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        There was a warm smile on the Princess’ face that seemed to calm even the most hysterical of the partygoers as they tried to calm their nerves. Glasses were more often than not falling from shaking hooves than lifted to mouths and drunk properly. A collection of ponies were trying to make a pile of all the cloaks and hats dropped on the ground in the animal stampede, and a few unlucky palace servants were working on clearing the mess that some of the animals had left on the ground.


             Celestia had done her best to calm down the crowd – her magic had lifted each and every one of the animals loose in the Great Hall into the air and put them all in a cage, teleported outside for the gardener to see to. That left only the partygoers in disarray, many of whom were bawling their eyes out at the disgrace of such a terrible event. One exception to the hysteria on the ground was a pair of Pegasi, rolling about on a windowsill and hooting with laughter.


             “Holy horseapples, that was amazing!” Spitfire said with a laugh, flopped over a flagpole in the upper parts of the hall, her body shaking with laughter as she looked at the teary-eyed nobility below. “Did you see Rainbow Dash? Did you, Soarin’? That was the most epic thing I’d ever seen!” Her blue-coated friend smirked right back at her as he licked clean another hoof coated in apple cake frosting.


             “She was cool in general. Really brought the party to life. Wish we hadn’t agreed to do so much press work,” he said with a slight note of despondence, going back to slurping another bit of frosting off himself. When the cute orange farmer pony had come into the hall again carrying a massive cake, Soarin’ had instantly flung himself towards it with hope of getting a slice. The pink terror that had ruined the orchestra though had sent it flying through the air and the Pegasus colt was left with just a splattering of icing over his forehooves rather than the bite he’d so wanted.


             “Yeah. She lives in Ponyville right? I’ve a mind to go visit her and apologise in person. Spend some more time with her – she deserves it,” Spitfire added with a wistful smile.  Soarin’ gave a little grin, nudging his wingmare playfully.


             “I caught you sneaking a few glances at that flank of hers. Not hoping to give her your standard ‘after-show’ treatment?” he asked. Spitfire’s eyes went wide and she gave him a cuff round the head with her hoof.


             “Like you’re much better, Soarin’. You were eyeing up that farm girl at the food stand, eh?” she teased. Soarin’s mouth went dry and he placed his hooves behind his back innocently. “Always got a soft spot for the Earth Ponies, don’t you?” she asked with a jab to his belly.


             “Heh heh… well, fastest way to a colt’s heart is through his stomach,” he admitted with a flush. Spitfire blew a raspberry at her wingmate and lifted herself off the flagpole she’d been resting on.


             “Fair enough, fair enough. Listen, I’m going to try and find the rest of the team. I think they fled to the bars when we were getting swamped by reporters. You stay here and… well, clear up the tables, greedyguts.” Soarin’ grinned as the younger Wonderbolt vanished into the distance out one of the windows. With some reluctance, he rose off his flagpole and made his way to the ground.


             Celestia had recruited some of the less fussy nobles (usually their sons or daughters) to help clear up the tables and sort the food into what could be kept or given to the needy and Soarin’ was more than happy to join in.


             It was while taking the important time to judge the status of various vanilla mousses though that a sudden sniffling caught Soarin’s attention. He flicked his head to the side to see a deep grey tail flickering out of the hall and into the gardens. Nopony else was out in the gardens.


             “Hey, you guys take over. You’re doing a good job,” he said with a nod to a few young unicorns that had been helping him. They saluted in unison, not even looking up as Soarin’ trotted outside and round the corner to find the source of the crying. What he found almost tore his heart in two.


             He recognised the mare from earlier in the night – she’d been one of the quartet whose musical performance had been ruined by one of Rainbow Dash’s friends. He’d only noticed it out of the corner of his eye after the Pony Polkie had finished and the pink pony had brought out a mixing table. The quartet had faded into the background with mixed expressions – the pianist looked ready to explode but the harpist and the tuba player simply looked confused, even stunned.


             The grey mare had looked downright tearful though. He was surprised it had taken her this long to break down and suddenly he felt superbly guilty inside. He’d laughed at the nobility wailing and complaining about the downfall of the gala but when it was a young mare, and someone who’d been working hard to get to this gala it was a different feeling.


             “Hey… are you alright?” he asked as he approached the cellist. She was lying down amidst a collection of shrubs, face buried in her hooves as she sobbed, her instrument nowhere to be found. If he hadn’t followed her right outside he may not quite have noticed her, or at least assumed she’d fallen drunk into the bush rather than realizing it was a place to cry. It seemed she hadn’t heard him, because she just carried on sobbing. Soarin’ licked his lips gently, cocking his head to the side as he wondered the best action to take.


             “Miss?” he asked, a little more loudly. The mare raised her head out of the grass and turned two puffy purple eyes to look at him with venom.


             “What? Come to make fun of me as well?” she asked acidly. The effect was somewhat ruined by the choking sobs that caught in her throat as she spoke and the rivers of silvery tears trickling down her ashy coat. “Come to make a big song and a joke about how my night was ruined?”


             “No way!” exclaimed Soarin’, horrified at the way he was so dismissed. “I just wanted to know what was wrong… I hate hearing mares cry,” he said earnestly. It was true – he’d always felt that clutch of guilt in his stomach as a foal whenever his mother or sisters cried, even when it was nothing to do with him. The cellist blinked once, twice and narrowed her eyes at him.


             “Well, isn’t it obvious? I guess party boys like you Wonderbolts wouldn’t know what it is to train so hard for the best event of the year and have all your hard work undone by…” the mare turned away. “By your own sister, of all people…”


             “Wait, that pink pony was your sister?” Soarin’ asked, eyes wide. The mare scowled.


             “Estranged. I haven’t seen her in years, and now she turns up to ruin my big show,” she muttered darkly. “Not even a ‘Hello Octavia’, not a ‘Hi Inky’,” she added with a crestfallen expression. Her voice was still tinged with the same anger he’d heard before but it was beginning to slowly fade into sadness again. Soarin’ suddenly had an idea.


             “She came to the party with some friends,” he said slowly. “I know where one of them lives. If you’d like, I could take you there, and see if I can’t get you a meeting with her. Maybe you just need to tell her how you feel?” Octavia looked at the Wonderbolt as if he’d just told her he could grow a second head at will.


             “I know where Pinkie lives… good sir,” she said. “My issue is money. I blew all my money on a new cello for the Gala, and now I’m not going to get a bit for that performance,” she growled, her teeth grinding together. Soarin’ scoffed, grinning at the angry mare.


             “What, you think Princess Celestia’s not going to pay you? The mare that forgave her sister even after she trapped her in the sun and tried to raise eternal night? Who didn’t bat an eyelid when someone threw a cloud into her in Cloudsdale?” Soarin’ asked. Octavia’s jaw opened as she stared at him in disbelief. The blue Pegasus stallion grinned broadly at her, simply sitting before him with a look of confidence on his face. She couldn’t deny all that.


             “I… I…” she began.


             “Need to loosen up,” Soarin’ interjected with a friendly nudge to Octavia’s side. The mare almost flinched from the touch but sat back to look at her new-found companion with confusion. “I know you have to wind cello strings nice and tight, but don’t wind your own up. If you try and stress yourself out too much, you’re only going to snap,” he said kindly. Octavia scuffed her hoof on the ground and looked shy. It was only then that Soarin’ really recognised how young Octavia actually looked. A lot of eye shadow and a haughty expression had given her almost five years extra. Now she was beginning to sigh and concede defeat, she looked a lot younger.


             “I’m sorry I snapped at you,” she whispered. Her voice was so low it was almost lost in the hubbub coming from the crowd inside the Gala halls. Soarin’ smiled and placed a hoof on her cheek to wipe away those tears. Octavia’s mouth began to curl up in a slight smile. Soarin’ noticed how her hair seemed to curl up at the ends of her long locks as well.


             “Hey, it’s all right. Now, about getting to Ponyville. I bet you there I can get you there before your sister and her friends get there tonight,” he said with a smile. Octavia’s eyes widened.


             “You don’t seriously mean…”


             “Hop on,” Soarin’ said as he got to his hooves and turned about, spreading his wings. Octavia shook her head.


             “No… no, I simply couldn’t! I…”


             “Need to loosen up,” Soarin’ added. “C’mon. Where’s your sense of adventure?” he asked. Octavia bit her lower lip, shifting from hoof to hoof as she peered at Soarin’s back.


             “You promise not to throw me off? And catch me if I fall?” she asked nervously. Soarin’ laughed.


             “I wouldn’t be much of a gentlecolt if I didn’t,” he pointed out. “C’mon. Wrap your hooves about my neck, keep your back legs away from my wings and hold on tight.” Octavia took a step nervously towards the Wonderbolt and obediently mounted up, wrapping her legs about his neck and either side of his flanks. She shivered as she felt the muscles underneath. She’d never been this close to a stallion before.


             “Ready?” Soarin’ asked with a grin over his shoulder. Octavia nodded, her mouth dry. “Here we go!” And with that, Soarin’ bent his lower legs and kicked into the sky, his wings beginning a slow but strong flap. He heard a light squeak from behind him and felt Octavia’s hooves tighten about his neck more.


             “Never flown before?” he asked her. Octavia shook her head forcefully, burying her muzzle into his mane as if it were the only way to prevent herself from falling to her doom. “Don’t worry girl… I’ll be gentle,” he shot back. That brought her head up, ears flushed with indignation.


             “I say…” she began, but never managed to finish her sentence. Soarin’ had got his wings flapping quickly and the two ponies were soon bursting away from Canterlot as fast as Soarin’ could go without goggles. It was a slow and gentle flight for him but it seemed like it was super-sonic levels for Octavia. Her eyes were wide and terrified and her grip was like an iron choker but she wasn’t screaming or begging to be let down.


             They passed over the walls of Canterlot and soared into the darkness of the night. Luna had made a special effort for the first Grand Galloping Gala during her return to make a nice sky for her sister and both ponies had the opportunity to admire it as Soarin’ slowed his pace a little. He longed to flex his wings and go at his preferred speeds, but he kept himself slower for his passenger.


             Octavia’s mouth was now open as well as her eyes, ignoring the way the wind whipped through her mane and tail and aided in the way they curled up. She’d never seen the sky quite so bright and stunning – there had been no artificial light at the Rock Farm true, but her parents had never let her or her sisters stargaze like this. In Canterlot and the other big cities in which they performed, there was too much ‘waste light’ in the sky to see anything but the brightest stars.


             “It’s gorgeous,” she gasped softly. Soarin’ smiled kindly, slowing to a hover for her so she could get an even better look.


             “It’s even better in Cloudsdale. You’re right up high, so you get the best views,” he said. Octavia’s eyes seemed to glitter in the moonlight. “I’ll invite you up there sometime assuming I can find a unicorn to cast the walking-on-clouds spell,” he offered kindly. The insides of Octavia’s ears flushed a brilliant crimson.


             “That would be… amazing. Thank you, sir Wonderbolt,” she said weakly. Only then did Soarin’ realise he’d not introduced himself.


             “Sir Cloudrunner. But Soarin’ will do fine thanks,” he said with a wink. Octavia turned to beam at him, and dipped her eyes a little.


             “Charmed to make your acquaintance, Soarin’… oh, look! Do you think that’s them?” she asked, suddenly pointing at the ground. Soarin’ glanced down through the gloomy night to see a single carriage rattling along the dirt road in the direction of Ponyville. He noticed the shape – that of an apple, and remembered the orange-coated mare that had sold him the apple pie at Canterlot earlier that evening.


             “Might be. Good eyes, ‘Tavi,” Soarin’ called back. “Now hold on, here comes a dive…” he said and almost choked as Octavia grabbed his neck hard.


             “Don’t call me ‘Tavi please…” she began, but the rest of her words were cut off in a scream as Soarin’ pulled in his wings and plunged down towards the ground.


             Pegasi as a general rule were lighter than other ponies, with a less dense bone structure and tighter muscles. Soarin’ was easily the heaviest on the Wonderbolts due to his sweet tooth and carrying Octavia (light as she was – the girl either dieted well or hadn’t eaten in weeks) and that made his plunges all the more spectacular for the speeds he could attain.


             “Horseappleshorseappleshorseappleshorseapples…” swore Octavia under her breath again and again as they dove, the wind whipping past her more and more and beginning to dig into her collar. The pink bow tie and the collar soon were ripped away, and another ripping noise caught her attention as they approached the ground.


             Soarin’ hadn’t got away lightly with the Gala disaster – like the guests, he’d been caught in the initial storm of animals flooding into the main hall and there were a number of small tears in his flying suit. The wind flooding into these gaps simply ripped them apart, and within seconds Soarin’s lower half was completely bare, the Wonderbolt outfit having pretty much disintegrated around his haunches.


             Octavia’s flush was a mixture of both exhilaration and embarrassment as the two of them landed (how Soarin’ had saved the pair of them from a dive like that she’d never know) and it took a while for her to uncoil her legs from about Soarin’s neck. She could only look over to where the two stallions pulling the carriage and the dragon driving it were staring at the two newcomers with completely dumbfounded expressions.


             “Spike? Is something wrong?” a voice came from inside, and a purple unicorn poked her head out of the carriage window. “Lucky? Caramel? Oh!” she exclaimed as she spotted the grey mare and the blue stallion. Soarin’ gave her his flirtiest, cheekiest smile.


             “Princess Celestia’s student. Pleased to meet you, Twilight Sparkle. I’m here for Miss Rainbow Dash and… Pinkie, was it Octavia?” Twilight’s dumbfounded look and refusal to back out of the carriage window meant that as the door was slammed open she was caught halfway through. Complaining loudly, Twilight dangled for the longest time by her neck on the window sill as a blue Pegasus and pink Earth Pony bundled out of the carriage at their names.


             “Soarin’?” asked Rainbow Dash in confusion and surprise as she recognised one of her heroes.  Soarin’ remembered what Spitfire had said about wanting to catch up with the young Pegasus and grinned weakly at having caught her first.


             “The one and only!” Soarin’ said proudly, his chest puffing up and tugging against the arms of the mare about his neck. He looked up to the mare on his back and grinned. “And I believe I have the pleasure of introducing Miss Octavia to you,” he added, giving the cellist’s hooves a little nudge, trying to get her to slide off his back.


             He looked towards the pink pony, ignoring the stunned look that Rainbow Dash was wearing to see if the candy-covered mare would recognise her sister. But Pinkie Pie seemed only to tilt her head from side to side, her blue eyes not showing any recognition.


             “Oooh, I love meeting new ponies! So you’re Soarin’, and she’s Octavia! Oh, that’s super-duper wonderful! I…”


             “I was playing the cello on the stage,” said Octavia, her voice oddly flat, interrupting Pinkie Pie. To the obvious surprise of all the Ponyville residents, Pinkie stopped talking. Her eyes were no longer bright and full of delight, but more curious, like the look someone gets when they think they know the answer to a puzzle but can’t quite get it.


             “Um… oh no… did I break your instrument?” Pinkie asked, looking genuinely remorseful. Octavia shook her head, slipping off Soarin’s back and standing there, gazing at her estranged sister with longing in her eyes.


             “No… no you didn’t. My cello’s fine. It’s as good as the day my big sister first heard me play it at her party,” she said, a tear trickling out of her eye. Soarin’ stayed quiet – as did all the other ponies clustered about. It didn’t take a genius to realise that something was up with the grey and pink ponies. All of Pinkie Pie’s friends were silent, and merely stared at her when she looked to them.


             “Big… sister?” Pinkie asked, her eyes growing wide. “But… but… I’m a…”


             “Pinkie, why didn’t you say hello?” cried Octavia, her legs hugging herself to her stunned sister. Pinkie’s big blue eyes went wide as she surveyed the cellist for a moment… another moment and then her mouth fell open as well.


             “Inky? Octavia? Is that… oh, it is!” she gasped, throwing her legs about her sister as well. “Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t notice you, you looked so elegant and good and pretty and… Oh, I’m so sorry little sister!” Octavia could only continue sobbing into her sister’s mane.


             “I wish you’d said something… I wish you’d said hello!” she cried.


             “Inky, I… I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to ruin your party…” gasped Pinkie Pie, her hug tight about her sister’s neck. Octavia shook her head tearfully.


             “I couldn’t care less about the Gala, you silly filly,” she sniffed. “I… I just wanted to see if my sister still remembered me. It was so grey on the farm without you…”


             Almost instantly, Pinkamena Diane Pie burst into tears as well, her eyes emptying their reserves of water into a mane that slowly but surely, was becoming curlier and curlier to resemble hers.




             At Rainbow’s suggestion, Octavia had taken her place inside the carriage while she flew with Soarin’, catching up with the Wonderbolt and easily accepting his apologies for not having spent so much time with them.


             “Spitfire’s looking forward to chatting with you more,” Soarin’ offered with a cheeky grin. “Maybe even spending the night at yours for an early morning flight,” Rainbow Dash certainly seemed to enjoy the thought of that.


             “Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh!” she gasped. “Spitfire? Wants to fly with me?” If they hadn’t been flying, Soarin’ wouldn’t have been surprised to see her popping her wings into the air. Maybe Spitfire wouldn’t have to be too persuasive, he thought with a soft smile. All the more to tease his wingmare about when he got back to Canterlot. If he did go back tonight. It was getting dark and Dash was offering him a spare room in her cloud castle.


             “Hey, fly boy, we’re here!” grunted a voice from the front carriage. Soarin’ glanced round to see the yellow stallion with the brown mane looking rather irritated at him. “No thanks to you,” he added. Soarin’ let out a snort of laughter, but Rainbow seemed to take more offense than he did.


             “Hey chump, you don’t insult the Wonderbolts when their friend is here. He got Inky Pie out here a damn sight faster than you got us out of Canterlot, so you shut your pie-hole Caramel,” she growled. Soarin’s eyebrows vanished into his mane – this one was really serious about going into the Wonderbolts, and not just for the glory. He’d have to suggest her to Blue Blizzard as a potential new recruit. Spitfire would back him up after a few days with her, he was sure.


             “Rainbow Dash! How dare you say such horrible things to these two wonderful boys,” cried a white unicorn as her magic helped to undo the harnesses holding Caramel and his friend into the carriage. “You two have done very well, and deserve a reward,” she added with a flutter of her eyelashes. Rainbow made a gagging motion with her hoof but neither of the other stallions seemed to notice, eagerly trotting after her purple tail and mane towards a great boutique the apple-carriage had come to a stop near.


             “Oh, and Miss Octavia, you simply must stop by my shop tomorrow. I simply have to groom your mane back into shape,” she purred over her shoulder as Caramel and the other stallion vanished into her home. Soarin’ fluttered to the ground and trotted round as he heard that familiar voice again.


             “It’s perfectly all right, Miss Rarity. I think I like it like this,” Octavia said pleasantly as she stepped out of the carriage, her hair and smile the mirror of her sister’s. Soarin’ noticed Rarity’s gasp of mock-horror before she shook her head and vanished inside her home. Soarin’s ear perked up and he could hear her voice through the open door just before it closed.

             “Now then you two… for being so good, I think you deserve the absolute best tea and cakes I have in my supply…” A single glance at the other ponies there and it was all Soarin’, Octavia and the others could do to restrain a giggle. The young dragon simply looked relieved.


             “Oooh, ooh, can you stay with me tonight Inky? I have an extra bed I can sleep on tonight – you can sleep in my bed! It’s a little messy because I was eating lollipops in there two nights ago and I have to put the lollies down somewhere in between tasting them and sometimes the sugar gets onto the pillows and I try to lick it off but it’s not…”


             “It’ll be lovely, Pinkie,” Octavia said with a bright smile at her sister, cutting her off in mid-flow. Pinkie began bouncing about, exclaiming how excited she was to be seeing her sister again for so long as Octavia trotted up to Soarin’.


             “So, is this loosened up enough for you?” she asked with a shy smile. Soarin’ stuck his tongue out.


             “I preferred you when you had your collar on. It made you look cuter,” he teased. Octavia giggled at that, and leaned forward to plant a kiss on Soarin’s lips.


             “I’ll hold you to that date in Cloudsdale,” she said with a flutter of her eyelashes. “Come on Pinkie, lets’ see what you’ve made for yourself in the world!” The two mares headed into town at that, their curly manes bobbing in time with their hops – little at first for Octavia and soon becoming larger and larger until they matched her sister’s.


             “C’mon man, let’s get you sorted,” Rainbow added as Soarin’ finished watching Octavia go. “I may need to clean some of my magazines off the spare bed,” she admitted with a light flush.  Soarin’ shrugged and waved goodbye to the other three mares on the ground as he took off, Rainbow’s thanks for the night called out over her shoulder. On the ground, the orange mare with the cowgirl’s hat scowled.


             “Well don’t that beat all. Mah one sale all evenin’ an’ he’s found a better Pie than any ah could bake.”