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.”