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Fire's Rise (F&S II) Part 2 (Complete)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 05:30:37 AM

  1. Originally posted October 2019
  2.  
  3. First pastebin: ponepaste.org/2338
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  6.  
  7. > He does.
  8. > You can hear him.
  9. > Sitting outside the little conference room on the Scatturlas you’d used before, waiting for the discussion - no, argument - within to go on.
  10. > There wasn't much trouble hearing Thomas through the thin walls; soon after he went in with Gerard, Thomas had quickly begun raising his voice in every reply he made.
  11. > Whatever Gregory was saying wasn't audible, nor was Gerard.
  12. > The former, however, was easy to guess at from Thomas' replies.
  13. > "- know we had a plan, but we're still getting good data -"
  14. > Pause, while Whitworth's voice buzzes something inaudible.
  15. > "- yes! Yes, of course you can still trust me. They rest of them aren’t running off at first chance, you know!"
  16. > Another noise from the phone line - or maybe it's something out of Gerard's beak.
  17. > You don't know, but you grumble softly.
  18. "Does Whitworth do anything but bitch on us? I mean, like, anything?! Seriously, for some ponies sticking their necks out for a fat cat like him..."
  19. > "Hmm?"
  20. > Across the hallway, Renaud looks up - apparently falling out of his distant thoughts.
  21. > "Sorry. I can't hear much of what's going on in there."
  22. > You doubted he was deaf - pilot and all - and what was going on there didn't seem to soft it would escape a human's less sensitive hearing.
  23. > Which meant he was probably not hearing by choice.
  24. "...nevermind."
  25. > Anonymous' fingers are scratching between your ears, but you don't even care about that.
  26. > Oh, what you'd love to do if you could get your hooves around Whitworth's throat.
  27. > Somehow you doubt even his human co-workers would miss him!
  28. > "Look, you've got God knows how much money invested in this whole thing, do you really want to blow it when the first thing goes - yes, I know it's a 'pretty big problem'!"
  29.  
  30. > Perhaps ten minutes later, when the door finally opens, Thomas looks like he's just been through a grilling by the toughest drill-sergeants in Cloudsdale.
  31. > His forehead is sweat, eyes slightly wild, and hair up in a mess where he’d been running his hands through it.
  32. > Gerard, you are interested to note, looks little better.
  33. > "...okay, look. Here's my question. Anonymous, Renaud, Spitfire - do you think your crews are still ready to go?"
  34. > The three of you look among each other - mild confusion written on all your faces.
  35. "I don't see why not. We've still got all our team members with us; Gerard, can you agree?"
  36. > "I concur, yes."
  37. "It's your team that I'm really worried about. Not only are you down one member, but Logic Gate is really under the weather too. She's taking it hard."
  38. > "...yeah, I know."
  39. > Rubbing his forehead, Thomas grumbles softly to himself.
  40. > "But she can pull through, I think. Especially if we give her another chance. This is important to her - if I have to be rough, more important than just Bell Curve. And by the way, don't mention that to Whitworth."
  41. > "Wait, what-"
  42. > Before any answer can be given, Thomas taps his phone - and you realize he hadn't finished his conversation with Whitworth, he'd just suspended it.
  43. > "Mr. Whitworth, I just spoke to them again. Both the flight crews are ready to work. My team is still capable of running the equipment; we'll have longer hours, but we can manage!"
  44. > The phone is silent, and for a moment nobody speaks.
  45. > Then Gerard clicks his beak.
  46. > "He speaks the truth, Master. Besides, if you authorize us to continue, you lose what - the money in fuel? It is pennies to you. If we can pull it off, though... the risk is little, the reward great."
  47. > "Okay."
  48. > The voice through the phone is staticky and flat, but you can still hear the reluctance there.
  49. > "If you say so, Gerard. Thomas, have them keep refueling. But I'm holding you to this. Get me results."
  50. > "I promise you, it'll happen."
  51.  
  52. > The call is ended, and everyone seems to sigh a low breath of relief.
  53. "Gerard... I think we all owe you something for that."
  54. > Rather than answer, though, the griffon simply grunts and pushes past you - his remaining eye troubled and distant.
  55. > Nobody chases him, but Thomas speaks up once he is out of earshot.
  56. > "You owe him more than you think. He argued in favor of keeping things going a few times; I guess that last one was just the metaphorical straw breaking the camel's back."
  57. "Do all your sayings have to be so violent?"
  58. > You're grinning a little, though, and so are Anonymous and Renaud.
  59. > "Come on, let's get back to the plane. Sounds like we've got a job to do again."
  60. > Back on the plane, though, your first duty is to someone entirely else.
  61. > Kalendae and Cog Whirl are curled against each other in one bed, barely fitting in beneath the bunk above it.
  62. > Neither of them look up as you step in, though.
  63. > Logic Gate is curled up in her bunk, staring a porthole at the white-topped waves rolling along the ocean's surface; you settle down beside her again, slipping a wing around the mare.
  64. > "Hey, Spitfire."
  65. "Hey."
  66. > Neither of you say anything for a time, though Logic Gate does give a gentle nicker which you echo.
  67. > "So. We're going out again?"
  68. "How'd you guess?"
  69. > "You'd have been really fucked up if we weren't."
  70. > You manage a soft laugh.
  71. "Okay, you might have a point there."
  72. > Leaning in, you rest your head against the mare's.
  73. > Her ear flicks into your mane.
  74. "Logic... are you ready to go? It's going to be hard enough with Bell Curve gone back there - I know how it is without a team. But if you're hurting, you need to let someone know."
  75. > Instead of answering, she sniffs and flicks her tail against your side.
  76. > "Spitfire, are you like this with all your team? I mean, checking in on me, trying to be there for me..."
  77. "I... I mean, I did try and check in on my ponies when they were under my command, yeah. If that's what you mean, and..."
  78.  
  79. > Logic Gate had opened one eye to give you hard eye, and you sigh.
  80. "...but yeah, I would have expected more of them."
  81. > "Then why are you doing this? I'm not even 'part of your crew'."
  82. "It's because of that point, Gate. The 'bolts, they went through a lot before they even got under my command. I expected a lot from them because they chose and fought for being 'my ponies'. You... you didn't ask for this."
  83. > "Neither did your crew."
  84. "Yeah. Except for Soarin, and maybe Kalendae."
  85. > Across the cabin, the Thestral's nostrils flare as she shoots a little smirk at you.
  86. > "It would be an insult if you did not, My Captain."
  87. "So, yeah. Aside from those two... you're not my team. You're someone I look after, and that means yeah - I give you a little more than I would my own ponies."
  88. > "Hey!"
  89. > Cog Whirl lifts a hoof, grinning too.
  90. > "You were pretty damn hard on me, weren't you? Both of you two guard-mares. So what am I, then, chopped carro- ow, ow, ow!"
  91. > Ceasing nibbling on his withers, Kalendae shoots him a smirk.
  92. > "Aye, we did. And I regret it did not work, but you must not deny you were an extraordinarily frustrating pony."
  93. > While the two of them go back to their affections, Logic Gate rolls her eyes then looks back to you with a softened expression.
  94. > "That's where you're wrong, Spitfire. I did ask to be here. I wanted to be here from the second I heard about it. I thought that's the level Bell Curve was on, but whatever he did I still want to and I shouldn't have to be coddled. I should get up and do everything I can to finish this job."
  95. "I remember - once before, you mentioned something about wanting to be on it."
  96. > "Yeah, I did."
  97. > Logic Gate rolls over a bit - looking out the window again, but this time with a smile.
  98. > "It's hard to explain... you were born in Cloudsdale, right?"
  99. "Yeah, Cloudsdale born and bred. My dam and sire were old Cloudsdale ponies too."
  100. > "Do you know...?
  101.  
  102.  
  103. "No; they hadn't even made it back to Cloudsdale when everything started falling apart. Much less afterward."
  104. > It's an admission that doesn't even sting anymore.
  105. > You'd had months in a cage to silently mourn for your missing parents.
  106. "I... have to trust that they're doing fine. They were tough ponies too; my dam was in the Wonderbolts before me."
  107. > "Tough standard to live up to."
  108. > A grin grows on your muzzle as you remember Stormy Flare's gentle touch.
  109. "But I did, didn't I? They didn't harass me. Just encouraged. It helped a lot, actually."
  110. > "Heh, well... I guess my parents were a lot like that too. Except we were from a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere."
  111. "Smaller than Marechester?"
  112. > "Are you kidding? Marechester is a damn metropolis compared to where I grew up. We were nothing but a little village - even so they put their everything into making sure I got a proper education in magic. That meant sending me off to other, bigger towns where they had unicorns who knew what magic and enchanting were actually all about."
  113. > Her head turns from the window, looking back at you with a smile.
  114. > "Getting my cutie mark there made me so, so sure I was destined to go somewhere big. Of course, before that could happen the sickness came to Equestria, and then..."
  115. > A hoof rises, touching her collar.
  116. "...yeah."
  117. > "I thought I'd be the kind of pony who'd be in the textbooks for generations to come, you know? And then I wasn't going to be, and then... then I was again. That's the point I'm making, I guess. I begged Thomas to give me a spot on this. And it's going to work, Spitfire. It is!"
  118. > You nod, but her words had sent thoughts churning in your head.
  119. "This - this project, whatever we're doing out here, it's important to you, isn't it?"
  120. > "It's huge, Spitfire. This is the thing that could get so many ponies freed-"
  121. "What is it?"
  122. > Logic Gate freezes.
  123. > "I..."
  124.  
  125. > Across the room, Kalendae and Cog Whirl are very much pretending they're wrapped up in each other and not paying attention.
  126. > An effect ruined by Cog's ears being firmly pointed in your direction; if he can hear this, then Kalendae certainly could!
  127. > "Spitfire, I can't just go spilling that out..."
  128. > Her ears fall, and you have to consciously hold yours back from showing the same disappointment.
  129. "I know, Gate. But... things aren't the way they were supposed to be anymore. At some point we have to start trusting each other too."
  130. > "You're - not wrong."
  131. > She huffs gently, shaking her head.
  132. > "But... I owe Thomas too much, Spitfire. He's - he's like how your ponies looked up to you. It'd be more than just 'against the rules' for me to tell you."
  133. > This time you aren't able to disguise the soft huff of annoyance.
  134. "Fair enough, I guess. Celestia knows I'd be upset if my ponies went around telling things I'd asked them not to..."
  135. > "I'll... I'll ask him, though. If - if now that we're here, and we're actually working together, if he can show you."
  136. "Thank you, Logic Gate."
  137. > A fresh smile, warm with friendliness, is shot in your direction.
  138. > "It's just asking, it can't hurt! And besides, you showed a bit more care for me than even Thomas did."
  139. "Wait, what?"
  140. > Thomas must have gotten in before you; he was well ahead on leaving the conference room.
  141. > Did he not to stop to talk to her?
  142. > Seeing your confusion, Logic Gate shrugs.
  143. > "He just came charging through, went straight to the upper-back decks. Probably to check on the equipment. Didn't stop for a second."
  144. "Gate, if he's not treating you right, you don't owe him anything..."
  145. > "You worry about him too much."
  146. > She stands now, stretching fiercely and shaking herself out.
  147. > "He's probably just shocked because it was such a close thing."
  148. "...well, if he doesn't do anything for you, you just go right up and give him a little kick in the shins. Remind him he's being a bad leader, and his team needs him too."
  149.  
  150. > Logic snorts softly, a smile working its way back to her lips.
  151. > "Yeah, I'll try not to kick him too hard."
  152. "You do that."
  153. > "You telling ponies to beat humans up again?"
  154. > Anonymous hops into the plane, having apparently lingered a moment behind with Renaud.
  155. "Uh-huh."
  156. > Standing, you hop out and rub against his leg.
  157. "Making rebellion and everything. Now come on - let's get this team up in the air."
  158.  
  159. --------
  160.  
  161. > The mysterious wandering signal comes back that afternoon, stronger than ever.
  162. > Yet despite the apparent success, Thomas' thrill is muted at best.
  163. > When he isn't hiding in the locked compartment,you catch him wandering back and forth on the plane, or typing out something on a laptop with its screen cleverly turned so that you can't see what it he is doing.
  164. > But you've already tried pushing him, and he doesn't seem inclined to open up further.
  165. > After all, Logic Gate hadn't come back with any more information about what was behind that door...
  166. "It's worrying me, Soarin."
  167. > When the plane touched down that night on the broad curve of a slow-running river, you found a spot close to the stallion around the fire shoreside.
  168. "This is when I thought he'd be opening up to us, but he's only clenching up more tightly. I'm starting to worry about him, Soarin."
  169. > "Have you tried talking to the others on his team?"
  170. "No, but... well, I guess I don't know them that well. Sai I've only talked to a couple times, Fred I barely know.. same with Michelle. Thomas, Bell Curve, and Logic Gate are really the only ones I know well."
  171. > Or did know well, in Bell Curve's case.
  172. > That still hurts.
  173. > Later, Gerard flops down on beside you on the grass, handing over a beer.
  174. "...where did you even get this?"
  175. > "Traded with someone on the Scatturlas. Where he got it... that I don't know."
  176. "Should I be drinking this?"
  177.  
  178. > "Renaud's crew's on first shift tomorrow morning. And one beer isn't going to hit you that hard, I think? You know you; if you don't want it don't let me push you."
  179. > After a moment of pondering, you knock the cap off with a flick of a hoof and take the bottle.
  180. > It's cold, fizzy, and...
  181. > Well, not the best beer you've ever had.
  182. > But worth it.
  183. "Any particular reason for this?"
  184. > "I believe..."
  185. > Gerard pauses, his beak clicking a few times as his talons dig deep furrows into the ground.
  186. > "...I believe I owe you a great thanks, Captain."
  187. > You can't hide your eyes going a little wide.
  188. > Was this praise?
  189. > From Gerard?
  190. > "Hah! You act so surprised, but please, do not; it is - hard for me to say."
  191. "...I'll try not to."
  192. > "No other griffon would have given me that. I am not sure I would have wanted it, but..."
  193. > He gives a little caw, from somewhere deep in his throat.
  194. > "...Master Whitworth asks that I see this project to success. Without your certainty back there, he might have pulled it. He might have undone this all. His goals are great, but his eyes are those of a business-leader; at the first sign of trouble, he withdraws."
  195. "That's why he sent you here - to make sure those 'troubles' didn't appear."
  196. > "Indeed."
  197. > Dropping to his haunches, Gerard swivels his head about - surveying the whole group.
  198. > "Yet he still attempts to overrule my suggestion, when he sent me to observe at first... ach! A commander who cannot trust the words of their subordinates is no commander at all."
  199. "...not the first time you've broken with his suggestions, I think."
  200. > When he simply turns to look at you with his head cocked questioningly, you shrug.
  201. "When he insisted we all had to wear the radio-linked collars, I saw you'd scratched up the table a bit. You weren't too happy about that, were you?"
  202. > "So I did not hide this as well as I thought."
  203. > Another low caw,a noise you're now coming to recognize as one of low annoyance.
  204.  
  205. > Another low caw,a noise you're now coming to recognize as one of low annoyance.
  206. > "Yet you did not say anything, and for that I can offer my thanks without any hesitation."
  207. "I am curious, though. Was there even anything to push that on us, or was it just Whitworth being... himself? Wanting to minimize risk."
  208. > "It..."
  209. > Another glance around - but this time all the way around, his single remaining golden eye sweeping the area for any who might hear his words.
  210. > "...Master Whitworth does not entirely trust Thomas. He sees that Thomas is driven, yes, and very capable, but he is also entirely too sympathetic to ponies. He believes that Thomas has... some side arrangement with you."
  211. > That golden eye had settled on you again, and you realize this was more than an admission.
  212. > He was admitting something - and expected you would do the same.
  213. "Well, he'd be disappointed then. I'm already getting everything I want out of this, Gerard - we finish the job, everypony else goes free. I don't need some special side deal."
  214. > Feathers rise and fall as Gerard takes in your response.
  215. > "Were it any other pony, I would question that claim. But you, Spitfire... you do care."
  216. "It's my duty, Gerard. Besides, you might not have questioned Kalendae either; her response would have been fiercer than mine!"
  217. > "Hah! On this, I will agree."
  218.  
  219. "Still, though... I am still wondering about the secrets behind this mess. What's back there, what we're looking for. Don't get me wrong-"
  220. > You raise a hoof as Gerard starts to interject.
  221. "-I'm pretty sure we're not hunting ponies or anything. But is the secrecy really that important? I mean, we're in Equestria now. Is Whitworth really that scared about one of his rivals finding out what he's up to?"
  222. > Now it is the griffon's turn to squirm again - but to your surprise, he does open up:
  223. > "There are more reasons to hide than business alone. This decision of his, I do not argue with. The pony Logic Gate is not wrong when she says this could result in many ponies being freed, though."
  224. "Could? Or will?"
  225. > "Ach! You are a good listener. Could - I do not yet know how the humans will react to this. They are closer to griffons than to ponies, I think - but not the same."
  226. "As long as it doesn't cause more to be trapped in this rotting Tartarus of a life.
  227. > "That, I can say it will not."
  228. > Some time soon after that, you conk out on the grass.
  229. > The rest is not peaceful.
  230. > Again your dreams come twisted and confused - fluttering voices in a silent sea, pierced by a single greater one singing alone.
  231. > The dry, scraping sound of somethings hard brushing against each other.
  232. > Many bodies, moving close together in unison.
  233. > You wake in a sweat as a jacket is slipped over you - looking up, you find Anonymous shooting you a small smile which you sleepily return - the night is pleasant.
  234. > The next morning comes far too quickly for your taste.
  235. > Rising from the bed, you smack your chops to clear a fuzziness in your mouth and nearly tumble from the bed as the world seems to spin in place.
  236. > Nearly.
  237. > The plane is already airborne, but even that can't account entirely for the way your world is wobbling about.
  238. > Anonymous is already up, watching you with a grin from the opposite bunk.
  239. > "Well, well. Look who's among the living again."
  240. "Yeah, yeah-"
  241.  
  242. > A fresh yawn splits your words.
  243. "-Luna take me, I must have been out cold. I don't even remember coming back to the plane last night!"
  244. > "That's because you didn't. Soarin and I had to carry you up. You were dead asleep."
  245. > You have to stare at him for a moment just to be certain he isn't joking.
  246. "...man, either I've suddenly become horribly vulnerable to just one beer, or I've been totally exhausted."
  247. > "Better not be the beer. I'd hate if I couldn't buy you one when we get back home."
  248. "Ah, shuddup."
  249. > Tumbling the rest of the way out of the cabin, you are promptly distracted by the rumbling of your stomach in response to the smells of breakfast being cooked.
  250. > Cog Whirl is hunched over the hot-plate in the plane's tiny kitchenette - a stack of reheated pancakes by his side.
  251. "Morning. Mind if I grab one?"
  252. > "Not at all. As long as you tell the others up in the cockpit to come down and get some when they can. Coffee, too."
  253. "Sure thing."
  254. > Coffee is too much to carry, but you take a pancake in your mouth.
  255. > Popping up to the cockpit, you yawn again and shoot a wave with one wing to Soarin.
  256. "Hey guys - Cog says breakfast is up down there."
  257. > "I'll go."
  258. > Alicia stands, stretching in her seat.
  259. > "Can you take my post for a few? Don't worry about doing anything; it can sit for a couple minutes. Just give me a yell if anything moves unexpectedly."
  260. "Long a you aren't gone for too long."
  261. > Hopping up in her seat, you take a glance across the spread of dials at the flight engineer's station.
  262. > Not your specialty, but as long as something didn't move, right?
  263. > Seeing your concern, Soarin shoots you a little grin.
  264. > "Don't worry. I've helped her a couple times; it's not that har - huh."
  265. "What is it?"
  266. > Soarin leans over the navigation table again, a frown stamped on his face.
  267. > "I just lost the Scatturlas' radio signal."
  268. > That immediately catches the attention of everyone on the cockpit communications circuit.
  269. "Wait, like, entirely?"
  270.  
  271. > "Yes. It's not just bad quality - it's not there at all. And they're not responding to calls on the high-frequency unit either."
  272. > Alicia pops back up soon after, but Soarin heads down the stairs as soon as she is up them:
  273. > "Be right back, I want to go check one of the circuits downstairs."
  274. > Watching him go, Alicia cocks her head questioningly.
  275. > "What's up with him?"
  276. "Apparently he can't get the radio signal from the Scatturlas anymore. Who knows why."
  277. > "Weird. He thinks it's a bad breaker, or-"
  278. > A piercing scream cuts through the entire aircraft, making your coat stand on end.
  279. > Without a second thought you leap down the stairs to the lower deck, heading further back - leaping over Michelle as she tumbles out of her bunk and nearly colliding with Anonymous as he emerges from the bathroom.
  280. > "What the hell was that?!"
  281. > You're about to find out - up ahead at the rear of the lower deck, amid the storage racks - you could see a form slumped over.
  282. > Hooves scrape on metal anti-skid plating as you come to a halt, eyes wide in shock.
  283. > It was Fred - one of Thomas' technicians - trapped halfway in the metal shelving, as if he'd fallen into it and tangled himself.
  284. > Eyes no less wide than yours, though:
  285. > Not looking at you, no, but staring off into a wild infinity.
  286. > His head covered in blood leaking from a long, jagged cut.
  287. "Tirek take it! First aid, get a first aid kit!"
  288. > Dimly you can hear movement behind you - hooves and boots pounding on the floor, angry voices shouting.
  289. > Someone is pressing a cloth to his head, trying to staunch the bleeding; hands, muzzles, and a magical grip are lowering him to the floor by his shirt.
  290. > Voices calling his name, trying to get him to rouse.
  291. > To show any sign of life.
  292. > You retreat; there were others applying pressure and bandages better than you could.
  293. > Looking back, you find Anonymous still peering out of the bathroom - but now with a pale, ghost like face and utter horror in his eyes.
  294. "Hey-"
  295.  
  296. > You turn back around towards him; there were already more than enough people crowding around Fred.
  297. "Hey, Anonymous..."
  298. > "It's just like when Eddie died..."
  299. > Shit, shit!
  300. > You couldn't deal with him having a freak-out right now.
  301. > Taking his hand between your teeth, you lightly pull him along with a wing spread across his back.
  302. > He doesn't protest, and as soon as you can push him down onto one of the bunks you do.
  303. "Sit here, Anonymous. Okay? Sit here, until you’re feeling better. I need to go back up to the cockpit; I left them hanging when I came down to check what happened."
  304. > "Spitfire-"
  305. "I'm sorry, okay? I'll be back as soon as I can."
  306. > Something smells about this - and not just the rusty, metallic scent of blood clinging to your nostrils.
  307. > It's more...
  308. > Rotten.
  309. > Renaud, Kalendae, and Alicia listen with stoney expressions as you explain what had happened.
  310. > Not long after you Soarin comes back from the lower deck, his expression somber.
  311. > "He's not doing well."
  312. > Your stomach plunges, you were falling from a cloud without wings.
  313. > "God!"
  314. > "What the fuck?"
  315. > "Could... could he have fallen, been leaned over in the shelves looking for something and fallen back so they cut him-"
  316. "With what bump? We were flying smooth and steady!"
  317. > "I concur with My Captain."
  318. > Kalendae hisses angrily.
  319. > "That scream, too - not a noise of one falling..."
  320. > More people are coming up as well now - the cockpit space growing crowded as everyone seems to pile in, seeking comfort together.
  321. > Kalendae, still in the copilot's seat but with Cog close behind her - a hoof snaked around to rest on her shoulder.
  322. > Gerard, his lone golden eye surveying the cabin.
  323. > Even Thomas looks hollow-eyed, his lips working silently to spill forth unheard words.
  324. > Finally Renaud stirs.
  325. > "I'm turning us around. We're heading back to the Scatturlas."
  326. > "What?!"
  327.  
  328. "He's right. Fred needs treatment. We can stop the worst of the bleeding here, but he needs proper attention. From real doctors, maybe a surgeon."
  329. > "You can't go back!"
  330. > The outraged cry had come, to your surprise, from Thomas.
  331. > He was standing again now, fists balled into hands and eyes wild.
  332. > "If we go back, it'll be the end of it. We'll get called off, a different crew-"
  333. > "Are you kidding me, Thomas?"
  334. > Sai was on the other side of the cockpit, gripping a table with white knuckles.
  335. > "You want to risk Fred's life further? For getting the job done? What the hell, man?"
  336. > "If - if we don't - the ponies, they'll send the ponies away-"
  337. > Thomas' eyes drift to Logic Gate, but the poor mare is too terrified to say anything.
  338. > You stretch out a wing over her withers.
  339. "We're going back, Thomas. I know what it will cost, but we're going back."
  340. > Besides.
  341. > There was something about this that didn't add up yet.
  342. > Especially as that declaration seems to send him into something of a strange meltdown.
  343. > "No, no, no... you can't. We can't go back, they'll take her away. There'll never be another shot, nothing will change… It wasn’t supposed to happen this way..."
  344. > Alicia cocks her head questioningly:
  345. > “What do you mean? Logic Gate? If Whitworth is that tough of a boss, maybe-”
  346. > Before she can finish, he lurches forward and grabs both her arms.
  347. > Thomas’ eyes are wide and wild, filled with some kind of vigor.
  348. > “You don’t get it! Nothing will change..! The ponies, they'll keep on being slaves forever. It wasn't supposed to be this way; it was supposed to end here-!"
  349. > Alicia shoves him away, but no one else moves - those words ringing in their ears.
  350. > Except…
  351. > There was someone else in the cockpit who could make that call.
  352. > Someone else with that kind of authority.
  353. "Gerard... I don’t know what’s going on. But it’s bad, and whatever's happening it’s clearly got to do with our 'cargo'. We need to be able to see what's back there."
  354.  
  355. > The griffon's head rotates, the remainder of his body stock-still - settling that single golden eye on you.
  356. "Gregory Whitworth wanted you to be his representative, didn't he? He'd want this job to be done - and done right, wouldn't he? If we're going to face this, that means we're going to need to know all of it."
  357. > "Thomas..."
  358. > Gerard's voice is little more than an angry hiss.
  359. > "...give me your key."
  360. > Thomas shakes his head - his face pale-white - but does nothing to stop Gerard from plucking it from his belt.
  361.  
  362. --------
  363.  
  364. > The group moves with the finality of a troop of guards marching to make an arrest.
  365. > Someone had grabbed two of the rifles, meant for protection against wildlife.
  366. > They hadn’t actually chambered rounds, but were still clutched to chests like they were the only thing between life and death.
  367. > Back along the lower deck, up to the stairway to the rear, then forward again to the locked door.
  368. > Even Anonymous had risen from the bunk you’d left him in, sensing that however he was feeling this was something not to be missed.
  369. > There's no polite request, no knocking on the door.
  370. > Gerard simply lifts the key he'd taken from Thomas' belt and unlocks the hatch.
  371. > Inside, Michelle and Logic Gate sit - looking up at the suddenly crowded hatchway with shocked expressions.
  372. > "Gerard? What's going on?! They can't come in-"
  373. > He brushes aside her plea just as he brushes aside her body, pushing his way in.
  374. > You follow soon after him, into a cramped space filled with...
  375. > Well, you don't know what.
  376. > A whole lot of wires, pipes, computers, humming machinery you don't even recognize.
  377. > Somehow you'd expected something like Anonymous' Catalina - a narrow corridor down the center, maybe lined with files for paper or with computers.
  378. > Instead, a gigantic cylinder easily four times your size dominates the center of the room - anchored to floor and ceiling, nested amid piping and wires like a great egg in a plastic-and-steel nest.
  379.  
  380. > Or a cocoon, at the center of a web.
  381. > At regular intervals along it rings of gleaming gems had been encrusted into its gleaming carapace, like pustules from which wires emerged.
  382. > It was around it that the other equipment was placed:
  383. > Some computers, yes, but also things that you don't recognize.
  384. > More boxes that hummed and popped, crystal anchored amid a starburst of needles nudged against them, metal pipes from other cylinders that ran into the one central ... thing.
  385. > Judging by the expressions of the others, it isn't what they'd expected either.
  386. > Cog Whirl traces a hoof along the pipes, his jaw half-open in a wondering expression.
  387. > "These... aren't radio transmitters. There's amplifiers in here, yeah, but... this one, I think it's a fluid pump. Circulating something. And I can - I can smell the magic in here. Something's enchanted."
  388. "It's the crystals. I've seen things like this before - they're using the crystals to hold a spell matrix."
  389. > "The plan..."
  390. > Gerard's voice is a low hiss, but nobody seems to dare to interrupt him - not even Logic Gate or Michelle.
  391. > "...Thomas did not lie when he said we are looking for resources. But these prizes cannot be found so easily, not with the technology the humans had.”
  392. > He looks to Logic Gate, who flicks her tail nervously.
  393. > "Where's Thomas? I'm not telling anyone anything-"
  394. "Sai's keeping an eye on him. He wants us to keep going, even though Fred's been hurt."
  395. > Logic Gate rears back with a little whinny.
  396. > "He what?! Why?"
  397. > "Something about that if we went back, he thinks Whitworth will end the job. And that would do... something."
  398. > Gerard looks between Logic Gate and Michelle, evaluating them for their reaction to that knowledge.
  399. > By your estimate, they're jolted as you are by it.
  400. > "He is losing control. Afraid."
  401. > Michelle and Logic Gate look at each other again before the latter lets her head droop and starts to talk:
  402.  
  403. > "The crystals, they're not all holding the actual spell matrix. A lot of them, they're just converting the electricity into raw magical energy. It's really, really inefficient... but we don't need a ton of magic."
  404. > Part of you wants to go back and give her a nuzzle - tell her it was going to be alright and she didn't have anything to be afraid of.
  405. > But even more curiosity - and something else - draws you to keep exploring further in.
  406. > Cog Whirl was doing the same, running a hoof along the various boxes with a distant-eyed, slack-jawed expression that you knew meant he was using his talent to stretch out and feel their workings.
  407. > "They're like... an amplifier. A huge amplifier attached to a magical antenna, boosting its power. With a matching spell matrix they’d provide the power, but to actually cast the spell-"
  408. > Carefully treading ahead, you find that there was a - a windowed porthole of sorts on the side of the enormous, cocoon-like cylinder.
  409. > "We needed an - actuator. A caster. A mind that would initiate the spell and control it."
  410. "What kind of actuator...?"
  411. > Your words were muttered beneath your breath, certainly inaudible among the noise of the machinery.
  412. > Impulsively, almost inexorably, you find yourself drawn in towards the window.
  413. > In the background, Cog is shouting:
  414. > "You mean there's a pony trapped in that thing?!"
  415. > "Not a pony, Cog! I wouldn't hunt my own kind; I want ponies to be free!"
  416. > The inside, to your surprise, is lit - though filled with a murky green liquid that makes it hard to see.
  417. > "Then what? What in Tartarus’ black halls are you using to do it?!"
  418. > “We - We needed-”
  419. > You whinny in terror, stumbling back to crash against a humming rack of equipment.
  420. > There, in the porthole, a coal-black muzzle floated by - sickly green eyes half open, fanged maw displaying rows of sharp teeth, crooked and jagged horn arcing with green energy.
  421. > “Spitfire! What’s wrong?!”
  422. "Chrysalis."
  423.  
  424. > Anonymous is shaking you, and you're halfway up again in a second - just in time to see a warped and hole-riddled limb float past the porthole.
  425. > "What's a Chrysalis, Spitfire-?"
  426. > A hoof is shakily lifted, but your mind is very much elsewhere.
  427. > Back in memory, of a cackling voice calling out commands amid a furiously buzzing swarm.
  428. > Of blades and spears clashing against chitinous shell and bone-white fang.
  429. > "Holy fucking shit!"
  430. "She's - there're these things called Changelings. Parasites. Like a pony met a wasp and - ugh."
  431. > A shudder ripples your coat from muzzle to fetlocks.
  432. > The nausea is creeping up again; is it just thinking about those things, or the exhaustion again?
  433. "They're not our friends. Never have been. Even with griffons we could call truces, make treaties, but Changelings - they just feed on everything until it's gone and then move on. And Chrysalis - she's their queen. They’d throw themselves onto our spear-points for her."
  434. > Anonymous is up again, shaking a fist at Logic Gate.
  435. > "And you thought this was a good idea?! God damn it, are you all completely fucking retarded? Have any of you people watched 'Aliens'? You just brought the literal fucking queen on our plane; there is no way this could go well!"
  436. > Your mind is still leaping from point to point like lightning through clouds.
  437. > The tickling in the back of your mind from the moment this started; the dreams you'd been having of a single voice singing alone-
  438. > "I have to agree with Anonymous; if I'd known that - that thing was just floating up there above us-"
  439. > "She can't hurt us!
  440. > “Why the fuck not?!”
  441. > “Because she's brain-dead."
  442. > Michelle's proclamation again brings all argument to a halt; after a moment, Logic Gate steps in:
  443.  
  444. > "She was injured when they captured her. Half her head blown off. They put her back together, but her brain - she's got barely enough function to keep breathing. Just floats around in there, twitches sometimes. Thomas' work - we figured out how to feed a spell into her mind through probes they put on her head. And she casts the spell for us."
  445. > Finally pulling back a few steps, Cog Whirl extracts himself from the machinery to glare at her.
  446. > "What kind of spell do you need that for?! I mean - I'm no great wizard, but I don't know of any magical mineral or anything that responds just to changeling magic!"
  447. > "Come on, Cog. What have the humans got most out of Equestria? What do they want more of?"
  448. > It's a few heartbeats as everyone falls to the same horrible conclusion.
  449. "...slaves. We're looking for slaves."
  450. > At last Logic Gate steps forward, tracing the cocoon - because it was a cocoon after a fashion, you realize - with an almost elated expression.
  451. > "There were some old documents seized from Canterlot, talking about how a Changeling queen controls their hive. We figured out how to hijack her link to the other changelings, use her to broadcast commands to them. Our commands, controlling them."
  452. > “So every time we were chasing a contact… that - that was a changeling…”
  453. > Cog Whirl trails off, and Logic Gate tears her eyes from the machinery to nod to him.
  454. > "Right now, we're trying to put that idea into their head. Come to us. Protect us. We are their queen."
  455. "You want to turn her into a - a magic slave-controller!"
  456. > "For Changelings, Spitfire!"
  457. > Whirling around, Logic Gate meets your glare head-on without giving an inch.
  458. > "They're perfect! They'll follow their 'queen' without question. And if we leave them here? They'd be nothing but a menace!"
  459. > Maybe the tumult of emotions whirling about in your head had shown, because Logic Gate's expression softens and she takes a step forward with a hoof stretched out.
  460.  
  461. > "This is it, Spitfire. This is how we end pony slavery, and deal with one of the greatest threats to ponykind all at once. The humans won't need us when they have perfect changeling servants. And for the first time, we won't have to fear them."
  462. > ...so that’s what Thomas had meant when he said 'nothing would change' if the mission failed.
  463. > And why he was so paralyzed with fear over it being discovered.
  464. "This was Thomas' plan, wasn't it...? The big plan you were all excited about, the one that would get everypony free and your name in textbooks..."
  465. > Cog Whirl frowns a touch, looking around at all the equipment filling the small space.
  466. > "But... but there's only one Chrysalis? You can’t send her everywhere. Or carry all this stuff around!"
  467. "And what happens if it fails? Are we surrounded by angry changelings that want to tear us apart to get their queen?!"
  468. > "No. If we amplify the signal through the queen, they'll keep following out her last orders for a long, long time. Just mimicking the signal, that's easy - it doesn't take that much. Making it stick for a long time meant we had to bring Chrysalis along; she's... more real to them, I guess. It's her, or surgery to make them permanently docile."
  469. > She pauses, for the first time displaying something like squeamishness.
  470. > "There were... a few changeling lab subjects. That's how we proofed the idea."
  471. > You can imagine.
  472. > Horrified rumors had always circulated of unthinkable experiments performed on ponies.
  473. > That they had been done on Changelings instead still turns your stomach.
  474. "I... I don't - I don't know how to think about this, Logic Gate. I - I mean, I understand, but..."
  475. > "Oh, don't tell me you're sympathetic with rutting Chrysalis! You must have fought them!"
  476. "Of course I have-"
  477. > Green ichor, spilling like blood from cracked carapaces.
  478. > The sonorous buzzing of a hundred thousand wings.
  479. > Screeching, as your halberd swung in.
  480. "-but... turning them over to be slaves, is..."
  481.  
  482. > Anonymous places a hand on your withers.
  483. > "We're... we're going back to the Scatturlas. It shouldn't be more than eight hours or so. We get Fred the medical attention he needs, then we call… hell, who has jurisdiction? The FBI? Mounties? Interpol?”
  484. > "You cannot tell any of them!"
  485. > Gerard’s roar makes your head whip around.
  486. "Why not, Gerard? You agreed to show us, what's the big secret now?"
  487. > The griffon hisses again, claws scraping on the metal flooring.
  488. > "Chrysalis' capture... was not done by any military. It was all - private. By those contracted to Whitworth’s side. Secret. So is her presence here; the border documentation says all of this is just machinery."
  489. > A long and heavy silence follows; you look to Logic Gate, who turns away shamefully.
  490. > Michelle folds her arms and stares at the floor.
  491. > At last Cog Whirl steps up:
  492. > "...are you telling me, we sneaked out here with the queen of the Changelings aboard, and nobody knew anything?!"
  493. > Gerard clicks his beak angrily at him, puffing his feathers up as if ready for a fight.
  494. > "If we do not bend the rules, we will never succeed! Have you forgotten the story I told you? How I had to expect my superior's sabotage, and outwit him? The ones who seize an opportunity - those are the ones who win!"
  495. "But we’re not talking about rules. These are laws! We broke the law!"
  496. > "And haven't you before, Spitfire? Whenever you took the controls? If you start an investigation, they will discover all of this for sure!"
  497. > A retort sticks in your throat.
  498. "I... not like this!"
  499. > "Enough. We get back to the Scatturlas, and.. we have a talk with Whitworth about this. All of us."
  500. > You stumble back down to your bunk, only half-aware of what is going on around you.
  501. > Every few moments a fresh shudder would run through you body.
  502. > You'd been living - eating, sleeping, laughing, more - practically right next to that... that thing, for how long now?
  503.  
  504. > Fresh nausea wells in you; only by sheer force of will do you avoid staggering drunkenly on your way forward.
  505. > They must've brought the tank - Chrysalis - in at some point during the training.
  506. > And ever since then...
  507. > Anonymous is sitting up there already, his fingers digging deep divots into the side of the bed.
  508. "Hey..."
  509. > You brush your side against him, turning around to shoot a questioning look up.
  510. "You okay?"
  511. > "I... I don't know. Fuck!"
  512. > You nod sagely, as if that one expletive could sum everything up.
  513. "Sounds about right."
  514. > "When... I think I was getting a little bit of flashbacks, when I was stepping out of the bathroom back there. Cold sweats and everything."
  515. "To Eddie's death?"
  516. > "Yeah..."
  517. > His hand is in your mane, and you lean over into that familiar, friendly touch.
  518. > "Fucking hell, Spitfire. He'd better live. I don't know if I can deal with this again."
  519. "You're not the only one who's feeling it. When I saw - that creature inside that tank... I've fought those things before, Anonymous. Never, ever did I think I'd have just been living near one without knowing it."
  520. > "Yeah... And now we can't even tell the cops about it or anything."
  521. > After a moment he leans over entirely, both arms running around your barrel to give you a fierce hug.
  522. "I think... I think the thing that creeps me out more than anything, is how enthusiastic Logic Gate was. She believes. She truly believes this will end slavery. And she's willing to do anything to get it there..."
  523. > "And what do you think?"
  524. > You shift, leaning into his embrace.
  525. "I don't know. I want to believe, but I'm not sure. And even then... she's willing to sell the changelings into slavery. I'm not sure that's something I can get behind."
  526. > Anonymous stays silent, and you aren't surprised.
  527. > His relationship with slavery in general was still... complicated.
  528.  
  529. > "...for me... fuck, I guess I settled myself with our cargo being unknown, but y'know - knowing that we're effectively dodging the Feds and whoever else to get her out here..."
  530. "Yeah. I guess Whitworth figured if you're going to lie, why not go big from the start?"
  531. > "Guess so."
  532. > He stays there a few minutes, and you suspect he's in much a similar state to yourself:
  533. > So caught up by thoughts whirling about in your head that you can't even make heads or tails of the situation.
  534. > There's still something eating at the edge of your mind.
  535. > Some bit of information that's important, but each time you try and grab for it somehow it dances away again, like a leaf fluttering about in a gale.
  536. > A gale sounds about right to describe what you're feeling now, for sure:
  537. > Everything so chaotic and torn up you can barely think straight.
  538. > "I'm... I think I might go up, see if they need any help in the cockpit. I need something to keep my mind off of this for a time, and flying's always good for getting focused like that."
  539. "Do.. do you mind if I stay down here right now? I don't know if I can focus enough right now. It wouldn't be safe."
  540. > "No problem, Spitfire."
  541. > He leans over, embracing you in a small hug - which you return with a low nicker, bunting your head against his chest.
  542. > "I'll come down a bit later. Should be getting some food in a couple hours, so I'll bring you some if you're not up."
  543. "Thanks."
  544. > Once he is gone you quickly take up residence on your bunk.
  545. > Drawing up the sheets around yourself, folding them in to provide almost sort of a nest against the chaos outside.
  546. > Your eyes are fixed on the bulkhead at the end of the bed - tracing listlessly over a crack.
  547. > There was something about this you weren't seeing yet.
  548. > Some detail that was eluding you.
  549. > What was it..?
  550. > As you rest there, your ear twitches at the sound of approaching hooves.
  551. > A soft muzzle descends on your ear, sniffing and whuffing, teeth nibbling along the hairline of your mane.
  552.  
  553. > You give a low nicker, and Soarin returns it.
  554. "Aren't you still on duty?"
  555. > "Renaud took over when Anonymous kicked him out of the pilot's seat."
  556. "Did he really kick Renaud out?"
  557. > Your amused tone draws a laugh from Soarin.
  558. > "Literally? No. But he asked real hard and sounded like he needed it."
  559. "Figures."
  560. > "What about you, though? Anonymous told me what you found back there."
  561. "I... I don't know, Soarin. I was going to nap, but thinking about that thing just sleeping up above me... even though she is brain-dead, it sets me off."
  562. > "Hey, you tolerate Gerard, don't you?"
  563. > You snort at his quip and shift over on the bed, making room for the stallion to join you.
  564. > He obliges, and though it's a tight fit you're almost happy to have the pressure of his body against your side.
  565. "Gerard is... Gerard is a tough old mustang of a bird. He doesn't respect us, but I can get how he works, you know?"
  566. > Laying your head back down on crossed hooves, you huff again when Soarin's wing stretches out across your back.
  567. "But Changelings... they hunt and they feed, Soarin. That's it. There's never been a treaty or a peace with them."
  568. > "What if... what if this could change that, Spitfire? They probably don't want to be enslaved either. This might be the big thing that could get them to sympathize with us too!"
  569. > You shiver softly; 'what if' indeed?
  570. "I don't know, Soarin. Their queen... she's a classic tyrant. And their drones... I mean, they can think, yeah, but they're practically obedient to the queen's whim anyway."
  571. > "Won't know if we don't ever try it..."
  572. "Yeah, but the cost of going wrong... and there's already something about this that bugs me."
  573. > Soarin sits up, pressing his hooves into your back and starting to massage just above your wingroots - working into the dense flight muscles.
  574. > "Tell me?"
  575.  
  576. "I... I don't know. There's something I feel like I can't quite figure out about this whole mess. The mess Cog and Alicia dug out in the engine, Bell Curve jumping out... did he find out, got scared? I just don't get it."
  577. > "Yeah... this whole thing - honestly it's spooking me, Spitfire."
  578. "Soarin..."
  579. > "And... I'm honestly wondering... maybe it's time to go, Spitfire. Bell Curve figured out how to disable these collars. We can too. Maybe we should go before they get back, before they put us all in cages-"
  580. "No!"
  581. > Despite your earlier wooziness you push yourself upright and twist around to glare at him.
  582. > "Spitfire, if we wait until they've brought us back to Earth and it's over for sure, then it'll be too late."
  583. > He meets your eyes too, anger still filling them.
  584. > "What are you expecting? That Anonymous will cover for you again? He can't work miracles, Spitfire."
  585. > Huffing, Soarin lays his forehead in against your neck.
  586. > "I'm... I'm scared, Spitfire. I love you. I don't want to lose you. I..."
  587. > Words go on, but you're barely listening anymore.
  588. > Those three words - I love you - had grabbed all your attention.
  589. > And your heart.
  590. > Yes, you'd always known that there was still something there with Soarin.
  591. > But now that he needed you...
  592. > Why did you hesitate to embrace that?
  593. > 'Putting on the Captain's Wings' wasn't something you hadn't had to do before; even Soarin had understood when you could be with him and when you couldn't.
  594. > But this didn't feel like that.
  595. > Something else was holding you back from echoing his comment.
  596. > Tartarus' black pits - you hadn't been really acknowledging it even when you'd been close and with him this whole trip.
  597. > Why was it so hard...?
  598. > What was stopping you from...
  599. > No.
  600. > Not the time.
  601. > Right now, you had much bigger issues on your mind.
  602. > Time to put on the Captain's wings and stay focused.
  603.  
  604. "We aren't going anywhere, Soarin. And I don't want to ever hear anything suggesting running away from you again. We aren't abandoning them, and I expected better than that from you."
  605. > Soarin drops his eyes, stretching out his neck to rest against yours.
  606. > "Yeah... you're right. I'm sorry, I'm just really scared, and... I don't want to lose you again."
  607. "I get it, Soarin. I get it. Ordinarily, I'd tell you to just trust me... but I'm kind of out of everything at the moment, wrapped up in my own worries. So this time..."
  608. > You take a deep breath as you settle back down on the bed, his neck still resting on yours.
  609. "Trust in each other. We need to support each other right now. To be a team."
  610. > "Well, don't you worry now Spitfire. I'm here, and I'll stick around and let you get some shut-eye."
  611. > He's right; even as his muzzle drops across your neck you can feel the long-eluded sleep finally creeping up on your mind.
  612. "Thanks, Soarin."
  613.  
  614. --------
  615.  
  616. > You snap awake, quickly realizing two distinct things:
  617. > One, it must not have been that long at all - nobody had come down to bring you food.
  618. > And two?
  619. > Something was very wrong.
  620. > Feet and hooves were pounding up and around; voices were raised in fear or concern.
  621. > You push yourself off the cot, but halfway there the strength seems to fail your legs and the entire world skews wildly.
  622. > Realization that it's not the world moving but yourself comes as your cheek makes a decidedly sudden introduction to the hard metal floor.
  623. > Kalendae, moving in passing, happens to look in through the open hatch to see you struggling to rise.
  624. > "My Captain! Are you hurt too?"
  625. > Somehow you must have indicated that you weren't, though it certainly wasn't by getting up.
  626. > Every step seems to send a fresh wave of nausea through you; this is more than exhaustion.
  627. > "Ti énas kakós ánemos! Anonymous! Spitfire, she-"
  628. > Maybe he was already looking in this direction, because Anonymous is coming down the lower deck even before she finishes speaking.
  629. > Just in time to see you trip and stumble over the bulkhead hatch from your forward cabin.
  630. > From your spot on the floor, rolled awkwardly onto your side with a wing splayed beneath you, an awkward grin is shot up at him.
  631. "H-Hey, 'nonymous. Remember how you said to tell you f'somthing was really wrong? Well... m'really wrong now."
  632. > "Fucking hell, Spitfire..."
  633. > His hands were under you in an instant, levering you upright.
  634. > "...are you sick? You going to puke?"
  635. "Just... just feeling really weak. Don't know. What's going on?"
  636. > As if in answer, the small crowd further aft parts to reveal Alicia carried between them - seemingly half-conscious and covered in bruises.
  637. > Following your gaze, Anonymous growls:
  638. > "They found her in the bathroom. She keeps saying Cog Whirl did it, but nobody can find him."
  639. > Your stomach does a flip that has absolutely nothing to do with how terrible you are feeling overall.
  640.  
  641. "S'that... are we down both 'ngineers? And -"
  642. > A quick mental count confirms - yourself, Kalendae, and Anonymous were all down here.
  643. > Three out of the four capable of flying the plane.
  644. "An' who's got th’controls?"
  645. > "Renaud. He - he can manage for a short time. We're still just flying straight and level."
  646. > As you watch, Michelle and Soarin between them manage to get Alicia to a proper bed and lay her out.
  647. > She's moving, so it doesn't seem as bad as what had happened to Fred...
  648. > But it's still not good.
  649. > You try to push forward, and Anonymous agreeably helps - bringing you near enough that you can hear what she mutters, mantra-like, beneath her breath:
  650. > "Don't get it... isn’t right. I don’t get it, he wasn’ righ’..."
  651. "Is this.. did magic do this?"
  652. > "We don't know. Nobody can find Cog Whirl."
  653. > That's right; he'd said that once before.
  654. > A fresh horror strikes your mind:
  655. > Had Cog Whirl opted to take a leap too, following Bell Curve?
  656. > But Kalendae gives a little snarl, baring her sharply-pointed teeth and shaking her head as if she could sense your thoughts.
  657. > "Allow me to search one place, My Captain. He mentioned a place to me once - far back in the tail, up where the controls for those surfaces are. He needed to check it."
  658. "Go... go!"
  659. > Even if she does bring him back, he'll still have to answer for this.
  660. > But that somehow seems better than knowing he was - gone.
  661. > When the Thestral returns, though, she is pale even through the dark-blue of her coat; her eyes have been reduced to trouble slits.
  662. > Once glance at the unicorn stumbling after her is enough for you to guess why:
  663. > Cog Whirl's eyes are glassy and unfocused, his motions clumsy and exaggerated.
  664. > You've seen this before, yes.
  665. > Soarin recognizes it too:
  666. > "Is... Is he high on something?"
  667. > Kalendae hisses angrily, folding a wing almost protectively over the stallion.
  668. > This, however, only seemed to embolden Soarin more:
  669. > He jabbed a hoof at Cog, wings snapping out angrily.
  670.  
  671. > "He is! He's completely blasted out of his mind on those magic suppressants, isn't he?"
  672. "Soarin..."
  673. > Your meager croak goes unheard by both ponies.
  674. > "You will silence yourself, Soarin!"
  675. > "Like Tartarus I will, Kalendae-"
  676. > “He’s right! Don’t they just barely get along with each other or something?”
  677. > Michelle gestures to Cog Whirl with her free hand, earning a nod from Soarin.
  678. > "Yeah! They were at each others' throats, and with the engine sabotage and everything-"
  679. "Both f’you, enough!"
  680. > In spite of your weakness, you'd somehow still managed to put a little of the old 'commander's tone' into your voice.
  681. > It catches both of them by surprise - Soarin especially, who only just now seems to realize that you are awake (if still half leaning against Anonymous to avoid another awkward collapse).
  682. > He rushes to your side, nuzzling against your cheek.
  683. > "Winds take you, Spitfire - what happened to you?!"
  684. "Not - no’ feelin’ great."
  685. > "Yeah, I can see..."
  686. > Soarin glances between you and Cog Whirl, as if uncertain which he should address first.
  687. > You don't give him a chance to decide.
  688. > Pushing yourself up and out of Anonymous' grip, you somehow get stable on all four legs - wings extending as much to balance you as to present an imposing image.
  689. "He - they fixed up th’differences, Soarin. In - in Marechester, when w’were all waitin’ out th’storm."
  690. > Disbelief floods the stallion's face, his expression going slack as he takes in your words.
  691. > "I.. I didn't know, I thought they were still..."
  692. > Of course.
  693. > Soarin had been stuck on the plane during the storm, when that had happened.
  694. > And Michelle, who'd also been there and furthermore kept herself separate enough from the rest of your crew she must have missed any sign of it.
  695. > The two who'd had no way to know what had gone down in that little huddled building on the shore.
  696. > And Soarin hadn't been there when Alicia and Cog were fixing the sabotage, had he?
  697.  
  698. > When they'd been checking the other engines - laughing and joking as more than co-workers tolerating each other.
  699. > As friends.
  700. "S’okay, Soarin. But I don't - I don' think Cog did it."
  701. > "What then? And how? Who would go after Alicia?"
  702. > Who indeed?
  703. > The nausea is fading away as adrenaline dumps into your system - making your coat prickle and wings flex as things slide into horrible clarity.
  704. > Who would have a reason indeed?
  705. > Just like who would have a reason to clog up an engine with mysterious gunk, or who would have a reason to club one of the crew over the head in a back room?
  706. > "Spitfire..."
  707. "I think..."
  708. > On wobbling, jelly-like legs you half-march, half-stumble to Alicia's side.
  709. > She opens one swollen eye - the flesh around it purpled from some blow - to watch you.
  710. > Dropping your muzzle to her ear, you whisper one simple question into it.
  711. > Then you tilt your ear to her lips, listen to her response, and feel your stomach twist as all your worst nightmares come true.
  712. > "Spitfire...?"
  713. "Put..."
  714. > You swallow.
  715. > This was harder than it seemed.
  716. "Put Cog in a bunk. Have someone watch over him. No, two someones - watching him and Alicia. If I'm right, he'll - he'll be over this in a few hours."
  717. > Halfway through turning around, you realize that making it back to your own bunk wasn't going to happen.
  718. "I - I might need some help, Anonymous. If you could...?"
  719. > "Yeah, sure."
  720. > Though you'd expected him to just give you a good point to lean against, instead his hands circle you and pick you up.
  721. > Putting you back in one of the bunks in the forward cabin before shutting the door.
  722. > "...now, what's going on, Spitfire?"
  723. "It's... it's bad, Anonymous. The sabotage, Fred, even - oh, fuck. Maybe even Bell Curve?"
  724. > "You know who did this? What did Alicia say to you anyway?"
  725. "I asked her if she remembered what his eyes were like when we drugged him - were his eyes like that now?"
  726. > Anonymous nods as slow understanding appears on his face.
  727.  
  728. > "What she was saying when they brought her out - 'he wasn't right'. She didn't mean he was drugged..."
  729. "Yes. And that's what she said to me too. His eyes were wrong. 'Too sharp', she said - because he wasn't high. And I believe it."
  730. > "What, then? Is that - that freaky mind-ray up there controlling him?"
  731. "I wish. No, I think it's even worse."
  732. > You steady yourself, forcing your head straight up to look him straight in the eye.
  733. "Anonymous, someone on this plane is a changeling."
  734. > All time stands still for a moment; you can even see the wheels turning in Anonymous' brain.
  735. > "...shit."
  736. "You don't have a clue what that means, do you?”
  737. > "I mean, I can guess. What you said earlier - parasite bugs of some kind? Like big locusts?"
  738. "Big locusts that can turn into somepony else and then hit you when you're least expecting it."
  739. > "But didn't Logic Gate say the machine was telling them to obey us? Wouldn't it-"
  740. "I don't - I don't know, okay? But it's got to be that. This is what they do - infiltrate, subvert, turn us against each other - hell, they cough up some nasty green slime that turns all gummy and sticky in the air, and guess what we found clogging up the engine?"
  741. > "...green and gummy shit."
  742. "And I guarantee you a Changeling didn't have time to fly up, take the cowling off, get in there, unhook a tube, and hawk up a nice big glob of changeling-goop all of that while we weren't looking."
  743. > "Motherfucker. I told them I wasn’t going to fly without them telling me what it’s - Spitfire, is there any particular reason we shouldn't just toss that damn tank overboard? Maybe shoot her a few times before we do?"
  744. "Aside from that getting it out of that room would take tools we don't have? Like, oh, a crane?"
  745. > Anonymous groans, rocking back against the bulkhead.
  746. > "Why are you making so much damn sense?"
  747. "It's my job to. Was. Whatever."
  748. > "Can I at least shoot it?"
  749.  
  750. "Let's not go firing off weapons inside the plane? I know you want to settle this mess, but this isn't the way. I - I just need some time to think."
  751. >Raising your head, you lean over against his side and brush it there.
  752. “Just… see if Kalendae needs to stay with Cog-”
  753. > She would.
  754. > Anything else was lying to yourself.
  755. “-and give me a few to think it over.”
  756. > You don't know exactly what you're going to think out, but you're trying not to let paranoia overwhelm you.
  757. > Anonymous gives your ears a scratch and heads out, leaving you alone with your thoughts.
  758. > Diving deeply into suspecting anypony wouldn't be good.
  759. > To your knowledge, changelings couldn't replace change non-ponies - at least, not well enough to accurately pretend to be one of them.
  760. > Even if a body could be mimicked, one of the humans would have noticed that something was off.
  761. > So you could probably write off any of the humans as being the infiltrator at this point...
  762. > It also didn't seem likely that the changeling had managed to slip in during the trip; whoever it was, they had undoubtedly been with you since training.
  763. > That thought leaves you feeling slightly sickened - or maybe terrified - again, but you manage to focus.
  764. > Who did that leave?
  765. > Gerard, Kalendae, Cog Whirl, and Logic Gate...
  766. > The griffon?
  767. > Possible; he'd have had the time working with Whitworth to perfect his cover.
  768. > Was his eagerness to split with his 'owner' and continue the mission a sign he wasn't playing along anymore?
  769. > But everything he'd done, every bit of his attitude, every story he'd told had been exactly what you'd have expected from what you knew of the Griffon; nothing seemed out of place.
  770. > ...so either a highly skilled infiltrator, or he was innocent.
  771. > Kalendae, who had immediately become so close to Cog Whirl - who had even admitted to desiring his affection?
  772. > Yes, she had suffered in captivity; yes, she had offered insight into the Night Guard and her Thestral kin.
  773.  
  774. > But who was to say any of that was true?
  775. > A sob story maybe, meant to extract the maximum sympathy - you had no way to confirm it, after all.
  776. > Or was it Cog Whirl himself, who had been restless and listless... until he had been around long enough to suck up enough actual affection (however tough) from those ponies around him?
  777. > Magic suppression drugs meant for unicorns might not do much to a changeling; was his near-supernatural skill with machines really a Talent?
  778. > Or just his way of distracting from other deficiencies in his charade?
  779. > If he had sabotaged the engine, then he knowing something was wrong with it before anyone else did lined up.
  780. > Was his affinity for machinery a cover?
  781. > Then there was Logic Gate.
  782. > The true believer.
  783. > The one who'd been with Thomas from the beginning, working alongside him - who you'd had no control over bringing in.
  784. > If anyone had the time to perfect a disguise and remain close by the Queen's side, it would have been her.
  785. > But which one?
  786. > Gerard... somehow didn't seem like a changeling.
  787. > Your hoof scrawls in a slow circle on the mattress.
  788. > Which one...?
  789. > A wrong judgement now could doom someone else on the plane; whoever it was disguised as, it was pretty clear that the changeling had given up on sabotage and was trying to take the crew out one-by-one.
  790. > Who would be next - another of Thomas' staff?
  791. > Would it return to finish off one of the flight engineers?
  792. > One of the other critical flight crew -
  793. > One of his other staff - Michelle, Sai, Logic Gate - assuming she wasn't the perpetrator.
  794. > Go after one of the critical flight crew - Anonymous?
  795. > Or even yourself...
  796. > A shudder runs down your spine, and you are suddenly acutely aware of how alone you are.
  797. > Was this what it had been like for Fred?
  798. > Working alone in the back, until he was suddenly clubbed over the head?
  799. > Suddenly sending Anonymous away doesn't seem like such a good idea...
  800. > Well.
  801. > Anonymous would be back soon.
  802. > ...you hoped.
  803.  
  804. > When the door finally clicks open again, a prickle of relief runs down your spine that he's back... and not going to waste another moment.
  805. > "Hey. Cog fell asleep, so Kalendae went up to help Renaud for a bit. Gerard's helping them."
  806. "Good. Help me up. I want to talk to a couple of people."
  807. > Despite still being exceedingly woozy, you manage to avoid the embarrassment of having Anonymous pick you up again.
  808. > The first destination is Sai Ahura.
  809. > You didn't know much about him - another distant member of Thomas' crew.
  810. > But he’d kept his head cool when Thomas was losing it, and that alone seemed like enough.
  811. > Besides, all you were doing was questioning him about everything Logic Gate had told you about the job - looking for any discrepancies.
  812. > There weren't any.
  813. > At least not that you could recollect.
  814. > Everything matched her story.
  815. > If Logic Gate or Michelle had been lying to you, all of them were in on it.
  816. > The second is to Fred; he lay in his bunk, pale and unconscious - each breath coming slowly, but deep enough that you didn't think he was at too much risk.
  817. > Hopefully.
  818. > The third - Thomas.
  819. > He had kept to himself since Gerard had taken the keys from his belt.
  820. > Evidently the humiliation of having his judgement overruled didn't sit well with him, as he shot you a hard glare when you got close.
  821. "...Thomas."
  822. > You kept your voice low.
  823. > No sense in letting everyone else in on this.
  824. "They showed us everything in the back, Thomas. I understand now - what you were so afraid of us finding out. Chrysalis. That - machine. Surgery on changelings, sneaking across the border with her... "
  825. > "I knew you'd be angry."
  826. > His voice is little more than a whisper.
  827. > Without a coat of fur to cover his skin, you can see the sweat beading on it.
  828. > "But I had to, Spitfire. I had to... this is the only way."
  829. "You need to trust others. Trust someone... even if you couldn't tell everyone, you could at least have given us something-"
  830.  
  831. > "No, you don't get it. I couldn't trust anyone. Any sign of this getting out... my entire species are nothing but greedy little apes, Spitfire. If anyone leaked this, they'd just - take all our work away for themselves."
  832. > Thomas snorts, folding his arms across his chest.
  833. > "You should understand this better than anyone, Spitfire. We're monsters, eating up everything we can lay our hands on. Even this job - Whitworth is only funding it because it'll give him a whole new bunch of perfectly obedient slaves to fatten up his bank account. So who do I tell - one of the crew, to turn me over to the police? One of you, who could be taken away and coerced into talking?"
  834. > He rolls away to face the wall, his voice heavy and laden with despair.
  835. > "The only way we can save ponykind from ourselves is by sneaking around beneath the law. How fucked up is that, huh?"
  836. "...okay, look. You've got a point, yeah."
  837. > "A point?!"
  838. > Mere moments after turning to face away from you, Thomas spins himself around in the cot again.
  839. > "I'm - I'm trying to make sure that nopony has to suffer through what you or Kalendae or Cog did again, and all you can say is 'I've got a point'?"
  840. > Rearing up, you place a hoof on his chest to silence him - and are immediately punished for the sudden movement as waves of exhaustion and nausea sweep your body.
  841. > "...oh, shit. Are you okay, Spitfire?"
  842. > By squeezing your eyes shut and tensing your wings you're able to keep from collapsing entirely.
  843. "...fine. Look, Thomas. I'm not here to debate a point. I get that you're upset, but I need your help now - help to see this plan through to the end. I know you want to help ponies. I know what you were planning here. But we're in trouble right now."
  844. > "...trouble how?"
  845. > His eyes are suddenly intense and focused.
  846. > Evidently threatening his perfect little vision to see ponies free was enough to get his attention!
  847.  
  848. "I need to know if there's any way the machine could be - sabotaged or something. Some way it could be broken so that the Queen's signal wouldn't control them."
  849. > "Why?"
  850. > You draw a deep breath.
  851. > Time to trust him, more than he had trusted you.
  852. "Someone on this plane is a changeling, Thomas. I don't know how they slipped in, but the more I think about it the more I'm certain of it. One of the crew... I'm trying to figure out which."
  853. > He looks away, tugging at his collar.
  854. > "Spitfire..."
  855. "I know you want this to go right. I know you want to help ponies. And you've done a lot of things I'm not quite comfortable with. Whatever you did to test this on Changelings..."
  856. > Your wings twitch, a half-suppressed instinctive attempt to spread as if ready to flee even at the idea of being controlled like that.
  857. "...I can forgive now. I need you to tell me anything you know that might help me figure this out. Anything that can tell me how to protect us."
  858. > "It..."
  859. > Head hanging, Thomas turns himself on the cot and sits upright.
  860. > "...It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Bell Curve - shit, he wasn't supposed to be gone. He was supposed to go home. Be free again... Fred, fuck - Fred I've known for years-"
  861. "Then tell me! Even if it's the slightest hint!"
  862. > "I... I don't know. Why don't you - why don't you just like... try to talk to it? Even if you don't know which one it is, why not just - just try to tell it that you know it's here...?"
  863. > Turning away, you snort.
  864. > So much for him.
  865. > 'Talk to it'... and admit what - 'hey, we know you're here, come on out so we can chat about how you killed one of our friends'...
  866. > Anonymous' suggestion to just shoot the tank is suddenly sounding far more rational, but...
  867. > But...
  868. > Huh.
  869. > It was pure idiocy to start shooting off a weapon inside of a plane.
  870. > But did a changeling know that...?
  871. > Or maybe more accurately, did a Changeling think you were still sane enough to not risk it...?
  872.  
  873. > Getting up to the cockpit is still more than you can easily do in your weakened state, but fortunately you have an alternative.
  874. > Alicia looks up again as you stumble to her cot.
  875. > One eye is covered in a warm, damp washcloth.
  876. > But the other is intently focused on you.
  877. "Listen... listen, I know this isn't easy, but - do you feel up to getting up and taking the flight engineer's position for a bit?"
  878. > "W-"
  879. > She winces, testing her swollen cheek and lip.
  880. > "W-h-y..."
  881. "I - I think I know who came after you. And Cog, too."
  882. > Better add him too; if he was the changeling...
  883. > Well, bust that storm when you reach it.
  884. "But I need Anonymous, Gerard, and Soarin down here when I do, and I don't want Renaud alone in the cockpit. So I know it's tough, but..."
  885. > With a wince and a grunt, she heaves herself up on the mattress.
  886. "...woah, woah, woah! I was going to say if you're still concussed-"
  887. > "Better."
  888. > Alicia shakes her head, wincing as she clutches her side.
  889. > "Tell. Now."
  890. "There's -"
  891. > You drop your voice to a whisper, muzzle brushing her ear.
  892. "There's something onboard. A - A hunting creature. It can disguise itself as another pony. Warp our minds a bit; weaker-willed ponies can be controlled by them. It’s trying to get in between us, turn us on each other. I know how to flush it out, but I need the others with me."
  893. > "Mag-"
  894. > Alicia coughs, but tries again.
  895. > "Magic?"
  896. "Not - not exactly. We can't just out-spell them-"
  897. > Besides, there was a fair chance that one of the two remaining unicorns was the culprit.
  898. "-but we can out-think them. That's what I'm going to do. Please trust me?"
  899. > It takes her a couple tries, but Alicia gets up.
  900. > Going up the stairs to the cockpit might be too much for your wobbly state, so Alicia limps up it alone.
  901. > A few minutes later, Anonymous comes back down it - Gerard following close behind him.
  902. > You gather up Soarin as well, leading them into the small bow cabin that was yours and Anonymous'.
  903.  
  904. > Also one of the few cabins with an actual door in place that can be closed.
  905. > "What is the meaning of this, Spitfire? If we have a way to find the culprit, will we not want some of Thomas' crew too-"
  906. "No, Gerard. I - what we're going to do, isn't something they would ever agree to. And right now, every second we waste is a second it might try and attack someone else. Or sabotage the plane again. We've been playing their game this whole time; you know what?"
  907. > You look between the three of them - your Master, a Wonderbolt, a griffon - who were, in the end, the only three you could trust on this plane.
  908. > Irony.
  909. "...well, I'm sick of it. This changeling wants their brain-dead queen back? We're going to find out just how badly."
  910. > "What're you thinking, Spits?"
  911. > A devious grin begins to form on your face.
  912. "Something stupid. Something so incredibly stupid that somepony incredibly desperate would do it. But fortunately, we're all incredibly desperate."
  913. > You explain.
  914. > Anonymous laughs, shakes his head, and Gerard guffaws.
  915. > "Truly the plan of the desperate... but a changeling aboard? We are desperate indeed."
  916. "I know. So, you stay down here. Keep an eye on Cog - if he turns into a big bug-"
  917. > "You trust a half-blind griffon to fight a changeling?"
  918. "You kept up with Kalendae, remember? You can keep up with one bug."
  919. > "Hah! If you say."
  920. > Anonymous pauses at the gun locker; you rouse Kalendae from Cog Whirl's side.
  921. > She follows you with a questioning tilt of her head.
  922. > "My Captain? What is the matter?"
  923. "Just determining something for sure. For the record... if you're not the one, I'm sorry for suspecting you."
  924. > "Th-Thank you, My Captain?"
  925. > With her at your side, you head up the stairs to the rear-upper deck.
  926. > It takes some straining, and you have to pause to take a breather before the nausea overwhelms you - leading to a questioning look from Kalendae.
  927. > You dissuade her with a quick shake of your head.
  928. "It's fine. We need to do this."
  929.  
  930. > Thomas rouses himself as well, a concerned look on his face.
  931. > Pushing through the doorway into the.... well, you're still thinking of it as the secret compartment.
  932. > Formerly-secret compartment?
  933. > Changeling place.
  934. > Whatever.
  935. > Pushing in causes Logic Gate to jump up with a worried expression when she sees the gun in Anonymous' hands - Sai and Michelle too.
  936. > "Anonymous? Spitfire? What the hell?"
  937. "...sorry, Logic. But this is going out of control."
  938. > "What do you mean? Spitfire?!"
  939. > They’re all paralyzed with fear as Anonymous positions himself beside the tank holding Chrysalis.
  940. “...okay! Everyone, listen up!”
  941. > Raising your voice makes your head go fuzzy and vision blur.
  942. > But it is necessary.
  943. “I know you’re here, Changeling. I know you’ve been working among us. Attacking us. Trying to turn us against one another.”
  944. > You’ve positioned yourself between Anonymous and the others; Kalendae and Logic Gate both are looking between each other with growing expressions of alarm, while the others are varying between confusion and the horror of understanding at what you were saying.
  945. > Soarin was flanking, ready to pounce on either of them, while Thomas clung through the doorframe almost protectively.
  946. “You were smart - trying to choke out the engine. Trying to pull us apart. You went after Fred because he was Thomas’ other team leader, and you tried to convince us Alicia and Cog Whirl had gotten into a fight. But you’re not that smart. I get what you want - your queen. So unless you stand down and reveal yourself right now, Anonymous-”
  947. > Behind you, he cocks the rifle.
  948. > It’s a stupid gesture - like something out of a human action movie.
  949. > But it gets the point across that you want:
  950. > You’re desperate, crazy people.
  951. > Of course, the changeling didn’t know the rifle wasn’t even loaded.
  952.  
  953. “-is going to shoot her through the glass on that tank! Your queen is barely clinging to life to begin with; he’ll be able to take her down pretty easily once and for all.”
  954. > “Are you completely-”
  955. > “-can’t shoot inside a plane-”
  956. > “-insane, this isn’t going to-”
  957. > “-please, Spitfire, think about what you’re doing!”
  958. > Immediately the room breaks out into scattered cries.
  959. > You ignore them all; only Logic Gate and Kalendae have your attention.
  960. “Five.”
  961. > If either of them moved, they’d go down in an instant.
  962. > If neither did… Cog was the only one not here.
  963. “Four.”
  964. > Was it possible the Changeling wouldn’t react?
  965. > Call your bluff?
  966. “Three.”
  967. > Maybe, but not likely.
  968. > You’d seen them throw themselves onto pikes to protect their queen.
  969. “Two.”
  970. > She was everything to them.
  971. “O-”
  972. > Three things happen in near-instant succession.
  973. > A gun appears in Thomas hand - a vicious little pistol that he levels and fires with a deafening thunder in the enclosed compartment, sending a round to ricochet madly amid the machinery.
  974. > Logic Gate screams, clutching with a hoof at her shoulder where a spot of blood had blossomed.
  975. > And - with an almost casual ease - Soarin leans over and sinks distinctly un-pony-like fangs into Kalendae’s shoulder.
  976.  
  977. > No.
  978. > Not Soarin.
  979. > Anypony but Soarin.
  980. > Kalendae slumps and falls sluggishly, not folding all at once but almost as if her body had turned to molasses.
  981. > Sai is lurching to his feet, eyes bulging frog-like as he stares at Thomas and his gun - just in time to receive a fearsome double-hoofed kick from Soarin that sends him back into a rack of equipment with a yell.
  982. > Anonymous yells something from somewhere behind you.
  983. > A name?
  984. > Your name?
  985. > He is fumbling with the magazine to his gun, untrained fingers trying to switch it for one with actual ammunition in it.
  986. > ...you’d thought keeping it unloaded would protect everyone - against an unexpected firing.
  987. > Not against this.
  988. > Thomas is leveling his gun again, but his lips are moving too.
  989. > The words are missing, though; there's a deafening rushing in your ears
  990. > You can't-
  991. > Don't-
  992. > Don't let it be Soarin.
  993. > Anypony but Soarin.
  994. > You reach - no; lurch in a half-fall, half-stumble - forwards, a hoof stretching out.
  995. > The thing wearing Soarin's face turns to you with cold, dispassionate eyes and opens its fanged maw.
  996. > It gasps - or that is your impression - and all the strength fades from your legs.
  997. > The floor rushes up to painfully meet your muzzle.
  998. > No, no, NO!
  999. > You can't be down now!
  1000. > Soarin needs you!
  1001. > Anonymous needs you!
  1002. > Heaving yourself upright feels like getting up after flying from the Appleloosan Wastes all the way to the Crystal Empire.
  1003. > Your muscles are burning, your world spinning.
  1004. > Even so you can make out Michelle struggling with Thomas for the gun, and behind him a navy tail vanishing down the stairs to the lower deck.
  1005. > Somehow you manage to get yourself up, shambling to the stairs and barely avoiding tumbling head-over-tail down them.
  1006. > There’s a yelp as Thomas pushes Michelle away; the gun fires again as he waves it wildly, sending another bullet whining away into the corner of the plane
  1007. > “Go! Sixtus, get out!”
  1008.  
  1009. > He bypasses you down the stairs as he yells; barely has he made it off them before a grey feathered blur darts across the cabin to pin him to the wall with a furious screech.
  1010. > “What have you done?!”
  1011. > Gerard digs a taloned claw into Thomas’ wrist until the pistol falls from nerveless fingers, but Soarin - not Soarin, but the thing wearing Soarin’s face - is already past the griffon.
  1012. > Up ahead, though, Cog Whirl was lurching out of his cot - still woozy, still uncoordinated - and rises with a hoarse yell:
  1013. > "Kalendae! What did you do to Kalendae-"
  1014. > Had he heard her pained cry?
  1015. > You need to be down there, but starting down the stairs seems impossible:
  1016. > Even taking the first step leaves you nearly sliding muzzle-first down them, a fate only avoided at the last second by some deeply-ingrained instinct stepping in to cover for you.
  1017. > Cog Whirl, his horn blazing with magic - because of course he hadn’t been actually on the suppressants; just a victim of a changeling’s fae, mind-warping gaze.
  1018. "Soarin... Soarin, stop..."
  1019. > Your croaked plea goes unheard.
  1020. > The two size each other up - Soarin, his lips pulled back to show those tell-tale teeth.
  1021. > Anonymous vaults over you - his gun, empty and useless, still clutched in one hand.
  1022. > But the other fumbling for something in his pocket.
  1023. > “Keep him there - I’ll fucking fry his ass-”
  1024. > The controller for the collars is in his hand; his finger stabbing down on the button-
  1025. > Nothing happens.
  1026. > In that second, that moment of vulnerability when Cog had let his still-addled mind pause and lowered his guard, the changeling moves.
  1027. > And somehow, you can swear that even with the rushing in your ears and the roar of the engines, you can still hear the wet crunch as its teeth close on Cog's neck.
  1028. > He spasms once, and goes limp.
  1029. > Your breath freezes in your throat.
  1030. > Thomas gives a wild, angry cry:
  1031. > “No! Don’t!”
  1032. > But it is already far too late.
  1033.  
  1034. > The changeling darts forward, past the tan-furred corpse, and up into the frontmost cabin.
  1035. > Your cabin.
  1036. > A cabin from which it can slam open a smaller hatch on its own.
  1037. > Just before it vanishes out into the open sky, it pauses.
  1038. > Green fire erupts, encircles, and vanishes.
  1039. > Featureless blue eyes somehow still manage to leer at your from above the fanged maw.
  1040. > Black skin - smooth, shiny, hard and chitinous in some places and like old, hard leather in others - creases as it turns the hatch open.
  1041. > And then it is gone.
  1042. > You fall forwards now - all the strength you'd mustered gone.
  1043. > Drawn down to the floor not by gravity, but by the crushing weight of the knowledge of one simple fact:
  1044. > This was your fault.
  1045.  
  1046. --------
  1047.  
  1048. > "Spitfire."
  1049. > Someone is saying your name.
  1050. > "Spitfire."
  1051. > Dimly you are aware of that much.
  1052. > The same way that at some point the cold, hard metal of the stairs you were laying on had been placed by the softness of a cot.
  1053. > "Spitfire..."
  1054. > You can hear that voice, repeating your name over and over in a tone your mind notes with some detachment is probably meant to be reassuring.
  1055. > But, more importantly, you can hear other voices echoing in your head.
  1056. > Soarin's, and your own.
  1057. > 'What, no crack? No joke?'
  1058. > He'd shrugged at your question.
  1059. > 'What can I say, Spits... slavery changes a pony. Would you prefer I did?'
  1060. > Slavery changes a pony.
  1061. > That's what he'd said, wasn't it?
  1062. > Changes.
  1063. > That was his excuse when you wondered about how different he was.
  1064. > Or when you'd told that story about the tornado incident at the academy, and he'd completely mis-remembered how angry you were.
  1065. > You'd just laughed it off then, too; and what had he answered with?
  1066. > 'If you say so, Captain!'
  1067. > Nothing to be suspicious alone, you want to think.
  1068. > But then there'd been how quickly Cog Whirl came around once 'Soarin' was brought on the team.
  1069. > What had Cog said?
  1070. > 'Seriously. Makes me feel calm just hanging around him.'
  1071.  
  1072. > Was it really just inspiration that 'Soarin's' presence had granted him?
  1073. > Or the mild compulsion of a changeling's mind-warping insisting that he give up the drugs and be a competent teammate?
  1074. > Then when Soarin had been playing during the impromptu ball game on the grassy field, and had been so short on endurance that it had surprised
  1075. > Or during the storm, when the wild weather hadn't affected him.
  1076. > 'I guess my Pegasus-sense is just a little bit off today, huh?', he’d joked.
  1077. > Of course it was.
  1078. > Because it wasn't even there in the first place.
  1079. > A bitter, sobbing laugh bubbles up from your throat as another piece of evidence slides into place.
  1080. > The sabotage on the engine, turning up just after the storm - and who had been out there, nearly alone with a sick griffon and a wild storm to mask anything he'd had to do?
  1081. > A creature who would have little trouble climbing about, their bodies naturally adapted to cling to cave-like hive walls.
  1082. > Who would have had little trouble slipping out onto the wing, opening the housing and removing a critical component before sealing it with a bit of goo.
  1083. > Everything seems perfectly clear in retrospect.
  1084. > How 'Soarin' had been the one to accuse Cog Whirl of attacking Alicia, because they 'hated each other'.
  1085. > The way he'd tried to sew doubts about Anonymous in your mind.
  1086. > ...how your sickness and exhaustion always peaked right after you'd let him stay close by your side.
  1087. > And now Cog Whirl was dead.
  1088. > Fred might be dying.
  1089. > Maybe Kalendae and Logic Gate too.
  1090. > Fresh, bitter heaves shake your sides - silent sobs as the full expanse of guilt again comes to rest its crushing weight on you.
  1091. > The distant voice is there again, along with a soft hand stroking your side.
  1092. > But that does nothing
  1093. > Not only had your urged Anonymous to take Soarin on the team, but you had kept that - that thing - well fed from every moment then on.
  1094. > Brought it into every discussion, every plan you had.
  1095.  
  1096. > Let it hold you close and comfort you.
  1097. > Never suspecting a thing.
  1098. > A fresh cry - raw and bitter - tears from your throat.
  1099. > You're moving suddenly - being shifted around, lifted onto something that is warmer though less even than the bed itself.
  1100. > A lap?
  1101. > Probably.
  1102. > You don't really know.
  1103. > You're more bound up in the chains and shackles of your own horror at how deeply you had failed.
  1104. > What damage you had done.
  1105. > The lives that you had lost.
  1106. > How much time passes before you lift your eyes again is hard to say.
  1107. > The plane has come to a halt, but for the gentle bobbing motions of the water - silent, except for muted voices from behind the cabin’s closed hatch.
  1108. > You're back alone in the cot again - blankets drawn up around you in a sort of nest.
  1109. > Had you done that, or Anonymous before he left?
  1110. > The door creaks open as he returns again, looking down at you with a slight - worried, hopeful, happy - smile.
  1111. > "Hey there, Spits... you back with me now?"
  1112. > You lick your lips.
  1113. > Time has left your throat dry and scratched; all that comes out now, is a low croak.
  1114. > Anonymous thankfully has a water bottle on hand, and you greedily gulp down the entire contents when he lifts it to your lips.
  1115. > Once the bottle is done, he takes it right back:
  1116. > Setting it off to the sit and settling in the ‘nest’ of sheets beside you.
  1117. > The bed creaking as he pulls you up into his lap, against his chest, one hand over your back and the other snaking around to support your head.
  1118. > Stroking up and down along your neck in long, slow gestures.
  1119. > You know what he's trying to do.
  1120. > It isn't enough.
  1121. "...I killed them, Anonymous."
  1122. > "The hell you did."
  1123. "Yes, I did. This isn't like Giselle. I couldn't stop that. But this... I should have noticed! I should have known! All the little clues, all the things that said it wasn't him-!"
  1124. > 'Slavery changes a pony, Spitfire' - that line, spoken with Soarin's voice, echoes mockingly between your ears.
  1125. > Hah.
  1126.  
  1127. > Maybe, but not so much you didn’t notice it.
  1128. "I let it in. I gave that thing a home..."
  1129. > "It had us all fooled, Spitfire."
  1130. "I knew him better than anypony!"
  1131. > "We had Thomas check in with the last owner. There wasn't anything."
  1132. "I'd spent years with him! And I ignored it all because I - I - I wanted -"
  1133. > You choke, cough, and try again.
  1134. > Anonymous' hand pauses mid-stroke.
  1135. "-I wanted it all back again!"
  1136. > Spitting the truth out is every bit as painful as you'd imagined.
  1137. > But it is the truth, isn't it?
  1138. > You'd wanted it to be just like old times again; you and Soarin taking the lead, captain and second-in-command.
  1139. > And you'd wanted it so much you had looked away from all those little clues; shuffled them out of sight behind the nearest cloud, all so that you'd hang on to that hope of going back.
  1140. > Just like that rutting bug had wanted.
  1141. "This is my fault, Master. I. Screwed. Up."
  1142. > That leaves him silent for a long time, but for the soft noises of air rushing through his nostrils.
  1143. > Whatever voices had been speaking outside, you notice, are gone silent now.
  1144. > So is Anonymous.
  1145. > You don't really notice when he slips away either, leaving you alone in the bed.
  1146. > That's fine.
  1147. > It already felt like you were alone anyway.
  1148. > What did it even matter now?
  1149. > The Changeling was gone, off - you suspect - to find the rest of its kind and tell them what it had found here.
  1150. > Soon they'd be back to shove everyone here in cocoons and take their queen back.
  1151. > What did it matter...?
  1152. > Even standing up seems like too much effort to be worth it; beyond the vicious enervating effect of the Changeling's feeding, a new kind of weakness had crept into your body.
  1153. > Though the position you'd ended up laying in is awkward and uncomfortable it doesn't feel possible to change it.
  1154. > Rather than lift up, you just kind of end up squirming around.
  1155. > Your eyes fall on the hatch built into the side of the cabin.
  1156. > Do you have the strength to force that hatch open?
  1157.  
  1158. > After that, everything else would be so easy.
  1159. > Just step out and into the water.
  1160. > Let yourself sink.
  1161. > You were densely muscled enough that you'd sink quickly; drowning wasn't a good way to go, but it'd be relatively fast.
  1162. > Just a few minutes before unconsciousness came.
  1163. > Then no need to be scared anymore.
  1164. > None of the others were in good enough shape to catch you and bring you back up in time, not with so many wounded.
  1165. > Changelings couldn't take you then.
  1166. > You wouldn't have to see the terrible results of what you'd done, watch as the changelings took all of them to be food until they were little more than hollowed-out husks.
  1167. > Or maybe...
  1168. > Maybe open one of the access hatches at the bottom of the hull.
  1169. > Let the whole plane capsize and sink.
  1170. > Go down with it.
  1171. > Hah.
  1172. > Fantasies.
  1173. > That's all you can do now - dream of a better way out of this mess.
  1174. > No.
  1175. > If you go, you'll go on yourself.
  1176. > Whether the others follow that choice would be their decision.
  1177.  
  1178. --------
  1179.  
  1180. > You step from the cabin, shutting the door behind you.
  1181. > Eight faces look back at you expectantly.
  1182. > Finally Alicia speaks up:
  1183. > "...how is she, Anonymous?"
  1184. "More lost than anyone else here. And if I hear a single bad word about her, you can just get out and walk home right here."
  1185. > Your eyes rove across the crew - across Alicia, still swollen and bruised from her encounter; across Gerard's single golden eye, across Logic Gate's shaky and huddled form.
  1186. > Daring any of them to object.
  1187. > None do, though, and so you push right past them.
  1188. > "Hey... what're we doing now? We can't just stay here right now; that thing is still out there and we don't know-"
  1189. > You cut the shaky voice off with a sharp look.
  1190. "You know, right now I really don't care. All I know right now is that the one person - pony, whatever - I care about in the whole world is hurting real bad, and I'm going to do the damn best I can to put her back together first."
  1191.  
  1192. --------
  1193.  
  1194. > "Hey, Spitfire?"
  1195. > Somepony's by the side of your bed.
  1196. > A muzzle, sniffing at your size - Kalendae?
  1197. > No; she would be down for a while.
  1198. > Logic Gate, then.
  1199. > "S-Spitfire?"
  1200. > Definitely Logic Gate.
  1201. > "I-I'm sorry, Spitfire. I didn't know. I never knew. I swear it, I swear to Celestia, I swear..."
  1202. > She's crying too, her head resting on the edge of the mattress as fat, heavy tears run down her cheeks.
  1203. > "I believed, I believed and now it's all gone wrong. Soa- T-The changeling - I never knew..."
  1204. > You wish you had something to say to her.
  1205. > Tartarus - you wish you had the strength to say something to her!
  1206. > Even just opening your mouth to speak feels like too much effort now, let alone actually thinking up anything meaningful to tell Logic Gate.
  1207. > Some time later you realize she was gone.
  1208. > How long had it been?
  1209. > No way to know; there's no clock in you field of vision, and getting up to check it...
  1210. > Why bother?
  1211. > A clock was just a countdown to the changeling swarm returning to reclaim their queen.
  1212. > Why bother with anything.
  1213. > All your fighting, all your desire to keep yourself strong and never give in to the oppressive weight of slavery, and this was where it had gotten you.
  1214. > Maybe it would have been better if you'd surrendered to it in the first place.
  1215. > Let yourself become a good little pony for some owner who'd appreciate you like they appreciated a dog, the same way Soarin-
  1216. > You flinch.
  1217. > That wasn't Soarin.
  1218. > His tale of not being appreciated - who knew if it was true?
  1219. > Maybe that was just another lie made up to aim for your heart.
  1220. > Subtle enough you wouldn't question it like a tale of constant and sadistic abuse, but still oppressive enough you would sympathize with him.
  1221. > And you had never questioned it.
  1222. > Ever.
  1223. > It just... was.
  1224. > Still.
  1225. > Maybe that still would have been the better option;
  1226. > If you'd just been a good little pony off for someone, you'd have never gotten mixed up in this mess.
  1227.  
  1228. > Anonymous would have found somepony else - somepony he didn't bond with, somepony he might get along with well enough but not getting so close.
  1229. > Or maybe he'd have gotten somepony who'd run away; then he'd go sour on the idea of even having a pony partner
  1230. > Whatever it was, it wouldn't have gotten to... this.
  1231. > At some point Gerard appears in the room.
  1232. > He doesn't say anything, just sits and stares with his single golden eye and matching empty socket.
  1233. > Inscrutable.
  1234. > Is he judging you?
  1235. > He ought to be.
  1236. > You deserved it.
  1237. > Like Logic Gate, you aren't entirely sure of when exactly he leaves - just that unlike Kalendae, he was replaced soon after by Renaud.
  1238. > The big man looks at you with his soft, weathered eyes - tired, old eyes that had seen much.
  1239. > "Y'know, I have to admit... I let myself get excited when we were setting out on this. Yeah, it was going to be a pain. But - seeing another world? I never thought I would see outside Quebec. I thought, 'why not take this as a gift'?"
  1240. > He sighs as he leans forward, running a hand through his thinning hair.
  1241. > Is Renaud as tired as you feel?
  1242. > As empty?
  1243. > Not quite, if he could bother to get up and get himself in here.
  1244. > "The point is, Spitfire... I think this this is not your fault. We all let ourselves get caught up in the - the mystique of it. The desire. I did not think twice about any of this either. You are not alone."
  1245. > But he had no way to know.
  1246. > No reason to realize what was wrong.
  1247. > It wasn't anything near what you were guilty of, and you show it with a fierce snort and rolling back over in bed to face away from him.
  1248. > When you look back next he is gone too.
  1249. > The big man gone without a sound - that you heard, anyhow.
  1250. > The next thing you know, the bed is creaking as someone sits down beside it.
  1251. > Anonymous - his hand resting on you soon as well.
  1252. > "Logic and Renaud said they came through here. Tried talking to you a bit. About... screwing up."
  1253. > You grunt wordlessly.
  1254.  
  1255. > "If we're talking about fuckups though..."
  1256. > A long, heavy sigh.
  1257. > "...you know, Spitfire, I don't think I've ever actually said anything over, y'know, using that shock collar on you that one time."
  1258. "Sure you did. That night."
  1259. > You’re not sure why that in particular convinces you to speak, but it does.
  1260. > Maybe you feel you owe him, more than anyone else here, an answer.
  1261. > "No. We talked, but I never actually gave you a real ‘sorry’. So... yeah. That wasn't right. It was a cruel, stupid thing for me to do and you'd have had every right to just fuck off when I did that. But you didn't. You gave me a second chance, even though I must've been acting right like the stereotype right there - and I appreciate that."
  1262. "This supposed to make me feel better?"
  1263. > The bitterness in your tone is as acid as can be, but Anonymous seems unruffled - merely shrugging.
  1264. > "Kinda, yeah. The point is, we fuck up. We fuck up real bad. But we all fucked up this time. None of us put any of it together either."
  1265. "You couldn't have."
  1266. > "Disagree about that."
  1267. > The strength to argue that doesn't exist within you.
  1268. > He was just disagreeing for the sake of it - trying to get a rise out of you.
  1269. > You're beyond that.
  1270. "...I just wanted to go back to how it was. Instead, I killed somepony. Feels like I always kill someone when I come here."
  1271. > "You aren't the only one who's screwed up badly enough to cost a life. Remember that, Spitfire."
  1272. "...that wasn't the same."
  1273. > "The hell it wasn't. In fact, I'd say it's worse - since it's really looking like that fucking bug had some help in here."
  1274. > Right.
  1275. > Thomas.
  1276. > You'd forgotten all about that.
  1277. > Wait, no.
  1278. > He's trying to distract you!
  1279. "Anonymous... I let my desires get the better of me. That's what this gets down to. I let that thing onboard, and everypony else followed my lead. Damn it, I started basically ignoring you whenever he was around!"
  1280. > The arms encircling you pull you up to his chest, circling into a tight hug.
  1281.  
  1282. > "...yeah. But I forgive you for that too."
  1283. > A sharp, bitter bark of laughter escapes your throat.
  1284. "Oh, fuck you."
  1285. > "What?"
  1286. > His voice is teasing, and draws a snort from you.
  1287. "You can't just - forgive me for everything."
  1288. > "Why can't I?"
  1289. "Because - because that's not - not how it -"
  1290. > "Because you want someone to be angry at you. You want someone to confirm that you're the one at fault, because it's easier to assign blame."
  1291. > His hand is in your mane now, slowly stroking along your scalp.
  1292. "...but it's true. I am the one at fault here."
  1293. > Even to your own ears, your answer sounds uncertain.
  1294. > Maybe sensing this, he doubles down:
  1295. > "It went straight for your heart, because that's what it knew to do. When you were back in Equestria - back here, before - you were good because you had all your team backing you up. You watched each others' backs, and no changeling would have made it in because you knew each other. But now... now you were working with a team you didn't know. And so it gave you the one thing you wanted, and nobody else could check him."
  1296. > He pauses, shifting - turning your head with one hand until you have to look at him.
  1297. > "This mess... you didn't screw up, Spitfire. You were trapped. It's not. Your. Fault."
  1298. > You...
  1299. > You don't want to answer that.
  1300. > It feels like the lowest form of cowardice, the exact kind of running away from hard things that you had promised Barley Brew you weren't going to do anymore.
  1301. > The kind of running away that had gotten you in trouble with 'Soarin' and his attention.
  1302. "I could have talked to you. You could have checked me."
  1303. > He laughs a little, which you feel like you should be angry about but just can't muster the strength to be.
  1304. > "Prettybird, I don't know if you've noticed this, but I don't know what's going on here half the time. Just a day ago, I didn't even know changelings were even a-"
  1305. "It tried to get me away from you."
  1306. > That gives him a pause, at least - his hand pausing in your mane.
  1307. > "Huh?"
  1308.  
  1309. "The changeling. It kept urging me to give you up, come with it. Not Kalendae, not Cog. You."
  1310. > Not the only other Equestrian officer on the crew you might have bonded with, or the unicorn you'd bent over backwards to give a better life.
  1311. > Him.
  1312. "You were a threat to it. It had to get me away from you. Because you were the only person or pony here close enough. The one who it knew would be watching my back. The one who-"
  1313. > Rising up into your throat, your stomach does a flip.
  1314. "-who I cared about enough to be a threat for him."
  1315. > "But I thought you two were like... lovers."
  1316. "We were. I - I almost slept with him. It. The changeling. When you were up in the cockpit working, we came pretty damn close.”
  1317. > “I almost saw, remember? Back in Sproat Lake?”
  1318. “No. Out here too.”
  1319. > “Oh.”
  1320. > A part of you had almost wished he’d gotten angry over that.
  1321. > Pushed you away, left you alone with your misery rather than make you face what you have to admit.
  1322. > But he doesn’t push you away, and so you have to say it:
  1323. “And out of everypony here, you were the only one it felt threatened by."
  1324. > Anonymous goes silent then, the full implications of what you'd just admitted settling in.
  1325. > On your end, somehow you had thought that admitting it would be like popping a dislocated leg back in:
  1326. > Painful in a moment, but necessary to heal.
  1327. > Now that it is out there, though, all you can feel is the painful tension stretching on.
  1328. > The truth.
  1329. > That at some point Anonymous had become more than just your Master, your Captain, your friend.
  1330. > At some point you'd started to feel something for him, and when you'd realized that you'd stuffed it down so far that you never had to admit the possibility that you might care for a slave owner.
  1331. > You'd buried all of that down, running away from it just like you'd run away from everything else.
  1332. > Always running away.
  1333. > Without a team around to back you up, you really weren't that much, were you?
  1334.  
  1335. > This miserable train of thought is broken by Anonymous slipping you from his grasp and settling you back on the bed.
  1336. > Fear blooms in your heart, but then the blankets settle over you again:
  1337. > Replaced by his gentle touch and settled over your withers again.
  1338. > Anonymous still says nothing as he stands and heads for the hatch again - closing it after him and shutting you off again.
  1339. > Leaving you alone with your roiling tumult of confused emotions.
  1340. > Anonymous comes back a bit later with a steaming bowl clutched in his hands.
  1341. > The frozen-reheated stew is, you know from experience, under-flavored and over-salted.
  1342. > Right now, though, the smell is enough to make your stomach grumble.
  1343. > Almost enough to make you heave yourself up to eat it.
  1344. > But Anonymous evidently isn't going to let you get away with soaking in your misery, as he seats himself back on the mattress again.
  1345. > "...so, I know your stomach's probably a little off right now, since you're feeling so weak. But you'll feel worse if you don't get anything down, so..."
  1346. > He scoops a bit of the stew out, slaps it onto a bit of bread, and holds it out in front of your mouth.
  1347. "Are you actually going to feed me?"
  1348. > "Not just going to let you rot away feeling bad for yourself."
  1349. > You grunt unhappily, but take a bite nonetheless.
  1350. > Anonymous proclamation of "That's my girl!" is made somewhat less humiliating by his fingers delivering a delightful scratch right between your wings.
  1351. > The food isn't enough to upset your stomach, and does away with the distracting hunger pangs.
  1352. > But the hole where your heart was?
  1353. > That isn't made to go away so easily.
  1354.  
  1355. "I... Anonymous? What happened to - where's Cog Whirl?"
  1356. > His flinch is enough to tell you that what you'd assumed was horribly correct.
  1357. > "I, uh.. I think they're going to bury him somewhere nearby."
  1358. > It's like tearing open every wound all over again.
  1359. > Another trip to Equestria... and another corpse left behind in your wake.
  1360. > Maybe you should just never come back again; that'd certainly solve the problem of a friend seeming to have to die every time you do!
  1361. "What about - Kalendae? Thomas? Fred? How many-"
  1362. > "No, God no! Kalendae, they kind of patched up so she can limp around; I think she's hurting more inside than outside, though. Fred’s the same. Logic Gate was just grazed; she's more scared than anything."
  1363. "And Thomas?"
  1364. > "I think I've managed to convince Gerard not to strangle him for now. Probably going to have to convince Kalendae later too. I'm not sure I actually want to, though."
  1365. > The bitterness in Anonymous voice actually manages to drag a kind of hacking laugh from your throat.
  1366. > At least you weren't the only one hurting like this.
  1367. > Intellectually you'd figured that out of course; to hear it firsthoof is a whole different beast.
  1368. "Do we know what - why - he...?"
  1369. > "No fucking idea. He's just been sitting on a bed and mumbling a lot. Gerard is waiting for him to put a finger outside of it."
  1370. > Leaning back over, you let your head lay against Anonymous' ribs.
  1371. > Listening to his heart beat from within them.
  1372. "Wonder if they really were the lucky ones in the end..."
  1373. > Your muttered question causes Anonymous' hand to pause as he twists to look down at you.
  1374. > "What?"
  1375. "When we were thinking about who to hire to bring on our crew. I was so torn up over not being able to bring everypony along."
  1376. > The name of that one mare - what had it been?
  1377. > Mistral!
  1378. > Wonder how she's doing now...
  1379.  
  1380. "Now... Now I'm thinking they might've been the lucky ones after all. Not getting dragged into this mess. Getting to come home, just to be trapped on this plane with half the crew dead or injured and no way to-"
  1381. > "Nothing's stopping them from leaving."
  1382. > It takes a moment for that to trickle down through to you.
  1383. "...the collars...?"
  1384. > "Don't work. We, uh, tested it. To see why the changeling hadn’t gotten fried. Not sure if they were sabotaged too, or Whitworth just gave us a bunch of bad ones to begin with. Point is, they could all leave... but no one has."
  1385. > You snort softly.
  1386. "Kalendae's bitten and down a whole bit of blood. Logic Gate's also hurt, and you said she's even worse in her head. Who's left to go? Gerard?"
  1387. > "...quit trying to be a downer, Spitfire."
  1388. "I'm not-"
  1389. > His hand settles on your cheek, silencing you.
  1390. > "Yeah, you are."
  1391. > And that seems to be that.
  1392. > You disagree, but... you don't want to argue with him.
  1393. > Not right now.
  1394. > Not when his presence is the only thing that seems to be keeping you above utter despair right now.
  1395. "Anonymous? Why'd you suddenly think to say sorry for shocking me with the collar now?"
  1396. > "Well, for one we're fessing up to our "big list of real huge fuckups" and that seemed kind of relevant."
  1397. > But that isn't it, and you glare at him until Anonymous gives in:
  1398. > "You called me 'Master', Spitfire. I don't think I've ever heard you call me that when you weren't being sarcastic."
  1399. "Oh..."
  1400. > "And the way I see it, I couldn't ever have made you do that. Not if I drained the shock collar's batteries ten times trying. So when you just do it out of the blue?"
  1401. > Why had you done that?
  1402. > The answer is easy enough to find, but examining it is like pulling open an infected, half-closed wound.
  1403. "A slave doesn't have to worry if what she's doing is right. She just - does."
  1404. > "S'what I figured."
  1405. > Another spoonful of soup makes its way to your mouth.
  1406. > You swallow it and lick your lips.
  1407.  
  1408. "But I don't deserve responsibility now. I - I tried to make this all work and look what it got us.
  1409. > "Quit that. You're talking yourself into despair. The more you say it, the more you'll believe it."
  1410. > Of course you were; that's why you kept doing it.
  1411. > ...but what did it say, that you still felt the need to convince yourself of that?
  1412. > While you ponder on that question, Anonymous goes on:
  1413. > "Funny thing is, I know there's people who'd love to hear a tough pony like you break down and say that... but me, right here? That scares the shit out of me. I’m afraid of losing you."
  1414. > He didn’t want you to just be his obedient slave.
  1415. > How ironic was that?
  1416. > The more you think about it, the more his words force you to another line of thought you'd abandoned a while back.
  1417. > ‘I’m afraid of losing you.’
  1418. "You... know what it means, that it tried so hard to get me away from you."
  1419. > "...yeah."
  1420. > A beat, then-
  1421. > "Want to talk about it?"
  1422. > Why not?
  1423. > It hurts less than talking about the current disaster.
  1424. "I... I don't know. I didn't think about you as someone I - I loved. You were a friend, a boss - yeah, our relationship was kind of fucked up, but I..."
  1425. > "...kind of tried not to think about it."
  1426. "Maybe. Yeah. How'd you guess?"
  1427. > "Might've been thinking I did a bit of the same."
  1428. > Anonymous' fingers travel down your back, setting right between your wings at the-
  1429. > The scritch spot.
  1430. > Another thing 'Soarin' hadn't remembered - that Fleetfoot knew your scritch spot.
  1431. > He must’ve only figured out that Anonymous knew it from watching his interactions with you.
  1432. > You give a fresh cry of anguish and frustration; just that alone should have been a clue something was wrong.
  1433. > But no.
  1434. > You ignored it too.
  1435. > "Should've figured it out earlier. People just working together don't end up curled up together so often. Just kept telling myself it was a 'pony thing'.
  1436. "Well, we are kind of touchy-feely-"
  1437. > He pats your side, managing a small chuckle.
  1438.  
  1439. > "Hey. Remember what I said? Stop trying to convince me, and stop trying to convince yourself. Okay?"
  1440. "...okay."
  1441. > Are you actually smiling too?
  1442. > That can't be right; you don't feel up to smiling right now.
  1443. > "Anyway, I guess I figured I shouldn't be 'taking advantage' of you or something, and - I don't know, I was being fucking retarded, okay?"
  1444. > You snort gently, but don't lean away from him.
  1445. "Guess for me, I was... afraid. Of admitting I could think of a slaver like that."
  1446. > He stiffens, and your heart immediately implodes.
  1447. "No - you're not - fuck. Look, I don't - I don't think you're a monster or anything. I trust you. But it's a thing, you know? You own me. And I couldn't get past the idea that any relationship would be - betraying something."
  1448. > "Like you said, our relationship is kind of fucked up."
  1449. "It really is, isn't it?"
  1450. > After that, both of you fall silent for a bit.
  1451. > Even without a window into his head, you'd bet a fair some of bits Anonymous' thoughts are percolating through his head in the same way yours are.
  1452. > As they do, one question more and more grows in your mind until you can’t hold it back any longer:
  1453. “Will you ever free me?”
  1454. > Five words, surprisingly easy to say when you get down to it.
  1455. > Maybe that was because you already, in your heart, knew the answer.
  1456. > Or maybe because at this point, having already made such terrible mistakes, you no longer feared hearing a ‘No’.
  1457. > Whatever the reason, the look Anonymous is giving you suggests that you may as well have asked if you were growing another head.
  1458. > “Damn it, Spitfire, you’ve been free since the moment I got my head screwed back on straight - no matter what some bits of paper might say! Do I really have to tell you that?”
  1459. > He waves a hand, gesturing around to the plane.
  1460. > “Hell - after what Thomas did to us, if you stood up right now and just fucked off out of here… I wouldn’t blame you.”
  1461. > Well, it’s good to hear it aloud.
  1462. > But…
  1463.  
  1464. “Not what I meant. I mean… would you really set me free. Without everything going bad. The way Kalendae, Cog-”
  1465. > You choke, having brought it up without even realizing.
  1466. “The way - he would have been free. Officially.”
  1467. > “I mean, I…”
  1468. > He pauses.
  1469. > Hangs on the words.
  1470. > A chill settles on your shoulders.
  1471. > “...I’m scared, Spitfire. That if I tried to do that, I’d lose you. Yeah, at first it was about being afraid you’d run out on me, but then-”
  1472. > A hand is waved grandly.
  1473. > “-then after we got back, I guess I started being afraid that someone would try to take you. If I freed you some rich bastard would - would get his lawyers to invent something, or figure out I’m letting you fly just like Thomas and Whitworth did, or some shit like that. And they’d drag you off to wherever the fuck, and I’d never see you again.”
  1474. > It’s more than just the meandering words that strike you.
  1475. > True fear, true pain layers his voice - the tones of a man who was terrified of seeing someone he cared for hurt.
  1476. > “But, y’know. If you asked me - really asked me, really told me to… yeah. Yeah, I would.”
  1477. “If I asked right now?”
  1478. > In answer, his hands reach down - fumbling with your collar, undoing the tricky lock and latch that sat halfway beneath your mane.
  1479. > Weight and pressure fall away from your throat as it tumbles to the bed.
  1480. > “...that answer your question?”
  1481. “Yeah, I… I guess it does.”
  1482. > “Guess when I was estimating how I felt about you, that should’ve been another tip-off it wasn’t just as simple as ‘co-worker’, huh?”
  1483. “Guess so.”
  1484. > His hand settles back into your mane, scratching along your neck - a length for once uninterrupted by the collar’s weight.
  1485. > It feels unimaginably good, to have the coat beneath that length of surface
  1486. > “That makes me a bit of an ass, doesn't it? Keeping you locked up 'cause I was afraid."
  1487.  
  1488. "...no. It makes you wrong, but not an ass. Especially since you did, when I pushed it."
  1489. > "Why didn't you, earlier?"
  1490. "I... don't know. Maybe I was still afraid, in my head, that you'd say 'no'. Maybe I was afraid that it'd break what we had, and I'd end up somewhere worse - free or a slave - otherwise. Maybe I was afraid I'd go free, come back here, and there really would be nothing left. Then what in Tartarus would I do."
  1491. > You shift around, dropping down to lay your forelegs and head across his lap.
  1492. "Running away from my problems has been a long, long problem for me, I guess. Ever since you got me out of that cage."
  1493. > "So..."
  1494. > His hands slip beneath your forelegs, heaving you up to nearly face-height with him.
  1495. > "...we actually going to give this, uh, relationship thing a try, then? Stop running, now that we've got all the awkward confessions out of the way?"
  1496. > Snorting gently, you close your eyes and just relish in the feeling of being held with both hands.
  1497. "Is that all you can really think about right now?"
  1498. > "It's got you up and talking, not sulking away the hours. Start with the small stuff, you know?"
  1499. > Straightening your legs, you lift yourself up on your own two forehooves and cock a slightly off-center grin.
  1500. "How about that waits until we're out of this mess?"
  1501. > Anonymous, though, easily shoots an equally off-kilter grin back at you.
  1502. > "Oh, so we are going to be getting ourselves out of this mess, then? No flying out the door just yet?"
  1503. > Ah, damn him.
  1504. > He caught you good with that one.
  1505. > Your hesitation - your fear - must have shown, because Anonymous strokes your mane back.
  1506. > "...we need you, Spitfire. We need you bad right now."
  1507. "Will they even listen to me anymore?"
  1508. > Respect the one pony who'd lead them straight into this mess?
  1509. > "Don't write them off so easily, Spitfire. I think they'll see - they'll no - that you're not just a good flyer. You're a leader. A captain."
  1510.  
  1511. "What have I done to show them that? All I did was let that thing have a place among us-"
  1512. > "For God's sake, stop putting yourself down. When we found out we were going to get clobbered by that storm, who stood in the middle of that flight deck and put together a plan to find us a safe harbor? You did."
  1513. > His hands are on your cheeks again; you can feel your laid-flat ears tickling the tips of his fingers.
  1514. > "Then when the engine fucked up - who started getting everyone calmed down and figuring out what we could do - even though you were barely able to stand? You did."
  1515. "That's - that's not-"
  1516. > "You called out that it was sabotage. You put together the plan to flush the changeling out. They listened to you, even though I'm supposed to be the team captain and you're wearing the collar, because you've got the voice and personality."
  1517. > You... had.
  1518. > Hadn't you?
  1519. > Anonymous smiles, leaning in to press his forehead to yours.
  1520. > "I... I can run a plane, Spitfire. A few people. But I'm not like... that. This is what you are. And right now, we all need a leader to get us back home safe."
  1521. "What about Renaud?"
  1522. > "Chatted with him. He's a good pilot and a good air-captain, Spitfire. But he's in a world he doesn't know right now. That's why we need you. Why we always needed you."
  1523. "They tell me to go bite a thundercloud, I get to tell you 'I told you so'."
  1524. > But it's a meaningless objection and he knows it.
  1525. > You can't really see him this close, but you can feel Anonymous smile.
  1526. > "And I'll take it. Now. Get us home, Spitfire."
  1527. "That an order?"
  1528. > "You bet your fuzzy ass it is."
  1529.  
  1530. > You march from the cabin on your own hooves.
  1531. > The nausea and weakness is still there, but now it is smashed down buried deep in your belly.
  1532. > Everyone looks up, eyes widening and ears picking as they take you in.
  1533. > They can wait; you have one particular pony you're going to see first:
  1534. > Kalendae lays in her bunk, appearing much the same way you imagine you must have looked when Anonymous came in:
  1535. > Dispirited and broken, looking into nothing, but with the addition of a bandaged shoulder.
  1536. "Hey."
  1537. > You nuzzle into her neck, give a low nicker, and wait for her to painfully slowly lift her eyes to you.
  1538. "On your hooves, guardspony. I know it hurts like nothing else, but I need you right now."
  1539. > Despite your hard words, you keep your tone gentle.
  1540. > Acknowledging the pain she surely felt.
  1541. > "I let him die, My Captain. We were supposed to find a home after this, find a place we could live-"
  1542. "I know, Kalendae."
  1543. > The cot isn't really big enough for you to fit on it while Kalendae is sprawled in the middle.
  1544. > But even so you lay half-on, half off the cot and nuzzle up close to her.
  1545. "You told me. How he made you feel whole again too. Felt wanted. That you were wondering whether it would be right to find some place and make your own life with him, in spite of your Night-Guard oaths."
  1546. > "Cog Whirl... we healed each other. Our wounded hearts beat again."
  1547. "Soarin being back was a lot the same way. I had my heart whole again, and - and now - then he -"
  1548. > Words that are too hard to say.
  1549. > Too hard to admit.
  1550. > Kalendae nods, though and absolves you of not having to finish that sentence.
  1551. > But not of speaking the next one.
  1552. "I'm sorry, Kalendae. He - it - killed Cog, and I couldn't do anything to stop it, I was just laying right there watching -”
  1553. > One leathered wing extends to rest on your withers.
  1554. > "No, My Captain. I should -"
  1555. > She pauses, gathers herself.
  1556.  
  1557. > "...I have seen comrades fall before. In battle with beast or foe. But they had taken solemn oaths, sworn vows to stand between Equestria's ponies and whatever would threaten them. Cog Whirl... he should have not had to face that beast."
  1558. "None of us should have had to face any of this, Kalendae. That does not make it your fault. It should be mine."
  1559. > Turning your head, you rest it across her withers and stay there for just a moment.
  1560. “I killed him."
  1561. > “My Captain?”
  1562. “That changeling was on the plane because of me. Because I pushed Anonymous, I pushed Whitworth, I pushed Gerard - I pushed everyone to make it happen.”
  1563. > You duck your head, tail audibly swatting against the mattress.
  1564. “...If you blame me, Kalendae, I wouldn’t argue. I took things into my own hooves, and I failed because of that. ”
  1565. > In time, Kalendae gives one great sob and you can feel dampness touching your flank where her cheek rests.
  1566. > "I would have made a home with him, My Captain. A family!"
  1567. "We all wanted things to... go back to the way they wanted. That was a failure of mine."
  1568. > She doesn't speak as you tell what you had told Anonymous.
  1569. > Not until you are done.
  1570. “...so, like I said. If you want to blame me… yeah. I deserve it.”
  1571. > “And yet, blame will not bring the warmth back to his body.”
  1572. > Her voice is oddly cold, though, and you wonder if the anger she felt was merely bottling it up.
  1573. “But if it would-”
  1574. > “I might end your life by my own hoof, My Captain, if it would bring him back.”
  1575. > Ah.
  1576. > There’s the bitterness you’d been looking for.
  1577. > Okay, maybe you hadn’t really expected that particular degree of bitterness, but…
  1578. > It makes sense.
  1579. > Losing Cog had taken the only thing Kalendae had left to cling to.
  1580. > No home, no Princess… and now no love.
  1581. > "Then what do we do right now, Spitfire?"
  1582. > Later you would realize it might be one of the first times she had used your name.
  1583.  
  1584. > But then, you had just opened up to her as a pony - a mare who'd had her heart torn out - rather than a captain.
  1585. > If you couldn’t give her a home, Princess, or love, then maybe you could give her a duty again.
  1586. "Well. I'm still putting the pieces together, but I'm starting to get some ideas."
  1587. > "Ideas?"
  1588. "For starters... that thing is still out there somewhere. It still wants the queen. Why, I don't know. But if we can't bring Cog Whirl back, we can damn well make sure that it doesn't get its queen."
  1589. > Releasing her, you step back from the bunk and up.
  1590. > Kalendae unfolds herself from the ball she'd curled up into - much like the ball she'd been curled in when she first arrived in that wretched cage - and pushes herself upright.
  1591. > Though she favors her uninjured side, she seems no worse off for it.
  1592. > Slitted eyes regard you, and lips draw back to reveal her own pointed teeth.
  1593. > "My wings are hereby sworn to you, My Captain. Me tin kardiá kai ti fengári mou - until this is seen through! I can deny them that much."
  1594. "Good. Good!"
  1595. > Turning, you look to the others in the room.
  1596. "The same for all of you - I can do this, but I don't know if I can do it alone. At the very least, I'd need a full crew. Do I have one?"
  1597. > Silence holds for a moment, and then Sai raises his hand.
  1598. > "Can I just ask... I get everything's fucked, but why don't we just go back to the Scatturlas? Y'know, fuck it, we're done, show's finished, 'game over man'?"
  1599. "Renaud?"
  1600. > "Spitfire?"
  1601. "Right before Fred was attacked, Soa- that Changeling, it said it had lost the signal. You remember?"
  1602. > Renaud scratches his considerable beard, nodding.
  1603. > "I... yeah. Yeah, he did."
  1604. "Gerard, did we ever raise them again?"
  1605. > The griffon clicks his beak and shakes his head soundly.
  1606.  
  1607. "Okay, let's assume we didn't try to flush the changeling out. It hasn't had another chance to try sabotage. It hits Fred so we turn around and head for the Scatturlas again, turns Cog and Alicia against each other so we're too busy fighting to notice anything's wrong. Why?"
  1608. > "Buy it more time?"
  1609. "For what? It would have more time if we ran around doing more 'searching'; it wanted us back there. Conclusion?"
  1610. > Gerard's wings twitch as he nods slowly.
  1611. > "The Scatturlas is not safe anymore."
  1612. "My guess, that one changeling had managed to 'link up' with the hivemind while we were hunting them, and called down the swarm. The Scatturlas went off the air because it got hit hard."
  1613. > "They can do that? From this far up?"
  1614. > "There is much we do not understand about the creatures' minds, Renaud."
  1615. > Everyone takes a moment to digest that thought; once again, Sai is the first to raise his hand.
  1616. > "I don't know about you guys, but Michelle and I would really like to get home alive..."
  1617. "We all would. But I can't get you all home without help. So - again, do I have a crew or not?"
  1618. > Kalendae, of course, limps over to flank you.
  1619. > Anonymous quickly takes your other side.
  1620. > Gerard draws closer next - shuffling his wings, as he seems to ponder which course to take.
  1621. > Any fears that he would challenge you for leadership fall
  1622. > "...my task is to see this finished, but at this point I don't think there's much chance of that. We shall simply have to salvage what we can. Spitfire, I follow you."
  1623. "If I'm being honest... don't make any promises until we figure out what our plan is."
  1624. > "You do not know yet?"
  1625. "Before I do, there's one more person I need to talk to. And this one, you might want to come along for with."
  1626.  
  1627. --------
  1628.  
  1629. > They had chained Thomas to an unoccupied cot, further in the back - not that it really seemed to be needed.
  1630. > He lay there looking just as despondent as Kalendae had; as if something terrible had been torn from him.
  1631.  
  1632. > Though a flicker of fear passes over his face as you march forward, it wasn't much compared to the sense of hollowness that surrounded him.
  1633. "So."
  1634. > No response.
  1635. "I don't know what that was about. And honestly? I - we all -”
  1636. > You pause, trying to work the tremor out of your voice.
  1637. > “We all don't have the time to pry the story from you bit-by-bit. I also don't have a lot of sympathy after what happened to Cog. So tell me what this was all about, or I step back a bit and let Gerard ask you instead."
  1638. > Thomas' eyes flick to the griffon, who had been busily rubbing two of his wickedly curved talons together.
  1639. > He pauses, looks up at Thomas, and pops his hooked beak open in a griffonic smile.
  1640. > This time, the fear in Thomas' eyes is a little more real.
  1641. "So. What was that?"
  1642. > "It... she's not brain-dead. Queen Chrysalis."
  1643. > Something tightens in your belly.
  1644. "Is she awake? Can she get out of there? Now?"
  1645. > Lips pressing tight back together and his eyes fall on Gerard again.
  1646. > Gerard casually scrapes a line of paint from the wall with one talon.
  1647. > "...no. She's put herself into a kind of healing coma. That tank isn’t to control her; it simulates a cocoon. She can't pull herself out of it, but her children could when the time was right."
  1648. "But she can talk to them."
  1649. > "Through the Mind, yes. And through our amplifier, over a wide distance."
  1650. > The dreams you'd been having - a single clear voice singing among a rushing of other whispers.
  1651. > A parent, crooning to her children.
  1652. > Or a queen, howling commands to her soldiers.
  1653. "And you built it to do that the whole time."
  1654. > "Yes. No. Not exactly. In - in the testing, it never really controlled her. Or any of them. Her - her child would listen to what we wanted, pass it on to her through the Mind, and she would replicate it."
  1655. "Her child?"
  1656. > "We used Changelings in testing, remember?"
  1657. > Almost in synchronization, everyone's head spins around when Logic Gate steps in.
  1658.  
  1659. > She looks very much different than the last time you’d seen her, sobbing by the edge of your cot.
  1660. > Eyes narrowed, horn sputtering with magic, and with bandages circling her barrel, she presents an intimidating figure - almost enough to make you want to step in front of her.
  1661. > "Was that one of them, Thomas?"
  1662. > Slowly, he nods.
  1663. > "Number six. Remember, the 'sample' we had to 'dispose of' because the surgery went wrong? I’d started talking to him. Six told me about how they live. One big family, together. What they could accomplish. I arranged to forge the ‘destruction’ paperwork. Walked out of the building with a ‘pony’ at my side."
  1664. > Number six.
  1665. > Sixtus.
  1666. > Logic Gate thuds down onto her haunches.
  1667. > "...why...?"
  1668. > "Because... because I could even do that, Logic!"
  1669. "Wait, what?!"
  1670. > "Not that -"
  1671. > Lifting a hand in a 'hold on' gesture makes the chain clink.
  1672. > "Because slavery has disgusted me from the second I heard about it. Because my - my entire species is an entire species of fucking monsters who won't ever be satisfied. I offered them more slaves, and they ate it up."
  1673. > He's looking at you, but the argument he makes is to Logic Gate - Logic Gate, who sits now looking destroyed as Thomas goes on.
  1674. > "You think offering them the Changelings would make ponies free? Just because we can 'work together’? Fuck no!"
  1675. "So you decided to what...? Give the Changelings back their queen?"
  1676. > "Exactly!"
  1677. > Thomas nods in triumph and once again you can see that gleam of true and deep belief in them.
  1678. > Now, though, there's a worrying twinge to it:
  1679. > Not just conviction, but certainty verging on total madness.
  1680. > "Slavery isn't going to end if we just... wait for humans to see that it's wrong. There's always someone who will hold it up to make themselves richer and fatter. The only chance ponies have is if we give them a chance to fight for freedom! Think about it-"
  1681. > His hands shoot out, grabbing your hooves with surprising force.
  1682.  
  1683. > "-right now the Changelings are scattered and confused. But with their queen back, and all the knowledge I could give them, they could be the first real force in Equestria that could stop this! A force humans would have to respect! They could start forcing us to give ponies back, working with the Princesses in the Crystal Empire to make an alliance we couldn't just blow off-"
  1684. > You tear your hooves from his grip and take a step back.
  1685. > Maybe Thomas was getting into selling you on the whole "give the Changelings their queen back" thing, but you knew without looking that you weren't the one his words were really going to hurt.
  1686. > "You... you mean it - it wasn't ever going to happen? Everything you told me about?"
  1687. > Logic Gate had fallen to her haunches, tears brimming in her eyes as the shock of the full depth of Thomas' betrayal hit her.
  1688.  
  1689. > "You promised. YOU PROMISED! I worked with you because of everything you told me about this plan, and you said it - it would - you used me!"
  1690. > Yes, he had.
  1691. > Just like the changeling that was whispering secrets in his ear had probably told him to.
  1692. > Use everypony, like they were just something to be fed on.
  1693. > Just like it had done to you.
  1694. > You slip back, extending a wing out to cover Logic gate.
  1695. > But you know it won't be enough.
  1696. > This kind of betrayal - it must be like what you'd felt when Anonymous had turned up with that bunch of foals to be brought for 'training'.
  1697. > A bitter, stabbing betrayal that cuts straight to the heart of everything that'd have been built.
  1698. > "It - It wasn't supposed to happen like this! Once we found them - I could have explained, made it right, you'd have understood-"
  1699. "And then you decided to rope us all along for the ride."
  1700. > "Decided... no. You were always part of the plan, Spitfire. From the beginning. Number Six - Sixtus, I called him - he found out about you, he knew enough about Soarin to mimic him. He suggested I bring you to Whitworth's attention."
  1701. > All about you.
  1702. > From the very beginning, using you had been the key other half of his plan.
  1703. > “We made the plan together… had him hang around the place, making sure you’d see him. So you’d ‘run into each other’. I would pick up the job of contacting his last owner, use ‘the company’s resources’, so nobody else would get suspicious-”
  1704. “Where is he?”
  1705. > Thomas blinks
  1706. > “He…? How do I know? He flew off-”
  1707. “Soarin! The real Soarin! What happened to him?!”
  1708. > “O-Oh.”
  1709. > Pain clouds his face as he turns away.
  1710. > “I don’t know, Spitfire. I swear to God, I don’t. He escaped, he vanished. We - we figured if he hadn’t turned up in that long already, he wouldn’t turn up in the few weeks you were training on Earth. And if he did, we could tie it down in paperwork until you went.”
  1711.  
  1712. “I don’t believe you. That’s - incredibly risky. Stupidly risky. You’d gamble on him just not actually hiding out-”
  1713. > “You were on fucking national news for saving Anonymous, Spitfire. If he was going to pop up, it would’ve been then. Even if he did - you’re a captain, not management. You don’t know how to drown things in paperwork, in formalities. I do.”
  1714. > No part of you wants to believe that.
  1715. > Which, in an odd way, is why you think it’s true.
  1716. > Everything about Thomas seemed that exact kind of desperate - a fanatic, a believer.
  1717. > The kind of man who would bring a pistol on a plane, then go waving it around wildly with aim so poor he’d miss any real target but potentially endanger everyone else.
  1718. > Speaking of which...
  1719. “And then you decided it would be a good idea to sneak a pistol on too? What, just in case we didn’t want to play along when your plan came out.”
  1720. > “It - it was in case of emergencies! In case somebody didn’t want to listen when they came to get their queen! There were rifles stocked on the plane already-”
  1721. “In case of a monster, Thomas! Not - Not because we had conspiracies brewing and we just wanted an option in case some of us didn’t like the idea of being living larders for a bunch of parasites!”
  1722. > Maybe the changeling had gotten into his head too.
  1723. > Encouraged him to act more aggressively than he would normally.
  1724. > You aren't sure how to feel about that; by now, though, it isn't any worse than it had been before.
  1725. > You weren't sure it could be any worse.
  1726. > Thomas hangs his head, but somehow you can't be bothered to feel bad for him.
  1727. "So, you just - you just decided to run this whole big scam, make up this machine to get Chrysalis here, get the changeling on the crew-"
  1728. > On the crew.
  1729. > Where there hadn't been room.
  1730. > Not until a car suddenly rolled in a freak accident and suddenly two more spots opened up on the team.
  1731.  
  1732. > And just right after that, Soarin - who had been hanging around for so long - just happens to let you catch him...
  1733. > Celestia above, why hadn't you put it together before!
  1734. > Any hope of sympathy for Thomas is snuffed out as a toxic mix of fury and horror ignites with in you.
  1735. > The thought of just a moment ago seemed ridiculous; it definitely could get worse.
  1736. "You - sick gelding! You killed Terry and Cloud Patch. We got too many crew, so you had to kill them so your Changeling could get on the plane-"
  1737. > "No! No, it - none of this has gone right! Yes, you brought too many crew on too quickly, but - but then-"
  1738. > Thomas' voice has reached an almost pathetic keening as he grips his face in both hands.
  1739. > "They were just supposed to be hurt enough they wouldn't be able to catch up with the training but - oh, God. Sixtus said it was an accident..."
  1740. “And what about Bell Curve, huh? Was he ‘just an accident’ too? What reason did he have to be thrown out-”
  1741. > ”I don’t know about Bell Curve! Okay? I don’t know. I have no idea if he decided to quit either, or if he found out, panicked, decided to bail out, or… oh, God. I just don’t know.”
  1742. > Trailing off, he simply sobs into his chained hands.
  1743. > And while you can't think of anything to say right now, you do know one thing for certain.
  1744. > This cannot be told to everyone, or you don't think Thomas will make it through the night alive.
  1745. > He might not have any sympathy from you right now, but allowing him to face Alicia's wrath while defenseless isn't something you can do either.
  1746. "You know, Thomas... I think you might be a victim in some ways too. You were tricked - used, just like I was. That changeling, it saw the sympathy you had for ponies. The hatred you had for your own kin. It put its hooks into your heart so it could pull you around. Make you do whatever you wanted."
  1747. > "N-No - that's not - I knew what I had to do -"
  1748.  
  1749. "You knew what you had to do because it whispered little promises into your ear, dug at your self-hatred, and you were stupid enough to believe it."
  1750. > Just like Soarin had whispered in yours.
  1751. > That everything would be back to the way it was before.
  1752. “I bet you wouldn’t even have signed an order to ‘destroy’ them unless the plan was going. It’s a loop they get you stuck in - meant to isolate you until you’re reliant on them.”
  1753. > "He... he told me that she would appreciate it. That she'd understand. That she'd - she'd l-love-"
  1754. "She can't love you."
  1755. > Yes, he was a pathetic appearance.
  1756. > But not pathetic enough to re-arouse any of your long-extinguished sympathy.
  1757. "Everything you think humans are, Thomas? That's exactly what Changelings are. They eat. They consume. They harvest us. They were keeping captives long, long before any pony had even heard of a human."
  1758. > "Not - not like -"
  1759. "Not like we’re slaves now? Oh, they might not throw a collar on our necks and whip us around, but they really were just parasites. Trust me. I fought them."
  1760. > There was something almost honorable in the way they threw themselves at you without consideration for the self - if they hadn't been trying to put their fangs into your neck or magic into your head at the same time.
  1761. > With that in mind, it had been more like a blind, maddened charge.
  1762. > "You - you can't know that; have you ever even talked to one-"
  1763. "Talked? I've fought them, Thomas. Again and again we've turned them back - and seen what they leave in their wake."
  1764. > Shaking your head, you turn aside.
  1765. "They aren't griffons. They aren't zebras. They aren't even dragons - arrogant as they are, you can still make a dragon see sense. Changelings are just a threat."
  1766. > "S-She's right, Thomas."
  1767. > Logic Gate raises her head again, eyes blazing with anger, and you transfer your wing to steadying across her chest instead of over her in case she tries to charge.
  1768.  
  1769. > "You were hypnotized by them. Bewitched. Used. Look at yourself! We've got five ponies and people either dead, dying, or missing, and you're still defending that thing!"
  1770. > "And what would you do instead?!"
  1771. > Thomas' eyes flick to you as he rants on:
  1772. > "Take her back home? Turn her in to the government? Blow the whole thing wide open and reveal it all? They'll just vanish her into some lab again, take all of our work and use it to control the changelings while giving ponies nothing-"
  1773. "You can't be sure of that!"
  1774. > "Yes I damn well can! You think they're going to let a joint human-pony team do something like this again if it all comes out?"
  1775. > You hiss angrily, but he spoke the truth; if it was revealed that the changeling had only been able to sneak in because of a joint human-pony team, a 'second chance' wasn't likely.
  1776. "Like your plan was so much better!"
  1777. > "...it wasn't supposed to be this way."
  1778. > Thomas' only reply comes mournfully, his head hanging and body limp.
  1779. > Like he knows there is no way that is any manner of excuse for what he's done, but he doesn't know what else to say.
  1780. > You, likewise, have nothing else to say to him back.
  1781. > But rather than waste empty words, you simply nudge Logic Gate until she turns aside and then urge her back out into the main space of the cabin.
  1782. > As soon as she is out of sight of Thomas, she all but collapses against you.
  1783. > Wobbling dangerously, you somehow still manage to extend a hoof and balance yourself out against her weight.
  1784. "Hey..."
  1785. > Turning your head, you nuzzle Logic Gate and give a low nicker - which, after a painfully stretched pause, she returns.
  1786. "I don't think there's a single pony on this plane that haven't lost something or someone now, Logic Gate. We're all hurting. Even Gerard; he wanted to do right by Whitworth, and now he's going to have to face that it isn't happening."
  1787. > She sniffs - ears still laid flat, but on some level seeming to recognize the truth of what you were saying.
  1788.  
  1789. > That you had suffered a terrible, bitter betrayal too.
  1790. "But you know what? You can still help. You can stop this - disaster. Help us get Chrysalis back somewhere safe."
  1791. > "But - what Thomas said -"
  1792. > Logic was grasping - following her namesake to try and seek out anything that seemed firm and rational, even if it meant sticking with the ideas of the man who'd already sold her out once.
  1793. "I know what Thomas said. There are some ideas he hasn't thought of yet."
  1794. > "And they'll get us home?"
  1795. > You open your mouth halfway before realizing Logic Gate might not mean back to Earth when she says 'home'.
  1796. > ...funny how you'd come to connect those two.
  1797. "I can tell you this: If it works, what we'll be doing will be just as important as anything your original plan might have done. It will protect Equestria - protect ponies - just as much."
  1798. > Softening your voice, you turn to face her and tilt your head.
  1799. "Before... before I said you weren't part of my team. But now - now I need you to be. There's no 'them' and 'us' anymore. I tried leading us alone, and it got ponies - killed. I need you too. Can you do that for me?"
  1800. > She tilts her head too, matching your own.
  1801. > "What exactly are you planning?"
  1802. > You just grin.
  1803. > It’s still a painful grin, but you hope it’s also an optimistic one.
  1804. > Back in the main room, you gather everyone around and stand up straight.
  1805. "Right. The way I see things, we've got two bad options."
  1806. > One wing is extended out.
  1807. "On the one side, we turn and make best speed for the Special Governance Zone. We won't get all the way there on our remaining fuel, but we can radio them for help."
  1808. > Renaud raises a hand.
  1809. > "What's wrong with this exactly?"
  1810.  
  1811. "...then they come and arrest us all for being part of this stupid plot, probably sell off Logic Gate, Kalendae, myself, and Gerard if we haven't fled yet, and that's the end of us. Also, they take the queen back and do Celestia knows what with her."
  1812. > Everyone looks suitably unhappy at that, so you extend the second wing.
  1813. "Option two, we turn north. Head for the free Equestrians in the Crystal Empire. Even if we don't have the fuel to get all the way, Gerard and I can fly on and find them. We turn the queen over, then beg for transport back to Earth."
  1814. > "Downside seems pretty obvious, though. I don't think they're going to be happy to see... well, uh, us."
  1815. > You shift uncomfortably, both your wings sagging.
  1816. "Yeah. There's that. I'll make sure they have to fight through me before they get to you, but I can't swear to anything. It's... the best of worst choices."
  1817.  
  1818. > Anonymous sighs, leaning against a bulkhead with his arms crossed.
  1819. > "I trust you, Spitfire, but there's another issue. We still have to tell Whitworth something. No offense to you, Gerard, but if we kill his prize I don't think he's going to just shrug."
  1820. "Oh, that's easy. We tell him if he wants to have us arrested, we'll release all the information about what he did. Capturing Chrysalis with his private soldiers, experimenting on her, trying to use her to enslave more changelings... I don't think your government is going to be happy to hear about that either."
  1821. > Everyone looks between each other.
  1822. > Finally Gerard huffs and shuffles his ragged wings.
  1823. > "He will not be happy. But his desire for this prize, allowed this plan to come. It seems he must now deal with the consequences - and I see no other way to get us out alive."
  1824. > "Hey, I've got a question-"
  1825. > Alicia raises a hand.
  1826. > "-why not take a third option. If that bug-horse-monster is such a big threat, why don't we just - finish her off. She's nearly gone. Wouldn't be hard. Then we don't have to face ponies, police, or anything."
  1827. "For one, I - I won't just kill a helpless enemy. Even that thing. It's not how we did things."
  1828. > Even if you want to.
  1829. > Celestia help you, you want to.
  1830. > To just grab a knife, go in there, and stab that - thing until it stopped breathing.
  1831. > Or to tell Anonymous to take one of the guns, and just keep firing into it until he'd used up every bullet on the plane.
  1832. > Or to just crack that metal cocoon open and kick and kick and kick-
  1833. > But...
  1834. > It wouldn't bring Cog back.
  1835. > Wouldn't end this hell you find yourself trapped in now.
  1836. > Kalendae, to your surprise, doesn't look so upset.
  1837. > How much had losing Cog Whirl changed her?
  1838. > She does, however, mention something else:
  1839. > "Another problem presents itself. Every time in Equestrian history a Changeling queen has fallen to blade or spell, another's emerged soon after."
  1840.  
  1841. "I was just getting to that, yeah. If we leave her alive, it's a long-term solution. If not... well, we don't understand it all, but we think the swarm just - makes a new one."
  1842. > Alicia grimaces, and you nod.
  1843. "Yeah. We're caught between the hail and the lightning, so to speak. No perfect answer. I'll tell you what we can't do, though. We can't wait around. That thing - the one that took Soarin's face - it ran, but I bet you anything it's going to find one of the changelings we tracked. Pretty soon the whole damn swarm will be coming our way."
  1844. > That gets everyone's attention.
  1845. > ‘Soarin’ had already cost the plane two of its three best fighters - yourself weakened, and Kalendae's shoulder injured.
  1846. "So. I can't force any of you to do anything. I can't seize control of this plane-”
  1847. > You don't want control of this plane.
  1848. > Not after screwing it up once already.
  1849. “-and I'm not going to maroon anyone or anypony if I can help it. But I have to know who's with me, and I have to know now."
  1850. > Alicia fidgets nervously.
  1851. > You look straight at Gerard - making sure he understands that you will need his answer more than anyone else here.
  1852. > As the only uninjured fighter, he might very well be able to force the crew to do things you could not.
  1853. > Before he can answer, though, Sai Ahura raises a hand:
  1854. > "Y'know, I'd really like to not get arrested... but there's one big question we haven't asked yet. Can the ponies treat Fred, Spitfire?"
  1855. "I... don't know."
  1856. > You hadn't even thought of that, and now you curse yourself for it.
  1857. "We've treated severe head injuries, of course, but that was with medicine and magic. We don't have half the machines I've heard about Earth hospitals having."
  1858. > Sai nods.
  1859. > "Well... shit. My career's probably completely fucked up now, but I don't want to get anyone arrested or that thing set loose. God I hope the ponies don't fuck us up, but I'm with Spitfire."
  1860.  
  1861. > After he goes first, it seems like the dam has burst and all the other votes flow after him:
  1862. > Logic Gate's siding with you is unsurprising, along with Anonymous and Kalendae.
  1863. > Renaud grunts, looking around the cabin.
  1864. > "I can tell I'm outvoted, but I've never broken the law and I don't want to start now. My vote's to head for home... but I'm not going to stop you all going north."
  1865. > Even though he'd voted against you, your estimation of Renaud rises several notches.
  1866. > Gone was the man who'd felt the need to compete with Anonymous in some kind of captain-on-captain dominance contest.
  1867. "Thank you... Michelle? Gerard? Alicia?"
  1868. > Michelle sighs.
  1869. > "What he said. I'll go with time in prison if I have to."
  1870. > Now you are surprised; if Gerard and Alicia went against you...
  1871. "Alicia?"
  1872. > As the others voted, she nervously chewed a fingernail.
  1873. > Now, she lets her hand fall to her lap and stares down there.
  1874. > "You know... fuck. I just... I just don't know."
  1875. > Fingers curl around, gathering up her pants into bunches.
  1876. > "Half my head's still saying 'keep away from the ponies'. But yeah, the other half's saying what the fuck, Alicia, didn't Cog Whirl show you to be better than that?"
  1877. > One fist pulls up, slamming against the wall with surprising force.
  1878. > "Fuck it. We'll go north. For Cog's sake."
  1879. > That... was surprising.
  1880. > You'd have expected her to easily turn back, or at least abstain.
  1881. > Maybe you could do a little 'being better than that' too.
  1882. "...okay. Gerard?"
  1883. > "Does my voice matter? It seems we are decided."
  1884. "Yeah. It does. That's how a team works. This isn't a democracy; it's making sure we're on the level."
  1885. > Gerard huffs, giving a soft and groaning caw.
  1886. > "I suppose this is where you lecture me about why we should not play with plots and schemes? Why trickery is unwanted?"
  1887. "That’s about how I feel. This is why we ponies don't do this kind of thing; why we're honest with each other and don't go around behind each others' backs."
  1888.  
  1889. > Turning his head so that his empty socket stares out at you - gesture you think akin to closing his eyes - Gerard hisses:
  1890. > "I have rolled this dice and lost before, Spitfire. The skies are not always favorable."
  1891. "Yes."
  1892. > A few tentative steps bring you within wing-range of him; with one unfurled, you touch him gently with a feathered sweep.
  1893. "Gerard, I'm not going to lie. I wish you hadn't hid this from us. It probably cost Cog's life. But right now... I can't start arguments. I can't lecture. Besides-"
  1894. > You fall to your haunches as well, grinning half-cocked.
  1895. "-Anonymous and I have had our fair share of plots and tricks. We've smuggled ponies to freedom. I even got him roped into that one without asking first. So, we're not all innocent. But we pulled together and learned to do better."
  1896. > Gerard grumbles, his feathers twitching.
  1897. > "Ach, you said you would not lecture."
  1898. > You chuckle and duck your head.
  1899. "Yeah, I did. Sorry. Captain's nature; I'm sure you understand."
  1900. > "That, I suppose, I do."
  1901. "In the end, though, the choice is yours. I know you serve Whitworth because you think he's - he's someone worth serving. I can't force you to think different."
  1902. > "Hmmmm."
  1903. > Leonine tail flicking angrily, Gerard turns his head to stare out a window.
  1904. > "Loyalty or not, the winds have brought us to this point. Your plan is solid. We go north."
  1905. > You let out a breath you didn't even realize you'd been holding; somehow, you hadn't actually expected him to agree!
  1906. > Abstain, maybe, or just get off here and fly back towards Canterlot or the Special Governance Zone.
  1907. > But not agree.
  1908. > Now, though-
  1909. "Okay then!"
  1910. > You rear briefly up, whinnying and dropping your hooves to the cabin floor with a loud clop.
  1911. > Doing that proves to be a bit much, a bit fast; Anonymous rises half out of his seat to reach for you as you suddenly find the room spinning again.
  1912. > You hold him off with a wing, but Anonymous still gives you a concerned look as you steady yourself.
  1913.  
  1914. "We - we take off. We head north. Gerard, I'm - I’m going to need you to figure out what our fuel limits are; Anonymous, you're piloting. Alicia, do you feel up to managing the engines."
  1915. > "No."
  1916. > Her smile is crooked too, though only because her face is still swollen from the changeling's attack.
  1917. > At least you aren't the only one very much out of it.
  1918. > "But with a little bit of help..."
  1919. "Logic Gate? You're good with machines. That's your call."
  1920. > "Got it, Spitfire."
  1921. "Renaud, I know you're not happy about this, but can you copilot?"
  1922. > "Seems we're going to be flying anyway; I'm not going to just sit and sulk."
  1923. > Your heart beats just that much faster.
  1924. > Anonymous had been right.
  1925. > They listened to you, no matter how stupid it sounded.
  1926. > No matter how many ponies had gotten hurt by your plans already.
  1927. > You quash that thought quickly and try to keep your mind focused on the fact that they were listening in the first place.
  1928. "Right. Let's get in the air. Every second we waste, is a second that swarm gets closer."
  1929. > "My Captain?"
  1930. > Kalendae forces herself upright in her cot, staring at you with eager and wide eyes.
  1931. > "What may I do? What is my duty-"
  1932. "Nothing yet, Kalendae. Rest. Let that shoulder heal. I'm going to need you fresh and ready when we get north and go looking for ponies."
  1933. > While the others burst into action, getting the plane ready for flight one last time, you make one last stop:
  1934. > The secret compartment no longer seems as shocking as it did, though a trail of small, faded red-brown stains on the floor is a bitter reminder.
  1935. > You march straight up to the edge of the holding tank and glare in through the porthole; though your legs still trembled with weakness and stomach churned with exhaustion, you manage to pull yourself up and stand tall.
  1936. > Chrysalis still floated there, having twisted her too-thin, jagged legs into an almost foal-like huddle.
  1937. > Lonely, with her changeling having been driven off?
  1938.  
  1939. > You don't know, but the thought lets you give her a sour grin.
  1940. "Gerard wasn't the only one who gambled and lost."
  1941. > The glass is cool when you press your muzzle in, glaring at the unconscious queen.
  1942. > Lime eyes stare back at nothingness, and you suppress your urge to spin and try to kick through the glass..
  1943. "You tried, and you got us good. But you don't get to win, either. We're going to make sure you stay locked up in there, got it?"
  1944. > Dropping to your haunches, you finally let the undisguised anger that had been stewing inside of you out in one bitter blow:
  1945. "I hate you. I hate you with every bit of my soul. Right now, I hate you in a ways that I don't even hate the humans who came and enslaved us all - stupid as that is. I hate you even though my mother always taught me a pony shouldn't ever hate."
  1946. > Letting your eyes slip shut, you also feel your smile soften into something more genuine.
  1947. "Humans put a collar on me, but a human took it off too. You... you're hopeless. All you and your changelings do is share hate and fear. So I'll gladly see you locked up in there forever."
  1948. > Rising, you turn back to the exit.
  1949. > Already each hoofstep feels lighter than they had before.
  1950. > Yet as you reach the door, one last thought occurs to you.
  1951. "You know, Chrysalis... There's a part of me who wishes Logic Gate had been right all along. That we were going to find your changelings, round them up, have the humans put something in their head that'd make them serve forever. It'd certainly be safer."
  1952. > Turning around entirely to face the tank, you raise yourself up to stand tall.
  1953. "But then I realize even that wouldn't be right. Even your kind don't deserve to be twisted into perfect slaves. And that - that's the fucking difference between us."
  1954.  
  1955. --------
  1956.  
  1957. > Falling asleep as the plane climbs into the air seems like shirking your duty - resting, when everyone else was pulling together like you'd asked.
  1958. > But Anonymous demands it - forcing the issue with a soft kiss placed between your ears.
  1959. > "There's nothing wrong with taking some time to recover, Spitfire. You need the rest, just the same as Kalendae or Fred to."
  1960. > That seems like a bit of a stretch; Fred was probably still concussed, if not worse.
  1961. > But his point is well-made, and you can only grumble with modest frustration ashe actually tucks you in.
  1962. "C'mon, Anonymous. I haven't been tucked in since I was a little filly."
  1963. > "Yeah, well, you're still my little filly. And you did good back there, making everyone listen. Now, you get to sleep."
  1964. "It felt like a lie."
  1965. > Anonymous pauses, halfway turned to the door.
  1966. > The cot creaks as he goes to sit down on its edge; the warmth of his hand touches one ear.
  1967. > An unspoken request:
  1968. > 'Tell me.'
  1969. "I'm... I'm just standing there ordering everypony around, like - like I deserve to be in charge and they're just listening to me because - why?"
  1970. > You spare a glance up to Anonymous and find his mouth already half-open; you quickly jump in before he can lecture:
  1971. "You don't have to tell me, I know - they listen because I sound like a leader. So I go up there and tell them everything's going to be okay, and-"
  1972. > Words get caught in your throat, so you just lay there - feeling Anonymous' fingers scratching lightly into your ears.
  1973. > "They listen to you, Spitfire, because you're making sense. Being a good leader isn't just about having the right tone, though that helps too. It's about having the smarts to figure out how best to order people around too."
  1974. "I don't feel like I do."
  1975. > "They feel like you do."
  1976. > Soft lips press to the back of your head, and you give a little gasp of surprise.
  1977. > "I feel like you do. Now, I’m serious. Get some actual rest. I'm guessing you'll need it later."
  1978. > Sleep you do.
  1979.  
  1980. > At first, a troubled dream full of nightmares of flashing fangs and buzzing wings.
  1981. > Abruptly they are banished - a cool, quiet peacefulness settling over you.
  1982. > What time remains is spent in a dreamless, restful sleep that lasts for a few hours.
  1983. > When you do wake, it is feeling that much better.
  1984. > The first thing you do is immediately step from your cabin to check on Fred (still unconscious) and Kalendae (still asleep).
  1985. > You pause to stare at the Thestral a moment, wondering if what she'd said about Luna's presence protecting her from Nightmares was benefitting her now.
  1986. > Preventing her from having to relive the moments of Cog Whirl's death in the realm of dreams.
  1987. > Had it protected you?
  1988. > You weren't sure you deserved it, if Luna had.
  1989. > Climbing up into the cockpit, you nod to each of the people and ponies there:
  1990. > Receiving a nod of acknowledgement and maybe respect from each in turn, except for Anonymous.
  1991. > He simply shoots you a little knowing grin.
  1992. > A silent 'I told you so'.
  1993. > Though you roll your eyes, it is with a grin.
  1994. "What's our situation?"
  1995. > "We're nearing our limit."
  1996. > Gerard gestures to the tablet laid out in front of him, moving it through a series of points and charts.
  1997. > "Not more than a few dozen more miles, and we'll have to set down. Then it is all on you."
  1998. "And that's leaving us enough fuel to run the auxiliary engines for power?"
  1999. > "Yes. I'm leaving plenty for that. If not for that, we could go a ways further. But our options for landing are..."
  2000. "Limited, yeah. Need a big enough lake."
  2001. > Plus, a lake of any significant size might have ponies around it.
  2002. "Okay, Gerard. While we fly that last bit, I need to see those maps..."
  2003. > By the time the plane starts to dip towards land, you have a better idea of what is going to come next.
  2004.  
  2005. > Anonymous doesn't look one bit happy to see you slipping on the saddlebags and goggles, sitting on his cot in your cabin with arms folded.
  2006. > "You be real careful out there, okay Spitfire? You aren't at the top of your game, and Kalendae isn't either."
  2007. "We're not going to be fighting anyone."
  2008. > You hope.
  2009. > "Doesn't mean you can't have an accident. Or run into a monster. Or anything else-"
  2010. > Rearing up, you hook both forehooves over his shoulders and give a low nicker.
  2011. > Anonymous acknowledges it, leaning his head in to press against yours.
  2012. "...this is what I have to do. Better me out there getting this done, then just sitting around here barking bad orders."
  2013. > "Yeah, yeah. Doesn't mean I have to like just seeing you rush out there without me."
  2014. > Smiling, you turn - brushing your tail against his chest as you go.
  2015. > If nothing else, his affection for you was heartwarming.
  2016. "I'll be back."
  2017. > Jumping from the plane before it touches down means you don't have to take the effort to climb back to altitude.
  2018. > Instead you circle on a rising thermal until the Mars reaches the lake it had been aiming for.
  2019. > It touches down amid the golden rays of late-afternoon sunshine:
  2020. > A splotch of grey and red, scuttling over mottled treetops and out into the crystal-blue water.
  2021. > Foamy sprays rising where the hull splits the lake's surface until it brakes to a halt; a hatch opens, and Gerard's grey form pops out to cast the anchor.
  2022. > That's your signal to go.
  2023. "You sure you're up for this, Kalendae? Your wound-"
  2024. > "Aye, My Captain, I am. You will need me come nightfall."
  2025. "That I will."
  2026. > Harmony alone had given you one boon:
  2027. > The changeling had sunk its fangs into her shoulder, above the wing-root:
  2028. > Kalendae winced and limped at every time she tried to put real weight on her left foreleg, often holding it lifted from the ground.
  2029.  
  2030. > Midair, however, the only sign of her injury were the copious bandages wrapped around her withers and barrel.
  2031. > Or the way she bit her lip as you both turned north and put on some speed.
  2032. "You know, Kalendae, that you didn't have to do this. I know - I know you want to do something right for us, since that thing killed Cog-"
  2033. > "Aye, My Captain- I kardiá mou me otheí. I don't deny it, that I wish to see that wretch fail. But..."
  2034. > She falls silent for a while, but for the beating of her webbed wings.
  2035. > "...you, too, are pushing yourself. And if you have given me the gift of this much freedom, I will pay it back."
  2036. "I'm not pushing that hard."
  2037. > "You are, My Captain. In your heart, if not in your muscles."
  2038. > Turning your head, you raise one eyebrow.
  2039. > Kalendae matches your gaze easily, her slitted eyes casual and calm.
  2040. > "I think, you cannot bear the thought of Anonymous being lost in this world, yes?"
  2041. "I-"
  2042. > "You are close with him, Spitfire..."
  2043. > Her eyes slip closed, though her wings do not stop beating.
  2044. "Kalendae, I - I'm sorry, about Cog-"
  2045. > "I am not embittered by your care for him, My Captain."
  2046. > Eyes slipping open again, she gives a sigh even audible even over the roar of wind being sliced by your flight.
  2047. > "In an earlier time, yes, I would have questioned what hypnosis he holds over you. At another time, jealousy might have ruled me. Now - now I wish you the best of all things with him."
  2048. > She might have been watching you, but even so Kalendae squeaks when your limbs wrap around her in a mid-air hug.
  2049. "You're a good pony, Kalendae. Everything that's happened to you... I'm sorry. I should've been a better leader for you. A better captain."
  2050. > "It seems I am fated to follow my Princess, and live a life troubled.”
  2051. > Kalendae lifts her head to brush against your neck and chin; her accent grows thicker as she holds that.
  2052.  
  2053. > "But you have shown me the way to persevere, and I shall. Come, now. Let us focus on our flight."
  2054. > You do.
  2055. > Every wingbeat, every tree-covered ridge passed below you or white-puffed cloud that scuttles by above:
  2056. > Watching for any sign, however hopeless, of pony habitation.
  2057. > It's easier than letting your mind wander; focusing shut out the voice whispering in the back of your head.
  2058. > Kalendae had been right; you couldn't bear the thought of Anonymous being lost and alone.
  2059. > But rather than drive you on, it was the voice telling you to turn back:
  2060. > The voice that whispered that you were leaving him alone and vulnerable.
  2061. > That the changelings would surely find him while you were gone, and there would be nothing you could do to protect him.
  2062. > Because you had abandoned him.
  2063. > Getting people you cared about killed with your plans again.
  2064. > Yes - squashing that little voice in your head down and focusing on the search was far, far easier than trying to argue against it.
  2065.  
  2066. --------
  2067.  
  2068. > You fly through the night, pausing only once on a cloud to eat some of the fruit and sugared nuts in your saddlebags, and to drink from the vaporous moisture itself.
  2069. > Above, the moon holds its steady patrol across the sky - that and the stars your only certain way of confirming your course.
  2070. > Near dawn Kalendae consents to a brief stop and rest on another low-hanging cloudbank.
  2071. > So you both hollow out a small bowl in the cloud, fashioning the remainder into a sort of roof to cover you over.
  2072. > In this hollow you find a brief rest curled in each others' hooves, sharing in each others' softness and warmth.
  2073. > Though Kalendae refuses to show it, you can tell her injury troubles her.
  2074. > Despite the rest on the plane your own exhaustion is creeping back up again too:
  2075. > A slow fogginess that clouds your mind and makes every choice seem to stretch on.
  2076.  
  2077. > That you could manage to fly there was no doubt of; a Wonderbolt could practically fly in her sleep.
  2078. > But how much detail were you missing out on?
  2079. > How many possible hidden settlements or ponies had you passed over?
  2080. > You shove the troubling thought to the back of your mind along with the little tempting voice and focus on trying to gain a little rest.
  2081. > Kalendae seems to be sleeping soundly; unfortunately, you don’t share her comfort.
  2082. > When you wake it is with such a start that for a moment you are all on-guard for the buzzing of wings or droning of a propeller - a sign that your instincts had woken you in response to some danger.
  2083. > But there is none; judging by the slight smell of sweat wafting from your coat, whatever had woken you was fully in your mind.
  2084. > The thread was not outside, but yourself.
  2085. > You snort softly and crush that thought mercilessly.
  2086. > Returning to sleep requires breathing and meditation exercises to keep the needling fear that you were your own greatest threat from returning, but - you manage.
  2087. > When you wake just a few hours later, it's with at least some degree of rest.
  2088. > Setting off north again seems sure to promise a fresh dose of exhaustion soon, though, and Kalendae surely knows it too.
  2089. > Neither of you share any words now; just a singleminded dedication to getting as far north as possible before your supplies run down.
  2090. > The first town you pass over is nothing but an abandoned corpse, overgrown with climbing vines and flowering bushes.
  2091. > A second, much like the first:
  2092. > Long ruined monuments to the Equestria that had been.
  2093. > ‘Pointless!’ whispers the little voice. 'Everything here is dead; you'll never find anypony before they all die.'
  2094. > By lunch, however, Kalendae suddenly taps you on the withers with a wingtip.
  2095. > "My Captain, do you smell something?"
  2096. > You... do.
  2097. > Vague and faint on the wind, but definitely there.
  2098.  
  2099. > The noise of another pony's wings on the air too.
  2100. > Nodding once, you pull into a slow circling drift over a particularly pleasant rising thermal and wait:
  2101. > Ears swiveling and eyes sweeping over as you search for -
  2102. > There!
  2103. > A slight bit of movement as a pony dives from a low-hanging cloud, vanishing into the dense forest below.
  2104. "Kalendae?"
  2105. > "I saw it, My Captain."
  2106. "Cover me as I drop in... and be careful. This could be a complete ambush."
  2107. > But one you have to risk; Kalendae accepts this with a simple nod.
  2108. > You make your approach slowly, as much gliding down as deliberately descending.
  2109. > Touching down on a near-treetop branch, you cough softly.
  2110. > A pony on the ground could have made a good distance, but it was still worth a shot:
  2111. "Hey - anypony there? I saw you land here, and I need help. My name's Spitfire, and-"
  2112. > Oh.
  2113. > There was a spear moving for your throat.
  2114. > That was - surprising.
  2115.  
  2116. > Batting it aside in a second, you lean up and yell:
  2117. "Kalendae, don't!"
  2118. > You'd managed to call out just in time to avoid the Thestral mare crashing down from the blue sky above onto your attacker.
  2119. > Instead she alights more calmly on a nearby branch... from which another well-disguised pony attempts to meld out and brandish another spear, only to be quickly disarmed.
  2120. > Pinning the spear under a hoof, you cock your head and manage a slightly forced smile.
  2121. "Now, can we stop being ridiculous and talk instead?"
  2122. > The pony - a mare, festooned in branches and maybe mud to disguise herself - tilts her head.
  2123. > "You're escapees? Looking to flee?"
  2124. "Uh, not exactly..."
  2125. > She points to Kalendae who still wears her (nonfunctional) shock collar.
  2126. "...oh. Yeah. Well, we were slaves."
  2127. > "Are you being followed?"
  2128. > "We have flown north for near a day now, with no pursuit. Will you grant us refuge?"
  2129. > You nod in agreement with Kalendae.
  2130. "There are others who need help. My name is Spitfire. She's Kalendae. I don't know who you are, but can you help us find our way to the Crystal Empire? Or someone who can reach them?"
  2131. > They look among each other.
  2132. > "How did you find us?"
  2133. "Kalendae spotted one of yours heading for the treetops."
  2134. > "She never gets the camouflage right; damn it Blosso-"
  2135. > One ponies' grumbling is quickly cut off by a hoof in the ribs from another; a third glares at Kalendae and you quickly move to the Thestral's side to sit beside her.
  2136. "Look. I'm sorry, but if you can't - or won't - help us, we have to move on. This is urgent. Really urgent."
  2137. > After another whispered discussion, one of them nods.
  2138. > "Come down to our... ah... camp. We'll have to blindfold you until we can be sure you aren't being tracked with their technology somehow, but after that we can let you in."
  2139. > You and Kalendae glance at each other.
  2140. > Blindfolded, and probably deafened too?
  2141. > Not good, but...
  2142.  
  2143. > "Swear, by the grace and soothing light of Her Majesty Princess Luna, that you mean us no harm."
  2144. > Pulling himself upright, the pony you'd been speaking to delivers a sloppy but approximate version of a Royal Guard salute at Kalendae’s demand.
  2145. > Well, wasn't that interesting?
  2146. > Somepony had to teach him that.
  2147. > "By the Light and Grace of Her Majesty Princess Luna, we won't do any harm unless you're spies. If you're telling the truth, you'll be safe and free."
  2148. > "Then by Her Light and Grace, we mean you no harm and shall be entirely truthful."
  2149.  
  2150. --------
  2151.  
  2152. > Being blindfolded isn't a pleasant experience, but they at least don't bother covering your ears with anything.
  2153. > Stupid, that - another indication to you that this isn't a real military group of any kind, but a... a rebel group or something?
  2154. > But not official military.
  2155. > You aren't sure how to feel about that; you might have better chances with the actual Guard.
  2156. > Still, you let them tie the blindfold over your eyes without much trouble.
  2157. > You could probably probably still glide safely down from the branches on your own, but you opt against it.
  2158. > No sense in spooking the rookies.
  2159. > Once guided down to the forest floor, someone nudges your flank with a muzzle.
  2160. > "Come on. Walk ahead. We'll take you through the safer paths."
  2161. > With their leading and occasional gentle correction, you walk for what feels like... maybe a Gallop or more.
  2162. > Certainly some distance from where they'd first found you.
  2163. > Gradually the sounds of some further activity grows until you find yourself surrounded by the noises of what sounds like a small village.
  2164. > More importantly, the smells of one - and of many more ponies.
  2165. > “Check them.”
  2166. > The vague tone of a unicorn’s horn being lit to corona, and then a low grunt and a gravely, angry voice.
  2167. > “They’re clean. No tracking spells.”
  2168. > “Good. Who are you?”
  2169. > Kalendae hisses, and you cough softly before stepping in before she can unleash her bitterness.
  2170.  
  2171. “I’m Spitfire. That’s Kalendae. We’re in a hurry. Need to reach the free Equestrian state, or their guards.”
  2172. > “A hurry over what?”
  2173. > Well.
  2174. > Damn Kalendae for making her stupid promises, part of you said.
  2175. > But if truth was not something you could give them, what more did you have?
  2176. > What defined you as ponies?
  2177. “I… can’t tell you everything, because it might endanger you. It might endanger everypony you have here. But - we were traveling with some humans. Their - their slaves. They have something there, that could be incredibly dangerous. We need to get it to the free Equestrians in the north. Can you help us?”
  2178. > A long silence follows, though it seems you can all hear the pony’s thoughts as loudly as if they were being spoken into your own ears.
  2179. > “The Spitfire? Like, ‘The Wonderbolts’ Spitfire?”
  2180. “Yes, that one.”
  2181. > Repeating yourself is becoming nearly as tiresome as Kalendae seems to find it.
  2182. > Yet you do, for their sake.
  2183. "Look, I'm sorry. We stumbled on your - village? Whatever it is you've got here. And I know you're suspicious. But we need help."
  2184. > "So, you ran away?"
  2185. > Can't lie, but that doesn't mean you won't leave out some details.
  2186. "They're in trouble already. A pony is dead, maybe two-"
  2187. > Can't know what happened to Bell Curve.
  2188. "-and a human, too. But it's going to be a lot, lot worse if things get totally out of control. I'm talking as bad as this was to begin with."
  2189. > "Huh. You, bat. You're with her on this?"
  2190. > "My Captain speaks the truth."
  2191. > Behind you, another voice speaks up:
  2192. > "If they're clean... I can take them, y'know-"
  2193. > "Shut up, okay? Just... shut up. I'm thinking."
  2194. > Another sigh, and the gravelly voice speaks up again.
  2195. > "Colt, you know what'll happen if they're lying."
  2196. > "Yeah, but - I mean, they're clean, and if what they're saying is true..."
  2197. "It is. Look, you don't have to stick around after we get... wherever. We might not even know where this place really is. But can you take us there?"
  2198.  
  2199. > The cost, in the end, was another couple hours spent on the march blindfolded.
  2200. > At the end of that, you wait until the hooves vanish into the forest noise before the cloth is pulled from your eyes by a rough-coated cream pegasus barely out of his colthood.
  2201. > "Heeeeey. Sorry about that. Birchbark is, uh... well, he's our village 'mayor', I guess, and he's kind of paranoid about stuff."
  2202. "He's right to be. We flew out of nowhere, asking for help over something like that..."
  2203. > "It seems that caution is what has kept your kin free."
  2204. > The stallion glances at Kalendae nervously.
  2205. > Fear in his eyes?
  2206. > Certainly Thestrals might not be as well-known in Equestria if the Night Guard had scattered as Kalendae had said.
  2207. > "Yeah, um. Well, we've been hiding out here a while, and I guess it's worked. No one has been taken."
  2208. > That, you think, might have more to do with these ponies being unobtrusive and a lack of interest in hunting down small groups.
  2209. > After all, it wasn't that hard for even you to find them.
  2210. > If the humans really tried, you don't doubt they'd find whatever little hideaway that was in weeks.
  2211. > ...what if they did, though, because of this?
  2212. > Worse, what if the changelings found them?
  2213. > You are, for a moment, overcome with visions of the little outpost standing alone as a buzzing, whirling cloud descends on it - of ponies running for their lives.
  2214. > That would be your fault.
  2215. > Another set of lives ruined by your planning-
  2216. > Snarling, you force those thoughts down.
  2217. > This was becoming ridiculous; the changelings weren't after you, but their queen.
  2218. > Some place like this wouldn't even be on their priority list, and all your mind was trying to do was sabotage you ever-harder.
  2219. > The pony escorting you gives a wondering, nervous look and you shoot a smile back in return.
  2220. "You got a name?"
  2221. > "Glimmerglow. C'mon, let's keep moving."
  2222.  
  2223. > Strange name for a pegasus, you think, but Glimmerglow is no slouch on his wings and keeps yourself and Kalendae on his heels at a good pace.
  2224. > Eventually he slips back to hold a position on Kalendae's flank.
  2225. > "So. Um. Were you, um, a Night Guard before?"
  2226. > Ah.
  2227. > He hadn't been showing fear, but the same wonder that was creeping into his voice.
  2228. > "Yes, child. I swore my oaths to Her Highness Princess Luna. I wore the ebony armor once."
  2229. > "Woah..."
  2230. > Your next thought was that Kalendae might have been terse or bitter with him - she had lost so much.
  2231. > Instead, however, only the sorrowful tones of regret fill her voice.
  2232. > "I regret I could not continue on bearing it now, when it seems Equestria needs us most of all."
  2233. > "Ooooh. Maybe. Buuuut..."
  2234. > Glimmerglow giggles softly, giving Kalendae a knowing look.
  2235. > You raise one eyebrow; what was that about?
  2236. > But he just shakes his head.
  2237. > "Nuh-uh. You'll see. I'm not even supposed to know, but I saw... well, you'll see."
  2238. > That was...
  2239. > Ominous.
  2240. > You keep your attention pricked for the rest of the trip, but even so you don't see the camp until you're practically on top of it.
  2241. > This one was much, much better hidden - tucked into the curve of a river, beneath an outcropping of rock the water had partially undermined; not it hid the camp from even the most determined searches from above.
  2242. > Even from you, until you pass through the canopy of branches growing out over the river and find they had been very carefully grown to conceal the small outpost beneath.
  2243. > More ponies - armored now, though not with the well-kept plates of the Royal Guard - keep watch from posts just beneath the thick treeline, through thick telescopes pointed up.
  2244. > And below...
  2245. > Well, it's not fancy, but it's definitely a formal military encampment.
  2246. > Like with your arrival in the village, a group of halberd-wielding guards falls in around - but this time, with more professional movement and fewer weapons pointed at your throat.
  2247.  
  2248. > They must have seen you coming from a distance too.
  2249. > As you touch down, another mare marches up.
  2250. > "Glimmerglow. You're bringing these to two us?"
  2251. > She sounds more annoyed at having to deal with this than anything else, but the stallion is undaunted.
  2252. > "Uh-huh. Birchbark said to. They say they need to talk to somepony important. Like, super-important. Really impor-"
  2253. > "Okay, okay, I get it! This way, you two."
  2254. > The path you're taken on hides much of the camp from your eyes, you notice, but at last you arrive at a hut whose door is pulled aside to let you in.
  2255. > "Wait in here. Do you have names?"
  2256. "Yes, but we - only just left our Master. So I don't know if you'd know us."
  2257. > When you mention your name, though, the mare's eyes go wide.
  2258. > "Wait, like - that Spitfire?"
  2259. > You give Kalendae a weary look, which she responds to with a sympathetic one.
  2260. > There would have been a time when you could have chewed this pony out for letting her jaw hang like that...
  2261. "Yes, that Spitfire."
  2262. > "Woooah. The Captain's going to shed his feathers when he hears this!"
  2263. > Captain?
  2264. > Huh.
  2265. > Apparently they had ranks and everything.
  2266. > When she vanishes, you look to Kalendae again.
  2267. "You think it's a trap?"
  2268. > "A trap, I think not. But I wonder, My Captain, how much help these ponies can give? Already, nearly a day passes since our departure. And now we wait further."
  2269. > She's worried about getting back before the plane is found too.
  2270. > It's not really something that will stay hidden for that long...
  2271. > You should probably be a lot more worried than you are, actually.
  2272. > Shoving down your fears must have also stalled out any analytical awareness of the present danger they were in.
  2273. > Tangling with the idea seems like poking at a sprained fetlock - possible it would reveal some new information about how it hurt, but much more likely to just tell you it did in fact hurt.
  2274. > So you bury it back under whatever mental wall you'd kept it beneath in the first place and shake your head.
  2275.  
  2276. > Back to being analytical.
  2277. "Even if nothing else, they might be able to tell us where to go. Give us a little time to rest up."
  2278. > She snorts and you shift over to give her a supporting nuzzle.
  2279. "Let's face it, Kalendae - we're not aircraft. We can't fly forever. I'm feeling exhaustion already, and I'm not injured."
  2280. > "I am capable of going further."
  2281. "With that shoulder wound? No, you aren’t. Just because you’re not falling over is no excuse for charging off blindly. Even a few hours' rest here and some pointers on where we should go further is smarter than flying on blindly."
  2282. > "You speak sense, although more... softly than I had expected."
  2283. > A pained grin touches your lips.
  2284. "Well, if you want me to put it in Captain-speak - pull your head out of your haunches and wake up that useless thing between your ears, Guardspony! We don't have the luxury of just charging ahead like a stampeding Buffalo."
  2285. > Before you can finish, a new voice breaks in from behind you.
  2286. > "I'll be damned. I didn't quite believe it when they told me, but here yo- oh Sweet Celesti -"
  2287. > You don't even wait an instant.
  2288. > Turning sharply the second you heard the voice, you line up your hindlegs and kick off with both for a perfect double-buck.
  2289. > "-augh!"
  2290. > Straight into Soarin's side.
  2291.  
  2292. > A heartbeat longer, and you had spun back around again - pinning him to the ground.
  2293. "When I made Captain, you told me something Soarin. What was it?!"
  2294. > The stallion gasps, squirms, whinnies - green eyes rolling wildly in pure shock.
  2295. > But you aren't going to be fooled.
  2296. > Not again.
  2297. > Tackling him to his side on the dirt, you pin the stallion in place with a hoof on his vulnerable belly and glare down through narrowed eyes.
  2298. > Someone gasps off to your flank.
  2299. > "S-Spitfire-"
  2300. "What did you tell me, Soarin?! I know you'd remember it; what did you say?"
  2301. > A voice is barking orders for you to stop, but Kalendae silences them with a violent hiss.
  2302. > There's sound that might be the sound of flesh hitting flesh; if you look up, though, the thing that had taken Soarin's face might catch you off-guard.
  2303. > The sharp-pointed edge of your hoof drives into his bobbing throat to encourage a quicker response.
  2304. "Exact words, Soarin. What. Did. You. Say?!"
  2305. > "I - I said I knew I might not make Captain anymore 'cause you wouldn't let go of it until we were both past our good years! But I was okay with that because it was you holding it and if it meant you were going to be h-happy and Spitfire please let me up!"
  2306. > A cold relief settles over your back as he all but babbles out the words.
  2307. > Very particular words.
  2308. > Accurate ones, more accurate than anypony else could have guessed at.
  2309. > Without saying anything more you fall on him and hug the stallion in a fierce embrace.
  2310. > Tears spring to your eyes, as all six of your limbs lock around him; all of the reserves of strength you'd somehow been flying on for so long seemed to have suddenly run dry as you can barely muster the strength to stand again.
  2311. > Just to lay there, crying and hugging him, taking in his scent and being able to reveal that somehow - somehow this time it was all real.
  2312. > This time you didn't have to be afraid.
  2313. > A hoof is stroking your mane, a voice telling you that it's going to be okay.
  2314.  
  2315. > Soarin doesn't even know - can't know - what brought you to this point, but without question he had begun to comfort you.
  2316. "I-"
  2317. > Words catch in your throat; you tongue seems to have swollen up to fill your entire mouth.
  2318. "I'm - I'm sorry, you s-shouldn't have to see me like this."
  2319. > "No, Spitfire. It's okay. C'mon. It's okay."
  2320. > Still, some corner of your mind warns of betrayal - a distant bullhorn, blaring prophecies of betrayal and trickery.
  2321. > But now, for once, you can push it aside without reservation.
  2322. > This wasn't blind optimism or empty hope.
  2323. > This was real.
  2324. > Soarin had passed the test; he was real.
  2325. > You could just stay here - ensconced in the familiar feeling of his legs and wings wrapping around you.
  2326. > Eventually your tears subside, and you're able to lift your head.
  2327. > Dampness still mats your cheeks; there's no doubt your eyes are red from sobbing.
  2328. > Soarin looks even more lost than his normal slightly dopey expression.
  2329. "It's you. It really - really, really - is you."
  2330. "I... yeah. you're back, Spits. You're safe. It's okay now."
  2331. > Tears threaten to spring to your eyes again, but by now it seems you've mostly exhausted your supply of them.
  2332. "Celestia-! I can't -"
  2333. > Again, your tongue - full, leaden, and clumsy - stymies your thoughts' attempts at becoming words.
  2334. > "Y-Yeah, it - is. What..?"
  2335. > Sucking down a deep breath, you somehow manage to keep yourself calm.
  2336. “Changelings.”
  2337. > That one word is enough for a look of totally new understanding to come over Soarin.
  2338. “Yeah.”
  2339. > “Oh… Oh, Spitfire.”
  2340. “Yeah.”
  2341.  
  2342.  
  2343. --------
  2344.  
  2345. > Once he had placated his comrades and assured them that you weren't trying to kill him, Soarin led you back into the tent and listened to your story.
  2346. > You spill the tale out with an almost feverish eagerness - glad to be able to explain it to somepony you know will be listening:
  2347.  
  2348. "...when - when it took your face, I - I'm sorry, Soarin. I just wanted everything to go back so badly that I believed it without even thinking. And now - now ponies are dead, and we're all in danger. Because of me, and my stupid heart."
  2349. > "Winds take you, Captain - you always were so damn hard on yourself."
  2350. > Soarin had taken up a position beside you, a wing half-extended out to touch yours - feathers intermeshing.
  2351. > A common scene for the two of you; the presence of a shared touch, often used on long nights when you both wanted company but still had work to do.
  2352. "Always?! This isn't about always, this is-"
  2353. > "What I'm saying is, you always tried to push yourself to one-hundred-and-ten percent. Like, if you didn't take responsibility, nopony would."
  2354. "...it was my responsibility."
  2355. > "Not yours alone. Do you think nopony else wanted the good old days back? That half the escapees we get up here aren't thinking they can just ignore everything that's happened? That sometimes it bites them too? You're not alone, Spitfire."
  2356. > Unconsciously, you find your cheek pressed to his as Soarin nickers.
  2357. > Sometimes, just the touch of wings wasn't enough.
  2358. > But although the way you sat side-by-side didn't make it easy, you'd also been watching him from the corner of your eye.
  2359. > Soarin wasn't the same pony you'd last seen either.
  2360. > His finely-kept Wonderbolt physique had been traded for something more compact, more wiry.
  2361. > And fresh scars graced his body.
  2362. > Each seemed to hint at a new story untold - was that patch of bare skin from the kiss of a whip, a narrow escape from servitude, or the claws of some Equestrian beast?
  2363. > When your tale is done, Soarin gives a slow nod.
  2364. > "...so that's why you damn near crushed my throat when I showed up."
  2365. "Yeah. It - burned me once already. I didn't want - won't let it happen to me again."
  2366. > "And you haven't told anypony else about this? No way for word to get around?"
  2367.  
  2368. "Not in detail. The leader of Glimmerglow's... I don't know what, village? We were blindfolded. Anyway, they listened to sense and let him bring us here after I gave them mostly vague stuff."
  2369. > Soarin sighs in utter relief.
  2370. > "Thank Celestia."
  2371. "Do you think it's that likely that there are changelings in your camp here?"
  2372. > "I'm not worried about rutting Changelings, Spitfire. I'm worried about what some of mine might do to the other humans on that plane before I could get there."
  2373. > Oh.
  2374. > The look of shock must have reached your face, as Soarin shakes his head.
  2375. > "Sorry, Spitfire. I trust you, and a lot of the ponies here just want to live. But a lot others are angry. Really angry. Angrier than a griffon with a bee up its backside."
  2376. "It's okay."
  2377. > Somehow you hadn't thought that Soarin would tell you there was a threat from other ponies.
  2378. > Foolish, considering how Equestria had pulled itself apart.
  2379. > In a way, you were falling for that same old trap again:
  2380. > Now that you'd found Soarin - really found him, this time - you had expected things to be all... friendly and welcoming again.
  2381. > But it wasn't, was it?
  2382. > It never would be again - or at least not for many years.
  2383. > Realizing that is enough to wrench your heart all over again.
  2384. > "Spitfire?"
  2385. "It's - fine. I'm just trying to keep myself from backsliding."
  2386. > A thought suddenly occurs to you.
  2387. > If Soarin was afraid of what his ponies might, do, then-
  2388. "What about you, though?"
  2389. > "Me?"
  2390. "What do you think about the humans - Tartarus, what even happened to you?"
  2391. > He freezes, looking himself over.
  2392. > "Well, you told me my story. I guess I kind of owe you mine too."
  2393. "I'd like that."
  2394. > "I was up at Rainbow Falls. We... surrendered. No fight. Not then. We knew fighting was stupid, saw what was happening to other settlements that tried to fight. So we surrendered."
  2395. > Soarin abruptly looks up, some degree of bitterness filling his eyes but still managing to meet your directly.
  2396.  
  2397. > "I wonder, a lot. If it was the right call. No choice, y'know? But right?"
  2398. "I can't say, Soarin. I'm sure you made the right call, though."
  2399. > He shrugs, and goes on:
  2400. > "The place they took us... they were pretty strict with me in the beginning, because I was a military pony. But eventually that kind of trailed off when they figured out we were broken."
  2401. "But you weren't."
  2402. > Your voice is laden with a certain degree of hope.
  2403. > And reassurance.
  2404. > As if both you and he needed to be told - to know - that Soarin hadn't been broken by Equestria's collapse.
  2405. > "Well, kinda. I dunno, I guess maybe I thought it would end soon enough. The worse it got, that must mean it's about to get a whole lot better, right?"
  2406. > Crossing his forelegs, Soarin rests his head on them.
  2407. > At rest, the bags produced by his deep-set eyes truly seem magnified and for the first time you realize how tired he looks.
  2408. > "Kept hanging on to that for as long as I could. Even when they sold me off to some company. Took until I saw so many more ponies coming that I realized it just wasn't going to happen. Heard about everything here. The 'Special Governance Zone' they used to put somepony's butt on Canterlot's throne and pretend we were free. The Princesses holding the Crystal Empire. I finally got it that it wasn't going to change, and made a plan to get out."
  2409. "And you did."
  2410. > "Yeah. Cost me a couple of those scars - some kind of fence that cut me up good, and a mean dog that caught me asleep. But I did. Got lucky. Found a few people who gave me a roof and food, scrounged a lot. Followed the magic on the wind and found a portal I could slip through. Came back here, and went north."
  2411. > He snorts, tail lashing the ground; you give a low nicker as you scoot closer.
  2412. "But you did get back. And you're still doing right. More than I could did, anyway."
  2413. > "Yeah. Guess I eventually got Captain anyhow, huh Spits?"
  2414.  
  2415. > You laugh, and so does he - two souls sharing in the comfort of finding some small bright spot, however absurd, in this madness.
  2416. "So, you're officially commissioned back into the Guard huh?"
  2417. > "Yep. We're all actual guard in this camp; the Princesses send us down here to keep an eye on things. Tell them how it really is here."
  2418. "Glimmerglow's bunch too?"
  2419. > "Them? Nah, they're just ponies trying to survive. We look out for them against monsters, that kind of thing."
  2420. "Good of you."
  2421. > "Not really."
  2422. > Soarin snorts, his tail swatting into the floor.
  2423. > "Anything really bad did come up here, they would be the first ones caught - give us enough time to vanish away. They know it too."
  2424. > The calmness with which he states that makes your ears prick with surprise.
  2425. > Awfully blunt of him; more blunt than you'd known Soarin to be before.
  2426. "I hope a 'really bad thing' wouldn't include the Changeling Queen and a plane full of humans."
  2427. > "Only if that bitch gets free. Or the Tartarus-blasted humans lose their cool."
  2428. "They won't."
  2429. > Another different thing:
  2430. > Soarin didn't used to swear much.
  2431. > Not that he didn't have it in him, but he'd always seemed far, far too laid back to swear like this.
  2432. > His ears prick up, eyes moving to settle on you again.
  2433. > "Sorry, Spitfire. I know you said you've been flying with them."
  2434. "It's... fine."
  2435. > It's not.
  2436. > The awkward void which follows proves as much.
  2437. > "Spitfire-"
  2438. "Soarin-"
  2439. > Both of you halt, tilt your heads, and chuckle.
  2440. > "You go first."
  2441. "I'm... this wasn't how I imagined all of this going, Soarin. I imagined we'd both break free, or come home when everypony was coming back. We'd find each other and fly into each others' hooves-"
  2442. > "You thought it would be like going back to before, huh?"
  2443. > Both of you share another laugh, although this time it is tainted by a mutually shared bitterness.
  2444. > "I was doing the same thing. When I stopped, that was when I broke out on my own."
  2445. "You managed your feelings better than I did."
  2446.  
  2447. > Soarin nickers again and leans against you.
  2448. > Not a tender, comfortable gesture between lovers, though, but between one pony offering comfort to another in sympathy.
  2449. > "It's still not the same, is it? Finding each other this way. I'm - not the same pony I was before."
  2450. "I'm not either."
  2451. > And you don't know whether to be relieved to terrified to finally get that out there.
  2452. > "Heh. Yeah. Slavery changes a pony, doesn't it?"
  2453. > A cold prickle run down your spine.
  2454. > "What?"
  2455. "That's what the changeling said. The one that took your face."
  2456. > "The best lies have a truth in them. It told you that because you could believe it."
  2457. > Maybe so; you nod, but Soarin says no further.
  2458. > The pained silence stretches on in the little tent.
  2459. > You know the topic that's coming, and as you watch Soarin fidget you realize he must know too.
  2460. > But neither of you wants to face it.
  2461. > Neither of you wants to make that final, terrible admission that nothing could ever be the same again - no matter how ridiculous it was now.
  2462. > In the end, you go first:
  2463. "Soarin... I... this isn't how I thought it was going to be, and I don't know if -"
  2464. > You glance around for Kalendae, but she must have vacated the tent at some point in your talk.
  2465. > Hadn't even heard her go, but you are thankful she left so you could have this conversation alone.
  2466. "-are - are we still..."
  2467. > Soarin doesn't answer.
  2468. > Though he appears still you can hear him breathing, smell his familiar scent.
  2469. "It wouldn't be like before. But are we - looking for a future? Together?"
  2470.  
  2471. > "If you're asking me, are you?"
  2472. > No.
  2473. > You aren't.
  2474. > You're looking to just know for sure, and that means you aren't really invested in it either.
  2475. "W-Would you hate me if I said no?"
  2476. > "Nah."
  2477. > Soarin turns and flashes you that old, familiar smile of his; that old, familiar determined yet easy-going stallion shining through from behind the new look he'd had to put on.
  2478. > "I'd say you never gave me any Tirek-shit before, and I'm glad you aren't now."
  2479. "You're n-not sorry?"
  2480. > " 'course I am. But... Spitfire, I'd rather know now then both of us go hunting something we're not actually trying for, yeah?"
  2481. > And there it was:
  2482. > Obliquely said, but an admission of the same.
  2483. > Neither of you were pursuing the other.
  2484. > You probe that emotional wound, and are surprised to find it doesn't hurt as much as you had thought it would.
  2485. > Despite how you'd thrown yourself face-first into a hug when you'd found out it was really him, that truth had always been lurking in the back of your mind.
  2486. > While it didn't hurt, it did leave you...
  2487. > Confused.
  2488. > If anything, it feels almost relieving - like a splinter that had finally been pulled out.
  2489. > Maybe it didn't hurt because you were facing such a tumult of emotions in your heart that you didn't even know what to feel.
  2490. > Yeah, you'd had breakups before - fillyhood relationships, coltfriends - but this was so much more complex, so much more layered...
  2491. > A fresh little sob chokes your throat, but it's not half as strong as those that had wracked you before.
  2492. > Maybe even more shocking is when you look up and see Soarin wearing an expression that speaks to similar emotions.
  2493. "Were - were you worried about - "
  2494. > "Yeah."
  2495. > He huffs softly, leaning in to nuzzle you - again, not with the tender affection of a lover but with the more reassuring approach of one friend glad to know another was well.
  2496.  
  2497. > "I was terrified you'd come back and just want things back the way they were. That it would grind you down the same way it ground down other ponies. I mean... it was comfortable, wasn't it? What we had."
  2498. "Yeah. But it'd have been like pretending, wouldn't it? Pretending everything was normal, coming back together. When it isn't."
  2499. > "Exactly. Even my duties here, they aren't anything like what the Wonderbolts were. One way or another, pretending like that would eventually have torn us apart."
  2500. > Maybe that was what changed him.
  2501. > No longer just being an inspiration, but having to do this kind of work, keep this kind of vigilance day-in and day-out.
  2502. > Put other ponies in danger just to be a tripwire for his own camp, day-in and day-out.
  2503. "And if I'd come back before all this, you might not have been wrong. That is what I might have wanted."
  2504. > Before you had to admit your feelings for Anonymous, confused as they still were.
  2505. > Soarin nickers gently, which you return.
  2506. "We're... not either of us the same pony we were. It's not - not wrong to admit that."
  2507. > "Not rutting easy too either."
  2508. > Soft laughter bubbles up at his bitter admission.
  2509. "I won't argue that. But at least we're both of us adult enough to just admit it."
  2510. > "...yeah..."
  2511. "S-Soarin?"
  2512. > "Yeah, Spits?"
  2513. "Did - is there - have you-"
  2514. > "Do I have a marefriend?"
  2515. > You knit your brow and shoot him a little glare.
  2516. "Quit cutting me off!"
  2517. > Soarin just grins, and you roll your eyes.
  2518. > Anger had crushed your stutter, but when you speak again it is back:
  2519. "Yes. D-Do you have a marefriend?"
  2520. > "N- um - well -"
  2521. > Soarin pauses, coughs - and sighs.
  2522. > "...when it didn't seem like you were coming back... There's a couple mares I've been close with. Never lasted for long - not much of a chance to think about settling down right now. But, that's not exactly 'no' is it?"
  2523. "No. It isn't. And... I'm glad we're not stuck dragging the past around with us. Both of us."
  2524. > Standing up, you give him one last warm smile.
  2525.  
  2526. "What w-we had was good, but if you do find somepony for life - I h-hope they're good to you. It's what you deserve."
  2527. > He smiles too, though it is still tinged with bitterness.
  2528. > "Same to you. Wait, do you-”
  2529. “I’m…”
  2530. > You wince.
  2531. “...figuring that out too. It’s complicated. Very complicated, and especially with the - the not-you trying to play with my heart it’s been a mess. But yes. I do. Though, I haven’t, uh, done-”
  2532. > “Spitfire!”
  2533. > Laughing, Soarin stands as well - nuzzling you.
  2534. > “It’s okay. You don’t have to justify yourself. We’re adults here, and - and it hurts, but we both get it.”
  2535. "Yeah. We - We are.”
  2536. > The pause which follows is still heavy and awkward, though.
  2537. “Well... Y-You know I can't stay here forever.”
  2538. > And if you did, you might break in and start seeking him again.
  2539. > Just because of how comfortable it promised to be.
  2540. > How simple.
  2541. > Even if that promise was a lie.
  2542. “They're still waiting on us, and if the swarm reaches them before we do-"
  2543. > "I know. Easy, Spitfire. There's - a way for us to talk to someone important in the camp, but it means you have to wait a while."
  2544. > Oh.
  2545. "You could've said that earlier."
  2546. > Soarin shuffles his wings nervously at your slightly indignant tone, nodding.
  2547. > "Yeah, I could've. Sorry. Was... caught up by my own feelings. Not a great thing for an officer, but - c’mon, Spits. You pretty much jumped me the second I-"
  2548. "Relax, Clipper. I'm not going to chew you out."
  2549. > "Thanks, Captain."
  2550. "Hey, you're the one with the rank."
  2551. > "Yeah, but you still earned yours."
  2552. > Outside, Kalendae had curled into a small ball beside the entrance to the tent.
  2553. > At first you'd thought her asleep, but slitted eyes open as you emerge.
  2554. "Hey... thanks for stepping out and just letting us talk. I appreciate that."
  2555. > "A terrible thing befell you, My Captain. That you would need time to consider it, I did not question."
  2556. "Thanks."
  2557. > "How soon do we see this... this meeting he promised?"
  2558.  
  2559. > Oh, so she was there for that?
  2560. "Not long. Probably before evening; get some rest for now."
  2561. > She does; you keep watch.
  2562. > It's not necessary, as off to the side of the encampment few ponies seem to give you particular notice.
  2563. > Though one does swing by to drop off a plate of food for the two of you, she seems neither fearful nor interested in talking.
  2564. > Just... harried.
  2565. > Busy.
  2566. > You imagine most in this place are, having to keep a constant eye out for any kind of attention.
  2567. > Finally Soarin appears from the crowd again, gesturing you up.
  2568. > "Come with me."
  2569. > He leads you all the way furthest back beneath the overhang of rock the camp lays beneath; the further back you go, the darker it becomes:
  2570. > What little sunlight filtered down around the edges being replaced by oil lanterns and the odd (stolen, you presume) electric lamp.
  2571. > At the back, a small hollow has been dug into the rock:
  2572. > Warded by a thick, rug-like cloth over the opening.
  2573. > "She'll speak to us in there."
  2574. > Rock brushes your flanks as you step inside; it's cool within, and so dark that you are immediately thankful the floor has been brushed to a smooth surface not so easily tripped on.
  2575. > Soarin leaves two ponies guarding the entrance, and pulls the curtain across the mouth.
  2576. > Immediately the hollow is plunged into even greater darkness - a complete and total blackness that nothing seems to be able to penetrate.
  2577. "Kalendae?"
  2578. > "I can see nothing either, My Captain. This is not darkness - this is void.”
  2579. > You just nod in response; a useless gesture, of course, but something keeps you from speaking.
  2580. > What was it?
  2581. > There was - was some sort of pressure building around you, a weightiness that set your spine prickling and made your wings half-extend in preparation for flight.
  2582. > Odd; your pegasus instincts ought to be screaming to find any exit from this claustrophobic nook.
  2583. > Instead they are reacting to a light breeze playing through your feathers.
  2584.  
  2585. > A breeze?
  2586. > In a tiny cave barely large enough for three ponies?
  2587. > How-
  2588. “Anypony else get the feeling they’re being watched?”
  2589. > "Easy, Spitfire."
  2590. > Soarin’s voice was to your right; you hadn’t even realized he was there.
  2591. > You wish you shared his confidence, but now that Kalendae has said it the feeling is on you too:
  2592. > A presence in the cave with you, vast and near, that-
  2593. > "M-My Captain - above us -"
  2594. > Your head snaps up, and jaw drops open.
  2595. > There, where the rocky hollow's roof should have been, one by one the stars were coming out.
  2596. > When you look back down, a fourth pony stood illuminated by starlight before the three of you.
  2597. > Her eyes snap open, twin pools of aquamarine light, and Kalendae throws herself prone before her with a whinny:
  2598. > "Nýchta mitéra - Your Majesty!"
  2599.  
  2600. > Luna takes a single step forward on the broad, grassy plane upon which she now stood and you are overcome by a sense of profound, vast, void.
  2601. > As if you were an ant on a tiny island in a vast ocean.
  2602. > Not a function of this false-world, but of the Princess herself.
  2603. > Of a true elder alicorn's presence.
  2604. > This you had felt before - her elder sister had the same effect, though of warmth and pressure rather than chill and void.
  2605. > And never before so strongly.
  2606. > Breath catches in your throat, and you find yourself having already fallen into a prostrated bow as well.
  2607. > "Rise, Our subjects."
  2608. > With three words she brings you to your hooves again, as if she were commanding your body herself.
  2609. > All except Kalendae.
  2610. > She remains prostrated, wings spread in a gesture of utmost submission, her muzzle buried amid her forelegs; her voice is muffled and shaky.
  2611. > "F-Forgive me, Princess. Forgive me, I ignored, I - Den prospáthisa na epistrépso sto plevr-"
  2612. > "Be at ease, Kalendae of Our Guard."
  2613. > Luna dips her muzzle to brush the Thestral's mane with her nose as a mother would nuzzle her foal.
  2614. > "To despair in such terrible times is not a fault. You have remained faithful to your oaths, to watching over Our subjects."
  2615. > Kalendae shakes her head fiercely, looking up with eyes reduced to thin slits and heavy with unspent tears.
  2616. > "B-But I did not. I - I even thought about just l-leaving, going to find a place somewhere with- with Cog-"
  2617. > "I know, My Child. We have watched your dreams, seen your fears - known your suffering."
  2618. > “Then - then you were watching us, and-”
  2619. > Dropping to her belly, Luna lays herself in front of the smaller mare and offers a soft, gentle smile.
  2620. > "Nay - it is Us who must ask your forgiveness, for We had abandoned you and so many others to such terrible outrages you have experienced."
  2621. > "Y-Your Highness, I could not-"
  2622. > "Shhh."
  2623. > Luna nuzzles her again, crooning something softly into her ear until she goes limp.
  2624.  
  2625. > Kalendae's sides heave a few times as you realize she is crying into her patron Princess' chest; somehow this seems too intimate a moment to be a gawking spectator too, but the open field there's nothing to do but turn away.
  2626. > It still feels intrusive.
  2627. > Eventually they go quiet, and Luna lifts her head again.
  2628. > "In these times, even the life of one such pony rescued from the depths of despair - depths We have plied Ourselves - is a victory taken. Had Cog Whirl reached Us, We would have not forced you to abandon Him; you have done well to pull him from those depths alone."
  2629. > Kalendae gives a fresh, strangled sob and lowers her head to the diarch's chest again.
  2630. > "But I did not. He - He is - vrísketai nekrós -"
  2631. > Luna's mane lashes furiously, whipping about in a web-like nest of ethereal strands.
  2632. > "Our foes are many; Our foes are cunning and deadly. Servant of Ours, rest yourself now in the knowledge that this is not an error of yours. But there is much work to be done yet, and you must rest for it."
  2633. > Again you turn away in shame as watching such an intimate scene; a cool breeze rustles through the star-lit field.
  2634. > When your eyes next open Luna stands mere hoofsteps before you.
  2635. > You had not heard her move.
  2636. "...your Highness."
  2637. > The eyes that bore down on you are as equine as your own; yet you cannot shake the sense that there is a vast, ancient, void-like something lurking just behind them.
  2638. > Despite not knowing her well, you find yourself with no doubt that this is no changeling or impostor.
  2639. > "Captain Spitfire. Our most immediate matters are resolved. Please, now, explain what has brought you back to Us."
  2640. > Opening your mouth to answer, you instead vomit out the words which first come to your mind:
  2641. "Where have you been?! You - you just up and vanished-"
  2642. > Her mane spasms and writhes, and you clap a hoof to your mouth; Luna only smiles calmly.
  2643. > "Be at ease, Captain. It is a fair question."
  2644.  
  2645. "But not the right thing to blurt out to a Princess, Your Highness!"
  2646. > "Not in another place. But this is Our Domain."
  2647. > She turns to stare out across the grassy field, and when you do the same you realize you were alone.
  2648. > Soarin and Kalendae had vanished.
  2649. > "It is not a true dream, but emotions are drawn into sharper contrast and words run true to the hearts of those that speak them here."
  2650. "...oh."
  2651. > "In answer to your question - We and Our Sister came to understand that Our pursuers would not allow us or Our subjects quarter so long as We were about; We were too great a threat to them. Yet if We were taken captive by surrender or by ambush it would crush Our ponies' will. We each gathered a circle of most loyal followers and slipped away - forfeiting victory, but denying defeat."
  2652. > Nesting down in the grass, Luna drops to her belly.
  2653. > Suddenly you are aware of how much smaller she seems - how much weaker.
  2654. > Not a Princess or a deity, but a tired and worn mare.
  2655. > "A bitter choice, yet one proven to bear fruit: They have allowed some of Our subjects to exist unmolested in the Crystal Empire, under Princess Sparkle and Princess Cadenza. We are still free to orchestrate and ward Our ponies through careful contact."
  2656. "Like this."
  2657. > "Like this. Yet it is not right. We have abandoned Kalendae Night-sworn when she most needed Us."
  2658. "They couldn't beat it out of her either, though."
  2659. > You're surprised by the crudeness of your own words, and what Luna had said about words being true comes back to you.
  2660. > "Indeed. We remain hidden."
  2661. > You know what you want to do, however improper it seems.
  2662. > But Luna had offered a physical comfort to Kalendae and this is such an isolated place; it seems like this is something that wouldn't be minded.
  2663. > Stepping over, you drop to your belly as well and rest your head against her neck with a tentative gentle, nicker.
  2664. > Luna replies with a nicker of her own - her hide vibrating against yours as it rumbles deep in her chest.
  2665.  
  2666. "...I thought I had it rough, but I shouldn't have forgotten what you must be going through."
  2667. > "I hid myself. An understandable omission. Please, though, tell me now what you have experienced."
  2668.  
  2669. --------
  2670.  
  2671. > Once you are done telling your story, Luna sighs through flared nostrils.
  2672. > “We see… this human, ‘Thomas’, has displayed all the impetuosity and shortsightedness their species is known for. Despite his sympathies, he has brought nought but woe.”
  2673. “Not that I’m disagreeing, Your Highness but I did a lot of the same. The changeling dropped the bait, and I flew straight for it. Cog Whirl wouldn't be dead if I had been less naive.”
  2674. > Another huff, and you get the sense she was looking for an excuse to blame humans alone.
  2675. > But then Luna's wing settles across you, drawing you close in a surprisingly tender touch from the typically-distant Princess.
  2676. > "You need not blame yourself wholly for his death, Captain Spitfire. It is not a failure to be subject to the assaults of the foe upon our minds."
  2677. "...it's not so easy, Your Highness."
  2678. > "A fact We are aware of. Do not think Us so unfamiliar with the weight of guilt, Captain."
  2679. > A harder edge seeps into her voice as she goes on; it might be your imagination, but her flowing and star-shot mane seems to whip and lash more sharply than it had.
  2680. > "Our hooves are stained with the blood of Our mistakes as well - and we had no adversary, no impostor to lure us in. What Nightmare Moon did, We did of our own foalish choice."
  2681. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
  2682. > Her wing tightens; the softer voice she had used before promptly returns.
  2683. > "Forgive Us. The matter is one we are still troubled by."
  2684. "...it's fine. But then - you understand. You know that when I close my eyes - before I'm even asleep - sometimes I still just see the changeling's jaws closing on Cog's neck, over and over again."
  2685. > "Aye, Captain. We do understand."
  2686. "Does..."
  2687. > You swallow.
  2688. "Does it ever go away?"
  2689.  
  2690. > "Like all wounds, it may heal with time. It may scar, yes, but such thoughts will cease paining you so."
  2691. > Breath rushes from your mouth as you cease holding it, and Luna nods in wordless understanding.
  2692. > "Now. Tell Us of this plan you conceive of."
  2693. "Thomas says that Chrysalis is trapped in that container until one of her changelings lets her out... and I'm inclined to believe him. So, we need to get the container to you."
  2694. > "But it cannot be removed from the plane."
  2695. "Not without a lot of help and time. We have the ponies now, but really I'd be happy to just get the plane up to the Crystal Empire at all."
  2696. > “And put it into the ward of Princess Cadance and Princess Twilight. We see."
  2697. "I mean, I'd like the plane back... but that will take time. And we don't even have the fuel to move it any further - though I have an idea to solve that."
  2698. > "Explain."
  2699. "We made Whitworth leave our original plane - the one just Anonymous and I flew - back near Canterlot."
  2700. > A flash of bitter resentment passes over Luna's face at the mention of the lost capital city.
  2701. > You quickly move on:
  2702. "It can fly a long distance, and with a lot of load. It could be flown out to pick up the crew. Bring them home, have Whitworth release us from any deals because if he doesn't, we’ll make sure he ends up rotting in a cell too."
  2703. > "You are intent on seeing these humans to safety."
  2704. "Your Highness, on some level when I got into this, I gave them my promise I'd do my best to see them through alive."
  2705. > "You were coerced."
  2706. > Luna's pointed tone makes you shift uncomfortably.
  2707. "Yeah, I was. But most of the people on that plane - they didn't. I don't think they're bad individuals, Your Highness, and I won't just abandon them."
  2708. > "And yet neither did any of them speak up to defend you."
  2709. > Turning your head, you twist it around to give Luna a questioning look - 'why are you getting so hung up on this?'
  2710. > She lashes her tail once, wings shuffling in a decidedly Pegasus-esque gesture.
  2711.  
  2712. > "Captain Spitfire, We will not lie. It - alarms Us that you speak in defense of these slavers and slaver-kin. You think of yourself as one of them, maybe?"
  2713. "Not - not at all! I agreed to the plan, yes, but only because it would end with ponies being freed!"
  2714. > "Yet you spoke of it being 'your' plane that you would acquire. This means the human who lays claim to you, yes?"
  2715. > Wincing, you nod.
  2716. > Had you really?
  2717. > "That... association is what perturbs Us; that you would think yourself so close to one of them. They are all equally guilty of these sins, all who do not lend us aid-"
  2718. "That's what Thomas said."
  2719. > Whether it is your words or that you would dare interrupt her.
  2720. > A cold breeze sweeps the illusory field.
  2721. "...Thomas. The human who got suckered into helping the changeling. He hated his own kind so much he was willing to write them all off as hopeless. That's how the changeling got into his head."
  2722. > "We... see."
  2723. "Please, Princess. Don't let bitterness get to you either. It wouldn't be right to abandon these humans."
  2724. > "You insist on this, and the point is fairly made."
  2725. > She shifts, but the breeze dies to nothing and her wing tightens over you.
  2726. > "The humans - and the Griffon Gerard - are remanded to your responsibility. Including the one you love."
  2727. > You freeze in an instant.
  2728. > She knew?
  2729. > Luna tilts her head to the side, letting you see one of her deep-blue eyes.
  2730. > "...as We have said, Captain Spitfire. Emotions are sharper in this place, and We are its ruler. Little signs do not evade Our gaze."
  2731. "I - um -"
  2732. > You know you ought to say something, but no words are coming to your lips.
  2733. > Is this some kind of - dominance move from Luna, reminding you who is in charge?
  2734. > In the end you settle for a question of your own:
  2735. "Is that going to be a problem?"
  2736. > Luna herself now seems equally strapped for an answer; she turns her muzzle from you and stares off into the open, star-shot sky.
  2737. > ...which means the answer is yes.
  2738.  
  2739. > You sigh heavily, and so does Luna.
  2740. > "No."
  2741. "Please don't just say that, Your Highness, unless you really mean it."
  2742. > "Then yes. It shall. Even seeing and hearing your tale, We cannot feel that it is anything but a deep and terrible sickness that would cause a mare to love one who participated in her own enslavement."
  2743. > Opening your mouth to argue that he knew it was wrong, you're silenced again by the Princess lifting a hoof.
  2744. > "Please do not argue this, Captain. We see where your heart lays - We do not need Our niece Cadenza's Talents for that. We will not deny it troubles Us... but We also will not demand you depart from his side, so long as the ponies you travel with may attain their freedom.
  2745. > Pushing yourself up from beneath her wing, you stand at full and proper attention.
  2746. > A hoof as clasped to your chest in salute as you speak firmly and without hesitation.
  2747. "Your Highness Luna, I only ever agreed to participate in this because I thought ponies could be free as a result of it. Instead, two - maybe three - have lost their lives because of it. I'll be damned in Tartarus before I give up on giving anypony left what I promise, though."
  2748. > "Then We shall make no issue of whatever decision you take."
  2749. > Relief settles over you like a gentle, cooling cloud after a long, hard race.
  2750. "I imagine if you're so good at reading ponies in here, then you can also see how much I that means to me, Your Highness."
  2751. > "We can. And what of the machine in which the Queen resides?"
  2752. "That... you can have as far as I'm concerned, Your Highness. It's not really mine to give away, but I'm not going to object if you insist on it."
  2753. > "Excellent. Now, Captain, as to the plan: We believe We can contribute some of the assistance you so deeply desire - and perhaps some more then again."
  2754. “I’m listening.”
  2755. > "You desire that We ask our guardsponies stationed here to watch and protect this machine your... traveling partners are within, until you can return."
  2756.  
  2757. > Luna stands, and as you follow her with your eyes you abruptly realize that Soarin and Spitfire were at your flanks again.
  2758. > When had they returned?
  2759. > Right now, presumably, but you had felt no signal of their arrival.
  2760. > More importantly, they showed no confusion or any other sign of being suddenly reunited.
  2761. > As if they'd never been gone.
  2762. > Truly, Luna's control over this realm was - impressive.
  2763. "That would be what we really need, yes. Better is if they could find a way to start removing the Queen even before I come back."
  2764. > "We will consult with Our Captain Soarin on this. Speaking of which, We imagine that his presence will be enough to convince you that none of the humans will be molested by those guarding them."
  2765. > Quickly glancing aside to Soarin, you shoot him a little nod and a smile.
  2766. "I know it'll be tense even if you went there yourself, Your Highness. But yes, that should be plenty."
  2767. > "And a second thing We may offer you. How did you plan to return Anonymous and yourself to Canterlot?”
  2768. “A chariot - or something close to it. Between Gerard, myself, and Kalendae I think we could put together enough wingpower to get him moving.”
  2769. > One pegasus alone could lift about their body weight over a short distance.
  2770. > But two working together - harmonizing their magic - could do much more, and two ponies plus a griffon...
  2771. "It wouldn't be fast. We'd have to rest often. If ponies from this group could help out, it'd be faster; that would likely get them imprisoned, though."
  2772. > Imprisoned, interrogated - maybe permanently enslaved.
  2773. > Not something you need on your conscience.
  2774. > Especially for Soarin.
  2775. > "Then We may offer a much greater alternative. This meeting place, in which you now stand, is a place of power to Us. It is within Our power to use it as the outbound nexus for a teleportation spell."
  2776. > Your eyebrows shoot up; one nexus of a teleportation spell?
  2777.  
  2778. > "Much of the time before you require before your return will be spent flying back to Canterlot, yes?"
  2779. "Yeah. A few days at least, if we don't want to be exhausted when I get there."
  2780. > "But if you could arrive in Canterlot un-winded and un-delayed, then this entire endeavor could be much expedited."
  2781. > You do a quick bit of numbers calculation in your head.
  2782. > Assuming Whitworth caved as you think he will and you get the Catalina loaded without delay, then...
  2783. "Less than a day, maybe two on the way back."
  2784. > "Ideal. Then you will depart within the day, to-"
  2785. “Just one question, though. If you can do that, why not send them all through?”
  2786. > Luna freezes, as do Soarin and Kalendae, and you wince.
  2787. > "...We trust, Captain Spitfire. that you understand what you ask of Us."
  2788. > Huffing, you feel your ears lay themselves back.
  2789. "Based on what yous said earlier, it's not that you can reach out and teleport ponies around at will. They need to be at whatever kind of nexus this is. I'm asking for humans to be let into this camp. More than just Anonymous."
  2790. > And, you don't say, judging by Luna's earlier comments about humans just blindfolding him or anything wouldn't be enough.
  2791. > This wasn't about what he might see; it's about what the ponies there might see in him.
  2792. "I know how you feel about humans. I get it. It’s easier. It’s safer. It’s faster… and I would need Anonymous to go with me anyway. The plane... just isn't designed for me alone."
  2793. > "And it could not be... rebuilt for pony-kind to control."
  2794. > You snort, then give an apologetic look to the princess for the rude noise.
  2795. "With six moons and an infinite supply of money? Maybe."
  2796. > "...We see."
  2797. > Then there is nothing but the soft whispering of wind through the field as Luna contemplates her choices.
  2798. > Finally Kalendae stands, striking her chest in salute.
  2799. > "I concur with Captain Spitfire’s suggestion, My Princess. It is a risk to bring them here, but so much more a risk to leave this waiting."
  2800.  
  2801. > Your heart swells even as it breaks.
  2802. > That Kalendae was willing to stand up for him was everything you could ever have asked from her, especially after having Cog Whirl taken from her.
  2803. > In this case, though, it wouldn't help at all.
  2804. > His trust wasn't the issue in question.
  2805. > Luna does not ignore her plea, though, turning to face her guard with head cocked and flowing tail twitching curiously.
  2806. > "You truly believe they will not betray Our trust?"
  2807. > “Except, perhaps, for Thomas… yes.”
  2808. > “Then so it shall be… on a condition. Only one human shall be allowed in this camp at a time. We shall bring them up here one-by-one. The rest shall wait, under the watch of Our ponies. In the meantime, Our ponies will work to remove the machinery holding the Queen and bring her to Us."
  2809. > It's a stupid condition; getting them all here first would be the safest.
  2810. > But you can hear the iron in Luna's voice; despite your pleading, her sympathy for humans would only go so far.
  2811. "...I understand, Your Highness."
  2812. > "You shall show Us where this machine has landed, and We shall dispatch ponies immediately to return them to this place."
  2813. > Even as she is done talking, the land beneath your hooves has changed.
  2814. > Equestria is spread out like a map, from the glittering tundras of the north to a swirling dust-storm amid the southern planes; yet the mountains' highest peaks barely reach your fetlocks.
  2815. > Treading along the smoky mountains, you find the gleam of the lake you had touched down on - here rendered as if it were no more than a small puddle of water.
  2816. "Here. On the northern shore, there's a bunch of trees hanging out from the shore. They must've figured it was a good place for cover from air, but the plane doesn't really fit underneath them so it's tied up along the bank."
  2817. > "Captain Soarin, do you see the place she speaks of?"
  2818. > He walks to your side, staring at the glimmer of blue at the tip of you hoof
  2819. "Yes, Your Highness."
  2820.  
  2821. > "Fix it in your mind. Relay it to the subordinates who you choose to entrust with this mission."
  2822. > Of course, he couldn't go.
  2823. > Soarin turning up right after they had suffered from a Changeling wearing his face would be...
  2824. > Bad.
  2825. "Will I be going back with them, Your Highness?"
  2826. > "No, Captain. You should rest here. You have strained yourself enough."
  2827. > "My Princess, what about myself?"
  2828. > Kalendae had remained so quiet you'd almost forgotten about her.
  2829. > But Luna shakes her head as well, moving to nuzzle her Night Guard once more.
  2830. > "Neigh, my little pony. You are home now. You have performed admirably in your duties, now is your time to rest."
  2831. > For a moment Kalendae's mouth opens to say something - but then snaps shut again.
  2832. > Some expression had glinted in Luna's eyes, but you weren't sure if it was a sliver of that iron-willed determination you had seen earlier or if Kalendae had experienced the same way Luna had peeled back your mask to reveal your affections for Anonymous.
  2833. > Whatever it is, she immediately surrenders any further protest and obediently sits on her haunches.
  2834. "...Captain Soarin, you are dismissed. Lochías Kalendae... we shall speak soon again, on the next sundown. For now, I remand you to rest. Have a medic see to your injury."
  2835. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  2836. > Kalendae stands, turns, and marches into the mists that you were fairly sure had not been gathered around you a few moments before.
  2837. > Especially since the ground had seemed to revert to a grassy field where one blink before had stood over the phantasmal projection of Equestria.
  2838. > Before Soarin can depart as well, you call out:
  2839. “Hey, just one second. Soarin - whoever you send, have them tell Anonymous… tell him I won his bet. ‘My fuzzy ass’ is still mine. Those words exactly.”
  2840. > Soarin raises one eyebrow, but nods with a slight grin.
  2841. > “I’ll tell ‘em.”
  2842. > Then he is gone too.
  2843. "Am I dismissed as well, Your Highness?"
  2844. > "No. Stay a moment, Spitfire."
  2845.  
  2846. > You do - though you weren't sure you had a choice.
  2847. > One does not simply walk out of a dream-realm!
  2848. "What is it, Princess?"
  2849. > Luna hums softly to herself, regarding you with those piercing blue-green eyes.
  2850. > Once again you're struck by the sense that every shell and mask you have is being peeled back - your inner thoughts revealing you for what you are.
  2851. > "...there is much pain still burning in your heart, Captain Spitfire."
  2852. > Ah.
  2853. > So that's what it is.
  2854. > Your eyes fall to the mist-shrouded ground beneath you.
  2855. > Except it is ground no longer; now the two of you rest on a cloud with the land itself far, far below.
  2856. "I gave my word, Princess. I told those ponies they would be free. They could come home."
  2857. > "Your word does not command you to read the future, Captain."
  2858. "I know. But - I don't -"
  2859. > You swallow again, shifting on the illusory cloud's soft and cool give beneath your hooves.
  2860. "...Princess, I request permission to accompany any ponies back to the plane and see them safely back to this camp."
  2861. > "Your request is understood, Captain, but I must deny it. You have pushed yourself to the edge of your ability, reaching us so soon after being fed on by a changeling."
  2862. "I... I'm not sure you understand, Princess. I can't sit around and wait for him. Soarin... well, I guess he's used to sending ponies out on missions. But me...?"
  2863. > You huff softly, eyes sliding half closed.
  2864. "Sleep isn't going to happen. I'm not going to be able to put it out of mind. Even if Soarin won't be busy - and I know an officer's life; he will be - then even talking to him wouldn't keep me from thinking about it. Unless you want me hanging around, pacing like a caged tiger, I'm going to have to go out."
  2865. > "An unquiet mind is rarely one at rest, yes."
  2866. > Luna smiles, circling to face you again.
  2867. > "But Our power extends into the realm of rest, and you already reside within Our grasp."
  2868. "Wait... we fell asleep in that cave? It felt too fast-"
  2869.  
  2870. > "Nay, Captain. You are neither awake nor asleep, but something in between - taken into Our bosom, so that We may speak to you like this."
  2871. > Treading close with just a few steps across the ephemeral not-cloud floor, suddenly seems to tower over you.
  2872. > You shrink back, and Luna halts - cocking her head.
  2873. > "Do you fear Us, Captain?"
  2874. "I'm... afraid I've made you angry."
  2875. > "Angry?"
  2876. "Because... I'll be going back. To Canterlot. With Anonymous."
  2877. > And not saying here, with ponies.
  2878. > Free ponies.
  2879.  
  2880. > Just as you'd predicted, there was a flicker of emotion of Luna's expression.
  2881. > A moment in which her gaze was unguarded.
  2882. > What you hadn't been prepared for is the sudden sense of vertigo - of being examined by something vast, ancient, and well beyond your understanding.
  2883. > Then Luna has shut her eyes, and it is over in a second.
  2884. > "...forgive us, Captain. That was poorly done of us."
  2885. "It's -"
  2886. > Not fine.
  2887. > And Luna shows it with a sad, embittered smile.
  2888. > "You ask Us to give up a pony that is so close with Us now. To condemn you once again to being - owned, no matter how palatable he may make it."
  2889. "...yes. I do."
  2890. > "And yet, as We said, your heart is clearly certain. This, we cannot deny you."
  2891. > One last step closes the final gap between the two of you; this time, though, she is once again merely a pony - larger than average, but just another mare.
  2892. > "Rest now, Captain Spitfire-"
  2893. > Her lips brush your forehead; something cold and spark-like jumps between them.
  2894. > "-and rest peacefully, until it is time to wake."
  2895.  
  2896. --------
  2897.  
  2898. > The next thing you know, a hoof is prodding your back.
  2899. > "My Captain? Wake up. It is nearly time."
  2900. " 'alendae?"
  2901. > She smiles her toothy Thestral smile and bobs her head.
  2902. > Her bandages had been changed, you notice, and she seems to have had a bath too.
  2903. > "Aye, Captain."
  2904. "Wha'time'izzit?"
  2905. > You pull yourself up and stretch; surprisingly, you do indeed feel the most refreshed that you have in... months.
  2906. > "Nearly morning."
  2907. "Nearly morning?!"
  2908. > It had been no more than mid-afternoon when you had stepped into that cave!
  2909. > But Kalendae lifts a hoof and shakes her head.
  2910. > "My Princess instructed me not to wake you until the first ponies were returning."
  2911. > Right.
  2912. > In that... not-dream space.
  2913. "How long were we in there for?"
  2914. > "I am told no more than a minute."
  2915. > You shake your head; of course there was no reason for a dream-realm to make sense, but...
  2916. > Somehow it was still a shock!
  2917. "So, this means the scouts are nearly back?"
  2918.  
  2919. > "With the first of the humans."
  2920. > Good!
  2921. > You hadn't even bothered to ask who it was, but this meant the entire ordeal would be over in a few days.
  2922. > Soarin soon joins you - flashing one of his trademark dopey grins - and with you at his side guides yourself and Kalendae into the hidden camp's upper lookout stations.
  2923. > The incoming ponies are almost invisible until they are already upon you - bright colors muted with paint and towing something that is more like a cobbled-together sled than a chariot.
  2924. > Even before they have vanished into the treetops, you've snapped open your wings and are gliding down to meet them.
  2925. > Across the airsled's back is a net - presumably to keep its sole occupant safe while in flight.
  2926. > It is drawn back, one of the ponies reaching in to-
  2927. "Anonymous!"
  2928. > Barely has he managed to sit up before you have slammed head-first into a fierce hug.
  2929. > He grunts, breath rushing out as he blindly gropes for you - as he, too, was now experiencing the delight of being blindfolded.
  2930. > "Spits? The hell?!"
  2931. "They didn't tell me they were bringing you first!"
  2932. > You shoot a glance at Soarin, but he only gives a troubled nod at your - enthusiastic greeting of Anonymous.
  2933. > "A gift from... our friend. She told me to before I left the meeting."
  2934. > Luna?
  2935. > Did that?!
  2936. > No way; your eyes definitely aren't damp over how touched you are she would still ask for him to be brought back first.
  2937. > Was this her way of apologizing for giving you so much painful skepticism?
  2938. > You don't care; you're far too busy nuzzling Anonymous' chest furiously.
  2939. > "Hey, hey - easy, Spitfire. I get it, you're happy to see me."
  2940. > Tucking yourself under his arm, you help him up out of the airsled and onto his feet.
  2941. > You glance around at last, catching a few confused and odd looks from the sweat-lathered ponies who'd been towing the thing - and from Soarin too.
  2942. > He who looks away when your eyes turn to fall on him - tail flicking agitatedly.
  2943. > Oops.
  2944.  
  2945. > Good thing it was damn near morning; apart from few well-camouflaged sentries, most of the camp was nearly empty.
  2946. > Soarin in particular you'll have to talk to later.
  2947. "So. Getting here wasn't too bad for you?"
  2948. > "Honestly? I wasn't sure of it at first, even after one of them gave me your little code."
  2949. > Anonymous chuckles, pawing blindly with one hand until he finds the airsled and patting it affectionately.
  2950. > "Buuuut, they made it pretty clear we didn't have much of a choice, and in any case once the blindfold went on I was able to just pretend I was on a plane again."
  2951. "Yeah, you would. I just hope nopony gets airsick."
  2952. > "Me too. Speaking of sick, I think Fred's sled isn't too far behind me, so we should be able to get him to a hospital pretty soon."
  2953. "Even better."
  2954. > You glance to Soarin, head tilted and waiting for directions.
  2955. > He catches on, gesturing for you to follow him.
  2956. "Come on, Anonymous. This way first."
  2957. > The camp being nearly deserted makes it much easier to move through without raising a scene; he leads you towards the cave again - this time bringing a lantern to light the small space once the curtain is closed over its mouth.
  2958. "So, where is everypony anyway?"
  2959. > "A lot went to guard the plane. But not everypony; some of the others are just still asleep."
  2960. > "Hey, hold up a second-"
  2961. > Anonymous' hands shoot up, fumbling with his blindfold.
  2962. "Uh - hey, can he take that off now?"
  2963. > "Yeah, yeah, it's fine."
  2964. > Soarin waves a hoof dismissively as he pulls the blindfold away.
  2965. > The two of them look at each other for several long seconds - the scarred stallion against the wary man.
  2966. > "...you sure it's the right one this time?"
  2967. "Yeeeeah. I damn near strangled him until it was."
  2968. > "She did."
  2969. > Soarin snorts, swatting the ground with his tail.
  2970. > "She also left a few things out of her story. Like, y'know, that the one she'd moved on to was a rutting human!"
  2971.  
  2972. > You wince; at least Soarin had kept it in check until you were back in the little cave so the whole camp couldn't hear it!
  2973. "I..."
  2974. > "And don't you dare try to tell me he isn't, Spitfire."
  2975. > That was enough for you to snap your head up and shoot a furious glare at him.
  2976. "Do you really think I'd lie to you like that?"
  2977. > "Right now, I'm wondering how much you trust me. Since you did kind of leave a big part of your story out! This is how I find out that the one you 'found' while we were - apart is - is - is a rutting human?!"
  2978. > Before you can respond, Anonymous is standing.
  2979. > "Now hold up just one fucking second, because I don't think you're being very fair here."
  2980. > The cave isn't really tall enough for him to reach his full height; in fact, he has to lean over in a sort of half-hunched position.
  2981. > Leaning over like that, though, also lets him loom over Soarin at bit.
  2982. > His ears flatten back and tail lashes as Anonymous takes a step forward:
  2983. > "I don't know what you're really angry about - whether she didn't tell you, or because we're - thinking about each other in the first place. Hell, I don't know what you went through before you got back here. But let me tell you, she didn't just fall over and decide to jump my bones, y'know?"
  2984. > Soarin's rump bumps against the cave wall, but Anonymous keeps advancing.
  2985. > One of your hooves leaves the floor to reach out and stop him; if he cornered Soarin and pushed him into lashing out...!
  2986. > "We've been through a lot, okay? I got her safe when she damn near froze to death dragging herself out of a river. She saved my life when I was sick and we ran out of fuel. And neither of us - especially not Spitfire - has been going into this easy. She's been damn spooked about it. Especially with that changeling fucking around with her heart."
  2987. > Finally he stops advancing, but only when he is just about on top of Soarin already.
  2988.  
  2989. > "So. You still want to get on my ass about owning her, or because I've got fingers on the ends of my arms instead of hooves, or whatever - hell, be me guest. But back the fuck off of Spitfire, because she's dealing with a whole lot more than you seem to get. So just - hold your fucking horses, okay?"
  2990. > He'd gotten so loud that you were afraid one of the guards would come running.
  2991. > Instead, Soarin snorts - then snickers, then laughs:
  2992. > " 'Hold your horses'? All the phrases you humans have, and that's the one you come up with?"
  2993. > Anonymous turns a little red and begins to chuckle too; soon even you can't hold it back any longer either.
  2994. > Laughter - the balm to all hatred - melts away all the tension in the room.
  2995. > When everyone is under control again, Anonymous sits down to bring himself a little more level to Soarin.
  2996. > "Look, uh. Sorry for going off on you like that, but... yeah. Spits - we're both still wrapping our heads around what we are. It's... it's been a little confusing thing for the both of us. Hell, we only really admitted it that we were... yeah."
  2997. > With the tensest moment past, you walk between the two of them and sit on your haunches.
  2998. > Soarin nickers at you, then turns back to Anonymous.
  2999. > "Yeah, look. I'm... It's a big rutting shock to me, and... and I don't know. Y'know, I'm going to be honest. I look at you, and... fuck. I can't figure out how she ever got around you being a slaver."
  3000. "You know, I'm not totally sure of that either."
  3001. > "Yeah. But..."
  3002. > Soarin scuffs the ground with a hoof.
  3003. > "...I'm not going to screw this up either. What we're doing is still right, and Spitfire swears by you. So... I'll live with it."
  3004. > "All I can ask for, I guess."
  3005. > "Still wish she wasn't going back to Canterlot with you, though."
  3006. "That can't be helped."
  3007. > Your tail swats against the floor as you huff.
  3008.  
  3009. "This mess... it's still going to have to be cleared up. Fred needs to go to a hospital, we're going to have to do something about Whitworth, make sure he doesn't jump on us about losing his prize-"
  3010. > You realize Soarin is looking at you with a confused expression, and you shrug.
  3011. "Just thinking out loud. Even when we get the Chrysalis safely into the Princess' hooves, for us there's going to be a lot of work left to do."
  3012. > Anonymous mutters something under his breath, and both you and Soarin look to him.
  3013. > He catches your gaze and winces.
  3014. > "I just realized, we're going to have to probably get his help keeping it quiet or we'll end up in the news again. Not every day a top-dollar expedition with a one-of-a-kind plane goes missing in Equestria only for its crew to suddenly turn up fine, you know?"
  3015. "Let's think about making sure we're not all going to get stuffed into cocoons and sucked dry of every ounce of life first, you know?"
  3016. > "Heh, Fair."
  3017. > "Well..."
  3018. > Soarin huffs, his ears flicking back and forth.
  3019. > His face holds an unusual look for one that normally holds an easygoing expression, and you tilt your head.
  3020. > He's not going to start this fight again, is he?
  3021. > "...look. Just - just - you look after her, okay? Spitfire's a good mare. That, and never make her angry."
  3022. > Rubbing his throat, Soarin chuckles; Anonymous nods.
  3023. > "Yeah, I've figured that out."
  3024. > "Yeah."
  3025. > Anonymous grins back, holding out a hand towards the stallion.
  3026. > "Trust me though, Soarin. You couldn't stop me trying to help her if I tried."
  3027. > "If half of what you've said is true, I can believe that much."
  3028. > Stretching out a hoof, Soarin presses it into Anonymous' hand.
  3029. > For a second, it looks like a contest - the stallion pressing down as hard as he could, while Anonymous grips the hoof until his tendons stand out in his hand.
  3030. > Then it breaks.
  3031.  
  3032. > "Since I didn't get to say it much earlier... I'm glad I actually got to meet the real you. The, uh, 'other' Soarin... if I hadn't met you, I'd have probably just gone on thinking of you like that."
  3033. > Soarin hums, an ear flicking again.
  3034. > "Then I'm glad you did, I guess."
  3035.  
  3036. > "Right-"
  3037. > Anonymous looks between the two of you.
  3038. > " So, how's this work? I just click my heels three times, 'there's no place like home', and bam?"
  3039. > Soarin looks confused, but you chuckle.
  3040. "Nah, it's more of a 'beam me up, Scotty' kind of thing."
  3041. > "What in Tartarus are you two on about?"
  3042. > Laughing, you swat him with a wing.
  3043. "Nothing, nothing. Stupid human jokes."
  3044. > Soarin rolls his eyes, but is still grinning.
  3045. > You think he's mostly just happy to still see you... well, happy.
  3046. "Seriously, though - do you have any idea how this works?"
  3047. > "More or less. I'll step outside, close the curtain for you two. The P- uh, she comes in here, and then - bam. Straight to Canterlot."
  3048. "Got it."
  3049. > Suddenly you're struck by the full realization that with those two words, you'd said your final goodbye to Soarin for...
  3050. > Well, a really long time.
  3051. > 'Forever' seems too much to think about.
  3052. > Just as quickly you find yourself standing and leaning in to nuzzle him fiercely.
  3053. "Sorry I'm just running away so quickly, Soarin. I know it's not - not right. I wanted to really catch up with you, I wanted to talk, I wanted-"
  3054. > "Hey."
  3055. > One of Soarin's wings presses to your chest, his flight feathers bending and meshing into your coat.
  3056. > "It's not the end of everything. There's still time. We're not worn-out old ponies just yet, Spitfire. We'll have a chance to see each other again."
  3057. "I'm holding you to that."
  3058. > Slapping his chest with a hoof, Soarin looks offended.
  3059. > "Have you ever known me to not be reliable?"
  3060. "Only when there's pie involved!"
  3061. > Snorting, Soarin turns for the exit.
  3062. > "I'll see you around, Spitfire."
  3063. "Yeah. If - If I run into any more of the 'bolts, I'll send them your way."
  3064. > "You got it."
  3065. > Then he is gone, and the curtain is replaced - plunging yourself and Anonymous back into darkness.
  3066. > He fumbles in the pitch black, eventually finding you and placing a hand on your withers.
  3067. > "That must've hurt."
  3068. "No shit."
  3069. > You sigh and lean into the touch.
  3070.  
  3071. > Having Anonymous close is... welcome now.
  3072. > "So how long do we have to wait?"
  3073. "Well last time it wasn't very lo-"
  3074.  
  3075. --------
  3076.  
  3077. > Teleportation never affected you that badly.
  3078. > You'd done it once before, and even at long distance it never really got to you.
  3079. > There's a brief moment of vertigo as your senses are struck by the discontinuity:
  3080. > Pitch-blackness ripped away in a split-second, substituted for the pink glow of dawn; air-pressure reverting to Canterlot's thinner skies, the humidity dropping from the cave's musty interior and your inner pegasus sense of 'north' resetting.
  3081. > Then you blink, and it is all over.
  3082. > Anonymous, on the other hoof, has fallen to hands and knees; a small pool of vomit puddles on he ground.
  3083. > "What - augh! - what was that?!"
  3084. "Teleport. Are you going to be okay?"
  3085. > "Fuck - I think my entire brain just turned upside down or something!"
  3086. > He heaves a few more times, wipes his mouth, and stands with a few faltering steps.
  3087. > "Please tell me we only have to do that once?"
  3088. "We're in Canterlot, so... yes."
  3089. > Definitely Canterlot.
  3090. > In fact, you think you even remember the street; if you took to the air, you'd definitely remember the neighborhood.
  3091. > But...
  3092. > It's also not.
  3093. > Canterlot's white marble always seemed to gleam - kept nice and clean by the top-tier weather troop they had there.
  3094. > There's a subtle, but noticeable layer of grime and faded colors on these.
  3095. > The street isn't bad by any means, but here and there paver stones were out of place, slumping, or pushed aside by weeds growing up.
  3096. > None of the oil streetlamps are lit, you notice, nor are many of the buildings.
  3097. > Yes, it was near-dawn... but you still somehow felt like you were standing in a ghost city.
  3098. > As empty as Marechester had been.
  3099. > Canterlot might still stand, but its heart was well and truly faded.
  3100. > "What now?"
  3101. "We wait. Luna should be able to send Fred within an hour or two."
  3102. > But Luna doesn't send Fred within an hour or two, nor anyone else.
  3103.  
  3104. > And by the time the sun has risen concern has blossomed to full-on fear.
  3105. > There wasn't any reason for nothing to have happened by now unless it was really, really bad.
  3106. > "...you got any ideas, Spitfire?"
  3107. "Kind of. Let's go find the plane; we're going to need something on it, and I have a bad feeling we're going to want it ready anyway."
  3108. > Moving through the city leaves you with a sense of confusion.
  3109. > Though other ponies are starting to wake up, they are near-universally wary of Anonymous and keep their distance.
  3110. > Maybe it was how he was following you - fast and purposefully, radiating an impression of 'do not mess with this person'; or perhaps just a human following an un-collared pony wasn't someone to be bothered.
  3111. > The few humans you pass by - mostly official-looking, in suits or uniforms - don't give more than nods either.
  3112. > Was that the hollowness, the emptiness you'd felt in the city?
  3113. > Not just that there weren't so many ponies, but that they didn't bother even coming to say hello?
  3114. > Fortunately you don't have long to think on it.
  3115. > Luna hadn't dropped you too far from the airport and you're able to reach the plane without exhausting yourself or Anonymous.
  3116. > Well, maybe yourself.
  3117. > Anonymous is looking a bit out of it.
  3118. > The second you get aboard, you dive straight for one of the mattresses.
  3119. > Burying your muzzle in its familiar sheets - the scent a little stale now, but still comforting.
  3120. > Despite the situation, you lift the blankets with a quick bite and shove yourself head-first beneath them until only tip-feathers and tail-hairs remain exposed; a happy little nicker bursts from your lips.
  3121. > "So, not that I don't trust you, Spits. But I'm really not seeing how taking a nap is going to help."
  3122. > Turning yourself around, you pop your head out again.
  3123. "...going to give you the bare basics. Luna's a dreamwalker. She usually hunts nightmares, but she can also seek out individual ponies... and if I sleep, I think she'll find me."
  3124.  
  3125. > "The fuck? Why didn't she do that before?"
  3126. "What, and give away that she was still there? Leading a resistance too?"
  3127. > Anonymous screws up his face, nodding.
  3128. > "Should I wake you up at any time?"
  3129. "Noon. Or if any news comes."
  3130. > Though you'd rested quite a while under Luna’s protection, it was still early in the morning; curling up beneath the covers and allowing yourself to slip back to sleep felt... good.
  3131. > Once you'd have had no issues rising at this hour to begin stretching and preparations for the day.
  3132. > Sweet Celestia you were going soft!
  3133.  
  3134. --------
  3135.  
  3136. > You wake with a start.
  3137. > It'd been a dream.
  3138. > Like many dreams, by the second you opened your eyes the memory of what had been was already fading.
  3139. > But this time, you remembered with absolute certainty what the dream had been about.
  3140. > Even as the details faded to oblivion the message - the spirit - remained.
  3141. > Standing quickly, you call out:
  3142. "Anonymous?"
  3143. > But no answer comes.
  3144. > Looking over reveals that - much like yourself - Anonymous had drifted off into the dream realm as well.
  3145. > Not even his hand slipping from your withers as you rose up had broken him out of it; he remained slumped over in his seat, head loling to one shoulder, chest rising and falling gently as his eyes fluttered beneath their lids.
  3146. > For a split-second a little smile graces your lips.
  3147. > A quiet moment, to be treasured in memory.
  3148. > Then you're shaking Anonymous' shoulder with a hoof, batting his face with feather-tips until his eyes open.
  3149. > "Huh? Wha'issit?"
  3150. "We've got a problem."
  3151. > "How bad?"
  3152. "Bad. You told the people looking after Giselle to keep it prepped and ready for flight, yeah?"
  3153. > Yawning widely, Anonymous nods.
  3154. > "Gise- uh, the plane? Yeah, yeah. They're supposed to keep it flight-ready. In case we needed to get the fuck out of here if Whitworth screwed us over."
  3155. > If only it had just been Whitworth screwing you over.
  3156.  
  3157. > Irritable and rude as he had been, in the end his actions hadn't been what had tipped the job into disaster.
  3158. > Then again, if the collars he'd given you had worked right then Cog Whirl would still be alive.
  3159. "We need to get the preflight and inspections started. Get a fuel truck out here, brakes and ailerons checked, get the engines lub-"
  3160. > "I gotcha, I gotcha. What's going on?"
  3161. "I guess pretty soon after the group carrying you took off, the changelings turned up. Soarin's cell and a couple other groups are mobilized to ward the changelings off too."
  3162. > "Shit. So, they can't get the rest of them out?"
  3163. "Enough ponies to keep the plane -"
  3164. > And the queen.
  3165. "- safe, or to protect sleds being brought out. Not enough for both."
  3166. > Anonymous swears again beneath his breath.
  3167. "Yeah. That's about the gist of it."
  3168. > "And your, uh, Princess told you this. Through your dreams."
  3169. "Yep."
  3170. > "You're really lucky I trust you, y'know that?"
  3171. > Nickering, you lean over and brush your muzzle against his ribs.
  3172. "Believe me, I never forget it.”
  3173. > "Explain one thing to me, though: If they're already too tied up to be able to escort our people out, how are we going to make any difference?"
  3174. "Getting ponies pulling a load out of there is one thing. A plane, on the other hand... we're faster, we can fly higher, and maybe most importantly we can outpace a bunch of changelings by a whole lot. They're not the fastest things around. Damn maneuverable in the air, but not fast."
  3175. > "So we're... what, just going to drop down and hope they don't swarm us?"
  3176. "Well..."
  3177. > You turn to Anonymous, a slow grin spreading on your face.
  3178. "Who said anything about just taking the people? I want to take the Mars - the whole plane - out of there. Didn't you say they sometimes use these planes as tankers?"
  3179. > “What exactly are you planning, Spitfire?”
  3180.  
  3181. “Explain in a sec. Right now, though, I need to make a phone call. A number I grabbed off of Thomas when we were going through his stuff. And might even enjoy it."
  3182.  
  3183. --------
  3184.  
  3185. > "Hello? Thomas?"
  3186. "Hello, Whitworth."
  3187. > You take considerable delight in relishing Gregory Whitworth's expression sliding into slow realization that if you were the one calling him and not Thomas, it wouldn't be for anything good.
  3188. > "Spitfire?"
  3189. > Your name is drawn out to three, maybe four syllables - as if extending it would increase the odds that you weren't calling to make his day a miserable Tartarus-born one.
  3190. > Unfortunately for him, it has no such impact on you.
  3191. "So, as you've probably figured out, things are pretty well screwed up here. Royally screwed up."
  3192. > "How bad?"
  3193. "Bad enough that we're making a new deal."
  3194. > "I'm sorry?"
  3195. > Oh, that shock in his voice!
  3196. > If not for the reason you were calling him in the first place, you'd have been prancing over hearing that!
  3197. "Yeah. Remember back when you first met me, in that restaurant with Thomas... you made a deal with me and Anonymous. A deal to keep us out of trouble."
  3198. > "I do. And why exactly would I re-negotiate with you?"
  3199. > The way he spits 'you', ordinarily, would have put a scowl on your lips.
  3200. > Now, you just grin wider.
  3201. "So, as it happens, Thomas was working a bit of a side job. Tried to hand off your 'surveying equipment', and we ended up having to take a look at what was really behind that locked door."
  3202. > The silence which follows is heavier than the air before a supercell thunderstorm.
  3203. > You almost sing Gregory's name to get him to respond:
  3204. "Whitwooorth? Are you paying attention?"
  3205. > "...I am. How - how bad is it?"
  3206. "Ponies are dead, people might be, and more will be if you don't get your head screwed on straight."
  3207. > Celestia above you love being able to give this man a taste of his own medicine!
  3208. > Maybe a little bit too much - Anonymous is looking at you with one raised eyebrow.
  3209. > "What do you want, Spitfire?"
  3210.  
  3211. "So. For starters, you're going to help us fix this. I know there's some kind of flight support service on this side, because we're at an airport humans built next to Canterlot-"
  3212. > "Wait, you're in Canterlot?"
  3213. "Yes. I said listen! Now, we're going to need fuel bladders - bigger ones - and a whole lot of avgas. Oh, and speed up getting them to final checks on our aircraft we had you store here."
  3214. > Thank Celestia you'd thought of that.
  3215. > "Okay. Fuel bladders, gas - how much?"
  3216. "We're working on that. Just... get them over here."
  3217. > "Right. Just one question - what is my payment for doing this?"
  3218. > Payment?
  3219. > Lives are at risk, and he wants payment?!
  3220. "I'll tell you what your payment is: Before we leave here - and we are leaving, one way or another - I'm going to write everything that's happened down and leave it with a friend here. Yes, I do still have friends in Canterlot. Now, if we come back and get it from her... you can walk away. Despite all the screwed-up things you did, you can walk away. But if we vanish, or if you refuse, my friend takes it to the Special Equestrian Government on this side. I know full well they eat from the trough of your government. They'll hand it over too. And I think your government will have some things to say about what you've been up to. Same deal you gave us. Sound fair?"
  3221. > "...and if I play along, you walk away too?"
  3222. "All we want is to walk away. The ponies we bought - they're free. The people you hired - they can stay on with you, or they can get paid and walk away. Chrysalis, we're... dealing with. The plane is ours, and the machinery’s going with Chrysalis. But you get to scrub your name from everything that's part of it too."
  3223. > "Why let me go?"
  3224. "Because despite all the things you did to us... you also didn't cause our trouble here. Ponies aren't dead because of you. What you wanted to do is terrible, but you didn't cost lives. Thomas and his - partner did."
  3225.  
  3226. > "Okay, Spitfire. I don't exactly trust you, but you've got me by the balls. So letting me walk away seems pretty reasonable."
  3227. > It means you're rolling over to let him run off when he should be facing some justice for the things he'd ordered done!
  3228. > Even for a changeling - being operated on to make them a perfect slave...
  3229. > A trembling ripple runs through your coat, and you shake off the thought before it can distract you too much.
  3230. "Sounds like a deal to me."
  3231. > "Do you want me to send some of my security people over as well? To accompany you back? If it's as bad as you're saying-"
  3232. "No!"
  3233. > The volume of your reply surprises even you; clenching your wings to your sides, you gather your emotions up and try again:
  3234. "No thank you. I think we've had just about enough of you and your guards. Just get a ground team, the fuel bladders, and our fuel."
  3235. > "You want a specific size?"
  3236. "One second; let me just grab the calculations I did..."
  3237. > When you hang up, Anonymous has gone slightly pale.
  3238. > "When you asked about tankers, I didn't think you meant for fuel! Holy shit. We're going to be loaded, just -"
  3239. > A last little bit of color drains from his face at the thought of it.
  3240. > "-holy shit, so loaded with fuel. I don't know if we can even set the trim for that kind of load!"
  3241. "We would. Can. I did the numbers. I'm still checking exactly how far it'll get us - calculating tailwinds and all that - but even if we can get enough fuel to the Mars to bring it a little ways further north, then we can't-"
  3242. > Hands settle on your withers.
  3243. > The PC stylus - tucked into the corner of your mouth so that you could talk around it - goes still.
  3244. > "Spitfire..."
  3245. > Anonymous' voice is shaky, and you almost imagine you could feel a slight shake in his hands too.
  3246. > No further words come forth, though, and you nod slowly.
  3247. "It's okay to be scared, Anonymous. I am too."
  3248.  
  3249. > "Scared? Fuck, I'm not scared, I'm just - this is completely batshit insane. That much fuel, we'd be flying a giant bomb, and - fuck, I am scared."
  3250. > You sit up straight, nudging your head back.
  3251. > In turn, Anonymous slips his arms around your neck and pulls you back against his chest.
  3252. > "...the last time we tried this touch-and-go, get-out-of-town-while-under-fire thing, Giselle died. I'd - I'd rather not run off to try it again. I'm getting really, really bad vibes here."
  3253. "I know. Yeah, I know."
  3254. > Turning your head lets you press your ear to his chest and listen for his heartbeat.
  3255. > Somehow that was always calming - knowing that no matter how different, how odd it seemed to be on this course with him,
  3256. > Ooooh.
  3257. > Especially when he drops a hand to scratch at your chest - fingers digging in through the thick tuft of your coat and making the whole world seem to fade away for a few moments.
  3258. > Hands - completely unfair.
  3259. > It's a brief respite that you can let yourself sink into completely, not regretting letting go for a moment because the moment his hands stopped moving-
  3260. > Your eyes snap open again.
  3261. > Already that brief moment of cocooned happiness was fading into memory.
  3262. "I know. But what's our alternative? Call up the nearest UN post, have them wrangle up some soldiers to chase the changelings away-"
  3263. > "-and then they drag off Chrysalis to some lab to argue over who gets to weaponize her next. No, I get it. I really get it. S'just..."
  3264. > Anonymous' fingers dig into your coat again.
  3265. > "...the last time we were in Equestria, you almost lost me. This time, I almost lost you to that - thing. Just coming back here was bad enough. Now you want to go running right back into starship-fucking-troopers land and face down a whole bunch of bugs?"
  3266. "Yeah. I know. It's easier to run away from the things we fear. But... when we were training, back in Port Alberni, one night when we went into town I stumbled into a pony-"
  3267.  
  3268. > "Yeah, at the strip club. I remember you told me."
  3269. > Anonymous chuckles; though you could only see it from the corner of your eye as he held you, you're fairly sure he was shaking his head in disbelief.
  3270. > "I still can't quite believe it. You, Spitfire, in a strip club-"
  3271. "Hey, hey! You don't think I'm enough to do a little wiggle-"
  3272. > You squirm against him for a moment, and both of you burst into nervous giggles.
  3273. > Another small moment of respite between all this tension.
  3274. "Point is, the pony who was serving drinks there... she told me some things about running away from what we have to do. I should've understood that before, and I definitely need to listen to it now. I can't - I can't give up my duties as a captain. Not again."
  3275. > “Gonna have to give that pony a real good thanks when we get back."
  3276. > When.
  3277. > Not if.
  3278. > You suppose that's the best way to think about this.
  3279. "Yeah... I kinda owe Barley Brew, don't I?"
  3280. > Before you can say anything more, distant footsteps announce one of the ground crew coming up into the aircraft.
  3281. > You disentangle yourself from Anonymous almost as fast as you had come together, so that by the time the knock on the cabin door there's no sign of the embrace you had been locked in moments earlier.
  3282. > A part of you wonders about that - was it really so bad to be seen being hugged by a human?
  3283. > Wouldn't humans and ponies sometimes just... do that, even if he was nominally still your owner?
  3284. > Most of your mind, though, says that it's time to buckle down and get back to work; you could hug him again after everyone was safe and sound.
  3285. > In the meantime - the second the cabin door is open you're already speaking:
  3286. "Okay. We're going to need fuel bladders avgas. We'll clear a central area in the cabin for them, then fill them by hose in-cabin. 500, 750, or 1000 gallon bladders. We have cargo tie-down points to fix them to; I'll show you-"
  3287.  
  3288. > Your eyes rise, and find not two workers already leaping into action but a man and a woman staring at you goggle-eyed with mouths half-open.
  3289. "...is there a problem?"
  3290. > "No. Uh. We - uh - we just didn't expect-"
  3291. > A pony.
  3292. > You grit your teeth and suppress an angry snort, but can't keep your tail from lashing.
  3293. > Of course - you'd been on the Mars for so long, accompanying people and ponies who'd come to see you as something of a leader, that you'd almost forgotten others wouldn't see you that way.
  3294. > Wouldn't respect words that came out of your mouth, simply because they came from a pony's muzzle.
  3295. > Swallowing your frustration, you spin around to face them and start again:
  3296. "Okay. If I've actually got your attention now..."
  3297. > Getting the idea down is pretty easy.
  3298. > Even better, they were professionals - moving quickly and with familiar skill once you had the basic idea laid out for them.
  3299. > They even had a pony of their own:
  3300. > A dusky unicorn mare who helped maneuver the unfilled bladders through the plane's narrow interior with her magic.
  3301. > While the first bladders are filling with the noxious-smelling gasoline, she brings you a clipboard to sign off on.
  3302. > As you work the stylus delicately in your mouth, the mare leans over and murmurs into your ear:
  3303. > "He won't say it, but I don't think they were expecting to see another free pony here."
  3304. "Huh?"
  3305. > "When we first got on - they were both so shocked to see you. I don't think they were expecting to see a free pony working on a plane like this."
  3306. "Oh. I'm not technically free."
  3307. > The words fly out of your mouth before you can consider what they might cause - a consequence of your mind still being focused many hundreds of miles away.
  3308. > And it takes another few seconds before realize she'd frozen too.
  3309. > "You - you're not free?"
  3310. "No. I, uh... well, Anonymous is pretty free with me. But yeah, technically I'm his."
  3311. > "But - your neck..."
  3312. > Lifting a hoof to it, you belatedly remember there was no collar there.
  3313.  
  3314. > You'd abandoned it back in Soarin's encampment - showing them you're no suck-up soft-heart.
  3315. > ...and then you'd never thought about having to get it back.
  3316. > "I'm... I'm sorry, I can't accept your signature on this."
  3317. "Wait, what?"
  3318. > She winces - hard - and lashes her tail like she was having to tell somepony of a loved one's death.
  3319. > "For first-time customers - your owner would have to sign off on allowing you to represent him first, and even then I'd still have to get his signature on the avgas. It's a 'terror risk', so there are rules on a purchase this large..."
  3320. "But we're not 'first time customers'! We've had the plane parked here for weeks-"
  3321. > "That's with the hangar owners, and the servicing guys. We're subcontracted. Fuel and supplies."
  3322. > You stare at her with your mouth half open; she turns her muzzle away towards one of the walls.
  3323. > "...I'm sorry. I - I didn't want to do this to you, but rules are rules. If I sold something on the terror-risk list without getting a proper signature and got caught, I'd probably end up with a collar on my neck too."
  3324. "I-"
  3325. > Understand?
  3326. > No.
  3327. > You don't just 'understand'.
  3328. > You're angry.
  3329. "I'll go get him."
  3330. > The good pace of the initial work had raised your spirits, but now not even rapid progress on loading the plane could pull them up again.
  3331. > The mare knows it too; she keeps apart from you - well away from the foul mood radiating from you like a stench.
  3332. > But there's one other thing you have to do, and so you cautiously approach her:
  3333. > Waiting for the turn of her ear to signal she's aware of your presence, then nickering to indicate your friendly approach.
  3334. > She lifts her head to look at you, which you take as an approval to approach:
  3335. "Listen. Um. There's a couple other things I need to ask you."
  3336. > "Hit me."
  3337. "There's... a message I need to deliver. I don't know if anypony I knew still lives here..."
  3338. > The mare shrugs.
  3339. > "I lived up in the Shoulder district, if that helps..."
  3340. > The Shoulder district...?
  3341.  
  3342. "Um... what about Dusk Dancer?"
  3343. > "Doesn't ring a bell."
  3344. "Paperchase? He used to manage the airship docks."
  3345. > "Paper... oh! Yes."
  3346. > Your ears pop up, tail flicking early.
  3347. "You know him?"
  3348. > "No. They caught him smuggling goods into the city, maybe a year go. Threw a collar on him, and Celestia knows where he is now."
  3349. > Your jaw drops slightly - stuck up, stodgy old Paperchase, being caught smuggling?!
  3350. > Immediately your mind jumps to wondering whether they really had caught him smuggling or just needed an excuse to drag a pony off - before you remind yourself that there's absolutely no evidence of that.
  3351. > Yes. You must really have just recently come back. It was a big scandal."
  3352. "Just got in yesterday. Um, what - what about-"
  3353. > "Look -"
  3354. > She shuffles nervously, hoof scraping at the concrete pavement.
  3355. > "-you promise you're not going to do anything stupid with this, right? Just - just keep it safe?"
  3356. "Of course! I swear by Celestia's crown I'm not going to hurt anyone with this. I just want to deliver a letter."
  3357. > The mare pulls out her phone, tapping it a few times - oooh, she even has a convenient stylus!
  3358. > "There's an address-book app on here - not everypony is hooked up, so it's still convenient to have this for finding your way around. See if there's any names you recognize. It'll be faster than going through me."
  3359.  
  3360. > Going straight through the source was definitely faster than asking her one by one; it didn't take you more than a few minutes of going through it - stylus in mouth - to find a name you recognized.
  3361. "Yes! Slate Scrawl is still around! Funny he moved out of the Upper District, though. I'd have figured he'd stay there forever."
  3362. > "Wow. You must really not have been here a lot. Most of the Upper District burned to the ground; not enough pegasi left to stop it once it really started. They tore down what was left and built a whole bunch of offices for the Special Government there."
  3363. > As you start scrolling through it, stylus in mouth, the mare shuffles a bit more and adds:
  3364. > "If you're going to go out, there's one other bit of advice I'm going to give you..."
  3365. "Yeah?"
  3366. > "Your Master must be very lenient with you, but - you're going to want a collar. You get caught wandering around Canterlot without a collar on, they're probably going to assume you're a runaway. It'd be all kinds of trouble for you and your Master."
  3367. > And just like that, your hopes - only so recently buoyed - plunge again; your ears fold back on your head.
  3368. "Oh. Yeah."
  3369. > "And - and just watch yourself, okay? Don't be so casual. Even - even some ponies aren't going to take kindly to that. Might try and report you back to your Master."
  3370. > You shouldn't be angry with her.
  3371. > She's clearly just offering advice - trying to help you.
  3372. > But even so you can't keep some of the venom out of your voice as you spit.
  3373. > "Yes."
  3374. > If she noticed, she isn't offended by it - mostly sounding sad.
  3375. > "They figure if they're still free, it's because they did something 'right' while everypony else deserved it. Just... just be careful, okay? Please. Ask your owner if he has a spare collar or something."
  3376. "I will... thanks."
  3377.  
  3378. --------
  3379.  
  3380. > Anonymous did not have a spare collar.
  3381.  
  3382. > He did have a strip of black cloth, which he wound around your neck and tied off with a fold of paper listing his name and signed permission for you to be out carefully tucked within it.
  3383. > He also pointedly didn't comment on your asking for it, or how your ears were kept pinned back and tail pressed to your hindquarters, obviously hating it.
  3384. > Just gave you your 'collar', and when it was done put a hand on your withers and looked straight in your eyes:
  3385. > "You going to be okay, Spitfire?"
  3386. "I'll... manage."
  3387. > Maybe.
  3388. > Maybe not.
  3389. > But there were more important things to do then get hung up on your own bitterness.
  3390. "I'll be back in a little bit, okay? Before they're finished loading up back there."
  3391. > The airport was down the edge of the mountain from which Canterlot took its name, and boosting up to the higher level the city rests at was good for keeping your mind focused on other things.
  3392. > ...like the steadily building Changeling swarm.
  3393. > Plus, if Whitworth had put any of his security men on you, they'd have a whole lot harder time following you in the air than if you'd kept to your hooves.
  3394. > You'd hear it if they tried to send a drone after you or something - you know that much.
  3395. > But as you fly over the much-changed Canterlot, you also can't help but have your thoughts drift back to it.
  3396. > The streets were busier than when you'd come in early in the morning, but still far emptier than they ought to have been; many of the ponies you saw hurried about - eyes and muzzles pointed to the ground.
  3397. > Only a hoof-full of pegasi flittered above the rooftops, and none paused to greet you.
  3398. > Sure enough, the Upper District had been rebuilt entirely - in large part with squared off and glassed-over styles that spoke of human architectural influence.
  3399. > Canterlot wasn't dead by any means, but it wasn't healthy either.
  3400. > How deep did this disease run?
  3401. > Did it start before, when the plagues and fratricidal fighting swept Equestria - even before slavery started?
  3402.  
  3403. > What kind of malaise would it take to turn Canterlot into a place where ponies judged each other for being free - where a by-the-rules stickler like Paperchase would resort to smuggling.
  3404. > You even find yourself wondering whether it was worth saving a place like that.
  3405. > ...
  3406. > What?!
  3407. > Wings locked up, you nearly fall out of the sky as you comprehend what you'd just thought.
  3408. > Abandon Equestria?
  3409. > To the changelings?!
  3410. > No - not now, not ever.
  3411. > You have to do this, because - slave or not - that's still your job.
  3412. > Beating your wings with renewed determination, you angle down towards the address you'd found.
  3413. > It was a fair bit smaller than Slate Scrawl's old home, but the door was still hung with the old moon-and-stars pendant he'd always loved.
  3414. > Heh.
  3415. > Somehow seeing something so familiar is enough to make you feel a whole lot better.
  3416. > A hefty tapping on the door brings a loud call from within; seconds later, the door pops open to revealed a much-bedraggled stallion - coat as grim and grey as the stone whose bore he name, mane shot through with veins of white - peering out at you through thick glasses.
  3417. "...well, I'll be damned. What happened to you, Slate? You look like Tartarus ran over you."
  3418. > "Spitfire?!"
  3419. "Yeah, I was in town, and - ooof!"
  3420. > The aged unicorn had reared up and hugged you with unexpected vigor and enthusiasm - wispy bits of his white-veined mane drifting into your face.
  3421. > "Spitfire! Spitfire, I can't believe it's you. I didn't know - didn't know what had happened to you!"
  3422. "Same to you, Slate. I always figured they'd have dragged off everypony who was part of the palace staff."
  3423. > "Hah! No, not all of us."
  3424. "What, too tough for them to take away?"
  3425. > Slate scowls at you and you see a hint of the old, hard-muzzled bureaucrat you'd known.
  3426. > "Very funny, Captain. Though, I'm afraid if you're looking for help organizing a show, I will have to turn you down. I no longer hold any administrative position."
  3427.  
  3428. "Not this time, though I know you really treasure out little 'debates' over where we should or shouldn't perform. Seriously though, Slate. I'm glad to see somepony I know here. I only just got into Canterlot, and it's... it's getting to me a bit, how different everything is."
  3429. > "It is no less heartening to see yourself. Captain. You feared for me, but as an officer of the guard it was you I always feared for! I am surprised to see you with your freedom."
  3430. "Ah - well - actually -"
  3431. > As you awkwardly fumble for words, Slate picks up in your place:
  3432. > "...ah. I see."
  3433. "I mean - I thought the collar would have said everything it needed to..."
  3434. > It stood out against your yellow coat like a signal flag!
  3435. > "I - ah - well, I thought it was a statement, rather than an actual mark of servitude."
  3436. > One of your eyebrows rises.
  3437. "...a fashion statement?"
  3438. > "A political one. Some ponies have taken to wearing scarves or fabric, as a... show of solidarity with their enslaved kin. The Council cannot legislate out scarves, no matter how much it might annoy some humans."
  3439. > You snort softly - a little sound nearing laughter - a little grin reaching your face.
  3440. "That's genius. And makes me feel a little better - the mare who gave me your address warned me some ponies were looking down on anyone who'd been taken."
  3441. > Slate Scrawl snorts too, though it's more a sound approaching disgust.
  3442. > "And some ponies were born with their brains replaced with what's beneath their tail, but we don't let that trouble us too much!"
  3443. > Yeah, that's the vinegar-tongued stallion you'd known.
  3444. "I'm surprised that wit of yours hasn't gotten you in trouble."
  3445. > "I would say the same about you. If you must know, though, it's at least part of the reason I have retired out to these less auspicious quarters. I could not bear to work beneath those jelly-spined 'ponies'-"
  3446. > Slate spits the term so violently you half expect a few teeth to come flying out with it.
  3447. > "-selling out their own kin!"
  3448.  
  3449. "...I know what you mean."
  3450. > "And what of you, anyhow? Is this - is your visit on orders, or...?"
  3451. "No, no! I made this plan up actually. It's - uh - well... look, it's a really, really long story, but they guy who I 'belong' too? He's not what you're thinking of when you think 'master'."
  3452. > You opt to not to mention how close you were with him - how he'd come to mean comfort, calm, and safety too.
  3453. > But you do add a little bit more:
  3454. "Let me put it this way: I'm wearing this stupid cloth thing because when we heard I'd want a collar to fly around Canterlot? We couldn't find 'mine'."
  3455. > A misdirection at best, but when did a white lie hurt anypony?
  3456. > "At least some-pony has found something livable in this miserable time."
  3457. "What about you? You can't be doing too badly, if you've got a home of your own."
  3458. > "In truth, I can probably afford this home only because Canterlot's census is so steeply slashed. I view myself as merely taking care of it until the true owners return... for the rest, well, I occupy myself with small jobs for the community."
  3459. > A far step down from the pony who'd once been part of the illustrious council managing the city altogether.
  3460. > But neither can you blame him.
  3461. "Good to see you've found somewhere to be. But I need to ask a favor of you, Slate."
  3462. > "Of course you do."
  3463. > The corners of the stallion's mouth lift, and the next words come out softer rather than laden with bitterness.
  3464. > "Isn't that always what you come to me for? 'Clear this plaza, don't let airships fly, reorganize the weather schedule'..."
  3465. "Easier this time."
  3466. > The letter is withdrawn from your saddlebags between your teeth and passed to him.
  3467. "Just hang on to this letter. If everything goes well, within a month or so I should be back to pick it up. If I don't come back - or if you hear any bad news about me - you need to take it to the human authorities."
  3468. > "To the humans?!"
  3469. > Nodding at his incredulous look, you offer a little grin.
  3470.  
  3471. "If it makes you feel better, this is to get a particular human in a whole lot of shit for trying to do some pretty twisted stuff."
  3472. > "But if I just deliver it early, it blows up in your face too, hmmm?"
  3473. "Pretty much."
  3474. > Folding neatly in half in his magical grip, the envelope is passed inside Slate's home.
  3475. > More importantly, though, the stallion appears excited - not merely accepting of your request, which with Slate Scrawl was an achievement enough on its own, but actually enthusiastic.
  3476. > His eyes sparkle with an unexpected joy.
  3477. > "Captain, you have no idea how much it means to actually be able to do something - something real! - to pay them back. I will do exactly as you've asked me!"
  3478. > You raise a sly eyebrow and shoot him a smirk.
  3479. "Exactly as I asked you?"
  3480. > "I confess, I desire to simply turn it in as soon as you will walk away simply to see a human suffer... but you have made it clear I should not. This old soldier has his marching orders."
  3481. "Good to know I can rely on you, Slate. Besides-"
  3482. > You wink.
  3483. "-you still owe me for that business with that noblestallion's filly."
  3484. > "For the business with the - Captain Spitfire! I owe you nothing for that; you were already going to perform that day!"
  3485. > He's still smiling, though.
  3486. > An honest and warm smile, too; you almost get the feeling it was a relief for Slate to argue about such meaningless little details compared to the all-too-serious questions he'd had to argue in months past.
  3487. "Yeees, but we still completely re-oriented it to make it look better from Canterlot's southern flank. That's not easy, you know! We have to reconsider the wind patterns, our ground-distance safety factors, I almost thought about asking Celestia to move the sun so it wouldn't be-"
  3488. > "But you did not! And I put in all the paperwork for keeping the skies clear of ponies and satisfying the weather bureau, so it shouldn't count-"
  3489. "You still asked me! That's a favor, and it means you owe me!"
  3490.  
  3491. > A moment's pause passes; down the street, a distant pony looks in confusion at the two of you - her attention probably drawn by the yelling.
  3492. > If she were closer, she might have seen that no tails were lashing, nor had either of you pinned your ears.
  3493. > Instead, you grin a little bit.
  3494. "Slate, do you even remember what the score of favors even actually is?"
  3495. > "I confess, Captain, that I do not. However, I do believe I rather needed that."
  3496. > There's a little twinkle in his eye, and you nod.
  3497. "I think I did too."
  3498. > So much is caught up in that:
  3499. > An admission to him that you'd had to make decisions and argue points every bit as painful as the ones he had.
  3500. > That you, too, are wishing terribly for the times when re-orienting a performance was your greatest concern.
  3501. > Telling Slate that he was not alone.
  3502. "...thank you. For taking that letter. Give it about a month or so; I might try and send a messenger to update you, but I'll always come to get it myself."
  3503. > "I will keep it most secure, Captain. May the winds give you safe passage."
  3504. > They had better, you think.
  3505. > It might be the only way this was going to be pulled off.
  3506. > On your way out, you opt to make one more side-stop:
  3507. > Climbing past the rooftops, you circle up and away towards the old palace.
  3508. > It showed the scars of Equestria's fracturing too - here and there a window covered in boards, or replaced with mass-produced human glass instead of the thin and colored panes that had once been set there by master craftsponies.
  3509. > And as you got closer, you could see guard posts around the edge - humans in uniform, towers erected against the palace wall where they stood keeping a careful watch on the surrounding streets.
  3510.  
  3511. > You opt not to get too close; who knew what regulations they had about ponies flying over it?
  3512. > Humans were finicky about that - probably came from not living in a society where someone winging their way over your home was an everyday occurrence.
  3513. > But - the palace was still there.
  3514. > Still standing, tall and proud, recognizable as it had been when the Princesses ruled from its halls.
  3515. > It didn't take much inspiration to imagine away the small points of damage and replace them with new and restored sections.
  3516. > And if the palace had withstood - couldn't Equestria as a whole?
  3517. > If it could be repaired - couldn't the divisions between ponies too?
  3518. > Setting your wings back in motion, you curve down away from the palace and back towards the airport.
  3519. > By the time you got back, hopefully they'd have finished loading the rest of the fuel board.
  3520. > You had a plane to fly, and a swarm to beat.
  3521.  
  3522. -------
  3523.  
  3524. > As the engines cough to life, you're struck with a sudden burst of intense nostalgia and familiarity.
  3525. > The old warbird had smaller and two fewer engines than the big Mars, but they were closer and nowhere near as well insulated.
  3526. > Along with squeezing into the much smaller cockpit, the whole plane feels so much more...
  3527. > Intimate.
  3528. > Like the old warbird was holding you in its embrace, close to its thundering heart.
  3529. > It was so much better to be back here, even if it was cramped and harder to fly.
  3530. > Emotion unexpectedly fills your heart, and you reach a hoof up to brush the little placard of laminated plastic holding one of Giselle's - the original Giselle's - feathers.
  3531. > Though you expected to find yourself flying the Eternal Fields one day when you passed, you also didn't really consider yourself a spiritual pony.
  3532. > Yet now, you find yourself wondering:
  3533. > Did a part of her spirit still inhabit the plane?
  3534. > The last time you'd taken off from near Canterlot - from this very strip, even - it had been to go home after both of you had survived mortal peril.
  3535. > Now you were taking off to fly straight into it.
  3536. > Anonymous' hand brushes your ear.
  3537. > "What's on your mind?"
  3538. "Just thinking about what Giselle would've thought about this."
  3539. > That gives Anonymous actual pause, as he stares off into the distance for a few seconds.
  3540. > "Y'know... I can't say I knew her super well, but we talked a few times. And, she strikes me as a kind of 'who dares, wins' kind of girl. I think she'd have approved."
  3541. "That... actually isn't entirely wrong."
  3542. > "Knowing Gerard now, maybe it's a griffon cultural thing."
  3543. > He waves his hand back and forth, going on:
  3544. > "Or - maybe it's just those two. Gerard was an officer, she was what - some kind of star athlete?"
  3545. "Yeah."
  3546. > Maybe an officer too; you'd never discussed it with her, but was a fair bet that anyone the griffons sent to the Equestria games was probably one of their better soldiers too.
  3547.  
  3548. "But you're right. Knowing what we're going to do... I think she'd have thought this was the right choice."
  3549. > Then you go quiet for a time - idle chatter cut to nothing, while you taxied out and onto the runway.
  3550. > As the engines rise to a roaring crescendo and the plane accelerates down the runway, you can't help but glance back along the length of the plane.
  3551. > There - thoroughly strapped in, having been checked and rechecked by yourself, Anonymous, and the ground crew - were three enormous fuel bladders.
  3552. > Transforming the entire plane into a giant, flying fuel tank definitely wasn't something you were entirely comfortable with; you were all too aware of the huge risk carried in lugging around so much highly-flammable liquid.
  3553. > Sure, they were supposedly proofed against puncture... but still.
  3554. > Worse, as the plane speeds down the runway you can hear the engines straining to bring the heavily-laden plane into the air.
  3555. > Even over their terrible rumble, the hull pops and squeaks as the wings catch the air beneath them; you can feel - in your body, in your magic - the violent struggle between lift and gravity.
  3556. "Easy there, girl..."
  3557. > Your muttered plea draws a little chuckle from Anonymous, but maybe also the tiniest reduction in the plane's complaining.
  3558. > "Worrying a bit?"
  3559. "Can't you feel how much it's straining on the stick, even with trim?"
  3560. > "Oh, of course I can-"
  3561. "Well, if you could feel the way the air is moving here..."
  3562. > The tip of your tail twitches nervously, and Anonymous nods.
  3563. > "Don't worry. I can feel the plane too, through here-"
  3564. > He pats the control wheel.
  3565. > "-and I'll keep it steady. You just tell me what to do."
  3566. > Heh.
  3567. > First time in this cockpit without a collar, and he's already asking you for orders.
  3568. "Heading three-one-five, altitude eleven-thousand."
  3569. > "Eleven thousand, three-one-five..."
  3570. > Anonymous starts to dial into the heading indicator, only to pause.
  3571. > "...isn't that a little too north, for where we're going?"
  3572.  
  3573. "Not for where we're going first."
  3574. > You glance over to him again, letting a grin split your face.
  3575. "Remember how I said I thought Giselle would approve of this? Well, in part that's because we're going to cheat. We're not going to just do this straightforward. We're going to play a couple of real good tricks - do this in a decidedly griffon way."
  3576. > "So, you going to cut me in on this plan of yours, or am I going to have to guess?"
  3577. > You chuckle, and so does Anonymous.
  3578. "Kind of. We're still getting the finer details put together."
  3579. > "And this is all because of the - uh, Princess. In your dreams."
  3580. "Pretty much."
  3581. > Skepticism layers his voice, and you are ready to argue.
  3582. > But then Anonymous reaches over to squeeze your shoulder, just above the wingroot.
  3583. > "Equestria never stops catching me by surprise. I mean, your Princess can just wander into your dreams-"
  3584. "Not exactly. It's not like dream e-mail or anything; doing this strains Luna, and it's easiest for her to find a pony when they're having a nightmare."
  3585. > "Oh."
  3586. > Thankfully he asks the obvious question before an awkward silence could squeeze itself around you like some constricting jungle snake.
  3587. > "Are you...?"
  3588. "Dunno. Luna put me into some kind of deep, deep sleep while I was waiting for them to bring you - to get my energy up. And this last time - well, if I was she found me fast enough I don't remember any of it before talking to her."
  3589. > Then again, she'd also have known exactly where you were sleeping - somewhere in Canterlot.
  3590. > Did that speed up the search?
  3591. > Did dreams correspond to sleepers' places, or did she simply wait for someone to dream of buzzing, predatory wings and the hideous single snap of a breaking spine?
  3592. > You give a little laugh beneath your breath and focus back on the instruments.
  3593. > Silly unicorn questions.
  3594. > But Anonymous' hand stays on your back, rubbing there lightly as he goes:
  3595. > "Y'know, if this keeps happening... I'm going to have to see about getting you some help."
  3596.  
  3597. > Your heart feels just a little bit larger; he really was thinking about you!
  3598. "I know. But right now Luna's here to watch over me, and she can do plenty fine."
  3599. > "Mmm."
  3600. > If you'd heard skepticism before, his monotone grunt there seemed to speak of outright annoyance.
  3601. > Exactly why takes a moment longer to place:
  3602. "...are you actually jealous or something?"
  3603. > "No, no! Not - look. This is just... it's something I don't know, and you know how I get about that."
  3604. "Yeah. You like to have things checked and re-checked."
  3605. > "And I mean, like... relying on dreams just feels weird. I'm not arguing with you about it, but how do you even know it's her?"
  3606. > A prickle runs through your fathers as you remember that presence - the overwhelmingly powerful, distinct sensation of a vast, cold void looming over you.
  3607. "Trust me, Anonymous. If you'd met her, you'd know her immediately."
  3608. > "I gotcha. But no, I'm not jealous exactly. Just - y'know, a little worried about you having nightmares."
  3609. "Yeah."
  3610. > That was... sweet of him.
  3611. "I'm going to be fine, Anonymous. You don't have to worry over me like I'm a little filly having bad dreams."
  3612. > "Hah! Fair, fair. Look at me, going all mushy mother-hen on you."
  3613.  
  3614. --------
  3615.  
  3616. > Flying into the west hadn't been able to outrace the inevitable fall of sunset; soon after you take off, the cockpit is illuminated only by moonlight and the dim glow of the cockpit instruments and console lamps.
  3617. > These were Luna's hours, and although you know Celestia is out there somewhere as well it's still reassuring to feel the Night Princess watching over you.
  3618. > And Kalendae must feel that twice as much as you!
  3619. > Your ears fall as you think of the Thestral mare; it would've been good to have her along on this.
  3620. > Luna must have decided Kalendae was still too injured to come, though, as you remember nothing of her from your most recent dream-commune with the Princess.
  3621. > Maybe you had better ask next time..
  3622.  
  3623. > Below, the clouds scuttle by - cast in sharp relief by the pale, white crescent in the sky.
  3624. > Every hour, you would slip from the copilot's seat to step back to the navigation table and plot - by your reckoning - where you had flown.
  3625. > Without electronics - the plane's GPS flashed a confused 'NO SIGNAL' every time it was turned on - and only a few distant radio beacons, you'd been reduced to a more familiar form of navigation.
  3626. > Anonymous might say 'more risky', but he had never reckoned with the instincts of a pegasus.
  3627. > Between those and the stars above, when you climbed into the cockpit and settled into your seat you were pretty sure you knew exactly where you needed to be.
  3628. > Below were spread out long, regular plains cast in pale detail by the now-risen moon.
  3629. > Only divided by the odd road and the shining, serpentine path of a river.
  3630. "Okay, you see that river? Follow it until it swings west, then turn to zero-four-zero and keep a sharp eye. There should be a good-sized lake we'll be able to touch down at."
  3631. > "You sure about this?"
  3632. "If we weren't in a plane, this is how I'd be navigating myself... and we did it plenty of times. I'm sure."
  3633. > "Got it."
  3634. > Sure enough, within minutes the river stretches off towards the left; it swings out of sight as the plane swings off to find its new heading.
  3635. "Now. Bring us down to say, three thousand and hold steady."
  3636. > Fishing up your binoculars, you start sweeping the horizon as soon as you reach altitude.
  3637. "Yeah, I see it. Lake, straight ahead - uh, call it forty miles or so."
  3638. > "Got it."
  3639. > Abruptly, there's a soft hand on your back, right between your wings.
  3640. > "You know, I'm going to miss this."
  3641. "...flying into a desperate, possibly suicidal mission, not having half an idea where we go, on the word of a dream-princess?"
  3642. > He laughs.
  3643.  
  3644. > "No, you great silly bird. It being just - you and me. So close together, perfectly synced up, knowing what we're both up to... and all that other mushy-wushy stuff. I'm betting that wherever we're going, it's going to involve more help?"
  3645. "Yeah."
  3646. > "So, yeah. I'm going to miss it being just you and me."
  3647. "I know what you mean. Wanting things to go back to being simpler is something I have a lot of experience in, remember?"
  3648. > "Mmm-hmm."
  3649. > You check that there's still a little time, then lean over out of your seat to rest your head against Anonymous' shoulder.
  3650. > His arm slips up to circle around your withers entirely and pull you close.
  3651. > "Still doesn't mean I miss it."
  3652. "The difference is, when this is done we really can go back to that."
  3653. > "Would you want to?"
  3654. > Opening your mouth to answer gives you pause.
  3655. > There's another, larger question hidden behind that one - 'Would you want to give up all of this and come back to just me' - which you aren't sure if you know how to answer.
  3656. > That - that was a damn big question.
  3657. "I don't know if we can."
  3658. > "Dodging the question, prettybird."
  3659. > You nicker into his side, letting your eyes slip half-shut.
  3660. "Yeah. I am. I... I would like it, I think. I mean - do I even really need to say it? You're like - so much, much more to me now than just 'master', or even 'someone I work with'-"
  3661. > The pressure of the arm circling you increases to a tender squeeze.
  3662. > "You don't gotta say it."
  3663. "Thanks."
  3664. > "I hear it a lot these days, without you even saying a word."
  3665. > Your cheeks redden a little at his comment on how - affectionate you've become with him.
  3666. > Just like you are being right now.
  3667. > Sitting upright, you bat at him lightly with a wing and stick out your tongue.
  3668. > "...yeah, yeah."
  3669. "Yeah yourself, prettybird."
  3670. > A smile - unbidden, instinctual, simply there of its own accord - raises the corners of your mouth; your tail gives a happy little swish.
  3671. > Then you look back to the indicator bank.
  3672. > Mask-on.
  3673. > Time to focus again.
  3674.  
  3675. "Okay, let's bring us down to eight hundred for the first pass. I'm going to need to see real well; once we have an approach set up I'll hop out and guide you in."
  3676. > "Got it."
  3677. > Barely has the plane touched down when the forest around the edges of the lake springs to life.
  3678. > A good dozen shadowed forms take to wing, while more come to the waters' edge; your heart skips a beat, but torches flaring into light reveals them as ponies.
  3679. > With one very particular pony in the lead.
  3680. "Soarin!"
  3681. > "Hey, Spits."
  3682. > He comes up short, hovering on flapping wings.
  3683. > "...when used to go to the Club Cumulus up in Cloudsdale, you once nearly threw up on me. What happened?"
  3684. > Is he really-?!
  3685. "...go bite a thundercloud, Soarin. I got served some cheap beer that tasted like Kirin piss."
  3686. > He shoots you a strange look, and you just grin back.
  3687. "Wouldn't've known it was the wrong answer if you were a fake."
  3688. > "Hah, good point."
  3689. > Besides, a fake wouldn’t’ve known how incredibly embarrassing it was that you had tried to chug an entire glass of Minotaur Lavabrew.
  3690. > Fluttering closer, Soarin shares a friendly hoof-bump with you.
  3691. > "So. I brought as many as you said. Forty of our finest pegasi, plus a couple dozen more of the other tribes, and all the equipment you asked for. I think it’s every bit of rope we could dig up. How are we doing this?"
  3692. "Give us some time. We're going to have to drain some of the fuel bladders into the plane's own tanks - pull the bladders out, gravity-feed them - then set the trim again and toss any empty bladders overboard to get rid of waste weight. Then we can get everypony besides the pegasi inside-"
  3693. > Soarin's confused expression pulls a laugh from you.
  3694. "Okay, okay. Just give me a couple minutes to load up."
  3695. > Moving the fuel around is the easy part; with enough working together, it wasn’t hard to haul a bladder out and up, simply draining it into the fuel tanks.
  3696. > Getting the ponies in, though...
  3697.  
  3698. > Well, most of them are too busy shooting suspicious glares at Anonymous, or just the plane in general.
  3699. > Their distrust is obvious, even as they follow Soarin's orders to pile into the tight spaces freed when the empty fuel bladders had been dragged out.
  3700. "...okay! Listen up, everypony - once we start moving, it's going to be pretty loud in here."
  3701. > All eyes turn to you, though few are trusting.
  3702. "We won't be able to talk too easily, but Soarin will have a headset so he can speak to me up in the cockpit. I'd suggest you try and get some sleep, but it won't be easy."
  3703. > One of them snorts.
  3704. > "What, you forgotten how to sleep without a bed?"
  3705. "No, I know it won't be easy because I had a damn hard time falling asleep the first few times. And in my case-"
  3706. > You shoot that particular pony a sickeningly sweet smile.
  3707. "-at that point I was chained to the bed. Now? I'm rutting running this show. You got a problem with that?"
  3708. > They shift and wince.
  3709. > None speaks up, though.
  3710. > When you climb back into the cockpit, Anonymous looks over at you with a raised eyebrow.
  3711. > "Trouble?"
  3712. "Nothing I couldn't handle with a swift kick in the flank."
  3713. > Slipping the headset on, you tap the mic trigger.
  3714. "Soarin, you getting me back there?"
  3715. > "Yep - all good, Cap'n. You hear me?"
  3716. "Yeah, I copy you good. Okay, get everyone braced in - we're going to get the engines started again."
  3717. > "Sure thing. One question for you, though."
  3718. "Hit me."
  3719. > "Those bugs are going to hear us coming a mile away or more. How do we not going to get mobbed like crazy before we can even get down?"
  3720. > You grin - a fierce and terrible grin.
  3721. "Nah. Trust me - they aren't going to hear us."
  3722. > Anonymous stays looking at you from the corner of his eye.
  3723. > "This is going to be crazy, isn't it?"
  3724. "Just a little bit. But I'm pretty confident we can do this."
  3725. > "Dangerous?"
  3726. "Not more than trying to out-race an entire changeling swarm. Trust me, Anonymous, it'll be oka-"
  3727. > Oh.
  3728. > Woah.
  3729. > Human lips are weird.
  3730.  
  3731. > Like, super weird.
  3732. > Especially when pressed against your own.
  3733. > Don't stick out far enough to be a proper muzzle, and his little nose pressing against your cheek is a few feeling...
  3734. > But woah.
  3735. > Can't say he doesn't have the whole force-and-passion thing down right.
  3736. > Pulling back with a little gasp, you stare at him through wide and slightly shaky eyes.
  3737. > "...I just wanted to do that. Once. Before we throw ourselves into this craziness."
  3738. "Oh."
  3739. > His hand meshes with your mane, and you can feel your wings give a little fluttering twitch.
  3740. > "Since I get the feeling it might be a little too busy later on to say sweet little things... you be careful out there, Spitfire. I'm not losing you. It'd hurt too much to lose you."
  3741. > Leaning in, you press your head to his chest and just smile.
  3742. "You got it."
  3743.  
  3744. --------
  3745.  
  3746. > "Logic Gate?"
  3747. > On some level you recognize that the voice is calling your name.
  3748. > Not enough to be worth breaking your focus to pay attention to.
  3749. > "Logic? Are you up there again?"
  3750. > Yes.
  3751. > But you're also busy.
  3752. > Nowhere to go, no work to do, but still - still always busy.
  3753. > Because you couldn't just be laying around.
  3754. > Not - not while -
  3755. > A hand on your withers.
  3756. > Your horn sparks fitfully, but Alicia doesn't back off.
  3757. > "Come on. You missed dinner again. You're going to burn yourself out."
  3758. "I need to keep working."
  3759. > "Why?"
  3760. "Because there has to be away. I have to figure out what he did!"
  3761. > "Logic-"
  3762. > Your hoof slams down on the table.
  3763. > Alicia jumps, but still doesn't abandon her assault on your personal space.
  3764. > "You're burning yourself out, Logic Gate! It hurts, I know it hurts, but you aren't just keep yourself up here permanently-"
  3765. > Spinning about, you point your horn straight at Alicia.
  3766. > She only gives you a flat stare.
  3767. > "What're you going to do to me? Hit me with magic? I bet you're so exhausted you couldn't even summon up the magic to push me out of here!"
  3768. > If only you could prove her wrong.
  3769.  
  3770. > Raising a trembling hoof, you jab it at the massive metal cocoon not more than a few feet away.
  3771. "That - that thing, whatever Thomas did to it - the underlying theory is sound. I know it's sound. I tested it, I damn near wrote everything Thomas knew about it - there's got to be a way to make it work like it was supposed to! Some - some damage that could be fixed, sabotage undone-"
  3772. > "Shhhh."
  3773. > Arms encircle you, and you snort angrily.
  3774. > Who is this woman to come in here and act like she knows better than you?!
  3775. > She wasn't even part of your team!
  3776. > At the same time, though...
  3777. > You can't deny the ache in your skull - the pounding point of pain centered on the base of your horn.
  3778. > She was right.
  3779. > Pushing yourself this far was breaking you.
  3780. "I just - I just don't get it! The magic amplifiers are active, and they're definitely imprinting a spell matrix into her thaumspace. I've double- and triple-checked the crystal-imprint substrate, but it's not taking on any kind of proper matrix alignment-"
  3781. > "Logic-"
  3782. > Alicia interrupts you with a shake of her head.
  3783. > "-I don't know what that means. But I get it. It's not working, and it should be."
  3784. "And if it did... we'd be out of a problem. Just - just crank up the engines, get the power flowing, execute the program, and the changelings would follow our orders. Just like that!"
  3785. > Emphasizing your point with a sharp hoof-tap to the table fails to sway Alicia.
  3786. > "Logic..."
  3787. > She takes the hoof in her hands.
  3788. > They're weathered hands - creased, lined, and caloused even at her younger age.
  3789. > "...Logic, I didn't used to give ponies much thought, except to be angry. But - but you're hurting yourself. Is driving yourself mad really going to help?"
  3790. > Is it?
  3791. > Your mouth opens, but you can't say 'yes'.
  3792. > "Trust me, I'm feeling pretty fucking useless too. Not flying anywhere, not much I can do but basic maintenance... and I still feel like I should've known-"
  3793.  
  3794. "Oh, forget it. How could you have known?! I was the one who helped design this, I should have seen-"
  3795. > You let your muzzle thud into the desk.
  3796. > Alicia touches you behind the ear.
  3797. > "Come on, Logic. At least come eat."
  3798. "...fine."
  3799. > Slipping from the seat, you cast one last look back at the machinery.
  3800. > Then you follow Alicia out; she waits until you are gone before shutting the hatch behind you.
  3801. > Down on the lower deck, the rest of the group is gathered - already having stacked up the empty plastic packets of their meals and left them stacked off to the side.
  3802. > You take one last one, carrying it further forward to where one of the larger side-doors had been left open in an effort to improve ventilation.
  3803. > Out across the lake you'd landed on, a multitude of small encampments had spread out along the shore.
  3804. > Small campfires burned in a dozen places, and you could see the shapes of ponies' moving between them.
  3805. > If you flicked your gaze up, you'd find at least twenty more ponies standing watch somewhere on the top of the plane - keeping an eye
  3806. "...guess we're not trying to hide from any humans anymore."
  3807. > "At this point, if we're noticed it might be for the better."
  3808. > You shove a spoonful of mush into your mouth and turn your gaze across the lake.
  3809. > There, on the other end, are the changelings.
  3810. > No campfires burned there, but you could still see occasional movement in the glittering moonlight.
  3811. > And the beating of insectoid wings, when the lake itself was quiet.
  3812. > "Why don't they just swarm us?"
  3813. "Huh?"
  3814. > "Those bug fuckers. Why don't they just fly over here and swarm us? They'd lose some of them, yeah, but if we kill the queen another one just pops up, right?"
  3815. "...I think she's stopping them."
  3816. > "Huh?"
  3817. "A new queen will emerge from the swarm, yeah. But not her. Not Chrysalis. And if she really isn't brain-dead, like Thomas said, then she'll know the first thing we do if they try and swarm us is put her down."
  3818.  
  3819. > "She'd let her swarm be held in this standoff for her own sake?"
  3820. "From what I've been told, Chrysalis was - is - supremely self-centered. And she has absolute control over every single one of them."
  3821. > "Huh."
  3822. > Renaud keeps staring off towards that far shore, though, and you don't get the feeling he's particularly mollified.
  3823. "...you aren't happy about this, are you? You didn't want to come up here."
  3824. > "No. I didn't. I still think we should pass her on over to the Feds and just let them deal with it. But..."
  3825. > Renaud grips the edge of the doorframe with a hand.
  3826. > "...most of all, I feel useless. I don't have a cutie-talent-thingy like you did, Logic Gate, but I know what I'm good at. I fly planes. And guess what's the one thing I can't fuckin' do to get us out of here?"
  3827. > Fly the plane.
  3828. "I... I hope you don't blame us..."
  3829. > "What, ponies? Nah..."
  3830. "No. Um. Thomas' team. Us. The ones who brought it - her - here."
  3831. > Renaud runs a massive hand through the thin hair covering his head.
  3832. > "Okay, maybe a bit. I mean, yeah, it wouldn't have been here if not for you..."
  3833. "It is kind of our fault. Even if one of them did mess with Thomas."
  3834. > You let your head hang.
  3835. > The empty dinner tray - meant for a microwave, but eaten chilled - sits at your hooves.
  3836. "I'm... I'm sorry, Renaud. All I ever wanted was to be somepony. To - to make a name for myself. Make my parents proud. Make my friends proud."
  3837. > "Hey, woah-"
  3838. > He seems caught off-guard by your sudden emotional outpouring, especially when tears begin to drip down your face.
  3839. "You don't understand. When I was first... taken, I thought it was the end of me. I thought I'd be just - just doing little magic tricks, or chained to a machine in a factory, or handing out coffee, or-"
  3840. > You sniff, wiping your muzzle with a hoof.
  3841. "...yeah. Thomas... he was my 'knight in shining armor'. He showed me I still had a chance again. I could still be what I wanted."
  3842. > "More, even."
  3843.  
  3844. > One of Renaud's huge paw-like hands rests on your withers.
  3845. > You nudge the empty food-tray aside and slump down onto your belly, nodding.
  3846. > "Since you were coming up from someplace even more fucked up... it's like some kid being in prison, and then he gets told, 'you can still be a doctor and save lives', or whatever."
  3847. "That's - not too wrong. And then I thought, if I could do that it would also get other ponies free too. But also..."
  3848. > You flick your tail around, slapping your cutie mark, and drop it back to laying on the floor.
  3849. "...you humans don't know what it feels like, because you don't have cutie marks. I was following my calling again. Doing what's right. That's - that's not just 'doing what you know how to do', it's a - a perfect feeling of rightness."
  3850. > Screwing up your muzzle at the awkward words, you huff.
  3851. "If that makes sense?"
  3852. > "It does."
  3853.  
  3854. "Now I'm thinking, even if Thomas did something to change that machine, I also understand it inside and out. There's got to be something I can do to make it work right."
  3855. > "But are you still doing it to impress somebody?"
  3856. "I..."
  3857. > Are you?
  3858. > Maybe.
  3859. > Pulling a magical rabbit out of the metaphorical hat right now would be a damn good trick.
  3860. > And saving everypony's rears would probably get you some attention.
  3861. > But...
  3862. "Mostly, I just don't want anypony else to be hurt. Not again. Not like Bell Curve, or Fred. Or Cog Whirl."
  3863. > Renaud doesn't say anything.
  3864. > Just pats you once on the back and stands up.
  3865. > Eventually you get up and head back through the plane, up the stairs, and to your little work-cabin.
  3866. > You don't actually hear the footsteps following until you've taken a seat in your chair; then one ear does prick as you glance up to find Alicia halfway through the door.
  3867. > "Hey..."
  3868. "I can't just sit around doing nothing, Alicia. I've got to work agai-"
  3869. > "No, no. It's fine. I, um..."
  3870. > She takes a seat as well, opposite you.
  3871. > "...look. You're going to drive yourself crazy working alone, and Sai - I think he's too angry to focus. I don't know half the stuff in here, but I know machinery. Do you want a hand?"
  3872. "I..."
  3873. > From her?
  3874. > Miss queen-bitch herself?
  3875. > Alicia winces, her gaze switching from you to the equipment.
  3876. > "...I listened to what you were saying to Renaud."
  3877. "So you, uh... you heard all of that, huh?"
  3878. > "Sound, uh... sound kind of carries in the plane. Without the engines running..."
  3879. "Oh..."
  3880. > "And... I don't know. I know none of this is my fault, exactly, but - I could've been a better person too. So, yeah. Do you want help?"
  3881. > A soft sigh rushes out of you as you nod slowly.
  3882. > You weren't doing this to impress.
  3883. > You weren't looking for recognition.
  3884. > You were trying to help, right?
  3885. > Then...
  3886. "Alicia... I'd love a bit of help."
  3887. > "Great. So, what do I do-"
  3888.  
  3889. > She gestures to some of the machinery, and you almost jump out of your seat before she can speak another word:
  3890. "Don't touch that!"
  3891. > "I wasn't, I wasn't!"
  3892. > Alicia shakes her head, looking both amused and surprised by the strength of your reaction.
  3893. > "I know better than to touch machinery I don't recognize. What is this, anyway?"
  3894. "That?"
  3895. > Now you do hop from your seat, carefully stepping over to the bundle of crystalline tubes and thickly-coated wires.
  3896. "That's probably the most dangerous thing in here, after the Changeling queen herself. It's the magic amplifier. Takes electricity from the plane's electric system and feeds it through the crystal array to boost the thaumic output of the Queen's spell nexus-"
  3897. > Right.
  3898. > Lecturing.
  3899. > You flush a little, and Alicia smiles - maybe recognizing the eagerness of a fellow expert.
  3900. "The point is, all that magic... it's like high voltage electricity. It's not channeled by anypony; it's wild magic. Even trying to control it is dangerous; you can induce Backlash. If it hit a human..."
  3901. > "Bad."
  3902. "We don't actually knkow. When we were building this, we never let an accident happen."
  3903. > "Well, I won't be your first, then."
  3904. > Alicia backs off, finding a place at one of the (presumably much safer) computer stations.
  3905. > "So, what do I have to do...?"
  3906. "Well, we'll start with running another check over the matching process that aligns the queen's thaumocenter with the spell matrix. I'll start the program; you watch this line. If it drifts over the second tick..."
  3907. > The only clock in the space is on your computer, so you don't really keep time that well.
  3908. > Hours slip by with just yourself and Alicia inspecting things you'd reinspected before.
  3909. > Still you cannot give up.
  3910. > At some point you were suddenly aware of waking at some point well-past two in the morning - with your muzzle pressed to they keyboard and Alicia trying to shake you awake.
  3911. "M'fine, m'fine. Just dozing. I can keep goin'..."
  3912.  
  3913. > "You've been drooling on the keyboard for the past hour, Logic. You need to sleep."
  3914. "I... I will..."
  3915. > Sitting up, you stretch all four hooves - something in your spine pops.
  3916. > Ow, yes.
  3917. > She was right.
  3918. > You'd been slumped in place for far, far too long.
  3919. > But exhaustion was clinging at the edges of your mind, and it just wouldn't hurt if you laid your head...
  3920. > Laid it down for just a few...
  3921. > A few...
  3922. > ...
  3923. > The next thing you know, someone new is violently shaking you awake.
  3924. "M'up! I said m'gettin' up, Alicia!"
  3925. > "You better be. We all need to be up - not in thirty, not in five, now!"
  3926. > Wait.
  3927. > That wasn't Alicia...
  3928. > You pop your head up, ears twitching, and look around.
  3929. > Sure enough, distant sounds of movement mutedly carried into the plane's cabin.
  3930. "What's going on?"
  3931. > "I don't know, but something's got them all stirred up."
  3932. > You glance at the PC's clock - near six in the morning! - and hop from the seat.
  3933. > Ignoring the cramps and stiffness around your body, you follow down the steps and through the lower deck.
  3934. > With each window you pass, you chance a glance out.
  3935. > Sure enough, something had stirred the accompanying ponies up into a frenzy.
  3936. > As you watched, more than a few leaped off the shore to skim along the lake's surface - tip-feathers brushing the water.
  3937. > In their wake, water was up in a fine mist that wove itself into tendrils of fog; collectively, each pegasus' trail was building into a proper fogbank.
  3938. "What are they doing?"
  3939. > "Hiding us."
  3940. > With good reason.
  3941. > On the far shore, glinting in the dawn's light, black dots wove and whirled in fractal-like patterns.
  3942. > Climbing the stairs up to the cockpit, you find Renaud, Alicia, and Gerard already at their seats.
  3943. "What's going on?"
  3944. > "Anonymous. He's just about back, with fuel for us. Called us on the radio, so he can't be too far out. Those ponies, they're working up a fogbank to hide him when he comes in."
  3945. > But the changelings-
  3946. "He's going to get swarmed!"
  3947. > Gerard shakes his head.
  3948.  
  3949. > "I do not comprehend how, but he alleges he can fly the plane in... without them hearing."
  3950. > Before you can object further the radio pops.
  3951. > Without the engines running, Spitfire's voice sounds unnaturally loud and echoing.
  3952. > "Hey - this is Spitfire. Are you ready down there?"
  3953. > "Just about - how close are you?"
  3954. > "Close enough. We're going to cut the engines. Do you have the gas to fire up one of your auxiliaries, make a little noise down there?"
  3955. > Alicia glances at her panel and nods.
  3956. > "We can do that. Logic, please come help me?"
  3957. > Trotting quickly at her heels, you can't get the one simple question out of your head.
  3958. "How in all Equestria is she going to slip in without being heard?!"
  3959.  
  3960. --------
  3961.  
  3962. > A pegasus, acting alone, could lift just over its body weight.
  3963. > Two, together, could draw a cart through the air.
  3964. > A couple dozen, enough to wrangle a good-size feral stormcloud or deflect a larger storm.
  3965. "Okay, everypony! On my mark, synchronize with your neighbors-"
  3966. > Forty, all well-trained and in good shape, working together?
  3967. "-and mark!"
  3968. > Enough to tow a plane.
  3969. > The harness strains at your shoulders, its straps digging in fiercely with each beat of your wings.
  3970. > Somewhere behind you, the noise of the Catalina's twin engines sputtered, coughed, and dropped to silence.
  3971. > In their place, a whole new constellation of sounds emerged:
  3972. > Tow-lines creaking with the tension of keeping the plane steady; grunts and puffs of breath sound as the ponies find their pace.
  3973. > With you in the lead, all those behind had to do was keep beating their wings, keep pulling, and not fall out of synchronization.
  3974. > Virtually every pegasus in the guard would end up tandem-pulling a chariot at some point in their lives, so the fundamentals were understood; organizing this many, though…
  3975. > A bit trickier, especially with no time to really practice.
  3976.  
  3977. > The changelings had been right to not fear any immediate reinforcements; even if more ponies could have been flown in on chariots, they would have arrived exhausted and in no shape to fight.
  3978. > But if they had ridden most of the way, only to take to wing at the end...
  3979. "You're doing great, everypony! Keep at it, follow my lead!"
  3980. > This was, in many ways, madness.
  3981. > To avoid being seen - avoid the dawn's light glinting off the plane's shining skin - you had to come in far lower to the treetops than you were comfortable with.
  3982. > Anonymous said it was called 'nap of the earth flying'.
  3983. > He also sounded mildly alarmed when you suggested it.
  3984. > Any fault now - a section of pegasi failing to keep the pace, a gust that sent him off-course, an updraft or downdraft, or Celestia forbid one of the tow lines parting-
  3985. > Well.
  3986. > There wouldn't be much room to recover.
  3987. > The fog the rest of the ponies had thrown up looms ahead; flying in without good sight would normally have been nerve-wracking, but the noise of the Mars' single engine was like a lighthouse - an audible beacon to home in on.
  3988. > By the time you reach the lake’s edge, sweat is already foaming on your flanks and back under the tremendous load you - and everypony else - bore.
  3989. > When you slip into the vaporous barrier, you even let your eyes fall closed to focus in on your other senses:
  3990. "Anonymous, how is it back there?"
  3991. > Popping in your ears, Anonymous' voice comes back over the radio headset stronger than normal - no longer muffled by the roar of the engines as it typically was.
  3992. > "The stick is real fucking heavy without the over-wing flow from the engines, but I can manage it."
  3993. "Just let me know if you need to turn. And have one of the ponies cut the tow line if it's getting bad!"
  3994. > "Copy - but it's manageable. As long as nobody moves; don't any of you move, got it?!"
  3995. > His words might be reassuring, but there was obvious and definite strain in his voice.
  3996. > You let your focus return to the task at hand.
  3997.  
  3998. > While the Mars' single engine somewhere ahead was as easy as a lighthouse to home in on, you also had to listen for the slap and slosh of water beneath you.
  3999. > And, in the distance, the discordant buzzing of an innumerable insectile wings.
  4000. > Would the changelings try to intercept?
  4001. > If they did while you still had the plane under tow, it would be a disaster.
  4002. > The fog parts like a heavy cloak, suddenly revealing dark-blue, smooth water beneath you.
  4003. > Too close!
  4004. "Ease it up, everypony! Muzzles up - c'mon, pull! Put your wings into it!"
  4005. > Here and there the dark form of a pony - at least, you hope it's a pony - flitters through the soup-like fog.
  4006. > "Hey Spitfire - if you want to drop me down right now, I'm pretty sure we're over the water."
  4007. "We are, but I want to put you closer to the Mars!"
  4008. > With both your ears plugged with the headset, it was hard to tell just how close it was.
  4009. > But you didn't need to listen.
  4010. > Soarin's hoof taps you on the haunch.
  4011. > "Now, Spitfire!"
  4012. "Anonymous, flare!"
  4013. > In an instant, you bank back.
  4014. > Those following just behind you follow your lead perfectly; even further back, Anonymous would be pulling the stick back to flare the plane up for landing-
  4015. > When the hull touches water, you know in a split-second.
  4016. > Like an anchor hitting the ocean floor, the added drag pulls so hard on your harness you almost miss a wingbeat.
  4017. > That was worse than you'd been expecting!
  4018. > Any harder, and it felt like one of your bones would have snapped; as was, you were definitely going to be sporting some smart bruises in the morning!
  4019. > Gritting your teeth tight as a vice's jaws, you push past the pain.
  4020. "...okay, that's it! Slip harnesses!"
  4021. > Yours is already off.
  4022. > Those behind you are already slipping theirs.
  4023. > Ahead, a shape fades in from the fog, hovering on beating wings as it cautiously approaches.
  4024. "Hey! Do you know exactly where the big plane - the big machine - is? We need to bring these two nice and close together without crashing."
  4025.  
  4026. > "Aye, My Captain. I think I might know!"
  4027. "Kalendae!"
  4028. > The fog parts as she draws near, Kalendae tilts up to greet you with a formal salute - and then swoops in to offer a far-less-formal nuzzle as well.
  4029. "Are you completely crazy?! You came back on that wing? You're going to run yourself ragged, you know that!"
  4030. > "Aye, My Captain."
  4031. > She grins widely, showing both her fangs.
  4032. > "Yet I could not leave you to do this alone. My honor as a servant of Her Highness forbade it. I... debated the question with Soarin for some time, but ultimately I won out."
  4033. "You mean, you harassed him until he gave in and let you."
  4034. > Kalendae snickers, then gestures to the smaller plane behind you.
  4035. > "You have a plan?"
  4036. "Yes. Are the changelings doing anything?"
  4037. > "They're stirred up as a nest of bees by the roar of a hungry bear... alarmed, but not yet angry. I believe their queen understands she is not being moved yet."
  4038. "Good. That buys us some time."
  4039.  
  4040. > Getting the two planes close enough together without colliding them was, itself, a terrible chore.
  4041. > A boat - hell, even the little inflatable thing kept in the Mars - would've been nice!
  4042. > But no.
  4043. > Just wings, muscle, and much sweating.
  4044. > When it was done, you unceremoniously collapsed on one of the fuel bladders inside the Catalina and groaned.
  4045. > ...then your nose wrinkled.
  4046. > That was a dumb move.
  4047. > Resilient these things might have been, and bouncy like a water-bed.
  4048. > But they still stank of gasoline.
  4049. > Odors burning in your nostrils, you force yourself up on burning muscles and flutter back out and over - past other pegasi scattered around both planes' hulls, resting their tired bodies - back towards the cockpit.
  4050. "Uuugh..."
  4051. > Fingers settle into your back - massaging into tired and sore muscles in that uniquely relieving way.
  4052. > Like breaking up places where your body had solidified into aching, solid-
  4053. > "Ew. You're sweaty."
  4054. "Yeah, that's what you get when you're out there working - not just sitting pretty in a cockpit pulling on controls."
  4055. > Another hand joins the first in massaging your back, and you stretch luxuriously.
  4056. > Yeeeeeessss, keep doing that!
  4057. > ..your leg might even be kicking a bit.
  4058. > Tail's definitely twitching.
  4059. "Quit that. You're going to embarrass me in front of all of them."
  4060. > "Make me."
  4061. > Fuck that.
  4062. > You can handle a little embarassment if it means he keeps doing that!
  4063. > Even if they-
  4064. > Anonymous' hands press, and several spots in your back pop audibly.
  4065. "Oooooh!"
  4066. > With the planes drawn close, the fuel bladders can be hoisted out of the Catalina and drawn to the Mars.
  4067. > When empty, they're simply dumped a little ways from the edge of the lake.
  4068. > Disgust fills you at the haphazard pile of empty fabric.
  4069. "...it's sad. I knew we'd have to leave them behind, but just - tossing them off near good water doesn't feel right."
  4070. > "Yeah."
  4071. > Anonymous was still close - you sitting on the edge of a cockpit hatch, he standing within it.
  4072.  
  4073. > "But even empty, those things weigh a fair bit, and if we don't-"
  4074. "I know, I know. Every pound counts towards efficiency. Don't have to tell me."
  4075. > You bat lightly at Anonymous' neck with a wing, wicking a few droplets of sweat from his skin.
  4076. > Not content to be seen as 'slacking off' after everypony had worked so hard towing the plane in, he'd done more than his part in manhandling the fuel bladders about.
  4077. > "...mostly, though, I'm just really glad to have those things off my plane."
  4078. "You do know that every time we take off, it's with a whole bunch of fuel on-board."
  4079. > "Yeah, but that's a whole lot different than looking back and seeing nothing but bags of avgas feeling like they're going to blow the second I fart in their general direction."
  4080. "Don't be gross."
  4081. > "Can't help it. I'm covered in sweat and ick. I'm gross by default right now."
  4082. > He sighs, glancing down at the lake-water below.
  4083. > "...a swim would be real nice right now."
  4084. "Later. Tartarus' black halls - if we get out of this, I'll take you for a swim through a cloud!"
  4085. > "I'll hold you to that, prettybird."
  4086. > You're about to lash out at him when claws click on the surface of the plane's hull.
  4087. "Gerard. Good to see you - how are you holding up?"
  4088. > "Feeling distinctly unwanted."
  4089. > Croaking out his reply, he twists his head - forcing the nearest pony to shuffle of with low whinny.
  4090. > ...yeah, there were more than a few glares being shot in his direction.
  4091. > "They tolerate the humans, because they understand what is at stake and that the humans are needed to end this threat. I... am uneeded."
  4092. "Oh yeah? Well, fuck 'em. You're on my team."
  4093. > More than a few ears turn in your direction at that, and you spear each with an angry look until they break away.
  4094. > "...it is a strange team you now captain, Spitfire."
  4095. > "You better believe it."
  4096. > Anonymous pats your withers.
  4097. > "But it's a good one, with a good captain."
  4098. "Heh. What he said. Anyway, what're the bugs up to now? They coming after us yet?"
  4099.  
  4100. > "You would do better to ask one of the ponies... but I do not believe so."
  4101. "Chrysalis still doesn't get what we're doing, or she wouldn't be waiting while we're vulnerable. Okay. I'm not going to complain about good luck, but we shouldn't expect it to last."
  4102. > "Yeah."
  4103. > Anonymous glances out through the fog, as if searching for signs of a rising swarm.
  4104. > "The second we start firing up the engines, she's going to figure it out."
  4105. > Gerard clicks his beak - tapping his claws on the plane.
  4106. > "Spitfire, I - I would make a special request of you. I ask you - to grant me a weapon. When we take off, the changelings will come. Some may reach the planes. I will not want to stand by without any means to help."
  4107. "Why-"
  4108. > Gerard puffs his feathers up, a few sticking out from around his neck in a ruff that reminds you of nothing so much as a lion's mane.
  4109. > "I have my claws and beak, yes, but I am under no illusions - I am not the fighter I once was. I could use a weapon."
  4110. "Y'know, the way you were taking on Kalendae and Bell Curve at once back when we were training? That says you're a bit more of a fighter than you're giving yourself credit for. But what I'm really wondering is, why do you think you're going to be fighting?"
  4111. > "Because I would not dare merely flee from such a foe."
  4112. > You raise an eyebrow.
  4113. "This, from the griffon who once extolled me on the virtues of playing dirty? Is there anything wrong with choosing an opportune moment not to fight?"
  4114. > "Hah!"
  4115. > Gerard's beak clicks as he gives a sharp bark of laughter.
  4116. > "A play well made! You raise a point - yet, once we fly, there is no more trickery to be done. And then, I will not merely turn tail."
  4117. "I - I'm not sure that's such a good idea, Gerard. Look, the last time we were trying to fly out and a griffon tried to do something crazy..."
  4118. > Your hoof taps the edge of the hatch you stand in.
  4119. "...Giselle didn't live to see it through. I'd prefer to not be naming any more things after fallen friends, you know?"
  4120.  
  4121. > "Why Spitfire, is that concern for me I hear? From you, of all ponies?"
  4122. > Anonymous chuckles, ruffling your mane.
  4123. > "He's got you there, Spits!"
  4124. "Shaddup, both of you!"
  4125. > Anonymous ducks another wing swung at his head, and all three of you share a little bit of a chuckle.
  4126. > When it is done, though, you tap the plane with a hoof again.
  4127. "I'm not joking around, though, Gerard. You're - yeah, I may not like everything you suggest, but you've turned out to be one of the most reliable crew - humans, ponies, griffons, anyone - in this whole mess."
  4128. > You drop your head to rest on the hatch's rim.
  4129. > Sending your memories back to that one awful moment - to Giselle dying in your hooves - is almost enough to put the coppery scent of blood in your nostrils.
  4130. "...and I'd rather not lose you. Or anyone else."
  4131. > "And to think, a mere year or so ago I was glad to see Equestria overrun and torn down. Now a pony is still trying to convince me to be - pony-like, and yet out of a desire to protect me. What a strange world it is that we live in."
  4132. > It's bait, you realize.
  4133. > Gerard is trying to make you get angry, lash out at him.
  4134. > Show something
  4135. > A narrowing of your eyes isn't something you can control, but he holds no power over your tongue or lips.
  4136. "Whatever happened to Equestria, we're still stronger standing together."
  4137. > "So we may be... but my original claim still stands."
  4138. > Gerard gives a short, trilling laugh as he shakes his head - lionlike tail lashing back and forth.
  4139. > "If the changelings come - and they will - I wish to fight as hard as I may. I will need a weapon."
  4140. > You sigh.
  4141. > So much for that.
  4142. > "But if it will settle your mind, I will not throw myself at them."
  4143. "You know, it might just."
  4144. > "A griffon would not need such assurances."
  4145. > But he is smiling, in that half-open-beak griffon way, as he takes to wing and flies off.
  4146. > "I think he likes you, Prettybird."
  4147. "I think he does too. I'm not sure what to think about that..."
  4148.  
  4149. > You turn to Anonymous, raising an eyebrow.
  4150. "Also, call me 'Prettybird' in public again and I'll pull out all your hair."
  4151. > “Sure thing, Prettybird.”
  4152. > Anonymous ducks into back through the cockpit hatch, hooting with laughter as you snap your teeth at his hair.
  4153.  
  4154. --------
  4155.  
  4156. > As the sun rises, you gather everypony for one last strategy meeting.
  4157. > Halfway through winging your way over to the Mars, your radio pops in your ears.
  4158. > "Spitfire?"
  4159. "What is it, Soari-"
  4160. > You freeze.
  4161. > Soarin - the real Soarin - hadn't ever been given a radio.
  4162. > But when the changeling had left...
  4163. > Thank Celestia you hadn't been communicating over them!
  4164. > "Spitfire... whatever you're doing, you don't want to do this."
  4165. > You grit your teeth, anger curling in your belly.
  4166. "Sixtus. Is this Sixtus?"
  4167. > "...so, you got Thomas talking."
  4168. "It didn't take much. He wasn't happy with you killing Cog and running off like that."
  4169. > "I am sorry."
  4170. > The radio adds another layer of fuzz to his voice, but even without that you weren't sure if you'd have thought he was being truthful.
  4171. > Did he ever have any real sympathy or care for Thomas...?
  4172. "Why call me now? Why not - why not tell us before? Before you had to-"
  4173. > Kill, you were going to say.
  4174. > But it had been killing since long before this missing
  4175. "-before this?"
  4176. > "We know you're planning something, Spitfire. My brothers and sisters and I.. we all know. Our Queen knows."
  4177. "You're sitting on that shore watching our every move. Of course you know."
  4178. > Though, the Queen knowing too wasn't a welcome development.
  4179. > "You don't want to do this, Spitfire. We aren't unreasonable. We aren't your enemies."
  4180. "Yeah, you're going to have a hard time selling me that after you spent a few months killing, lying, and screwing with my head."
  4181. > "I only did what I had to do to protect Our Queen."
  4182. > You don't know what's more eerie:
  4183. > That even at this point it still sounds like an absolutely perfect match for Soarin - or that he sounds so utterly honest and calm.
  4184.  
  4185. > "You can understand wanting to protect something you love, can't you? How far somepony would go to do that."
  4186. "Do you even understand what it means to love? It's all just food to you."
  4187. > "We understand it better than anypony else might. It nourishes us. It sustains us. And we do love Our Queen."
  4188. > Still, he - it - sounds so utterly certain - not pronouncing the words as if it were trying to sell you on the idea, but as if it were stating a simple fact.
  4189. "I'd love to think that, y'know."
  4190. > "It is true. We don't want a battle here, Spitfire. If a battle begins, your crew could be hurt. Our Queen could be hurt. Neither of us want this."
  4191. > Right.
  4192. > Because it was so thoughtful to care for the lives of your crew - your team - after casually whittling them away.
  4193. "You know, back before you started killing us off... back then, I might've been just dumb enough to believe that. I might've been naive enough, stupid enough, to think all of this had changed... well, Changelings."
  4194. > "We're not so different, Spitfire. I'm sorry I had to deceive you, but you know how hard it is to be taken from somepony you love... and how good it feels to get back together."
  4195. > Your brows knit; there was another part of that line unsaid, but what it is you aren't sure.
  4196. "What's your point?"
  4197. > "You don't think I learned to be Soarin from thin air, did you?"
  4198. > Still processing what he said, you're silent long enough that the changeling goes on:
  4199. > "Would it help if I brought him back to you, to show that I am being honest? He is still safe, you know. Safe in a cocoon. We could get him out. Send him to you-"
  4200. "If you really were learning from him, then what did he tell me when I made Wonderbolts captain?"
  4201. > Nothing comes through the radio but silence, static, and deafening truth.
  4202. > Not just the truth that Sixtus was lying, but a greater truth on top of that:
  4203. > He was desperate.
  4204. > He didn't have a clue what you were doing, and he - maybe all the changelings - was scared senseless by that.
  4205.  
  4206. > Only a scared-stiff Changeling would be crazy enough to try that lie on you.
  4207. > That, alone, is enough to make your heart swell in your chest:
  4208. > This wasn't suicide; this could be done.
  4209. > If they were that ill-prepared, you might have the room to outmaneuver them just once - and once is all you need.
  4210. "...you know, Sixtus, in at least one way I should thank you."
  4211. > "Thank me, Spitfire?"
  4212. > For the first time there's real emotion in that voice.
  4213. > Cold, well-hidden,, but still anger.
  4214. "Yes. Having Soarin dangled in front of me, then pulled away... it set some things in focus. Forced me to admit some things to myself I'd been lying about for a long time. So, by lying to me I guess you made me a more honest pony. Thanks for that."
  4215. > "I do not understand-"
  4216. "Now I know where my heart really lies. I don't know how long it would have taken me. So, I wish Cog Whirl and Bell Curve and Cloud Patch and everyone else you've hurt was back... but even so, thank you for giving me the gift of truth at least."
  4217. > "This... idle chatter is wasting time. Give us Our Queen, Spitfire, and we will leave you-"
  4218. "And since we're being truthful now, Sixtus, let me tell you two truths. First, you're too late. I already found Soarin - the real Soarin. Yes, I checked this time. Yes, it hurt for me to accuse him of maybe being false... but I'm much happier knowing the truth."
  4219. > You let yourself grin.
  4220. "Second... I don't want to hurt your Queen. Stupid as it might be, I'm not going to sink to your level yet; she's still safe in her big tank thing. But if you do come to kill us, we will. Just keep that in mind, when you're thinking about what to do over there."
  4221. > "...you are lying."
  4222. > Trying to make your voice sound brave would probably just reveal how scared you still were, so instead you don't attempt to sound like anything at all.
  4223. "Am I?"
  4224. > "Yes. Ponies do not slaughter the helpless. It is not your way."
  4225.  
  4226. "Not until we're pushed into a corner. Which we are right now, because you're threatening the ponies who are my team... and the person I care about most."
  4227. > This time, he doesn't bother arguing.
  4228. > After waiting a few seconds longer, you press the microphone trigger one last time:
  4229. "Just... think about that. You want Chrysalis to live? You let us go. Tell her that too, if you can still talk to her through that group-mind of yours."
  4230. > You don't wait for an answer for that; you just switch the radio off and continue winging your way over to the Mars.
  4231. > As you do, though, another thought pops into your mind:
  4232. > Gerard you might have been able to convince not to do anything suicidal, but he wasn't the only former soldier here.
  4233. > And so you pull Kalendae aside for one moment before things begin:
  4234. "Listen. Things are going to get a little stormy - a little dangerous. When it happens... you don't have to play hero. Or even guardspony. You're still hurt, and we're going to need a copilot for the Mars. That's you. And I don't think Princess Luna would want you to throw your life away for nothing either."
  4235. > "I understand, My Captain."
  4236. > Ducking her head in a bowing-nod, Kalendae smiles.
  4237. > "Though my grief for Cog Whirl is great, you need not fear me throwing my life away."
  4238. "Good."
  4239. > You bump foreheads with her, nickering softly; Kalendae returns the gesture easily.
  4240. > Both of you then turn to join the eclectic circle of ponies, humans, and one griffon.
  4241. > In addition to your team, Soarin and a couple other ponies you don't recognize also sat in the Mars' cabin; they must have been the other officers involved in this.
  4242. > "Lens Glare, and Periwinkle-"
  4243. > Gesturing to each of them in turn, Soarin gives their names by way of introduction.
  4244. > "-my co-officers here."
  4245. "Good to meet you."
  4246. > But none of them seem pleased to meet you.
  4247. > Right; maybe that was too much to hope for.
  4248. "We're just about ready to get moving again. Alicia?"
  4249. > She nods sharply.
  4250.  
  4251. > "We started checking the engines over as soon as we heard Anonymous was coming in. It won't be long."
  4252. "Excellent. Soarin?"
  4253. > "Well, that's a good thing - because don't have long."
  4254. > He gestures out one of the open hatchways, where the fog was starting to gleam in the day's rising light.
  4255. > "The temperature is rising, and this fog won't last. I'm having my ponies work double-time to try and keep it up, but every minute they spend is tiring them out..."
  4256. "Too much to ask that Celestia could put off the day for a few hours, huh?"
  4257. > Your quip draws a few smiles, even from one of the unfamiliar ponies.
  4258. "Well, we won't be long. As soon as we're done here, we can start running takeoff checklists. No more than fifteen minutes after that. Ten, if we're fast."
  4259. > "But the second we do..."
  4260. > You nod.
  4261. "Those changelings are probably going to swarm. You've got to keep them away from the engines; if they shred one it could tear the wing apart."
  4262. > "Forget that-"
  4263. > One of the other pony officers grumbles, glancing suspiciously up at the plane.
  4264. > "-I just don't want my ponies getting anywhere near those propellers!"
  4265. "Yeah, that's important too. They will draw a draft in, so be especially way of standing in front of them."
  4266. > "Okay. So we get you in the air-"
  4267. "We're going to climb as hard and fast as we can. Get above where they can fly. All you have to do is keep them off us while we're getting that altitude, and we'll do the rest."
  4268. > Soarin shakes his head.
  4269. > "Easier said than done, Spitfire. We don't have enough chariots, so once you climb out of reach of unicorns on the ground-"
  4270. "Yeah, so I have a bit of an idea about that. We'll use the smaller plane - the one I'll be flying, it's called a Catalina - as a big chariot. There's a couple hatches on it we can pop open - big ones, about two-thirds back. We stick as many unicorns and crossbow-ponies as we can in there, let them fire out of it."
  4271. > Anonymous visibly starts, shooting you a nervous look.
  4272.  
  4273. > For a moment your eyes meet:
  4274. > Concern filling his.
  4275. > No, not concern.
  4276. > Fear.
  4277. > You understand.
  4278. > He hadn't reckoned on turning his plane into a warplane.
  4279. > But his mouth remains firmly closed, refusing to argue with that.
  4280. > You smile, and so does he.
  4281. > Trust, even if not happiness with your plane.
  4282. "We'll keep shadowing the larger plane as it climbs - playing wingpony to it on a big scale. Plus-"
  4283. > Your eyes flick back to the other officers.
  4284. > The ones still watching you with clear suspicion warding their gazes from being truly open and friendly.
  4285. "-that'll be a few more ponies traveling the whole way with us."
  4286. > And, though you did not speak it, keeping an eye on you.
  4287. > Making sure you didn't decide to slip away and run off after ponies had risked life and limb to get you out alive.
  4288. > Not that you had the fuel to make it that far, but - who were they to believe what you said?
  4289. > Lens Glare and Periwinkle share a glance of silent discussion between them; the latter nods cleanly to you:
  4290. > "I'll take that group, if you don't mind."
  4291. "Not at all. Only rule is there'll be some things I tell you to do for safety reasons. Not a problem?"
  4292. > "Not a problem."
  4293. > Unless it will be, you suspect.
  4294. > Well, that's good enough for now - anything to get you away from the changelings first!
  4295. "So. We climb out, most of the changelings try to come after us. Soarin, Lens Glare - can you manage to keep your own ponies safe?"
  4296. > "Changelings are ambush predators. In a straight-up fight, we can manage."
  4297. > Soarin grins a little.
  4298. > "We'll be fine, Spitfire. Honestly."
  4299. > You keep your eye on him for a second, just to be sure.
  4300. > Though your relationship was over, but that didn't mean he wasn't a good, good friend!
  4301. "...well. I guess we'd better get going, then. Like he said, every minute they have to keep that fog up..."
  4302. > "Speaking of which -"
  4303. > Renaud raises a finger.
  4304.  
  4305. > "-make sure your ponies stop making it before we have to take off. I don't know if you have magic radar or something, but seeing where we're going is important!"
  4306. > "Right. And, two last things. One, Renaud, switch all the headset radios over to, uh… 121.9. When that changeling ran off, it must have taken one of them with it. Just going to a random frequency should hide us from them.”
  4307. > “Got it. And two?”
  4308. “Two…”
  4309. > You shoot Lens Glare, Kalendae, and Gerard a look each in turn - and are grateful Thomas is too far to hear your next words:
  4310. "If it looks like they're going to overrun the plane, kill the Queen. A new one will emerge, yes, but it might just buy us our lives."
  4311.  
  4312. --------
  4313.  
  4314. > As you climb into the Catalina's cockpit, Anonymous shoots you a curious look.
  4315. > "Aren't you... y'know, a little nervous?"
  4316. "Oh, abso-fucking-lutely terrified."
  4317. > He snorts.
  4318. > "Glad you said it. I couldn't tell."
  4319. > You spare a look up and realize - yeah.
  4320. > He was scared.
  4321. > Very scared, if the sheen of sweat on his forehead and slight trembling in his hands were any indication.
  4322. "C'mon. We've done takeoffs from rough strips before-"
  4323. > "Yeah, but not playing gunship while the fucking Zerg or whatever are coming for my juicy guts!"
  4324. > Before he can get more agitated, you lean way over out of your seat to rest your head against his shoulder.
  4325. "Hey-"
  4326. > A wing extends, settling across his back too.
  4327. "Hey. Listen. I guess... I guess yeah, I can get a little focused on 'the mission' once I'm given something to do. Sorry about that. I'm - I'm not trying to say you shouldn't be afraid or anything. I guess - I guess when you get down to it I am too. I've just learned how to squash it down a little better."
  4328. > "And how do you do that?"
  4329. > With your closeness, Anonymous' voice has softened again.
  4330. > As you continue to talk, his arm comes down to circle your neck in a mirror gesture to your wing.
  4331.  
  4332. "Well. For starters. Close your eyes. Just close them, and sit back in that seat for a second. Uh, hands on the control wheel, I guess."
  4333. > "...sure?"
  4334. > He does it, and you scoot a little close to him as well.
  4335. "Now. Just think. You know where you are. You've sat in this seat for years. Your feet know those pedals, and you know that wheel. You know what this plane can do. It's not the most nimble thing out there, no. But it's strong. It can lift a whole lot, and take a good shaking without trouble. You know this."
  4336. > Speaking in a slow and steady yet carefully paced voice was almost therapeutic for you too.
  4337. > Instructing like this wasn't something you'd done in far, far too long; yet now it all flows back like galloping an old, familiar trail.
  4338. > As comforting and familiar as what you were trying to give him.
  4339. "We're about to do something dangerous. Something risky. But not suicidal. Risks can be managed. You know your limits, and you know this plane's limits. You can feel it when it moves. You can hear the noises of the controls. You can tell when it's in trouble, and when it's still got more fight. This is where you're comfortable. This is where you're an ace. So you are ready for this."
  4340. > Fingers enmesh in your coat as you finish.
  4341. > "Unless I miss my guess, you got a speech like that once?"
  4342. "Let me tell you, Anonymous. When you stand out in front of a crowd - a real crowd, your first time - knowing you're going to pull stunts that could leave you drinking through a straw if you're not completely on the mark..."
  4343. > "A little nerve wracking?"
  4344. "I could barely get my wings open."
  4345. > He chuckles, and you relish the feeling of his ribs vibrating against you.
  4346. "So, yeah. Captain at the time gave me a speech more or less like that. We'd practiced everything beforehand, but doing it for real, with everypony watching - he had to get me back into the zone of focusing on things I knew."
  4347.  
  4348. > "Huh. How about that. My little prettybird, all shaking and nervous - I can hardly imagine it."
  4349. > A grin touches your lips.
  4350. "And you'd better quit imagining it right now."
  4351. > "Yes ma'am."
  4352. > Both of you share a little chuckle; when it fades, you take a deep and slow breath in:
  4353. > Relishing the closeness of his body and touch of his fingers.
  4354. > ...which is right when your ears prick at the sound of hooves on metal right behind you.
  4355. > You pull back and turn around just in time to catch a couple of pony guards shooting you a supremely dirty look.
  4356. > This time, though, just glare back until they break their gaze off:
  4357. > Yeah, you were just cuddled up to him.
  4358. > What were they going to do about it - kick you off the plane?
  4359. > Hah!
  4360. > Still, they were only the first of a procession of ponies, and you it seemed prudent to not try to intimidate every one.
  4361. > So you straighten up in your own seat and open the preflight list leaning against your wheel.
  4362. > Time to be professional.
  4363. "Okay. Magnetos set, throttles to idle, cabin electricity to battery..."
  4364.  
  4365. --------
  4366.  
  4367. > The second the engines whine, sputter, and thunder to life the reaction from across the lake was immediate.
  4368. > When the fog had been allowed to disperse - burned away by the rising sun's rays - the changelings had grown agitated at the sudden appearance of a second aircraft.
  4369. > Now, it seemed, the game was up:
  4370. > They emerged like an eruption of smoke from a volcano:
  4371. > Shooting straight up in a single, undefined, cloudy mass until they hit some invisible height and promptly turned straight for you.
  4372. "...yep, they've noticed us! Here we go!"
  4373. > Three of the Mars' four engines are already turning; as you watch, the fourth spits smoke and turns its propeller to a blur.
  4374. > Their anchor is hauled up; on the shore, ponies have lined up - pikes, horns, and bows at the read.
  4375. > In a less-frantic moment, the sight would almost have been confusing enough to make you smile; right now, all you can do is press your hoof to the radio switch:
  4376. "Get moving, Renaud. We'll be after you as soon as you're getting up to speed!"
  4377. > "We're going, we're going! Oil temperature's coming up-"
  4378. > Now almost halfway across the lake, the swarm was close enough you could discern the individual changelings within it.
  4379. > How many - hundreds? Thousands?
  4380. > Pegasi throw themselves into the air, wings beating as they pass overhead straight for the leading edge of the warm.
  4381. > A first few beams of magic already flick out from the ponies on the edge of the lake as you pull out in the Mars' wake and swing alongside it.
  4382. > Being this close to the much-larger aircraft still required precision flying; you can feel your own plane vibrating in its turbulence.
  4383. > But if there was any hope of getting out of here alive...
  4384. "Faster, faster, faster..."
  4385. > You hold to just muttering it underneath your breath - no doubt Renaud and Kalendae were already pushing the Mars' engines to their limit.
  4386. > A glance to your left reveals that the leading edge of pegasi has already met the advancing changeling tide.
  4387.  
  4388. > Dancing motes of pastel coat and grey-steel armor, amid the thunderstorm-black throng of changelings.
  4389. > Here and there black bodies fall to the lake and raise splashes of foamy water; scintillating beams of magic and arrows gleaming in the sun cut through their ranks.
  4390. > Undeterred, the swarm advances.
  4391. > Driven by one single urge:
  4392. > Find the queen.
  4393. > Get the queen.
  4394. > Save the queen.
  4395. "...Celestia above, they're not even bothering to cocoon ponies! They're going to come through!"
  4396. > A curving lance of magic reaches out from your own plane, courtesy of one of the guardsponies behind you - swatting aside the first few forerunners.
  4397. > It wasn't enough.
  4398. "Renaud, they're going to get in!"
  4399. > "We are picking up speed as fast as we can, Spitfire, but this is no fighter jet!"
  4400. > Renaud's voice betrays all his panic, and you swear angrily as the first few changelings swing in behind the Mars - latching on like limpets to its hull.
  4401. "Fuck, fuck, fuck-"
  4402. > The throttle is already at full-power, but you drop the nose a little bit to pull alongside the Mars as it climbs.
  4403. > Obligingly, the ponies in back let loose with scorching rays of magic and the thud-thud of crossbow bolts.
  4404. > It's. Not. Enough.
  4405. "Tartarus' blasted chains-!"
  4406. > What can you do?
  4407. > Get close, try and catch them in the downwash coming off your wings?
  4408. > Too dangerous - it'd put you in the wash coming of the Mars' own wings!
  4409. > A hatch opens on the Mars, and you catch the muted pop-pop of a rifle firing from within.
  4410. > Already...?!
  4411. > That wouldn't-
  4412. > Wait.
  4413. > Your tail flicks, coat prickling as something flows across it.
  4414. > Wind...?
  4415. > No.
  4416. > Not wind; magic.
  4417. > "Spitfire? Are you out there?"
  4418. > The voice on the radio makes you blink - that was Logic Gate!
  4419. > What is she doing?!
  4420. "Yes, what-"
  4421. > "It's going to be okay. I'm going to get them off the plane. I don't know how I didn't see it before. I know how to get rid of them."
  4422. > Prickling concern turns to a sharp, shooting fear.
  4423. "Logic, what are you doing-"
  4424.  
  4425. > "I'm disconnecting the magic amplifiers from Chrysalis' holding tank. Whatever Thomas was trying to do with her is shot-"
  4426. > There's a loud pop some somewhere, accompanied by a grunt from Logic Gate.
  4427. > "-but the magic amplifiers work just fine."
  4428. "But what are you going to do with them? They've just been pushing more and more magical energy into Chrysalis-"
  4429. > "I'm going to take the energy myself."
  4430. > Your stomach drops out; the next thing you know, Anonymous' hand is on your shoulder.
  4431. > "Spitfire? Hey - Spits, are you okay?"
  4432. "I - I'm - keep flying -"
  4433. > You might not be a unicorn, but you'd rubbed shoulders with enough cone-head guards to get a grasp on the fundamentals.
  4434. > Fundamentals like, 'pump enough magic through a pony that wasn't an alicorn, and very bad things can happen if they're not careful'.
  4435. > Best case scenario, it messes with your head; Rainbow Dash told you once about some showpony - Truly, Tricky, something like that - who strapped on an amplifier artifact and went mad.
  4436. > Worst case scenario-
  4437. "Logic, don't! You're going to fry yourself!"
  4438. > -backlash.
  4439. > The uncontrolled reverse-flow of magic all unicorns feared.
  4440. > "No. I'm going to set it right!"
  4441. > There's a choke in her voice, an element of raw emotion - but sadness?
  4442. > Or - joy?
  4443. "You can't control that kind of magic, Logic Gate! I know you know those machines, but you can't do it."
  4444. > "I made this whole screwed up situation in the first place. I caused it. I helped Thomas and I hid it from you. But now - now I'm going to make it right."
  4445. > Ah.
  4446. > You know that emotion now.
  4447. > It was the same accepting despair you'd felt when you realized you were going to have to crash-land Anonymous' plane with him unconscious on your first trip to Equestria.
  4448. > Because you'd made sure to speak to everypony who'd be fighting the changelings - warning them off doing anything stupidly suicidal.
  4449. > All but one.
  4450.  
  4451. > "I finally get it, Spitfire. I always wanted to be somepony important. Somepony they'd talk about. Well - well, this is it. I'm going to do something right again. I'm going to fix what I did wrong!"
  4452. "No. Nonono-!"
  4453. > You can't.
  4454. > Losing another pony would be...
  4455. "Kalendae! Kalendae, if you can hear this, you need to go back up to the rear deck and stop Logic Gate-"
  4456. > "Spitfire, please."
  4457. > A second hatch pops open on back of the Mars'; Logic Gate's head emerges - mane whipping about - and the radio barrages your ears with the howl of wind until she pulls her head back in.
  4458. > "Don't... don't take this from me. I have to. They're coming close. I've got the amplifiers out of their cradles now."
  4459. > Anther thud - sounding heavy.
  4460. > You can just imagine her hauling some bit of bizarre, cable-laden piece of equipment across the cabin floor, over to the hatch...
  4461. > To her end.
  4462. > Because you hadn't talked to her.
  4463. > The other two, you'd made certain they understood that you didn't want any heroics from.
  4464. > But Logic Gate you'd neglected and were paying the price for that mistake.
  4465. "I'm ordering you, Logic Gate-"
  4466. > "You can't order me, Spitfire, because you're not my Master!"
  4467. "No, I'm not! I'm your friend!"
  4468. > "Then... I'm your friend too, Spitfire. And I'm glad I am. But this has to happen. Things have to be set right."
  4469. > You shoot one look to Anonymous.
  4470. > He doesn't even have to wait for you to speak.
  4471. > "Go, Spitfire. But you'd better damn come back to me."
  4472. "Bet my fuzzy ass I will."
  4473. > You damn near take flight inside the plane, making your way from the cockpit towards the tail.
  4474. > There, a good dozen ponies crowd around open hatches - eyes covered with goggles, manes tied back against the scourging wind as they still lash out with magic and crossbows against the changeling swarm.
  4475. > One gives a surprised whinny as you shove her out of the way, a crossbow bolt hissing between your tail-strands as you leap from the plane.
  4476.  
  4477. > Beating your wings twice, you loop beneath the nearest changeling and shove another aside with a chitin-crunching kick.
  4478. > All the air is filled with swarming, buzzing wings and mixed with flashes of colored hair as ponies furiously tangle with changelings; within just a few moments you'd totally lost your orientation.
  4479. > The thunder of the planes' engines was all around you, but where were-
  4480. > Ah!
  4481. > There!
  4482. > A flash of red-painted metal - the Mars' side!
  4483. > Reorienting yourself, you beat your wings and take off towards it.
  4484. > Now you are in your element:
  4485. > Even the moving chaos of the battle is seemingly easy compared to the deliberately-confusing obstacle courses you'd flown.
  4486. > It wouldn't be long before-
  4487. > Something plows into your side, driving the breath from your lungs and making the edges of your vision turn to a smokey haze.
  4488. > You tumble through the sky, bouncing off another unfortunate changeling and sending another burst of stars through your eyes.
  4489. > If not for years of instinct drilled into your head that would've been the end of you; even so addled, though, you somehow manage to right yourself.
  4490. > Just in time to dodge another assault from a changeling, whizzing by so closely you can almost feel its buzzing wings brush against your primary feathers.
  4491. > There's no doubt in your mind who this one is, even without any way to distinguish him from the others around you.
  4492. > Or rather, Sixtus' bothering with you whatsoever is entirely what distinguishes him.
  4493. > "You should have turned around and gone home, Spitfire."
  4494. > There's no breath left in your burning lungs to bother trading quips with him; maybe that's exactly what he was trying to tempt you into wasting it on.
  4495. > Not today.
  4496. > You remember now what you'd perhaps forgotten before:
  4497. > A changeling's greatest weapon is deception.
  4498. > The literally-forked tongue between their teeth that urges you on to doing exactly what they want.
  4499. > No, you're not falling for it this time!
  4500.  
  4501. > But as you take off back towards the Mars, you're surprised to discover that one thing about Sixtus' disguise hadn't been a lie:
  4502. > He's keeping up with you - wings buzzing furiously as he expertly weaves between unrelated changelings and the odd pony still somehow keeping up with the planes - with some truly expert flying.
  4503. > No surprise there in retrospect; he couldn't have lead you on those wild chases as 'Soarin' without some skill.
  4504. > 'Some', though, is not 'enough'.
  4505. > He's good - not trying to outright intercept you, just shove you into the highest concentrations of other changelings.
  4506. > You're better.
  4507. > This is your element, the place in which you are most comfortable, and you weave through the crowded skies without striking a single one.
  4508. > Even more than skill, what you have now is purpose.
  4509. > Then you had been pursuing him out of curiosity and interest; now not a second went by that the consequences of failing to reach the Mars in time didn't occupy your mind.
  4510. > This was no longer just about you; now you were flying for somepony else's sake too.
  4511. > And so you consistently pull ahead of him, even as Sixtus constantly dogs your tail.
  4512. > Ahead - an opportunity to finish this!
  4513. > You swerve hard off to your left, towards the Mars' wingtip.
  4514. > Sixtus follows you - and in so doing sows the seeds of his own end.
  4515. > Changelings were maneuverable - more maneuverable than the average pegasus - but to catch you, Sixtus is not trying to fly like a changeling should.
  4516. > He is trying to fly like a pony.
  4517. > Just outside and behind the Mars' wingtip, you snap your wings in and angle hard-down, nearly turning into a dive.
  4518. > In a heartbeat, you slam face-first into the wingtip vortex - the odd, invisible, curling updraft just outside the wing.
  4519. > Narrowed to the profile of a bullet, you slice right through it like a knife.
  4520. > Sixtus is not so prepared; he is caught by the sudden acceleration and whipped around in a violent, tumbling turn.
  4521.  
  4522. > Whatever forward speed he still has only serves to keep him at pace with the plane's wing, which he slams into with a ugly-sounding thud audible over the engines and whipping wind.
  4523. > Then he is gone.
  4524. > Carried away by the wind and gravity.
  4525. "Goodbye."
  4526. > It is the only word you spare for him.
  4527. > The air is still thick with other changelings scrambling for their queen, and you still need to reach Logic Gate before she-
  4528. > The air surges with magic, a fiery and prickling sensation that makes your wings lock up and every hair you have stand on end.
  4529. > You'd felt this... once? Twice? Before.
  4530. > Once when you overcame your fear and found the glowing mark forming on your haunches.
  4531. > Again, when Rainbow Dash had split the skies with a sonic rainboom to rescue her friends.
  4532. > But that had been after, and now-
  4533. > Now, the cloud of changelings parts to reveal something terrible.
  4534. > Logic Gate stood with her forelegs atop the Mars' roof, her hindlegs still in the hatch, somehow anchored in place - probably magic, your brain distantly tells you - and with her mane swirling out in a wild, crazy slashing motion reminiscent of Luna when she was angered.
  4535. > Her horn glows with a wildly-flaring corona that is almost painful to look at, cascading waves of visibly ethereal magic being drawn to it from the amplifier-machinery she'd brought up with her.
  4536. > Even from this distance, you can hear the Mars' engines struggling to supply energy to them.
  4537. > Grey wings flicker in the edge of your vision, and you cry out with a ragged voice:
  4538. "Gerard! Gerard, get in there and don't let her-"
  4539. > Another deep thrum runs through the air, stealing the breath from your lungs and leaving your wings stinging as if lightning had struck.
  4540. > "GET AWAY-"
  4541. > Logic Gate's voice is bolstered as though through a bullhorn, overwhelming even the roar of the straining engines.
  4542. > "-FROM MY FRIENDS! THEY ARE NOT YOURS!"
  4543. > With each word, the air visibly flickered and surged with her magic.
  4544.  
  4545. > Hoards of changelings were sent tumbling as the ephemeral shimmer swept over them; she was using her telekinetic grip like a colossal fly-swatter.
  4546. > Ludicrously wasteful for any normal unicorn - but not for one burning through magic like her.
  4547. > "I DID THIS! I STARTED IT, I BROUGHT YOU HERE."
  4548. > No!
  4549. > Your spasms; sucking down another burning lungful of air you weave closer:
  4550. > Ducking beneath the sweep of her magic, whirling above a tangled and spinning pair of changelings.
  4551. > Don't do this, Logic Gate!
  4552. > You should be the one up there - not having another life lost under your command because you didn't think to-
  4553. > "BUT I'M NOT GOING TO LET MY MISTAKE STAND! NOW-"
  4554. > Her horn has gone beyond any corona you've seen from a mortal pony - a harsh, actinic flare of light that is impossible to face directly.
  4555. > The Mars' nose might even be dipping a bit as it struggles to supply enough energy.
  4556. > "-GET AWAY!"
  4557. > With one last surge, she drives the last few remaining changelings from the plane's body.
  4558. > A second later you slam into the unicorn's body, forehooves wrapping around her barrel and carrying her back down into the Mars' cabin.
  4559. > But that second is a second too late.
  4560. > You'd rolled the two of you so that Logic Gate landed atop you, cushioning the brutal impact, but when you opened eyes there was no mistaking it:
  4561. > Smoke wafted from the deep, ragged fissures in her horn and empty eyes stared out to infinity.
  4562. > You let a pained, ragged sob even as muted cheering from the others rises over the droning of the engines.
  4563.  
  4564. > By some miracle of personal fortitude, you manage to push down the grief roiling within you long enough to check Logic Gate's pulse.
  4565. > Her eyes are glassy, unfocused and rolled back.
  4566. > No, no, no - not another one!
  4567. > Shoving your muzzle beneath the curve of her jaw, you press your nose to the familiar spot and choke back tears long enough to try and feel something - anything -
  4568. > There!
  4569. > It was weak, yes, but she was alive!
  4570. > You pull back, a ragged sob of utter relief - one that seems oddly in line with the joyous whooping and hollering from the rest of the crew.
  4571. > Did that mean she'd done it, then?
  4572. > Stumbling to a window, you pressed your muzzle to the cold glass - cracked from some changeling's impact, but still clear enough to see - and look for yourself:
  4573. > Logic Gate's feat of sacrificial spellwork had not been in vain; the remaining swarm was rapidly falling behind and below the climbing planes.
  4574. > With that reassurance given, all the emotion bubbles back up again.
  4575. > You stumble to the compartment door and unlock it - Logic must've done that, stopped anyone from trying to help her.
  4576. > Your mouth opens, lungs suck in air, to deliver a single-worded cry:
  4577. "MEDIC!"
  4578. > Pounding boots and hooves signal someone - someone, at least! - having heard you.
  4579. > Sai rushes into the compartment, and soon after Gerard slips down from the open hatch you'd flown in through - a spear still clutched in his hands.
  4580. > He takes one look at Logic gate - one look at the deep, jagged fissures in her horn - and hisses through his beak.
  4581. > They ran up from the base, up from beneath the concealing carpet of her sweat-lathered mane, and steam - or maybe smoke - seemed to swirl up from them in whorls and loops.
  4582. > You vaguely knew that there was something soft and nerve-ey beneath the shell of a unicorn's horn, though admittedly you'd never gone far beyond first-aid knowledge.
  4583. > Yet now Logic Gate's horn seemed so fragmented, you half-expected it to crumble to pieces.
  4584.  
  4585. > And you were far too scared to look beneath that mane, for fear the cracks ran deeper into the skull beneath.
  4586. "She's -"
  4587. > Your voice is cracking.
  4588. > Hollow.
  4589. > You swallow and try again.
  4590. "-horn damage. Nerve damage. Sai - Immobilize the horn, like a shattered limb. Then - get her to rest. Watch her."
  4591. > "Isn't there anything else we can do?"
  4592. > No.
  4593. > A magical impulse that large, creating an injury that deep - Logic Gate had probably cooked the deep-running nerves within the bony sheath.
  4594. > Even as an inexpert at unicorn care, she'd be lucky not to be a vegetable.
  4595. > Forget ever getting her skill back.
  4596. > But-
  4597. "Keep her alive and the horn safe until we reach the other ponies. Then get an expert. In the meantime, check her breathing and pulse constantly. If it drops below 45, she's in trouble. I-"
  4598. > Gerard shoots you a hard glare - a questioning glare.
  4599. > Even he knew you were being optimistic.
  4600. > (And that was a kind way of putting it.)
  4601. > You stare right back at him - no matter what ideas griffons might have about dying in glorious sacrifice, you weren't going to leave him to give her a 'respectable end'.
  4602. > And then you turn your gaze to his single missing eye.
  4603. "She-"
  4604. >You cough softly.
  4605. "- we might not have gotten away if it wasn't for her. but - but even so - I - I should have -"
  4606. > 'You'd suffered a loss and lived,' your gaze seemed to say, 'so now let her have her chance too.'
  4607. "She wasn't a soldier. Wasn't a warrior. She shouldn't have been the one making the sacrifices. I-"
  4608. > Should have stopped her?
  4609. > No, that wasn't what you were going to say.
  4610. > You should have been the one making those sacrifices instead.
  4611. "-I should have been a better leader."
  4612. > Gerard flinches; he raises a claw, talons grasped in a ball, to his heart.
  4613.  
  4614. > "Her choice was made understanding those costs. You are right; Logic Gate was not a soldier, and so you did not think her one. But she chose to correct her failings, knowing still the cost. It is what I would have expected from any of my kin."
  4615. > He half-opens his beak in a smile, and nods.
  4616. > "Logic Gate - bent the rules, found an alternative path to victory. The costs were known, but she did not balk from them. It is not the way of ponies, but... know that I am impressed by her."
  4617. > Even with your heart aching, you still feel rising surprise at the certainty of his statement.
  4618. > That was... damn high praise coming from a griffon.
  4619. > And enough to signal he'd accepted her sacrifice as already given.
  4620. > You duck your head in return, and march past him with eyes that are more than a little moist.
  4621. > Up in the cockpit, word has evidently already preceded you as the mood is decidedly somber.
  4622. > Kalendae rises from the copilot's seat to bow her head, shaking it softly.
  4623. > Her wings half-extend and injured leg presses its hoof to her chest
  4624. > "Boreí na symmoría me to aiónio kopádi - her sacrifice is known. It will be forever known."
  4625. "Yes. It will be."
  4626. > Alicia coughs, also having stood up.
  4627. > She looks at the floor, clearly feeling a bit awkward.
  4628. > "I... I don't know, Spitfire, should I have given her the power she wanted to run those? I - I don't know. Heh. She even warned me the amplifiers were dangerous-"
  4629. "No. I - I don't blame you, Alicia. You didn't kill her. You didn't force her to make that choice. I should've known she might. I should've stopped her."
  4630. > "It still feels wrong."
  4631. > Stepping forward, you rear up to press a hoof into her hand.
  4632. "It does."
  4633. > You don't know what to say aside from those two words.
  4634. > Instead you turn and head back down to the lower deck, back down past Gerard and the others.
  4635. > As you reach the stairway to the rear upper deck, you catch sight of the one person you hadn't seen before:
  4636.  
  4637. > Thomas was still tied to his cot, having apparently been left there during the chaos of the take-off.
  4638. > Now you stop in front of it, pinning your ears back and snorting hard when he didn't pay attention to you.
  4639. "It should've been you."
  4640. > He raises his head from his hands, staring at you with bitter, pained eyes, and you regret letting your bitterness slip.
  4641. "...I know you were fooled by the changelings too. But you - you lead her into this too. If anyone deserved to be the one up there frying your brains out to stop them - it was you."
  4642. > "What are you going to do with me?"
  4643. > His voice is dry and scratchy, and the understanding that he must have been crying comes over you suddenly.
  4644. "I... don't know. I think the free Equestrians-"
  4645. > Luna.
  4646. "-want to question you. It's... I don't know. And right now, I really don't care."
  4647. > Leaving him behind, you head up - up into the rear deck, up past where Gerard and one of the free pony guards were bringing Logic Gate to rest in another cot, up through the hatch to the open skies beyond.
  4648. > Tears mist the insides of your goggles as you leap from the Mars and turn back towards Anonymous' plane, still flying dutifully alongside.
  4649. > When you slip into the Catalina's hatch, you don't even speak to the pony helpfully holding it open for you.
  4650. > Just make your way up to the front of the plane, climbing into your seat in the cockpit, and curling up in the chair - letting your nostrils fill with that familiar mix of old metal, paint, and - most of all - Anonymous.
  4651. > As you sit there, a hand settles on your withers.
  4652. > It stays there for a time, but eventually you force yourself to uncurl and take up your job as copilot again.
  4653. > Checking gauges, estimating the remaining fuel count, keeping a hoof on the wheel so Anonymous could stretch.
  4654. > All done in a kind of slow, dazed haze that keeps you from really thinking about anything.
  4655. > You don't even notice Anonymous actually talking to you until his hand gives your shoulder a shake.
  4656.  
  4657. > "...hey, Spitfire. C'mon. Need to talk to you."
  4658. "What - what is it?"
  4659. > That's odd.
  4660. > You'd been listening to him, responding to his instructions to fly the plane, even speaking back.
  4661. > Why didn't you know what he'd just been saying...?
  4662. > Shooting you a look from the corner of his eye, Anonymous smiles apologetically.
  4663. > "You just kept saying 'yes' whenever I asked you something."
  4664. "Oh."
  4665. > Your cheeks color a bit.
  4666. "What was it?"
  4667. > "Do you know where we're going? I was expecting to figure out our flight plan before we took off, but everything happened so quick-"
  4668. "No, no. I - I get it. Um. Soarin knows, though. Soarin knows."
  4669. > “Oh. Okay.”
  4670. > When his hand settles just between your wings to rub reassuringly, you can't help but frown.
  4671. "...come on, Anonymous. You need both hands on the controls."
  4672. > "We're just cruising. And you need at least one of my hands too."
  4673. "Safety, Anonymous. Safety first. We've got passengers."
  4674. > "And you're worrying me too."
  4675. > Were you..?
  4676. > He certainly sounds like it, but the idea that YOU could be the source of someone else's worry after what had just happened was...
  4677. > Bizarre.
  4678. "You - You don't understand. Logic Gate, she-"
  4679. > "I know, Spitfire. I know. The planes have radios, remember? And even if hadn't heard, when you came back like this..."
  4680. > You turn your head until your cheek can press into his arm.
  4681. > Nostils flaring, you inhale his scent; the sense of his scratchy, rough fabric coat against your fur is relished.
  4682. > Then you let the fantasy go.
  4683. "Fly now. This... later. Once we land."
  4684. > Your voice is as cold as the frigid peaks of the crystal mountains you flew towards.
  4685. > Anonymous gives you one last worried look, but the arm (regretfully) leaves your back as he returns his focus to flying.
  4686.  
  4687. --------
  4688.  
  4689. > No more than two or three hours more pass before you reach your destination:
  4690.  
  4691. > A wide bend in a meandering between the foothills of the Crystal mountains, here transformed to a broad sheet of glimmering crystal as it ran out of those gleaming peaks.
  4692. > Already a small band of ponies was gathered by the edge of the river, waiting for the planes to touch down.
  4693. > Anonymous lets the Mars land first, circling above with one eyebrow raised.
  4694. > "I guess they're really not afraid of being seen here?"
  4695. "I think we crossed over the unofficial border into the Free Equestrian State thirty or so minutes ago."
  4696. > Your voice is a steady, even monotone.
  4697. > It shouldn't be - you were back with ponies again.
  4698. > Home, in a sense!
  4699. > But you can't raise the emotions to be grateful for it.
  4700. > The cost had been too high, and in the end - in the end, you felt this plane, this tiny fragile hunk of metal, oil, and one man with a pony was more like a home anyway.
  4701. > The cost of learning that had been far, far too high.
  4702. > Touching down on the water is almost relieving in its familiarity:
  4703. > Hit the water, come to a stop, open the hatch, toss the anchor until it grabs...
  4704. > Simple things.
  4705. > Easy things.
  4706. > As you climb back up into the cockpit, Anonymous leans over to murmur:
  4707. > "So, I didn't want to bother you before, but... just wondering, what's going to happen to us down there?"
  4708. "Huh?"
  4709. > "Like... us as in me, Sai, Renaud... are we going to be prisoners, or what?"
  4710. > Oh.
  4711. > Yes.
  4712. > Humans, on pony territory...
  4713. > You'd probably just broken a couple of implicit agreements, if not any actual treaties.
  4714. "No. I won't let it. I'm done losing anyone. Ponies, people - anyone."
  4715. > Anonymous doesn't look entirely pleased, but his hand between your ears says he believes you.
  4716. > "Spitfire... if it comes between letting them toss us in jail for a bit or something, and they all think you're some kind of traitor and toss you in jail-"
  4717. "No."
  4718. > Your voice is as hard and cold as the mountains rising on the horizon.
  4719.  
  4720. > "I'm just saying, you already ended up on prison on my account once. Back after you hard-landed this plane, last time we were here? You don't have to-"
  4721. "Anonymous, don't - just, don't. Stop trying to convince me. You aren't. I'm taking a stand here. This stops here. If it's between me being a traitor and losing another, I'll be a rutting traitor."
  4722. > And that settles that.
  4723. > Anonymous glances back down towards the rear of the aircraft, to where Lens Gleam and the rest of the pony rebels are eagerly crowding around the hatch - calling out to the ponies who were eagerly rowing small, flat-bottomed boats out towards them.
  4724. > "We waiting, or...?"
  4725. "Let them go first."
  4726. > Somehow you didn't feel like going out to join them.
  4727. > They were being welcomed back as returning heroes - survivors of a daring triumph.
  4728. > You don't feel quite so victorious.
  4729. > By the time the plastic inflatable raft comes around from the Mars with everyone else - having first taken the wounded Fred and Logic Gate to shore - you're just glad to be off.
  4730. > Heading to shore to be surrounded by at least a hundred ponies you don't know.
  4731. > It feels...
  4732. > Surreal.
  4733. > Like you should be expecting the changelings to turn up at any second.
  4734. > You want to scream out that this isn't over - wouldn't be over until the Queen was safely hidden away wherever.
  4735. > Even though you’d left the swarm of her servants hundreds of miles behind.
  4736. > Is this what PTSD felt like?
  4737. > You'd heard it mentioned a few times on Earth, and everypony knew some ponies came back from war - different.
  4738. > ...why was this getting to you so badly, when you'd lead operations - lost ponies - before?
  4739. > Sighing, you lay your head on Anonymous' leg - and damn whoever saw you do it too!
  4740. > You were too tired, too worn down by this, to care any longer.
  4741. "What... what are we even waiting for? We're just going to leave now, right?"
  4742. > "Yeah. We should have just enough fuel left in the Catalina to get back to another airstrip, then to Canterlot."
  4743.  
  4744. > "But-"
  4745. > Renaud gestures back to the Mars, grumbling in his rough voice.
  4746. > "-they still want to get the Queen away from here first."
  4747. > Because, you presume, even with Luna's backing trust still wasn't absolute.
  4748. > In the end, that's what brought ponykind down to this, wasn't it?
  4749. > Trust fading away.
  4750. "Fine."
  4751. > You just want this to be done with.
  4752. > So you sat and watched as they hauled out pieces of equipment - computer banks, the magical amplifiers, unidentifiable tubing - and lay it in the grass on the river's shore.
  4753. > Soon Soarin touches down beside you with fresh news:
  4754. > "So, we've cleaned everything else out and are just about ready to get the queen's chamber out of its mounts; it's been a haul. Whatever you did to get it in there, it's fixed in place pretty good."
  4755. > "Could have told them that, if they'd asked."
  4756. > Renaud's mutter earns a sharp look from Soarin, but no retort.
  4757. > "As to getting it out... well, that's the real trouble. Lens Glare's thinking we might have to cut the whole back of the plane off to-"
  4758. > "What?!"
  4759. > Renaud rises from the grass, fury clearly written on his face.
  4760. > The reaction doesn't entirely surprise you, but who it's from?
  4761. > Yeah, that does a bit.
  4762. > You'd been looking at Alicia, expecting it from her.
  4763. > "Hey, hey, easy!"
  4764. > Soarin leaps back, flaring his wings.
  4765. > "Look, it's your... thing. It's important. But ponies have given up their lives to get here. A machine isn't that much of a sacrifice compared to that?"
  4766. > Renaud, chastised, looks down at the ground and nods.
  4767. > You huff softly too, stretching out a wing to press against his back.
  4768. "We've all lost something today."
  4769. > "It's... not just a 'thing'. That plane's important. Almost feels like a member of the family now."
  4770. "You know we're going to have to leave it behind when we go. We didn't bring enough fuel to get it back to Canterlot."
  4771.  
  4772. > "Yeah, I do. But that doesn't mean I want to see it cut up in front of me. Remember when Cog Whirl said he was glad he didn't have to see the gadgets he tinkered with melted down? I'm hoping I don't have to either."
  4773. > "Look..."
  4774. > Soarin flicks an ear awkwardly.
  4775. > "...I'll try and see if I can convince her to take it out carefully. It'll take near all our unicorns, and at the very least keep you a little longer while we figure it out."
  4776. "We'll manage."
  4777. > "There's... one other thing I have to ask. Logic Gate - what's going to happen to her?"
  4778. > Right.
  4779. > That.
  4780. > Wounds that had barely scabbed over are reopened anew as you wince, ears pinning back.
  4781. "I... promised her freedom when this was done, and... I want to hold that. Maybe if everything went right, maybe if it'd all been like we dreamed, then she might've gone back with Thomas..."
  4782. > And you shoot the man in question a dark look, though he cannot even see it - his gaze is busy boring an invisible hole into the grass beneath his feet.
  4783. "Now? Now, I don't even know if anyone on Earth would know how to treat an injury like this."
  4784. > Or if anyone would bother.
  4785. > A broken unicorn, without her magic at best and quite possibly comatose for the remainder of her days however few they might be...
  4786. > You'd have to pay every cent for a treatment that might not exist yet.
  4787. "I don't want to just dump her on you, drop her like she's useless to me-"
  4788. > "You're not, Spitfire."
  4789. > Soarin extends a wing to press against your shoulder, and though it's a professional touch - not an intimate one - you can still feel the care and certainty wrapped up in it.
  4790. > "You're giving her the best place she can be. Maybe - maybe being home will help her too."
  4791. > It's a false hope, really, but you still appreciate it.
  4792. > While he wings himself away, you glance up at Renaud again.
  4793. > He looks down and gives an awkward little smile.
  4794.  
  4795. > Evidently Soarin's efforts were worthwhile, as instead of watching the plane be cut to pieces around an hour later you instead watch the entire canister emerge through the opened cargo hatch under the careful watch of a team of unicorns and pegasi, all working together with a combination of magic and ropes twisted around its length.
  4796. > It was floated down to a shallow-bottomed barge and brought to shore; now free of the intricate web of silicon and steel, crystal and aluminum that had festooned its cabin, the cylinder almost seemed to have grown in size - to now more than ever project its looming presence.
  4797. > Not a cocoon in a web anymore, but perhaps an egg waiting to hatch.
  4798. > Now, it seemed, that time had come.
  4799. > A good three dozen ponies crowded around it, pointing polearms, crossbows, and even a looted rifle at the chamber.
  4800. "You're letting her out?"
  4801. > "He-"
  4802. > Soarin nods to Sai.
  4803. > "-says it won't keep her asleep anyway, now that it's disconnected from all the machinery."
  4804. "...well, he would know, I guess."
  4805. > "We aren't taking any chances, though."
  4806. > Soarin wasn't kidding.
  4807. > Even as you watched, more ponies joined the growing well-armed circle.
  4808. > With the help of a burly Earth Pony mare, the heavy nuts sealing the chamber's end - each seeming to come close to the width of your hoof - were torqued loose until at last the end-cap of the chamber could be pulled free.
  4809. > It was set to the floor with a heavy thud, followed close behind by a trickle of whatever obscene slime it was the changelings cocooned themselves in.
  4810. > Most had already been drained from the chamber, but a last little bit now poured out to drip into the upturned endcap on the floor.
  4811. > Beneath it-
  4812. > Well.
  4813. > Somehow you'd had an image of the changeling queen that still stirred a small amount of terror in your head.
  4814. > An assumption wrought by experience that she would be like her children were, especially 'Sixtus':
  4815. > Fearsome fighters in close quarters, a whirling blur of fangs and chitin.
  4816.  
  4817. > What slid from that chamber, slipping and sliding on the last dribbles of slime that followed her out, was not.
  4818. > Chrysalis fell from the chamber's mouth in a tangle mess of hole-ridden limbs.
  4819. > She cried out in a scratchy voice, the eerie two-tone resonant quality you remembered from Canterlot barely audible; when she tried to lever herself upright, it was on limbs so weakened and shaking from so long floating in the cushioning slime that she fell unceremoniously back to the ground in a tangle.
  4820. > Nor did she get far before she found all manner of threatening objects pointed at her - and her horn, should she try to cast - instead.
  4821. > "Chrysalis of the changelings."
  4822. > Soarin steps up, keeping his polearm levelled at her neck.
  4823. > "You will come with us. You will not try to escape or attack-"
  4824. > "Oh, come off it."
  4825. > Ah.
  4826. > Now that was more the Queen you remembered.
  4827. > Her voice laden with venom and superiority, spat from smirking lips even as she lays crippled on the floor.
  4828. > "Look at all of you. Playing the strong soldier while you've barely just run away. Do you think this is a victory for you? Because I was delivered into your hooves by the humans' hands?"
  4829. > "That's enough. Whatever the reason, you are in our hooves now - and we're not playing games. Move a muscle, flick a wing out of line - and it will be over. We know your changelings tried very, very hard to keep you alive, so you won't just throw away your life now, will you?"
  4830. > Rolling her slitted eyes sharply, Chrysalis flicks her ragged tail against the ground with a loud and wet slap.
  4831. > "Of course they will not. You never could understand how they care about me."
  4832. > "We understand they are your loyal soldiers. That's enough. Now, get up."
  4833. > She does, though still on weak limbs.
  4834. > An act?
  4835. > No, not likely.
  4836. > Not after she'd been held in such extreme conditions already.
  4837.  
  4838. > Even so, she still continues to act as though she is in command - peering around the gathered ponies (and humans) with a haughty expression.
  4839. > "Tell me, who is in charge of this circus? Is it you, Soarin - oh, please. Don't pretend I don't know who you are. No, not you, not you..."
  4840. > Her head swings around, finally settling on you.
  4841. > "Ah, Captain Spitfire. Such a pleasure to meet you at last; my child has told me so, so much about you..."
  4842. > Your lip curls down.
  4843. > Chrysalis might have been weak in body and magic, you'd been a foal to assume she was helpless.
  4844. > Her most fearsome weapon always had been her tongue and the snares it wove around ponies' hearts.
  4845. "Follow Soarin's orders. I'm not here to spar words with you."
  4846. > "Oh, of course, not. No, you couldn't be in command here. How could I be mistaken...."
  4847. > Pointed teeth gleam as Chrysalis' smile grows.
  4848. > "No, they wouldn't put you in command of anything again. Not after what happened to the last teams..."
  4849. > Teeth gritted, you squash the urge to snap back at her.
  4850. > No doubt she had her reasons for wanting you to assault her, as that is whatever muscle in your body screams to do:
  4851. > Throw yourself at her, pummel the wretched insect into a puddle of slime with your hooves...
  4852. > No.
  4853. > You won't let her win again.
  4854. > This wasn't about you; your job was done.
  4855. "Shut up and walk."
  4856. > "My, my, what a bite... or is it just a mask, hmmm?"
  4857. > Tattered wings vibrate eagerly, and slitted eyes narrow in to focus on you.
  4858. > "After all, you weren't so commanding when-"
  4859. "You know what? You're too late. Once this might have worked on me. Once - when I was alone. Now, though? I have my team. I have ponies - and people - who are still willing to follow me even if I screw up. It's better than I deserve, and even so they're willing to listen to me."
  4860. > You look around.
  4861. > To Anonymous, to Kalendae, to Renaud - even to Gerard, hovering at the edge of the crowd, obviously uncomfortable amid the throng of well-armed ponies.
  4862.  
  4863. > To everyone who'd brought you through this nightmare, from start to finish.
  4864. "...even though I was 'just a slave', something they normally could just order around. Even when I cost lives - when ponies have to give up their lives to stop you - they still listened to me. And that's... that's more than I could ever ask for. So - so you shut your muzzle. You control your changelings, and they obey you. But you don't know for a second what it's like to have someone choose to follow you! So just - shut up. Shut up and get moving."
  4865. > Her ploy foiled, Chrysalis' wings fall still and her muzzle twists into something vicious and ugly - so unlike the queen's normal behavior.
  4866. > "You... you should have listened to Thomas when you had the chance. He had the right idea. You - you ponies! You always think you can just control everything. Put it in a box, put it in Tartarus, put it away and never think about it again - you're just deluding yourselves. In the end, you're just prey and we are - I am - the hunters. Nothing can change-"
  4867. > "No."
  4868. > That single word, spoken softly yet with formidable power, sends a ripple through the crowd.
  4869. > You turn, half not believing that voice could possibly be and half already falling into a bow, because-
  4870. > Because the crowd was parting to let the speaker through.
  4871. > Not parted by decorum or respect, but by a base, instinctual recognition of the power carried in the voice and with every hoofstep Princess Celestia took forward.
  4872. > If Luna's presence had been one of a cold, vast void - of a constant awareness of an unfathomable emptiness around you - then Celestia's presence was one of warmth and an otherworldly pressure.
  4873. > Her mere existence seemed to exude a kind of force - a warm wind that was not wind, or the feeling of a stark sunbeam beating on your coat amid a cool fall day.
  4874. > Within Luna's realm, the night-time Princess had seemed to be everywhere all at once.
  4875.  
  4876. > But for Celestia the world itself seems to bend away, driven back by fear of the power that strode on four hooves towards Chrysalis.
  4877. > Your ears popped as she strode past, as if assaulted by some sudden and whipping barrage of wind; the subtle flight-senses of your feathers were confronted by the bizarre sensation of all at once telling the air was still, and yet a whipping angrily.
  4878. > Though that path should have brought Celestia past you, you were somehow struck by the illusion that she never grew closer - only larger.
  4879. > A mare on a stage formed of the world itself.
  4880. > How you had not noticed her approach before was beyond you - perhaps she had simply teleported in.
  4881. > Yes, you had been in Celestia's presence once before.
  4882. > Yes, once or twice when her temper was raised, even.
  4883. > Never when she was angered as this, though.
  4884. > "It is you who have failed, Chrysalis. You have tried to strike us when we are at our weakest. When so many of our kin lie in chains, when our land lies shattered, when shadows grew and hatred and fear grew in dark places - but even so harmony has prevailed. Harmony between ponies and humans. A harmony that you failed to understand could exist, and so you never thought would turn against you."
  4885. > Each step brought her close to the changeling queen; in the same way that the world itself seemed to warp around Celestia, she also seemed to grow in stature with each step until she towered over the fallen Chrysalis.
  4886. > For the first time fear enters the Queen’s eyes, as she squirms back on still-feeble limbs.
  4887. > "This is not Canterlot. This is not the Royal Wedding. I do not have to play the distressed royal to fatally embolden you. This game, Chrysalis, you have already lost."
  4888. > "Y-You cannot - cannot kill me -"
  4889.  
  4890. > Celestia tosses her head, sending her ethereal mane whipping with a burst of light that you practically feel prickling on your coat.
  4891. > "I do not want to kill you, Chrysalis. Equestria has seen enough bloodshed and suffering. But now it does fall to me to ensure you shall not trouble these ponies - or these people - again; you shall not make any more innocent ponies your thralls."
  4892. > Her horn ignites - not merely lights, but burns with a flow of magic that seems to flow along it as an ethereal, golden flame.
  4893. > Chrysalis has time for one final cry of despair before a blinding flash leaves spots dancing before your eyes; the surge of magic
  4894. > When squeezing and massaging has finally cleared your vision enough to see beyond vague shapes, you find a pale-white statue is all that remains of the queen.
  4895. > Snuffing her horn, Celestia lets her head dip and mane fall to its normal passive flow.
  4896. > When her eyes open, she sets her piercing gaze upon you.
  4897. > "Captain Spitfire. I shall be a time, but then I would like to speak to you."
  4898.  
  4899. --------
  4900.  
  4901. > You get the sense that many of the ponies there would much prefer that the humans among your crew were waiting in chains.
  4902. > ...fortunately, you also get the sense they understood this was something you would not tolerate for a second.
  4903. > Instead they are simply content to stuff you all into a hastily erected tent, post guards on the outside, and wait.
  4904. > "So..."
  4905. > Renaud speaks up from somewhere further back in the tent, his voice slightly wavering and uncertain.
  4906. > "...that - that was - was she -"
  4907. "One of our Princesses."
  4908. > You sigh softly.
  4909. "Our oldest Princesses. Not the two young ones who still officially reign in the Crystal Empire."
  4910. > "Didn't they like... vanish? I figured they were like, locked away in Area 51 or something?"
  4911. > "Vanish, yes. Locked away..."
  4912. > Kalendae's lipsdraw back in a feral smirk, exposing her pointed thestral teeth.
  4913. > "...never. They cannot be so easily bound by chain or shackles.
  4914.  
  4915. > "So they were what - just... hiding?"
  4916. > What indeed?
  4917. > And more importantly, you wonder, why reappear to you now?
  4918. > Before not just humans - trusted humans, but still ones who might tell what they had seen - but also before a huge number of ponies who might also spill secrets if captured and interrogated?
  4919. > Luna had seemed so content to keep herself cloaked by magic and secrecy...
  4920. > Eventually the tent-flap opens and a pony sticks their head in.
  4921. > "Spitfire? She wants to talk to you."
  4922. > There's no real question who 'she' is, and so you obediently rise and step out.
  4923. > As you do one of the guards shoots a nasty look back at the other occupants of the tent, and you in turn give him a none-too-subtle shove.
  4924. "Hey. Don't mess with them. They put their lives just as much at risk as you did."
  4925. > He grunts, but says nothing.
  4926. > You’ll take that much.
  4927.  
  4928. > Celestia rests in another tent, laying prone on her belly with her legs tucked beneath her.
  4929. > Somehow the posture makes her seem - smaller.
  4930. > More approachable.
  4931. > That might also be in part due to how she rests on little more than a field-worn blanket, not a plush cushion or luxurious mattress.
  4932. > Luna had done something similar; how did these mares manage it?
  4933. > One second they were the eternal icons of harmony incarnate - vengeful rulers of a diminished yet still-proud nation, bringing final justice upon their foes.
  4934. > In the next they were...
  4935. > Ponies.
  4936. > "Captain Spitfire?"
  4937. > Two words bring back to reality, and your body into a bow that was more instinct than anything else.
  4938. > ...she spoke so softly...
  4939. "Your Highness."
  4940. > "My sister informs me you have already spoken to her. But still you seem so surprised."
  4941. "You made something of a grand entrance, Your Highness."
  4942. > A smirk touches Celestia's lips; she raises her head to look at you directly.
  4943. > "A failing of mine, I think. But when one has been prevented from being directly involved for so long, then has a chance to strike the final blow - well, I hope you will forgive me for some theatrics..."
  4944. "Yeah. But..."
  4945. > Celestia gestures to the extended blanket in front of her.
  4946. > "You have questions. Come and sit, my little pony."
  4947. > How could you resist that voice?
  4948. > Dropping to your haunches in front of her, you still keep your lips sealed.
  4949. > Not until Celestia smiles down at you - a kindly, motherly smile that dimples the corners of her eyes.
  4950. > "You're allowed to ask, Spitfire."
  4951. > The words come tumbling out of your mouth, a torrent pouring from a dam shattered.
  4952. "...why now? All that power - why step in at the last second? Why wait?! Why - why hold off until after - after Logic Gate had to - to -"
  4953. > Then suddenly you are not sitting in front of her but laying at her side, one vast white wing stretched out over you as all the emotions you'd thought were done with come rushing back again.
  4954.  
  4955. > Celestia whickers, a long and low rumbling sound that resonates through her larger barrel, and turns her head to press onto your back.
  4956. "I - I just don't understand. Luna hiding, I got, yeah. But then you're here, now, right out in the open, and you could have been there... Why now? Why after I had to spend months locked in a cage not knowing if you were dead or alive or what, why after Logic Gate and Bell Curve and Cog Whirl and Giselle and..."
  4957. > At some point you realized you were beating your hoof against her side, which would have seemed like disrespect verging on treason in another time but now only seemed to be the natural thing to do.
  4958. > Eventually, when you had run out of names, Celestia brushed her muzzle through your mane and spoke:
  4959. > "Tell me everything, Spitfire. From the beginning."
  4960. > So you do.
  4961. > Your whole story, for she didn't seem to have - or desire - a way to probe into your heart the way Luna's dream-realm had.
  4962. > By the time you come to the end, you're even sitting upright:
  4963. "...and this isn't your first time doing this, is it? Listening to somepony?"
  4964. > "No. It is not."
  4965. > Celestia's lips twitch, suggesting a smile that wants to form but somehow couldn't quite make it there.
  4966. > "I have not personally felt the horrors of captivity. But I will hear every story I can. Know what my failures cost my ponies.”
  4967. > It's a form of punishment for herself, you realize.
  4968. > A kind of purgatory in which volume of tales substituted for any personal experience.
  4969. "You know, that's probably not healthy for you."
  4970. > "I can bear it, though. I must bear it."
  4971. > That still doesn't make it healthy, you want to say, but you choose not to.
  4972. > You still had that much respect for the Princess... especially after understanding what she is doing here.
  4973. "I still don't know why. I'm sure - I want to think there's a good reason. But it's hard to think of one when you're the one wearing the collar, chained to your cell, you know?"
  4974.  
  4975. > "I can tell you, but the answer will not be satisfying."
  4976. "T-Tell me anyway."
  4977. > Celestia sighs, and from her spot at your side you feel the air rush through her neck.
  4978. > An alicorn-sized breath for alicorn-sized lungs.
  4979. > "The humans... fear magic. Not wrongly. They saw the chaos brought to Equestria, saw how ponies raided through portals to pillage their cities. It was something they did not understand, and so could not control."
  4980. "Yeah. They're... dumb like that."
  4981. > "Are they so 'dumb'?"
  4982. > Celestia smiles again, that damned sad yet helpful smile that makes you feel so warm inside even though she is telling you that you are wrong.
  4983. > "How much did ponies fear the Everfree, where weather and earth could not be wrested to our control? How hard did we struggle to keep this world pinned firmly beneath our hooves?"
  4984. "It's..."
  4985. > You squirm awkwardly.
  4986. "...not the same?"
  4987. > "Humans are not so different from us. As long as we fought back, they pushed harder for control. Once my sister and I were ‘vanquished’, they considered the threat defeated and were content to allow the Crystal Empire and surrounding lands to survive unmolested. They did look for us, yes, but we have - means of vanishing. Second, Luna felt a chance to act from the shadows to eventually free our ponies... worth the cost of abandoning them. I disagreed; however, I could not protect everypony with Equestria already so fractured."
  4988. "Even then - why didn't you - just - just send us some sign, do something to let us know--?"
  4989. > Celestia looks away from you as if ashamed of herself, and though her eyes remain dry you can practically sense the pain radiating from her.
  4990.  
  4991. > "What would you have had me do, Spitfire? Keep fighting back, until they had left not a single pony free, until humans looked at ponies only as things to be feared and hated? I have the power to keep Luna and myself from any prison they might construct, but I cannot protect our ponies from the even more terrible things that might befall them then. Should I bear chains and a collar of my own by choice, following my subjects into captivity? 'Assure' them with the knowledge their princess had fallen and been made a slave too? Is the certainty of our failure better than the fear of the unknown? And from my perspective - surrendering ourselves may have stopped the humans' pursuit of what free ponies remained, yes, but there would never have been another chance to act with any freedom at all. Not for many, many years. By disappearing, if we had been wrong, we could still have turned ourselves over."
  4992. "It - might’ve saved a lot more hopes from being crushed, yeah."
  4993. > Admitting that was painful - agonizing, even.
  4994. > That there was sense in leaving you to rot in a cell, leaving Kalendae and so many others to experience so much worse.
  4995. > Something about how she's talking, though...
  4996. "What you were saying to me - that's what Princess Luna told you, isn't it Your Highness?"
  4997. > Her gleaming lavender eyes find you again, and Celestia nods.
  4998. > "My sister and I... do not always see eye-to-eye. I love her very much, but Luna has always found greater comfort amid the concealing dark. We - debated for some time."
  4999. > And yet Luna had convinced her.
  5000. > "Do not think too harshly of her, please. Hiding is not right, but she was not merely thinking of herself - or even the two of us - when she proposed it."
  5001. "So why now, then? Is it just - they aren't scared of us anymore, so it's safe to come out again? Why not come save us from the Changelings?"
  5002.  
  5003. > "Rightly or wrongly - they consider so much of Equestria territory of their own now. Our Sister and I ended their pursuit of us only by vanishing - removing the threat they perceived. Now that they believe Equestria 'pacified', if we were to suddenly appear within 'their' borders and wield our magic in battle..."
  5004. "They'd take it as a counter-invasion."
  5005. > "And resume pressing those ponies who are still free. Now - only now - do I dare make an appearance in territory they regard as ponies' own, and only to respond to such a crisis. Letting them know I exist still, but will not threaten them."
  5006. > Seeming to sense your line of thought, Celestia shakes her head.
  5007. > "Wheels are turning, Spitfire. To return all ponies to freedom, their fear must first be un-done. And this matter seemed... a reasonable cause for a reappearance."
  5008. > She sounds so calm, and you wonder how much of that is her experience wearing masks and how much is her natural - well, existence as an alicorn.
  5009. > "But it is also to my eternal humiliation that I have even waited this long. That the suffering of so many ponies has been prolonged. This is my failing. That my vision did not protect Equestria."
  5010. "Y'know... I can't find anything wrong with what you're saying. And I hate that. I want to be angry. I want to yell. I want to tell you that you should have tried harder. Should have come for all of us. But everything you say, your estimations - I can't really find any weaknesses. Anything I can latch onto. That just makes me want to be more mad, but... It's not that I don't want to be furious with you; it's just that I'm... too tired to."
  5011. > And how much more tired, you wonder, was she?
  5012.  
  5013. > “It is true, Spitfire. I failed to protect Equestria from ponies’ darker urges, and it cost me only my palace. You - you have suffered. I have asked you to do the impossible; somehow you have succeeded, but still only at a terrible further payment. And all I can offer are my heartfelt thanks - a prize deeply inadequate to compensate what you and others have paid.”
  5014. > Celestia breathes deeply again, her broad sides heaving with pain she did not - would not - let go.
  5015. > "I wish, Spitfire - I wish so very, very deeply we had the strength to simply turn all this back. To have knit Equestria back together, to show the humans they need not fear, to free every pony in chains..."
  5016. > Something seems familiar about her speech; when it clicks for you what it is, the connection both shocks you and seems blindingly, overwhelmingly obvious:
  5017. > It was almost exactly what you had been saying.
  5018. > Words carrying the pain of a leader who in spite of everything had not been able to do enough.
  5019. > You lower your head against her side again, not even bothering to think about how bizarre it was to be nuzzling a Princess, and ask softly:
  5020. "Does it ever stop hurting, Princess?"
  5021. > "I have lived for well over a thousand years, my little pony."
  5022. > Celestia's chin slips over your head, resting between your ears.
  5023. > "...and I still feel the loss of the many I wasn't able to save then. In a thousand years more, I know I will still regret this."
  5024. "Guess I'm straight out of luck, then."
  5025. > It seems bizarre to be bitter over your own pains when Celestia undoubtedly carries so many more, but you can't help the words slipping out of your lips.
  5026. > Fortunately, she also seems unperturbed by them.
  5027. > "No. Not entirely out of luck, because while it might not ever vanish entirely, it can be pushed back. When I looked out and saw happy ponies, a peaceful land, a growing nation, I could let go of the pains of the past. And some day, you too will be able to forget these troubles."
  5028.  
  5029. "You sound awfully optimistic."
  5030. > "As I said, Spitfire. Plans are unfolding - plans to end the servitude so many ponies are trapped in. Perhaps not tomorrow. Perhaps not by Hearth's Warming. Perhaps not for years. But it will happen. It may be poor comfort to those who have suffered, but this will end."
  5031. "I've had it light, Your Highness."
  5032. > "Yet Kalendae has not. My sister has told me what her guard experienced and I - I could not even admit fantasizing about inflicting that upon my worst foes."
  5033. > Pushing your head up, you pull it from beneath Celestia's and look up into her vast lavender eyes.
  5034. > Just like with her sister, there was something distinctly different hidden behind them.
  5035. > Something distinctly...
  5036. > Other.
  5037. > Even at the same time that you could look at those eyes and see a mare with all the familiar emotions you understood.
  5038. "But she persevered. And so did I. We still are. We're still fighting back. So - please. Don't give up."
  5039. > "I do not intend to."
  5040. "Good. Just remember... we're all feeling the same things you are too. You're not alone, Princess."
  5041. > "And neither are you."
  5042. > The two of you embrace one more time, heads resting on each others' withers (though yours somewhat awkwardly, given how much further up her withers are).
  5043.  
  5044. "What now?"
  5045. > "You will be free to go. We will take Chrysalis north, and hide her away so that neither her swarm nor any she controls will find her."
  5046. "Logic Gate? She tried to use a - a magic amplifier, I guess you could call it. She caught the backlash; it-"
  5047. > "I know what she did, my little pony."
  5048. > And the pain in her voice speaks to every volume of pain she knows.
  5049. "What's going to happen to her? Will her horn ever - y'know..."
  5050. > "I cannot say. The horn itself will heal in time, but if the damage has reached her brain, it may be beyond our ability to restore."
  5051. > She's sugar-coating it for you, you're sure.
  5052. > It may be beyond anypony's ability to wake her up again.
  5053. "Then - at least, remember what she did. Remember what she gave up for all of us. Make sure everypony knows; I think Logic would have - she'd have liked that. It would have meant something to her."
  5054. > "That much, I can do for her."
  5055. > You bow your head slightly.
  5056. "Good. She didn't start this. That was -"
  5057. > You pause.
  5058. > Logic Gate deserved to be remembered.
  5059. > Did Sixtus?
  5060. "- one of Chrysalis' drones. But she finished it."
  5061. > "I will ensure her story is known."
  5062. "Thank you. And the humans?"
  5063. > "That, Captain, is a decision you must inform. You know them well enough to pass judgement; I do not."
  5064. > Your - decision?
  5065. > Throat catching, you look away.
  5066. > Sure, you'd enforced discipline in the past - even ordered some harsher punishments for dangerously neglectful recruits or in those dark days as Equestria crumbled.
  5067. > But right now, for someone who'd been a slave owner...
  5068. > You could be condemning them to death, or at least a remainder of life lived out in imprisonment.
  5069. > And there's a very real part of you that still wants to do that.
  5070. > Quid pro quo, turnabout is fair play, and all that sort of thing; make them face the reality of what they did - what was still being done - to other ponies.
  5071. > It'd be deeply satisfying, yes.
  5072. > But also - deeply embittering.
  5073.  
  5074. > To have the conscious choice to spare them or condemn them, and ignore everything Celestia had said about two worlds coming closer together...?
  5075. > It'd be like a slap in the face for her.
  5076. > A rejection of everything that she'd been working for.
  5077. > ...and even more alarmingly, there's some part of you that still wants to do that.
  5078. > To show the princess what it feels like to be abandoned.
  5079. > Maybe that's what convinces you not to, in the end; that kind of vindictiveness wasn't ever a part of you in the past, not even when you'd had to deal with the most eye-rollingly, head-achingly incompetent ponies ever.
  5080. > If it existed now, then it was a poison seed planted in your heart by what you'd experienced - and something you needed to weed out.
  5081. > Celestia, bless her, simply looks at you and waits for you to answer.
  5082. "Well - for starters, Anonymous... I..."
  5083. > Celestia simply smiles - that beautiful, damned, all-knowing smile - as her mane serenely flows and you wonder how a mare who had just moments ago admitted her failure to protect her entire nation could so calmly and confidently evaluate you.
  5084. > "My sister and I, despite our differences in methods, do speak to each other."
  5085. > Wait, why would that be releva-
  5086. > Oh.
  5087. > Your cheeks flush a rich crimson.
  5088. > Somehow you feel like sixteen-year-old you, having to admit a school crush on some colt to your mother.
  5089. "S-So. You know then. I'm not following you - not going back to the Crystal Empire."
  5090. > "I can hardly command you to not follow your heart, while working to end the servitude of my ponies. Especially following it to him."
  5091. "And you're still trusting me to be fair when I'm giving you an answer?"
  5092. > "You have spent some time thinking about it, haven't you?"
  5093. > Tartarus take her, she's right again.
  5094. > Did she always know, or...?
  5095. > Nevermind.
  5096. "Once, I'd have written him off as just another slaver. Now... he's much more than that."
  5097.  
  5098. > "A second chance is something many deserve, and few receive. But he is not the only one, is he."
  5099. > Now that you've given one answer, the others seem to come so much more easily.
  5100. "No. Renaud was always kind to me, and Alicia - she's another one who got her second chance. We shouldn't punish her for opening up her eyes. Fred needs a hospital, not prison. And Sai-"
  5101. > What did you know about him, really?
  5102. > He'd been a part of Thomas' cruel plan to twist the changelings into permanently-obedient puppets, which was a mark against him.
  5103. > But he'd also never seemed particularly cruel to you.
  5104. "I think - I think I can't just condemn him. Not - not without probably condemning half the ponies here too. Maybe even myself. We all failed, and he - all he did was get pulled along for it. But - we should warn him. Make sure he understands. I think I might leave that to you, Your Highness?"
  5105. > "I will, of course. But there is one more, I think..."
  5106. > Thomas.
  5107. > What to do with the man himself.
  5108. > Yes, the changelings had manipulated him - tempted, lied, and lured him along.
  5109. > But he had also invented much of the design on his own, and it was his own half-cocked scheme that had cost so much.
  5110. "...some things are too much for second chances, aren't they? At least, so soon."
  5111. > "Indeed."
  5112. "He's yours, Princess. He needs to face some kind of justice for what he tried to do, and just letting him go home isn't it. He cost lives..."
  5113. > You swallow, as though it could cleanse some of the bitterness from your throat.
  5114. "...maybe he can do something to earn his second chance someday, but not by going home. Besides, I think you need to learn everything he did. Just in case they - try it again."
  5115. > "I understand."
  5116. > Celestia's voice was soft, but she did not try to object nor provide any comfort - something you are intensely thankful for.
  5117. > "But - there is still one more."
  5118. > Oh, yes.
  5119. "Gerard... I can't give you an answer with him."
  5120. > "You are uncertain?"
  5121.  
  5122. "No, no. If it was just about what he was like to me, then I'd be able to defend him too. He told his human owner - the one he was supposed to be spying for - to trust us when it mattered. But Gerard Hildesfattir had a history with ponies from long before this, doesn't he? You have to judge that. You're the Princess here. I can only advise."
  5123. > Perhaps Celestia's tail flows a bit more violently than its normal placid movement - it's hard for you to tell.
  5124. > But just as she had put you on the spot by making you judge and jury of your, well, not-teammates-but-kinda, now you wanted to see how she took the same.
  5125. > A test of your own.
  5126. > “I see. Undoubtedly he has the blood of many ponies on his talons, yes..."
  5127. > Celestia's muzzle droops to the floor and wings shuffle thoughtfully.
  5128. > "...but no, this is not the time to pursue vendettas. I am sure the families of his victims would never forgive me for this, but this is a time to build - not to seek vengeance."
  5129. "For what it's worth, I think you're right. I'm... too tired to pursue vendettas anymore. A lot like being too tired to be angry."
  5130. > "Indeed. And not only for the griffons too."
  5131. > Standing to her full height, Celestia stretches out with both forelegs and shakes herself out furiously.
  5132. > "The path of humanity and ponykind does not split, but grows further entwined. This is only the beginning."
  5133. "So... we go see the rest now, huh? Shouldn't keep them waiting too long; they're probably afraid they're going to be turned into statues as well."
  5134. > "Indeed."
  5135. > You nod, half-turn for the tent's exit, then look back at her.
  5136. "It... this doesn't feel right."
  5137. > Celestia tilts her head questioningly, wordlessly beckoning you to continue.
  5138. "Everything feels so... so anticlimactic. All of this. We fought through all of that, we won, we got her away... and then we just about-face and go home? That's it, it's all done?"
  5139. > "Life, my little pony, is not a fairy tale. I wish it were, for we could all live happily ever after."
  5140.  
  5141. > Grunting in annoyance, you shuffle your wings a bit.
  5142. "I know. But it still doesn't feel... right."
  5143. > "Do not hate that feeling, Spitfire. Relish it. It means your story is not yet over. You have new chapters to tell yet. I suggest you go write them - together."
  5144. > Wait.
  5145. > Was that - did Her Royal Highness Celestia just encourage you to...
  5146. > To...
  5147. > You open your mouth to respond, but Celestia had already strode off out of the tent and into the crowd - where you weren't going to just blab about your love life!
  5148. > Huffing softly, you follow her out.
  5149. > By this time, most of the ponies seem to be already on their way to moving out:
  5150. > The few tents that had been thrown up were rapidly being pulled down, saddlebags were packed full, and ponies formed up in ranks together.
  5151. > Even the rest of your team had been ejected from the tent they'd been confined in - milling around in a small group.
  5152. > Anonymous shoots you a much-relieved smile as he spots you approaching - though tempered by nervousness aimed at the princess at your side.
  5153. > "Hey. So, uh... it went well? We're, uh, not going to be concrete'd before we get to go home or anything?"
  5154. > You shake your head, but before any more specific answer can come Celestia grabs everyone's attention with a stern tone:
  5155. > "Anonymous. Thanks to the testimony of Captain Spitfire, you and the others will be permitted to go free... except for one."
  5156. > Purple eyes fall on Thomas - his hands still bound - and some of the guards begin to move in without an order even being spoken.
  5157. > "Thomas Atmos-"
  5158. > How did she know his last name?!
  5159. > You'd never mentioned it!
  5160. > "-your crimes are not forgivable so easily. You will travel with my subjects, and you will remain there in their custody until such time as Princess Mi Amore-"
  5161. > "Wait."
  5162. > Thomas had actually - spoken?
  5163. > Not just spoken up, but interrupted no less than the Solar Princess of Equestria herself - after the display she had just given?
  5164.  
  5165. > Celestia, too, seemed slightly caught off-guard by his reaction.
  5166. > Persevering, Thomas stood up the rest of the way and looked her straight in the eye:
  5167. > "Logic Gate. What's happening to Logic Gate?"
  5168. > "She is returning home. Home to her kin, to those who will be able to care for her and potentially heal the injuries she inflicted on herself protecting you. Protecting all of us."
  5169. > The princess' tone is one of iron and barely held-back anger - tone which has been known to bring nobles, soldiers, and monsters alike to their knees.
  5170. > Somehow Thomas withstands it; his legs tremble and hands ball into fists, but he does not fall back.
  5171. > "I have to go with her."
  5172. "You're not exactly in a place to demand-"
  5173. > "I have to! I - I only ever wanted to help! To free her - free every pony! I just wanted them to be happy, and now I - I can't even... even... she destroyed her horn to keep me free. Don't you see? I just wanted to help, and now I owe her my life."
  5174. > He lifts his hands - both his hands, because they were still bound - and rubbed his forehead.
  5175. "You don't have to accuse me of anything. I'll go with you. I want to go with you, even. As long as I can stay with Logic Gate's side. If she ever wakes up, I want to be there. If she can heal, I want to help her."
  5176. > Celestia cocks her head, tail swishing.
  5177. > "...you promise this?"
  5178. > "I swear it."
  5179. > "And you will explain to us - what you intended to do."
  5180. > "I don't have any reason to hide it. You'll see. It - It was all supposed to be for the best. I was going to save every pony."
  5181. > And there it was again:
  5182. > That complete self-righteousness, that utter certainty of his cause, that drove you insane.
  5183. > How could he be so insistent, even now?
  5184. > But Celestia just nods with a sad little expression, and you realize she must have seen something like this before somewhere in her many long years of ruling.
  5185. > "Come, then. You may say farewell to your companions, but we will be leaving soon and I warn you not to delay this."
  5186.  
  5187. > That, you think, is more than most any pony got when they were being taken away!
  5188. > You don't wait inside to see what quiet words are spent between them; nor do you bother to wait for what stern words Celestia might spare for Sai.
  5189. > Taking a seat right outside the tent entrance is just as good, and lets you know when Celestia steps out with Thomas following her.
  5190. > Rising to your hooves again, you give her one final salute - a real, proper salute which Celestia with a smile and a slight nod.
  5191. > Then she is gone, surrounded by a small cadre of guards who simply seem to materialize out of the crowd around her and follow her until all you can see is a bit of pastel mane in the distance.
  5192. > But Anonymous is at your side, his hand on your back.
  5193. > "So."
  5194. "Yeah."
  5195. > "That went... a lot better than I was expecting."
  5196. > You consider telling him about how Celestia had let you hold judgement over him and the others.
  5197. > No, not a tale for today.
  5198. > Maybe some other time.
  5199. > Maybe when you were together without fear.
  5200. > "So, what going to happen now?"
  5201.  
  5202. "Well, most of us are going to be heading home-"
  5203. > You nod to Renaud and Alicia.
  5204. "-but for others... Gerard. Kalendae..."
  5205. > Again you shuffle your wings - though this time, out of awkwardness.
  5206. "...when I brought everypony into this, I promised them freedom. That this work wouldn't be for nothing. I... I haven't been able to keep that promise. Bell Curve, Cog Whirl... Logic Gate. I set out with four ponies and a griffon; now I have just you two."
  5207. > Sniffling, you rub your snout with a fetlock and suck down a deep breath to center yourself again.
  5208. "But for you - both of you - that promise still holds. You're free. Go now, or come back to Canterlot with us-"
  5209. > That last suggestion, aimed firmly at Gerard because you really didn't think he'd want to just wander off into a crowd of pony holdouts, even if Celestia had given him a semi-official pardon.
  5210. > But the other option goes straight for Kalendae:
  5211. "- or go north with these ponies to live free. Whatever you want. It's your choice. Entirely. You're free."
  5212. > It's painful to say that, yes.
  5213. > But it's also a strangely proud feeling that wells in your chest as you speak those words.
  5214. > A confirmation that your judgement hadn't been entirely in the wrong - that you were finally able to tell a pony that they had been freed not by subterfuge or deceit but by a face-to-face agreement.
  5215. > And yet -
  5216. > Yet -
  5217. > It still does hurt too.
  5218. > Gerard sits upright, his cat-like tail lashing fiercely - a gesture that is all at once familiar to your pony senses and indicative of so much more coming from a griffon's feline-aligned instincts.
  5219. > His wings pop open, a claw grasping over his feathered heart as his remaining eye glimmers with emotion.
  5220. > "Captain Spitfire. Despite all the problems we have faced, despite our past as foes... it has been a surprising pleasure to work with you."
  5221.  
  5222. "Yeah. I won't lie, Gerard. I wanted to kick your flank over the horizon the first few weeks I knew you. But in the end, you know what? You did it. You came through good. I know you were Whitworth's, though - are you going back...?"
  5223. > "That path, I think, has been closed to me."
  5224. > Shaking his head, Gerard drops down to all fours again - a sudden contemplative look crossing his face.
  5225. > "Whitworth was a capable leader... but he has gambled poorly with this endeavor, and shall not recover. I'll join you to Canterlot at least, then - then maybe I will find someone better to follow. One I find more worth my time."
  5226. "Wait, you're going back into slavery?"
  5227. > "If I must."
  5228. > Celestia help you, you would never understand griffons!
  5229. "Won't he try to come after you? I mean, if you go back to work-"
  5230. > "I will make sure he understands I intend to take advantage of his new agreement with you. I shall not harm him, and he shall not pursue me. Who knows, perhaps in time he will rise up again."
  5231. > Right.
  5232. > Damn confusing cat-birds.
  5233. > How did they ever build a civilization while acting like that...?
  5234. > Turning from him with a little grin, you're caught off-guard by Kalendae's appearance:
  5235. > You'd expected her to be upset, but the way the Thestral mare glances between you and the departing free ponies...
  5236. > She almost looks conflicted.
  5237. "Kalendae...?"
  5238. > "I must confess, My Captain, that I... I do not…"
  5239. > A forehoof rises, dangling awkwardly in mid-air.
  5240. > "...ta astéria me voithoún! My Captain, once I asked you whether it would be wrong of me to not return to my duties and instead live a simple life with Cog Whirl. You said it was not. Now I may return to freedom with mine own kin, yet he is not here to accompany me. And it all feels so - so - hollow."
  5241. > The hoof comes back down on the ground again in a frustrated stomp, accompanied by an angry, slashing swish of her tail.
  5242.  
  5243. > "I do not know what I will do now. I have no desire to bear this collar anymore, but to go on to this - this place that no longer seems to hold a promise for me anymore - I -"
  5244. "Hey, hey..."
  5245. > Leaning in with a nicker and a nuzzle, you draw close to her.
  5246. > Kalendae flutters her wings, huffing softly against you.
  5247. > "I am in the end bereft of any home. Ta fterá mou tha stamatísoun na chtypáne...?"
  5248. > While she mutters in her mother tongue, head nested amid the your chest, Anonymous wanders over as well.
  5249. > "Hey, you know, you're always welcome to come stick with us too. It's not 'slave or nothing', you know."
  5250. > Lifting her head, Kalendae squints against the sun - somehow she'd lost her goggles - but still manages a smile.
  5251. > "This offer, I think I will take."
  5252. > But that only postpones her question, doesn't it?
  5253. > Eh.
  5254. > Maybe she just needs a bit more time.
  5255.  
  5256. --------
  5257.  
  5258. > Fred - still only half-conscious - was loaded from into the plane bound on a stretcher into the plane and with great care into your cot, while the others took turns in Anonymous' bed.
  5259. > Anonymous and yourself, in turn, flew the whole way back.
  5260. > No one questioned it, or offered otherwise.
  5261. > It just seemed... right.
  5262. > This was your plane, your domain, your home.
  5263. > Maybe even a part of your screwed-up little family.
  5264. > In fact, no one speaks much at all for the first part of the flight - as if relaxing might dare trouble to ambush you again.
  5265. > So each of the crew instead sat in private conversation with their own thoughts.
  5266. > There was just enough fuel left to reach a distant airstrip on the edge of the Special Governance Zone; if anyone working there questioned the sudden appearance of a privately-owned plane flying out of the distant wildlands with such an exotic crew, they never raised it with you or Anonymous.
  5267. > Just another extra little bit of crazy in a world gone slightly mad.
  5268.  
  5269. > Only when you glanced at your bank account - the airstrip didn't have a wired connection, but it did have a wi-fi and a satellite uplink (and you did pause to wonder what Luna thought of those unannounced visitors in her sky) - did you have anything to comment on.
  5270. > Once the plane had climbed back altitude, you switched over to a cockpit-only circuit and keyed up your microphone:
  5271. "So, Anonymous. I was looking at our fuel purchase back there, and our bank account, uh... that's a lot of zeros."
  5272. > "...yeah. Seems Whitworth was paying us his promised rate through this whole mess. I think he still is, even, until we get back."
  5273. > Huh.
  5274. > Was this his way of buying off your silence...?
  5275. > After all, threatening him with exposure sure wasn't exactly the best way to end your relationship...
  5276. "So. We've, uh... well, we're probably good for a while."
  5277. > "Maybe. Long as we don't blow it or anything. So, no picking up high-stakes poker, got it?"
  5278. > You smirk slightly.
  5279. "Haven't ever been a gambling mare... and if I was, I certainly wouldn't be now."
  5280. > "I hear you there."
  5281. “Gambling hasn’t been turning out too great for me lately."
  5282. > Anonymous doesn't say a word, but he doesn't have to.
  5283. > The look he gives you is reassuring enough.
  5284. > Canterlot creeps up over the horizon long before you actually reach it - first the mountain itself, spearing upwards into the sky like a solitary tower amid a wide and empty field.
  5285. > Then the heart of the city, fixed to the peak's side, and finally the wide sprawl surrounding it - including the airield you will be landing at.
  5286. > Still no one speaks more than is necessary.
  5287. > Not while you land, not once you're taxiing on the ground, and not once the plane is parked, the engines shut down, and you'd stepped out onto the tarmac.
  5288. > Until the sirens of the ambulance that had taken Fred and Sai were fading into the distance - taking him to receive whatever care they could give him (hopefully enough to get him back on his feet, you tell yourself).
  5289.  
  5290. > "...so. I guess this is kind of goodbye, then?"
  5291. "I guess, yeah."
  5292. > Renaud hums, a low rumbling sound deep in his throat.
  5293. > "It's been... well, an experience working with you. Can't say I enjoyed all of this, but none of that was your fault. So, yeah. Good luck out there. The both of you."
  5294. "The same. Do you know where you're going back to?"
  5295. > Both Renaud and Alicia shake their heads, the latter answering for the both of them:
  5296. > "I think we might go back to Coulson Tankers. Flying fires is dangerous, but... well, we're both good at it and we know what we're doing. They'll always need experienced pilots."
  5297. > And, you hear her pointedly not say, it might be less dangerous than flying in Equestria.
  5298. "Listen, uh... since we might not get to see you again. Both of you did way more than I hoped for. Thanks for that, I guess."
  5299. > Renaud grins, his aged face seeming to double in lines as he does so.
  5300. > "Welcome, little pony."
  5301. > And despite his words, you hear no malice in that name for you.
  5302. "You, uh - you going to be able to find your way back through the portal okay?"
  5303. > "We'll manage. There's a UN embassy complex; we'll check in there if we need more information."
  5304. "You fly safe, then."
  5305. > In spite of their departing on good terms, though, you can't help the pangs of sorrow which shoot through your chest.
  5306. > Gerard had gone with them - you guess he'll hitch a ride on the same transport back.
  5307. > ...probably still using Whitworth's papers which gave him free license to travel.
  5308. > Half of you wants to run after and check that he wasn't going to be in trouble too, but knowing the griffons - well, that'd probably be an insult to his pride.
  5309.  
  5310. > His ego would demand he find his own way, or find someone worth serving; in a way, letting him go was the kindest thing you could do.
  5311. > You had made a good team, hadn't you...?
  5312. > Hooves click at your side, where Kalendae touches down from her perch atop the plane; somewhere up ahead, Gerard stops, turns back, and raises a clenched claw in salute.
  5313. > Kalendae echoes it with a salute of her own, hoof pressed to chest and leathered wings half-spread.
  5314. > Then she turns to you.
  5315. > "My Captain, I must ask that you grant me some time to leave."
  5316. "Where you going?"
  5317. > "The palace. I - wish to see if my Princess' wing still stands. The Night Guard barracks too."
  5318. "Be careful out there, okay? They had guards on the palace - probably using it for their own reasons now."
  5319. > "I shall be."
  5320. > Some degree of worry must have still been lingering on your face, because Kalendae steps forward with a nicker to brush your cheek with the tip of her muzzle.
  5321. > Returning the nuzzle, you let a little smile grace your lips.
  5322. > "My Captain, I swear it. I will wait for the cover of night, then look - and only look. I shall return tomorrow to you tomorrow morning."
  5323. "I'll hold you to that. We have to come bail you out, I'm going to be mad."
  5324. > "You shall not."
  5325. > Then she, too, is gone - fluttering off towards the edge of the airfield.
  5326. > Celestia alone knows what she is going to get up to until night falls; that was her problem, though.
  5327. > That, then, leaves only yourself and Anonymous.
  5328. > The both of you, then, promptly do the one thing you'd not done in months - the one thing you'd in all honesty desperately needed to do, but couldn't so long as you were 'on the job':
  5329.  
  5330. > Anonymous throws himself into one of the bunks, and not a moment later you crawl up on top of him and happily sprawl out over his chest.
  5331. > Both of you stretch out all your limbs, making equally delighted groaning noises; Anonymous' hands settle on your back and start rubbing slowly.
  5332. > Before you know it, both of you have drifted off to sleep.
  5333. > A relaxing, simple, dreamless sleep with no urgency - no need to fear the chittering whispers in the back of your mind, nor have to think about when you'll be roused to take your shift in the cockpit.
  5334. > Just quiet comfort.
  5335. > The scent of your person in your nostrils.
  5336. > Fingers meshed into your mane.
  5337. > His chest slowly moving as his breathing falls to something sleeplike as well.
  5338. > It's all so...
  5339. > Perfect.
  5340.  
  5341. > Evening has fallen by the time you stir again.
  5342. > You yawn, stretch again, and nuzzle back in under his chin.
  5343. > Which is also about when you realize that his fingers were moving again, rubbing up and down your back so slowly you had barely even noticed it.
  5344. > You give a soft little nicker as his fingers touch the sensitive spot between your wings, and Anonymous chuckles.
  5345. > Well, that's done it then.
  5346. "Hey. You awake?"
  5347. > Your whisper draws a nod in reply from Anonymous - not one you see, the way your head is tilted, but one you feel as his chin brushes against your neck.
  5348. > "Been awake for a while."
  5349. "And you didn't get me up?"
  5350. > "You were sleeping. A lot. I didn't want to wake you up."
  5351. "Didn't have to do that."
  5352. > "Wanted to."
  5353. > You chuckle, and express your newfound freedom by shifting over a bit and dozing off again.
  5354. > When you wake up again, your mind has that slight fuzziness one has when they've slept far too long - and somehow that feels good, absent all frustration you’d have belabored yourself with typically.
  5355. > Especially when you can say that it's definitely not due to any secret bug-parasites feeding on your emotions.
  5356. > If any changelings were around, they'd probably have been swelled up like balloons from what you were feeling now!
  5357. "Hey."
  5358. > "Hey yourself, prettybird."
  5359. > Snorting gently, you flick an ear at Anonymous' chin until he pushes you away with a laugh.
  5360. "Wanna get something to eat?"
  5361. > "Sure thing."
  5362. > Going out to eat seems like too much effort right now, and in any case you're not sure you're really up for complicated and messy things like 'interacting with others'.
  5363. > Especially other ponies.
  5364. > That could be complicated, and you're on a vacation from complicated.
  5365. > Fortunately someone had thought to toss a few of the pre-packaged meals from the Mars into the Catalina when you were leaving it behind, and so it was just a matter of warming it up.
  5366.  
  5367. > Lounging up on top of the plane, you watch the sun go down; at Canterlot's higher altitude, the air held a slight chill and you were all too happy to sit sprawled against Anonymous with a wing stretched across his chest.
  5368. > "Whatcha thinking about?"
  5369. "What this is going to look like. In the future."
  5370. > Your other wing waves out across the horizon, gesturing towards city's skyline.
  5371. "It's not just going back the way it was. But it's going to be rebuilt. One day, this will be our place again and we'll want to bring it back up to something better again."
  5372. > "Huh."
  5373. > You look back down at your food; steam wafted up in whirling, smoke-like tendrils that soon vanished into the air.
  5374. > "You want to stay here?"
  5375. "Here? Like, Canterlot? Nah. Canterlot was never my city. But it was a big one."
  5376. > Anonymous is silent for a long time, then.
  5377. > It isn’t what he’d meant; you know it; he knows you dodged it, and neither of you feel like pushing it.
  5378. > When he finishes his food, he simply sets the tray aside and resumes rubbing the back of your head.
  5379. > "I... I have to ask. Where do we stand? Like, what's our status right now? Are - you still mine?"
  5380. > Flicking an ear, you puff through flared nostrils.
  5381. "Any reason this is coming up now?"
  5382. > "Well, if you wanted to go in and see the city again, you'd, um, need..."
  5383. > Oh.
  5384. > A collar.
  5385. > Yeah.
  5386. > You snort again, but this time more in amusement.
  5387. "Look. You said I can walk away any time I want, and that's all I really care about. You don't have to burn my papers or anything like that. All I know is that I'm not bound here by anything more than my choice... and that's good enough for me."
  5388. > "You're not saying everything."
  5389. "Eh. I mean... it hurts."
  5390. > Turning around, you squirm about until you could comfortably rest across his belly.
  5391. "It hurts that I have to wear a collar. It hurts that we need to ever pretend I'm your property. But that's not your fault, or most humans'. I'm not holding it against you."
  5392.  
  5393. > "Seems kind unfair. Unfair in my favor, but unfair."
  5394. > His hand keeps stroking through your mane, and you grin a little.
  5395. "So I'm deluding myself. Live with it."
  5396. > "Stop complaining. Gotcha."
  5397. > Both of you share a little laugh then, before Anonymous speaks again.
  5398. > "So... what does come for us next, then? I mean... hell. We've got a good chunk of cash, Whitworth's apparently not going to fuck with us - we've actually got some choice. Feels weird."
  5399. "Says the one who wasn't a slave."
  5400. > Your words were more teasing than acerbic, though, and Anonymous smirks a bit.
  5401. > "Okay, point to you, Still. You got any ideas?"
  5402. "Just... don't blow it. We've got some choice now; you're right about that. That means we can't blow it. We've got this break now, but don't just toss it out."
  5403. > "Always the taskmaster, aren't you?"
  5404. "Captain. Comes with the territory."
  5405. > Anonymous responds by tickling you beneath your wings, sending your squirming and giggling until you nudge him with the pointed edge of a hoof right in the gut.
  5406. > "...alright, alright! I surrender!"
  5407. "Then as my prize, I'm going to claim what's mine."
  5408. > Before he can question what you mean, you kiss him.
  5409. > Partly as revenge for when he'd caught you off-guard with that first kiss, and partly because - well, you just wanted to.
  5410. > Yet another thing you can feel freed to do now.
  5411. > And you can let it last a long time, too - stretching on and on until your lungs were burning like the grand finale of a high-stakes race.
  5412. > When you break, you have to imagine that your face is every bit as crimson as his is.
  5413. > "...wow."
  5414. "Yeah."
  5415. > "Been holding off on that for a while?"
  5416. "Longer than I'll admit. Even to myself."
  5417. > "Figures. You are a silly little prettybird sometimes."
  5418. > Instead of protesting at the nickname, this time you kiss him again.
  5419.  
  5420. > Just relishing in dragging the moment out - feeling the odd thinness of his lips, hands on your back pressing into your wingroots - everything that had been denied to you, now returned with interest.
  5421. "...I'll tell you one thing, though. This future we're talking about? It's definitely got you in it."
  5422. > It wasn't like anypony was going to see you; the plane was parked far enough off at the edge of the runway to be hidden from most activity, and yet still close enough no pegasi would be flying overhead.
  5423. > At some point you'd shifted around just that little bit further to be straddling him entirely - pressing your hips to him, the pressure of his body pushing back -
  5424. > Your wings spread out to either side in twin fans of yellow to encircle him -
  5425. > Something new was building in you.
  5426. > Not just an emotion, a recognition of closeness, but a need.
  5427. > A desire - one that expresses itself by urging you on to be ever forceful in pressing yourself to him.
  5428. > Your hips press themselves to his, grinding eagerly in anticipation of what will come.
  5429. > Even through the growing hormonal fog, though, you can recognize the feel of Anonymous drawing back from you.
  5430. > Breaking the kiss, you pull back and tilt your head.
  5431. "...what's wrong?"
  5432. > "I..."
  5433. > Anonymous' eyes fall, and a terrible thought strikes through your heart.
  5434. "It's not because I'm - I'm a pony is it?"
  5435. > "What? No! Hell no!"
  5436. "Then what is it? I know you're not dumb. So just what is up with you? This isn't like-"
  5437. > He sighs.
  5438. > Heavily.
  5439. > As if an incredible weight had come to rest across his shoulders.
  5440. > "Spits... you know I don't hate you or anything. But - it's what I told you before. Between us... I'm your owner. You're my property, as much as we like to ignore that reality."
  5441. "Does that really change how you look at me?"
  5442. > "Honestly? Yes. Yes it does. If it hadn't, yes I think we would have ended up sleeping together a long time ago."
  5443. > You feel the heat come rushing back to your cheeks.
  5444.  
  5445. > "It's what I told you once, when we had just met - when I had just bought you: That I wouldn't order you into my bed. That I only take what I can catch, Spitfire. Not what I can demand."
  5446. "So?"
  5447. > You hop off of him and stretch languidly, making sure to flick your tail teasingly while watching Anonymous' reaction from the corner of your eye.
  5448. > Sure enough, his eyes are firmly locked on your rump.
  5449. "Not had to see what you want, y'know. We're both adults here, and frankly we're both free."
  5450. > "I don't know! It feels like - like cheating. Like even if we're good now, in some fucking weird way I had some power on you, or I'm still taking advantage of you-"
  5451. "You know what then?"
  5452. > Spinning around, you jab him with a hoof right in the chest.
  5453. "Fine. Let's go back to zero. You want to actually have to catch me?"
  5454. > A few steps towards the hatch down into the plane's cabin, look back, grin with hoodedand give your tail a playful flick - making sure he can see exactly what you're offering.
  5455. "Fucking catch me already."
  5456. > And then you leap down into the cabin.
  5457. > Moments later, the thud of boots signals that the game is on.
  5458.  
  5459. --------
  5460.  
  5461. > The chase carries you up and down the length of the plane.
  5462. > Predator and prey - although who is which often reverses at a moment's notice as he pursues his quarry and his quarry pursues him.
  5463. > Yes, you wanted this!
  5464. > Not just what would come, but the hunt, the pursuit, the chase - the race!
  5465. > It was in your blood; this had to be a challenge.
  5466. > So hooves and boots thud on metal, and both your laughter fills the cabin.
  5467. > You had the initial advantage; Anonymous may be taller, but you were fast, nimble, and skilled at dodging obstacles while racing past them.
  5468. > Each time you slip past his reach, you slap his rump with the broad expanse of your wing.
  5469. > A reminder more stinging to his ego than his flesh that he'd really have to put in some real effort to try and catch you!
  5470. "Come on, slowpoke! You aren't ever going to get anything that way!"
  5471.  
  5472. > Another wide-miss grab which never even makes it close to your mane, another smack, and another growl out of Anonymous while you bolt off, laughing uproariously.
  5473. > In this enclosed space, though, there is only so long you can avoid him.
  5474. > Only so long before he gets lucky.
  5475. > One little mistake, and you tumble to the floor - Anonymous half-pouncing, half-stumbling to pin you there.
  5476. > Your mouth opens to deliver some petty quip, but the words vanish as his lips meet yours.
  5477. > You can smell him - that musky scent of definitively male sweat.
  5478. > You can feel his weight, crushing you - the predator ready to take its prey.
  5479. > And you can very definitely feel yourself respond:
  5480. > Wings trembling and - oh! - yes, your winking against him too.
  5481. > Anonymous even pauses.
  5482. > "...um..."
  5483. "It means I like it. Shut up and keep going."
  5484. > He does.
  5485. > Aggressively.
  5486. > Pressing his lips to yours with such force you're almost afraid they'll bruise, but push back all the same.
  5487. > After all, how long had it been since you'd been able to let yourself feel like this?
  5488. > Months - hell, just about years at this point - had passed since you'd felt these emotions - this need!
  5489. > Somehow the two of you manage to make it to the bed, a tangle of grasping limbs and kisses and need that barely gives him time to pull off his clothes before he is on you again.
  5490. > Anonymous' hands are rough and eager, grabbing and squeezing and discovering what things made you gasp and throw your head back with a little purr of pleasure.
  5491. > There's somehow relief in it:
  5492. > Having found at last one you could trust entirely, surrendering to the utter vulnerability that comes with intimacy and letting him do as he wishes.
  5493. > How strange that you'd ever come to desire vulnerability again - especially from a human!
  5494. > But when your heart thuds that much harder and haunches clench when his fingers dig into your cutie mark, there's no denying how you feel.
  5495.  
  5496. > And judging from the fervent attention Anonymous is paying your well-toned rump, you aren't the only one who's been without relief for far too long a time!
  5497. "Well? Come on then - aren't you going to claim your priz-"
  5498. > Words were cut off and breath hitched in your throat as he probed at your marehood.
  5499. > Your entire body frozen by that single tantalizing point of contact.
  5500. > But no words seemed to be just as good bait as teasing words; moments later your entire world had narrowed down to focus on just the feeling of being impaled up to the hilt by him.
  5501. > What follows is... well.
  5502. > Not, objectively, the best sex you'd ever had.
  5503. > In many ways you were still discovering each others' bodies - what fit comfortably where, how limbs would tangle together awkwardly...
  5504. > It's also the first time either of you have had this in a long time, and so the climax is quick to come for both of you.
  5505. > That length of time, though, also means that each thrust, each shudder of pleasure he drives through you is also like something discovered entirely anew.
  5506. > He takes you roughly, fiercely, pinning you down and leaving you helpeless and relishing his nearness - relishing the way he holds your wings to the bed, growls in your ear, and renders you unable to even think of escaping.
  5507. > Feeling his desire incarnated in how he held you.
  5508. > And even after both your climaxes, when you were left clinging to each others' sweat-soaked bodies, little trembling shudders running from your tail to your nose and pulling squeaky little nickers from your throat - well, you can still feel his love then too.
  5509. > ...another advantage of being this pent up?
  5510. > Neither of you have to wait long for the second bout.
  5511. > You're on top this time - his hands gripping your haunches, fingers digging into your cutie mark as he pulls you down onto him, your tail lashing against his legs.
  5512. > Winging against him every time he forces you down onto him.
  5513. > Hunching over him to purr into his ear:
  5514.  
  5515. "Come on, I know you've got more than that in you. Give it all to me!"
  5516. > "Heh - you - treat - every lover - like a recruit?"
  5517. > You open your mouth to spin some witty retort, but Anonymous short-circuits it with a grasp of your rump that leaves you arching your back and one wing bumping the wall as it struggles to reach full extension.
  5518. > Pleasure snaps through you body like a bolt of lightning as you wink hard against his shaft - an electric current running up and down your spine.
  5519. > Your coupling again grows to loud, wet thwacks as you soak the bed with the products of your pleasure.
  5520. "-cheating! That's cheating!"
  5521. > "Anonymous just laughs and kisses you deeply - right up until you lean over and close your teeth around his shoulder.
  5522. > Then he yelps hard and good, and it is your turn to laugh!
  5523. > Urging him on with another swat of your tail against his thighs, you guide both of you to another white-out climax.
  5524. > Neither of you were in any state to really move for a good ten minutes after that and in any case neither of you much seemed to want to:
  5525. > Anonymous was content to let you rest sprawled across his chest, one hand's fingers meshed with your mane while the other idly, almost unconsciously rests on your rump.
  5526. > You, too, were happy to stay there - your nethers still filled with his softened member and the sticky, fluid warmth of his seed.
  5527. > Both your afterglows encompassed, surrounded, seemed to flow and weave together until they became one single halo of satisfaction.
  5528. > Hearts thudding together in unison as the heat of your passions faded and sweat dried.
  5529. > "Y'know..."
  5530. > His voice is the scratch and faded one of someone who's been out of breath for a while, yet every word is still spoken rich with loving tones.
  5531. > "...it's in y'name, so I should've figured you'd be a fiery lover too."
  5532. "Puns? Now?"
  5533. > You weakly bat a wing at him, though you are also so lazy that it was more like a hug than a blow.
  5534.  
  5535. > "Nah. Just sayin', I'm lucky you've got big flat blocky vegetarian teeth and not sharp ones like me!"
  5536. "Oh, come on. Don't lie, I didn't even bruise your poor shoulder."
  5537. > "I'm not lying!"
  5538. "You're stretching the truth, at least!"
  5539. > "Alright, then: Here's a truth I won't deny."
  5540. > You squeak-whinny like a little filly as Anonymous' fingers dig into your rump unexpectedly.
  5541. > "You have a nice, firm butt and I like squeezing it very much."
  5542. "Shaddup!"
  5543. > "Yes ma'am!"
  5544. > That sets you giggling again.
  5545. > Something about the way he says it!
  5546. > Anonymous grins back, raising one eyebrow.
  5547. > "What, that something I'm going to be saying a lot while we're - together now?"
  5548. "Nah."
  5549. > You give him a long, slow lick with your broad tongue - the slight salty tang of his skin a reminder of what you'd just done.
  5550. "Y'know... we maybe should've restrained ourselves until we could find a motel or something."
  5551. > "Gonna have to wash the sheets, yeah."
  5552. "...and clean up pretty good, otherwise Kalendae's gonna smell it when she comes back."
  5553. > "Do you care if she does?"
  5554. > Do you?
  5555. > What would you be hiding - it wasn't like ponies didn't occasionally stumble on evidence of who had been rutting who?
  5556. > The only thing worth keeping secret about it was that you were in a relationship with a human.
  5557. > And Kalendae, well...
  5558. "Nah."
  5559. > "Good. 'cause I don't either."
  5560. "But we still better clean up. Just to be not gross."
  5561. > "Ah, c'mon. I'm trying to keep up my filthy bachelor cred!"
  5562.  
  5563. --------
  5564.  
  5565. > The third time he takes you has to wait a time while he 'recharges'.
  5566. > Just for sheer variety this time, you leave the bed behind for one of the seats this time:
  5567. > First with you crouched between his legs, taking his member in your mouth as your spread wings twitch and wiggle.
  5568. > Tasting his seed - and your own relief - on his shaft.
  5569. > Teasing his sack with your hoof.
  5570. > Letting the tip of his member scrape the back of your throat, and holding it there prisoner while he trembles and moans!
  5571.  
  5572. > Then, your positions reversed:
  5573. > You in the seat, as he drives you against it.
  5574. > An arm to each side, boxing you in to ensure his prize does not escape.
  5575. > Your lips against his, your forehooves on his shoulders, his hands stroking your wings.
  5576. > By the time he finishes, he has barely anything left to give.
  5577. > Even so, you relish the feeling of that warmth between your legs.
  5578. > Aching, exhausted, and totally spent - neither of you feel like standing again.
  5579. > You manage to bully (convince) him into carrying you back to the bed before pulling you into his lap again; even with the towels you'd laid down, there was no way you could sit down on the chair after that or the smell would probably never come out.
  5580. > It still might not ever come out!
  5581. > You'd still have to air the whole plane out, or the cloying musk of your lovemaking would be everywhere.
  5582. > Yet somehow you can't be bothered to care now.
  5583. > Tilting your head back, you place a soft kiss on Anonymous' scratchy chin.
  5584. > He laughs - a tired laugh, but still full of fun.
  5585. > "Guess I won that chase."
  5586. "I think you did."
  5587. > Fingers scratch at the ridges of your spine, and you stretch out with all six limbs until your hooves and wingtips tremble.
  5588. "Ooooh, keep doing that!"
  5589. > "I am so going to have to teach you how to massage me, this isn't fair at all."
  5590. "Eventually."
  5591. > Then your conversation peters out for a time - you content to stay curled up on Anonymous chest and he just as happy to hold you.
  5592.  
  5593. > Afterglow had a funny way of making everyone calmer.
  5594. > Eventually you look over and find Anonymous' eyes had slid shut; reaching out a hoof, you boop him lightly on the nose.
  5595. "You're not falling asleep on me, are you?"
  5596. > "Just resting my eyes, Prettybird."
  5597. > You snort at the cheesy stupidity of the answer, but he's grinning and somehow you're grinning and it doesn't seem to matter.
  5598. > Silence falls back over the two of you, though not for long this time.
  5599. > Soon it's Anonymous' turn to poke you on the nose - a crime to which you retaliate by ticking your tongue out and giving it a long lick.
  5600. > "Hey! Quit being lewd, I'm not ready to go again."
  5601. "I'm not being lewd. You're just making it that way."
  5602. > He responds by poking you on the nose again, and you both laugh.
  5603. > "Penny for your actual thoughts, though?"
  5604. "Just... thinking about all this."
  5605. > "This?"
  5606. "I mean... us. Laying here. Laughing. Screwing. After we just barely escaped being cocooned and drained out. After so many others didn't. How can we just be... screwing around?"
  5607. > "Sometimes, Spitfire, we have to 'screw around' because it's the only thing keeping us from breaking down entirely."
  5608. > Flick an ear at that idea; it seems reasonable, but also... unsatisfying.
  5609. > "Was that all?"
  5610. "Well... no. Not really. I also - kind of had an idea. Might've lied to you a bit when I said I didn't know what we're going to do with all that money."
  5611. > "Oh? What were you thinking of?"
  5612. "Okay, so - we told Whitworth not to expect the Mars back, and he kind of gave us free reign with it. The Mars still belongs to us kind of, right?”
  5613. > "Y'know, there's kind of a big gap between 'we can't get this back' and 'it belongs to us now."
  5614. "Well - yeah. But, something Celestia said is kind of sticking with me, and I can't get it entirely out of my mind."
  5615. > "What, it's been bugging you ever since we got back?"
  5616. "Well, not all the time. You did a good job of putting exactly one thing in my head-"
  5617.  
  5618. > You nibble lightly on his skin, earning an amusingly high 'eeep!' from Anonymous.
  5619. "-for a good long time there. It kinda crept back into my head there afterward, though."
  5620. > "Well? You going to spit it out, or not?"
  5621. > Rolling onto your belly again, you tuck your forehooves beneath her chest to raise yourself up and look at him.
  5622. "It's what she said about the fate of humans and ponykind being more and more intertwined. Now, I'm not a 'fates guide our path' kind of mare - I fly my own direction."
  5623. > And your neck twitches to one side as you say this, feeling the weight of a collar no longer there.
  5624. "But on the big scale? Yeah. I think she's right. And I think we can do something to make sure that goes right."
  5625. > "Don't want to let the big mare down, huh?"
  5626. "Would you?"
  5627. > Anonymous runs a hand through your mane, then shakes his head.
  5628. > "Nah. Hell, just being in the same room - tent, whatever - as her was like..."
  5629. "It's a sensation, yeah."
  5630. > "So. You're thinking we've got some big role to play in all this. How much, exactly? What are you thinking? And why do we need the Mars for it?"
  5631. "Okay, hear me out completely first. We don't really need it, but..."
  5632. > You explain your plan to Anonymous one point at a time, letting him interrupt to ask questions as he needed.
  5633. > And when it is done, he scratches his chin and reaches out to feel around until he locates his pants, and from there his phone.
  5634. > "Hey. Renaud? Yeah, it's Anonymous. No, yeah. Everything's fine. It's just - Spitfire just gave me an idea, and I was wondering if you and Alicia wanted a job. ... Just one. We're thinking about trying to bring the Mars back, before weather and everything wear it to bits."
  5635. > Anonymous pauses, and you tilt an ear at the half-heard voice coming through the phone.
  5636. > "...yeah, figured you'd be thrilled with that idea. It isn't going to be easy, but if you're not already heading back to Earth, come on back around and I'll reimburse for your hotel rooms or whatever."
  5637.  
  5638. > Once more a pause, during which your heart flutters anxiously.
  5639. > "Well, yeah. She's got a plan for after we get it back too, but that's a whole other question. I figured I'd at least pay you for this job, then we can talk bigger ideas."
  5640. > One eyebrow rises in slight amusement, and then Anonymous laughs again.
  5641. > "Yeah, I promise not to try and blackmail either of you into this... nevermind. Inside joke. What? Okay."
  5642. > Peeling the phone from his ear, he holds it up to your head.
  5643. > "They want to talk to you."
  5644. "Hey. Renaud?"
  5645. > "Spitfire! We were just about to get tickets home, but then you called. What's this big fancy plan you are looking for?"
  5646. > The older man's accent always made it slightly harder for you to understand, but you definitely think there's interest in that.
  5647. "Well, Anonymous mentioned that I'd like to go back and get the Mars, but after that... hey, is Alicia there?"
  5648. > "Of course!"
  5649. "Put it on speaker, would you? I want her to hear this too, so she understands what's going on."
  5650. > "One moment, one moment... there!"
  5651. "Okay. So, here's the thing - right now, both our worlds are hurting. And I don't think we're going to be able to just ignore how bad they are. It's going to keep bleeding over to both of us until things heal-"
  5652. > "You don't have to sell me on it, Spitfire, just tell me. You're convincing enough when you put that voice on."
  5653. > Fortunately Alicia can't see your slight blush, though Anonymous is happy to correct this:
  5654. > "She's adorably flustered right now, you know."
  5655. "Shaddup! Anyway, here's what I was thinking..."
  5656.  
  5657. --------
  5658.  
  5659. > "You know this one has a history, right?"
  5660. > "Yeah, yeah - 'avoids all responsibility and duty'. I read her file before buying."
  5661. > "Just make sure you know what you're getting into."
  5662. > Ears pricking as someone grunts, you shift as the cage is hauled up off the back of the truck and lowered to the ground.
  5663. > What new, fresh Tartarus was this?
  5664. > "Hey. Mistral. Wake up in there. Want to talk to you."
  5665.  
  5666. > Someone is standing in front of the wire-twisted door of your cage; you snort and roll over.
  5667. > Not even worth getting up for.
  5668. > Moments later some other woman speaks up:
  5669. > "Let me try instead."
  5670. > The heavily booted feet take a few paces to the side, replaced by oddly light-sounding ones.
  5671. > A second later it clicks that those boots sound awfully like hooves, and you crack open your eyes just in time to see a quartet of yellow-coated legs stop in front of the bars in your cage.
  5672. > "Hey there, Mistral. Been told you're pretty good at predicting the winds."
  5673. > Cautiously you lift your head, the chain leading to your collar clinking softly.
  5674. "Yeah? Not that there was ever any need for it, and human weather is messed up. What of it?"
  5675. > "What about navigating?"
  5676. "I'm not an idiot. I can find my way home."
  5677. > Who is this mare?
  5678. > She's wearing a collar, but she'd told the human to move aside; that makes you wary.
  5679. > Everypony knew what kinds of cruelty collaborators who didn't mind bowing and scraping to the humans could be capable of, but this somehow didn't seem like that kind of situation.
  5680. > The grin spreading across her muzzle was one of someone in on a joke that's about to be tremendously funny, not one tinged with malice or the promise of sadism.
  5681. > "You like to go flying again, Mistral?"
  5682. > There's no way to stop it; you wings instinctively twitch at the prospect of spreading, of feeling the air rushing along them.
  5683. > The mare's grin only widens, and she looks up to someone else outside of your field of view.
  5684. > "Yeah, that's what I thought. Okay, get her out of there. I want to see her properly."
  5685. > Rough hands undo the cage's lock and free the collar's chain from the eyebolt it had been connected to.
  5686. > Not bothering to wait for permission, you step out - the clinking chain being dragged after you - and stretch your wings to their full span.
  5687.  
  5688. > Little tremors of pleasure run through your straining muscles and a low nicker of pleasure escapes your throat; it'd been far too long since you'd been able to do that.
  5689. > Trotting in circles around you, the yellow-coated mare nods her approval; though her gaze is an appraising one, somehow you don't feel like a piece of meat on display so much as a filly back in school again.
  5690. > Still...
  5691. "Like what you see there?"
  5692. > "Everything except the attitude."
  5693. "Well, I'm a slave in a cage. I've got a reason."
  5694. > "Because nothing's really worth putting effort into when you know you're just going to be bossed around for someone else's benefit, so they can go get rutted?"
  5695. > You blink, momentarily caught completely off-guard by that response.
  5696. > Whoever this was, she definitely didn't seem like a garden-variety, save-her-own-rump traitor working with the slavers.
  5697. > At the same moment, you also think to stand up and take a look around.
  5698. > What you see is... confusing.
  5699. > There are a few small buildings scattered here and there, some looking almost home-ey.
  5700. > Further down, a dock extended out into a lake; two aircraft - one massive, one merely large - bobbed at their moorings, which seemed really strange considering you didn't think those were supposed to be in water.
  5701. "What... is this place? Who are you?"
  5702. > Looking closer at the mare tells you that she's obviously been able to care for herself, plus that physique spoke of another flyer; but she still didn't seem like a plain collaborator.
  5703. > Not with a line like that.
  5704. > "Name's Spitfire."
  5705. "You going to be giving me orders?"
  5706. > "Only an offer. If you'll hear me out."
  5707. > Your eyes narrow, ears pinning back.
  5708. "I'm listening."
  5709. > "You drop the attitude and actually put your rump into it. I used to train ponies before everything happened, and I know you're not incompetent. You’re just sick of being given orders by anyone who looks down at you In return, you work with us - not for us, not under us, with us. All of us."
  5710.  
  5711. “All of you?”
  5712. > “You'll meet the other ponies here. And - some others.”
  5713. > Glancing back, you spot the man who'd first tried speaking to you - unkempt hair, a loose jacket, slouched leaning against the truck that had brought you here.
  5714. "Work for him?"
  5715. > Spitfire's eyes track yours, and she nods.
  5716. > "Yeah. And me. We run this place as partners. That way we have a wingpony to tell when someone's being a rutting foal."
  5717. > Again, that last bit was clearly spoken loud enough for him to hear.
  5718. > But he didn't seem to care, and neither did she.
  5719. > There was a sort of calm, comfortable easiness in the way she looked at him.
  5720. > Maybe even... affection?
  5721. > You are completely mystified by whatever is going on here, and this mare actually seems to prefer it that way.
  5722. “So, then you’ll be giving me orders?”
  5723. > “If you agree.”
  5724. "You know, it's kind of hard to make a call based on... what? A minute since we met?"
  5725. > “S’fine.”
  5726. > Spitfire shrugs, circling around to stand by the man’s side.
  5727. > “Like I said, you can go meet the other ponies… you’ll see. This isn’t a slave camp. We have all kinds here.”
  5728. “Then - what exactly is it?”
  5729. > She grins - a wide, knowing grin that suggests she’s been waiting to say this for a long, long time.
  5730. > “Eventually…? A team, like the old Wonderbolts. A family. But for right now? Right now we’re just trying to be Equestria’s first airline. You in?"
  5731.  
  5732. FIN
spitfire soarin /spg/

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