice basic maneuvers, just so you get a feel of the plane."
  3685. "Not sure I'll ever get a feel for this thing. I can keep it steady and move the controls when you order me, but everything just feels so... wrong."
  3686. > "Wrong? And hand me the eighth-inch phillips if you can."
  3687. > Passing the tool to him, you go on:
  3688.  
  3689. "It's totally different from a pegasus' flight. We soar - feel the wind, where it's drafting down or rising up, where it's steady and still... we slip through it. This thing - it shoves its way through it."
  3690. > "Huh."
  3691. "It's... more like a dragon in that respect, actually."
  3692. > An annoyed grunt issues from below in reply.
  3693. "So, I can try to fly it - but you've got to understand, every time it turns I have to push down the instinct to spread my own wings and pull in the opposite direction."
  3694. > The only answer is another, even more frustrated growl.
  3695. "...and - are you alright?"
  3696. > "I might be stuck."
  3697. > For the second time in a very few minutes, you snort disbelievingly.
  3698. "Sooo... is this the part where I can go eat all the cookies you have hidden in the compartment over the electrical cabinet?"
  3699. > Anonymous goes still.
  3700. > "How do you know about those?!"
  3701. "I can smell them."
  3702. > Your voice practically drips smugness, and your owner quietly curses superior pony senses for several moments before speaking up again:
  3703. > "Spitfire, if you don't leave those alone, I'm going to cook nothing but that brussel sprout mix for three days straight."
  3704. "...you wouldn't dare."
  3705. > "Don't try me."
  3706. "I was in the bathroom for an hour!"
  3707. > "Consider it a time-out room."
  3708. "The plane reeked!"
  3709. > "I don't smell anything but oil and hydraulic fluid these days anyway."
  3710. "Fine, yeesh!"
  3711. > You hop from the chair, a hoof finding his hand and pulling him from the cavity his torso had become trapped in.
  3712. > Despite the frustrated words and dire threats, there's laughter in both your tones.
  3713. > And for just a moment, your sadness is forgotten.
  3714.  
  3715. --------
  3716.  
  3717. > "So, Spitfire. You remember how I was checking to see if you could get out through the rear hatch in flight?"
  3718. "Yeah...?"
  3719. > "Since the plane went through it's overhaul, that door is nice and loose. You shouldn't have any trouble closing it once you get out now. Now that we're certified to fly again..."
  3720. "Heh, you want to see if I can pull it off?"
  3721. > "Yeah. You're good for it?"
  3722. "Anonymous, being able to just get out and fly freely will be a complete and utter relief. I'll give it a try."
  3723. > ...yeah, in retrospect, those words seem very, very foolish.
  3724. > Sure, you still wanted to be able to get out and fly.
  3725. > But...
  3726. "This is a stupid idea."
  3727. > Anonymous' voice pops into your new headset, the wireless voice clear and crisp.
  3728. > "You were the one to suggest it originally."
  3729. "And it was stupid then."
  3730. > "Didn't seem to think so at the time."
  3731. > Peering through the tiny doorway at the far-end of the in-flight toilet space to the cavity beyond, you shake your head and decide maybe you were a little stupid at the time too.
  3732. > That the in-flight toilet was at the tail of the aircraft, you could sort of understand.
  3733. > Nobody would be blocking anything off if they got stuck in there; behind it, there was only the hollow tail-boom.
  3734. > Besides, there was a certain appropriateness to the... waste area being in the back.
  3735. > What you couldn't fathom, though, was why they'd decided to put a major exterior hatch behind that.
  3736. > Swallowing and steeling yourself, you clamber over the toilet seat and somehow manage to squeeze through into the tiny, black space beyond.
  3737. > Back here the engine noise seems somehow ever worse despite the distance from them.
  3738. > It's an illusion, you decide.
  3739. > The tiny, dark compartment making the volume seem greater just because the walls are closer around you - hard, squeezing, choking barriers that seem to close in around you, no matter how impossible that is.
  3740. "Why can't there at least be a light or something back here?"
  3741.  
  3742. > "You going to be okay back there?"
  3743. "A hundred percent."
  3744. > Snorting angrily, you shut the door to the bathroom and steel yourself.
  3745. "Just - pegasi and closed, dark spaces don't mix well."
  3746. > "Well, it won't be for much longer. I'm at altitude; open the rear hatch."
  3747. > Finding the lever to release the hatch was a matter of feeling along the rib-like internal supports - each thrumming against the wind rushing by just outside - until your hoof tapped against it.
  3748. > Something you and Anonymous had practiced on the ground a few times now, and something you accomplish with little trouble.
  3749. > The hatch naturally falls open with a clank as its latch is released; through the crescent-shaped slit that has appeared, you can see golden-brown earth passing by far below.
  3750. > Shoving down with your forehooves pushes it open the rest of the way.
  3751. "Okay, hatch is open."
  3752. > "Alright. You ready?
  3753. > You swallow.
  3754. > No.
  3755. > You aren't.
  3756. > But you'd never have become a Wonderbolt if that had stopped you before.
  3757. "Yes."
  3758. > "Okay, and - go!"
  3759. > For how nervous it had made you, squeezing out through the open tail-hatch is shockingly easy.
  3760. > A second of being enclosed on all sides by metal - and then you are falling.
  3761. > It's a strange thing, falling.
  3762. > Everypony - even pegasi - feared it.
  3763. > Falling was being out of control, at the mercy of something that only wished to smash you against the uncaring, unyielding ground.
  3764. > To a pegasus, it was even worse - the loss of something inherent to your very nature.
  3765. > The theft of your flight.
  3766. > You loved it.
  3767. > Falling was butting heads with the universe, flicking your tail at it and daring it to try and take you - and then snapping your wings out and defying gravity once again.
  3768. > Air slams into them, filling your wings and tugging them with an almost painful wrench.
  3769. > It's worth it - the awareness of being alive, being indisputably back in control making every bit worth it.
  3770. > "So, I take it my ears being blown out mean that you're okay, then?"
  3771. > Oops.
  3772.  
  3773. > In that moment of elation, you'd forgotten the microphone was still open.
  3774. "Yeah, I'm fine. Got out alright, going to see about closing the hatch now."
  3775. > "Got it. Holding altitude and direction."
  3776. > Angling up, you climb back up to Anonymous' plane with clean, full beats of your wings.
  3777. > He's got the engines low and nose pitched up - pulling along as slow as he can to make your job easier.
  3778. > The plane's curved, boat-like underbelly gleams in the sun as you pull up underneath it; even outside of their direct air-wash, the propellers' noise seems almost deafening.
  3779. > Proving the worth of the work he'd had done, however, the tail hatch slams shut when you push your forehooves up against it - easily moving on its hinges without so much as a squeak.
  3780. > Backing off and pulling forward beneath the plane, you find the thunderous, pounding noise of the engines is far less out in front of them.
  3781. > Anonymous waves to you from within the cockpit, sun glinting off the glass panels closing him in.
  3782. > "Having fun out there?"
  3783. "More than you know!"
  3784. > Pumping your muscles harder, legs tucked in against your barrel and tail shooting straight out behind, you slice through the air and pull even further ahead.
  3785. > Eyes narrow against the wind; your wing muscles are burning - sweet Celestia, you're out of shape! - but you don't care because you haven't felt this alive for ages.
  3786. > "Spitfire, you're pulling a bit far ahead. Turn back east, and we'll line up to try and get you back aboard."
  3787. > Anonymous' voice is an unwelcome intrusion into your bliss, but you acknowledge him with a curt reply before throwing yourself into a quite unneccessarily showy turn.
  3788. > He'd rolled the airplane around too, but you easily catch up and pull in coast amid the upwash on the edge of a wing.
  3789. > It's intense - much more powerful than anything a pegasus or any of the airships back in Equestria had produced.
  3790.  
  3791. > So powerful that you find yourself having to occasionally fold your wings and let yourself dive back down to avoid being thrown up and away by the force of the rising air.
  3792. "Okay, I'm off your port wing now. Are you ready?"
  3793. > "Yeah, nose is up and I'm just a few knots above stall speed. We should have a few minutes to try this before I have to turn around again."
  3794. > Nodding, you slip down beneath the belly of the airplane where the hatch still hangs open.
  3795. > Bracing your hooves against it and trying to press up proves fruitless, however.
  3796. > You simply can't exert enough pressure to get it to slide all the way shut.
  3797. > Unless...
  3798. "Anonymous, I want you to try something for me."
  3799. > "Go ahead."
  3800. "I can't get this door shut, but I think there's another way to do. I want you to bring the nose down a bit and let me follow the tail up, then drop the tail back down and let me push up on it."
  3801. > "I'm going to pick up some speed as soon as I nose down."
  3802. "Not an issue. I can keep up."
  3803. > "If you say so. Okay, pitching up."
  3804. > Just as he'd predicted the plane does pick up some speed - but you're able to keep up, even if just barely.
  3805. > Climbing to again take your place beneath the open tail hatch, you once more brace your hooves on it and call out:
  3806. "Okay, drop the tail!"
  3807. > Merely pushing back against a falling object is far easier than pushing up, and the hatch slams shut - latch clicking audibly even over the wind.
  3808. > With a small whoop you dive away from the plane and rise up to hover off its wingtip again.
  3809. "Got it! That worked perfectly!"
  3810. > "Good job, Spitfire! Good job. I'm going to turn back and head for the strip again."
  3811. "If it's okay with you, I'd like to stay up here a little bit longer."
  3812. > "Go ahead. Just don't stay into other airspace, and come down in thirty or so."
  3813. "I hear you."
  3814. > And then - with another whoop - you pull back and up into a climb towards the sun.
  3815.  
  3816. > It ends up being closer to twenty minutes later, but when you do come down in a galloping landing your heart is still beating hard and fast.
  3817. > As if insisting you go back to the clear, blue sky you felt at home in, no matter how much your wings were protesting.
  3818. > Anonymous had parked the plane at one edge of the dusty airstrip and looks up as you approach, noting your wild grin and windswept mane.
  3819. > "Had a bit of fun out there, did you?"
  3820. "You know it."
  3821. > "Well, I'm not sure I could avoid knowing about it, given the way you were yelling into the mic."
  3822. > Giving an apologetic smile, you nod.
  3823. "Yeah... sorry about that."
  3824. > "Well, you needed a moment like that after... y'know."
  3825. > Silently you nod.
  3826. > "It's right back to work now, though. We've got another job. Nearby here."
  3827. "Oh?"
  3828. > "Yeah. This one's going to be fun. Ever been to Vegas?"
spitfire /spg/ pie

Fire's Heart [F&S] (Complete)

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