Chapter XXXI

Feathers. That was what Fluttershy picked up on first; the smell of feathers and fresh skies. She'd been grounded so long that she'd actually stopped noticing the dirt between her hooves and the dust in her mane. The earth got everywhere. She didn't mind so much, but it was startling to realize that she'd grown accustom to it. The fresh scent of open skied, cloud grass and silky feathers hit her like a tornado. Sounds could be faked, she could be going insane, but there was no mistaking home.

Dash practically flew from the room, leaving her friend sitting in flusteration. Applejack turned her head back from where she rested on the bed, giving her a look she couldn't quite read. Anxiety, hope and more than a little fear, perhaps? Fluttershy's heart was racing too fast to think properly. She found herself wanted to cry from relief, and from the fear of getting her hopes too high. She turned and raced from the room, which for Fluttershy meant a fast trot.

By the time she reached the kitchen the droning sound of wings had crescendoed to a roar. Fierce winds whipped the trees around outside and slapped the shutters against the windows. Little Mac had a wild eyed, bewildered look plastered across his face, as if the entire bard were about to collapse on his head. Applebloom was shouting at Granny, who, deaf under the best circumstances, was shouting back 'what?!' Fluttershy decided to stay on Dashes trail, following her out the open door.

The open air was significantly worse than inside. The chuff chuff of wings beating the skies increased four fold, and the wind whipped Fluttershy's mane around, stinging her eyes with debris. She slowly crawled forward, coming along side Dash. She'd often thought it reckless when Dash had lopped off her mane, but for the first time she envied her friend's scraggly haired look.

Dash stood in the freshly ploughed field, nose pointed skyward. Fluttershy craned her neck up as well just as a shadow fell across her face. She slunk back, fears of their recent dragon encounters causing her to take shelter as close to her friend as possible, while the back of her mind recalled facts about he short-lived and oft-forgot Griffon Wars.

She had nothing to fear though; the shadows belonged to neither foe nor predator, but to allies and friends. Dozens of Pegasi filled the skies, circling the farm. There were so many that their bodies blotted out the sun, leaving a dappled pattern across the ground. Fluttershy couldn't quite place them. She saw no one she knew, yet their coats seemed strikingly familiar. Their golden armor shone in the early evening sun, creating a maelstrom of reflective light. It was breath taking and terrifying.

"The Royal Guard."

"What?" Fluttershy thought Dash had said something, but over the din of wings it sounded little more than a whisper.

"Their armor. They're the Royal Guard." Dash continued to stare, awe struck. She then turned to Fluttershy, her voice loud and clear. "Fluttershy, Ditzy Doo brought Celestia's personal air force!"

"Oh my."

Fluttershy looked again. It was true. Fluttershy never thought that she, a lowly Pegasi, would ever have the opportunity to see a Royal guard. Now, here she was, a thousand miles from home, surrounded by dozens.

The flight patterns changed as several Pegasi broke ranks. Four or five came flying in from the west, landing at the edge of the field. Dash squinted her eyes, the sun obscuring her from telling who they were. One was certainly smaller than all the others though, at least half the size of the full grown stallions. They wore no armor either. As soon as they landed they staggered a bit, turned around in a full circle and trotted towards the fillies.

"Fluttershy," asked Dash. "Is that-?"

"Rainbow Dash!" Ditzy Doo called out.

"Ditzy!" Both fillies rushed forward, hugging the young mare. They held on tight, as if she were a dream, until she complained that she could no longer breathe. Then they began to pepper her with rapid fire questions in the way that only little girls can.

"What took you so long?"

"Where'd you go?"

"How'd you know where to find us?"

"Who did you get to help?"

"How did you get Celestia's Royal Guard to come?"

"Are we rescued?"

"Are you hungry?"

"Why don't you have a uniform?"

"Are you a secret agent?"

"Can I get a uniform?"

They asked questions so fast that Ditzy had to close her eyes to keep them from spinning. It had been an eventful day, and foal sitting Rainbow Dash was trying at the best of times. Before she could answer anything, though, a red Pegasi broke rank and veered off, pirouetting to the ground. He saluted the commander, snapping to attention.

"Report, sergeant."

"Sir," The red Pegasi began. "Area secure, sir. I've set of a patrol along the Forest edge. If anything comes through, we'll know about it."

"Excellent work, Sergeant. And thank you."

"Thank you, sir. It feels good to be back in the saddle again."

"Hooves up in five."

"Yes, sir!"

The red Pegasi relayed the order then hung back as the commander approached the three girls, his golden armor clinking as he walked. That last bit of conversation was entirely outside of military protocol, a fact Dash missed as she was too busy concentrating on the voices. She knew them; she just couldn't quite place it. The red one was too far away to quite hear properly, and the armor obscured getting a good look. The commander though, heading towards them, was big. Almost as big as her daddy. She couldn't see his Cutie Mark, but his pelt was a faded periwinkle, graying with age. His armor was also not as polished as the other soldiers', pitted and scarred as if it had seen better days. The plume on his helmet crest was the most striking, almost variegation in color. As he reached up to pull his helmet off, Dash realized that she'd only seen that color mane twice in her life; once, every time she looked in the mirror, and the other on her...

"DADDY!" Dash screamed, leaping into his arms.

Skystriker held her tight, falling back on his haunches. Dash was laughing so had she got the hiccups, while her father just squeezed harder, wetting her side with his tears. There was no one else in the entire world. Nothing else mattered. They once more had one another and that was enough.

"I missed you so much!" Dash hiccupped again.

"I thought I'd lost you, Dash." Her father could barely whisper. "I thought I'd lost you."

"Oh, daddy. I was so scared. I tried to be brave for Fluttershy, but I was just afraid I'd never see you or mom again."

"You did good, Dash. I love you so much." Skystriker gave her the tightest hug she'd ever had in her life.

"Ack! I love you too!" She squeaked.

Skystriker released her, standing up and wiping his eyes. Apparently stallions weren't supposed to cry. Then he looked around and motioned to Fluttershy. She rushed forward and they repeated the process all over again, albeit with a little less hugging and slightly faster. Fluttershy had never been so glad to see any pony in her entire life.

"How did you find us?" Dash leaned against her father's side. Fluttershy leaned against the other side.

"Your little foal sitter is quite the messenger pony, isn't that right, Miss Doo?"

"Sure is!" Ditzy trotted forward, a huge grin on her face. She then tripped and face planted into the ground, but quickly righted herself and continued forward. "I did well, didn't I? I took off like you said, Dash, except I got confused and flew west instead of east. But lucky thing, too. I found all these Pegasi flying around the Everfree Forest."

"Weren't you scared?" Fluttershy whispered, straightening up.

"Are you kidding? With all these stallions around?" Ditzy grinned, then immediately hung her head. "Yes."

"She almost got eaten by a Venus Horsefly Trap." Skystriker supplied. "Twice."

"Yeah. Luckily Mr. Striker was there to pull me out. Twice. And whoooo doggy, do I ever need a bath!"

"Oh, Ditzy." Fluttershy laughed.

"Dad?" Dash craned her neck up, her voice squeaking. "What were you doing in the Everfree Forest?"

"Dash, I've been looking for you for four days now. Ever since I got a call from the school that you'd disappeared. I took off right away and started looking."

"Then where'd all these soldiers come from?"

"Ah, yes." Skystriker blushed. "That would actually be your mother's doing, taking care of me to the last. She figured I could get a lot more done with a squadron than by myself so she... called in an old favor."

"And she was okay with that?"

"I don't think you quite understand, Dash. Firefly said 'Don't come back without my daughter.'" Skystriker leaned forward, resting his forehead against his daughter's. "I couldn't lose you."

"Aw, daddy." Dash nuzzled her father, familiarizing herself with his scent once more.

Finally it was almost time to go. Skystriker straightened up. "Sergeant!"

"Yes, sir!" The red stallion trotted forward.

"Keep an eye on them. Skystriker gestured to the three mares."

"I'll guard them with my life, sir!"

There was another look Dash didn't quite catch that passed between the two. Something that translated to the effect of 'You'd better.' Dash was studying the sergeant's face, his red, grizzled snout and the scent of sky grass 'tween his hooves. She knew him too, she just couldn't place it. Fluttershy could, though.

"Coach?" Fluttershy tentatively asked, stepping out of Ditzy's shadow.

"Hey there, little Fluttershy." Coach answered.

"Coach McHard Cheese?" Dash's jaw dropped. "You're in the Royal Guard?!"

"'Was' in the Royal Guard. What? We can't all be teachers forever."

"What are you doing here?"

"Your father and I served together many years ago. I'm just helping out an old friend." Coach sighed. "That and, what happened technically was my fault. I'm so sorry girls."

"It's not your fault, Coach, it's all Hoops an-"

"You should be!" Fluttershy burst out crying. "Letting little kids race like that, what were you thinking? We almost died!"

Ditzy, while not the freshest hay in the loft, was an excellent mother. She knew when she was needed. So she drew Fluttershy in, holding her tight. Fluttershy cried a little while Ditzy shushed her and dried her aqua eyes.

"I know what happened was wrong, and I've got a reckoning coming, believe me." Coach hung his head. "All I can say is I'm sorry and ask for your forgiveness."

For Dash, he hadn't really done anything wrong. She didn't understand why other ponies were mad at him, as he was a great teacher who actually cared. How many other teachers would be out here searching for two lost students? She couldn't hold a grudge, and she needed him to know that. So she rushed forward, hugging him. It took Fluttershy all of half a minute to forgive him and hug their teacher as well. Coach, not used to the touch or love of others, was unsure how to respond and could only grunt in surprise as they latched on. Ditzy, unwilling to be left out, leaned forward and hugged him as well, a perfect stranger. Tentatively at first, Coach wrapped a hoofed leg around them. He'd almost forgotten what it was like to have another pony care about him, no matter what Skywishes said.

Skystriker took his leave, approaching the barn house. The half door stood open with three young faces peering out at the sight in the sky. There were more flying horses than they'd ever seen before in their short lives. Skystriker was unsure how to proceed until her heard a commotion from inside the house. All three children turned back, looking behind them before scattering.

"Git outta tha way, git outta tha way!" Granny Smith flung the door open, staring down the Pegasi why weighed nearly as much as she did. That was heavy for a Pegasi.

"Hello, Ms. Smith."

"Y're not welcome here, sonny. I remember you an' the last time you were here."

"I heard about what happened. I'm sorry about that."

"Git off my farm b'fore I throw you off!"

"Granny, I-"

"Out!" Granny gave a little hop, her bones creaking.

Skystriker turned away. "Thank you so much for saving my daughter."

"What was I suppose't do, leave her high an' dry?"

"You could have." The commander turned his head back, meeting Granny's clear, wise eyes.

"Apples don't turn down nobody that needs help. I thought you learned that last time you was here. I suppose I was wrong."

"I suppose so." Skystriker nodded. "If there's anything I can do to thank you-"

"The only thin' I want from y'all is to leave." Granny nodded toward the filed. Skystriker, with nothing else to say, returned to his squadron. Then Granny called after him. "That girl o' yours; she's mighty special."

"I know." He called back.

"She's stronger than you. Don't push her away when the time comes."

Skystriker's gate faltered for just a step before he righted himself. Not much, but enough for any pony watching to notice. It was weakness; weakness of the spirit, and he had displaced it before a lesser species. Somehow the old Earth Pony had known about his wife's disease. He didn't know which of the two girls had talked, but his money was on Fluttershy. Dash was too strong to talk. She was like her father.

Two minutes later they were in the air, the entire squadron flying escort as they made a pass around the city. Skystriker and Coach had both shed their golden armor, leaving them with a pair of their pack horse escorts. They flew with a different, more precious kind of burden. Fluttershy held on tight to Coach's neck, while Dash practically danced atop her father's back. Ditzy Doo, flying wing mate, had graciously declined the offer of a ride. She was doing a commendable job keeping pace with full grown males, but she would undoubtedly be riding piggy back before the long journey was over.

Dash watched as they circled Ponyville, looking so different; so small from this height. It was a precious little village where ponies lived, loved and died. So different from Cloudsdale in so many ways, yet so similar in the majesty of life.

As the sun set lower Dash was reminded of their first night on the ground. Looking up, she watched as the stars winked into existence one by one. The stars, so far away by themselves, always seemed close enough to touch no matter her altitude. They were a reminder, a prayer, silently whispering to Dash of the wonders she would see and the things she would do. Each star was different, a dream yet to be fulfilled. Dash watched them appear faster the higher they flew, arriving like a spark of magic. Finally the sky came alive with lights and colors, the sun giving its last gift to the world. As they flew through the pink clouds Dash lost sight of Ponyville, far below.

Five minutes later she was fast asleep.

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End of Book II

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Merry Christmas 2013 Y'all!