• Published 26th Jun 2012
  • 16,790 Views, 2,496 Comments

Earth & Sky - Warren Hutch

Sequel to Windfall, set three years after. Twilight & Rarity invent artificial wings!

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Part 22 - Cleared For Takeoff

Raindrops cocked an ear and looked up from a weather map of the valley at the sound of a hoof politely rapping on her door. She dropped the red pencil she held in her teeth, smoothed back her deep blue forelock, and called out in response. "Come on in, it's open."

The door opened with a creak, revealing Rumble standing there with his youthful brow furrowed and a triplicate form held gingerly in his teeth, as if he expected the paper to explode if he handled it improperly. Behind him Soarin stood with a determined gleam in his eye.

The younger stallion nervously cleared is throat as he spoke out of the side of his mouth in a low voice. "Uh, Chief, I got kind of an unusual request here." With that, he stepped forward and laid the form on her desk, stepping back with a wince as she craned her neck to read it over.

She looked up sharply at the both of them after she'd glanced it over. "Leave of absence? Soarin, you haven't even been working here long enough to qualify for vacation yet!"

The sky blue stallion gave her a curt nod. "Okay, then, Chief. If that's the case then I guess all I can do is quit."

At his side, the younger pegasus let out a sigh and drooped his ears and tail as a look of stunned shock washed across Raindrops' face. She blinked at him, glancing up and down from his calmly resolute face to the form on her desk. "But... but... but why? What do you need all that... THE PEGATHALON?" Her wings flared involuntarily, rustling the schedules and maps on the bulletin board behind her as they snapped to full extension. "You're entering the Pegathalon?"

Soarin gave another frank nod. "Yeah. It's just something I need to do. Sorry about the short notice."

He held out a hoof, which the yellow mare took numbly and shook. He turned and did the same with Rumble. "You guys were great to work with, and however the race plays out I hope when I get back you'll join me for a drink down at the Rain Barrel. Clear skies 'til then."

With that, he gave them a salute, turned and walked out. Raindrops slumped forward with her forelegs splayed across the desk and her jaw hanging loose, as faint wisps of white steam with a peppering of little floating hearts bubbled out of her ears. It was a while before she spoke in a breathy voice. "Wow…"

An admiring smirk settled on Rumble's youthful face as he watched one of his foalhood idols walk out the door into the bright sunlight outside. "Yeah..."


A faded blue, bloodshot eye popped open and peered out from the depths of a large, bundled cocoon of silk sheets at the strident sound of enraged screams echoing through the halls of Azure Manor. The content of the harsh tirade was largely muffled by distance and thick oaken paneling, but occasionally would resolve into coherent words like "destroy", "brothers", or "harmony", as well as strings of verbiage that were generally frowned upon even by sailors and construction workers.

A shudder ran down the length of the tangled mass of bedclothes, as the eye vanished back into the shadows to be replaced by an off white spiral horn that sputtered and fizzled as it lifted a silver bell off of the night stand and gave it a fitful ring before dropping it to the thickly carpeted floor among the discarded formal wear and empty bottles.

A distinguished older unicorn in deep blue livery with grey streaks in his slicked back mane came gliding into the room on crepe bottomed horseshoes, a silver tray bearing a brandy snifter, a funnel, and a ring shaped ice bag floating in his wake. The glass held a third of a hoof of dark, oily, reddish brown liquid atop which the golden yolks of two raw eggs quivered.

He slid up to the side of the bed and softly cleared his throat. "Good morning, your highness."

A muffled grunt sounded from the silken bundle. With brisk efficiency, the servant maneuvered the funnel into the gap in the bedclothes from which the horn was protruding. He then floated the brandy snifter over and tipped the glass' contents into it with a single smooth motion.

The mass of silks convulsed with coughing and sputtering, and disgorged the shivering, pasty, slightly bloated form of Prince Blueblood. He lurched to a semi seated position, his yellowed coat matted and disheveled, and his thinning blonde mane sticking in all directions. He smacked his lips and grimaced, screwing his eyes tightly shut in the dim light afforded by gaps in the heavy brocade curtains. His voice rasped out as a dull croak. "'Morning, Greaves. Weather report?"

The unicorn valet's face was a mask of composure as he floated the ice bag up and lowered it around his employer's horn. "Inclement, your highness." Both stallions winced at the sound of something large and full of china being tipped over somewhere in the house. Greaves cleared his throat anxiously. "A tornado warning is in effect."

Blueblood gave a weary nod. "Thank you, Greaves. Do draw us a bath, and kindly see that an electric mane dryer or something is left precariously perched on the edge of the tub. There's a good fellow."

The coltservant gave a slight sigh. "One regrets that there are no outlets in proximity to his highness' royal bath."

The dissolute unicorn prince flopped onto his back and curled his legs up to his belly. "A pity. Perhaps instead you could set out a suitable morning libation in the mane dryer's place."

Greaves bobbed his horn. "Very well, your highness."

He paused at the door as Blueblood called after him. "Greaves, has our wife taken her breakfast yet?"

The older unicorn thought for a moment and shook his head. "Not to my knowledge, your highness. The staff on her highness' end of the manor have been a bit preoccupied with... maintaining a discreet presence so as not to unduly intrude on her highness' morning... meditations."

The puffy eyed stallion rolled onto his side with a thin lipped grin forming on his face. "Ah, the poor thing must be famished. Send word to the cook to prepare her highness some ambrosia salad at once. As big a bowl as can be managed."

Greaves rolled his grey eyes heavenward as he took his leave. "As your highness commands."


Soarin stepped out of the front door of his cloud villa with his saddle bags slung across his back, pausing to tack up a note on the door jamb for the papercolt and the mailmare. He backed up and took one more long look at the structure, which had been transformed from a dissipating abandoned sky manor to a neat little bachelor pegasus' dwelling, a place he'd planned to call his home as he settled in Ponyville.

Having taken possession of it from his former team mate Rainbow Dash, in a way it represented a thread of continuity between his past and his present. What the future held was uncertain. He bowed his head and folded his wings, saying a brief prayer that the journey he was now embarking on would bring him safely back to this doorstep once more, and from here to the rustic porch at Sweet Apple Acres.

He turned with a flick of his tail and lowered his goggles, stepping out onto the springy clouds of the terrace and spreading his wings to take to the air. As he stretched his pinions in the bright gleam of Celestia's sun, now climbing toward its noontime height, his attention was drawn by a sharp whistle from down below.

Soarin peered over the ledge to meet the grave stare of a large red earth pony, who stood like a boulder on the path running beneath his villa. He raised one of his pie plate wide hooves and beckoned the sky blue pegasus to come down.

With a sigh and a nod, the former stunt flyer and weather pony leapt into the air and spiraled toward the ground, touching lightly down at the hulking stallion's side. He pushed his goggles up and locked eyes with his beloved mare's elder brother. "You got something to say to me, Big Macintosh?"

The massive earth pony nodded slowly. "Eeyup."

After a pause, Soarin pawed at the ground. "You wanna get to it then? I wanna be in Canterlot before sundown."

Big Macintosh nodded again, slowly working a stick of straw from one corner of his mouth to the other. "Come back safe."

After another pause, he spoke again, his deep bass voice cracking ever so slightly, even as it softly vibrated the ground under Soarin's feet. "Don't break her heart."

The sky blue pegasus extended a hoof, his voice cracking a bit as well. "Yes on one and no on two. On my wings and honor..."

The eldest Apple reached out with his tree trunk thick foreleg and shook Soarin's hoof. The pegasus was surprised at how gentle the gigantic stallion's grip was. "Okay. Tell young Pip th' same goes fer him."

Soarin nodded as they released their hoofshake. "Don't worry. He's a good kid, I'll keep him flyin' straight."

He stepped back and lowered his goggles back into place, unfurling his wings. "Clear skies, Big Macintosh."

The huge apple farmer gave him a nod in return. "Eeyup. Happy trails, Soarin."

With that, the pegasus stallion departed, launching lightly into the air and wheeling toward the palace crowned mountain that loomed in the distance, as the earth pony stallion stood and watched him recede into the hazy distance.


A pair of rectangular black smoked glasses floated up off of the chipped and scratched surface of a battered dresser, unfolded themselves, and settled themselves on the narrow bridge of Doctor Insanity's snout as he admired himself in the cracked mirror of his brother's cheap hotel room in the drover's district of Canterlot. He'd traded his rumpled company tie and suit collar for a sharp black frock coat and a wine colored cravat, and had cropped and dyed his thinning mane down to a severe dark line running from just behind his horn down into his stiffly starched collar.

With a nod of satisfaction he turned and focused his attention on his flank, his horn sparking once more to life and enveloping his cutie mark in a coruscating green glow. As his eyes narrowed in concentration behind his spectacles, he called out toward the bathroom. "I'm casting Uncle Mountebank's Falsified Flank spell on my cutie mark, brother. What would you suggest?"

Professor Destiny sauntered out of the bathroom in his shirt sleeves with his own cravat hanging untied from an unbuttoned collar, twin motes of magic twirling his freshly waxed mustache into sharp points. A thoughtful sneer settled on his sallow face. "How about a cuckoo clock? Or a straight jacket?"

His brother pursed his lips with an acerbic glare over the top of his glasses. "Maybe you should swap that skull and crossbones of yours for a cracked pot then."

The mustachioed unicorn huffed and proceeded to tie his cravat as Insanity's face lit up with inspiration. "Ah! I have it!" He bit his lip as the sour green sparkles on his flanks intensified, then faded to reveal the outline of two black bats.

Destiny gave a terse nod as he levitated his frock coat into position and shrugged into it. "Suitable. Could use a belfry."

His brother opened his mouth to give a snide reply, but was interrupted by three evenly spaced raps on the door. The black mustachioed stallion raised a hoof to his lips and shushed his sibling, then scurried over and crouched by the door, knocking three times in response. Another three raps came from outside, which the scrawny unicorn repeated. Another three, and then another three, in quicker succession.

Doctor Insanity let out an exasperated breath and rolled his eyes, then yanked the door open with his magic, banging it into his brother's snout and sending him toppling backwards with a bark of pain. Otto stood on the other side, his stubby hoof raised to continue the exchange of coded knocks with a look of weary patience on his face. He let out a gravelly squawk as the dark spectacled unicorn grasped his collar in a shimmer of green magic and dragged him inside, slamming the door behind him.

He lashed his cropped tail and spoke imperiously to his brother's henchpony. "Did you retrieve our property, Otto?"

Destiny climbed to his hooves, wincing and rubbing the tip of his nose. "My property."

Insanity tossed his head and stomped his hoof. "Our property, brother."

Otto nodded obsequiously. "Yeh, bozz. Da B.A.T. Nineteen'z in da wagon in da back alley. Didn't need tha hack saw at all. Guards just gave it to me off da impound lot."

The Professor nodded in preening satisfaction. "You don't have to sound so surprised, Otto. Are we or are we not flying under the auspices of Princess Celestia herself?"

All three ponies flinched as a forceful knocking came to the door. Destiny scowled in irritation at the interruption of his gloating and answered impatiently. "Yes? Who is it?"

A stern voice came from the other side. "Royal Guard. Open up."

As the two brothers exchanged an uncertain glance, Otto started to rapidly scurry in place, his gaze darting in every direction. "Cheez it, it's da heat! " After a moments further dithering, he scampered over to the grime coated window, shoved it halfway open, and proceeded to wedge his rotund little frame firmly in the inadequate aperture it provided.

The Professor cleared his throat and opened the door, revealing a muscular, smoky grey unicorn in gold armor. The scrawny inventor gave the cold eyed soldier a weak smile and a halting bow. "Er... yes... sir?"

The burly unicorn floated a scroll sealed with a gold sun medallion forward in his blue sparkling magic. "Her Royal Highness Princess Celestia hereby requests you attend her and her Royal Highness Princess Luna at Moonrise Court this evening at nine o clock sharp, in regards to the royal sponsorship of your prospective entry into the Grand Pegathalon."

His steely gaze flicked from Professor Destiny, to Doctor Insanity, and made a point of avoiding Otto's flailing, kicking backside, as the blue glow around the scroll shifted to green. He gave a businesslike bob of his horn. "Bring that summons to be admitted, and don't be late."

With that, he spun on his hoof and marched away, slamming the door behind him as the brothers met one another's eyes. They shared a triumphant chortle, ignoring their diminutive hench pony, who continued to grunt and struggle in the window.


The orange glare of the late afternoon sun glinted off of Shining Armor's purple barding as he stood on the battlements of Canterlot Castle, surveying the white towers and gilded domes of the city below. He turned and cocked an ear as one of his troops called out to him. "Pegasus incoming at seven o clock high, sir. Civilian, but flying sky cav. approach patterns."

The snowy coated unicorn stallion cocked an eyebrow, and raised a spyglass to his eye in a cloud of sparkling magic. A burly white pegasus in gold armor stepped up beside him. "Shall we intercept, sir?"

A smile crossed Shining Armor's face as he focused the glass on a sky blue pegasus with a dark blue mane, wheeling and bobbing his wings in the established salute that pegasi of the Equestrian Royal Sky Cavalry used to acknowledge one another at a distance. He shook his head as he turned his smile toward the armored pegasus at his side. "Stand down, Corporal. It's Lieutenant Soarin from the Wonderbolts."

He set aside the spyglass and flashed an all clear for approach with his horn at the far off flying stallion. In a few wingbeats, Soarin had covered the distance. He came to a hovering stop in front of Shining Armor and threw him a salute.

The handsome unicorn returned it with a grin, lifting his helmet off and shaking out his white streaked blue and teal mane. "Sorehead, you old loopty looper! What brings you out to Canterlot?"

The pegasus smiled at his old friend as he caught his breath. "Hey there, Shiner. Long time no see. I'm lookin' for your sister, as a matter of fact. You wouldn't happen to know where she is, would you?"

Shining Armor reared up and leaned on the crenelated stonework with a foreleg, a smirking look of mock suspicion on his face. "That depends, are you gonna ask her out on a date? If you are I should warn you that taking Twily to the all you can eat buffet down at the Family Feedbag ain't gonna cut it with me OR my mom." He let out a chuckle and bobbed his horn at the armored pegasus standing at his sides. "Anything less than Le Jardin and I'm gonna have the boys here escort you out of town."

Soarin let out a sigh and brought a hoof to his face. "Stratospheric... More threats from big brothers. It's like I never left Ponyville."

The guard captain laughed merrily. "I'm just buckin' your cloud, Sorehead, for old times' sake."

His expression became a bit more serious as he met the sky blue pegasus' eyes. "I'm guessing you're really here to see her and her friends about this whole Pegathalon business, right?"

The smile receded a bit farther from Shining Armor's face. "If you're gonna try to talk her out of it, I gotta warn you she's harder to shift than one of my shield spells once she sets herself toward a goal."

Soarin shook his head. "Nope, that's not on the flight plan. Actually, I'm here to see if she would like my help. Her team could really use an experienced flyer on the roster."

A warm smile appeared on the unicorn captain's face, and he waved his horn at one of his white winged troopers. "Corporal, kindly guide the Lieutenant here to the Bijou Boutique in the couturiers district if you please, and then spread the word to the rest of the Guard that if there's anything Lieutenant Soarin wants or needs while he's here he's to get it at a gallop, understood?"

The burly armored pegasus clicked his hooves on the flagstones and launched into the air, and hovered patiently waiting for the former stunt flyer to follow.

Soarin gave Shining Armor a grateful nod. "Thanks, Shiner. Send my regards to your missus and the fillies."

The white unicorn bobbed his horn in return as he set his helmet back on his head. "Will do."

He gave a wave as the sky blue pegasus and his armored escort wheeled and sailed out over the towers of Canterlot.


The neatly turned out unicorn receptionist hastily shoved her crossword puzzle under the appointment book and assumed an air of eager affability as the doors to the executive elevator opened with the faintest whoosh. Her ears edged backwards at the rapid tempo of the click clack of expensive horseshoes on marble, and she made a mental note to send word through the Royal Blue office memo system that the "weather report" had changed from "all clear" to "storm warning". Whenever her highness was walking that briskly it was usually the drumbeat of trouble on the hoof.

She looked up to see the pastel pink mare stride across her field of view without even a glance in her direction, not so much dressed as girded in a sharp red suitcoat, skirt, and a black cravat. The receptionist swallowed nervously. That was her highness' scalp hunting outfit. The weather report would need to be upgraded to "aponyclypse".

She fought hard to keep her voice from wavering as she called out a chipper greeting. "Good afternoon, your highn..."

Diamond Tiara cut her off abruptly as she stalked past. "Cram it. Senior staff meeting, map room, now."


The pastel pink princess and ruler of all she surveyed took a long, sharp eyed look at the assembly of company officers and high ranking airship captains as she leaned against the edge of a large three dimensional map of Equestria that dominated the center of the room.

The cities were marked by lacquered wooden models surmounted by flags, with colored strings tying them together to represent the various routes that the Royal Blue line flew. Hoof sized model airships dotted the map, poked into the styrofoam on metal pins, presenting an accurate representation of the size and distribution of the fleet.

Diamond Tiara's expression was stony and impassive, save for the faintest twitch in her right eye as she met her underlings gaze. "I've decided that Royal Blue is gonna do a tie in with the Grand Pegathalon this year. We'll make a cruise out of it, traveling box seats for the whole thing, deluxe accomodations, the whole bit. Somepony gimme a ship that'll do the trip in style."

After a stunned pause, a bewhiskered unicorn in a uniform jacket cleared his throat and plucked a model from near the rainbow streaked model of Cloudsdale in his magic and floated it before his boss' cool gaze. "W-well, your highness, you'll be wantin' a ship with enough range to make the whole trip with minimal layovers, and enough pickup to keep pace with a flight of pegasi flyin' t' beat the wind, and if you combine that with the luxury you're lookin' for, then you'll be wantin' one of the A class airships. Since the Amity is currently in skydock getting refurbished, and the Alicorn won't be available in time, then the only ship to fit the bill will have to be the Ambrosia."

The pastel pink mare's right eye twitched fitfully a few more times. "The Ambrosia..."

The unicorn nodded as he pegged it into the styrofoam mountain range in front of her. "Aye, your highness. We'll need t' pull her off the Cloudsdale t' Van Hoofer route and bring her in to the shop for a refit, but she'll be turned out and ready on time if we hurry."

Diamond Tiara gave a toss of her mane, the lights over the map glittering off of her jeweled namesake adornment, and pushed off from the edge of the map, trotting briskly out the door. "Ffffine. Get it rolling, hammer out the details, work up the numbers, and have 'em on my desk by tomorrow morning."

She paused and cast an icy look over her shoulder. "And reserve the master stateroom for his highness and me. Spare no expense. We'll be coming along on this trip."

The princess flicked her tail behind her as she vanished, with the assembled senior staff of her husband's company staring dumfounded after her.


Soarin ruffled his wings uneasily as he looked across the work table into the widely flared eyes and loose hanging jaws of two unicorn mares over coffee and shortbread cookies. "Uh... so what do you ladies say?"

Rarity reached up and gently closed Twilight's mouth, then did the same for herself and cleared her throat. Both the lavender unicorn mare and the sky blue pegasus stallion gave a start as the elegant fashionista lunged across the table and grasped his hoof tightly in her own. "YES!"

A moment later she sat back and composed herself, a genteel smile lighting up her alabaster features. "I mean, yes! We'd be ever so honored to have you as a member of our team, Mister Soarin." She turned to Twilight. "What do you say, Madame President?"

The lavender scholar blinked and shook away her daze, and nodded sagely. "Yes indeed. Your coaching has been invaluable so far, and we'll need every advantage we can get our hooves on if we're going to win this. I second the motion to hire Soarin as a flight consultant."

All three ponies stood and the blue stallion came around the table to shake hooves with both of them. "Thank you, ladies. I'll do my best."

They turned as a cheerful voice sounded from the doorway. Pip stood with his smile positively gleaming. "Good show, old bean! I'm right chuffed to have you on the team." He strode forward and extended his own spotted hoof, giving Soarin's a firm shake. "Jolly good show!"

At this, Rarity's sapphire eyes began to shine. "Oh! We simply must fit you out in team livery for our audience with the princesses tonight! There's not much time!"

With a final nod to her cohorts, she bustled from the room calling out to her shop assistants. "Bobbin! Snap! I'll be needing a rush fitting on another flight jacket for a pegasus stallion! Step lively, my darlings!"

Twilight gave Soarin a wry smile as her partner's silvery voice receded down the stairs. She beckoned Pip with her horn and headed for the doorway herself. "On that note, Pip we need to get the new harness ready. Come on."

The lavender mare nodded to the sky blue pegasus. "Rarity will be expecting you down in the fitting rooms, Flight Officer Soarin. Once they're done taking your measurements feel free to relax in the break room. We'll meet there in two hours before we head over to the palace. "

The pegasus stallion nodded and gave her a grin. "Gotcha... boss."

He paused in the doorway at the sound of a mare clearing her throat beside him, and turned to see Apple Bloom leaning against the wall with fore and hind legs crossed, regarding him with thoughtful amber eyes. "So... what does AJ think of ya joinin' in on this race?"

Soarin gave a flick of his ear and faced her with a wry smile. "She's worried. I promised her I'd make it home in one piece."

He nodded over his shoulder at Pip as the young stallion trotted down the stairs after Twilight. "And I promise you that I'm gonna make sure your colt there makes it back with all his spots intact too."

A warm smile accompanied by a soft blush stole across the young mare's face. She stepped up and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Thanks."

She continued past him, winking over her shoulder. "I'm gonna hold ya to that, Mister, and if'n ya think Big Macintosh or AJ are ornery if'n ya cross 'em, y'better think twice 'fore ya break a promise t' me."

Soarin chuckled to himself and shook his head as he fell into step behind her. "As families go, I sure got dropped into an interesting one..."


The vaulted dome of the royal audience chamber resounded with the warm blare of a magnificent trumpet flourish, as in the western rose window the red orb of the sun finally slipped down past the horizon, leaving a ruddy orange glow in its wake. Bright, almost crystalline toned silver horns sounded in response as the pale crescent of the moon arose to the east in the round window opposite the sunset, casting a cool light on the wisps of distant cloud that hung in the velvet purple sky.

The stained glass of both windows smoothly lowered on cleverly constructed tracks in the marble walls to make way for the grand entrance of the princesses, their wings flared and manes and tails trailing ethereal glory behind them. They circled one another twelve times as the downdraft from their wings rustled the finery of the assembly of pony courtiers and supplicants below, then drifted gently to the richly carpeted floor to land on gold or silver shod hooves. A full compliment of bat winged negasi guards snapped to attention, as the regal sisters ascended the steps to the dais.

Dusky Princess Luna climbed to the apex and took her seat on the high throne, as Celestia settled herself on a modest couch on a lower tier, her soft glow casting a subdued radiance around her in the dimly lit hall. In a few short hours she would retire, leaving her sister to reign over the night, until she arose to switch places for Dawn Court, taking the high seat as Luna assumed the advisors place for a short time before going to bed.


She settled into a much more relaxed posture and cleared her throat with a casual wave of her hoof. "Okay, colts and fillies, it's time once again for the Late Show With Luna. Who's our first contestant, Fanfare?"

A unicorn herald adorned with a midnight blue sash bearing a silver moon medallion drew himself up and called out in a loud voice. "The royal court recognizes Doctor Twilight Sparkle, Ms. Rarity, and company."

He adjusted his spectacles and squinted at his notecard. "The royal court also recognizes Professor...Er... Professor Destiny and Doctor In... Insanity?"

The herald cleared his throat uncertainly and continued. "You may now approach the throne for your appointed audience with their royal highnesses."

A group of ponies stepped forward from the attendant crowd. To the left, the scrawny yellow unicorn brothers in their severe black frock coats, their top hats hovering respectfully at their sides in shimmering clouds of green magic. To the right, Twilight Sparkle and Rarity, outfitted in elegant suit collars and frilly cravats, followed by Apple Bloom, Pip Squeak, and Soarin. The three employees of Harmony Aeronautics were arrayed in buff canvas flight jackets and violet scarves, the heraldic patch of their company proudly adorning their shoulders. The young earth pony stallion wore a newly built flight harness, its wood and purple canvas wings folded neatly on his back.

As they walked along the thick red carpet, Twilight cast an archly critical glance at her company's rivals, a sneer twitching her lip as she growled out of the side of her mouth to the bespectacled unicorn nearest to her. "Doctor Insanity? Doctor of what, might I ask?"

The sallow faced stallion gave a dismissive flick of his tail as the light of the chandeliers reflected coldly off of his dark spectacles. "I've got advanced degrees in better-than-you-ology and osculate-my-rump-onomy, my dear filly."

The scholarly mare's face scrunched up in anger and flushed red through the lavender of her coat as Professor Destiny let out a dry chuckle. "Oh my, do I smell something burning? I do hope our audience with their highnesses isn't cut short by the fire alarm."

Rarity's coolly disdainful whisper sounded from beside Twilight as she gave a toss of her elegantly curled mane. "Just a bit of smoke being blown, hardly enough to concern oneself over. You colts will just have to wait for recess to let out after the grownups have finished talking."

Both brothers scowled at her as they came to the foot of the dais. The rival groups turned one another a cold shoulder and as one bowed reverently to their sovereigns.

Princess Luna tapped a hoof on the dais. "Okay, kids, heads up. Here's the scoop."

She gave a nod to her sister. "Princess Celestia and I have submitted a royal request to the Pegathalon's organization committee to enter your teams in the race, with CC's for the Cloudsdale Athletics Council and the Equestrian Ministry of the Interior. We're still waiting for them to get back to us, but we'll sort out any formalities that need sorting out, so don't you worry your little pony heads about it."

The moon princess gave another casual wave of her hoof. "We've also signed off on two blank checks from the Royal Treasury to get you kids provisioned and kitted out for the trip, so work up a budget and submit it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer's office for review." She cocked an eyebrow at Destiny and Insanity and gave Harmony Aeronautics a faint smile. "Keep it sensible, okay?"

She shared another glance with Celestia and continued. "And on the subject of sensibility, my sister has pointed out to me that there is a non-negotiable safety requirement for each team to consist of at least two to be allowed to fly the Pegathalon, in addition to whatever support ponies you choose to bring along. Since you're each presumably flying a single contestant, we are both willing to offer you a volunteer from our personal guards to fly seconds for you.

Luna gave a nod to her sister, who in turn beckoned a barrel chested, white winged pegasus forward from among the ranks of the night princess' bat winged guards. He stepped up to the dark clad brothers and rapped his hoof on the ground in a smart salute.

Celestia gave a radiant smile to Professor Destiny and Doctor Insanity, whose sallow faces both turned a shade paler. "This is Sir Paladin, a member of my personal chariot team and one of the finest flyers in the Day Guard. He has graciously consented to accompany the pair of you..." There was the faintest tightening of one of her cheeks in an almost imperceptible smirk. "... and keep you both out of trouble."

Professor Destiny recoiled from the pegasus guard's level, sharp eyed gaze. "Your... your highness sh-shouldn't have."

Doctor Insanity's eyes shifted rapidly back and forth behind his dark spectacles. "We... er... we are honored by this gesture, your highness, but it's... it's quite unnecessary. My... my esteemed brother and I are planning on converting our prototype into two separate units and flying in tandem."

Destiny turned to face him with eyebrows raised in surprise. "We are? OW!"

He winced in pain, shaking out his bruised right hind leg, and gave his brother a dirty look, then turned a shakey smile to face the disapproving gaze of both princesses. "Heh heh. Indeed we are, your highness. Sir... Sir Palamino here needn't trouble himself on our account."

Princess Celestia's benign smile tightened ever more slightly. "Oh, but we insist. We'll rest easier knowing he's along."

Princess Luna was openly smirking. "Yeah, and so will everypony else."

She turned her attention toward Harmony Aeronautics. "Now, as for you kids..."

Rarity stepped forward with a polite curtsey. "Your highness, we are ever so grateful for your kind offer, but by felicitous circumstance we've already managed to secure a wing pony for Pip."

She beckoned Soarin forward with her horn. "Lieutenant Soarin, late of the Wonderbolts and a good friend of ours has come forward to offer his invaluable services as a flight coach and a wing pony for our team. We officially added him to the Harmony Aeronautics roster as an official employee this afternoon."

As the sky blue stallion stepped forward and gave a bow, an outraged voice sounded out over the low murmur coming from the crowd of courtiers and waiting supplicants, echoing in the vaulted hall. "WHAT!?"

All eyes turned to see a blaze yellow pegasus mare clad in a Sky Cavalry dress uniform hovering several hooves over the heads of the crowd, her eyes flaring in outrage. A pair of burly pegasus stallions in suit coats and ties, one tan with a basketball for a cutie mark and one slate grey with a barbell, rose into the air and gently pulled her down, smiling nervously at the courtiers around them.

The unicorn herald rapped a hoof on his podium. "Order, please! Order! There will be order in the royal court!"

Soarin was still looking over his shoulder, his wings flared in alarm, as Princess Luna favored his new employers with a smile. "An excellent addition to the team, kids. Couldn't have picked a better flyer."

She gave a nod to her bat winged guards. "Looks like you're off the hook, guys." Several of them gave discreet sighs of relief.

The dusky princess leaned forward with a wink, speaking in a stage whisper to the Harmony Aeronautics team. "My crew have the skills to pay the bills, but they prefer to stay out of the sun for long stretches of time 'cos they tend to burn easily."

Luna gave a businesslike nod to the assembled competitors. "Okay kids, that's the long and short of it. If you've got any questions you can lay 'em on us."

Twilight Sparkle stepped forward and made a brief bow. "There's just one more thing, Princess Luna."

She beckoned Pip Squeak forward with a nod of her horn. "We've made some modifications to the Harmony Harness for the upcoming race, and we've taken the liberty of christening it The Luna Moth, in your honor."

The dashing young earth pony reached back and pulled the handle on the harness, unfurling the wings and launching into a low hover over his comrades as the crowd murmured in admiration. The wings' buff canvas had been replaced by sturdy cloth of a rich purple that matched the Harmony Aeronautics logo, and bore heraldic rondels of deep, midnight blue with a crescent moon in reflective white on the foreward segments. Pip met his favorite princess' wondering eyes and gave her a winning smile, the sparkle on his teeth mirrored in the glitter of the stars in her mane.

The regent of the moon let out a gasp and brought a hoof to her mouth. "Verily, we art deeply touched by this gesture..."

She gave a slight shake of her head and cleared her throat, blinking back a glistening of tears as a smile blossomed on her dusky features. "I... I mean, wow kids. Wow. That's... this is really cool of you."

She turned and met her elder sister's beaming countenance. Celestia smiled warmly to Twilight and Rarity, and then gave a formal nod to Professor Destiny and Doctor Insanity, who stood fuming and glaring daggers at the unicorn mares.

Princess Luna composed herself and raised a hoof with a flourish. "Okay, well as fun as this is we've got a full docket for tonight, so I'll wrap this rap session on up. On behalf of both my sister and myself, we wish you all the best of luck, and may the best ponies win." She gave the Harmony Aeronautics team a wink as they straightened up from a deep bow, and then both teams turned and headed for the gallery where they would remain until Moonrise Court had been dismissed.

Professor Destiny grumbled under his breath as he cast a reproachful glance at his rivals. "Show offs..."

As the two competing teams of inventors took their places among the courtiers and spectators, Fanfare's hoof beats rang over the low murmur of the crowd as he cleared his throat."The royal court recognizes the delegation from the Cloudsdale Athletic Council. The royal court also recognizes Captain Spitfire of the Wonderbolts. Please approach the throne for your audience."

A trio of pegasus stallions, all a fair bit overweight and past their prime with thinning manes and ill fitting suit coats and ties, came forward at the heels of the fiery maned mare who's wings flared proudly as she marched up to the dais.

Princess Luna traded a wan look with her sister, and gave a bob of her tapering horn to the pegasi as they completed a deep bow. "Okay kids, what's on your minds?"

The heavyset stallion with a hoofball on his flank opened his mouth to answer, but was cut off as Spitfire stepped forward and stomped a hoof. "We're here to lodge a formal complaint on behalf of the Pegathalon Planning Committee in regards to these irregular entries."

The moon princess pursed her lips as the air around her seemed to draw in shadows, her turquoise eyes narrowing as they took on a cold gleam. "So are we to take it that you're refusing our royal request?"

A faint rumbling of thunder echoed in the distance. To her side Princess Celestia let out the slightest sigh, her face otherwise an impassive mask of flawless composure.

The tallest of the three stallions reached up a tan hoof and tugged at the collar of his suit coat. "N-no, your highnesses, uh... we wouldn't go that far, but..."

Spitfire snorted and hiked her tail, cutting him off with a raised wing. "With all due respect, your highnesses, by allowing these ponies to enter the Pegathalon you're turning a legitimate athletic competition into a circus."

Luna traded another glance with Celestia, and then cocked an arch eyebrow at the Wonderbolts' leader. "Says the mare who spends her days pulling loop de loops in a spandex costume with smoke and lightning trailing from her backside..."

She gave a soft huff and gazed wryly back at Spitfire's scowl. "Seriously though, Captain, what's the big deal? It's just a one time thing."

The blaze yellow pegasus started pacing back and forth as the silent chorus of stallions stood skittishly behind her. "Is it? Once we let one non-pegasus in, where does it end? Ever since the story hit the papers the C.A.C. has been getting flooded with entry requests. Griffins, kirin, winged buffalo, even a loopty loopin' dragon has demanded a chance to race."

The moon princess gave a shrug, ruffling wings. "So let 'em in. Why not?"

Spitfire gave an angry shake of her head. "Your highness, we have traditions to uphold."

Luna rolled her eyes. "Spare me, kiddo, I'm over a thousand years old and counting. I've been watching Pegathalons since before your ancestors were twinkles in their ancestors' eye, and the biggest tradition I remember is upping the ante. Letting other kinds of flyers join in seems like just the sort of challenge pegasi ought to thrive on."

The fiery mare stomped her hoof angrily on the ground to emphasize her words. "But then the competition becomes about who the competitors are instead of what they do!"

She resumed her pacing. "There are a lot of excellent pegasi athletes who've been training for years for their shot at the spotlight, but who's going to care about them when all everypony's going to be chattering about is the whole wacky sideshow?"

A guardedly thoughtful look had settled on Luna's indigo features. "So... you're bent out of shape because you think the novelty of non-pegasi entering the race will overshadow the race itself?"

The Wonderbolts' captain nodded gravely. "Exactly, your highness."

Luna pursed her lips. "So... you think who's flying will mean more than who wins it."

Spitfire's pacing slowed, and she pawed at the ground with a furrowed brow. "Well... no, of course the winner is important. It's a race..."

The moon princess gently waved her horn back and forth as she spoke in a thoughtful tone of voice. "'Cos it seems to me that whoever or whatever might be at the starting line, the one's who really go down in history are the ones who make it across the finish line first."

The blaze yellow mare had come to a stop and met her sovereign's gaze with a raised eyebrow. "Yeah, that's true, your highness, but..."

The immortal regent let out a sigh. "So out of all those excellent pegasi athletes, only one is gonna be standing in the spotlight when it's all over, when he or she gets the medal. Any of the others will still be also-rans, regardless of their excellentness."

The stunt flyer ruffled her wings, her brow furrowing. "Well, sure... but..."

Princess Luna studied the light glinting off of her silver shod hoof. "So the real problem here is the chance none of them will be the winner."

Spitfire closed her eyes with a sigh and nodded. "Yeah."

A beat later her eyes popped open as a look of horror washed across her features. "NO! That's not what I... No! I..." Her eyes flared angrily and twin gouts of steam puffed out of her nostrils. "That's NOT gonna happen!"

The night's mistress traded a glance with her sister and then cocked her head at the spluttering pegasus. "You're not worried about that? Then what is the problem, Captain? If you know that ultimately it'll be a pegasus standing in the winner's circle, what does it matter if unicorns or earth ponies or griffons or dragons compete? As long as your best flyers bring their A game, then the rest will just be a footnote."

Princess Celestia gave a nod and smiled to her sister. "An interesting footnote."

Princess Luna bobbed her horn back in response. "Oh yeah, definitely."

Spitfire's blaze yellow features flushed a ruddy orange. "Fine! FINE! We'll approve your little freak show, your highnesses. We'll let 'em all in! And the pegasi will bring our best to take 'em all on!"

She drew herself up, lashing her tail behind her as the trio of stallions nervously backed away. "In fact, since we're bucking the rules, the Wonderbolts will even field a team. You want to see our best, by your shiny hiney's you'll see our loopty loopin' best."

Celestia hid a smirk behind a gold shod hoof as a faint pink glow appeared on her cheeks. Luna threw her fore hooves skyward with a triumphant cheer as thunder and lightning cracked over her head for emphasis. "HUZZAH! You go, girl! Make us proud!"

The Wonderbolts' captain caught herself, her pupils shrinking to pinpricks, her muzzle scrunching up, and her ears laying flat against her fiery mane. After a beat, she let out a long, shuddering sigh and smacked a hoof against her forehead.

Princess Luna ruffled her wings and sat back on the throne, a satisfied smile shining across her indigo face. "Well, I'm glad we could help you get your head in the game, Captain. Sounds like you've all got some paperwork to get cracking on."

Spitfire gave a stiff legged bow, as a small trail of black smoke started to rise from the crest of her fiery forelock. "Yes, I guess we do... your highness..."

The moon's regent's grin widened as her voice took on a singsong tone. "Well don't let us keep you. We look forward to seeing your smiling face in Manehattan."

The fuming pegasus mare spun on her hoof and shoved through the dumbfounded trio of winged stallions. "Yeah, you will. C'mon colts, lets go..." She trailed off to undertone muttering as she slouched toward the gallery, a thin wisp of black smoke trailing behind her.

She paused as she headed for her place among the supplicants who'd already been heard. A shudder ran down Soarin's spine as Spitfire cast one look in his direction, with a gleam in her eye that said she would live up to her name in a literal fashion if she could, followed by a cold shoulder as she moved on.

He let out a long sigh as he rubbed his temple with a hoof, murmuring ruefully to himself. "Now there's a storm brewin' if I ever saw one..."

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