After Sunset Shimmer took care of some last-minute things around her apartment, locked everything up tight, and left the keys and her journal with Rarity, she and Princess Twilight Sparkle returned to Crystal Prep Academy. It was early in the morning; they headed to the out-of-order restroom with the local Twilight Sparkle and Dean Cadance.
"We'll be back in a few days," Princess Twilight said. "If there's an emergency, we'll come back sooner."
"I'd hate to see what you qualify as an emergency," Cadance said. "To me, this whole mess is an emergency."
Princess Twilight made a 'so-so' gesture with one hand. "This whole mess is a crisis," she said. "Teetering on the precipice of catastrophe. For me, an emergency usually involves some giant magical monster actually destroying my home town."
Twilight's jaw dropped. "Does that happen often?"
Princess Twilight pursed her lips raised a finger. "You'd be surprised," she said dryly. Shaking her head, she turned to Sunset. "Are you ready?"
Sunset sighed. "Ready as I'll ever be," she said.
Both girls removed their amulets. In twin flashes of blinding magical light, they turned into small equines; their clothes pooled on the floor. They quickly and neatly folded their clothes using their magic and packed them away in their bags, which they slung onto their backs. With a quick flap of her wings, Princess Twilight launched herself onto the lavatory. "We'll be back soon," she promised. "Hopefully with a solution to this whole mess." She turned and stepped through the mirror, disappearing. Sunset jumped onto the lavatory, took one look back at Twilight and Cadance, and followed her.
When the dazed, disoriented feeling of interdimensional travel faded, Sunset found herself peering up at Princess Cadance, Twilight, and two armored pegasus guards. One was the familiar white, the other was orange with familiar eyes...
"Sunset Shimmer, welcome back!" Princess Cadance said. "I know you probably don't remember me, we didn't actually speak much, but—"
"Princess Cadance," Sunset said with a smile. "I look forward to getting to know you." She turned her gaze to the side. "Like I maybe should have, back when I was..." She glanced around. "Where is Princess Celestia?"
Cadance grimaced. "She's...been called away," she said. "Ever since she learned of your situation, she's been avoiding her public duties. Princess Luna and I have taken up the slack as much as possible, but she was finally forced to attend to some matters herself." She sighed and smiled gently. "She desperately wanted to be here to welcome you back, but her majordomo essentially threatened to lead her out of here on a leash...you know what her daily schedule is like."
Sunset rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I know," she said. "And if she's still got that stubborn mule Kibitz riding her flank, I totally understand."
"Oh, but she promised she'd return as soon as possible to spend some time catching up with you!"
Sunset smiled wistfully. "I look forward to it," she said, though she couldn't hide an apprehensive flicker in her eyes.
"Princess Cadance, should we prepare a room for this...guest?" the orange pegasus asked.
"Yes, please see to it, Flash," Cadance said.
Sunset blinked. "Flash? Flash Sentry?"
Flash Sentry blinked, tilting his head. "Yes...? Do I know you?"
Sunset snorted. "Well, you don't," she said.
"She used to date the other world's version of you," Twilight explained.
"Oh," Flash said in a mildly befuddled tone.
"It was a long time ago," Sunset said, rubbing one fetlock with a hoof. "It...didn't end well."
An awkward silence ensued.
"By the way, Twilight," Cadance said with a smile, "I...well, we, that is, Shining Armor wanted to make a big production out of it, but..." She scraped the floor with a hoof. "With everything that's going on right now, I feel like you could really use some good news, so I talked him into just letting me tell you."
Twilight blinked. "Oh?"
Cadance's smile became warmer. "You're going to be an aunt," she said.
Twilight's jaw dropped. "You mean you're—"
"Wow, congratulations," Sunset said with a smile.
Twilight picked her jaw up off the floor and shook her head. A broad grin split her face. "Oh my gosh, CADANCE!" she cried happily. "That's amazing! I...that's amazing!"
"Why don't I leave you two to talk about that while I get settled in?" Sunset suggested. "I haven't been back in ages, I think I could use a walk around the castle..." She sighed. "Lotta memories here..."
"Of course," Cadance said. "Flash, if you would?"
"Huh? Oh...yes, of course," Flash said. "This way, Miss...Shimmer, was it?"
As they left the excited rush of babble that was Twilight Sparkle behind, Flash stole sidelong glances at Sunset. "So, uhh..." He coughed. "I, uhh...I'll be honest. This whole thing with the world on the other side of the mirror is really confusing to me, but..." His brow furrowed. "Is it really another Equestria, with...with the same ponies?"
"Not exactly," Sunset said. "It's...well, it's hard to explain. But yeah, there's...a version of most of the ponies here in Equestria there. Another Twilight Sparkle, another Cadance, another Celestia..."
"And another Flash Sentry?"
Flash was silent for a moment as they walked through a long, cavernous hall. "And...and you dated him," he said.
"Yeah," Sunset said. "It..." She frowned. "I was..." Her ears drooped and she hung her head. "He was popular, and I needed to use his popularity to build up my own, so I..." She trailed off.
"I see," Flash said softly.
Sunset chuckled ruefully. "Anyway, he finally had all of me he could stand and broke up with me. Then a couple of weeks later, I stole Twilight's crown and tried to use it to take over the school..." She shook her head. "I've done things I'm not proud of."
"Wow," Flash said. "Well, whatever it is you did, Princess Twilight turned Equestria upside down to help you, so she must think of you as a very special friend."
They continued to walk in silence. Then...
"So, this other Flash. Did, umm...did something happen with him and Princess Twilight?"
"Hm? Oh, yeah..." Sunset shrugged. "They've got this mutual crush thing going on. It's cute, in a dorky kind of way."
"I see," Flash said. He looked down, a studious frown on his face.
Sunset raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Don't tell me you're in a love triangle with...with yourself!"
"No I'm not!" Flash insisted in a rush, cheeks burning. "It's just..." He sighed. "Princess Twilight, the first time I met her, she...she sent..." He stopped and scuffed the floor. "Mixed signals. I thought..."
"Oh," Sunset said. She trotted over and patted Flash on the shoulder. "That sucks," she said. She tilted her head. "Have you tried talking to her about it?"
Flash chuckled ruefully. "When do I even get a chance?" he asked. "My post is in the Crystal Empire. Princess Twilight lives in Ponyville. I only ever see her when she comes out to visit the Prince and Princess. And, well..."
Sunset winced. "Ouch." She frowned. "So wait, what are you doing here in Canterlot if—?"
"It was Prince Shining Armor's idea," Flash said. "I used to be under him here in Canterlot. He likes having a guard he trained himself along whenever Princess Cadance leaves the Empire, even if he's with her. Especially now that she's pregnant."
Sunset nodded. "Well, I'd say try to talk to her about it now." She pursed her lips. "Then again, this might not be the best time, even if it's probably the only time."
Flash shook his head. "No, I think...I think it's best if I just give up." His ears pinned back. "Princess Cadance herself said there's no chance of anything happening with Princess Twilight. If she says it, then..." He laughed ruefully. "Yeah." He squared his shoulders. "Besides, if she'd rather have that other Flash Sentry..."
Sunset snorted. "Oh yeah, that'll work," she said. "She's a pony princess in Equestria, he's a slightly above-average guitar player who's gonna peak at twenty." She shook her head. "It's a crush, that's all. They both need to let it go."
"Oh," Flash said. He sighed. "Guess that's for the best, huh?"
Sunset smiled. "Don't give up," she said encouragingly. "You'll find the right mare one day."
* * * * *
After lunch, Twilight decided it was time to get to work. "We'll go to Ponyville tomorrow," she said, "but for today I want to check up on some things here." With that, she led Sunset down into Starswirl's Athenaeum.
"We have some news," Moondancer said as soon as Twilight and Sunset entered.
"Oh?" Twilight asked. "By the way, this is Sunset Shimmer. Sunset, this is my old friend Moondancer."
Sunset smiled. "Hey. Nice to meet you."
Moondancer nodded, then turned back to Twilight. "We've been studying the portal we opened here in Canterlot almost nonstop. It's solid, it's stable, there's no anomalies with the thaumic pressure exchange." She adjusted her glasses. "It's safe to have an open portal to that other world."
Twilight digested this. "Then the problem is the original portal," she said.
"That seems to be the case," Moondancer agreed.
Twilight frowned. "I was beginning to suspect that," she said. "I discovered traces of the Cutie Map's magic on the CHS side of the portal." She began pacing. "That doesn't make any sense, any magic from the Cutie Map should be on this side of the portal, but it does at least start to give me an idea of what went wrong."
"Really?" Moondancer asked, tilting her head. "What's your theory?"
"Well, I don't have a theory yet," Twilight admitted, "but the Cutie Map didn't exist when I first forced the portal open. This could be a whole host of things." She bit her lip. "The best guess I have? Whatever power the Cutie Map uses to find friendship problems, it's trying to look for them in the human world too. I'll know more when I examine the portal on this side."
Sunset frowned. "Didn't you say there was another component you couldn't identify?"
"Yeah," Twilight said. "I still need to figure out what that is before I can start to work on a theory and a solution." She turned to Moondancer. "Let's go over your data on the control portal. I'll need to take a copy of that data with me when we leave for Ponyville tomorrow."
"Leaving so soon? But you've only just returned."
The three mares whirled to see Princess Celestia descending into the Athenaeum. She turned her gaze to Sunset Shimmer and smiled. "I had hoped to have time to catch up with my old student."
"Princess Celestia," Sunset breathed. She rushed up to Celestia and tackled her in a fierce hug. "I'msosorry!"
"I know you are, my little pony," Celestia said. "And so am I." She sighed. "I am as much to blame for the way things turned out between us as you are."
Sunset shook her head. "No, I...I got arrogant, impatient..."
Celestia tilted Sunset's face up to look her in the eye. "Let's not worry about who's to blame for what," she said. "Let us simply let what happened in the past go and start fresh." Her smile widened. "I've missed you. I've been looking forward to a chance to see you again."
Sunset sniffled, wiping tears from her eyes. "Y-yeah..."
Twilight smiled wistfully. "I do need to go to Ponyville tomorrow to continue the research," she said, "but I think I can handle it myself. Why don't you stay here and catch up with Celestia?"
Sunset looked between the two princesses, indecision written across her face. Finally, she sighed and firmed her jaw. "There'll be time enough for that later," she said. "My friends are in danger. I need to help them however I can."
Celestia's wings wrapped tightly around her and lifted her off her hooves. "You have no idea how happy I am to hear you say that, Sunset!" she exclaimed.
"Uwah!" Sunset cried.
"Sorry," Celestia said with a soft laugh as she set Sunset down. "Anyway, it just so happens that I will be accompanying the two of you to Ponyville tomorrow, so we will have time to catch up while you help Princess Twilight."
Twilight cast Celestia a curious look. "I thought Kibitz—"
"Oh, I've made arrangements," Celestia said lightly.
* * * * *
Kibitz's hooves scrabbled uselessly against an endless scroll of parchment which wound in a loose helix through an endless swirling void. He chanced a glance over his shoulder and whinnied in alarm as a forest of phoenix feather quills chased after him.
"CELESTIA!" he screamed into the void. "So help me, I will fire the royal bakers! ALL OF THEM!!"
A deep voice chuckled menacingly in the void. Kibitz lathered as he kept running.
"I'm getting too old for this," he wheezed.
* * * * *
Twilight facehoofed. "Tell me you didn't do something to Kibitz..."
"Who, me?" Celestia asked innocently. "Of course not, my faithful student! I simply...suggested that perhaps my schedule is less important than the task at hoof, and that Cadance can easily take over for me until I'm able to return to my regular duties. Provided, of course, she's allowed to handle it at her own pace."
Twilight groaned. "Whatever, fine, I need your help in Ponyville anyway. The Cutie Map is causing the problem with the portal and I need your experience to help me figure out why."
Celestia blinked. "The Map is? Are you certain?"
"Pretty certain," Twilight said.
"Oh my." Celestia sighed. "Well...the Cutie Map is magic unknown to me as well, but yes, perhaps I will be able to determine exactly what the cause of the interference is. Goodness knows I've seen my share of magical artifacts interfering with each other."
"Great!" Sunset said brightly. "We can catch up, I'll finally get to see Ponyville for myself after hearing so much about it..." She smiled. "And maybe we can finally figure this whole mess out and get everything back to normal!" She frowned. "Then all we have to do is figure out what Starlight Glimmer is up to..."
Celestia blinked. "I'm sorry, Starli-Starlight Glimmer?"
Twilight's ears flopped down. "Starlight Glimmer escaped to the human world," she said. "It's definitely her. The same Starlight Glimmer we defeated a while ago. She stole the spell I took with me and used it, and—"
"And she's somehow taken control of Canterlot High," Sunset said miserably. "It's like the Dazzlings all over again. She's somehow brainwashed Principal Celestia and Vice-Principal Luna and she's up to something and we can't even get onto the campus to find out what."
Twilight frowned. "Yeah, and right now our best hope for getting past her lies with that world's Tirek of all things."
"And the Dazzlings," Sunset added. "The Rainbooms have joined forces with the Dazzlings to try to deal with Starlight Glimmer."
Celestia blinked. "Perhaps...you need to slow down and tell me the whole story," she said. "This is an awful lot to take in..."
* * * * *
After another day of prowling around the campus at Canterlot High, Tirek returned to Crystal Prep to deliver the scanners to Twilight and share his latest findings with his partners in the investigation. "The mood of that school is becoming worse," Tirek rumbled. "I cannot speak to what is happening there, I dare not push my luck by barging into any of the classrooms, but I did take one of those magical girls aside and ask her some pointed questions." He clasped his hands behind his back. "Evidently, this Starlight Glimmer is able to use magic despite appearing completely human. Even Princess Twilight and Sunset Shimmer were incapable of doing so."
Twilight gasped. "So...they're at her mercy?"
"So it seems," Tirek said gravely. "The Rainbooms have forged an uneasy alliance with their former enemies, but my contact says it's only the school faculty Starlight Glimmer is using magic to control." He scowled. "The actual student body, she is using...psychology on."
"Psychology?" Cadance asked. "What sort of psychology?"
Tirek stroked his chin. "Well, to be blunt...despite your title of Dean of Students, you are effectively a glorified guidance counselor, are you not?"
"Tirek!" Twilight hissed.
Cadance grimaced. "I'd be insulted at the way you phrased that, but you're not entirely wrong." She shrugged. "I do have degrees in child psychology and child development."
"So, apparently, does Starlight Glimmer," Tirek said. "And she is using them as a weapon to destroy the spirit of the students at that school."
Twilight paled. "What?" she whispered.
* * * * *
"Today, class, I'd like to take a moment to talk about the futility of democracy. Now, I know you have always been taught that democracy is a great system because every vote counts, meaning every single person has a say in the way the country is run, but here's the truth:
"Nothing any of you think matters. Technically, when you're old enough to vote, your vote counts in electing the men and women who run the government, but the reality is that your role in government begins and ends with casting that vote. Once your elected officials are sworn into office, you are completely at their mercy. The things they promise to do for you, for your families, for your community? They say those things just to get your vote. They don't care about you. They don't care about your family. They don't care about your community! All they care about is protecting the people who gave them the money they needed to run their campaign. Or, in some cases, they care about pet causes that probably don't align with your personal interests.
"I know this doesn't mean much to you right now, but in a few years, you'll understand. No matter how you vote, the people who have control of the nation will always raise your taxes while cutting their own. They'll always fight to take away your freedoms. They'll always pass laws that do more to hurt you and more to help the big corporations. The only way you can protect yourself from the government is to rise to the top of a big corporation yourself, but...let's face it. None of you are ever leaving this town. You're going to have small jobs in the suburbs or slightly larger but still ultimately unimportant jobs in some office building in the city. You'll probably get married, you'll probably have a couple of children, you'll grow old, you'll lose interest in the things you were once passionate about.
"You will grind yourself down to a nub at a thankless job that has no meaning until you're too old to work, then you'll retire. If you're lucky, your kids will still give a damn about you, but most of the time you'll be sitting around with other old people complaining about young people and talking about the way things were when you were younger. And that'll be your life until you die. And you'll only be remembered in passing by your grandchildren. That's the reality of the society we live in."
* * * * *
"That's disgusting," Cadance said, her face twisted into an uncharacteristic fury.
"Disgusting, but effective," Tirek said. "The only people not under her influence are those girls, and Sunset Shimmer has evidently told them not to do anything until she returns, because it's too risky. Even so, I wouldn't count on this going on too long before there's an incident. That rainbow-haired girl has a temper and is clearly being restrained by her friends."
"But why is she doing that?" Twilight wondered. "What does she gain from something like that?"
"I don't know," Tirek said. "I suspect Princess Twilight Sparkle would know. Perhaps we should report to her and ask."
Twilight nodded. "You might be right. I'll—"
The door to the lab opened, and Scorpan poked his head in. "Brother," he said, "Father has been trying to call you since yesterday!"
Tirek snorted. "I know," he said. "I've been busy."
"Tirek, you can't just ignore Father like that!" Scorpan whined. "He's expecting you to be at tonight's function, you know!"
Tirek let out an irritated grunt. "I have no time for such foolish—"
"Perhaps you have time," a new, rough voice intruded, "to convince me why I should not confine you to your rooms at the Embassy."
A tall, broad-figured man in a dark suit with an ornate golden brocade sash slung across his torso stood in the door. His skin and eyes were the same color as Tirek's; his neatly groomed dark grey hair and perfectly trimmed beard gave him a regal bearing.
"Ambassador Vorak," Cadance said smoothly, stepping forward. "I didn't know you were coming—"
"A moment, Dean Cadance," Vorak said, stalling her with a wave of his hand. "Well, Tirek?"
Tirek clenched his fists. "Forgive me, Father. I have been...busy."
"Indeed," Vorak said, raising an eyebrow. "Certainly not with your classwork, as I have learned you have spent most of this past week off campus."
Cadance coughed. "Ambassador, Tirek has been assisting Twilight Sparkle and myself in an important research project," she said. "I assure you, I personally approve all of his absences from class. He's very useful to us. We'd have a hard time continuing without him."
Vorak considered this. "Interesting," he said. "What sort of research? I was not aware my son had any scientific interests. Or any academic interests at all."
"That's not important," Cadance said. "The important thing is he's behaving himself and has my full support, regardless of any complaints Principal Cinch may have."
"Hmm." Vorak shrugged expansively. "Well, what goes on at this school is of no concern to me so long as my sons are behaving themselves. But they do have obligations to fulfill, and Tirek, you will attend this evening's function. I will hear no argument."
Tirek folded his arms and turned away. "Yes, Father," he rumbled.
"Excellent. Come, Scorpan, let us go. Tirek, call for the car when you're ready to return to the Embassy. If you don't make an appearance by six, I'll send the car to find you." His tone promised unpleasant things for Tirek if he had to be sent for.
"I'll be there," Tirek said resignedly. Satisfied, Vorak and Scorpan left. Tirek waited for a long moment, staring at the empty doorframe. Once he could no longer hear his father's clipped stride, he snarled and spun Twilight's empty desk chair, sending it wobbling across the room like a deranged top. "Fuck," he spat.
"Tirek," Cadance said in a warning tone. Twilight watched him with wide eyes, taking a step back.
Tirek took a deep breath, then stood and folded his hands behind his back. "My apologies," he said. "I..." He paused for a moment to measure his words. "My relationship with Father is...strained." He shook his head. "But that is no concern of yours. I suppose I must prepare for this ridiculous farce of an embassy function." He started to leave, then stopped, turning. He gave Twilight a long, scrutinizing look, measuring her from head to toe with his eyes. His gaze unnerved her, making her fidget uncomfortably. "Dean Cadance," he said in a thoughtful tone, "would you be so good as to make Twilight presentable, perhaps find a decent evening dress for her?"
Cadance blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
Twilight blinked repeatedly. "Huh?" she asked, her glasses askew.
"We have seen that Twilight Sparkle cleans up rather nicely," Tirek said. "I would appreciate company I relate to if I must endure this tiresome evening." He turned away, his posture stiff. "I will send a car for her at five thirty." With that, he left, his boots thudding heavily on the floor.
Twilight stared at the empty door, then at Cadance. "What...just happened?" she asked shakily.
Dean Cadance's eyes were wide, her mouth open in surprise. "I...I think you have a date tonight," she said in disbelief.
* * * * *
Gone for a couple of days. I know things are rough right now, but stay strong, everyone. I'm not gonna let you all down. Wondercolts forever!
Beck frowned at the cryptic status update. "Huh. She took off somewhere."
"In the middle of the school week?" Sugar Belle wondered. "I mean, school's happening right now, right?"
"Should be," DD said. "Wonder what things are rough? I mean, she's just a high school kid, right?"
"Maybe somebody died or something?" Sugar Belle suggested. "I mean, it does happen. When I was in high school, this guy who used to date my best friend got in a bad wreck and died."
"I guess," Beck said. "I wonder where exactly she's 'gone' to, though?"
"Does it matter?" DD asked. "We know when we get to Canterlot, all we have to do is wait around this high school and we'll find her sooner or later."
"I guess you're right," Beck said, handing Sugar Belle back her phone. She stared out the window of the train, watching miles of brown and green terrain roll past, dotted with trees and grazing cattle.
*Tomorrow. We'll be there tomorrow...*
* * * * *
The door to the limousine opened, and Twilight Sparkle stepped out, feeling silly, self-conscious, and scared out of her wits.
She wore a flowing dark purple dress with the hem only a few inches above her ankles, with sparkly silver flats. The dress was simple but elegant, sleeveless and spangled with a smattering of silver glitter. Cadance had done her makeup—just some tasteful, barely visible eyeshadow and blush and a little lip gloss—and put her hair up in a long ponytail. With a little spray of what Cadance called her "secret weapon", Twilight's unruly mess of split ends had become sleek and shiny, almost like her counterpart. A small silver clasp purse contained her phone, a handkerchief, a packet of tissues, and a couple of other necessities.
She was escorted through the gates of the Embassy, where Tirek was waiting for her. Gone was his usual intimidating attire, replaced by a charcoal suit, black dress shirt, and silver silk necktie. He looked her up and down and nodded. "Yes, you clean up rather nicely," he said.
Twilight blushed. "Umm...thank you?"
Twilight had a million questions, but ultimately never had the chance to ask any of them. She found herself attached to Tirek's arm as he made the rounds of the important and well-heeled people in attendance. There were hors d'oeuvres, but Twilight was too nervous to trust herself with food, and the few she sampled were bland and tasteless.
After two long, uncomfortable hours, the function—Twilight never actually understood what the function was—ended. As they stood beside Ambassador Vorak and his wife while the guests left, Twilight felt Vorak's measuring look.
At length, the Ambassador and his wife left, and Scorpan scurried off into the embassy, constantly casting odd glances back at Twilight and Tirek. When at last they were alone save for a few staff, Tirek relaxed his posture. "I'll escort you home," he said. "We'll stop for a quick bite on the way. I noticed you were too nervous to eat, and I frankly don't blame you. These ridiculous party snacks aren't fit for a dog."
Twilight let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. "Alright," she said.
As they left the gates and got into a waiting car, Twilight turned to Tirek. "What...what was all this?" she squeaked.
"Hmm?" Tirek grunted.
"This!" Twilight exclaimed, gesturing to the Embassy, then to herself. "Why—"
"Given the choice between two hours of having a pleasant, inoffensive girl at my side and the same two hours of my cringing brother constantly trailing in my shadow wringing his hands, I should think the preferable choice would be obvious," Tirek said.
Twilight frowned. Now that he mentioned it, Scorpan did seem to keep his distance for most of the evening, preferring to stick close to his mother. "So...the whole reason for all this is you didn't want your brother following you around all evening?"
"I prefer a measure of control over the company I keep," Tirek said. "Scorpan is terrified of girls. The more attractive they are, the further he scurries away."
Twilight blushed fiercely. "Oh," she said.
The night shift worker at the drive-thru of the fried chicken place the limo pulled into was rather nonplussed at seeing a limo pull through, but in little time, Tirek and Twilight had fried chicken, biscuits, and lots of napkins. They ate quietly on the rest of the slow drive to Twilight's house.
Once they arrived, Tirek helped Twilight out of the car. "This evening was far more bearable thanks to you," he said softly. "I'll see you at school tomorrow."
Twilight stood on the curb for a long time, completely at a loss. Finally, the chill of the night spurred her into motion, and she headed inside. Her mother was waiting for her. "So? How was your date?" she asked brightly.
Twilight shook her head. "I...am just really confused," she said numbly. "And tired. I'm going to change for bed."
Upstairs in her room, as Twilight peeled off the fancy dress, she glanced at herself in the mirror, frowning.
"I'm keeping the ponytail," she decided.