• Published 24th Jun 2012
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LOYALTY - Crowne Prince



Rainbow Dash and Soarin's friendship turns out to be one heck of a wild ride and a whole lot more.

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10 - The contest before the storm

Snatches of conversation and exclamations floated to Soarin’s ears as he sailed leisurely over Ponyville. ‘You!’ he heard somepony clamor in the afternoon herd below. Markets were always lively this time of day. ‘Sorry, I’m all out of spatulas. Try the stand near the flower vendor.’ ‘That’ll be one bit for those tomatoes.’

Soarin’ scanned the area for the building he was looking for, but it didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. All the instructing and practicing was burning away energy like crazy, so he figured he better pick up something sugary or he’d be on his legs soon. The rumors were true about one thing: a Wonderbolt could eat like a horse.

“You!” the mare shouted again, this time flapping directly in front of him and barring his path. He screeched to a halt. The mare’s legs stuck straight to the ground in stiff, unconcealed rage. He didn’t recognize the vengeful pony at all, which could mean she was a very angry or very jealous fan. Ice choked Soarin’s heart; he had to focus just to keep his wings moving with the way she looked at him. Those eyes.

Angry conviction rumbled in the mare’s words. “Somepony steals your friends, show them how it ends!”

He was caught completely off-guard. This was, after all, his first time being assaulted in such a way. The insane merry-go-round of sky filled his vision as the smaller pegasus swung him by the tail round and round.

She let go.

The force of the swing propelled him across town. With a few expert rolls he was able to straighten himself and come to a stop midair. The first thing he noticed was the gingerbread tiled shop. Hey, there’s the bakery. What lucky unluck. He cast around for signs of the furious fuschia-maned pony. It was probably best to get out of the air before that angry beast showed up again. She scared the feathers off him.

I swear, it’s something new every day. He ducked for cover into the elaborate store, leaving a trail of tiny, tattered blue plumes behind.

“Hi, welcome to Sugarcube Corner – oh, hey Soarin’! I betcha I do-nut know what you’re here for!”

It wasn’t the first time Ponyville heard the sound of doom spill from the confectionary house.

“nnnnNNNNNOOOOOooooooo”

~~~

Rainbow Dash tapped an impatient hole into the gummy cloud. A week ago this would have been impossible, like trying to touch marshmallow taffy without it sticking to you.

She could feel the days of stress finally starting to resolve into hard muscle. At first the pain had been far beyond anything she’d experienced from a routine exercise. The soreness on the second day of racing and cloud-bucking morphed into a stiffness she couldn’t shake on her day off. She’d spent most of that afternoon reading Daring Do and the Sapphire Star at the library; anything that kept her off her wings and legs. She couldn’t see how Applejack could stand it.

It got worse before it got better. Soarin’s outrageous training had her clearing the sky every day of the week (once at Everfree Forest and again in Ponyville). The upside? Before she would show off by bursting through clouds, but really that was any pegasus’ game. Now she could fly through the most narrow gaps without so much as a wisp of cloud out of place. Well, most of the time. It had only been a week, after all. “Patience breeds perfection,” her dad recited happily in her head.

Patience had never been her strong suit.

Her hoof broke through the cloud. She started a new hole. Where is he?

Soarin’ appeared out of a large cloud blocking the view to Ponyville. He landed somewhat unsteadily beside her, saddle bags and all. Rainbow Dash could smell Sugarcube Corner.

“Nah-ah-ah, hooves off,” Soarin’ shielded the bags with his carefully-preened, dull colored wings. The odd shade piqued Rainbow Dash’s curiosity. Huh. Never noticed that before. “These are for during practice.”

Something Twilight had said jumped to the element of loyalty’s mind. It couldn’t be. She paced around Soarin’, looking him up and down. “Are you okay Soarin’? Not feeling particularly… uncool? Boring?” She stopped behind him where he couldn’t follow her with his gaze and took another look at his wings. They seemed to be the only part of him losing color.

“Geeze Dash. Those are two words I’d like to think least describe me.” Soarin’ turned so he could see her again. His eyes were shot with the same tart apple green as always, and more than a pinch of confusion.

Phew. I think I’m letting my tail get ahead of me. Better focus on what’s important. “Great!” she shouted. “Awesome. Okay, I’m ready for flying.”

Soarin’ simply shook his head and smiled, pressing his hoof to his forehead and ignoring her weirdness. He sat down abruptly and met her eyes. “Alright then. Now I’ll say it: show me what you got.”

The fastest flyer in Ponyville didn’t need any more prompting than that. Up and up she flew. She’d come early just to set up for this. There was an instant at the top of the rise where she could see it all below her: a cloud-guided dive straight down into a mess of loops and turns. In the center was a long rectangular cloud she’d shaped herself. That came last.

Rainbow Dash took the dive. Sunlight cut in and out over her turquoise coat as she passed through the gaps in the clouds, wings perfectly still. The fall turned into two rapid barrel rolls and a rollercoaster of twisty maneuvers. She kicked out, exiting the maze and flying parallel to the forest, pumping her wings to gain altitude. Slowly her belly turned to the sky as she ran a large backwards loop. The cloud goals were just ahead. It was hard to pinpoint them upside down, so she had to have an instinct for where they were. The speedster’s wings slid to the precise flat position again, and she zoomed through the clouds on the way down, accelerating.

Rainbow Dash’s open wings swept her to the sun once again. Paff! The cloud was right where she’d put it. She broke through it, spinning upwards, pinkish trails twisting behind her into a spiraled cone. She let momentum carry her as far up as it could. Everything slowed to a stop. Color-streamed mane and tail started to float up as gravity tried to reclaim what it had lost a long time ago.

She didn’t let it. Right when she started to fall, she flexed into a graceful swoop. The swoop became a frenzied race carrying her far from the course. Like a slingshot, she bounded back at it full speed. The rectangular cloud rushed at her. Baff-baff-baff-baff- she weaved four holes in and out of it, turning and whisking right back through them without touching anything. Puffs of pink were still spewing forward from her first pass as she did so.

Her shout echoed in the empty expanse of the Everfree Forest. “AWwww yeah!”

Soarin’ was looking at the rectangular cloud when she landed. Cloud mist spilled from the four slits like steam. Pinkish Everfree Forest steam, but steam nonetheless. One of Soarin’s pinions brushed his chin thoughtfully. “Is that a cherry strudel?”

“You bet.”

“Nice.” He held out a hoof and she bumped it with her own. “You weren’t horsing around when you said you learn fast,” Soarin’ said, noting the one skid of cloud where the Wonderbolt-to-be’s wing had missed the mark. “Hrm,” he muttered, “I need to talk to you about being part of a team.”

She tried to whine, “I said no lectu-“ but Soarin’s wingtip pressed her mouth for quiet. With a raised eyebrow, he waited for her to remember the rest of their pact. He let his wing down. She sighed. “You call the shots. I’ll listen. Give me one of those cupcakes.” She swiped one of the pastries he’d laid out on the cloud and sat down haughtily.

“You better eat that super slow, because this is going to be the longest lecture of your life. I’m the all time champ at Wonderbolt lecturing. Bet ya didn’t know that.” Soarin’s outstretched wingspan as he said this was menacing. The two plumed towers seemed to loom over her, frayed with years of tough trials and yet never, ever defeated.

He backed off, but didn’t let his defenses down. “It takes more than just knowing what a pony can do to work well with them. You also have to trust them. This doesn’t mean you should give out trust like a hoofshake. It means that when you do trust someone, you have to be willing to let go." Soarin’s gray-etched wings folded closed. He nabbed a cupcake and took a swift bite out of it before he went on. “You have to give them control and responsibility.”

Forgetting the cupcake for a moment, Soarin’ stood still and searched her eyes. His next question was simple. “Do you trust me?"

Something inside the rainbow pegasus unhinged. I… yeah, I do. "Yeah."

"Then I'm going to show you how to fly in formation. It's just the two of us, so it won't be much, but you gotta begin somewhere." Soarin' ate the last bite of cupcake. "To start out, I need you to fly in a straight line towards Ponyville and break into a glide. When you get to that point, don't flap your wings and imagine you're travelling through gaps in clouds, just like training. I'm going to fly in closer than you're used to, so fight your danger sense and hold steady. Have faith in me, okay?"

Rainbow Dash gave a tight nod. Pegasi developed a keen sense of how close they could fly to each other almost as soon as they were able to lift off for the first time. It was dangerous to crash into another flyer, especially when travelling or working together in large groups. So much as a wingtip out of place could throw a pegasi hurdling and endanger everypony in a chain reaction.

With a glance back, Rainbow Dash took to the sky. The sound of unfurling feathers soon followed. She let her wings plane out and lulled into a sense of calm freedom.

Suddenly, it shattered. Something was wrong. The wing beats below were approaching too close, too quickly. Alarm flared hot in her chest, like the moment right before you lost balance. The difference was that the feeling didn’t go away. It gnawed at her mind, threatening to become an animal instinct to change course. She managed to look down through the mental haze and get a good look at the pegasus dumb enough to get so close.

What she saw was Soarin’s cautious smile not more than a tail away. The stallion was flying upside down, legs tucked in. He unfolded one of his forehooves and waved. “Whoa there Dash, it’s just me. Calm down.”

She shook her head, hard. The fear of becoming a broken ball of blue feathers at the end of somepony’s tragic tale still pulsed in her mind. Steeling herself, she clenched her teeth and pushed back at it. No way was Soarin’ going to bump into her.
No.
Way.

The stallion didn’t have to raise his voice for her to hear him. “We’re still not close enough yet.”

“What?” she shouted in shock. Her wings tilted ever so much. Soarin’ skipped a wing beat and fell away, concentrating hard on staying a safe distance if she was going to get unsteady. Rainbow Dash's emotions broiled with conflict between the drive to flee and her will to stay in place. She growled, “If you get any closer, we’ll practically be touching.”

“That’s the idea.”

Disbelief choked Rainbow Dash. She said nothing and focused on flying straight.

Soarin’ blinked at her from his odd, upside-down flying position. “I’ll wait. Just… can you let me know when we’re getting too close to the treetops? It’s, uh, kinda hard to see them from here.”

It was quiet for a while as the two pegasi kept on, one gliding and the other flapping. They were starting to lose altitude. Beaded sweat formed on Rainbow Dash’s brow and dried away in the breeze. Not once did Soarin’ waver in keeping an exact tail-length from her.

Eventually the invasion of personal flying space became bearable. She didn’t look down at Soarin’ when she spoke. If she did, her instincts would kick in again upon seeing how close the other flyer was. “Okay. What now?” The sound of feathers punching the air stopped, but she could still feel the stallion’s presence.

“Now we kick off each other’s hooves. Put out your legs. I’ve got you covered.”

The four cursed things trembled. Okay, I’m gonna do this. Do it and get it over with. Then I can go home and sleep forever until I turn into a statue. They can put me in the plaza. Or maybe in Canterlot Gardens by Discord, so I can keep an eye on him.

She slowly let her legs straighten out. Seconds after that, she briefly felt four points of contact. The hooves against her own pushed her away into a slightly upward angle.

That was it. Relief washed through her. After that came the tang of bravery. They hadn’t crashed, nopony had lost a wing, and everything was fine. Pff, that wasn’t bad. Ugh. I must look like a coward.

They regrouped on a nearby cloud. The anticlimactic nature of the new maneuver was pretty disappointing. “Hey Soarin', was that all there is to that move?”

“No way. We’re just getting started. You know Wonderworks, right? This is how it’s done, only with a lot more speed. Sparks should fly when we touch.”

Rainbow Dash stifled an amused snort. The last part sounded like something right out of one of Rarity’s fantasies. “Sure, whatever you say, Soarin’. Oh, and before I forget,” she knocked him on the shoulder, “you are so not the champion of lecturing! What was that back there, four sentences?”

“Heh. You found me out.” He crouched into a takeoff position. “Ready for round two?”

“Does a pegasus have wings?”

They spent the rest of the session working on that one move. With every pass, Rainbow Dash felt more confident they weren’t going to crash and burn. It would be a while before she could better control her lifelong instinct to fly away, though.

Finally, she was able to hit Soarin’s hooves with her own midflight. A few dazzling sparks greeted the impact. The effect was small, but the thrill wasn’t. She couldn’t think of a time she’d ever done a stunt that wasn’t a solo performance.

Rainbow Dash landed on a small puff next to Soarin’s slightly larger cloud. She punched the air. “Did you see that? You were like BAM! And then I was like BAM!” She threw another strike. “And then the sparks were all CRSSHHH. Hahaha! This is so awesome.” Rainbow Dash stamped the tiny puff. “What other moves can you teach me?”

Her enthusiasm was contagious. Soarin’s stance was loaded with daredevil energy. He looked wild: wings slightly open, battered feathers sticking every which way, eyes alight.

“Dash, I’m not just teaching you moves.” Rainbow Dash felt before she heard the rumbling emanating from Soarin’s cloud. His wings flowed out and up, stretching to the sun, wingtips quavering to keep going further, wingspan fanned out to the fullest. “I’m showing you,” the rumbling beneath Soarin’s hooves became a quake and his voice escalated louder and louder with it, “how to REALLY-” In the sudden, dead silence, his single word turned to a whisper. “-Fly.”

His cloud exploded. All that was left of where he’d been was a beam of yellow energy shooting straight from the ground to the stratosphere. No, not energy. Pure lightning.

The light seared with heat and Rainbow Dash wanted to look away, but she couldn’t draw her eyes from the terrifying spirals of black clouds bleeding from the top of it. They kept growing, massing over the sky in a flat sheet until the dark storm started draping down, creating a dome. It cast a shadow over everything below it.

She didn’t know how long she stood there, or where Soarin’ was. The lightning disappeared as suddenly as it had started. Hissing blots of black cloud dripped from the edges of the dome, snuffing out with a sizzling noise on anything they hit. Soon the Everfree Forest was alive with the sound. Not even the mist dared go near the ground where the lightning had struck.

Soarin’ dropped down to a cloud, panting, his wings splayed on either side. His once vibrant plumage stuck out at odd angles. Rainbow Dash’s fur stood on end, but whether it was from the static crackling in the air or awe she couldn’t tell. Not sure what to say after what she’d just witnessed, the first thing that came to her mind slipped out.

“Hey Soarin’, are you… are you moulting?”

“What?" The stallions breath came in broken gasps. "Oh, yeah. I tried to clean up before I got here so I wouldn’t be spraying feathers all over the place like a pillow.” He nosed through one of his tattered wings and pulled out a colorless feather. It had a chunk missing out of it. “Want one?”

“Eewww, no,” she laughed. Not too long ago she would've punched Nightmare Moon for the feather. Well, she would've punched Nightmare Moon anyway, but still.

The ragged state of Soarin’s wings made sense now. Every pegasus shed their feathers and grew new ones for about a week when enough of them got damaged. The healing process wasn’t painful, but it was pretty tiring, she knew. He must’ve been doing something intense since she last saw him to ruin so many feathers.

This was one loco-in-the-coco pegasus to be flying around under that kind of stress. “Aren’t you tired?”

Soarin’ righted himself and looked strong as ever with his signature grin. “Exhausted.” He faltered and she zipped over to make sure he didn’t tip off the cloud. He looked even worse up close. All of the movement from training had exposed the rough plumage his careful preening had hidden before. His speech was choppy. “Wonderbolts, extra training, couldn’t let you down. It’s no big deal.”

“Soarin’, you foals-for-brains, you’re worse than me. Look, you better sit down before I have to clean you up off the forest floor.” She pushed him flat onto the cloud and started pedaling it towards Sweet Apple Acres. "I hate to admit it, but you’re kinda my best bet on making it into the team. I’m not like some of those Los Pegasus ponies who have top trainers at their neighsay.”

“I know,” he said resolutely like he'd known all along. Then he fell asleep.

Obviously this made it difficult to get the strong stallion onto a normal cloud when they reached the edge of the Everfree Forest, but she figured it out. She put a springy white cloud underneath the gross one. Then, she kicked the water vapor right out of the topmost cloud. Soarin’ plopped unceremoniously down without so much as a twitch. How did he hold himself together that whole time? Crazy pony.

She put the exhausted pegasus by her house, penned a sloppy note, and went out to visit her friends.

~~~

Soarin’ didn’t remember falling asleep, and yet there he was. He recognized Rainbow Dash’s house, but there wasn’t anypony around. Celestia's setting sun basked the sky in orange. Something crumpled when he moved. He found a note tucked into his wing.

If you’re up for an interesting dinner after you wake up, come find me around the library.

But if you don’t want to, that’s cool too.

He found out what she meant by interesting when he met up with her in front of Twilight's tree house.

- - -

They sat at a secluded table facing Ponyville’s rolling green meadows, now draped in blue at dusk. Luna’s stars were just barely visible in the darkening sky. A frustrated set of glowing candles tried to set a mood that didn’t exist. Pity the pony who thought this was a romantic dinner.

Soarin’ had quickly learned that Rainbow Dash’s friend Rarity never seemed to be out of sorts. She always looked like she’d come fresh out of the spa; it was no different now, at the end of the day, as she situated herself at the opposite end of the table. Next to Rarity was a hefty red earth pony by the name of Big Macintosh, and then finally Applejack. Rainbow Dash had rounded the two of them up off the street as they were going by the restaurant, much like the unfortunate unicorn. Soarin’ wondered if Rainbow Dash had picked her on purpose.

Innocently Rarity asked, “Rainbow Dash, could you explain what it is you would like me to help with?”

Rainbow Dash tilted towards Soarin’ and whispered without moving her lips, “Shhh. Don’t tell her.” In her normal voice, “Yeah. I want you to judge which of us has better etiquette. You know, like with forks and stuff. Soarin’ insists he knows more than I do.”

The earth ponies said nothing, but Applejack’s mouth twitched. Rarity focused her full attention on the two salads on the table. “Oh, this will be easy.”

Rainbow Dash looked back at Soarin’. “Alright. You know the rules.”

“What rules?”

“Exactly.”

He took a moment to plan how to eat the caprese salad. Slices of tomato and fresh mozzarella graced the plate, drizzled in a light olive oil dressing and topped with large leaves of green basil. A simple but delicious salad. This was going to be tricky.

Applejack raised her foreleg. “On your mark. Get set.” Orange flashed down. “Go!”

Soarin’ smashed his face straight down into the plate, making sure to get the oil-coated basil leaves pressed into his fur in the process. Rarity gasped and didn’t stop; the single intake of air kept growing along with the horrors that unfolded. Soarin’ flipped his head to the side and dragged it to the other end of the plate, smearing tomato seeds everywhere. He used a hoof to shovel an impossible amount of the food into his mouth. Of course it didn’t all fit, so smashed tomatoes dribbled onto the table.

Applejack was laughing hysterically. Soarin’ caught a glimpse of Rainbow Dash viciously wiping her face back and forth across her own plate as he rolled over and rested the back of his neck on the table. Nose to the sky, he took big, open-mouthed sloshing chews. He flipped over again and swallowed. Deliberately, he raised a forehoof and crushed one of the pieces of cheese and tomato flat, then licked the gruesome details off his hoof. He voraciously devoured the pulpy remains of the meal directly off the plate in dragon-sized chomps.

Soarin' didn’t bother to wipe off the mess. Rainbow Dash slapped her wing across her mouth and smeared a mixture of cheese and basil across her face in a mock attempt to clean up. A mangled tomato covered her right eye.

Rarity was still gasping, her eyes widening and chest puffing out more and more in indignation. Surely she would burst if she kept it up any longer. Her jaw snapped shut. She maintained an offended, head-drawn-back position while the air whooshed from her nostrils.

The defeated tomato slid slowly down Rainbow Dash’s eye as she talked. Bits of cheese flecked her mane. “Okay Rarity, you’re our first judge. What’s your verdict?”

Rarity didn’t budge. “I refuse! Your manners are both equally incorrigible! And if I must say Rainbow Dash, that was even more awful than that display in the Ponyville hospital, and I did not think it possible! Soarin’, as a Wonderbolt I, well I, I expected at least some degree of civility. I – I may have trouble sleeping tonight.” Her purple mane whipped around in a huff and she trotted away. “Good-night!”

Rainbow Dash turned now to Big Macintosh. “Big Mac, you next.”

The stallion shook his head. “Eeeyuck.”

Applejack tearfully collected herself off the ground. “See, what’d I tell yeh. I ain’t got nothin’ on RD when it comes to sloppy eatin'. The way she was packing in those tomatoes, and then that poor leaf of basil – hoo boy!” The apple farmer wiped the corner of her eye and put her hat back on. “I think the two of yeh should settle whatever differences you have an’ call it a draw. That’s probably the messiest eating Ah’ve seen in ages, an’ we got pigs on the farm. RD, ya oughta apologize to Rarity later. You nearly scared the cutie mark right off her flank!” Applejack stomped her hoof to hold back a tide of laughter.

“Well, my brother an I got an early day tomorrow. I spect Ah’ll be seeing the two of you around later.” With a wink, Applejack turned and headed back to the cart she’d left waiting. Big Macintosh tipped his head to the two pegasi and followed.

They were alone again when Soarin’ remembered the Wonderbolts tickets. “Dash, the team got you something.” Tomato juice trickled down his face while he pulled out the envelope and held it in his clean hoof. Rainbow Dash excitedly used the napkin for the first time that evening to scrub her hooves off. Her red eye patch flopped onto the table in the process.

She grasped the packet and opened it. Her joy was palpable. “There's six tickets here.”

“What kind of pony would give you two tickets and expect you to pick who to come?”

“Oh man, I get to bring all of my friends. This is gonna be the best. I don’t think Twilight’s ever been to an air show! Where is it? Can ground ponies get there?” Her excitement hadn’t made it to the line on the ticket that had the location printed out.

“Ponyville.”