Sweetie Belle and the rest of the Cutie Mark Crusaders were walking through one of Ponyville’s alleyways, just west of the housing district and a stone’s throw away from the market square. The rain had cleared up a few hours into the afternoon, and by half-past three the clouds had given-way to Celestia’s sunshine. All of Ponyville was lit by the day’s first rays of sunshine, although the town’s Weather Team was already corralling clouds for another storm scheduled for the wee hours of the night; so the sun shone through a thin layer of grey like a stained glass window.
“So what did you girls do with your day off?” Scootaloo asked as the group passed under an archway between two buildings. “I got a letter from Rainbow Dash so I spent the entire morning thinking of what to write back!”
“Ah just spent the whole day doin’ chores,” Applebloom said with a hint of defeat. “Applejack said ‘since you don’t have to go to school today it’d be the perfect day to wash the hogs’... I still have a little bit’a mud in my mane.”
Scootaloo laughed, creating a look of irritation on Applebloom's face. “What about you, Sweetie Belle?”
“I just took care of the Cake Twins all morning while Rarity and Pinkie Pie visited Twilight down at Ponyville Hospital” Sweetie Belle said, kicking a pebble. “You’d be surprised how cranky Pound Cake can get if you don’t make his lunch just right.”
Scootaloo and Applebloom stopped in their tracks, surprised.
“What’d’yall mean?” Applebloom asked after sharing a confused look with Scootaloo.
“Well Pound Cake gets really upset if you don’t make his food exactly the way he likes it.” Sweetie Belle said, stopping a few feet ahead of her friends “If the temperature or ingredients are off by even just a little bit he starts crying and pounding on everything… I don't even know how he can tell the difference, he’s just a foal.”
“No, no no.” Applebloom said, shaking her head. “About tha’ other part.”
“About Twilight being in the hospital!” Scootaloo added.
“oh right, that.” Sweetie Belle blushed from embarrassment. “The thing is, I don’t know what happened. Rarity just woke me up and said I had to watch the Twins for a few hours while they went to see Twilight.”
“Well did she tell you why she was in the hospital?” Scootaloo asked impatiently. “Anything at all? What about Pinkie Pie?”
“No nothing,” Sweetie Belle said. “All they told me was how to look after the Twins. What food they like to eat, when to change them, when to put them down for a nap. Those kinds of things.”
“What about when they got back?” Scootaloo said, no longer hiding her brusqueness. “They had to’ve told you something!”
“Scootaloo.” Applebloom said shooting scootaloo a not-so-enthused glance before turning to Sweetie Belle “I’m sure what Scootaloo meant to ask was,” Applebloom said returning the glance again back to Scootaloo. “Did Twilight or Pinkie Pie give you any explanation why Twilight was in the hospital? Maybe Twilight had hay fever or sprained her hoof or somethin’?”
“Hey, that’s exactly what I asked!” Scootaloo argued. “I just didn’t beat around the bush.”
“Nopony told me why Twilight was in the hospital.” Sweetie Belle said matter-of-factly. “I don’t think anypony was supposed to know. Rarity told me not to tell anypony. Not even you girls.”
“Why aren’t ponies supposed to know she’s in the hospital?” Scootaloo asked despite the glares she was getting from Applebloom. “Doesn’t Twilight want visitors? She’s like the friendliest pony in Ponyville, you would think everypony in town would want to wish her better.”
“I don’t know, but you can’t tell anypony, Scootaloo.” Sweetie Belle said with a sense of real panic. “Rarity’s very upset today and she’s going to ground me if she knows I told somepony.”
“I remember I was in the hospital once for a broken wing,” Scootaloo started rambling. “And nopony came to visit me. It was like the loneliest thing ever!”
“You fell off your scooter at recess” Applebloom cut in, determined to get Scootaloo to take things seriously. “You only lost a few feathers. And you weren’t even in the hospital, it was the school nurse.”
“Still, nopony visited me.”
“Still” Applebloom reiterated the seriousness of the conversation they were having. “You’re upsetting Sweetie Belle, you have to promise not to tell anypony that Twilight’s in the hospital.”
“Please.” Sweetie Belle said desperately.
“Oh fine.” Scootaloo rolled her eyes. “I was just trying to have a little fun. I promise I won’t tell anypony Twilight’s in the hospital” She emphasized her promise with a slight sarcasm to her tone.
“And ah promise too.” Applebloom said. “Now ya’ll don’t have to worry about getting grounded. What say y’all that we change the subject now?”
Applebloom lead the group into a pathway between buildings and down a flight of stairs to a small garden area and the three of them sat down on one of the benches. Applebloom and Sweetie Belle began to small-talk about school and other boring things that Scootaloo didn’t care about, so the orange filly threw her hoof over the back of the bench and looked around the garden.
The garden itself was in fact just a small square courtyard created by the junction of three different houses that somepony had planted a tree in. But over the years the tree had shot up well above the rooves of the houses so somepony else decided to build a garden around it, planting flowers and shrubs and paving the dirt so it connected to the rest of the town; creating one of the most popular shortcuts from the housing district into the market square.
When Scootaloo finally got tired of listening to the wind, the birds, and the handful of ponies chatting at each other from their balconies above the garden, she finally decided to inject herself into whatever boring conversation Sweetie Belle and Applebloom had been having the whole time.
“Hey girls. I wanted to throw a party for Rainbow Dash when she comes back from the Wonderbolts tonight, do you think Pinkie Pie would be able put a party together this soon?”
“I don’t think Pinkie Pie is in the partying mood right now.” Sweetie Belle said. “She came home crying after she got back from the hospital earlier today. She didn’t say why or even let me finish feeding Pound Cake his lunch, she just pushed me to the door and said I had to leave.”
“That’s awful strange of Pinkie to do that.” Applebloom said. “Something bad must’a happened at the hospital.”
“Or something bad must’ve happened to Pinkie.” Scootaloo added. “Did you try asking Rarity what happened.”
“Now don’t go startin; this again, Scootaloo” Applebloom interjected. “Ah told you before Sweetie Belle’s too upset to want to talk about this stuff so would ya stop-”
“No it’s ok, I want to talk about it” Sweetie Belle interrupted this time. “Rarity was really angry when I came home. She locked me out of the house and told me not to come back until dinner. She said ‘your sister needs some time alone.’”
“So that’s why you were just wandering around Ponyville when we found you earlier.”
Applebloom just put her head in her hooves, defeated.
“She’s been getting upset a lot recently, “Sweetie belle said dispiritedly. “and at the littlest things too. Just a few days ago we went out for dinner at Mane Event and she yelled at the waiter because her salad had croutons in it. Croutons!”
For a moment, nopony said anything, unable to think of what to say next.
“I just don’t know what she’s so upset about” Sweetie Belle finally said, wistfully drawing in the dirt with one of her hooves. “I’m trying my best not to make her angry. I help her with her dresses, I go and run her errands… She doesn’t think I’m a bad sister, does she?”
“a’course not.” Applebloom said. “You an’ me both know she doesn’t think you’re a bad sister.”
“But she’s yelling at me about everything!” Sweetie Belle threw her hooves out and began to parrot her sister. “You only have two more months to figure out fractions. Take the plates to the sink when you’re done using them. These emeralds you bought are cabochon cut, everypony knows gown-jewels need to be faceted.”
Sweetie Belle gave one of Rarity’s famous huffs and slumped back into the bench.
“I”m just tired of being yelled at.”
“Ah come on, everypony knows fractions are hard. “Applebloom said trying to be supportive. “but… ah, I’m sure she doesn’t mean to yell at you. And besides, isn’t she like super busy ‘round this time a’year? Ah’ know Applejack has to work the cider-presses almost non-stop just to keep up with all tha cider orders that come in around this time.”
“She does have a lot of orders.” Sweetie bell said. “She’s also been working round the clock too. She even worked past the time she sets aside just to spend time with me. I wanted to take her to the park and show her-”
Scootaloo lost interest in the conversation again and began to fidget. She started tapping her horseshoes on the cobblestones to the tune of the Wonderbolts Theme, but somewhere between the third and fourth measure she found herself becoming more interested in the conversations other ponies were having as they passed the fillies by on their way into the market.
At first it was just idle conversation. What this pony was going to buy in the market, what this other pony did on her vacation in Las Pegasus, how Twinkleshine was in a love-triangle with three other mares. Nothing too interesting, at least not for a filly as inattentive as Scootaloo. But it wasn’t long before the local chatter got more and more suspicious:
“Do you think it has anything to do with what’s been going on lately?”
“It can’t be because of her, can it? I thought she was gone for good...”
“I heard she was found in the alley, trying to sneak into town…”
“From the neck down! I heard she won’t be able to move…”
“First Honey Drop, now Twilight? I thought we were safe from her...”
“What the hay is going on?!” Scootaloo shouted at her friends, interrupting a conversation they were having about the Crystal Empire.
“Huh? What?” Applebloom and Sweetie Belle both said in unison.
“Something happened last night, and nopony wants to tell us what.” Scootaloo said jumping up from the bench, unable to contain her impatient energy any longer. “But somehow everypony else seems to have their own version of what’s going on!.”
“Scootaloo does have a point” Applebloom said. “But what if it’s something really bad?”
“Something we’re not supposed to know about?” Sweetie Belle reiterated.
“Not supposed to know?” Scootaloo dashed up and grabbed Sweetie Belle by the shoulders. “Sweetie Belle, half of Ponyville seems to know what’s going on. A whole bunch of ponies just walked into the town square talking about it!”
“Well I’m tired of sitting around not knowing.” Scootaloo said letting go of Sweetie Bell before dashing off towards the Town Square. “I say we find out what’s going on.”
The intermittent rain and sunshine made the air crisp and sweet like an apple, and each breath gave a renewed vigor to the townsfolk who were trying to squeeze in another market day before the next storm.
Vendors at food stalls crowded the town square, selling loaves of bread and fresh fruits, or vegetables cooking on roasting skewers. Lovers and good friends trotted side by side, casually browsing between the stalls and the cacophony of new deals being heckled at them whilst housewives haggled over turnips, swede, fat carrots and bunches of cilantro.
Scootaloo galloped into the market and paused for a moment to catch her breath in the middle of the throngs of ponies milling about.
“Scootaloo!” Applebloom called out once she and Sweetie Belle finally had a chance to catch up. “Now what’r’ya thinking running off like that? What’r’ya plannin’ to do?”
“I’m planning to find out why none of the adults are telling us anything,” Scootaloo said between breaths.” what happened to Twilight.”
“We’re not supposed to know, Scootaloo.” Sweetie Belle wailed out, practically on the verge of tears. “Rarity said we’re not supposed to know, and I don’t want her to yell at me again.”
“Aren’t you tired of being treated like a foal?” Scootaloo asked, getting jostled by the river of market ponies as they pushed past her. “Arent you tired of the grown ups telling you what to do?”
“We are foals” Applebloom said as she guided Scootaloo away from almost being run over by a distracted stallion pulling a vegetable cart. “For Pony’s sake we’re not even in the 5th grade yet.”
“But you can still run the farm when Applejack isn’t home.” Scootaloo said derisively.
“An what’s that supposed to mean?” Applebloom replied hotly, starting to lose her own patience.
“It’s supposed to me that we may still be foals but we’re old enough to have responsibilities of our own.” Scootaloo said, taking a step back from the yellow filly pressing a muzzle into hers. “We should be able to know what’s going on. We’re too old to be told we’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“Well what do you plan to do, Scootaloo?” Applebloom’s temper started to rise. “Just walk up to every pony you can and ask ‘Why’s Twilight in the Hospital?’? It doesn’t work like that. If we weren't told and they were, then it’s probably for a good reason.”
“Good reason or not.” Scootaloo said in a calmer tone, trying to diffuse her friend’s vexation. “I still want to find out what’s-”
“I don’t!” Sweetie Belle burst out, tears of fear, frustration, and confusion running down her cheeks. “I don’t want to know anything about what’s going on. Not about Twilight. Not about why everypony knows, or why Scootaloo cares so much about it. I’m not getting Rarity mad. I’m not getting yelled at again!”
Before Scootaloo could think of something to say, Sweetie Belle ran crying, headlong into the throws of the market crowd.
“Now look what you went and did” Applebloom scolded. “Ah’ told you to drop it for this very reason” and with a quick about-face Applebloom took off after Sweetie Belle.
Scootaloo sighed, buffeted slightly by the fact that she managed to upset both of her friends. But she was not dissuaded. She took a long breath. Primed by the crisp, pre-autumn breeze, and set out with a renewed determination to discover what the whole town was chattering about. But like a candle in that same pre-autumn breeze, her determination was quickly extinguished when she realized there was really no way to go about getting the information she needed.
She couldn’t ask Rarity and Pinkie Pie because, like Sweetie Belle said, they were far too upset. Twilight was obviously a no-go since she was in the hospital miles away. Rainbow Dash wouldn’t be back for a few hours, and even then she’d be as clueless as Scootaloo was. She had no idea where Fluttershy was, so the only other adult Scootaloo knew would be in town was Applejack.
A flicker of inspiration flashed through Scootaloo’s mind. Applejack has to know what’s going on. She’s been working the market all morning, and with this many ponies talking about Twilight she’d have to have heard something. And what a bit of serendipity too since Scootaloo didn’t have to go too far. Just a few quick gallops and a shortcut through the alfalfa stand before arriving within earshot of Applejack’s stall and her trademarked countryisms.
“Apples, git yet apples here!” Applejack called across the marketplace “We got all kinds! Granny Smith, Big Macintosh, Braeburn, Golden Delicious. And I don’t just mean my family!” Applejack added with a flourish and one of her famous yee-haws. “Oh hey there Scootaloo, what can ah’ do ya for? You hungry for some apples?”
“Hey Applejack.” Scootaloo greeted the orange earth-pony. “Sorry no, I didn’t come here to buy any apples.”
“Lookin’ for Applebloom then.” Applejack said, tipping the brim of her cow-pony hat to shield her eyes from the sun. “I would’a reckoned she would’ve already been with you by now. Y’all three are tighter than an oyster in a riptide!”
“I was with Applebloom earlier.” Scootaloo smiled slightly in hopes to hide her embarrassment, but it came out mousy and insincere. “We had a fight and well… That’s actually kinda why I’m here.”
“Aww shucks. if I know you three you’ll be made-up and back to playin’ with each other before sundown” Applejack jack said, looking away once to accept some bits from a stallion buying a bushel of apples. “What’d you youngin’s fight about anyway? Applebloom hog the swingset? Sweetie Belle eat the last cupcake at Sugarcube Corner?”
Applejack was speaking in earnest, in the same way an uncle or another elder would would speak before tussling hair. Scootaloo knew Applejack didn’t mean to patronize her, at most is was good-natured teasing, but because Scootaloo had actual fights about that stuff, Scootaloo couldn't help the flush of embarrassment from washing over her face.
“We were fighting about Twilight.” Scootaloo said sheepishly. “You wouldn’t happen to know why she’s in the hospital, would you?”
Applejack cocked her head to the side. “Hospital? Ah’ head she was doing just fine. Now where’d y’all hear such a rumor like that?”
“It’s… all over the town?” Scootaloo said confused. “You really haven’t heard anything about it? I heard two mares talking about her on my gallop over here.”
“Ah’ haven’t heard a thing.” Applejack bit her lip. “Maybe it was another mare.”
“It was definitely Twilight. I heard her name mentioned at least four times.” Scootaloo said positively. “Sweetie Belle said she heard it from Rarity. Did Rarity tell you anything?”
“Ah’ haven’t heard anything from Rarity either.” Applejack stood very still. “Ah’ve been working the Apple stand since the market opened and Ah’ haven’t seen hide nor hair of Rarity since last Tuesday.”
The was a slight gloom of tension to their conversation, despite the jovial market scene. Scootaloo couldn’t exactly pinpoint what it was, but attributed it most likely to the nature of the conversation they were having. Scootaloo got thoughtful for a moment, rubbing a hoof to her chin.
“Well do you know anything about mare called Dashie?” Scootaloo finally asked. Applejack’s eyes widened.
“Where’d y’all hear that name?” Applejack said, moving her straw-yellow hair out of her eyes despite not making eye-contact with Scootaloo.
“Sweetie Belle saw a pony going by that name being attacked by the antique shop a yesterdat and things have been pretty weird since then. Do you know her?”
“Do I know here?” Applejack shook her head a little too eagerly. “Only Dashie ah know is Rainbow Dash, and she ain’t to partial to that nickname neither.“
“But Rainbow Dash has been out of town for almost two weeks now, and this mare was attacked only yesterday” Scootaloo said, running a hoof through her hair. “They have to be different ponies, don’t you think?”
“Ah’ don’t think” Applejack said, her voice becoming shallow, almost as if she were out of breath. “Ah’ don’t think so at all.”
“Well I think so” Scootaloo said. “There’s no other way for it to make sense. They have to be different ponies… Do you think it could be somepony related to Rainbow Dash?”
“Sorry Scootaloo” Applejack said, pointing past the filly. “Ah’d love t’ chat but I’ve got customers to take care of. Yes sir we do have green apples!”
“But there’s… Nopony there” Scootaloo said, turning around to see the crowd thinned down dramatically for the lunch-time lull. Turning back, Applejack refused to meet her gaze. “Yes sir, two bits for a bushel!”
Scootaloo tried to stay and talk to Applejack, and maybe find out some more information but eventually left when she realized she was being deliberately ignored. As she walked through the market, she spotted her friends again sitting at a table on the outside patio of the milkshake shop.
“How did you search go?” Applebloom asked flippantly before taking a sip of her milkshake. “Find out everything you wanted to know?”
“No, I didn’t.” Scootaloo said defeated, hesitating to join the two at the table since Sweetie Belle was still clearly upset. She had her head in her hooves and looked like she hadn’t even touched her milkshake. Even the little cookie was still on the straw and that’s like everypony’s favorite thing to eat first. “You were right, I couldn’t really ask anypony. The only one I could talk to was Applejack and she was acting all weird about it.”
“Weird?” Applebloom asked in the middle of drinking. “What d’y’all mean? Weird how?”
Scootaloo was part way through her retelling of her conversation with Applejack when Applebloom suddenly burst out.
“Lying?” Scootaloo asked her to explain.
“She always doe the same thing when she lies.” Applebloom stated factually. “Turns her head up, bites her lip, and if you keep pestering her she’ll just ignore you entirely. She does it all the time when I try to tell her I’m old enough to stay at home by myself.”
Applebloom saw a smug little smile forming on Scootaloo’s face at the utterance of her last sentence and refused to let the orange filly use it as proof she was right. Instead, the three departed from the milkshake shop, deciding to walk Sweetie Belle home since she was far too upset; she had even given her entire milkshake to the bus-pony to throw away while they were talking about Applejack.
“This is awful strange” Applebloom said as the fillies walked. “Applejack hardly ever tells a lie.”
“I told you.” Scootaloo said, pleased with herself.
“Ah just don’t understand it. “Applebloom said with the same run-away curiosity Scootaloo was showing earlier “She’s the element of Honesty for pony’s sake!”
“Do you really think she was lying?” Scootaloo asked as the filles trotted back into the housing district. “She didn’t seem like she was lying to me, but you’re her sister so you’d know better than anypony.”
“She knows something, I know that much.” Applebloom said, checking behind her to make sure Sweetie Belle was still walking with them. “It’s not in her nature to lie, so if she is then something really bad must be happening.”
“Something bad is happening” Sweetie Belle said. Applebloom and Scootaloo both looked back to see Sweetie Belle pointing to a sign they had just walked past.It was on of Rarity’s signs, the ones she had plastered all over town advertising her autumn sale, except they had been painted over with a new message.
“Meeting tonight at the Town hall. 9 pm after you’ve put your foals to bed.”
Nearly all the signs had been replaced by the time the three fillies had found them.
“This is the busiest time of the year for Rarity.” Sweetie belle said as if the last piece of a puzzle finally fit together inside her head. “She puts these signs out every year to get as many orders as she can.”
Sweetie belle turned to her friends. “This explains everything. “The mare in the alley, Rarity’s anger-”
“The whole town being in on it but refusing to tell us anything” Scootaloo said, picking up on Sweetie Belle’s train of thought.
“Applejack’s lying.” Applebloom added.
“-And now Rarity’s signs.” Sweetie Belle said. “It has to be something really bad if Rarity would sacrifice her advertisements for it.”
“There’s no doubt there’ something the grown up aren’t telling us.” Scootaloo said. “I don’t know about you girls but I really want to know what it is.”
Scootaloo proposed that the three of them sneak out once the adults leave for the meeting and stake-out outside the town hall. Applebloom was finally on board and agreed immediately.
“What about you, Sweetie Belle?” The two turned to the unicorn.
“Well…” Sweetie Belle said reluctantly, but her curiosity was getting to her as well. “Just as long as Rarity doesn’t find out.”