Canterlot courthouse was old. The interior was dreary and bland. The walls were grey – sheer, unfriendly, charcoal-grey edifices to the cold, hard, reality of the legal system. The furnishings were spartan and utilitarian – the gallery filled with plain, nondescript wooden benches, as simple and ordinary as the dusty, faded tile of the floor. The judge's bench was tall and imposing, yet still bleak and hardly interesting. It was flanked on either side by the witness stand and the court reporter's table. The jury box sat to one side, another plain structure with space enough for twenty ponies to stand. The courtroom, through all its muted grey and brown tones, stood in direct contrast to its occupants. Filling the gallery and the jury box was a sea of brightly-colored ponies – one of the largest crowds the venerable structure had seen in its many years of existence.
The courthouse was certainly old, boring, and somewhat decrepit, very unlike the other, more elegant buildings of Canterlot, but it served its purpose well, and that is why it stood in the first place. On this particular day, it was jam-packed very nearly to full capacity. The trial at hoof was quickly becoming more of an event than a normal court proceeding. The magically-operated cooling system was the only thing keeping the citizenry of Canterlot from sweating from the heat of so many ponies gathered in one, closed-off, confined space. The gallery was packed – with every bench crammed with ponies who fought for a space to watch the drama unfold from. It was an example of irony at its finest supremacy to see the gentry of Canterlot, usually so uptight and self-focused, pressed together in a manner similar to a stockyards.
The press box, too, was full to capacity. Some reporters, in their absolute haste to cover the case, had even snuck out into the aisles, taking up space where ponies normally wouldn't sit in order to try and get the best view. Journalists, camera-ponies, and more all vied for the best angle to see and hear the action down front. Some, in their haste to get the story, tried to get too close, and found themselves being escorted out of the room by a Royal Guardspony. Due to the highly controversial nature of the case and its high public interest and visibility, as well as the relative fame of both defendant and plaintiff, a detachment from the Canterlot Royal Guards had been assigned by the princesses themselves to watch the room and provide extra crowd control if necessary.
The only area relatively clear of ponies was the front of the courthouse, where the judge's bench and the defendant's and plaintiff's tables sat. At the defendant's table, the accused sat still in his chair, staring straight ahead, unwilling to react to the questions shouted at him by the reporters who kept trying to get near him. He had, of course, had much experience dealing with the press. His attorney sat by his side, adjusting his glasses absent-mindedly. He had been at his profession for years, and had gotten used to the apprehensive atmosphere of a courtroom before a trial began. He sat silently to collect his thoughts.
On the other side of the room however, was a different story. The Plaintiff had sunken into her chair in a vain attempt to remain as unseen as possible. Around her, several Royal Guardsponies were standing; their sole assignment was to keep the hordes of the press away from her. As both the chief witness and the main figure of the entire case, she was highly sought after by the ranks of those who felt it their duty to uncover stories and get them out to the public. Due to her fragile mental state, however, the princesses themselves had insisted that, if a public trial was to take place, she was to be shielded as much as possible. She had been through enough in the lead-up to the trial, anyway, they reasoned.
Her council sat beside her. Her hair was tied back in a neat bun, and her horn glowed softly as she nervously flicked through the case papers she had prepared. Her gaze, however, could not focus on the parchment held in her magical grasp. Her eyes kept flicking back and forth. They would shift up to the judge's bench, then to the jury, and to the defendant across the room. But, most often, they would settle upon the mare beside her. The plaintiff, ever since the specific event the case dealt with had occurred, had become more or less a shadow of her former self, and nopony knew that fact better than her attorney. The suit-clad mare tore her gaze away from the other, glancing back at the parchment before her. She tried to focus for a few more moments before she gave up, letting the parchment fall to the table beside her briefcase with a frustrated sigh. She wiped a drop of sweat from her forehead with a hoof. The trial was about to begin, and she did not feel ready for it in the slightest.
With a bird's-eye view of the entire courtroom, the judge sat behind his bench, tapping a hoof on the side of his face in agitation. He was almost as grey as the court he presided over. His head, the only part of his body visible thanks to a great, flowing, black robe, was a dark grey, only a few shades lighter than the robe itself. His mane, with old age, had become a wispy, silvery white which seemed to match his silver eyes relatively well. His face was crisscrossed with wrinkles – put there not only by years but also the stress that came with supervising some of Equestria's toughest legal cases. Judge Honor Bound was one of the oldest, and best, justices in the entire Equestrian legal system.
He had to fight the urge to just slip back in his chair and sigh out loud. "I'm getting too old for this," he whispered quietly to himself. He blinked, suddenly feeling every year of his not-insignificant age, and stared out over the assembled masses in his courtroom. It was the largest turnout of ponies he had seen for a trial in years. He was used to the occasional gentlecolt or madam from Canterlot's high society sitting in to watch the court's proceedings, but never had he seen so many monocle-clad stallions and their parasol-sporting ladies cram themselves into the gallery. He knew the reason for it, too. This case was rapidly turning into a media frenzy, and mostly because of the identity of the defendant. "Celebrities," he groused, "involve them and everything goes to the moon in a hand basket."
He had been dealing with the paparazzi all week during the lead-up to the trial itself. It had been excruciating, a nightmare to his old eyes. It was exactly these kinds of cases which Honor Bound hated judging most. The exact nature of the crime at hoof was nauseating already, but the media's continued obsession with the event made it even more difficult for the aging justice to fathom. And, once the trial got underway, the media obsession and the chaos was bound to get even worse. It was all downhill from here; these cases normally took the longest to reach a verdict on. The jury would be on-edge, especially considering the moral implications of the crime and the fame of the defendant. Honor Bound sighed again, sitting up higher in his seat. "I am getting too old for this. Maybe I should retire soon."
Honor Bound cleared his throat, grunting loud enough for the court reporter and clerk to hear him. Both immediately started shuffling papers, the reporter setting up to begin taking the minutes for the trial. Honor Bound's horn glowed faintly in a display of magic as his gavel, an old, splintering wooden hammer that matched the one adorning his flank, rose off the desk. With a series of three loud, resounding thuds, the gavel smacked against the wooden pedestal sitting on the desk. The loud, hollow noise echoed throughout the room, catching the attention of everypony present. The faint hum of many whispered conversations gradually faded from the air as everypony turned their attention to the judge's bench. All movement in the crowd ceased, and after several moments, only the occasional cough could be heard. The room had, almost impossibly, fallen silent.
Honor Bound leaned forward in his bench, resting his fore hooves on the wood before him. When he spoke, his voice was magically amplified to reach out to the entire courthouse. The entire assembled audience hung on his every word. "Fillies and gentlecolts. This court will now come to session. Please refrain from speaking or making any noise that might cause a disturbance during these proceedings. The trial is now set to begin. Celestia willing, may justice be done."
For many years, Rainbow Dash had fantasized about this moment. Its attainment had, after all, been her lifelong goal, and the one thing she had worked the hardest for to accomplish, for as long as she could remember. She had dreamt about it many a night. Her dreams had always been much the same. She had stood, surrounded by a crowd of other eager pegasi, in the Cloudiseum. As one excited mass, they had waited patiently, staring upwards at an empty stage. In her dreams, she had held her breath in nervous anticipation, listening to the faint buzz of whispered conversation around her, until, wait, there she is! There she is!
The appearance of Spitfire, captain of the Wonderbolts and subject of every conversation around her, would invariably bring the mass of pegasi to a sudden hush, and pure, deathly silence reigned over the entire assemblage. To Rainbow Dash, this part of each dream seemed to play in slow motion, each movement unfolding itself in an impossibly long stretch of time, but that was always part of the magic. Slowly, Spitfire approached her place at the front of the stage, her head rising slowly so that her mouth reached the microphone. She would always make a long pause, taking the time to swing her gaze out over the mass of assembled pegasi, her eyes sparkling as she did so. The unfaltering gazes of hundreds of pairs of eyes followed her every move, the stadium reaching a point where it must have been possible to hear a pin drop, even on the, relatively soundless, cloud surface.
Then, invariably, with a twinkle in her eye and a flourish of her hoof, Spitfire would produce the prize. A brand-new, immaculate Wonderbolt flight suit, with goggles placed carefully atop the perfectly folded blue and gold fabric. She would hold it above her head tantalizingly, balanced on a single hoof while she gazed out across the crowd. Not a pony moved. Not a feather ruffled. When Spitfire spoke, her voice always seemed to shatter the very air itself. Everypony hung on her every word. "Fillies and Gentlecolts, I want to thank you all for coming today. You've all put on fantastic performances for me and the team today and I'd like to say you're all winners, and that you've all done well enough. You've all exceeded my expectations, but, unfortunately, there can be only one new Wonderbolt."
She would always pause here, leaving her audience to sit on pins and needles. She grinned before she spoke again, her words magnified by the magic-powered microphone standing before her. "So, without further ado, the winner of this competition, and the newest member of the Wonderbolts is…"
Sometimes, Rainbow Dash would snap awake right at this moment, blinking in confusion. "NO! Who won? I have to know!" She would yell, punching her pillow for emphasis.
Sometimes, Spitfire would utter a name Rainbow Dash did not recognize, and some pony she didn't recognize would cry out in joy, flying up to the stage to receive their new uniform while Dash looked on in barely suppressed shock. On those nights, she would wake up in cold sweat.
More often than not, however, it would be her name that graced Spitfire's lips. It would be her name that was broadcasted out to the ears of every pony assembled. It would be her to scream in joy. It would be her to do a somersault in the air as she rushed up to the stage. It would be her to accept the uniform.
So many times had Dash dreamt of the moment, that it seemed almost surreal to be experiencing it outside of her own fantasies.
It had been a normal morning. She woke up late, as she normally did, stretching herself and rubbing the sleep from her eyes when she finally decided it was time to drag herself out of bed. She was still blinking groggily as she made her way to the kitchen for breakfast, which happened to be the cold leftovers of her dinner from the night previous. Rainbow Dash had never been much for cooking.
The slow, melodic whirring sound of the coffee machine filled the kitchen. Rainbow Dash stood at the kitchen counter, tapping her hoof impatiently as the sustenance-giving liquid dripping slowly into her favorite mug, which, of course, sported the Wonderbolts signature lightning bolt logo. She grabbed the cup and took a long gulp as soon as it was full, her eyelids flying open as the electrifying drink hit her taste buds. She smacked her lips together, still rather put off by the bitter taste despite having taken her coffee black for years.
The hungry pegasus scarfed down the remains of her vegetable stir-fry from the night before in a matter of seconds, washing it down with another swig of coffee. She grimaced. That combination of flavors was not something she wished to try again. Finished, she grabbed her mug in her mouth, careful not to spill any coffee as she trotted from the kitchen. It was time for her morning flight; a ritual Rainbow Dash had always enjoyed. The peace and quiet of a good, exhilarating flight not only gave her the chance to stretch her wings, but also to prepare for the day ahead.
The eager mare stretched her wings, loosening them up and preparing them for her first flight of the day. Mere inches from the door, she happened to look downwards, and froze in her tracks. Her mug, forgotten, fell to the floor as her jaw dropped, the remainder of her coffee splashing unnoticed onto the cloud floor. She stared down at the floor, and the envelope seemed to stare back at her. It was of crisp parchment in an off-white color. It was not, however, the envelope itself that had grabbed her attention. She received plenty of mail in similar envelopes, mostly bills and junk mail. No, the importance of this piece of mail lay not in its plain envelope, but the emblem used to seal it: a perfect, instantly recognizable, lightning bolt.
Rainbow Dash stood and stared for several moments. This was it. The day she had anticipated for years had finally arrived. On the floor in front of her lay a letter which could only have come from the Wonderbolts. There was no other explanation. She had arrived.
As soon as she came to her senses, the excited mare scooped the letter up and flew it back to the kitchen, sweeping dishes and carry-out containers off the top of her table and gingerly laying the envelope down. Unable to hold herself back, Rainbow Dash tore into the envelope, carefully preserving its emblem as she removed its contents. She bit her lip in anticipation as she held the creased letter in her hooves. Slowly, she unfolded it, her eyes flitting across its face as she read the words, still half in disbelief.
'Dear Miss Rainbow Dash,
As you have undoubtedly assumed upon receiving this letter, you are cordially invited to attend a practice session with the Wonderbolts in two days' time. As I'm sure you are also aware of, a long-standing member of the Wonderbolts, Rapidfire, is to retire at the end of this season, and we are looking for a suitable pegasus to replace him on our team. I would like to be the first to offer congratulations to you, as we would like to offer you the opportunity to try out for that position. You have proven yourself worthy many times over, particularly with your spectacular performance at the Young Fliers' Competition. I do hope you will accept this offer, as I believe you would make a fantastic addition to our team.
Practice will be at our Cloudsdale training facility, beginning at 9 am sharp in two days. We hope to see you there!
Wonderbolts Team Captain,
Rainbow Dash stood in dumbfounded silence, reading the letter over and over again, just to be sure it was real. She blinked several times, hardly able to breathe as she stared at the writing. Her dreams were about to come true.
In two days' time, Rainbow Dash found herself standing on a small cloud, high above the vast expanse of cloud and open sky that was the Wonderbolts' training grounds. She swallowed a nervous lump as she looked down. Far below her, four members of the Wonderbolts, Spitfire and Soarin' included, stood on a cloud, staring back up at her. As Spitfire had explained to her upon her arrival, her trout was actually set to take place before the practice officially started. She had then given Rainbow Dash a few minutes to warm up, but the rainbow-maned pegasus found herself unable to focus; she was too nervous.
Not that a few minutes of warm-up would have made any difference for her. She had already spent her entire life training for this moment. The nervous pegasus had also managed to cram as much practice as possible into the last two days. She was as ready as she would ever be, yet she couldn't shake the agitation that stuck in her mind.
The actual tryout already differed from what she had expected, and dreamt, it to be like in one major respect. She was the only one there. Rainbow Dash had always assumed that the Wonderbolts chose new members from some sort of competition. In truth, she hadn't really known what they did until she was invited herself, as the new member selection process was always kept well-hidden by the team. She had been surprised, therefore, upon showing up at the Wonderbolts training facility, to find that no one else would be attending. In a way, it put even more pressure on her than an actual competition might have; she had no one to compare her performance to but herself.
It all came down to this. Every move she had invented, tried, practiced, and perfected from the day she first learned to fly had been designed to impress the Wonderbolts, and now here she was, about to try and impress the Wonderbolts. Rainbow Dash's stomach felt like it had flipped upside-down. Below, she watched apprehensively as Spitfire brought a small, metallic whistle to her mouth. A few seconds later, she blew, the shrill call echoing up to Rainbow Dash. It was now or never.
Throwing her wings out to their full length, Rainbow Dash took a running start and thrust herself toward the edge of the cloud. She kicked her hind legs into the springy surface, flapped her wings twice for lift, and soared out over the edge, her athletic frame silhouetted against Celestia's sun high above. She remained poised in the air, almost frozen in space, for a moment, before she plummeted downward. The speeding pegasus stretched herself out and poised her hooves in front of her head, picking up speed as her aerodynamic form cut through the air like an arrow.
A streak of rainbow shot out behind her as she flew faster. Near the bottom of her path, she spread her wings to their full extent in one smooth motion and threw herself into a nearly bone-crushing vertical turn, flattening her flight path out so that she shot right over the heads of her judges. Her head pounded from the stress of the gravity-defying turn, but she ignored it and angled herself upward, prepared for the next part of her routine. Her wings flared as she brought herself upwards into a near perfect circle, keeping her high speed up as she executed one… two… three perfect loop-de-loops. She exited the top of her third loop flying even faster than before, and used her momentum to fly straight through a series of small, white clouds, which had been set up in a perfect line just for this purpose. The rainbow trail streaming out behind her made the clouds appear as but small, white beads, strung out on a six-colored string.
She angled her way into another wide, sweeping turn, arcing downwards as well as around. The assembled Wonderbolts looked on as Rainbow Dash flew straight at them. They twitched their wings nervously as she barreled towards them, ready to dive out of the way. At the last possible moment, she pulled off another high-speed, small-radius turn and shot straight upwards, punching through another cloud just above their heads. Two of the Wonderbolts' jaws fell slack as the rainbow streak blazed past them. Spitfire cracking a wide smile while Soarin' leaned backwards, straining to see Rainbow Dash as she propelled herself even further straight up.
High above, Rainbow Dash leveled off before she lost too much speed and entered another wide, horizontal, circular turn, looping in underneath herself to continue her spiral as she let the loops grow tighter and tighter. The rainbow trail left behind her in the sky adopted the shape of a swirling vortex as she spiraled ever downward. The wind around her began to whip, coaxed into a circular spiral motion by her flight. She had to strain to keep tightening her circles as she flew, gaining speed all the while. Her head began to feel dizzy, but she brushed the sensation away, concentrating on perfecting her ever tightening vortex.
Just when she thought she couldn't possibly tighten her turn anymore, she broke into a straight dive, plummeting downwards, before spreading her wings again to throw her body into a tight U-turn. Her wing-joints screamed in protest and her head pounded, but the strained pegasus followed through, retaining much of her speed as she flapped hard, powering herself straight upward once again. She entered the bottom of the vortex she had created earlier, pushing herself forward with reckless abandon. The force of her upward motion interrupted the swirling motion of the vortex, and it exploded apart just as she exited the top – the rainbow contrails dissipating into a cloud of multi-hued mist as they spread apart.
As the remaining mist of her last stunt sparkled in the sun, still fading away, Rainbow Dash was already focusing on her final, and most important, trick. The, aptly-named, Rainbow Vortex had gone off without a hitch, but she knew in the back of her mind that her finale had to be absolutely perfect. Her wings continued to flap like mad, propelling her ever higher. She gradually lost speed as she soared upwards, finally coming to a near stand-still. At this point, she simply let herself fall.
Rainbow Dash entered a controlled tumble, gaining momentum as she lost every bit of height she had pushed herself up to. She pointed her nose downwards, gradually straightening herself out as she gained speed. The world began to flash past her faster than her eyes could keep track of as the diving pegasus plummeted ever faster. Rainbow Dash felt a cone of air begin to form around her. This was it.
As the air cone began to take definite shape around her, everything started to go wrong. She had only performed the Sonic Rainboom three times, but she had attempted on more than enough occasions to know when something was amiss. She felt the air resistance ahead of her press even more against her, and she flapped even faster to counteract. However, instead of forcing the cone into a tighter shape, like Rainbow Dash knew she had to do to break through it, she felt herself losing speed. In a matter of seconds, she knew, the cone was going to collapse completely and fling her backwards. She could not let that happen. Not in front of the Wonderbolts!
In a split-second decision, she pitched one wing outwards, but held the other back. The sudden imbalance threatened to throw her completely off-course, but she held herself steady, rolling over several times in midair to counteract the bone-rattling force of the sudden move. Seconds later, she felt the force of air resistance dissipate as the sonic cone fell away around her. She flapped her wings once, using them like a sail to exit the barrel roll and smooth out her flight path. The maneuver had worked as intended; at least, she had broken free of the sonic cone. Now, however, she was on her own. Her routine had gone flawlessly up to this point, but without a Sonic Rainboom, she now had to improvise a finale.
If the force of the wind had allowed her control over her mouth, she would have grinned as her mind immediately flashed to a memory of the time Trixie had come to Ponyville. Instantly, Rainbow Dash knew what to do. Re-aligning herself, she flashed through the remnants of the clouds she had broken up earlier, making sure as much mist as possible was dragged into her wake and pulled along behind her as possible. She once again angled towards the Wonderbolts, speeding in their direction. At the last moment, she threw her wings out like an airbrake and slowed to a stop almost completely, settling just on the edge of the cloud in front of her heroes. The water, having retained its momentum, kept going just past her, only to dissipate, catching the light of the sun and forming a magnificent, if brief, rainbow between her and the Wonderbolts.
Rainbow Dash panted hard, staring expectantly at Spitfire. The other mare brought a hoof to her chin and rubbed it, as if deep in thought. She turned to Soarin' and whispered something in his ear. The pegasus stallion nodded in silent agreement. Spitfire turned back towards Rainbow Dash, a slight frown adorned her face. Rainbow Dash's heart, which was already beating at a mile per minute, sank when she saw her face. Spitfire looked her over. Rainbow Dash met her gaze, her golden eyes seemed to stare deep into her. She gulped when Spitfire began to speak. "So, Rainbow Dash. Were you going to perform a sonic Rainboom for us today?"
Rainbow Dash found that she could hardly speak. Her mouth felt strangely dry. She opened and closed it several times as she tried to find words. Spitfire just blinked at her. Rainbow Dash swallowed and finally managed to say something. "I… I was going to… but I… I didn't set it up right… I… I had to bail out."
Spitfire nodded, tapping her hoof against her chin. "I see…. Well, in that case, Rainbow Dash, I'm afraid I have no choice…"
Rainbow Dash just stared at her, unblinking, unmoving. Inside, however, was a completely different story. She was going into crisis control, entering a vain internal struggle to try and figure out what she did wrong, how she could have failed. She knew the Sonic Rainboom was special, but had they been expecting it? No. NO! They couldn't have expected her to do it! That just… that just… that didn't make any sense at all! It…
"... but to welcome you to join the Wonderbolts as a full member. Congratulations."
"I said congratulations." Spitfire laughed. "Your performance was magnificent, even if it didn't include a Sonic Rainboom, and the fact that you could bail out of a failed trick and recover your finale so easily shows that you're both good at thinking on your wings and acting quickly and instinctually in difficult situations. You'd make a brilliant Wonderbolt. Welcome aboard." Rainbow Dash stood speechless, her lip quivering. Spitfire's grin faltered. "Uh… hey, Dash… you ok?"
Still, the rainbow mare did not move. Spitfire raised an eyebrow in confusion. She flet a presence to her side and turned to see Soarin' standing beside her. "I think ya broke her, Spits. She-"
"OHMYGOSHOHMYGOSHOHMYGOSHOHMYGOSHOHMYGOSH!" Both Wonderbolts stumbled backwards as the rainbow-maned mare before them rocketed into the sky, screaming her elation to the heavens as she soared end over end in a tight circle, almost as if she were doing backflips in mid-air. Spitfire could not help but smile as she watched the ecstatic mare flip head over hooves. She glanced over at Soarin' to see a wide grin spread across his face, his eyes following the cyan mare's every movement. Spitfire looked back towards Rainbow Dash, who had finally stopped her aerial display, only to do a quick double-take as she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She glanced back at Soarin'. She could not be sure, but for a brief instant, she thought she saw his tongue flick out of his mouth.
"So, Dash, have you had much experience with group flying?" Spitfire leaned against one of the benches in the locker room, stifling a laugh as she watched Rainbow Dash admire her new Wonderbolts flight suit in the mirror.
"Well, besides flying with the weather team, not much." Rainbow Dash found she could still hardly tear herself away from the image of herself in a Wonderbolts flight suit. Dear Celestia she felt like she was dreaming. After striking another pose and taking a good long look at herself, she spun around to face her idol. "There was that one time after the Young Fliers' Competition when I got to spend a day with the Wonde- I mean, you guys. That was about the only synchronized flying I've ever done."
Spitfire nodded as Rainbow Dash trotted over. "Not bad… not bad…. Well, looks like you'll need some more practice in that department. And speaking of practice, the other guys are probably waiting for us outside. Let's fly."
"Right behind you!" Rainbow Dash smiled brightly as she followed the elder mare out from the locker room and back out into the open. The other Wonderbolts had all gathered there. Rainbow Dash beamed as they welcomed her into their midst. She could not have been happier. The ponies she had idolized for as long as she could remember now accepted her as an equal. She received slaps on the back, hoof-bumps, and other congratulations from all, and she just couldn't stop smiling throughout.
When practice finally ended, Rainbow Dash felt more exhausted than she could ever remember being before. Her wings burned. Every joint in her body seemed on fire. Drops of sweat ran down her face and streaked her entire body. Thankfully, the fabric of the suit helped wick some of the moisture away from the skin so its wearer did not overheat. Rainbow Dash wiped a hoof across her brow, scattering droplets through the air as she did so. She was breathing heavily, but smiling all the same.
The practice had been a trial by fire for the new recruit. Spitfire and her teammates had put Rainbow Dash through her paces, testing her to find her limits. Smiling now as she approached the sweaty, bright-eyed, cyan mare, Spitfire could not help but be impressed. "Great work out there today, Dash! You were showing some real improvement towards the end. I think we'll have those kinks with synchronized flying ironed out completely in a few more weeks."
Rainbow Dash beamed. "Thanks Spitfire… that… really means a lot to me."
"Don't mention it, filly." Spitfire grinned, giving Rainbow Dash a good-natured slap on her rear, as teammates are apt to, as she brushed past. She did not see Rainbow Dash blush heavily as the highly excitable filly ducked, trying to hide the uncanny amount of red that had suddenly flushed her face to a shade that nearly matched the red streak in her mane. Rainbow Dash hung behind the other Wonderbolts, trying her best to cool herself down.
When she looked up again, Spitfire and the others were walking back towards the locker rooms, chatting happily amongst themselves. Rainbow Dash hurried to catch up with them. She flew the short distance and landed amongst them, Spitfire chuckling as she did. "So, Dash, you up for a celebration with us tonight?"
"A celebration? With you guys? Tonight? Really?"
Soarin' and several of the others laughed, Spitfire merely grinned. "Of course. We always celebrate when we get new members. We're heading to a bar in downtown Cloudsdale. You game?"
"You know it!" Rainbow Dash felt like leaping into the air again, but managed to keep herself under control. "I mean… that sounds cool."
"Alright! We're gonna shower down quick, and then we'll head over there."
"Actually…" Rainbow Dash pawed at the cloud beneath her hoof nervously, a coy smile on her face. "I kinda wanted to fly down to Ponyville to tell my friends the good news first."
Spitfire gave her a knowing grin. "Ok, just meet us at the Cloud Nine Inn Bar in about an hour."
"You bet!" Rainbow Dash smiled before jumped into the air and flying off, angling towards Ponyville.
Applejack sighed in contentment as she walked through the orchard. Her orchard. Autumn was coming, and that meant Applebuck season was near. Applejack smiled at each tree. She knew each of them personally, every branch, leaf, and knot in their bark. Each tree was laden with nearly-ripe apples. Ever careful not to put all her apples in one basket, she still could not help but wonder about the crop they would have this year. She could only hope it would be a good one, but looking around her, she felt that it would be.
She felt the wind on her face as she climbed a hill, reaching the crest to look out over her entire orchard. It appeared as a nearly endless sea of green leaves and green, unripe apples. She grinned. These were her babies. So lost was she in their splendor, that she almost missed the voice, calling out to her from above. She did hear something, however, and quickly glanced upwards.
"Applejack!" Applejack looked up just in time to see a cyan and rainbow blur speed down towards her. She grinned as she recognized her best friend.
"Well, whaddya know? Look who has a fancy new outfit now? Like ya needed yer head any further up in the clouds."
"Come on, AJ! I'm a Wonderbolt now!" Rainbow Dash's voice cracked as she did a flip in the air, coming to land just in front of her friend, a wide grin plastered on her face. "I did it! I finally did it!"
"Congratulations, Rainbow. Ah'm happy fer ya." Applejack smiled and cuffed the pegasus on the shoulder. "Just don't forget us down here on the ground now, ya hear?"
Rainbow Dash flushed a slight pink at the comment. "Come on. You know I wouldn't do that." Suddenly, she leapt into the air, doing a flip before hovering in place. "See ya, Applejack. I've gotta tell the others and then I'm meeting the Wonderbolts in Cloudsdale to celebrate!"
Applejack could not help but snicker at the overly-excited mare, listening as her voice cracked once again. "Alright, Sugarcube. You go have yer fun. Ah'm proud o' ya."
"Thanks, AJ." Rainbow Dash smiled before rocketing off towards town. As she receded into the distance, Applejack could have sworn she heard the faint cry of "Wonderbolts!"
She chuckled to herself, turning back towards her home. "That silly filly…"
The cloud house was dark. The sun had not yet risen, and the darkness of the wee hours of the morning reigned. Somewhere in the peaceful still of the early morning an owl hooted, his call falling across a silent landscape. Inside the large, floating house, the five assembled ponies had long before grown accustomed to the lack of light, having been waiting in near pitch black since the night fell. Their eyes had barely gotten used to the low-light conditions, and everything around them seemed a blur of grey.
The moon was well on its way towards the horizon, and sunrise was but a few hours forgone. Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, and Rarity, the latter ones making use of Twilight's cloud-walking spell, had nonetheless been awake for hours, waiting well into the night for their friend to return home. Despite the early hour, however, nopony was really tired. All were too excited to think about sleep. As soon as Rainbow Dash had given them the good news, they had been caught up in the whirlwind of manic activity that was Pinkie Pie when she prepared a last-minute party.
Streamers of every color to match the new Wonderbolt's mane had been strung throughout the house. Confetti to match the streamers was set to explode. An assortment of food had been brought up. A large banner, just barely visible to the five friends in the low light, had been strung across the kitchen entryway, and offered its message of congratulations in tall, colorful letters. The Pinkie-Pie-officially-dubbed "Congratulations on Making the Wonderbolts and Making all Your Dreams Come True Party" was all set, except for the fact that it was missing the guest of honor.
In truth, nopony knew when Rainbow Dash would show up. They knew she had been celebrating with the Wonderbolts that night, but they did not know when their celebration was set to end. As a result, all five were stuck waiting, well past midnight, for her return. They busied themselves by chatting excitedly, as difficult as that was when all were crouched behind pieces of furniture, waiting for their cue.
"Oh, when do you think she'll be here? I'm all for being fashionably late, but waiting this long is ridiculous!" Rarity peaked up over the edge of the couch she had crouched behind, watching the front door in barely-hid agitation.
"Relax, Rare. She's had a night out with her heroes. The least we can do fer her is wait a little longer." Applejack chuckled. "Ah just hope she ain't too plum tuckered out for a little after-party!"
"SHHHH! Everypony shhh! I think I hear her!"
"Pinkie, you've been saying that every minute for the past half hour. She isn't here yet!" Twilight Sparkle, having grown annoyed by the pink pony's near constant false alarms, hissed at her friend in a barely constrained whisper. "Shouldn't your Pinkie Sense tell you when she's near, or something?"
"Silly Twilight. I don't control what my Pinkie Sense tells me or when it does!" The bubbly pony giggled to herself.
Twilight had to resist the urge to slap a hoof to her face. "But that doesn't make any… oh forget it."
"My Pinkie Sense has been acting really strange because it kept telling me that something terrible was going to happen and then I thought something terrible did happen when the oven at Sugarcube Corner caught fire but we put that out easily so it wasn't really terrible so I thought something else terrible might happen but then nothing terrible did happen and then Dashie got in the Wonderbolts and I said "Wait, that isn't terrible at all, that's super-duper amazing!" so I was still waiting for something terrible to happen and I wondered when that was going happen and what it would be but then all of a sudden my Pinkie Sense stopped telling me anything just a little while ago and nothing terrible happened so I think it was a mistake." Pinkie Pie grinned hugely, her wide, toothy smile visible even in the dark.
This time, Twilight Sparkle really did have to slap a hoof to her face, dragging it downwards for good measure before she sighed in exasperation. She shot a quick glare at Pinkie Pie before returning her attention to the door.
"SHHHH! Everypony shh! I think I hear her!"
Twilight very nearly yelled across the room, almost forgetting to keep her voice low. "For the last time, Pinkie, she's not-"
"Actually, Twilight, I, um… think I hear something outside, too…" Fluttershy spoke up.
"Quiet, y'all, this might be her this time." Applejack put a hoof to her mouth, motioning the others to silence. Each cocked their ears, listening intently. Outside the faint, but unmistakable rustling sound of flapping wings could just barely be heard. It grew more and more audible as the five friends eagerly listened. So excited, and so intently focused, were they, that they could not hear the even fainter sound of quiet, muffled sobbing. Instead, they carried on, blissfully unaware, prepared for what each assumed would be a night of fun, games, and celebration. They could not have been more wrong.
When the door opened, the room exploded in a sudden jumble of light, colors, confetti, and ponies as each jumped from their hiding places, laughing and shouting, their voices full of mirth. "SURPRISE!"
Rainbow Dash stared about the room in horror. The others, some with their eyes closed, were shouting congratulations, eager for the party to begin. One by one, however, they fell silent as their eyes opened and they took in the scene before them. Rainbow Dash stood in the doorway, yet she was not the eager, excitable, devil-may-care Rainbow Dash they had expected to see. She did not look to be riding the wave of the pure, blissful, pleasure high that would have come from finally achieving her dreams. On the contrary, she did not look like the Rainbow Dash they remembered at all.
She seemed glued in place in the threshold. She was immobile, save for her eyes. Her eyes were bloodshot and appeared as if they had receded back, as if they were cowering backwards when confronted with her own friends, they flicked about the room, seemingly in fear, as they flashed from one face to the next. Her mane was a mess, various hairs of every color splayed out all over, as if shaken out of place. Her ears were folded back, as if out of fear. A small bruise adorned her cheek. Her tail hung limp behind her, just as messy as her mane. Her feathers were ruffled, her wings clenched at her sides as if in a protective embrace of herself. Very subtly, almost imperceptibly so, she shook in her hooves as she stood, as if a chill had swept the room, when none had.
For a moment that seemed to last for hours, no one said anything. The five gathered ponies stared at Rainbow Dash, their party now long forgotten. Nopony knew or even could know what to possibly say. Then, suddenly, Rainbow Dash jumped into the air and shot past them, flying toward the stairs, her room, and shelter. Everypony else was too stunned to follow, everypony else except Applejack. She took off at a good clip, her speed not lost on the unfamiliar cloud surface, chasing after her best friend.
"Sugarcube, wait! What happened? We can help ya! We can help! Come back, Rainbow!" She charged up the stairs, in hot pursuit of the distraught pegasus. Rainbow Dash rounded a corner at the top with Applejack right behind, beelining straight for her room. She flew into the doorway and Applejack skidded to a halt just outside. The orange mare's eyes went wide at the sight of her friend. She got a good look before the pegasus turned around to face her. Rainbow Dash looked distraught. Her blood-shot eyes, now filling with tears, seemed to plead with Applejack. Rainbow Dash said nothing. Applejack gulped. She understood. Rainbow Dash slammed the door shut.
Applejack understood. She had seen. Just before her best friend spun around, she had seen. She did not want to, could not, believe, yet she had seen. It shook her to her core, and she tried desperately to think of something, anything, that could explain what she had seen, anything except that. But there was no answer. There was only that. That which she could hardly fathom, yet understood all the same. She saw the dark stain of blood running down her best friend's rear leg, and she knew, like a great, two-ton boulder falling to the pit of her stomach, exactly what it meant.
Applejack seemed in a daze as she stumbled down the stairs. Her mind swam and, as much as she tried to fight it, kept returning to that image. The image of Rainbow Dash standing before her, distraught, in pain, bleeding… it was too much. Applejack shook her head, flinging it from side to side in a desperate bid to clear her vision of what she had seen, but to no avail. It seemed burned in. Her thoughts kept returning to it. It stung her as it swirled through her subconscious. Again and again, the sight of a stream of the deepest crimson, set against cyan fur, flashed across her mind's eye. Applejack let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding in; it came as a ratcheting gasp.
Her hooves struggled to find their place on each step, as if her she was no longer controlling them. Her mind seemed absent as it desperately tried to stave off the grim reality that she knew could be the only explanation for what had happened, and the numbing pain that came with that realization. She made it down the last few steps with her eyes closed, purely on instinct.
"Applejack… Applejack… Applejack…" Twilight's words echoed in her ears. Applejack could hear the concern in her voice. She opened her eyes. The room swam before her, the blurry figures of her friends drifting in and out of focus as she blinked, trying to re-establish her senses. She felt distant, as if her friends were standing far away. Twilight's voice sounded muffled. Applejack's mind, as her vision, was a blur, with too many thoughts competing at once for attention. She didn't understand what was going on. Nothing was making any sense. "APPLEJACK!" Suddenly, Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie jumped back into focus and Applejack snapped back to attention. "Applejack. Is everything okay? What's wrong?"
Silently, Applejack's mouth fell open and closed again several times. She tried to form the words in her mind, but they would die in her throat. Nothing she could possibly say sounded right. How could she express what she had seen? What she knew? Her mouth felt dry. She tried to take a deep breath, but it would only come as a series of choking gasps. She coughed.
Twilight's brow twitched upwards in worry. "Applejack, are you…"
Applejack put up a hoof to silence her as she tried to clear her throat. She shook where she stood; her knees felt weak. Finally, she opened her mouth, calming her gasping breaths, and tried to speak. "Ah… Ah…" Her throat seized up, she couldn't do it. She just couldn't do it. But she had to. She coughed again. "Ah… Ah think… Ah think somepony… and Dash… took… Ah think somepony took… took… advantage… o' Dash." The words tasted vile. Applejack felt sick. She tried to breathe; her chest rising and falling shakily as she drew in one short, choppy breath after another.
She looked up as her shakiness subsided, casting her gaze between each of her friend's frozen faces as they stared back at her. Nopony moved. Applejack looked back and forth at them, silently pleading for someone else to say something as the few seconds of silence stretched into hours, and days. Still, the others just stared, shocked, confused, as if they didn't understand. Applejack's mind whirred frantically. Didn't they understand? Of course not. She hardly did either. "Ah… Ah said…"
"Applejack, darling…" Rarity's voice pierced the still air like the fine, sharpened point of a sewing needle. "Surely… surely you can't mean…"
Applejack could only nod. "Yeah, Rarity… Ah do mean."
"But… but surely there must be some reasonable explanation? This just… it just doesn't make sense!"
"Darn it, Rarity, Ah know what Ah saw!" Applejack shook her head from side to side, tears running down her cheeks. "Ah… Ah know what Ah saw."
"But… but maybe you jumped to the wrong conclusion?" Twilight Sparkle spoke up, still nearly frozen in shock. "Please? This can't… this just can't be."
Applejack's tears were now hitting the floor with wild abandon as they fell, completely unchecked. "Ah'm sorry, Twi. But Ah know what Ah saw. There ain't another explanation."
"But… but that… that… that doesn't make s-sense," Twilight stammered, trying to make sense of what her friend had said. "This… this just doesn't happen. Not in Equestria…. Not in Equestria."
Silence reigned among the five friends. The cloud house echoed with the howling of the wind outside and their own unrestrained, quiet sobbing. Rarity looked up from the floor, shaking her head. "We have to do something. We can't leave her up there all alone."
Twilight Sparkle looked over at her fellow unicorn. "What are we supposed to do? I don't… I don't know how to handle this."
"I'm just as in the dark as you are, darling, but doing nothing simply won't do. We need to talk to her, help her, something."
Applejack looked between her two unicorn friends and shook her head. "She locked the door. Ah heard it."
Rarity groaned, staring up the stairs for some time. "We have to do something. We can't just leave her alone up there."
"Ah don't think it's such a good idea, goin' up there. She might not want ta see us." Applejack frowned.
Rarity shook her head, her mane bouncing slowly back and forth. "We can't just leave her up there, alone. Who knows what she could be thinking? If something this horrible has really happened, she needs someone with her. The last thing she needs is to feel alone."
"Well, what are we supposed to do, then? We can't just break into her room." Twilight sighed. "This just doesn't make any sense? How can this happen to her; to us?"
"Ah don't know, Sugarcube. Ah just don't know."
"Applejack," Twilight looked up, "Are you sure you know… are you sure that…"
"Ah wish Ah could say Ah wasn't, Twi. Ah really do." The three fell silent.
"I'll go." A soft voice echoed through the quiet from across the room. Twilight, Rarity, and Applejack looked up in surprise. Fluttershy, visibly shaking where she walked, strode nervously across the room towards them. Nopony said anything. She stood as high as she could and tried to hold her head high despite how obviously shaken she was. The streaks of fresh tears stained her cheeks, but she did not back down. She rubbed at her cheeks with a hoof and blew an errant lock of her pink hair away from her face. "I'll go. She probably has the window open."
Applejack shook her head. "Ah don't know about that, Sugarcube. She might not want visitors. If Ah know Dash, she might not react well."
"I want to go."
Slowly, Rarity nodded. "Do be careful, darling. We don't know what state she might be in. Are you sure you're up for this?"
"I think… I think so."
Rarity glanced towards Applejack and Twilight. Twilight nodded, Applejack just shrugged. Rarity leaned forward to hug Fluttershy, who returned the gesture warmly. Rarity whispered into her ear. "If anyone can treat this gently, it's you, dear. Good luck." Without another word, Fluttershy took off towards the door and flew out into the night. The other girls stared after her for a while, before once again turning back towards each other, all except for Pinkie Pie, who remained silent, lying by herself away from the others, her head down. Applejack glanced over at her and frowned. She noticed both Twilight and Rarity eyeing the unnaturally silent Pinkie Pie as well. "If anything," Applejack whispered, indicating their pink friend, "That's got me worried too."
Rarity just nodded. "I think we've all been fairly well blindsided by this."
Twilight sat down, resting her head in her hooves. "I don't even know what to think anymore." She shook her head as she held it. "How… how can something like this even happen?"
Applejack flopped down next to her unicorn friend. She suddenly felt very tired, as if she had been awake for years instead of mere hours. "Ah don't know, Twi. Ah just don't know."
The room was dark save for the few waning shafts of soft, blue moonlight that fell across the low wall and floor from the open window. A cool breeze blew in through the open window. On many an occasion previous, this rush of chilled air would have provided Rainbow Dash with the illusion of flying, even while asleep, which was why she often found it comfortable to sleep with both the windows open and her blankets thrown to the floor.
Not this night, however. Rainbow Dash clutched the blankets closer to her face, her snout only barely poking above the fabric. Her eyes widened in fear. The darkness of her own bedroom seemed suffocating, as if it was crushing in upon her, closer... closer... closer.... And then, for one terrible moment, she felt him again, cornering her, coming closer... closer... closer... touching her... pressing into her...
A pool of nervous sweat was collecting under her body, yet she made no effort to remove the blankets and cool down. Instead, she only clutched them tighter, as if they would afford some sort of shield from the outside world. Every little sound, every whistling gust of wind, seemed magnified hundreds of times over to her. Her ears rang with the noise, and she jerked her head around, her eyes wide with fear, desperately searching for the source of the clamor. The rushing of the wind filled her mind, and she could feel it against her face. It felt hot and sickly, as if somepony was breathing on her. No… no… she tried to shut the image away, tried to block her mind to the horrible memory, but it seemed as if behind every gust, somepony blew a breath of hot air her way. And lurking behind every shadow, some stallion was watching, waiting, preparing to pounce. She shut her eyes, shaking her head back and forth. She didn't want to see them. She didn't want to see them leap from the darkness, jump onto her, envelop her, smother her. NO!
Cold sweat ran down her face, mixing with her tears. All around her, she could feel them. They were circling her, singling her out, preparing to strike. She tossed and turned in her bed, tangling herself in her blankets, desperate to keep moving, to keep them away from her. The throbbing pain in her lower body only spiked each time she jerked away, with every thump against the mattress her bruised body screamed in protest. She could feel the pain, like the beat of a drum, resounding against her, as if he was still there, still on top of her, and she could do nothing. It was already too late. She wanted to scream. She whimpered as she thrashed about.
"Rainbow Dash." She could hear him now. He had found her again.
She fought harder. "NO! NO! NO! GET AWAY!"
"No, please, no, leave me alone. Leave me alone!"
"Rainbow Dash? It's me… Fluttershy."
Rainbow Dash came to a sudden halt, tumbling over the side of the bed in a terrified screaming tangle of limbs, tail, and blankets. She lay on the floor, dazed, and panted, staring up at the ceiling with her vision drifting in and out of focus, unable to move. A pink and yellow blur materialized above her, a blur that soon swam into focus, taking the shape of Fluttershy's face. Rainbow Dash blinked several times, disbelieving her eyes, but no, there was no mistaking it. She had known Fluttershy far too long for it to be anypony but her. She squinted up at her, unable even to think for a moment. She tried to speak, but choked on her words, "Fl… Fl… Fluttershy?" She coughed, gasping for breath.
Fluttershy had to fight back tears at the sight of the shaken, distraught pegasus. "Rainbow Dash… please… please tell us what's wrong. We… we want to help."
"No… no…" Rainbow Dash shook her head vehemently, scrambling backwards even as she struggled to move.
Fluttershy stared after her, her face a mask of concern. "Please, Rainbow Dash? We can help."
"No. Nopony can help. Nopony can. No… no… just… leave me… leave me alone." She twisted and turned, finally breaking free of her blanket prison. Then she hopped backwards, receding even further into the shadows near her bed. She clutched against the bedpost for support, barely able to even keep herself on her hooves. Her knees shook. She tried to breathe, but it would only come in short, choking gasps.
Fluttershy panicked. She rushed forward towards her friend. "Please. Let us help you. It's not safe for you to…"
"NO! Leave me alone!"
Shocked, Fluttershy fell to the floor and stumbled backwards. "... to… be alone…" She stared at Rainbow Dash's tear-streaked, harried face. Rainbow Dash was visibly shaking now. Her fur was splayed in random patches and her mane, tail, and feathers were all ruffled to the point where it looked like she had gone through the spin cycle on a dryer. Her bloodshot eyes stared straight back at Fluttershy; pleading, burning, and swollen from tears. For a moment, Fluttershy was torn. She didn't know what to do.
"Leave… leave me alone. Nopony… nopony can help… not now." With that, she collapsed, burying her face into the mattress. Her whole body shook with racking sobs. Fluttershy started forward, bit her lip, turned, and rushed out the window, tears beginning to streak her face, too.
The cold night air stung at Fluttershy's face as she descended back down to the first floor. She pushed her way through the doorway and settled once again onto the floor. From across the room, Twilight, Applejack, and Rarity all looked up expectantly at her as soon as she entered. Silently, she shook her head, and her friends seemed to deflate. Rarity grimaced as Fluttershy approached. "How bad is it?"
Tentatively, Fluttershy whispered her response. "She's… she's in bad shape. I just… I just can't believe… I can't believe… somepony would... would…" Fluttershy shook her head, unable to continue. Rarity stood up and wrapped her fore legs around her best friend's neck, holding her gently. Fluttershy tucked her head into Rarity's neck, burying herself away in her mane.
Applejack shook her head. "What are we supposed ta do now?"
Twilight Sparkle stood up, "I don't know. What can we do, if she won't even let us near her?"
"Ah don't know." Applejack sighed, "Ah don't even understand. How can this happen?"
Twilight held a hoof beneath her chin, trying to think of something, anything. "Maybe… maybe I should send a letter to Princess Celestia. She'll know what to do."
Rarity nodded. "That's a good idea. This is so far beyond us, anyway."
"Well," Twilight walked towards the door, "there's not much we can do here, and I need to get my letter written."
Applejack stared after her, staying rooted in place. "You're not leavin', are ya Twi?"
"AJ, I need to see Spike, so I have to leave. Besides, what else can we do now?"
"Ah don't know. Ah just feel like… like we shouldn't be leavin' right now."
"I don't know what else to tell you." Twilight looked crestfallen. "I have to go send my letter. It's the only idea we have, and the cloud-walking spell will wear off by morning. I suggest you girls come with me."
Rarity looked up from where she had been studying the floor, still lightly patting a quivering Fluttershy on the back of her head. "Darling, with the state Rainbow Dash is in, it might not be safe to leave her alone."
Applejack stomped her hoof in frustration. "We ain't leavin' her alone."
Twilight Sparkle sighed, unsure what to say. "Applejack, I know. I know you don't want to leave. I don't want to either. But what choice do we have? A letter to Celestia is all we've got, and I can't do it from here."
Applejack looked ready to protest, but was broken off by a loud sniffle. She and Twilight turned back towards the center of the room, where Fluttershy had pulled herself out of Rarity's grasp. "I… I'll do it. I'll stay."
Rarity frowned, still holding her pegasus friend at hooves' length. "Darling, are you… are you…"
Fluttershy nodded vigorously. "Yes. I'm sure." She wiped some fresh tears from her face with a hoof. "I want to be here."
Applejack walked over to the pegasus and gave her a quick hug. "Please, Fluttershy. Take good care o' her. Make sure nothin' happens. She needs you… we all need you."
Twilight nodded sagely from over by the door. She tried to give her yellow friend a wan smile. "Thanks, Fluttershy," she whispered. Then she glanced over at Applejack and Rarity. They both stared back. "We should go." Rarity nodded.
Applejack cocked her head to the side, quickly glancing about the room. Her gaze finally fell upon the final member of their party. She grimaced, realizing for the first time that Pinkie Pie had said nothing nearly the whole time. "Come on, Pinkie. It's… it's time." For a moment, it seemed like the pink pony hadn't even heard her, but slowly, she picked herself up, off the floor, and turned around. Her mane fell around her face as she stood up, hanging straight down, as was her tail. Both Applejack and Twilight shuddered as they saw it. That had only happened once before, and it had meant bad news then, too.
Applejack walked over to her fellow earth pony, hanging a fore hoof over her shoulder to help her along. Pinkie Pie accepted the offer and leaned against her friend. They both slowly walked towards the door, where Twilight Sparkle and Rarity both stood, waiting. On their way out the door, Applejack couldn't help but notice a noise, so low and quiet it could have easily been mistaken for the wind, yet was unmistakable. In between Pinkie Pie's slow, shuddering breaths, Applejack heard her moan. "Dashie…"
Caught up in an aura of purple magic, the quill finally settled against the hard, wooden surface of Twilight Sparkle's writing desk. The unicorn then turned her attention to the faded brown piece of parchment she had been poring over, lifting it to eye level. This was, without a doubt, the most difficult, and probably most important, letter she had yet written to her mentor. She swallowed a nervous lump as she studied her words once again. She had to make sure every word was perfect. After all, this was a matter of most dire importance, and certainly not one she could have trusted to dictate to Spike.
She glanced across the room to where the baby dragon was soundly sleeping in his basket. Twilight sighed. After everything that had happened that night, it seemed so strange that Spike could be sleeping peacefully, undisturbed. It just seemed so normal, when everything else seemed anything but normal. Slowly, she rolled up her parchment into a scroll and strode towards his basket. Gently, she reached out and shook him. Sure enough, the dragon blinked his eyes open and yawned loudly, shaking his head at the unexpected wake-up call. "Tw… Twilight? What's… what's goin' on?"
"Spike," Twilight whispered, "I'm so sorry to wake you up, but I need this letter sent to Princess Celestia."
Spike groaned. "Can't it wait until morning?" He rolled back over onto his other side and tried to ignore Twilight, hoping that she might just let him fall back asleep. Twilight just shook him again. He frowned at her. "I need my beauty sleep."
"I know Spike, and I'm sorry, but this is urgent."
"Really? What's happened?"
Twilight bit her bottom lip. "Nothing… nothing that concerns you." She finally sighed.
"Hmpf. Well, if it's not important enough to tell me, then I don't see why I should have to send it."
Exasperated, Twilight groaned. "Spike, I need you to just do this for me. Please don't ask questions. It's really, really important, but I can't tell you right now."
"Fine, I'll send it. But you gotta tell me in the morning."
Twilight just sighed. "Sure." Looking less grumpy, Spike sat up in his basket, grabbed the tightly-bound scroll in a clawed hand, and held it up to his mouth. With one fiery, green breath, the parchment had disappeared, soaring away into the night on a puff of smoke.
Spike crossed his arms. "There, happy?"
"Very." Twilight assured him. "Good night Spike."
Spike yawned, lying back down again. "Good night, Twilight." Within moments, he was snoring again, out like a light. Twilight shook her head. How he could do that, when there was so much wrong and upside-down in the world, just didn't make sense to her. Then again, nothing about today really made any sense to her. She trotted over to her bed, flopping down onto her blankets and laying her head against the pillows. She stared up at the ceiling, holding her front hooves to her head. She sighed. It was almost morning, and she knew there was no way she could possibly get to sleep now. It was strange, she thought, that she could feel so tired, yet be unable to sleep. Her eyelids sagged, threatening to close, yet it was no struggle to keep them open. She just kept staring straight up, fixating upon one spot on her ceiling.
From somewhere in the distance, she could hear her number one assistant, breathing slowly and rhythmically in the darkest hours of the early morning. The low whistling of the wind emanated from outside, and from far away the hoot of an owl sounded. She wondered briefly if it might be Owlowiscious, away on a nighttime hunt, but decided against it. There might be dozens of owls out at this time of night. It was weird, she thought, how the world just seemed to keep on moving like any other night, despite all that had happened. It almost seemed that, to her, lying alone in her peaceful bedroom with her assistant and friend sleeping nearby and the sounds of the night calling from outside, that nothing bad had really happened. Maybe Applejack had been wrong after all. After all, how could something like this even happen in Equestria?
Twilight shuddered at the thought. No, there was no doubt in her mind what had happened. Applejack wouldn't have told them what she did if she didn't believe it was true, and Fluttershy too had seemed so rattled after seeing Dash. As much as Twilight wanted to believe it wasn't true, she knew it had to be. She closed her eyes, and instantly, the image of Rainbow Dash, harried, pained, shocked, and broken, standing in her own doorway returned to her mind. Twilight shivered. No. There could be no doubt what had happened. She rolled over, opening her eyes, and stared out the window at the dark sky, interspaced with twinkling stars. Somewhere out there in the night, she knew Rainbow Dash, one of her best friends, was suffering through something Twilight herself could hardly fathom. And somewhere else, she knew rested the stallion responsible for all of this. And he was probably sleeping soundly.
Twilight bit back a tear as she continued to gaze past her window and out into the night sky. In the distance, the dim outlines of mountains, barely visible in the pale moonlight, could be seen. Somewhere, Twilight knew, over those very mountains, lay the city of Canterlot and her mentor and ruler, Princess Celestia. Although the princess was probably asleep, Twilight wondered if she had even gotten her letter yet.
As if to answer her question, Twilight's ears were hit with a sharp crack. From below her in the library's main floor, a flash of light briefly illuminated the interior of the tree home. In another instant, everything descended back into darkness. Twilight Sparkle immediately jumped up, looking around frantically. At the foot of her bed, Spike was somehow, miraculously, still sleeping. Twilight didn't have time to wonder at this however, as she dashed towards the staircase. Her hooves clicked against the stairs as she barreled her way downwards. Halfway to the bottom, she stopped dead in her tracks. From below her, a tall, regal, white alicorn, her glittering, tri-colored mane and tail billowing behind her and seeming to glow even in the feeble light, stared up at her pupil. "Twilight Sparkle," Princess Celestia spoke, her voice carrying all the inflection of both a teacher and an old friend at once, "We have much to discuss."
The sound of Twilight Sparkle's hoofsteps echoed through the still air of the empty library as she made her way down the staircase. Princess Celestia stood patiently, her gaze tracking her pupil as she descended the last few steps. Twilight Sparkle crossed the library floor, stopping just short of the Princess. She stood still for a long moment, her eyes meeting her mentor's, unsure of what to say. Princess Celestia stared back, her eyes hard-set, yet kind all the same. A wave rippled through her shimmering mane as she flicked her head to the side, indicating a pair of couches set near a table in the center of the darkened room. The young unicorn did not move. Celestia tried to give her a wan smile. "You're going to have to forgive me, Twilight Sparkle, for imposing myself, but this is a very urgent matter."
"Princess Celestia!" Twilight Sparkle rushed forward, surprising the alicorn as she threw her fore legs around her neck, standing up on her hind legs and nestling her face into her mentor's shoulder. Princess Celestia knelt down, stooping to the young pony's height and returning the embrace with a hoof. For a brief instant, Twilight relaxed in Celestia's comforting hug, before taking a deep breath and stepping back. "I'm so glad you're here. I just don't know what to do."
"I understand," Princess Celestia spoke softly. "I left as soon as I read your letter. I must admit, this is not something I would have ever expected." She gestured once more towards the couches and table. "Come."
Wordlessly, Twilight Sparkle followed along in the princess's hoofsteps. She blinked to fight back tears as they approached the couches. With a soft glow, the tip of Celestia's horn lit up, and flames sprang into life on the tips of several candles set upon the table. Their orange glow cast a warm, comforting radiance across the scene, just as it had for numerous late-night study vigils conducted nights previous. Twilight Sparkle's eyes reflected the glow, shimmering in the darkness with the last drops of glistening moisture. "I just… I just don't know how this could happen."
Princess Celestia nodded. "I'm sorry…" she paused as she settled into one of the couches, folding her front legs neatly beneath her and tucking her wings against her sides as she sank into the cushions, "… that I don't have the answer to that question, Twilight."
Twilight Sparkle sniffed loudly as she curled up on the other couch. She shook her head from side to side slightly, her eyes closed. "You always said… that I could ask you for help if I was ever lost… I can't imagine being any more lost than I am now."
For a moment, Celestia did not respond, merely staring ahead, her gaze focused upon the tiny prick of a candle's small flame. The light danced across her face, highlighting her eyes. Twilight Sparkle had never really noticed how weary they looked until then. Celestia blinked slowly, as if it were a strain merely to keep her eyes open. Dropping her gaze from the light, Celestia drew in a deep breath and sighed. "Twilight…" She spoke softly, her voice suddenly sounding very tired. "I know you know how serious a matter this is, and before I can continue, I must know… how sure are you that this event occurred as you say?"
"You mean… how sure am I that… that… that Rainbow Dash was… was…"
"Raped. Yes, that she was raped."
"Twilight, if we're going to discuss this, it is only proper to use its true name. I know… I know it's hard. I know you don't want to, but I need you to be absolutely clear with me. If she was raped, I want you to tell me that she was raped. This is a terrible, heinous act, I know. But do not fear its name."
Twilight Sparkle felt light-headed. She swallowed a lump in her throat and nodded slowly. "Yes. Rainbow Dash… Rainbow Dash was… raped."
"Forgive me, Twilight, for continuing on this track, but I must know for sure. I read the outline of your reasons in your letter, but I have to be absolutely sure. Are you certain of this?"
Twilight Sparkle nodded once again, more forcefully than before. "I'm… positive. I can't think of any reason why she would behave the way she did. And… and Applejack knows what she saw… Applejack would never lie."
Princess Celestia bobbed her head in silent agreement. Then, her eyes met Twilight's once more, seeming to bore deep into them with the power of her gaze. "Is it possible Applejack could have been mistaken? Even if she knew what she saw, it's not impossible for her to have merely jumped to the wrong conclusion."
"No." Twilight sparkle spoke quickly, shaking her head vigorously. "When… when Fluttershy went up to check on Rainbow Dash, Applejack told us what she saw. She told us how she knew. There's no… no other explanation. She said… she said, that Rainbow Dash… Rainbow Dash was… bleeding… bleeding from her… her…"
"That's quite alright." Celestia gently put up a hoof to shush her pupil. "I understand now."
"What are you going to do?" Twilight's question hung in the air for several moments, moments that seemed to drag out into infinity for the agitated unicorn as Celestia settled back into the couch, tapping the gold-tipped shoe of her fore-hoof against her chin, devoid of a response. From the far wall, the slow, methodic ticking of a wall-mounted clock seemed to draw out each nerve-wracking second as Twilight waited on an answer.
Finally, Celestia looked up. The dim, flickering light cast deep shadows across her face. There were bags under her eyes. She looked back into Twilight's pleading eyes and cringed. "I don't know… I don't know if there is anything I can do."
Twilight Sparkle stared ahead, blinking in confusion for a few moments, before shaking her head vehemently. "Isn't… isn't there some spell you could cast to find out who r-… who did this?"
Celestia merely shook her head. "I'm sorry, Twilight. But even if I did know such a spell off the top of my head, and even if it did work with perfect accuracy, that would hardly be the issue at hoof."
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean is, even if I did know, for certain, who committed the crime, I could do nothing to help you with that information."
"But… what? You're the princess! You can do anything!" Twilight started from her apparent slump, half-shouting before she clasped a hoof over her mouth, halting herself. She took a deep, calming breath through her nose and continued in a low whisper. "… right?"
She knew her answer from Princess Celestia's eyes even before she spoke. "I'm sorry Twilight Sparkle, but, even as ruler, my powers are limited."
"But… that doesn't… that doesn't make any sense! Can't you… can't you banish them and then lock them in a dungeon in the place that you banished them to? Or something?"
Celestia sighed. "I would have hoped you would understand by now, Twilight Sparkle, that I can't just hand out punishments randomly on the populace. I am a princess, not a tyrant."
"But can't you make an exception here?"
"And what? Pass judgment from on high without due process, or without proving due cause whatsoever? How do you think my subjects would see that?"
"But wouldn't… wouldn't everypony listen to you? You are the princess!"
"Twilight, I realized long ago that my authority cannot be limitless. Many of the laws I've passed over the centuries have been checks against my own power. One of those is the court system. Justice is out of my hooves, Twilight Sparkle."
"But what about Princess Luna? I mean, you banish-…"
Celestia put up a hoof to stop her student. "I thought you might bring that up. Twilight, all those years ago, when my sister was controlled by Nightmare Moon, she posed a serious and immediate threat to Equestria as a whole. In that instance, yes, I had to use my power, regardless of any established justice system. I suppose, as you are my student, you might consider this a sort of Civics lesson. In short, the only time my powers go unchecked is during times of war. The time Nightmare Moon, through my sister, plunged the world into night was exactly that: war. Now, thankfully, Equestria is at peace, and my powers are checked by, among other things, the courts. I cannot just pass justice without due process. Everypony must be treated as innocent until proven guilty."
An uncomfortable silence, broken only by the soft, quiet whistling of the wind against the tree fell upon the library. For a long while, neither pony said anything; Twilight having shifted her gaze to the floor, appearing deep in thought, while Celestia stared tentatively down at her. Finally, with a sigh, Twilight broke the silence. "So you can't do anything? Even for Rainbow Dash?"
“I’m sorry, Twilight. I truly am. You and your friends have done so much for me, and for Equestria. You know how much gratitude I have for you all, including Miss Dash, and I’m sure you understand how much I wish I could help especially in a matter so… distressing, but I simply cannot. If I were to interfere on Miss Dash’s behalf, it would make for an unfair trial, and I’m afraid it would overstepping my bounds as leader too far. My hooves are effectually tied.”
Twilight meditated on these words for a while, Celestia stretched herself out on the couch in an attempt to get more comfortable. Twilight watched her silently until she looked back up at her. "So what… what are we supposed to do now?"
"Right now, the only course of action is to take the matter to the courts. Now, despite what I've told you, don't think I can do absolutely nothing for you and Miss Dash. Being me, I can still pull strings behind the scenes. When the case goes to court, I still have the authority to appoint a judge. I know just the stallion, too. In addition to being one of the most honorable justices I've had the pleasure of knowing, he's also one of my most trusted aids."
Twilight Sparkle's face immediately brightened. "So he can get us a guilty verdict?"
Celestia's small smile faded. "Well… no. He cannot just pass judgment in my stead. The jury will be selected at random, and they will be the ones hearing the case."
“Ok…” Twilight Sparkle sat silent for a moment, tapping a hoof against her chin. Finally, she closed her eyes, nodding as if she’d come to some sort of conclusion. Celestia peered at her, curious at her pupil’s actions. “Well…” Twilight spoke slowly, “In that case, I suppose I’ll have to start preparing Rainbow Dash’s case, then.”
Twilight looked up, her gaze meeting that of the princess’s. “Well, if we’re going to court, I’ll need to prepare a case for her, won’t I? We need to have the best chance possible, after all.”
“But, Twilight…” Celestia paused, taken aback by the young unicorn’s statement, “This is, after all, a criminal matter. It is up to the state to try the perpetrator.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, Twilight, that I have prosecution attorneys lined up to try all those who break Equestrian laws. This is no different.”
Twilight shook her head slowly from side to side. “No… I’m sorry, Princess Celestia, but I don’t… I don’t think I want to trust Rainbow’s case to some cold-hearted lawyer. I want… no, I need to be the one. I need to do this for her.” Twilight nodded firmly, her voice ringing with a level of conviction that surprised the princess.
“Twilight, please, I know how you must feel. But think about what you’re saying right now. This is a real trial, and real ponies’ futures are on the line. I can assure you all of my lawyers are the top in their fields, and will treat Miss Dash with the utmost professionalism.”
“Oh, Princess… please… don’t ask me why or how, but I just feel… I just feel like I have to do this. I have to do this for Rainbow Dash. She needs my help.”
“Yes, I can understand how you feel, but do you even have experience in this field?”
“Well, I’ve read plenty of books on Equestrian Law for leisure…” Twilight paused, uttering a bitter chuckle. “You know, it’s funny. I’ve read books on Equestrian Law, but mostly out of interest. I never thought… I never thought I would actually use it. I always just assumed I could rely on you. I guess those books will come to some use after all.”
“Twilight, I don’t want to question your judgment, but… let me put it this way. The main reason lawyers are so cold, and indeed, so expensive, is because theirs is a very emotionally-numbing and draining profession, especially when it comes to matters such as this. I don’t know if you’ll be suited to the environment of a courtroom. Do you really think you’re up to it?”
“Yes…I know… I… am.” Suddenly, tears began to streak down Twilight’s face; she closed her eyes to stem the flow. “Oh… Oh, Princess Celestia. This… this is really happening? Isn’t it? I...” She sprang from the couch and ran over to her mentor, throwing her fore legs around her once again. Recovering her surprise quickly, Celestia gently accepted the hug, extending her own hoof to lay it across Twilight’s shoulders. “I… I can’t believe it. It’s just so… so hard.”
Celestia felt as hot tears fell onto her coat, she leant her head down, offering a supportive nuzzle. “I know. I know it’s hard. Twilight, this is something nopony, especially not you or your friends, should have to deal with. But, unfortunately, as much as I abhor it, we still live in a world where this can happen. Equestria is far from perfect, and I often feel so guilty that the walls of Canterlot shield me from some of the problems you all have to face.” She leaned back, putting a hoof to Twilight’s chin and lifting her face so she could look her in the eyes. Twilight’s brilliant orbs, still glistening with the last dredges of salty tears, stared back intently. Princess Celestia gave a slight smile. “Sometimes… sometimes it’s so hard for me not to see the smiling, happy little filly who became my personal student when I look at you, Twilight. Sometimes, I can forget just what a brilliant, compassionate, strong young mare you’ve become. I cannot express how proud of you I am, Twilight Sparkle. I want you to know that. You’ve grown into a wonderful pony, and I couldn’t be happier. This… this is something I never expected you to have to face. But, I want you to know that, no matter what, you can always talk to me, and you can always ask me anything.” Princess Celestia appeared on the verge of choking up for a moment, but managed to hide it, and she nodded. “Are you sure about this? If you think it’s too hard, I can always assign one of my practicing attorneys.”
Twilight nodded, her conviction giving her a bit of her confidence back. “It doesn’t matter if I want to or not. I have to do this… for Rainbow Dash. She would want it this way. She would want it to be me, not some unknown stallion.”
“I fear I ask too much of you.”
“Never.” Twilight stood up, her gaze fixed with determination. “I’m doing this because I need to. It’s the only way.”
“If you ever need any advice, I’m here for you.” Princess Celestia’s gaze fell as she turned over words in her head. “Twilight Sparkle, as I have been alive for millennia, you still seem so young to me. Please understand me, then, when I say how protective I feel of you. I wish you wouldn’t go through this.”
“Please, Princess, you don’t have to worry about me. I’d be more worried about Rainbow Dash, if I were you."
"Oh, yes. Thank you for reminding me." Princess Celestia sat up. "How is she doing, I assume she is in the hospital by now, yes?"
Twilight Sparkle bit her lip. "Um… not exactly."
Princess Celestia sat up once more with a start. "Twilight, listen to me very carefully. It is absolutely vital that she be taken there immediately. Not only for her health and possible sanity, but for your investigation as well."
"Yes. Unfortunately, in cases such as this, the investigation must start with the body."
"Oh…" Twilight's face fell. "I… I hadn't thought of that."
"Perfectly understandable. I could hardly expect you to be thinking clearly at all the past few hours. So, where is she, then?"
"When I left, she was still in her house. We have Fluttershy there watching her."
Celestia nodded. "Good idea. It's best not to leave her alone in her condition. How is she, then?"
"From what we last saw, not well. I wrote about all I've seen or heard of her in my letter."
"So her condition has not advanced at all as yet?"
"Not that I know of."
Celestia looked pensive for a moment, before rising from the couch. Twilight Sparkle followed suit. "There is not much time to lose, Twilight. I must be getting back to Canterlot soon enough, and you must be leaving as well."
Twilight Sparkle rushed over to her mentor once more, embracing her for a third and final time. "Thank you so much for coming. It really means a lot to me. I think… I think I may need you now more than ever."
Princess Celestia smiled at her. "Go to her now, Twilight. She needs your help, and you have to get her to the hospital immediately."
"Wait, Twilight." Celestia stood over her pupil, who halted just as she was about to turn to leave. Gathering a pulse of magic in the very tip of her horn, the princess kneelt down, touching her horn to her student's forehead and imparting the spell upon her. She stood back up. Twilight looked up at her with a questioning look on her face. Celestia grinned. "By the power vested in me, I hereby license you, Twilight Sparkle, to practice law in Equestria."
Twilight Sparkle's jaw fell slack for an instant before she too, grinned. "I thought you couldn't help our case, Princess?"
"Fortunately," Princess Celestia said, smiling, "Some things are just that easy."
Fluttershy rested nervously, lying upon the cloud floor with her front hooves tucked underneath her chest. Sometimes, her eyelids would slowly descend and her eyes close, only to jerk back open as she shook herself awake once again. Her soft whisper of a voice echoed in the hallway when she spoke, addressing herself more than anything else. "Have to… have to stay awake. Everypony's counting on me."
Periodically, in an effort to check on her friend as well as keep herself awake, Fluttershy would prop herself up, pressing an ear against the cloud door to listen. No sound came forth save for the random, quiet rustling of a sleeping pony rolling about in her bed, unable to find comfort.
Fluttershy sighed. Rainbow Dash had fallen asleep a while ago, or, at least, that was when she had stopped hearing the quiet sobbing. Still, she mused, it was enough that her friend was still there. She did not want to think about what would happen if Rainbow Dash tried to leave. Fluttershy knew part of her task was to keep her friend in the room, but if push came to shove, she did not feel confident in her ability to hold back the other pegasus.
The yellow pegasus collapsed back onto the floor again, exhaling in defeat. The fur of her face was crusted with the remnants of long-dried tears, and she still could hardly wrap her mind around what had happened. The idea that Rainbow Dash, her oldest friend and one of the strongest ponies she had ever known, had been through such a thing was enough to puncture her already-fragile confidence. If this could happen to Rainbow Dash, it could happen to anypony. Rarity? Pinkie? Even…
"No. NO!" Fluttershy shook her head violently, throwing up a desperate bid to banish the thought. Try as she might, however, her mind's eye kept returning to her view of Rainbow Dash. Panicked, thrashing about, crying out loud. Fluttershy slammed her eyes shut, still shaking her head. Still, the image stayed with her. Somewhere, beyond the closed door, one of her dearest friends was experiencing more pain than she could even imagine. Fluttershy could hear it in every toss and turn the sleeping pegasus gave.
Her train of thought, however, was suddenly and rather violently derailed by a sudden noise from below. Frantically, Fluttershy jumped up onto her hooves, her eyes flashing open in an instant. Her first instinct was to run and hide, but she fought it down and pressed her ear to the door again, fearful that the noise had woken Rainbow Dash. A few tense seconds passed, but no new sounds emanated from the room. Fluttershy took a deep breath and turned from the door, thankful her charge had not been startled. She turned immediately to the staircase, her attention grabbed by the soft, barely-distinguishable sound of hooves climbing the cloud steps. Fluttershy backed her way into a corner, hoping the shadow would be enough to conceal her from the intruder. Her mind buzzed with dozens of possibilities as to who it might be as the sound of hooves grew ever closer. Her eyes grew wide as a shadow fell across the far wall of the staircase. It moved along the wall, inching closer… closer…
Fluttershy exhaled loudly when Twilight Sparkle emerged from the shadowy staircase. Exiting her corner, she quickly crossed the landing and embraced her friend. Wordlessly, Twilight patted the pegasus's back, letting her head rest against her own shoulder. Finally, casting a glance to the closed door, Twilight spoke. "How is she?"
"She fell asleep over an hour ago… Oh, Twilight," Fluttershy grasped her friend ever tighter, holding her close. "I hate this. How could… how could this happen… It doesn't… it doesn't make any sense."
"I know… I know Fluttershy. I don't understand it either. But we have to do our best, for Rainbow Dash's sake."
Fluttershy nodded, drawing herself away. Twilight tried to smile for her, Fluttershy returned it weakly. "Have you sent your letter?"
"Yes, and I've spoken with the princess already."
"That was… fast."
"Mmhm," Twilight agreed, only partially listening. She walked past Fluttershy, who turned to follow her on a path towards the door.
"What did she say?"
"She said a lot, but I don't have time to explain everything right now. Is this door locked?"
"Wha… um… No. I flew in when she fell asleep and unlocked it, just in case I needed to get to her fast."
"Good work." Twilight gripped the door handle with her magic and opened it softly, gently stepping her way into the room. Rainbow Dash lay upon a bare mattress, her blankets and sheets having long since been cast aside by her frantic thrashing about. Twilight's horn began to glow in a soft, purple-hued light. From across the room, she carefully floated the spell over towards Rainbow Dash. The magic cloud encased the sleeping pegasus's head for a brief instant before disappearing completely. Rainbow Dash's fore leg, which had been flailing about restlessly, fell slack as her whole body relaxed, sinking into the bed.
"Wha… what are you doing?" Fluttershy's hushed whisper was now the only sound in the room. Twilight turned towards her friend.
"Just a sedation spell. She may have been asleep, but I can't have her waking up on the journey. I'm not taking any chances with this."
"With what? What journey?"
"I don't have time to explain, Fluttershy," Twilight turned her back as she spoke, now grasping one of Rainbow Dash's hooves with her own.
Fluttershy rushed around so she could look her friend in the eye. "What do you mean, Twilight? Please tell me."
Twilight sighed. "Fluttershy, thank you so much for staying up with Rainbow Dash like this. I know it must have been hard being here alone, but I want you to know it was necessary. I have to take Rainbow Dash to the hospital now, and there's no time to lose. Please, tell the others where we are. I'm relying on you, Fluttershy."
Fluttershy swallowed a dry lump in her throat and nodded weakly. "Will she… will she be ok?"
"We can only hope." And with that, Twilight Sparkle clamped her eyes shut, gathering another pulse of magic in the tip of her horn. Fluttershy backed up against the wall, shielding her eyes. In the next instant, a brilliant flash of light and a loud crack filled the room, then everything was quiet, and everything was still.
In a daze, Fluttershy blinked until her vision cleared. The room was dark. Twilight and the unconscious Rainbow Dash had disappeared. Now aware of how alone she was, Fluttershy whispered into the night. "Be safe."
The first dredges of the rising sun were just starting to spread up from behind the jagged peaks on the horizon, bathing the eastern sky in soft orange and highlighting every lazily drifting cloud a warm indigo, as the steady promise of a new day fought to break the early-morning haze. On the ground, a delicate layer of morning mist rose and billowed on a gentle, intermittent breeze, sometimes even obscuring the distant purple mountains. It was the kind of morning to take a pony's breath away and render them motionless in silent awe of the early autumn dawn.
A wave of relief washed over Nurse Redheart as daybreak's first light glinted off the waiting room windows. She drew in a deep breath, the beginnings of a sigh, which turned to a loud yawn as she exhaled. It had been a long night. The nurse fought to keep her eyes open, as if some great weight was persistent on dragging them closed. She hated working the night shift. Ponyville Hospital had been quiet, as usual, with nary a single Emergency Room visit to make her life interesting. Nurse Redheart had resigned herself to let the lonely hours slip by with the company of naught but her newest romance novel.
It would all be over soon, she assured herself, slowly blinking as she watched the clock. Sunrise was nearly upon the sleepy hospital and its community, and with it would come Nurse Tender to take over for the day shift. Nurse Redheart's eyes drifted shut. She could already feel her soothing, inviting bed, soft and warm against her coat. With her hooves folded neatly on the reception desk, she yawned once more and laid her head upon them, ready for some well-deserved rest.
Any delusions Nurse Redheart had about getting some shut-eye before the end of her shift, however, came to a screaming, crashing halt in the space of a fraction of a second. Without warning, the sharp sound of a loud crack pierced the morning stillness of the lobby. The nurse's eyes flew open, but not soon enough to register what was happening. In an instant, she hit the floor, thrown backward by a combination of magical whiplash and her own startled jump. Groaning, Nurse Redheart tried to pick herself up. Her ears were ringing, her head throbbing, and her eyes besieged by a swarm of flashing white lights as her vision swam. Her mind, reeling from the sensory onslaught, immediately jumped to the most obvious conclusion. A bolt of lightning must have struck the hospital.
Dazed and confused, the nurse pony managed to reach a front hoof up to her desk, just enough to haul herself back up to a standing position. She was just beginning to question the idea of a lightning strike occurring on such a beautiful morning with only sporadic cloud cover when her vision sharply swam into focus to reveal the lavender face of a very haggard, distressed-looking unicorn, mere inches from her snout. Nurse Redheart nearly started once again before her face settled in recognition. Twilight Sparkle. Now everything made sense.
The exhausted pony shook her head, still trying to rid her ears of their slight ringing, and drew in a deep breath. "Good… good morning, Miss Sparkle. To what do I owe…" Nurse Redheart trailed off as she spoke; realization slowly dawning upon her. Twilight Sparkle did not look normal. Her hair was frazzled, her eyes bloodshot, and her chest was heaving. Something was off, and something was definitely wrong. A twinge of fear worked its way into the nurse's voice. "Wha… has something happened?"
Twilight Sparkle's breaths were still coming in deep, raggedy gasps, and she started swaying from side to side on her hooves. She struggled for a few moments to control her breathing, unable to speak. She coughed, finally catching enough air to choke out a response. "I… long-distance… dual teleportation… I… I never knew… it would take… so much out of me." Her speech was punctuated with deep gasps. She stopped, leaning against the side of the desk to collect herself.
Nurse Redheart just stared at her in confusion, her mind turning the unicorn's words over and over. Long-distance dual teleportation? What did she…. Leaning forward over the edge of the desk, the white pony saw for the first time that Twilight Sparkle was not alone. The sight of Rainbow Dash, limply slumped on the floor gave the nurse a start. With all the skill of a well-trained medicinal mind, her eyes swept across the mare's prone form. Her fur was ruffled, her mane and tail were a mess, her head was cocked to one side, and her eyes were closed loosely. Redheart even thought she saw flecks of something, perhaps blood, on the cyan fur of the pegasus's hind legs, but before she could be sure, her attention was once again snagged.
"Nurse Redheart! I need your help!" Twilight Sparkle, having regained her composure, grabbed Redheart's white hoof in her own, shooting her a pleading look. "Something terrible has happened!"
"Yes… what… what is it?" Nurse Redheart only managed to stammer as she shot gazes between Twilight and the unconscious form of Rainbow Dash, already fearing the worst.
"Somepony took… she was taken… she was…" Twilight Sparkle swallowed, "…raped. She was raped."
Nurse Redheart gulped, closing her eyes and nodding in only barely hindered disbelief. Her mouth ran dry. She felt a chill wash over her and shivered involuntarily, her mind drawing a complete blank. She tried to piece together some sort of response, but every idea paled in comparison to such a cold, stark revelation. There was nothing she could say. She knew what to do, however. She always knew what to do. In times like these she often resorted to letting her nursing instincts and training kick in, trying to think as little as possible. Whatever hopes she had been entertaining of finally sinking into her bed after such a mentally exhausting night were now certainly dashed. There was no time for sleep now. More than anything, Nurse Redheart wished she had something to calm the nerves, something to just take away the pain of being responsible for somepony else's life. Nothing, though, is ever so simple.
High above the Equestrian landscape, the sun had already risen and was bathing Cloudsdale in its golden light. For the numerous pegasi of the city, the rising sun was their signal to wake up and begin preparing for work or school, as it was almost every morning. The Weather Factory hummed with activity as the night shift left, to be replaced by day, and ponies soared in all directions. Some were eager to get home, others just leaving theirs.
Cloud Nine Inn, the oldest and most famous hotel in all of Cloudsdale, basked in the glory of the early-morning light. Inside, some guests were just waking up, ready to head out to explore the city. Others tried to steal a few more precious winks of sleep in their plush, comfortable beds, many still trying to sleep off a long night at the hotel bar.
Sunlight streamed in past the luxurious curtains of a room on one of the Inn's upper floors – floors reserved for only the most esteemed and privileged guests. The waxing light fell across the room in long shafts, cast upon the far wall. The closet door stood ajar and, illuminated by a soft beam, a one-piece, blue flight suit with dazzling golden lightning bolts arcing across the smooth fabric hung limply over the door's top.
A pony lay in the bed, but made no move to get up and close the curtains. She laid still, on her back, her head sunken deep into a pillow as she stared up at the ceiling. Her fiery mane, usually windswept and tossed back in her own carefree style, was matted with sweat and messy from a long night of sleepless tossing and turning. Spitfire's eyes were wide and bloodshot, laced with thin red veins. She was motionless, save for her mouth. Her lips opened and closed, as if they were desperately trying to form words, but no sound issued forth. They only closed on air, forming over and over again the shape of a single word.
To Nurse Redheart's credit, she had managed to get the hospital up and running with admirable speed. The sound of her hooves, mixed with the occasional squeak of an ungreased wheel, echoed off the walls as she pushed Rainbow Dash, now strapped to a gurney, down the smooth, clean, tiled hallway. Up ahead, a door swung open, and a caramel-colored unicorn stallion emerged from his office. He yawned as he turned up the hallway, spotting Nurse Redheart and heading straight for her. His white lab coat, half obscuring a heart-monitor cutie mark, ripple as he walked, and concern flashed in his blue eyes. "What do we have, Nurse?"
Nurse Redheart frowned, knowing few details herself. "Shock… trauma… possible rape victim." She nodded curtly, trying to remain business-like and professional.
Doctor Stable frowned. "Oh, dear… I thought I'd seen the last of those…"
Confused, the nurse paused for a moment, allowing the unicorn to fall into step beside her. "What do you mean, Doctor?"
He sighed. "I saw these kinds of cases almost every day when I was working on the staff of Manehattan General. That's part of the reason why I transferred here. I got so sick of all the terrible things ponies did to each other in the city." He shot a quick glance at the gurney and grimaced. "Rainbow Dash… it seems like only yesterday she was in here with that wing injury."
Nurse Redheart sighed and looked down at their patient. "At least you've dealt with it before. This is my first."
"Indeed. It's the first I've seen here, too. Ponyville is usually so quiet on this front. We hardly ever see violent crime." Doctor Stable fell quiet, pondering the situation for a moment. "You are versed on what to do, correct?"
"Yes. I'll administer a rape kit as soon as we get her settled in a room…" She trailed off, a thought striking her. "Do we have an OBGYN on staff?"
"No. We'll have to call one down from Canterlot."
"Canterlot? That may take all day."
"I daresay we have no other choice. Call someone up from foal birthing in the interim."
"Yes, Doctor." The two ponies rounded a corner into an unused room, rolling the gurney next to the hospital bed. Doctor Stable quickly levitated Rainbow Dash into the bed, setting her down gently. She didn't stir.
"Is she asleep, or…"
Nurse Redheart nodded. "Simple sedation spell, administered by her unicorn friend."
"Right, Miss Sparkle… Where is she?"
"In the waiting room. I've told her to stay there and fill in Tender when she arrives."
"That's good. Celestia knows we're short-hooved as it is." Doctor Stable's gaze shifted about the room. "Is she a flight risk?"
"A flight risk. When she wakes up and realizes she's in a hospital, is there much risk of her trying to escape?"
"I… I don't know…"
"If her friend put a sedation spell on her, it must be because she was protesting coming to the hospital. Either that or Miss Sparkle anticipated protest and used the spell as a preemptive measure. Either way, there's a good chance she doesn't want to be here, and if that's the case, she won't be happy waking up to find herself in the hospital."
"What should we do, just strap her into the bed?"
"I fear that, in addition to waking up disoriented and in an unfamiliar room, being bound in place will merely serve to confuse and scare her even more."
"How do we prevent her from fleeing if we don't restrain her?"
"Yes, that's the question, isn't it?"
"We could stay here until she wakes, and you could use magic to keep her here."
Doctor Stable shook his head. "I do hope you understand that, unless I can get one of the mares from foal birthing up to assist you, you'll be conducting this operation on your own."
Nurse Redheart stared at him quietly for a few seconds before breaking the silence. "And why might that be?"
"A little thing experience in Manehattan has taught me. If she was indeed raped, then the last thing she'll want to see when she wakes up will be another stallion."
"Well, I… I never thought of that." She paused, tapping a hoof on her chin. "What if I brought Twilight Sparkle in here? She could use her magic in case it's needed, and it might be good for Miss Dash to have a friendly face around when she comes to."
Doctor Stable paused, then nodded. "Good idea. I'll see to it. Do you need anything else?"
"No, I believe I'm set."
"Good. Please administer the kit, and see if she needs any other immediate treatment." He stopped for a moment and gave a loud sigh. "You know… I've always hated doing these cases. I went into medicine to help ponies, not to see them hurt by others." And with a shake of his head, he turned and left.
Twilight Sparkle cast a worried glance, what she felt must have been her latest of several hundred, towards the double doors where her friend had long since disappeared. She sighed. Nurse Tender had long since came and went, stopping by to assume her shift, only to find Twilight waiting for her. It had only taken a few moments to explain the situation to her, and then she had rushed off to take care of her work. The doctor in residence had stopped by a few minutes later the inform her that they had begun testing and treatment, that Rainbow Dash was still out cold, and that her help would be greatly appreciated whenever her friend decided to come to. Then, he too had moved on to take care of business of his own, leaving Twilight alone once again.
Twilight settled even further into her seat on the couch, her face half-obscured behind her folded fore legs. Her conversation with Princess Celestia had not been more than a few hours ago. Yet now that the sun had risen, Twilight felt like it was already a day past. Her thoughts kept wandering back to her friend. She knew the sedation spell she had given her was not supposed to last very long, and she wondered when her pegasus friend would wake. She kept expecting to see somepony coming to get her, to tell her they needed her help, but every time she looked back at the doors, there was nopony in sight.
Twilight yawned loudly. After all the stress and worry she had experienced over the last night, she had somehow managed to stay awake long past her normal waking hours, even considering her most intense of study sessions. She only vaguely remembered waking up the previous morning, now nearly a full day ago, she realized, and thinking that the coming day would be just another normal one. But then Rainbow Dash had excitedly told her she had been accepted by the Wonderbolts, and then… well, then everything else had happened. The adrenaline was finally starting to wear off, and the unicorn found herself more tired than she could remember being for a long time. Twilight shifted onto her side, laying her head on a hoof. Try as she might, she just could not get comfortable on the lumpy, unforgiving waiting room couch.
Her attention was grabbed from the small crack in the ceiling she had been studying in intricate detail when the front doors opened. She craned her head back, half expecting to see another patient headed for the ER. Instead, a tall, muscular unicorn stallion, flanked by two similarly-built earth ponies, strode in. The first one, with a coat as tan as wet sand, a dark brown jacket and a matching fedora perched atop a sweeping mane of ash-grey, swept his gaze around the room, before his hard-set grey eyes settled upon her. "Miss… Twilight Sparkle? I presume?"
Twilight rolled off the couch and onto her hooves, shaking her head in a vain attempt to control her wild mess of a mane. "Yes, that's me." She glanced back up at him and shivered under his steely gaze.
"I'm Detective Bright Star." He paused to pull out a black card, adorned with a five-pointed star, from his chest pocket. Identical stars adorned the matching blue jackets and caps of his companions. "This is Officer Cuff Link," he nodded behind him towards a silvery earth pony with a jet-black mane, before nodding to his other side, where a pony of deep, dull orange with a windswept golden mane stood, "and Officer Copper of the Equestrian Royal Police. We'd like to have a moment of your time, if you will."
Twilight Sparkle immediately nodded in understanding, her apprehension slackening. "Oh, Celestia sent you, didn't she?"
"That would be correct, Ma'am. We are to oversee the investigation and provide protection to key witnesses in the case. I understand you are the leading attorney?"
"Yes. Yes, I am."
"Please excuse me for being presumptuous, but as it would appear that you are currently not otherwise occupied, would you mind if we had a moment of your time?"
"Of course not. How can I be of assistance?"
"Well, we were briefed on the situation before leaving Canterlot, however, our briefing was, understandably… brief. In order to get my investigation off the ground, I would appreciate it greatly if you were to provide me with all the facts of the case."
Twilight Sparkle brightened considerably. "Oh, yes. Well… hm… I don't… I don't know many facts myself right now, but… I suppose it's best to start from the beginning." She looked up, one eyebrow raised questioningly. Detective Bright Star nodded his approval. "Right. It all started yesterday afternoon. It was a slow day at the library, and I was taking some time to clean up around some of the less-used shelves…"
The feather duster was hovering in a shimmering purple aura of magical energy, quickly twitching back and forth as it kicked clouds of dust up off the old shelves, taking layers away from the spines of well-worn books. Twilight Sparkle smiled as she surveyed her work. These time-honored classics had spent far too long out of the limelight. She was glad to give them a little sprucing up. Maybe now they might garner some more interest from the library's patrons, few and far-between they may be.
She continued down the row of shelves, her meticulous eye not missing a single spot of dust as she went. She paused at the end of the row to wipe her brow, satisfied with a morning well-spent. Maybe, now that they were all cleaned, she might get around to reading a few of them herself later.
"Hey, Twilight." She turned in surprise, smiling to see her number-one assistant standing behind her, a tall glass of lemonade clutched in his claw. Spike grinned at her. "I thought you might be thirsty."
Twilight eagerly levitated the drink to her lips, taking a long sip before setting it down, smacking her lips. "Thanks Spike; that sure hits the spot."
"No problem, Twilight, I…"
No sooner had he begun to speak when the front door burst open with a loud noise, and somepony else streaked into the room. Spike dove for cover and Twilight jumped, startled at first, but then brightened as she realized who it was. "Hey, Rainbow Dash!" She beckoned the pegasus down to her. "Come for the latest Daring Do book? I have it right in the back if you want it."
Rainbow Dash shook her head, grinning widely as she set herself down on the floor, folding her wings neatly at her sides. "Nope! Don't have time for that, Twilight! I have big news!"
"Oh! Did Rarity get that job in Canterlot?"
"Twilight… do you think I'd be the one telling you about that if it happened?"
"Hmm… no… Wait, has Applejack started on her-"
Rainbow Dash groaned, cutting her unicorn friend off. "Come on, Twilight! Something important, something concerning me!"
Twilight Sparkle pursed her lips, deep in thought. "Let me guess..," she spoke slowly, catching on by now but finding it quite fun to drag the discussion out as long as possible, "does it have something to do with those… Wonderbolts?" Rainbow Dash nodded vigorously. "Something to do with you and the Wonderbolts?"
At this point, Rainbow Dash could no longer contain her enthusiasm. With one powerful kick off the ground, she flew up into the air, doing several backflips and screaming something incoherent. Twilight staggered backward, smiling gently at her friend's display. Rainbow Dash finally swooped down, racing over to hover right above Twilight. The unicorn arched her neck to see her. "I had a tryout with the Wonderbolts this morning! And they accepted me! I'm gonna be a Wonderbolt!" She flew several laps around the library before finally settling down, coming to a stop, beaming, just in front of Twilight.
"Congratulations, Rainbow Dash!" Twilight flashed a smile and jumped over, throwing her fore legs around the other's neck in a friendly hug. "All that hard work really paid off, huh?"
Rainbow Dash nodded, returning a half-squeeze before pulling herself away and back into the air, a light blush spreading across her cheeks. "Yeah, I know, totally!" Her voice cracked as she spoke, trying to maintain her hover in her highly excited state.
Twilight just chuckled. "Congratulations, Rainbow. We'll have to celebrate tonight! I bet Pinkie will throw her biggest party yet!"
"Yeah, about that…" Rainbow Dash scratched behind her head, looking guilty. "I don't think I can make it. The Wonderbolts invited be to spend the evening with them at a hotel in Cloudsdale and I really, REALLY want to go!"
Twilight frowned momentarily, but smiled again in almost an instant. "No problem, Rainbow. We'll just have your party when you get back. You go have fun!"
"Thanks, Twi." Rainbow grinned again, "I gotta go, I still have to tell Rarity, Pinkie, and Fluttershy, then I gotta high-tail it back to Cloudsdale! Seeya!" With no further formalities, she flipped over and shot out of the room, leaving the door to bang closed in her wake.
"I didn't see her again until last night, when we set up a surprise party for her. That was when she-"
"Miss Sparkle?" Twilight was thrust out of her reverie by a voice. Both she and the detective and his officers, who had been listening patiently and intently, turned at the sudden noise. Nurse Tender, wide-eyed and looking flustered, had stuck her head through the double doors. She stared right at Twilight. "Miss Sparkle, sorry to bother you, but she's waking up. We are in need of your assistance."
"She's waking… oh no." Twilight Sparkle's face immediately fell. "Detective, please excuse me, my friend needs me."
Detective Bright Star nodded. "Right. Go right ahead. Copper?"
The golden-maned police colt looked up at the mention of his name. The detective nodded at him. "Yes, Suh."
All at once, Twilight Sparkle took off towards Nurse Tender and the doors, Officer Copper close behind her. All three of them set off down the hallway, Twilight setting a quick pace that the officer easily matched. Nurse Tender looked up in surprise at their guest. "Um… Officer? I'm terribly sorry, but we're not allowing stallions to see the patient at the moment."
The auburn pony nodded, but did not slow his trot. "Uh'm sorry, Ma'am, but Uh've been instructed to stand guard at the victim's door."
Twilight's head swam. Patient? Victim? She found herself blinking away tears. It almost hurt to hear Rainbow Dash, her friend, being discussed in such an aloof manner. No. No. She couldn't cry. Not now. No. She had to be strong. She had to be strong for Rainbow Dash.
They rounded a bend and Nurse Tender indicated a door. All three ponies slowed to a slow trot. Officer Copper stopped himself shy of the door, taking up a position just by the wall and nodded curtly to the two mares. Nurse Tender thrust the door open and Twilight quickly ducked inside. Nurse Redheart looked up and, upon seeing Twilight, sighed in relief. "Oh, good. You're here. She's just coming to now. We may need your help. Tender, please go find Doctor Stable, tell him she's coming around."
"Yes, Nurse." Tender nodded to her superior and left the room. The door shut quietly behind her. Twilight turned to watch Rainbow Dash. The pegasus was stirring, the sheets rustled as she rolled around beneath them. She let out a moan, a low, broken groan that seemed to shake the hospital room. Twilight cringed at the noise. Suddenly, she stopped struggling. Twilight Sparkle watched as Rainbow Dash's eyes blinked open and then snapped tightly shut once more before flying open for a final time. The pegasus recoiled into her pillows as her eyes, deep-set and full of fear, darted around the room, struggling to make sense of unfamiliar surroundings.
When she spoke, her voice was cracked worse than Twilight could ever remember. "Where… where am I?"
Nurse Redheart cleared her throat. "You're at the hospital, Miss Rainbow Dash. You've been admitted after…"
"Hospital!" The cyan mare croaked, her eyes wide and unsteady. "Wha… what… why? No!" Rainbow Dash jerked underneath the sheets, flinging them to the foot of the bed. She rolled over, clutching a pillow to her chest and trying as hard as possible to disappear into the wall. Her eyes flew about the room, settling first on Nurse Redheart, then on Twilight. "No… why… why?"
"Now, now, please calm down, Miss Dash." Nurse Redheart spoke in a surprisingly soothing voice. From her place near the door, Twilight could see Rainbow Dash's tension settle slightly. "We're here to help you. We mean you no harm. You're here for your own good."
The pegasus's breath came in ragged gasps. She swallowed hard and gasped, as if she could not get enough oxygen, but slowly, she nodded, the bright fluorescent lights twinkling in her moist eyes. Relieved, Twilight let out a deep breath. She had not been looking forward to holding her friend down against her will. She approached the bed, Rainbow Dash's gaze locked upon her. Twilight tried to put forth her best possible smile, but it even felt woefully inadequate. She let it fade. "I'm sorry, Rainbow Dash. I'm so sorry. This should never… ever happen to anypony, but you don't have to be alone in this. Please, let us help you. I'm your friend. I want to be here… for you."
Cloudy Nights was a rather cold and distant pony. Indeed, one had to be in order to survive in the intensely competitive, and highly lucrative, high-end hotel business. Being the manager of the premiere high class hotel in Cloudsdale, one of Equestria’s top vacation destinations, had been a boon for him. But it came with hard work. When catering to the highest of Equestria’s elite, to make even a tiny mistake, to neglect the smallest detail, could exact a terrible toll on his business and his profits. Ever the resourceful and calculating pony, Cloudy Nights developed a jeweler’s eye for detail, and it showed. The lobby of Cloud Nine Inn was always spotless.
He reached out with an old, grey hoof and pressed a white polishing cloth to the reception desk. Carefully, he rubbed at a spot on the polished wood surface, restoring its near-perfect sheen. It had been inordinately expensive to have the mahogany piece hauled up to the cloud city and installed in place, and Cloudy Nights was dead set upon keeping the desk pristine. He removed the rag, revealing a perfectly smooth, shiny surface. He grinned, spying his reflection in the mirror-like finish. His grin broadened when he spied another image. That of a distinctive, instantly recognizable yellow pegasus pony with a fiery orange mane. The grey pony looked up from his work, his gaze falling across the room on none other than Spitfire, captain of the Wonderbolts.
Cloudy Nights’ deep blue eyes settled on his famous patron as she groggily moved towards the desk. She gave a loud yawn as she approached. “H-hey, Cloudy. I’m ready to check out.”
“Sure thing, Miss Spitfire.” Cloudy Nights gave a wry grin, scanning the mare’s face as she hoofed a key over to him. Her eyelids slipped down every few seconds, only to jerk back up as she struggled to keep herself awake. She seemed distant, as if she were staring off beyond the world around her. “A long night, I take it?”
His words seemed to snap her out of her trance. She shook herself for a moment before looking back at him, a nervous tint forming on her face. The stallion frowned. This certainly was not characteristic of her. With a sigh that changed halfway through into another yawn, she shrugged off his bated curiosity. “I suppose you could say that.”
To a pony like Cloudy Nights, who had spent his life catering to the well-to-do and famous ponies, and not the least of all the Wonderbolts, her answer simply wasn’t good enough. “I heard from my bartender that you and your team had quite the evening. Some sort of celebration, I presume?” He cocked an eyebrow and leaned slightly across the desk, grinning.
“I should hardly think you need to know anything about that.”
“Really, well, rumor has it that the Wonderbolts inducted a new member last night. Might you tell me anyth…” The usually confident, aloof pony trailed off as he caught a glimpse of the performer’s face.
Spitfire narrowed her eyes, her usually calm and collected face slipping into a scowl. “You know what, Cloudy? You need to learn to mind your own damned business.” She turned with a flick of her tail, her transaction complete, and hastened out of the lobby, an exasperated huff of breath escaping her lips as she walked. The manager’s blue eyes followed her, blinking in surprise, as she stepped out the door, unfurled her wings, and took off into the pale morning sky. He shrugged, returning his focus to polishing his desk.
Time inched past as he polished, muttered to himself, and sorted through the room keys, waiting for the next guests to arrive. Soon enough, he was surprised at the sound of his front door being whisked open. He looked up from the counter as a set of brisk hoof steps sounded through the lobby. From across the spacious room, a burly pegasus stallion in an instantly recognizable deep blue vest and cap strode towards the desk, his face hard-set. Cloudy Nights could only sigh. He had dealt with the Equestrian Royal Police on several previous occasions, and this could only mean his day didn’t promise to be getting any better.
With the dainty clink of its small, silver bell, the door to Carousel Boutique swung shut behind Detective Bright Star and Officer Cuff Link as they strode away. The Detective let out a long, drawn-out sigh, readjusting his favorite hat so it sat comfortably atop his head for what seemed like the hundredth time. He turned to his partner. “Still not much to go by, I’d say.”
Cuff Link nodded his agreement. “Seems like we’re barking up the same tree. Another friend, waiting to throw a surprise party, sees Miss Dash walk in the door, and then watches as she flies off. Nothing really substantial beyond that to make up an eyewitness testimony, and even with that, the case is still dead in the water without solid evidence.”
The Detective only shrugged absentmindedly. “That’s what we need, isn’t it? That’s what we always need.” He cast a glance up at the sky, his gaze following a slowly drifting cloud through the mid-morning blue for a short moment. “I’ve contacted the Cloudsdale office. They’re sending a pony down to Cloud Nine to see if we can’t gather anything there.”
“Good idea. We can probably pull some fluid samples from there, or just use the whole bedspread as evidence.”
“In a perfect world, yes. Trouble is, we have no idea if the room’s been cleaned yet, or which room she may have been in, for that matter.”
“Her friends say she was there with the Wonderbolts, why not just have the Cloudsdale officers lock down the rooms they checked out and sweep them?”
“Already thought of that. It’s probably our best shot too, but it’s still a long one.”
“Look at it this way. Her friends say she went to the hotel with the Wonderbolts. There’s nothing to say she was in one of their rooms. For all we know, some strange pony could’ve picked her up in the hotel bar, and then where would we be?”
“True, but my money’s still on those fancy fly-ponies.”
“If only this line of work were that easy, Cuff.”
“Nothing’s ever easy.”
“Regardless, that hotel is still a long shot. I don’t doubt the cleaning-ponies have been around to those rooms by now.”
“Maybe we’ll catch a break.”
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
“Alright, partner, what’s got you so sour?”
Detective Bright Star sighed, the brim of his hat slipping down over his eyes only to be nudged out of the way once again. “It’s this case, Cuff. I don’t like it. I just don’t like it.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I find this whole mess just as unsettling as the next pony, but… well… we’ve seen this before. We’ve been around the block a few times. I’m sure we’ll get the perp.”
“Yes, but I haven’t worked a case quite like this before.”
“Care to explain?”
“Not particularly.” A long silence fell over the pair as they walked; the hustle and bustle of early morning hoof traffic on Ponyville’s main street washed past them. Cuff Link cast a few sidelong glances at his superior, but each time was met with an unreadable expression. He finally gave up, concentrating on the sound of their hoof falls as he let everything else drift out of focus.
Finally, something made him stop, and he looked back to see the detective, having stopped in the road, seemingly deep in thought. Cuff Link cast him a curious glance. “We should have better luck interviewing the next couple ponies. According to Twilight Sparkle, her one friend… uh… Applejack was the only one to get a real good look at Miss Dash, and apparently there was one pony who stayed up almost the whole rest of the night with her. Fluttershy, I believe her name was.”
“Mmhm…” Bright Star waved him off with a hoof, still lost in concentration. “Yeah… listen. I want you to go ahead and check with them without me, ok Cuff?”
“Any particular reason?”
“Yeah. I’ve got something else I want to follow up on. I’ll meet you back at the hospital with Copper once you’re done.” Without another word, the detective quickly turned and trotted down another path.
Cuff Link considered following and questioning him further, but decided against it. Detective Bright Star may have had his peculiarities, but he was one of the best in the business, and when he wanted to work alone, he worked alone. With a sigh, the officer turned and headed down another road, into a meadow and out of town.
Thump… thump… thump…
Nothing… nothing was making any sense to her.
A jumbled mess of drifting colors and shapes broke in and out of Rainbow Dash’s field of vision. Her head rang with each oft thump of her heart, a dull ache throbbing just at the base of her neck. She shut her eyes, shaking her head back and forth to try and clear the fuzz that had decided to overpower her mental capacity. She blinked, hoping to clear her eyes of the faint fog that shrouded her surroundings and blurred everything out of recognition.
Slowly, the chaotic blur of motion condensed into focus. She swung her head from side to side. White walls. Clean, polished tile floors. Light so bright she shut her eyes again against it. A chair. A green chair. Something else. Rainbow Dash’s gaze flicked over, settling upon a lavender blob as it swam towards her. No. Not a lavender blob. A lavender pony. A unicorn. Twilight… Twilight Sparkle. It was Twilight Sparkle and her eyes were wide and glistening… glistening in the too-bright lights. Her mouth moved. Rainbow Dash could see it, jerking up and down silently like a performer, acting out a scene in slow motion. Twilight Sparkle… Twilight Sparkle was talking to her. Rainbow Dash could hear it, a faint humming, just over her heart’s drumbeat. She strained to hear her friend. Her ears felt full of cotton. The words came as mumbles. She tried harder. Twilight Sparkle looked right at her. Her eyes were tearing up – Rainbow Dash could see that. This was important. Twilight Sparkle was her friend, and she was trying to say something important. Rainbow Dash nodded. She nodded earnestly. She wanted Twilight Sparkle to know she understood. She wanted her friend to know she was listening. She wanted to hear her, to know what important thing she was trying to say. She wanted to understand.
Twilight Sparkle stopped talking. She sat down by the bed. Rainbow Dash’s eyes followed her, gazing into Twilight’s. Twilight Sparkle tried to flash a smile, a brave attempt at encouragement. Rainbow Dash could tell it was forced. There were still tears rolling down her friend’s cheeks. But still she smiled. The smile spoke volumes. It was an “I’m here” smile and a “don’t be afraid” smile and an “Everything’s going to be ok” smile, and Rainbow Dash wanted to smile back. She wanted not to be afraid. She wanted to believe everything was going to be ok.
And then there was a new voice. Rainbow Dash craned her neck. Nurse Redheart paced near the other side of the bed. White coat on white walls. Rainbow Dash shook her head again. The cotton in her ears muffled the nurse’s words. Her head throbbed and her ears rang and her heart thumped and she could only hear pieces of what was said. She tried to piece together the jumbled words and bits of words and sounds but she couldn’t understand. “… -edation spe- … thump… around… thump… -de-effec-… thump… -peration and… thump… samples… thump… to test.” She wanted so much to understand, but she couldn’t. She opened her mouth. She wanted to explain to the nurse that her ears were full of cotton and that she couldn’t hear and that she didn’t understand but no words would come out. Her mouth opened and closed uselessly and she screamed at herself on the inside for being so useless.
Nurse Redheart flashed her a concerned frown, and then her attention switched to Twilight Sparkle. Rainbow Dash looked between the two, only snippets of their conversation getting through. Then Twilight Sparkle gave a single, curt nod and Nurse Redheart turned away. Rainbow Dash looked back at Twilight. Her friend met her gaze and tried to look encouraging, but she was scared too – Rainbow Dash could tell. She thought to ask Twilight what was going on but she couldn’t bring herself to speak. Instead, she stared intently at her friend and pleaded with her eyes. “What is happening? Please, tell me!” But there was no answer.
Out of the corner of one eye Rainbow Dash saw a glint. Nurse Redheart stood at the side of her bed, her hooves grappling with a metal thing Rainbow Dash couldn’t recognize. It looked like a spoon, a long spoon with a round head. Nurse Redheart reached forward, sweeping the sheets away from the pegasus’ legs with her hoof. Rainbow Dash felt a chill shoot straight to her head. Nurse Redheart looked towards her, a silent question on her face. Rainbow Dash could only give a blank look in response. But the nurse proceeded anyway, carefully bringing the spoon-instrument closer and closer to Rainbow Dash’s body, closer and closer to her-
She drew in a sharp intake of breath. Her skin tingled against the freezing metal and she gasped for air. It was cold. Too cold. Too cold down there. She gasped with each tiny movement. Something within her told her to scream in protest, but she remained silent. It was numbing her, whatever it was, touching her where… where… where He had touched her. She had felt sore, but now she only felt numb. She felt numb from the cold and she didn’t want to think about it anymore. She tore her eyes away from it, trying to refocus her attention, trying to ignore it, but it was still there, freezing against her sensitive skin. Her head rolled to the side. She saw Twilight Sparkle, her eyes full of worry and concern. She saw her friend lay a hoof on the pillow next to her head. Deftly, she reached out and grasped it, gripping Twilight Sparkle’s hoof tightly in her own.
She closed her eyes, focusing on their intertwined hooves. In a single moment of perfect clarity, she could feel every fur rubbing up against Twilight’s. She could feel the warmth of Twilight’s friendship pressing into her flesh as Twilight gripped tightly just to show how much she cared. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so cold any longer, and she didn’t feel alone any longer, and the world didn’t seem so scary any longer.
And she held on for dear life.
Rarity raised her hoof to knock three times on the quaint forest cottage’s door. She paused for a moment, but no one came to the door. From inside, she could hear the muffled sounds of a conversation. Puzzled, she pressed her ear up against the well-worn wood. The muffled, yet distinct sounds of two voices, one smooth and quiet, the other not so, but still with a note of sincere politeness. Suddenly, the sound of clopping hooves drew nearer to the door, and Rarity jumped back as it swung open.
“Thank you very much for all your help, Miss Fluttershy,” officer Cuff Link called over his shoulder as he strode from the small cottage. “Nice to see you again, Miss Rarity.” He tipped his hat as he caught sight of the unicorn. She nodded.
Rarity glanced back at him as she walked into Fluttershy’s cottage, letting the door swing shut behind her. “Fluttershy, Dear?” Her friend was sitting, her fore legs fielded neatly beneath her, on the couch. A pot of floral tea lazily steamed on the side table. “I see they’ve come to talk with you, as well?”
“Oh, you mean that nice police officer?” Fluttershy nodded, “He was just asking me some questions about… about…”
“I know. What did he want to know?”
“Just about Rainbow Dash. I told him about after she came home and how I went in to see her… and how I stayed with her when everypony else left… and… and… she was crying, Rarity. She… she was crying. Oh… oh, Rarity! This really happened? Didn’t it?”
Rarity could only nod. “I’m sorry, Darling. I’m afraid it has. We all have to do as much as we can to help, now.”
“I know… I know.” Fluttershy fell silent, quivering every so often, and she reached a shaky hoof out to grab for her cup of tea. “Rainbow Dash has always been so strong… and she… she was crying.”
“We need to be strong for her now.” Rarity tried to give an encouraging smile, but even she could feel her confidence crumbling. A long sigh escaped her mouth.
“It’s just so hard…”
“I know it is, Dear… I know it is.”
“She needs our help.” Fluttershy took a delicate sip of tea, trying her best to soothe her nerves. Rarity nodded in silent agreement. “I want to help her. I want to do something for her. She needs me to, but I… I just… I just don’t know what to do, and I feel awful.”
“Fluttershy, I’m going over to the hospital to see her… but I came here first because I was wondering if you would join me. I know how you feel. I want to do something too. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know what’s best right now, but this… this is a start.” Fluttershy remained silent, her gaze fixed intently on the tiny ripples in her teacup. “Won’t you come with me?”
Fluttershy nodded, steeling her resolve and setting her drink down. “Yes… yes, of course I will, Rarity.”
The room was filled with incessant ticking. Detective Bright Star paced across the smooth tiled floor, grumbling to himself. His hooves clicked in time with the sound of a metronome. He glanced over at the desk, set up under a window on the far side of the room from a door. The infernal contraption, echoing its constant beat across the room every half-second, sat next to a pile of papers and several quills. The thought to shut the noise off crossed his mind for what seemed the four-hundred and sixth time since taking up residence in Doctor Stable’s office, but once again, Detective Bright Star fought the urge off.
He resumed his pacing, trying to stave off the feeling that he was just wasting time here, waiting for the Doctor in his office, when he could be out looking for more evidence. But no, he kept telling himself that this was the best way to advance his case. There was nothing better for him to do. But every tick of the metronome sounded another fraction of time lost to waiting. He reached up to wipe a hoof through his charcoal mane. It came away wet. It was not even that hot in the office, yet his hair was slick with sweat. Once again, the brim of his hat fell down before his eyes. The Detective grumbled, reaching up and flicking the hat from his head in one smooth motion, and flung it off to the side. It landed softly upon a worn couch.
The faint sound of the door swinging open drew his attention. He was greeted by Doctor Stable, whose glowing horn was just visible above a levitating clipboard. “You wouldn’t happen to play any instruments, would you Doctor?”
Doctor Stable looked up from poring over his notes to greet his visitor. “Detective Bright Star. I thank you for waiting so patiently.” He levitated his clipboard across the room, setting it gently upon his desk. “And yes, I do enjoy practicing my violin from time to time. Why do you ask?”
“Your metronome – I fear you’ve left it on.”
“What? Oh, that. No, I like to have it on. It helps me concentrate.”
“It doesn’t get too distracting?”
“Not at all. I find it helps me focus my attention better…. Does it bother you?”
“I don’t want to seem intrusive, but if it wouldn’t be too much trouble…”
“Oh, none at all.” Doctor Stable strode across the room, flicking off the sound. He picked his clipboard back up. “Better?”
“Much. Now, am I correct to assume the test results are in?”
Doctor stable nodded, idly flipping through the few clipped pages with his magic. “Yes, we’ve just got them back from analysis.”
“Anything you can tell me right off the bat?”
“It’s still pretty early, but I can definitively tell you that she was indeed raped. We’ve found traces of a stallion within the samples Nurse Redheart collected.”
“Traces meaning semen samples, correct?”
“To put it bluntly, yes. But exactly whose, well, it’s too early to tell.”
“But you’re working on that, correct?”
“Precisely. I’ve sent copies of our test results off to some of my colleagues in Canterlot. They should be able to find whoever did this.”
“So we’ll have answers when?”
“Can’t say for sure. Could be a couple hours, could be more. I hope to get at least a response before nightfall, though.”
Detective Bright Star actually cracked a smile as he trotted over to the couch, scooping up his hat and adjusting it in place upon his head. “Thanks for all your help, Doc. Don’t forget to follow up with me when you do get a response. I want this stallion in custody yesterday.”
Doctor Stable chuckled. “I’ll be sure to. Good luck, Detective.” Bright Star nodded as he crossed the threshold, heading out into the hallway.
Fluttershy and Rarity’s journey through town passed in relative silence. Rarity stole a furtive glance at her companion every few moments, still harboring significant concern for the pegasus’ well-known fragile fortitude. Fluttershy, however, just kept staring straight ahead, her gaze fixed intently upon the distant hospital. Somehow, the daily goings-on of life all around them seemed foreign to them. They were surrounded by so many ponies, their own friends and neighbors. Everypony else was out meeting with friends and family, having happy conversations, buying things in the market, or just taking a stroll, enjoying another pristine Ponyville morning. Didn’t they know what had happened? Weren’t they concerned for Rainbow Dash? How could their lives be so normal when life just wasn’t normal anymore?
“Rares? Fluttershy?” Rarity was snapped out of her reverie by a familiar voice. She perceived a quick southern twang, but subdued, unenthusiastic. She looked up. From beyond a crowd of ponies, Applejack came into view, trotting towards them, her mane unkempt and unrestrained. Rarity immediately noted that the farmer ponies usual hair bands were outright missing, and her Stetson was cocked askew on her head. The mare visibly stifled a yawn as she reached her friends. “H- how are ya gals?”
“Applejack?” Rarity frowned, quickly scanning her friend’s uncannily disheveled visage. “Are you okay, Dear? No offense, but you… you look dreadful.”
“Ah… Ah didn’t get much sleep las’ nigh’.”
“I see… and are you on your way to the hospital as well?”
Applejack yawned aloud, nodding her answer. “Yeah… yeah. Ah’m sorry, Rarity. Ah got home and Ah couldn’t think of anythin’ else Ah could do, so Ah just got in bed. But every time Ah closed mah eyes, all Ah could see was Rainbow, and she was hurtin’ and cryin’ and… and Ah just couldn’t bring mahself ta sleep. And then this mornin’ some police colt came and told me that she was in the hospital, so Ah came here as fast as Ah could.”
“I can sympathize, Applejack. I don’t know where I would even be without my coffee this morning.”
“Is Pinkie with you?” Fluttershy glanced around hopefully, but to no avail.
“Nope.” Applejack shook her head, her mane flailing about wildly. “Ah haven’t seen her.”
“Maybe she’s already at the hospital” Rarity offered, gesturing towards the building with her head. “I know that’s where Twilight Sparkle is by now.”
“Only one way ta find out, Ah guess.” The three ponies turned and trotted towards the large structure, pausing once inside at the reception desk where a very flustered nurse directed them to sit in the waiting room.
“Nurse, I must insist that we be allowed to see our friend. We’ve all been terribly worried about her.”
“I am sorry, Miss Rarity, but she is not accepting visitors at this time. I’d like to help you, I understand how hard this is for all of you, but I can’t. Rules are rules.” Nurse Tender frowned. This was one part of her job she hated, even if she would never admit it. She could see the concern written on the faces of the ponies before her, yet she knew she was bound not to let them out of the waiting room until Doctor Stable authorized visitors, and in a case like this, that was not looking to be any time soon.
“Well, if you could at least give us some update on her condition, it would be appreciated.” Rarity scowled.
“I will see if Doctor Stable or somepony can come meet with you, but beyond that, I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait.”
“There won’t be any need for that.” Everypony’s attention was suddenly jerked towards the double doors leading into the corridor. Twilight Sparkle, her face bearing the signs of wear and exhaustion, gazed back at them. “Hi girls, I’m so glad you made it.”
“Oh, thank goodness, Twilight. We were getting worried about you.” Rarity trotted over to her fellow unicorn, relief washing over her. “Please, do tell us, how is our little darling doing in there?”
“Rainbow Dash is asleep. Doctor Stable and I decided that was probably the best thing for her right now. I saw her awake earlier though, when Nurse Redheart had to run some tests. She’s pretty… she’s pretty shaken up. She needs to be left alone for a while. Her mind needs time to heal.”
“She’s goin’ to get better, though, right?” Applejack stepped forward, her eyes betraying her concern. “Is she goin’ to be ok?”
“Well… she’s going to make a full recovery, if that’s what you mean. But I… I don’t know if she’ll be the same Rainbow Dash again.”
Applejack shook her head and stumbled over to flop down on a couch. “How does this happen…? How does this happen?”
“What… what do you mean she won’t be the same Rainbow Dash again?” Fluttershy’s eyes had grown wide with fear, and were tearing up again.
“I just don’t know, Fluttershy. I just don’t know.”
Detective Bright Star knew, in the back of his mind, that his dentist was probably going to kill him.
Despite this, his head continued to fill with the incessant vibrations of his teeth grinding against one another. It was a bad habit, and one he had oft tried to break, but still just couldn’t seem to – especially when he was on a case. His mind was turning over at a mile a minute; details, facts, figures, and plans running through his head. It was a dangerous cycle, he knew, to get into. He tried to keep his focus on the matters at hoof, but his mind would keep returning to her. It was the stress, he decided, of dealing with another case. No, not another case. This case – a case too eerily similar to hers. That was it; he knew it, even if he didn’t dare let it rest at the forefront of his thoughts too long. She remained there anyway, lurking, present, but somehow not at the same time.
At least he was no longer alone in the corridors. The hospital had been growing steadily busier throughout the day. Not to mention, dodging the occasional nurse, with or without gurney, as he strode through the passageways provided somewhat of a distraction. Finally, rounding another corner, he came upon the room he had been looking for. Copper, faithful as ever, was standing vigilant watch. The door was, of course, closed. He would have been surprised if it wasn’t. As much as he would have liked to interview her in an attempt to get a more firm grasp of what had happened, he knew how vital sleep was for the victim.
Bright Star had to suppress a shudder. ‘The victim’ had always seemed such a callous and de-ponyizing term to him, though he knew such emotional detachment was necessary for the professionalism his job required. He could not help but feel uncomfortable, nevertheless. “Hey, Cop’, anything to report?”
A frown settled upon Bright Star’s face. “Really? You’ve nothing to tell me?”
“No, suh. Nutt’n o’ signif’c’nce.”
“Off the record, Copper. Tell me. How’ve things been around here? What have you heard?”
Officer Copper glanced up and down the corridor quickly before meeting his superior’s questioning gaze. “In truth, suh, I have noticed summt’n. Th’ mare, Miss Dash? Ev’ry time they leave ‘er, try an’ give ‘er some rest, right? Sh’es restless, suh. I can hear ‘er tossin’, turnin’, sometimes moanin’ right awful. I daren’t say I’ve heard none else like it.”
Bright Star gave an involuntary shudder, both Royal Police members quieting down for a few moments, trying to discern any noises from beyond the door. There was nothing. “And nopony is with her, no nurses, none of her friends?”
Copper shook his head. “I’ve been keepin’ track, there’s nopony else in there wit’ ‘er.”
“Do you think she’s sleeping right now?”
“I s’ppose so, suh. Can’t hear nottin’, an’ I expect she’s a might tired out by now. One thing I’m certain on, though, She’ll be in no right state fo’ questionin’, tha’s fo’ sure.”
“I figured as much.” Bright Star furled his brow, thoughts churning once more. He needed some time to think. “Thanks, Copper. Keep me posted, and I’ll see about getting Cuff in here sometime soon to relieve you.”
“Thank ye, suh.” Officer Copper nodded curtly and resumed his position by the door. Bright Star strode past, towards the end of the corridor. Unbeknownst to him, he was grinding his teeth once more.
Another turn led him nearly towards the wide double doors leading to the lobby. His hoof steps echoed off the confines and his shadow jumped rhythmically under the shifting beams of fluorescent light as he passed under each fixture. Each hoofbeat registered as a dull thump in his mind. His collar and tie felt entirely too tight, stifling, even. He pulled at it with one hoof. His head was pounding. He groaned, rubbing his temple. He glanced up. Two squares of light, signaling the doors and brightly-lit lobby beyond, lay ahead. Bright Star glanced to his side. Another door, a plain, nondescript metal edifice that might nary have drawn his attention otherwise, stood recessed into the wall. A simple inscription across the top read ‘Broom Closet’.
Ducking to the side, he slipped the door open and glided inside, shutting it behind him. His eyes fell upon a small, damp, dimly-lit room. He lit his horn, his magic casting a beam of light upon a few scattered brooms, buckets, and other cleaning supplies. An old generator sat in the corner, humming and vibrating. Bright Star shut his eyes, shaking his head back and forth. He pulled his collar even looser, his teeth grinding at a furious pace. His eyes flew open. He saw a broom. In an instant, it was enveloped in his shimmering magical aura. “Not again.” He whispered to the darkness. He shook his head. The broom lifted into the air. His head throbbed; thoughts searing his mind like wildfire. He tried to throw the brakes on to no avail. Red flashed before his eyes. “Not again!” his voice filled the narrow space.
Without warning, the broom swung down and struck against the generator. A resounding clang echoed through the small room. He lifted it again and swung again. It came down hard with another metallic sound. Over and over. Bright Star’s eyes narrowed on the generator as his broom swung hard into it again and again until the wood handle shattered in midair. He dropped it, then, letting the splintered pieces clatter to the ground. He took a deep breath, the sound of impact still ringing in his ears. He shuddered as he took in each breath, willing himself to calm down. His face was still hot. He wiped a trail of sweat form his brow with a hoof. He backed up against the door. “He’s not getting away again. Not this time.” He growled. “Not again.” He whisked the door open and strode out.
A nurse stood just outside, her mouth hanging slack, staring at him as he exited. Bright Star cast a glance back into the broom closet. The splintered broom lay strewn about the floor, the generator humming away with a few new dents. He looked back to the nurse and straightened his tie. “Someone should really take a look at that.”
There was just something about hospitals that made Twilight feel uneasy. She wasn’t sure if it was the faint, yet ever-present, antiseptic scent, the disconcerting pattern of off-white and sickly green that dominated the décor, or simply the feeling of helplessness and uselessness that sitting around in a waiting room imparted. Glancing around her, she could plainly see her friends shared her reservations. Applejack fidgeted on a couch across the room. The farm pony lay on her back, her eyes screwed tightly shut, as if she was trying to fall asleep and having a particularly hard time of it. Nearby, Rarity seemed intent on distracting herself. If the furiously clacking knitting needles and what was probably supposed to be a scarf were any indication, however, she appeared to be doing a fairly poor job of it. Given the numerous mistakes she had made, her mind clearly wasn’t fully into the project. Fluttershy seemed focused enough on it, however. She stared at the knitting piece suspended in her unicorn friend’s magical aura as if it were the most interesting thing she had ever seen.
Twilight sighed, resting her chin upon her hooves in a vain attempt to get comfortable on the hard, knobby couch. A quick glance towards the window revealed a weary face, disheveled mane, and drooping eyes. It suddenly dawned on her exactly how long she had gone without sleep by then. Unbidden, a yawn escaped her. Maybe Applejack had the right idea, she reasoned. Maybe if she could just get a few minutes’ rest, she wouldn’t feel so beaten down.
Twilight Sparkle closed her eyes, but her mind was whirring at a furious pace. She couldn’t stop thinking about Rainbow Dash – about everything that had gone so horribly wrong. She wished she could go back to her friend’s room. She wished she hadn’t had to leave Rainbow Dash’s side. Her mind’s eye returned again and again to the image of the once strong pegasus’s face, contorted in pain and fear, staring at her as Nurse Redheart began her tests. The fear – that was the worst part. Rainbow Dash had been scared; she’d reached out for help, but all Twilight could offer had been her hoof. A tingling sensation raced through the limb, as if the pegasus still held it in her vice grip. Twilight shivered.
“Miss Sparkle? If I could get a moment of your time?” A stallion’s voice cut into her thoughts. Twilight grunted, her eyes still squinted tightly shut. She waved her hoof in front of her in a half-hearted attempt to shoo whoever it was away. “I assure you; this is a matter of the utmost importance.”
Twilight cracked one eye open to find Detective Bright Star glancing down at her with a mixture of bemusement and grave concern. She carefully pulled herself to her hooves to stand before him. “What is it, detective?”
“I’ve some news, but I think it best to sojourn somewhere more private first.”
With a sigh, Twilight reluctantly followed his lead to a more secluded corner of the lobby. “How is she doing?”
“I spoke with my partner just a moment ago. From what he tells me, the sedative drip they put in her IV isn’t working too well. He says she’s restless… says she’s been tossing and turning and moaning in her sleep. It doesn’t sound too good.”
“Oh, dear… how well can we trust his judgment?”
“One-hundred percent. He’s one of the best stallions I’ve got. Both he and Cuff are.”
Twilight nodded. “Fair enough. It’s just… I don’t like it. A higher dosage is out of the question, then?”
“I’d assume that would do her more harm than good. But no, I don’t like it either.”
“So you’re saying it probably can’t be helped?”
Bright Star nodded. “Probably. But, even if she isn’t sleeping soundly, the drip ensures she isn’t in any pain. Still, there are some wounds only time can heal.”
Twilight frowned. “Is that it then, or do you have any other news from your investigation?”
“Yes, actually. Some good news. Those samples the nurse took have been sent to a lab in Canterlot for analysis.”
Twilight Sparkle, her curiosity piqued, immediately felt her mood pick up. “Really, well, maybe we’ll get somewhere now.”
“Indeed. A colleague of Doctor Stable’s should be examining them and comparing them against the Equestrian Magical Database soon.”
Twilight blinked at the detective, incredulous. “The EMD? Already?”
“You’re familiar with the database, I take it?”
“Of course. I worked with some of the professors who developed it while I was studying under Princess Celestia.”
Bright Star nodded his approval when Twilight acknowledged. “Very good. That makes explaining things easier, then.”
“They must have fast-tracked our case, then. They usually have a fairly long backlog.”
“I thought as much. Somepony must be pulling some strings behind the scenes.”
“Celestia…” Twilight muttered.
Bright Star nodded his agreement. “That would be my guess, as well. From what times I’ve worked directly with her during my career, I wouldn’t put it past her.”
Twilight’s face registered surprise. She had not known of the princess’ dealings with the police before. Some unknown urge drove her to press further. “How well do you know the princess?”
Bright Star chuckled lightly. “Not personally. I’ve met her numerous times in a professional capacity, though. I suppose she trusts me. I’m usually the first pony called on whenever an assignment comes directly from her.”
“And how long have you…” Twilight trailed off, her cheeks flushing a faint shade of pink.
“… Been on the force?” Bright Star finished for her, a knowing smile crossing his face. Twilight nodded. “Too long. Always, too long.” He shook his head, the grin melting from his features.
A spark returned to his eyes almost immediately, though he appeared pensive and distracted. “Don’t be. It’s a living.” The detective straightened his tie, clearing his throat in the process. “And speaking of which, I’d best be going. I need to find Cuff and see if he has much of anything to report.” Without some much as a goodbye, he turned and headed for the door. The nurse on duty glanced up from her desk for only a moment before returning to her book.
“Good luck!” Twilight called after him. The front doors swung closed.
A quiet cough sounded behind her. Twilight spun around. Rarity, Fluttershy, and Applejack stood at rapt attention, a few paces behind her. Applejack coughed again. Rarity cocked an eyebrow at her fellow unicorn. Twilight smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, girls. Just discussing the case.”
Applejack frowned. “Ah don’t like him much. He seems so cold an’ distant.”
Rarity glanced at Applejack before returning to Twilight. “I concur. He does come off as rather aloof. I’m not sure I feel very comfortable around him.”
Twilight shrugged, trotting back to the couch with her friends trailing behind. “I think he’s just being a professional. Really, anyone who’s been doing the work he has for as long as he has is bound to grow a hard shell.”
“If it’s all the same, Ah still don’t like him much.” Applejack lay down beside her friend, shifting her weight to get comfortable. “So, Twi… what is a ‘EMD’?”
“Yes, Darling. Do tell us… just what is going on?”
Twilight Sparkle breathed deeply, searching for the right words. “Well, the princesses need a way of keeping track of all their subjects, so the Equestrian Magical Database is just that – a huge catalogue of everypony in Equestria, sorted by name, birthdate, and more.”
“So how does that help us?” Applejack scratched behind her head, looking confused.
Twilight sighed. “It’s hard to explain… basically, the system is also set up to contain a magical record of each individual pony. It works like this… you know how everypony, unicorn or not, has some magic in them, right?”
“Sure.” Applejack agreed; Rarity and Fluttershy nodding as well.
“Well, the magic within a pony is also completely unique to that pony. So, using a spell, a higher-level unicorn can analyze the magical energy of any one pony and then be able to read that pony’s unique magical signature. By cataloguing each signature with its respective pony in the database, the police can use the magical signature to match pieces of evidence to their respective ponies and help solve crimes.”
“Ok, Sugarcube. Ya lost me there.”
“Look at it this way. If you cut a piece of your mane off, does it just become generic, nameless hair?”
Applejack shook her head slowly. “No… it’s still mah hair, ain’t it?”
Twilight nodded. “Exactly. It identifies with you, so it makes sense that part of the magical energy within you stays in the hair, right?”
“Ah guess so…”
“Right. So, if a stray hair is found at a crime scene, its magical signature can be read, compared to the database, and matched with the pony it belongs to. That’s the benefit of using the EMD, and that’s what they’re doing now with the… erm…” Twilight gave an involuntary shudder, “… fluid… samples they’ve collected.”
Rarity grimaced, looking more than a little queasy. “Oh, dear… that’s… that’s absolutely repulsive. But… will they find out who… who…”
Twilight nodded quickly. “Yes, they’ll be able to tell who it was. There is a catch though.”
“What?” Rarity and Applejack exclaimed, nearly in unison.
“Analyzing a pony’s individual magical energy is still a pretty new practice, and the information is usually catalogued into the system at birth. So if a pony was born before they started the system, or outside of a hospital, they might not have a magical signature added to the database.” Twilight glanced at each face. Worry creased all three. “Don’t worry, though.” She spoke quickly, trying to convince herself of her words as much as her friends. “I’m sure we won’t run into that problem.”
“How can ya be so sure?” Twilight smiled at Applejack’s question.
“Because. The Wonderbolts are extremely high-profile ponies. They would have had their signatures catalogued as a safety precaution. Of that, I’m positive.”
Rarity nodded at this. “But, Darling, are you sure it was one of them? After all, we don’t really know…”
“There’s no doubt in my mind.” Twilight nodded curtly; Rarity swallowed the rest of her reply.
“I do hope you’re right, Twilight Sparkle… but when will we know for sure?”
Twilight sighed, suddenly deflated; she sunk back into the couch. “All we can do now is wait.”
Applejack closed her eyes, resting her chin on crossed hooves. “Seems like waitin’s all we’ve been doin’ since last night.”
Silence fell over the four friends. For a long while, a sublime quiet filled the waiting room, broken only by steady breathing and the occasional swish of a turning page as the on-duty Nurse pursued her novel.
Fluttershy fidgeted in her place, unable to get comfortable. Beside her, Rarity had returned to her knitting, but hardly paid any attention to it. Twilight and Applejack both rested their heads in their hooves. They looked like they might be asleep, but Fluttershy couldn’t be quite sure. She swallowed lightly. The air felt heavy against her, weighed down with the silence all around her. A bead of sweat rolled down from her mane, even though the room was not too warm. She fidgeted again. The quiet and the still air pressed against her chest. She opened her mouth to speak, but only a squeak came out. She couldn’t form the words. The silence was too overwhelming. She…
She reached out and pressed a hoof to Rarity’s shoulder. The unicorn, glad for a distraction, set her half-made scarf down and turned to her best friend, her best comforting smile spread across her features. “Yes, Dear? What is it?”
The deadening silence shattered. Fluttershy took a deep breath and found her voice. “Oh, Rarity… I’m so confused. I just… I don’t… nothing seems like it makes sense anymore.”
Rarity sighed; her smiled vanished. The regal pony suddenly looked very tired. “I understand what you mean, my dear. We’re all still very confused.” She raised a hoof to rub at her eyes. It came away wet. “This whole ugly mess has been very trying for everypony.”
“Don’t… don’t you feel like something’s missing, though?” Fluttershy bit her lip, a lock of long, pink hair falling across her face.
Rarity pursed her lips, her face scrunched in thought. “Whatever could you mean?”
Rarity’s eyes went wide before blinking a few times. “You’re right…” She spoke slowly. “Where is Pinkie Pie? I would have thought she’d be here by now…” Rarity glanced over at Twilight Sparkle. The other unicorn’s chest rose and fell slowly, peacefully. Rarity reached out to tap her friend on the shoulder, but hesitated. A light smile fell across her face as she watched Twilight’s sleeping form for a few short moments. She drew her hoof back. “Poor dear’s been up and running around all night.” She whispered, turning back to Fluttershy. “She needs her rest.”
“What should we do? Do you think… do you think something else bad might have happened?”
Rarity shook her head. “I doubt it, Darling. But if you are worried, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to go check up on the little dear. She’s probably more rattled about this than we are.” Fluttershy nodded silently. “Do you think we should go find her?”
Rarity chuckled lightly. “Of course, Dear. We’ll leave Twilight for some much needed rest and go ourselves.”
She was cut off by a yawn. “If… if ya don’t mind, Rarity. Ah think Ah’ll stay back as well. Ah’m still…” Applejack yawned once more, rolling over onto her back. “Ah’m still a might tuckered out.” Rarity nodded gently. Applejack pulled one of the couch’s few pillows underneath her head and slipped her hat down over her eyes to block the light. Soon, her chest, too, was rising and falling in gentle rhythm.
Rarity and Fluttershy shared a small smile. “Come along, Darling. We shall see what has become of our dear pink friend.” With a final glance towards their sleeping companions, the two mares slipped silently from the room.
Some sort of buzzing noise; a strange, periodic, low humming sound, filled her ears.
Rainbow Dash rolled over onto her side, clasping a hoof over her upturned ear. The humming continued unabated. She scrunched up her face, wishing that the annoyance would leave her to her rest. A short moment later, with no such luck, she rolled onto her back once more, emitting a sound somewhere between a grunt and a low moan. Her head still felt foggy; her thoughts merely swimming through half-conscious murk. Within the sea of unintelligible bits and pieces of ideas, though, one stood free and clear: something was making an annoying buzzing sound, and she needed to investigate. Rainbow Dash opened her eyes.
She immediately regretted that decision. The too-bright lights of before somehow seemed even brighter, and her eyes registered the light as little more than searing pain. She squinted them shut almost instantly, another groan rolling from her lips. The shock of new light cut through her mind’s haze, though she still felt a bit numb. With her daze subsiding, she wondered exactly where she was. She certainly couldn’t be at home; the sunshine of her room was never so bright in the morning, and whatever she was laying on certainly was not cloud stuff. It took a few more seconds for the last remaining fog to clear from her mind.
Memories of the hospital came rushing back to her. At least, she thought it was the hospital. She remembered Nurse Redheart… Nurse Redheart standing over her, whisking her blankets away, exposing her, touching her with… something… something cold. Rainbow Dash shivered, a tingling sensation spreading up through her lower belly. She remembered something more, though: Twilight Sparkle, her friend, with a concerned face, standing by her side, reaching out to her and holding her hoof. She was there for her, taking care of her. Rainbow Dash wondered if Twilight was still there, waiting for her to wake up. Still squinting hard, she opened her eyes a mere crack. The light didn’t seem so bad this time. She tried again, and again, her eyes finally blinking their last remaining inhibitions away and opening fully to her surroundings. The same hospital room as before fell into view, and it was clear nopony else was in the room. She was alone, with the same too-white walls and the same ugly green sheets. These were tangled in a mess around her body, products of a fitful night’s… or a few hours’… sleep.
It slowly dawned on Rainbow Dash that she had no idea what time of day it even was, or how long she’d been in the hospital. Wearily, she sat up, lifting her hooves to rub the last of the sleep from her eyes. Then, setting her hooves back down, she noticed something out of the corner of her eye. She squinted at her fore leg, trying to gain a better view. A bandage was wrapped around her limb, just at the joint, concealing a small bulge from which a plastic tube jutted. Her eyes traced the tube, following its curves up to a bag hung on a rack above her, filled with some foreign liquid. Despite her warm tangle of sheets, Rainbow Dash suddenly felt very cold. She could feel a pressure on the joint, just beneath the tube, could feel it sticking into her. Something filled her with the overwhelming desire to get it out; she jerked her foreleg quickly away from the rack with its chilling bag.
She drew a sharp intake of breath as the tube tugged against her movement and a sudden pinprick of pain shot through her limb. Gingerly, she set her fore leg down by her side. The alien tube remained. Soon, the quick spike of pain dulled, and finally went numb. Rainbow Dash shivered. Her whole body felt a little numb. A part of her mind told her that it was just some sort of medicine, and that the sensation would wear off soon enough. Another part was merely glad that her head no longer throbbed and that the cotton was gone from her ears. Her mouth was dry, though, and the more she thought of it, the worse it seemed.
Water… she needed water. She felt her dry mouth and throat beg for it as she cast her gaze about the room. There was a sink, nestled against the wall in the far corner – too far for her to reach without pulling the tube out. She shuddered, her fore leg tingling at just the thought of the pain, and the thirst continued to eat away at her.
A wave of relief washed over her when she heard the door open. That would be the nurse, she reasoned, coming to check on her. Rainbow Dash coughed, turning and opening her mouth to ask for a glass of water, but in that moment, her breath was stolen from her.
“Surprised to see me?” Playful, twinkling eyes locked on her from across the room.
Rainbow Dash shrank back into the bed. She could only stammer weakly. “Y- you…”
A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Yes, utterly speechless. Oh, come now. I should think you’d be quite happy to see me.” A deep, low, calm voice, cutting through the air like a knife, drawing it away with swift swipes. Rainbow Dash couldn’t breathe. His eyes were laughing. “I barely even got to the best part.”
“You… you’re not supposed to be here.”
“Au contraire, my dear. You see, I was so worried about you. After all, you left so quickly, I hardly even got the chance to say goodbye.” His grin was wider now, threatening to split his face from end to end along a dark seam.
He advanced, smooth azure coat rippling over a toned, muscular frame. Each hoof fall echoed through the room as a clap of thunder, one after another. She scrambled backwards, clawing at the bed for purchase, throwing up sheets, pillows, anything that might bury her, hide her, mask her from view. All the while, he grew closer…
His hot breath rolled over her neck. His lips were at her ear. “Of course, you do know we were only just getting started…”
Rainbow Dash screamed.
To Rarity, it seemed that a beautiful day only served to provide the final irony to what had been the most confusing and unsettling day of her young life. After all, the early afternoon sun was shining brightly, the sky was an absolutely gorgeous shade of blue, and the citizenry of Ponyville was out in force to enjoy the day. Had they no shame? Had they no discretion? Sensitivity? Tact?
Had they no idea? It was a sobering, although entirely true, she realized, thought that nopony outside their tight-knit circle of friends and a few choice others were even aware of what had transpired. For them, the world was just as bright and sunny and happy as the day before, and for all they knew, Rainbow Dash was not hospitalized. She was probably just sleeping in again, like the lazy, brash flypony they all knew, or thought they knew.
But if there was anypony who knew how the first quiet, gentle whisperings of a rumor could take hold and spread like wildfire through this small town, it was Rarity. It wouldn’t be much longer now, she knew, before their blissful ignorance would crumble at the hooves of a tale run wild. The unicorn had seen it happen more times than she could count, and even been the instigator of such gossip more than a few times. But this? No… she wouldn’t have it. It was unconscionable, crass, unthinkable, but… it was inevitable – of that, she was certain. Soon, somehow, somepony would catch wind of what had happened, and as soon as one pony knew, the whole town would surely follow.
Rarity ducked and weaved her way quickly through the mass of ponies going about their everyday business, completely unaware of the cause for her haste. Fluttershy scurried along right behind her.
A bell clanged to announce their arrival as they breezed through the front door and into Sugarcube Corner. From behind the counter, Mr. Cake looked up at them and grinned broadly. “Hello there, Miss Rarity, Miss Fluttershy. It’s so good to see familiar faces. And what can I do for you this fine day?”
Rarity tried her best to smile for him as she approached the counter. “Good Afternoon, Mister Cake, we were just wondering if Pinkie Pie was here.”
The baker’s demeanor darkened, and he beckoned the two friends closer with one hoof. Wary of alarming any customers, he kept his voice at a hush. “Yeah… she’s here alright, and she’s been in a right state since she got home. I can’t make heads or tails of it.”
Rarity dropped her voice to a hushed whisper. “Whatever do you mean? What has she done?”
“I saw her when she first got back. Something was just… off… about her. Then she locked herself in her room. Cup and I have tried to get her to tell us what’s wrong, but we can’t get her to speak with us.”
“Oh, dear…” Rarity nodded, more out of resignation than anything else. Fluttershy offered a distressed squeak. “Is the poor darling still shut away?”
“I think so. Cupcake has been running between Pinkie’s room and the kitchen for the past hour with no success. We’re… we’re really worried about her.”
“Might we go and see her?”
“By all means, you can try. Maybe you girls can get through to her where we couldn’t. I certainly hope so.”
The two friends offered their quick thanks before ducking behind the counter and heading towards the stairs at the back of the store. A good many years of coming to visit their friend led them straight to her door, where Mrs. Cake happened to be pacing, creased lines of worry etched across her face. “Oh, girls. Thanks goodness you’re here.”
Rarity nodded towards the closed door. “Is she…” A silent nod was the immediate answer, and she trailed off, biting her lip in apprehension.
“There’s no telling what’s going on inside that head of hers, and I haven’t been able to get through to her.”
“Do you think she’s… ok?” Fluttershy’s voice wavered like fine crystal on the edge of shattering. She shivered slightly.
Mrs. Cake sighed. “I don’t kn-…. Well, at least, I have known her since she was a little filly, so I should think she’s fine, but I’ve never known her to behave like this. This is… this is new for me.”
Rarity suppressed a nervous gulp, and steeled her resolve. “Well, in that case, we’ll soon find out.”
Mrs. Cake nodded. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am, girls. Pinkie’s… she’s like another daughter to me.”
Wordlessly, Rarity nodded. She glanced behind her, to where Fluttershy was cowering, trying to look anywhere but at Pinkie’s door. Rarity flashed her a small, encouraging smile, and saw her friend stand a little taller, though her eyes were still swimming in worry. The unicorn turned back around. Like some towering edifice, the door’s blank face stared back at her. She lit her horn with a short jolt, a spark that flew to the doorknob and disappeared within. A resounding click echoed through the hallway, and Rarity swung the door open to reveal the darkness within.
Officer Copper suppressed a deep gulp as he ran down the hall, his nerves frayed and his pulse running high. He had been caught unawares, to say the least, by the first blood-curdling scream. So much so, in fact, that he feared someone had managed to slip past him despite having kept vigilant watch for hours. Just to be certain, he had ducked his head into the room, only to see it empty save for the pegasus under his charge, thrashing in her bed and screeching something awful. Assured there was nopony else in the room with her, he had then run for a nurse. Though hesitating at the thought of leaving the disturbed mare to herself, he knew the situation could only grow worse if she noticed him. Still, he kept checking back over his shoulder every few seconds, just to make sure that, yes, in fact, her door was still there, and he wasn’t merely imagining the screams coming from within. So focused was he, then, that he barely noticed the white nurse with the no-nonsense pink bun as she barreled past him.
For her part, Nurse Redheart galloped at full tilt towards the source of the cries, skidding around a corner on the slippery tiled surface of the corridor floor. Her mane, usually so orderly – without a hair out of place – had fallen to disarray. She had a wild look in her eye. Without a second thought for the hapless officer, she charged down the hall and into the door, throwing it open with a loud bang.
“No! No! Please… NO!”
“What’s wrong? Miss Dash, are you hurt?”
“Don’t come any closer! NO! Get… GET AWAY!”
“Please, Miss Dash, calm down! Tell me what’s…”
“No! Stay away from me! Help me… HELP!”
“What is it? What do you see?”
“He’s here… he’s HERE! No…”
“There’s no one here… there’s no one here but me, please, you’re safe… you’re fine.”
“What’s wrong? What’s goin’ on with her?”
“He’s back! Don’t let him get me!”
“Please, Miss Dash, everything’s under control!”
“What’s happening? Is she hurt?”
“Miss Sparkle, please, I can’t…”
“Get away… get away from me…”
“She’s incoherent, I can’t get through to her.”
“Rainbow… Rainbow Dash, please, we’re your friends. You’re safe, you’re fine.”
“NO! He’s there… he’s there… can’t you see him? He’s right THERE!”
“Miss Dash, there’s no one else but us! You’re…”
“NO! No no no STAY BACK!”
“… fine! You’re fine! Don’t…”
“Somepony do somethin’, she’s goin’ ta hurt herself!”
The overwhelming din of voices collapsed into nothingness, and the hospital room echoed with a faint ringing, as if the walls themselves were stunned into silence.
Twilight Sparkle stood over the bed; her eyes alight with a spark of both terror and understanding. The empty glass hovered in mid-air above her head, suspended and releasing its last drip of water from the rim.
Rainbow Dash shivered, her breath coming in ragged gasps as rivulets of water ran quickly down her face. She shook her head, shaking her plastered-down fore lock from her face and spraying droplets in all directions. Her chest shuddered with broken gasps.
Her friends gazed back at her, worry glistening in wide eyes. Nurse Redheart stopped to take a deep breath. “Miss Dash? Are you… are you quite alright, now?”
“Rainbow? Are ya ok, Sugarcube?”
The pegasus swallowed. Her throat was dry. “A… Applejack?” She coughed, the words coming from her mouth frayed and broken and uncertain. “T-Twilight?”
Nurse Redheart sighed, though from relief or exhaustion it was not clear. “Thank Celestia she’s coherent… Somepony, please get her a glass of water – to drink this time…” Twilight silently levitated her glass back to the sink, refilling it and returning it to the pegasus. Rainbow accepted it quickly. “Now… Miss Dash, do you know where you are?”
She took two more grateful gulps of water before Twilight drew the glass away, setting it on the bedside table. Rainbow coughed a couple more times before speaking, her voice raspy from shouting. “P-Ponyville Hospital?”
The nurse nodded. “Correct. And you know Applejack and Twilight Sparkle. Do you know who I am?”
“Are you hurt anywhere?”
Rainbow Dash looked herself over. Sheets, blankets, and pillows had been strewn every which way, leaving the bed almost bare. Her whole body still felt numb, save for her head and her fore leg. Both were throbbing. She glanced at her limb. Crimson ran there, pooling in cyan fur. She almost jumped. “I… I think I’m bleeding.”
Redheart rushed over, quickly grasping the mare’s hoof in her own, stretching out the afflicted limb. “Oh, yes. You were flailing about a good bit, there. I’m not surprised you tore your IV out. Here, I can fix that.” The nurse set to work, whisking over a new bandage for the job and setting it easily in place to stem the drip. “Are you hurt in any other way?”
“I think I hit my head.” She leaned forward to expose the back of her neck. The nurse nodded.
“I don’t see any damage. I think that glass of water you had should offset some of the feeling there.” She glanced up to see another full glass ready on the table, and gave Twilight a quick smile before returning attention to her patient. “Now, are you aware of what just happened?”
“I… I saw… him.”
Nurse Redheart nodded as Rainbow Dash glanced up at her with trepidation in her eyes. She could feel both Twilight’s and Applejack’s gaze settling on her as well. “Yes… well, I do believe what you’ve experienced was nothing more than a hallucination brought on by all the stress.”
“He was… he was right there… he was so real.”
“Did you recognize him? Are you sure of who it was?”
“Y-… yes. He was there… by the door.”
The nurse felt a shudder twinge in her neck in spite of herself. “And who was it that you saw?”
Rainbow Dash shied away, pulling one of the askew pillows up against her chest. “I can’t… tell you.”
“Can ya tell us, Sugarcube?” Applejack stood up, having set herself down beside her friend’s bed, and reached out to grasp one of Rainbow’s hooves in her own, clenching it tightly. “We’re yer friends. Dash. Ya can trust us, can’t ya?”
Weakly, she nodded. “Only… only you guys.”
Twilight turned to Nurse Redheart before the elder mare could object. “Don’t worry. We can take care of her.”
“I… understand, but I am obligated to…”
“Don’t ya have other patients ya could visit?” Applejack pleaded, fixing a pointed gaze on the nurse with glistening, emerald eyes.
“Please, Nurse Redheart. She needs us now. We can help her.” Twilight continued, nodding earnestly.
The older mare sighed, checking her quickly-applied bandage one final time. “I suppose some time alone with her friends would do the most good. But, do not hesitate to call me or Doctor Stable should anything else come up…. Miss Dash, are you sure you feel alright?”
“I… I think so. I mean, I don’t feel so… loopy anymore.” She paused to clear her throat, still feeling a little dry. “Can I get another glass of water?”
“I suppose that settles matters, then.” Nurse Redheart finally nodded her agreement as Twilight gave her friend the glass once more.
“Thank ya kindly, Nurse.” Applejack nodded curtly as the mare exited, “This means so much ta us.”
She said nothing as she stepped from the room, closing the door slowly behind her, and released a long pent-up sigh, falling against the corridor wall for support. The surface felt cold against her body, and she almost shivered. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply for a few moments. “It’s too much… it’s just too much…”
“Is she a’right?”
Her eyes flew open to find the officer she had seen earlier watching from across the hall. Concern glimmered in his eyes. Beside him, his partner, another earth pony she did not recognize, stood as well, his own brow furled from curiosity.
“Copper, Ma’am, and this ‘ere is Officer Cuff.”
The second tipped his hat. “Charmed.”
“Yes… well, she’s doing much better, as far as I can judge. The… scare she had earlier was little more than a hallucination.”
“Nott’n to worry about?”
She shook her head. “I shouldn’t think so. If anything, it was most likely brought on by her unstable state. It should be a fleeting thing.”
“We can only hope so,” Another voice sounded from further down the hallway, and each pony turned to meet the newcomer. “The poor dear’s been through quite enough as it is, don’t you think?”
“Of course, Doctor Stable.” Redheart nodded as the unicorn stallion joined them.
He swept his gaze over the two Royal Police officers. “Would you two happen to know where the Detective went? I have business to discuss with him.”
“No, suh. He left a couple hours back.”
Cuff Link nodded agreement with his partner. “I only got here a couple minutes ago, and I was expecting to find him here, so I haven’t seen him either. He may be off on his own, looking into something. I wouldn’t be surprised, though. He works alone a lot, especially on particularly sensitive cases. You get used to it, working with Bright Star.”
“Have you any idea when he’ll return?”
“Sorry, Doc. It’s always hard to tell with him. He may only take a couple hours, or he may find a lead and not be back until the next morning.”
Doctor Stable sighed. “Keep me posted, will you?” Both officers nodded, and he turned back to the nurse. “Redheart, I have something I’d like to speak with you about. Walk with me, won’t you?” She silently agreed, and fell into step beside the aging unicorn as he led them towards the waiting room.
It was; thankfully, empty, with the blinds drawn to deter the worst heat of the day. “You’ll forgive me, Redheart. It goes without saying the delicacy of this situation.”
“Of course… It almost bars thinking about, what she’s been through.”
“Quite right. Even so, we’re bound to help her as best we can, no matter what challenge this cruel world throws to our hooves.” The doctor shook his head bitterly. “Sometimes I wonder if anyone is really safe. Honestly, who would have thought this could happen in Ponyville, and yet, here we are.”
“I can only imagine you working all those years in Manehattan.”
“It seems like such a distant memory now. I never thought that world would find me here. Ponyville was supposed to be calm, one last, peaceful residency before I retire.”
“I take it this isn’t what you wanted to tell me about.”
“No…. The test results came back. That’s what I need to see Bright Star about. This will undoubtedly be the key piece in his investigation. Things are going to get pretty… interesting from here on out.”
“What will you have me do, Doctor?”
“Redheart, you’ve been here even longer than I have. I think it goes without saying that you’re the best nurse I’ve got, but I fear this may be new ground for both of us. Be honest with me. How are you feeling about this… all of this?”
She sighed. “In truth… I almost don’t know what to think. It’s hard…” She trailed off, glancing at the ceiling, “It’s hard to keep my professional distance from something so… awful. I can’t fathom how you managed to do it for all those years.”
The doctor nodded. “In Manehattan, at least there was an element of distance. The city was so full of ponies, that I hardly knew any of my patients. I could afford to ignore my emotions. But here… it’s different. You get to know everyone in this town, and when something happens to one of them…”
“… it’s hard.” Redheart finished.
“Exactly, and that’s what I’m worried about. I trust you, Redheart, but I need to know I can rely on you in this matter, especially for the next coming days.”
“You know you can.”
“I’m warning you. Things are only going to get worse from here.”
“How do you mean?”
The stallion sighed, trotting over to the window and spreading a gap between a few blinds with his hoof. “I’ve seen the results of the tests. Unfortunately, as it turns out, neither Rainbow Dash nor her assailant are low profile ponies. As much as we’d like to keep this mess quiet, the public isn’t going to stay in the dark for long.” His tired eyes swept over the peaceful, idyllic community outside the hospital window. “There’s a storm coming, and we’d best be prepared.”
There was just something about the room that immediately sent a chill racing down Rarity’s spine. She and Fluttershy stepped gingerly into the long shadows. A faint glint of light from the doorway revealed confetti, strewn haphazardly about the floor. In the corner, the dark silhouette of what appeared to be a canon, knocked onto its side, loomed. Fluttershy uttered something that sounded halfway between a gasp and a squeak, and crouched behind Rarity as best she could.
In the dim light, a bed, shoved up hard against the far wall, emerged. It harbored a shape, barely divisible in the artificial darkness, yet noticeably quivering beneath a flimsy thin blanket. Rarity suppressed the urge to back away, and called into the darkness. “Pinkie Pie, Dear, are you awake?”
A soft murmur was the only reply. Emboldened, the unicorn stepped forward, finally stopping just before the bed. “Pinkie? Won’t you come with us? Everypony’s worried about you.”
She had assumed the other pony’s appearance to be a trick of the light, or rather, lack thereof. Rarity had hoped the grey tinge she saw in her friend’s normally bright coat and mane was merely due to the shadows, but as Pinkie rolled out from beneath her blanket and drew herself up into a sitting position, Rarity could see that her earlier private fears might as well be confirmed. She had only ever seen her friend’s hair fall slack and straight once before and it was a state she had hoped never again to witness. She found herself shivering, but stood firm, her hard gaze meeting cold, dull eyes. The pink pony blinked a few times. Without warning, she threw her fore hooves around the mare’s neck and squeezed, hugging her tight against her chest.
Rarity gasped, suddenly finding breath hard to come by in the midst of Pinkie Pie’s crushing embrace. “Please… Pinkie Pie… not… breathing… let go.” She inhaled deeply when the other pony finally released her.
Pinkie glanced away, pieces of her mane falling to the front of her face like a shield. “I’m sorry, Rarity.”
“That’s… that’s quite alright, Darling. I know you meant no harm.”
“What are you girls doing here? Shouldn’t you be with…” Pinkie Pie trailed off, her face falling noticeably. “… Dashie?” She gulped.
“I might be asking you the same question. We’ve been at the hospital almost all day, wondering why you weren’t with us.”
“Please, Pinkie?” Fluttershy poked her head out from behind Rarity, nodding earnestly for her own benefit as much as her friend’s. “This is something we should all be together for.”
Pinkie Pie slumped back into a heap on her bed. “Why would anypony want me? I’d just be even more useless there.”
Rarity ‘s eyes went wide. “What? Whatever would give you the impression that you’re worthless? Has somepony been saying…”
“No, nopony’s ever said it… never said it, but they mean it. Pinkie, you’re so random. Pinkie, you’re so silly. Pinkie, you’re so funny. This is something for serious ponies to handle. Not useless Pinkie Pies. Pinkie Pies should just stay home.”
“Pinkie Pie, look at me.” Rarity placed a hoof under the other mare’s chin, dragging her face back up so that their gazes locked. “You are not useless. You are a wonderful pony who has friends who love her.”
Fluttershy came forward to give her friend a quick hug. “Come back with us, Pinkie. I’m sure everypony, especially Rainbow Dash, will be happier to see you there.”
Rarity nodded her agreement. “Fluttershy’s right. And Celestia knows we need some cheering up over there.”
Despite their words of encouragement, the deflated mare fell back onto her bed, long, straight hair pooling around her head where her mane lay, limp and lifeless. “That must be all I’m good for… cheering ponies up. That’s me. Pinkie the silly pony. Pinkie the Party Pony. Well, a party isn’t going to fix this.” She rolled over again, facing the wall with her back to her friends. “A party won’t help Dashie.”
Rarity sighed. “That’s why you need to help Dashie by being there for her; by showing her that you care about her and want to do everything you can for her. Not sitting back here moping by yourself.”
Fluttershy leaned forward, extending a comforting hoof to her dejected friend’s shoulder. “Yes. Come with us. It’s not the right time to be alone. Now is the time to be together.”
“Maybe… maybe you girls are right.” The mare sat up once again, her rear hooves dangling over the edge of the bed.
“Then come with us. I promise you, things will look better once you’re out of this dark, dreary place.” Rarity flashed a small grin, lighting her horn to bathe the shadowy, unkempt room in soft, comforting light.
The beginnings of a smile tugged at the edge of Pinkie’s mouth, but she remained seated. “I’m… scared, Rarity.” Her face fell almost immediately. “They… they hurt Dashie.”
Rarity grimaced, and Fluttershy looked away quickly, bowing her head. “I know, Pinkie. That’s why she needs us. We have to stay strong – for her sake.”
“What’s going to happen now?”
“Honestly, Pinkie. I don’t know. None of us really knows… but that doesn’t matter.” Rarity turned her head back towards the open door, the light from her horn casting shifting shadows across the room as it moved. “I, for one, am tired of acting like we’ve been beaten and there’s nothing we can do. I am sick of blowing about on the breeze as if the world has us caught on a simple thread. We might not have all the answers, but we are going to figure out what we need to do, and we are going to do it together, because that is what friends do.”
Pinkie Pie sat up just a little straighter, staring hard at her unicorn friend. “Are you sure?”
Rarity gave a single, curt nod. “Of that, I am absolutely convinced.”
Twilight Sparkle eased the door open as she and Applejack stepped gingerly out into the corridor. Carefully, she swung it shut behind her, making sure it didn’t make a sound. Safely outside in the confines of the hallway, Applejack yawned loudly. Twilight blinked hard. Her eyelids felt exceedingly heavy. Though neither pony really knew what time it was, they had the feeling that it had gotten exceptionally late.
Their conversation with Rainbow Dash had wound on for hours. They had touched on a few big things, but mostly spoke about nothing much at all, and had even suffered through a few stifling lapses where nopony even said a word, the three just preferring to let the silence speak for them, and those empty moments had spoken volumes. In the end, when their last words and idle thoughts had trailed to nothing, and the group fallen into perfect, boundless silence, the troubled pegasus had given up the ghost, her yawns signaling a want of rest. Instinctively, the two friends had gathered the sheets and blankets strewn haphazardly about the floor, retrieved and fluffed her pillows, and tucked Rainbow Dash gently, lovingly, into bed. The mare’s eyes had already been near falling by then, but she still managed a hug for each before finally drifting off. In slumber, the creases of worry and stress melted from her face, and both Applejack and Twilight swore they saw a smile alight upon her lips before she began snoring.
Outside the room, the farm pony gave her friend an exhausted grin, one which was quickly returned. “Ah’m glad… Ah’m glad we had that talk. Ah think she’s doin’ alright, now.”
Twilight nodded. “She looked so peaceful when she was asleep. Like she wasn’t even worried or hurting anymore.”
“Yeah…” Applejack furrowed her brow in thought, descending into silence for a brief moment. Twilight blinked at her expectantly.
“Something wrong, AJ?”
The other mare sighed and glanced around her once. The corridor was deserted, the officers from earlier presumably having retired for the night. “Ah’m just thinkin’, Twi… just thinkin’.”
“Thinking about what?”
“About Dash, mostly. An’ about everythin’ that’s happened, and everyhtin’ that’s gonna happen… Ah think there’s somethin’ important that’s gotta come up, somethin’ we’re missin’. Ah’m a bit worried about it.”
“Would you like to tell me what that is?”
“Ah think…. Ah should probably talk to Rainbow ‘bout it first.”
“How important is it?”
“Nothin’…” Applejack yawned loudly, cutting herself off. “Nothin’ that can’t wait ‘til mornin’.”
“Oh, girls. I’m glad I found you. I’ve something we must discuss.” Both Twilight and Applejack spun around to see Doctor Stable striding towards them with long, confident steps. “Please, if you would both be so kind as to follow me to my office. I promise this shan’t take long.”
Twilight nodded, and the two fell into step behind the elder unicorn. “Doctor, should we really be leaving Rainbow Dash like this? Do you have any idea when that guard will be back?”
“Oh, well, the hospital is kept locked at night nowadays, ever since somepony broke in to steal a book…” Doctor Stable couldn’t help but chuckle lightly at the memory. “So I sent them both to get some rest for the night. I doubt their services will be much needed here much longer anyway.”
Applejack frowned. “But what if she wakes up in th’ middle o’ the night again?”
“And what if she has another nervous breakdown?” Twilight chimed in.
The doctor merely nodded. “A fair point. That is why I have instructed the night-duty nurse to check in on her at regular intervals. Although I shouldn’t think we have any more nervous breakdowns to fear, now that her mental state is more balanced.”
In due time, they reached the office, and the doctor cordially led the two friends inside, directing them to sit on a couch along the side wall. They gratefully accepted. “Now, how is our patient doing, would you two say?”
“I think she’s definitely improving. We did manage to talk for a long while, but she still seems so... delicate.”
“Ah think bein’ with her friends is doin’ her some good, though. Ah just hope it’s enough.”
Doctor Stable nodded along with their words. “I should hope so, I know many doctors who say some of the best medicine is spending time with those who care about you. You two, being there for her like this, it’s helping in more ways than you can possibly imagine. I assure you.”
A small smile broke out on Twilight’s face. “She did look much more peaceful than I’ve seen her in days when she finally fell asleep tonight. I think this’ll be the first good night of sleep she’s had since… well, since… then.”
“That’s good to hear…” The stallion scratched at his chin idly. “Now, I’m sure you both would like to be getting to bed soon enough so I’ll try to be brief. The reason I’ve brought you here is important. We’ve received the data analysis back from the labs in Canterlot.” Twilight sat up just a little bit straighter. Applejack’s ears perked up, and both stared hard at the doctor.
“… And although I usually would only share such sensitive information with the investigation, I find that, as Miss Dash’s legal counsel…” he nodded briefly towards Twilight, “and more importantly, as her friends, I am obligated to tell you both.”
Applejack and Twilight glanced quickly at one another, looks of worry descending over their faces.
“According to the results of the magical analysis, the perpetrator was one Soarin’… Soarin’ Skies, of Wonderbolts fame.”
The two friends nodded at each other, their gazes narrowing. They turned to look back at Doctor Stable. Applejack’s eyes shone; her jaw hard-set. Twilight caught the doctor’s glance and held it for a few brief, eternal seconds. Grimly, she nodded.
Officer Wing Beat stretched each one of his aching feathers with uneven, erratic movements of his wings, yawning and blinking tired eyes as he strode into Cloudsdale Station. He wondered, musing to himself, if his day was going to be anywhere near as hectic as the previous one. He groaned as he thought back on all that had transpired, and how excruciatingly little sleep he had gotten because of it. Even that morning, he had known, or at least had the sinking suspicion, that visiting the Cloud Nine Inn was going to turn up fruitless. The orders to find, lock down, and search the rooms the Wonderbolts had occupied for their show had come directly from a senior Detective at The Equestria Royal Police’s Canterlot Headquarters, and Wing Beat knew from the moment he received the hasty communication that the chances were slim to none of finding anything worthwhile.
The Officer sighed. Of course, in his position as head of the Royal Police’s small Cloudsdale Branch, he had worked with Bright Star in many capacities several times during his career. And as much as he found the order futile, he could not fault the unicorn. He had a lot of respect for the senior detective, as did many, and he knew the strenuous constraints presented by this particular case. Even so, he had known far better than to hope to find the rooms uncleaned at a hotel as elegant and efficient as the Cloud Nine Inn. And they hadn’t been. He’d arrived the day before to find each of the rooms clean as a whistle – shined, polished and ready for the next guest.
Upon relaying this information to headquarters, he had received the even terser and, he perceived, less thought-out instruction to interview the cleaning staff. This quickly became an activity that ate up the better part of his afternoon and evening and left him with little useful information about the state of the rooms themselves, not to mention the sneaking suspicion that Equestria could not possibly contain enough far-flung regions to account for the myriad of accents he had struggled to make sense of. His bed had seemed even more relieving than usual to collapse into that night.
And this morning, that particular time seemed far too recently gone. He groaned, inwardly wishing he could just be back at home for the day, as he approached his small office. Even before he had managed one hoof inside the door, however, a page hailed him. “Sir, new message from HQ – we’ve got some arrest orders.”
He blinked a few times and cleared his throat loudly, the page waiting patiently for him. “Well… with a warrant as well, I hope?”
“Yes…” The young attendant flipped through the few pages of the message brief, “One for the arrest of a Mr. Soarin’ Skies, apparently.”
He blanched, immediately feeling his muscles tense at the mention of the name. “Wait… you don’t mean Soarin’ of the Wonderbolts, do you?”
The younger’s eyes bulged for only the briefest of instants as he caught the significance of the elder’s query, before he composed himself. “Yes sir. It would appear to be so, sir.”
Wing Beat sighed. He wondered if his job was ever going to be easy.
Rarity trotted towards the hospital with a rejuvenated spring in her step. She found herself unable to hold back a small, lazy grin; after all, thanks to a good night’s sleep, she certainly felt much better, if not quite happy, at least refreshed. A quick glance behind her confirmed that Fluttershy and Pinkie were looking similarly restored. Although, to Rarity’s discerning eye, Pinkie Pie was still looking just the slightest bit dour. The unicorn frowned inwardly, concealing her private hope that the mare would return to her usual, perky self once she’d had the chance to visit with their bed-stricken friend. As much as Pinkie’s antics may have aggravated her from time to time, Rarity had the sense that life in Ponyville could never hope to return to normal without Pinkie Pie being her usual self.
Out of options and patience for trying to cheer up the downtrodden mare herself, Rarity sincerely hoped that seeing Rainbow Dash might finally fix Pinkie’s woes. She had tried to secure a visit for the three of them the night previous, only to be told that visiting hours were over so late in the evening. Unable to ignore the tinge of worry that the pink mare might very well shut herself up in her room again, Rarity had invited both her friends to spend the night at Carousel Boutique, where they had finally retired for a good night of, very well-deserved, Rarity thought, rest.
With an elegant flick of her head, she magically whisked open the double doors and strode towards the front desk. The nurse, a young attendant, put on a bright smile as the unicorn reached her. “Good Morning. How can I help you today?”
Rarity blinked at her a few times before returning the gesture. “We’re here to see our friend, Rainbow Dash, if you please.”
“Oh yes, of course.” The young mare made a show of checking her log-book before popping back up again. “Misses Rarity, Fluttershy and… Pinkie Pie, I presume?” Rarity only nodded. “Rainbow Dash will see you in a few minutes, and while you’re waiting, you should also find your friend in the lobby. I daresay she’s been expecting you.”
“Friend…” Rarity mused aloud, glancing past the smiling attendant and into the waiting room, where she could barely see a blanketed, vaguely unicorn-shaped lump upon one of the couches. Rarity nodded a little to herself; she should have known. “Yes, well. Thank you very much, then.” She quickly turned heel and set off into the room, eager to put distance between herself and the young nurse’s cheery disposition and tooth-filled grin. She frowned inwardly. She knew somepony else’s cheerful mood shouldn’t be a source of anxiety, but it was rapidly becoming so to her. She knew it was more than likely the young nurse was merely attempting to do her job in whatever way she felt most applicable, but she found herself helpless to avoid the resentful bile building in her stomach. She shook herself. What was the matter with her? How could she begrudge another their happiness? She groaned, mentally rebuking herself. All the same, it still felt wrong, somehow, that the nurse should behave in such a way. How could she be so pleasant when Rainbow Dash had been so grievously wronged? It certainly did not seem right for others, particularly nurses who were supposed to be caring for Rainbow Dash, to treat her pain so callously. Perhaps… maybe she thought that putting on a bright and cheery façade for her patient’s friends might help ease their own pain? Rarity clung to this idea, desperate to believe that the nurse’s cheery aloofness had a motive beyond pure indifference. Maybe…
“Rarity? Rar… RARITY!”
“Wah? Hm? Oh Twilight, darling, what is it?”
“You were standing there without saying anything for a while. You’re usually so focused… is something wrong?”
The mystified unicorn blinked a few times, then sighed. “No… no, nothing’s wrong. I was just… thinking.” Rarity suppressed a grimace; at least it wasn’t truly a lie.
Twilight frowned, looking dubiously at her friend for a few seconds before deciding to drop her next query. Her face brightened. “So, you girls finally came back! We were expecting to see you last night.”
“I’m sorry about that, Twilight. We were rather… indisposed.”
“How do you mean?”
“It’s all my fault.” Twilight, surprised, glanced behind Rarity as the other did the same, and both gazed down upon the greyish-pink form of Pinkie Pie, who had set herself down miserably upon the tile. “We missed Dashie last night because I took too long and we were too late.”
“Come now, Dear…” Rarity smiled for Pinkie’s benefit as she leant in to wrap a comforting fore leg around the mare’s neck. Fluttershy and Twilight quickly did the same. “That hardly matters. I would have thought that the hospital might be lenient and allow us in outside of visiting hours, for Rainbow’s sake, as we are her closest friends. It appears I was wrong.”
Fluttershy smiled one of her warm, reassuring smile and hugged her pink friend tightly. “None of this is your fault, Pinkie.”
“They’re right, Pinkie Pie.” Twilight added, helping Pinkie to her hooves. “Rainbow Dash will be just as pleased to see you now as ever.”
Pinkie Pie sniffled a bit, then stood on shaky legs. “Promise?”
Twilight chuckled. “I promise.”
Rarity gave a satisfied nod and looked around at her friends. “Well, I suppose we’ve done enough waiting, then. Should we head back?”
A voice spoke up from the double doors leading into the corridor, startling the four friends just as they turned towards the spot. “Not to intrude, ladies, but I’m afraid I must tell you that only two visitors can be allowed at a time. Standard policy.”
Rarity coughed, stumbling to regain her usual composure. “Doctor… I hadn’t seen you there. How much… how much did you hear?”
The doctor chuckled warmly, putting the remaining mares at ease. “Just enough to know I’m glad Miss Dash has such good friends.”
Twilight frowned. “Doctor Stable, if you don’t mind me asking, have the rules changed? I remember all of us being allowed as visitors when Rainbow Dash hurt her wing.”
“That was merely for a recovery room, Miss Sparkle. I’m afraid the rules are different for the ICU.”
“Well… if only two of us can go, I don’t mind staying back, girls. Really, it’s no trouble. I’m sure I’ll get to see Rainbow Dash some other time.” Fluttershy drifted close to a bench, ready to sit down.
Rarity quickly shook her head. “Nonsense, darling. If any of us truly needs to see her, you and Pinkie do. I don’t mind waiting one bit, and I’m sure Twilight has had ample time to visit with her recently. I must insist that you two go on ahead.”
Twilight nodded along to her fellow unicorn’s statement. “Rarity’s right. Applejack and I had a long conversation with Rainbow Dash yesterday, you girls deserve a turn.”
“Oh… well, if you’re sure, I guess I’ll go… are you ready, Pinkie?” Fluttershy timidly stepped forward, receiving only a meek grunt in response.
Doctor Stable looked between the two and smiled. “Excellent. I shall accompany you, then.” The stallion held the door for the two mares, and Fluttershy politely thanked him. He chuckled as they started down the hallway. “Although I daresay she’ll be rather hungry after a long night’s rest. Maybe we’ll stop by the cafeteria on our way? I can think of no better ponies to serve her breakfast than two of her best friends… but I’m getting ahead of myself. You probably want to head straight to her room, and won’t be putting up with diversions from an old stallion such as myself.”
“Oh no, that sounds like a wonderful idea…”
The sound of Fluttershy’s voice faded to nothing as the group made its way down the hall and the doors swung shut behind them. Rarity and Twilight shared a glance, Rarity’s countenance furrowed in thought, Twilight’s more relaxed. “You worried about something, Rarity?”
The other mare sighed. She considered bringing her earlier musings about the hospital staff’s seemingly overly chipper and cheerful attitudes to light, but decided against the notion. “No… nothing too important.”
“Ok…” Twilight faltered, still sensing some uneasiness about Rarity, but decided not to press the issue, and sought a change in topic instead. “You know, I’m really surprised Doctor Stable is this awake. I spoke with him late last evening, and as far as I know, he hasn’t left of slept since.”
Rarity looked curiously at Twilight. “Indeed… but what about you, darling?”
“Have you been getting enough sleep? You spent the night here as well, if I’m not mistaken.” Rarity raised an eyebrow at her friend. “And I happen to know those benches are not the least bit comfortable.”
“No… no they aren’t, not at all.” Twilight found herself laughing. She strode over and sat down, as if to remind herself. “Don’t worry about me, Rarity. I’ll be fine.”
“If you say so, then….” She sat down beside her friend and grimaced. “I certainly don’t envy you, dear. I couldn’t imagine possibly getting a decent night’s rest on these. Wouldn’t you prefer your nice, soft bed?”
“That does sound nice…”
“I daresay Spike must miss you as well. Won’t you return to the library? Celestia only knows how much you deserve a respite.”
“I don’t know, Rarity… I feel like I’m… needed here.”
“I cannot possibly imagine what good you’re doing spending your nights in this waiting room. If anything, I should think you would be better off well-rested when you visit.”
“I suppose you’re right….”
“Don’t overwork yourself, darling. We all have our little breaking points, and I’d rather not see you reach yours. Remember when Applejack tried to harvest the whole of Sweet Apple Acres with neither rest nor assistance? Don’t think the same can’t happen to you.”
Twilight nodded. “Thanks, Rarity.”
The next few minutes passed in silence between the two mares, both of them pondering their private thoughts. At the mere mention of the possibility of overworking herself, Twilight could feel a spike of worry shoot up inside her over the daunting notion of the upcoming trial, and she grimaced inwardly. It loomed seemingly just on the horizon, yet she had no idea yet how she was to prepare, or even keep herself from potentially going crazy from the effort. Rarity mused over her own little worries, running them back and forth inside her head. Then, out of the blue, she noticed something; something that just wasn’t quite right. “Wait… speaking of Applejack, where has the poor dear gotten to?”
“She went home last night after our discussion with Doctor Stable – said she had a lot of chores to do today.” Twilight, able to turn half a mind away from her growing troubles, was grateful for the reprieve the return to conversation brought.
Rarity nodded. “I see…. Twilight, you keep mentioning this conversation between you and the good doctor, might I inquire as to its purport?”
“Well, we just… OH! Rarity, I’m so sorry, how could I have forgotten to tell you?”
Rarity’s eyes widened at her friend’s sudden jump. “Tell me what, darling?”
“The test! The results, and Rainbow Dash, and she told us… everything… we know everything now, Rarity! Everything!” Rarity blinked at her friend a few times, partly out of confusion, but mostly out of concern. Twilight took a deep breath, feeling her rapid heartbeat calm down once more. “Everything’s coming together, Rarity. First Rainbow Dash told Applejack and me, then Doctor Stable showed us the test results, and those confirmed it. We know who did it, Rarity. We know who hurt Rainbow!”
Rarity sat bolt upright, her eyes suddenly wide. “Goodness, Twilight, why didn’t you say so earlier?”
“I’m sorry…” the other mare blushed. “I forgot you didn’t know.”
“Well, who was it? You must tell me!” Rarity leaned in close, unable to hide the hard-dying eagerness in her voice.
“Soarin’… the Wonderbolt.”
A hush fell over the regal mare, a fragment of poignant, expectant silence that seemed to stretch seconds to minutes to hours. The ticking of a nearby wall clock slid to a near standstill. A grim shadow slipped across Rarity’s countenance, and she leaned in close to Twilight. “Soarin’, as in the same Soarin’ who danced with Rainbow Dash at your brother’s wedding? The same Soarin’ whose life Rainbow Dash saved, along with mine, at the Best Young Flyer Competition? That Soarin’?” Rarity’s scowl deepened, and Twilight could have sworn the room darkened around them.
She nodded gravely. “The very same.”
Rarity’s face relaxed very suddenly, worrying Twilight almost as much as her friend’s slow descent to anger had in the first place. The usually very image-conscious mare cleared her throat rather loudly, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. When she opened them, there seemed a fire burning behind her irises, lighting her blue orbs in an almost eerie way. She held Twilight’s gaze for a few tense moments, but when she spoke, her voice flowed forth in a calm monotone. “Twilight, get a good night’s sleep tonight. Tomorrow, we’re going to ‘hit those books’, as you might say, harder than you’ve ever hit them before.” The fire danced and flickered behind her eyes. “We’re going to bring him down, and bring him down hard.”
“Rainbow Dash? We brought you some breakfast.” Fluttershy gently eased the door open with her head, poking her nose into the room and glancing around uncertainly. The mare in question lay face-down on her bed, blankets drawn up over her head. “Oh… you’re asleep. I guess we can try again later…” She began to back out of the doorway, but a groan and a sudden rustling of blankets stopped her in her tracks.
Rainbow Dash rolled out from underneath her coverings and sat up, squinting in the light. Clumps of hair from her mane stuck out in random angles like so many quills on a porcupine. Her raspy voice sounded across the room. “Hey… did someone say food?”
Fluttershy inched her way back into the room. “Yes. I thought you might like… I mean, the doctor thought you might like something to eat… and I… we… brought you some breakfast, but I wasn’t sure what you might want to eat and… well, it’s mostly toast.”
Blearily, Rainbow Dash blinked, trying to focus on the source of the voice. "Wait… hey, Fluttershy, is… is that…” she trailed off, coughing loudly once, then twice. Deftly, she grasped for the glass of water at her bedside and took a few generous gulps. She smacked her lips and refocused on her visitor. “It’s… really great to see you, Fluttershy.”
The mare made her way fully into the room, a tray with a few pieces of toast, a glass of juice, and a solitary muffin balanced expertly on her back. She ambled carefully over to her friend’s bedside and set her tray down on the table. She looked expectantly up at Rainbow Dash, anticipating her to grab a piece of toast or something else. Instead, Rainbow Dash extended both fore legs out towards Fluttershy, something akin to a half-smile on her lips. It took the other mare a few seconds to fully realize the gesture, before she herself smiled and moved forward, tray of food forgotten, and let Rainbow Dash pull her into her embrace. She hugged her back warmly. “Hi, Rainbow Dash. I missed you.”
Rainbow Dash opened her eyes to the soft tickling of long, silky strands of hair brushing across her nose. Looking past her friend’s shoulder, she caught sight of another figure, standing in the doorway. Even for the figure’s dulled completion and waxen, deflated-looking hair, she recognized her instantly. “H- hey, Pinkie Pie.”
The mare did not look up once addressed, her attention seemingly captivated by one of the clean white floor tiles. “I tried to get you a cupcake.” Melancholy dripped from her words.
Rainbow Dash pulled away from Fluttershy just enough to stare fixedly at her other friend. “Huh?”
Pinkie Pie continued to address the floor. “I tried to get you a cupcake, because I know cupcakes are your favorite. We were getting you breakfast, and I thought ‘I’ll get Dashie a cupcake, and then she’ll be happy, because Dashie loves cupcakes.’ But they didn’t have any cupcakes… they only had muffins. So I got you a muffin, but I wanted to get you a cupcake. I wanted you to be happy.”
She rubbed a hoof against the surface, still unwilling to look up. “And a lot of ponies say that ‘Cupcakes are just muffins with silly hats’, or ‘Muffins are just ugly cupcakes’, but they’re not. Cupcakes are not muffins and muffins are not cupcakes. Cupcakes are made of cake, and muffins are made of bread. They’re not the same. They’re not the same and they never will be the same. And now you have a muffin and I know cupcakes are your favorite and it’ll never be the same and it’ll never ever be good enough. Nothing will ever be good enough! Nothing will ever be the same again and I’m sorry!”
The mare was shaking her head from side to side. “I’m sorry I didn’t get you a cupcake like you wanted! I’m sorry I didn’t come see you until now. I’m sorry I didn’t want to see you and I was too afraid to see you and I’m sorry you’re in the hospital and you’re hurt and I’m sorry I didn’t do anything to help and I’m sorry I let one of my best friends get hurt and I’m sorry I’m such a useless pony and I’m sorry everything’s my fault and I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry…”
“Pinkie, I love muffins.”
The mare stopped abruptly and looked up from the floor.
Dutifully, as if bound to, she obeyed. Pinkie Pie walked sullenly up to Rainbow Dash’s bed, staring at her friend the whole way. She sniffed loudly. Her eyes were murky and swam with unspent tears.
Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy pulled her into their hug. “Hey, Pinkie Pie… I’m really happy to see you. I’m really, really happy to see you.”
The setting sun cast long shadows across Ponyville’s main street as the day wound slowly to its close. Rarity trotted along the road, the sound of her hooves echoing off shop fronts as she went, so few ponies were there milling about or otherwise making noise in the streets in the twilight of the day. She glanced to her left; her gaze falling upon a newsstand, hawking the latest breaking bulletin. Several ponies huddled around the green clapboard structure, their attention captivated by rows upon rows of afternoon extras. “Soarin’, Wonderbolt, Arrested in Cloudsdale!” the headlines screamed. Rarity had to suppress a shudder. She knew it wouldn’t be long now.
She quickened her pace, putting more distance between herself and the cheap newsstand with its gawking pedestrians, as well as drawing further and further from home. She had left there only minutes ago, restless, agitated, and uneasy. She’d spent the better part of the day with Twilight Sparkle, alternately conversing in the waiting room and visiting with Rainbow Dash once Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie had finished. The four friends had left the hospital together late in the afternoon, and Rarity and Twilight had walked together back to the library. Before returning to Carousel Boutique, Rarity had secured Twilight’s promise that she would get a good night’s sleep, so that the two of them would be able to start preparing for the trial first thing the next morning.
The only trouble was, once she’d arrived home, fed Opal, retired to her room, drawn the blinds and flopped unceremoniously into her large, four-poster bed, she’d been wholly unable to sleep. Her mind buzzed with too many thoughts, her conscience twitched to do something active. She’d tossed and turned for a few minutes more before sitting up with a huff.
Rarity’s reverie was broken as she found herself coming up upon her destination. The Crooked Saddle was one of Ponyville’s more established, and much more chaste, watering holes. She knew she shouldn’t spend too much time out on the town, but her mind was still buzzing and at the very least, she needed something to take the edge off. Of course, she hadn’t really needed to head out to the bar; she had a small but well-stocked personal liquor cabinet hidden away at the boutique, but she hadn’t quite felt like sitting at home drinking alone that night.
A bell tinkled as she stepped inside and surveyed the scene. The low hum of subdued chatter filled the single-room establishment. A few ponies sat at booths, some conversing over plates of food and drinks, others poring over their menus. Still more had taken seats at the bar, taking the chance for an after-work drink or two before heading home themselves. Rarity’s eyes went wide as her gaze fell upon one patron she recognized. A knowing smirk on her face, she strode up to the bar and slid into a stool next to them, catching the bartender’s attention with her eye. “Gin and tonic, please.”
The other chuckled. “Fancy meetin’ you here, Rares.”
“I might say the same to you, Applejack.”
“So what brings ya here?”
“Honestly, I’m having some difficulty falling asleep. I… I suspect I just need to take my mind off of things for a while.”
Applejack sighed, turning from her friend to stare into her half-filled glass of whiskey. “Ah s’pose ya could say ‘bout the same fer me.”
Rarity noticed her friend’s face fall. Applejack propped her chin upon one hoof, her elbow resting against the polished counter. Rarity frowned. She could tell when there was more on her friends’ minds than they let on, and Applejack’s seemed to be running at a furious clip. Her inner turmoil was etched into the grimace on her face. The bartender arrived with Rarity’s drink; she paid it little heed. “So… long day on the farm?”
Applejack nodded. “No more work than usual… and Big Mac did a lot o’ it. Ah… Ah just couldn’t focus… thinkin’ the whole time ‘bout… about…”
“I know, Applejack. I’ve felt the same recently.” Rarity sighed, suddenly very disinterested in her drink. “Have you been to see her today?”
Applejack did not look up, and her frown remained in place. “No… no Ah haven’t…” In a sudden flurry of motion, she grabbed the small glass of whiskey, brought it to her lips, and titled her head back, draining the amber liquid. She shuddered as she set the glass back down.
“I think she’d like to see you, dear. You should go. Visiting hours aren’t quite over yet.”
“Ah don’t think Ah can right now, Rares…”
“Something else is on your mind, isn’t it?” Applejack gave a silent nod. “Would you like to tell me about it?”
“Ah… Ah really shouldn’t. This is kinda between me an’ Dash only… at least, right now it is.”
“Are you sure you can’t tell me? I should say I think it most injudicious to keep things to yourself and let them eat away at you like this.”
“Ah appreciate th’ sentiment, Rarity, but Ah promised Dash Ah’d never tell a soul ‘til she was ready. Ah keep mah promises.”
“Then I do think you should speak with Rainbow Dash about it. If not now, then as soon as possible. It’s never good to let things lie, Applejack.”
Applejack deigned not to answer. The bartender soon returned to the two mares and replaced Applejack’s empty glass with a new, full one. For a long while, Applejack stared at the second round, then shoved it away down the smooth countertop. She sighed. “Ah don’t want ta worry her none. She’s dealt with enough these last few days. This can wait.”
“Have you seen the news from Cloudsdale?”
Applejack blinked. “That they arrested Soarin’? Yeah… it’s all anypony’s been talkin’ ‘bout ‘round here…”
“Applejack, now that this has happened, there are going to be rumors. Ponies are going to start asking questions. Something is bound to lead back to Rainbow Dash, and then the truth will come out. If you think whatever you’re worrying about is important, you had best talk with her about it before then. The eyes of Equestria are going to be on us, and as difficult as this is now, it’s going to get much worse. Trust me.”
Applejack stared at her reflection in the counter. She grimaced and closed her eyes. For a good while, she just held her head in place, breathing slowly and steadily. Then she sat up straight and shook herself. “Dangit… you’re right. Why do ya always have ta be right?”
Rarity waved a dismissive hoof. “Sometimes I really do wish I wasn’t.” She finally levitated her glass to her lips and took a small, dainty sip. She looked back over at her companion. “Go on now, Applejack. I’ll pay for your drinks.” The country mare gave her a brief nod and offered her thanks as she slid from her stool. Rarity sipped her gin and tonic and smiled a bit as she watched her friend step from the bar and into the hazy dusk.
She arrived with only an hour to spare. Applejack eased open Rainbow Dash’s door and was relieved to find the mare awake. Rainbow Dash sat up, and Applejack could swear she was looking much better – she hoped she was doing better, at least. The orange mare removed her hat and held it tight against her chest as she approached the bed. “Hey, Sugarcube. Ah’ve got… something Ah wanna talk wit’ ya about.”
Applejack watched with growing concern as Rainbow Dash’s face briefly registered surprise, descended through shades of confusion and worry before finally settling into a trace of faint anger. “Seriously, AJ? You want to talk about this? NOW?”
For a moment, Applejack’s jaw fell slack and closed again uselessly. Her mouth felt dry; the right words just weren’t forming in her mind’s eye. “Ah’m just worried ‘bout ya, Sugarcube. Ah thought ya might need somepony ta talk with.”
“You thought… and with everything else happening now, you thought you could just…” Rainbow Dash’s head fell to her hooves. She shook like a leaf blowing back and forth upon a branch. “You can’t just bring that up. Not now.”
Applejack cringed. “Ah know it don’t seem like the proper time…”
“What proper time? How can there be a proper time? After everything that’s happened? How did you even think I’d ever want to talk about… augh, dear Celestia, I can’t even say it!”
Applejack felt taken aback; Rainbow Dash’s cold stare seemed like a sudden brick wall thrown up before her. She couldn’t move forward. She gritted her teeth and spoke again. “Ah know this is important, and Ah know ya can’t put off thinkin’ about it. Ah just want ya ta know Ah’m here ta help.”
“Well that’s funny, because I don’t want to talk about it.” Rainbow Dash rolled over with a huff, letting her head sink back into her pillow and looking decidedly anywhere that wasn’t at her best friend.
“Come on, Sugarcube. You’ve been makin’ so much progress. Ya spoke with me and Twilight a whole long time yesterday, and Ah heard ya were talkin’ with the rest o’ the girls almost all day today. Ah really think talkin’ helps.” Rainbow Dash remained silent, instead pulling her sheets up closer around her chest. Applejack frowned and stepped closer, “but Ah know ya haven’t told the other girls yet. So Ah wanna let ya know Ah’m here for ya. Ah’m all ears.”
Rainbow Dash grumbled, her voice muffled by the pillow. “I already told you I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Please, Rainbow? Ah’m really…”
Rainbow Dash rolled back over and sat up, coming to rest with her forelegs just on the edge of the hospital bed. She glared hard at her friend; Applejack staggered backwards, caught off-guard by the sudden display. “Let it go, Applejack! I’m not telling you again!”
As if a spark leapt forth in her mind, Applejack recovered her composure and jumped forward to meet the challenging gaze; her nose mere inches from Rainbow Dash’s. Her fiery retort died on her lips though, smothered to bare embers by the sudden crushing weight of everything that had happened the previous few days. Applejack shrank back and took a deep breath; she suddenly felt very tired. Arguing with Rainbow Dash had always came so easily to her, even as the best of friends their back-and-forth banter seemed the most natural thing possible. But as she stared up at Rainbow Dash now, at the pain and hurt and fear in her eyes, a pit opened in her stomach, and she could feel nothing but emptiness and rising shame at being so quick to jump to confrontation. Applejack’s face softened, and she waited for Rainbow’s to do the same. When the Pegasus only retained her defensive glare, Applejack sighed. “Look, Rainbow… Ah’m not goin’ ta fight wit’ ya. Ah just want to talk, ta help ya. That’s all.”
“I don’t want your help.”
“Please, Sugarcube. You’re mah friend, and Ah care about ya.”
Rainbow Dash only kept up her icy demeanor. “Well, if you were a good friend, you’d leave me be like everypony… else.” Her voice cracked on her last word.
“Ah don’t think so. Ah think friends are s’pposed ta be there fer each other when one of ‘em’s hurtin’.” Applejack took a firm stance and looked back at Rainbow Dash, her green eyes calm and soothing. She only received a continued cold stare in response. “Ah ain’t leavin’, Dash.”
“Well I don’t want to see you.” Rainbow Dash huffed as she sank back into her pillows, drawing one up over her head and rolling so her back faced Applejack once more.
The country mare frowned. “Come on now, Dash. Ah know that ain’t the truth.”
The hospital room descended into a heavy silence. Applejack frowned, half expecting Rainbow Dash to continue telling her off. Still, she refused to leave, and the Pegasus said nothing.
After a few prolonged moments, Applejack furrowed her brow in mounting worry. “Rainbow? Ya alright?”
Still the quiet reigned, a pervasive, overhanging curtain disturbed only by soft sounds of breathing and something else: something that sounded like…
“Rainbow Dash? Sugarcube, are ya cryin’?”
A subdued sniffle, “No. I’m… I’m fine,” a prolonged gasp, a choked sob, all echoed in the still air, and Applejack’s face sank. She rushed to her friend’s bedside, reaching out to lay a comforting hoof over her, but the Pegasus shied away.
“It’s ok, Rainbow. Ah’m here for ya, remember?”
“No. Go away. I’m f-fine.”
“Ah’m sorry, Sugarcube.” Applejack reached out and wrapped her forelegs around the mare’s neck against only weak protests, broken intermittently by sobs. “Ah’m here. It’s ok.”
“No. No, it’s not ok.”
“Shhh…” Applejack cooed. Gently, she rolled the Pegasus over and tightened her hug. The other mare made no move to pull away, yet no reciprocating gesture either. Her sobs, unabated now, echoed through the room. The fur around her eyes was matted with the excess moisture that still brimmed beneath glassy magenta orbs. She shook her head again and again, meekly submitting to Applejack’s embrace. The earth pony stroked her friend’s mane absently, more out of habit than anything else; her mind drifting back to countless late nights spent consoling a much younger filly – her parents too quickly taken away, her cutie mark too long in coming, her little heart too broken for the solace of anypony but a big sister to fix. Applejack held Rainbow Dash even tighter. “It’s ok, Baby Girl. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.”
“You don’t… you don’t understand, Applejack. It’s not ok. It’ll never be ok again.”
“Don’t say that, Dash.” Applejack nuzzled her friend lightly. “Ah know everythin’ll be right as rain in the end.”
Rainbow Dash shook her head. “No you don’t, AJ. You don’t. You can’t know that. Nopony can.”
“Ah’m sure of it.”
“Nothing will ever be the same again.”
“We’ll make it better.”
“You just don’t understand, AJ! Everything’s gone!” Rainbow Dash tried to sit up, but found her way barred by a strong foreleg. She glanced over at Applejack, ready to protest, but broke down again when faced with the other mare’s stern look. Rainbow Dash shook her head, breathing hard in a fruitless attempt to control her tears. “How could you possibly understand?”
Applejack moved a hoof from the pegasus’s chest to dab beneath her eyes. “Ah know you’re hurtin’, Dash. And Ah want ta help. Please, just let me help ya.”
Rainbow Dash settled back into her pillows and her friend’s grasp, her eyes bleary and exhausted. “You can’t help.”
“Ah’m willin’ ta try.”
“Nopony can help… not now.”
“Don’t talk like that.” Applejack whispered – her gaze hard, yet comforting in her own way. “Everypony’s helpin’ ya the best we can. You’re never alone, Rainbow Dash. Ah’m here fer ya, and so is Twilight, and Rarity, and Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie, and so many other ponies. We love ya, Rainbow. Never forget that.”
Rainbow Dash just lay still, inattentive, her weary head still shaking, though her sobs were fewer and further between. Drawing courage around her, she wiped her eyes and turned to face her friend. “You still don’t get it, AJ.” She spoke slowly, her words hollow, “Everything… The Wonderbolts, all my dreams, everything I’ve ever worked for, and fought for… it’s gone. It’s all gone, just like that, and it’s my fault.”
Applejack snapped up with a start, jumping up beside her friend, a sudden horror spread upon her face. “No. No, Rainbow, ya musn’t say that! This ain’t yer fault. None o’ this is yer fault.”
“We… were having fun, and we were drinking. Oh, Celestia, we drank too much… all of us, and then, then he kissed me. He kissed me, and it felt good. We were so drunk. I didn’t even try to stop him.”
“Rainbow, please stop.”
“I don’t even like stallions. You already know that, you wanted me to talk about that before, right? So yeah, I’m a fillyfooler, and I shouldn’t like stallions, but something was wrong. He was kissing me and I… liked it. I don’t know why. There was something wrong with me. I was so drunk; I kissed him back. Something… wrong. I don’t even know.”
“What he did was horrible, Dash. Disgustin’ and horrible. Ain’t none o’ this yer fault, now, ya hear?”
“I didn’t stop him. I couldn’t stop him. He took me upstairs and I… I didn’t have a clue what was happening.”
Applejack studied her best friend’s face as she, distant and unblinking, stared blankly up at the ceiling. Rainbow’s countenance descending into a quiet solemnity; the streaks of old tears on her cheeks left dry. Applejack closed her eyes; she found fresh ones there. The mare bowed her head, allowing the silence wash over them like a rising tide.
After some minutes, Rainbow Dash rolled back over to glance at Applejack; her eyes down, her chin resting on the edge of the bed. “Hey, AJ. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten so mad at you before, it’s just… that’s something really personal for me, and to hear you ask about it like that, it… scared me.”
Applejack shook her head weakly. “Ya don’t have ta talk about it if ya don’t want ta, Sugarcube.”
“It’s just… hard. I don’t even know where to start.”
“It’s alright. Ya don’t have to say anythin’. Ah shouldn’t’a pressured ya.”
“No. It’s important, like you said it was. You were right.”
“Ah don’t really need ta know anymore, ‘specially if ya don’t feel comfortable. Ya don’t have to prove anythin’ ta me, Dash.”
“AJ, you deserve to know, you of all ponies do. It’s just...” Rainbow Dash sighed, turning back towards the ceiling. “What can I say? Where do I start?”
“Whatever ya couldn’t say to Twilight, or the others. Whatever ya need ta say; ya don’t need ta hide yer secret from me.”
“I know that. It’s still so hard.”
“Start with how you feel, then.”
The pegasus was quiet for a long moment. “I don’t know, AJ. I feel like… hey, this is gonna sound silly, but do you think you could sit up here with me?”
Applejack gave a slight grin, agreeing without hesitation. “Sure thing, Sugarcube.” Deftly, she eased herself gently up into the bed beside Rainbow Dash as the other mare scooted away to make room for her companion. “Better?”
“Yeah… lots, actually.” Rainbow Dash sighed, taking up one of Applejack’s hooves in her own; she held it tight against her chest. “I guess I feel betrayed, really. I mean, he was one of my heroes, AJ, I… I looked up to him. He danced with me at that wedding, everything. He was my hero and he hurt me.”
Applejack cringed. “Ah’m sorry, ya don’t have to…”
“I feel like… oh, how can I even say it? It just sounds so stupid. You’re gonna think I’m so…”
“No, Rainbow, Ah promise Ah’ll understand. Whatever it is.”
“It’s… I don’t know, you might say I’ve been waiting, for a while now, for the right mare to come along. I guess I’ve been… saving myself for that pony, and now, it’s like he took all that away. I feel like no mare will ever want to be with me now, and because of him I’ll never find anypony or be able to stay with her or anything! And… oh Celestia, I don’t even know why I’m thinking about this!” Rainbow Dash buried her face in her hooves and let loose an exasperated wail. She looked up, bleary-eyed and confused. “I feel like I’m tainted now, or soiled, or whatever, and no mare will ever want me, and I don’t know why I’m worried about that. I just am. I’m so confused! I’ve never even thought about this before and now… I don’t even know! What’s wrong with me, AJ? I don’t understand!”
Applejack was silent for a long while. Rainbow Dash’s breath had caught in her throat. To her, each second seemed so many more; time flowed like molasses. Finally, her friend seemed to find her voice. “Sugarcube, Ah don’t… Ah guess Ah really don’t know what to say.” Applejack fidgeted in her place.
Rainbow Dash nodded, eager to drop the subject. “D-don’t bother. It was stupid anyway.” She gave a short, dry titter.
“No, Dash.” Applejack shook her head vigorously. “It ain’t stupid. Ah’m just not the best at this.” She glanced into her friend’s eyes and felt a knot tighten in her stomach. It wrenched her insides to see the pain, the confusion, the loss glimmering there. It felt like there was nothing she could say that would ever make it better, but she knew she had to try. “Rainbow, ya know, you’re a great girl. You’re brave, and you’re one o’ the strongest ponies Ah know.”
“Not anymore,” Rainbow muttered glumly, squeezing her companion’s hoof tighter against her chest.
“Don’t say that.” Applejack looked away, struggling to find the right words. “Ah’m serious. Ah know it might sound strange, comin’ from me an’ all, but Ah know there’s somepony out there for ya, Dash. Someday, you’re gonna find that special mare, and she’s goin’ ta make ya so happy. Ah’m sure of it, and ya know Ah wouldn’t lie to you. Ya gotta believe me, Rainbow. Everythin’ seems bad right now, but it’ll get better. Ah know it will.”
She looked back over at the other mare; Rainbow Dash stared right back at her – her eyes glistening but warm, somehow – and she was smiling, or at least trying to, as if she wanted to do her best to show her friend she understood. “Th-thaks, AJ. You know, that… that means a lot.”
“Ah know Ah may not be the best with all this, with relationships, or love and stuff, but Ah want ya to know, if you’re ever havin’ problems, or feelin’ like this again, or ya do think ya found a nice mare, well, ya can come talk wit’ me about it. Ah’m here for ya, RD.”
Rainbow gave Applejack’s hoof an affectionate squeeze, albeit quick, and blushed. “Thanks, AJ.”
“No problem, Sugarcube.”
The pair fell silent for a while more, the incessant tick of a distant clock slowly counting down the time left for visitors, and Applejack knew she hadn’t yet said what she had come to say.
“Why did you come?”
“Ah told ya, because Ah was worried, and Ah care ‘bout ya.”
“No, I mean why did you come here, just to ask about me… me…”
“Likin’ mares?” Applejack added, sensing her friend’s discomfort. Rainbow only nodded weakly.
“Yeah, that. I know you were worried about me and everything else, but why’d you ask about that?”
“Ah s’pose it’s ‘cause Ah know how hard ya try ta keep it all a secret, Sugarcube.” Applejack took a deep breath, suddenly feeling as if her throat were about to seize up. “And secrets, well, secrets just have a way of eatin’ ya up from th’ inside, and Ah wanted ya ta have somepony ta just let everythin’ out to.”
“I guess you’re right. I think I needed that.”
“But, that’s not everythin’, though. There’s somethin’ else, too.”
Rainbow Dash looked pensive for a moment. “Yeah?”
“Ah think ya should… ahh, how do Ah say this? Ah think it’s time the other girls knew…” Applejack trailed off, her words fialing her. Her companion suddenly looked very pale. “Ah don’t mean ya need ta just let yer secret all out or anythin’, Ah just think the girls deserve ta know, now.” Applejack cringed; that had sounded a whole lot better in her head.
Rainbow Dash, all the blood having rushed form her face, sat bolt upright; her eyes wide and her breaths shallow. She closed her eyes and shook her head back and forth repeatedly. “But, I just… I don’t…” Her words stumbled off her tongue, as if each coherent thought had sputtered and died upon reaching the brink of utterance. “No, I can’t.” She took a slow, ratcheting breath, seeming to relax slightly as she did so. “I’ve only ever told you and my parents, and you know how well that went!”
Her voice rose precipitously and cracked in her distress; her eyes so wide they seemed ready to jump from their place.
“Listen, Dash. Ah know yer ma and pa gave ya a hard time when ya told them, but do ya really think the girls would do that to ya?”
“It’s not just that, AJ. They didn’t just give me a hard time about it. They… rejected me. They ignored me and said I was being delusional! I… I can’t even talk about what they did!”
“Ah understand. What they did was awful, Rainbow. Ah know it hurts, especially with everythin’ else that’s been happenin’ lately, it all just hurts, but Ah really think it might help ya ta tell the girls yer secret.”
“I trusted them, AJ. I trusted my parents, I really loved them, and they still hurt me. I trusted The Wonderbolts, and Soarin’, and he still hurt me! How can I trust anypony else ever again? How can I tell them if I can’t even trust anypony?”
“Well, how could ya trust me, then, Dash? Why did ya tell me, all those years ago, and nopony else? Ah had only just met ya a few days before, what made ya so sure Ah wouldn’t turn out like yer parents did, hm? What made ya take that risk?”
Rainbow Dash fell silent once more; just a bit of the color returning to her face. “I… I thought you were just like me, I thought you might be… the same. I was wrong, though, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Applejack’s gaze softened and she shook her head wistfully. “Ain’t nothin’ ta apologize for, Rainbow. Everypony makes mistakes, and Ah s’pose Ah should’a taken that as a compliment. But do ya see what Ah’m tryin’ ta say, Rainbow? Ya barely even knew me, yet ya told me, just like it was he easiest thing in the world. And Ah know ya can do the same with our friends, ‘specially since you’ve known them so long, now. Hay, Ah’m surprised ya haven’t told Fluttershy, considerin’ how far back ya go.”
Rainbow Dash nodded, finally settling down back into her bed to stare at the ceiling again. “When I ran away from home, I sort of left her there at the Academy. Then when she came to Ponyville, for the longest time, I just couldn’t bear to bring it up. She reminded me too much of Cloudsdale, of home, of my parents.”
“Ah understand, but ain’t everythin’ different now? Ah mean, Fluttershy, Twilight, Pinkie, and Rarity? They’re yer best friends, and Ah know fer a fact they’d be more than acceptin’ of ya, and Ah think you know that, too.”
Rainbow Dash was quiet for a moment. “It’s not just that. I know they’d still love me, but it’s still just so hard to say!”
“Ah’ll help ya. Ya know Ah will.”
“What am I supposed to even say? ‘Hi girls, thanks for everything you’ve done for me. Oh, by the way, just so you know, I’m a fillyfooler, and I just didn’t tell you all these years we’ve been friends because I was too scared.’ That sounds ridiculous, AJ! I can’t tell them that, not now, everypony’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Ah don’t think you’re crazy, Dash. Ah just think you’ve ben hurt, and now you’re tryin’ to make sense of one big ol’ mess, and ya just need some help. We all want ta help ya, Dash. You just need ta help us help ya.”
“It isn’t that easy.”
“Ah think you’ll find it’s a whole lot easier then ya think if ya just give it a shot.”
Rainbow Dash looked ready to argue further, but fell back again. “I don’t know, AJ. I don’t know.”
“Promise me you’ll at least think about it? Sleep on it? Just promise me that.”
Applejack nodded once, then rolled out of the bed, landing neatly on her hooves. Rainbow Dash sat up, alarm etched into her gaze. “Where are you going?”
“Ah gotta leave, Dash. Visitin’ hours’re almost up.”
“But I don’t want you to go.”
Applejack felt a pang of guilt attack her chest. She inhaled deeply. “Ah’m afaid Ah don’t have much of a choice.”
Before the bed-bound pegasus could respond, there came a tapping at the door. Applejack strode over to open it. Dr. Stable appeared in the dim hallway, and he bowed graciously to her. “Evening, Miss Applejack. Rainbow Dash. I’m sure you’re both aware visiting hours are now over?”
“Please say she can stay.” Rainbow Dash stared at the unicorn, a pleading look in her eyes. “I don’t want to be alone. Not again. Not tonight. Please let her stay.”
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Dash. But rules are rules.”
Applejack looked back at her friend, then up at the doctor. “Do ya think ya could make an exception? Just this once?”
The doctor looked apprehensively between the two mares before sighing. “Very well. I suppose there’s no harm in it.” Applejack smiled, and Rainbow Dash gave a contented sigh that turned to a yawn halfway through. “I suppose there’s no point to my remaining here much longer, then. A good night to you both.”
Applejack nodded. “Thank ya kindly, Doctor. It sure means a lot to Rainbow.”
“Yes, yes. Oh! Before I forget, Miss Dash, Redheart and I have decided that, in the morning, you’ll be well enough to move from the Intensive Care Unit into the Recovery Wing of the hospital. Just thought I’d let you know beforehoof. It means you’ll be able to visit with more than two friends at a time, but we’ll need you ready to move by morning, so get some good sleep, ok?” Rainbow Dash nodded, her eyes already drooping. “Wonderful. If you’ll excuse me then, ladies, I have a few other patients to see tonight.” Casting a quick spell, he turned out the lights, so only the pale blue glow of the evening moon lit the room. Seemingly satisfied, he strode away, letting the door shut softly behind him.
Applejack turned away and smiled at her friend before trotting over to the couch that occupied one corner of the room. She stopped short of it however, and, on a whim, walked back over to Rainbow’s bed. The pegasus’s eyes were already closed. Applejack leaned over and planted a light kiss on the mare’s cheek. “Good night, Sugarcube.” Finally, feeling as if her legs were about to give out, she returned to her couch and flopped unceremoniously into it, closing her eyes immediately.
Rainbow Dash smiled wide. “Good night, AJ. Thanks… “ She yawned, “thanks for being my best friend.”
Particles of dust swirled in early-morning sunlight, having late been stirred from long-unused shelves by the removal of several thick, ancient tomes on Equestrian Law.
Rarity trotted from Golden Oaks’ Library’s kitchen, a tray with a steaming pot of tea and several cups and saucers suspended before her. Entering the library’s main room, she trotted over to her lavender companion, who had fallen seemingly asleep, slumped over a particularly heavy text propped open adjacent to the smoking stub of a candle long since burnt out. “My my, long night it’s been, hasn’t it, Twilight Sparkle?”
The mare stirred suddenly, jerking her head up from the book, a few pages lifting with her, stuck against her cheek, before separating with a faint noise and slipping back down. She blinked blearily up at the alabaster unicorn leaning over her. “Uh’m fine, Rarity, this is… fine.”
“Darling, when I told you to get some sleep, this is not exactly what I had in mind.” The unicorn poured a quick cup of tea and floated it gently down to her companion. Twilight Sparkle nodded in half-recognition. “In fact, this is almost the exact opposite.”
Twilight groaned, setting down her tea after a deep sip, and rubbed her temple. “I tried, Rarity. But I couldn’t.” She shook her head, taking another gulp, “With the trial, and everything else, it’s all happening so fast! I have to be ready.”
Rarity paused for a moment, sipping from her own teacup in pensive silence as Twilight drained the last of her dregs and sat up groggily. Finally, the prim unicorn turned, casting a concerned eye over her friend. “Yes, Dear, I do understand, but Soarin’ was only arrested yesterday. The trial should still be a good while away. You do have time.”
Twilight sighed, her senses gradually returning to their normal level of alertness. “I don’t know, Rarity. I’m going up against real, professional lawyers with years of experience way beyond me! All I have to go on are these books. What else am I supposed to do? I can’t afford to waste any time.”
“Well, Darling. If you don’t think you’re up for it, why did you accept the offer?”
The mare blinked a few time. “What?”
“It’s simple, Darling. If you’re feeling this overwhelmed now, you certainly must have been when Princes Celestia offered you the assignment.”
Twilight Sparkle shook her head. “No, Celestia didn’t want me to do this. I chose to.”
Rarity looked thrown for the briefest of instants, before she shook herself, regaining an air of unflappability, and nodded. “I see…”
Twilight continued speaking as if she hadn’t noticed. “I had to. There’s no other way.”
“You don’t think the Princess could have found a professional Council suitable enough for Rainbow Dash?”
Again, Twilight shook her head. “And let one of those sharks pick apart her life? Learn her deepest secrets? Dissect such a traumatic experience like some cold tactician only out to earn a profit? Turn a blind eye to her pain and suffering and present her case like a clinical study? We have no idea how somepony as hardened and aloof as they are might treat her! I can’t risk that. She needs somepony who cares about her and knows her to represent her. I’ve got to do it.”
Rarity gave pause, and after a few seconds, nodded her agreement. “Whatever you think is best, Dear. I suppose I know sound judgment when I hear it. Although I do worry about you, and I’m sure the others do as well. You must know that.”
“Yeah… I think I do.”
A few more moments of uncomfortable, empty silence passed between the two mares. Rarity observed Twilight’s shifting countenance with interest and apprehension before, sighing one more, she acquiesced to break the lull. “And yet, you still don’t seem convinced of yourself.”
Twilight grimaced. “That’s because I’m not, Rarity. I’m still in over my depth and even books aren’t helping anymore.”
Rarity gently set herself down next to her friend. “Twilight, I may not have the answers you’re looking for, but... let me tell you a story.” Twilight, her curiosity pegged, sat up and gazed earnestly at her friend. “I had barely received my cutie mark the first time my parents went on an extended vacation and left me in charge of Sweetie Belle. Now, back then, I had hardly any idea how to take care of my little sister. Like you, I felt overwhelmed, out of my own depth, and even angry with my mother and father from time to time. But I did my best, and I’ve taken care of Sweetie Belle numerous times since then. Although I grant I still have much to learn, I feel as if I’ve improved every time.”
“But what does that have to do with…”
“My point, Twilight Sparkle, is that we never know what we’re capable of if we don’t test our limits. I had to learn a lot of responsibility, and I’m still learning to be the best big sister I can be.” Rarity daintily cleared her throat. “And you, my dear Twilight, are the most brilliant and talented unicorn I have ever had the pleasure of making acquaintance with. I am confident that we have yet to see your best, but in order to do so, you have to push at your own limits. Don’t be defined by what you think you cannot do; rather, by what you strive to.”
Twilight could only blink at her friend.
Rarity grinned sheepishly. “My mother used to say that to me.”
Then a smile broke out on Twilight’s face. “Thanks, Rarity. I think you’re… no, you are right. That was really helpful.” Twilight gave her friend a quick hug.
Rarity returned the gesture. “I’m glad of it. Now, let’s get to work, shall we?”
Cloudsdale slumbered quietly in the early morning light. Even at its elevation, where the first rays of the sun would stretch across the sky and light up the day long before sunrise came to the ground, the chill of night still prevailed. Stars twinkled in a sky mottled grey and orange from the oncoming dawn. Thin wisps of cloud drifted lazily past towering cloud structures, still cast in dreary shadow. So high up, where the cold winds blew unhindered by mountains or natural edifices, the night drove those ponies fortunate enough inside their insulated cloud houses. The unlucky few worked through the night and well into the wee morning hours on the Weather Factory’s boneyard shift.
The cloud-paved streets themselves were empty, save for a single solitary figure. A mare clad in a dark cloak to hide her face and mane and a shawl draped over her body, as nameless and faceless as many a passing cloud, made her way carefully along city streets set against a backdrop of those first early rays. Traveling in the chill of early morning kept her away from the prying eyes of those who might otherwise be out on the streets with her. Nevertheless, she left from the Police Station warily, swinging a cloaked head from side to side to check for those who might yet be out, sniffing at her trail.
She hastened down lonely city streets, passing through the more downtrodden areas surrounding the factory, which hummed with the sound of the late shift working to prepare weather systems for the coming day. The factory was a sprawling complex, surrounded by an even more sprawling development of homes for the workers and their families. The breaking day rose behind her as she wove through labyrinthine streets. Upon leaving the city proper, the mare stopped, glancing around her before unfurling a pair of yellow wings from beneath her cloak. Silently, she took off into the dawn; flying towards the wealthier, upscale housing on clouds separate from the rest of the city.
Her shawl flapped in the wind behind her as she flew – grand, imposing, cloud mansions spread out in the sky looming before her. Her body relaxed as she neared the more prime areal real estate. She was almost home.
A sudden gust of cold air took her by surprise. In an instant she ducked and rolled with the wind current, effortlessly shaking off the turbulence, but the damage was already done. The wind caught the hood of her cloak and blew it back behind her, revealing a shock of flame-orange mane and an Equestria-famous face.
To her credit, Spitfire had no idea where they had come from. She suspected they had had been watching the Police Station earlier that night, and followed in the shadows when they saw somepony leave, staying just out of sight while she had her face obscured. Now, however, with her out in the open and her only safeguard against recognition tumbling in the breeze behind her, they pounced. Spitfire took off at a much faster clip; no longer caring about conspicuity. The Paparazzi came in hot pursuit.
She soon left the few camera ponies and reporters well behind her. She smirked a bit to herself – after all, who could hope to outrun and catch a Wonderbolt? But her smirk faded when she rounded a corner and came upon her own house. Throwing her wings out as airbrakes, she came to a sudden halt just in time for what seemed a thousand flashbulbs to go off at once. Spitfire balked as she took in the sight before her. The entrance to her very house lay blocked by numerous pegasi sporting cameras, notepads, and hats with cards reading ‘press’ stuck out at odd angles. They swarmed around her as soon as she arrived, snapping her picture from every angle and peppering her with a myriad of questions. Those who had been pursuing her soon caught up, blocking her exit towards the rear.
“Any news on Soarin’s arrest, Spitfire?”
“How will this affect team morale?”
“Is he being held without warrant?”
“Why all the secrecy surrounding his arrest?”
“How come no public charges have been released?”
“Does this have any connection to the recent chocolate scandal?”
“Why were you at the Police Station just now? Is Soarin’ being held there?”
“Is he under duress?”
“Could blackmail be involved in this?”
“Will he be released in time for any upcoming performances?”
“Is he going to be cut from the team?”
“How about your fans? What do you have to say to them?”
“Can you confirm any of the speculation that…”
Spitfire did her best to shield her face with her hooves as questions flew fast and thick and cameras flashed incessantly. She growled under her breath, searching for a way out of the seemingly tightening circle of newsponies. Suddenly, she spied an opening and, without thinking, flew straight down, below the posse of pestering pegasi. She arced beneath them and pulled up sharply, arriving at her own front door just outside the edge of the circle. To a pony, the mass turned, still snapping more pictures as the Wonderbolt grasped for an ornately-carved door handle. All the voices of shouting reporters merged to one. “Spitfire! Spitfire! Spitfire!”
The mare spun around, still mindful to shield her eyes from the blinding flashes, she glared out over the assembled company. “No! I don’t have any information, and even if I did I would not be sharing with any of you leeches! Now, scram!” She shouted before, in one fluid motion, she opened the door and slid inside, slamming it shut behind her again. With the bolt latched, she slumped to the foyer floor, rubbing bloodshot eyes with both hooves. She groaned, the sound of popping flashbulbs and her name being shouted still audible even from beyond her porch.
She had suspected that it would be too risky to visit Soarin’ in the Police Station where he was held, though the vain hope that travelling in the early morning would keep her undetected by prying eyes had sustained her journey nonetheless. Those hopes now dashed, she glared angrily up at the ceiling for a few moments before springing to her feet, eyes alight to match the fiery hues of her mane. A heated, cursory glance around the foyer revealed no outlet for her frustration, so se resorted to smacking the floor beneath her. Again, and again, and again she brought a malicious hoof down against the firm yet springy surface, her breath coming in choppy bursts. She growled out loud as she continued her rampage, only stopping when she managed to get her breathing under control.
In the week since Soarin’s arrest, the press had seemingly gotten only worse and worse with their manic trailing of her and her team in pursuit of the story. Spitfire had even gone so far as to suspend team practices indefinitely, and had told her teammates to avoid discussion with reporters as much as possible. Still, the Equestrian Media machine charged ahead, no amount of pleas and “No comment” statements ever being enough to satiate its hunger. It had driven her and most of her team into the relative comfort of their own homes, and even had her surrounded in hers. Spitfire resisted the urge to put a hoof through one of her walls, only just managing to relax herself with a deep, calming breath.
Her face fell to a hard-set scowl. There seemed no escaping them. The ravenous hordes of paparazzi were just another thing she had to worry about, as if she didn’t have enough. Her mind seemed continually occupied with concern for her team, trepidation over her dealings with the Police, the fear coupled with an uncertain future, and the crippling, haunting memories that had seen her jolt awake in a cold sweat every night since the fateful tryout. There lay memories that carried with them the ghosts of voices ringing through her mind like a distant, ethereal bell, chiming each hour, counting out the inexorable march of time. Every night, they were there.
Of them, but of course, stood alone the one voice; the voice that no amount of time would fade, and the one that haunted her every dream, always crying, sobbing, “No… no… no…”
Stitch by stitch. Hem by hem.
The continuous, automated whir of the sewing machine filled the room as Rarity worked, her lower lip bit in abject concentration. Piece by piece, the bits of fabric before her began to come together to form a cohesive piece. Then, all too suddenly, the gentle hum was replaced by a loud grinding noise and her sewing needle jerked to a halt and jammed, a tangle of thread and flaps of fabric. Rarity hissed at the set-back, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose with the help of her magic and leaned forward, ready to pick apart the mess, when another sound distracted her. She sat up, cocking one ear towards the door of her design room. The low, faint, unmistakable buzz of hushed voices emanated from the direction of her front room. Customers!
A lesser, ill-composed lady might have cursed at realizing she had been neglecting customers and may have very well left them waiting for Celestia knows how long. Rarity, however, stood up, keeping an air of unflappable poise and strode from her workroom into the hallway, strutting calmly as she neared the showroom. She cleared her throat, preparing to offer her usual greeting to these potential clients, when abruptly a stray name slipped from their conversation and upon the cusp of her ear, and she stopped in her tracks; her greeting dying on her lips.
“… Rainbow Dash?”
“No, I haven’t seen her in over a week, and you know, I’ve been asking around town recently, and I don’t think anypony’s seen her recently either.”
“Well, I head a rumor that she went up to Cloudsdale a little while ago.”
“Why, yes, didn’t you know? She went up there for a tryout with the Wonderbolts.”
“You’re kidding, she can’t possibly be… with the Wonderbolts?”
“The very same. Why, I thought everyone in town knew that?”
“Well, I guess I didn’t. I only knew she was gone.”
“Well that’s where she went. And no one’s seen her since.”
“Might she still be with them, for this whole time?”
“I’m more interested in what she might have done with them. Don’t you remember the arrest?”
“The arre- oh, you mean that Soarin’ character?”
“Why, of course.”
“I’d forgotten about that. Now I remember. I read about that in the paper, oh, it must’ve been a week ago.”
“Indeed. The only question is what for.”
“You don’t think it could have anything to do with Rainbow Dash, could it?”
“It’s more than possible. The timing matches up, and I wouldn’t put some sort of scandalous behavior past her. Why, I’ve always thought she was a bit of a…”
It was at that moment when Rarity removed her ear from the wall and, holding her head high and flicking her regal mane from side to side exaggeratedly, strode into the front room, bringing a swift end to the conversation between the two mares. Both looked up at her expectantly, and she opened one eye, surveying them with a detached, almost bored look upon her face. Finally, she cleared her throat, regarding the two mares coolly. “How may I help you ladies this fine evening?”
The first, the clear leader of the pair, stood up noticeably straighter and returned Rarity’s gaze confidently. “Why, yes. My friend and I were looking to try on a few dresses of yours. I trust it isn’t too much trouble, no?” She cocked an eyebrow in Rarity’s direction with her last word, as if daring her to deny her request. Her friend merely smiled weakly and stood behind the first mare.
Rarity calmly brushed aside the unspoken challenge without so much as a second thought. In a voice carefully chosen to be as smooth and aloof as possible, she acquiesced, turning quickly to lead the mares back into one of her fitting rooms. “Right this way.”
Rarity tried not to think about the two mares as they followed her. She didn’t turn around to see the smug grin on the first, nor the complacent, guilty half-smile on the other. She kept up her nonchalant act of unassuming boredom, while the gears of her mind ran furiously. She clicked her teeth as she walked. The nerve of some ponies! How they could be so arrogant, so patronizing as to discuss her dear friend and her pain as if she were a sculpture in a museum to gawk at, pry into her life as if she were a story character, spread rumors about her and dare to assume she was behind some sort of criminal activity, to have the audacity, the nerve to refer to Rainbow Dash as a…
“And about time too. I was wondering if we were even going to get service.” They had arrived at the fitting room, the first mare now lazily browsing a rack of very expensive dresses.
Rarity hoped her eyes didn’t give away her desire to throttle the mare’s neck.
Twilight Sparkle's eyes danced as she pored over the crinkled piece if parchment laid out upon her desk – a quill, held deftly with its tip in her mouth, twitched back and forth as she concentrated on her personal list of potential witnesses. Most of the rather short list consisted of her friends and a few hospital staff, with the names of several Wonderbolts and the phrase ‘hotel cleaning staff’ scrawled across the bottom of the page next to a large, menacing question mark.
Twilight sighed. That was one big question mark. As much as her dedication and planning had brought her case together in the past week, she knew how weak it still was – especially with a distinct lack of very much physical evidence. She would have to lean heavily on witness testimony, and without more substantial witnesses, she feared her prosecution might sink fast under examination. She glanced back at the parchment, the series of inked-in names looked shaky at best, and as a convincing case, they seemed a house of cards, ready to topple at the whim of the slightest breeze. She lifted the quill into the air and began scrawling out a new name, only to scratch it out only halfway through, shaking her head and sighing again.
A knocking at the door offered her a welcome reprieve. She went to answer, swinging the door open with an easy flick of her head. “Oh! Hello, Rarity. How can I help you?”
The white unicorn pushed past her friend and into the library quickly. “Please, Twilight Sparkle. Do shut the door.”
Twilight complied, throwing her friend a dubious look in the process. “Rarity? Is something the matter?”
“Well, yes. I suppose you might say that, considering everything is the matter, something is very well the matter right now.”
Twilight blinked. “Um… you’re not making any sense…”
“Oh, I suppose not. No, certainly not. I wouldn’t be, would I? After all, I am just about at my wit’s end with all this… this cruelty, this awful behavior! Tell me, Twilight Sparkle, do you know what I just endured for the past hour?”
“No?” Twilight cautioned, backing away from the distraught unicorn as she paced the floor in the center of the library.
“The worst dress fitting session of my life. The absolute worst. And I should tell you, I’ve had bad ones. I’ve had customers who bragged about themselves, who just would not stop talking long enough for me to even think as I was trying different fabrics. I’ve had customers who were demanding, picky, indecisive, and all else you might imagine, but this one, oh, this one takes the cake. Did you know she spent the whole of her fitting, and then the whole of her nice, quiet little friend’s fitting, firing question after question at me?”
“Well that doesn’t sound so bad…”
“Not so bad?” Rarity turned, shock and a small amount of disbelief registering in her features. “Allow me to clarify, please, my dear Twilight. Not just any questions. Questions about Rainbow Dash, questions she had no right to be asking! I swear I’ve heard every single cockamamie rumor about her this town has come up with since she left for Cloudsdale and that Soarin’ was arrested.”
Twilight slowly nodded, finally feeling as if she were beginning to understand. “What sort of rumors?”
“Oh, the usual, far-fetched drivel. Rainbow Dash and Soarin’ tried to orchestrate a hostile takeover of the Wonderbolts, or Rainbow Dash and Soarin’ tried to rob Cloudsdale bank of a stash of diamonds and were both arrested. That is not what’s important, though. She put every single question to me as if she fully expected me to betray my dear friend’s trust, as if she didn’t care for Rainbow Dash’s feelings, nor mine, whatsoever. And what’s worse, for every harebrained speculation she put to question, she had more that were unsettlingly close to true. She even guessed once that Rainbow was in the hospital, if you can believe it. I brushed it off, though, I brushed it all off, dissuaded her from asking, told her the questions were ridiculous, but to no avail! I would have removed her from my store forcefully had I not thought it would reflect poorly upon my business.”
Twilight blinked a few times. Rarity had stopped, and now gazed expectantly up at her. The pale unicorn’s eyes shone a mixture of anger and, unless Twilight was mistaken, what seemed to be fear. “Uh, Rarity, don’t you think you’re overreacting a bit? I mean, this was just some mare, one pony who got a little curious and came to you for gossip, didn’t you say the whole town would be gossiping abut this?”
“Well, yes, of course, but I expected it after the news broke. I never dreamed such wild speculation would reach Rainbow Dash this early. I’m outraged. I can’t help it; this is despicable. Twilight, this mare had no tact, no courtesy, no common decency. She was rude, and awfully behaved, and impossible…”
“It was just one mare, Rarity. What are you really worried about?”
Rarity sighed and fell dramatically into a large, overstuffed couch. She rolled over and Twilight waited while she contemplated the ceiling, no answer forthcoming. Finally, Rarity looked back, the anger in her eyes broken. Her voice was quiet again when she spoke. “Do you remember what Rainbow Dash and Applejack told us last week, about her being a lesbian?”
Twilight was taken aback for only a brief instant. “Of course. That’s not something I’m likely to forget.”
“This mare today, she got me thinking about that.” Rarity rolled back over onto her back, sweeping a hoof through the air above her head as she spoke. “Twilight, we’re lucky that Equestria is such a welcoming and accepting place, but there are still some ponies, a good number of them, some of whom I know in Ponyville and Canterlot, who don’t think quite like you and I. When this story breaks, our dear Rainbow Dash is going to be absolutely hounded by ponies. I can’t even begin to imagine it, but if what I saw today is any indication, it’s only going to be worse once her story reaches the press. We simply must do something.”
Twilight paused, a frown deepening on her face before she shook her head sadly. “I don’t think there’s much of anything we can do right now, Rarity. We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Rarity blanched, rolling over and fixing a shocked gaze on her friend. “You cannot be serious, Darling. Surely you do have a plan in mind?”
“I don’t know how ponies will react yet. And until I do, any plan I make will be useless. The best thing for it right now is to just focus on the trial. If the police have their way, we’ll be going to court in less than two weeks. We have to be ready by then, and that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
“What do we tell Rainbow Dash, then? How are we going to protect her when the time comes, what if her secret gets out with the press and every curious pony in Equestria prying into her life like that? Where will we be then?”
“Like I said, Rarity. That’s a situation we can’t prepare for without knowing more. Rainbow Dash has been in enough of a bad place recently. She’s made incredible progress this past week, but she’s still far from ready to face something like that. The trial has to be our main focus right now, Rarity. It just has to be.”
“Well, for her sake I hope you’re right, Twilight Sparkle.” Both mares fell silent, and the library descending into an eerie calm. The faint sound of rain pitter-pattering against the tree trunk rose up over the faint quiet. The two looked upward. A few droplets of water streaked a candle-lit windowpane above them. Twilight frowned.
“When did it start raining?”
“I haven’t the slightest. Was there a storm scheduled for today?”
“I don’t know, I only usually hear about it from,” Twilight hesitated, “… Rainbow Dash.”
For a while, the mares merely listened to the rain as it felt gently against the outside wall. The flickering, changing light of the candles cast long shadows against the wall and across rows of bookshelves. Rarity shivered slightly. “We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us.”
Twilight nodded, and the two were once again cast into mutual silence. Rarity settled back into the couch and Twilight returned to her writing desk, pondering once more her painfully short list of witnesses. She briefly considered pulling out her book of courtroom procedures to look through once more, but finally decided against it. She’d already read trough it twice, even taking detailed notes. So she resigned to stare at her barely-completed paper and reflect painfully on how much she had left to prepare. Twilight found herself envying her young assistant slightly. While she had so much to worry about, Spike was probably asleep already in his basket, not a care in the world. At least, she hoped he was. She had already found him restless and feverish in fitful bouts of sleeplessness twice in the days since she broke the news to him; the little dragon had taken it hard.
Her musings were interrupted as the sound of gentle rainfall suddenly became overwhelmed by a knocking at the door. Twilight spun around as Rarity sat up with a start. “Who could it be at this hour?”
“I don’t know. I’ll go see.” Twilight trotted to the door and swung it carefully open, peering around the edge into the drizzly night. A soaked, disheveled, and grave looking unicorn stallion stood on the walk. It took Twilight a few moments to recognize the sopping hat and drenched jacket. “Oh! Detective Bright Star, please come in!”
She ushered the officer in, and in a matter of minutes had a fire hissing and crackling in the gate. The detective nodded his thanks as he wrung out his hat, having hung his jacket to dry before the flames. Then he turned to the mares, their faces both awash with concern. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you, ladies. But I arrived as soon as I could. I have news, and I’m afraid none of it is good.”
“What do you mean?” Twilight frowned.
The dancing light played upon the detective’s face, flickering across his brow as he flicked a plastered wet lock of ashen mane from his forehead. His eyes seemed distant, sunken and shrouded in shadow from the pallor cast by firelight. He suddenly looked very old, indeed. “There’s been a leak. We’re not fully aware of the specifics just yet, but it came out of the Cloudsdale Office. Probably some low-level intern or a night guard who got too cozy with a reporter. That’s not important, though. The important thing is everything, the reason for the arrest, the rape, and the upcoming trial is in the media’s hands because somepony had their lips too loose.”
Rarity and Twilight both stared at the stallion, too stunned for words, until finally Rarity managed a choking gasp. “Surely… you can’t be serious?”
“I’m afraid I am. Of course we’re going to try and dig out the source of this leak, but the damage is already done. We’ll have to formally charge Saorin’ with the crime tomorrow morning just to keep the media under control. You’ve seen how much attention his arrest has already garnered. Now imagine what it would be like if information on his crime arose without him being publicly charged. Our hoof has been forced.”
Twilight shook her head in disbelief. “Wait… how hasn’t he been charged already?”
“We can make the case private and keep details form the public if there’s a legitimate reason. We usually do it to protect key witnesses or victims. So he has been charged, we’ve just been keeping it under wraps. Until now, that is.”
Rarity appeared to blanch even in the dimly lit gloom. “So you mean the cat’s out of the bag now? And Rainbow Dash will just…”
The officer nodded gravely, cutting Rarity off. “News is already buzzing around Cloudsdale. By morning, Miss Dash’s name will be on the front page of every paper from here to Fillydelphia.”
Rarity appeared uneasy. “Twilight, could I have a word with you,” she cast a wary glance towards the stallion, “alone?”
Twilight nodded. “Please excuse us, detective.”
“Of course… of course.” He muttered, returning his gaze to the dying fire.
Rarity led her friend back, around the corner of a bookshelf before turning to her, fear and worry obvious in her gaze. “This is exactly what I was worried about. The press is going to have a field day, and where will that leave poor Rainbow Dash? What does this mean for us, for her, for her secret? How do you propose to protect her now?”
Twilight sighed. “I don’t know, Rarity. I need more time to think.”
“Well, you’d best think quickly, because time is exactly what we just ran out of.”
“Everything’s happening so fast. If only we had more time.”
“And just what are we going to tell Rainbow?”
Twilight answered quickly. “Nothing – at least not yet. She’s still too fragile right now. Something like this is the last thing she needs to hear.”
“Do you really think that’s wise?”
“I need to know what we’re up against. She’ll be safe in the hospital for the next few days. By then I’ll have a plan. You’ll see.”
“I do hope you will, Twilight Sparkle. I believe in you. We all do.”
“I’m not going to let anypony down.”
The sound of the stallion coughing reached them from around the shelf, and Rarity frowned in the darkness. “And another thing. I don’t think I much like this Bright Star character. He just shows up in the dead of night bearing bad news. It all seems very… suspicious.”
“Oh, come off it, Rarity. He’s just doing his job.”
A sudden flash of lightning momentarily bathed the library in ethereal, white light. Rarity and Twilight both cast their gazes back to the window. The rain streaked faster against the glass, and the howling, spraying sound only increased in tempo. Twilight Sparkle uttered a quiet, mirthless laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, nothing. It just seems fitting, doesn’t it? We’re already fighting a losing battle. It only makes sense that time is against us now as well.”
It was front-page news by morning.
Doctor Stable sighed as he peered at the newspaper headline over the edge of his morning cup of coffee. The aromatic steam drifted and swayed past his snout, and he closed his eyes, inhaling deeply, hoping the peaceful serenity of the moment might last, and that the terrible words might be gone by the time he opened them again.
It was a sudden bang and flash of light, however, which thrust him unceremoniously from his reverie. In a flailing jolt of limbs, the doctor jumped at the noise. His eyes flew open, and a stray hoof caught the side of his mug, dumping the liquid contents onto his desk and soaking the paper. Flustered and sputtering, he jerked out of the way just in time to prevent some of the scalding liquid from dripping onto him. And in the very same instant, a lavender face materialized in his doorway.
“Doctor? I hope I’m not… disrupting anything.”
Doctor Stable gasped. “Miss… Miss Sparkle.” He stammered, finally seeming to get his breathing under control after a long pause. “Make another entrance like that and you’re liable to give an old stallion like me a heart attack.”
Twilight cringed. “I’m so sorry, Doctor! I didn’t mean to startle you.” She rushed into the room, pausing at the sight of the soaked contents of his desk.
“No, no. That’s quite alright. I’ll have this cleaned up in a jiffy.” With a quick application of magic, the extraneous coffee was gone, and his desk returned to its prior sheen. “Now, what can I do for you this fine morning?”
Twilight took a few seconds to get her bearings. “I assume you’ve seen the news already?”
The doctor sighed, glancing back down at the paper, which lay in a damp, crumpled heap beside his now-empty mug. “Unfortunately, yes. It’s a shame—some low-level Royal Police pencil pusher spills the beans and suddenly it’s the Equestria Daily’s newest scandal. Disgusting.” He shot a glare at the offending newsprint before casting it unsympathetically into the trash. “Worthless rag anyway.”
Twilight shifted uncomfortably on her hooves. Her eyes darted about the room, flicking from the metronome on the stallion’s desk to the doctorate hanging framed upon his wall—looking anywhere but at the pony himself.
The doctor furled his brow, his interest piqued. “Something bothering you?”
Twilight finally returned her gaze to the kind doctor’s face. She grinned sheepishly. “Sorry I teleported in here unannounced. I probably should have gone through the lobby instead, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to be too careful.”
The elder waved a dismissive hoof. “Don’t worry about it. I need more excitement in my life anyway. If I may ask, though, what are you hiding from?”
Twilight took to the seat nearest the desk and sighed. Doctor Stable noted for the first time the bags under her eyes—it was clear she hadn’t slept the night before. “The rest of the town, mostly. Now that they all know what happened to Rainbow Dash, they’ll realize she’s missing. If anyone sees me walking into the hospital, they might get suspicious. I don’t want to risk it.”
“I take it only a select few ponies know Miss Dash’s whereabouts?”
Twilight nodded. “Only those who need to know. That won’t stop others from guessing, though.”
A dubious frown set upon the stallion’s face. “I should think it won’t be too long before that happens.”
“I know.” Twilight deadpanned. “That’s why I’m being extra careful. I’ve already told the girls to make sure they stay home today, just to avoid every pony on the street pestering them.” Twilight paused and seemed to sit up just a little straighter, blinking some of the weariness from her eyes. “Except for Rarity, of course.”
The doctor’s eyes briefly registered surprise and concern. “Then what is she doing?”
“She’s been out since word spread feeding false stories to the rumor mills around town. I figure as long as we can give ponies the idea that Rainbow’s still up in Cloudsdale, or that she’s been taken to a hospital in Canterlot for treatment, or something, it’ll keep them off her actual trail.”
“Do you really think that’s wise?”
“Well, even she acknowledges that she’s one of Ponyville’s foremost sources of gossip. If anypony could steer ponies in the wrong direction, she could.”
“That’s not what I mean. I worry that, once ponies realize she isn’t in Canterlot or Cloudsdale, they’ll have the idea of her being treated in a hospital on their mind, and they’ll immediately start prying around here.” His voice trailed off, and he was left staring apprehensively at his visitor, who did not flinch. “They’ll come here with questions sooner or later. It’s almost inevitable, really.”
Twilight Sparkle’s response came in a quiet, yet resolute voice. “I have a plan. I want to get her out of the hospital; tonight, if she’s able…. She will be able, won’t she?”
The doctor drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, nodding to himself in pensive deliberation. “Hm… yes. I should think she’s more than ready by now. She may even be wondering why she’s been kept so long. I can drum up some paperwork for release as soon as you need it.”
Twilight nodded. “Thank you, Doctor Stable. Tonight, if you will. I’d rather move her under the cover of darkness than risk scaring or hurting her with another dual long-distance teleportation spell. Tonight should work just fine—I want her out of the public eye as soon as possible.”
“I understand. I’m happy to be of any help I can.”
“Thank you.” She stood up, prompting her companion to rise as well. She smiled. “If you’ll excuse me, I do have a few more errands to run before I’m ready to make this move. I have to make sure everything is set up perfectly.”
“Of course. Best of luck.” He nodded to her as she bowed out of his office. “Oh, and Miss Sparkle?” He called just as she left, and her head popped into the doorway. “Would you mind telling Nurse Redheart to come see me when you get to the lobby? I’d be much obliged.”
“Certainly.” She left without a further word. Doctor Stable returned to his work, the soothing tick of his metronome bade him company as he lingered, shuffling a few papers on his desk.
Within a few steady beats of the rhythmic device, Nurse Redheart arrived at his door. He stood to greet her. “You asked for me, Doctor?”
“Yes, and I‘ll cut right to the chase. I assume you’re aware of the news this morning?”
“I only wish I wasn’t. Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.”
“Well, Twilight Sparkle only just paid me a visit, and due to this development, she wants to move Rainbow Dash to a less public location, and she wants to do it tonight.”
“That seems reasonable.”
The doctor nodded once before continuing. “I’ve already cleared Miss Dash for release, but I still worry. I don’t believe her mental state is yet strong enough to withstand a curious general public, so it remains absolutely imperative that she be shielded until then. It’s unlikely that anypony will guess her location before nightfall, but in the event they do, we need to remain watchful until nightfall. Nopony, aside from Miss Sparkle, one of her close friends, or the detective and his men, can be allowed back to see Rainbow Dash unless they have a damn good reason. I need you to make sure of that.”
Nurse Redheart nodded slowly. The doctor seemed to visibly relax, and settled back further into his big armchair as she did so. Unbidden however, the mare felt a twinge of unease attack her subconscious, and she frowned. “If I may ask, what would constitute such a reason?”
Her boss looked up at her and scratched his chin in thought for a moment, before finally shrugging. “I’ll trust your better judgment to make that decision, Redheart.” He paused, concern alighting on his features for a brief instant. “There’s another thing, too. I’d like you to take a closer look at the blood work and samples taken from Miss Dash the day she was admitted.”
Nurse Redheart paused, surprised, but nodded once more all the same. “You mean the toxicology report sent back from the labs in Canterlot?”
“Yes. That one. I fear we may have missed something.”
“Is there anything specific you want me to look for?”
“I don’t know. I just feel as if there’s something eluding us, something important, but for the life of me I can’t fathom what it may be.”
“Do you think she was drugged?”
“It’s a definite possibility. I know we didn’t see anything in the chemical analysis the first time… but that was a chaotic, confusing day. I’ve been wrong before, and I’d like a second look. At the very least, look for anything unusual. Report your findings to me by tomorrow, if you please.” He leaned back and looked pensive for a moment, clicking his front hooves together just in front of his chin before mumbling quietly, as if only to himself. “I always wonder if we’re not missing something. This is such an important case… such a very important case…” Nurse Redheart coughed, but drew no reaction. She wondered briefly if he had forgotten she was even there.
“Sir?” She probed, raising an eyebrow, but he did not respond.
His eyes caught the rhythmic motion of his metronome and followed it closely for a few ticks, before they shut suddenly and he yawned loudly.
Nurse Redheart sighed and shook her head. “You should take some time off, Doctor. You know what happens when you overwork yourself.”
“Hardly matters now. I’m getting so very old.” He chuckled.
“You hardly look a day over forty.”
“You’ve always been too kind to me, Nurse.”
She rolled her eyes before departing. “Get some rest, Stable.”
“Can do.” The unicorn leaned back and closed his eyes, settling his rear hooves upon the desk. Nurse Redheart merely let slip a dry chuckle before returning to the lobby.
A patchwork sky of lazy white clouds and the carefree chirping of many birds betrayed the onset of another crisp, beautiful fall day. Twilight Sparkle took the time for peace and recollection as she strode along the quiet, secluded path through Sweet Apple Acres. She could afford to take her time out among the rows and rows of trees, knowing full well that it was unlikely any curious pony might see her in the isolated stretch of orchard. Still, though she would have preferred to have her preparations completed as soon as possible, she enjoyed the few precious, peaceful moments alone that the walk afforded her. It gave her time to think, time that had lately become more and more valuable to her heavily taxed mind.
She was whistling a nameless tune by the time she arrived at the farmhouse door, and knocked quickly. A hushed voice spoke form beyond the door. “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Applejack. May I come in?”
“AJ, it’s Twilight. Let me in.” The unicorn deadpanned.
The earth pony chuckled as she swung the door open to a frown from her friend. “Why didn’t ya say so the first time?”
“You can recognize my voice.”
“Ah reckon so. Ya can never be too careful though.” Twilight just sighed. Applejack peered at her friend, her joking expression replaced quickly with one of concern. “Somethin’ got yer bonnet in a bunch, Twi?”
“I guess it’s just stress from, well… everything.”
“Anythin’ Ah can help with?”
Twilight shook her head as the pair ventured further into the house. “I don’t think so. It’s just this trial, and now the newspapers, and the rumors going around, and everything else that’s going on at the same time. It’s all happening so fast and I don’t know what to expect.”
Applejack laid a comforting hoof across her friend’s back and led her into the kitchen. “Ah can’t say Ah blame ya. Ah s’pose Ah’m feelin’ a might bit nervous too, and Ah’m not even the one who has ta learn all that fancy lawyerin’ business.” She smiled as she reached towards the counter for a pot of coffee and poured out a mug in one smooth motion. She turned back around and moved towards her friend, clenching the saucer below the mug deftly in her jaws. Twilight shook her head meekly; Applejack frowned and set the hot drink onto the kitchen table. She turned and fixed her companion with a serious expression, her eyes hard-set yet warm, and her demeanor both grim and determined yet somehow reassuring, as if she knew everything was going to turn out right in the end. “Look, Twi, Ah can’t tell ya how much we all appreciate all the work you’re tryin’ ta do. Honestly, we’re all so grateful to ya, but believe me when Ah say that ya don’t have ta do this alone. We’re here for ya, and we want ta help ya. Just tell us what we can do.”
A small smile alighted upon Twilight Sparkle’s features before being lost to the strain of uncertainty. “Thanks, AJ. I know you girls want to help, but I can’t even begin to imagine how right now. This is something bigger than even I know how to deal with, you understand that, right?”
“That still don’t mean ya have ta face this alone.” Applejack stared at her friend. “Ya sure ya don’t want a nice hot drink? Somethin’ to help ya focus?”
“I’m fine, AJ.” Applejack’s concerned gaze didn’t shift. “Really, I’m fine.”
Applejack shrugged. “If ya say so.” She turned back to the table and took a quick swig, sighing deeply as she set the mug back down. “So, how’s she holdin’ up?”
“Doctor Stable says she’s been improving this past week. He also cleared her for release tonight.”
“Well that’s some good news. Did ya get ta visit her?”
Twilight felt a pang of guilt snap unbidden at the edge of her conscience, and she frowned. “No… I was too preoccupied with getting all my plans set in stone that I didn’t even think to stop by.”
“Ah wouldn’t think nothin’ of it, Sugarcube. B’sides, we’re goin’ ta see her tonight, and then everythin’ will be right as rain.” She took another sip of her drink. “So, what time are ya thinkin’ of bringin’ her over here?”
“That’s another thing, AJ. I’ve done some thinking, and I’ve decided to move Rainbow to Fluttershy’s cottage, and not the farm.”
Applejack fell silent for a few long moments. “Well, Ah can’t say Ah’m not disappointed Twi. When ya came around earlier this mornin’ ya told me that Ah had to stay away from town all day and that Rainbow’d be comin’ ta the farm tonight. What changed?”
“It’s nothing personal, Applejack. I just think she’d be safer at Fluttershy’s.”
“Ah’m not sayin’ she wouldn’t be safe there, but Ah am just a bit confused. Ah mean, no disrespect ta Fluttershy, but Rainbow is mah best friend, and Ah know Ah can protect her if Ah need ta.”
“That’s just it, AJ. Think about it this way. You two have been close friends for years, and other ponies know that—other, curious ponies, the same ones who will come looking for Rainbow Dash after reading their morning paper. And I’m willing to bet that the farm might be one of the first places they’ll think to come knocking. Plus we have to look at the fact that there are other ponies living here as well. Granny Smith and Mac may not pose a problem, but what about Applebloom? She still has to go to school, and do you really think she wouldn’t let slip to Scootaloo that Rainbow Dash is staying at her house? I mean—Dear Celestia, we haven’t even thought of how to tell those three what really happened yet! And now they’re bound to find out with the rumors circulating town! This is bad, this is really, really—”
“—I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before! This is going to be a disaster, oh—”
“Twilight! Ah’ll take care o’ it.”
“Ah’ll tell ‘em. Knowin’ Miss Cheerilee, Ah know she wouldn’t let stories like that spread in her classroom. Ah’ll collect those three from school this afternoon and bring ‘em here. Then Ah’ll tell ‘em the truth. Simple as that. Ah might even catch up with Rarity on the way there. We could tell ‘em together,”
“Are you sure you’re—”
“Now don’t ya worry yer pretty little head none about it. This is a big sister problem. We’ll take care of it.”
Twilight blinked a few times, and then seemed to visibly relax. “Th—thanks, Applejack.”
“An’ about movin’ Dash to Fluttershy’s, instead o’ here, Ah guess Ah understand. Ah’m not gonna say Ah’m happy ‘bout it, but Ah trust ya and yer decisions.”
“Ok. Well, in that case, I should probably get going. I need to see Fluttershy and make sure everything else is ready. Thanks for understanding, AJ.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Sunlight streamed in through the kitchen windows, illuminated the surrounding woodwork and giving the whole room a luminous, almost magical quality. As the two friends exchanged a brief embrace, Twilight felt a smile alight upon her face, and she yawned loudly. In an instant, she drew back, prompting a curt, understanding nod from Applejack. Twilight grinned sheepishly. “Do you think I could get a cup of coffee after all?”
Applejack simply gave a knowing look as she reached towards the counter and pot once more.
Nurse Redheart pored over the long lists of chemical compounds and percentage figures that made up the litanies of Rainbow Dash’s blood work for what seemed the umpteenth time. To her tired eyes, each entry in the impossibly long data table seemed to blur into the next, and she caught herself reading the same line several times in a row. She shook herself, taking a deep breath before returning to peruse the figures once more. She suppressed a groan as she did so; the little, nagging voice in the back of her mind telling her that every compound listed seemed increasingly familiar grew ever more persuasive. The nurse felt on the verge of finally having to admit to herself that, aside from a copious amount of alcohol, there had been nothing out of place in Rainbow Dash’s bloodstream.
Nevertheless, reaching the bottom of the parchment again, her gaze once more flicked to the top of the toxicology report and she began scrolling down anew, watching for the ever elusive, single compound of dozens that might signal something out of the ordinary. But to her well-practiced eyes, every protein, every plasmatic chemical, every miniscule percentage point seemed in its proper place.
She did not even look up when the ringing of a bell and the sound of two distinct sets of hooves announced the arrival of a pair of visitors. Still the nurse pored on, her mind set on the faint hope that she might yet find something worth reporting.
When one, a stallion, she guessed only by half-listening, cleared his throat, Nurse Redheart sighed, yet still failed to look up, remaining engrossed in her work. “May I help you?”
A mare’s voice answered. “Good afternoon. We’re here to see Rainbow Dash. Could you schedule us a visit?”
Nurse Redheart felt her pulse quicken, yet she did not miss a beat in feigning disinterest. “I’m sorry, but Rainbow Dash has not been admitted to this hospital for many months.”
“I was told she was undergoing treatment here.”
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Rainbow Dash is not—” Nurse Redheart felt her heart stop when she finally looked up, and the sight of the two ponies fell upon her eyes for the first time. She was suddenly struck by their appearance, so much so that she had to catch her own jaw as it fell. The mare raised an eyebrow at her.
Nurse Redheart found herself faltering. As she stared, her words dying uselessly, she felt her façade of apathetic indifference crumbling around her. Her lie now seemed wholly impossible to maintain. Under another moment spent under their withering gaze, she gave in. “She—she isn’t accepting any visitors today.”
Finally, the eerily familiar-looking stallion spoke up from his relative quiet. “I’m sure, in our case, you might reconsider.” From a pouch hanging by his side, he produced a card and quickly hoofed it over the desk. As if she needed any more evidence, Nurse Redheart threw a cursory glance at the card, were the information only confirmed her already rapidly sinking suspicions.
Her work now entirely forgotten, her mind flashed back to her earlier conversation with Doctor Stable. Another quick look back up at the two visitors and their resolute gazes was enough to drown out the part of her mind telling her not to give in. She gulped; swallowing whatever weak protest had been at the ready and resigned herself to action. After all, she had been instructed to deny access to ponies without a good enough reason. And if her instinct was good for anything, she could see that if ever a pair of ponies had a good enough reason for her to defy her superior’s orders, these two did. “Right this way, sir and madam.”
Feeling refreshed and energized, Twilight Sparkle trotted quickly along the pathway leading towards Fluttershy’s countryside abode. Although teleportation was surely the quicker route, the unicorn was almost painfully aware that appearing quite suddenly in her friend’s home might very well drive the pegasus into the ceiling. Bearing that in mind, and confident that she would scarcely meet anypony else on the secluded walk, she continued along the forest trail.
She slowed as she neared the cottage, stopping just before the entrance. “Fluttershy?” No response sounded, and she frowned slightly. “You in here? I need to talk to you.” She paused, but after several moments, still received no answer. She raised a hoof to knock gingerly on the wooden surface, only to be surprised as the door swung easily open after one touch. Warily, she called out once more into the darkness. “Fluttershy?”
Twilight pushed the door open the rest of the way, causing a few odd animals to scamper as the light shifted across the floor. She strode into the living room. In the darkness, three half-drunken cups of tea sat forgotten on the coffee table. She looked around nervously again, paying mind to the shifting shadows on the walls, though reason told her it was probably only many animals scurrying about. She swallowed a dose of apprehension to call out again. “Fluttershy?”
At the distant sound of her name being called, Twilight Sparkle rushed from the cottage and out onto the front lawn. She looked all around her frantically, feeling as if she could sense the very blood pounding in her veins.
“Twilight! Thank goodness!”
She looked upwards just in time to see Fluttershy descending from above a low layer of clouds, an agitated look on her face. Twilight immediately felt her concern pique as the mare settled in for a landing, coming to a shaky halt in front of her. Her wings twitched at her sides, seemingly unwilling to rest. Twilight felt unease prick at the back of her neck. “Fluttershy? What’s wrong?”
“I’m so glad I found you I flew to the library but you weren’t there and I needed you because oh my goodness we need to go!” The normally timid pegasus grabbed her friend by the hoof and started forcibly dragging her down the path. Stunned by the sudden, unprecedented action and the fast stream of words more usually associated with somepony like Pinkie Pie, Twilight had no choice but to let herself be dragged along.
“Fluttershy, are you ok?”
To her credit, the other mare didn’t let up her force even as clouds of dust became kicked up from Twilight Sparkle’s dragging hooves. “I’m sorry I didn’t know what to say and now something bad’s happened and it’s all my fault.”
Twilight finally gave in and set about trotting alongside her friend, whose hoof falls suddenly increased from a steady trot to an all-out gallop. Surprised, Twilight had to hurry to keep up. “Slow down! I’m confused! What’s going on?”
The anxious pegasus shook her head vigorously. “No time to explain! We need to get to the hospital quick!”
A soft smile broke out on Rainbow Dash’s face as she sat up in her bed, looking over the array of get-well-soon cards, flowers, and other mementos arranged upon her bedside table. There were some from each of her friends, professing their love and support for her, and even a card from the Princesses themselves stood proudly, front and center. Each one was special, each spoke volumes to her about the wonderful, accepting friends she had. Several sported the colorful, loopy hoof writing of Pinkie Pie, who had taken it upon herself to write one such card every day since the bed-stricken pony’s big revelation.
Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but smile to herself, despite her woes. As she thought back on the preceding week, all her worries, her unnecessary fears, all seemed so insignificant in comparison to the freedom of finally telling the truth. There had really been nothing to worry about, after all. Coming out had instead become one of the most liberating experiences she could have imagined.
The hugs, the tears, the support and the love of her friends on that day became one more happy memory. Another piece of courage to add to the store she used to fight—to fight back against the dreams that still haunted her.
Every night, those dreams would come, preying upon her vulnerable, unconscious mind. They kept her thrashing about and ripping the sheets off her bed at night. They saw her jolt awake in the darkness, drenched in cold sweat and unable to breathe. The dreams of darkness surrounding her, choking her, holding her down and sponging away the light. Nightly, the walls would close in on her, compressing her and denying her the chance to breathe, and every morning, a throbbing head, pounding heart and desperate gasps for air came with the slow realization that there were no walls; the room was not getting smaller. And then she could fight. Then, she found the strength to resist in the love of her friends, and then she would push the walls outward, little by little, every morning, and then the darkness would slowly begin to recede.
Each card, each flower, each token of well wishes was a soldier, standing guard by her side, ready to fight back against the gloom that plagued her dreams. And so she smiled, and she held close the happy memories, because with a smile, the darkness couldn’t touch her. Behind a smile, she was safe.
“Rainbow Dash? You have some visitors here to see you.” Nurse Redheart’s voice brought Rainbow’s mind squarely back into focus. Her face brightened at the thought of seeing her friends once more, and it seemed for all the world that her worries were as far away as possible.
That train of pleasant thoughts, however, was doomed to be brought to an ungainly, abrupt crashing halt as soon as the two ponies walked into the room—the very two ponies she had least expected to see, especially not here, especially not now, after the blur of so many years. Rainbow Dash felt her breath catch suddenly in her throat, and she could only manage to choke out two words as the walls started to close in upon her again.
“What? You told them where she was?”
“I’m sorry! They just… they seemed so upset… like they wanted to know their daughter was ok.” Fluttershy choked on her words between deep breaths as she ran, her wings twitching at her sides. Twilight still struggled to keep up. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“Fluttershy, wait! Slow down, no; stop!” Twilight gasped as her friend finally put the brakes on, the pair halting just on the outskirts of Ponyville. Twilight quickly pushed her up under the cover of a low-hanging tree, falling into the shadows as some passers-by strode into town. “Are you crazy? We can’t just go running through town! Everypony will know something’s up!”
Fluttershy’s voice rose to an unnaturally high octave, as her eyes grew wide in near panic. “We have to! There’s no time!”
“Hang on.” Twilight laid a hoof over her friend’s shoulder, and shivered as she felt the rapid beat of her pulse. “I don’t understand. I need time to think. Why’d they come looking for you first?”
Fluttershy ruffled her feathers and glanced skyward, biting her lip. “Twilight I’m very sorry but I don’t think we should stop we should get there right now before something bad happens.” Fluttershy began shifting about nervously, as if she couldn’t decide whether to take flight and beeline directly to Rainbow Dash or to simply cower behind her mane.
A part of Twilight’s mind, even working at as furious a clip as it was, registered how abnormally firm and forward a manner of speech the other mare had worked up the resolve to maintain. If not for the deafening whirlwind of conflicting emotions and stress she was experiencing at the moment, she might have even found time to feel proud of her friend. “Easy there. I’m just as worried as you are, but we shouldn’t panic, ok? There’s no way we can just go waltzing into town. It’ll draw suspicion right to Rainbow Dash.”
“What if she needs us? We should go now.”
“Fluttershy, I promise I will get us there as quickly as possible. But right now, we need to be calm. We need to think for just a moment. Now, please, tell me why they came to you.”
Fluttershy was still shaking uncomfortably, but she managed to nod and draw in a few calming deep breaths, allowing her anxieties to peter out, if only for a moment. “Rainbow Dash and I were such good friends in Cloudsdale, I saw her parents almost every day. Even after Rainbow Dash ran away from home, I kept in touch with them. Then when I moved here and Rainbow found me, I told them about it, just to let them know she was safe.” Fluttershy took another deep breath, but her jitters seemed to have returned. “Then just a moment ago they came to my house and they were asking where she was and I panicked! I didn’t know what to do and they seemed so upset so I told them she was at the hospital and then they left and then I felt really bad so I went to find you but you weren’t at the library and now we really need to go make sure she’s ok please Twilight we need to go!” Her breaths descended from a calm rhythm into uncontrolled hyperventilation, her words bleeding together to form one barely coherent sentence.
Twilight nodded quickly. “Alright, I get it. I understand. Here, grab my hoof, and hold on tight.”
Deftly, Fluttershy reached out and wrapped her own hoof around her friend’s, “Wh—why should I…” She trailed off as she noticed an arcane purple hue begin to light up her friend’s horn.
“Because…” Twilight grunted, “This’ll probably be a bumpy ride.”
With a flash and bang like lighting and a small, terrified ‘eep’ lost to the overpowering roar, the two ponies vanished.
The hospital room had fallen into a pensive, uncomfortable silence by the time Nurse Redheart slipped out the door and let it shut gently behind her. She could sense, like an electric jolt running down the length of her neck, that the three ponies within might best be left alone.
With every step she took, however, the irrepressible sparks of doubt and guilt pricking at the back of her mind grew ever more persistent; so much so that she found herself full-on running—and having to skid to a halt—by the time she reached Doctor Stable’s office. He was fast asleep, leaning back in his chair with his hind hooves resting on the edge of his desk, by the time she strode in. His chest rose and fell in simple, peaceful rhythm, his eyes closed lazily. Nurse Redheart faltered for a moment; unsure whether she should truly wake him. Her nagging, biting conscience, however, finally convinced her. Wary of jolting him awake too suddenly, she first tried getting a gentle stir out of him, but after several repeated whispers of his name, he still slumbered on. Finally, with a sigh, she stepped nearer to him and cleared her throat rather loudly. “Doctor!”
“Gah! Where’s the fire?”
“No, it’s only me, doctor.”
The stallion took a few deep breaths before leaning forward in his chair and lifting his hooves to rub at the latent weariness in his eyes. “Whew…. Nurse Redheart. You had me…” He yawned once, stretching his fore hooves at odd angles, “You frightened me there. What is it?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you doctor, but there’s…” She paused; words suddenly failing her. “A situation has come up.”
The other sighed and dropped to the floor, rolling his head from side to side so that a few audible cracks could be heard coming from his neck. The nurse winced at the sound. “Well, I suppose I never could get any decent sleep around here anyway. What sort of situation?”
After a few seconds of hesitant silence, Nurse Redheart finally decided that being clear and forward was the best course of action. “Rainbow Dash’s parents are here.”
Doctor Stable started at the statement, his eyes going wide and the last thoughts of getting back to his nap suddenly banished form his mind. “Well, that’s certainly unexpected.”
The nurse nodded. “I had the same thought when they approached me a my desk. I thought the father looked familiar, but I just couldn’t be sure until he showed me his card.”
“Are they still in the lobby now?”
Redheart winced. “Well, no. I let them back to see their daughter. They’re with her now.”
At this, the doctor’s gaze hardened, and his eyes narrowed as he leaned slightly forward, worry and a touch of anger seeping into his voice. “Didn’t I expressly tell you not to allow anyone access to Rainbow Dash?”
She stood up just a little taller and matched his gaze. “You told me to use my own judgment to decide if anypony had a reason that warranted them access. They being her parents, I made the call that they had reason well enough.”
The doctor blinked a few time before he relaxed, his body noticeably settling into a less tense stance. “Well, I suppose I can’t fault your logic. I wish you would have consulted me first, though.”
“I didn’t get an opening to ask you privately. The two of them were too insistent to break away from.”
“I see… shall we walk?” The doctor gestured out the door, in the direction of the recovery suites. “I suppose I should meet them. I’d like to get an eye for their interaction with her as well, from what I gather from her friends, her parents have never come around before. I don’t recall their names even coming up in conversation.”
The nurse frowned as the two strode back out into the corridor. “That is true. I do find it odd that we were never even instructed to inform them of her condition.”
The doctor nodded. “Which, of course, begs the question, why do they drop in now, of all times, and more importantly, how did they find out in the first place?”
“I’d wager they read it in their newspaper this morning. No doubt the news has reached Cloudsdale by now.”
“Indeed. I’m more interested in knowing how they knew she was being held at this hospital, though. Especially if neither we nor Twilight Sparkle told them.”
“Maybe there’s a reason they were never told? What if they and their daughter don’t get along? I didn’t even think of that, I was too shocked when they came in.”
“They’ve been together for a few minutes now. I’m sure any underlying animosity would have—”
“GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!”
“—surfaced by now…. Well, I suppose that answers that question. Let’s go.” The two medical professionals took off running down the long hallway, stopping only outside the door before barging in on the scene.
An icy, piercing glare had set itself upon Rainbow Dash’s face, her magenta eyes staring daggers across the room at the present mare and stallion. She had jumped up in her bed, blankets cast aside, and stood atop the sheets, a pillow clenched tightly in her jaws. Her tail swished back and forth. Her wings were spread to what seemed their fullest extent, twitching erratically at her sides, as if she were trying to make herself appear bigger, and all the more threatening. Beyond the wild look on her face, and past the seething, the flared nostrils and the chill of her gaze, however; her eyes betrayed fear; fear and the look of a wild animal cornered with nowhere to run.
A lamp lay uselessly on the floor where it had been knocked and sent flying from its place on the nightstand, a scattered collection of get-well cards blown down from their own positions and strewn helter-skelter about the tiles as well. The water from a long forgotten, upended glass spread its way slowly, almost comically so, into a puddle on the floor between the frantic mare and her startled, hesitant parents. Wide-eyed, stunned into silence, and far less than composed, the pair could only weather their daughter’s sharp gaze.
To his credit, Doctor Stable reacted to the situation far quicker than Nurse Redheart had assumed he—having only been woken moments before—could. “What is going on here?!” He bellowed, just as the pillow left Rainbow Dash’s mouth and was sent into a soaring arc across the room. An older, deep pink pegasus mare with a shock of unkempt electric blue for a mane and tail ducked, the projectile narrowly skimming her head. There was fear in the mother’s eyes when she stood up again.
“Please, Rainbow Dash! We’re sorry! We just want our daughter back!”
“NO! You hurt me! You rejected me! I don’t want you here—I never wanted to see you again!”
“We were wrong! We were so wrong, we just—”
“You had your chance. I don’t want you here. Get out!”
Doctor Stable rushed forward, interposing himself between the distraught mare and the bewildered couple, he turned on the two, fixing them with a hard, unshakable gaze. “That’s quite enough.” His attention settled on the stallion, who, behind a wavy frock of familiar rainbow hair, seemed to harbor a gaze just as determined as his own. “Sir, I fear your presence will disrupt the fragile psychological state of my patient. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Not just your patient, but our daughter. We’ve got just as much a right to see her as anypony.”
“I understand your concern, but her precarious condition trumps whatever else may concern you. Keeping her in a safe, sound place is my top priority right now.”
The other stallion’s voice remained calm, yet resolute. “I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a family matter. We’ll stay, thank you very much.”
Nurse Redheart had backed herself up against the wall and hid her mouth behind a hoof, her mind balking at the clamor and upheaval, the blame for which seemed to rest squarely upon her shoulders. The sudden sound of hooves sliding on linoleum added to the overall noise, yet brought the nurse back into focus as Twilight Sparkle, her face awash with concern, and a very frazzled-looking Fluttershy slid into the room. “Nurse Redheart! What’s happening?”
She tried to speak coolly over the din, but found it a struggle just to make herself heard. “It’s her parents. We fear they’re distressing her too much, but we’re having trouble extricating them from—”
“I said I don’t want you here!”
Nodding once, Twilight dove right into the fray. “If everypony would just listen, I’m sure we can reach some…”
“And just who are you?” The rainbow-maned stallion rounded on her, and she stood as tall as she could.
“I’m Twilight Sparkle, I’m—”
“I assure you, we have nothing but our little girl’s best interests at heart.”
“I hate you both!” Rainbow Dash growled, having jumped to the ground, a front hoof pawing at the tile floor.
“Sir, I must insist that you leave before she becomes even more distraught.” Doctor Stable fixed them with an even sterner gaze, but only received twin looks of defiance in return.
“We’re not going anywhere.”
“Please, I don’t want to have to beg, but…”
“We’re NOT going anywhere.”
“Just be reasonable now. There’s no need for temper.” The doctor cautioned; worry creased his face.
“She’s our daughter, we have rights—”
“You’re causing her undue distress.”
“You’re the one causing undue distress!” The pink mare snapped, her fixed gaze stone cold.
Rainbow Dash growled once more; Doctor Stable glanced back at her in alarm before advancing upon the couple. “I’m only going to ask you one more time.”
“We are NOT going—”
The chaotic racket of only seconds before was instantly replaced by perfect, dead silence, as six heads immediately spun towards the source of the overwhelming cry. Six pairs of eyes stared, bewildered, at Fluttershy, her eyes wide, her breaths coming one after another in quick succession, her stare flicking alternately from face to face as she searched the room. Each of the other assembled ponies stared back at her in wonder, astonished, their thoughts coming up blank, for several seconds.
Twilight was the first to shake her head clear of the enchantment, and she cleared her throat. “Right. Well, thank you, Fluttershy.” She rounded on mother and father; neither spoke up. “Now, Mr. and Mrs., erm… Dash?”
The stallion nodded, clearing his throat. “Spectrum, and my wife, Firefly.”
“Right. As Rainbow Dash’s acting attorney, in the interest of preserving my client’s mental stability and overall health, I must ask you to leave immediately.”
Spectrum frowned. “Look. I’m not going to answer to some—”
Twilight stepped forward, putting her muzzle right near his and locking gazes with him. Startled, the bigger stallion jerked backwards, while Twilight held her stare, so close she could taste his breath on her tongue. “If you remain, I will be forced to levy legal action against you.”
Their staring match lasted but a few more brief, yet anguishing, instants before Spectrum faltered and looked away. Twilight let a satisfied grin slip onto her face. “Good. Fluttershy will escort you out.”
Looking for only the briefest moment like he was going to lodge another protest, the stallion’s mouth hung open for a second before he shut it and strode quickly from the room. Twilight’s gaze settled upon his wife, and she glanced away, frowning, her eyes awash with guilt. “I’m sorry about him. He can lose his temper sometimes, but he’s a good pony, really.” She began to walk towards the door as well, and was followed by Fluttershy. Just as she left, Firefly cast a single forlorn glance over her shoulder, back at her daughter. “Despite what you may think of us, we really do love you, Rainbow.”
She turned tail and walked from the room, and Fluttershy let the door close behind them. When they were gone, Twilight stepped backwards, breathing a deep sigh in relief. “There, now that’s… that’s more like it.” She glanced around the room, but stopped when she heard faint sniffling from behind her. “Rainbow? Are you ok?” She turned around and nearly jumped at the sight of her friend, slumped over and clutching at the bed for support. There were tears in her eyes. Twilight rushed over to her.
“I don’t understand. Why did they come back? All these years. I thought… I thought they hated me. And I hated them. I’m so confused!” Rainbow Dash choked, punching the mattress with a firm hoof. “I’m so confused!”
Twilight bit her lip, grabbing her friend’s fore leg before she could do anything else to potentially hurt herself. “It’s alright, Rainbow. Things are just…” She paused for one tiny instant—one instant entirely too long—grasping about in the darkness for the right word while Rainbow Dash’s watery gaze searched her, “difficult now. Everything’s going to work out. You’ll see.”
“You don’t know that.”
“It’s going to be ok. I will make it ok.”
“How can you say that? How can you look me in the eye and say that when you have no idea, when you can’t possibly have any idea, what’s going to happen?” She struggled the restraint, but Twilight held firm. Finally, adrenaline spent, Rainbow Dash collapsed into her friend’s waiting grasp, broken sobs leaking from a spent shell of a pony. “Why did they have to come back? Why couldn’t they just stay away? I didn’t want to see them; I never wanted to see them again. Why are they here?”
“I don’t know, Rainbow. Maybe they really were just worried about you?”
“They don’t care about me. They didn’t care when I left, so why should they now?”
Doctor Stable cleared his throat as he approaching, bringing both mares to glance over toward him. “Sometimes ponies really can change, even if you don’t expect it. I won’t pretend to know much about your relationship with your parents, Miss Dash. But whatever happened between you, it sound like they’re willing to try and make amends. At least, so long as another shouting match doesn’t develop.”
Rainbow shook her head, still leaning against Twilight. “I don’t believe it. They didn’t care then and they don’t care now. All these years and I never even saw them, not once.”
The elder shrugged. “That’s merely the opinion of a humble doctor. You can take it or leave it.”
Looking over at her friend, Twilight frowned. “How you feeling, Rainbow? Can you stand?”
“Yeah…” The pegasus pushed up, getting on top of wobbly legs. “I got it.” Twilight frowned at her in concern. “No, I got it. Really.”
“Alright.” Twilight looked over at the stallion. “Doctor, may I have a private word?”
Nurse Redheart muttered something about getting a rag for the spilled water and left the room as the two unicorns met by the door. Twilight dropped her voice to a hushed whisper. “Does this affect our plans at all? I’d still like to move Rainbow out of here tonight, although I understand if this happening has you wanting her under closer observation for a little while longer.”
“Normally, I’d be inclined to say yes, but this situation is rather unprecedented. I should ask, do you really think it’s wise to take her out of our care, after what we just saw?”
“I think this event underscores my original idea in removing her. I think it’s more imperative now than ever that she be taken to a more isolated location.”
The doctor nodded. “In that case, I’ll gladly defer to your judgment. Although, I do think you should ask her first.”
Twilight glanced over at Rainbow Dash, who pawed at the ground, stopping to pick up her scattered cards, carefully, one-by-one. Her feathers rustled uncomfortably, and she kept stealing glances up at the other two. “Hm. You’re probably right.” Twilight trotted back over to her friend, who looked up, one of Pinkie Pie’ extravagant cards hanging from her mouth. “Well, Rainbow, how are you feeling?”
The other mare gingerly set the card back down on the nightstand. “Never better.” She mumbled dryly.
Twilight frowned. “Ok, Rainbow Dash, listen. I think it’s time to check you out of the hospital and get you someplace safer.”
“Someplace safer? What do you mean?”
“Fluttershy’s. My idea is to get you further out of the public eye, and I think you’ll be more comfortable there. The question is, do you feel up for it?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Twilight arched her brow; her frown still prevalent. “Are you sure? Because after what just happened, maybe—”
“I’m fine, Twilight. My parents just… surprised me. I’m totally fine, really.”
“Are you sure?”
“Look, Twilight. I’m not a baby. You don’t have to fuss over me all the time. I’m fine.”
Still unconvinced, Twilight shrugged and turned back around. “What do you think, doctor?”
“I suppose it’s settled then. Rainbow Dash leaves the hospital tonight.”
Outwardly, Twilight smiled, but within, she couldn’t help but feel anxiety begin to prick at the nape of her neck.
It was well past midnight when Twilight finally deemed the town quiet enough for her plan. Shops and businesses had closed down for the night, and the last few ponies milling about in the town square and various late-night watering holes had finally managed to stumble back into their homes. Candles and lights in windows were winking out, leaving the streets awash in darkness. The sky above was still and clear, bearing a tapestry of distant, twinkling stars and a waning moon to light the town in its soft glow. A cold wind blew in from the mountains, standing tall and pitch black against the starry night sky in the gloomy distance. The disturbance rustled the thatched roofing on some houses, sent crisp, weary leaves flying long into the night, and bit through the exposed fur to the flesh of the unicorn and her friends as they made their way hastily up the path towards the hospital—their shivers and the ever-accumulating dead leaves skittering across the cobblestones betraying that winter was not far around the corner.
It was well past the hospital’s normal visiting hours. Even so, behind drawn blinds and the glass doors, a fully lit lobby shone like a beacon out into the night. The hospital, at such an early hour of the morning, would have usually been pitch black, just as the rest of the town, but to Twilight Sparkle, the light signified that another piece of her plan had fallen into place, and she let show a little grin.
Beside her, Fluttershy shivered slightly in the wind, and Applejack readjusted her hat more firmly atop her head. Twilight squinted ahead of her, and could barely make out the shape of a figure standing near the doorway. As she approached, she heard the sharp metallic sound of bolts clicking as the doors unlocked and swung outwards, allowing Nurse Redheart to step out into the cold night air. She yawned as they approached. “Good evening, Miss Sparkle. Or should I say good morning? It is rather early.”
“Sorry, Nurse. There were ponies out in the square later than I’d anticipated. I didn’t want to risk being seen.”
“That’s quite alright.” The Nurse leaned back into the lobby and gestured somepony to follow. “We were more than happy to stay up.”
Draped in a thick gray cloak, Rainbow Dash stepped out from the hospital to stand amongst her three friends. “I still don’t get why I have to wear this stupid thing.”
“Well, it wouldn’t due to have anypony recognize you.” Twilight reasoned, “Plus, it is pretty cold out tonight. I’m starting to wish I’d brought a scarf, myself.”
“Fine. But I’m still not happy about it. I can’t move my wings under this thing.” She shifted around a bit, glancing out over her friends. “Where’s Rarity and Pinkie Pie?”
Applejack stepped forward, nodding gently. “Rarity sends her best, but she said she had a long day and needed her ‘beauty sleep’. And Ah stopped by Sugarcube Corner earlier. Mrs. Cake says Pinkie is doin’ much better, but she turned in early for th’ night.”
“Will that be all, Miss Sparkle?”
“Oh yes. Thank you, Redheart. And be sure to get some rest!”
“Way ahead of you, there.” She yawned once more, stepping backwards into the lobby. “Good night, and good luck.” Twilight nodded her thanks, and as the group of four set off, the doors shut behind them, and the lobby’s lights went out, plunging the hospital, like the rest of the town, into darkness.
Their journey through town proceeded uneventfully. Before long, the group was out on the road to Fluttershy’s cottage, drinking in the cold night air and the shrill noise of crickets and other late-night creatures sounding off in the distance. Rainbow Dash had let the hood of her cloak fall, allowing the chilly breeze to wash over her, ruffling her mane and sweeping away her worries on a torrent of cool, numbing bliss.
After a while, Applejack fell into step beside Twilight, leaning over to whisper in her ear. “Twi, could Ah have a word with ya, privately?” Wordlessly, the unicorn nodded, and the two dropped back behind Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, who kept walking ahead. If the two pegasi noticed their friends’ sudden absence, they did not let on.
“What’s going on, AJ?” Twilight spoke quietly, just as soon as she was sure they were out of earshot.
“Remember our conversation this mornin’? Well, Ah met Rarity this afternoon and we took the girls back ta the farm. We told ‘em everythin’.”
Twilight felt a sinking sensation in the bottom of her gut. “How… how did they take it?”
“Applebloom and Sweetie Belle took it pretty well, Ah think. But Scootaloo seemed a might upset.”
“I can imagine. It must’ve been hard for her, given how much she idolizes Rainbow.”
“No kiddin’. Poor filly took it pretty hard. We’re lettin’ her an’ Sweetie Belle stay over at the farmhouse tonight—Mac’s watchin’ ‘em—but Ah don’t think it’ll help much.”
“No, most likely not. I don’t think there is much we can do for her. Let her parents talk it over with her, maybe.”
“Ah did have one other idea, but you’re probably right, Twi.”
Twilight shook her head. “You know, sometimes, I really wish I wasn’t.” The distant cry of an owl caught her attention, but she soon dragged herself back to the matters at hoof. “So, what was your ide—wait, what’s going on up there?” Her gaze idly drifted across the two ponies in front of them, but was caught by the shadows moving further up the road, unidentifiable in the gloom, though Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy had halted in their tracks. Twilight squinted into the darkness. “No. It can’t be.” She charged forward. “It can’t be!”
Applejack jumped up in hot pursuit. “What is it, Twi?”
Even in the dim moonlight, as she got closer, the shadows materialized before Twilight’s eyes. She could have no doubts about their identity now. “Rainbow Dash’s parents. They must’ve been waiting at Fluttershy’s cottage.”
“What? Her parents? Those two are back now?” Applejack’s voice suddenly dripped with anger, and she picked up her pace, easily speeding past Twilight and skidding to a stop in front of Rainbow Dash. “Git out o’ here! Y’all ain’t wanted ‘round here!”
“Please!” Firefly wailed form the darkness, “Please just let us speak to our daughter!”
“Ah’m not lettin’ nothin’ o’ the sort. Not after everythin’ y’all’ve done.”
“You don’t understand, we just want to speak with her.”
“AH understand perfectly well! Ain’t nothin’ doin’!”
When Spectrum finally spoke, his voice was calm, mellow, carrying through the crisp night air as if across the surface of a still lake. “We’ve made our fair share of mistakes. Allow us to make them right again. We just want to talk. That’s all.” The stallion stepped closer, out of the darkness, his mane of familiar rainbow hair distinctly visible in the faint blue glow.
Applejack growled at him, stepping forward to shield her best friend with her body. “Ah’ve heard enough. Obviously it ain’t too safe ‘round here. Come on, Rainbow. Ah’ll take ya to mah place. You’ll be safer there.” She turned, looking back behind her, but Rainbow Dash merely stared forward, as if lost in thought. “Rainbow?”
The pegasus shook her head. “No…” she whispered, before closing her eyes once and holding them shut for few seconds. When she opened them, a spark of determination lit up her magenta irises. “No. I’m tired of running, and I’m tired of hiding. I’m done. I don’t care anymore.” Her gaze shifted from Applejack to the two ponies standing just past her, looking expectantly upon their daughter. “Mom, Dad… I’m ready to talk.”
The mood in Fluttershy’s living room was apprehensive, almost precarious; as if the tension, seemingly balanced on the head of a pin, might tumble to disarray at any given moment. A pewter tray sporting a matching teapot and several steaming teacups sat, untouched, on the coffee table, where Fluttershy had set it not moments before, hoping to defuse the situation. Instead, the six gathered ponies sat around the room, perched uneasily on couches and chairs, glancing briefly at one another before returning their gazes elsewhere, uncertain, unspeaking. The assortment of resident animals had long since sought refuge in other parts of the house, leaving the room unusually still. The silence had become oppressive.
Applejack coughed and looked between Spectrum and Firefly, drawing the older pegasi’s attention. “Ah don’t know what y’all are playin’ at, but Ah think it’s about high time to start explainin’ things.”
“Applejack, please.” Rainbow Dash swallowed her apprehension and exhaled deeply, her wings, twitching slightly before, relaxed at her sides. “Let me handle this.” Applejack frowned and settled back into her seat, still casting uneasy glances Rainbow Dash’s way as the cyan mare took a few more deep breaths and then turned to face her parents, who stared intently directly at her. “Mom, Dad, I… uh… wow, this is hard.” She paused, faltering, her front hooves fidgeting before her, “You know, I’m still pretty mad. And I don’t really know what else to say right now, so you should probably just start talking.”
Spectrum and Firefly exchanged a glance before turning back to her. Firefly sighed before she began. “We’ve made so many mistakes. I’m surprised you’re even willing to call us mom and dad, after what terrible parents we’ve been. But, for what it’s worth, Dash, waking up this morning and reading… reading that our own daughter had been attacked; that was the worst feeling I’ve ever felt in my life.” The mare became quiet, her words trailing into nothing as she held a hoof to her forehead, choking as she tried to breathe. She shook her head, descending into sobs as her husband reached a hoof up to pat her back.
“Seeing something like that, especially in a newspaper, well, that’s something no parent should ever go through.” Spectrum nodded gravely. “It shocked us, and it really tore your mother apart. For a while I didn’t even know what to think, except that we’d failed you.”
“The worst part was knowing, somehow, somewhere deep down that—” Firefly sobbed, gasping as she pushed away the stallion’s hoof. “That it was all our fault! That we were responsible and that it never should have happened like this, not to you.”
“You came here, though. After all these years I never saw you once, and now you’re back. Why? I don’t understand.”
“We needed to see you. We needed to tell you how sorry we were.” Her mother wiped at the tears in her eyes, “How very, very sorry we still are. We let this happen. We let this happen and I’ll never forgive myself for it.”
“After all these years, after everything you said, I thought you hated me. I thought I would never see you again. I never even saw you after I left.”
“No! Sweetie, no, we never hated you. We just—”
“You never came looking for me! NOT ONCE!” Rainbow yelled, her anger finally breaking. An uneasy glance shifted between Twilight, Fluttershy and Applejack. “And now you expect me to believe you suddenly care?”
“We were so confused back then, we were confused and we made so many mistakes…”
“I trusted you!” Rainbow Dash covered her face with her fore legs, before throwing them off in exasperation, “I trusted you with the biggest secret of my life! I told you I was gay and you made me feel like dirt! You hurt me! You really did!”
Her father shook his head slowly, “We were wrong, we were so, so wrong…”
“Oh, yeah. Now. Now you say so. Of course!” Rainbow Dash jumped up from the couch, turning to pace the floor before her parents, stomping angrily back and forth across the rug, throwing burning glances their way at every turn. “Just when my whole life is falling to pieces, you decide to turn up and act all innocent!”
Applejack jumped up, looking ready to intervene, but found her way blocked by a lavender hoof. She glanced over at her unicorn friend, alarm written into the creases on her face, and threw her a questioning look. Twilight Sparkle shook her head slowly. “Just let her blow off some steam,” she whispered.
The sounds of quiet weeping undercut the tension in the room. Spectrum looked in alarm from his wife to his daughter and back. “Rainbow, please. You’re making your mother cry.”
Rainbow Dash rounded on her father. “So she should! It’s not like you two didn’t make me do the same plenty of times!”
“Rainbow, please calm—”
“NO!” She glared daggers at the stallion. “I won’t calm down—not anymore! You told me I was confused! You told me it was just a phase that I would grow out of, and that I was just ‘acting out against you’. I remember every word you said to me! You treated me like I didn’t know what I was talking about, like some sort of idiot! Never mind that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done just to work up the courage to admit it to myself, let alone you guys! Never mind that I was scared and barely even knew what it meant. And I thought I could trust you, I thought you’d support me! Do you know what it feels like to know you’re wrong, that your parents don’t support you, that they probably don’t even love you anymore because of the way you are?”
Her mother whispered quietly into a cushion, tears leaking down her cheeks and staining the fabric. “We… we never stopped loving you.”
“Well you might as well have!” She resumed her pacing, shaking her head back and forth. “The way you treated me, the way you made me feel! It was like you didn’t care about me anymore!” Rainbow’s voice cracked sharply on her final word.
The elder mare was shaking in her seat. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“You should be!” She stopped once more, facing the wall, and closed her eyes, shaking her head back and forth. “You should be…” She whispered.
Firefly wiped her face clear, peering at her daughter, “Rainbow? Are you Ok?”
She took a few deep breaths, magenta eyes opening again, and she turned to face the other mare. “I’ve got news for you, mother. I’m gay. I’m gay and I don’t care what you think of that. And, if you can’t accept that, you should just leave. I have a new home now, and I ran away from home once. I’m not going to do it again.”
“If you’re willing to give us a second chance, we want to do whatever it takes to fix our mistakes.” She nodded earnestly, Spectrum joining in.
Rainbow Dash’s hard gaze persisted for a few more seconds before it fell, and she looked to the floor. She sighed. “I don’t even know why I care. I was done with you guys. I was done. I came to Ponyville with only one friend in the world, and now I have so many more. And they accept me for who I am, and that’s more than you ever did for me. Now all I want to know is, why?” She shut her eyes, stamping a hoof against the rug, “Just, why?”
The older mare slid a hoof down her face, looking towards the ceiling. “We were afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Afraid for you.” Firefly nodded earnestly, staring intently at her daughter.
Rainbow Dash stared back at her, blankly. Spectrum sighed. “What your mother means is…” He paused, his lips pursed in thought, “Do you remember when you were a filly, and you had those run-ins with the bullies at flight camp?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Do you remember the day you flew home crying; the day they called you a fillyfooler?”
Applejack fidgeted in her seat, prompting Twilight to glance over at her. “Everything alright?”
“Ah’m not rightly sure Ah’m comfortable with this,” she confessed. Twilight nodded.
Rainbow Dash was too busy staring at her parents, her mouth hanging slack, her eyes wide. Slowly, quietly, she found her voice again. “Wha—what does that have to do with it?”
“Because…” He spoke calmly, deliberately, picking his words with care. “You know how competitive other pegasi can be—especially school-age colts and fillies. The only reason those young colts picked on you was because you were different. They thought they could get a rise out of you. For the most part, it worked. I recall you getting into several minor fights during flight camp.” He chuckled lightly, confusion still plain on his daughter’s face. “Don’t act so surprised. We’ve always known what a quick little temper you have. But, imagine several years later, you’re in high school, and somehow word slips that you’re actually gay. Some colt thinks that makes you weak and pesters you about it to show how tough he is to his buddies. Your temper snaps and who knows what happens. We had never even considered the possibility until you told us, and once you did, we were terrified.”
She blinked at him. “I—I’m confused.”
In turn, her mother spoke up. “You were already out of the house so much back then. We lived in constant fear of losing you, especially when you didn’t come home for days at a time. Then, when you told us you were… you were gay; it was too much. We panicked. I thought for sure, any day, we would open the front door to some police pony, somepony who would tell us there’d been a fight, and you were hurt, or worse.”
Twilight Sparkle, listening intently, felt a nudge on her shoulder, and looked over in surprise to see Applejack standing beside her, her face unreadable. “Twi, d’ya mind if ya meet me outside fer a bit?” Twilight gave an uneasy glance back to Rainbow Dash, but Fluttershy caught her gaze and gave a little nod.
It was all she needed. “Alright, but I’d prefer to make it quick.” Silently, Applejack nodded, and the pair slipped from the room, taking care not to let the creaking of the front door bring too much attention to themselves; Nopony paid them any heed.
“For a long time,” Firefly started once more, shaking her head, “we wanted to believe that you were just saying it to be rebellious, or that it was just a phase you’d grow out of. So we tried to deny it. We denied it to ourselves and we denied it to you, never even thinking that all we were doing was driving you away. Even after you left, we had this hope that you’d come back and it would just have been one big misunderstanding.”
Spectrum nodded. “We tried so hard to play it off, to just have our little girl back, that we never realized what was important until it was too late. We wanted to protect you, and we never considered that we were the ones hurting you the most. To think what you needed most was our acceptance, but we never even took you seriously. We were so blind back then.”
Her mother took a deep breath. “We’ll understand if… if you can’t forgive us. That isn’t what we came here for, anyway. We just wanted to let you know that we were wrong, and that even though we were so stupid, we only thought we were doing what was best for you. We were never trying to hurt you. And… and we’re proud of the mare you’ve become. We’ve been following your story in the papers, even if we were too afraid to come see you before now. We’re proud of your accomplishments, and we love you, Rainbow Dash. We’ve always loved you, even if we didn’t know how to before.”
“Why should I trust you? You took this long just to come find me; did you even care until now?”
“No, Sweetie. We still cared. We found out what a huge mistake we’d made as soon as we realized you weren’t coming back. We—”
“So what? You keep talking about all the mistakes you made ‘back then’, but it still took you five years to try and come find me! I guess I just wasn’t important enough to you.” She paused, looking the pair over. “And stop calling me ‘Sweetie’. I hate that.”
Spectrum sighed. “We were afraid of what you’d think of us, Rainbow. We felt for sure you didn’t want us in your life anymore, so we decided to let you go. It was another mistake we made of many. We should have tried to make things right from the beginning, but we didn’t, because we were too scared. It’s another thing we’re going to have to live with, of many. We failed as parents, and we’ll take that to our graves. The best we can do is try to make things as right as possible now, even if we are too late.”
Rainbow Dash just sighed, turning so her back faced them. “I think, uh, I think I need some time alone now.”
Spectrum looked surprised. “Are you sure? Because we only just got to talk, and—”
“Yeah.” Rainbow nodded quickly. “I’ve got too much to think about now. And, to be honest, I’m not so sure I really even want to see you guys any more tonight. I just need time to think.”
Firefly shifted in her seat. “We’re sorry, Rainbow Dash. We’re really, truly, sorry.”
“Please, just, go. I need to be alone now.”
Silently, and with a shared final glance at their daughter, Spectrum and Firefly stood to leave. Rainbow Dash didn’t turn around until she heard the door click shut. For a few silent moments, she stared at its wood face, gazing in quiet contemplation. Finally, Fluttershy cleared her throat.
“Do you want to talk about—”
They both remained silent for a few minutes more, then Rainbow Dash muttered something unintelligible and turned from the door. “Where am I sleeping tonight?”
“My room. I’ll take the couch.”
“I can’t do that to you. You should be in your own bed.”
Rainbow’s mouth opened, as if to protest further, but she ultimately decided against it. Nodding her thanks, she trumped her way up the stairs, and a satisfied smile crept onto Fluttershy’s face.
Letting the door close quietly behind them, Twilight and Applejack strode out into the cool evening. The unicorn flashed a concerned look at her earth pony friend. “Is something the matter, AJ?”
Applejack exhaled slowly, glancing back at the door. “Ah just didn’t feel comfortable in there. Not around them.”
“Have you met them before?”
“No, it’s just, from everythin’ Dash told me about them, Ah always thought they were bad ponies. Now Ah don’t know what ta think anymore.”
“Maybe you should give them a second chance, too?”
“It’s more than that, though…” She sighed. “Twi, Ah never told anypony this, but when Ah first met Rainbow, she was stealin’ apples off mah farm. Not just a couple ones, either. Ah caught her makin’ off with darn near a whole bushel. An’ Ah was right mad, until I saw how bad she looked—like she hadn’t eaten in days. So Ah invited her for dinner. Turns out, she didn’t have any food, any bits, a job, or a place ta stay. So Ah made her spend th’ night. That’s when she spilled her guts ta me. Told me about how she liked fillies, about her parents, everythin’. We’ve been fast friends ever since.” Applejack shook her head, chuckling bitterly. “To tell the truth, Ah think she needed somepony to tell all those secrets too, just ta get that weight off her shoulders and get back on her hooves.”
“I—I had no idea.”
“O’ course not. Ah never told anypony else—figured Rainbow wouldn’t like a story like that goin’ around.” Applejack shook her head. “That was almost five years ago. Family’s always been so important ta me, and back then, Ah was still reelin’ after losin’ mah own folks. Ah just couldn’t imagine how somepony’s parents could treat ‘em like that. It scared me.”
“So now you don’t think they’re as bad as you once did?”
“That’s what Ah don’t know, Twi. Ya never knew Rainbow like Ah did. Ya never saw her until after she got her life together. She wasn’t like the Rainbow Dash we all know, and now after what Soarin’ did ta her, she just seems so vulnerable. Ah never want ta see her go back ta the way she was. Her parents hurt her once, and Ah don’t know if we can trust ‘em not ta hurt her again.”
Twilight sighed, looking towards the ground. “Well, if they’re going to be a part of Rainbow’s life again, that’s her decision. And whatever she chooses, we’ll honor than and hope for the best.”
Applejack nodded. “Ah know. You’re right, Twi. Ah just wish ya warn’t.”
“I know the feeling.”
The two friends fell into silence for a while, staring off into the starlit sky. Applejack kicked absentmindedly at the ground. “Ya know, Ah think Ah’m gonna head back ta the farm. There’s somepony Ah need ta talk to.”
Twilight nodded silently, and Applejack turned to leave just as the door opened. Both ponies turned to see Spectrum and Firefly step silently from the cottage. For a long moment, the two pairs stared across the pathway at one another, before husband and wife exchanged a glance and moved along, right past the two mares.
“Nice night.” Firefly nodded towards them, trying a smile.
“Yes. It is.” Twilight returned, her aspect constant. Applejack’s eyes traced the couple until they were a little ways down the path.
“Y’all made her ashamed of who she is.” She called out, making them stop, turning to stare back at her. She held firm. “Ah was the first friend she made in Ponyville. She told me her secret, but she was too afraid to tell another soul, thanks to you.”
“We did a lot of things we’re not proud of.” There was a twinge of nervousness in Firefly’s voice.
“What are ya hopin’ ta do now?”
Spectrum looked hard at her. “We just want to make things right.”
Firefly glanced at him, then back to Applejack. “We want our family back together.”
Spectrum nodded. “It is.”
“Ah consider Rainbow Dash mah family too. And Ah protect all mah family members. Ya hear?”
Silently, the pair nodded, and Applejack strode past them.
A breeze wafted in from beyond the window, drifting lazily across Rainbow Dash’s face and through her mane as she stared outwards, countless stars reflected in magenta eyes. She had long since given up trying to get comfortable in the foreign bed, having already kicked several thick quilts and blankets to the floor. Now, the chill of the night air tasseled her forelock, brushing multi-hued hairs across her eyes and she gazed deep out into the night, waiting for the first winking light of the sun to break up over the distant mountains, ready to signal the start of a new day. Maybe then, she could finally get some rest.
A gentle knocking came at the door, which hadn’t been shut all the way, and it swung open, letting a stream of soft light spill in from the hallway beyond. Rainbow Dash groaned in protest. “Rainbow? Are ya there?” A voice called out to her, laced with a thick, instantly recognizable drawl. Rainbow Dash rolled over, glancing toward the door, where a shadowy figure stood, waiting expectantly.
“AJ? What is it?”
The farmpony pushed the door open wider, stepping into the room. “Can’t get any sleep, huh?”
Blearily, Rainbow Dash rubbed at her eyes. “I guess you could say that.” She muttered, “What’s up?”
“Ah brought ya a special visitor. She couldn’t sleep very well either.”
From the hall, a voice sounded; one that instantly made Rainbow Dash jolt upwards. “Big Sis—I mean, Rainbow Dash?”
“Hey, hey. Squirt?” Rainbow Dash sat up, glancing, surprised, to Applejack before a much smaller figure crept in through the door, drawing her attention. Slipping from the shadows revealed a face of orange fur set under a messy purple mane, dried tear streaks evident beneath wide eyes. “What’s wrong, kiddo?”
“I’m… I’m sorry, Rainbow Dash. I—I heard about what happened to you. And… I’m sorry. I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Rainbow Dash winced, blinking at the younger pegasus, then glared briefly at Applejack. “Hey, Scoot. Come on up here. Come up here with me.” With a powerful kick, the filly hopped from the floor and up into the bed, beside Rainbow Dash. “Did mean old AJ tell a little filly like you about a bad thing like that?” Scootaloo just nodded. “I thought so. She should’ve known better. That kind of stuff isn’t for your ears. C’mere.”
Applejack just shook her head. “Hardy har. Get some rest you two, Ah’m headed back to the farm.” She strode from the room without another word, pausing only to look back through the door, watching as Scootaloo silently settled in next to Rainbow Dash. Applejack smiled as she let the door close behind her.
The orange filly snuggled up tight against her role model, burying her nose in underneath Dash’s chin. Rainbow Dash actually let slip a small grin, wrapping a wing around the younger pony and pulling her close against her body. “Thanks for coming, Scoots. It means a lot to me.”
Muffled by her idol’s neck, Scootaloo still murmured, “I’m sorry,”
Rainbow Dash could have sworn she could feel tears wicking into her own fur. Gently, she maneuvered so she could see the filly’s face, lifting her chin so she could look into her eyes. “Hey. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be ok. You’ll see.” Then Dash hugged her even tighter, though she continued to sniff loudly, her face pressed once more up against Rainbow’s side. “I’m just happy to see you. I haven’t seen you in such a long time.”
She remained there for a few more long moments, before pulling her face away, looking up at her longtime hero. “I was scared. If… if somepony can hurt you, then how… how can anypony be safe?”
Rainbow Dash lifted a hoof to wipe some tears away from the filly’s cheeks, and smiled down at her. Struck by a sudden wave of emotion, she felt some welling within her own eyes, yet her smile refused to leave. She leaned down and kissed Scootaloo’s forehead. “How can anypony hurt me when I’ve got you here to protect me?”
The younger pony finally let her head fall against the mattress, and Rainbow felt her body relax in her embrace. “I love you, Rainbow Dash.”
“I love you too, little sis.”
It was only just before dawn when Twilight Sparkle put her hoof to the door of Fluttershy’s cottage, giving several sharp, resounding knocks. Mere seconds later, the mare in question answered the door. Fluttershy smiled as she saw her friends standing around outside. “Please come in, everypony.”
“Today’s the big day, Fluttershy. Where’s Rainbow Dash?” Twilight looked about the living room as she, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack all filed into the cottage.
“She’s in the kitchen eating some breakfast.”
“And how is she doing?” Rarity asked, glancing around the corner to ensure she wouldn’t be overheard.
Fluttershy practically beamed. “Oh, just wonderful. I think being out of that musty, scary old hospital these last couple weeks has really done her some good.”
Twilight nodded. “Let’s hope so, because the trial is right around the corner, and we need to be ready for it.”
Applejack looked over at the unicorn mare. “Exactly how much time are we lookin’ at, here?”
“Only a few days, AJ. That’s when our day in court is set to begin.”
The farmpony felt a chill run down her spine. She shivered. “That’s not as much as Ah’d hoped. Don’t this seem ta be movin’ a little fast?”
Twilight shrugged. “When this begins, it will have been almost a month since the crime happened. I think that’s been more than enough time.” She found herself shuddering, and tried to shake it off. She could feel creeping doubts about the strength of her case sneaking up on her, and did her best to brush them aside. There was no use worrying about details like that now, she reasoned, not with such little time remaining. Desperate for a distraction, she glanced up at the wall, her gaze settling on a clock. “And speaking of moving fast,” She spoke hurriedly, suddenly moving towards the kitchen, “It’s almost sunrise, and that means the carriage will be here any minute!”
Rainbow Dash looked up from a half-eaten plate of toast as her friends entered the room. “Hey guys, what’s—OOF!” The wind became immediately knocked out of her as a pink missile struck her head-on. With only some slight difficulty, she managed to get her fore hooves around her friend’s body and pat her on the back. “Hey, Pinkie Pie. I’m happy to see you too.” She gasped, feeling the force of the earth pony’s hug constrain against her lungs.
Finally, the party pony released her, a wide grin upon her face. Applejack chuckled as Rainbow Dash took in several deep breaths. “Probably shoulda seen that one comin’, eh Dash?”
Twilight Sparkle cleared her throat. “Alright, well, I just wanted to say that our ride should be here momentarily, so finish up eating. We need to get going before it gets too bright out.”
Rainbow Dash shoved the plate away from her, down the table. “I’m good now. Let’s go.” She went to join her friends, trotting out of the room alongside Twilight, Rarity and Pinkie.
Fluttershy went to clear away the leftovers, placing the plate gingerly into the sink. Applejack hung behind the others as well, sidling up next to the pegasus. Fluttershy glanced up, looking over at her. “What is it, Applejack?”
“Have Rainbow’s parents been around at all since Ah last saw ‘em?”
Fluttershy shook her head. “No, we haven’t seen them. I think they really do want to make things right, so they’re giving Rainbow Dash the space she needs to think things through.”
Applejack shrugged. “Well, Ah suppose that’s as good a news as any. Thanks Fluttershy.”
“Hurry up, you two slowsie-poksies! The carriage is here!” Applejack chuckled as the unmistakable sound of Pinkie Pie filtered in from outdoors.
“Sounds like our cue.” The two rushed out of the cottage.
A team of impeccably clad, pristine white pegasus stallions stood on the front lawn, a large golden carriage strung up behind them. Twilight approached the leader of the group. “Hello. I’m Twilight Sparkle.” The stallion dipped his head in response. “I’m sure the Princesses must have briefed you already, but I’d just like to make sure of something. It is crucial that we arrive at the castle in as inconspicuous a manner as possible. I don’t want to risk the possibility of anypony seeing Rainbow Dash arrive in Canterlot, and we especially cannot have the newspapers catching wind of this story. Does that make sense?”
“Understood, Ma’am.” The Royal Guardspony gave a curt nod.
“Thank you.” Twilight turned to see her friends all standing around her, looking apprehensive. She tried for a reassuring smile. “Alright, everypony ready?” She was met with an assemblage of nods. “Good, let’s hurry, then.” The six friends climbed into the carriage, and at Twilight’s signal, the team of pegasi thundered across the ground, taking to the sky in a few short strides. And away they flew, off towards the sunrise, towards the mountains, and towards their awaiting fate in Canterlot.
The carriage descended rapidly behind the soaring towers of Canterlot Castle, flying low over the elaborate gardens encircling the palace. The trees had been stripped of their foliage; leaving an eerie array of spindly, barren branches stretching like so many twigs up into the sky, bending and creaking in the stiff mountain breeze. In places, though, tall, thick conifers dotted the grounds, providing a splash of deep green to the landscape and allowing the distinct, earthy aroma of pine to drift lazily up to the carriage as it floated gently in for a landing among them.
Twilight Sparkle inhaled deeply as she stepped down to a cobblestone walkway, grateful for the familiar sensation beneath her hooves and the crisp, welcoming scent in the air around her. Her friends disembarked behind her, one or two shivering in the wind. Although Canterlot Castle’s lofty perch provided a dramatic view of the steadily rising sun, the shadow of the surrounding mountains kept the new dawn’s warmth at bay.
Another contingent of Royal Guards—unicorns of uniform charcoal grey—stood tall and staid in a row before the six friends, flanking the carriage. At the behest of a command, whistled from behind them, they sidestepped, allowing their ranks to part. From the castle in the distance, a tall, regal white figure with a shimmering mane strode towards them, and soon Princess Celestia stepped between the a pair of unicorn guards ponies, smiling warmly down upon the mares. Twilight dipped her head slightly in respect, as did her friends, then returned the expression. “Princess, thank you for meeting us.”
“Think nothing of it.” She winked, “I trust you girls had an uneventful journey? No run-ins with the press or other mishaps?” Twilight quickly nodded, and Celestia grinned in satisfaction. “Wonderful. That should make this transition as seamless as possible. Welcome back to Canterlot, everypony. I only wish I could be greeting you under better circumstances.”
Applejack dipped her head. “The feelin’ is mutual, Princess.”
Celestia nodded sagely. “Even in these trying times, I encourage you all to make the castle your home. You will find six rooms prepared for you on one of the upper floors. My friend Belle Hoppe here,” She turned, addressing one of the couriers standing by her side, at the ready, “Shall escort you. Please show our guests to their rooms, Belle.”
The courier bowed graciously. “Yes, Princess.” She then gestured for the group to follow her. Twilight stepped forward, making to walk with her friends, when she found a gold-clad hoof barring her way. She looked up to see Princess Celestia watching her; her face appearing suddenly far more serious.
“If you don’t mind, I would like a word in private, Twilight Sparkle.”
Twilight peered ahead, seeing Rarity throw a questioning look back over her shoulder at her. She waved to her and Rarity shrugged, turning back around. Soon, her friends disappeared into the castle. Twilight turned back to her longtime mentor, her own expression now decidedly grave as well. “Of course, Princess. Please lead the way.”
Their hoofsteps echoed off the towering walls and vaulted ceiling as Princess Celestia and Twilight Sparkle strode down the cavernous hall. Their shadows danced, shifting with each step they took as the two passed in front of each giant stained glass window; every one lit dazzlingly with a myriad of crystalline colors by the rising sun.
Celestia paused, taking a moment in silent contemplation to study one of the glass artworks, before turning back to her student. “I must say, Twilight Sparkle, I have been quite impressed with the progress reports you’ve sent me. That you’ve managed to pull together a cohesive prosecution in what little time afforded to you is nothing short of marvelous.”
“Thank you Princess, but you really shouldn’t… I mean, I don’t even know if it’s the best it could…”
Princess Celestia chuckled. “Come now, Twilight. You know I don’t give compliments lightly.”
“I know. I’m just so worried about the trial. I can’t control everything, and for all my planning, something could still go wrong, and it would be my fault if we lost the case!”
The Princess nodded. “From what I’ve gathered in your letters, you’ve put together as sound an argument as I can imagine, given the level of evidence available and the time constraints you faced. I have the utmost confidence in your abilities.”
“I know, it’s just—”
Celestia silenced her student with a hoof placed against her shoulder. “I have faith in you, Twilight Sparkle. You will do fine.”
Twilight sighed. “It would be so much easier if I knew what I was up against.”
“That should change soon enough. If I recall correctly, the pre-trial hearing is later this afternoon.”
“Right. I’ll need to get prepared for that soon, won’t I?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. Justice Honor Bound is one of the very best at what he does, not to mention a true professional.” The Princess gave a wry smile. “You should have no trouble getting any of your evidence or your witnesses accepted.”
“I’m more concerned about the other lawyer. I don’t know what sort of evidence he’s going to bring forward. What I wouldn’t give for just a moment to pick his mind right now.”
Celestia’s smile disappeared. “Well, unfortunately, I must admit that I have not heard much of this stallion before, other than he’s a highly-regarded, and very expensive, defense attorney catering to Equestria’s Elite. I usually make a point to involve myself as little as possible with ponies of that ilk.”
Twilight nodded. “I don’t blame you.” She stopped, suddenly finding cause to shake her head. “That figures, I guess.” She muttered, “It doesn’t surprise me that the rich, famous Wonderbolt gets some high-flying, expensive attorney. I’m really out of my depth here.”
“I wouldn’t say that, Twilight. Whatever you might lack in experience, you make up for in sheer knowledge. Believe me when I say that his mind must pale in comparison to yours.” She stopped for a moment, appearing to consider something briefly. “Though I have often thought that I’ve let fame and fortune go too much to those Wonderbolts’ heads. I used to worry it would affect their service to Equestria.”
Twilight paused, “That does remind me of something else that’s been bothering me for a while now, though.”
The regal alicorn resumed her stride down the hall, so that her student had to catch up with her. “I assume you refer to the question you posed in your last letter, the one I have yet to address?”
“Yes,” She hesitated, biting her lip. “I was wondering, if you might—”
“Give you an answer?” Twilight nodded, subdued, rousing a chuckle from the Princess. “I must apologize, Twilight Sparkle, for not being so forthcoming in my reply to your letter. Truth be told, I’ve been unfortunately very busy as of late, and found little time to write you a proper response. That said, I do feel that this particular topic is one that warrants more a face-to-face conversation, which I’m afraid I just haven’t had the time for until now.”
“So what is the answer then? After all, if the Wonderbolts are an elite branch of the Equestrian Air Royal Guard, which they are, and since Soarin’ is a member of the Wonderbolts, why is this trial not being conducted by military tribunal?”
Celestia stopped beside another window, putting a hoof to her chin in thought. “There is a long answer and a short answer. The short answer is that the scope of military law is limited, and its purview does not extend to all crimes committed by members of the Royal Guard, or the Wonderbolts.”
“But wouldn’t this be one of those times? This is a very serious situation, and—”
“Oh, it’s completely serious. That’s why the case is being heard in a criminal court, rather than a tribunal. The tribunal system exists for crimes committed within the military. Any attack on a civilian by a service member, however rare, is considered a crime against the state.”
“But Rainbow Dash is a Wonderbolt too, isn’t she? She was accepted by the team that very day, and if this was an attack by one Wonderbolt on another, wouldn’t that be a crime within the military, requiring a tribunal?”
Princess Celestia frowned. “Yes and no. In theory, yes, Rainbow Dash is a Wonderbolt. But in practice, she remains a civilian until she enlists in the Air Royal Guard. Then, after that and some added documentation—a process which takes a few days—she would be officially recognized as a full Wonderbolt. Until then, the law treats her as a civilian.”
Twilight shook her head. “I tried to find a copy of the Equestrian Code of Military Law, but the library doesn’t have one.” She stomped angrily. “See, there’s still so many things I don’t know! I’m not cut out for this!”
Celestia kneeled down, coming to eye-level with her pupil. “I sense there’s something more bothering you about this.”
Twilight frowned and looked away. “It’s… nothing.”
The Princess sat the rest of the way down, settling her haunches against the floor. “Come now, Twilight Sparkle. You know you can tell me anything. I won’t think any less of you.”
Twilight sighed. “It’s just… I was hoping to find a way to keep this from being a public trial. I just don’t know if Rainbow Dash is ready for that kind of exposure yet.”
Celestia nodded her understanding. “And you thought moving the case to a military tribunal would shield her from the public eye.”
“Exactly. I just, I feel like I need to keep her safe. And with a public trial, what if Rainbow isn’t ready for it? All those ponies watching her every move, hanging on her every word, learning very detail of her story—her private life? I don’t know if she can handle it. Maybe she won’t be able to testify, and then everything just falls apart. It’s all so out of my control and I don’t know what to do!”
“Twilight, you’ve done everything you can to prepare for this. What happens next will happen, come what may, and we need to trust that justice will be done.”
“What if—what if I’m not ready?”
“If I ever thought, even for a second, that you wouldn’t be able to handle this challenge, then I never would have agreed to let you take it on.” Princess Celestia stood up again, prompting Twilight to follow suit. The alicorn grinned. “You’re capable of more than you know, Twilight Sparkle. Your accomplishments speak for themselves.” She gestured behind her, and Twilight craned to look around the princess.
Lit dazzlingly from behind, countless thousands of shards of multi-colored glass shone against the cold stone grey backdrop of the castle wall, depicting six ponies, rising into the air. At the center, an ornate crown adorned on her head, Twilight Sparkle herself, made up of dozens of pieces of purple glass of every shape and shade, seemed to emanate an ethereal sort of essence. Two glass circles of the purest white sat in place of eyes, catching the light and magnifying it, as if the window itself were looking out upon the world. Twilight shivered as she gazed upon the stained-glass replicas of herself and her friends, the image bringing flashes of memories into her head. She returned her attention to Princess Celestia, who smiled warmly down on her. “You don’t think—”
“I don’t think, Twilight. I know. I know what you are capable of. There is a reason why I chose you to be my personal student all those years ago, and there is a reason I’ve trusted you with so many endeavors.”
“But I had my friends by my side all those times, now I have to do this alone.”
“Your friends are right upstairs, and unless I’m mistaken, they’re each going to be testifying. You’ll have them right there in the courtroom. You aren’t doing this alone.”
Twilight Sparkle sat down, shaking her head from side to side. “But my friends, especially Rainbow Dash, and you, everypony is counting on me! What if I slip up?”
“I highly doubt that will happen. I know this may seem daunting, but your friends believe and trust in you; I believe and trust in you, and we don’t do so blindly. You’ve done more for Equestria in a few short years than most ponies do in their lifetimes.”
Twilight inhaled sharply, her breath becoming a morose laugh. “You must think I’m crazy, to worry like this, to be… to be so afraid.” She choked, shaking her head even more now. “I don’t understand why I feel this way! I—I know I should be able to handle it, but I can’t!”
“Fear is a natural part of dealing with apprehension towards the unknown. Your uncertainty causes stress and anxiety, and that is perfectly understandable. The best thing to do is to turn that stress, that tension you feel, into motivation. Let your uncertainties drive you to work even harder, so that you may go into that courtroom feeling no fear. Think of Rainbow Dash, and how she must feel about all of this, yet she has agreed to go through with it. That’s not something to be taken lightly.”
“I know.” She said softly, “I’ve been trying to help her with her testimony these last two weeks. She must be terrified. She won’t admit it, but I know she is. I would be, if I had to admit something like that happened to me in front of a room full of strangers.”
“Plenty of victims don’t. It’s certainly a daunting, even horrifying prospect, but Rainbow Dash believes in you, Twilight. Your guidance is going to make all the difference in the world in this matter. Rape is unfortunately a more under-reported crime than I care to admit, and for justice to be done, exposure is a risk Rainbow Dash must be willing to take. You are going to be the one helping her through this process. Everything you do, you do for her. Don’t think about me. Don’t think about anyone else’s expectations for you. Those are not important. Rainbow Dash is important. Think about her. Do you understand?”
Quietly, Twilight nodded. “I understand.”
Celestia smiled. “Then there is no doubt in my mind that you are going to do marvelously.” She gestured for twilight to stand, and the unicorn came forward, throwing her fore legs around the princess’s neck in a tight embrace. Celestia leaned down, resting her chin against her student’s cheek for a few peaceful moments. “I wasn’t lying, you know, when I told you how it is hard for me to not see you as the filly I took under my wing so long ago. Every day I marvel at the mare you’ve become, at how much you’ve grown and learned. I can’t imagine being more proud of you, Twilight Sparkle.”
Twilight sniffed slightly, blinking back moisture in weary eyes. “Thanks, Princess.”
“Now, let’s go find those friends of yours. After all, you still have a hearing to prepare for.”
Canterlot Courthouse, the gallery, press box, and jurors’ box all empty, seemed a vast and imposing place to Twilight Sparkle. She gazed around her furtively, feeling knots tighten in her stomach and her mouth run dry; the weight of the very air seemed to all press down upon her at once, and she marveled that she didn’t simply collapse onto the cold stone floor.
“Your Honor, with all due respect, I find this situation to be highly unusual, and more than suspect.” A suit with a pony inside stood facing the judge’s bench.
Justice Honor Bound was a patient stallion, but even he was finding it difficult to remain focused, and not allow his head to slip down. He stifled a yawn as he watched the sharply dressed stallion pace before him. “And just what do you find so unusual, Mr. Scroll?”
An ashen grey unicorn gestured a fore hoof toward the pony next to him, coal dust eyes darting about beneath a sleek frock of jet-black mane. He wore a crisp pinstripe suit of the deepest blue, slick, like ink running from a quill. Twilight Sparkle tried to put up an indifferent façade, hoping her features wouldn’t betray the feeling of shrinking in upon herself under his searching gaze. He cast a shrewd look back up to the judge, seated above them both. “I simply find it odd that Miss Sparkle, the legal council for the prosecution, and representing, I might add, the mare who has wrongfully accused my client of a heinous act which he did not commit—”
“We’ll leave your client’s guilt up to the jury for now, Mr. Scroll.” Honor Bound peered down at him, an almost bored expression on his face.
“Regardless, the question still begs to be answered why the prosecuting attorney is one of this Rainbow Dash’s closest friends, has seemingly no prior legal experience whatsoever, and just happens to be Princess Celestia’s personal protégé. It seems highly suspect to me.”
Honor Bound sat up a little straighter in his high-backed chair. “Your question answers itself, Mr. Scroll. I, for one, should think that any personal protégé of the princess worth her mettle would have had significant education in the field of law, among her other studies.” He glanced briefly at Twilight, who nodded quickly, still finding herself unable to speak up. “So there you go. I also find it difficult to understand your concern. After all, given your colorful history, if you did think you were to square off with a counsel who, as you put it, had no prior legal experience whatsoever, I’d imagine you’d be more than pleased at the prospects of an easy defense.”
“If only this were so simple. The defense rests that Miss Dash and Miss Sparkle here are working in collusion to fabricate a series of false accusations designed chiefly to undermine and attack my client. Further, such a ploy would never have reached this bench were it not for the tacit approval of the princess, with whom they just happen to share a close, personal connection.”
Twilight coughed, finally finding her voice. “Mr… Ink Scroll, is it?” He nodded, and she stood a little straighter. “Right. Well, I must say it betrays your case as fairly weak if your grasping at straws has led you to conclude some sort of conspiracy involving the princess.”
Ink Scroll lifted a hoof before his chest, feigning shock. “You misrepresent me, Madam!”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “I’m not finished. If you must know, it was my assessment that my client was not emotionally stable enough at the time of her attack to receive counsel from anypony save a close, trusted friend. I stand by my decision to represent her out of interest in nothing more than her mental health, and I resent your assertions to the contrary.”
The stallion waved a dismissive hoof. “At the time of the alleged attack, you mean.” Twilight scowled at him, and he returned with a wry grin. “And what of your other friends? You’ve named each of them as your key witnesses.”
“What about them?”
Ink Scroll turned back to the bench. “Your Honor, the defense would like to request that the four key witnesses submitted by the prosecution, Misses Rarity, Fluttershy, Applejack, and Pinkamina Pie, should not be allowed to testify. We contend that these four mares personal relationship to the plaintiff will produce clouded judgment in these matters, as well as biased, superfluous and even false testimonies.”
“What? But that’s ridiculous!” Twilight stammered. “My fri—these witnesses were the first ponies to see Rainbow Dash after she was brutally assaulted by your client.”
Ink Scroll’s eyes shone. “I might recommend watching those allegations, Miss Sparkle. Tell me, is it easy to concoct a story among a close-knit group of six?”
“Their testimonies must be allowed to stand, as they were some of the only ones to experience my client’s fragile physical and emotional state after the assault.” Twilight threw an severe glance his way, “Furthermore, the prosecution would like to submit that Mr. Soarin’s colleagues in the Wonderbolts, previously named by the defense as their principal witnesses, would be just as prone to biased or false testimony, and thus should not be considered valid witnesses in kind.”
“The prosecution is attempting to create a false parallel between two distinctly differing groups. The Wonderbolts were present at the scene of the alleged crime, whereas—”
“Enough.” Justice Honor Bond’s voice echoed through the still, vacant chamber. “The bench sees fit that all witnesses submitted by both the prosecution and the defense shall be permitted testimony. Does any evidence remain for either side to submit?”
Twilight watched the lawyer opposite her carefully, almost certain he was waiting to pull out some trump card at the last minute. When he didn’t speak up, nothing but a confident smirk gracing his muzzle, she cleared her throat. “The prosecution rests, Your Honor, with nothing more to submit that the Doctor’s findings and toxicology report, among other documents, already submitted.” Honor Bound nodded to her.
“The defense requests two additional days to review these documents.”
“Denied. These documents have been on file with the court since they were submitted with the arrest warrant three weeks ago. The defense has had ample time to pursue them.” The judge sat still, for a moment, pensive, waiting. “Any further requests?” Twilight shook her head; her opposite simply remained silent. After another endless moment, Honor Bound nodded. “Right. In that case, the bench rests. The trial will commence in two days’ time. I will see you both there.”
His black robes flapped behind him as he vacated the bench, passing through a door behind him and leaving the other two in abject silence. Twilight faltered beneath its weight, staring straight forward until Ink Scroll turned to her. His smirk had returned. She scowled at him, eliciting a chuckle. “Try not to take it too personally, Miss Sparkle. It’s all part of the job—comes with the territory.”
“Care to go out for drinks sometime? After this is over? My treat.” A blank stare, then she turned heel and strode away. He laughed. “Come on, I’m not a bad guy. I’m only in this gig for the money.”
She turned and fixed him with an icy glare. “Not in this life.”
She felt the weight of the world upon her shoulders by the time she returned to the castle. Blearily, she trudged down the corridor, coming upon when their six rooms had been made up. Rounding a corner, she passed by the Royal Guard who had been posted outside Rainbow Dash’s door. He nodded to her, smiling; she returned the gesture. “How is she?” She asked.
“Nothing to report, Miss Sparkle.”
Twilight grimaced; the words felt bitter to her now. “Please, just call me Twilight.”
The stallion nodded, and Twilight turned, ready to enter her own room when a new voice caught her attention. “Twilight, come quickly! You simply must see this!”
Wearily, she turned to see Rarity down the corridor, beckoning to her. “Not now, Rarity. I’m pretty tired, and I think I’ll just—”
“Come now, Twilight. You simply must see this! I insist.”
Nodding absently, she strode over to her friend’s room; Rarity held the door open for her. “It’s a gift I’ve been working on for you, I’ve only just finished it.” Twilight stepped over the threshold and stopped, her eyes wide.
One of Rarity’s numerous dress forms sat in the center of the room, adorned with a creation that made Twilight blink in surprise. An elegant jacket of warm, grey fabric fell from the shoulders, ending in a pair of long coattails draped over the rear of the form. At the chest, the jacket gave way to a generous neckline, revealing a rich, deep maroon blouse that rose to a trim collar, a muted purple tie affixed at its apex.
“You do like it, don’t you? I know I work mostly with dresses, but other formal wear is not out of my means.”
“Wow, Rarity. This is amazing.” Twilight stepped forward into the room, peering at eh suit. “This is for me?”
“Why of course, Darling. I couldn’t possibly let you enter that courtroom looking anything less than your professional best, and as they say, clothes make the mare.”
“You shouldn’t have.”
“Oh, think nothing of it. It’s the least I could do; to thank you for all the hard work and energy you’ve given this effort. Truly, Twilight Sparkle, your selfless sacrifice is noble, and deserves noble garments to match.”
“I don’t know what to say. Can I try it on?”
“Absolutely, Darling. I could probably stand to get the final measurements just right anyway. I assure you, with this, when you step into that courtroom, you shall command the rapt attention of everypony present. Mark my words.” The sound of hooves falling in the distance reached them just as Rarity levitated the suit of the dress form. Both mares look up in surprise to see Fluttershy dart into the room, the Royal Guard from Rainbow Dash’s room close on her heels.
“Twilight! Rarity! Oh dear, come quick—I mean, uh, you should… you should—” She shook her head vigorously from side to side, her eyes wide, her mane already a mess.
Twilight rushed over to her pegasus friend in alarm. “What is it, Fluttershy? What’s wrong?”
“I—I was just going to go see Rainbow Dash and wish her good night when I… I, oh my…” She looked like she was shivering.
Twilight Sparkle felt her heartbeat spike as her concern mounted. “Please, Fluttershy; is something the matter with Rainbow Dash?”
Rarity gently laid down the suit, and strode carefully up to her friend, maintaining the presence of mind to remain calm. She laid a hoof on the mare’s shoulder, and Fluttershy’s shaking abated. “Darling, what is it?”
Fluttershy gulped, taking a series of deep breaths. “It’s Rainbow Dash! She’s gone.”
The four ponies dashed to the room, the narrow passageway echoing with the sound of hooves on stone as they went. Twilight Sparkle stopped, her gaze flashing wildly about the vacant room. In the next moment she could feel the others come up silently behind her. “I don’t understand it…” she shook her head, not even turning around to address her friends and the lone, silent guard. “How could this happen? This is why I wanted a guard in the first pla—”
The words died on her lips as she felt a cool breeze wafting over her, and looked up, cringing to see the curtains fluttering gently before a set of doors leading out to a balcony. Her face fell as she shook her head again, muttering darkly. “I should’ve known. Why didn’t I even think of that?”
“Do—do you think someone could have… taken her?” Fluttershy squeaked, swaying nervously form side to side.
Twilight shook her head. “No. Those doors lock from the inside. She must have left.”
“She can’t have just flown away! Where would she go?” Rarity strode forward, glancing from Twilight to the curtains and back again.
“And why?” Twilight added.
Rarity trotted over to the bed, lifting something off the surface in her magical field. Something crumpled and frail, a cold, grey blob hovering lifelessly in the air before her. Carefully, she unfolded it, and a sheet of newspaper took shape before her eyes. She scanned it quickly, her gaze narrowing as she did so. “Twilight? I believe I've found the answer to that question.”
“What is it?” Twilight went over to her friend, peering over her shoulder at the newspaper’s face. She blinked a few times, checking it again to make sure her eyes were, indeed, not playing a trick on her. “What? ‘New Evidence in Soarin’ Arrest Proves Allegations a Publicity Stunt’?” In one swift motion, she swatted the paper to the floor and turned away, pacing up and down the room, her face darkened. “Where did she even get a copy of the Equestrian Enquirer? And why would she take that trash seriously?”
“I think the more important question is where she might have run to, if she did indeed flee because of this.”
“Maybe she flew home?” Fluttershy suggested, stepping forward a little bit?”
Twilight sighed. “That’s a possibility. I still can’t believe she would run away over a stupid article. That’s just… not Rainbow Dash.”
Rarity shook her head. “Pain and fear can do strange things to ponies. I think we all know that for all her supposed bravado, Rainbow Dash has never been the best at dealing with her own emotions. I’m certain this whole ordeal has only made that worse.”
“Where could she have gone, though?”
“Wherever it is, we’re goin’ ta find her.”
The two turned to see Applejack step into the room, around Fluttershy. Behind her, Pinkie Pie remained out in the hallway; cast in shadow, her face an impenetrable mix of confusion and shock. Applejack glanced between Twilight and Rarity, her face grim yet resolute. “Right now.”
Twilight Sparkle nodded. “You’re right, Applejack.” She swiveled to the guard, still standing at attention just beside the door. “Alert the other guards. Get as many as you can. I want a search done of the castle, the city, and the airspace between here and Ponyville.”
The guard dipped his head once. “Right away ma’am.” He rushed from the room.
Twilight turned back, facing her friends once more. “Girls, I don’t know where Rainbow went, but she’s our friend, and if she’s not here, that means she might be in trouble. We’ve got to find her and bring her back.” She glanced from face to face. Applejack and Rarity both nodded to her. Fluttershy’s shivers had returned, though she swallowed and tried to hold herself steady. Pinkie Pie merely stared, unmoving, back at Twilight. “Right. Fluttershy, you and Pinkie Pie search the Castle Grounds. Maybe Rainbow Dash just went to clear her head in the gardens. AJ and Rarity, come with me. We’re going into town.”
In short order, and with no further discussion, the other four left the room, even Pinkie Pie rushing off as if imbued with a sudden fire. For one unbroken moment, Twilight Sparkle found herself in Rainbow Dash’s room, alone with her thoughts. She registered movement out of the corner of her eye, and glanced downward to see the wrinkled piece of newsprint, scuttling across the floor, borne on an intermittent breeze. She sighed before heading for the door.
“Oh, Rainbow Dash. Where could you have gone?”
Canterlot’s nightlife bustled around the three ponies as they roamed down a busy street, glancing every which way for a hint of a rainbow mane. All around them, ponies chattered, moving this way and that, diving in and out of late-night clubs, bars, and restaurants, none of them paying the group of friends any heed. Applejack sighed, suddenly stopping in her tracks. Twilight and Rarity paused as well, throwing questioning looks over their shoulders. “This ain’t workin’, Twi. How are we supposed to find one pony in a city o’ hundreds?”
“I know, Applejack, but it’s the best idea I’ve got right now.”
“We should split up an’ search. We’ll cover more ground that way.”
Rarity frowned. “Darling, I’m not so sure that’s such a great idea.”
“Come on, Rares. We ain’t getting’ anythin’ done this way, and Rainbow needs us right now.”
Rarity shook her head, gesturing with one hoof to the cacophony of sight and sound around them. “Has it occurred to you that three mares wandering a busy city alone at night might not be a very good plan?”
“Well it sure is a sight better than what we got goin’ on now.” Applejack replied, planted firmly in her place. “Ah figure with three ponies in different places instead o’ the same place, we’ll find Dash that much faster.”
Rarity cocked an eyebrow, but Twilight chimed in before she could say anything further. “You’re right, Applejack; Rainbow Dash does need us right now. We need to be using as many sets of eyes as possible.”
“I still think it’s best to stick together.”
Twilight sighed. “Normally, I’d agree with you, Rarity. But this is an extreme case. We don’t have the luxury of time right now.”
“Twi’s right. We’ve got ta get movin’.”
“Hold on now, just how are the rest of us supposed to know if anypony finds her?”
Twilight stopped for a moment, her gaze drifting ever so slightly upwards. “Get her back to the castle, then find one of the princesses. They can send a message for the rest of us.”
“Well, alright. But I won’t say I like this arrangement.”
Twilight nodded, “Neither do I, but finding Rainbow Dash has to be our first priority now. I don’t want to think what would happen if anypony recognizes her and starts hammering her with questions.”
Rarity winced. “She’s been front page news for weeks now. I fear that’s only too likely the case.”
“Then we’ll have to just hope we’re wrong.”
From beneath the wide brim of her hat, Applejack’s keen eyes observed the city, sweeping from place to place, always searching. She had long since given up on the idea of finding Rainbow Dash out wandering the streets, and had taken to glancing through the windows of each building she passed, scanning groups of nameless ponies within, looking for her face to jump out from the crowd.
A flash of light from a darkened alleyway caught her eye, she jumped, turning anxiously, staring into the blackness, hoping against hope to see a pair of magenta eyes stare back out at her. After a few moments, she hung her head, turning away from the bleak alley. She watched only her hooves hitting cobblestone after cobblestone as she walked away, suddenly very dimly aware that she didn’t know where she was or what time it was, and that she didn’t care either.
“This ain’t gonna work, she’s gone.” She muttered to herself, closing her eyes and shaking her head. “She’s gone… she’s gone.”
She wasn’t paying attention. She ran into the stallion because she wasn’t paying attention.
“Hey. Watch where you’re going.”
She blinked a few times, shaking her head vigorously before looking up. “Ah’m sorry. Ah’m just lookin’ fer…” In that instant, Applejack’s words failed her, and he rolled his eyes, pushing past her. He was gone an instant later—off down the street, chatting with some other mare, as if he hadn’t even noticed; as if the run-in wasn’t even important.
And Applejack, still struck silent, rooting firmly in place on the street corner, knew that it wasn’t important; that he wasn’t important.
It was only important that she had looked up.
Across the street, a mass of ponies milled about outside a bar. Their backs to Applejack, their faces turned inward, pressed against the windows and crowded around the front entrance, nearly clambering over one another. Applejack blinked, feeling something stirring within her, some strange feeling that inexplicably, yet irrefutably, told her she had found exactly what she was looking for.
Slowly, silently, as if she were floating and the world around her suspended on invisible strings, she approached the crowd. She arched her back, craning to see over the tops of the others’ heads, but came away frustrated with only a passing glimpse of the building. Frowning, she lowered her shoulders, grumbled out a perfunctory “Excuse me,” and wedged herself in between the two closest ponies, ignoring their yelps as she muscled her way into the middle of the group.
With no regard for the protest raised around her, Applejack surged forward, soon finding herself at the tavern’s door. Unceremoniously, she barged her way inside, her gaze sweeping across the scene.
The bar maintained an obligatory, if uneasy, level of activity. Glasses clinked, the occasional drink was poured, but the expected low buzz of conversation was strikingly absent. It was surprisingly empty compared to the crowd outside, many members of which could be easily seen through the smoky, faded glass at the front of the room, still peering expectantly in, as if watching, waiting for something to happen inside. What few patrons were gathered in the bar itself, however, appeared subdued, many staring into their drinks or off into space, unspeaking, unmoving, and before she even saw it, Applejack knew why.
For one thing united nearly every pony within the establishment, mares and stallions, solitary and accompanied, drunk and sober. Between half-hearted sips of drinks or attempts at conversation, each face would turn—discreetly, as if they feared being caught—and steal a furtive glance toward the back of the room, where the bar met the wall. Their universal attention directed to a corner, cast in shadow, where a white unicorn sat, comfortably upon a barstool, staring defiantly back at them, and where a mess of rainbow hair decorated the dark mahogany counter.
Applejack was moving within the instant she had taken to survey the room, a dozen pairs of eyes tracking her. The unicorn jumped up just as she arrived, fixing her with a hard gaze, fire lit behind blood-red eyes. “Don’t go near her. She’s not answering any questions.”
For a moment, Applejack was floored. She froze, rock-solid against the wood floor, her eyes wide and locked with this stranger’s, suddenly conscious of countless gazes directed her way, but the moment passed. She saw Rainbow Dash, slumped in her seat, her body limp, head resting against the bar, cheek pressed into the polished surface, and her back to the world. Applejack felt her heart thudding at a furious pace deep within her chest at the sight of her broken friend, and she narrowed her gaze, glaring at the mare before her. “Listen, filly, Ah don’t know who ya think ya are, but—”
“This mare is a pony, not a museum piece for you and everypony else here to gawk at. She deserves her privacy.”
“And she just happens ta be mah friend, and Ah need ta git her someplace safe!” Applejack leaned forward, her face inches from the unicorn’s.
“And just how am I supposed to know you’re telling the tru—”
“Do Ah LOOK like Ah’m lyin’?”
Silence, the air heavy around them, the brazen, unabashed stares of onlookers focused upon them, a few heated seconds, and the stranger backed down. “Alright, alright, easy. She only just fell asleep.”
The unicorn shook her head. “She was already half drunk when I got here. I recognized her from the papers, but I think plenty other ponies did, too.”
“What were they—”
“Questioning her, pestering her, offering to buy her drinks, everything. I got them off her back but they didn’t go very far.” The unicorn nodded towards the front of the house, indicating the crowd still loitering outside. “It’s disgusting. I don’t even know why she’s here, but she doesn’t deserve that.”
“She ain’t gonna be here for long.” Applejack walked over to her friend, nudging her lightly with her snout. “Come on, Dash. It’s time to get goin’.” The pegasus merely grumbled incoherently, twitching in her stupor. Applejack frowned. “Alright, Ah’ll carry ya.” Gingerly, the farm pony maneuvered herself beneath Rainbow Dash, gently lifting herself up between the stool and the bar so that her friend slid easily onto her back. Applejack grunted under the sudden weight.
Thrust awake with a jolt, Rainbow Dash draped herself over her friend, giggling as she did so. “Heh… Applesnack. Apple-Japple-Jack.”
Applejack sighed. “Had enough to drink there, Sugarcube?”
The inebriated pegasus shifted herself, very nearly falling off but finally settling in lined up with the pony beneath her, allowing her chin to rest on the earth pony’s neck. “I dunno. You ssshould ask Rainbow Dassh.”
“She seems ta be in a right state.” Applejack frowned, grimacing as her load shifted.
“Yeah, she’s in a pretty bad way.” The unicorn shook her head forlornly, “She had a rough night.”
“Well that ends here.”
“I like your mane, Applesack. It’s like hay… but you can’t eat it.” With that, the drunken pony buried her muzzle into her friend’s mane, lay still for several moments, and began snoring.
“Right. Let’s get ya out o’ here, Dash.” Applejack made her way for the door, striving to ignore the unbidden stares she received from around the room, but stopped suddenly. “Ah wanted ta thank ya, Ah don’t want ta think what would happened if Rainbow hadn’t had somepony lookin’ out for her.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Ah never did catch yer name.”
The other mare grinned, slipping a large pair of sunglasses down over shocking red eyes. “Call me Vinyl. Vinyl Scratch.”
Applejack nodded. “Ah thought ya looked familiar. And thanks, it really means a whole lot ta me.”
“Like I said, don’t mention it. I was just finished with a set at the club across the street and came here for a couple drinks when I saw her. I did what anypony would have done.” She paused, taking a moment to send a glare around at the remaining patrons. “Or, at least, I did what anypony else SHOULD have done!” She called, her scowl deepening as the others made pains to avoid her piercing gaze.
“Ah appreciate it anyway.”
The DJ pony shook her head. “I don’t get it—the way some of these ponies behave—like they have no decency left, no common courtesy. They treat her like a story out of the newspaper and nothing more. And if those stories are true…”
“They are.” Applejack nodded gloomily.
“Then she doesn’t deserve this. She doesn’t deserve any of this.”
The two trotted to the door, Vinyl using her magic to swing it open. The silent crowd parted ways a little, enduring scowls from both mares. Vinyl stepped out in front of Applejack, glaring at the assembled. “Alright, folks. Party’s over. Time to scram.”
It took a few moments more, but the crowd finally dispersed, some still taking a few backward glances as they stole away. Finally, the two mares relaxed, able to breathe easier. “Thanks for that.” Applejack readjusted so that Rainbow Dash’s weight was spread more evenly on her back, and the pegasus snorted in her sleep.
“No problem. Us mares have gotta stick together.” Vinyl nodded as they began walking, splitting ways. “Take care of yourself, and her too.”
Applejack simply nodded her reply, looking up to see the towering spires of Canterlot Castle not far in the distance. Undaunted, she set off into the cold night. The streets were dark and lonely; most of the city lay slumbering contently, unplagued by worries, not haunted by nightmares. Applejack wondered what held the mind of Rainbow Dash as she slept. She wondered if the pegasus could achieve just as sound a rest as everypony else, though she feared not. Applejack wondered what had driven Rainbow Dash to drink. She wondered if it drove away some of those dreams, if it helped take the pain away, or if it was just a way to escape. Maybe Rainbow Dash thought about it beforehand, or maybe she didn’t, and it just became an impulse; an urge she couldn’t control. Applejack craned her neck, twisting awkwardly to get a look at her friend, still dozing lightly upon her back as she walked. She wondered if the pegasus felt cold, or if she was too numb to feel anything at all. Outwardly, she looked peaceful.
Applejack sighed. “What Ah wouldn’t give ta know what was goin’ on inside that little head o’ yers, Dash. What Ah wouldn’t give.”
There were signs of the coming dawn by the time she reached the castle. She spoke briefly with a guard who promised to notify Princess Luna and have the others brought back for some much-needed rest. Then, after making sure Rainbow Dash was secure on her back, she climbed the long flights of stairs to reach their rooms.
The doors in Dash’s room had been closed. Gratefully, Applejack brought her friend in and laid her gingerly upon the bed. She stayed back a while longer, watching as the troubled pony’s chest rose and fell slowly, rhythmically. She fidgeted a few times as she lay. Then, feeling the weight of her own eyelids very suddenly and heavily set upon her, Applejack turned and headed for the doorway, ready to feel the comforting embrace of her own warm bed, but stopped when a voice called out from the dark.
“It hurts, AJ. It hurts.”
Concern drove her back to the bedside. She could just barely see her friend’s form in the darkness, but those magenta eyes were open, staring up at her from behind a hazy cloud of mist. “What hurts, Dash?”
“It won’t stop hurting. Why won’t it stop hurting, Applejack? Why? I… I don’t want to hurt anymore.”
Applejack laid a hoof over her friend’s forehead. It felt warm. She sighed, resting her chin upon the bed. She couldn’t think what else to do. “Ah know, Sugar. Ah know.”
“Fillies and gentlecolts. This court will now come to session. Please refrain from speaking or making any noise that might cause a disturbance during these proceedings. The trial is now set to begin. Celestia willing, may justice be done.”
Twilight Sparkle shifted nervously in her seat, shuffling a few papers atop her desk as she sat, willing herself to remain calm while the judge spoke. She glanced to her side Where Rainbow Das sat, stock still, looking for all the world like she would enjoy nothing more than to crawl underneath the table and out of sight of the multitudes of ponies around them.
From above them, the Justice continued speaking, steely grey eyes flashing out of a crowd of hundreds. “Thank you for your attention. The case of Equestria versus Soarin’ Skies shall now officially come to order.” Gavel smacked wood once more, and the court reporter immediately began tapping away at his typewriter, a series of sharp, metallic clicks filling the air. “Is the counsel for the prosecution ready?”
A deep breath. Twilight stood. “Yes, Your Honor.” She sat down quickly.
“Is the counsel for the defense ready?”
Across the courtroom, behind a table almost identical to her own, Twilight watched as the slate grey unicorn opposite her stood. Ink Scroll directed his gaze towards the bench with a self-assured grin. “Yes, Your Honor.”
Justice Honor Bound nodded. “Very well, we shall proceed. The defendant, Mr. Soarin’ Skies, has been charged with one count of rape in the second degree and one count of sexual assault in the second degree. How do you plead, Mr. Skies?”
Twilight watched as the pegasus leaned forward, his expression unreadable, his demeanor calm and collected. “Not guilty, Your Honor.”
“At this time, Opening Statements will be read before the court by both parties. The prosecution will speak first.”
Twilight closed her eyes, forcing herself to take a few deep, calming breaths. This was it. This was her moment. She stood up, stepping out onto the floor before the bench, nodding up towards the judge, and then sweeping her gaze out over the audience. She suppressed the urge to gulp, and cleared her throat lightly, counting backwards from five in her head. “Thank you, Your Honor. May it please the court, friends, citizens of Equestria, fillies and gentlecolts of the Jury; we live in unsettling times. I cannot tell you how much it saddens me to think about the events that have transpired leading up to this trial, but I will do my best to explain them.
“As this case revolves around my client, Miss Rainbow Dash, I will begin with her. Rainbow Dash’s foremost passion in life has long been flying, and she has been recognized for her many achievements in the sport. She used to spend every chance she could get practicing, working on one routine or another. Imagine her elation, then, upon receiving the chance, nearly four weeks ago, to join the Wonderbolts, to make something that has been her greatest dream since foalhood a reality.”
Twilight looked out over the assembled again, marveling at the attention of so many ponies, focused on her. “Imagine that. Imagine a moment in your life when everything you’ve worked towards, every dream you’ve ever had, every ambition and every desire, is suddenly right there, right within your grasp. Imagine your excitement.
“Fillies and gentlecolts, I can’t tell you what ran through my client’s mind that day. I can’t begin to impart upon you the incredible emotional whirlwind she must have experienced as she went off to Cloudsdale, and as she finally achieved what she had worked towards most of her life. True success, achieving a life-long dream in such a way, is something ponies have to experience individually to truly understand. However, I can tell you that she visited me just afterwards, and I have never seen her happier. She came to share with me the good news, and I congratulated her. It was a simple exchange between friends, yet that was he last time I saw her before our lives were irrevocably changed for the worse.
“That night, she and the other Wonderbolts, including the accused, Mr. Soarin’, held an impromptu celebration in the bar at the Cloud Nine Inn, in Cloudsdale. Over the course of the night, my client became intoxicated, and was subsequently taken by the accused to one of the rooms the Wonderbolts had reserved that night. Therein, without proper consent and without regard for her thoughts, Soarin’ initiated sexual contact with my client in a debasing and violent manner, leaving her physically injured and emotionally scarred.”
She paused, watching the gallery for any visible sign of a reaction before continuing. “Mr. Soarin’ has pleaded not guilty in this assault. I will, however, endeavor to prove his guilt by presenting medical evidence, including the professional testimony of doctors and nurses, and by submitting the testimonies of several key witnesses to both the time leading up to this event and its aftermath. Through this process, I hope my client receives the justice she deserves. Thank you.”
The unicorn found herself sweating by the time she returned to her seat, and struggled to keep herself calm. Beside her, Rainbow Dash looked even more nervous, and Twilight felt a pang of sympathy for her. It was bad enough to be forced to endure the unwavering attention of dozens of apathetic ponies, but to have had such painful events recounted before such a crowd could only have been much worse. She reached out and grasped Rainbow Dash’s hoof, nodding in what she hoped was a reassuring way when she caught the pegasus’s eye.
“Fillies and gentlecolts of the jury, may it please the court, I plan to keep my opening statement short, simple, and concise.” Ink Scroll now held the floor, confident smirk never gone. “My client has been an upstanding citizen of Equestria his entire life. He has been an honorable role model, and has even given the best years of his life over to proudly and selflessly serve his country in the most elite wing of the Equestrian Air Royal Guard. He has devoted his life to others, and for that I believe we all owe him a debt of gratitude.
“However, in light of these recent events, my client’s reputation has become unjustly besmirched. What by all rights was a casual, consensual sexual encounter has been perverted and twisted by the prosecution, presenting a heinous accusation that is not only an affront to his character, but an attack on his honor and dignity. The only explanation for which being, through regret, shame, or something similar, this mare,” he gestured wildly at Rainbow Dash, who flinched, “has decided to render all blame for an otherwise innocent encounter upon my client, and has falsely brought the charges against him to clear her own conscience.
“My client is the victim here, folks. Justice can only come with his acquittal. Thank you.”
Ink Scroll appeared calm as he strode across the solid oak floor of the courtroom, passing just before the witness stand several times before he turned to face it, a relaxed look alighting upon his features as he surveyed the pony giving testimony.
“Now, please, Mr. Nights. Would you care to explain for the court your involvement with the events in concern?”
Cloudy Nights returned the gaze with a bored expression. He glanced once at his watch before clearing his throat. “I am the manager of The Cloud Nine Inn, and I have been so for nearly twelve years now.”
“And your establishment is, I’m taken to believe, rather well revered, no?”
The greying pony snorted, leaning back in his chair with a dry chuckle. “You’d be making an understatement, then. My business is considered the premier hotel in all of Cloudsdale. None of the competition even comes close, and they know it. I’ve made sure of that.”
“Please, let us try to keep our focus on only what is pertinent to the case.” His admonition met with only silence, the lawyer turned and began pacing once again. He kept the tension in the room suspended on air as he slowly made his way back to the bench—all eyes rooted to his every movement—like a master conductor orchestrating his ensemble. He relished the feeling. “Now. So your hotel is a success, congratulations. I suppose that means you must receive many high-profile, well-known clientele, no?”
“Including the Wonderbolts.”
“Many times over.”
“Splendid. So I would not be wrong to say the Wonderbolts are regular customers of yours, especially between shows?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Cloudy Nights rolled his eyes. “No. You would not be wrong to say so.”
“Excellent.” Ink Scroll nodded his satisfaction. “Which brings us to the events that occurred almost four weeks ago. Would you care to illustrate for the court the proceedings of that day at your hotel?”
Letting slip a sigh, Cloudy Nights leaned forward and crossed his hooves upon the stand. “They booked several rooms for the night, almost the whole top floor was booked solid. Ostensibly, it was enough beds for every member of the team.”
“And what do you mean by that?”
“I mean exactly as I say. It’s what The Wonderbolts do; they book enough rooms for the whole team, but invariably most of them never even use them. They’ll spend the night at the bar.”
“The whole night?”
“Most of it, if not all. It’s a pattern of theirs—if they want to celebrate winning some competition, or putting on a good show, or whatever else. I’ve been around that block many times; like I said, they’re regular customers of mine.”
“And does this bother you? The late-night parties? The empty rooms? Surely there must be better uses for your hotel’s resources?”
“Of course it doesn’t bother me. It’s great business for both the hotel and the bar. That’s why I ordered the lounge stay open later that night. I knew there was going to be a celebration as soon as I caught wind that they were looking to sign a new member. That’s the pattern; a new Wonderbolt means extra revenue from alcohol sales. I consider it as good business as anything else. Of course, Spitfire wouldn’t confirm any rumors when she booked the stay, but I take high stock in the reliability of my sources.”
“Interesting. Is it normal for the team captain herself to reserve rooms?”
“Spitfire?” The businesspony waved a dismissive hoof idly before him, “She’s usually pretty good about giving a few days’ advance warning; face-to-face, even. I like that.”
“So you heard about this several days before the night in question?”
“Surprising. I’m taken to believe Miss Dash was not inducted into the team until that morning, and yet you assumed there would be a celebration?”
“Listen. In my business, it doesn’t pay to assume things. I know things.”
“You’re saying you knew that Miss Rainbow Dash—”
“She was a shoe in. That’s what I heard the whole week prior; a shoe in.”
Five-o-clock is always the most important part of any day. Long after the sun has risen, bathing Cloudsdale in its sublime light for the better part of the day before beginning its long journey beyond the western horizon. That’s when the day really begins. Then, working ponies kick off their shackles and stumble towards dusk, looking for rest, and weary travellers seek an end to their day’s journey. Then, the afternoon rush begins, the most vital time of day for any hotel, when guests looking to check in, rooms ready to be filled, and a staff ready to serve all converge in a mad scramble of activity and commerce.
Cloudy Nights cast his glance downwards, meeting his reflection in the varnish of the desktop. He flashed himself a grin. The surface was polished to a pristine mirror finish, as it always was, and everything was in place. Five-o-clock, time for the first guests to arrive. The day was about to start.
At first, only sporadic results—here, an affluent Manhattan or Canterlot family looking to spend a weekend in the city, there, a few businessponies, checking into their rooms before an important meeting. Small fodder, really. The big prize came almost an hour later.
At first sight, a few hushed whispers sounded around him before all fell to silence. The air in the room was still as everypony’s heads turned to fix upon the high glass doors, as if the empty lobby itself were holding its breath in anticipation. A group of ponies, dressed to the nines in Air Royal Guard service dress, sauntered in, their mere presence commanding attention. At their center, her eyes wide and wandering, her wings twitching and jittery with excitement, Rainbow Dash seemed overwhelmed, as if she couldn’t possibly mange to take in every single little detail of this novel experience, but was certainly going to try anyway.
Cool and collected, Spitfire stepped up to the counter, letting her sunglasses slip down her nose just enough so she could glance over the rim at the manager. “Everything ready for us, Cloudy?”
“Your rooms on the top floor are being prepared as we speak, and a section of the lounge has been reserved to your liking as usual, Miss Spitfire.”
“Perfect. Always a pleasure doing business with you, Cloudy.”
“Of course. We do value our loyal customers here at the Cloud Nine.”
Spitfire rolled her eyes as she and the rest of the Wonderbolts strode away towards the lounge, a few loosening their ties in anticipation of the night to come. Rainbow Dash lingered behind the group, her eyes tracking to every inch of the high, vaulted cloud ceiling in unabashed wonderment. There was something strange about her, something puzzling, an almost childlike innocence that the manager felt almost as much as saw.
But yet, here was another customer, and he broke eye contact with the retreating performers, returning his attention to the work ahead of him. He had always been of the opinion that a manager’s place in a hotel was right behind the front desk. From here, he controlled the front of the house—keeping an eye on every employee, interfacing with every guest, keeping every facet of the operation running as smoothly his hoof across a silk duvet. After all, what better face to use as the face of his business than his own? Under his watchful eye, a steady stream of clientele flowed through the high vaulted lobby, a veritable cross section of the upper echelons of Equestrian Society. A dark-coated unicorn, hair slicked back and sporting a set of pristine, glittering gossamer wings and a gambler’s grin—his confident smirk borne of inherited wealth. A stoic, no-nonsense captain of industry, his gaze steely and cold, a jet-black, gold-accented suitcase held tightly at his side. A wizened old pegasus, a gruff tautness about his hard-set jaw and a blushing, smiling, giggling filly half his age hanging off his shoulder. They all had lives to lead. They all had secrets they needed kept. And each paid well to ensure they would be.
The night was winding down by the time a young clerk arrived for the late shift. Cloudy Nights stole a glance at his watch. Eleven-o-clock. Right on time, as should be expected. The manager allowed himself a small smile; everything running as smooth as silk indeed.
The path to his suite on the ground floor invariably took him past the arched double doors leading into the hotel lounge. Maybe it could just be chalked up to his perennially inquisitive nature, but it was a detour he could not resist taking.
In the daytime, the lounge was designed to be light and airy. Hoof-sculpted cloud columns set beneath soaring archways that raced their way up to a ceiling of wispy cirrus so thin it functioned as a skylight, letting the sunlight through the bathe the entire room. At night, however, the relatively low light of countless stars became scattered by thousands of tiny ice crystals in the same fragile, vaporous ceiling, setting the entire room alight in innumerable shafts of shifting dim light. The architecture had been tailor made to exude a sense of elegance, a grace and sophistication usually reserved for formal dinners and private dances, but which remained all the same for a group of unruly fliers and their post-tryout merriment.
As the doors swung open upon the scene, the first thing to catch Cloudy Nights’ eye was Spitfire, slumped glumly at one of the booths a good distance from the bar, her head cradled in her hooves. The air filled with the sound of clinking glasses as the manager strode over to her, casting only a fleeting sideways glance at the bar patrons. “Everything alright, Miss Spitfire?”
“Urrgh.” The mare groaned, picking up her head just enough to rest her chin on her fore legs. “Just… just feeling a bit under the weather, I guess.” She squinted her eyes shut.
“Had a bit much to drink, I presume?”
She grimaced. “I only wish. I haven’t even had a drop.”
“ No? Well then. I’m terribly sorry, Miss Spitfire. Must be that bug going around.”
“Great. This sorta thing never happens to me, either.” She frowned, casting a sidelong glance at her teammates while massaging her temple. “I think I’ll hit the sack. Sticking around down here probably won’t do me much good anyway.”
“The elevators are—”
“I know where the elevators are.” She snapped. Just in that moment, a raucous cheer drew both ponies’ attention very suddenly to the bar, where the gathered Wonderbolts now raised their glasses into the air, singing their unanimous approval. At the center of the group, looking like she were lost to the world around her, Rainbow Dash had been pulled deep into a sloppy, drunken kiss by a stallion they quickly registered as Soarin’. It was far less than a glamorous sight. Spitfire grimaced. “Ugh. Now I just know I’m gonna hurl.”
“And that’s all you saw of the incident?”
“Nothing more. I don’t make it my business to snoop on other ponies, but from what I saw, it seemed innocuous enough.”
Twilight Sparkle sighed, glancing from the manager over to the jury and back again, and furrowed her brow. Ever since the opposing lawyer had finished his questioning, leaving only her and her cross-examination, she had been unable to produce any new testimony, or any nuance on the business pony’s story. She couldn’t afford to stay silent for long, however. Time to change tactics. “Well, I’d like to talk about the day after, then. How did the police investigation proceed?”
“The police investigation into your establishment. Would you care to comment on that?”
“It went like clockwork. The Cloud Nine Inn always cooperates fully with the Equestrian Police.”
“Is that so?”
“Hmm… ok, then.” Twilight smiled inwardly, turning from the bench and pacing back to her table. As she stooped over it, leafing through a few of the papers she had prepared, she became acutely aware of a bead of sweat, slipping slowly down her face, right past her left eye. In the space of a few seconds, she was stuck between whether to wipe it away or leave it for somepony to potentially see. Then, there was the paper she was looking for, and she turned around, holding it in front of her, hoping no one was watching her all that closely. She coughed once, regaining her composure. “Really? Because I have a copy of the police report right here; and according to this, some of your employees were less than cooperative.”
Cloudy Nights stared down at the mare for a moment, blinked a few times, and then settled back into his seat with a frown. “I don’t know what you’re trying to insinuate here, but my employees are professionals. The idea that they’d have any involvement in this is…”
“I’m not insinuating anything. I can even quote right from this police report,” Twilight asserted coolly, rifling through the pages in front of her. “Officer Wing Beat, who authored the report, writes here that ‘several employees, the cleaning staff in particular, seemed tentative, hesitant, and even evasive when interviewed—as if they were afraid to divulge information.’ Would you care to comment on that?”
“I should think you would be quite nervous too, Miss Sparkle, should you suddenly find yourself interrogated by police over doing nothing more than your job. I see no issue here.”
“It’s this phrase ‘afraid to divulge information’ that concerns me. Tell, me where do you think that fear may have come from?”
“I imagine many of them may have thought they were risking arrest themselves. A hardly inconceivable notion.”
“Yet, Mr. Nights, what I find most puzzling is that this officer, who is undoubtedly a veteran of numerous interviews with witnesses at numerous crime scenes, marked such behavior as odd, and out-of-the ordinary. Now, what do you think made employees of your hotel act in such a way as to come across as strange to a veteran officer?”
The manager appeared to mull over his reply for a few moments, before slowly responding. “I don’t know what your officer thought he was seeing, but I can assure you I find any nervous behavior on the part of my staff entirely justified given the circumstances.”
Twilight Sparkle didn’t miss a beat. “Do you consider yourself a good manager, Mr. Nights?”
“My hotel has been constantly regarded as the top of its class for years under my direction.”
“And what about your employees? Would you say they could come to you with any problem? How do you strive to foster a friendly work environment?”
“I hardly see what relevance this line of questioning has to the topic at hoof.”
“I disagree. In fact, it seems to me that your relentless drive for perfection for your business has made your employees afraid to reveal anything potentially that might besmirch the good name of the Cloud Nine Inn. Even if what they know might help a police investigation. The officer mentions that they seemed unnaturally uneasy giving almost any information whatsoever, and that makes me think they must have feared for their employment. Would you disagree with this sentiment?”
“Absolutely. Having an observant and discerning staff is critical to the success of the entire business. I am fully confident that any member of my staff would come to me should they observe anything potentially damaging.”
Twilight flipped through the police report once more, before settling on a particularly satisfactory page. “Let’s talk about that observation. A key section of this report notes that the forensics team sent to your hotel was unable to glean any evidence from the rooms used by the Wonderbolts that night. The linens were changed, and the rooms essentially scrubbed clean.”
“Our cleaning staff is nothing if not thorough.”
“Right. The report also mentions that your staff seemed particularly unforthcoming about this process, and what they might have seen before cleaning. Do you suppose there might be any reason for this?”
The greying pony sat up straighter in his chair. “Look, my hotel caters to a clientele made up of the very wealthy and the very famous—ponies who will pay handsomely for their privacy. As such, neither I, nor any of my employees, are in the business of spreading rumors or creating gossip. I’ve seen it all, high-profile affairs, mistresses, and other untoward behavior. I know enough not to concern myself in these matters, and my employees know not to ask questions. It comes with the business. That’s how you build a reputation for yourself among these ponies, by keeping secrets. I’m sure my cleaning staff has seen plenty evidence of risqué nighttime goings-on. The trick is that they’re not fazed by it. Like I said, it all comes with the business.”
“So, would this culture of secret-keeping spread so far as to potentially cover-up, whether intentionally or not, evidence at a legitimate crime scene?”
The stallion took his time to craft an answer. Twilight could almost see his teeth gnashing behind his calm façade. “No. Not to the best of my knowledge.”
It was all she could do not to break out in a wide grin. She had him right where she wanted. “Mm hm. One final question. When a crime is committed, might your staff be too concerned with keeping secrets to say anything about it? To the police, or even to you?”
A smirk curled its way into the witness’s wiry mouth. “I should think the fact that my staff did not come to me with any such suspicion only casts doubt on such a crime ever having occurred.”
Twilight returned to her table, her face printed with ill-ease. Rainbow Dash caught her eye and offered a weak smile, still trying to ignore the burning sensation of hundreds of sets of eyes fixed on the back of her head. “You… you really had him sweating there.”
Twilight Sparkle sighed. “Yeah. I wish. I think he got the better of that last exchange. I should have stopped before the last question.”
“I think you did fine…” Rainbow Dash paused, something akin to a grin flashing across her features for a brief instant. “For an egghead.”
Twilight beamed, lifted by nothing more than the chance to see something more of the old Rainbow Dash shine through under such unimaginable pressure, even if only for a brief instant. “Well, don’t count your eggheads before they hatch.”
“So what happens now?”
As if in answer to her question, Ink Scroll strode up to the stand, immediately and silently calling all attention to him. “Defense calls Whiskey Sour to the stand.”
From somewhere off in the wings, a dull brown pegasus stallion with a neatly trimmed ruddy orange mane and coarse crop of a rough beard to match stepped up to the witness stand. Beady black eyes regarded the lawyer with a gaze that spoke of careful consideration and a measured confidence.
“You are Mr. Whiskey Sour, of Cloudsdale?”
“O’ course I am.”
“And you are aware that you are under oath; that you must speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
“Aye. I understand.”
“Good. Now, you work as the bartender at Cloudsdale’s Cloud Nine Inn, correct?”
“One of ‘em, yes.”
“And you were working the night in question, were you not?”
“Wonderful. Now, as long as we’re on the subject, I’d like to talk about your boss for a moment. Do you and your colleagues find Mr. Nights to be an approachable pony? Do you feel he fosters an open and honest work environment?”
Without missing a beat, the witness’s eyes found those of the stallion in question in the crowd. He furrowed his brow, remaining silent while he endured the look his boss cast him.
“Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough.” Ink Scroll continued even without receiving an answer. “Do you feel that—say you discovered something potentially harmful to the hotel, evidence of some crime, perhaps—you would be comfortable to approach Mr. Nights with your concerns without fear of termination or other repercussions?”
He was silent again; his gaze shifting from the manager to the lawyer and back again. He kept a gruff indifference about him.
“Please answer the question, Mr. Sour.”
“Mr. Nights is a fair an’ honest stallion, and I trust him.”
“Excellent. Thank you.”
In a way, the bartender appreciated the odd hours and long nights of his job more than most other ponies would. He didn't mind sleeping through most of the day to pick up a shift in the early evening. The night served as a kind of inspiration to him, and from his place behind the bar he could look up through the thin ceiling and see an endless black sky painted overhead. While the days in the pegasus city were bright, noisy and hectic, the nights offered a reprieve, cool, slow, serene, a time for quiet contemplation.
At least, when the bar wasn’t filled with rowdy patrons, and the Wonderbolts were certainly no exception. Whiskey Sour had plenty enough experience dealing with the brash fly-ponies to know just what to expect when Cloudy Nights informed him of having booked the lounge for them. He only hoped they would stumble off in a drunken stupor early enough to allow him at least some peace and quiet.
“Barkeep!” A raucous voice called, sounding like an off-tune instrument shattering the perfect symphony of his quiet night. “Put a round on me to start. We got a lot of celebratin’ to do.”
Whiskey looked up from a glass he had been absently polishing to see the group smartly clad ponies stream in, the one who had called to him from the door heading straight for the bar.
“Hold it, Soarin’.” The big stallion paused as one of his companions came up from behind him, reaching out to roughly slap his back. “I got this round, old friend. This is for all the good years.”
Soarin’ flashed the other a wry smile. “On you, eh Rapidfire? Goin’ out with a bang?”
“Somethin’ like that. Just wanted to thank you crazy featherbrains for the best years of my life.”
“Don’t mention it.” Soarin’ laughed, trotting off to take a seat with the rest of the team. He plopped himself down just next to a rather skittish-looking rainbow-maned pegasus, throwing his foreleg around the mare’s withers and pulling her up against his side. A furious blush broke out on her cheeks. “Just don’t forget this party isn’t just for you, old-timer!”
A chorus of cheers arose from the assembled ponies, though none noticed their captain wince at the noise, taking the opportunity to fall back to one of the booths across the lounge.
Rainbow Dash retreated back to her own chair as Soarin’ finally released her, coughing a few times and trying to hide the growing reddish tint on her face. The older stallion chuckled warmly and thumped her shoulder with a hoof. “Whaddya say then, kiddo?”
“Nothing, I mean… wow. This is just… wow.”
“Struck speechless, eh?” Soarin’ laughed, gesturing to the bartender to get the first round started. “Don’t worry. We’ll see if a few drinks won’t loosen that tongue right up. Let’s get a few beers over here to start!”
As the night and the alcohol poured on, tongues certainly did become looser, and inhibitions lower, and the mare was laughing and joking with the rest of her newfound teammates. The drinks kept coming as the hours slipped away, and she soon found herself leaning up against her neighbor just to keep herself upright.
On Soarin’s other side, Fleetfoot giggled, lightly prodding his shoulder. “Don’t look now, you big lug, but I think you two make a pretty cute couple.”
“Really?” The stallion snickered, his gaze sweeping up and down the cyan mare’s lithe form. “I might jussst have to do somethin’ ‘bout that.” He deftly ran a hoof through the younger mare’s mane, bringing her to stir and look up at him—or at least tried to. It seemed a struggle for her to focus her pupils correctly, and she eventually settled to return a half-glazed stare back up at Soarin’. Soarin’ flashed a drunken grin her way. “I can’t remember if I ever told you… what pretty eyes you have.”
For some reason, she seemed to find this funny to no end, and broke out in a fit of giggles that descended into an inelegant combination of a snort and a few hiccups as she tried to maintain some control. “F-fanks.”
“Tell me shomethin’. Are you… are you feeling the same thing I’m feeling?”
“I don… buh. Wuh—”
He didn’t even let her finish. In the next instant, his muzzle was pressed up against hers. Her eyes flew wide for the briefest of instants, as if a sudden moment of clarity had snapped through her. And then it was gone. Her eyes slid closed, and she just fell into the kiss, her body slumping against his as if no longer under her control.
A drunken cheer rose up around them, and the bartender turned away, focusing his attention back on polishing glasses. And he just shook his head.
“So, let me get this straight,” Twilight Sparkle strode briskly past the witness’s stand, making a concerted effort not to let the impassioned rage nipping at her conscious slip into her speech, “You stood by and watched as the defendant made to kiss Rai—my client, without her having given any sort of consent?”
“I make a point not to involve meself with the affairs o’ hotel guests, but that is what I saw, ma’am.”
“And did you think… at any point, did the thought ever occur to you, to intervene?”
“No. Like I said, it aren’t my job to involve myself with hotel guests. Outside o’ a dangerous situation, I’m just not supposed to.”
“So at no point did you consider this situation dangerous?”
“No disrespect, ma’am, but I work in a bar. That right there, what happened between those two, I’ve seen it a thousand times before, and I’ll see it a thousand times again ‘fore my time’s up. Doesn’t even make me raise an eye anymore, it’s just a part o’ the job.”
“It doesn’t concern you to see a mare, in your own bar no less, inebriated beyond the point of coherence and potentially beyond the point of safety, become the target of a sexual advance against her judgment and will? This doesn’t bother you?”
“I don’t mean to seem callous, ma’am, but it’s just like I said. It weren’t nothing I hadn’t seen before, and nothing I won’t see again.”
“Do you consider it an important part of your profession to prevent customers from making brash decisions while heavily intoxicated?”
“For my job, what I’m supposed to do is serve drinks. Aside from that; I’m supposed to be invisible. That’s what customers expect. O’ course I’ll cut them off if they’ve had too much, but otherwise, I’m not to interfere. What they do is their business.”
Twilight Sparkle fell silent for a few seconds, regarding the gruff, detached stallion with a keen eye. “Are you married, Mr. Sour?”
The stallion paused, considering her with a guarded look. “Divorced, actually.”
“I see. I’m sorry to hear that. How about a family; do you have any children at all?”
Another pause. “I got a daughter. She’s off at University in Manehattan.”
“Right. Now tell me, if you please. What if that had been her? What if your daughter had been at the bar that night? Would you have liked what you saw then?”
“No, ma’am. I can’t say I would.”
“I didn’t think so, Mr. Sour. I don’t think you would have liked it at all.”
Evening fell over the city like a blanket. In another bar, many miles from Cloudsdale but just across the street from Canterlot Courthouse, Twilight Sparkle nursed a gin and tonic and a headache. She had come to the Crowne Tavern in pursuit of salvation, something to wash away the bad taste left behind by the trial’s first day and make her feel somewhat herself again. Half a drink and half an hour had only bought her a raw dose of self-doubt.
What could she have done differently? What should she have pressed harder on? What shouldn’t she have asked? The questions swirled about in her mind, ducking, dancing every which way, impossible to keep track of. She stared down at her drink, absently watching the ripples that scattered across the surface with every little vibration, unable to take a sip.
She knew she probably should have just gone back to the castle, and that her friends were probably wondering where she had gotten to, but she needed to be alone. Somewhere, in the back of her mid, she knew it would be better to get some rest to prepare for the second day of the trial, but she needed to clear her head first.
In another moment, a voice rose up over the din of the bar, right behind her. “Well, I must say. Quite the surprise to see you here.” Twilight groaned, immediately recognizing it without even turning around.
The mare propped her head against with a hoof as Ink Scroll occupied the seat next to her. “The feeling is mutual.”
“Oh, no. I’m here after every case of mine. This old place is my favorite spot to unwind after a long day.” He glanced down the bar, “Speaking of which—Oi, Blue!” he called, catching the burly bartender’s eye. “I’ll have the usual. And a second of whatever she’s having, on me.”
Twilight winced. “Oh, please. Don’t even bother.”
“Come now,” the lawyer chuckled. “I’m just trying to be sociable. I fear we may have gotten off on the wrong hoof earlier.”
“And whatever gave you that impression?”
He smirked. “Beats me. I thought I was a pretty likeable guy.” Twilight shot a frown at him, and the stallion’s grin faded. He paused for a second as the drinks were delivered, looking pensive. Then he sighed. “Can I be serious with you here, for just a moment, would you listen?”
“It might be a nice change of pace.”
“Ok, look. I don’t really know what idea you have of me, but I meant what I said the other day. I’m really not a bad guy.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Do tell.”
“Honestly. It may seem strange, but this…” he gestured to himself, “All of this; the fancy suit, the jokes, the strutting around the courtroom like I own the place, it’s all for the jury’s sake. It’s a part of the job, nothing more.”
“Why do I find that so hard to believe?”
“Believe it or don’t, all I’m saying is it’s just a job.”
“Do you like what you do? You know, the representing criminals and liars, the ruining ponies’ lives?”
“You have a sharp tongue, Miss Sparkle. Don’t look now, but you might make a better lawyer than you might think.” He chuckled briefly, “In all seriousness, though. I was impressed today. You’re doing remarkably well, especially for a rookie.”
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
He shrugged. “It pays the bills. But there’s a certain sense of justice to it, too. That’s what I like most. A lot of your ‘criminals and liars’ get pre-judged by the court of public opinion before they even get a fair trial. It’s nice to now that they have somepony to turn to who can help make their story heard and stand with them. I like being that pony.”
“Even though sometimes they really are just criminals?”
“I’ve been wrong a few times. But I’m right more often than that.”
“Not this time.”
“Let me ask you a question, Miss Sparkle.” He countered, stroking his chin in thought. “Do you really, truly, find it so impossible, so inconceivable, that my client could in fact be the innocent victim of a misunderstanding?”
“You didn’t see Rainbow Dash when she came home that night. You couldn’t possibly understand her pain. He’s absolutely guilty.”
“See, I’m not saying that you, or your friend, are lying, but don’t you think there is a possibility this whole situation could have been misinterpreted? We know they both got fairly drunk, so let’s say something happens that she regrets. But, maybe through a hazy memory or intense shame, she chalks the incident up as a rape, and my client gets unfairly blamed. I’ve seen it happen before.”
“No. Not Rainbow Dash. You don’t even know her! How could you possibly try to say that…”
The lawyer held up his hooves. “Easy. All I’m saying is there’s enough grey area for me to argue reasonable doubt, and I think, in the end, the jury will agree.”
“For her sake I hope you’re wrong.”
“Well then, a toast.” He raised his glass; Twilight made no move to reciprocate. He shrugged, “May justice prevail.” In one fluid motion, he tossed his drink back, smacking his lips as he did so. “I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow, Miss Sparkle.”
She waited until the sound of him leaving faded away behind her, and then the faint ringing of a bell signaled his exit. She let out a deep sigh, letting her head fall so her chin rested upon the smooth, polished mahogany surface. For a long while, she stared at the pair of glasses sitting before her, one half emptied, the other full. Finally, she nudged them aside. They wouldn’t have done her any good anyway.