After the other Sunset returned to her room, practice resumed, although everyone’s minds were clearly elsewhere. As Sunset predicted, she failed to write anything for the counterspell, spending the next hour and a half staring at the paper and glancing up to the window for another glimpse at her parallel.
The other Sunset had it open a crack and would peek out from time to time, but didn’t say anything. Sunset couldn’t imagine what she thought about all of this. Perhaps she was freaking out as much as Sunset and just hid it better.
Twilight stayed at her side the entire time, asking if she was okay every time Sunset’s frown became too deep. It snapped Sunset from her thoughts long enough to remember that she couldn’t think of anything for the spell, then she would stray to the events spiraling out of control around her. She gave Twilight a flimsy placated smile she knew wasn’t selling at all. Twilight was just waiting for them to be alone.
Their practice session wound down, and the girls packed up their instruments and headed out the door. Human Sunset came down to see them out, leaning on the doorway as they filed into the alley.
“So, should I expect to see you girls again?”
Rarity gave her a beseeching smile. “Well, it would be very convenient if we could practice here. That way we don’t have to fight our sisters for Applejack’s barn space. But, this is your… living space, so we’ll respect your privacy if you say no.”
Sunset crossed her arms. “Funny, I don’t remember getting the same deal when I lived here.”
“Don’t act like you regret us bugging you,” Rainbow said.
Human Sunset shrugged. “Sure, you can come practice here for a bit. I got nothing better to do. Just don’t expect snacks or anything.” She gave them a peace sign. “See ya, mini me.” She stepped back and closed the door with her heel.
“Yeah, see ya,” Sunset said. She walked out to the main street, briefly ignoring her friends.
“You okay, sugarcube?” Applejack asked, stepping behind her.
Sunset pressed a palm to her forehead. “Disoriented. But yeah, I’m fine, I think.”
“Look on the bright said,” Rarity said, “as crude as she is, she seems nice.”
“Guess this means Sunset here was the evil twin all along,” Rainbow said.
As strong as the urge was, Sunset didn’t have enough energy to thump Rainbow. And she was technically correct. Unless her new twin had ever turned into a demon sometime in her past, Sunset was the worse of the two. It wasn’t a surprising fact, but it still stung a little.
Twilight shot Rainbow a scolding look. “Sunset isn’t the evil twin. Neither of them are evil now.” She rubbed a hand on Sunset’s back. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’ll be fine. I just need to sleep. It’s been a long day.” She walked over to her motorcycle and pulled out hers and Twilight’s helmets. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”
Everyone said goodnight and exchanged their farewell hugs before parting ways. Though they were all headed in the same direction, Sunset sped ahead of everyone else, feeling Twilight hold on with extra force. She slowed down some when they entered the newer neighborhoods.
She pulled in front of Twilight’s house and walked her to the door. Spike could be heard pawing at the other side, whining for his master. Twilight gave the door a pained smile, but focused her attention on Sunset. She put her hands on Sunset’s shoulders and leaned up to kiss her lips.
Sunset kept a hand on the small of Twilight’s back, keeping them gently pressed together until Twilight slowly pulled away. “Hey, look what we did,” Twilight said.
“What?” Sunset looked at where they stood then looked at Twilight. “Oh. Well, looks like something good came out of today.”
Twilight moved a hand down to Sunset’s. “How do you really feel about meeting her?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know what to expect or what I would say if I ever did run into her. I’m glad she’s not out to kill me or turn me into the FBI, but…” Her shoulders dropped, heavy from the gravity of the situation. “The fact that there’s two of me occupying the same city is… weird. Sometimes I wish I could be normal like you.”
Twilight shifted her eyes down to the porch. “Being normal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Honestly… I want to be like you, Sunset. You and the girls. I want to be special.”
Sunset used her free hand to rub Twilight’s cheek. She braced herself for the sincere but overly sentimental sweetness that was about to pass her lips. “Twilight, you are special. Maybe you don’t sprout magic pony accessories when you play music, but you’re the smartest girl I know, and the way you play violin is a magic of its own. You always see the best in people, even me. That’s not an easy thing to do.” She leaned in to Twilight’s beet red face. “You’re special to me, Sparky.”
Before their lips could meet, the porch light flashed on, startling them apart. Twilight sighed. “Shining’s home.”
“Guess two kisses here would be pushing our luck.” Sunset took a half step back. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Sparky.”
Twilight nodded, but darted forward, pecked Sunset’s lips again, then retreated inside the house, smiling as she closed the door in front of her.
Sunset laughed as she stepped away. Night had fallen, and while she felt marginally better, Sunset wanted nothing more than a quick meal, and a long sleep.
Like Spike with Twilight, Spot eagerly greeted Sunset when she returned home. She picked him up and carried him as she walked through the house, finding the kitchen empty. A warm casserole dish sat on the counter, portions of it already missing, but the lack of human activity struck Sunset as odd.
She heard noises coming from the backyard and went to the screen door to investigate. Out back, under the light of the waxing moon, Selena danced with one of her swords through a complicated set of slashes and lunges. She moved with such agility and grace, it looked like its own magic.
Her furrowed brow and controlled shouts showed a level of concentration Sunset did not want to disturb. She moved upstairs, wanting to take a shower before eating and heading to bed. She paused at Trixie’s closed door. The light shone from the crack, but Sunset couldn’t hear anything on the other side. She thought of knocking, of trying to talk to Trixie to get her to not hate her again. Something in her heart told Sunset the effort was futile for the time being. Trixie saw her as an obstacle to clear in order to save Artemis and prove some sort of self worth. Until that happened, she and Trixie were at odds.
Sunset entered her room and set Spot on the bed. If the Rainbooms were the ones to beat the Sirens, would that deepen the anger Trixie felt? But as long as they saved Artemis, it would all be fine, right? As arrogant and obnoxious Trixie was, Sunset didn’t want her as an enemy again. Though their one-on-one time was fleeting, they had been enjoyable to some degree.
Tumult emotions rolled inside her with no release other than sighing and screaming into her pillow.
Just deal with everything one day at a time. Focus on the spell, worry about Trixie and the other Sunset later.
“This would be so much easier if you hadn’t given into all this friendship nonsense,” someone hissed in her ear.
Sunset squeezed her eyes shut to block her out. “It’s your fault all this happened. But I’ll put it right. My friends will put it right.”
“That’s the spirit!” Princess Twilight cheered.
Human Sunset greeted them at the factory the next day. She wore a poncho and shorts that showed off curves Sunset knew she didn’t have.
“So, no girlfriend today?” she asked while the Rainbooms set up.
Sunset got comfy in the corner again. “No. She’s in another band with her friend, and they have practice today.”
She must have let some bitterness slip because her doppelganger sniffed the air. “Is that jealousy I smell?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m a little jealous.” Sunset brought her notebook up to cover her face. “But I trust Twilight not to do anything.”
Human Sunset, or as the others had taken to calling her, Shimmer, shook her head. “Oh, you sweet, summer child.”
“Nothing, nothing,” Shimmer said, holding her hands up. “You’re probably right. She seems way too innocent to do anything.” She weighed her hands. “Then again, it’s always the quiet ones…”
Sunset mustered up her best death glare. It rebounded harmlessly off Shimmer. She retreated on her own with a shrug and a faint smirk.
Is this what it’s like to have an annoying big sister? Sunset didn’t care what Shimmer said, Twilight wouldn’t cheat on her.
Moondancer’s actions were another story.
Focus. Sunset stared at her paper and tapped a pencil against her skull while the Rainbooms practiced their newest song. Why was she struggling so much with this? When it came down to it, all she had to do was write a song about friendship and let her friends do the rest of the work. She knew something about friendship now; this should have been easy.
She did know about friendship, didn’t she?
Of course I do! Otherwise, the Elements would still be cursing me! All she had to do was apply what she knew to song lyrics.
Twenty minutes later, the page remained blank.
Sunset beat the notebook against her head. She had started out pretty well! Now, everything in her head sounded stupid! Maybe they could just sing ‘Shine Like Rainbows’ again. That’s pretty friendshipy.
“You’ll lose brain cells that way,” Shimmer said, leaning over Sunset again.
“Well, maybe it’ll unlodge a thought with it.” Sunset put the notebook aside and pulled her knees up to her chin. “This needs to be perfect if we’re going to beat the Sirens.”
Shimmer took a seat next to her. “Gotta hand it to you, kiddo, the fact that you’re trying to save the world from some evil voodoo is pretty ballsy.”
Sunset turned her head toward Shimmer. “Would you do the same thing?” she asked, ignoring Shimmer’s terrible word choice.
“Nah. I’m not exactly the hero type.”
“Even for your friends?”
“Don’t have too many of those.” She stretched her arms behind her head and leaned back on the wall. “And don’t try to tell me how great friendship is and all that rainbow garbage. I like being alone. Not cause I hate the world or I was abused as a child, I just like keeping to myself. Your life may play like an after school special, and hey, more power to you for wanting to save your friends. But I’d rather do things for myself.”
Sunset sank her chin into the space between her knees. This Sunset was indeed her. How she acted before she found friendship. Minus the want of power and magic. Was this how Sunset would have ended up eventually? Moving from place to place with no purpose? Jaded and alone and not caring if the world burned?
She received an immediate ‘yes’ from her soul, and recounted her blessings, thanking her friends for being there when she needed them. The cynical part of her brain told her it was completely nonsensical, and that her human counterpart had a point, but Sunset knew friendship was magic.
Yep. Still sounds cheesy.
Shimmer tilted her head to the ceiling, looking at the pipes and ductwork running along the surface. “That wasn’t the best pep talk, was it?”
“You were trying to give me a pep talk?”
They broke into soft snickers. “Listen, mini me,” Shimmer said, “I don’t really understand all this magic stuff you’re trying to do. But I know that, if you think about it too hard, it’ll blow up in your face.” She got up and spread her arms wide. “Sometimes, you just gotta wing it.” She strolled back into the hallway with a swagger.
Sunset spared a glance to her notebook. “‘Wing it’, huh?”
“Ugh! Come on, A.J. You’re still coming in too flat!” Rainbow said, drawing Sunset’s attention back to the band.
“Ah only sound flat next to your bombastic showin’ off! Maybe you should tone it down a bit more!”
“I’m already playing at half-awesome, I can’t go any lower!” She turned her shoulder to Applejack. “Maybe if the rest of you picked up the slack…” she muttered.
“Ah heard that!”
“Rainbow, let me remind you the rest of us are still on a learning curve,” Rarity said, straining to keep the gentleness in her voice.
“All right, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m just tired of being penalized for my awesome skills.”
“You can show off every iota of skill once we’re up against the Sirens, Dash,” Sunset said. “In the meantime, suck it up.”
Rainbow huffed, blowing a bang out of her face. “Fine. One more time, ‘Shake Your Tail’ from the top.”
Saturday meant the quarterfinals for the Battle of the Bands, and though there were only eighteen left, the crowd of spectators proved bigger than the one the previous week. The three stages had been set up again, and now makeshift stands for viewers had been constructed on the outskirts. A few parents of some of the participants waved banners of their child's band.
Sunset walked back to the parking lot, having checked the schedules for the day. “Okay, you’re on at 3:30, so we’ve got a little over three hours to kill.” She looked at her gathered friends. “Rainbow and Rarity still aren’t here?”
The group had decided to meet up at the fairgrounds instead of joining beforehand. However, when Sunset arrived, she found their lead guitar and keytar missing.
Applejack gave a disgruntled sigh. “Rarity texted me sayin’ she needed time to find the right outfit for today. I kept tellin’ her this wasn’t a fashion show, but she got all, you know, Rarity on me!”
Sunset leaned against Applejack’s truck. “Well, it can’t take her three hours to find a dress, even if she is in Rarity mode. The heck is Dash?”
“A soccer game!” Pinkie said, clicking her phone.
“Yep! She just texted me! ‘Totally scatterbrained and team didn’t remind me! Soccer match! Will be there for song, swear it!’”
Fluttershy threw her hands over her mouth. “We’re missing Rainbow’s soccer match? But, but we’re her cheering section!”
“‘Shy, I think Rainbow can go one game without us boosting her ego,” Sunset said. “She better be here on time though otherwise, we’re going to have a problem.”
“Well, in the meantime, there’s a cotton candy vendor calling my name!” Pinkie skipped off toward the concessions.
“Ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh,
“ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh.
“Ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh,
“ah, ah-ah, ah-ahh.”
Pinkie stopped as a mob of fans rushed past her, heading for the center stage. Sunset looked between the gap of stalls to see the Dazzlings on stage, moving with hypnotic grace while green mist floated around them. The fans congregated with frightening speed and cheered on the Dazzlings as they sang their battle anthem once more.
Sunset broke into a run, gnashing her teeth together. Are they going to sing this every time? She circled the outer edge of the crowd, eyes frantically scanning for a purple bun or thick framed glasses. “Twilight!” she yelled over the music. When she failed to get a response, she pushed her way into the crowd, unafraid to fight back against the unruly mob with her elbows and balled fists. Even as she fought her way to the front, she found no signs of Twilight.
The crowd spat her out at the foot of the stage where the music was loudest, hammering against her eardrums. Sunset found herself boxed in on all sides with everyone around her sporting misted green eyes and looks of adoration toward the trio on stage. Sunset raised her head the exact moment Adagio looked down, and their eyes met.
Lust, power, greed, vanity, and cold intelligence. Sunset saw so much of her former self not just in Adagio’s eyes, but in the brief wicked smile she flashed. Sunset tried to smile back with the same dopey expression everyone else had. Adagio looked away to sing the next line, and Sunset took that moment to push her way back into the crowd.
Does she know? She can’t know, that’s impossible. But that smile… Sunset shivered. It was a smile of absolute certainty, like Adagio knew she had already won the game.
Sunset reemerged from the crowd again on the opposite side of the stage as the Dazzlings ended their song. “Welcome to the quarterfinals of the Battle of the Bands!” Adagio said. “Only nine teams get to move onto the semis. Who is it going to be?” Voices shouted over each other, clamoring to prove they were good enough to proceed. “Well then, let’s find out!”
The band players quickly dispersed while the spectators continued to cheer. Sunset still couldn’t see any signs of Twilight. A pit rose in her stomach that followed her back to the parking lot. It diminished slightly upon seeing Rarity had arrived, then turned in disbelief upon seeing what she wore.
Today’s outfit consisted of a pink jacket with gold pleats and button straps, with a floral hem that covered a purple skirt. She had pink knee high boots with more button laces and thick heels. Over her eyes were blue goggles with pink lenses. Her hair was done in a ponytail with her bangs swept to the side.
“I know I’ll regret asking,” Sunset said as she approached, “but what are you wearing?”
“Do you like it?” Rarity turned to each side to show off. “I put the finishing touches on this morning. I really love the color scheme!”
“Rarity, you look like Sergeant Pepper,” Applejack said with a fold of her arms.
“I will take that as a compliment. And there’s no need to be jealous, Applejack.” She gestured to her car. “I made outfits for each of you.”
Applejack’s eyes widened. “Oh no! Ah am not playin’ dress up today! Rarity, we’re here to win, not have a fashion show!”
“And part of winning is in the presentation, darling.” She spun again. “There’s no point in going up there and looking like ragamuffins. We’ll stand out much better if we play with style.”
“Isn’t standing out for us bad?” Fluttershy asked.
“Only if we pony up,” Pinkie said. “New outfits sound like they’ll be fun!”
Rarity nodded in satisfaction. “See, Pinkie agrees with me.”
Sunset massaged her temple. She had done that a lot recently. “Just… be careful, Rarity. When I was up there, me and Adagio locked eyes and… I don’t know, I think she might know something.”
Applejack shook her head. “C’mon, that’s impossible. She doesn’t even know who we are.”
“Unless she’s psychic,” Pinkie mused, stroking her chin.
“Just be cautious, for me,” Sunset urged.
Rarity patted her head. “I give you my word, Sunset, everything will be fine.” She looked around. “Now, where is Rainbow?”
“Soccer match,” Sunset said, her shoulders falling.
“Oh.” Rarity put on a crooked smile. “I’m sure she’ll make it here in time.”
Sunset pulled out her phone. “She better. In the meantime, Twilight’s supposed to play soon, and I need to make sure she’s still okay.”
“And I need more cotton candy!” Pinkie said. “So I’ll come with you.”
“Pinkie, this isn’t…” Sunset sighed. “Fine, whatever.” She turned back to the stages, Pinkie skipping by her side. She broke off to get her sweets while Sunset continued to the right hand stage. Moondancer’s black piano gleamed in the sun. Its owner walked out, wearing a red dress with purple stars along the sleeves and collar. Twilight followed after her, violin in hand and wearing a ruffled purple skirt and lace blouse. It looked like it was meant to show cleavage, but Twilight had it buttoned up to her neck.
“Okay, Moonlight Requiem,” Cadence said, “what will you be performing today?”
Moondancer took her seat and gestured for Twilight to take her position on top the piano. “We’re going to play a rendition of ‘Love Story’ if it pleases the judges.”
Cadence dipped her head. “By all means, please begin.”
Moondancer started with a cluster of notes, and Twilight jumped in with a high string. She dropped to her lower chords while Moondancer played slow keys. It sounded rather somber for a love song, but both players delivered their very best. Twilight opened her eyes for a moment and gave Sunset a quick smile.
“She’s pretty good,” someone said next to her.
“Yeah, she’s—eeepmmph!” Sunset covered her mouth, cutting off her shriek of surprise. “What are you doing here?” she hissed.
Wearing thick shades and a wide sun hat, Shimmer stood by her side, admiring Twilight and Moondancer. “Seeing if any of you kiddies have any musical talent. I’m surprisingly impressed so far.”
Sunset flailed her arms. “You can’t be here! If someone sees me and then sees you—”
“They’ll be confused as hell and it’ll be hilarious.”
Sunset spun her around and pushed against her shirt, herding her behind the stands and back to the parking lot. “No, no, no, no! My life is already complicated enough. I do not need people asking why there are two of me walking around.”
Shimmer stopped allowing Sunset to push her and became immovable, grounding her heels in the dirt. “Mini me, lighten up will you, no one is going to figure out who’s beneath this hat.” She put her hand out to ruffle Sunset’s hair. “Seriously, you worry too—”
When she made contact, Sunset’s world spun, then faded out and faded in to something completely new.
She was a child standing on a playground. A larger boy stood in front of her, holding his hand out.
“All right, Shimmer, fork it over.”
“Come on, it’s all I have for lunch!” Sunset heard herself say, tears in her eyes.
“Not my problem your parents are broke. Now, gimme!” He pushed her onto the black top and loomed over her. “Or do we have to pay a visit to Mr. Swirly?”
Sunset felt her fear spike. She reached into the pockets of her dirty jeans and handed over eight dollars. “There, just leave me alone.”
The bully snatched the cash from her hand, counted it up, then held his hand out expectantly, making a fist with his other.
Sunset choked back a sob and dug into her back pocket, turning over the last two dollars.
“Hah, nice try, street brat,” he said, snatching the money and walking off, leaving Sunset to openly cry.
Shimmer ripped her hand away and doubled over, breathing hard, with Sunset in a similar state. “The fuck was that?” Shimmer exclaimed, staring at Sunset like it was her fault.
Sunset rubbed her head. “I… don’t know. Did you see something too?”
“Y-yeah. I saw… ponies. Super bright ponies. And they were reading a story to me… and I called them mom and dad.” Her eyes doubled in size. “What did you see?”
“Well…” Sunset flinched. She felt like she had violated someone’s privacy. “I saw—”
Shimmer roughly grabbed her and dragged her under the stands. She pressed Sunset up against one of the metal poles, holding her by her jacket collar. “What did you see?” she asked, her voice a low, lethal whisper.
“I saw you being bullied on the playground!” Sunset said, heart racing. Maybe it was because she couldn’t see Shimmer’s eyes that she found herself terrified.
Shimmer held her in place a moment longer, then set her on the ground and turned away. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t be here.”
Sunset wanted to agree with her, especially now that something weird occurred if they touched. But she found herself compelled by curiosity from what she had just witnessed. “Something tells me that bullying scene isn’t what you were worried about me seeing.”
Shimmer started walking away.
“I already told you my secrets,” Sunset said, marching after her. “What are you trying to hide?”
“You told me all of that because you didn’t have a choice.” Shimmer looked over her shoulder, her face unreadable. “I still have my choice.” She tapped a finger to her forehead. “What goes on up in here, stays here. So do me a favor and keep out.” She picked up her pace, heading down the dirt road and back toward the city.
Sunset stood on her own, faintly hearing the next band start to play. She raised her hand to her hair, feeling where Shimmer had pressed her palm. They had looked into each other’s memories. Why? Was it because they were parallels of each other? Would the same thing happen if Twilight were to ever meet the princess?
Guess my fears weren’t entirely unfounded. But what was it that Shimmer didn’t want her to see? And was it Sunset’s place to pry, even if she had told Shimmer her secrets? Let it go for now. More important things to worry about.
She doubled back to the stages and found Twilight packing away her violin. Moondancer sat on the edge of the stage, gently kicking her legs. “Why, hello, Sunset. Did you enjoy our act?”
Sunset looked at Twilight as she spoke. “Yeah, the parts I heard. Sorry I missed the rest of it, I had stuff to deal with.”
“That’s all right.” Twilight snapped her case shut and stood up. “I’m a little hungry. Wanna get something to eat?”
“Sure!” Sunset said with a brightened smile. “I’ll treat!” She cast a quick, smug look to Moondancer, who only gave her a cat-like smile in return.
“You two go have fun.” She turned her nose up. “I’d rather not sully my tongue with second-rate fair food anyway.”
Sunset helped Twilight off the stage and led her to the snack vendors. “Are you okay?” she asked, checking Twilight’s eyes for any green haze.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”
“The Dazzlings’ singing earlier?”
Twilight looked thoughtful for a moment. “Oh, right. Well, I don’t feel any different. I guess Artemis’ spell is still working.”
“Let’s hope it stays that way.” She dropped her voice lower. “Shimmer was here for a minute.”
Twilight stopped walking. “Really? Why? What if someone sees both of you?”
“That’s what I tried to tell her. But that’s not the problem.” Sunset looked over their shoulders then back to Twilight. “She touched me on the head, and for whatever reason, we both saw memories of each other. She saw my parents reading to me, and I saw her being bullied as a kid.”
Excitement, then confusion and worry crossed Twilight’s face. “That’s… odd. Fascinating, but odd. What would the precedence be for that? Because you’re the same person but from different worlds? Maybe it’s some sort of spacial mechanism for understanding between parallel versions of people. But what triggers it and why? How does it exist in the first place? Maybe—”
“Sparky, focus!” Sunset said, snapping her fingers. “I haven’t even gotten to the weirdest part.” Though Twilight’s geek out relieved Sunset of worry. “Before I could even tell her what I saw, she flipped out. She’s hiding something.”
Twilight shrugged. “I mean, naturally, right? Seeing someone else’s memories… it’s kinda like reading their diary.”
“No, I mean, she’s hiding something. Not an embarrassing moment or secret crush, she’s got something big.”
“What makes you say that?”
Sunset fiddled with her collar. “Because she looked like she was ready to beat my face in and ran off afterwards.”
Twilight hummed. “That is rather suspicious. Do you think we should be concerned?”
“Hard to say. I could be wrong but… she was definitely freaked out by more than just the memory exchange.” They stood in line and bought a hot dog and fries to share, then joined the others back in the parking lot. Rainbow still hadn’t arrived.
Sunset checked her phone again. One hour until they performed. “I’m going to kill her.”
“To be fair, she is the team captain,” Twilight said.
“Nah, still gonna kill her.”
“So, what do we do if she doesn’t show up?” Pinkie asked. She had switched into one of Rarity’s outfits: a purple tank top with a double skirt of blue and pink, and yellow leggings.
“Hope Trixie’s magic is good enough to beat the Sirens,” Sunset said. A brief silence fell over them while they each exchanged glances. “Rainbow better show up.”
But as the minutes ticked by, Rainbow neither appeared nor texted. Fear and anger bubbling inside, Sunset helped the rest of the Rainbooms set up on the left stage.
Applejack plugged her bass in. “Ah swear, if she’s hopin’ to make some sort of dramatic entrance, Ah’m gonna put my boot up her—”
“I’m here!” Rainbow ran onto the stage, still in her soccer uniform, but guitar in hand. “I’m here, I made it!” She tried to give a confident grin, but faltered under everyone’s withering glares. “I know, I know, I’m sorry! I spaced, my bad! But I’m here now!”
“And you look positively filthy,” Rarity said, pinching her lips.
Rainbow looked down at the grass and dirt stains over her uniform and legs. “Well, I didn’t have time to change if I wanted to make it on time.”
“Did you win?” Fluttershy asked.
A full, genuine grin spread across Rainbow’s face. “Of course we won! And I made the winning shot! You should have been there! It was totally… eh heh, um, nevermind,” she said, seeing the glares return.
Sunset pointed to the curtain. “You can recount your amazing feats after you make it to the next round.” She stepped away as the curtain parted and the Rainbooms took their places.
“Welcome back, Rainbooms,” Adagio said with a soft smile. Sunset tried to read into it but found nothing. “Ready to wow us?” She frowned as her eyes settled on Rainbow. “I do hope your act is better than your appearance.”
Rarity made an audible tut.
Rainbow’s face turned scarlet. “You can count on that!” she said hotly. “‘Rainbow Rocks’ on three! One, two, three, hit it!”
Pinkie opened with the rhythmic thumping of her drums, setting the beat and tempo of the song. “We used to fight with each other.” It was hard to tell with everyone singing in unison, but Sunset heard Rainbow’s voice crack. If the judges heard it, they gave no tell.
Sunset didn’t have to worry about making a racket this time. When the song ended, none of her friends looked remotely close to ponying up, though they did look a little less tense.
“Thank you, Rainbooms, that was well done,” Cadence said cordially. Sunset bit her thumb knuckle. Would ‘well done’ be enough to survive? Would being Twilight’s girlfriend help or hinder their chances? Cadence was pretty nice; maybe Sunset could work into her good graces.
She shook her head. “Fair and honest. No more cheating. Of course, the world is on the line.”
Rainbow unplugged her guitar and set it in its case. “So, how did we sound?”
“Not bad,” Sunset said, waving her hand back and forth. “You were a little pitchy at the start.”
Rainbow huffed. “Excuse me, I just played two hours of soccer. What’d you expect?”
“So much for always being awesome,” Applejack said, passing by.
Sunset threw her hands out. “Girls! No fighting. You’re going to give them more power.” Cadence and the Dazzlings had moved on, but Sunset didn’t want to take any chances.
Twilight climbed onto the stage. “That wasn’t bad, girls. But Rainbow’s voice cracked a little.”
Rainbow grumbled, but continued wrapping up cords.
“Don’t worry though, there’s only three bands left, and the way everyone else has been playing, I think we both have a good chance at making it to the next round.”
“Right,” Rainbow said. “And with you throwing the competition next week, that’s one less band to worry about.”
Twilight frowned, her brow creasing. “What?”
Sunset put a hand on her shoulder. “It was part of our plan, remember?”
“Oh… right.” Twilight’s aura shifted and became cold to Sunset’s touch.
Twilight stepped out of Sunset’s range but forced a smile. “Yeah. Sorry, guess I got a little caught up in everything for a moment. I’ve just been having a lot of fun performing with Moondancer is all. I know what you’re all fighting for.” Her smile tightened a little more. “I’ll be sure to, you know, throw our performance off next week.”
Sunset reached her hand out. “Twi…”
She took another step back. “I should go. Moondancer’s my ride home. I’ll call you later.” She turned and hopped off the stage.
“Twilight!” Sunset ran to the edge, watching Twilight disappear into the crowd. Soul-crushing hollowness, like she had felt when she learned of the Sirens’ reason for freedom enveloped her. Twilight couldn’t have succumbed to the Sirens’ magic. She had seemed fine a few hours ago. But if she had… what was Sunset to do?
She looked back to her friends. They all gave her worrying looks, but could offer her no explanation.
“I’m sure it’s fine, Sunset,” Rarity said with a slight shake in her voice. “Maybe she really did get a little swept up in the heat of the moment. It happens to the best of us.”
“Yeah…” Sunset looked over the crowd again. “Maybe.”
Trixie and her band had been the last to perform today. As a result, much of the crowd had parted ways before they had even begun playing. Not that Trixie cared. Her mother also couldn’t attend, out of fear of being seen by the Sirens. Not that Trixie cared about that either.
She didn’t need anyone’s support, and for once, she didn’t want anyone’s adoration. She just wanted her father back.
She sat down in her car, instrument packed away, and wiped a tear from her eye. She supposed it wouldn’t have been bad to have the first two things.
“Get it together.” She patted her cheeks. “You can do this. You have to do this. You’re just as good as Sunset and her talentless friends. Magic is in your blood! Make your ancestors proud!” She made to start the engine when she realized her cape was missing. She looked at the back seats but couldn’t spot it amongst her equipment.
Trixie got out and headed back to the stage, hoping she had left it hanging on one of the chairs. That was one of her father’s capes; the last thing she wanted was to lose it.
Vendors closed and locked their stalls as she walked past. The stages and stands would be left erected for the duration of the tournament. The setting sun lengthened the shadows everything made, covering the fairgrounds in cold darkness.
Butterflies fluttered in Trixie’s stomach. Had she played good enough to make it to the next round? She thought she had sounded good. She had been practicing all week. Stop doubting yourself! If Sunset’s friends made it, then you definitely did. Was it wrong that some part of her wanted them to fail? She should have been happy they were trying to help, but all Trixie could draw upon was resentment. They were meddling in something that clearly wasn’t their business!
And for her mother to ask them for help instead of her—Trixie! Her own daughter.
Trixie balled her fists. Now was her chance to show everyone who had ever doubted her! She would win! She would beat the Sirens! She would save her father! And she would do it on her own!
Trixie walked around to the back of the stage, behind the curtains, and started searching for her cape. Even in the dim lighting, it couldn’t have been too hard to spot.
“Looking for this?”
Her blood froze in her veins. Reaching into her pocket, she spun around and pointed her wand at Adagio, standing ten paces away with Trixie’s cape in hand, and a wry smile on her lips. Her sisters stood behind her, looking equally smug.
“Oh, someone’s quick with the trigger,” Adagio said. “We just wanted to give you your cape back. With a response like that, someone might think you didn’t like us.”
“Well, duh, she doesn’t like us,” Sonata said. “We kidnapped her dad, remember?”
The smiles fell from Aria and Adagio’s faces, and Aria crossed her arms. “I should buy a muzzle for you.”
“Enough of your asinine game!” Trixie tightened her grip on the wand. “Trixie wants her father back. Now!”
“Or what?” Aria asked, her smirk returning. “If Artemis couldn’t beat us, what chance do you have?”
“Now, now,” Adagio said with a gentle wave. “Let’s give her a chance. I’m sure our fans and the police would love to know why we were ‘helplessly assaulted by a jealous competitor since we decided she wasn’t good enough to advance’,” she said in her best distressed voice.
Trixie clenched her jaw, but slowly lowered her wand. “You won’t get away with this. One way or another, I’ll make sure you lose, and no one will remember you.”
“Hey, that’s what your dad said!” Sonata chirped. A dark shadow crossed her face as she smiled. “And look where he is.”
Blood roaring in her ears, Trixie snapped her wrist up. “Lulamoon!” A bolt of magic fired from her wand for Sonata.
Adagio stepped in front and waved Trixie’s cape. The magic bolt reflected off of it and headed back toward Trixie. She threw herself onto the ground, letting the magic hit the curtain where it left a deep burn.
“Wowee, Dagi! How’d you know it would do that?”
“Lucky guess actually.”
“Should have let it hit her.”
Trixie looked up to see the three Sirens walking toward her, spreading out to surround her on three sides. “Honestly, there’s no need for hostilities, Trixie,” Adagio said. “You said you wanted to see your dad again, right? Maybe we could work out some sort of… deal.”
Dread sank its cold claws into Trixie’s stomach. “Trixie… I won’t make a deal with you!”
Aria shrugged. “All right then. So, what do you think your dad’s preferred method of death is?”
“Okay, okay! Please!” Tears fell from Trixie’s eyes. “What do you want?”
Adagio knelt in front of her. “Honestly? Nothing. It’s what you want, Trixie.” She put a finger under Trixie’s chin. “You’re here to prove something, aren’t you? It isn’t just about trying to beat us. I can see it right here in your eyes.”
Trixie shut them, hoping it would also stop her tears.
“No, no. No need to hide it,” Adagio said in a gentle, almost motherly voice. “It’s okay. Let me guess… no one takes you seriously? You’re overshadowed by your father’s heroic exploits and talents? Are you afraid of losing to these clearly inferior bands? Or maybe something of all three?”
“Stop it,” Trixie choked.
“Ding, ding, ding, it looks like we have a winner!” Adagio patted Trixie’s cheek. “Then you’re going to love this deal because it only benefits you.”
Trixie opened her eyes again. “What is it?”
“That’s it. I don’t care how you do it honestly, just make the other bands look bad. Give us a reason not to let them onto the next round. Find their dirty secrets, break their instruments, steal their songs, it doesn’t matter.” Adagio kept her gloved palm against Trixie’s cheek, slowly digging her nails into skin. “If we see you do it, we’ll just turn a blind eye. Then, all you have to do is play better than everyone else. Sounds easy, right? You’ll win, prove you’re the best, and we’ll even let you have your father back.”
Trixie winced. “Too easy. What’s in it for you?”
Adagio just kept smiling. “Nothing of value. I told you, this deal is here only to benefit you. See? We’re not complete monsters.”
“I highly doubt that.” Trixie bit her lip. She had nothing to bargain with. They held every card, including the most important of all. Sure, Trixie had sabotaged before, but this felt different. Last time it was out of petty spite, this time, she was furthering her mortal enemies’ plans.
But her father…
“I’ll do it,” she said under her breath.
Adagio’s smile widened, showing off her sharp teeth. “I was hoping that’d be your answer.” She stood up and turned with her sisters to go. “Just make sure you don’t tell anyone. Especially your mother. I’d hate for her to have to become a widow.” All three of them broke into laughs, and as they stepped away from the stage, Adagio dropped the cape onto the grass.
Trixie got to her feet, legs trembling. She walked over and picked up her cape, looking at the stars and moon printed on the back. Her tears fell anew, and she clutched it against her chest.
“Daddy, please forgive me.”