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

By Lurkernon
Created: 10th January 2021 09:08:41 PM

  1. Originally posted March 2017
  2.  
  3. Follow-up to Fire and Sky:
  4.  
  5. > The first time you'd seen the city, emerging from the sun-bleached desert like a mirage, you'd been once again convinced that humans were mildly insane as a species.
  6. > Now, passing over the glowing buildings and luminescent streets of Las Vegas, you conclude that you were quite wrong.
  7. > They were, in fact, completely batshit insane.
  8. "...do they really have to light the whole damn thing up like a beacon?"
  9. > "Have to? No."
  10. > Seated across the cockpit, one arm resting on the seat's armrest while the other kept a loose grip on the plane's wheel, your owner - no, your partner - chuckles.
  11. > His voice gains a slightly tinny quality through the headset you wear, but it's still quite audible.
  12. > "Thing about Vegas, Spits, is that it's not so much 'why should we' as 'is there immediate reason why we shouldn't'."
  13. "...and I take it 'because it's a needless waste of all that light' doesn't qualify."
  14. > "It's the least of things people waste here. Money, reason, lives..."
  15. > Snorting softly, you peer out the window for a few minutes more before turning back to the gently-lit instruments in front of you.
  16. > Compared to the gaudily-lit city, every building and lane seeming to be ensconced in a golden glow, the dials and readouts seem subdued, almost dull.
  17. > Still readable, though.
  18. "VOR shows we're still dead on course. Altitude... holding."
  19. > "Yeah, we'll hold altitude until we're out from over the city and get a glideslope fix. Radio set?"
  20. "199.4, dialed us in a while back."
  21. > "At a girl, on top of things."
  22. > You can hear the grin in his voice, even if you can't see it.
  23. > Looking back out the window, craning your neck to watch the buildings vanish, you try and quench the slight uncertainty swirling in your gut.
  24. > The city - that didn't alarm you.
  25. > Sure, the last time you were here it'd ended with an early-morning call that had sent you off on a job - a job that had ultimately ended in both of you nearly dying.
  26. > But that was hardly the city's fault.
  27.  
  28. > No, the problem you had was sealed in a little envelope some twenty feet behind you.
  29. > Having missed its first shot at delivery and survived your impromptu trip back to Equestria, the letter was now weighing heavily on your mind.
  30. > You'd sworn to deliver it, and it didn't seem right to let it slip by again.
  31. > As if fate had somehow kept it intact knowing you'd be heading back to Las Vegas for another job.
  32. > "Spitfire?"
  33. "Huh?"
  34. > Anonymous' voice snaps you back to reality, dragging you unwillingly into the hear and now.
  35. > "Staring a bit. You alright?"
  36. "Yeah, just... got some stuff on my mind."
  37. > Another extended silence, and then:
  38. > "It's the letter, isn't it? The one you picked up back in Washington?"
  39. "Surprised you remember."
  40. > "My memory isn't that awful, y'know."
  41. "Yeah, well, you were dying shortly after I mentioned it to you last, and I kind of brought it up at three in the morning, so..."
  42. > "Yeah, yeah."
  43. > He's still grinning, though.
  44. > "We might have a shot, though. For delivering it, I mean. There'll be a break before our job, and we're a little less pressed on maintenance since this thing went through its overhaul."
  45. "...hey, guess something good did come out of me dropping it into a field."
  46. > "If you do it again, I throw you out over the ocean."
  47. > Rolling your eyes but still grinning, you give a gentle snort.
  48. "Hah, hah."
  49. > A few months ago, with any other human threatening you like that, you'd have reacted far differently.
  50. > Snapped back at them with some return threat, maybe.
  51. > If you were being honest with yourself, the thought of being left to die a slow death by dehydration or starvation out over the ocean would have driven you to settle for a murderous glare.
  52. > But for Anonymous?
  53. > You knew him.
  54. > Knew he wouldn't.
  55. "But yeah. I don't know how long it'll take, but I would like to get that delivered."
  56. > " 'course, of course."
  57. > He waves a hand dismissively before returning it to the control yoke.
  58.  
  59. > "I'll give you a night to get it done or something. Couldn't be that far, could it?"
  60. "Nah. I think it's just around the western side of town, a bit off from the center but not too far for a little flight."
  61. > "Gotcha. Well, you'll go do that. I... I dunno, I'll go blow our savings on hookers and cocaine."
  62. "I'm not posing for another article if you do."
  63. > "You're no fun."
  64. "Yeah, you try getting how you've been 'tamed' dropped onto a magazine cover and printed across the country."
  65. > A pause, and then his hand lightly scratches around the back of your neck - at the base of your mane, and around the collar that still weighed down on you.
  66. > "We should have a night or two. You'll have plenty of time."
  67. "I know. Thanks."
  68. > Soon enough you're touching down on the runway, wheels squealing as they brush the tarmac.
  69. > As soon as the plane is down to a more reasonable speed you're out one of the doors, quickly clearing off the runway and moving to hover low along a ditch at the asphalt's edge.
  70. > The air smells of exhaust - a scent you suspect has less to do with any aircraft passing by and more something that has permeated the very ground from years of use - and the ground still radiates heat from the long-departed sun.
  71. > But even so you relish being outside again, the chance to stretch your wings after too long in the plane's cabin.
  72. > Turning, you wing your way along at a slow clip - your bright coat and tail a beacon for him to follow even in the dark.
  73. > Chocks come next as he pulls into the parking spot.
  74. > Slid under the wheels with actions so familiar by now that you have to keep yourself from going through them automatically.
  75. > At least the propellers were high enough up that you didn't need to worry about drifting into one of them.
  76. > When the engines sputter to a halt you're climbing back inside; pausing to stretch cat-like on the cabin floor.
  77. "Alright, so what've we got to do?"
  78.  
  79. > "Head into town, get some paperwork done, and then we'll pull short-jobs for a couple days until our main job is ready. Then... back on out again."
  80. > You glance at the nearest clock and grimace.
  81. "Bit late to be heading in to town tonight."
  82. > "Yeah, unless you want to be getting up on three hours of sleep tomorrow."
  83. "No thanks. I remember what that was like, and I'd prefer not to if I have the choice in it."
  84. > Anonymous laughs as he heads for the nearest hatch.
  85. > "Says the one-time team captain. Come on, let's go see how much money we can blow on dinner."
  86.  
  87. --------
  88.  
  89. > Spending the bulk of a day on paperwork and planning was a uniquely boring experience.
  90. > It was, back in Equestria, the kind of thing you could break up with short practice flights and dropping in to give some rookies a bit of a boost.
  91. > On Earth there was rarely any such luck; tasks blended into one achingly-long steam of hiking around the city from bureau to bureau, office to office.
  92. > As evening again crept around the next day, you were already feeling the ache of exhaustion settling across you.
  93. > This was far different from a carefully-paced exercise or even some of the marathon flights you'd done.
  94. > How ironic that standing in so many lines could be more exhausting than actually flying!
  95. > At last, however, the sun drops itself below the horizon and moon creeps up to replace it.
  96. > Night finds you huddled in a pizzeria against the oppressive heat still not ready to release its grip on the city.
  97. > The slice you're currently sucking down isn't the best - so much oil and cheese you can practically feel your veins thickening on the spot - but it is well worth it.
  98. > "So-"
  99. > Anonymous speaks around a mouthful of pizza.
  100. > A skilled flier you admit he was, but manners he was not.
  101. > "-So, we're pretty much done for today. You feel like doing that deliver of yours tonight, or...?"
  102. "Unless there's anything else to do."
  103.  
  104. > You're tired, but hardly completely out of it - and the chance to pull this off, plus dinner, has given you something of a second wind.
  105. > "Nah, you're good. I'll be heading back to plane for now."
  106. "Hotel tonight, or...?"
  107. > He snorts.
  108. > "Around here? Forget about it. It'd be cheaper spending the Avgas to fly over another city and drop there. I promise we'll get a proper room before this is done, though."
  109. "Heh. Alright, see you back there then."
  110. > "Get back early enough for some sleep. We'll be up and about again tomorrow."
  111. "I hear you."
  112. > "Phone me if there's any trouble."
  113. > The phone strapped to your leg was one of the things he'd gotten you as 'slave' had become more like 'partner'.
  114. > Trotting back out onto the street, you hover your wings out at your side - better to let the heat out - and look around.
  115. > Let's see, from the map on your phone the right way was... that way!
  116. > Beating your wings, you climb skyward - up past the first, second, tenth floors of the buildings around you amid the gleam of streetlights reflecting on gleaming glass.
  117. > A small mercy:
  118. > There were no leash laws in Las Vegas; on the contrary, the city seemed to have taken 'anything goes' approach to ponies.
  119. > Indeed, you pass a few other airborne pegasi - most too fast to recognize you, though a few glance or shoot acknowledgements to a fellow member of their tribe.
  120. > A wide, swinging arc around a corner and you find yourself coasting down the central lane, surrounded on all sides by a degree of glamour that would be impressive if it were not so excessive.
  121. > Building after building lit by eye-watering lights, elaborately-worked gateways displaying businesses' names, fountains spraying water high into the desert air...
  122. > You roll into a hurtling dive through a few of those bursts of water, just to see what it is like.
  123. > Someone beneath yells angrily as the scattered droplets fall on them, and you suppress a laugh while climbing away.
  124. > It's... different, that's for sure.
  125.  
  126. > Flying with Anonymous, you mostly kept well away from cities.
  127. > To be able to fly through them...
  128. > A flicker of nostalgia shoots through you.
  129. > Las Vegas wasn't Cloudsdale or any other Equestrian city.
  130. > Not even Canterlot could compare to this kind of wretchedly excessive display.
  131. > But even so...
  132. > Curving away, you turn out towards the city's perimeter.
  133. > Back to business now; you didn't come here to sightsee.
  134. > There's a marked dropoff as you leave the center of the city, well-lit skyscrapers giving way to lower and simpler structures.
  135. > Neither were they meticulously kept; carefully-tended gardens and whitewashed walls gave way to scrubby, wild trees and cracked plaster.
  136. > And other things; you catch glimpses of ponies dressed in unusually exotic outfits and flank-swinging gaits, yet still wearing the mandated collars that said they were property of another.
  137. > It took you a few moments to realize what they were, but when you do your stomach turns.
  138. > Not just because they were prostitutes, but because they didn't seem afraid or desperate.
  139. > On the contrary; their postures, the way they're made up, ooze confidence.
  140. > These weren't - as best as you could tell - ponies forced into their role by threat.
  141. > A shudder runs from the tips of your wings.
  142. > Would that have been you, if you'd broken?
  143. > So far gone you'd have given yourself freely like that?
  144. > Again you offer a silent thanks that you'd managed to hold out.
  145. > ...and was this the right way?
  146. > Pausing to perch on the roof of a particularly high building, you check the phone strapped to your foreleg.
  147. > Yes, this was in the right direction.
  148. > Unfortunately.
  149. > It figures this would be where the pony you were looking for lived.
  150. > Dropping down to a lower height, you swing wide around a corner -
  151. > Oaths are spat under your breath.
  152. > If they had lived here, the pony you were looking for was long gone.
  153. > Their entire house was, in fact - nothing left now but a few bits of rubble and an empty lot.
  154.  
  155. > Still swearing softly, you glance up and down the street.
  156. > Perhaps a block distant, a couple ponies lean against a wall - as do a pair of humans with them.
  157. > Though instinct and logic alike assure you it is monumentally stupid, you find yourself approaching them.
  158. > After all, there wasn't a pony or human in the city who could catch you in the air.
  159. "Hey. That lot down there, third from the end of the block - I'm looking for a pony who used to live there. You know where she might've gone?"
  160. > Wary, nervous eyes rest on you, though they don't seem ready to go
  161. > "Maybe."
  162. > One of the ponies spoke first.
  163. > He wore a collar, you notice, but the other pony - an earth pony mare nearly the size of her stallion friend - did not.
  164. > "Who're you asking for?"
  165. "Me. Or, the letter I'm carrying."
  166. > "You gotta love note, prettybird?"
  167. > Flatly eyeing the mare who'd called you that, somehow managing to keep the expression from straying into 'annoyed'.
  168. "I've got a letter I need to drop off. A favor to another pony."
  169. > They'd understand that, right?
  170. > One pony doing a favor for another?
  171. > While they might the two humans accompanying them do not.
  172. > Pushing off the wall, they circle around behind you; instinctively your wings spread in wary preparation for a fight or flight.
  173. > "You ain't got any mailman uniform, pony. What're you actually doing here?"
  174. "Some ponies like to deliver some letters themselves."
  175. > "Yeah? You gonna read it for us if we tell you where to go?"
  176. "No. Not even my letter; I just want to drop it off."
  177. > "Then you can fuck off, prettybird. I dunno where you're from-"
  178. > Abruptly the stallion steps between you and the other three.
  179. > "Hey, ease up on her. She's got a shocker; she's on the level."
  180. > It takes a moment for you to catch onto the stallion's meaning:
  181. > The shock collar, still weighing on your neck - a replacement for the first you'd lost proving your dedication to him.
  182. > A surefire sign of a pony who hadn't broken, who needed to be controlled.
  183.  
  184. > ...though the latter might not apply - you didn't even know where Anonymous had put the control; he certainly didn't carry it now - the point was still made.
  185. > You were no one's toy.
  186. > After a moment, the others back off.
  187. > "Hey, you wanna get that prettybird in bed, you just give us a chance to watch, 'kay Thatch?"
  188. > The stallion - Thatch, you presume - raises a hoof to swing in their direction.
  189. > "Y'guys can go fuck each other if you're that desperate, yeah?"
  190. > Their laughter rings in your ears as you trot down the street,
  191. "...nice friends y'got there."
  192. > "Hey, don't get up on their asses, prettybird. They're good."
  193. "If you say so. And my name's not 'prettybird'; it's Spitfire."
  194. > A flicker of recognition fills Thatch's eyes.
  195. > "Damn, I knew I'd seen your face somewhere. You were the one on the-"
  196. "If you mention that fucking 'tamed' article, I swear to Celestia I'll drop you from ten stories up."
  197. > Thatch backs away, but with laughter.
  198. > "Easy there!"
  199. "Yeah, yeah. Anyway, the house; do you know-"
  200. > "Yeah, I know where they went. Not too far."
  201. "Thanks."
  202. > Even so, your nerves refuse to let you back down now.
  203. > This clearly wasn't the best part of the town, and one close shave was already one too many.
  204. > "So, what's he actually like?"
  205. "Who?"
  206. > "Y'know... your owner."
  207. "He's... fair. Not abusive, but not going out of his way for me."
  208. > "S'too bad. That could've been a pretty sweet deal. Get yourself up with one of those pure-of-the-heart types who think ponies are going to be their best friends-"
  209. "Maybe. But this is pretty damn good too."
  210. > "You sure he hasn't gotten you tamed?"
  211. > The teasing tone in Thatch's voice restricts your response to an eyeroll - but a very hefty eyeroll.
  212. "If he does, I've got him tamed just as much. Besides, you seem to be on pretty good terms with those two back there."
  213. > " 'fredo and Geek? Eh, they're..."
  214.  
  215. > Hesitation, and then:
  216. > "Look the thing is out here... we all live in this shithole, and it sucks equally for everyone. We look over at all those big fuckin' casinos and hotels where they do all that fancy shit for you and spas with oils and whatever, and..."
  217. > He shrugs, a roll-of-the-shoulders gesture for the earth pony.
  218. > "People here are getting bent over and fucked just as much as we are. We all see that."
  219. > You aren't sure you agree; they, at least, weren't property of another.
  220. > Couldn't be tortured - 'disciplined' - with no repercussions.
  221. > But you don't argue.
  222. > Thatch had clearly accepted himself as the same as them.
  223. "I've seen the same. Some of the place we run deliveries to... some of them are nice, some of them... they look down on us, yeah."
  224. > "Not as much. No 'ffence, prettybird, but you're kind of sticking out here too."
  225. > Answering that with a low grunt, you look around.
  226. "So, where we actually going?"
  227. "Not much farther. White-roofed house, half a block down?"
  228. > "Yep."
  229. > It's actually one of the better-looking homes in the area - while a couple of windows are taped over and paint flakes liberally, the's nothing to suggest it isn't structurally sound.
  230. "So, we just knock on the front door?"
  231. > "Nah, most people out here keep us in little doghouses out back."
  232. > You start to circle around the building - no need to draw the attention of whoever owned the ponies here - but are interrupted by a hefty laugh from Thatch.
  233. > "What the hell are you doing, prettybird?"
  234. "...did you lie to me?"
  235. > "Yeup."
  236. > Calming his chuckles, the earth pony shakes his head.
  237. > "Nobody actually does that. There aren't even any humans living here. This's just a house they rent out for ponies to stay in outside of the rest of the city."
  238. > Being exiled to live in the slums still stirs an ember of anger in your heart, but it's much better a doghouse.
  239. > Tapping the door with a hoof, you're met by an older mare - wrinkles lining her face.
  240.  
  241. "Hey. Is Turnip Bulb here? I'm looking to deliver a-"
  242. > "Turnip! Y'got a letter!"
  243. > Soon enough another pony approaches - middle aged, not much more than you, surprisingly earthy colors for a pegasus.
  244. "Turnip? Hey, I've a message. It's from Willow W-"
  245. > The mare begins to scream.
  246.  
  247. > You take a sudden step back, wings flaring in surprise - having been expecting anything but that sudden scream and the lurching charge that followed it.
  248. > "No! Nonono! Get away! NO!"
  249. "I-"
  250. > "Get! Out!"
  251. > "Turnip, stop!"
  252. > Thatch tries to get between you even as the first mare tries to halt her frenzied companion.
  253. > "Lady-"
  254. > "Get her out of here! I don't want to hear - I don't!"
  255. > Something clicks in your head.
  256. > A memory - of crisply-made uniforms, tearful visits made to cloud-homes, words that hurt you to say and hurt them to hear.
  257. > Of goodbyes unexpectedly made final.
  258. "Willow Wisp is okay!"
  259. > It feels like you could have been heard for a block around, but raising your voice over the commotion has the intended effect - a touch of your old officer's tone still having its impact.
  260. > Everypony stops.
  261. "Willow - she's fine. Or, was last I saw her. Safe, happy - as happy as anypony can be."
  262. > "She's - my Willow - she's not..."
  263. "No."
  264. > Moving forward again, you gently extend a wing to wrap around the trembling mare.
  265. > Though you don't know what caused this burst of panic, you do know how to handle it.
  266. > "You promise? Nothing - nothing wrong?"
  267. "Not when I last saw her. We were up in Washington and-"
  268. > Turnip Bulb's eyebrows knit.
  269. > "That - that's impossible. She's here, in the city. Was."
  270. "Yellow coat, light blue mane and greenish eyes?"
  271. > "Y-Yes..."
  272. > Again you hold out the letter.
  273. "I spoke to her. Washington state, only a couple of months ago."
  274. > With trembling hoovers the mare takes the letter - carefully nibbling open the edge and to unfold the paper and read it.
  275. > Then the tears begin to flow again.
  276. > This time, though, with relief - a weight lifted from her shoulders, a mother reassured of her filly's safety.
  277. > "Oh, thank Celestia and Luna, I thought..."
  278. > She jerks forward, nuzzling in against your neck.
  279. > "Thank you. I didn't know..."
  280. "It's alright."
  281.  
  282. > Your lean your head into the nuzzling, feeling an ear flick at the contact.
  283. "I get it. She was in trouble when you last heard from her."
  284. > "Yes. Six months ago, she..."
  285. > A shuddering breath taken, and words that can't yet be said.
  286. > "...it means everything to hear my Willow is away."
  287. > In the moment that follows, the first mare who'd opened the door speaks up again:
  288. > "Would you like to come in and sit down? Have a bite to eat?"
  289. > You would, Thatch somehow manages to hook himself along as well.
  290. > The interior of the house is about matching the exterior - showing the clear lack of means for those who live in it, and yet kept up with a marked degree of care and effort.
  291. > Quickly you realize that everything has been carefully arranged to get the maximum use out of the limited space - beds stacked one on top of another, cabinets and shelves (many looking to be hoof-made on the spot) lining the walls...
  292. > Lighting is rough at best, and in many cases is little more than bare bulbs.
  293. > Honestly, it reminds you of living on the plane.
  294. > At least many things were more suitable for pony height.
  295. "How many ponies stay here?"
  296. > "A little under forty."
  297. > The Turnip Bulb had taken the lead, showing you the way to a rough, worn table set roughly at withers-height and surrounded by pillows to sit on.
  298. > "We work for some of the big businesses in the city, so they put us out here to lower the costs."
  299. > 'Work for' you notice - not 'are owned by'.
  300. > "So, how'd you meet my little filly?"
  301. "A bar, up near an airport. I fly a lot, and Anonymous went to a bar after we got back from one job. She was there, along with some other ponies."
  302. > "Did she look okay? Hurt?"
  303. "She looked..."
  304. > Hollow eyes, and a thin body.
  305. > But no obvious signs of abuse.
  306. "...not too bad. Not great - everyone there was a hard worker. But not bad, and the ponies there with her seemed like they all looked out for each other."
  307.  
  308. > Turnip Bulb brings a small bowl of chips to the table; they prove stale, but still welcome.
  309. > "The last time I saw my daughter, she was being sold to a different business in the city. Off to.."
  310. > The flow of words stop, having caught in her throat.
  311. "Off to a brothel?"
  312. > A soft snort.
  313. > "Don't you know, Spitfire? Those are-"
  314. > One hoof rises, to wiggle evocatively.
  315. > "-'illegal' in this city."
  316. "About as subtle as a tornado there."
  317. > Harsh, bitter laugher as Turnip Bulb shakes her head.
  318. > "I should be. It's a law without teeth - just like everything else when it comes to us."
  319. "I know. I spent months in a Tartarus-rotting cage, so I'm pretty aware of how bad it can be. And I saw ponies - dressed up like that while I was flying over here."
  320. > Turnip and Thatch both eye you for several moments, re-appraising you in light of that new information.
  321. > "...no, that's not where she was going though. In a way, worse."
  322. > When you remain silent, simply waiting for them to go on, Turnip takes a long drink of water - as if it were liquid courage she were fortifying herself with.
  323. > "Labor farm."
  324. > The two words are enough to send a chill down the backs of every pony in the room.
  325. > Labor farms - the final stop for ponies too disobedient, dangerous, or destructive for anywhere else.
  326. > A long, slow death by hard work - and whatever other benefits the owners decided to reap in the interim.
  327. > "My filly - she wasn't even that much trouble. Must've - must've just twisted someone's tail the wrong way, y'know? She got -"
  328. > Another big gulp of water.
  329. > "-got sold on to one o'them. No coming back. Saw her in the truck, rolling out with the rest of them. All screaming."
  330. > Not even another mouthful of water can help now; Turnip Bulb cannot force any more words out.
  331. > Instead, Thatch chips in:
  332. > "Out here, the heat's a real killer. Rumor is they drug ponies to keep 'em going long after they're spent out, and every summer they lose a bunch."
  333. "I've... heard."
  334.  
  335. > How many of those rumors were true, it's impossible to say.
  336. > Enough that the prospect of ending up on one had kept even you from going too far in your private war against the slavers.
  337. > "But you said she's away from here now, and this..."
  338. > Turnip Bulb gestures to the paper you'd given to her, voice cracking with unspent tears.
  339. > "...this is her hoofwriting. These are her words. I know it's her, but I can't... can't imagine... she was so young."
  340. > Your cue.
  341. "It was like I said, at a bar. There were a couple of tables with ponies... I was looking for information about the other Wonderbolts. Mentioned my line of work, and she spoke up. Asked you to give me this note."
  342. > "Celestia herself must have guided you to us..."
  343. "I don't know. She was in good company, though. There was a stallion there - used to be a Royal Guard. Good, solid pony by my guess. Looked after the others there. She was alright with him."
  344. > And yet, even as Turnip Bulb sags against the table with tears finally freed to roll down her cheeks, you wonder.
  345. > Willow Wisp... the memory is fuzzy, but you remember her having a haunted, hollow look.
  346. > How much of the labor camp had she actually seen?
  347. > Or was that just the knowledge that the ponies she'd been driven out of the city with hadn't made it, while she somehow had?
  348. > "Spitfire?"
  349. "Huh?"
  350. > "You're looking a bit out of it."
  351. > Shooting a small look at Thatch, you shrug.
  352. "It's... nothing. Just thinking about something else I was told there."
  353. > They don't look convinced, and so you shrug and add:
  354. "About... one of the other Wonderbolts."
  355. > "Oh..."
  356. "Look, Turnip Bulb - I know trust is a thing in short supply now. Even between ponies... but trust me. Your daughter could not be safer, and I-"
  357. > "It's not you I don't trust, Spitfire. I trust you more than I'd trust most other ponies these days."
  358. > A smile - faded, weary, but definitely a smile - is shot in your direction.
  359.  
  360. > "I'm just worrying. If there're things out there that can still give a pony like you pause, my daughter... ach, I'm being a silly old mare."
  361. "You're being a good mother. Worrying is normal - if I had foals of my own, I would probably be doing the same."
  362. > Both ponies' eyebrows rise, but it is Thatch who gives voice to their question:
  363. > "Y'didn't? I'd have thought - I mean, uh.. with a pony as good-looking as - ow, hey!"
  364. > Turnip Bulb had reached over to lightly rap the young stallion the back of his head.
  365. > Grinning at the two of them, you shake your head with a laugh.
  366. "I had the Wonderbolts, who were as bad as any foals on many days."
  367. > That gets a smile out of Thatch too, and even a smile grin lifting the corners of Turnip Bulb's lips.
  368. > Shaking her head, the older mare stands in her seat.
  369. > "Listen, Spitfire... I have to bed down for the night soon. I don't know exactly where you're staying in the city, but if you need a bed we can make some room in here."
  370. > They would do that for you?
  371. "I..."
  372. > Anonymous was expecting you back at some point...
  373. > But then again, tomorrow was not a day laden with any particular jobs.
  374. "...give me just a moment, if that's alright?"
  375. > " 'course, 'course. Take all the time you need."
  376. > The house's rooftop isn't the best for perching on, but practice keeps you up there long enough to make the call anyhow.
  377. > "...yello?"
  378. > Bleary and slurred, Anonymous sounds like you'd just woken him up.
  379. > Quickly you run through the situation, and after a heart, rending moment-
  380. > "Yeah, sure. Just - be back on time in the morning, 'kay? I know we don't have as much work t'do, but s'no excuse for slackin' off."
  381. "I hear you. I'll be there. Thanks."
  382. > The same window you'd exited from provides a point to re-enter the house from.
  383. > Thatch is now absent, though Turnip Bulb remains - washing a last few dishes before they are put away.
  384. > "He okay with it?"
  385. "Yeah. Hope you don't mind..."
  386. > "Heh."
  387.  
  388. > Putting the plate away, she turns to you with a wide smile.
  389. > "Couldn't really deny the pony who brought me news about my daughter, could I? This place is my home as much as yours. Hope you don't mind close sleeping arrangements, though."
  390. "Dealt with it plenty of times in the 'bolts or the guard. And my current home isn't exactly too spacious either."
  391. > "Heh. You seem pretty fond of him."
  392. "He... treats me like another human. Like it doesn't matter that I'm a pony. Considering the situation, it's about all I can ask for."
  393. > "Suppose so."
  394. > Settling on her haunches next to the window, Turnip Bulb rests her chin on the windowsill and stares out on the night cityscape.
  395. > Despite the late hour, the core of the city was still lit as brightly as ever; you wondered if it ever turned off.
  396. > "Suppose we're pretty much in the same situation here. Not exactly got a future, so we just... make do with what we can."
  397. > Moving to her side, you seat yourself as well.
  398. "Were you the only one here with a filly?"
  399. > "No. There're a fair number of colts and fillies here... we do what we can to settle down, give them a proper life."
  400. > After a moment, she more quietly adds:
  401. > "You?"
  402. "I... never really thought about foals, honestly. I had my flying, and then the team to manage - and the Wonderbolts sometimes were just like foals, let me tell you..."
  403. > Grinning, Turnip nods.
  404. > "I can only imagine."
  405. "But... yeah. A good racer has only a decade or two at their real peak, you know? Maybe three, if they start early. I had even less as team captain. I always thought there'd be 'afterwards'..."
  406. > You sag a bit, and the mare at your side finishes what you were going to say.
  407. > "And then it all fell apart."
  408. "And then it fell apart. The sickness, the fighting, the invasions... for sure I wasn't going to settle down then. Not when Equestria needed me."
  409. > More softly, almost under your breath:
  410. "Sometimes I think I didn't do enough."
  411.  
  412. > Turnip's head turns ever so slightly to let her watch you from the corner of her eye.
  413. > "You fought. You stayed with Equestria, tried your hardest to keep it together. That's more than I can say for what a lot of ponies were doing back then."
  414. "It wasn't enough."
  415. > "We can't always measure ourselves against 'enough'. We do what we can."
  416. > Another long silence, during which her gaze returns to the window and the city gleaming in the night beyond.
  417. > "When I thought my daughter was - dead, I tore myself up at first. It was - everything. The others kept me moving. Got me started one step at a time. Made me appreciate what I still had, even if my heart was already ripped out.."
  418. > A hoof is lifted to gesture around.
  419. > "I started working on this place. Expanding it, making it less of a hovel and more of a proper home for everypony here. Even if I couldn't have saved her, I could still do... something else."
  420. "It's not - that."
  421. > Turnip Bulb again turns to watch you.
  422. "You know - know all those interviews that came out a while back? About me and my-"
  423. > "Yeah."
  424. > The one-word answer can't quite entirely hide the venom in her voice, and you make a mental note to turn away from future discussion of owners.
  425. "When we were in Equestria... the articles didn't talk too much about it, but there was another slave there too - traveling with us for part of the trip. She didn't make it back."
  426. > "What happened?"
  427. "Griffon arrow caught her in the belly. Broadhead. I tried to stop the bleeding, but even with the bandages - I'd have had to try to dig it out..."
  428. > You take a shuddery breath, having not expected the pain that was creeping up with the memories as they boiled from the corners of your mind.
  429. "Couldn't afford to break down then. Not if we wanted to live - we were still getting back to civilization. By the time we did... yeah, the hurt had faded somewhat."
  430. > "What was her name?"
  431. "Giselle."
  432. > Turnip Bulb blinks, lifting a hoof as she leans back in surprise.
  433.  
  434. > "That's a griffon name."
  435. "She was. Slavery doesn't care - it takes all of us. She got screwed just like we did."
  436. > Silent for a long time, Turnip eventually lets out a heavy sigh.
  437. > "Part of me wants to wish her just desserts for what those birdbrains did to us. But half of me... nop- no one deserves this. Not even them."
  438. "I know that feeling."
  439. > You share a sigh as well.
  440. "Point is... It's not that I don't know to value that I somehow flew out of that whole mess alive when Giselle didn't. Trust me, I know. I still just can't shake the feeling that somehow if I'd been able to do more, we wouldn't be in this situation in the first place."
  441. > "You're only one pony, Spitfire. Even the Wonderbolts - you couldn't have carried Equestria on your wings."
  442. > Grimacing sharply, you nod.
  443. "I know. There's a difference between knowing, though, and believing."
  444. > "I get it."
  445. > After a further pause:
  446. > "Tell me what happened. What she was like."
  447. > So you do.
  448. > Long into the night, as the moon creeps up into its zenith and both of you should long since have been resting for tomorrow, you talk.
  449. > Topics wander past - ponies and friends no longer with you, regrets lingering in the past, the grief that could not be so simply left behind.
  450. > Keeping yourselves sane.
  451. > Creeping up to greet you like old friends come to visit in the tiny, cramped kitchen before vanishing out into the night sky again.
  452. > At last Turnip Bulb stands and stretches sharply, turning for the door.
  453. > "Well, it's already long past my normal hours, and if I fall asleep at work tomorrow I'm going to be flogged bloody. I'm turning in; you coming?"
  454. > You aren't quite sure whether she is serious or not, but decide not to ask.
  455. "Yeah, coming."
  456. > "I'll show you a bed, then."
  457. > The mattress is little better than the thin, hard thing you had back on the plane, and there was a marked lack of heavy blankets.
  458. > Yet that ultimately matters little, as ponies were - as they were known to do - sleeping in clusters here.
  459.  
  460. > Little huddled groups curled together, sharing in the mutual comfort of another.
  461. > Not the intimacy of lovers, but a simpler closeness.
  462. > A modicum of comfort in a world that simply did not care, the reliability of just knowing somepony else was there.
  463. > You find a small smile cracking your face, and Turnip Bulb's head tilts - her voice no more than a tiny whisper.
  464. > "If you want I can make some room for you alone-"
  465. "No, it's fine. Like I said, we slept close plenty often back then."
  466. > "Heh. Alright, then."
  467. > And so you find yourself settling down in a spot nearby the window, a few simple stretches being worked through before you sink to your belly.
  468. > Both wings are quickly checked over, and act which draws an amused look from Turnip, and then your head drops to the mattress - your back pressed against hers, her tail laid over your hindleg.
  469. > And then - rest.
  470. > ...
  471. > Or... not.
  472. > Sleep proves to be an elusive quarry, skillfully evading you.
  473. > At times a light doze seems to come over you, only to slip away what feels like moments later.
  474. > Emptying out your mind, a sort of half-meditation, was not a skill unknown to you - having put it to good use when you needed to find focus in the past.
  475. > Yet now it fails you too.
  476. > Eventually you're forced to admit the truth, even if just to yourself:
  477. > Despite what you'd told Turnip Bulb, you'd been sleeping alone for so long that now the presence of so many other ponies, let alone one sleeping pressed against you felt-
  478. > Unusual.
  479. > Abnormal.
  480. > Alien.
  481. > First with the months you'd spent in the cage, then the many nights on your own bunk back on the plane, you'd slowly been conditioned to sleeping entirely alone.
  482. > ...except for the one time with Anonymous, and you were half-dead at the time!
  483. > The point remains:
  484. > However comfortable you once might have been sleeping alongside other ponies, no longer now.
  485. > Another thing stolen from you by slavery.
  486.  
  487. > With a low growl you push up from the mattress, carefully stepping from it and stepping gently on the bare tile floor to avoid waking anypony else.
  488. > The kitchen is dark but for moonlight sweeping in through the window; judging by its position alone, you'd guess the time to be somewhere between two and four in the morning.
  489. > Dropping to your haunches in front of the window, you sigh - ears lowering, eyes drooping shut and chin falling to rest on the windowsill.
  490. > Cool night air brushes in, lifting and flicking at your mane.
  491. > No noises but for the distant hum of an apparently unsleeping city.
  492. > Drawing in a deep breath, you hold it until your lungs burn before blowing it out in a long, frustrated sigh.
  493. > "Something keeping you up?"
  494. > You resist the instinctive urge to jump and even kick at the sudden voice behind you, despite having completely missed Thatch's approach.
  495. "Yeah. Dunno what."
  496. > Liar.
  497. > "Heh. I know how it is... some nights."
  498. "Going to feel like Tartarus tomorrow too. And odds are we're going to be flying again soon, and-"
  499. > "Is it the bit about not doing enough still bugging you?"
  500. > Head snapping around hard enough to make your mane whip after it, you fix him with a hard look.
  501. "You were listening to us."
  502. > "Couldn't help it. You were asleep, and the walls were thin."
  503. > The color on your cheeks be entirely hidden, but was well-deserved:
  504. > That had been stupid of you, talking about things like that where anypony could hear them.
  505. > Daring to approach a little closer, Thatch ducks his head in apology.
  506. > "Sorry. Wasn't really trying to at first, but y'know - y'hear a pony like you talking, y'listen..."
  507. "...yeah, yeah."
  508. > Thatch flinches at the tone in your voice - and, probably, your body language; you'd belatedly realized you were holding your wings half-extended and tail flicking.
  509. "No, not pissed at you. More at myself."
  510. > "Oh."
  511. > He doesn't leave, though, and just as you're about to ask him to instead speaks up again:
  512.  
  513. > "Listen, uh... since we're neither of us sleeping, you want to take a quick walk?"
  514. > Shooting a look from the corner of your eye, you shuffle your wings at him.
  515. "Look, if you're expecting to get a date out of this-"
  516. > "No!"
  517. > Thatch's face glows a bright red, his tail taking a turn to flick now.
  518. > Lowering his voice from that outburst, he goes on:
  519. > "Not - um - not that I wouldn't mind a a date. But I - um - I wanted to show you something. Something big."
  520. > Big...?
  521. "...no funny stuff, okay?"
  522. > "No funny stuff."
  523. > And if he does try something, there wasn't a pony in this city who could catch you in the air.
  524. "Alright. Come on, let's go see what you've got."
  525. > You slip from Turnip Bulb's home as quietly as possible, given the creaking floorboards and squealing doors.
  526. > Somehow, though, you manage without encountering anypony else - stepping into the cool night air and glancing up and down the abandoned streets.
  527. "Where to now?"
  528. > "Follow me."
  529. > He sets off down the dimly-lit streets, glancing aside at each cross-section.
  530. "Watching for someone? Somepony?"
  531. > "Just don't want any police asking what we're doing out at three in the morning."
  532. > Looking aside towards the core of a city, you gesture to the still-lit skyline with one wing.
  533. "Seems there's still plenty awake over there."
  534. > "That's the strip. Strip never sleeps - can't miss a second to empty some poor sucker's wallets."
  535. "Hmm."
  536. > Shaking his head at your noncommittal noise, Thatch chuckles.
  537. > "You don't get it. This city - it's a city, yeah, but the heart of it is that place. Feeding on people coming in who don't know what they're getting in to... like a monster that can't stop eating for a second or it'll starve."
  538. "You don't sound fond of it."
  539. > "This is a city that eats people, Spitfire. Humans and ponies. Chews 'em up, swallows 'em, and spits out whatever's left."
  540. "So, where are we going?"
  541. > "A place I know."
  542.  
  543. > Just when you are about to speak up and pointedly ask him again exactly what his intended destination is, Thatch speaks again:
  544. > "Hey, Spitfire. Question for you."
  545. "Shoot."
  546. > "Why'd you really come back here? From Equestria? You had everypony's dream in your hooves right there. We've heard the rumors, but - why really."
  547. "Because-"
  548. > Anonymous?
  549. > No, you weren't sure you could say that.
  550. > Not to a virtually unknown stallion.
  551. > But that didn't mean you had to lie either.
  552. "Because I'm needed here. Maybe I could've helped in Equestria, yeah. Maybe there was some little settlement out there that needed a good, fast flier who knows her way with a glaive and thundercloud. But here... You know what the Wonderbolts were about, Thatch?"
  553. > "What?"
  554. "We were there to inspire ponies. First and foremost. Yeah, we were all in the guard too and together there wasn't another flight of ponies or griffons that could take us in a fight. But really, we were there to inspire ponies. And that - that's what I have to do now. Help anypony I can here, show them that somepony still cares and to not loose hope. We will go home. We will have Equestria again."
  555. > "But not if everypony gives up."
  556. "Not if anypony gives up. I know not everypony's lucky like me, ending up with someone who'll give them something they like to do. Everypony who gives in to despair... it can be a prison as bad as any cage."
  557. > A prison you'd been locked in even more tightly than the actual one holding you when you'd thought Anonymous was dead.
  558. > Slowly, thoughtfully, Thatch nods at that.
  559. "Why d'you ask, though?"
  560. > Instead of answering, he raises a hoof to point.
  561. > "We're here."
  562. > He'd before a building even more decrepit than the marginally-repaired house Turnip Bulb lived in.
  563. > A faded sign, its paint flaking so badly as to be barely legible, declares it 'Jim's Jammin' Auto Shop'.
  564. > If it ever was 'Jammin', it certainly isn't now.
  565.  
  566. > Virtually every window has been boarded over, and the roof looks right about ready to collapse at a certain point.
  567. > Yet Thatch produces a key that had been carefully tucked beneath his collar and unlocks a door which, to your even greater surprise, opens on perfectly-oiled hinges.
  568. > "We're not much here, but we still do what we can."
  569. > Hesitating with his hoof on the handle, Thatch turns back to you - and for the first time you see real worry in his face.
  570. > "Spitfire - I'm trusting you with this. When I open this door, you gotta promise me - everything inside is a secret."
  571. "...what the hell are you doing in there? Sneaking foals out of the city or something?"
  572. > His only response is to push down on the handle, opening the door.
  573. > The interior is completely dark, illuminated only by streetlamps' glare filtering in through cracks and holes.
  574. > Eventually your eyes adapt, though, revealing a mess of half-fallen shelves and debris.
  575. > "Follow."
  576. > Weaving carefully but confidently through the debris, Thatch makes his way in.
  577. > You follow wishing dearly there was enough room to hover overhead instead."
  578. > Passing through what might've been an office once, he turns for the old repair garage - standing aside to let you in.
  579. > What is nestled in the middle of that bay isn't immediately clear - barely visible in the gloom.
  580. > Not until one of them stirs, turns over, and yawns in its sleep do your eyes recognize the sleeping forms of a dozen foals curled on a dirty mattress.
  581. > "Spitfire - we need your help."
  582.  
  583.  
  584. "W-What?"
  585. > "We need your help. To get these ponies - these foals out."
  586. > Celestia help you.
  587. > What was Thatch - some kind of resistance member, some kind of rebel?
  588. > "They're - gathered from various homes and businesses. We sneak them out, divert a little food here and there, keep this place safe for them-"
  589. "What for...?"
  590. > Thatch shoots you a questioning look, as if this should've been obvious.
  591. > "To keep them safe, of course! Get them out of here, away from the city, away from people who would - use them."
  592. "And - you think I can help-"
  593. > "Think?"
  594. > Turning to face you directly, he tilts his head.
  595. > "It's more than think, Spitfire! I'm not an idiot - I can read between the lines. I saw the articles on you - didn't recognize you at first, but then I did and I had to know for sure..."
  596. "...how much of me was left."
  597. > His head nods - jerks - in affirmation.
  598. > "You're alive, Spitfire. It doesn't matter that you wear a collar or not - you're still free inside, and free outside. Free to fly. You can fly them out of here, get them someplace..."
  599. "How - soon were you thinking?"
  600. > "The sooner the better. How long are you going to be here?"
  601. "Not much longer. Another day or two at most."
  602. > "We'll have to move fast, then. I know a human who'll help us move them across town to the airport-"
  603. "Airport?!"
  604. > Tilting his head, Thatch regards you with a questioning gaze.
  605. > "Your - plane? Isn't that what you do? Fly? Getting them out of the city would be risky - we would need a car, and what if a police officer stops us? - but you have a plane! So like I was saying, I know a human who will help us move them-"
  606. "No."
  607. > Thatch couldn't have stopped harder if he'd ran head-on into a concrete wall.
  608. > "No? What do you mean-"
  609. "I mean, it's not that simple. What do you think I'd do, just sneak them onto the plane, fly them out, and drop them off - somewhere?"
  610. > "Y-Yes!"
  611. > Oh, that would be just perfect.
  612. > You can just hear Anonymous' question now:
  613.  
  614. > 'Spitfire, why is my plane full of babies?'
  615. > 'Oh, I don't know, I just decided to turn fugitive. It doesn't count if you say sorry, right?'
  616. "No, Thatch. It's not like that. Even if I could get it by Anonymous, we don't just - fly. It's not like it was in Equestria, where you can just take off and touch down anywhere you wanted. There are flight plans and engine hours and paid parking spots and cargo inspections -"
  617. > Cutting off sharply, you shake your head.
  618. "It's not easy like that."
  619. > "Luna's black teats it isn't! You get them on the plane-"
  620. > One of the foals stirs in their sleep, disturbed by Thatch's rising volume.
  621. > Twisting over in the pile of his sleeping comrades, the little colt yawns widely, flicks an ear a few times, and lays his head back down atop a nearby filly's little wings.
  622. > Both of you wait a few moments before resuming, just to make sure they aren't disturbed any further.
  623. > But you are sure to steal the first word in:
  624. "And how do we even do that? Just walk onto the airfield? It's fenced off, with cameras and police around it. Getting into where the airplanes are parked is even worse - and with this many foals in tow..."
  625. > You turn back for the exit, but Thatch is still hot on your tail - hissing as loudly as he dares without rousing the foals again.
  626. > "Don't you just walk away, Spitfire! You can't just do that to them!"
  627. > The next chance he has, Thatch slips around to catch up and even try to cut you off.
  628. > "This is a city that eats ponies, Spitfire! Humans too, but especially ponies - eats them, chews them up, and spits them out when it's done with them. You saw what Turnip Seed was like. You think she's the only one? You think nopony else has lost anything here?"
  629. > Ignoring things being yelled at you was a skill long-since honed by both your time in the guard and as a Wonderbolt.
  630. > Even so, Thatch's words are starting to get in between your feathers - leaving your wings itching and tense.
  631.  
  632.  
  633. > "We can't keep them hidden forever. If you just walk out now, you're condemning them to being burnt up-"
  634. > Snapping your head about, you feel your wings extend and the beginnings of a snarl forming around your muzzle.
  635. "Don't you dare try to blackmail me, Thatch."
  636. > Thatch had actually retreated back a step, eyes wide in surprise and stunned into silence.
  637. > Maybe you should've dialed back your anger a bit, but by now the chance to do that kind of control is long passed.
  638. > A moment later, he is pushing right back - eyes glittering angrily in what little light filters in.
  639. > "So this is who you really are, Prettybird-"
  640. > And there's a nasty edge to the name now.
  641. > "-your master's little pet, obedient to his will. Caring more about a Luna-damned slaver than your own kind."
  642. "You think I want to just leave them behind? You think I'm okay with leaving ponies in slavery? Don't you fucking forget, I almost got the same way. But if we try and just run off with them now, I'll be putting them in more danger than they are now."
  643. > In the silence that follows, you can hear the thoughts churning in Thatch's brain.
  644. > "...you know what? I think you're just scared."
  645. "Damn right I am. There's nothing to be ashamed of about being scared of what'll happen if we blindly rush into this."
  646. > "There's plenty to be scared about doing nothing, too!"
  647. "Think, Thatch! We get caught trying to sneak them into the airport, what do you think happens then? Even if we get on the plane without being seen - you think that's the kind of thing that gets hidden forever? Then what?"
  648. > "We can't wait for the perfect time, Spitfire! You gotta take risks, or nothing will ever happen!"
  649. "Maybe when I first got out of the cage I'd have agreed with you."
  650. > After all, you'd once even considered murder to escape Anonymous' grip back then.
  651. > You snort gently.
  652.  
  653. "But now? That kind of rashness only makes things worse. You want my help. I understand. I'm still willing to help. But just trying to rush them out... it'll only get them caught or worse."
  654. > Thatch's expression runs the gamut of various emotions, and you again start for the door.
  655. > Yet it's just to be also again halted a moment later by his response - by the sheer weight of every word he was pushing out.
  656. > "You were my hope, Spitfire..."
  657. "I...?"
  658. > "Not - you specifically. But, somepony like you. I know I can't keep them hidden forever, but I can't just let them be taken away..."
  659. > The anger that had filled him moments earlier was gone now, ripped away as he'd seen you turn your tail on him and walk out.
  660. > And in that moment, the defense you'd built up around your heart cracks.
  661. > Looking back towards the pile of sleeping foals, you shake your head.
  662. "I can't be what you wished for, Thatch. I'm sorry. Ask me for anything else, not that."
  663. > "...I wanted you to be their hope..."
  664. > Instead of replying, you launch yourself out through the door and up into the night sky.
  665. > Partly because you had nothing left to say.
  666. > And partly so he wouldn't see the tears building in your eyes, hear the crack in your voice that couldn't be held back any longer.
  667. > So he couldn't chase after you, calling out whatever names or insults he wanted.
  668. > So he couldn't convince you to come back and do what you knew to be unimaginably stupid, yet to refuse felt like ripping your wings off and heart out through your throat.
  669. > Even so, tears blur your vision and are blown back by the wind to streak your cheeks.
  670. > For once, flight no longer seems like a relief, a dream, or escape.
  671. > Now it is a chore, each wingbeat renewing the ache in your chest.
  672. > The city passing below seemed to taunt you, whispering out:
  673. > 'Go on, run away. Leave them to us. It makes not difference to you; you'll still be flying...'
  674. > Snarling hard, you force your wings to pump hard - drive you faster.
  675.  
  676. > No attempt at stretching or preparing had been made, and your sides are soon alight with the hard ache of overstrained muscle.
  677. > Even so you push on, the pain a welcome distraction from the deeper throbbing within you.
  678. > Yet the city still seems to mock you, stretching on and on in an endless network of streets and buildings that refuse to let you reach your destination.
  679. > When you finally touch down at the edge of the airport, you barely think about lifting your chin to let them check the tags beneath it.
  680. > The harsh tone of the gate being buzzed open is only half-noticed, and moments after you're through you are also on the wing again too.
  681. > Coasting nearer to the ground this time, but still whipping expertly between parked planes.
  682. > It's not a real obstacle course, not even close.
  683. > Nor is it anywhere near enough to push the thoughts away, to keep the tears from still building in your eyes.
  684. > Anonymous is barely rising from his bed as you hurl yourself in through the hatch, slamming into your cot with what feels like enough force to rock the plane and burying your face amid the scratchy blankets.
  685. > "The fuck is - Spitfire?!"
  686. > Any actual response is choked out by tears that can no longer be wicked away by the wind.
  687. > "What - Spitfire - fuck, stupid blankets. Ah, fu-"
  688. > Another thud rocks the plane as Anonymous tumbles to the floor, hard metal speeding his return to full consciousness.
  689. > Untangling himself fully takes further wild thrashing accompanied by periodic cursing.
  690. > In a different moment, it'd have been enough to draw a chuckle from you.
  691. > Instead the first thing you notice is when he shuffles on his knees across the narrow cabin to your bed - a hand coming to meet your heaving back.
  692. > The moment he realizes how bad you're shaking, having only barely muffled your tears, he drops another hand to your neck as well.
  693. > "God, Spitfire! The hell happened out there? I thought you weren't going to be back until morning. Are you hurt?"
  694.  
  695. > A bark of bitter, pained laughter breaks past your lips.
  696. > Hurt?
  697. > Nightmare's black heart, you're hurt and-
  698. > Not receiving any answer, Anonymous slips his arms around you and tries to lift.
  699. > All remaining emotional defense collapse; he grunts, falling back as you unexpectedly throw yourself against him.
  700. > Forehooves go over his shoulders and your muzzle buries itself somewhere similar.
  701. > You can feel Anonymous shifting, falling back-
  702. > "Oooh!"
  703. > -and then he's found a new stable position, seated with his back against the far wall, as he'd tumbled back.
  704. > Holding you with one hand tucked beneath your wings, the second around your rump - another thing you'd have been furious about at any other time, but not now - and silent for a few moments longer.
  705. > When he does finally talk again, it's with the understanding voice of someone who understands exactly what has just (literally) landed on them.
  706. > The cold wetness streaking your cheeks doesn't exactly leave it in question.
  707. > "...talk to me, Spitfire."
  708. "He just wanted my help..."
  709. > Even those five words seem like too much, a tightness in your throat following and taking a few minutes to squeeze back down.
  710. > "Just tell me, Spitfire - are you injured, anywhere?"
  711. > You're shaking.
  712. > He must be able to feel that.
  713. "N-No. Not injured."
  714. > "Then tell me-"
  715. "He wanted my help. To - move ponies. Get them out. Away from here. Afraid they were going to end up in labor farm."
  716. > A moment of stiff silence, and you whisper:
  717. "They were only foals..."
  718. > Anonymous hisses softly; he must remember how much you'd been angered the one time he'd flown with foals as 'cargo'.
  719. > How that had lead to the one really massive fight you'd had with him, both of you losing your tempers and lashing out in ways you should have known not to.
  720.  
  721. > Funny; you've never liked dealing with foals - if you were honest with yourself, that might've played a role in your hesitation to have one of your own - but even so you knew they could suffer the worst in slavery.
  722. > Never even knowing a time when they weren't just the property of another.
  723. "F-Foals, hiding in a fucking wreck of a building on a filthy mattress infested with who knows what, waiting every day for somepony to sneak out to bring them food and water... Celestia above, I didn't even think about where they went to the bathroom..."
  724. > Another long pause, while you go back and start telling the story from the beginning.
  725. "The - the letter. It was going to a mare, from her daughter. She thought her daughter had been sent off to a work farm. Didn't know she was still alive."
  726. > "And they're thinking the foals might be at risk of the same."
  727. > You nod, muzzle brushing against is neck.
  728. "Thatch - the pony with the foals - he wanted to use the plane to get them out. Hide them, send them... Celestia knows where. Away."
  729. > The more you think about it, the more idiotic the plan seems.
  730. > Where were you supposed to hide them?
  731. > In the empty space in the tail you normally launched from, with all the hard-edged bulkheads for them to cut themselves on?
  732. > Up in the little engineering space above the main cabin, forever at risk of falling out during one bad turn - or being see if Anonymous just happened to look up?
  733. "I couldn't. Had to just - go. Leave them. Only time until they're found, and I had to leave them. But - I couldn't bring them here. Wouldn't be right to you, and probably would just end badly for them too."
  734. > One of your hindlegs kicks, aiming for -
  735. > Whatever might be there.
  736. > Thankfully not Anonymous.
  737. "I hate it, I hate me, I hate leaving them behind, I hate that it was right, I hate this whole stupid world and all its stupid people and I hate-"
  738.  
  739. > Any further words are reduced to incoherency, until even they end and you lapse into silence once again.
  740. > And at the end of it he is still there, having started stroking down along your back at some point but still refusing to let go of you as you'd poured it all out.
  741. > On some level you're still furious enough to be upset by even that.
  742. > Mostly at yourself; where in Tartarus was the pony who'd stood strong through weeks of abuse, the pony who'd survived Equestria falling to bits, the Wonderbolts captain?
  743. > Crying her eyes out being held like a filly who'd just been broken up with by her coltfriend?
  744. > "...Spitfire?"
  745. > Anonymous murmurs softly, and you can hear the worry.
  746. "What?"
  747. > The single word is spat out - from the half of you that wishes he'd pushed you away and forced you to fly or crash on your own.
  748. > "Thanks."
  749. > A single snort is your response.
  750. > "Honestly. This is - exactly why I trust you. I knew you'd do this for me. You'd tear yourself up before betraying me.
  751. "If you're trying to help-"
  752. > "Yes I am, and maybe I'm doing a shitty job of it."
  753. > He heaves a considerable sigh; your head turns laying an ear to his chest and you can hear the air rushing in his lungs through the thin T-shirt he wears.
  754. > "What I'm trying to say is - you were right. To come back here and tell me, I mean. Because, first of all, trust... you know. Hard to build, easy to break, and all that."
  755. "You don't get it. I - I almost did it. I seriously thought about breaking all the 'trust' you've put in me."
  756. > "But you didn't. You're here."
  757. > By accident or intent his hand has found the aching wing muscles you'd strained to their limits flying back here.
  758. > Its touch is soothing the burning that still lingered in them; despite that your coat must be disgusting with sweat, he is still rubbing away at it.
  759. > "You kept my trust, and proved that you're worth me sticking my neck out for."
  760. "Doesn't matter..."
  761.  
  762. > Between pouring out the pressure that had been building in you and his soothing touch, your voice was increasingly expressing the limpness with which you clung to him.
  763. "...in the end, I broke his trust. Their trust. No good answer, someone's hurt whatever I did."
  764. > "Did you? Really? I think doing the stupid thing - you were right, it's a ridiculous 'plan' - and getting them all caught would have been really breaking their trust."
  765. "Not helping. In the end, they're still there and I'm still out here..."
  766. > You kick a hoof lightly against his chest - not enough to hurt, barely to feel, but still certainly enough to register your protest.
  767. "...feels like just being able to fly away from him isn't right, y'know? I can spread my wings and just take off, but everypony else...."
  768. > "No shame in making use of what you've got, Spitfire. Long as you don't forget about everyone else out there, and keep trying your best for them."
  769. "Am I?"
  770. > "I think you are."
  771. > Snorting sharply, you wrench your head up and look him in the eyes.
  772. > Anonymous meets the look, concern written on his face.
  773. "...I must look like a mess, huh?"
  774. > "Dropping in at two in the morning, covered in sweat, practically hitting the bed so hard I thought you'd fallen from the ceiling or something, and crying to boot? Yeah, you're a bit of a wreck."
  775. > One hand brushes your mane back where it'd become plastered to your forehead.
  776. > "Scared the hell out of me, let me tell you..."
  777. "M'sorry."
  778. > "Don't be, Spitfire. Some days, it's just... the weight of the whole world comes down on you."
  779. > Yes, and it seemed to all hang on the collar around your neck.
  780. > You make a little affirmative noise, dropping your head to rest again on his shoulder.
  781. > Anonymous' hand had again found the bony ridge of your spin directly between your wings, and was now tracing his fingers up and down it in a pattern that made your coat stand on end and prickles of pleasure run through your whole body.
  782.  
  783. "You keep doing that, I'm going to fall asleep on you..."
  784. > "I can deal with it."
  785. "Dunno if I can. I'm lucky Thatch can't see this now, or he'd go off on me too."
  786. > "If he can't handle you actually giving a damn about people you care for, fuck Thatch."
  787. > Silently you nod your agreement.
  788. > Not that you feel like doing much more.
  789. > You hadn't been joking when warning that he might put you to sleep; along with venting all the frustration and rage at the conundrum you'd found yourself facing, you seemed to have poured out all your energy as well.
  790. > "Trust me, Spits. I wish we could fly all of them out of here right now. I wish there was some sort of open city we could take them to, a portal back we could throw them through."
  791. "I didn't know you care."
  792. > "You care. And that means I care too."
  793. > Of course.
  794. > Should've known that too.
  795. "Yeah. Even if it's - right, totally right, I hate not helping them."
  796. > Anonymous is silent for a moment before he adds:
  797. > "...well, I never said anything about not doing that."
  798.  
  799. "What do you mean?"
  800. > "Exactly what I said, Spitfire. Just because we can't fly them out in a blink doesn't mean we're going to give up on them."
  801. "Well, what're you thinking then?"
  802. > Anonymous gives a little snort.
  803. > "Give me a bit. I'm working on it."
  804. "So, you only just started thinking about it at all."
  805. > "You only just told me."
  806. > He's got you there.
  807. > You make a little annoyed noise, to which Anonymous responds with a deft touch of his hand on that one spot right behind your wings that feels so good and ooooooh...
  808. > Another little protesting kick is given, but it is as weak - if not even more limp - than the first.
  809. > Damn you for telling him about that spot...
  810. > ...though it's not too bad right now.
  811. > "...so I've decided on something."
  812. "Wha'?"
  813. > "I've decided it's no use trying to puzzle this over at one forty-three in the morning, when we're both exhausted and you're still coming down off of getting a kick in the emotional gut."
  814. > Re-securing you in his arms, Anonymous braces then heaves himself far enough back up to re-seat himself on the bed.
  815. "M'not going to be able to sleep..."
  816. > That the protest is mumbled out kind of neutralizes its point, but still - it's the spirit of the matter.
  817. > "Yeah, well. Give it a shot."
  818. > He lays back down, unavoidably carrying you with him and leaving you draped across his chest.
  819. > One hand leaves your coat to pull the covers back up before returning.
  820. > Before to long it's started to - whether by sheer habit or what - resume stroking your back in long, slow movements.
  821. > ...you should yell at him about that too.
  822. > Not a pet, shouldn't be stroked like one.
  823. > ...
  824. > Eh.
  825. > You can't be bothered.
  826. > Instead your chin falls to his chest, wings slipping open to droop off to either side.
  827. > Maybe in the morning.
  828. > Until then you'll just...
  829. > Try to catch a little shuteye.
  830. > Won't help at all, but just in case you let your eyes just...
  831.  
  832. > Slowly slip...
  833. > Shut.
  834.  
  835. --------
  836.  
  837. > "So, here's our first step."
  838. "Mrrrph."
  839. > "First, we have to figure out exactly where they're going. Now, there are places - hey, you want raisins and cinnamon in your oatmeal or soy sauce and onions?"
  840. > From your spot on the bed - sheets pulled over your head, mostly to hide the considerable glower on your face - you grunt out:
  841. "...th'second."
  842. > You never had a particularly strong sweet tooth anyway - that had been Misty Fly - and today in particular...
  843. > Waking up had been just fine - right up until you'd realized that you were still sprawled atop Anonymous' chest, mane brushing his chin and wings draped to either side of your bodies in two broad spans of feathers.
  844. > That alone would have been bad; utterly failing to make it off the bed without waking him had made it downright humiliating.
  845. > So now here you were, sulking (foalishly) beneath the cover sheet.
  846. > Trying to live down how he'd reached up and scratched you between the wings and wished you a good morning.
  847. > ...yeah, okay, it'd been nice, but still.
  848. > Anonymous was... as close as you'd been with any of the 'bolts, and certainly you'd all groomed, preened, and even slept close to each other then.
  849. > Was it hypocritical to still be uncomfortable with Anonymous' touch?
  850. > None of them had owned you, though, and even if you were comfortable with him directly that particular relationship still irked you...
  851. > All thoughts are pulled back to reality as Anonymous sets the bowl of oatmeal in front of you.
  852. "Thanks."
  853. > "Welcome. So, first thing we have to do is make a few calls. I don't know anywhere to send them, but I know a few people who're... more sympathetic to ponies' situation, and might be able to pass us on information."
  854. > And he didn't feel the need to mention this beforehand?
  855. > A mild annoyance, to say the least, but one you can focus on later.
  856. "That leaves me not much to do. What's our second step?"
  857. > "How quickly can you find Thatch again?"
  858.  
  859. "It shouldn't be too difficult. I remember where I first flew into him, and if nothing else I can just camp out where they've got the foals."
  860. > "Good. You work on that."
  861. "I don't think he'll show until evening."
  862. > "Well, we'll put the time to good use. For starters, I'll need you to find the damn cheapest hotel in reasonable distance. Try in Mesquite - I'm pretty sure we'll be heading that direction."
  863. "A hotel?"
  864. > "We'll only be staying a night or two. Long as they don't have bed-bugs I'll be fine with it."
  865. "Got it, got it..."
  866. > After a few minutes of silence, Anonymous speaks up again:
  867. > "There's one last thing, Spitfire. And you're not going to like it."
  868. "...hit me."
  869. > "Doing this is going to be pricey. We're not short on cash exactly, with the celebrity of surviving to come back and all... but this is going to put a dent."
  870. > You open your mouth to reply, but Anonymous is already there - having moved across the cabin to seat himself on the bed with you and put a hand on the sheets over your back.
  871. > "Now, you're going to tell me you'll do whatever it takes. That's fine, it's cool, I'm on board. But since we're being straight with each other, we've going to have to make up the cost of this afterwards. You understand?"
  872. > Sitting up on your haunches, you shrug your wings open to knock the sheet off.
  873. "Yeah. And thanks for being straight with me."
  874. > As it turned out, preparations did take most of the day.
  875. > By the time you got out to search again, it was once more swinging well towards evening.
  876. > This time, though, as you soar over the rooftops it is no longer a desperate flight to escape the weight of failure nipping at your tail.
  877. > Now each wingbeat carries with it a sense of drive, of renewed purpose.
  878. > This time, you would bring those ponies out to safety.
  879. > You would save them.
  880. > Thatch arrives in due time, a plastic bag clutched in his mouth.
  881.  
  882. > Leaping from the rooftop you'd perched on, you glide down to settle directly in front of him - the signal for Anonymous, having arrived in the interim, to make his move as well.
  883. > Thatch spits out the bag as you fold your wings in, staring at you through bitter eyes.
  884. > "What do you want, prettybird?"
  885. > As before, the nickname carries with it a measure of accusation - that you had sold out to become a pretty songbird for your owner.
  886. > Instead of spitting back, however, you just offer a small, measured smile.
  887. "I couldn't be what you wanted, Thatch - some kind of angel sweeping down to carry them away in an instant. But that doesn't mean I'm not willing to help you."
  888. > "What, finally woke up a spark of a conscience in that heart of yours?"
  889. "...it was never put out. But mostly, it was that I had a chance to figure out what I could do that wouldn't run us head-on into capture and a labor farm for both of us."
  890. > "Or you just needed to go find the police."
  891. > The stare you give him was the kind of look that had withered many an over-confident recruit.
  892. > An expression louder than any shout that asked just how stupid they thought they were.
  893. > "...right. Wouldn't be talking to me then."
  894. "Exactly. You believed in me before, Thatch - trust me now that I mean the best for them. I swear it."
  895. > It takes a moment for him to think this over before finally nodding - his stance softening.
  896. > "Celestia above, Spitfire, I - I thought you were gone for good, or the cops were going to come down any second..."
  897. "No. I wouldn't do that. I might not wear the uniform, but I'm still an officer of Equestria, Thatch, including everything that comes with it."
  898. > He doesn't quite look like he's buying it, but somehow manages a hopeful look.
  899. > "Alright. I'm onboard. What's your plan?"
  900. "Well, first of all, it's only half my plan."
  901. > "Only half yours?"
  902. "Yeah. The other half is his."
  903.  
  904.  
  905. > One wing is expanded to point behind Thatch; the stallion turns halfway and nearly leaps out of his hooves at the human nearly close enough to touch his tail.
  906. > "Hey there!"
  907. > Anonymous is grinning ear from ear.
  908. > "So, I'm hearing you want to move something. Luckily I'm pretty good at that."
  909.  
  910. --------
  911.  
  912. > Somewhere in the midst of the third step of your plan, the first real problem cropped up.
  913. > The first step had been time-consuming but simple, taking much of the day before you'd gone looking for Thatch:
  914. > While you'd found hotels to stay at and plotted routes (and then done the flight calculations), Anonymous had started placing a furious spate of calls from his PC following clues to a proper home.
  915. > After that came the second (and easiest) step.
  916. > Thatch - a wary eye kept on Anonymous at all times - had taken you to the foals, and a nondescript white van served to transfer them out to the hovel they'd been living in.
  917. > As Anonymous had predicted, nobody had even batted an eye at what seemed to be a contractor's van pulled up to a derelict gas station.
  918. > And Thatch had mostly kept the foals in line, limiting them to watching you with wide-eyed expressions of wonder and nervousness.
  919. > The motel you'd found had its doors on the outside, letting the three of you bundle them into the room with little chance of even being seen.
  920. > Only then, as you entered the third step - trying to clean them up from weeks of living in dirt and filth - had a difficulty presented itself.
  921. > In some ways you'd been expecting some sort of issue to crop up, had taken it as a given that this whole operation couldn't go smoothly.
  922. > That you'd be spotted, or one of the foals would panic...
  923. > But the real problem -
  924. "Rhubarb Crisp, you will stop squirting shampoo at Cumulonimbus! Topsail, if I see you splash water out of the tub again you're finished! And get back in here, Astralaris, you're not rinsed yet!"
  925.  
  926. > - was that it had taken all of fifteen minutes in a tub for the foals' natural playfulness to reassert itself, and the utter chaos a half-dozen can create to follow.
  927. > A moment later, the bathroom door opens the rest of the way to reveal a grinning Anonymous clutching a wriggling, suds-covered unicorn colt.
  928. > "Hey Spitfire! This just ran out into the room; are you missing one?"
  929. > From beneath the dripping strands of soaked mane cascading over your face, you spear Anonymous with a glare that promises certain and vicious vengeance.
  930. > "...right, then! Back in you go!"
  931. > With a petulant groan the colt scrambles back into the tub (sending another wave of soapy, gray-brown water out on the already-soaked floor) and promptly sinks down to his nostrils.
  932. > Also displaying perfectly poor timing, Thatch sticks his head around the doorframe as well - a towel clutched in his jaws.
  933. > "I think this one's as dry as it's going to get; see if you can..."
  934. > He catches sight of you - sopping mane draping over your neck and head like a fiery waterfall, eyes alight with fire - and his cheeks flush while the towel fall to pool on the lintel beneath him.
  935. > "...well, uh, woah. Hey there, Prettybir-"
  936. "Out! Both of you, out!"
  937. > If your furious scream hadn't gotten the point across, the dripping washcloth you whipped out through the doorway did.
  938. > At least this had the side effect of putting all the foals back into line - for a while, anyhow.
  939. > In another time you'd have felt bad for scaring them like that, but these weren't normal times anymore.
  940. > The foals had come to you covered in a layer of filth that was caked into their very fur and feathers.
  941. > Whoever had been looking after them had clearly been trying to maintain some semblance of cleanliness, but without running water could only do so much.
  942. > So you sat in the center of the tub, rubbing in shampoo until the foals were squirming and covered with suds as the water around them ran clean once again.
  943.  
  944. > Across the tub, one of older ones was set doing the same, though you made sure to personally check each before releasing them from their soapy torment.
  945. > Some were nervous - shrinking back from your touch until you were forced to use your wings to hold them in place as your hooves scrubbed.
  946. > Others managed some semblance of strength.
  947. > Doubling down, you resume your vicious scrubbing of the pegasus filly trapped between your forehooves.
  948. > Her eyes were squeezed shut against the furious assault your made, yet every time you directed her beneath the showerhead she'd come back a little cleaner.
  949. "Easy, Frostbank. I know this's got to feel bad, but you need to get clean."
  950. > "I - I know, Miss Spitfire."
  951. > Her voice is tiny, nervous, and soft - the voice of somepony who'd learned that to speak too loudly was to attract attention.
  952. > Negative attention.
  953. "Can I see your wings, Frostbank?"
  954. > Carefully the tiny appendages extend, the filly looking back over her shoulder up at you.
  955. > "Are they okay?"
  956. > No, they weren't.
  957. > Feathers were loose and disorganized at best, damaged or even outright missing at worst.
  958. > The poor thing was lucky she hadn't had some worse rot set in, or - Celestia forbid - damaged a pinfeather.
  959. "They'll be okay eventually. Do you know how to preen them?"
  960. > Her head shakes in trembling admission - as if this failing was something to be punished for.
  961. > A fresh spark of pain and fury runs through your chest.
  962. > Not just at a pegasus who hadn't even been taught that basic task, but at one who was too scared to ask.
  963. "...well, I'll have to show you later. Don't worry, it feels nice. Really nice. Go ahead and rinse off, then get out, okay?"
  964. > "Yes, Miss Spitfire."
  965. "Okay, next!"
  966. > Groaning, the unicorn colt returned by Anonymous steps forward - head hanging as if marching to the gallows.
  967. > "Please, no rubbing..."
  968. "Can't promise. Now sit down and let me work."
  969.  
  970. > No doubt they were all aching from the rough treatment, but it was needed and they would all feel better much later on.
  971. > At long last the last was your task finished.
  972. > The older foal who'd been helping you gave themselves one final soaping-up and retreated as well.
  973. > Absent any other distractions, you let the tub refill with fresh, steaming water and sink down into it until the water touches your chin - wings spread limply against either side of the tub and eyelids drooping over your eyes.
  974. > A pleasurable little moan reflects the way the heat works its way into your exhausted muscles.
  975. > Aches and exhaustion brought on by the busy day ebbing away at long last.
  976. > ...oh, what you would have done for this to be a whirlpool tub.
  977. > Alas; those sorts of luxuries existed solely in the realm of fantasy now.
  978. > "Having a good bit of fun in there?"
  979. > One eye cracks open to focus on Anonymous crouched over you, his elbows rested on the edge of the tub.
  980. "Yes. Getting a bit of quiet time."
  981. > "Hmm."
  982. > Pointedly ignoring the hint, he shifts some of the towels laid about on the floor and carefully twists around to settle against the side of the tub.
  983. "...you aren't going to leave me alone, are you?"
  984. > "Did you want me to?"
  985. > Considering for a moment, you shake your head.
  986. "Where are the foals?"
  987. > "Thatch's looking after therm. You did good there, Spitfire. I know foals aren't exactly something you're good at dealing with, but you did good."
  988. "...could've yelled at them a bit less."
  989. > "Yeah, you could have. But then we can't always do perfectly, and you still did plenty good."
  990. > Too late you see his hand swinging overhead - not enough time to dodge before it comes down to start scratching between your ears.
  991. "Hey! I'm not a dog, you know!"
  992. > But you don't pull away, especially when his fingers find their way around on of your ears - a few settling inside while most remain out, scratching back and forth and sending little ripples of pleasure down into your skull.
  993.  
  994. > Nor can you hide the little shudder that this sends through you or the soft, happy murmur that it pulls from your lips.
  995. > "I'm serious, Spitfire. I've see you push yourself before, and even in comparison... you really went all-out here. I'm pretty sure Thatch isn't doubting you anymore."
  996. "No, instead he's busting in her to gawk at me in the tub like a testosterone-laden colt."
  997. > "Well, what can I say? You're a pretty pony."
  998. > This is just too much, and Anonymous backs off with a laugh as you flick some water out of the tub with one wingtip.
  999. "Call me a pretty pony one more time, I dare you!"
  1000. > "No, now you're just being a silly pony!"
  1001. > This time he is ready, grabbing one of the sodden towels and holding it up like a shield against the water you flick out against him.
  1002. > It, of course, drips the newly-added water right back out onto the cheap tiles, but it wasn't like you were doing anything worse than what had already been splashed all over the bathroom floor.
  1003. > A moment later your vision goes pure-white, the freshly soaked towel having been tossed over your head and leaving your freshly-disorganized mane sprayed wildly over your face.
  1004. > You rip it off and glare at Anonymous - right up until you both burst out laughing.
  1005. > At some point during that his hand returns to its spot on your head and resumes the delightful back-and-forth scratching, this time on you opposite ear.
  1006. > Soon it slows, though, and eventually stops.
  1007. > Again you crack an eye open, this time finding Anonymous staring out into the distance.
  1008. "...you're worried about something."
  1009. > "Yeah. Just... thinking."
  1010. "Tell me."
  1011. > "You're not going to like it."
  1012. > Heaving yourself up out of the water, you hook both forelegs over the edge of the tub and rest your chin on it - watching him closely.
  1013. "I can manage with bad news, Anonymous."
  1014.  
  1015. > "We're going to have to get them collars. Just for the move, to keep up the illusion. Moving a bunch of foals for work, that's fine... moving a bunch of supposedly-free foals, that'll raise eyebrows."
  1016. > You sharply grimace; he'd been right - you don't like it at all.
  1017. > "I'm sorry. I - shouldn't have brought it up when you were enjoying yourself."
  1018. "It'd have to happen sooner or later. Best now, I guess."
  1019. > "Just - wanted to ask your opinion first. On how to do it. Thatch isn't going to be happy; he's still pretty wary around me to begin with."
  1020. "Yeah. Let me bring it up to him."
  1021. > Turning, you drop your gaze back into the tub and idly stir the water with a few feathers.
  1022. "He won't like it, even less than me. But I can talk to him."
  1023. > Not that you're particularly far from 'absolutely hating it' to begin with.
  1024. > But at least you understood the necessity.
  1025. > "Thanks, Spits. You're great."
  1026. "Yeah, yeah."
  1027. > "...so."
  1028. "So?"
  1029. > "So, now that you're all done washing them up, do I have to wash you?"
  1030. > Another of your long-honed Officer Death Glares is sent at Anonymous, although the net result is somewhat decreased by the web of crimson mane still plastered to your face.
  1031. > Despite the look, there's once again laughter in your voice.
  1032. "If you dare try and wash me, I swear to Celestia I will dunk you and every scrap of clothing you own in here. Now get out and let a mare enjoy her bath!"
  1033. > That was enough for you to temporarily put heavier matters out of your mind long enough to finish up enjoying the bath.
  1034. > When that is at last done you emerge into the room proper to find Anonymous, and the foals clustered around a bed - the cheap bed sagging under their collective weight.
  1035. > Anonymous has his computer out and is currently playing videos of much larger aircraft landing and taking off, while Thatch seems mostly to be keeping an eye on him.
  1036.  
  1037. > The foals, for their part, seem to be half-drowsing - worn out by the day's events - and watching the videos through lidded eyes.
  1038. > You stand at the entrance to the tiny hotel room for a moment, just watching them with a little smile playing across your lips.
  1039. > Eventually one of the foals catches a glimpse of you, and turns to wave a hoof; that in turn alerts the others.
  1040. > While Anonymous shoots you a little grin, Thatch only looks in your direction long enough for his cheeks to begin re-coloring before he turns back away again.
  1041. > In some ways, that makes your next words even a little sweeter:
  1042. "Heeey, Thatch, can I have a moment of your time?"
  1043. > "Y-Yeah..."
  1044. > He glances to Anonymous for a moment, who shakes his head.
  1045. > "I'll still be right here. You don't have to worry about them."
  1046. > Whether or not that was what he was actually concerned about, Thatch apparently finds it enough and slips from the bed - head and ears drooping - and follows you out.
  1047. > You step out from the motel door into the weed-strewn parking lot beyond, spreading your wings slightly and letting the slight breeze ruffle the feathers.
  1048. > The sun has gone down, and without it the air temperature has quickly fallen to a much more reasonable level.
  1049. > Following close behind, Thatch mostly keeps his eyes averted as you cross the parking lot to a thin, scrubby strip of grass and low wall that marked the property border.
  1050. > There you drop to your haunches and raise your eyes to the sky above.
  1051. > Thatch shuffles uncertainly, then speaks up at last:
  1052. > "Listen, uh, Spitfire. About barging in earlier like that-"
  1053. "Relax, Thatch, I'm not actually angry at you."
  1054. > "...oh..."
  1055. > Smiling softly, you shake your head.
  1056. "Besides, you didn't get the worst of it. Later I threatened to dunk Anonymous in the tub."
  1057. > Despite not being able to see him, the surprised tone of Thatch's response tells you enough.
  1058. >"Him? Your owne- huh."
  1059. "Yeah, him."
  1060.  
  1061. > "The two of you really have managed to build something together, huh?"
  1062. > Bringing your gaze back down, you cock your head.
  1063. "Did you think I was lying?"
  1064. > "No, I just... I didn't know."
  1065. > Thatch sits down next to you as well.
  1066. > "I really don't know about a lot of this, honestly. I'm still trying to feel out how the two of you work."
  1067. "Well enough. It wasn't an easy thing to make, though."
  1068. > "Nothing on this planet ever is."
  1069. "Hmmm."
  1070. > You turn your gaze back up to the sky, at the myriad stars that paint it.
  1071. > Apart from the occasional roar of a passing car on the nearby highway, all is silent.
  1072. > Eventually, Thatch joins you in looking up and makes a small, sad noise.
  1073. > "...you know, I don't think I've ever had a real chance to see the stars here."
  1074. "Really?"
  1075. > "I'm chained to a big city, and the humans have to have everything lit up like a stage. All the stars are blocked out."
  1076. > He snorts softly, then rolls over onto his side.
  1077. > "...seeing them like this, it's... maybe there's a little something pretty in this world after all."
  1078. "You used to see them a lot more?"
  1079. > Implicitly understanding your 'used to', Thatch turns his head back up to the stars.
  1080. > "Yeah. Came from a village near the Unicorn Range. We didn't have many lights at night, but here... sometimes I was wondering if there really were stars here. Everything's so different, y'know? I'm glad to see them for real."
  1081. "This is nothing."
  1082. > "Really?"
  1083. > You nod in hard affirmation, though your eyes never leave the sky.
  1084. "When we get way out over the middle of nowhere, away from any town, there are even more stars. Once, when we were flying, we turned off the cockpit lights and dimmed the controls, and just... watched."
  1085. > After a second of being lost in the memory, you abruptly cringe:
  1086. "Sorry. I shouldn't - brag about being able to fly and all like that."
  1087. > "No, no! Please. It was nice hearing."
  1088. > In a more contrite tone Thatch adds:
  1089.  
  1090. > "...if I'm honest, maybe part of the reason I blew up at you like that before is that I was jealous at first. But now..."
  1091. > He goes quiet, and after a moment you continue:
  1092. "It's different from being on my own wings, but not bad. More like sailing, or gliding. Soft. Steady. Stars and moon above, even fewer lights scattered around below. Sometimes none at all, sometimes a city passing under us - like an island at sea."
  1093. > "That does sound beautiful."
  1094. "Damn sure it is. Like Luna's own sky."
  1095. > The moment the words leave your lips, you realize how wrong they were.
  1096. > Both of you flinch, each looking away from the other.
  1097. > Thatch speaks first:
  1098. > "Spitfire... do you think it'll ever end? Will we ever get to see Luna again? Or Celestia, or that new princess - whatsername, Twilight...?"
  1099. "I... I can't say, Thatch. I wish I could, but..."
  1100. > A hoof rises to rub at the collar weighing on your throat.
  1101. > It was such a familiar presence by now that you sometimes forgot it was there - right up until something reminded you.
  1102. "...look. Anonymous is fundamentally a good person. I think if he could just fly with me, slave or not, he would. And there are others - just the fact that we have somewhere safe for these foals to go is proof of that!"
  1103. > "Yeah, but - will it change soon enough?"
  1104. > To that, you truly can't easily give an answer.
  1105. > Your thoughts are going back to Fire Streak - 'content' in his job putting on meager little performances for tiny crowds.
  1106. > Even if he were freed today, would he ever gain back the drive and skill that had seen him once be a true Wonderbolt?
  1107. "...it'll always be soon enough for whoever follows us."
  1108. > "Yeah. I guess so. If they-"
  1109. > Thatch's head turns to glance back towards the motel room.
  1110. > "-don't have to suffer anymore, I guess that's enough."
  1111. "It is."
  1112. > After that, a long quiet falls.
  1113. > You're content to remain in place - eyes half-closed, ears pricked and listening to the soft sounds of the desert:
  1114.  
  1115.  
  1116. > An occasional rush of passing car on the nearby freeway, the quiet chirping of little bugs.
  1117. > The distant thunder of a much larger aircraft passing.
  1118. > ...and despite your best efforts, Anonymous' reminder of having to collar the foals still lingers in the back of your mind.
  1119. "Thatch - I wanted to mention something. We're - there are things we're going to have to do to get the foals around. I just didn't want you to-"
  1120. > "Spitfire, it's okay. I get it. Nothing's easy, we can't just walk them out. Things are going to have to happen. Besides, after tomorrow I'm going to have to -"
  1121. > His voice breaks, then comes back more softly:
  1122. > "I'm going to have to let them go."
  1123. "You aren't coming any further with us?"
  1124. > "No. Anonymous showed me earlier where he wants to take them. It's a few hours more driving, but then he's going back to Vegas with me."
  1125. "Ah."
  1126. > "If I show up a bit late, I can probably avoid a beating by pretending to be sick; I've done it before. But if I'm gone for another day they'll start looking for me, and that excuse'll fall apart. So..."
  1127. > He halts again, and for the first time you're aware of just how tense Thatch had become.
  1128. > "...sorry. It's not you. Just - I've been looking after these foals for so long now, and now I'm going to have to let them go."
  1129. > Stretching a wing out, you brush it lightly over his shoulder.
  1130. "Doing the right thing, Thatch. For them."
  1131. > "Yeah, I know."
  1132. > Standing and stretching with a sharp popping of his spine, Thatch motions back to the room.
  1133. "Come on. Let's go back inside, see how they're doing."
  1134. > You hear the unheard plea to simply spend some more time with the foals before seeing them off probably forever, and stand as well.
  1135. "Yeah. Let's."
  1136.  
  1137. --------
  1138.  
  1139. > The airstrip Anonymous had chosen turns out to be based around what can only be called a town under the most generous of conditions.
  1140. > You doubted more than twenty buildings crowded around the little two-lane highway.
  1141. > At least half of them had to house the tiny village's - you refused to think of it as a real town - population, and most others seemed solely intended to lure passers-by in to justify the place's very existence.
  1142. > Yet, there was a clear sign pointing to the airstrip.
  1143. > And even if not for that, the unmistakable strip of tarmac shimmering with mirages in the sun's heat.
  1144. > "Welcome-"
  1145. > Anonymous announces with a vastly over-exaggerated degree of cheer.
  1146. > "-to Marble Canyon, Arizona!"
  1147. "Great."
  1148. > You stretch out from your spot in the van's back, spreading your wings - each tip brushing against the walls - and getting to your hooves.
  1149. "Does that mean we can finally get out of this fu- lightning-blasted thing?"
  1150. > The near-slip goes unnoticed by the foals but not by Thatch, who shoots you a smirk as younger voices chorus agreement with your sentiments.
  1151. > Have to watch out for that; human swears were starting to slip into your vocabulary.
  1152. > "Yeah, I'll leave the engine running. Spits, you need a quick flight around?"
  1153. "Yeah. And if we can, we should probably let everypony back here tire themselves out a bit."
  1154. > "Agreed with her on that, Anonymous. You better let them run, or these foals are going to go berserk."
  1155. > "They've been going berserk the last three hours, Thatch."
  1156. > He must have taken the stallion's point, though, as Anonymous drives the van on past the little town and up a smaller side road until it reaches a little paved area to pull aside on.
  1157. > The moment he does, you've popped a door and tumbled out followed by a dozen shrieking voices of joy.
  1158. > Regret strikes immediately.
  1159. > The summer sun had baked the ground into a steaming plane of rock-hard earth that radiated heat like a blast furnace,
  1160.  
  1161. > In a second you're up and off the ground, hovering just above Anonymous' head height.
  1162. "Yeow, that's hot!"
  1163. > Dropping down to the ground, Thatch shakes his head with a grin.
  1164. > "Nah, this isn't too bad. Streets get this hot all the time."
  1165. "Says the earth pony. You use your hooves for everything; you're used to it."
  1166. > He sticks his tongue out at you, and Anonymous climbs out of the driver's seat and stretches his arms far above his head.
  1167. > "Hey, Spits, if you want to stretch your wings a bit go ahead and scout the airstrip a bit. We'll be right back here."
  1168. "Got it. Don't loose any of them, okay?"
  1169. > "Hah, hah. Keep out of the typical flight paths, okay? This isn't a real active airfield, but even so..."
  1170. > You get it.
  1171. > With a few quick beats of your wings you've launched yourself out - rapidly gaining both altitude and speed.
  1172. > Curving back around the hill the road hooked about brings the airstrip and its attached town back into view.
  1173. > The strip itself also has a bit of a curve in it, you notice - more like a hook.
  1174. > That would be good fun...
  1175. > Another plane is already out on the strip, a small single-engine one, so you keep your altitude and stay well out of its way.
  1176. > Even without the ability to directly fly low over the strip, you can see some things that already raise concerns in your mind.
  1177. > Surface looks rough, not very wide at all, and those sheer dropoffs on the canyons surrounding it...
  1178. > Coasting low on the warm air spiraling up from the sun-drenched land below, you're acutely aware of how temperamental the air patterns are.
  1179. > To a pegasus like yourself, more at home in the air than on your hooves, it was nothing.
  1180. > For anyone else...
  1181. > Below, the single little aircraft revs up its engine and starts down the strip.
  1182. > As if to confirm your fears, it wobbles the moment its wheels leave the ground - then again, jerking wildly as it sails out over the cliff face and above the canyon at the strip's end.
  1183.  
  1184. > That's probably your cue to return as well, circling wide to head back towards Anonymous and the van.
  1185. > It had been abandoned for the moment, left with blinkers flashing as Anonymous, Thatch, and the foals had all headed for the shadow cast by a sharply upthrust butte.
  1186. > Within it, spared the direct afternoon sunlight, the ground and air reverted to merely startlingly hot rather than scorchingly so.
  1187. > Despite that, the foals were happily tearing about.
  1188. > This would be, you think, the first time in weeks if not months they had really been able to get out side and play.
  1189. > Stretch out and exercise their legs, wings, and - though none of the unicorns were old enough to have proper magic yet - horns.
  1190. > Anonymous stood watching them with arms folded and a wide grin, seeming to take his own bit of delight at their rampant play.
  1191. > He barely looks aside when you touch down beside him, wingbeats picking up small clouds of sun-baked dust.
  1192. > "I've got plenty of water for them, but I thought it'd be good to wear them out a bit more before I head off."
  1193. "Yeah. I don't know how good I'll manage solo, so wearing-out is appreciated.
  1194. > Watching the playful crowd a little bit longer, you suddenly look up at him:
  1195. "I want to be with you when you come in."
  1196. > "What?"
  1197. "In the cockpit. This is a messy place to be flying - sudden wind bursts and currents all over the place. The canyons are messing everything up."
  1198. > Grumbling, Anonymous looks back over towards the airstrip even though rocky outcropping shading you also hides it.
  1199. > "...I get it's not a fun place, Spitfire, but I need someone in the hotel looking after everyone and you can't fly the plane alone."
  1200. > Your eyes snap towards Thatch, but he pointedly looks away - watching the foals gathered around some curious rock they'd found.
  1201. > Turning back to Anonymous, your frown deepens.
  1202.  
  1203. "Look, I'm worried, okay? That strip is real rough, and there's a bend at the end of it. If you come in high enough to avoid the drafts, you might not have enough room to stop. Our plane is big, a lot bigger than what's coming in here normally."
  1204. > Stomping your hooves in place and shuffling your wings, you fix him with your best I'm-not-giving-up-on-this look.
  1205. "You can call me when you're close, and I'll fly up and guide you in-"
  1206. > "We left your radio in Vegas, and without it I don't know how much good you can do. Especially at night."
  1207. "I'll get aboard and climb in."
  1208. > "At night. While I'm being jumped around by all these drafts you're talking about."
  1209. > His flat tone tells you exactly how likely he is to approve of that idea.
  1210. "I need to be there, Anonymous! I can't just - let you do it-"
  1211. > "I flew the plane before you got here, Spits. Just this once, I can manage it again. Stay with the foals."
  1212. > You open your mouth to argue back, but he preempts you - his voice dropping low enough to not be heard by the others.
  1213. > "That's an order, Spitfire."
  1214. > Only four words, but enough to stop you in your tracks.
  1215. > He gave you many directions, but rarely was something defined as an order.
  1216. > That it was brooked no argument.
  1217. > Sighing, you deflate.
  1218. > For whatever reason - slave, or merely just captain of the plane you worked on - he did have final say.
  1219. "...fine, boss."
  1220. > "If it makes you feel better, if I'm coming in and I don't feel safe I'll break off for another pass-around."
  1221. "It - does."
  1222. > Not enough, but some.
  1223. > "Glad of it. Now come on, lets get these foals worn out so they can actually put in some sleep."
  1224. > Later, you would come to question how much of that had been your efforts to keep them racing around and how much was the drowning heat you were racing in.
  1225. > Certainly, the near-murderous temperatures affected you as much as them.
  1226.  
  1227. > By the time everyone piled into the van again - and you made sure everyone had drunk a hefty amount of bottled water to offset the sweat you were all literally dripping with - you'd exhausted yourself as much as them.
  1228. > Even the desert could be cool at altitude, but on the ground...
  1229. > Pulling back into town, Anonymous quickly circles in to the sole motel's parking lot.
  1230. > "Wait here. I've already reserved a room, so I'll be out shortly."
  1231. > In due time he shuffles everyone into the relevant room.
  1232. > You pause in the doorway, staring around with wide eyes.
  1233. > It is, in a word, luxurious - far better than the basic hotels you are used to.
  1234. > Definitely tourist material; even to your limited knowledge of human culture, it is clearly trying quite hard to hold a rustic, rural aesthetic.
  1235. > Glancing up at Anonymous, you cock an eyebrow.
  1236. "We're paying through the nose for this, aren't we?"
  1237. > "Yep. But only place close enough to an unsecured strip."
  1238. > Scratching his chin, he grins down at you.
  1239. > "I figure we can swing a couple more interviews or something to pay it off, though."
  1240. > You roll your eyes with a groan, but it's more for show now than anything else.
  1241. "Still worth it."
  1242. > The foals are quickly sent off to bathe - alone this time; they weren't half as filthy as they had been before and you were in no way going through that experience again.
  1243. > Thatch watches those who aren't immediately bathing with a wistful expression.
  1244. > Sidling up to him. you cock your head slightly.
  1245. "Something on your mind?"
  1246. > "Just finally hitting home that I'm going to have to say goodbye to them. It's... been a while, y'know?"
  1247. "You don't have to, you know. Coming with us is an option."
  1248. > "I kind of doubt your owner would be happy about smuggling a full-grown stallion... and besides."
  1249. > Turning to face you, Thatch shakes his head with a small grin.
  1250. > "I bet there're others back there that still need a tougher pony to look after them."
  1251. "Heh."
  1252. > You grin back, nodding.
  1253.  
  1254. "You're probably right. Still, though - I get why. Letting go of them can't be easy."
  1255. > "I trust you."
  1256. > With a sigh, he glances back to Anonymous - and for a moment you fear Thatch is going to say something against him.
  1257. > But then he just shakes his head and grins.
  1258. > "Think he'll give me a chance to say goodbye to them all before we have to go?"
  1259. "He'd better, or I'll sit on him until he does."
  1260. > Thatch snorts gently.
  1261. > "I can't ever get used to how informal you are with him."
  1262. > Anonymous, of course, gives him the chance.
  1263. > Without threat of being sat on.
  1264. > Indeed, he seems to intuit that this was something that needed to be done and even steps outside to give Thatch the room he needs.
  1265. > Moving through the small huddle of foals, the stallion pauses with each to nuzzle them and whisper a few words of encouragement.
  1266. > Their reactions, in turn, are as varied as their coats.
  1267. > Some cry openly, clinging to his legs until comforted by their fellows.
  1268. > Others are stoic, their sadness obvious but contained.
  1269. > Thatch himself is firmly in this category - eyes speaking to how much he wishes he could accompany them, even as he wishes them goodbye.
  1270. > For a few, the adventure they are on seems to overwhelm everything else.
  1271. > Those, Thatch grins too and nods approvingly.
  1272. > "You'll go far on that hope, all of you. Look after the others, okay? They'll need your strength too."
  1273. > "Yes, Thatch!"
  1274. > Their out-of-tone chorus is even manages to pull a smile to your face as well.
  1275. > Soon enough, however, Anonymous is peering in with a polite cough.
  1276. > "Hate to interrupt, but if we're going to get back in reasonable time..."
  1277. > "Yeah, yeah. I get it."
  1278. > For you, Thatch had reserved the last.
  1279. > Here his mask slips entirely, revealing the depths of his sadness and uncertainty - but also his hope.
  1280. > "Look, Spitfire, I... I think I kinda owe you an apology for everything."
  1281. "Relax. You already apologized; I can't keep more out of you."
  1282. > Ducking his head apologetically, he grins.
  1283.  
  1284.  Lurkernon !8NyhHFviMk  07/27/17(Thu)19:23:13 No.30606961 ▶>>30606970
  1285. >>30606955 (You)
  1286.  
  1287. > "Can't stop me either. Look, can I ask you one big favor?"
  1288. "Depends. What is it?"
  1289. > "If you get them safely out... send me a letter so I know. Don't have to be straight about it, I'll understand if you've gotta talk around it. Just let me know."
  1290. > Shooting a wide grin back, you nod hard enough to send your mane flipping.
  1291. "If I have to come back and deliver it again, I will. And I'll pass it on to whoever's taking them in next, okay?"
  1292. > "That's great! Thanks a ton-"
  1293. "Just do me one favor in return."
  1294. > " 'Course, Spitfire. I can't exactly say no after that, can I? What is it?"
  1295. > Drawing a deep breath, you lean in towards him - summoning your best imposing officer attitude.
  1296. "Tell them whatever they see in the magazines or whatever, I'm no sell out. I've not given up on everypony being free again. I've not submitted - no matter what they say."
  1297. > "I'll make sure of it. You just keep flying, Prettybird, and I'll keep running my mouth."
  1298. > Ignoring the nickname, you nod with a wide grin.
  1299. "Thanks. That's all I need."
  1300. > And then, a few minutes later, the van's distant engine fades away to nothingness leaving you alone with the foals.
  1301. > You dare a peek out the window to watch it disappear again - a distant white dot vanishing along the snaking black road.
  1302. > Once more, you are alone.
  1303. > ...well, not truly alone.
  1304. > The foals are all still here, and are already instinctively (if a bit cautiously) closing around you.
  1305. > From their expressions, it is clear they were feeling that sudden loneliness as well.
  1306. > Without hesitation, you open your wings and there is a sudden scramble as they all attempt to huddle in beneath them.
  1307. > No, you were not the best with foals.
  1308. > In fact, you'd heard some say not entirely unfairly that you downright disliked them.
  1309.  
  1310. > But those plaintive expressions had reached to a deeper part of you, the part that called out on an instinctual level to provide comfort and protection to the herd just as they instinctively sought protection from its oldest member.
  1311. > The part that drives you to squeeze them in your wings and whisper that it's going to be alright.
  1312. > The part that makes you drop to your belly, wings still expanded, and let them form a bubble of warmth and fur and small foalish nickers all around you.
  1313. > After a moment, you raise your head and look about.
  1314. > So many, and you barely knew their names let alone their lives.
  1315. > Lives - spent in bondage and servitude.
  1316. > ...there's only one thing right to do here.
  1317. > You drop your head back down and nuzzle the nearest three, stretching yourself out lengthwise to let them crowd in.
  1318. "Listen, why don't we all get up on the bed - and then I'll tell you about the Wonderbolts."
  1319. > "Th'wonderbolts?"
  1320. > "Who're they?"
  1321. "They were some of the best fliers Equestria had, back in the old days. The bravest, fastest, strongest - but above all, they were my friends..."
  1322. > Despite their apparently boundless reserves of youthful energy, the foals had spent a decent amount of time galloping about in the scorching heat.
  1323. > You have a deep, deep reserve of stories to draw on and tell each one with as much elaboration as you can remember.
  1324. > Except for the details that weren't proper to pass on to foals, of course.
  1325. > Those sorts of stories weren't the ones you'd tell about your squadron-mates anyhow.
  1326. > Soon the last foal's eyes drift shut, and you breath a quiet sigh of relief.
  1327. > Exhaustion might have pacified them, but they were still foals and you were still haunted by the sense you were blindly fluttering about when dealing with them.
  1328. > Alone, you were far more comfortable.
  1329.  
  1330. > Long hours spent awake - first standing guard as a fresh recruit, then the sleepless nights managing the team, and lastly even more sleepless nights back on guard duty as Equestria collapsed from the inside - had taught you many tricks for warding off sleep.
  1331. > In a way, you supposed, this was 'standing guard' too.
  1332. > It wasn't likely that anyone would disturb you in the hotel room - not tonight, anyhow - but you couldn't dismiss the intense, almost physical need you felt to watch over these foals.
  1333. > Once more you were a soldier, standing before the rest of Equestria so that they could be at peace.
  1334. > Even if just for one night.
  1335. > Yet as the hours stretch on and the sun dips down towards the horizon, fresh fears begin to lay siege to your mind.
  1336. > Why wasn't Anonymous back yet?
  1337. > Had he been caught out with Thatch?
  1338. > The van recognized, and stopped by police?
  1339. > Or had something gone wrong with the flight?
  1340. > A mistake made in the crucial moments of takeoff, when he needed another's help the most?
  1341. > Gotten lost, looking for the tiny airstrip in the dead of night?
  1342. > What would happen if he didn't show up in time?
  1343. > If he couldn't pay for another day in the room, the motel would come looking...
  1344. > Visions enter your head of having to lead the foals out into the desert before dawn, trying to find shelter before the day got bad.
  1345. > How would Anonymous find you then?
  1346. > Growling, you rip those thoughts away and crush them down.
  1347. > What were you doing, doubting Anonymous?
  1348. > He might drive you mad sometimes, but he was not an idiot.
  1349. > If there was trouble, he'd find a way to let you know.
  1350. > And maybe-
  1351. > Your ears prick the familiar droning of an engine.
  1352. > Could it be-
  1353. > Yes!
  1354. > You know those engines!
  1355. > Scrambling to the window, you peer out - eyes searching for the familiar blinking lights.
  1356. > Barely do you spot them in time, the plane sweeping low around the mesa looking for the town and its airstrip.
  1357.  
  1358. > Behind you, some of the foals stir - pulled back to wakefulness by your sudden absence from the bed.
  1359. > "Miss Spi'ire? Whasgoinon...?"
  1360. "Just-"
  1361. > You'd been about to tell them to wait here while you went out and looked for Anonymous, but the promises you'd made after the argument had crept up and silenced those thoughts.
  1362. > Well, you supposed that rushing out could wait until he was on the ground and stopped...
  1363. "-just watching Anonymous coming back in. I'll have to go out when he comes in, but not just yet."
  1364. > "Can we come see?"
  1365. > It would be risky... but the lights were out in the room, so it wasn't exactly like someone outside could see in.
  1366. "Yes, just don't crowd in too close, okay?"
  1367. > With a number of happily squeaked affirmations, they do all squeeze in at the room's one large window.
  1368. > Just in time to see the plane's flashing lights, no joined by its glaring landing lamps, appear again and once more sweep by - this time straight over the runway.
  1369. "See that? That's the plane we'll be flying in. Anonymous is bringing it in for a landing."
  1370. > "Cooool. And we're going to get to go on that?"
  1371. "Uh-huh. Though I think he was showing you some planes that are a lot fancier than it is..."
  1372. > Your mind is elsewhere, though.
  1373. > Anonymous had promised to peel off and circle around if he didn't feel safe.
  1374. > Was he going to be able to do this...?
  1375. > A third time the lights appear, sinking steadily in towards the runway's beginning-
  1376. > Abruptly they make a sudden, lurching drop.
  1377. > Your mind fills in the squealing cry of twisting and tearing metal even though not a whisper reaches you, the expectation of an oily fireball climbing skyward a moment later-
  1378. > Heart rising into your throat, your wings instinctively snap open in preparation to leap skyward-
  1379. > But the lights do not vanish; instead continuing shakily down the now-illuminated runway in a broad swath as the plane now rumbles down it to a final halt.
  1380. > Okay; now you will be going out there.
  1381.  
  1382. > First and foremost to give him a piece of your mind.
  1383. "Wait here, all of you. I need to go talk to him."
  1384. > The room door slams shut behind you, and instantly you're in the air once again.
  1385. > Night has significantly cooled the dry air, but the almost chilly rush over your wings does nothing to cool your anger.
  1386. > Even with that, though, you're prudent enough to wait at the edge of the strip until the engines cut out.
  1387. > Only then do you slam yourself forward; Anonymous has barely opened the hatch before you slam down on the cockpit roof beside him.
  1388. > A furious storm of anger is building in your throat ready to be unleashed, but then you catch a glimpse in the reflected landing light glare of Anonymous' own expression.
  1389. > Of his stark paleness and sweat-covered face.
  1390. > "Fucking hell, Spits. You weren't kidding about those downdrafts; it's a good thing I gave myself some extra altitude coming in - and even then I nearly skidded right off the runways too."
  1391. "Damn right I wasn't."
  1392. > Jabbing a hoof into his chest, you growl out:
  1393. "Next time, I'm getting in there to help you or guiding you in - damn the risks. I can't lose you to stupid, avoidable things like this."
  1394. > Slumping back against the hatch's edge, Anonymous draws an arm across his forehead to wipe away the sweat and nods.
  1395. > "Yeah. Yeah, fair enough. Next time."
  1396. > Growling low, you follow him forward - forelegs spreading around the edges to carry you out over it.
  1397. "I'm serious, Anonymous! I already almost lost you once and if you crash being brave and stupid like that, I'd be taken back-"
  1398. > In the next moment you find yourself leaning into his chest, hooves pinning him back as your wings spread to encircle his shoulders.
  1399. "...don't fucking scare me like that. I mean it."
  1400. > "Shh...."
  1401. > His arms are around you then, stroking down your back.
  1402. > Yeah, you'll have to pay him back for that too; you aren't a dog.
  1403. > Later, though.
  1404. > Later.
  1405. > Eventually Anonymous pats your back.
  1406.  
  1407. > "C'mon. We'll have time for this later; I need to go pay the landing fee."
  1408. > You glance around, at the narrow strip of barely-holding-together asphalt surrounded by rock and weeds.
  1409. "...there's a landing fee for this?"
  1410. > Laughing, Anonymous pushes you off and climbs the rest of the way out of the cockpit.
  1411. > "Yes, there is. Check on the foals, please? And then we can talk about how the hell we're going to get back up off the ground again, because this is going to be a good one."
  1412.  
  1413. --------
  1414.  
  1415. "So, you going to take a rest-up before we head off, or-"
  1416. > "No. Help me get the chocks out while we talk?"
  1417. > Following Anonymous back in through the hatch, you follow him back towards the rear of the aircraft.
  1418. > Stored in bins beneath each of the plexiglass-bubbled canopy hatches to the rear were the triangular rubberized blocks that helped keep the aircraft firmly in place; Anonymous grabs one pair while you take another by the braided rope that holds them together.
  1419. > "So, I'll like to give it a couple of hours just in case we have any curious onlookers who wants to come out and have a look around. After that, though, we get the foals out onto the plane before the sun comes up. I want to put some distance on, just in case."
  1420. > Hopping out through one of said canopy hatches, Anonymous drops the chocks out and carefully lowers himself to the ground.
  1421. > You follow, fluttering out and speaking around the rope in your mouth.
  1422. "You're that nervous?"
  1423. > He nods, and you reconsider just what might have made him so pale.
  1424. > "I know maybe it's a little silly, but - we're doing some majorly hefty stuff here, you know? I've never pulled anything like this before, and I don't want to risk anything."
  1425. > Spitting out the chocks' rope, you wedge them in place around the wheel on one side.
  1426. "No, I understand. I've never tried running from your police either."
  1427. > "Yeah. Dunno if anyone's even noticed the foals are gone yet, but moving them across the airstrip in broad daylight seems really, really dumb."
  1428. "Probably. Checking out from the hotel so quickly is probably going to look a bit suspicious if we get questioned, though..."
  1429. > "Eh, I'll tell the truth: I was doing a special run to drop someone off here before I came back to pick them up with the plane."
  1430. > Your muzzle wrinkles up, but a grin is creeping across your face despite your best efforts.
  1431. "That is not the truth at all."
  1432.  
  1433. > "It's close enough to hold up, with some refinement."
  1434. > Straightening up, Anonymous motions you to follow him.
  1435. > "C'mon. Let's go pay the landing fee, and then see how much of a mess they've managed to make while you were out here."
  1436. > Surprisingly, not much.
  1437. > They even remember to hide when you enter, until you call out:
  1438. "It's okay, everypony - it's just Anonymous and I."
  1439. > Even then their emergence is cautious.
  1440. > Despite their former friendliness towards him, Anonymous was still very new and unfamiliar.
  1441. > With their former guardian now absent - and yourself, although a source of comfort, not ready to yet able to replace Thatch's presence entirely - they were now rather more reserved.
  1442. > Anonymous, however, takes it in stride:
  1443. > Dropping down to one knee, he holds out a hand and waits until one of the bolder foals approaches close enough to be nearly within reach.
  1444. > "Hey, all of you..."
  1445. > His voice, too, is unusually soft.
  1446. > "I know you're all a little bit scared, and that's okay. I understand."
  1447. > It takes more than one moment - more like a few - but eventually that same colt makes the final step towards him.
  1448. > Dropping his hand to the colt's muzzle, Anonymous starts to rub it gently.
  1449. > "I'm not really someone you know, and I'm going to have to ask you to do some scary things. But I need you to trust me, okay? Trust me, and Spitfire and I will get you to a new home."
  1450. "He's telling the truth. I trust him completely. Trusted him with my life, even..."
  1451. > "...what you didn't tell them the story of how we met? For shame, Spitfire!"
  1452. > Anonymous shoots a mock glare at you, obviously fake outrage written all over his face.
  1453. > So false, that it even manages to get a small giggles out of a few of the foals.
  1454. > "Well, it started when I touched down in this biiig city way north of here..."
  1455. > Once the storytelling begin, time passes quickly.
  1456. > To your immense thanks, Anonymous neglects to include some of the... stormier aspects of your early relationship.
  1457.  
  1458. > When he had used the shock collar on you during that first mission over water, or when you'd considered killing him in the night.
  1459. > What is included, however, is enough to make it clear that your trust had not been given.
  1460. > It had been earned.
  1461. > And soon enough, the foals are all seated in a wide circle around him - any fear forgotten, eyes wide and ears attentively cocked forward.
  1462. > At last, though, Anonymous glances outside and nods decisively:
  1463. > "...but that's about as far as we can tell tonight. Spitfire, go take a look around outside and see if anyone's about."
  1464. > Very little searching is needed to see that the strip beyond is, indeed, utterly devoid of any other late-night lurkers.
  1465. > Nonetheless, you do a careful flight over the airstrip as well - buzzing barely above the rocky earth around it - to ensure it is clear.
  1466. > Landing back at the hotel room, you shake your head with a little grin:
  1467. "All clear. We're good to go."
  1468. > "Okay. You lead the first couple out, I'll send them out a few at a time? Or do we need to lead them all at once-"
  1469. "They're foals, Anonymous. Not dogs. They can find their way."
  1470. > If anything, that proves to be the easy part.
  1471. > Barring one brief moment of fear when one colt took an unexpected detour, no problems were had.
  1472. > Getting the foals into the airplane, on the other hand...
  1473. > Up close at last, they regard the machine with a mixed degree of fear and awe.
  1474. > And while a few of the older and more adventurous are keen to climb aboard...
  1475. "Come on! It's not going to bite, I swear!"
  1476. > "Nu-uh!"
  1477. > ...no amount of coaxing will move the others.
  1478. > A growl rises from the back of your throat, only prompting the filly in question to slump down further and you to mentally kick yourself.
  1479. > Being angry at them would do no good, but you could feel your old, familiar frustrations with foals returning.
  1480. > Why couldn't they see this was important?
  1481. > Lingering too long was sure to get you all caught.
  1482.  
  1483. "Listen. I swear - I swear to you, nothing bad will happen to you. But if we wait here, bad things will happen. You've got to go up - please?"
  1484. > Mewling piteously, the filly manages to lever herself upright-
  1485. > And in that moment, you strike.
  1486. > Hooves slip beneath the filly, circling her as you launch from the ground with a single beat of your wings.
  1487. > Before she has even had time to shriek you touch down inside the plane, having executed a perfect landing through the hatch.
  1488. > The moment passes, though, and she is wriggling free of your hooves.
  1489. > Instead it is Anonymous who picks her up, carefully cradling the filly in his own arms before the scream can come:
  1490. > "Easy, easy there - it's alright. You're safe."
  1491. > Looking up, he shoots you a silent look of 'was that really necessary'?
  1492. > You shrug lightly; the foal was up here now, wasn't she?
  1493. > And no one had come to see.
  1494. > Plus, the others are rather more willing to give it a try after that display.
  1495. > "Alright, Spitfire. How're we doing this?"
  1496. "Well, how much runway do we have?"
  1497. > "About thirty seven-hundred feet overall, two hundred feet spare over minimum distance for us. But we're starting at least a hundred feet in, and if there's a downdraft down into the valley after the end..."
  1498. "Yeah, I get the point."
  1499. > Grimacing, you again wish the plane could take off in place like a pegasus.
  1500. > Or even, honestly, in the short distance an air-chariot would have taken.
  1501. > How had the humans ever managed to get off the ground fooling around like this?
  1502. > It must've taken them miles to get off the ground originally...
  1503. "Maybe I should just get behind and push."
  1504. > "Hah, hah. Good news is, there's at least another thousand feet before we hit the canyon's edge - hopefully that'll be just enough."
  1505. "Yeah. Let me get my helmet and radio, and I'll go see."
  1506. > A thousand feet turns out to be something of an under-estimation, but the moment you approach the canyon at the end of the strip a new problem presents itself.
  1507.  
  1508. "Anonymous? There's no big downdraft out here now; I think most of the heat driving it is gone."
  1509. > Static pops in your ear, followed by his scratchy and distorted voice.
  1510. > "I'd say that's good, but your not sounding like good."
  1511. > Nodding despite yourself, you lean into a lazy circle and study the moonlit, jagged canyon walls.
  1512. "It's turned into a whole mess of random drafts out here. Not as powerful, but changing. You're going to have to be careful not to roll."
  1513. > "Got it. Give me a heads-up as I get closer. Can you catch up with me if I pass you by?"
  1514. "You're slow as a snoozing dragon when you climb, Anonymous. I'll make it."
  1515. > "Copy. Be careful."
  1516. > Already the engines are spinning up, a low growl rising to a fearsome if distant roar.
  1517. > You squint hard as he starts down the runway - trying to judge exactly how fast the plane is traveling.
  1518. > Will it be enough?
  1519. > Is there a chance to-
  1520. > "Spits, what's it like up there?"
  1521. > Damn, distracted!
  1522. "Uhh-"
  1523. > Banking hard, you make another pass over the canyon.
  1524. > He still isn't close enough, so you circle around over the mesa edge one last time trying to confirm what you'd felt on the first attempt.
  1525. "-little down on your port, make a slight starboard roll as you pass the edge. No, a little harder, and-"
  1526. > He's off the edge of the runway, and seconds later passing beneath you in a roar of engines and smoky tang of exhaust.
  1527. > Immediately you dive, half deliberately and half in the turbulence that follows in the plane's wake.
  1528. > Following your instructions, Anonymous narrowly rolls the plane.
  1529. > Heart leaping into your throat, you watch it seem to drop in place - and then stabilize, nose rising again.
  1530. > Thankfully your quip about his speed in a climb (or lack thereof) was entirely on the mark, and soon you are aboard and closing the hatch behind you.
  1531. > Four hours later, Anonymous finally calls a halt to the flight north.
  1532.  
  1533. > The airstrip he'd found to stop at for the night was much like the one you'd just left, little more than an uncontrolled strip of pavement which plane bumped and rattled down to a stop.
  1534. > Once it was off the runway and secured in place, however, Anonymous unceremoniously collapsed in bed.
  1535. > Not that you could blame him.
  1536. > It was nearing four AM, and aside from a quick bit of dozing as you flew the more straight-and-level portions of the route he'd been up and driving or flying for the entire day by that point.
  1537. > So too are the foals ready for bed:
  1538. > Though they had slept a bit in the hotel room, traveling had also been an experience either far too terrifying or enthralling for them to catch a wink of sleep.
  1539. > With no other beds available, blankets for both yourself and Anonymous - unneeded in these summer months - were stretched across the cabin interior with cargo straps.
  1540. > Not perfect hammocks, but suitable ones.
  1541. > And within minutes, ones occupied by a dozen sleeping foals - fast at rest despite their protestations.
  1542. > Only then, with a little grin, do you climb into your own bed and join them in rest.
  1543.  
  1544. --------
  1545.  
  1546. > Weight and warmth.
  1547. > Those are the first things to go through your mind when you wake:
  1548. > Something far heavier than a mere sheet was pinning you to the bed.
  1549. > Your first thought is a moment of panic - thoughts of being captured and restrained flooding your mind.
  1550. > Trying to jolt upright, you're caught offguard when part of the something yawns, stretches, and rolls over before burrowing back down beneath your wing.
  1551. > ...
  1552. > Not captured.
  1553. > Foals.
  1554. > Six of them had clambered into your bed at some point, squeezing down into any space available:
  1555. > A jumbled mess of legs, tails, manes, little wings, slowly-moving ribs, and flicking ears.
  1556. > They slept curled in positions that left even your limber joints aching, but they slept soundly.
  1557. > Content with the presence of another pony to shelter them.
  1558.  
  1559. > A small smile flutters to your lips; foals may not have been your favorite thing, but this... this was good.
  1560. > Peace, for once, for those who'd been denied it far to long.
  1561. > But where are the rest?
  1562. > You only have six in your bed, and the would-be hammock is utterly abandoned.
  1563. > They wouldn't have left-
  1564. > "Spitfire!"
  1565. > Anonymous' hissed call drags your attention - and his predicament forces you to bite your lip to ward off a fit of laughter.
  1566. > Five more foals have claimed his bed as home, or more accurately claimed Anonymous himself.
  1567. > One is slumped catlike over his leg, while another three have settled criss-cross over his belly and chest.
  1568. > A final filly has curled up beside his head, her neck stretched out to lay across his own.
  1569. > Shooting a pleading expression towards you Anonymous gestures with his one free arm.
  1570. > "Help!"
  1571. > Still snickering softly, you carefully extract yourself from the pile and shake your head at him.
  1572. > Nuh-uh.
  1573. > No way were you missing this opportunity.
  1574. > "God damn it, Spitfire! Help me!"
  1575. > Near-giggling at his predicament, you head off up towards the nose.
  1576. > The twelfth foal - an older pegasus colt - is found curled up in your cockpit seat.
  1577. > His haunches on the seat while his forelegs and head were draped over the control yoke in front of it.
  1578. > A flash of anger rises in you - controls were not for touching! - but quickly passes:
  1579. > Here was a pony who'd found something fascinating, so enthralling he'd dared risk sneaking out of bed to fall asleep imagining himself at the controls.
  1580. > Who were you to punish him for that?
  1581. > So much had been taken from them:
  1582. > Freedom, home, hope...
  1583. > A passion like this was something to be treasured, not destroyed.
  1584. > Maybe someday he would find his own home, his own life in the skies too.
  1585. > Carefully you shift the foal onto your back; he stirs slightly, but shows no signs of actually waking.
  1586.  
  1587. > With a small smile playing across your face, you head back to bed - though not before grabbing one other thing.
  1588. > There, near the table he regularly used for flight planning and other work, you find what you were looking for:
  1589. > Anonymous didn't think know you knew how to unlock his phone, but you'd seen him tap in the code often enough.
  1590. > Tucking it safely under one wing, you continue on back towards the beds
  1591. > At first Anonymous watches curiously as you reappear with a colt resting across your back.
  1592. > Then the phone appears, and a look of suitable horror is plastered across your owner's face.
  1593. > "Don't you dare, Spitfire!"
  1594. > Smirking, you carefully clutch the phone between your forehooves and bump the camera icon with your nose-
  1595. > "I'm ordering you, don't do that!"
  1596. > -and again on the photo button.
  1597. > Click.
  1598. > Clickclickclickclick.
  1599. > Got to have enough pictures, after all, and he keeps making the most hilariously grumpy faces.
  1600. > Finally setting the phone down, you find Anonymous staring flatly at you - still trapped beneath the five ponies sound asleep all over him.
  1601. "That's for making me all wash them the first time."
  1602. > "I hate you."
  1603. "Uh-huh."
  1604. > Mad grin having not faded one bit, you slip over and carefully deposit the still-sleeping colt in the crook of his one free arm.
  1605. > "I double hate you."
  1606. "Sure you do."
  1607. > Winking widely, you spin around with a fresh snicker and head back to your own bed.
  1608. "Let them all sleep a little longer. We've got some spare time before the meetup, and they need it. I'll set the alarm."
  1609. > With that, you climb back into your own bed - shifting aside foals to make a space for yourself.
  1610. > One lifts her head, yawns sleepily, and blinks curiously at you.
  1611. > A moment later the filly is back asleep again.
  1612. > Pulling them all against you with your wings, you let your eyes slip shut once more.
  1613.  
  1614. > This time - unlike when you'd slept at the house - you have no problem falling asleep among the crowd of softly-breathing ponies.
  1615.  
  1616. --------
  1617.  
  1618. "That's it, one o'clock ahead."
  1619. > "I see it. Not much of an airstrip, is it?"
  1620. > Carefully lifting a pair of binoculars between your hooves, you study the dusty and dirty strip - and are forced to agree with Anonymous' assessment.
  1621. > The 'strip' is little more than a path of compacted earth, free of vegetation and excessively large rocks but looking like a none-to-smooth surface nonetheless.
  1622. > But it was more than long enough, with a good distance cleared around.
  1623. > This also helps you see the hooffull of cars waiting at the edge of the clearing, a few colorful shapes moving around them.
  1624. "Looks like our contacts are already here."
  1625. > "Duly noted. You want to scout them out a bit?"
  1626. "It'd probably be a good idea."
  1627. > Leaping from the plane way by now a familiar task, and therein lay the danger.
  1628. > Familiarity bred sloppiness - a lesson you were unfortunately well familiar with.
  1629. > Especially with the lives and freedom of so many other ponies in play, you don't want to take any chances.
  1630. > Barely have you left the plane when a dot lifts off from the ground below, resolving itself into a teal-coated pegasus stallion.
  1631. > He wears both a heavy wrap and mirroed goggles around his head, effectively keeping you from seeing his face, and a carefully-wrapped cloak similarly conceals his cutie mark.
  1632. > What is immediately apparent, though, is that the stallion wears no collar.
  1633. > That could be significant... or it could be a trap.
  1634. > On instinct, you feel your body gearing up to flee as he pulls alongside you and calls out:
  1635. > "Hey! You're the one we're supposed to meet here, with the foals?"
  1636. "Are you our contacts?"
  1637. > "Yes. Ready to take them upstate."
  1638. > That'd been the code phrase you had set up, and looking down you're pretty sure that the vehicles below match what they'd said they would bring:
  1639.  
  1640. > Two cars and a van, all the right colors...
  1641. "Alright. Let me do a circle around the post real fast, make sure no one is watching us."
  1642. > If they are, they're much to well hidden for even your trained eyes to spot.
  1643. > Touching down on the edge of the strip, you approach the others present - four humans and two more ponies - as the stallion comes down alongside you.
  1644. "Looks like you're all who you say you are."
  1645. > "Same. Good to see you got here okay. Any problems?"
  1646. > Shaking your head at the one human who'd spoken up, you grin sharply at the thought of that morning.
  1647. "No, no real problems at all."
  1648. > Tapping your radio once, you glance up to the still-circling plane.
  1649. "Hey, Anonymous? We're good to come down. Yell if you need me up there; this is going to be a bouncy runway."
  1650. > "Nah-"
  1651. > His voice comes through clear and confident.
  1652. > "-winds are good and calm, Spits, I can manage this."
  1653. "Anonymous-"
  1654. > "I remember, Spits. I came down okay back there, remember?"
  1655. "Yeah, I do."
  1656. > Cutting the microphone, you're about to turn up when a voice behind you catches your attention instead:
  1657. > "Well, hit me with a thunderbolt, it really is you."
  1658. > The pegasus who'd flown up to meet you had pulled off his wrap and cloak, finally letting you get a good look at him.
  1659. > Not just his coat, but everything about him was various shades of blue-green.
  1660. > Mane, tail, eyes.
  1661. > Extending a hoof, you allow him to tap it.
  1662. "I'm alive, yep. Surprise."
  1663. > Your flat delivery only increases his grin.
  1664. > "Sorry. You must get that kinda often. Sky Stinger; I was in line to take the test to be part of Wonderbolts' Trainees."
  1665. "Ah. I didn't recognize you at first-"
  1666. > Cracking a grin, Sky Stinger shakes his head.
  1667. > "It's fine; I didn't actually manage to begin training before... well, y'know. I always wondered what happened to all of you though. Hoped the 'bolts managed to come through. You all were my heroes, you know?"
  1668. "We-"
  1669. > You turn your head away, and Sky Stinger's grin fades.
  1670.  
  1671. > Before the moment can become too awkward, the rising rumble of engines turns both your heads.
  1672. > Touching down cleanly, Anonymous contacts the runway in a puff of dirt and rolls smoothly to a stop.
  1673. > Immediately your wings are out and hooves off the ground:
  1674. "Come on. We've got work to be doing!"
  1675. > If nothing else, you think, Sky Stinger would have had a decent shot at becoming a Wonderbolt.
  1676. > He's confident, capable, if a bit clumsy in the air.
  1677. > With his help you quickly have the wheels chocked even as the engines are spinning down.
  1678. > The second the door pops open, a flood of foals emerges to charge you with squeals of excitement:
  1679. > "Spitfire-"
  1680. > "-so much fun-"
  1681. > "-bumpy, but it was exciting-"
  1682. > "-wish I could have flown too-"
  1683. > "-and Quicksilver almost threw up 'cause we were coming down so fast-"
  1684. > "-hey, who's that?"
  1685. > In a second their eyes are on Sky Stinger, who ducks his head nervously.
  1686. "This is Sky Stinger, everypony. He's going to be traveling with you too from now on, until you get to your new home."
  1687. > Curious eyes study him, but so do the foals gather around to place you between themselves and the unfamiliar stallion.
  1688. > Their voices are wondrous, but also laden with nervousness.
  1689. > "Wooow..."
  1690. > "Is he a good flyer like you?"
  1691. > "He looks like my uncle did, but my uncle was older."
  1692. "Hey!"
  1693. > Popping your wings again, you scuff the earth with a hoof:
  1694. "You've all been sitting around to long, the lot of you. Want to race Sky Stinger and me to the far side of the clearing?"
  1695. > It's all the prompting they need.
  1696. > At first they gather behind your tail, but soon are passing you up when your hooves start to slow.
  1697. > One race turns into five.
  1698. > Races turn into tag.
  1699. > Tag into team-tag, now involving the other ponies who'd come with Sky Stinger, until at last you step away without even being noticed.
  1700. > Dropping to your haunches at the edge of the field, you stare on and watch them tumble about in a raucous herd.
  1701. > "They trust you a lot."
  1702.  
  1703. > Touching down next to you, Sky Stinger seats himself as well.
  1704. "I had to earn it."
  1705. > A long silence as the foals play, during which you find the words you'd been searching for earlier:
  1706. "The Wonderbolts... we didn't all make it. I got... separated, and two of them I know are gone. One broken-"
  1707. > You memories flick back to Fire Streak, bowing and scraping for the 'privilege' of putting on meager shows any pegasus could have done.
  1708. > Living a half-life like that, until they didn't have a use for him anymore.
  1709. "-and one dead."
  1710. > "I'm sorry."
  1711. > Rest well Silver Linings, you think to yourself.
  1712. > May you fly on fair winds forever more.
  1713. "The others... I don't know. I couldn't be there to look after them."
  1714. > "It's got to be a weight on your wings. They were your team, you were their captain, and..."
  1715. > Sky Stinger's voice catches your attention; tearing your eyes away, you tilt your head questioningly at him.
  1716. "You've lost someone?"
  1717. > Swallowing, the stallion nods.
  1718. > "Friend. Marefriend, maybe. Vapor Trail. We were a team too. Never found out what happened to her."
  1719. "I'm sorry."
  1720. > "I broke out trying to find her, but couldn't. Ended up with this lot, doing this instead. Getting other ponies out. I figure she'd have wanted that. Tartarus, maybe somepony'll have heard of her."
  1721. > Another awkward pause, which you break with a sigh:
  1722. "You want to know how I ended up getting brought in to this? S'funny, it feels like months ago now... I was carrying this message to Las Vegas, a letter somepony had given me a while back. Turned out it was for her mother."
  1723. > Sky Stinger is watching you attentively, his ears forward and perked.
  1724. "Her mother thought she'd been dead for months. Heard she'd ended up in a bad place. Nearly attacked me when I first showed up, until I could explain-"
  1725. > Swallowing hard, you look back to the foals:
  1726.  
  1727. "Anyway, after I dropped that off somepony else saw a chance for all of them and asked me to help. So I guess my point is... there's hope. Always hope. And that's what we have to keep carrying, on our wings: Hope, that somehow it'll be alright."
  1728. > "Yeah."
  1729. > A thought comes to you - a memory from the same night at a bar that had brought you news of Silver Linings' death.
  1730. "Hey, Sky - I'm guessing you haven't run in to any of the other Wonderbolts out there? I'd heard a couple were involved in running ponies to freedom too."
  1731. > "Lightning Streak and High Winds? Yeah, they're out there - somewhere. I haven't seen either myself."
  1732. "Damn."
  1733. > Despite your words moments earlier, you can't help but feel your heart sink.
  1734. > "They're going to be alright, Spitfire-"
  1735. "No, I know."
  1736. > Shooting him an appreciative smile, you nod.
  1737. > "Yeah. Gotta keep hoping. Same thing that gets me up in the morning - hope I'll see my Vapor again, or one of my family."
  1738. "Siblings?"
  1739. > "Four of them."
  1740. > You snort, visions of five little pegasus colts and fillies tearing around a home filling your mind.
  1741. "Five foals, in a cloudhome? Your parents must have been remaking the house on a daily basis."
  1742. > "No, we were Groundies. Always were. Never lived up top until I was older."
  1743. "Ah."
  1744. > After that you go silent again, watching the herd of foals tumble about.
  1745. > Eventually your ear turns at the sound of approaching shoes; Anonymous had ventured on over to the two of you with another human following him.
  1746. > "Sorry to break this up Spitfire, but they're about ready to head out. Don't want to stick around too long."
  1747. "Figured it'd be soon. Can I say goodbye to them all?"
  1748. > " 'course. You've got a couple more minutes."
  1749. > Rising, you wander on towards the herd of foals.
  1750. > As soon as you are near they seem to sense that something is different.
  1751.  
  1752. > Their play halts, and instead they gather around you in the instinctive recognition that an adult - the adult of their little herd - was about to announce something important.
  1753. "Everypony..."
  1754. > The last trickles of conversation die out.
  1755. "...listen, everypony. I know you're having fun, but - it's going to be time to go soon. For me, and for all of you."
  1756. > It takes a few seconds for the meaning to come to them.
  1757. > "Go?"
  1758. > "Like, away?"
  1759. > "You're goin' 'way?"
  1760. > "No, Miss Spitfire, don't-"
  1761. > Raising a wing to silence the crowd, you feel a sudden lump in your throat.
  1762. > Two dozen rapidly-tearing eyes stared back at you.
  1763. > That quickly, and you were already feeling for them...?
  1764. > Damn, you don't even like foals.
  1765. > But they weren't just foals.
  1766. > They were ponies, with their whole lives ahead of them.
  1767. "I'm sorry, but yes, I have to go too. This is as far as I can take you; after this, you have to go with Sky Stinger and his friends-"
  1768. > "Their names are Galaxy and Adam and-"
  1769. > Good, so they were already learning their names.
  1770. > That boded well - new relationships being formed.
  1771. > New friendships.
  1772. "Well, you'll have to go with all of them now. I... I have to go back to flying, you know? More ponies might need my help."
  1773. > "But I wanna go fly in the plane again! Can I come with you?"
  1774. "No, Cumulonimbus."
  1775. > Leaning over, you lightly nuzzle the colt.
  1776. "We... don't have enough room always for another pony, and I bet you're going to grow up big and strong real soon. When you're grown up, you'll be able to do that on your own."
  1777. > Or, you think, once free he would re-learn how good it felt to sail the skies on your own open wings.
  1778. > Without a collar on your neck or plane locking you in.
  1779. "Besides, they're going to take you the rest of the way to new homes. Maybe to a new town here, or maybe even eventually back to Equestria. But to a place where you won't have to worry about being hurt or needing to hide. Where you can have real food, and run and fly and play in the open."
  1780.  
  1781. > The thought clearly perks them up, ears rising and eyes brightening again.
  1782. > Still their eyes shimmer with tears ready to spill.
  1783. > Dropping down to your belly again, you spread your wings and let them crowd in beneath.
  1784. "It'll be scary, and you won't know anyone anymore. But everyone here is good, and you can be strong for each other too. Be strong like I am, and like Thatch is, and look after each other. Maybe someday we can send letters..."
  1785. > Varying versions of 'yes, Spitfire' echo from many mouths.
  1786. > Standing again, you drop your head down and whisper:
  1787. "I'll miss you all. May Celestia and Luna watch over you."
  1788. > Turning away, one last thought comes to your mind.
  1789. "Anonymous! Can I see - no, nevermind. Can you take a photo? Of them all?"
  1790. > "Yeah, just a second-"
  1791. > Drawing his phone, Anonymous waits while you gather the little herd into a circle (and everyone else gets carefully out of the picture).
  1792. > And then-
  1793. > Click.
  1794.  
  1795. --------
  1796.  
  1797. > Your stomach lurches a little as the plane takes off, bumpy shuddering being replaced with the smooth, familiar rumble of engines as the wheels leave the earthen runway.
  1798. > Below, the three cars were also pulling away - back onto the winding road coming back down from the airstrip.
  1799. > You've no doubt that many eyes were peering back up at the ascending aircraft.
  1800. > Neither you or Anonymous have said much.
  1801. > You, because there was a surprisingly hollow feeling in your chest even though the foals had only been with you for more than a day or two.
  1802. > Reaching over to interrupt your moping with a ruffling of your mane, Anonymous shoots you a little grin.
  1803. > Returning the smile albeit with a melancholy touch, you break the silence:
  1804. "I think I said it before, but thank you. For doing that."
  1805. > "Not a problem. It's not every night you come and practically jump in my lap all up in tears. I figured that was something you wouldn't ever forgive me for refusing."
  1806. "Pretty much."
  1807. > "Well, help me out and I-"
  1808.  
  1809. > His fingers dig in right between your wingroots, drawing a small happy noise from your lips.
  1810. > "-help you. Besides, if half the shit you said was true about what was happening to them I don't think I could have walked away from that myself."
  1811. > Sudden development of a conscience regarding slavery wasn't something you'd gambled on.
  1812. > It is a reassurance, though - if of nothing else, that you'd made the right choice sticking with Anonymous.
  1813. > ...not that there was much doubt left in your mind at this point.
  1814. > Not after what he'd done here.
  1815. > "And hey, you're in luck. Our next job isn't too far, so you can print that picture out and get it sent off to Thatch."
  1816. > Somewhere in your belly, a familiar sinking feeling begins to take form.
  1817. > You know that tone in his voice.
  1818. "I'm not going to like this job, am I."
  1819. > "Nope. Open-ocean, delivery to an oil rig."
  1820. "Eurgh."
  1821. > A shudder runs through your spine, prompting Anonymous to rub a little more.
  1822. > "Sorry. But it's real good pay, and we need it right now."
  1823. "So you told me before. I'll manage."
  1824. > "Yeah. Though, if there's one thing else I can ask for?"
  1825. "Hit me."
  1826. > Too late you notice the joking note creeping into his words.
  1827. > "Do I get to call you Prettybird too? 'cause it's really cute, and-"
  1828. "No!"
  1829. > "Please?"
  1830. "I said no!"
  1831. > "-and you are kind of a bird, and it's adorable how you scrunch up when I- oh God, don't hit me I'm flying!"
spitfire anon /spg/ drama safe oc

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