4w, 4hEQD on FIM
Chapter 5: Catching Up
Once again Spitfire clung to Soarin’ as the two of them tumbled into a thick cloud bank. Once again she picked herself up, dusted herself off, and offered him a hoof.
“Sorry. I’m getting there, it’s just... slow going.”
Soarin’ offered the same muttered encouragement and brittle smile as before, “Don’t worry about it. You're doing fine.”
She snorted as she took back to the skies. Not long ago she’d been worried about opening up to him, now he was shut like an oyster.
An irritatingly perky voice shouted encouragement from above them, “Okay! Great! This time keep your eyes on him like we talked about.”
Spitfire rolled her eyes. I wish T-Bone was here.
Comet’s warning had the officers completely spooked. T-Bone had called off their navigation exercise right after the warning had been delivered (though Spitfire had noted to her satisfaction that camp had indeed been right over the next hill) and every afternoon since then he had been off-base with A Flight’s Sergeant Coriolis trying to verify the reindeer’s information. Wedge and Soarin’ had decided that the warning must mean griffons, but T-Bone glared them into silence whenever they asked him.
In his place, Spitfire and Soarin’s remedial formation drills were supervised by Sergeant Moonglow. She was something of an oddity: much more chipper and cheerful than any of the other officers, seemingly more innocent and naive than most of the cadets. At first blush she just didn’t seem the SAR type: where other sergeants teased and taunted, she always had a word of encouragement. Every attempt was “great,” even if it was abysmal. It was getting on Spitfire’s nerves.
Moonglow was a sort of trainer-at-large since her own F Flight had been the first casualty of washout reduction: three of her cadets had intentionally gotten themselves caught in flagrante delicto -- announcing that they wanted out of camp “the fun way” and all at once. Spitfire laughed at the memory: Red had nearly gotten herself into trouble for marching over and heckling their technique. The rest of B Flight had gone to bat for her to save her a reprimand, pointing out that she’d really stolen their thunder, and that the experience would have a chilling effect on any future attempts to “go out with a bang.”
Spitfire lined up behind Soarin’ as they began the routine again. The series of turns and rolls and loops was designed to test their reactions, their discipline and their physical strength. The force of the wind tugged at her grafted feathers and her split ear. The rest of her injuries were healing nicely, those would persist a while. The g-forces involved in the sharper turns threatened to squeeze the air right out of her lungs and it was absolutely unnatural for her to watch Soarin’s ears instead of looking into the next turn. Every instinct from the day she’d learned to fly said look where you’re going! A comparatively uncertain and quiet voice, the voice of training, said look for the signal. Soarin’s ear twitched, pointing to the sharp right once, twice, three times. As one they banked into the turn. Spitfire gave a triumphant whoop at having made the turn that had ruined her each of the previous four attempts, and in her exultation completely missed the one after it. Luckily this time Soarin’ was turning away and she lost him instead of hitting him.
“That’s great, Spitfire! Best yet! You’re really getting the hang of it! This time, just like we talked about, I want you to keep your eyes on Soarin’!”
Spitfire followed her wingmate back up to their room.
“Hey, Soarin’, think you could help me out with my ear-sign some more? I think I’m reading yours OK but I’ll be out front sooner or later and it’ll be my turn to call the shots.”
“Oh, um... sure thing, Seven. You want me to start?”
From the hunch of his shoulders and the way his eyes darted around the room, she could tell he wanted to do anything but. Was she really so repulsive that he couldn’t even sit still to talk shop with her? She sat in front of the mirror and met eyes with his reflection.
“No, let me try. You call the maneuver, I’ll signal it.”
“Okay... hard right!”
She pointed her right ear straight off to the side, twitched it two times and counted down from three by bouncing her left ear. She bit her lip at the sting from the still-healing cut.
“Good. Flat scissors.”
She thought for a moment, then pointed both ears inward then forward.
“Perfect. Rolling scissors”
That was the same motion, reversed.
“Split S... no, that’s roll-off-the-top. Turn it around... good.”
While she was glad for the practice, it wasn’t quite enough to hold all of her attention. Her mind wandered back to the weekend. Another relaxing Sunday at the Aurora household had been somewhat marred by a loud, wild-maned stallion preaching conspiracy theories in the town square.
“Hey Soarin’? Remember that guy in town Sunday? What was his deal?”
Soarin’ snorted. “Just some kinda nutjob. We get ‘em up here sometimes. Snap roll right.”
She frowned. “Yeah, but... what was he saying? About the sky? And about Harmony?”
He made an exasperated noise. “Look, they’re just some kinda crazy cult, OK? They’re like pests up here. Come up to Glimmervale now and then because it’s under the ‘wild sky.’ Say that’s where pegasi belong. They think everything, and I mean everything about Equestria is a unicorn conspiracy. Barrel roll left.”
He fixed her reflection with a tired stare. “We had one last spring? Said Hearth’s Warming was invented by unicorns to keep the pegasi down, Celestia’s really Princess Platinum, and Nightmare Moon was cooked up to make people afraid of Hurricane. No joke.”
Spitfire barked an incredulous laugh. “That’s hilarious!”
“Less funny when the wild-eyed jackass who says it is shouting slurs at your mother for marrying a unicorn.”
“Oh, Soarin’... I’m, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have...” She trailed off, frowning apologetically into the mirror.
He waved away her apology. “You didn’t know. Anyway that’s why they’re a sore subject. Every now and then there’s some trouble with these ‘Wild Sky’ kooks and then they fall off the map again. He’ll get bored and leave once he realizes no one’s listening. Show me barrel roll again?”
“No, no. That’s the same thing you did for snap roll. Barrel’s more like... come here.” He hopped up and took her ears in his hooves, re-arranging them slightly. Then he tsked. “Spit, you opened your ear again! Why didn’t you stop me? Hang on, let me get a bandage.”
She squirmed away from him. “No need, it’s fine.”
In a flash he was up at his desk and back with a strip of gauze. She hopped up.
“No! It’s fine! Looks like it’s stopped.” She backed away from him warily.
“Yeah right. Stopped so good there’s a bead of blood running down your cheek. C’mere.”
He pounced. She scrambled away. She saw the corners of his mouth turn up, the start of the big, playful grin she hadn’t seen in a week. He grabbed. She ducked.
She favored him with a warm smile. She didn’t know what changed, but it was good to have him back. He feinted left, then swung right. She giggled and vaulted up over his hooves and onto his back. He tilted his head up backwards and she looked down into his eyes.
“I don’t need it!”
Just after she said it a drop of blood fell from her ear and splattered on his cheek. She flushed.
“Oh. Umm... oops?”
He stared at her for a long moment, an enigmatic grin on his face. Then quicker than she could react he had her flipped over and pinned her down.
“Good move. Sorry about that.”
He bandaged her ear. “Nothing to be sorry for.”
She snorted and drummed a hoof on the floor. “Oh really? Not for insisting on practicing when I thought this might happen? Not for bleeding on you?”
She felt him shrug. She rolled her eyes. “Soarin’, how come it’s always your fault? Any time we have the least little disagreement, you apologize. Even when you didn’t do anything wrong. I half-expect you to do it even when you’re not even involved in the argument!”
He didn’t respond. She sighed, propped her head up on her hoof and looked up at him. “Sometimes I make mistakes, you know. I’m only a pony. And sometimes? When I do something stupid and I feel bad about it? I like to be able to apologize. Makes me feel better.”
He flashed her a brittle, uncomfortable smile. “Apology accepted, then?”
“Thanks. Now repeat after me: ‘It’s not always my fault.”’
He scowled at her. “I don’t always think it’s my fault.”
“Close enough. OK, now say ‘I’m actually a pretty great guy most of the time, when I’m not sulking.’”
He snorted. “I don’t sulk.”
Spitfire gave an exasperated sigh. “We’ll work on that one later.” Her voice fell to a deadpan, “So, were you gonna let me up any time soon or did you have some big plans for while I’m still pinned down?”
He scrambled off her, red in the face. They resumed their lesson, albeit more carefully this time. Presently a rumble from downstairs let them know the rest of the cadets were out of the classrooms. In no time at all the balance of B Flight was in the doorway.
“Hey Seven, just wanted to say thanks for the opportunity to work on my teaching last week. With T-Bone and Cori off hunting griffons they’ve got me teaching base nav. Can you believe it?”
Spitfire saw Soarin’s face fall slightly at his brother’s interruption. His shoulders slumped and his lips threatened to revert to his favorite scowl. She tried to pour a subtle ‘go away’ vibe into her words. “That’s nice, Five. I’m sure you’re doing great.”
Oblivious, Stargazer wandered into the room. Red tried to beckon him back out; she always was more sensitive to these things.
“Oh, hey? Are you guys working on the signs?”
Red tapped him on the flank. “Stargazer?’
“Let me guess: ascending helix, right? Always the hardest for newbies.”
Red drummed her hoof on the floor. “Stargazer...”
The navy stallion strode right up to Spitfire and made as if to adjust her ears. “See, what you gotta do is...”
Spitfire and the brothers turned toward the door. Red had a stern look on her face. She glared at her wingmate, then jerked her head toward their door and stormed off.
“Oh... um, sorry guys. Guess I need to go see what that’s about.”
Wedge retreated in Red’s wake. Spitfire let out a deep breath.
“Thank Harmony for Red: she always knows.”
“Hmph.” Soarin’ still looked sullen.
“What’s wrong, big guy?”
He shrugged. “I’m hungry. Let’s get some dinner.”
And with that, sulky Soarin’ was back and happy Soarin’ was gone again.
B Flight split into pairs, executing a textbook double rolling scissors before snap-rolling into a spin, plummeting out of the sky, steepening their dive, and recovering barely twenty feet over the safety clouds. Then they broke, each heading in a different direction, turning about and landing softly in front of their sergeant.
T-Bone let out a whoop. “That was fantastic, guys! Six: little wobbly there coming out of the spin. Seven: work on that angle in the break, a little too close to Eight. On balance, I’d say you guys are ready to move on up to search patterns.
As one, Spitfire and her compatriots groaned. Team aerobatics was the most fun part of aerial exercises. Moving on to search patterns meant trading exhilarating fun for exhausting grind.
T-Bone offered his signature impish grin, “That’s right, kids: no more fun and games. Time to learn how to do your jobs.”
Wedge stepped forward. “Speaking of, how’s the griffon hunt coming? It’s been nearly two weeks: if they’re out there you must have found them”
“I’m glad you asked, Wedge. It’s going quite ‘you don’t need to know, so shut the buck up.’”
The younger stallion persisted. “If there’s danger in the valley, this is exactly the time we need to know. We’re going to be doing low-altitude passes out of sight of camp. If something’s out there, you’re endangering us by not telling us.”
T-Bone stared down his little brother. “We’re trimming back multi-flight ops in favor of self defense. That’s everything you need to know. If I hear the word ‘griffon’ come out of your mouth again I’ll have you confined to quarters on weekends.”
Wedge paled. “There really is something out there, isn’t there?”
T-Bone said nothing. Presently A Flight arrived to break up the conversation. The insufferable Red One and friends circled B Flight while their sergeant Coriolis landed to talk to Thunderhead.
“Big news, T-Bone: Cap’n says we’re starting night ops this weekend. You know what that means.”
T-Bone brightened. “It means my bees are about to run the tables in the air games.” He turned back to his flight, “I lied again, gang: fun and games aren’t going away, they’re just moving to Saturdays. What’s first, boss?”
A Flight’s sergeant shot him a cool smile. “I’m afraid I had to cancel orienteering: we can’t have our ersatz instructor competing in that. This week’s going to be a good old-fashioned Corps Relay.”
A Corps Relay, T-Bone explained, was a game that tested all four of the Corps’ primary disciplines: first a cadet would be dropped off a mile or so out in the woods with a simulated injury. Then one of her remaining flight mates would have to find her. Upon finding her, a third flightmate would perform an extraction, carrying her out of the woods and back to camp. The last flight member would demonstrate the necessary first aid to treat the injury. Finally, the original lost cadet would spar with their counterpart from another flight.
Wedge and Red shared a merry look. The two of them were thinking more and more alike each day.
“I nominate the mighty wyvern hunter as B Flight’s lost lamb and combatant,” Wedge said.
A Flight landed beside them. Red One’s eyes gleamed with mirth and malice. “I’m so glad you feel that way. A Flight: I nominate myself. All in favor?”
Three “Ayes” rang out behind him.
He fixed Spitfire with a malevolent smile. “Looks like I’ll see you in the ring, Stain.”
Spitfire didn’t respond. Her eyes were as big as saucers.
Red One saw the fear in her eyes and snickered. If he knew what it was she feared, he might not have been so inclined to laugh.
That’s it, she thought. I’m done. I’ll accidentally kill him, and they’ll kick me out.
The remainder of the week evaporated in the blink of an eye. Friday night found a restless Spitfire half-heartedly preparing to take her bedding and uniforms down to the laundry. A multitude of worries assailed her.
Gonna kill One. Why won’t Soarin’ talk to me? Shouldn’t have told my story; Red and Wedge will want me to fight every time. They don’t know what it does to me. He knows. That’s why he won’t talk to me.
She gritted her teeth. If she didn’t work off some of this frustration she’d tear her sheets in half on the way downstairs. Her mind made up, she stalked off to the armory. There was a gym on the first floor that had been locked the day she discovered the museum. A little exercise might do her some good.
Spitfire danced on her hind legs, fluttering her wings to enhance her balance. She jabbed her forehooves at invisible opponents, boxing with shadows to relieve her tension.
Hmph. If he wants to be that way, it’s his business.
She wanted to believe that, but it wasn’t true: the quality of their team flying depended on him opening up. In the two short weeks she’d been catching up on maneuvers with him, the difference between flying with friendly Soarin’ and flying with standoffish Soarin’ was extreme. She had to figure him out. She owed it to herself, to the team, and even to him. Maybe especially to him. Still...
Jab, duck, swing. A part of her resented the situation. A part of her thought he owed it to the team to get over whatever it was.
Turn, jab, jab, spin, buck. Why should it be her problem?
Because he’s your wingmate and your friend and that’s what friends do.
She slumped, panting.
“Hey, tiger! You look like you need a real target. Come over here and hoof those jabs! Or whatever.”
Spitfire jumped. Red was peeking out from behind one of the hanging heavy punching bags, offering to hold it steady for her to pummel.
She put on a reluctant smile. Her natural inclination was to work out her frustrations alone, but maybe she’d been doing a bit too much of that lately.
“Hi, Red. Didn’t expect to run into anyone here.”
Her friend shot her a knowing smirk. “That’s a funny way to say ‘I wanted to be alone.’ Well, tough noogies, hon. I saw you storming across the parade ground and I decided you needed company.”
“How is it that you always know what everypony’s thinking?”
Her friend chuckled. “It’s just what I do, honey. I can’t help it. For instance, you’re worried over Soarin’, I can read it all over your face. That’s not all you’re worried about, either. Care to talk about it?”
Spitfire sighed. She did, but at the same time she didn’t. Sure, Red. The problem is I’m a violent freak and I’m gonna lose my cool and kill somepony. Then I’ll be alone again.
“It’s the competition, isn’t it?”
“Sometimes I swear you’re psychic.”
“Not at all. It isn’t my fault Harmony saw fit to make me so good at reading body language.” Red motioned at the bag. Somewhat reluctantly, Spitfire took a few experimental jabs at it.
“So that’s your talent? Do you... feel anything when you do it?”
Red blinked. “Well sure. When I use it to help people I feel pretty good. I can tell you, when I first came into it I was a little too eager: I learned the hard way that not everypony likes the idea that their emotions are an open book to me.” She nodded at Spitfire. “You’re not too keen on the idea yourself. And yet, you’re jealous... and sad. Talk to me, honey.”
Spitfire threw a few firmer punches at the bag, causing Red to grunt at the impacts. “It’s not so easy for me. What if your talent wasn’t for something wholesome? What if it was something... bad?”
“Honey, my mama raised me right. If you’re marked for something, it’s a gift from Harmony. That means it’s good, whether you can see it or not.”
Spitfire spun some kicks and a wild haymaker into her routine. This felt good. She started breathing harder. “But... what good is fighting?”
Red took a half-step back under the onslaught being poured into the sandbag. It may have been the first time Spitfire had seen her genuinely surprised. “Fighting? Are you serious?”
Spitfire jerked her head toward her flank “This appeared when I smacked a bully who wouldn’t leave me alone. When I get into a conflict I get... excited. I lose control. That satisfaction your special gift is supposed to give you? I’m terrified of it. I think of it as a wild beast and I’m terrified that it’ll take over and I’ll hurt someone.”
“Still, you’re fighting A Flight’s very own Diamond Dust tomorrow.” She made a face. “Can’t think of a more deserving pony.”
Spitfire slumped against the bag. “Red! It’s not funny! What if I really hurt him? I don’t want that on my conscience, even if he is a prick!”
“I’m sorry, hon. I was kidding. Bad decision. See? Knowing what somepony’s feeling doesn’t always mean I know what do do with it.” She regarded Spitfire for a long moment. “Suddenly some things make a bit more sense. You were worried that we’d be scared of you, if we knew.”
“Or disgusted. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“You’re really worried about this, aren’t you?”
“Is this why you’re all worked up over Soarin’?”
Spitfire resumed her assault, falling into a more measured and persistent rhythm this time. “Hmph. I’m not worked up over anypony. If he wants to be a big jerk that’s his prerogative.”
Red shot her a serious look. “Hon, you’ve got him all wrong.”
She shook her head. “I’ve seen it before. More times than I can count.”
“No, you’re just so scared that people are scared of you that you see it when it isn’t there.”
“Really? Then why does he act like he can’t stand the sight of me, half the time?”
For a long moment, the rhythmic thump of Spitfire’s hooves against the canvas was the only sound. Red sighed. “Honey, I can’t just go around using my special talent to be a gossip and a meddler. It isn’t right. If you want me to tell you what he’s feeling when he looks at you, I’ll need you to give me permission to tell him the same thing, if and when I see fit.”
Spitfire’s eyes widened at the offer. She jabbed the bag a bit harder and stammered, “J-just what is it I’m feeling when I look at him, then?”
A sad expression washed over Red’s face. “Fear. I wondered why until just now. You’re afraid you’ll hurt him. You’re afraid to lose him if you don’t open up but you’re afraid to open up because that would make the inevitable hurt unbearable. Same thing you feel when you look at me, or at Wedge. Only moreso. And you think you’ve already lost him.”
A hint of anguish crept into her voice. “Well haven’t I? Ever since I told that stupid story about kicking the wyverns he’s been different. I’m a freak and he can see it.”
Red only arched an eyebrow at her.
“Ugh. OK, fine. If you absolutely have to tell him, go ahead. Now tell me!”
Red gave a gentle laugh. “Honey, he’s sulking because you don’t need him anymore.”
“That boy just wants somepony to need him. He’s smaller than his brothers. Gentler, too. I’d imagine he’s spent his whole life in their shadow, not quite measuring up to them in the ways he wanted to.” A touch of playful mischief crept into her face. “Then, one day, there was this precious yellow flower falling from the skies. Only he could save her. Only he could protect her. He was her knight in shining armor and she was his damsel in distress. Suddenly he had a purpose! He was a new stallion! Oh, you should have seen him on exercises the days you were down. He looked like he felt ten feet tall.” Her eyes twinkled. “You already heard how he almost came to blows defending your honor. Like a knight out of a storybo-oof!” Spitfire betrayed her reaction to Red’s words by kicking the bag a bit too hard.
Red shrugged. “Then, things changed. It turned out that you were anything but a distressed damsel: if anything you’re tougher than he is. He felt like a fool. To make matters worse, his brothers took you off for special instruction that next week. Suddenly you needed help, and Wedge could help you but he couldn’t. He burned so hot with jealousy and resentment I’m surprised I didn’t get a sunburn flying next to him on exercises. Honey, he’s carrying one hell of a torch for you. In a way it’s good this happened when it did: if he’d gone on with his little fantasy for too long you might both have been burned by it.”
“I... I had no idea...”
Red cast a knowing glance. “Really? Not much experience with boys, I take it?”
She shook her head, embarrassed.
“Soarin’s hardly unique in this respect: most of ‘em love to be needed. Make ‘em feel necessary and they’ll do anything for you. The good ones, anyway.” She caught Spitfire’s eyes. “This one’s better’n most. I wouldn’t let him get away if I were you.”
Spitfire offered a wry grin. “And if I were you, I wouldn’t. But I’m not... and I don’t know what I want.”
“In all seriousness, hon, you ought to decide soon. He deserves to be let down easy, if it comes to that.”
Spitfire paused and considered that. “You’re right. I will.”
She smiled at her friend. “You’ve been a big help, Red. What say we call it a night before I punch a hole in this poor sandbag?”
Red gave an exaggerated sigh of relief. “You don’t have to ask me twice!”
“Oh, and Spitfire?”
“The game tomorrow. Diamond Dust. You really think you might hurt him?”
Hesitating, she nodded again.
“In that case? Don’t fight. It’s just a game. We wouldn’t want to force you into something you don’t want to do. You do what you need to do and we’ll support you one hundred percent.”
Spitfire pulled a towel off the rack by the door as the two of them headed back to the dorm. “Thanks, Red.”
Red and Spitfire laughed their way back to the dormitory.
“I am not mooning over Soarin’. Leastaways not half as much as you are over Stargazer.”
Red giggled. “I admit, I’ve got it bad.” She looked up and smiled. “I think he does, too.”
“You mean you don’t know? Don’t tell me he’s immune to your senses.”
“No, I can read him just fine. Would you believe he doesn’t think he’s good enough for me?” She laughed. “A born leader, the son of a celebrity, got the world on a string, and he doesn’t think he’s good enough for a working-class tramp from Bitsburgh. The captain raised a pair of good, honest boys but they sure are hard on themselves.” She shot Spitfire a sly wink. “They both grew up on romanticized versions of T-Bone’s tale of finding love at SAR camp, too. Lucky us...” Red trailed off. She turned to Spitfire, her eyes shining with some mix of humor and disbelief. Silently she pointed at the nearest window.
Spitfire crept over and peeked inside. In the laundry room their wingmates stood with their backs to the window, chatting and laughing as they went about washing uniforms. Soarin’ held one up, deftly hanging it on a line to dry.
The way he’d hung it, it was hard to miss the number 7 emblazoned upon it. By the looks of things Stargazer had also washed Red’s uniforms. Spitfire turned back to Red, agape. “They’re doing our laundry for us?”
Red nodded, struggling to contain a laugh. “Aren’t they just adorable?”
Spitfire could only nod. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
Together the two girls crept upstairs. When they reached Red’s room they collapsed inside, laughing until tears streamed down their faces.
Spitfire felt as though a weight had lifted off of her back. She still had to figure out how to mend fences with Soarin’, and how to avoid killing Red One... but now she had options. Tomorrow would take care of itself. In the meantime she had one friend who knew what she was and didn’t care. For the time being, that was enough.