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Fire and Sky Part 2 (Complete)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 04:11:06 AM

  1. Originally posted in July 2016
  2.  
  3. Part 1: ponepaste.org/2322
  4.  
  5. --------
  6.  
  7. > No, you have not ever been to Vegas.
  8. > Or ever seen anything remotely like it.
  9. > The city seems sprout impossibly from the desert itself, tenaciously clawing out to lay claim to the dusty earth around it.
  10. > Circling about it to line up with one of the airstrips on the smaller airport to the north of the city, you find plenty of time to gawk at the sheer absurdity of the city.
  11. "So, you what - just decided 'hey, this looks like a nice spot in the desert, better build a city in the middle of nowhere?"
  12. > "I think they were building a dam nearby when it really took off as a city - but, yeah. Pretty much."
  13. "That is... incredibly stupid."
  14. > "Uh-huh. Don't look at me; I wasn't even born back then."
  15. "What, did they build it with slaves too?"
  16. > "Not that I know."
  17. > Anonymous gives a soft snort-chuckle, glancing aside from his instruments to the city's skyline.
  18. > "Though the work was pretty bad all the same."
  19. "I can imagine. I saw a few homesteads back in Equestria - out on the edges of the desert. At least those places they tried to at least put them somewhere remotely rational."
  20. > "You had homesteads."
  21.  
  22. "Well, not us pegasi. We mostly stuck to our cloud-structures. But the Earth ponies - they were always settling new places, and we'd occasionally have to visit them."
  23. > Pausing, you add more softly:
  24. "Ended up visiting a lot more when everything started falling apart and we were put back on full-time patrol duty."
  25. > Seeming to sense your discomfort, Anonymous reaches over and lays a hand gently on your shoulder.
  26. > "Well, you do get to do something special for job."
  27. "What are we doing in here, anyways?"
  28. > "Sightseeing. Not for us - some rich coots want to have the experience of flying on an old warbird. So, we take them up for an hour or two, give them a couple touring spots, and then drop 'em back off."
  29. "And what - you just, know about this?"
  30. > "There are networks for us private pilots. Pass on word of jobs, when and where they'll be happening. But hey, like I said - special, easy job for you."
  31. "What - you want me to put on a little flying display?"
  32. > "Nah. Flight attendant."
  33. "Please tell me you're joking."
  34.  
  35. > He's serious.
  36. > Unfortunately for you.
  37. > Raising a hind leg to scratch at the itchy cotton uniform he's slipped you into, you reflect that for the first time in a long time you're wishing he didn't trust you so much.
  38. > It's not even a real uniform, as far as you could tell.
  39. > Just something he had cobbled together over the course of a day - a shirt purchased from a store for those who liked to dress their ponies, a few iron-on patches to give it a vaguely-military feel.
  40. > Certainly it's nothing like the uniform you wore back home, and you have a sneaking suspicion that any human officer would have a conniption if he caught sight of it.
  41. "This is humiliating. I look like some kind of poster-more trying to pretend she's an officer."
  42. > "This is adorable. You look fine."
  43. "They're not mutually exclusive."
  44. > Anonymous reaches out to smooth down the shirt again, shaking his head with a grin.
  45. > "I'm serious. You look great, Spitfire."
  46. > Seeing an argument is going to go nowhere good, you settle for scowling darkly at Anonymous.
  47. > For any other human than him...
  48. > Laughing softly at your expression, he grabs a comb and runs it through your mane for what seems like the hundreth time.
  49. > Even that seemed out of place - your mane grown out far longer than you'd ever willingly kept it.
  50. > "Really, Spits. I know it isn't accurate or anything, but they wouldn't know a real uniform if you smacked them in the face with one."
  51. "...it's not about being accurate or looking good."
  52. > You sigh as the scowling mask falls away, looking down at your hooves.
  53. "It's just - I don't like being a 'thing', some kind of prettied-up toy to be shown off. It makes me feel I'm being forced to be somepony other than myself."
  54. > Turning to take a seat beside you, Anonymous rests his elbows on his knees.
  55. > "Yeah, I get that. You're the kind of person - pony, sorry - who wants to be judged on what you actually are."
  56.  
  57. "Mmm-hmm. This is just another reminder of how I'm not me, I'm-"
  58. > The words stick in your throat, but you spit them out.
  59. "-I'm a slave."
  60. > "Trust me, if we didn't have to deal with these nutjobs I'd be all the more happier too."
  61. "But you do it anyway."
  62. > "Pride's a painful thing to give up, but sometimes the first thing you have to let go of."
  63. "At least you get the choice."
  64. > He doesn't have a response to that, staying silent.
  65. > Going on, you tap the collar on your throat with one hoof.
  66. "This thing has gotten so familiar I can sometimes forget about it means, but being prettied up like this? Forget it."
  67. > Sighing, Anonymous reaches over to pat your withers and stand.
  68. > "You going to be able to do it anyhow?"
  69. > Your grimace comes back in full form.
  70. "Yeah. I can put on a nice face for them. Doesn't mean I'm going to like it."
  71. > "Just keep it up for a couple days, and if the tips are good I'll see about a reward for the both of us. I've a feeling we're going to need it, and they say Vegas is the city you can find anything you wish for."
  72. "How about a trip back to Equestria. Can you find that wish here?"
  73. > Despite your tone there's a smirk on your lips, and Anonymous gives a small laugh before heading back up to the cockpit.]
  74. > "Only if you can find me a winning lottery ticket!"
  75. > Following slowly after him, you pause to do a mental run-down of the checklist Anonymous had been preparing for you.
  76. > Several rows of seats had, as once before, been bolted into place to carry a number of passengers.
  77. > This time they seemed rather more luxurious than what the researchers had rode in on, though that didn't seem surprising considering what he was here for.
  78. > Rechecking each to ensure that the belts were still ready and arms between the seat firmly locked in place serves to pass the time, and keep your mind from wandering.
  79. > At least until you hear the rising chatter from outside.
  80. > "Hey, Spitfire-"
  81. "I hear 'em. I'll be outside in a second."
  82.  
  83. > Squeezing your eyes shut, you force out other thoughts and recite a little mantra beneath your breath.
  84. "Easy, Spitfire. You can do this. Just keep yourself focused and put it all away until they leave..."
  85. > Leaping from the plane, you flutter to the ground and spot the group of approaching tourists.
  86. > Instantly your stomach sinks as an exicted, squeaky cry goes up.
  87. > "Pow-nee!"
  88. > Oh, sweet Celestia.
  89. > Children.
  90. > Foals were bad enough, but-
  91. > That line of thought is interrupted as the half-size human plows into you, wrapping his little arms around your barrel and squeezing.
  92. > Wings flare out in surprise almost knocking him over, but you manage to keep him upright.
  93. > "Pow-nee!"
  94. > Wide, delighted blue eyes peer up at you filled with unmitigated joy.
  95. "Well - um -"
  96. > "Bird-pow-nee!"
  97. > His eyes have now locked onto the very relevant part of your anatomy; you take a cautious step back in response.
  98. "Y-Yes, hello. Um, why don't you go inside and-"
  99. > "Gimme! Gimme, bird pow-nee!"
  100. > Aaaand he's going for your wings.
  101. > Nope.
  102. > You scramble backwards; normally you'd just hold him back, but without Anonymous making a point of how these people being your 'guests'...
  103. > "Oh, no - don't."
  104. > A sigh of relief escapes you as the rest of the group catches up, another two children teetering along with them.
  105. > One - presumably the child's mother - smiles to you:
  106. > "It'll be fine if he touches your wings, don't worry. Ethan's really quite gentle."
  107. > Your hopes fall faster than a pegasus with clipped wings in a thunderstorm.
  108. > Of course she wouldn't be looking out for you; why would she?
  109. > In the meantime 'Ethan' has buried his face in your wings and is now furiously rubbing his face in them, leaving you furiously attempting to restrain yourself from bursting them open and knocking him back.
  110. > Or blushing at the unintended sensations he is sending down them.
  111.  
  112. > Gathering yourself, you take a deep breath and slap on the widest, warmest, and probably fakest smile you've ever worn.
  113. "Well, ah, hello then and welcome aboard! I'm Spitfire; I'll be helping you get aboard and to your seats today. Please watch your step as you come aboard, especially in the hatches between cabins."
  114. > "Your master in there, pony?"
  115. > Curses flying in your head, you respond to the grunted question with a nod.
  116. "Yes, sir. Anonymous is waiting aboard for you; he will be helping you to your seats."
  117. > "Hmm."
  118. > Looking away from him before the need to snark becomes an overwhelming one, you get to work 'helping' the others up the stairs and through the hatch onto the airplane.
  119. > At least that gives you a reason to be airborne, hovering just off the side of the stairway, and fully out of reach of the drooler who'd tried to damn near molest you.
  120. > Maybe that's being a bit hard on him, but still...
  121. > Slipping your hoof through the arm of one particularly overweight passenger, you help her up the unsteady metal steps and through the hatch.
  122. > She practically has to crawl through on her hands and knees to fit through the hatch, and you don't pity Anonymous for trying to find that one a seat.
  123. > At least she turns to smile to you after you get her through.
  124. > "Oh, thank you, dear."
  125. "You're quite welco-"
  126. > Cut off as her hand grabs you cheek and squeezes hard, you're suddenly caught with a large, wet, sticky kiss being planted on your cheek.
  127. > "Such a sweet, helpful little thing!"
  128. > ...maybe you'd have been better off if they didn't 'thank' you.
  129. > With the last passengers aboard you signal the ground staff waiting nearby to haul back the stairway before boosting aboard yourself.
  130. > The hatch slides shut and locking lever is slid into place.
  131. > Now you're working on practiced, familiar territory - a script you'd run through with Anonymous half a dozen times before the guests arrived.
  132.  
  133. > A freshly-faked smile plastered on your muzzle, you take a deep breath and nod.
  134. "Okay! If you didn't hear it before, my name is Spitfire and I'll be assisting you today. I'll be going throughFirst, let me check your seatbelts are properly closed and tightened..."
  135. > Working from seat to seat, you're forced to push your muzzle in close to ensure the latch has properly closed.
  136. > At least you can do so from a hovering position above the seats, rather than having to clamber across laps.
  137. > This goes perfectly fine right up until the third or so row.
  138. > Something abruptly grabs hold of your collar, violently jerking you so hard the collar almost chokes you.
  139. > Wings fluttering wildly, you're barely able to get upright again before you find yourself facing a woman with nostrils flared and cheeks the color of overripe tomatoes.
  140. > "Get your face out of my chest, you stupid pony."
  141. > Breath barely caught, you swallow and try to keep a polite, happy tone in your voice.
  142. "I"m sorry, Ma'am, but I have to check the belts for to make sure they're properly tightened."
  143. > "My belt is fine."
  144. "I understand, but I still have to check-"
  145. > "Hey!"
  146. > Again you find yourself being violently shaken by the collar.
  147. > If this uniform was real, you might be inclined to slap her with the hard edge of your hoof just for what she is doing to it.
  148. > Nevermind the whole 'being throttled with a symbol of your imprisonment and unwilling servitude' bit.
  149. > "Are you listening to me, pony? It's fine. Do you want me to go get your master? Because I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be happy if he heard you were shoving your face in my chest!"
  150. "Ma'am, Anonymous was the one who told me to do this."
  151. > Her face goes through several interesting contortions as this information works its way into her mind.
  152. > Finally she settles for glaring at you through narrowed eyes and a certain suspicion in her voice.
  153. > "I don't think your master-"
  154. > The emphasis is obvious; she doesn't like you using his name.
  155.  
  156. > "-would like it if he heard you were lying either."
  157. > You know what?
  158. > Forget this.
  159. > As far as you can tell this woman's belt is fine, and if she falls out of her seat and splits her face open it'll be her own damn fault.
  160. > Even the other passengers are giving her sideways looks.
  161. "...yes, Ma'am. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you. If you'll let me go, I'll move along and help the other passengers."
  162. > The words leave a foul taste in your mouth, and breaking her gaze to look down takes physical effort.
  163. > But at last your collar is released - finally, to be able to breath freely again!
  164. > "And I'd better not catch you trying to touch me again, pony!"
  165. > As if you'll even come near her again.
  166. > At least there's no way the next passenger could be anywhere as bad as-
  167. > "Pow-nee!"
  168. > Fuck.
  169.  
  170. --------
  171.  
  172. > You stay with the passengers - running over the remainder of the safety measures and giving a basic run-down of the stops and sights on the flight - until Anonymous finishes taking off.
  173. > Crawling into the cockpit at last you clamber into your seat, pull on your headset, and give Anonymous a dead-eyed stare.
  174. "I'm going to kill someone."
  175. > "Well, if you do it make sure to wait until we get out over the lake. Getting rid of the body is much easier in water."
  176. > At least the headsets allowed you to speak in relative privacy - the omnipresent thunder of the engines masking your spoken words to the passengers only a few feet behind.
  177. "I'm serious."
  178. > Flicking your tail nervously and reaching up to clasp your head between your forehooves, you squeeze your ears flat down tight as you can.
  179. "You have no idea how hard it is to make some people put on seat belts. I mean, do they want to fall out of their seats and die?!"
  180. > "Stupidity knows no bounds. Any real problems in the end, though?"
  181. > Peering down at the wrinkled and drooled-on remnants of your 'uniform', you shudder softly.
  182. "One woman got very aggressive with me - wouldn't let me touch her belt to check it was properly secured."
  183. > "What?!"
  184. > Anonymous' voice is loud enough you wonder if it was heard from the main cabin.
  185. "I tried telling her you ordered me to check them, but she was kind of choking me with my collar at the time and didn't seem keen on listening."
  186. > "Fucksake. Does she even have it on?"
  187. "As far as I can tell, yes and locked tightly. I couldn't touch it to check, though, just look."
  188. > "Okay, is she sitting facing the front or back?"
  189. "Front. If you look back, she's second row down on your left, with the blond mane."
  190. > "Right."
  191. > Gripping the wheel with white knuckles, Anonymous glances from the instruments to shoot you a withering glare.
  192. > The look sends a little shock through your system - he was very, very angry, far more so than you had realized.
  193.  
  194. > "Here's what you're going to do: Get back there, stand in the hatchway, and keep a solid eye on her. Her belt is probably fine, and even if it isn't I can probably set her down with no more than a mild jostling."
  195. "But if it isn't?"
  196. > "Then you're free to keep her pinned down until we come to a halt."
  197. > You open your mouth to protest, but Anonymous silence you by continuing:
  198. > "As I remember, I had to give you a good shock to get you down. She won't have that benefit."
  199. "...understood."
  200. > "Blow your speech on the lake again if you have to. We'll talk about this later."
  201. > Delightful.
  202. > Judging by the tone in his voice, you were in for a chewing out - no doubt about that.
  203. > And, in truth, probably deserved it.
  204. > Slipping off your headset, you climb from the cockpit and station yourself in the middle of the first cabin section.
  205. > From there, your view of the second section - and your troublemaker in it - is excellent.
  206. > Mentally dredging up the script and choosing an appropriate place to start, your eyes remain fixed on her even as your voices rises to be heard over the engine's roar.
  207. "Once again, coming up on our left side - port, in aeronautical terms - is the Hoover Dam, supporting the largest reservoir in America. We will be making two passes, so don't worry if you can't see it on our first; there will be plenty of time to change seats later..."
  208. > Mercifully, she was seated on the left as well - meaning she was too busy straining to catch a glimpse through the nearest tiny porthole of a window rather than paying attention to your omnipresent gaze.
  209. > Those who were in a position to see your unmoving gaze probably attributed it to nervousness, and didn't seem inclined to raise a fuss.
  210. > Though you'd be lying if you tried to tell yourself there wasn't tiny bit of nervousness mixed in there somewhere.
  211. > Feeling the plane begin to edge into a shallow bank - a sign you and Anonymous had agreed on earlier - you again raise your voice:
  212.  
  213. "If I could ask you to pleas all sit upright and centered in your seats, we are now going to turn towards a northly heading and begin our descent towards a water landing on Lake Mead."
  214. > This time your words draw the gaze of the object of your attention - the woman shooting you a sour look.
  215. > It's a look you meet easily as you go on:
  216. "This may be a somewhat rougher landing, but it is a process we have gone through multiple times and have become quite familiar with."
  217. > Soon enough the smooth, the blue waters of the lake a passing close under the plane's belly.
  218. > Boosting yourself up into the tower-like compartment above the main cabin, you quickly find the outrigger controls and hook them on the edge of your hoof.
  219. > Strictly speaking, of course, Anonymous could have done it from the cockpit - but you'd agreed early on that a bit of showponyship would be good in this case.
  220. > Small ooh and aahs rise from the crowd as the floats lower from the tips of the wings, hydraulic motors whining to drive them.
  221. > Anonymous is pulling up hard now; a glance out the tower's window tells you that he must be nearly at stall speed, coming in slow as he can to smooth out the impact with the water.
  222. > Fortunately, the passengers seem to find it more entertaining than frightening.
  223. > Whoops and laughter rise as spray erupts from the bow, and you can't help the little smile that touches your own lips.
  224. > Even they, despite not being born with wings like you were, could see the joy in flying.
  225. > But your duties are calling; as the airplane pulls to a halt, you are already slipping from an opened hatch with an rope trailing from your hooves.
  226. > When you return, the engines are off leaving the only sloshing of water against the hull.
  227. > That, and Anonymous' voice; he has left the cockpit and is standing in the cabin, rattling off facts and stories about the aircraft.
  228. > You, on the other hand, take the welcome respite and slip back into your copilot's seat.
  229.  
  230. > How many tours was it he'd said you were going to be doing today?
  231. > Three, four?
  232. > You weren't sure you could handle another like this, let alone that many more.
  233. > The sound of someone entering the cockpit draws your mind back to reality - and just as quickly your heart sinks as Anonymous is followed in by a familiar dour-faced woman.
  234. > "Spitfire, I understand there was a bit of an issue between the two of you at takeoff?"
  235. > Of course he already knows - this must be another charade for her benefit.
  236. "Yes, sir. There was."
  237. > "She says you tried to touch her, and then lied about what I'd ordered you to do."
  238. "Yes, I did try to touch her seatbelt. I was not able to finish this."
  239. > "Well, then."
  240. > A heavy hand settles on your shoulder; whether the note of anger in Anonymous' voice is still genuine you don't know, but it certainly does help the display either way.
  241. > "I'm very, very upset with you, Spitfire. We're going to have a long talk when we get back to the airport; that is completely unacceptable and well outside of what I expect from you."
  242. "Yes, sir."
  243. > Your eyes fall and ears sink; though some of it was forced through sheer willpower to put on a satisfying display of submission - an act which rankles you - the tones of disappointment do also genuinely hurt.
  244. > "In the future, if anything remotely like this occurs, I expect you to alert me so I can call the police."
  245. "Yes, sir."
  246. > "What?!"
  247. > Another monumental act of willpower spent - this time to keep a smirk off your face.
  248. > "Miss, I will not - cannot - take off until I am absolutely certain of all my passengers' safety. By refusing to let Spitfire check your belt, you endangered not just yourself but others' lives as well."
  249. > "Her?! That stupid-"
  250. > "Yes, her."
  251. > Now there's a slightly harder edge to Anonymous' voice; he was clearly tiring of this as well.
  252.  
  253. > "In case you were wondering, Spitfire is the one who plotted the route and performed the rest of the safety checks for the tour you are on right now. You've trusted her with your life since the moment you stepped aboard."
  254. > "I - but she - she's a-"
  255. > "A pony? Or my property? Yes to both, by the way - but I have and still do trust her with my life."
  256. > Face settling on an interesting shade of red, her mouth works wildly in shock before settling on a thin, straight line.
  257. > "If you can't let Spitfire do her job, Ma'am, let me know now so I can call to have the police send a boat out and not keep the other passengers waiting."
  258. > Wordlessly spinning and all but charging from the cockpit, she leaves the two of you alone at last.
  259. > Now you do allow a small amused smirk to appear, though the chuckle you wish to give is restrained.
  260. > Catching your look, Anonymous shakes his head.
  261. > "It's not a joke, Spitfire. We are still going to have a talk later."
  262. "I understand."
  263. > Nodding briefly, Anonymous leaves for the cabin as well.
  264. > Looking out after him, you find that the passengers are milling about - looking out through opened hatches and the two clear bubbles at the rear of the cabin.
  265. > Deciding to take the opportunity, you launch yourself out into the open air and hover around the plane, giving an occasional wave to those within.
  266. > In the distance a few boats pass; cameras are raised towards the - what you presume to be - unusual sight.
  267. > It feels strange to be under the cameras again.
  268. > Not something you'd experienced since the days with the 'bolts, and then a few rare shoots for morale purposes as the sickness and fighting tore its way through Equestria.
  269. > Almost instinctively you find yourself putting on a little air show for them.
  270. > Nothing extreme, but a few fancy maneuvers and displays.
  271. > Heh, if only Fire Streak could've seen this.
  272. > The thought almost stops you could.
  273.  
  274. > Hadn't you torn into him for doing the same kinds of things - being satisfied with simple, silly displays while he lowered himself and grovelled for what few requests they would give him?
  275. > Just like you had just done for that stupid woman?
  276. > Shuddering softly, you find your appetite for displays is suddenly gone.
  277. > You aren't becoming like that - are you?
  278. > Anonymous was in on it, though - he had practically played along with you to drop that?
  279. > While you trusted him, though, none of the others recieved that same benefit.
  280. > Grimacing, you find a sour taste settling into your mouth.
  281. > So much for possibly enjoying this.
  282.  
  283. --------
  284.  
  285. > Ushering the last load of passengers for the day out with a perky smile and a wave of one wing, you issue a hefty sigh and allow yourself to deflate at last as they slip out of sight.
  286. > Coming up behind you, Anonymous wipes his hands off on a rag.
  287. > "Well, that was different."
  288. "Please tell me we don't have to do that again tomorrow."
  289. > "Alright, I won't tell you."
  290. > Moaning softly, you let your head sink towards the floor.
  291. "I don't know if I can take it."
  292. > "I know."
  293. > Sitting down in one of the passenger seats, Anonymous stretches mightily.
  294. > "Speaking of which, we still need to have that talk."
  295. > Grunting softly in reply, you find one of the passenger seats and curl up in it - gaze firmly locked out one of the window.
  296. "I screwed up. I know..."
  297. > "Yes, you really did."
  298. > His affirmation hurts more than you'd expected.
  299. "What was I supposed to do? She didn't want to do anything-"
  300. > "Don't ever hesitate to get me involved if there's a safety issue. Never, ever. Skimping on checking everything was safely secured got Eddie killed."
  301. > ...oooh.
  302. > Of course - how had you forgotten that?
  303. > No wonder Anonymous was upset.
  304. > "I don't think I could take it if it did another, no matter how stupid they are being. So, don't ever let me hear about you skipping something like that - no matter how 'certain' you are."
  305.  
  306. "Just... I didn't want to create more trouble for you while you were trying to keep them all happy. You said that it was important to keep them happy and entertained; if I brought you in..."
  307. > "I did say that."
  308. "Yeah. If I kept trying to argue with her, I don't know how long I'd have stayed calm. And that'd have been no good either - so, I thought just letting it go and alerting you later...
  309. > Seats creak as Anonymous sits down beside you.
  310. > "Look up at me, Spitfire."
  311. > Wordlessly you twist up to face him.
  312. > As you'd expected, he looks upset - but not enraged.
  313. > Like with his tone, there's more disappointment than true heated anger there.
  314. > "You're right. But - even if you were right this time, that playing nice with them is important and her belt was on perfectly, you start skipping steps like that and it becomes a habit."
  315. > Sighing, Anonymous leans back in his seat - eyes drifting up.
  316. > "Then the habit spreads, you get lazier, and sooner or later you've got someone bleeding out on the cabin floor. So don't let it start."
  317. > You nod sharply; this, you understand.
  318. > Habits - and breaking bad ones - had been something you'd become well familiar with as Captain.
  319. > Reaching out, you lay a hoof softly on his leg and speak with renewed honesty in your voice.
  320. "I understand. Back in Equestria, this was a lot more instinct and a lot less hard rules, but I shouldn't have been so flippant about it. Especially knowing... what happened before. If you need to-"
  321. > Raising a hand to silence you, Anonymous shakes his head.
  322. > "I'm not going to throw some stupid punishment at you for this. I'd guessed you had a good reason, and it's an easy mistake to make once. But don't ever let me catch that happening again."
  323. "Absolutely."
  324. > "Good. We were lucky nothing came of it this time."
  325. > Looking back down, Anonymous offers a small smile and claps a hand over your hoof.
  326.  
  327. > "In any case, after tomorrow we'll have a chance to rest up from this. It's wearing on me as much as you, honestly."
  328. "...honestly, I doubt that."
  329. > Laughing softly, he shakes his head.
  330. > "Maybe. Maybe not - I don't take passengers, and never tried playing tour-guide before. Making me jittery as hell, honestly."
  331. "Aww."
  332. > You let a small, wry grin touch your face.
  333. "First performance jitters? Those, I know about - trust me."
  334. > "Hah, hah. I just can't wait for this to be done. Speaking of which, you thought about if you want to head into the city at all?"
  335. "Actually, a while back somepony gave me a note to pass on if I could. The address is around here; I'd like to try and see it delivered, if I could."
  336. > "You'll be needing to head into Vegas proper, then. May as well budget some time out to stop and see the sights - you're going to want to, whether or not you realize it now."
  337. "That going to be eating into your time too, to come with me?"
  338. > "What, here? Nah, no leash laws."
  339. > Anonymous laughs.
  340. > "This is Vegas, Spitfire. Anything goes here."
  341.  
  342. --------
  343.  
  344. > "Spits. Hey, Spits - wake up."
  345. "Mrrrf?"
  346. > You try to resist the hand poking at your shoulder, rolling over in the bed and bunching up the covers around you.
  347. > "Come on. I need you to wake up."
  348. "Fuggoff."
  349. > "I'd love to, but we've got a job. Come on."
  350. > Rising from the bed and blinking owlishly, you peer about in confusion.
  351. "Wha' time izzit?"
  352. > "Hell o'clock."
  353. "...wuh?"
  354. > "Five-fifteen."
  355. "Why'm I awake at five-fifteen?"
  356. > "Because we've got work to do. Be in the cockpit, five minutes or less."
  357. > Sliding from the bed to nearly collapse on the cabin floor, you blink owlishly and kick at one itching wing with a hindhoof.
  358. > The passenger seats were long gone from the cabin - the second and last day's worth of passengers having come through the previous evening - but unless you'd lost track of an entire day, this was supposed to be time off.
  359. > Shaking your head in an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge the fog of sleep from it, you stumble up towards the cockpit.
  360. > Anonymous meets you halfway, crouched over the table just outside the cockpit door - his face illuminated a pale blue by the light of his computer.
  361. "Wha's goin' on? I though' we were done with this."
  362. > "We are. There's a new one."
  363. > A new one?!
  364. > Hissing softly, you climb up onto the table and begin poking at your wings with your muzzle - preening to wake yourself up and clear your mind.
  365. > Between nudges at the feathers, you ask:
  366. "So, if we're not busy here - then what is it?"
  367. > "Emergency job. Got a call just a few minutes ago. We need to be up there."
  368. "...emergency? What kind of emergency could you have that we can't wait to a more reasonable hour? We're going to have enough cash after putting up with-"
  369. > "Not like that, Spitfire. It's an emergency for them too; we're probably going to meet whoever on the tarmac, get loaded up, and turn right around again."
  370.  
  371. > Spitting out a loose feather, you turn to glare at the computer as if it were responsible for the interruption.
  372. "Who exactly is it?"
  373. > "Something to do with the portals. Hope you're feeling up to seeing Giselle again, 'cause we're going back to the outpost she was at."
  374. > You'd been hoping for some more complete information; that little tidbit is decidedly unsatisfying.
  375. > Rubbing at your eye again, you hiss softly and glance back towards your bed.
  376. > Not just for the siren call to return to sleep issuing from it, but for the small, sealed envelope still tucked among your other meager belongings.
  377. > You had promised...
  378. "I was hoping to get down in there and deliver that letter."
  379. > "We're a flying service, Spitfire. Not mail delivery - not unless they can pay our meals and fuel."
  380. "Yeah."
  381. > Sighing heavily, you nod - ears falling and tail drooping.
  382. "I get it, I get it. I just was hoping..."
  383. > Reaching out, he gives you a soft pat on your shoulder.
  384. > Gaze following it back up to his torso, you take a harder look at his face.
  385. > It's painted in deep shadows and the pale, blue-white glow of the computer screen, but even so you can see the bags beneath his eyes, the stubble on his chin, and a million other details.
  386. > "Not pleased about this either. But a job's a job, and I can't go blowing off an emergency request from these people. I do that-"
  387. "-you lose their trust, and more work from them down the line. Yeah, I get it."
  388. > Yawning again and stretching your wings with a small flutter, you nod.
  389. > Duty was something you certainly understood, and couldn't fault him for.
  390. > It was what had kept you going for all that time, after all.
  391. > Seeing your look, Anonymous offers an apologetic smile.
  392. > "Compromise: When we're in state again, and we will be, I'll see about getting it mailed properly."
  393. "No go. She asked me to deliver it, said not to let it out of my sight intact until then. 'preciate the thought, though."
  394. > "Ah, well."
  395. "Yeah. Anyway, what d'ya need me to do?"
  396.  
  397. > "Start by checking our fuel levels and see what our flight time is - with cargo too. I'm going to start pulling together a flight plan."
  398. "On it."
  399. > Stumbling into the cockpit - rubbing sleepily at one ear with a wing - you climb up and lean in close to peer at the instruments through eyes still blurred by sleep.
  400. > Numbers churn through your head, but the thoughts seem to have the consistency of molasses.
  401. "Hey, you got any instant coffee back there?"
  402. > "Let's get this filed and see if we can even make it first, then get the caffeine kick if we need it."
  403. "If we crash 'cause I did the math wrong, I'm blaming you."
  404. > "If we run out of gas, I think you're going to be a little busy."
  405. "With what?"
  406. > "Flying away. You do have wings, right?"
  407. "Yes, of course-"
  408. > Snorting softly and rolling your eyes, you find a sheet of scrap paper and begin scratching out the calculations.
  409. > Anonymous is examining a weather map when you emerge from the cockpit.
  410. > "Well?"
  411. "Good news is, we can probably get up to Washington and pick up our cargo just fine. Bad news is, with that extra weight - I don't think we're going to make it out to the outpost and back without a refuel."
  412. > Taking your paper and peering at the scratchwork, he grunts noncommittally.
  413. > "We'll have to gas up there as we're getting loaded."
  414. "Rather not be carrying the extra weight the whole way. Got it."
  415. > "That, and avgas prices in Nevada are bullshit."
  416. > He cracks a tired smile, the kind of thing that tells you this is a topic that has spawned many a discussion - or argument - in the past.
  417. > "They're still bullshit up in Washington, but slightly less bullshit so we buy there. Besides, if I send a message ahead saying I need a truck they'll damn well have a truck waiting. It'll go faster."
  418. > By some miracle of fate everything goes smoothly, and you're soon pulling up off the runway with the sun not yet risen in the sky.
  419.  
  420. > The cockpit is illuminated only by the soft blue glow of dials and a single golden pool of light cast from one of the reading lights.
  421. > Climbing away into the star-lit sky you peer out the window one last time, watching the innumerable lights glittering under the star-lit sky.
  422. > Somewhere out there was a pony waiting for a letter - a pony you'd made a promise to deliver to.
  423. > "Spitfire."
  424. > Tearing your gaze back to settle on the instruments, you nod.
  425. "Sorry. Still thinking about that letter."
  426. > "I know it. You going to be okay?"
  427. "Yeah. Just need to focus."
  428. > "S'fine. Soon as we're at altitude, go back and get the hot plate warmed, make yourself some instant coffee. You know where the bag is?"
  429. "Sure. You don't need it?"
  430. > "Won't in a few minutes."
  431. > Curiosity as to what he'd meant by that plagues you while the water is warming.
  432. > The answer becomes abundantly clear once you return to the copilot's seat.
  433. > "Okay, take the wheel. Keep her steady and on-course, just like I've shown you."
  434. "Got it."
  435. > Steadying the wheel with the hoof-plates he'd installed, you're abundantly aware of his attention fully on you.
  436. > Feels like being a rookie 'bolt all over again.
  437. "Good?"
  438. > "Good. According to the flight plan, we're on a straight-away 'til we hit Portland airspace. I'm going to catch some quick shut-eye; kick me if anything happens."
  439. "WHAT?!"
  440. > "Can you hold a steady course?"
  441. "Yes, but-"
  442. > "Can you respond if ATC pings us on the radio?"
  443. "That's not the point."
  444. > Folding his arms across his chest, Anonymous sinks back into his seat and lets his eyes slide shut.
  445. > "I know you can, so that's a yes. I also know you know how to pull us out of a dive."
  446. "Isn't this, like, ridiculously illegal?"
  447. > "All kinds of illegal. Got to learn some time, though."
  448. "That doesn't make it any better."
  449. > "Are you going to let me sleep or not?"
  450. "I can just keep talking."
  451. > "I can go in the back."
  452. "You wouldn't dare leave me here. That's not risky, that's just stupid."
  453. > "Got me there."
  454.  
  455. > A light grin touches his lips.
  456. > "Seriously, though. I want to be a bit more rested when we do the actual landing at the outpost. There isn't going to be a second to sleep when we pick up our cargo, so it's now or never."
  457. > Seconds of silence pass between you.
  458. "...fine. But if we crash-"
  459. > "You're free to come back and pester me in the afterlife. Assuming ponies even go to the same place we do."
  460. > Huffing softly, you double down and grip the wheel even harder between your hooves.
  461. > It takes a few moments of introspective silence to place the twisting feeling in your stomach.
  462. > Nervousness.
  463. > Not, 'what kind of shit is life going to fling in your direction next' nervousness - you'd had plenty of that, enough to know what it felt like.
  464. > But a nervousness born of the weight of responsibility resting on your wings.
  465. > Ironically the wings you could not make any use of right now - having substituted them for another, metal pair.
  466. > Experimentally you give the wheel a nudge, and feel the airplane subtly shift under your orders.
  467. > It felt... strange.
  468. > Nothing like flying on your own two wings, but vastly more responsive than any cloud or airship you'd ridden on before.
  469. > Some sort of weird hybrid of the two, like a great lumbering foal just barely finding her wings and not quite ready enough to dip and dive between the updrafts and crosswinds as an adult would.
  470. > Returning to the proper altitude and settle the artificial horizon back on its level, you shift on the seat and settle in for what is rapidly beginning to appear to be an extraordinarily boring job.
  471. > Much like caring for a foal finding her wings, there wasn't much work to be done - simply guiding a straight, flat path with no sudden twists and turns.
  472. > ...though at least it didn't drool on you or anything like a foal would.
  473. > Or a human child.
  474. > Urgh.
  475. > Turning aside for a moment to glance over the instruments, your vision settles on Anonymous.
  476.  
  477.  
  478. > He was fully asleep now, arms tightly wrapped about his body against the chill seeping into the cockpit and head rolled back against the seat support.
  479. > A curse is uttered under your breath at him, but at the same time you a small smile touching your face.
  480. > Strange to feel that fondness, considering how you had considered killing him in his sleep once.
  481. > When Anonymous stirs at again at last, he takes a long slow look around the cockpit before nodding in approval.
  482. > The look on his face as he eyes you is one of smug 'I told you so' approval.
  483. > You flick your tail at him.
  484. "...don't say a word."
  485. > "I didn't say a thing."
  486. "Good. Because your face is saying plenty enough already."
  487. > Adopting a look of blank innocence, he puts a hand over his chest in mock honestly.
  488. > "Truly, you insult me. I am always absolutely open about everything I feel."
  489. "Claims like that work better if I haven't seen you lie your wi-"
  490. > Right, no wings.
  491. "-arms off. If you haven't ordered me to lie my wings off, for that matter."
  492. > Laughing, Anonymous stands from his chair.
  493. > "Let me get my blood flowing, and I'll take the controls back again - let you get some rest as well."
  494. --------
  495.  
  496. > The sun is long since up when you come in for landing, warming the cockpit to a more reasonable temperature and somewhat further adding to your alertness.
  497. > Taxiing about to the designated parking space, you are easily guided by the presence of another aircraft already waiting amid a group of large cars.
  498. "What is that?"
  499. > "Twin Otter. Flies a lot like we do - a little more cargo, more climb, a lot less range. Best guess, whatever this is it's too much for one and they want whatever this is moved right now."
  500. > You are climbing from the cockpit as soon as the brakes are set, Anonymous' voice drifting out after you from the cockpit:
  501. > "Go see what exactly they need to get aboard; I'm going to see about the fuel."
  502. "On it."
  503. > Anonymous' guess proves to be right.
  504.  
  505. > Finding the other captain isn't difficult; a curt, thin-haired man is busy ordering about others about the plane with a familiarity and practice that immediately makes you suspect military.
  506. > Former, judging by the lack of a uniform.
  507. > As soon as you had begun the process of getting the cargo loaded on board, you turned and went
  508. > His eyebrows shoot up as you approach, cheeks wrinkling as he frowns.
  509. > Betting on your theory, you pull yourself into a tight, attentive stance - hooves spaced evenly and head held rigidly upright.
  510. "Sir. Spitfire; I'm with the plane that just landed. I'm assuming you're also going to the research station?"
  511. > A spark of recognition flashes in his eyes - one former officer to another.
  512. > "Yes, I am. Glad to see you finally made it; word was you came all the way up from Nevada."
  513. > His reaction is a bit of relief for you.
  514. > No 'where's your master, pony', no snapping at your question, no comment on your shock collar.
  515. > Your gamble seemed to have paid off.
  516. "The 'word' was right. We've been flying since before dawn."
  517. > "I don't envy you."
  518. "I don't envy me either. What're you taking? What's left?"
  519. > "I've got a dozen passengers and whatever wasn't crated up so big it doesn't fit. They've figured it all out; we should have enough room between the two of us."
  520. "Understood. Cargo isn't an issue on our end; it's actually better."
  521. > "Oh?"
  522. "No seats installed."
  523. > Laughing, he nods.
  524. > "With an old bird like that, I'm not surprised. How long to load it up?"
  525. "Not long. The interior's fairly open, but I should go make sure. Any idea what this is about?"
  526. > "No fucking clue."
  527.  
  528. > Back aboard the plane, a team of at least two-dozen workers is busy heaving, sliding, and in one case levitating with pale-blue magic sizable crates aboard.
  529. > Slipping back in through the cockpit roof hatch, you carefully navigate down the increasingly-narrow interior.
  530. "Is this all balanced out already? With the weights, I mean?"
  531. > "Absolutely. We got placement figured out the moment it was certain you were coming."
  532. > The one who'd answered barely looks up in your direction, too busy with the crate he was shoving into place atop another.
  533. > A label stamped on one indicates that it belongs to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and carries a serial label, but nothing more.
  534. > "Spitfire?"
  535. > Anonymous' call drags your attention back to the issue of the moment.
  536. > Sticking your head outside, you peer down at him.
  537. > "How's it going up there - any trouble?"
  538. "No, no - all good. They're still getting the stuff in."
  539. > "Okay, tell me when it's done so I can check they're all secured."
  540. "Got it! Shouldn't be more than... another twenty."
  541. > In the end, it takes past forty minutes for them to get the cargo in and clear you for takeoff.
  542. > The other aircraft was long since gone, but soon after reaching altitude Anonymous is able to reach them on the radio.
  543. > As the flight goes on, however, you become increasingly aware of something new beginning to gnaw at the edge of your consciousness.
  544. > It's a pressure both unfamiliar and not, one that leaves your stomach fluttering and nostrils flared with heaving breaths.
  545. > "Hey Spits, you alright?"
  546. > Catching Anonymous' worried eye, you shrug.
  547. "Just - feeling a bit off."
  548. > "You need to go lay down, catch a little sleep, be my guest. I can take things for a bit."
  549. > Glancing back along the cabin, you eye the crates stacked nearly to the ceiling in the normal passage and look over to raise an eyebrow at him.
  550. > Taking your point, Anonymous grunts.
  551.  
  552. > "Well, if you have to puke, just don't puke on the instruments or anything."
  553. "No - it's not that. Something else isn't quite right."
  554. > "What - you smelling something bad?"
  555. "No; if I figure out what it is, I'll say."
  556. > Your wings are itching now too, feather-tips twitching as muscles ripple.
  557. > The urge to spread and beat them wildly is strong; like they were trying to pull you away from-
  558. > Shit.
  559. > Shitshitshit.
  560. > Your hoof slams down on the radio transmit switch hard enough to almost crack it.
  561. > What had the other aircraft's identifier been again?
  562. > You think you remember it...
  563. "N211ID, if you can hear this - be careful; you may hit some unexpected turbulence."
  564. > "N211ID, copy. Who is this?"
  565. > In your panic, you'd completely forgotten to identify yourself.
  566. > Mentally kicking yourself in the flank, you jab the switch again and reply:
  567. "This is N803AA; we're the ones going with you on this run. We spoke on the tarmac just as you were getting loaded up to take off?"
  568. > "Copy that. Be advised of unexpected turbulence, we hear you."
  569. > From the captain's seat Anonymous is giving you a look - not one of disbelief, but of concern.
  570. "It may get worse the closer you get to your destination."
  571. > "We copy. Trusting you on this one, N803."
  572. > "What's going on, Spitfire?"
  573. > Turning to Anonymous at last, you take a shuddering breath and explain:
  574. "Magic. The air's becoming thick with it - that's what's been getting to me. We used to feel it like this when we'd break up sudden storms coming out of the Everfree or frozen north."
  575. > Half of you expects him to laugh at your assertion - at best.
  576. > But Anonymous only nods curtly, his voice calm and professional.
  577. > "Why's it here?"
  578. "There used to be a portal here, right? Might - might be leaking through again."
  579. > "You have a sense of how bad it's going to be?"
  580. "No. This is wild magic - no pony whipped this up. It could be nothing, or..."
  581.  
  582. > "Or the reason we're flying out somewhere with a load full of boxes out to a portal site on short notice. Yeah, I get it. Should we turn back?"
  583. > That surprises you.
  584. "I-"
  585. > He was putting a question that important in your hooves?
  586. > Swallowing, you shake your head.
  587. "No. I'm a little bit rusty, but I should be able to feel anything dangerous before it hits us."
  588. > To your surprise, he splits into a wide grin.
  589. > "Good girl. I've taught you well - can't get anywhere without a little risk."
  590. "This is hardly a little."
  591. > "If you're confident enough to take it, it's little enough. There's risk every time we leave the ground."
  592. "Trust me, I know that."
  593. > "Are you going to need to be outside to do this?"
  594. > You shake your head.
  595. "Not enough lead-time. I can warn you if it gets real bad, but feeling the weather isn't much use without a team of pegasi to break it up."
  596. > And a lot more magic.
  597. > Anonymous doesn't seem particularly perturbed by what he is flying into, however.
  598. > The smile on his face is creeping ever-wider, actually enthralled by the prospect of plowing headfirst into unknown weather.
  599. "...I can't believe you're actually looking forward to this."
  600. > "What, and your heart isn't beating a little faster?"
  601. "My heart is beating a little faster because I'm nervous!"
  602. > Glancing over at you, Anonymous winks cheekily.
  603. > "Sure it is."
  604. "Shut it. I... can't focus."
  605. > Scowling, you hunker down into your seat as the first wave of turbulence plows into the plane and desperately try to ignore the smirk fighting its way onto your own lips.
  606. > Soon, however, you do not have to force yourself to be distracted.
  607. > As the hilltop the outpost resides on appears on the horizon, the turbulence only grows' stronger.
  608. > You were kept busy receiving radio updates on the changing wind patterns every few minutes from the outposts' own weather station and watching carefully for the tell-tale appearance of Equestrian flora around the one-time portal site.
  609.  
  610. > So, too, does Anonymous stop joking - his gaze turning steely and focused.
  611. > Yet there's an undeniable energy in the air, and not just from the magic.
  612. > Though his focus is strong, a confident smirk remains firmly planted on Anonymous' face.
  613. > The plane rumbles and groans against the wind, the engines' pitch varying as they catch gusts of air across them.
  614. > It's a different kind of noise from the creaking and popping of airships' hulls in Equestria, though - almost like the straining of a living thing as it forces its way against the storm.
  615. > And the analogy holds in other ways as well:
  616. > Seemingly trying to buck and weave through the winds, the plane wobbles and wallows all over the sky.
  617. > To your mild embarrassment, you find yourself once again feeling slightly off - this time, truly nauseated at the seemingly random motion.
  618. > With a bit of chagrin, you remember a similar experience the previous time you'd come here.
  619. > Anonymous, though, seems to have the situation under control; each groan or movement is met with a subtle adjustment of some control.
  620. > Despite how much he'd taught and trusted you, a certain feeling of helplessness descends on you.
  621. > This was so far out of your knowledge, so far removed from your actual flight skills...
  622. > Once more forced to distract yourself, you focus your eyes down on the packed-dirt row they call a runway.
  623. > A winged figure rises into the sky as Anonymous aligns the plane for the final approach.
  624. > Seems Giselle is being kept busy by whatever this is as well.
  625. > And then, distracted by your eyes following her up, you're suddenly jolted in your seat as the wheels touch down and drag deeply through the uneven, gravelly ground.
  626. > Teeth gritted knuckles white, Anonymous wrestles the plane down against the windy until it stops at last.
  627. > "Spitfire! Chocks, now!"
  628.  
  629. > You don't need to be told - scrambling from the cockpit and out a hatch despite your lurching stomach to set them against the wheels and keep the plane from going anywhere further.
  630. > Already others are running over to assist, the passengers on the first plane having already joined the original staff, and soon the airplane is tied down to several rings set into the earth as well.
  631. > Everyone acts with an urgent rush to their actions, moving to offload the plane with a remarkable haste and an even more remarkable lack of accidents.
  632. > Sidling up next to Anonymous as the last crates are run into a building on wheeled dollys, you peer upwards at distant clouds being driven by the erratic winds.
  633. "If I'd known the turbulence was going to be that bad..."
  634. > "You'd have said to turn back?"
  635. > The smirk is back to his face as Anonymous looks down at you, but your expression is far more sober.
  636. "Quite possibly. That was a lot worse than I was expecting."
  637. > "Oh, it wasn't a mistake in your judgement. It was the plane. This model - you blow on the wings and they'll act like it's practically a typhoon."
  638. > Your jaw drops, ire rising.
  639. "You knew it was going to be like that?!"
  640. > "Absolutely."
  641. "Oh, for - next time, tell me if you're having me make a choice like that!"
  642. > "Oh, come on - it wasn't that bad."
  643. > Your eyes roll sharply wings giving a single flap of frustration.
  644. "Yes, master."
  645. > The sarcasm in your tone is lost on Anonymous, who only laughs in response.
  646. > Reaching down, he tousles your mane despite your efforts to duck away.
  647. > "Aww, come on - you know I'd have said something if it was really dangerous. Hell, I know you would've told me if it was getting really that dangerous."
  648. "...yeah, I would have."
  649. > Ducking out at last, you reach out to lightly slap him across the thigh with one wing.
  650. "But if you're going to 'test' me like that, I might just try the same thing back."
  651.  
  652. > "Fair game. For now, though, head back inside and make sure nothing was left sitting around loose. I'm going in to see what they want us to do about getting out of here."
  653. "On it, sir."
  654. > A great deal had indeed been left loose as the crates were hurriedly pulled out - straps and fasteners strewn across the cabin floor.
  655. > You're halfway through packing them away again when your hackles rise, the familiar sense of being watched settling over you.
  656. "...you know, considering how we ended up fighting the last time you tried this, it's probably not a good idea to try it again."
  657. > Giselle issues a barking laugh, talons clicking on the flooring as she approaches you openly.
  658. > "Aww, and here I thought you'd mellowed out some - what with how you were joking with Anonymous out there before."
  659. "Oh, horsefeathers - you saw that?!"
  660. > "I couldn't miss it. You kind of stand out."
  661. > Groaning, your head collides with the thankfully-soft side of your mattress.
  662. > Being seen like that was bad enough; being seen by someone who'd no doubt never let you forget it...
  663. > "Awww, don't be upset. Everyone should try and find that special one in their life-"
  664. "Y'know, I don't care if the war's over. I'm about three seconds from kicking you."
  665. > There's no real bite to your words, though, and while Giselle stops speaking upon hearing your threat it's only to issue another small giggle at your predicament.
  666. > You jump a little when her claw settles gently on your shoulder.
  667. > "Hey, in all seriousness - I'm glad you worked things out with him."
  668. "I'm glad we did too. If it was only going to get worse the longer we held off..."
  669. > "That bad?"
  670. "Tried to beat each other silly. He won. My hoof was in a brace for a couple weeks after that."
  671. > Whistling softly through her open beak, Giselle shakes her head.
  672. > "You fixed things up by beating the stuffing out of each other?"
  673.  
  674. "Well, no. More it was the honest talk we had after that. Being too tired and hurting to really argue any more probably didn't hurt, though.
  675. > "But it is fixed up now?"
  676. "Clearer skies now, yeah. I was... trying to project all my anger about all of this onto him in particular."
  677. > Giselle nods, her beak half-open in the griffon equivalent to a smile.
  678. > "Was afraid the next time I'd be seeing you that fire inside of you would have burned you all out. If I ever did again."
  679. > You wince, remembering how close you'd come.
  680. "...he told me what happened to Eddie too."
  681. > Mirroring your gesture, Giselle flinches at that mention.
  682. > "Ah, yeah... he still beating himself up over that?"
  683. "Doesn't talk about it much, but I think so. Keeps talking about how we're all going to get it sooner or later - I think he pushes himself to do other stupid things because of it."
  684. > "Like flying in here in the middle of a windstorm and not telling his copilot how bad it's going to be?"
  685. "Exactly. Flying in to a wild magic storm, knowing it would be bad..."
  686. > "Tell me about it."
  687. > Rolling her eyes sharply but looking relieved at the change of topic, Giselle indicates her own vest which bears a dizzying array of sensors and antennas.
  688. > "I climbed up to about twelve-thousand to try and get a some data for them to figure this out."
  689. "Just how bad is it?"
  690. > "The good news is, worst of it dies off at around eight or nine thousand feet. Bad news is, it's a ride through Tartarus to get up there."
  691. > You grimace sharply, nodding in agreement.
  692. "We can get above that, but it's going to be like riding the Dizzytron the whole way."
  693. > "Oh?"
  694. "This plane handles like a chariot full of lead being pulled by a team of foals. A gust that would ruffle feathers sends it all over the sky."
  695. > "Then you'd best get out fast. Wild magic leak-through like this is going to get ugly before it gets better."
  696.  
  697. > So it is - the magic becoming ever more evident, leaving the tips of your feathers feeling like they were vibrating faintly.
  698. "Guess we won't get to have that race I promised."
  699. > Before a reply can be given, a new sound sends your ears swiveling:
  700. > Voices raised and sharp, angry words traded between them becoming discernible over the low hissing of the wind as they come nearer.
  701. > "...first, then my copilot can find you a safe path through the storm!"
  702. > "And wait for you to check over that thing, get it started up again, climb to altitude? Hell no - I'm getting out before this turns into a full-on typhoon."
  703. > "We're flying planes, damn it! Not fucking tanks - you can't just bludgeon through a wind like that without guidance!"
  704. > "Says the guy with the flying whale. You might not, but I can!"
  705. > "Flying wha- fuck off, I have twice the wing area you do!"
  706. > "That's exactly the problem!"
  707. > Across from you, Giselle snorts.
  708. > "Guess I'd better go see what they've got their feathers in a twist about now. I wish you could stick around longer than a few hours."
  709. "Yeah, well - I wish I was back home in Equestria, but if wishes were feathers..."
  710. > "...we'd all have an extra set of wings. Yeah, I know."
  711. "Clear skies, Giselle."
  712. > "Clear skies."
  713. > Moments after she retreats, boots thud against the deck - Anonymous has returned, and in a fine temper too.
  714. > "Spitfire, please tell me we're ready for takeoff. I need to hear something good."
  715. "Cockpit preps are it, then we can go."
  716. > "Good. That ex-mil asshole thinks he's got the better plane, so he's got the right to take off first. Unfortunately they agreed with him, but I want to be ready to go the second he's out off the ground."
  717. "On it."
  718. > Anonymous continues to talk even as you clamber into the cockpit and begin running down the instruments to be reset.
  719.  
  720. > "Giselle's going to be guiding him out from the station, but after that he's flying blind in this. If he doesn't want my help I'm not sticking around to find out what happens to him; can you still navigate?"
  721. "Absolutely."
  722. > "Good."
  723. > Roaring briefly interrupts you as the other aircraft runs - swerving and bouncing - down the runway 'til the end, a black and grey blob winging its way alongside.
  724. > Anonymous raises both middle fingers at the cockpit, while you extend a wing in salute at Giselle's passage.
  725. > It's doubtful either of them see the gestures, but after they pass you both look at each other and chuckle.
  726. > "Alright, Spitfire. Let's go."
  727. > Getting out onto the runway is easy - the wind proving to be only a minor annoyance.
  728. > The second you begin to pick up speed, however, the wind takes hold and refuses to let go.
  729. > Dust is being kicked up by it to blow in small clouds; you catch a few of the station staff huddled in a doorway, arms raised as you thunder past.
  730. > Leaving the ground induces a whole new round of powerful shudders to the aircraft.
  731. "Okay, we need to get up. Giselle said it clears up around nine-thousand."
  732. > "Easier said than done. You feeling anything over there?"
  733. "A little. It's more the magic than the wind now - going to be worst to our two o'clock; turn ten degrees south here."
  734. > "Ten south, gotcha."
  735. > Up ahead, a spot in the sky resolves itself into a winged shape; Giselle returns a wave with one clawed forelimb as she flies past.
  736. > You move to do the same, but before you can your vision is shot through with a magenta flash and you're left curled over in your seat, dryly heaving.
  737. > When your ears stop ringing you realize Anonymous is cursing thickly as well.
  738. > "...what was that?!"
  739. "Wait - you felt that too?"
  740. > "Yeah. What-"
  741. "Magic flash. Like a lightning strike in this storm. I don't know why-"
  742. > The second flash leaves lavender sparks crawling across the instruments; Anonymous jumps as one leaps to his thumb.
  743.  
  744. > A disturbing thought, a memory of briefings issued by terse ponies in their officers' dress, bubbles up.
  745. "Don't - they're harmless! We need to get out of here; if that much magic is coming through it might be-"
  746. > Once more your vision goes pink.
  747. > This time, it leaves you blind.
  748. > No.
  749. > Not blind.
  750. > That's just... snow, blowing against the cockpit windshield?
  751. > Snow, and-
  752. "Pitch up, now, now, now!"
  753. > Engines howl in protest as Anonymous hauls back on the wheel; you reach up to slam the throttle all the way open, playing it does not ruin the engines.
  754. > The rocky peak you'd barely spotted in time passes just beneath the belly.
  755. > No one speaks, both Anonymous and yourself boggling at the sudden change in weather.
  756. > More mountains become apparent as you look around, emerging briefly from the snow and clouds before vanishing back into ivory nothingness.
  757. > "Spitfire, I don't remember there being mountains like this a moment agp."
  758. > Anonymous' voice is shaky and uncertain.
  759. "Neither do I."
  760. > "What... just happened?"
  761. > Looking about through the windows, you swallow.
  762. "I think... I got my wish."
  763. > You take a shuddering breath and extend your wings to relish the feel of an atmosphere freely impregnated with magic - steady and omnipresent, rather than in a rushing tide.
  764. "I think this is Equestria."
  765.  
  766. > For several long moments nothing is said, the full weight of your statement sinking in.
  767. > Then another mountain peak appears looming in the windscreen, and everything snaps back into focus.
  768. > Your headset is tossed to the side as you struggle out of the seat.
  769. > "Where the hell you going?"
  770. "Outside!"
  771. > Practically screaming to be heard over the wind and engines, you point to the snow-whipped windshield.
  772. "I need to be out there - give you some guidance, maybe a little shelter."
  773. > "Shelter?!"
  774. > Pausing only briefly in the cabin to scoop your flight helmet and ensure the radio is on, you struggle back through the hatch and into the claustrophobic tail space.
  775. > Even as you kick the floor hatch open and are instantly met with a blast of snow-laden wind, however, the tiny space and even tinier hole you are squeezing yourself through barely figures in your thoughts.
  776. > You have a mission now, an objective - something to seize hold of and never stop racing towards.
  777. > With a fierce kick of your hindlegs you're free of the aircraft.
  778. > Wings snap out in an instant, and you find yourself suddenly caught on the icy drafts surrounding you.
  779. > Despite the frigid temperatures your jacket is barely able to ward off, there's a heat burning in your chest strong enough to keep out any chill.
  780. > The wind may have seized hold of you at first, but this is your domain.
  781. > No longer are you at the mercy of strange, chaotic weather.
  782. > Fighting back with strong wingbeats that send you knifing through the grasping gusts, you slice through the air.
  783. "Alright, Anonymous. I need you to try and get as slow as possible; I'm going to pull in ahead and below you."
  784. > "I'll do all I can, but with the way this wind is moving anything near stall speed is going to be pretty risky."
  785. "Just hold it for long enough for me to catch up."
  786. > You're passing beneath his wings now, pulling up in front of the cockpit.
  787.  
  788. > Another strong beat propels you ahead - clouds and snow parting in your trail, brushed aside by your natural pegasi magic and skill in the air.
  789. > No single pegasus could ever hope to clear a storm like this alone.
  790. > But you didn't need to clear it, only cut a safe passage through which Anonymous could fly behind you.
  791. "Feeling a little calmer back there, Sir?"
  792. > "Hell yeah. Won't even ask how you're doing that. What's your plan now?"
  793. > Despite his words, he sounds shaken - though whether at the experience or at the skill at storm-busting you were showing off isn't certain.
  794. "Guidance, sir. I can feel the wind out here as I break it up - feel where it's coming from, how it's hitting these peaks, where it's bouncing off of."
  795. > "And that helps us how?"
  796. "Mountains mean valleys, sir. Valleys mean rivers. You can land on a river, right?"
  797. > When Anonymous speaks next, there's a note of confidence in his voice.
  798. > "Copy that. Give me a landing path and I'll do what I can."
  799. > There's no good reason for him to sound that assured; even if you can find a valley, there's no guarantee it'll be smooth or straight enough for him to land in.
  800. > But a plan is a plan, and as you were well aware even just having a goal - a next step - can be enough to keep sane and avoid the crushing weight of reality.
  801. > That thought reinvigorates you with a new sense of determination.
  802. > Stretching your wings as wide as you can to catch the subtle bursts of air thrown up as the storm encounters the peaks it is rolling through, you shut your eyes and let instinct take over.
  803. "...okay. Turn two-five degrees to port and go into a slight descent, no more than a couple hundred feet per minute. Follow my tail if you can."
  804. > "You're the only red thing in the sky, Spitfire. I see you - two-five to port, slight dive."
  805. > Angling down, you find yourself swerving down a nearby valley with wings spread wide to take the subtle measurements of the wind's behavior.
  806.  
  807. "This isn't looking too bad here. If we hold this course, we might be able to find something."
  808. > "Better be sure about it; things are getting awfully bouncy in here. I don't know how long I can hold this low speed."
  809. > You don't reply to that, eyes narrowing and focusing down beneath you as you continue your shallow descent.
  810. > There had to be ground down there somewhere; you just had to-
  811. > Curses explode from your lips.
  812. "Bank right! Bank right hard!"
  813. > Beating your wings in powerful slow strokes you barely managed to kill your velocity before slamming into the suddenly rose up in front of you.
  814. > There was ground, alright - a steep-sided gorge that had unexpectedly made a sharp turn without warning.
  815. > You must've already been dipping into it without even seeing the sides...
  816. > Somewhere above Anonymous shoots past with the thunder of strained engines and vanishes into the snow-filled sky again.
  817. > "Spitfire! I lost you!"
  818. "I know, I know. Same -"
  819. > Your ears perk beneath the flight helmet, trying to locate the fading mechanical rumble.
  820. > Praying your instincts still hold, you bite down and take off after it.
  821. > "Wind's come back, Spitfire. Give me some ideas here or I'm going to have to pick up some airspeed again."
  822. > Of course it has - you weren't there to part it in front of him any more.
  823. "I'm working on it, I'm working on it!"
  824. > Where was he?
  825. > The snow was muffling everything, making it hard to figure out where the noise was coming from.
  826. > Beating your wings hard, you let out a snarl as your radio pops with Anonymous' voice again.
  827. > "I've got to climb. I can't hold this low velocity; I'm nearly getting spun when wind hits me crosswise."
  828. "Alright, Sir. Climbing myself too; how far do you want to go?"
  829. > "No idea. Maybe see if we can get above this mess, and- wait, no. I see you again; somehow you got in front of me."
  830. > What?
  831. > Peering over your shoulder, you spot the indistinct but unique outline of the plane approaching.
  832.  
  833. "See you too. There's a canyon close by; we can set down in it if I can get you in close enough."
  834. > "I'll give it another shot."
  835. > This time you dive far faster, having a far better idea of where the ground is.
  836. > You make sure to just keep the airplane in sight, but drop quickly enough that you're soon able to spot the walls of the canyon as well.
  837. > Even better, you can see the canyon walls leveling off - opening up to a wider field ahead.
  838. "Open ground, sir, dead ahead! It must open up onto a glacier or something!"
  839. > "Copy that. Let me circle around. Uh, how thick is that snow?"
  840. > Having verified that the ice field was long enough to land on - probably further; you hadn't spotted the far end yet - you kill your speed and splot hooves-first into the snowy terrain.
  841. > In an instant you find yourself nearly up to your belly in snow - having to hop and leap back out to beat your wings freely and regain flight.
  842. "At least a foot, maybe foot and a half."
  843. > "Gotcha. You'll have to lead me in; altimeter's all screwed up, I can't get a proper reading."
  844. > He's almost here now, the previously-indistinct shape firming up into the familiar lines of his aircraft.
  845. > Without a good judge of altitude, you're forced to try and compare the plane's own size to the space between it and the ground.
  846. "You're - you're low, maybe two, three hundred feet?"
  847. > Beating your wings again to pick up some speed, you manage to pull in ahead and again part the storm in front of him.
  848. > You breath comes short as you realize his gear hasn't dropped for landing.
  849. "Anonymous, the wheels are still up!"
  850. > "I know. I come in gear-down, snow's going to grab them and tear them right off. I'll have to have the wing pontoons down and skid it."
  851. > Swearing heavily under your breath, you refocus on the distance between the ground and the aircraft's vulnerable belly.
  852. "Less than a hundred. You're getting close!"
  853. "Less than twenty!"
  854. "Less than five - almost there!"
  855.  
  856. > You'd already long-since had to flee your nose-tip position, driven out by the enormous clouds of swirling powder driven up by the plane's passage.
  857. > Thus, you don't see him actually touch down.
  858. > You do hear it, though - a sort of rumbling crunch that at first leaves you fearing the plane had crumpled entirely.
  859. > But no, it had only been the snow being crushed as he skidded along.
  860. > Engines finally sputtered into silence, leaving only the continuous crunching of snow beneath the plane's keel to be heard.
  861. > And then even that ends as it comes to a halt, leaning slightly on one wingtip pontoon.
  862. > In the newfound absence of the landing's clamor, the barely-audible patter of snow settling back down is the only thing left to be heard.
  863. > Winging your way to the plane's side you're about to try the tail hatch when another is hurled open, Anonymous' head sticking out out into the powder-laden air.
  864. > "Spitfire!"
  865. "Right here, sir."
  866. > He breaks into a wide smile at your appearance.
  867. > "Fucking good job right there, Spitfire."
  868. > You can't help but puff out your chest and fluff up your wings a bit.
  869. "Told you I was good, sir."
  870. > "Then get back in here and out of the cold. And since when are you calling me sir again?"
  871. > Had you been?
  872. > Grunting softly, you climb back in through the hatch and down into the cabin again.
  873. "Don't expect me to keep it up."
  874. > "Wasn't."
  875. "So, what now then?"
  876. > To that, Anonymous doesn't give an answer.
  877. > Instead, he stumbles back towards the tail of the aircraft, seating himself on the edge one of the two bubble-canopy hatches and staring out at the swirling snow.
  878. > With the plane now still, flakes have begun to touch down on the reinforced glass and run down it in half-melted clusters.
  879. > Others are sticking entirely, forming the first of small clumps.
  880. > You take a seat opposite Anonymous, putting up a hoof on the glass and feeling the cold against your frog.
  881. "Anonymous?"
  882. > "...I don't know."
  883.  
  884. > His voice is soft, uncertain - the first time you've heard him like that.
  885. > "I'm not going to smash into the ground now, but if this snow keeps up for that long at all it'll build up on the wings. That can be wiped off, though."
  886. > Ticking off his fingers, he starts to run down a checklist:
  887. > "The real problem will be if it builds up on the ground. Plane's on its belly, so pulling out won't be easy to begin with - if the snow gets deep enough, it won't be happening at all."
  888. > A pit forms in your stomach; you hadn't thought of that.
  889. > Pegasi could always pull themselves out of snow as long as it was beneath their muzzle - and sometimes even past that.
  890. "Can we dig it?"
  891. > "Maybe. Even if I can, too long down here and the fuel will thicken up too. I might not be able to restart the engines. And even if I do get off the ground - if you're right, I'm on another world with no way to navigate."
  892. > Leaning back against the curve of the glass, Anonymous puts a hand out on the window as well.
  893. > "Not saying it wasn't a smart idea to get out of the air, but I might've just traded a fast, fiery death for a slow, freezing one."
  894. > Your heart falls.
  895. > Death by ice was nothing a pegasus ever wanted...
  896. > But-
  897. "One, none of that is sure yet. Two, why do you keep saying 'I'?"
  898. > Anonymous glances over, a confused look on his face.
  899. > "Well, you're not dumb enough to stick around and freeze."
  900. "Actually..."
  901. > Now he only looks more bewildered.
  902. > "This is what you wanted, right? Your wish - go back home, go do whatever. Be free."
  903. "Not at the cost of your life!"
  904. > "Why? I mean - hell, I don't have a hold on you anymore. Not by law and not by force: We're not exactly in the US of A anymore - hell, we're not even in one of the Equestrian Special Governance Zones - and I don't even know where I put the control for your collar."
  905. "Even so. I'm not running off on you."
  906.  
  907.  
  908. > "You'll freeze down here. If I have to walk, you'll be holding yourself back to my pace. You fly now, before the cold works its way in, you might be able to-"
  909. "Anonymous? With all due respect: Shut up."
  910. > He does.
  911. > Promptly.
  912. "I'm not flying away, because I'm not going to leave the only person who's treated me remotely like a pony to die alone on some Celestia-forsaken ice sheet."
  913. > "That's retarded."
  914. "That's right."
  915. > "Where the hell did a slave start caring so much about the morality of it all?"
  916. > You crack a slight grin, spreading your wings a bit and using one joint to nudge your collar.
  917. "Since I got reminded that just because I'm wearing this, doesn't mean I have to only think of myself that way. I'm your co-pilot, and that counts for something t-"
  918. > You're broken off by a surprising grip around your middle.
  919. > He's... hugging you?
  920. > Cautiously lifting a leg to press against his side, you return the gesture.
  921. > "Thank you. I guess I always expected you to fly off some day, when you found whatever it is you were looking for."
  922. "Won't lie, that thought's been around. But there's no way this is it. Not now."
  923. > "Thank you, you crazy, stupid horse."
  924.  
  925. > The first order of things is taking stock.
  926. > Not merely because it keeps you busy and your mind off the snowstorm raging outside.
  927. > One good thing about the weather:
  928. > The more you studied the storm, the more you were convinced it was mostly wind whipping around existing snow, not dropping more.
  929. > In the meantime, however, luggage was dragged out and lockers emptied as everything was listed down.
  930. > It was good work for bringing up a sweat, but even so as nightfall comes on you find it neccessary to flip on the cabin heaters.
  931. > Soon even they are struggling to ward off the encroaching chill, and the small auxiliary engine in the engineering space fills the cabin with its clatter as it tries to keep the batteries topped up.
  932. > Climbing back out of the cockpit, Anonymous grunts softly as you reenter the sleeping space.
  933. > "What's the word?"
  934. "You want the good news or bad first?"
  935. > "Start me off gently."
  936. "Good news is, topping off our tanks before we dropped off the cargo and just carrying ourselves now has given us plenty of fuel to work with. I'd say near 2,000 miles of flight range still in our tanks. More, if we get favorable winds."
  937. > "That's damn good news. We ought to be able to get somewhere on that."
  938. "Right. Bad news is, what we don't have is food."
  939. > "Fuck. Fuel for the plane, no fuel for us."
  940. "Yep. A week's worth of breakfasts, a few of packaged meals - but between the two of us eating three meals a day, that's no more than a few days' eating."
  941. > "Foraging?"
  942. "If we can get off this ice, I can. Might even be able to for you."
  943. > "But that's all dependent on getting off the ice."
  944. > Anonymous leans back on an elbow, groaning and rubbing his head.
  945. > "Time to ration, I guess."
  946. "Nothing I didn't live through once, back when everything was falling to bits."
  947. > "Well, I can't have you showing me up, can I? Guess I'll just have to follow your lead."
  948.  
  949. > Motioning to the various bits of cloth strewn about the cabin, he goes on:
  950. > "Good news on my end is, there's enough here that I can probably layer up and avoid freezing."
  951. "...aaand the bad news?"
  952. > "Bad news is, blankets are in short supply. We're going to be sleeping chilly."
  953. > And chilly it is.
  954. > Forced to shut off the auxiliary engine if sleep was to be had at all, there's little to ward off the outside weather.
  955. > Even with the advantage of your coat and feathers to trap warmth around you, cold still creeps in.
  956. > You can only imagine how miserable Anonymous must be.
  957. > The next day, however, brings with it welcome news.
  958. > Somewhere around midday you glance out one of the windows - and then do a double check.
  959. "Snow's stopped!"
  960. > Jamming your head out a hatch and into the crisp air beyond, you let out a small whoop and drum your hooves excitedly.
  961. "Alright! We've got a shot at this now!"
  962. > "About damn time."
  963. > Following you out onto the ice, Anonymous stomps his feet - finding, as you'd predicted, that the snow was shallower than if it had been falling constantly.
  964. > "Okay, since this isn't to deep, we just need to clear it out enough to get some speed up, and then we'll plow through anything ahead."
  965. "Shouldn't be too hard. This is all light powder; I can work up a wind that'll carry a good bit of it away."
  966. > "Get on it. I'll dig out around the hull itself."
  967. > It's late afternoon before you manage to retire back to the cabin to rest.
  968. > Both Anonymous and yourself are soaked by (and reek of) sweat; the opportunity to rest and dry out in a reasonable environment is a welcome one.
  969. > As evening rolls in, the clouds still linger overhead.
  970. > That forces you to climb past them to get the view that you need, although breaking through the top of the cloud layer to the star-lit sky beyond leaves you momentarily stunned by the sight.
  971. > Soon enough, however, you refocus yourself and keep your head upright - focusing on the stars that you need to spot.
  972.  
  973. > There are plenty of stars out tonight; far from any cities and with Luna's moon not yet risen, the sky was almost overcrowded with them.
  974. > It's a comforting sight, a familiar and welcoming nightscape rather than the alien sky you'd been trapped beneath for so long.
  975. > The view wasn't why you'd come up here, though.
  976. > Pulling the jury-rigged plumb bob from your jacket's pocket, you begin taking the measurements you need.
  977. > Anonymous looks up as you return from the meager pot of dinner he was warming.
  978. > "You get what you need?"
  979. "Absolutely. You have a blank sheet of paper?"
  980. > "Yeah, hold on."
  981. > Settling on your haunches on the navigational table, you grab the pen in your teeth and begin to draw.
  982. > Your words are slurred by the obstruction, but still intelligible.
  983. "Alright. I can't pinpoint our location without a clock synchronized to Equestrian time, but making a few guesses..."
  984. [A/N: For reference, the expanded map of Equestria makes a good reference for where Spitfire is talking about.]
  985. > A coastline begins to take shape - curving, arcing around an open, empty space.
  986. > Your hoof, however, drops firmly in an area studded in the jagged peaks of mountains near the far upper-right of the drawing.
  987. "...we're roughly here, dead-north of the Griffon territories and north-East of Trottingham. More East than North of Equestria proper."
  988. > "So, middle of fucking nowhere. About what we expected."
  989. "Yeah. Now, that's close to - but not really at - the limit of our fuel endurance."
  990. > "And within our food supplies too... if we can get off the ground."
  991. > Putting aside that big 'if', you continue adding to the map:
  992. "We have two options. One is to head south-west, across the water. That'll take us straight towards the Special Governance Zones, and a working portal."
  993. > "That's a long way to fly over open water with only two crew."
  994.  
  995. "Tell me about it; you know how much I hate open water. If we stick to the coastlines, though, we can probably find a good area to set down midway too."
  996. > "Noted. Downsides?"
  997. "The length of the trip will stretch our supplies. And those periphery areas we'll be flying over - they're not governed too well, since Equestria fell apart."
  998. > "Okay. Plan B?"
  999. > You spit the pen out and use a hoof to point to triangular, three-legged tower you'd drawn on the map.
  1000. "Option two: Head due West, past Rainbow Falls, and make for the Crystal Empire. It's well-ruled and safe. We can set down there, request assistance or transport back to a known portal site."
  1001. > "It's not part of the Governance Zones, though."
  1002. "No. Princess Cadance still reigns from there, and I'd have heard about any chances."
  1003. > "Then I doubt she's going to you showing up at my side with a collar on. Slaveholders ain't exactly popular around here."
  1004. "I'm still a hero here... in most places, anyway. I can argue in your favor."
  1005. > "Daww."
  1006. > Anonymous reaches out and tousles your mane, a cheeky grin on his face.
  1007. > "My little hero."
  1008. "Go bite a thundercloud."
  1009. > You duck away, batting at him with one wing - but there's a grin on your face.
  1010. > "Alright, so our choices are risk a chancier area, or go with a law that isn't really fond of me."
  1011. > Rubbing his chin, Anonymous leans in and studies the map.
  1012. > After a moment, he points at a small island near the center of the Celestial sea.
  1013. > "What's this?"
  1014. > You grimace.
  1015. "Trottingham - the Griffish Isle. We don't want to go there."
  1016. > "Why?"
  1017. "It was always an old unicorn-majority city - they took the island from the griffons way back before the unification - but when the sickness came and everything fell apart they sealed themselves off entirely. Of course, then the griffons showed up looking to settle scores..."
  1018. > You grimace.
  1019.  
  1020. "The bottom half is ruled by beakies now, I think. I don't know about the north, maybe Trottingham is still holding out. Neither of us are likely to be welcome there though, in either half."
  1021. > "I get why I wouldn't be popular with the ponies, but why not you?"
  1022. "Not ponies - unicorns. The sickness and everything that came after... brought out a lot of the old tribal tensions in some places."
  1023. > "...ah."
  1024. > After a moment, Anonymous reaches out and puts a hand on your withers.
  1025. > You relax, not having realized you'd even assumed the tight, defensive stance.
  1026. "Sorry. Just... bad memories. It was rough watching everything go to bits, you know?"
  1027. > "Honestly, no, I don't - but I can imagine."
  1028. > Giving a light squeeze, he lets you go and looks back to the map.
  1029. > "Right, then. I'm not inclined to bet on the good will of a monarch whose world we had a hand in taking apart. I think we'll take the straight-away, head for the coastline."
  1030. "Baltimare or Fillydelphia will be our best bets."
  1031. > You tap the two spots on the map, and Anonymous nods.
  1032. > "Well, the close the better. We'll take off pretty close after morning tomorrow."
  1033. "Give us time to fly?"
  1034. > "Give us time to prepare for the walk, if we can't take off."
  1035. > The smile fades from your face slightly.
  1036. "...come on, Anonymous. You can't be so pessimistic about this. Hell, I lived through weeks in a box not tall enough to stand in."
  1037. > "Eh..."
  1038. > He leans back in his seat, rubbing his forehead.
  1039. > "Don't get me wrong - I'm not giving up or anything, not until we're actually crashing. But, I've always known my time would come eventually."
  1040. "Those two statements are kind of contradictory."
  1041. > Cracking a grin, Anonymous laughs sharply.
  1042. > "Maybe. But don't you worry, I'm still going to take a shot at it."
  1043. "You better not."
  1044. > Climbing into the engineering space with a couple beats of your wings, you go to start the auxiliary power supply's engine.
  1045. > "You think we're going to have enough fuel for that?"
  1046.  
  1047. "I don't know - like I said, I don't know exactly where we are. But more fuel won't help if we've both got frostbite come morning."
  1048. > "Mmm, fair. But keep the heaters turned down."
  1049. "Got it. We'd better get the wings swept off before we go to bed - should've done that before the sun went down, but better now than tomorrow when it's been chilled overnight again."
  1050. > Even outside, the noise of the auxiliary engine is clearly audible, hammering away into the night.
  1051. > Your breath steams hard into the icy, dry air, and Anonymous' does as well until he wraps his face up to trap the heat inside.
  1052. > Soon enough, however, it is time to cut off - both your own efforts, as ache is setting in, and shutting off the engine for the night.
  1053. > It clatters to a halt, leaving the almost eerie silence to settle over everything again.
  1054. > Blankets - and jackets, and any other spare bits of cloth - are mounded up on the beds to hoard what warmth remains.
  1055. > You somehow manage to struggle in beneath them and soon find yourself drifting off, exhaustion from the day's effort working in fiendish alliance with the welcoming warmth to drag you in to sleep.
  1056. > ...
  1057. > You jump, slamming into wakefulness as adrenaline floods your body.
  1058. > Ears flick and twitch, coat standing on end as your heart thuds in your chest.
  1059. > A dream?
  1060. > No, you'd remember a dream that could wake you like that.
  1061. > You'd heard something.
  1062. > Or smelled it, though you still suspected that oil and smoke had permanently dulled that sense.
  1063. > But wha-
  1064. > There!
  1065. > A scratching, scuttling noise near the tail.
  1066. > Somepony - something - was trying to let itself in.
  1067. > Slipping from the bed silently isn't easy, especially with your nerves on a hair trigger and the frigid air setting you shivering the moment it hits your body.
  1068. > You manage anyhow, reaching out to poke at the lumpen, snoring mass that is Anonymous.
  1069. "Wake up!"
  1070. > Your voice is a sharp-edged hiss.
  1071. "Anonymous - wake up, quietly!"
  1072.  
  1073. > You're about to try and kick him when a ray of light from a window reflects off his eye.
  1074. > His open eye, alert and focused on you.
  1075. > It glances towards the tail, then back again.
  1076. > "My gun is back there."
  1077. "You have a gun?!"
  1078. > "Survival rifle."
  1079. > Well, you can see why he wouldn't have told you about that initially... but you're really going to have to have a talk about that at some point.
  1080. "Okay, look. I can get outside through a cockpit hatch - it's far enough away I can do it quietly. Can you take them inside?"
  1081. > Anonymous considers for a moment, the nods.
  1082. > "You better fly away if they turn out to be a problem."
  1083. "That's why I'm taking outside. You can use your weight better in here anyhow."
  1084. > The hatch hinges are, mercifully, silent even in the frigid temperatures.
  1085. > Leaping out on silent wings, you glide around to avoid hooves crunching on still-fresh snow.
  1086. > Just as expected, there's a dark mass wriggling underneath the tail hatch - something too large to easily fit through the narrow confines of the portal easily.
  1087. > Unfortunately, with clouds obscuring the moon there's little chance of getting a better view.
  1088. > A muted thunk from somewhere inside it your cue that Anonymous has rolled out of bed, shortly followed by the thudding of his feet on the metal cabin floor.
  1089. > Whatever it is falls out with a surprised squawk, spreading its own wings and backpedalling furiously in an attempt to take off.
  1090. > Your full-body collision with it puts a rapid end to that; tumbling through the snow, you suddenly find yourself staring into a very surprised golden eye surrounded by dark-grey feathers.
  1091. "Giselle?!"
  1092. > "Spitfire, we really have to stop meeting like this."
  1093.  
  1094. "...you need to stop sneaking up on us!"
  1095. > "Okay, I'll give you that. Can you get your hooves off my windpipe, though?"
  1096. > Oh.
  1097. > Had you been-
  1098. > Yes, you had.
  1099. > At least your old military training was still there.
  1100. > Backing up off the griffon's chest, you offer a hoof to help her upright.
  1101. "Sorry about that. Really did think you were something worse. Why were you trying to sneak in there, anyway?"
  1102. > "It was the only hatch that wasn't locked from the inside. Figured I'd focus on not freezing tonight, then knock in the morning."
  1103. > ...had you forgotten to lock it again after that landing?
  1104. > Yes, you probably had.
  1105. > Stupid, stupid!
  1106. "Well, next time just knock on a window or something. I swear, I don't sleep that hea-"
  1107. > "Hey, Spitfire! You okay out there?"
  1108. > Anonymous!
  1109. > You'd forgotten he was still coming out.
  1110. > Suddenly you're quite aware of how icily cold it is as well.
  1111. "Yeah, it's okay! It's just Giselle - she must've gotten yanked through with us."
  1112. > "Giselle - ah, fuck. Okay, let me get a real hatch open."
  1113. "Alright - so, Giselle, how'd you find us anyhow?"
  1114. > "The noise of your engine."
  1115. > Trotting alongside you, Giselle's beak again cracks open in the equivalent of a grin.
  1116. > "You wouldn't believe how that noise carries, without anything else to down it out."
  1117. "No, I believe it."
  1118. > Ahead, one of the bubble-canopies is hurled open and Anonymous emerges - a long gun clutched in one hand.
  1119. > You extend a wing to wave at him, showing you're clearly safe, as does Giselle."
  1120. > "God damn, Spitfire. You had me scared out there when you went all quiet."
  1121. > Anonymous retreats back inside as you leap up and through the hatch, Giselle following close behind you.
  1122. "Sorry. Was a bit... surprised."
  1123. > "Well-"
  1124. > He slams the hatch shut and turns to stare at the two of you, rubbing his arms for warmth.
  1125. > "-well. Won't say I'm not surprised either. What the hell happened to you, Giselle?"
  1126.  
  1127. > "Same thing that happened to you, I'm guessing. Portal hiccuped open for a moment, we were both in the air - both pretty close to each other, even."
  1128. > "What're the odds of the rest of the camp coming through? Or the other plane?"
  1129. > "By my guess? Not likely. We were a lot closer to each other than anything else."
  1130. "So you ended up in that blizzard too?"
  1131. > "Yeah. Dived for the ground, buried myself down in the snow and waited for it to pass. Griffons have lived in the mountains for years; we know how to survive in this."
  1132. > "For a while, at least."
  1133. > Anonymous sits down in his bed, still curled up around himself for warmth, while you look back to Giselle.
  1134. "I'm surprised you were able to find us, though."
  1135. > "You were running your engines a bit earlier, yeah? That noise carries like you wouldn't believe out here."
  1136. > A sharp bark of laughter escapes you.
  1137. > Thank Celestia you'd argued for running the auxiliary power supply before going to bed - that had probably saved Giselle's life.
  1138. > "Yeah, so even after it went away I was close enough I could follow you by flying a search pattern. Not going to lie, though - I was pretty close to giving up and letting the wind take me."
  1139. "Good that you didn't."
  1140. > "Agreed. Though, this does pose a bit of a problem for us."
  1141. > Both of you look to Anonymous questioningly, and he sighs.
  1142. > "But we can talk about that in the morning. For now - Spitfire, check her for frostbite or anything."
  1143. "Got it. Giselle?"
  1144. > "Sure."
  1145. > She rears up to let you examine her limbs as Anonymous checks the hatches - all of them.
  1146. > Switching on an overhead light, you work from leg to leg and wing to wing; fortunately, her natural hardiness in high, cold mountain air seems to have kept the griffoness safe.
  1147. > Even the bare skin on her forelegs just above the wickedly-curved talons is healthy, if a bit paler than its normal dark-grey.
  1148. "She's fine, now that she'll be able to warm up a bit."
  1149. > "Good."
  1150.  
  1151. > Returning, Anonymous glances longingly to his bed before sighing.
  1152. > "Split the covers then take my bed, Giselle. I'll take one of the cockpit seats."
  1153. "No way. You need your rest too if we're going to be trying to take off in the morning."
  1154. > "S'fine, Anonymous."
  1155. > Giselle raises one foreclaw, shaking her head.
  1156. > "Just give me some covers and I'll take a seat too. We're used to nesting in strange spots; I'll sleep alright in a seat too."
  1157. > "You sure? Seats aren't exactly built for you, and you just nearly froze your ass off finding us..."
  1158. > "Yeah, I'll be fine."
  1159. > Once Giselle is up in the cockpit - and well out of earshot, hopefully - you glance back to Anonymous.
  1160. "...sooo."
  1161. > "So?"
  1162. "You have a gun?"
  1163. > Groaning, Anonymous pulls himself back beneath the covers.
  1164. > "Yeah. Sorry I didn't tell you about it until now."
  1165. "I thought you said you weren't in the business of fighting, way back when you first bought me."
  1166. > "I'm not. It's a survival gun, for emergencies. Hell, the only reason I'm allowed to carry it in the airplane on regular jobs is because it's in a locked emergency survival kit."
  1167. > Well.
  1168. > That does make you feel somewhat better.
  1169. > Sighing softly, you and slip beneath the covers yourself.
  1170. "I understand that, I guess."
  1171. > "Besides, I kind of always figured if I did go down, I wouldn't have a chance to use it anyhow."
  1172.  
  1173. --------
  1174.  
  1175. > "Okay, both engines are showing normal temperatures. Bringing the throttle up, start trying to lift at fifty."
  1176. "Copy."
  1177. > The following morning had hit with a frenetic burst of activity - a renewed need to do try something, anything to get back into the air.
  1178. > Fortunately the engines had, with some coaxing, burst back into life.
  1179. > It'd taken running the auxiliary for a while first to try and kick them into life, but now their thunder again echoed off the ice sheet.
  1180. > Cloud cover had given way to clear skies, turning the entire glacier into a blinding mirror.
  1181.  
  1182. > Certainly not the safest place to take off from - the risk of being blinded or losing sense of depth was very real.
  1183. > But if there was one thing everyone griffon, human, and pony agreed on, it was that not a second more could be spent here if anything could be done about it.
  1184. > Thus, you now found yourself at the tip of one wing, crouched around the columns supporting one of the pontoons.
  1185. > With the aircraft rolled slightly to one side, its weight had dug steadily into the snow beneath the lower pontoon.
  1186. > Now you were forced to rectify this.
  1187. > "Spitfire, lift, now!"
  1188. "Giselle, lift!"
  1189. > Grunting heavily, the two of you heave together - your back set into the hollow cut-out between the pontoon's supports, Giselle's claws wrapped around the spars anchoring it to the wing.
  1190. > You can feel the snow compacting beneath your hooves, but you don't really have to lift the weight entirely - just coax the plane's weight to return to its actual center.
  1191. > Or failing that, at least rise enough to skid alone the ice on that pontoon.
  1192. > Hot breath erupts from your nostrils as you heave up again, and this time are rewarded by the crunching of snow as the entire thing shifts.
  1193. "I think we've got this! Keep going!"
  1194. > "Putting the throttle all the way up!"
  1195. > That's your warning sign; too long at full throttle without airflow the engines would overheat themselves.
  1196. > Which means you need to heave-
  1197. "Now!"
  1198. > Again you buck your back up, pressing against the frigid metal.
  1199. > This time the crunch is far louder and sustained - the pontoon's base beginning to drag along the ice.
  1200. > "I feel that! Good job, Spitfire!"
  1201. > Relief erupts through you at Anonymous voice, but you don't need to be told:
  1202. > Already the plane is starting to pick up speed, skating across the ice like an oversized metallic penguin.
  1203. > You leap clear of the pontoon and take to the air before it can get too fast; Giselle is right behind you, already in the air.
  1204.  
  1205. > The plane is still picking up speed, allowing you to gain on it quickly and pull yourself through a hatch left open specifically for you.
  1206. > While Giselle seals that hatch, you take your place in the copilot's seat.
  1207. > Your owner barely looks up as you arrive, too focused on his instruments and controls.
  1208. > Even with the pontoon freed, skating across the ice is a bumpy, hideous task that leave the entire interior rattling deafeningly.
  1209. > Jamming the headset down over your ears, alleviates it some, but even so it's a relief when Anonymous hauls back on the stick and brings you to the air at last.
  1210. > "And we are off!"
  1211. > You don't even have words, instead letting out a joyfull whoop.
  1212. > "I take it we're going at last?"
  1213. "Absolutely."
  1214. > "Damn straight. Where're we going?"
  1215. > ...oh, yeah.
  1216. > You had forgotten to mention that, hadn't you?
  1217. "Anonymous is taking us south-west, along the edge of the Celestial Sea. We're heading back in towards the Governed Zones."
  1218. > Giselle's expression is inscrutable - beaks make judging that kind of thing hard enough, but she is deliberately keeping her thoughts hidden.
  1219. > "Heading straight back home, huh?"
  1220. > "Have to. It's going to hit my finances bad enough just paying for the fuel for this - let alone the inspections and paperwork."
  1221. > Cracking a small grin, Anonymous shakes his head.
  1222. > "Insurance doesn't cover acts of portal, unfortunately."
  1223. "Taking it in about eight-hour leaps, we should be able to reach governed territory in a day or two."
  1224. > She nods in response to your comment, but retreats wordlessly from the cockpit.
  1225. > Something else is unsaid there you're certain, and at the first moment free you slip from the cockpit.
  1226. > Giselle isn't hard to find, curled up near one of the bubble hatches in the tail.
  1227. "Hey."
  1228. > The jump your voice produces in her tells you that you'd snuck up on her... and that alone is even more telling.
  1229. > "Hey, Spitfire."
  1230. "You're worried about something."
  1231.  
  1232. > Nodding in understanding that your statement had not been a question, Giselle sighs before turning back to the window.
  1233. > "I'm... not keen to be heading back to one of the Governance Zones."
  1234. "Anonymous will speak for us. I don't think it'll be a problem."
  1235. > "Maybe not for you, but he's your actual owner. I don't think they're going to be as kind to a slave who's gone missing."
  1236. > A frown touches your lips.
  1237. > That was true.
  1238. > Anything that could reverse what little hard-won autonomy those areas had won from their overseeing authorities - those that had stepped in when Equestria shattered in the face of sickness and war - was sharply cracked down on.
  1239. > Things like, for instance, being seen as remotely tolerant of runaway slaves.
  1240. > Equestria had only just begun to get on its hooves again, the theory went.
  1241. > Nothing that could risk undoing that progress would be allowed.
  1242. "He'll figure something out. Call ahead, confirm what happened, get your owners to-"
  1243. > "Easy to say, harder to be sure of. Besides, being a griffon isn't going to do me any favors in one of the Equestrian Governance Zones either."
  1244. > That was unfortunately true.
  1245. > Even so...
  1246. > You cock and eyebrow.
  1247. "Wasn't it you who told me to be more trusting of Anonymous?"
  1248. > Giselle grins, one golden eye finally turning to meet you own.
  1249. > "I told you to be more open with him. And I'm being open with you now: I'm really not certain about going back there."
  1250. "Well, when I was trapped in the cages and sale-houses, I survived by taking things one day at a time, one goal at a time. Set yourself a reasonable goal, instead of fearing everything that's waiting."
  1251. > You extend a wing to touch her shoulder, and Giselle hunches nervously; after a moment she relaxes, nodding.
  1252. > "Flap your wings and jump before you think about flying."
  1253. "Exactly. So let's get across this ocean and safe before we start panicking at what comes after."
  1254.  
  1255. --------
  1256.  
  1257. > Sticking to the coast at least alleviates the nervousness that being over open water would bring with it.
  1258. > Unfortunately, it brings on an entirely new problem:
  1259. > It makes you abundantly aware of just how massive the trip you are undertaking is.
  1260. > Miles and miles of coastline drifted on by, a seemingly endless parade of icy cliffs and frigid beaches.
  1261. > Already it'd been well over six hours in flight, and there was barely a hint of warming temperatures - the cold still keeping a firm grip on the land beneath and the plane above.
  1262. > Between yourself and Anonymous turns were being taken actually handling the controls, making sure neither of you got too tired early on.
  1263. > Though it's not entirely fair.
  1264. > More often than not you're forced to stay and help with navigating as best you can - picking out what few landmarks you think you can.
  1265. > The narrow passage at the north of the Celestial Sea had been passed by some time ago, and the first peaks of the mountains north of Manehattan were now appearing at the edge of the horizon.
  1266. > Giselle had tried to busy herself as best she could - bringing coffee up to the cockpit and once offering to take over in your spot for a while to allow you to stretch your wings.
  1267. > A nice thought, but unfortunately not something that could be.
  1268. > You understood why, though.
  1269. > Nervousness radiated off the griffon so thickly you were surprised she hadn't started molting.
  1270. > Despite your earlier reassurance, it was obvious her mind was anything but settled and Giselle desperately needed some way to keep herself distracted.
  1271. > A moment of inspiration had you put her to work improving the crude map that you'd created earlier.
  1272. > While you hadn't had the time (or the need) to alter it then, now it wasn't entirely ridiculous to claim the need for a decently accurate map.
  1273.  
  1274. > Of course Giselle probably knew even less of the Equestrian eastern coast than you remembered - but it was something for her to focus on, for a while at least.
  1275. > As you fly on, however, a different kind of nervoousness begins to build up in you - familiar, tingling sensation that warns...
  1276. "Horsefeathers."
  1277. > "What?"
  1278. "I need to open one of the roof hatches a bit, stick my head out."
  1279. > Across from you, Anonymous gives you a confused look but nods a go-ahead.
  1280. "Giselle! Come on up here a moment."
  1281. > The griffoness appears as you are wrenching the hatch open; immediately the roar of the engines grows deafening as the thunder of passing wind is added to it.
  1282. > Even just emerging for a moment into the raging slipstream, however, is enough to confirm your fears.
  1283. > Signalling Giselle to join, you shift off to one side and allow her to squeeze her feathered head out through the opening as well.
  1284. > Her eyes go narrow against the wind, but you can tell that if not for that they would be wide with realization at what you are feeling.
  1285. > Pulling back in - Giselle wordlessly latches the hatch, saving you the trouble - you sink back to the seat.
  1286. "So. Storm?"
  1287. > "Storm."
  1288. > Her head bobs in agreement.
  1289. > "Maybe even the same one we arrived in; we might be following in its path south."
  1290. > Anonymous curses softly.
  1291. > "How close?"
  1292. "Depending on local windspeed... I'd bet we'll see the cloud formations inside of half an hour, hit the bulk of it within the hour. You have that map, Giselle?"
  1293. > "Absolutely."
  1294. > She vanishes for a moment, but returns with a surprisingly-detailed evocation of Equestria's eastern coast.
  1295. > You can't help but notice she's put at least as much detail into the coastline of the Griffon territories, if not more.
  1296. "Right. By dead reckoning I'd guess we're about here-"
  1297. > Your hoof lands on a spot just south of the mouth of the Celestial Sea.
  1298. "-and, as we're on a roughly south-southeast heading, I'd say our storm is somewhere here."
  1299.  
  1300. > Circling an area roughly in the middle of the gap formed by the Griffish isles, Manehattan, and the peaks to its north you glance to Giselle for confirmation.
  1301. > "Sounds about right to me. I don't know exactly how weather patterns flow in Equestria, but I'd guess it's rolling south along the barrier formed by those mountains now."
  1302. "Before... everything happened, we didn't even work storms out there; all the planned weather was routed inland. If something came down from the north, we just kept it from drifting overland."
  1303. > "Hah, figures. We've always been more keen seafarers than you ponies."
  1304. "Anyhow, I think you're right about where it's going now. It could potentially get ugly as it meets the warmer air on the coast, though - weather down there depending."
  1305. > Anonymous grunts, his voice far clearer in your headphones.
  1306. > "I wish I could get a proper weather report relayed, but there's no way my radio is reaching anyone now. So, odds are you're right and we're in for a ride if we try and push down through that."
  1307. "Mmm-hmm."
  1308. > "It's never the easy way, is it?"
  1309. > Glancing between yourself and Giselle, you raise an eyebrow.
  1310. "Consider who you're saying that too."
  1311. > "Hah! Okay, fair point."
  1312. > "So, what are our two options for diversions?"
  1313. "If we backtrack North-East now, we can circle around to find the pass in the mountains and make a break for the Crystal Empire; I can ask for refuge."
  1314. > "What about the isles?"
  1315. > You're ready to explain that no, neither the unicorns nor griffons there probably wouldn't want anything to do with you - and then you remember.
  1316. > There's a griffon with you now as well.
  1317. "...can you negotiate with them?"
  1318. > "Probably."
  1319. > Giselle tugs at her own collar.
  1320. > "They'll be happy to see me back. Less happy to see you, but that's always a risk."
  1321. > "Plus, if we go that way we can just find a quiet cove to set down in for the night. There's a chance we'll still have enough fuel to get to a proper airport after that.
  1322.  
  1323. > Nodding at Anonymous' comment, Giselle sounds confident - but you hesitate.
  1324. "I don't know. The fighting's all over, but showing up with me..."
  1325. > "Hate to say it, Spitfire, but from my end of things I can say the same of Crystal Empire and their princess. They're sitting up in their fancy palace blocked out of the world, holding grudges that not everyone stayed together when it got bad."
  1326. > Giselle tilts her head as she speaks, and while you know she isn't really trying to hurt you it stings in your chest even so.
  1327. > Sucking in a breath, you nod.
  1328. "I'm sorry. I'm letting old business from the war ruffle my feathers."
  1329. > Shaking her head, Giselle chuckles.
  1330. > "I understand. It's hard to let things go sometimes, isn't it? And you're right, flying into the Crystal Empire with a griffon and a human - especially your owner - could be... tricky."
  1331. > You nod agreeably, and for a moment there's the briefest touch of a smile on Anonymous' face at the moment between the two of you.
  1332. > Then he's all back to business.
  1333. > "If I can interrupt for a moment ladies, I think I can see the clouds appearing on the edges of the radar. That gives us not too long to make our choice, so I need you to call it."
  1334.  
  1335. "...we'll head for the isles."
  1336. > You swallow, putting a hoof out towards Giselle.
  1337. > She'd only ever tried to help you; no point into making a bad choice on grudges alone.
  1338. "I'm trusting you on this."
  1339. > "I know."
  1340.  
  1341. --------
  1342.  
  1343. > Land appear within a few hours, easily spotted against the uniformly flat horizon of the sea they emerged from.
  1344. > You'd laid out the rough arrangement of the isle - Trottingham on the northwest, smaller towns and cities interspersed among the thick forests towards the south.
  1345. > Based on your estimations of the winds Anonymous had chosen to fly along the western coast, hopefully finding a secluded cove or beach in which to safely set down.
  1346. > As you turn along the coastline, however, Anonymous point out a bulge in the distance at your ten o'clock.
  1347. > "That the city?"
  1348. > Only a glance is needed to confirm his suspicion.
  1349. "Yes. Damn, we're further East than I'd have hoped."
  1350. > "Can't be helped. Flying this long on dead reckoning's an art at best. Do we need to turn away?"
  1351. > You lean in to peer at the altimeter.
  1352. "We're at... seven thousand feet? No, we should be plenty high up enough to avoid them. Even if they do spot us, we'll be passing on.
  1353. > You can't avoid glancing out the cockpit window as Trottingham passes below.
  1354. > Something is... strange about the city.
  1355. > There's none of the signs you'd expect to see around a habitation of its size - plumes of smoke rising from chimneys in the brisk spring air, a few lights lit in the late afternoon light, pegasi flitting from clouds anchored around the city...
  1356. > Well, perhaps not the last one considering how welcome pegasi had been the last time you visited.
  1357. > But even so, there's an unnatural stillness about the city.
  1358. > It seemed... dead.
  1359. > Shuddering softly, you mutter beneath your breath.
  1360. "Hope you got what you were asking for, you damn geldings."
  1361.  
  1362. > If ponies hadn't turned away from Equestria, then the fighting would never have started - and then everything that followed it could have been avoided.
  1363. > Even as the words leave your lips, though, you regret them.
  1364. > They'd abandoned the rest of Equestria, yes - locked themselves away as the sickness and shadows of war crept in.
  1365. > But if there was one thing you had come to understand, it was not to paint with too broad a brush.
  1366. > Just because there were clouds did not mean a storm was coming.
  1367. > Undoubtedly ponies had been caught in that and suffered the same fate as you had.
  1368. > Or worse.
  1369. > Wrenching your gaze away from the pitiful sight, you refocus on looking ahead - both metaphorically and literally searching for a place to land.
  1370. > Once the city is left behind, you drop back down to a lower altitude better for spotting from.
  1371. > The curving, steeply-bordered cove appears suddenly; even from the air it is difficult to see until you are almost atop it.
  1372. "Check - looks like a nice landing space, nine o'clock."
  1373. > "I see it."
  1374. > Anonymous peers out his window, as do you by standing in your seat.
  1375. > "There are buildings down there. And docks, I think."
  1376. "I don't see any lights. Give me a chance to check it out."
  1377. > Chewing his lip, your owner considers for a moment before nodding.
  1378. > "Five minutes. I can't afford to burn fuel waiting for you."
  1379. "Shouldn't be a problem. I can catch up."
  1380. > You turn to leave, but Giselle rises from her spot and holds out a claw.
  1381. > "I'll go with you."
  1382. "Can you keep up?"
  1383. > Her sly grin tells it all.
  1384. > "Didn't have a problem the last time we had a proper race."
  1385. > A minute later you both are hurtling down towards ground below.
  1386. > It quickly becomes clear that any inhabitants are long gone.
  1387. > Your heart falls as you observe the ruins; some homes were merely neglected, but the charred wreckage occupying the foundations of several more speak to the permanance of the village's fate.
  1388.  
  1389. > Even one of the piers run out into the water had been destroyed at some point, leaving only the splintered pilings protruding through the waterline.
  1390. > Those buildings that remain standing are widely scattered, surrounded by overgrown plots that might once have been gardens, but are also reasonably well-built despite their abandonment.
  1391. > Darting rapidly in and out through windows long since devoid of their glass only increases your certainty.
  1392. > Thick dust coats everything within, except where the weather had left its mark in water stains and objects strewn about by winds.
  1393. "Anonymous? There's nopony down here. You're good to come in."
  1394. > "Roger. I'll come in on the water; be ready to tie me up."
  1395. "Affirmative."
  1396. > Having Giselle's claws available makes the task even easier, and soon Anonymous is cutting the engines out as the plane bumps gently against the surviving dock.
  1397. > In their absence, the only sound to be heard is the sucking of water against the pilings.
  1398. > Slipping back inside, you find Anonymous shutting down the aircraft's systems.
  1399. > "Good job out there. You want to get anything done, get it done now; I'm not running the auxiliary power, so we don't have too much to spare."
  1400. "I hear you. Any chance I could get out and fly?"
  1401. > Glancing aside at the setting sun, he frowns and scratches his chin.
  1402. > "Wait until nightfall. I don't want you being spotted by the twilight."
  1403. > Your hopes fall - the evening glow, suffused with a golden glow the same tone as your own mane, had along with the drawn always been one of your favorite times to fly.
  1404. "Got it."
  1405. > "That goes for you too, Giselle. I know I can't technically give you orders, but I want you inside."
  1406. > Having followed you halfway in to perch in the hatchway, the griffoness nods.
  1407. > "I understand."
  1408. > Stretching cat-like, she flutters her wings and clicks her beak.
  1409. > "I will be doing a bit of flying, though. There's only so long you can keep a hen indoors before she goes mad, you know."
  1410. "...do I ever."
  1411.  
  1412. > "Hell, even I feel that."
  1413. > Anonymous crawls out and deftly leaps onto the dock.
  1414. > Wood creaks beneath his boots, but holds.
  1415. > "You two sure this place is safe?"
  1416. > "Unless there's a mountain of soldiers hiding in a basement somewhere, yes."
  1417. > Settling perched atop a nearby piling, Giselle shrugs.
  1418. "Agreed. It even smells old - none of the fresh scents you'd get if somepony was living here still."
  1419. > "Fair enough."
  1420. > Looking around, Anonymous gives a soft 'hmm' and sighs.
  1421. > "Feels kind of strange, hanging out in an abandoned place like this."
  1422. > You can't deny that.
  1423. > Whoever lived here obviously hadn't left by choice, after all.
  1424. > But at the same time, needs are needs.
  1425. "If it's okay with you, I'd like to take a trot-around and see if there's anything worth eating."
  1426. > "Go ahead. Don't be too long, though."
  1427. > Unfortunately, the truth is there isn't really much to be had.
  1428. > Any real food had long since either rotted to nothing or been eaten by animals who'd moved in when the original occupants had... left.
  1429. > A canvas bag hidden in the back of a pantry offers a brief moment of hope, but the moment you stick your muzzle into it the scent of rotting hay assaults your nostrils.
  1430. > Instead you're reduced to going outside and engaging in the most basic means of ponykind's survival:
  1431. > Grazing.
  1432. > Winter's recent retreat had only just begun to allow the grass to regrow, but you're able to find enough.
  1433. > "...does that even taste like anything?"
  1434. > Anonymous had stopped nearby, looking at you curiously.
  1435. > Though he seemed relaxed, you note that the gun was slung over his shoulder as well.
  1436. > Raising your head, you give a little shrug with your wings.
  1437. "Honestly? Not like much. Cold's sapped a lot from it. But, some of the slop they gave us back in the holding and 'training' facilities was honestly worse."
  1438. > "Worse than grass?"
  1439. "At least this tastes like it was fresh at some time in its life."
  1440.  
  1441. > "Heh. Well, I'm going to stretch my legs, take a look around. Don't think I've ever seen an actual Equestrian home before."
  1442. > Your chest twinges with a touch of annoyance at the thought of him poking around needlessly inside of somepony's home.
  1443. > Somepony who'd been evicted from that home by force, and was quite possibly serving another human right now.
  1444. > After all, he didn't need to forage for food - he was eating what little packaged food was on the plane.
  1445. > But that feeling is stuffed down as quickly as it had come.
  1446. > He wasn't going to be pillaging graves exactly - as if there was anything left to pillage anyhow.
  1447. > Finding a few more patches of palatable stalks to force down, you spread your wings and opt to circle just above the rooftops a bit - enjoying the chance to just be in the air without a job or objective.
  1448. > Anonymous drifts from building to building below, but Giselle is nowhere to be seen.
  1449. > That brings a frown to your lips, and you circle a bit further out.
  1450. > When you finally do finish up, swinging back towards the village, you find Anonymous has found a chair large enough to fit him.
  1451. > It's been dragged out onto the covered second-floor porch of one of the remaining houses, allowing him to prop his legs up on the half-fallen fence surrounding it.
  1452. > Coming in to land, you raise an eyebrow.
  1453. "Making yourself at home?"
  1454. > At least he has the good sense to look sheepish.
  1455. > "Yeah. Enjoying the view a bit. Your world - it's pretty damn amazing, actually, and I've seen a lot."
  1456. "A lot?"
  1457. > "Mmm-hmm."
  1458. > A hand is raised to gesture at the broad, pale disk of Luna's moon now creeping up over the horizon.
  1459. > "I mean, look at that. I've flown under harvest moons back home, but I haven't ever seen anything like that."
  1460. > You issue a soft 'hmm', tucking your hooves in and extending a wing to start picking over its feathers.
  1461. > "I think I missed the fun parts of going to a different world, sorry."
  1462. > To that, he does not answer - not immediately.
  1463.  
  1464. > "Hey Spitfire?"
  1465. "Mmmm?"
  1466. > "What happened?"
  1467. > Lifting your head and spitting a loose feather free, you tilt your head.
  1468. > "I mean - I heard about the epidemic and then the fighting on the news, and then of course all of you showed up... but I've never heard what really happened."
  1469. > Extending the other wing, you work at it for a while before you can bring yourself to speak.
  1470. "...it wasn't one sickness - we could've handled one sickness. First one was a minor hoof rot. Everypony gets it sometimes, nothing unusual - just hit a lot of ponies at once, filled the hospitals up fast."
  1471. > Anonymous pulls his feet in, sitting up and listening.
  1472. "Second one hit the hospitals first. That was the bad one - the one that killed, jumping from hospital to hospital. Ponies panicked, got scared of walking around or letting anypony else in. Food started to run low."
  1473. > "And that's when the fighting started up."
  1474. "Yeah. Ponies got desperate. We pegasi were lucky - cloud cities didn't get the rot too badly, but we can't make our own food. Tribal splits opened up again in places... truth was, we still would've come through eventually, but the griffons started fighting too. Then they called for aid from you lot..."
  1475. > "...and that was that."
  1476. > Reaching the end of your wing, you fold it back down and nod shakily.
  1477. "That was that."
  1478. > Sighing gently, Anonymous nods.
  1479. "You know, sometimes when I was in those cages I thought they deserved it. That if we hadn't turned on each other the moment bad winds came, we could've come through it - so they deserved to be emptied out."
  1480. > "You're talking in the past tense."
  1481. > Heading falling and tail flicking nervously, you nod.
  1482. "Yeah. Woke up one day, realized I was actually starting to take pleasure in other ponies' suffering. Promised myself I wouldn't ever think like that, even if some ponies did deserve something. Justice is one thing, but this... it still isn't right."
  1483. > "And me?"
  1484. > Too late you realize the corner you've argued yourself into.
  1485.  
  1486. > May as well throw caution to the wind.
  1487. "You're okay. Tartarus - you're pretty good. But that doesn't make it right. Buying -"
  1488. > The words stumble on your lips.
  1489. "-buying me wasn't right. Just because it came out okay in the end doesn't justify slavery."
  1490. > "About what I figured you'd say."
  1491. "Not lost on me that I can say that and not expect to be beaten silly or something in the next moment."
  1492. > "You'd say it anyway."
  1493. "...I can't deny that."
  1494. > Grinning, Anonymmous leans back in his seat.
  1495. > "So what about the griffons, then?"
  1496. > "Eh, we screwed ourselves too."
  1497. > You whirl about, eyes going narrow.
  1498. > Giselle raises a claw from where she'd stretched languidly over one of the guard rails.
  1499. "How long have you been there?!"
  1500. > "Long enough."
  1501. > She chuckles gently.
  1502. > "But please, don't stop for me."
  1503. "You're awfully fond of sneaking up on ponies."
  1504. > "Predator's instincts can't help it."
  1505. "Oh yeah?"
  1506. > Your smirk is on your face as well as in your voice.
  1507. "Well, it's my instinct to swat a smart-alec griffon around her head."
  1508. > "Gotta reach me first!"
  1509. > With that, Giselle rolls from the railing and spreads her wings mid-air, soaring into the night sky with a laugh.
  1510. > You spread your own wings to go after her, but glance to Anonymous.
  1511. > He shrugs with a knowing grin.
  1512. > "Go have some fun. You've earned some time to yourself, and it's not like we're going anywhere."
  1513. > Anonymous rises, grinning himself.
  1514. > "Besides, I swear to God, you two need some way to work out the sexual tension between the two of you."
  1515. "Sexual-"
  1516. > With a huff of anger and his own laughter echoing in your ears, you launch yourself after Giselle.
  1517.  
  1518.  
  1519. > Despite her strong starting position, Giselle banks back hard once you begin to climb after her.
  1520. > The night is a clear one, unfortunately leaving little in the way of clouds to rest on.
  1521. > Instead you allow your wings to settle into a slower, steady beat between periods of gliding - seeking out the rising thermals from the day's residual warmth, small as it may have been.
  1522. > Giselle does the same, and soon the two of you are drifting side by side.
  1523. > "Feels strange, doing this again..."
  1524. "What, flying free over familiar land?"
  1525. > "No - flying free next to a pony."
  1526. > Rolling lazily, she flips just beneath you and rises up again on your other side.
  1527. > "Can't begin to tell you how good it feels to be able to just fly, and not have to worry about who might attack who..."
  1528. "Don't have to tell me. Sometimes I think there was a third sickness that came after the other two - insanity."
  1529. > Giselle barks a short, sharp laugh and nods.
  1530. > "I miss when we were just athletes, Spitfire. Flying for the prize, the crowds, the pride..."
  1531. > Her eye is on you, so instead of answer you simply nod.
  1532. > "Always figured it would end some day - somegriffon would catch my eye, and then I'd be down with a bunch of bloody kits crawling all over me before I knew it..."
  1533. > You snort and shake your head.
  1534. "I think I'd go mad if I got dragged out of the sky without warning like that."
  1535. > "What, you never thought about having a child?"
  1536. > That your cheeks' coloring cannot be seen in the moon's pale glow is something you are thankful for.
  1537. "I... thought about it. But I had my team to look after too - how's the joke go, married to your job? I was married to the Wonderbolts, at least until I got too old for my own records."
  1538. > You'd done more than thought about it, of course.
  1539. > More than once your thoughts had lingered on how pleasant it would be to retire, settle down with him, let your wings rest while seeing your own foals grow...
  1540.  
  1541. > But looming over all of that was the knowledge that there was only so long before you'd have to let go of the captain's badge anyhow.
  1542. > Wouldn't have been too many years more anyhow, if not for all of this.
  1543. > Sighing gently, you shake your head.
  1544. "Can't say I've thought of it recently. First with everything falling apart, and then after I was captured... having foals only to see them passed off into slavery wasn't something I could stomach.
  1545. > "Maybe... I guess because I didn't have as raw a deal in the first place, I never stopped thinking about it."
  1546. > Rolling hard, Giselle turns about to face east towards the rising moon - towards the griffon lands.
  1547. > "Never gave up thinking about the future. About life after slavery."
  1548. > There's a moment of silence, as the two of you drift together.
  1549. "...you're thinking about leaving, huh?"
  1550. > "I could put those feelings aside for a long time because I always knew it could be worse, but now that I'm here."
  1551. "Why not go, then?"
  1552. > Giselle sighs, rolling into a sharp dive.
  1553. > She easily outpaces you - griffons were always better in a dive - but snaps her wings out bare feet above the treetops, bleeding speed to allow herself to come to a halt on a branch.
  1554. > Moments later you touch down in another one nearby, folding your wings as well.
  1555. > "Because... as strong as that pull is, I'm not under any illusions about how rough it's going to be. We've lead rough lives - kin looks after kin."
  1556. > You nod understandingly.
  1557. "It's not the work you're afraid of."
  1558. > Clicking her beak in wordless agreement, Giselle goes on:
  1559. > "I don't want to leave my kin forever... but the part of me that wants that fantasy-future also sometimes says that I shouldn't give up what I have for something like that, even so."
  1560.  
  1561. > The image of Fire Streak, caught in his perfect little trap of a world performing for nothing comes to mind, and you shake your head.
  1562. "I still would. Never got ahead by risking nothing, Giselle - on the racetrack or in life."
  1563. > Her head, mottled by moonlight filtering in through branches still bare from winter and glinting off her golden eyes, snaps around to look at you again.
  1564. > "It's not the risk I'm afraid of. It's - what if we've turned to fighting each other as well? What if I get caught in it, becoming part of the problem myself?
  1565. > Giselle's claws tighten on the branch until you hear the wood cracking beneath them.
  1566. > "I'm afraid I'll get back home to find there's nothing worth rebuilding, that I'd just turn into a bitter old hen fighting because that's all I've known for too long."
  1567. > Reaching up to her neck, she carefully removes the band of fabric that served as a collar around her neck and stares at it.
  1568. > "Less scared of this thing on me than of being a slave to what's inside of me."
  1569. "Like I was?"
  1570. > "Heh. But at the same time... home."
  1571. > The word is spoken with such a degree of reverence, such a desire, that you're honestly surprised.
  1572. > This was a side of Giselle you certainly hadn't seen before.
  1573. "I won't stop you. Celestia knows, I get how you feel. I'll miss having someone around who I can really talk too, though."
  1574. > Even now, the words feel strange coming off your lips.
  1575. > "Aww, come on. You can always talk to Anonymous, in between kisses."
  1576. > Laughing as she ducks the sweep of your wing aiming for her head, Giselle leaps from her branch to another out of easy wing-range.
  1577. > "But I know what you mean too."
  1578. "So, you are going to be going, then?"
  1579. > "I..."
  1580. "At least - at least ride with us back to the mainland or something. Then you can fly yourself up over the land bridge back to the griffon lands, or find a place on a ship."
  1581.  
  1582. > "Avoid flying back home over all that water alone. Yeah, that makes sense. If we'd run in to any of my kin out here, I'd go with them. But..."
  1583. "...not a sign, and all we know of for certain is a city full of hostile pointy-heads."
  1584. > "Exactly."
  1585. "Well, I'll be glad to have you along for that much longer. Besides, we haven't had a proper race yet, for old times' sake."
  1586. > "I know. Probably not a good idea to be doing it here, either."
  1587. > That, unfortunately, you can't disagree with.
  1588. "Probably shouldn't even have been flying that high for that long in the first place"
  1589. > "Yeah. True enough."
  1590. > Standing carefully-balanced on the branch, you spread your wings.
  1591. > Returning to the dead little village is a painful return to reality, coasting through the empty streets back towards the dock.
  1592. > But soon forgotten as you go crawl into the aircraft and back to your bed, wishing a murmured goodnight to Giselle and glancing to the snoring Anonymous.
  1593. > It's the first chance to really rest you've had in nights - others either being interrupted by work, chill, or griffon intruders - and you're out in an instant even before you have a chance to properly preen.
  1594.  
  1595. --------
  1596.  
  1597. > "Spitfire. Wake up - Spitfire!"
  1598. > You're rolling out of bed in an instant, shaken awake by both the urgent tone and the hand roughly shaking your wing.
  1599. "I'm up, I'm up!"
  1600. > "Get up to the cockpit and check our electrical system. If it's weak, give us a shot with the APU. Get us ready for takeoff ASAP."
  1601. > Blinking owlishly, several things come into focus for your waking mind.
  1602. > One, it's barely past dawn despite your desire to rest up.
  1603. > Two, Anonymous' tone is not just worried but practically frantic.
  1604. > Three, while he is not yet dressed his gun is clutched in his other hand.
  1605. > That's enough to dump a load of adrenaline into your system, coat standing on end as you shake off the last vestiges of sleep.
  1606. "Understood. You want me to untie us from the dock as well?"
  1607.  
  1608. > "No - stay inside! In fact, keep your head down in general, I don't know who they are."
  1609. > Scrambling forward, you slip into the cockpit where a half-awake Giselle is also stirring.
  1610. > "Spitfie? Whaizzit?"
  1611. "I don't know. Someone outsie."
  1612. > Snapping familiar switches on and peering at the resulting dials, you call back:
  1613. "We're good, Anonymous! Amps and volts are both high!"
  1614. > There's no immediate response, so instead you dig out the binoculars kept in the cockpit and drag the case out between your teeth.
  1615. > Carefully balancing them between your hooves, you raise the eyepieces to the window and scan the treeline - nearly dropping them in surprise when the first movement is spotted.
  1616. "Those are griffons!"
  1617. > "What?!"
  1618. > Beside you, Giselle suddenly bursts into a flurry of motion as she scrambles awake as well - grabbing the second pair of binoculars stowed by her seat and bringing them up to her eyes.
  1619. "There. Uh, just below that white house on the left. They're looking out from the second floor, see?"
  1620. > "I - yeah, I see."
  1621. > Anonymous bursts back into the cabin, still only dressed in his sleepwear and quie frantic-looking.
  1622. > "...can't believe I didn't think to set a watch. Hydraulics are good, but if they don't let us take off we're in trouble."
  1623. > "Those are griffons alright."
  1624. > Giselle's voice cuts Anonymous off; he backs up almost instinctively as she struggles out of her seat.
  1625. > He nods, glancing over to her.
  1626. > "You said you could talk them down if we crossed paths. Time to prove it."
  1627. > "Don't worry!"
  1628. > She's practically galloping - if Griffons could gallop, anyhow - down to one of the rear hatches, exuberance radiating from her.
  1629. > Anonymous had follows her out of the cockpit with you close on his heels as well, long gun still in his hands.
  1630. > "You better be certain about this, Giselle."
  1631. > "I am. I'll be fine."
  1632. > "Giselle."
  1633. > At the last moment, he reaches out and grabs her tail.
  1634. > "Be. Careful."
  1635.  
  1636. > The griffoness' head snaps around, but her expression softens when she sees the look on his face.
  1637. > "...I will. Honestly."
  1638. > Anonymous nods, releasing his grip and letting her unlatch the door.
  1639. > As she climbs through, he looks down and murmurs to you:
  1640. > "Think she can really do it?"
  1641. "I don't know. Griffons have a sort of constant social hierarchy thing going on - if she can establish that she is superior to them, or at least operating on behalf of a superior, she's fine."
  1642. > "And if she can't?"
  1643. "Then we hope she can offer them something to give us passage."
  1644. > Outside Giselle is announcing herself, having climbed up on top of the cabin and calling out her name and home.
  1645. > Your eyes drift down to the gun still clutched protectively.
  1646. "How experienced are you with that thing??"
  1647. > "I can usre it, sure..."
  1648. "Not sounding certain there."
  1649. > "...I don't know, alright?! I bought it for dealing with fucking animals, Spitfire. Not... you know, thinking things."
  1650. > A sigh rushes out of you as you nod.
  1651. > You were so used to thinking of him as your superior that sometimes you forgot he headn't fought before.
  1652. "Well, if everythig goes tails-up here, we may have to trade it out for safe passage."
  1653. > "That's six kinds of illegal and expensive to boot."
  1654. "Your life or your gun. You choose, bucko."
  1655. > Taking a careful look out one window, you see that several of the griffons have emerged to cautiously approach, one calling out a counter-challenge to Giselle's announcement.
  1656. > They're armored, but not heavily nor well and few carry actual weapons.
  1657. > Not actual soldiers, then - at least not duty.
  1658. > Abruptly the plane shifts as Giselle leaps from it, gliding down to greet the griffoness who'd challenged her.
  1659. > Meeting beak-to-beak with her, they pause - eyes closed - for a moment before resuming talking inaudibly.
  1660. > They've taken to the air again and are circling the plane slowly, Giselle obviously discussing how she'd gotten here.
  1661. > But...
  1662. "Anonymous?"
  1663. > "Yeah?"
  1664.  
  1665. "Go up front and start getting the engines up."
  1666. > "Huh?"
  1667. "I'm not liking this. Something's wrong - those two..."
  1668. > You motion to Giselle and the griffoness she flies beside.
  1669. "Those two are fine, but the others are still circling. I've seen this before - be ready to take us off."
  1670. > He turns for the cockpit without another word, and you return to sneaking a careful look out one of the windows.
  1671.  
  1672. > With Anonymous getting things moving, you refocus on the griffons outside.
  1673. > They're cautious - not circling too close, as if the plane was a dragon waiting to leap from the water and roast them alive.
  1674. > If only.
  1675. > Easing up to the hatch Giselle had fled through, you tilts and ear towards the chatter filtering in.
  1676. > "...isn't that rought to ride in, honestly. Loud, though - nothing like being on your wings."
  1677. > "Wouldn't believe it, from what I've seen. And the one this thing belongs too - he doesn't want any trouble, right?"
  1678. > "Nah. He understands - just looking to get the job done and be gone. He'll probably be happy to see me off with you, so he doesn't have to go the rest of the way."
  1679. > Damn!
  1680. > You'd never had the chance to tell Anonymous that Giselle was leaving!
  1681. > Grabbing your jacket and headphones to quickly slip on - hopefully enough to cover your neck - you creep up to the cockpit and slip into your seat.
  1682. > Anonymous barely looks up as you enter, hunched over the engine controls.
  1683. "Something wrong?"
  1684. > "No, I've primed both engines. I'm just tweaking the fuel mix - setting it to run a bit rich. They'll smoke up real good, give them shock if they're planning anything funny."
  1685. > Huh.
  1686. > You hadn't known the engines could do that - but then, no jobs had any problems like this before.
  1687. "Listen, there's something important. I was going to bring it up today, but-"
  1688. > "Can it wait?"
  1689. "No. Giselle might not be coming any further with us, or leaving soon even if she does."
  1690. > Hesitating, your owner pauses to look up at you.
  1691. > "What? Why?!"
  1692. "She - she's not going back. Into slavery. She's paid her way this far by talkig them down, but after that..."
  1693. > "Fuck..."
  1694. > Twisting around entirely in his seat now, Anonymous waves a hand towards the black-and-grey griffoness walking the dock alongside her armored compatriot.
  1695. > "Is that why she got so bouncy when she saw this lot?
  1696. "I think so. We spoke about it last night, but you were already asleep when we got back."
  1697.  
  1698. > "Then what the hell am I supposed to tell them when we get back? I just let her go?"
  1699. "Just - tell them we couldn't find her after we went through?"
  1700. > "Too fucking late now! We've talked about her while the Cockpit Recorder is on!"> Cursing under your breath, you look around the cockpit.
  1701. "Is it on now?"
  1702. > "No; they kick in when we start moving."
  1703. "Then, what if we just - tell half the truth? Say she flew out while we were tied up, by the time we turned she'd vanished and we couldn't locate her?"
  1704. > "I..."
  1705. > He's hesitating.
  1706. > Leaning forward, you bow your head slightly.
  1707. "Please, Anonymous."
  1708. > "Fucksake, Spitfire. I just don't feel right lying about that, but if I say I just allowed her to wander off... I mean, technically they might not be able to do anything, but I'll have a real fun time getting work again."
  1709. > Reaching up, he rubs at his cheek.
  1710. > This is hitting him rather harder than you'd expected.
  1711. > Maybe he hadn't understood your position so well after all.
  1712. > "I dunno, Spitfire. I'm so used to seeing her, and there weren't ever any problems. I didn't think she'd -"
  1713. "Anonymous. Remember what I told you - about me being okay with you, but not with the rest of all this?"
  1714. > "...yeah."
  1715. > He sighs.
  1716. > "Yeah, I do. And I see your point."
  1717. "Good, then-"
  1718. > Talons click on metal, and you both look up to meet the equally surprised eyes of a griffon perched on the aircraft's nose and staring in through the windshield.
  1719. > For a moment no one moves.
  1720. > Slowly, you raise your hooves - hiking your jacket up to cover the collar around your throat.
  1721. "Easy, buddy. Fighting's over. I'm not here to pick anything now."
  1722. > The glass might've muffled most of your words, but the gist of your message got through.
  1723. > Nodding in understanding, the griffon relaxes his grip on the polearm carried at his side.
  1724. > Soon he's joined by Giselle and her armored friend, taking to the air to make room for the two of them.
  1725.  
  1726. > While Giselle moves to untie the aircraft from its post on the dock, the leader peers down beneath her helmet.
  1727. > With careful gestures, Anonymous reaches up to slide one of the cockpit roof hatches open to allow her words to be heard; fumbling with the catch, you stand on your hind legs and do the same.
  1728. > "-told you he's alright, see?"
  1729. > Anonymous offers a cautious grin.
  1730. > "Bringing over visitors, Giselle?"
  1731. > "Eh."
  1732. > Her voice is muffled by her work on the tie line, but still audible.
  1733. > "Just wanted to show her you're not going to try and kill us all."
  1734. > Everyone laughs at that, some more nervously than others - and the griffoness looks over to you.
  1735. > "And you - damn. I didn't believe it when I was told - flying with a human now, huh?"
  1736. > Shrugging as you settle back down into your seat, you glance up nervously to the
  1737. "I owe him. War's long since done anyhow; we're all just folk now. No grudges to be had."
  1738. > "Never thought I'd see a wonderbolt's spirit broken like that."
  1739. "My spirit's fine. You should try having your whole life fall apart around you some time; I'm just staying flying."
  1740. > The griffoness laughs.
  1741. > "Survive, at all costs. Spoken well - and I don't think..."
  1742. > Her gaze moves back to you again, and eyes go wide.
  1743. > Not to you, you realize.
  1744. > To your neck, and then across to the band of fabric around Giselle's.
  1745. > The jacket must've slipped down as you stood to open the hatch.
  1746. > "...rot it all, he's got a gun and they've got a collars! He's a slaver!"
  1747. > Rounding on Giselle the griffoness tackles her off the nose and back onto the dock, screeching all the while.
  1748. > "Spy! Featherless traitor! You brought slavers out to find us! Get the-"
  1749. > Anything more is cut off under a hammering roar of mechanical thunder; Anonymous had slammed his palm down on the magneto and ignition switches sending the first engine coughing to life.
  1750.  
  1751. > True to his prediction, it had sputtered out dense gout of brown smoke as it caught; between both sound and sight the griffons scatter like pigeons before a chariot.
  1752. > The plane is already moving as the second engine catches, pushing another burst of smog into the sky.
  1753. > All of that - even Anonymous' shocked cry - is lost on you, however, as you brace your wings on the open hatch and hurl yourself through.
  1754. > A single flap clears you from the aircraft, sending you tumbling on to the fray.
  1755. > Both griffons were rolling across the dock, a furious ball of feathers and fur, talons and claws.
  1756. > Seemingly unsure of what to do between the plane suddenly bursting to life and their leader being caught in a melee, the other griffons are alternating between circling the plane fearfully and watching the ongoing brawl.
  1757. > You're easily able to slip between them and dive into the brawl.
  1758. > Driving a shoulder into the griffoness' armored side hurts and nearly knocks the headset from you, but it sends her sprawling into a dock piling with a squawk and heavy thud.
  1759. > She's up again in an instant, but so is Giselle, and between the two of you her next assault is far, far more permanent.
  1760. > You're gone in an instant - leaping back into the air with Giselle at your side.
  1761. "Giselle, you featherbrained idiot! You were just going to talk them down, not bring them to over to gawk!"
  1762. > "I'm sorry!"
  1763. > She's in rough shape - bleeding from several raking cuts inflicted by her opponents' hind claws and numerous feathers obviously bent and out of place.
  1764. > "I thought - I thought I was going home..."
  1765. "Forget it; just keep flying!"
  1766. > About to respond, Giselle's eyes go wide along with your own as something whips by between you.
  1767. > Glancing back reveals that a few of the griffons have drawn bows, already re-notching new arrows even as their own wings beat to bring them aloft as well.
  1768. > "You remember how to throw off an archer?"
  1769. "If you remember how to fly in a team!"
  1770.  
  1771. > Not waiting for an answer, both of you hurl yourselves into wild maneuvers - ducking and dodging, weaving and swerving.
  1772. > It wouldn't be enough to throw off a mass of archers, but the few on your tails have to pick their shots.
  1773. > They aren't catching up to either of you, for that matter.
  1774. > Griffons are heavier than ponies, but also rarely faster.
  1775. > Giselle would normally be an exception to that rule, but her wounds and ruined plumage are slowing her.
  1776. > Panting and struggling, she's barely able to keep pace with you.
  1777. > Ahead, Anonymous is continuing to accelerate - the wingtip pontoons rising out of the water as the wings catch the air and bite into it.
  1778. "Alright, here's what we're going to do. The right-side bubble canopy on the tale is still open, you see it?"
  1779. > "Yeah..."
  1780. > Giselle's breath is haggard, no doubt due to the poor start and extra exertion demanded from her.
  1781. "Okay. We're going to come up his left side, stay above the plane to keep out of the water spray. As soon as he's out of the water, we roll up and over - come in ahead of the canopy and go in, get it shut after us."
  1782. > "Chasers...?"
  1783. > You risk a glance back, going against the rules you'd drilled into yourself and others for years.
  1784. > Weight down by armor and weapons, your pursuers are not catching up.
  1785. "Good! Now go!"
  1786. > Pulling up over the plane's tail vortices, you sink back down to hover just above the cabin.
  1787. > Ailerons are down across both wings, the fuselage struggling out of the water and into the air.
  1788. > As if to remind you of the stakes, an arrow glances off the aircraft's skin and whirls away into the air.
  1789. "Over the top, now-"
  1790. > In perfect alignment, griffon and pony roll together - spiraling over the top and coming back upright just ahead of the violently fluttering canopy dome.
  1791. > It takes only a tiny adjustment of your wings to cut your speed and turn, gliding back through the open hatch to land on the cabin floor.
  1792.  
  1793. > Beside you, Giselle lands with a pained squeal; without taking time to look at her, you reach out and seize the canopy handle in your teeth to drag it shut and latched.
  1794. "Anonymous, we're in!"
  1795. > You think you can hear a yelled response, but it's hard to hear over the straining engines.
  1796. "Can't believe that actually happened."
  1797. > Shrugging off your headset, you turn back around to Giselle, who is regarding the feathered shaft embedded in her side with a mix of awe and surprise.
  1798. > Her beak moves, but shock delays her incongruous words:
  1799. > "...well, that's awkward."
  1800. > Swaying, she collapses bonelessly back to the floor.
  1801. > Hurling oaths, you fly - literally leaping to the air inside the cabin - to her side.
  1802. > When had she even been hit?
  1803. > As she flew in a steady path beside the aircraft, or the half-second she'd taken lining up to the approach to the open hatch?
  1804. "Just hold on a moment; there's a first-aid kit-"
  1805. > "I think this is a little bit beyond first aid."
  1806. > Her voice is strained, struggling to get out even those few words.
  1807. > You're already hauling the case out from its wall mount, struggling at the latches with your hooves.
  1808. > The case spills open when they finally come undone, your haste hurling gauze and bandages, antiseptic and alcohol out.
  1809. > A frustrated scream tears itself from your throat; gathering up what bandages haven't been ruined by your carelessness, you come back to her side.
  1810. > There's surprisingly little blood spreading from the shaft itself, but Giselle's breathing is uncertain and wet.
  1811. "Alright, Giselle. Just let me get you up -"
  1812. > "I... I don't get it. I was so close. I was going to be free again. I was going to fly - fly, hunt-"
  1813. "Yes! Yes, Celestia damn you! There's no need for-"
  1814. > In the back of your mind all that remains of reason is trying to tell you that this is far deeper than anyone less than a surgeon could handle, but reason isn't in control of your body now.
  1815. > "Spitfire."
  1816.  
  1817. > Her claw snaps out, grabbing ahold of your hoof.
  1818. > "Spitfire, I'm not your team. You don't have to get..."
  1819. "Go spit feathers, Giselle. You're my friend. You kept me alive when I was going to burn myself up."
  1820. > Giggling softly but refusing to let go of you, Giselle rolls onto her back.
  1821. > "Friend of the captain of the Wonderbolts. How about that..."
  1822. > Immediately you return to trying to bandage around the protruding shaft.
  1823. > Desperation is in your voice and motions, your free hoof and muzzle working jerkily to secure the cloth.
  1824. "Yeah. Yeah, my friend - and we've still got to have that race, remember?"
  1825. > "Race..."
  1826. > It's practically a sigh; her talons pull jerkily on your hoof until the bandages slip from your grasp.
  1827. > "I'll wait for you, Spitfire. Until you can catch up and meet me there. We'll race then."
  1828. > You're not sure exactly when she goes.
  1829. > Or even how long you'd stayed there, curled over her side with the useless bandages in your hooves.
  1830. > Only that at some point, you look up and realize how cold Giselle is.
  1831. > Reaching down, you grab the cloth collar and pull it over her head - rucking up a few feathers, but leaving her body untouched by any sign of slavery.
  1832. > If she was gone, you thought, she deserved to be free too.
  1833. > Stumbling forward up into the cockpit, you crawl into the copilot's seat practically unconscious to your actions.
  1834. > Anonymous takes one look at you and reaches over to put a hand on your shoulder.
  1835. > No words are spoken, and none seem right anyhow.
  1836. > You're barely even seeing the instruments in front of you, and the faculty of speech does not return until the landing gear bounces off the ground.
  1837. "Where...?"
  1838. > "I don't know. Somewhere near the south of the isle."
  1839. "What about..."
  1840. > Sucking in a breath, you force your brain into motion again.
  1841. "What about the other griffons?"
  1842. > "Left behind a long time ago."
  1843. > The place he'd landed - a sparse, low, windswept bluff looking out of the ocean - isn't much to look at.
  1844.  
  1845. > But there's no sign of habitation near or far.
  1846. > "What do they normally do for their dead?"
  1847. "Cremation. Pyres. Used to leave them on a mountainside for the birds. Fire now, though."
  1848. > Sighing, Anonymous sits upright in his seat and peers around.
  1849. > "Well, we're not going to find any good, dry wood here. Hope she won't mind being buried."
  1850. "Buried...?"
  1851. > "Yeah. Come on - there's a folding shovel in my survival kit, but I'm going to need help moving her out."
  1852.  
  1853. > It isn't much of a grave.
  1854. > Not much of anything, actually.
  1855. > The hole isn't nearly deep enough, there's no proper marker, and in your opinion not nearly enough protection from scavengers.
  1856. > A few sections of driftwood and some stones hauled up from the beach and edge of the cliffs below, enough to barely cover the grave.
  1857. > But still somehow seemingly not enough.
  1858. > Hovering over the open grave, you drop your own addition in:
  1859. > Two ziplock bags, one within another, would hopefully be enough to preserve the sheet of paper held inside.
  1860. > 'Giselle', it read, 'Athlete, Teammate, Friend. Died in the pursuit of freedom.
  1861. > And then your signature and a hastily scrawled date.
  1862. > Anonymous stoops down after that, laying a few bolts around her body as well.
  1863. > When you shoot him a strange look, he simply shrugs.
  1864. > "They were spare. Maybe - I don't know, if someone comes back with a metal detector to give her a proper end they might help."
  1865. "Maybe."
  1866. > Half of you wants to say that the only ones who'd be coming back to give her a proper send-off wouldn't have metal detectors.
  1867. > But there isn't enough in you to hold a proper argument right now.
  1868. > You're barely able to help with kicking the dirt back in before you stumble away, falling to your haunches at the edge of the bluff and staring out over the distant waves.
  1869. > Your entire mind feels like a pegasus trying to fly through a pea-soup fog - fragments and glimpses of distinct thoughts at flickering at the edges, but nothing solid materializing.
  1870. > Dimly you're aware that this is a stupid way to feel.
  1871. > That you were captain of the Equestrian guard, and you had long since become familiar with death in all its cruelty and unfairness.
  1872. > And yet, that logic fails to appeal to your shattered consciousness.
  1873. > Fails to stop the pain in your chest, every bit as sharp as the arrow that had ended Giselle's life.
  1874. > This, in turn, angers you for a reason you can't quite put a hoof on.
  1875.  
  1876. > Like you should have been able to put that pain away somehow.
  1877. > You know you had before.
  1878. > Why not now?
  1879. > Trying to rationalize out a cause is no help.
  1880. > Everything creeps by through a sluggish mire, thoughts and sensations alike trapped in the mental mud.
  1881. > You're barely aware when Anonymous squats by your side, slipping an arm around your barrel.
  1882. > "Hey. Spitfire, I'm sorry but we've got to go. I don't know how far behind those griffons are."
  1883. "Just... just another few minutes."
  1884. > Surely they couldn't be that close.
  1885. > "Spitfire, you've been sitting there for over an hour already."
  1886. > Had you?
  1887. > The sun was higher, but by that far?
  1888. "Al... alright."
  1889. > "S'okay. C'mon."
  1890. > Padding alongside Anonymous, your eyes stay firmly planted on the ground in front of you.
  1891. > Even when you climb back into your copilot's seat, they're not really focused - your head rotating to keep a dull focus on the small patch of stones and driftwood as it passes by the side window.
  1892. > When it can no longer be seen, when the coast has faded out into the distance, you finally let your head face forward again.
  1893. > Try as you might, though, real focus still escapes your grasp.
  1894. > Instruments swim in your vision; every time you try and get a solid reading of one, you find your vision floating a moment later.
  1895. > Real concentration is beyond you.
  1896. > When Anonymous asks you to take over flying, you're able to respond... but not much more.
  1897. > It's fortunate there weren't other aircraft about or ground controllers to listen to.
  1898. > You're certainly in no shape to be speaking to them, just functional enough to keep the plane on a steady altitude and heading.
  1899. > Even in that, if not for your innate pegasus instincts you suspect you'd have long since accidentally dropped it into the sea below.
  1900. > The water passes in a mesmerising, unbroken sheet, changing only in the glinting reflections of the sun shifting as the hours pass and the occasional cloud scuttling by like some other furtive traveler.
  1901.  
  1902. > You aren't even aware enough to feel unease over being out over open water.
  1903. > When Anonymous finally takes back over you give up trying to keep yourself steadied, falling instead into a fitful near-sleep to the tune of droning engines.
  1904. > It isn't really restful, but it is thankfully dreamless - allowing you an escape from the whirlwind of emotions in your head.
  1905. > The next thing you're solidly aware of is Anonymous calling your name.
  1906. "I'm... I'm up. Whaizzit?"
  1907. > "We're over land. Hit the coastline a few minutes ago."
  1908. " 'ow long...?"
  1909. > "We've been airborn for about eight hours. You flew for three of them."
  1910. > Blinking owlishly, you stretch mightily in your seat and try to ignore your aching, stiff joints.
  1911. > Falling asleep seated on your haunches was a stupid idea.
  1912. > "I let you sleep for a long time because you looked like you needed it, but the downside of that is that I have no fucking clue where I am. I'm following a river, but I don't know which one."
  1913. "Are there train tracks next to it?"
  1914. > "Dunno."
  1915. "...can you look?"
  1916. > "No. Snow's covered 'em up, if they're there."
  1917. > Snow?
  1918. > That wakes you up a bit more; pulling up, you peer out a window and discover that, travelling east, you'd flown into the track of the winter storm that had originally forced the diversion to the Griffish Isles.
  1919. > Snow has turned the land below to a mottled carpet of white and grey, with only occasional patches of blue where evergreen forests poke through.
  1920. > The river is iced over as well, and though there might have been space on its banks for a road or train tracks, it's impossible to tell now.
  1921. > This probably explained why it suddenly felt so much colder, though.
  1922. "Can... can we set down on that river?"
  1923. > "If the ice is thin enough. Landing on the glacier was maybe okay, but thick ice could crush the hull."
  1924. > Oh.
  1925. > Huh.
  1926. > ...you should probably go check if it is.
  1927. > "I need you to fly down and-
  1928. "I know, I know! Just realized..."
  1929.  
  1930. > You feel slightly bad for snapping, but Anonymous just shrugs.
  1931. > "Listen, I know it's rough, but I need to know what's down there, okay?"
  1932. "Yeah, I'll go now."
  1933. > Slipping from your seat, you find your mind still distracted.
  1934. > Even the actions of slipping on your radio helmet for flying and climbing into the tail compartment to jump from the plane seem to be done in a half-daze.
  1935. > The slap of cold air, normally something easily capable of clearing your mind, isn't even enough.
  1936. > Circling down towards a straighter section of the iced-over river in a slow, lazy spiral, you continue to question yourself mercilessly.
  1937. > Like chewing out a first-day rookie:
  1938. > When had she been hit?
  1939. > Was there some warning?
  1940. > Should you have stayed at the plane's side a moment longer, waited for it to pull further up?
  1941. > Or was lingering there what had killed her, and you should have dived for the hatch regardless of the danger of water spraying from the hull?
  1942. > Maybe it'd-
  1943. > Plowing into the icy crust over the river is finally enough of a shock.
  1944. > Everything comes sliding back into place, the last few minutes finally catching up all at once.
  1945. > Anonymous had asked you to check on the river, right - to see if the ice was thin.
  1946. > Well, it probably was considering that you're up to your withers in water so cold it seems to burn.
  1947. > ...
  1948. > Shit!
  1949. > Instinct takes over; you beat your wings furiously and hope the feathers are still dry enough to catch air.
  1950. > They are - barely - and you're only just able to launch yourself out of the water and back onto the ice sheet.
  1951. > That is when you fully understand the depth of your mistake, as the ice shatters again under your heavy weight and promptly returns you to the freezing water.
  1952. > Thankfully the river isn't moving too fast, and you're able to quickly make for the edge by a process of using your chin and the plastic helmet-strap buckled beneath it to crack through the ice before paddling for the edge.
  1953.  
  1954. > Despite the fear driving you forward, some tiny corner of your mind is able to recognize the significance of what you've found:
  1955. "A-Anonym-mous! Th-The water's good-d; i-ice is thin enough t-to land!"
  1956. > "Say again, Spitfire?"
  1957. "G-Good to land! The ice i-is thin!"
  1958. > Nonwithstanding your chattering lips and cold rapidly seeping dangerously deep into you, he must have gotten the gist of your message because the engines' droning soon increases.
  1959. > Can't stop, though.
  1960. > No time to spend peering up at the sky, trying to figure out where he is.
  1961. > Your duty done, the more analytical portions of your mind were now turning to dissecting the state of your body, and what is happening to it.
  1962. > What they find isn't reassuring.
  1963. > While you still had feeling in your limbs, the initial burning of the cold was already beginning to fade.
  1964. > The only thing that still burns just as fiercely are your lungs, as they struggle to bring in enough air to keep you going.
  1965. > Your everything - coat, tail, mane, wings - are badly waterlogged; it'll be a miracle if the radio headset isn't ruined.
  1966. > The gaping emotional detachment that had got you into this mess in the first place persist - and, paradoxically, you think might be keeping you alive by keeping you from feeling real panic at the situation.
  1967. > Panic, you knew from many rescues of pegasi who'd hit the water only to discover they had no clue how to swim, would kill you far faster than hypothermia would.
  1968. > But not by much.
  1969. > In contrast, you'd somehow managed to detach yourself from the situation and keep your body moving.
  1970. > Stumbling at last onto the rocky bank what seems to be hours later, you raise yourself on shaking legs and look about.
  1971. > There - perhaps several hundred feet down the river, with Anonymous already emerged and tying the tow rope to a nearby fallen tree.
  1972. > You needed to get there.
  1973. > One hoof is driven forward after another in a shaking, unsteady walk.
  1974.  
  1975. > Flight is well out of the realm of possibility, even if you could somehow have dried your wings.
  1976. > Plodding forward one step after another is the only possibility - teeth gritted and eyes narrowed.
  1977. > Leaving the water had forestalled the danger, but you were still losing heat to the chilly, late-afternoon air at a dangerous rate.
  1978. > A cry sits in your throat desperate to be released, but staying breathing takes priority above all else.
  1979. > Just have to keep marching.
  1980. > You'd been good at that once, when the guard had put you through basic training rounds before you were accepted to the Wonderbolts.
  1981. > Good legs had been just as important as good wings, they'd said.
  1982. > Months in a cage had ruined any real muscle tone, though.
  1983. > And a lot of other things.
  1984. > Anonymous is waving now, having secured the aircraft and grounded it lightly on one riverbank.
  1985. > He's waving - gesturing you over.
  1986. > No idea of what is happening to you.
  1987. > Doesn't see the gleam of freezing water to your coat and feathers, only a mare taking her leisurely time to stroll back.
  1988. > All of this you see and take note of, but your mind isn't really focused on it right now - still lingering in memories.
  1989. > The more you think about it, in your strangely detached bubble of thought, the more you realize how much of this comes back to that cage and everything that had come with it.
  1990. > It all fed back to the slavery.
  1991. > If not for that Giselle wouldn't have been so desperate impress the other griffons and go home.
  1992. > If not for that they wouldn't have feared the sight of a visitor to the isles.
  1993. > If not for that neither one of you would have worn the collars that sparked that fear.
  1994. > If not for that you would've been faster - able to fly rings around any pursuers with skill and body undulled by time away from the sky.
  1995. > Despite only barely heavier on your throat in its waterlogged state, the collar seems suddenly determined to drag your head down.
  1996.  
  1997. > Anonymous is running now - finally aware something is wrong.
  1998. > Pounding along the bank towards you.
  1999. > Still part of you wants to yell.
  2000. > Not a call for help, but a scream of fury at what had brought this on you.
  2001. > But all that comes out is a parched squeal, as your legs fold beneath you at last and you sink to your belly as thudding footsteps fill your ears.
  2002.  
  2003. > Everything after that is a blur.
  2004. > Anonymous' hands running through your coat, trying fruitlessly to brush out the water.
  2005. > Vision spinning as arms slipped around you, picking you up from the filthy ground.
  2006. > Anonymous' grunt as he slung you over his shoulders.
  2007. > Leg slamming into a hatch as he carried you back inside, producing only a pitiful whine from your lips.
  2008. > Being firmly wrapped in something soft and deposited on your back.
  2009. > The next thing you solidly remember is something hard being pressed against your lips, and fire flooding into your mouth.
  2010. > That at last finally kicks you from the haze you'd been drifting in - the alcohol serving as a brutal wake-up that snapped your neurons back into firing.
  2011. > He shouldn't be giving you liquor, not while you're still that chilled.
  2012. > Enough of your mind is still there to remember that fact from training; alcohol might save your limbs from frostbite, but the risk of shock as it chilled your organs was just as real.
  2013. "Nghhh..."
  2014. > The protestation that emerges from your lips is feeble and slurred, but manages to get the point across.
  2015. "No... no alc'hol."
  2016. > "Shh. It's okay, Spitfire. I know about the risk, but I can keep you warm enough."
  2017. > Even so you struggle a bit more - half on instinct, blind of any real reason - until he slips an arm firmly about you and pins back any further struggles.
  2018. > "Seriously. Drink a bit more, and I'll let you be."
  2019. > Giving up, you do - swallowing several more swigs of the fiery liquid and allowing its warmth to spread in your gut.
  2020. > At last he deems that you've drunk enough; the bottle is removed from your lips and briefly your owner departs.
  2021. > In his absence, your mind wanders - falling back into the haze of emotions thoughts that had brought you to this state in the first place.
  2022. > You're barely able to hear, let alone focus enough to see, and so Anonymous' return catches you by surprise.
  2023.  
  2024. > Even moreso when he sits down in the bed next to you, pulling the blanket up over himself and you both.
  2025. > Trying to ask why only produces a few embarrassingly confused noises; apparently you'd used up your quota of words trying to warn him off doing anything further.
  2026. > "Shh. Just keep warm and stay still, okay?"
  2027. > Stay still - in your only semi-lucid state, the words barely hold meaning to you.
  2028. > His tone convey enough, however, and instead of struggling further you allow yourself to relax - head swinging up to nestle against the warmth behind you.
  2029. > Chuckling at the action, Anonymous lets you - again slipping his arms around you.
  2030. > "I swear to God, Spitfire. If you ever give me any shit about doing this for you..."
  2031. > Though you're far too hazy to comprehend his meaning, just the talking is enough.
  2032. > Your ears twitch, following his voice, and he seems to take note - continuing to talk in a gentle, relaxing tone.
  2033. > Despite the chill and alcohol in your belly enough sense stays with you to keep you from falling asleep immediately, but everything else fades to a blur.
  2034. > Time slips past in uneven bursts of lucidity as you drift in and out of awareness.
  2035. > Some times others seem to speak to you, or you even hear voice replying to them.
  2036. > Others, you're unable to produce more than a croak from your lips.
  2037. > At some point you realize that you're shivering furiously - your entire body shaking as warmth works its way back into you.
  2038. > There's no way Anonymous hadn't felt this.
  2039. > Embarrassment fills you; suddenly being wrapped up is something to be thankful for not only for keeping heat in, but because it at least hides the worst of your trembling.
  2040. > Following close on its heels is anger, a wild cocktail of emotion brewing within you.
  2041. > Anger at your useless state, unable to even stand up properly.
  2042. > Anger at the mistake that had gotten you here - a screwup that a first-day rookie shouldn't have made, let alone a veteran flyer and officer.
  2043.  
  2044. > Anger at allowing your mind to wander when you were flying on a mission.
  2045. > Anger at the weakness that had cost Giselle her life.
  2046. > Anger at the slavery that had filled her with such a desperation to escape in the first place.
  2047. > Briefly you consider struggling free, but seeing as you cannot even halt the terrible trembling racking your body there's little chance of that.
  2048. > The anger burns itself out and despite your best efforts exhaustion creeps up on you in the tracks of the shivering fits.
  2049. > At last you give up, drifting off into a stark, dreamless sleep.
  2050. > When you next find yourself aware, you're no longer wrapped as tightly.
  2051. > Somewhere along the line Anonymous had unwrapped you, leaving your feathers itching as some had been shifted out of place.
  2052. > No longer constrained the towel surrounding our limbs you'd apparently taken the opportunity to roll over, scooting until you half-lay on Anonymous' chest.
  2053. > There wasn't exactly a lot of room on the narrow cots to begin with, but this was still far closer than you needed to be.
  2054. > Two aching legs and one stiff wing thrown over his body, while his arm wrapped around you.
  2055. > The position's intimacy sends a new wave of mortification through you and a flush to your cheeks.
  2056. > It's merely one additional thing heaped on the mountain of shame, though.
  2057. > Especially Discord had apparently seen fit to slip in and replace your muscles with wetted, soggy noodles while you slept.
  2058. > Trying to roll away from the mortifying way you'd gripped him only makes Anonymous stir.
  2059. > "Hey there. Welcome back to the world of the living."
  2060. > Grumbling softly, you finish rolling away before he can see the state of your face.
  2061. > That only drives Anonymous to shift both arms to wrap around you, which in turn only makes you further annoyed.
  2062. > A fact you illustrate with a frustrated growl.
  2063. > "Yeah, sorry..."
  2064. > He sighs heavily, laying his head back to the pillow.
  2065. > "About all of this, I mean. It's kinda my fault."
  2066. > ...what?
  2067. "Wha'?"
  2068.  
  2069. > "I shouldn't have sent you out like that. I knew it was getting under your skin and you weren't all there. Shouldn't have sent you out like that."
  2070. > That - that was not what you had been expecting.
  2071. > And you'd hardly been expecting an apology in the first place.
  2072. > "So, yeah. I know this is kind of humiliating to you right now, and I don't even know if this makes it any better. But I am sorry."
  2073. "Like... like Tartarus it is. Was - was m'mind. Wandering. Should've focus-"
  2074. > "You weren't in any shape to be focusing, and I could see it. Look-"
  2075. > Turning over one more time is just as problematic as it was the first and reintroduces your muscles to a whole orchestra of aches.
  2076. > You manage, however; twisting around to look him in the eye and growl.
  2077. "My. Mistake."
  2078. > After a moment Anonymous breaks eye contact, shaking his head with a smile.
  2079. > "Can we compromise and say it was both of us?"
  2080. > ...
  2081. > This human, seriously.
  2082. " f'I do, will y'let me go? M'feathers itch."
  2083. > "No. you need to soak in as much heat as possible, even now."
  2084. > When you don't respond, Anonymous cocks an eyebrow.
  2085. > "I could order you to. I can do that, you know."
  2086. "Bite a thundercloud. W'not on your world, m'a free mare."
  2087. > "Not right this moment you aren't. Unless you can climb out, and I'm guessing you won't."
  2088. > Dropping your chin to rest on his chest, you roll your eyes.
  2089. > If there'd been any strength left in your muscles to fight that claim, you would have been up and struggling in an instant.
  2090. > Though as much as you hated to admit it, this was probably the warmest you'd been since you'd found yourself back in Equestria.
  2091. " 'guess..."
  2092. > "No shame in enjoying this a bit, Spitfire. Not everything has to be a fight or a contest."
  2093. > Cheeks flushing red, your eyes narrow to glare at him.
  2094. "Not what I was going to say!"
  2095.  
  2096. > "I did mean it, though. I never promised you an easy ride, but I did promise that I'd look after you if y'worked with me. You have, though, and I just pushed you when you were hurting. Got ahead of myself - should've flown on and looked for a better landing spot."
  2097. > He sighs, and suddenly you're aware of just how upset he actually sounds - something that you hadn't quite gotten to you earlier.
  2098. > "You even decided to stick around, and I thanked you by nearly getting you killed."
  2099. "...can take care of m'self."
  2100. > Anonymous simply raises an eyebrow, and you can feel your cheeks grow warm again.
  2101. > "Whether you can or you can't, I was supposed to look after you. Doesn't matter why - as captain of this aircraft, as your owner, or even just as your friend."
  2102. > Surprisingly, you find yourself not particularly caring at his mention of owning you.
  2103. > That tone in his voice, though...
  2104. "I guess... we're both feelin' th'same way. Hurts t'lose someone who y'were thinkin' of as yours."
  2105. > He makes a small affirmative noise.
  2106. > "Trust me, I know..."
  2107. > ...
  2108. "Hey, 'nonymous?"
  2109. > "Yeah?"
  2110. "Thank you."
  2111. > "Welcome."
  2112. > ...
  2113. > "You want some food?"
  2114. "Tha' sounds really good righ' now."
  2115. > Anonymous slips out from beneath you, leaving you alone in the bed again.
  2116. > By the time he comes back - a mug in each hand - your muscles had recovered some.
  2117. > Limping and staggering, you'd managed to plod your way back to one of the bubble-like canopies, collapsing on the platform beneath it and dropping the blanket by the side.
  2118. > It leaves you feeling like you'd just been clobbered by a gang of bodybuilders, but
  2119. > Setting down the steaming mug down in front of you, Anonymous nods.
  2120. > "Enjoy."
  2121. "S'this... oatmeal?"
  2122. > "All we've got left. After this we're foraging."
  2123. > Right now you're not really in a state to consider the full implications of that statement, and instead bury your muzzle in the mug without a thought to modesty or manners.
  2124.  
  2125. > Anonymous takes a seat on the opposite end of the bubble canopy, facing you.
  2126. > He eats rather more smoothly.
  2127. > Eyeing him, you lift your muzzle from the mug just long enough to ask:
  2128. "How do you managed to deal with all of this so calmly?"
  2129. > "I try to not to be impressed by anything."
  2130. "Hah, hah. But seriously - sometimes I forget you're not completely unflappable, with all the stuff that comes at you."
  2131. > Anonymous gives a small smile.
  2132. > The kind that looks like he desperately wants it to be real, but can't quite force it to.
  2133. > "Good of you to say. It's experience, for one. It used to get to me a lot more. That, and just accepting to take things the way they are."
  2134. > More quietly, he adds:
  2135. > "Have to admit, I'm starting to wonder if this whole trip has been jinxed or something."
  2136. "Jinxed?"
  2137. > He leans back on the canopy, staring out on the night-lit sky and far bank of the river.
  2138. > "Cursed. Doomed. Every single fucking thing has gone wrong on it from the start, right back to being woken up in the middle of the night by the job call."
  2139. "We keep pulling through, though. Barely, but we do."
  2140. > "It's costing us, though... sure, we got off the ice, but it cost us a lot of gas. We dodged the storm, but that cost us a big diversion. We got off the isles, but that cost..."
  2141. > There is a point there, you suppose.
  2142. > But...
  2143. "I-"
  2144. > You hesitate, trying to push out the words that you weren't certain of.
  2145. "I want to go back with you."
  2146. > Anonymous doesn't respond to that, keeping his gaze firmly fixed out the window.
  2147. "All the way back, I mean. Back to your world."
  2148. > Still nothing.
  2149. "If this is one of your being-unflappable moments, it isn't-"
  2150. > "Don't make big choices like that until you know for certain, Spitfire."
  2151. "Don't think you can guess what's going on in my head."
  2152. > "No need to guess. I can hear it in your voice."
  2153. > Damn.
  2154. > Hadn't kept that so much out of your tone as you'd thought.
  2155. "I know, but - what am I going to do here?"
  2156.  
  2157. > "Be free. That's what you've always wanted, isn't it?"
  2158. "Free for what, though?"
  2159. > Your head hangs, eyes on the bottom of the empty mug.
  2160. "If just a glimpse was enough for them to kill Giselle-"
  2161. > "Spitfire. You've barely seen what your country is like, let alone how ponies - not griffons - are doing. You said some of the Princesses are still up in the north, right?"
  2162. "Well, yeah, but-"
  2163. > "Then go find them. Get me to a governed zone and leave it at that."
  2164. "Are you trying to get me to run away or something? Cost you even more money?"
  2165. > "No, but - hell, you always said you didn't want to be a slave still. I don't want you stewing in anger forever."
  2166. "I don't. But maybe -
  2167. > You spit out the words each.
  2168. "Maybe I like being part of a team again. Maybe I like being up in the air with someone who gives a flying feather about me and what I want!"
  2169. > "What, are you making me out to be some kind of bleeding-heart type now? Because I'm not. I'm not some loudmouth kid waving a sign in the streets for you lot to be free, or hiding teary-eyed pony kids from the police. I fly - it's what I do."
  2170. > Through the entire exchange, Anonymous still hasn't looked back at you.
  2171. > "Get this, Spitfire: You're not my copilot because I care about you - I care about you because you're my copilot."
  2172. "You care, though. Why doesn't matter. Even just that you know how I feel about being a slave and don't just dismiss it or pretend I'm going to change."
  2173. > Forcing yourself up onto four legs again, you stagger to his side of the canopy and lift a hoof to put it on leg.
  2174. "That you bothered to give Giselle a proper burial, even though she was 'just a slave' - that matters."
  2175. > Falling down on your haunches again, you sigh.
  2176. "And right now... right now, I appreciate that. A lot."
  2177. > After a moment, Anonymous scoots over slightly - shifting to sit next to you and slip an arm over your withers.
  2178. > Even though you have a choice in it this time, leaning back against him doesn't seem nearly as bad either.
  2179.  
  2180. > He's surprisingly warm, or maybe you'd just forgotten how cold you still were.
  2181. > After a moment Anonymous takes note as well.
  2182. > The blanket you'd dropped nearby is grabbed and replaced around you.
  2183. "Not going to lie. I've been pushing myself to be the one supposed to be looking out for everypony else for so long that it feels kind of good to have someone caring about me again."
  2184. > He nods as he finishes wrapping the blanket up.
  2185. > "No shame in that. Teamwork, no?"
  2186. "Yeah. That's how it was with the 'bolts... everypony looked after everypony else."
  2187. > Anonymous seems to be about to say something, but cuts himself off when you sink down and forward to drape your neck across his legs.
  2188. > When he doesn't pick back up after a few moments, you add:
  2189. "Like you said, 'if I ever hear you giving me any shit about this'..."
  2190. > "...I wasn't going to say anything."
  2191. "Good. Because you're warm, I'm cold, and I've officially run out of care for how this might look."
  2192.  
  2193. --------
  2194.  
  2195. > The next morning once again finds you curled warm and snug beneath the covers.
  2196. > Which is quite strange, since the last thing you remember is being wrapped in a blanket and back near one of the bubble canopies.
  2197. > Though it might explain the also-warm and gently-moving thing that you're stretched over.
  2198. > Cracking one eye open, you try to inspect just how bad your current position was and whether the amount of blood that was about to end up in your cheeks would be risky to your health.
  2199. > The answer, you decided after a moment, was full-on-in-danger-of-a-stroke territory.
  2200. > At least when he'd brought you in from nearly dying, he'd kept you off to one side.
  2201. > Now you'd somehow to wedge yourself in between the cabin wall and his body, sprawled mostly over his chest with your head firmly seated somewhere around his shoulder.
  2202. > Which in and of itself wouldn't have been too bad, except one wing and a leg were extended out across his chest and a hindhoof had somehow fallen in between his two legs.
  2203. > In the interest of self-preservation and avoiding death by blood-rush, you conclude that there wasn't anything to be emberassed about here.
  2204. > Nope.
  2205. > Nothing at all.
  2206. > Not one bit.
  2207. > ...
  2208. > Though it couldn't hurt to see if you can get out of this.
  2209. > The deep aches and humiliating weakness of the prior day had withdrawn, leaving you just feeling stiff and sore all over.
  2210. > Maybe if you try and twist as you get up-
  2211. > Nope.
  2212. > His arm is around you as well.
  2213. > That probably explains whatever is sitting in the middle of your back, just between your wings.
  2214. > Okay, so you're going to have to scoot out forwards, and-
  2215. > Nope, his arm just tightens around you.
  2216. > Wait a minute...
  2217. "Anonymous?"
  2218. > "Mmmm?"
  2219. "You've been awake the whole time, haven't you?"
  2220. > "Mmm-hmm."
  2221. > The wing you'd had stretched across his chest reaches up to bat him across the face.
  2222.  
  2223. > Laughing at the gesture, Anonymous uses his free hand to push it away.
  2224. > "Well, you didn't quite seem ready to get up yet!"
  2225. "You still could've said something."
  2226. > "Nah. Too much fun."
  2227. > Dropping your head back to rest on his shoulder, you roll your eyes sharply.
  2228. "So, I guess you brought me back here last night?"
  2229. > "Yeah, well after you kind of conked out against me I figured you needed a bit more rest. But, you kind of latched on to my arm when I tried to move you..."
  2230. > ...oh.
  2231. > Well...
  2232. > Truth be told, you're not sure you mind too much.
  2233. > And not just because you're forcing yourself to say that.
  2234. > "Hey, Spitfire?"
  2235. "Huh?"
  2236. > "You alright? Went all kind of quiet on me."
  2237. "Yeah, I'm fine."
  2238. > You don't believe it, your voice doesn't believe it, and if Anonymous has two brain cells to rub together he won't believe it either.
  2239. > "Sure about that?"
  2240. > Figured.
  2241. "Yeah, I..."
  2242. > Shifting down a little bit, you pick your head up and frown.
  2243. > Your mane must be an utter mess, from the way it's drooping into your eyes.
  2244. > Consequences of getting it soaked and then not remotely trying to fix it.
  2245. "Hey... stupid question, but you believe in fate and all that, right? Like what you've been saying, about getting to a certain point and that's it...?"
  2246. > "Uh, I guess so?"
  2247. "D'you believe in destiny too?"
  2248. > Eyebrows rising, Anonymous tilts his head.
  2249. > "Not what I expected you to ask."
  2250. > A second later, he adds:
  2251. > "I'd have thought you would have believed in destiny, if anything. With your butt-marks and all that."
  2252. "Talent and destiny aren't the same thing. I'm talented at flying. Maybe even talented at leading... but since I got my cutie mark, I thought I was destined to be captain of the Wonderbolts as well. Destined to be a leader."
  2253. > Finally sliding up on one elbow, Anonymous cocks his head as he listens to you talk:
  2254. "When I made Captain, everything felt right. I think - that's how I handled it. Even when I screwed up, I believed I belonged there.
  2255.  
  2256. "Even after I was captured, even after I was sold, beaten, sold again - I knew I had to lead. I had to break out and put the 'bolts back together, get back home, because that was my destiny. I had to take care of them, because that was my path. Now..."
  2257. > The words feel bitter on your tongue, like speaking them is swallowing a poison.
  2258. "I'm... tired of leading. Celestia help me. I'm tired of being responsible. Waking up like this - being taken care of for once - it felt good. But it doesn't feel right either. Like I'm cutting off part of myself."
  2259. > "This why you decided you suddenly wanted to come back with me?"
  2260. "Some of it."
  2261. > Lowering your head back to his side, you heave a heavy sigh.
  2262. "Y'know how you were talking about how you should've known how out of it I was when you sent me out to scout the landing spot and shouldn't have sent me out?"
  2263. > "Yeah?"
  2264. "You couldn't have known. When - when Giselle admitted that she was thinking about leaving, I as much as told her to. She wanted to go home so badly..."
  2265. > Sucking another hard breath in, you go on.
  2266. "I told her, since we hadn't seen any other griffons she should stay with us until we hit the mainland. But then the next morning..."
  2267. > "...they showed up, and she wanted to go so badly she didn't even think of what might happen."
  2268. > Anonymous' hand moves up, settling on your shoulder and giving a squeeze.
  2269. > The action tickles your collar slightly, and you laugh bitterly as you feel its weight on your neck shift.
  2270. "Maybe it was my destiny to end up wearing this. Maybe it was a sign that it was time for me to give up, and I should've listened."
  2271. > After a long few moments, he replies:
  2272. > "To answer your original question, I don't believe in destiny. I think that we all have to face the one day when our time comes, but that's different. Destiny says you don't have a choice. I say, what you do still changes what that day is going to be like."
  2273.  
  2274. > You'd reply, but his fingers are currently doing something magical to the bands of muscle across your back that support your wings.
  2275. > "The hard thing is, that means we have to be responsible for our choices too. But it doesn't mean we have to let them eat us up. That make sense?"
  2276. "Mmm."
  2277. > "Good."
  2278. > It hadn't been a flat affirmative, but that was okay.
  2279. > "The way I see it, you'd been leaning on your teammates to be a measure of how you were doing. After they were gone, though, you started being your own judge."
  2280. "Always judged m'self..."
  2281. > "Yes, but you had their comments to compare against. After all that, there wasn't anyone you respected or cared enough about to take their word on."
  2282. "So I tore m'self a new one instead. S'pose so."
  2283. > "Seems like. Now, I'm not saying you just needed a good hug - though I'm not complaining about this either -"
  2284. > Your tail flicks and cheeks feel a touch of heat at the reminder of your situation.
  2285. > "-but, it seems to me you just needed someone to snap you back into the proper frame of reference somehow. Again."
  2286. "S'probably true. The first few months apart..."
  2287. > You hesitate, flinching at the thought of bringing up those memories, but forge ahead:
  2288. "...don't take this the wrong way, but you can't imagine what it's like in there. Whipping or beating, the shock collar, getting hosed down with icewater - all of that I could take."
  2289. > Mouth opening to reply, Anonymous is instead cut off as you go on:
  2290. "Don't pity me or anything. It's nothing nopony else didn't endure too, and I could deal with all of that better than a lot of them. But just, the incessant imprisonment?"
  2291. > Head twisting over, you bring it down to rest on its side across his chest.
  2292. > The deep, slow thump-thump of his heart reaches your ear, and you nod.
  2293. "So yeah. I turned pretty hard on myself, just to stay sane."
  2294. > "I know about being hard on myself. I'd say to trust me, but you already know that story."
  2295.  
  2296. "Says the guy who tried to badmouth himself when I offered to stay along last night."
  2297. > Anonymous laughs - with your ear against his chest, it's a deeper and more resonant sound.
  2298. > "That's different. That's me making sure you don't walk into something under false assumptions about who I am."
  2299. "You put up with a lot of stuff from me."
  2300. > "I put a lot of money into you as well."
  2301. > Snorting softly, you flick your tail against his leg again and roll your eyes.
  2302. > He can't see the eyes, of course, but it feels right.
  2303. > Following that, you lay quietly in that position - cheek to his chest, the fabric of his shirt doing little to muffle the regular pace of his heart.
  2304. > After the last few frenetic days bouncing from place to place, barely escaping with your life more than once, the moment of peace seems...
  2305. > ...justified.
  2306. > As though reality had finally recognized the massive debt it'd been running up against you lately.
  2307. > "I don't think, though, that just going back is going to... absolve you of that responsibility."
  2308. "I know."
  2309. > Your gaze roams across the narrow cabin, taking in the aging aircraft that you'd come to call home.
  2310. > The flaking paint, raced through by lines of cracks.
  2311. > The scuffed floors, rubbed down where innumerable cargos had been dragged over them.
  2312. > The empty bed on the far side that you'd been given.
  2313. > Once a welcome gift, now it looked... empty.
  2314. > Lonely.
  2315. "Yeah, I know. I'm not expecting it will. But it'll mean I'll have someone to - how'd you put it? Lean on to be a measure of how I'm doing."
  2316. > Anonymous makes a small affirmative noise, his hand settling back on your head - free ear flicking at the touch, but not unhappily.
  2317. "Y'know, we should get up at some point and that isn't helping convince me."
  2318. > "You can. I'm not moving just yet."
  2319. "Well, then I think I'll be staying a bit longer as well."
  2320. > Especially if he keeps scratching the edge of your ear like that!
  2321.  
  2322. > "...you know, if I knew all it'd take to get you this attached to being in my bed was to screw up that badly, I'd have done that a lot sooner and-"
  2323. > This earns him a wing again lightly batted across the face, and a smug smirk from your lips.
  2324. "Your only screw up is not knowing when to keep your mouth shut."
  2325. > "And you'd know?"
  2326. "Yes, I would. I'd say I'm an expert in it, in fact."
  2327. > "Alright then, miss expert, I guess I'm not moving either."
  2328. "What, the slave controlling the master with just a touch? I'm shocked. If I'd known this was your weakness, I'd have done this a lot sooner as well."
  2329. > "Hey, it feels nice. I won't deny that. Plus..."
  2330. > Head leaning up until his lips are almost at your ear, he adds in a conspiratorial whisper:
  2331. > '...one of your legs is on my balls, and I'm not going anywhere until you let that up."
  2332. > If your cheeks had gotten any hotter, they'd probably have set the sheets on fire.
  2333.  
  2334. "You!"
  2335. > Practically leaping from the bed, you struggle from his grip as Anonymous laughs uproariously.
  2336. "I - I - if you!"
  2337. > Huffing heavily you snap your ears back and glare at him, tail twitching.
  2338. > Nevermind the aches doing so reawakens in your muscles, that isn't something you are going to allow to pass!
  2339. > Reaching up, Anonymous props himself on one elbow up to ruffle your mane aggressively.
  2340. > "Nah, you're alright."
  2341. "If you were anyone - anyone! - else... even if you were one of my 'bolts, I'd buck you into next week for that!"
  2342. > "Try me, Spits."
  2343. > Drawing back on leg, you deliver a swift stroke across his cheek that leaves him rubbing his cheek ruefully.
  2344. > "...okay, I did literally ask for that. Fair enough."
  2345. > Hopping from the bed, you stagger on still-stiff legs but stay upright.
  2346. > Stalking - tail held low and with swift, proud steps - to the far side of the cabin, you ruffle your wings and huff proudly.
  2347. > An ear twitches as Anonymous' feet hit the floor behind you, but doesn't rise.
  2348. > "Hey, Spitfire..."
  2349. "Anonymous."
  2350. > Your voice is shaky.
  2351. "I appreciate what you've done for me - now and before. So please, please do me one favor."
  2352. > "Yeah?"
  2353. "Don't do anything stupid to make me angry with you, okay? I like what we've got, you know that much. But - not that far."
  2354. > His footsteps approach close behind you, a hand reaching down to rest gently on your mane.
  2355. > Your ear twitches, flicking at the touch, but you don't pull away.
  2356. > "I'm sorry. I guess... was assuming that with how close we were, you'd be okay with joking like that."
  2357. "No. That - that's too much."
  2358. > After a moment's hesitation, he blurts out:
  2359. > "...when you were being traded around before, they never-"
  2360. "No! Thank Celestia, no. I was way too much trouble for them to try that. That - that was the one thing they couldn't take from me."
  2361. > Sighing softly, you drop your head and stare at you hooves.
  2362.  
  2363. "The one thing I could protect myself from. They would've tried, if they could have broken me."
  2364. > "Doesn't seem like they could take your spirit, either."
  2365. "Broken it, no. But going through that still poisoned me to some degree."
  2366. > "Well-"
  2367. > Dropping to one knee, Anonymous holds out a hand - palm up and open.
  2368. > "-I apologize. That was way out of line for me."
  2369. > Dragging your eyes up at last, you drop a hoof into his palm.
  2370. > A ragged smile touches your lips.
  2371. "Accepted. Shouldn't have hit you. I'm just... touchy about that."
  2372. > Grimacing and touching his cheek, Anonymous shakes his head.
  2373. > "Nah, I literally dared you to do that. Besides, I think I once told you: I only take what I can fairly catch, and taking advantage of your staying with me isn't right."
  2374. > He had, you remember.
  2375. > And looking down at the hoof in his palm, you reflect that you hadn't struck him with the hard edge but with your hair-covered ankle, bent to a point.
  2376. > Painful, but not as bad as it could have been.
  2377. > What did that reflect, you wonder?
  2378. "So, what now?"
  2379. > "Now... I need to go out and find some food. We're all out."
  2380. "What, you don't want to take off now?"
  2381. > "With you in this shape? You're able mobile. No - we'll make the last leg of the trip once you're rested up and better."
  2382. > No sense in arguing that.
  2383. > You'd had more than one argument with a Wonderbolt who didn't want to be taken off active performance after an injury, so his position is quite understandable.
  2384. "Okay, in that case let me get my saddlebags."
  2385. > "Not a chance. I want you staying back here with the plane."
  2386. > That, on the other hand...
  2387. "No way."
  2388. > "Yeah, way. If you cramp up or run out of energy halfway out there, dragging you back could be a serious problem."
  2389. "And I'm not a bit obvious here? It's a giant plane! Nopony could miss this!"
  2390. > Anonymous has started pulling on proper clothes, but pauses to raise an eyebrow.
  2391. > "We are in Equestria proper now, right?"
  2392. "Yes?"
  2393.  
  2394. > "Then lock the hatches, and if anyone breaks in tell them you're so glad to see them. Tell them the collar would zap you if you tried to leave on your own or something."
  2395. "And if they aren't friendly? For that matter, what about if they find you?"
  2396. > "I have a gun."
  2397. "You said you didn't know if you could use it."
  2398. > "Didn't know if I could kill someone. I can damn well make them think twice."
  2399. > Stomping your hoof against the cabin floor, you grit your teeth.
  2400. > Sighing, Anonymous pauses and looks over in your direction - head cocked.
  2401. > "Look, Spitfire - you want to go out, I get that. But you're not in shape to be hiking around the woods right now."
  2402. "...actually, I'm trying to be worried about you - which considering what you just did, is saying something!"
  2403. > He steps to your side, chuckling.
  2404. > "Yeah, I know. But I'll be alright. I'm not an idiot about hiking in the forest either, and I have flares if all else goes wrong."
  2405. > Huffing softly, you slump down.
  2406. "I'm not going to win this, am I?"
  2407. > "Nope. Calling this one a direct order - I don't want you wearing yourself down on a point of pride."
  2408. > You're seriously considering pointing out that it's not a point of pride but a legitimate concern.
  2409. > But then, you'd just acknowledged that arguing wouldn't be useful.
  2410. > So, maybe not.
  2411. "Just... don't do anything stupid out there, alright?"
  2412. > "I won't. I'll even bring back anything so you can tell me if it's poisonous before I go stuffing it in my face-hole."
  2413. > That somehow manages to bring a small smile to your face.
  2414. "Okay, maybe you're not as dumb as I had thought."
  2415. > "Certified genius. And - if you do here gunshots or see a flare, by all means come out after me."
  2416. > And just like that, he is gone.
  2417. > Gun in one hand, pack slung over the other - hopping out a hatch and down onto the rocky bank of the stream and hiking off into the snow-laden forest.
  2418. > Temperatures must have risen since you'd nearly killed yourself, as some of the snow seemed to have melted.
  2419.  
  2420. > Even so, you're seriously wondering what Anonymous thinks he is going to find out there after a storm like that.
  2421. > By now most of Equestria would have wrapped up winter, but you were far from any settlement.
  2422. > And in any case, everything pointed to the weather schedules hardly being kept anymore.
  2423. > Any further rest proves to be impossible, so you pass the time trying to get yourself back into shape.
  2424. > Nothing too extensive, but several rounds of stretches and gentle exercise to work the stiffness from your body.
  2425. > It helps with keeping your mind from wandering as well.
  2426. > Despite his reassurances, fear still flittered about your mind.
  2427. > Fear, though, you know how to do with.
  2428. > For months you'd faced it down in that cage.
  2429. > You could last a few hours until he came back.
  2430. > ...
  2431. > Right?
  2432. > Despite the distractions, you still leap to your hooves when the hatch pops open and he climbs back in.
  2433. "Hey! No problems?"
  2434. > "None at all. Didn't find a ton, but I think I pilfered a couple of squirrels' acorn stashes in trees. And found... whatever these are."
  2435. > The cluster of berries he pulls from his pack immediately catches your attention.
  2436. > Bright, blood red, they at first appeared rotten to the point of translucency.
  2437. > Except that, as the shifted in his hand, light almost seemed to dance of a fractal-like pattern within them.
  2438. "Crystal berries. They're adapted to the far north - from around the Crystal Empire. I'm surprised there's a flowering bush this far south."
  2439. > "Must've been a rough winter if you've got arctic plants growing down here."
  2440. "Rough few winters. They don't grow that fast - a few ponies tried, after the Empire was reopened."
  2441. > "They are edible, then?"
  2442. "Oh yes, absolutely."
  2443. > Rearing up, you take a sniff at the cluster.
  2444. "I don't think they're quite ripe, but definitely edible."
  2445. > The meal is hardly the most filling you've ever had, or the tastiest.
  2446.  
  2447. > 'Not quite ripe' turns out to be an understatement; the Crystal Berries are far from ready and the acorns bitter and mushy after having been frozen through the winter months.
  2448. > And yet, at the same time...
  2449. > You can't help but appreciate that Anonymous is the one who'd go out and get food for you.
  2450. "Y'know..."
  2451. > Lifting a hoof, you jab it across the cabin at him and speak through a mouthful of bitter acorn.
  2452. "I'm reasonably sure this is supposed to work the other way."
  2453. > Seated on his own bunk, Anonymous raises one eyebrow.
  2454. > "Huh?"
  2455. "Slave is supposed to be the one feeding, not being fed."
  2456. > "Well, when we get back to civilization, you can pay for dinner."
  2457. "Awesome! I know this amazing place in Cloudsdale, serves the greatest hay-pot pies you've ever eaten."
  2458. > "Uh-huh."
  2459. > Anonymous is smirking, but nods anyhow.
  2460. "Yep! We'll just land the plane right on the clouds and go right on in..."
  2461. > Neither of you can avoid the snickering, and soon devolve into open laughter.
  2462.  
  2463. --------
  2464.  
  2465. > By the following morning you are feeling considerably better.
  2466. > The last of the aches in your muscles have finally subsided and you feel considerably improved as you rise - energized and refreshed.
  2467. > A bit hungry, perhaps, but that is something you can put aside for a while.
  2468. > With the passing of your miserable state, the world seems to have regained some of its wonder.
  2469. > Rather than hostile, the chill early spring morning seemed beautiful - light sparkling off of treetops lit by the first rays of Celestia's sun.
  2470. > Though, when you had finally gone to sleep the night prior it had been in your own bed, tucked alone beneath your own blankets.
  2471. > The empty feeling this leaves in you come morning is something of a surprise.
  2472. > Admittedly having someone to stay with - someone to just keep beside you at night - had been...
  2473. > Pleasant.
  2474. > It'd been far, far too long alone.
  2475. > And that you trusted Anonymous enough to stay with him was in and of itself a reassuring point.
  2476. > From considering kicking his head in during the night to calmly sleeping alongside him.
  2477. > It'd have seemed absurd all that time in the past.
  2478. > But at the same time, you can't help but feel some uncertainty as well.
  2479. > Despite what you'd told him, the prospect of going back to Earth and continuing to fly with Anonymous made your stomach spin slightly.
  2480. > It was, for better or worse, abandoning everything you'd been working towards for so long.
  2481. > Or was it?
  2482. > There was still a lot of good to be done on Earth, things you could maybe help with.
  2483. > Ponies you could help.
  2484. > You hadn't felt this nervous since the day a discreet, unassuming letter had landed in your mailbox to announce your selection for the captain's wings.
  2485. > Rolling out of bed with a sigh, you disentangle the last of your fiery tail from the blankets and look around.
  2486. "Anonymous?"
  2487.  
  2488. > A shake of your head barely manages to control the tangled mess your mane had become, but it isn't really a primary concern right now.
  2489. > Your owner isn't in his bed, nor heating something over the electric hotplate.
  2490. > The tiny bathroom's door is unlocked, and the cockpit is empty as well.
  2491. > Had he gone out to look for food again?
  2492. > No, Anonymous wouldn't have done that - he was nothing if not safety-conscious.
  2493. > You're just beginning to panic when a noise from outside caught one ear, pricking it in the direction of a window.
  2494. > Cautiously opening the hatch and sticking your head out, you can feel the nervousness flee your body as you spot Anonymous.
  2495. > He's perched on a spot relatively free of snow near the treeline, kneeling to examine something.
  2496. > Leaping out and gliding to the ground, you fluff your wings out and enjoy the sensation of fresh air on your feathers and mane again.
  2497. > Picking up into a happy little trot, you're almost at his side when the smell hits you.
  2498. > Human or pony, the acrid odor of vomit can't be missed.
  2499. > Trot turns to gallop, and by the time you reach his side it's clear that he isn't kneeling by choice.
  2500. > Anonymous' face shines with a sheen of sweat despite the chill and his breath is coming shallowly.
  2501. > He hadn't even thrown on anything to ward against the early-morning chill, still in his light sleep clothes.
  2502. > The spatter of discolored mess on the ground in front of him gives you a good idea of why.
  2503. "Sweet Celestia! Anonymous-"
  2504. > "I know, I know!"
  2505. > He laughs, a bitter and pained sound.
  2506. > "Look like shit, you don't have to tell me."
  2507. "Well what are you doing all the way out here?!"
  2508. > "Trying to keep from disturbing you."
  2509. > Nice of him, but-
  2510. "You don't have to hide something like this from me!"
  2511. > "Hide it?"
  2512. > He laughs again, before suddenly breaking down into a retching fit - his whole body heaving with each attempt.
  2513. > "Guess you didn't go into the bathroom in there, huh? Smell would've told you enough."
  2514.  
  2515. "No, I didn't. You still could have said something last night, you know!"
  2516. > "No."
  2517. > He shakes his head.
  2518. > "Didn't hide it. Started pretty late, after bed. Don't know what."
  2519. > Your stomach does another fearful flip.
  2520. > Food poisoning?
  2521. > But you'd eaten the exact same things, and you were fine!
  2522. > Unless it was something that hit humans?
  2523. "Nevermind. Come on, back to the plane - or you'll freeze out here as well."
  2524. > Moving up ahead of him, you extend a wing out and let him use your back as leverage to get back up.
  2525. > Half-walking, half-stumbling back to the hatch, Anonymous nearly collapses into the first seat he reaches - face pale and eyes squeezed shut.
  2526. > "Damn, this is hitting me hard."
  2527. > Settling on your haunches in front of him, you feels your ears falling as he catches his breath.
  2528. "Are you going to be able to hold up?"
  2529. > "Have to. We need to get off the ground and back to the Zones."
  2530. "Is that a good idea?"
  2531. > "No choice. Been drinking plenty, think I can make it. They'll have a proper hospital there, if nothing else."
  2532. > That makes sense, you suppose, but even so...
  2533. > You peer at the human questioningly, but if nothing else his resolve is unshaken by however ill he feels:
  2534. > His gaze is as solid as ever, and at your uncertain look he shakes his head.
  2535. > "Making an executive decision on this, Spitfire. We can't afford to stay here longer by any measure."
  2536. "I can't say I agree... but even if you're not technically my master right now, you are the captain."
  2537. > Anonymous evidently still feels well enough to crack a grin.
  2538. > "I know. Let's go."
  2539. > Apparently having recovered enough to make it to the cockpit, Anonymous focuses down on resuming the trip with singleminded determination.
  2540. > There are, after all, at least six hours left in the trip by your estimation - possibly even as many as eight, depending on where exactly he was going.
  2541.  
  2542. > Your knowledge of the Equestrian Special Governance Zones - and the locations of the static portal maintained by them - is spotty at best.
  2543. > At least being back on familiar terrain makes it easier to navigate.
  2544. > After peering long and hard at your predictions of location - a process that involves a great deal of rubbing at his eyes and struggling to focus - Anonymous sighs.
  2545. > "We won't pick up the navigational beacons for a while yet. If there are any civilian ones on the edges of the zones - and I doubt it - it'll be three or four hours."
  2546. "And if there aren't?"
  2547. > "Then we won't see any until we hit the interior regions. The airfields around the portals will have some, at least."
  2548. "Airfields?"
  2549. > "There're still a few military bases there; they'll take a plane in distress or tell us what others are open."
  2550. > You darken at the thought of having to step into a military facility again.
  2551. > That experience was something you'd rather leave behind; hopefully merely getting directions would be enough.
  2552. > Looking over and spotting the dark look on your face, Anonymous forces a smile and despite the faint sheen of sweat on his hands.
  2553. > "We'll be alright, Spitfire. I promise."
  2554. > While you force yourself to nod in agreement, the truth is that he is looking less and less certain with every passing moment.
  2555. > In the first three hours of flight he is forced to leave the cockpit to visit the restroom twice, and breaks down in a retching fit in the cockpit at least twice more.
  2556. > Each visit leaves you worried he won't be able to make it back, as his travel has been reduced to a lurching stumble from handhold to handhold.
  2557. > By the fourth hour, either everything in him has been spent or he cannot bring himself to stand again.
  2558. > Anonymous simply sits in the seat, gripping the flight yoke with white-knuckled hands and staring straight ahead.
  2559. > You'd criticize him for it, except that your hooves are locked into the grips he'd installed with just as fierce an intensity.
  2560.  
  2561. > More than once you consider - as absurd as it seems - getting out to try and push the plane forward.
  2562. > Anything to make it go faster.
  2563. > That plan is blatantly absurd, however.
  2564. > In the meantime you opt instead to talk - both for the distraction and something to think on.
  2565. "So I've been thinking about going back with you, like you told me to."
  2566. > "An'?"
  2567. > Despite his state, your owner still manages to sound surprised at the chosen topic.
  2568. "I still think I want to do it."
  2569. > "I'sa stupid idea."
  2570. "I know. That's one of the things I've realized, thinking about it."
  2571. > Sighing heavily, you relinquish the wheel long enough to run a hoof through your mane and glance at your reflection in the cockpit glass.
  2572. > The mare who looks back bears little resemblance to the one who'd once stared into a steam-clouded bathroom mirror in a shabby hotel.
  2573. > Though your appearance was still a bit rough, to say the least, it looked like you'd...
  2574. > Softened.
  2575. > Or maybe just woken up.
  2576. "The truth is, I'm not sure it's the right call. I'm not sure of a lot of things right now."
  2577. > "Then don' tie y'self down t'me."
  2578. "Why shouldn't I?"
  2579. > Tearing your eyes away, you look across the cockpit at him.
  2580. "Sometimes, you just have to ride the wind and let it take you where it does."
  2581. > "Y'ponies are still dependin' on you."
  2582. "I know you won't stop me from trying to help the other 'bolts. You might even stop me from doing something particularly stupid, which is another bonus."
  2583. > Despite his weakness, Anonymous manages to snort.
  2584. > "M'too good t'you, I know."
  2585. "Not what I meant!"
  2586. > But there's a faint grin on his face and you rather suspect there is one on yours as well.
  2587. > After a few minutes, though, you work up the courage to speak again.
  2588. "Look, I'm trying to be serious here. I'm trying to say - I'm not certain going back is the right choice. Not at all. But, I'm thinking about it - which is a fair bit better than just blindly jumping in, yeah?"
  2589.  
  2590. > You look back to the instruments and windshield, sighing heavily.
  2591. "That was always one of the things we taught in the Wonderbolts. Consider on the consequences of your actions. Remember that they can spiral out down the line."
  2592. "Equestria... isn't what I left behind anymore. Maybe it can be that place one day again, but running back and just expecting it'd have gone back... it was foalish of me. And..."
  2593. > You hesitate heavily with the next words, reaching up and feeling at the collar.
  2594. "...and, despite the conditions, I have admit that it hasn't been awful here. It's not the same, neither is anything else. Winds are always blowing, skies are always changing... and you can't expect them to just stay still."
  2595. > At last you look over again... only to find that at some point Anonymous had fallen unconscious.
  2596. > Maybe even missed your whole admission.
  2597. > Chuckling gently, you shake your head and re-fix your attention on holding the course.
  2598. > Switching through the radio channels you know, talking on them just to see if anypony - anyone - responds.
  2599. > It's an easy state to fall in to the haze of routine with, and so you jump with a sudden startle when the cockpit is filled with the harsh tone of a warning buzzer.
  2600. > Eyes sweeping across the instruments, your stomach lurches into your throat as you spot the amber alarm lamp blinking furiously.
  2601. > The words 'LOW FUEL WARNING' stenciled all too clearly below it.
  2602.  
  2603. > Low fuel.
  2604. > Of course you'd be low on fuel.
  2605. > Now, when you were so close and the need to reach your destination so desperate...
  2606. "Anonymous?"
  2607. > He doesn't answer - asleep, unconscious, or just too delerious to hear, you aren't sure.
  2608. > Peering at the fuel gauges you run a quick bit of math in your head.
  2609. > An hour's flying, maybe an hour and a half before you were down to the last drops.
  2610. > Briefly the idea of trying to toss things overboard comes to mind, but you can't exactly leave the controls now.
  2611. > Gritting your teeth, you stand in the seat - precariously balancing on your hind legs - and trim the propellers' pitch.
  2612. > It might do nothing, but it might eke out a few more miles with what precious gallons you have left.
  2613. > Resettling yourself in the seat, you hunker down and try to calm your twitching wings and flicking tail.
  2614. > Nervousness had never gotten to you like this before - not even on the cusp of your most important races and shows.
  2615. > But now, it seemed impossible to put it away.
  2616. > Every second seemed to stretch on to infinity; the plane's previous clipped pace apparently exchanged for one slower than a foal's crawl.
  2617. > Your ears prick at the creaks and groans of the aging airframe, mind inventing sounds of the engines coughing their last and sputtering to silence.
  2618. > Each time you glance over at Anonymous, he seems even worse - face now turning pale even though you are fairly certain he is sleeping what remains of the flight away.
  2619. > Swallowing heavily, you grip the control yoke harder and mutter a brief prayer for tail-winds to carry your further.
  2620. > And, in time, the land beneath changes.
  2621. > Roads reappear, cleanly kept and visible even from altitude.
  2622. > Small villages pass beneath from time to time.
  2623. > Clouds travel in familiar patterns, the work of weather patrols tending the land.
  2624. > You must be inside the Special Governance Zone.
  2625. "Almost there..."
  2626. > The words are barely breathed under your throat.
  2627.  
  2628. > The transponder's dials are nudged with one hoof until it displays a steady 7700 - an emergency code - before adjusting the radio to a similarly-purposed frequency.
  2629. "This is N803AA to anyone on this channel, please respond. N803AA, calling anyone on this channel."
  2630. > Nothing but the soft hiss of the headset's speakers comes back to you, but across the cockpit Anonymous stirrs.
  2631. > Waiting while you repeat the call twice more, he glances over at you and then out the window.
  2632. > Only when you give up and release the microphone switch does he speak:
  2633. > "Heh... s'this how 'questria used to look?"
  2634. > After a moment's consideration and looking out the passing windows, you nod.
  2635. "A bit. Fewer villages now - not enough recovered from the sickness, and the Governors want to maintain close control. You would've seen a lot more ponies out there."
  2636. > After a moment, you add:
  2637. "Not a lot of cloud-homes that I see, either. Probably because they're so easy to float off in. Too hard to control."
  2638. > "S'beautiful."
  2639. > On that, you can't disagree.
  2640. > Even in its dispirited state - so much lost - Equestria held a special vibrancy that couldn't be found anywhere else.
  2641. > It was a land that reflected its inhabitants more than any other.
  2642. "...so many ponies who won't ever see this again..."
  2643. > You start at your own words; they'd come almost without thought.
  2644. > But when Anonymous give you a questioning look, you shrug lightly with your wings.
  2645. "You think anypony who is a slave will get to come back here?"
  2646. > "Y'are."
  2647. > Were it any other person, you'd be annoyed at the snarkiiness of the answer.
  2648. > As it is, you're just glad to hear he has enough left in him to still display a sense of humor.
  2649. "Not what I meant, and you know it."
  2650. > "Yeah."
  2651. > His head lolls back towards the window again, eyes staring.
  2652. "By now, there're probably foals born on Earth who've never even seen Equestria - who don't have a clue what home really is."
  2653.  
  2654. > It's hard to keep the anger out of your voice, but if Anonymous hears it he doesn't seem offput by it.
  2655. > "Y'don't think Earth could ever be like this?"
  2656. "Not as long as we're kept as slaves, no. Tartarus - Equestria itself is barely recovering; you expect can heal another world?"
  2657. > This prompts a long silence from Anonymous.
  2658. > He's begun to shiver softly, you notice.
  2659. > "...and y'are still tryin' t'take me home instead."
  2660. "We've talked about this."
  2661. > "An' it's not dissuadin' you."
  2662. > After a moment, he reaches out a hand - pale and trembling - towards you.
  2663. > Taking a hoof off the control yoke is of course impossible, but you stretch one wing across instead.
  2664. > His finger hook gently around a pair of primaries, not really grasping but barely holding on.
  2665. > It occurs to you that even when he'd been warming you from your icy mistake, Anonymous had never really touched your feathers.
  2666. > The next time you glance over, he's fallen asleep again - head once again back and arm fallen limply to his lap.
  2667. > At least you could still see the movements of his chest still, however shallow they might be.
  2668. "This is N803AA to anyone on this frequency. Pan-pan, pan-pan; I have injured onboard and am low on fuel. Please respond..."
  2669. > Every few minutes you repeat the message, throwing a desperate line into the ether.
  2670. > Maybe you'd be better off trying to circle a village until some pegasus came and investigated.
  2671. > They might be able to direct-
  2672. > "N803AA, CGUA control. We copy you. Please advise on your situation."
  2673. > The voice comes so suddenly and it has been so long since you'd heard anyone on the radio that you aren't sure they're real.
  2674. > "N803AA, CGUA contro-"
  2675. "CGUA control, N803AA. I am in control of the aircraft, but I am severely short on fuel. My Captain is incapacitated, I am the only crew in control."
  2676. > Your tone is far more strangled than you'd intended.
  2677. > Fortunately, whoever is on the other end takes it far more calmly than they had any right to.
  2678.  
  2679. > "N803AA, roger. Advise on fuel status?"
  2680. > Peering at the gauge in question, you surpress a shiver.
  2681. "...forty-five minutes, maybe a little less than."
  2682. > "Roger. Standbye."
  2683. > Again time seems to stretch on to infinity as you wait for them to come up again.
  2684. > "N803AA, CGUA control. If you can reach us, we'll have a runway open for you."
  2685. > If you can reach them?
  2686. > "VOR beacon frequency is-"
  2687. "I can't set the frequency right now, sorry. You're going to have to guide me in."
  2688. > "Roger. Turn to two-four-zero and continue at current altitude. Be advised, you will be leaving Equestrian Special Governance Zone airspace and entering a military airspace."
  2689. > So it was an airbase.
  2690. > Ah, well - foolish to expect there'd be anything else.
  2691. "I understand. Turning to two-four-zero and holding altitude."
  2692. > Just acting under instructions again was a relief.
  2693. > Having someone to speak to is distinctly reassuring in its own way, even if it doesn't actually reduce any of the real problems.
  2694. > Time seems to begin to pass again.
  2695. > So much so, in fact, that when the low fuel warning goes off again it comes as a complete and total shock.
  2696. > Once again you leap in your seat at the buzzing, looking down at the painfully flickering yellow light.
  2697. "...CGUA control, I am down to my last twenty minutes' fuel. Request distance to you."
  2698. > "Current distance is Seven-niner miles."
  2699. > There's no way you can make it.
  2700. > Not at your current airspeed - that much fuel might get you a little under halfway there, and gliding a few miles more.
  2701. > You know it, and from the tone of the flight director's voice he knows it too.
  2702. > Another jump runs through you as something touches you.
  2703. > Anonymous, reaching out of his seat and stretching as far as he could to lay a hand on your shoulder.
  2704. > "Spitfire..."
  2705. > His voice is weak, but even so he's smiling.
  2706. > "S'Okay, Spitfire. Y'did your part. Everythin's just catching up to me. It's my time now."
  2707. "...the fuck it is!"
  2708.  
  2709. > There's no hiding the dampness in your eyes.
  2710. > Or any reason to hide it.
  2711. > "No - go now, Spitfire. You can keep going. Y'can fly."
  2712. "Not doing that, no way."
  2713. > Shaking your head, you hunker down in the seat and stare directly ahead.
  2714. > "Y'ponies need you."
  2715. "I'll still be there for them."
  2716. > "I can order you, y'know. M'still y'master."
  2717. "Then I'll just have to be a bad, bad slave and disobey your order."
  2718. > His hand settles on your wing, gripping it tightly near the base.
  2719. > "Spitfire-"
  2720. "No. No buts. I'm sorry - this is one order I can't-"
  2721. > And then he's somehow managed to turn in his seat, facing you and reaching out with keys jingling in his hands.
  2722. > You barely have a chance to move as he reaches up and - with some difficulty as his hands are trembling - slips the key into your collar and twists.
  2723. > It falls away to the cockpit floor with a clatter, your neck free of the weight for the first time in so long it actually feels...
  2724. > Wrong.
  2725. > "Spitfire..."
  2726. > Slumping back into his seat, Anonymous smiles weakly.
  2727. > "...go."
  2728. > Again you shake your head, ears pinned down to either side.
  2729. > "You're free. Nobody's gonna follow you. S'just... my time now. Go out the back, I'll keep her steady."
  2730. > Getting up out of your seat feels almost surreal, the headset falling from your ears to join the collar on the floor.
  2731. > Each step taken through the aircraft comes as if taken by somepony outside of your body.
  2732. > Passing through is a montage of your life since he had purchased you.
  2733. > The navigation table, where you had poured over routes and weather reports many a night.
  2734. > The tiny kitchen, rattling faintly from the thunder of the engines overhead as they sucked down the final minutes of precious fuel.
  2735. > The beds, both still unmade from that morning.
  2736. > In a dreamlike daze you shrug on your jacket and saddlebags - your eye is catching a spot of color sticking out from beneath the mattress.
  2737. > Grabbing it with your teeth reveals it as the postcard with Fire Streak on it.
  2738.  
  2739. > It remains clutched in your jaws as you resume walking rearward, through the tiny bathroom into the tail compartment.
  2740. > Unfortunately as you open the tail hatch it flutters free, falling to the cabin floor..
  2741. > Craning your neck back to grab at the card again, the corner of your eye catches a glimpse through the opened hatch all the way up the length of the aircraft to the distant cockpit.
  2742. > Staring for a moment, you shake your head and look down at the postcard fluttering in the gusts tearing in through the open hatch.
  2743. > Fire Streak had forgotten who his real teammates were, giving it all up for an illusion...
  2744. > As you watch, the wind finally catches ahold of the card and sends it spiraling out of sight through the hatch.
  2745. > Beneath it passes Equestria.
  2746. > Taking a deep breath to steady yourself you nod in understanding - and make your choice.
  2747.  
  2748. > Your saddlebags practically ricochet against the cabin wall as you hurl them off.
  2749. > A running leap carries you practically to the cockpit, and another through that hatch and back into your seat.
  2750. > The headset is scooped from where it had fallen on the floor - not even caring that grabbing it in your jaws probably wasn't the most hygienic thing ever - and slammed back down onto your ears.
  2751. > Anonymous is slumped in his seat, somehow still managing to hold the yoke steady.
  2752. > He stirs as you take up the your control column in your hooves, cracking his eyes open.
  2753. > "Spitfire? I told you to go."
  2754. "Yeah, well - since you set me free and stuff, I guess this is a planejacking."
  2755. > "That's... stupid."
  2756. > With how weak he is, Anonymous' voice is practically a monotone.
  2757. > It's impossible to know exactly what emotion is behind those words, or in his eyes as he watches you.
  2758. "Yeah, well, I'm pretty sure 'hardheaded and obstinate' is somewhere on my slave profile."
  2759. > You mutter the retort quietly, eyeing the instruments and running ideas through your head as hard as you could.
  2760. "I'd forgotten who my team is now. Gone back to living in the past. Well, fuck that."
  2761. > He doesn't say anything, but you think the corner of Anonymous' mouth creeps up into a tiny smile.
  2762. > Grinning back, you refocus on the issues at hoof.
  2763. > The biggest problem was that you couldn't reach the throttles or propeller pitch levers - and thus the plane's airspeed - without letting go of the control column and rearing back on your hindlegs.
  2764. > That would, of course, be insane.
  2765. > There were, however, other relevant controls you could reach.
  2766. > Like the fuel shutoff valves.
  2767. > Engines sputter to silence as you choke them of what precious fuel remains.
  2768. > Nudging the aircraft into a shallow dive, you're suddenly quite thankful for its antiquated, unpowered controls.
  2769. > "N803AA, we see you losing altitude. Are you still in control of the aircraft?"
  2770.  
  2771. "CGUA control, affirmative. I can't reach you, but have shut off the engines now and am descending to a lower altitude to look for a safe spot to attempt a field landing."
  2772. > "Ah, roger. N803AA, are your throttles jammed?"
  2773. "Negative."
  2774. > "Are you in distress?"
  2775. "Negative, it's just - I can't reach them without taking my hooves off the yoke."
  2776. > There's a long silence after that, during which you're fairly certain you can hear multiple jaws hitting the floor despite the microphone not being open.
  2777. > "N803AA, please say again."
  2778. > Stupid, stupid!
  2779. > You just had to phrase it that way!
  2780. > Not saying-
  2781. > "N803AA-"
  2782. "CGUA control, I am an Equestrian indentured aboard the aircraft. I am in control of the aircraft, and suggest you mobilize your crash response unit as I am likely to go down short of your position."
  2783. > Another aching pause follows, during which your teeth grind constantly in frustration at their hesitation.
  2784. > Come on, just give you something!
  2785. "CGUA control, I'm going to need a crash response-"
  2786. > "Can we, uh, talk to your owner?"
  2787. > All at once, you fall apart.
  2788. > Nearly crushing the microphone switch under your hoof, you snarl into it:
  2789. "Listen to me, you bastards! My owner is unconscious in the seat next to me and won't be talking, let alone flying! And despite everything you and all of your fucking race has done to me, I AM going to get him safely on the ground! Now, I am descending to altitude three-zero-zero and continuing on my current course to search for a safe landing spot. I know my transponder is set for emergency squawk 7700 and you are watching me, so you get your Celestia-damned emergency unit moving towards me while I'm still in the air, or - and I know the cockpit recorder is catching this - you will be solely responsible for his death if I land this thing and can't get him out!"
  2790. > There's a long silence after that, with only your heavy breathing to be heard.
  2791. > Sweet Celestia, had you actually just done that...?
  2792.  
  2793. > "CGUA control, roger. Crash response unit has been alerted. Please continue to advise on your situation."
  2794. > You're almost certainly going to have Tartarus to pay for that little outburst one way or another, but right now it doesn't matter.
  2795. > Keeping the plane in a shallow dive lets you focus on examining the terrain ahead.
  2796. > Dense forest had long since turned to a patchwork of fields and occasional roads, though whether untended relics of old Equestria or signs of the new government's redevelopment attempts you aren't sure.
  2797. > None yet seemed large enough to take a plane, though, and you didn't want to risk plowing through a creek or the lines of trees bordering the fields.
  2798. > Or snapping the wings off while trying to come down on a too-narrow road.
  2799. > Or remember that you'd never actually landed the plane before.
  2800. > Shooting a worried glance over at Anonymous, slumped in his seat's restraints, you force the fear back down and focus.
  2801. > Wasn't that hard, was it?
  2802. > This wasn't any less insane than some of the courses you'd flown as a Wonderbolt.
  2803. > Except, of course, that your wings were far more sensitive and reponsive than this lumbering contraption.
  2804. > No.
  2805. > Focus.
  2806. > Altitude was bleeding out more rapidly now, and you're forced to - steadying the yoke with one forehoof - reach over for the switches to restart the engines.
  2807. > Already spinning wildly in the passing wind, they cough to life quickly.
  2808. > Only a few minutes of fuel left now, you're certain, but-
  2809. > There!
  2810. > Your heart breaks out into it's own galloping beat as a larger opening appears on the left - a field gone fallow, what might have once been oats or hay now growing tall and wild.
  2811. > As good a place to try for as any other.
  2812. "CGUA control, I am approaching an open field. I'm going to attempt a solid landing."
  2813. > "Roger. Crash response unit is moving and en route. Chopper is in the air."
  2814. "Understood."
  2815. > Hesitating a moment, you add:
  2816.  
  2817. "And, uh... if it's between me and him, get Anonymous out of the wreck first, understood?"
  2818. > He'd tried giving up his own life to save you.
  2819. > It only seemed right somehow.
  2820. > "Roger. Good luck."
  2821. > You certainly hope so.
  2822. > Definitely going to need it.
  2823. > The landing gear's switch is thrown, hydraulics whining as the wheels extend.
  2824. > Suddenly you're aware of how isolated you are in the cockpit - cut off from the wind and sky that was a pegasus' home.
  2825. > On a whim, you reach up and practically kick the hatch above you open.
  2826. > Instantly the cockpit is flooded with rushing wind; the cabin behind you is filled with flying paper and the crash of falling objects.
  2827. > But it hardly matters, because now you are home - in the wind, in the air.
  2828. > You close your eyes, and find yourself back on that first awful sea landing with Anonymous.
  2829. > The ocean is just below, waves hungry and reaching up for you.
  2830. > He is gripping the wheel tightly, teeth clenched and tone terse.
  2831. > Your neck is heavy with the weight of the collar, mind thick with the fear of the aircraft's walls closing in on you.
  2832. > Anonymous is yelling.
  2833. > "Go, now!"
  2834. > And then you're through the hatch and airborn.
  2835. > In that second, everything changes.
  2836. > Your eyes open.
  2837. > The sea is gone.
  2838. > The collar's weight vanishes.
  2839. > The fear drains away.
  2840. > Your voice is a whisper.
  2841. "Go."
  2842. > For the final time, you choke the engines to a standstill and let the plane glide down to the field.
  2843. > Everything from that point on until the wheels touch ground is a blur - a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions.
  2844. > Jolting sharply as it touches the ground, the aircraft shudders from nose to tail.
  2845. > Suddenly you're aware again - of the fuselage being dragged through a field of overgrown oats.
  2846. > Of the engines straining against the drag it was imparting.
  2847. > Of the fact that the well-built fence at the edge of the field is approaching rather faster than you'd realized...
  2848. "Oh, fu-"
  2849.  
  2850. > A terrible screeching crunch fills the air as the fence passes down beneath the nose.
  2851. > The entire plane bucks and heaves the nose falling to the ground with a thud - somehow still traveling through the densely-growing oats.
  2852. > Your body leaps forward, head snapping out straight forwards.
  2853. > One final, incongruous thought slips through your head - that you really, really wish groundponies weren't so obsessive about defining the limits of what was theirs.
  2854. > Then your forhead touches the wheel's metal and everything is blinding pain, sparkling vision, and roaring in your ears.
  2855. > At some point you become dully aware of hanging in the seat's restraints, one wing savagely aching and head spinning worse than any trip on the Dizzytron you'd ever taken.
  2856. > Steadily the rushing noise pounding into your head subsides to reveal the steady whop-whop of an approaching helicopter.
  2857. > Or maybe the noise was always gone and the helicopter is just getting closer.
  2858. > There's something we on your muzzle.
  2859. > Why is your face wet?
  2860. > It is all a bit too much to think about right now, you decide.
  2861. > Right now what matters is that you are upright, alive, and there doesn't appear to be any sign of smoke.
  2862. > You need to get Anonymous out.
  2863. > Almost lazily you reach for your harness' buckles, having to paw at them a few times before the edge of your hoof catches the buckle and snaps it open.
  2864. > Immediately you're falling, facefirst into the cavity between the two cockpit seats.
  2865. > Precious moments are wasted resting your cheek on the cool, metal floor.
  2866. > Your wing hurts.
  2867. > It'd hurt before, but it hurts a lot more now.
  2868. > Moving was probably a bad idea.
  2869. "Fuck bad ideas."
  2870. > That's what you try to say, anyhow.
  2871. > Tongue leaden, it comes out rather more garbled.
  2872. > There's now way you're reaching a proper hatch.
  2873. > What about the ones in the cockpit roof?
  2874. > One had been open, right?
  2875. > You could pull him up through there!
  2876.  
  2877. > Somehow managing to clamber up into the chair, you rear back up before your balance makes a hasty exit and you find yourself tumbling into an agonizing fall yet again.
  2878. > Wet.
  2879. > Something wet is on your muzzle again.
  2880. > On a whim, you lick it.
  2881. > Oh.
  2882. > Blood.
  2883. > That probably explains why your head hurts.
  2884. > No!
  2885. > Anonymous needed you to get him out!
  2886. > Kicking weakly, you somehow manage to right yourself.
  2887. > Even trying to climb to the chair, however, is more than you can bear.
  2888. > At least this time you only fall against the cockpit window.
  2889. > Laying there, cheek smudging blood against the glass, you curse yourself for not being able to move properly.
  2890. > You were a Wonderbolt!
  2891. > Are a Wonderbolt!
  2892. > You'd done things that would leave other Pegasi with locked muscles, flown flights that would have worn another pony's wings off.
  2893. > As the thunderous beating of the helicopter's blades grows ever closer, you somehow force yourself to stand again.
  2894.  
  2895. --------
  2896.  
  2897. > "Door's opening, stand and face the wall."
  2898. > Hauling yourself out of the bed is something of an ordeal.
  2899. > Not only because of the lingering aches still entrenched deep into your muscles, or the bandage wrapped around your head where you'd split it against the control stick.
  2900. > But because of the sheer pointlessness of it.
  2901. > So you were out of bed.
  2902. > Great.
  2903. > Time to face the same monotonous, mind-rotting routine again.
  2904. > Let's see:
  2905. > Four concrete walls bare and uninviting, constricting enough to spread your wings and feel the tipfeathers brush against either side?
  2906. > Check.
  2907. > Grating buzzer and crashing door that reawaken the throbbing within your skull?
  2908. > Check.
  2909. > Jerked roughly about as the officers enter, one disconnecting your collar from the wall bolt it was anchored to and replacing it with a lead as the second slides a wingbinder around your barrel?
  2910. > Check.
  2911. > Risking a glance up, you find your gaze met only by the officers' stoic and mask-like expressions.
  2912. > That was, honestly, what got to you the most.
  2913. > They didn't hate you, or look down on you, or even pity you.
  2914. > They weren't frustrated when you struggled, or demeaning when you played along.
  2915. > They just didn't care.
  2916. > You weren't even a commodity to them.
  2917. > Just an inconvenience.
  2918. > A thing to be moved from one place to another until you were out of their sight.
  2919. > Trying to tell them your story - to explain why you needed to see Anonymous this very second - yielded no more reaction, no more emotion than when you'd attempted to struggle out of their grasp and go find him yourself.
  2920.  
  2921. > Their reactions were as unyielding as the cold concrete surrounding you.
  2922. > So instead you simply waited until the short tug of the leash brought you forward, out of the cell and moving again.
  2923. > Eyes stay firmly planted on the floor, not in any sign of obedience but because you'd quickly found that there was nothing here to look at.
  2924. > More concrete.
  2925. > Locked doors, only buzzed open when you approached as the last moment.
  2926. > Even the 'exercise room' you are lead into - little more than a concrete pit with enough room to work up a moderate canter - is not worth looking at.
  2927. > As soon as the leash is snapped off, you let your eyes fall shut and break out into a light trot.
  2928. > There's no need to watch where you're going.
  2929. > Despite having only been there a little under a week, it hasn't taken much to learn the room well enough you could run in it without the aid of your sight.
  2930. > Forty paces from the start.
  2931. > Turn left.
  2932. > Sixty paces along this wall.
  2933. > Turn left.
  2934. > Another forty along the next.
  2935. > Turn left.
  2936. > Sixty again.
  2937. > Turn early so as not to bump into the officers waiting by the door.
  2938. > Back where you started.
  2939. > The only consolation is that, with your eyes closed, you could use the time to focus your thoughts.
  2940. > As much as you'd wished to be able to imagine yourself somewhere up in the wide open sky, the hard uniformity of the concrete under your hooves and the echoing sound of the two meeting prevented that.
  2941. > But it was enough to pull your mind briefly away and let it wander.
  2942. > Most days, you'd focused on the final moments of memories you had from the landing.
  2943. > You had landed, that much you were sure of.
  2944. > After that, though...
  2945. > Vague remnants of trying to climb from the cockpit.
  2946. > Cool glass, pressed against your bloody muzzle.
  2947. > Being carried through a hatch on a stretcher, held down by a strong grip.
  2948. > Seeing the plane, tipped far too forward onto its nose and surrounded incongruously by gently-swaying oats.
  2949.  
  2950. > A mask being slipped over your face, funny-smelling air surging from it into your nostrils.
  2951. > Magic?
  2952. > Maybe.
  2953. > You were fairly certain you'd landed still in the Equestrian Special Governance Zone's territory.
  2954. > Which then, of course, begged the question of why you were imprisoned like this.
  2955. > Unfortunately, the trip to... wherever this was had been reduced to a painkiller-fueled haze.
  2956. > Scraps and flashes, here and there.
  2957. > The inside of some kind of a vehicle, shaking and rattling as it bounced over an unpaved road.
  2958. > What you presumed to be some kind of hospital and infirmary, ponies and humans alike dashing all around you.
  2959. > Voices raised, though whether in anger or terror you weren't quite sure.
  2960. > They'd treated you for the head wound, of course, and apparently in their books 'mental rest after a concussion' translated well to 'a cell with nothing to do'.
  2961. > But beyond that?
  2962. > No doctor human or pony had seen to you once you'd been dumped in the cell.
  2963. > It wasn't hard to understand why.
  2964. > You weren't a living patient, but property - the bare minimum of effort invested in keeping you alive, and then swept away.
  2965. > A refund could always be made if you turned out now to be 'salvageable', after all.
  2966. > Even that wasn't enough to make you angry, though.
  2967. > Once, it would have.
  2968. > Still should have.
  2969. > But any energy to become angry with had been... just sapped away.
  2970. > Why bother?
  2971. > Angry or not about what they thought you were, it wouldn't bring you any closer to finding out what had happened to Anonymous.
  2972. > ...
  2973. > You now understood why Anonymous kept a bottle of liquor hidden away on the plane for tough moments.
  2974. > It might make the hazy memories even hazier, but at least it'd take the edge off of them.
  2975. > Heh, who'd have ever thought you'd end up drinking buddies with a slaver?
  2976. > If you ever got back to him, you'd have to spend a few more nights-
  2977. > Hooves catch on the concrete floor as you miss a step in your trot, shuddering from nose to tail.
  2978. > If.
  2979.  
  2980. > If you ever got back to him.
  2981. > No, there was no pretending it was a 'when' now.
  2982. > Or that even if it was, everything would be the same.
  2983. > You'd seen more than one pegasus cut from the Wonderbolts' recruiting pool after a single, terrible accident.
  2984. > Even if Anonymous could find you, would he still be able to fly?
  2985. > Assuming he could, would he still want you?
  2986. > He had kind of made the point to you - repeatedly - that following his lead not just as a slave but as a crewmember was important.
  2987. > And you had kind of hijacked his aircraft.
  2988. > ...
  2989. > Keep trotting.
  2990. > Forty paces on the first wall.
  2991. > Turn left.
  2992. > Sixty along the next.
  2993. > Turn.
  2994. > Forty coming back.
  2995. > Turn again.
  2996. > Another sixty, back where you started.
  2997. > Again.
  2998. > Okay, so you had kind of taken over his aircraft after he expressly told you to get off.
  2999. > But then again, it'd had been to save his life.
  3000. > You'd have forgiven any Wonderbolt trainee who'd broken every rule in the book to save your life.
  3001. > Tartarus, you HAD forgiven a couple for breaking quite a few rules.
  3002. > Not without some sweat and effort from them, but they had been forgiven.
  3003. > So he'd end up forgiving you too.
  3004. > ...right?
  3005. > It only made sense-
  3006. > "Time's up. You know the drill."
  3007. > Had it been a whole forty minutes already?
  3008. > That was the one downside of drifting in your own thoughts.
  3009. > So easy to lose track of time.
  3010. > Nodding your assent, you wait while they reattach your lead and guide you back to the cell.
  3011. > A new tray of food had been delivered, as equally bland and unappetizing as the last.
  3012. > You barely give it a glance as you reenter the cell, the leash and wingbinder removed, collar reconnected to the wall bolt, and door shut with a heavy clang.
  3013. > Maybe you'd eat later.
  3014. > There wasn't any drive to sustain yourself anymore.
  3015. > Not even to try and keep yourself in shape to spite them, to show it could be done.
  3016. > That'd sustained you in the past.
  3017. > Not anymore.
  3018.  
  3019. > Falling to your belly sprawled across the bed, you take a brief few moments to preen your wings back into shape now that they are free again.
  3020. > The fact that you'd done the same thing one early night after Anonymous had bought you is not something you forget.
  3021. > Except that this time, there's nothing to look forward towards.
  3022. > Not even the minor relief of being in the air, let alone on your own wings.
  3023. > And far too soon even that brief distraction is passed.
  3024. > Chin falling to the scratchy, grey mattress and gaze drooping to stare past it to the concrete-block wall beyond.
  3025. > A wall you'd become intimately familiar with over many long hours of studying.
  3026. > Every crack, stain, and ridge an old friend by now.
  3027. > Yet still you stare.
  3028. > Because, honestly, what else was there to do.
  3029. > Only memories, and you were careful to ration how many times you can go over those before your mind begins to twist them and they, too, are lost.
  3030. > Maybe you should try to sleep again?
  3031. > You'd quickly learned how to, even with the harsh glare and monotonic buzzing of the cell's sole fixture.
  3032. > But that'd require effort, to relax enough to somehow fall into sleep.
  3033. > And effort isn't something you have right now.
  3034.  
  3035. --------
  3036.  
  3037. > "Door's opening, stand and face the wall."
  3038. > Time again already?
  3039. > You crack one eye open, having finally managed to doze off despite the fierce light beating down on you.
  3040. > Certainly doesn't feel like time.
  3041. > Nor do you feel like getting up.
  3042. > Not even the chance to get out of this cell and stretch your legs is enough motivation.
  3043. > "Hey! Up and face the wall!"
  3044. > Yeah.
  3045. > Not this time.
  3046. > Let them come drag you out-
  3047. > "Just open the door, please. I'm pretty sure she won't hurt me."
  3048. > It takes a few moments for the voice to filter through your head, for the realization to not just be made but hit like a bolt from the blue.
  3049. > That voice-!
  3050. > Your head snaps up so quickly you nearly fall out of the bed.
  3051. > The door is already opening, though, and yes - that had been his voice you'd heard.
  3052. > Anonymous is pale, his skin drawn and still moving a bit weakly as he steps into the cell.
  3053. > But it is him - awake, alive, and standing before you.
  3054. > The bed is left behind in a leap propelled by a wild burst of emotion; you nearly reach the end of the chain your collar is on before colliding with Anonymous and fiercly wrapping all four legs and both wings around his torso.
  3055. > He'd already begun to go down to one knee, catching and holding you with his arms around his flanks.
  3056. > Breathing short and shallow, you brain races wildly in a fierce maelstrom of relief and joy.
  3057. > "Hey there, Spits."
  3058. "...I crashed your plane."
  3059. > The first words to come to your lips are not preferred ones, and you can feel your cheeks heating at the obvious proclamation.
  3060. > Anonymous, though, just chuckles softly.
  3061. > "Yeah. And you disobeyed my order to get going as well."
  3062. "That too."
  3063. > "And threw a truly incredible fit at the ground controller, I've been told."
  3064. > At this point all you can do is let your tail flick and try to avoid the growing heat in your cheeks.
  3065. > Anonymous laughs, reaching up to ruffle your mane.
  3066.  
  3067. > "Well. You've been a very, very bad slave and I'll have to horribly punish you..."
  3068. "Oh, go bite a thundercloud."
  3069. > "...right after I get done thanking you for saving my life."
  3070. > Despite your best efforts, a snicker sneaks out.
  3071. > And maybe - just maybe - a tear too.
  3072. "That's better."
  3073. > Nothing else is said.
  3074. > Nothing needs to be.
  3075. > Everything else that could be instead passes unspoken between you, taken in at the moment:
  3076. > The fact that you had come back, enduring through the landing despite it resulting in your being imprisoned here.
  3077. > The fact that he had come first to see you even when he clearly wasn't entirely well yet.
  3078. > That you had so pointedly put his life first, irregardless of orders, and that he clearly recognized what you had done.
  3079. "Hey Anonymous?"
  3080. > "Yeah?"
  3081. "Let's go home."
  3082.  
  3083. --------
  3084.  
  3085. > In retrospect, you would decide, thinking you'd just go back to living in the aircraft was kind of silly.
  3086. > It had crashed, after all.
  3087. > 'Home' turns out to be a hotel room in the middle of the occupied zone around one of the stable portals - mercifully paid for at others' expense.
  3088. > There was, you discover, a general plan in place for when someone got an unplanned trip-by-portal.
  3089. > Less so, for when someone crashed a plane on what was technically a foreign country.
  3090. > Even less so for when it had been a pony at the controls.
  3091. > The end result is that while a mountain of paperwork is chewed through a system that appears to move with all the speed and grace of a recently awoken Ursa Minor, you and Anonymous have very little to do.
  3092. > Very little official, anyhow.
  3093. > Only a few days after he'd picked you up, both of you decide that something had to be done in order to avoid a sudden mental snap due to boredom.
  3094. > The natural choice was of course to make a visit to the hangar his aircraft had been trucked to at some point.
  3095.  
  3096. > Your first impression of it - propped up on a frame, scraps of twisted metal hanging from the belly like intestines spilled out from some grievous wound - leaves you wincing in pain.
  3097. > Mental, yes, but also an almost physical sympathetic twinge for a fellow sky-roamer so grievously wounded.
  3098. > That lasts right up until Anonymous catches a glimpse of you and shakes his head, laughing.
  3099. > "It's not nearly as bad as it looks, trust me. Most of that is because they don't know how to take the landing gear off."
  3100. "...oh?"
  3101. > "Well, the nose landing gear and the panels around it are utterly fucked; that much is truly gone. Both of the back gear are probably going to need some replacement parts."
  3102. > Stepping up a steep flight of steps helpfully left beside an open hatch, he peers around inside the cockpit.
  3103. > "Hydraulics are probably going to have to be overhauled, and of course everything rechecked. But honestly... it could've been a lot worse."
  3104. > Rather than enter, he turns around and sit on the edge of the steps - settling his elbows on his knees, and resting on his chin in his hands.
  3105. > For the first time, you see how deeply shaken Anonymous was.
  3106. > Tired, frustrated, recovering from his bout with food poisoning followed by a pumped stomach and ludicrous amounts of medicine - that you'd all seen already.
  3107. > But this...
  3108. > It's not just exhaustion or sickness wearying his eyes.
  3109. > Falling to your haunches on a step beneath him, you reach out a wing to rest on his thigh.
  3110. "You alright?"
  3111. > "Honestly? No. I mean, just... fucking hell, I thought I was dead. Really did. Time's up, that was my day, and then..."
  3112. > He runs a hand through his hair, twisting around to look at the aircraft again.
  3113. > "...and then it's honestly no worse than wrecked nose gear and some new hydraulics. That's just..."
  3114. > Squeezing up a step, you somehow manage to wedge yourself in between him and the edge of the stairs.
  3115.  
  3116. > After a moment he slips an arm around you.
  3117. > " 'preciated..."
  3118. "Won't say I know how it feels. But, I do know what it's like to face everything you knew falling to bits, seeing the end of everything you've done... and then somehow waking up and finding you're still there somehow."
  3119. > Looking up at him, you feel your ears pinning back.
  3120. "You know what? Enough with this 'fated time' shit. Your time is what you make of it. Determination to keep going kept me alive and sane through those months, even when there wasn't any good reason to ever believe I'd see the sky again. It can keep you going, too. Never stop fighting for what you want, and never give up on it."
  3121. > After a very long silence, Anonymous looks down at you and raises one eyebrow.
  3122. > "I don't think I bought you to be a psychotherapist or motivational coach."
  3123. "Tough. I'm a packaged deal."
  3124. > Shooting him a grin, you spread a wing and jab him in the chest with it.
  3125. "You get Spitfire, the flier, you get all the rest too - and you practically had to have a degree in psychology to keep the Wonderbolts going."
  3126. > "You know, most of the time when I hear that 'you get all of me or none of me' business, it's a giant warning sign."
  3127. > He's grinning as he says it, though, and shifts his arm around you down to fit beneath your wing.
  3128. "Hey, you bought me. Your stupid mistake if it is."
  3129. > Slowly, though his grin fades.
  3130. > "All seriousness, though... times are going to be pretty tight, what with paying for all the repairs.
  3131. "I thought you said it wasn't as bad as it looked?"
  3132. > "That means it'll only be a couple hundred thousand in repairs instead of a few million for a brand-new plane."
  3133. > Your ears fall despite his reassurance.
  3134. "...oh."
  3135. > "Plus, we're going to be grounded for so long. That's going to cost us too."=
  3136. "But we aren't paying for anything right now."
  3137.  
  3138. > "We're not working either, and there are those little things ticking away that add up. And even for just the landing gears a lot of parts are going to have to be custom-made. Old plane and all that. Plus I'm probably going to be paying a higher insurance rate on account of this, random portal or not."
  3139. "That... is completely ridiculous."
  3140. > "S'how it is. We'll find a way, though - maybe have to take out a loan, pull some more crazy jobs. I hope you don't mind ocean landings again."
  3141. > You're about deliver a stinging rebuke when one of your ears swivels in response to a new sound:
  3142. > The soft clop-clop of hooves on concrete flooring.
  3143. > Anonymous moves to stand, but you're already leaping up to perch on top of the aircraft's nose - looking down as a thin, cream-coated unicorn nervously peers in through a cracked-open door.
  3144. > As soon as her eyes fall on you, however, she perks up.
  3145. > "Oh, wow! You really are here!"
  3146. "Uh, yeah."
  3147. > Slipping the rest of the way through the door and kicking it shut behind her, the unicorn wanders a bit closer - eyes locked on you as if she couldn't quite believe what she was seeing.
  3148. > "Wow. Um. So, I was kinda hoping I could see you before they sent both of you back over to the other side."
  3149. > She's got a collar, you notice - not much of one, just a broad cloth belt with a buckle and a few ID tags, but still a collar.
  3150. > Guess it shouldn't be so much of a surprise - this wasn't even one of the Equestrian Special Governance Zones, let alone whatever remained of free Equestria.
  3151. > Halting just short of the aircraft, she looks up with a kind of awe, her eyes wide and full of wonder.
  3152. "Well, uh..."
  3153. > You shouldn't be feeling so out of place right now.
  3154. > Fame wasn't exactly anything new to you, was it?
  3155. "...here we are. Uh, how'd you hear about us."
  3156. > "Oh, I helped bring the plane in!"
  3157. > Raising a hoof, she points to her collar.
  3158.  
  3159. > "They use me to get tools into tight spots - everything from screwdrivers to saws - so I was out there helping them get it out of the field and into here."
  3160. > "Did a good job."
  3161. > Anonymous had pushed himself up as well, resting on one of the stairs' guardrails.
  3162. > "I mean, with one piece of landing gear missing and the other two having to be taken off..."
  3163. > The unicorn flushes softly, her creamy cheeks taking on a slight red tint.
  3164. > "Thank you. I was hoping to, when I found out who had been flying it..."
  3165. "What, am I famous again?"
  3166. > Your sarcasm apparently goes unnoticed and unrewarded, as her face lights up as she nods furiously.
  3167. > "Uh-huh. There were all kinds of stories going around about you."
  3168. > Her eyes flick to Anonymous for just the briefest moment.
  3169. > "About both of you, honestly."
  3170. "...well, I'd bet half of them aren't true, and the rest are only half true."
  3171. > "Um, well... I was wondering - um -"
  3172. > Hesitation pulls her to a halt; taking a leaf out of your old rules for making ponies comfortable in your presence, you glide down from the nose and land just in front of her - stepping a few paces closer to make yourself seem less distant.
  3173. "It's alright. Go ahead and ask."
  3174. > "Did you, um. Did you really choose to come back with him? Knowing that you'd not be able to get away again?"
  3175. > The sheer bluntness of the question now forces you to pause.
  3176. > You had, of course.
  3177. > But what was she really asking?
  3178. "Yes, I did."
  3179. > "Why?"
  3180. "Because..."
  3181. > Glancing back to Anonymous, you pull out the answer that comes first to your mind.
  3182. "...because he trusted me. That he technically owns me doesn't matter that much-"
  3183. > Seeing the look on her face, you shake your head.
  3184. "-don't get the wrong idea: I hate being a slave. Anonymous knows it, never hid it from him. But him? I trust him. That makes it... tolerable. Not pleasant, but tolerable."
  3185. > Behind you, Anonymous speaks up as well.
  3186.  
  3187. > "Wasn't exactly easy, either. Not something that happened in a day. Not something that should, either."
  3188. > "I knew it!"
  3189. > Dancing an in-place trot on all four hooves, she giggles.
  3190. > "I told them you had to have been picked up by an emancipationist, but none of the others would listen to-"
  3191. > "Woah, kid."
  3192. > Laughing, Anonymous shakes his head.
  3193. > "I'm no bleeding-heart activist out there with a protest sign or some shit. I'm... when you fly something like this, you have to trust. You have to - anything less and people, or ponies, get hurt."
  3194. "He's right. And it was hard for me to understand that for a while, separating the individual from the rest of them."
  3195. > "Knew he had to trust you a lot, though."
  3196. > Smiling a kind of half-formed grin, the unicorn glances up at you.
  3197. > "I was working in the cockpit and saw what'd been done to the controls so you could use them, so I knew he must've trusted you a lot to use them. Kind of a pity they had to be all cut up, after all the work he'd put in to adapting them for you."
  3198. "Cut up...?"
  3199. > Knitting your eyebrows and shuffling your wings, you tilt your head in confusion.
  3200. > "Uh-huh. All twisted up and ruined, they must've had to cut them away to get you out."
  3201. > The moments after the crash were now mostly a pained and bloody blur to you, but you don't remember either control stick being particularly damaged.
  3202. > Your head wasn't THAT thick...
  3203. "They weren't damaged, though."
  3204. > "Yeah they were."
  3205. > Her insistence is accompanied by the small grin growing slightly further.
  3206. > "Completely destroyed. Someone even mistook them for trash and must have thrown them away. Really a pity - the crash investigators were looking everywhere for them, but they couldn't be found..."
  3207. > Behind you, Anonymous curses softly.
  3208.  
  3209. > Leaping back to the air, you again settle on the nose and peer through the windshield; behind you, the unicorn's hoofsteps turns and fade as she heads back for the exit.
  3210. > "Good luck, then. I hope both of you find your way to what you want."
  3211. > The implication that you would find separate paths goes unnoticed, as you were too busy boggling at the cleanly cut-through stems where the control yokes had once emerged from the floor.
  3212. > They were indeed gone, though you noted with a queasy look that there was still spatters and streaks of your dried blood on both seat and windows.
  3213. > Why had they cut out the controls, though?
  3214. > Especially if there were investigators looking for-
  3215. > Saws.
  3216. > Saws, in hard to reach places.
  3217. > Again taking to wing, you launch yourself from the nose and reach the door without even touching the floor.
  3218. > Despite Anonymous calling after you, the door flies open under your hooves - but the unicorn is already nowhere to be found.
  3219. > When you return he'd again seated himself on the steps.
  3220. > "She gone?"
  3221. "Yeah. I don't get it..."
  3222. > Looking up at the cockpit windows, you shake your head.
  3223. "She must've known they would be looked for. Why risk herself like that?"
  3224. > Anonymous doesn't answer for a long time, but when he does it is with a single word:
  3225. > "Hope."
  3226. "Hope?"
  3227. > "She saw something that implied that kind of trust - that told her how much I relied on you. She saw... I dunno. Maybe she saw a chance for herself there, that some day there'd be someone who would trust her like that."
  3228. "That's a lot of risk to pin on an uncertain hope."
  3229. > "And you're telling me that you didn't pin everything on becoming a Wonderbolt when you were a kid? Foal, filly, whatever the word is?"
  3230. > Hesitating, you look back to the doorway.
  3231. "Well..."
  3232. > Motioning you back to his side and then slipping his arm back over your barrel and wings when you do come, Anonymous grins.
  3233. > "And you're telling me you didn't stick around with me just on the hope we'd come through?"
  3234.  
  3235. "That isn't the same at all."
  3236. > "Still the same point."
  3237. > Leaning back, he sighs and twists his head around to look up at one of the silent, rusted engine pods.
  3238. > You don't have anything to say either, and so remain quiet as well.
  3239. > Anonymous is the first to speak up again, his voice suddenly turned to a higher note as if he'd just had a sudden epiphany.
  3240. > "I know how we're going to get the cash to fix all this."
  3241. > A creeping fear drips down into your gut.
  3242. "...do I want to know?"
  3243. > "Probably not, considering you're a big part of it."
  3244. > Peering down at you with a widening, toothy grin, Anonymous laughs:
  3245. > "That unicorn - she said there were a lot of stories going around about how we'd manage to make it back, right?"
  3246. "...yes...?"
  3247. > Nervousness cannot be kept out of your voice.
  3248. > "Well, why don't we get that story told a little bit? Raise a bit of attention, maybe do an interview or two or something like that."
  3249. "No."
  3250. > "Hey, I'm not talking about going full famous asshole or anything like that. But, we're going to be grounded for a while anyhow..."
  3251. "Not in a thousand years."
  3252. > "Plus, I bet we could charge a bit more for our jobs afterwards. I mean, we are the duo that survived getting sucked through a portal, griffon attacks, running out of fuel..."
  3253. "Anonymous, look..."
  3254. > You sigh softly, trying to brush the strands of your mane aside with a hoof.
  3255. "...I'm okay with you, alright? But I don't want the Spitfire that gets shown to two whole worlds to be Spitfire the slave. I don't want to see my own face on a magazine wearing this collar."
  3256. > His voice is softer and less enthusiastic when he speaks again.
  3257. > "Yeah. Okay, yeah. I get that. Truth be told, I'm not too hot on it personally myself - guess I was trying to sound enthusiastic to hide it."
  3258. "Then why?"
  3259. > "Because it gets us both what we want. I get my plane back, maybe even a bit of breathing room on my bank account."
  3260. "And I get?"
  3261.  
  3262. > "A way to let all the other Wonderbolts know you're alive, safe, and haven't given up on being yourself."
  3263. > That, you hadn't thought of.
  3264. > "Trust me, I'd make sure you got a word in to make it clear I've not brainwashed you or something. Make it clear what our deal is."
  3265. "Fine. I'll do it. But, one condition - and I'm serious about this."
  3266. > "Hit me with it."
  3267. "We name the plane. In Equestria, every good airship had a name. Doesn't seem right this one doesn't."
  3268. > "And your suggestion is?"
  3269. "Giselle."
  3270.  
  3271. --------
  3272.  
  3273. > "Alright, we're all squared up and ready to go."
  3274. > Sliding in the pilot's seat, Anonymous glances over as you give only a small grunt in reply.
  3275. > "C'mon, aintcha going to say anything? Finally getting back into the air again, heading on home, getting back into business...?"
  3276. "No."
  3277. > Curt and growled, your voice echoes your body posture:
  3278. > Hunched over in the seat, forelegs crossed and eyes half-lidded to accompany the scowl on your face.
  3279. > Part of you wonders if he's deliberately ignoring it to spite you.
  3280. "Not ready - not one bit."
  3281. > Tense quiet falls between you, the only words filtering in those yelled by the ground crew as they pull their gear back from around the aircraft.
  3282. > "...you're still upset about that magazine cover, aren't you."
  3283. "You bet your feathers I am!"
  3284. > "I don't have feathers, Spits."
  3285. > His tone is joking, amused.
  3286. > Not at all what you'd expected considering your own voice's vicious timbre.
  3287. > Muttering a few choice words under your breath, you nonetheless manage to find your headset - bright and new, the last one having been lost somewhere along the line in the wreck.
  3288. " 'The Fire, Tamed' - yeah fucking right. I was not 'tamed'! And that 'reporter' didn't even listen to half of what-"
  3289. > "Spits, it's a shithole rag."
  3290. > Anonymous shakes his head, though his mouth is curled in a small smile.
  3291. > "And frankly, the reporter probably copied everything you said down. His editors were the ones that chewed it up into junk."
  3292. "That doesn't make it better!"
  3293. > He sighs, heavily.
  3294. > Somehow you get the feeling that it isn't aimed at the magazine so much as at you.
  3295. > As if there was some aspect of this that you were somehow missing.
  3296. "Whoever did it, now there are all those magazines everywhere with that picture of me sitting in your lap, which I don't even know how they did because we never took that picture-"
  3297. > "Magic of photoshop. Trust me, it could've been worse."
  3298.  
  3299. "-and a big honking title talking about how I've been 'tamed', and everypony is going to see it! Sweet Celestia, what if - what if one of the other Wonderbolts sees it?!"
  3300. > "Then, honestly, I'm sure they'll be smart enough to see through the crap and understand what was going around. Plus, that was like - what, one interview of six that've been published? And the others are way more accurate."
  3301. > Huffing softly, you double down on your scowling in leiu of a better reply.
  3302. > "I'm serious. The people who actually believe those magazines... aren't the smartest bunch. I'm sure your teammates are better than that."
  3303. "Yeah, but - still. I wouldn't have said anything if I knew that's what they would've done with it. And I doubt you'd have either..."
  3304. > Anonymous just shifts in his seat, eyes locked firmly out the front windshield and very definitely not on you.
  3305. "...oh, come on!"
  3306. > "Their money's good, Spitfire. Lying assholes or not, they still paid. Those lies helped get us back to the point we can fly again."
  3307. > Groaning, you lean forward and thud your head against the (shining new) control yoke in front of your seat.
  3308. > After a few moments, his hand comes to rest on the back of your head.
  3309. > "I know it sucks. I'm not holding any illusions about that. But, I'm willing to spend a bit of dignity if it means we can go back to flying."
  3310. "At least you have a choice."
  3311. > "I do, that's true. But it's not a choice I like either. It's just another thing we have to deal with to get along."
  3312. > He starts to rub slightly at the back of your head, setting your ears gently flicking.
  3313.  
  3314. > "So here's what you're going to focus on: In a few minutes, we're going to roll out onto that tarmac and push down that runway, put the throttles all the way open, and go home. Despite everything that got thrown at us, we're still going to be alive and kicking - both of us. We're going to have no shortage of work with the way our name got put out there, and for better or for worse there's a good chance one of your ponies will be able to reach out as well."
  3315. > As he speaks, his hand travels through your mane down the back of your neck to gives a little rub between your wings.
  3316. > There's a point to what he's saying, you understand.
  3317. > The same way there was a point to what you'd suffered through at the hooves of a drill instructor as a Wonderbolts Trainee, and the same way you'd inflicted something similar on the trainees that came before you.
  3318. > None of that understanding makes it any less painful, however.
  3319. "Yeah, yeah..."
  3320. > Sitting upright again, your ears flick softly as his hand falls away from your back.
  3321. "You're lucky I let you touch me like that, you know that?"
  3322. > "Hey, I've figured out what's good by now."
  3323. > Turning away to hide the mild coloring on your cheeks, you pull the headset on and peer out the window.
  3324. > A pony peers back at you - her mane swept back into a two-tone burst of orange, throat wrapped by a band of black, wings twitching in unspoken thoughts.
  3325. > Try as you might to still the disobedient appendages, it doesn't quite work.
  3326. > There are, you suppose, a lot of thoughts to be had.
  3327. > Above and behind you, pumps hum and motors whine - and then with a cough and rumble, the engines catch to life one after another.
  3328. > Ironically, it's a far more clean start than before you'd... well, crashed it.
  3329. > Probably had to do with all the work they'd done on it.
  3330. > Brakes on the wheels, shining and new things that do so without so much as a squeak or squeal.
  3331. > You're rolling, and the reflection in the window shifts.
  3332.  
  3333. > Reflection out of sight for a second, your eyes refocus and instead you're looking out at the pavement beyond the glass.
  3334. > Ground crew stand in a loose formation, watching you go.
  3335. > A particular pale-coated unicorn among them.
  3336. > Raising a hoof to your forehead, you give her a small salute; her head bobs in silent reply.
  3337. "...yeah. Okay, point taken. But you can be damn well sure if anyone ever asks me how I was 'tamed', I'm going to give them an earful-"
  3338. > "And you're welcome to do so. Except if it's a tourist run again; in that case, you bow your head and smile and spill out a bunch more lies to make them smile too. And then we both go to a bar and get drunk and complain about how stupid they are."
  3339. "You're paying for the drinks."
  3340. > "I'm paying for the drinks."
  3341. > Of course he is.
  3342. > Slaves do not exactly have money of their own.
  3343. > But it's the sentiment that matters, and that is clear enough.
  3344. > You swing to the side as the plane turns, swerving out from the parking area and onto the runway approach, rumbling over concrete.
  3345. > Free-floating clouds turn to proper cloudhomes in the distance, Canterlot's mountain barely visible at the far hazy edge of the horizon.
  3346. > Again the plane turns, your earphones popping softly as instructions come filtered through from ground control.
  3347. > You're barely listening to it, watching the hangars fade into the distance.
  3348. > When Anonymous' voice fills your ears, however, your attention is pulled back.
  3349. > "Hey, Spitfire?"
  3350. "Yeah?"
  3351. > "You want to take us up this time?"
  3352. > One eyebrow rises.
  3353. "After what I did last time I took the controls, you trust me?"
  3354. > "After what you did the last time..."
  3355. > He just grins.
  3356. > "...hell, why don't you take the lead altogether."
  3357. > Unable to deny the small smile that comes to you, you reach out and hook your hooves around the edges of the control yoke.
  3358.  
  3359. > Your eyes wander up to just above the windshield, where a sealed plastic bag had been taped to a crossbar - a single ash-grey feather contained within it.
  3360. > Had any of the others watching you go wondered about the name freshly painted on the side of the aircraft?
  3361. > Thought about who she had been?
  3362. > If for nothing else than the memory of those who hadn't made it this far, you would keep flying.
  3363. > "N803AA, runway two-four left, wind zero-seven-one at two-two. Cleared for takeoff."
  3364. > Time to go.
  3365. "Two-four left, cleared for takeoff."
  3366. > Looking down at you, Anonymous notes your grin and shoots a smirk straight back.
  3367. > "Ready?"
  3368. > You response is a roll of your eyes and flick of your tail.
  3369. "Throttle up to ninety, I have the controls."
  3370. > Releasing his own wheel, Anonymous reaches up for the throttles.
  3371. > Your ears fill with the pounding roar of the engines, chest reverberating under their power.
  3372. > Spreading your wings just a bit, you revel in the twitching feelings of your feathers moving under every bounce and shift.
  3373. > And so, when you brace yourself and heave the yoke back, you feel exactly when the wheels slip from the ground and leave the plane hurtling through the air alone.
  3374. > A breath you hadn't known you were holding is blown from your nostrils.
  3375. > Entering a long, slow turn to go with your climb, the plane is surrounded by the misty, pale glow of clouds for thirty tense seconds before bursting through to the clear sky beyond.
  3376. > Sunlight bathes the cockpit, a thrill running through you from muzzle to tail.
  3377. "Takeoff complete, we're at altitude."
  3378. > "Good one, for your first time."
  3379. > Anonymous takes his wheel again, but you still hold on to yours.
  3380. > Ahead looms the sputtering purple-white swirl of the portal, and even as it nears you find yourself not filling with any trepidation or despair at the thought of departing Equestria again.
  3381.  
  3382. > This was, after all, your home now - all around you, alive despite all the wounds it had taken, your family strapped in to the seat next to you.
  3383. > Up in the air here, all your concerns seemed to fall away:
  3384. > The collar on your throat, the hard work that'd have to be done in the weeks ahead, the humiliating magazine cover you'd ended up on...
  3385. > Despite all of it, you felt ready to face it.
  3386. "Damn, flying again feels good..."
  3387. > "Can say that again."
  3388. > His comment murmured, barely audible over the engines even through your headphones, nonetheless brings a smile to your face.
  3389. > Yes, it wasn't perfect.
  3390. > But it was home.
  3391.  
  3392. END
/spg/ spitfire pie

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