Soarin let out a cry of pain as he slammed into the lockers, then sank to his knees with a low, miserable moan, the wind knocked out of him.
A younger pegasus stallion with a dusky purple coat and a white mane stood over him, eyes wild, wings flared, and teeth gnashing in rage. Between his bandaged forehead, the multicolored stains of assorted fruits on his yellow and blue flight suit, or the bits of glass clinging to his disheveled hair, he appeared to have plenty of reasons to be angry. "Just what did y'all think y'were doin', y'overstuffed feedbag? I coulda broke my consarned neck!"
The sky blue pegasus looked up at his teammate with wavering eyes, wheezing as he struggled to push himself upright. "I... I'm sorry. I don't know what happened."
The angry stallion got in Soarin's face. "I'll tell ya what happened, ya sorry sack of oats." He reached out a hoof, jabbing him in the gut to emphasize his words. "The load shifted in flight, that's what happened."
The sharp crack of a hoof caving in a locker echoed harshly in the enclosed space, and both pegasi looked up, startled, to meet the smoldering glare of a lean, blaze yellow pegasus mare with a bright orange mane. In contrast to her fiery appearance, her voice was as cold and implacable as a glacier. "Shootin' Star, stand down before I make you fall down. Go get cleaned up."
She shifted her piercing gaze to the miserable stallion who slouched against the lockers. "Soarin. Come with me."
Rainbow Dash banked sharply around the corner and sent sparks flying with her hooves as she galloped along the wall for a short stretch before righting herself and hurtling down the corridor toward the Fillydelphia Hippodrome locker rooms. Her multicolored mane was disheveled and sweaty, as was her Wonderbolts uniform. Her sandy voice held an undercurrent of panic as she galloped along muttering to herself. "Ohmygosh. Ohmygosh. Ohmygosh."
She spotted one of her teammates making her way down the hall in the opposite direction, a pale blue pegasus mare with her short, frosty white mane still damp from a recent shower and a pair of saddlebags slung over her back. She cocked an ear at Dash's approach, and nimbly sidestepped as the rainbow maned Wonderbolt flared her wings to stop and went into a backspin, narrowly avoiding crashing into a display case full of hoofball and baseball trophies.
The cyan pegasus rushed up to her and grasped her by the shoulders with her maroon eyes wide with urgency. "Fleetfoot! What happened? Is everypony okay?"
The light blue mare's ears drooped and she shook her head sorrowfully as she let out a sigh. "Cap bounced Soarin off the team."
Fleetfoot let out a gasp as she found herself alone in the hallway again, her damp mane rustled by the wind as a rainbow contrail vanished behind her.
Rainbow skidded to a stop in the dimly lit locker room, slightly winded from her rush. She let out a mournful sigh as she laid eyes on the huddled, slightly pudgy blue form who sat with hanging head and drooping wings on the end of the bench in front of an open locker. Without a word she hovered over and settled down beside him, gently laying a foreleg across his slouched shoulders.
He started slightly, and let out a small sob. "I... I guess word got out, huh?"
The cyan mare responded in a solemn tone. "I'm so sorry, Soarin."
The stallion shook his head. "I'm the one who should be sorry. I screwed up. I let the team down, so now they're letting me go." He buried his face in his hooves as his shoulders started to shake. "I... I don't know what I'm gonna do, Dash. The Wonderbolts were all I had."
Rainbow Dash gave him a gentle shove with a hoof on his shoulder. "Hey, you still got the Wonderbolts, and I'll buck anypony who says otherwise into the stratosphere. Just 'cos you're off the active roster doesn't take away twelve awesome years of flying."
Soarin let out a rueful chuckle. "More like three years of awesome, seven years of okay flying, and two years of mediocre drifting to bad flying. I know I was losing my edge, breaking training, getting soft."
He looked at her with haunted, weary eyes. "I'm tired, Rainbow. My heart isn't in it anymore. I don't have Spitfire's passion or Shootin' Star's ambition or your love for the fans. I only hung on 'cos I don't got anyplace else to go." He gave a shuddering sigh. "Now I'm officially out to pasture, but I don't even know where that pasture is. I'm like a feather in a hurricane."
He sniffled, and was on the edge of breaking down again when Dash spun him to face her, grasping him firmly by the shoulders with her fore hooves, blinking back the tears that were starting in her own eyes. "Okay, listen to me and listen good, when I say you're part of my team for good you're part of my team for good. I am not gonna leave you hangin', okay?"
With that, she abruptly lifted off and coasted toward the door with a look of determination on her face. She cast a glance over her shoulder as Soarin watched her go, his expression hovering somewhere between hope and despair. "Just sit tight and don't do anything else stupid. I'm gonna go talk to Spitfire."
Dash let out a sigh as she approached the Wonderbolts' office trailer, noting the hat rack protruding from one of the shattered windows, and the scattered office supplies and memorabilia laying on the asphalt amidst the shards of broken glass. She walked up the steps and tentatively knocked on the door with a hoof.
A broken voice coming from inside barked out a harsh reply. "Scram! Our manager's stayin' at the Mareiott, go nag him!"
The rainbow maned pegasus set her jaw and shoved the door open with her forehead, pushing aside a pile of scattered papers and broken furniture. At the center of the destruction sat the Wonderbolts' team captain, her fiery mane even more tangled and wild than usual, her blaze yellow wings drooping down at her sides over a uniform that was ripped and torn.
A deadpan expression settled onto the cyan colored mare's face. "I love what you've done with the place, Cap."
Spitfire rounded on her with red rimmed eyes flashing in her tear stained face, then let out an exasperated growl as she realized who it was. "Oh great. I was wondering when you were gonna show up to buck this cyclone and start more hailstones falling."
Rainbow Dash sighed, a solicitous look on her face. "Looks more like rain than hailstones, Cap."
She picked her way carefully over the wreckage of the office and sat down without ceremony next to the fiery maned mare. "I woulda been back sooner but I had to pull a little more wing to wing than normal with all the kids after todays little tap n' tumble."
Spitfire's brow darkened and she rolled her eyes. "Oh big hero, facing down the thundering herd of adoring colts and fillies and setting their itty bitty hearts at ease."
The chromatic pegasus nodded matter-of-factly. "Needed to be done. A lot of 'em were kinda shook up by what they saw."
Her blaze yellow companion snarled, smacking her hooves together for emphasis as she spoke. "Meanwhile I'm back here getting my flanks gnawed by the stadium owners, the owners of that luxury box, our own general manager, and even that doofus who ran the loopty loopin' fruit cart. And then when that's done I gotta... I had to... I..."
Her angry expression wavered, and collapsed into abject misery as she fell into Rainbow Dash's embrace, her lean body racked with sobs as she wept into the cyan mare's shoulder. "Sweet mercy of the sisters, Dash. I f-f-feel like I just s-sawed off one of my own wings."
The multicolored pegasus gently nuzzled her fellow stunt flyer, rocking her as her sandy voice cracked with emotion. "I know... It's hard... Shhhh. I know."
Spitfire's face contorted as hot tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes. "That... that idiot. I tried so hard to get him to straighten up and fly right. I warned him. I threatened him. I almost got down on my belly and begged him. I covered his rump so many times as the screw ups started to pile up. I did everything I could for that stupid... sleet headed... numb skulled..."
Dash stroked the blaze yellow pegasus' back, speaking softly into her laid back ear. "You did what you had to do, Spitfire. You did your best, which is what the Wonderbolts are about, right? Sometimes stuff falls, and you can't do anything about where it's gonna land."
She wiped away one of Spitfire's tears with a hoof tip as the blaze yellow mare sniffled and reluctantly met her eyes. The rainbow maned pegasus' face became serious. "Listen, I think I can do something for Soarin, give him a place to land, or at least a shot at one. My old place over Ponyville is still mostly in one piece, and the local weather patrol always has room for more cloudbuckers that close to the Everfree."
She gave her teammate a wry smile. "And I know for a fact that they've got some of the best chow in Equestria. He'll be happy as a duck in a rain puddle."
Spitfire wiped a hoof across her snout as an arch expression furrowed her brow. "More like a hog in a mud puddle, if I know that pie seeking missile. He's gonna look like a flippin' dirigible next time I see him, isn't he?"
Dash let out a chuckle. "Don't worry, I got some friends who I can sic on him to keep him on the straight and narrow. Emphasis on the narrow. A word from me and they'll run him so hard his rookie flight suit will be baggy on him."
She cleared her throat tentatively. "And while we're on the subject of my friends in Ponyville, I wanted to ask you about takin' some time off. My pal Pinkie is comin' due with another foal soon and I wanna be there without having to set off any rainbooms on the way. I can take Soarin with me, show him around, help him get settled. It's really good timing, when you think about it."
Spitfire huffed, a bit of the fire returning to her eye. "Except that you're leaving us with not just one but two gaps in the roster, one of which is our headliner." She sullenly slouched and crossed her hooves in front of her, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Yeah, that's just updrafts all the way."
The rainbow maned stunt flyer gave her companion a lopsided grin. "You could give Shootin' Star his big shot at center stage."
Spitfire snorted. "If that self absorbed cactus sitter was half as good at flappin' his wings as he is at flappin' his mouth, I might consider it. If I thought you were even a little bit serious about suggesting it and not just trying to get a laugh out of me."
After a moment's sulking, she threw up her hooves. "Fine. Go ahead. I'd sign off on it but I don't think I'll have much luck finding a pen in all this." She shrugged as she cast a wan glance around the trashed office trailer.
Dash grinned as she helped Spitfire to her hooves. "Thanks, Cap."
She pulled the blaze yellow mare into a quick hug. "Okay, I gotta go hose off, pack up, and make sure Tank is tucked in. Could ya tell Gaffer Tape to make sure the roadies change his food and water every couple days while I'm gone?"
Spitfire rolled her eyes and nodded. "Sure thing, Dash. I'll mention it to him while he's bucking my rump for trashing the trailer again."
The two compatriots separated and gave each other a salute. "Clear skies, Cap."
The fiery maned mare waved her star team member off. "Clear skies, Rainbow Dash. Fly safe."