“You’re lucky Princess Twilight Sparkle and Captain Shining Armor were here to save your sorry skin, but next time, don’t expect to get off so easily.” a guard clad in armor said.
With an angry scowl, Big Mac shot the sergeant an evil glare, causing the guard to take a few steps back as his subordinates unshackled the chains around Big Mac’s hooves. Twilight stood off to one side with her older brother, shaking her head in disbelief; she had returned to the castle and saw that her brother Shining Armor had just arrived, but while she was asking for his assistance in finding Starshadow while inquiring about Polaris, they both heard that a scuffle had broken out over somepony trying to break into the Star family estate just up the road. To Twilight’s horror she saw that it was indeed the very pony who she thought it was, and despite five guards trying to subdue him, Big Mac still tried to break down the main gate to the home. It was only when Shining Armor was forced to intervene that they able to restrain the angry stallion. The sergeant wanted to prosecute Big Macintosh to the fullest extent of the law, but Shining Armor and Twilight managed to persuade the angry guard otherwise.
Once Big Mac had rejoined the small group, Shining was pulled aside by the sergeant. The two stallions spoke in hushed but tense tones to each other, and when Shining Armor was finally finished he delivered some bad news for everypony; the sergeant would negate the incident from his duty log, but in return Big Mac, Octavia, Nightshade, and even Twilight would have to immediately leave Canterlot and not return for at least a week.
Of course this raised an outcry from Big Mac and Octavia, and even Shining Armor expressed his concern over such an order, but despite their protests Twilight agreed to the demands, and within the hour she said goodbye to her brother and boarded the train back to Ponyville with the three others.
The train ride back home was very much like the trip to Canterlot; all four ponies sat in silence as the Equestria scenery blurred by through the window. The silence was only broken when Big Mac abruptly slammed his hoof against his seat in frustration and anger before storming out of the carriage and locking himself in the bathroom. Octavia started to get up to check on him, but she sat back down when Twilight shook her head no. “Leave him be.” she said.
Big Mac returned after almost an hour, his reddened eyes proving that he had broken down and cried but didn’t want anypony else to see him at his weakest. In a surprising show of compassion, Nightshade patted his back once he sat back down in his seat, and he gave her a small smile as thanks.
By the time the train pulled up to the Ponyville Station the sun had been lowered and Luna’s moon now dominated the sky. As the four ponies disembarked the train, they were surprised to see Applejack storming uneasily towards the train, despite Rarity trying her hardest to use her magic to stop her.
“Gosh darnit, Rarity, ah don’ wanna have ta’ buck ya straight back ‘cross town! Lemme go!” Applejack said as she continued to move forward.
Rarity had Applejack’s tail surrounded in her aura, but despite her magic as well as physically trying to pull AJ back home, the determined earth mare kept walking forward almost as if Rarity wasn’t there at all. It was only when she saw that Big Macintosh and the others had returned did Applejack finally stop, finally giving Rarity a chance to rest. AJ had a smile on her face as she assumed that they had found Starshadow, but her smile quickly dissipated when she saw that not only was Starshadow still absent, but her brother was covered in some nasty bruises.
“What’n the hay happened to ya?” she exclaimed, breaking completely free of Rarity and running up to her brother. Big Mac winced as she touched him, his body still aching from the beating he took a few hours ago.
“Applejack, what are you doing here? You should still be rest-” Twilight started to say, but the hate filled glare Applejack shot her instantly shut her up.
“Rest? Rest?! How can ya expect me ta rest when Starshadow’s still missing? An’ look at Big Mac, he’s been bruised more than an apple that got run over by a stampede.” she said angrily.
Twilight drooped her ears in guilt. “Look, Applejack, you really should still be in bed resting. Come on, let’s get you and Big Mac back home...”
As Twilight tried to place a hoof on Applejack’s shoulder, AJ slapped her hoof away and took a few steps back. “Don’ try ta pull that trick on me again!” she snapped. “Ah already fell for it once, restin’ in bed while everypony else goes out to look but gives up!”
Rarity looked hurt by Applejack’s accusation. “Twilight, you have to believe me. We had everypony in Ponyville out looking for Starshadow. Rainbow Dash even managed to get a dozen weather ponies who were working nearby to come help out. We looked everywhere two, three times... you have to believe us, Starshadow isn’t here.”
Twilight nodded in understanding, but Applejack wasn’t as easily accepting. “So ya’ll are jus’ gonna give up like that?” she said accusingly. “Ya’ll are jus’ gonna accept that she’s gone an’ ferget about her?”
“Applejack! We would never!” Rarity strongly said in response. “There wasn’t a single rock left unturned by the time everpony finished looking for her here! I want her found safe and sound just as much as you darling, but this is out of our hooves now. She’s no longer here, and there’s no way we can all drop everything and start searching all of Equestria! We’ve informed the guards and they’re going to spread the word and do what they can. Rainbow Dash has even managed to inform all the weather ponies to keep an eye out! What else can we do?”
Applejack was at a loss for words. Deep down she knew that her friend was right; every pony in town had gone above and beyond in the search for Starshadow. All the shops remained closed and all non-essential services were suspended as every available pony put their lives on hold and helped in the search. Even Zecora joined in, leading a group of ponies brave enough to accompany her into the Everfree Forest. Only when the sun was lowered was the search finally called off, and though most of the ponies volunteered to help the next morning it was clear that Starshadow was no longer anywhere near Ponyville. However, her own stubbornness wouldn’t allow her to accept the fact that the trail had gone cold.
“No... no! Ya’ll are wrong, she is here! She’s gotta be!” Applejack cried out hysterically. “Big Mac, ya’ll know what Ah mean! C’mon, brother, we don’ need these sticks in tha mud.”
Having had the entire train ride back home to think, the red stallion was able to clear his head and was almost level headed. He walked forward and embraced his sister, holding her while she broke down in his hooves. However, she did not expect to hear the words that came out of his mouth; “AJ, they’re right, sis. She ain’t here.”
Applejack’s eyes went wide and she pushed her older brother away from her. “What’n... what are ya talkin’ about?! How could... how could ya say such a thing? This is yer special somepony we’re talkin’ about!” she said horrified.
Big Mac could only look down at the ground as he fought back the tears gathering in his eyes. “Don’ make this harder for me.” he said. “We got no leads in Canterlot, an’ if nothing has been found here, then...”
Though his voice trailed off everypony knew what he was implying. Stuck in her stubbornness, Applejack shook her head, refusing to give in so easily.
“No! No no no! Ya’ll are wrong!” she shouted, turning and running off back towards Sweet Apple Acres. The others looked worriedly at Big Mac, waiting to see how he would react, but he was too tired to chase after her. All he could do was sigh wearily and start the lonely walk home.
“Nightshade, can you escort Big Mac back home and make sure everything is okay there?” Twilight asked her bodyguard.
Nightshade nodded obediently, but went off grumbling about leaving if she even saw Apple Bloom or any of her friends. The others all bid each other goodnight and went their separate ways, all of them depressed that they had made no progress. Twilight filled Rarity in on what happened on their trip to Canterlot and that their only lead was pretty much a dead end, but she wasn’t about to give up and she would be researching Polaris’s background first thing in the morning before helping resume the search with everypony in town.
Rarity coughed nervously before speaking up. “Listen, Twilight, finding Starshadow is absolutely a top priority, but asking everypony to keep Ponyville shut down until we find her is impossible. These ponies need to make a living. Anypony that can help will gladly do so, but it won’t be nearly as many as we had today,”
Twilight nodded in understanding. “Alright, we’ll make do with however many volunteers we have. You and Pinkie can head the search in town while Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy search the surrounding area from the air, and Applejack and I can...”
Rarity let out a polite cough before Twilight could finish laying out her plan. “Actually darling, I’m afraid Rainbow Dash and I won’t be able to help.” she said regrettably. “You see, Sapphire Shores and her group need some of their performance outfits touched up, so I have to leave for Canterlot in the morning. And Rainbow Dash received notice that her boss is taking an extended vacation, so she has to leave tomorrow morning to head back to Cloudsdale to help manage the Weather Factory while he’s gone.”
Twilight could only nod as she felt her heart sink slightly. Rarity immediately picked up on the look of disappointment on her face, though. “Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean we still won’t be of assistance. Since I’ll be in Canterlot I’ll see if I can dig up anything on this Polaris character, and with Rainbow Dash in the central hub she can reach out to almost all of Equestria with her weather teams.”
Twilight put on a half-hearted smile. “Yeah.” she managed to say. Both mares bid each other goodnight and parted ways, Rarity headed back to her boutique to pack for the morning while Twilight went back to her library. Once she closed her front door behind her, she felt a sudden tiredness envelope her entire body, the long day having finally caught up to her.
Seeing his best friend finally home, Spike ran up to Twilight to ask her about her trip to Canterlot, but upon seeing her tired face he knew exactly how it went. “I’m going to bed, Spike.” Twilight simply said. Spike nodded and decided not to ask any more questions; she was clearly not in the mood to talk.
“Ugh, this is so stupid. Whoever heard of somepony starting work at seven in the morning?” Rainbow Dash griped.
Though the weather factory was already a hive of activity, Rainbow was not quite her energetic self just yet. She had woken up hours before normal, and despite the long flight to the pegasus exclusive city the rainbow mare was still half asleep as she walked in to the sprawling factory with hundreds of ponies already at work. Weather team leaders were grouped around massive charts and maps of the entire country while ponies wearing lab coats ran back and forth between different offices and control panels to create the clouds they needed for the day. A few ponies waved and said hello to Rainbow Dash as she made her way to the conference room where the other sector managers were gathered. As she entered the room, the five other managers sighed impatiently, having been waiting for her for almost thirty minutes.
“It’s about time, Rainbow Dash. What took you so long?” one of them asked her, tapping his hoof on the table.
“Sorry, sorry... I had to fly in all the way from Ponyville, you know.” she said.
Ignoring her excuses, the pony looked back down at the list of duties in front of him. “Ahem, yes, well... on to business. As you all know, Cirro Stratus had to take a sudden leave of absence for a week or two, so while he’s gone we’ll divide his work load among us. First off, there’s the matter of...”
Rainbow Dash yawned and closed her eyes as she leaned back in her chair. If there was one thing she hated more than waking up early, it was sitting in useless meetings and listening to somepony else droll on and on about work. She’d much rather be flying in the air, spreading her wings and feeling the wind blow through her mane and tail. Smiling at the thought, she planned on getting a nice hot cup of hot chocolate back at Sugar Cube Corner before taking to the skies again to oversee the work being done over central Equestria. She loved her job; she was given free rein to travel anywhere she wished in her assigned area, and as long as the correct weather for the day was completed she didn’t have to make any reports.
“Ah, Rainbow Dash, thank you for volunteering.”
Dash’s eyes snapped open as she heard her name, and as she tried to figure out what was going on she saw everypony getting up from the table. “Huh? Oh, we’re done? About time.” she said, jumping up and stretching her wings. “Well, see ya.”
“Woah, hold on. You volunteered to answer calls in Cirro’s office today.” one of the male pegasi said.
“What? No I didn’t!” Dash objected.
One of the other mares rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you did. We asked if anypony didn’t want to go on their normal routes today and help answer phone calls. You’re the only one who didn’t raise their hoof.”
Dash was horrified. “But... But...” she stammered, but the others all ignored her. “But I don’t wanna!”
Her pleas fell on deaf ears, and with an angry huff she knew that her nodding off had just cost her. “Fine.” she sulked, taking her time to walk down the hall to the executive office while her five coworkers all flew off into the morning sky, dispersing as they each headed to their respective areas.
As Rainbow Dash made her way to the office labeled “CEO: Cirro Stratus”, she showed no signs of awe or appreciation for the highly decorated reception area. A miniature rainbow waterfall adorned the left wall while a massive map of Equestria was hung on the opposite wall. Straight across from where Rainbow Dash stood was the secretary’s desk, next to that the door leading to Cirro Stratus’s office.
The mare sitting at the secretary’s desk looked up and smiled as Rainbow. “Oh, are you the pony filling in for Mr. Stratus?” she asked.
Rainbow sighed and nodded, walking towards her temporary office. “Don’t bother me with anything.” she said grumpily, still extremely unhappy about being grounded due to her sleepiness. Before the pony at the desk could respond, Rainbow Dash slammed the office door shut and sat down at Cirro’s desk and went to sleep.
An hour later, Rainbow Dash reawakened, finally feeling refreshed and energized. Looking at her surroundings, she recognized her boss’s office; the grand furniture, the expensive paintings, the air of importance. It was inside knowledge that Cirro had his desk and chair raised as to intimidate anypony he was speaking to in his office.
Feeling a bit sorry for snapping at the secretary earlier, Dash poked her head back out into the reception area and saw the orange and red pegasus mare hard at work. “Hey, um... sorry about earlier. Didn’t get much sleep last night, you know... I’m Rainbow Dash.”
The mare looked up at Rainbow’s extended hoof and offered hers in return. “I’m Sunset Flash.” the secretary replied with a smile.
“So, how long have you worked for Cirro?” Dash asked.
Sunset looked off into space as she thought. “Um, a little over two years, I think. It’s kind of hard to remember with all the moving around I’ve done.”
“Heh, can’t stand being in one place for too long? I know how that feels.” Dash said.
Sunset’s face turned slightly red. “Yeah, um... y-yeah, that’s why.” she said hesitantly.
Rainbow Dash looked closer at Sunset’s workspace and noticed the lack of personalization that most other pegasi placed in their workspace; no pictures of family, no good luck charms, no personal appointments on her desk calendar. “So did you work as a cloud-hoof somewhere before you got this gig? I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”
Sunset Flash shook her head no. “No, Mr. Stratus offered me this position when his last secretary left. Before this I worked as a, um, waitress back in San Prancisco. But Mr. Stratus made me a superb offer. He even helped me with finding a place to live here.”
Rainbow Dash nodded. She was fully aware of the rumors about anypony who took the job as Cirro’s secretary; in fact, she herself had been approached by Cirro himself during his rounds one day when she first started at the Weather Factory. He had asked her if she would rather come work as his secretary, but she had turned down his offer as she had preferred to stick to working outdoors. It was only when she told her teammates about the offer did she start hearing about the rumors that Cirro always slept with his secretaries.
“Yeah? Well, that’s cool.” Dash said, managing to stifle her urge to ask if Cirro was mounting her at night. “So, um, where did Cirro go off to anyway? It’s not like him take off suddenly.”
Sunset quickly glanced around the office to make sure they were alone. “He’d kill me if I told anypony, but Mr. Stratus is getting married.” she said in a hushed tone.
“Married?!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, causing Sunset to try to shush her. “What do you mean married? What happened to his old wife?”
“Keep it down! Nopony else is supposed to know.” Sunset said. “Mr. Stratus and his wife had a, er, falling out. They divorced almost a year ago, but it was kept quiet and private. I guess he found another marefriend recently and decided to elope with her.”
Rainbow Dash noticed a hint of bitterness and sadness in Sunset Flash’s voice as she said the last sentence, but her facial expression betrayed nothing. “So who’s the lucky mare?” Dash asked.
Sunset shrugged. “He never said, he just told me to stay put and help whichever pony was assigned to cover his office. It was really sudden, some messenger informed him that his mare was due to arrive in Canterlot the next day from Ponyville.”
Rainbow Dash’s ears perked up at the mention of her hometown. “Hey, I’m from Ponyville, maybe it’s somepony I know! Are you sure you didn’t hear a name? What about a description of her?” she asked eagerly.
Sunset could only shrug again. “I really don’t know.” she said.
Rainbow sat down, thinking who in Ponyville would know Cirro Stratus and agree to marry him in such a short amount of time. And why would Cirro need a messenger to let him know that his bride to be had arrived in Canterlot? “Hey, Sunset? Where’s Cirro’s wedding being held?” Rainbow asked.