The week leading into the semi-finals had not been kind to any of the Rainbooms. Applejack came to school everyday disgruntled and snappy, and found it hard to sit for long periods of time. Rarity had also been punished for using Sweetie Belle’s ticket, forcing her to rebel against her parents, though her punishment seemed a bit graver.
“If I keep practicing with you girls, my parents said they’ll stop paying the rent for my shop,” Rarity told them Tuesday, her mascara running.
“Hey, with the prize money we’ll win, you can just buy your own shop,” Rainbow said, trying to alleviate the mood. No one cracked a smile.
Sunset faced her own trials as well. Though she shared classes with Twilight, she seemed aloof and distant, even when they worked together. Every time Sunset asked what was wrong, Twilight rebuffed with a simple, “Nothing. Everything’s fine.” But she no longer kissed Sunset on the lips, or gave Sunset her brilliant smile. She no longer tried to give endearing pet names or use terrible puns. Twilight gave a peck on the cheek as a greeting, and a simple hand wave as a farewell.
The hollow, sucking feeling manifested itself as a permanent fixture in Sunset’s stomach. Twilight’s cold demeanor only made up one part of her mounting anxiety. So far, interactions between Lamia and the girls had been minimal, with Lamia popping in to say hi, or making snarky comments from the window that their music belonged in an after school special. But the dread that Lamia could potentially ruin any of them, even Sunset herself if she wanted to…
Then, there was still the counterspell. After testing a few parts individually, Sunset finally had a draft of the composition, and on Thursday, they tested it out. Everyone had a copy of the score and lyrics. Rainbow stood in front of the microphone, trying to balance playing her new chords while reading the lyrics.
“Hey, hey, listen,
“We got a message for you!
“We’re not all alike,
“But our friendship is true!”
Sunset winced at a spot of feedback and stepped away from the speaker.
“Yeah, we're really different.
“But we still get along!
“So hey, hey, listen to our song!
“You may think you're in control,
“But we're here to prove you wrong!”
“Okay, that’s enough, stop, stop!” Sunset waved her arms. The instruments slowly fell silent, and Sunset secretly breathed a sigh of relief.
“Yeah, not gonna lie,” Shimmer said from her window, “that was pretty bad.”
“Yeah, thank you.” Sunset hunched her shoulders.
“Like, really, really bad.”
“Like, that was one of the worst songs—”
“Thank you for the feedback, I get it! Go away now!”
Shimmer shrugged and shut her window again. Sunset pressed her copy of the song to her face and groaned.
“Ah hate to say it, Sunset. But she has a point,” Applejack said, reading through it. “Ah mean, ‘With the magic of friendship, gonna stop your evil plan.’ Ah know they ain’t bein’ subtle, but this is just… obvious.”
“It looked a lot better on paper,” Sunset said, muffled by the page. She lowered it, eyes wide and a grin stretched ear-to-ear. “But it’s fine! It’s fine! It just needs some tweaking! Everything will be fine!” Her voice cracked.
Rarity took her keytar off from around her shoulders. “Darling, are you all right?”
“I told you, I’m fine!” Sunset waved the paper. “This is all that matters. I just need to fix it some more. It’ll be ready by next week, Sunset guarantee!”
Rarity nodded, unconvinced. “You also seem to be snippy with Shimmer. Everything fine between you two?”
“You mean besides invading each other’s minds whenever we touch? Yep, our friendship couldn't be better!”
Applejack followed Rarity’s lead and took her bass off. “Okay, maybe that’s enough practice for today. We’ll play through ‘Shake Your Tail’ tomorrow to get ready for Saturday.”
Everyone gave an exhausted sigh of relief and began taking down their equipment. Sunset’s skin prickled at the release of pent up tension and disappointment. She looked at the song in her hand, realizing she had crumpled it on impulse, and shoved it into her pocket. As much as she wanted to burn it to ashes, she needed something to work off of.
Clean-up proved sluggish, and even with six pairs of hands, it took longer than normal to get everything squared away. Even Pinkie had less energy than usual. She gave a confident smile whenever anyone was looking, but Sunset caught contemplative frowns from the corner of her eye.
When Sunset thought on it, no one had ponied up since they had first performed in front of Lamia. Perhaps transformations also rely on morale? It was a hypothesis to explore at a later date. Sunset just hoped they had enough cheer or magic or whatever to pony up when they confronted the Sirens. If we confront the Sirens. She shook her head. They will confront the Sirens, you will watch from afar. You just need to write a freakin’ song that will actually work!
Shimmer gave them a casual goodbye as the Rainbooms left. Sunset made it a point to ignore her completely: the walking, talking reminder of what she had once been, and what she could have potentially become. The girls split with half-hearted goodbyes of their own, Rarity and Applejack off to face another round of punishment from their families. The looks on their faces as they left turned Sunset’s hollow nausea into a sickening vortex. She wished she had never told them to rebel. But she needed them to play.
Her conversation with Flash played in her ears as she mounted her bike. Was she just using them? Making them do all the work while she sat on the sidelines? I’m writing the song that will help them win! But truth be told, any of them could do that. Fluttershy’s songs could have—
She kicked herself mentally and slapped a hand against her handlebars. Fluttershy had mentioned she had written songs over a week ago and they still hadn’t gotten to them! Of course she’s not going to say anything, she’s Fluttershy! Sunset made it a point to remind them to try one of Fluttershy’s songs after the semis.
The tangent had been enough to stop Sunset from spiraling into darker thoughts. At least until she tried to fall asleep later on. Sleep hadn’t come easy to her the past week. She spent hours tossing and turning, sitting up and reaching for her notebook to try and piece together an idea. When sleep did come, demons and Sirens plagued her, with Twilight nowhere to be found.
Sunset rose Friday morning with bags under her eyes, complemented by her unruly bedhead. She groaned wearily at her reflection and stepped into the hall just as Trixie got out of the bathroom. She stopped and gave Sunset a castigating glance.
“Trixie thinks that’s a good look for you.” Her hair whipped back at Sunset as she turned down the hall.
First thing she’s said to me in weeks. I’ll take it. Sunset cleaned herself up and set out for school, exchanging a sober goodbye with Selena. You can do this, Sunset told herself. After today, just one more week of this hell, and everything will go back to normal. Celestia willing. In the meantime, she had a spiteful school and an emotionally manipulated girlfriend to deal with.
Sunset’s heart sank into the tar pit that had become her stomach. Must be nice being Lamia. The only thing she has to worry about is getting caught by the police.
Twilight sat at a lab table up front, reading a book when Sunset walked into their chemistry class. She leaned over and gave Twilight a kiss on the cheek to stir her out of her word world. Sunset thought she saw a smile, but Twilight responded to her advance with, “You know there’s no PDA in class.”
Sunset took her seat, hunching her shoulders. “Right. Of course.”
“It’s nice to see you though.”
“Right back at ya,” Sunset said listlessly. She sat up and squared her shoulders, bracing herself for the upcoming conversation. Sunset wasn’t stupid; Twilight’s exposure to the Siren’s music, her cool demeanor, her free time spent practicing with Moondancer. Dropping out of the competition was probably the absolute last thing Twilight wanted to do. Still, Sunset had to hope that enough of her Twilight was cognizant enough to remember what was at stake. “Twilight, listen—”
“I know what you’re going to say.” Twilight didn’t bother looking up from her book. “I haven’t forgotten our agreement.”
Sunset pressed her fingers together. “Okay… but are you going to keep to it?”
Twilight flipped the page but didn’t respond.
“Why do you have to be the ones to win the tournament and beat the Sirens?”
Sunset’s brain momentarily paused on the ‘win the tournament’ part. “Because we need to play the counterspell in front of as many people as possible and hit the Sirens with the Elements of Harmony,” she said slowly. “So, unless you plan to beat the Sirens over the head with your violin—which I would not be opposed to if you did—this is the only way.”
“Right. Of course.”
She looked up from her book. “I will consider it come tomorrow.”
“Consider it? Twilight, I just said—”
“I acknowledged your claim and will factor it into my performance tomorrow.” She returned to her book as Mr. Doodle walked in, followed by the sound of the bell.
Sunset curled her fingers. When Twilight started talking technical, it meant the discussion was over. At least for the time being. She remained adamant in her refusal to discuss it further when she packed her bag at the end of class with lightning speed and disappeared for all of passing period. She reappeared in their AP Economics class just as the bell rang, and departed just as quickly when the bell for lunch sounded.
Sunset stomped her way to lunch, not having been this frustrated with Twilight since their very first interactions many months ago. She can’t avoid me forever! She dropped into her seat and crossed her arms and legs.
“Hey to you, too,” Rainbow said.
“Sorry,” Sunset said, glaring at the tabletop. “Twilight’s being… aggravating right now. I don’t think she’s going to throw the round tomorrow.”
Applejack sighed. “Well, Ah can’t say Ah’m surprised. Just remember, it’s not her fault. It’s the Sirens.” She paused. “And whatever idiot thought it good to set them free.”
Sunset did her best not to wince, biting her tongue instead. A karma six months in the making. Why give me happy things in the first place if they're just going to get ripped away? Oh right, because the universe hates me.
Rarity took a seat on Sunset’s right, hair frazzled and eyes puffy, either from lack of sleep or crying. “It took me all night, but I put the finishing touches on everyone’s outfits for tomorrow!”
“Rarity, for the last time, this ain’t—”
“Applejack!” Flames danced in Rarity’s eyes. She leaned across the table and whispered, “My parents have defunded my entire business. I need to promote my clothes at this competition in order to make enough money to keep my store open. Designing clothes is the only joy I have right now, and so help me, if you try to take that away, I will run needles through you until you’re nothing but a pincushion!”
Everyone at the table looked at Rarity in horrified silence. Applejack pressed herself as far as she could into the back of her chair. “Right. Of course, sugarcube. You can do whatever you want.” She brought her hat over her eyes.
Rarity straightened up and smiled like nothing had happened. “Good. So long as we understand each other.”
“Wow, that’s something I would have expected out of Sunset,” Rainbow said. She caught Sunset’s eye. “I’m not sayin’ it this time.”
“Good.” No one spoke after that, not even when they parted ways for their last period. Sunset made it to AP Trigonometry before Twilight did and waited in the back. One way or another, they’d finish their conversation.
Twilight did not share Sunset’s conviction. She walked in, rolled her eyes at Sunset’s seat placement, and took her normal desk at the front of the class, where Ms. Vector could watch her like a hawk.
You’re really trying to test my patience, aren’t you, Sparky? When class ended two hours later, Sunset found the answer to that question was a resounding yes. Twilight packed her bags and made it through the door just as the bell finished ringing. Sunset bolted after her, shoving past students trying to reach the exit. She could just see the back of Twilight’s head at the other end of the hall. “Twilight!” she yelled, but Twilight refused to look back.
“Trouble in Eden?”
Sunset broke from the main tide of students just to find Moondancer standing off to the side, holding herself with smug dignity and poise. Sunset stopped, her frustration with Twilight drowned out by a wave of agitation. However, looking Moondancer in the eye, it fermented into something Sunset couldn’t quite explain. “Moondancer,” she said evenly.
Moondancer smiled. “It seems—”
“There is a long list of people I do not want to see right now, and you are literally at the top of that list. In fact, you are so far ahead of the second person on that list that I might have to make a new one just for you. I have a list of the reasons why you are on the list of people I should not, would not, and could not like; a list so long, I could write both my undergrad and graduate thesis on ‘the reasons why I do not like Moondancer’ in single-space, eleven point font, and still go beyond the maximum page requirement for both papers. If I want to see how much I hate someone, I now have to grade them on a scale of one to you. It’s like the universe compounded together everything I hate about the world into one walking, talking, Shakespeare drama piece so nauseating that Shakespeare himself is rolling in his grave. If we were somehow the last two people on earth and had a chance to procreate, I would rather jump off the nearest cliff. And the reason I’m telling you this, Moondancer, is because there’s no way I can catch Twilight and make her listen to me right now. But here you are, about to spout more nonsense in an attempt to make my head spin more violently than that girl in The Exorcist, and with the month I’ve had, and the week to follow, this is probably my only chance to blow off some steam. In fact, the only reason I haven’t gotten violent is because, for some unfathomable reason, Twilight considers you her best friend and would be upset if I put my boot up your ass but, oh boy, is that rope wearing real thin. So I’m going to say this once, you poetry-spitting, flower-dancing moonchild. If I hear one more purple-covered word spew from your mouth, I swear to the darkest force listening, I will snap. And I will not apologize for ensuing damage to your mental or physical well-being. Okay? Okay.”
Moondancer’s smile had dropped to a thin frown, then a puckered line throughout Sunset’s tirade. They exchanged stares while a few lingering students hung around, expecting a punch to be thrown. Moondancer closed her eyes and turned down the hall to where Twilight had gone off. She stood in place a minute longer, then carried on, hands folded in front of her.
Sunset’s lips quivered into a smile. “Anger management at work.”
Rainbow ran up to her side, grinning ear-to-ear. “That was awesome!”
“Yeah.” Sunset deflated, sagging her shoulders. “Let’s hope she doesn’t repeat that to Twilight.” She let Rainbow lead her away. Though she now had anxiety over Twilight being even more mad with her, Sunset couldn’t deny she felt better. She was at least glad Rainbow got a kick out of it, and when she recounted the event to the rest of the Rainbooms at practice, it got a laugh out of almost all of them.
“Wait, wait, hold on,” Applejack said between chuckles. “Ah wanna hear it straight. What did you call her?”
Sunset thought back. “A poetry-spitting, flower-dancing moonchild.”
Applejack, Pinkie, and Rainbow roared with laughter. Rarity had a hard time stifling her own giggles. Fluttershy, however, barely cracked a smile. “I know you don’t like her, Sunset, but don’t you think that was a bit mean?”
“Fluttershy, she hates me too. It’s a mutual hatred. Besides, I really was not in the mood to hear whatever she was going to say. Maybe now, she’ll keep her mouth shut.”
“Doubt it,” Rainbow said.
Fluttershy crossed her arms, making her tambourine rattle. “Two wrongs don’t make a right and you know it. And besides, I’m sure she doesn’t hate you. She’s just… a little upset that you’re dating her best friend… that she used to like.”
“She had like, three years to make a move. Not my fault she didn’t. I’d gladly tolerate her if she didn’t want to hold a grudge.”
“Maybe if you show her some kindness, she’ll stop holding a grudge.”
Sunset rolled her eyes. “Fluttershy, like I told Moondancer, I’d rather jump off a cliff. I tried to play nice, and as long as Twilight’s around, I’ll continue to not contemplate ways to cause her mental, physical, or emotional trauma. But that’s the furthest extent of my kindness.” Sunset leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. “Now, if you want to go make friends with her, be my guest. Kindness is your element, not mine.”
Fluttershy made a frustrated huff and rattled her tambourine again. The girls got into position to practice and started off their set with one of Fluttershy’s songs to try and appease her. By the end, she looked calmer, but wouldn’t make eye contact with Sunset or Rainbow. They moved on to a couple of run throughs for ‘Shake Your Tale’ before calling it a night. No one ponied up, but it looked like Rainbow had gotten close.
“Break a leg, heroes,” Shimmer said from the stairs as they filed out. “I’m rooting for you, little sentai rangers.”
Rarity froze, scrunching her face in revulsion. “That’s disgusting! We’re nothing of the sort!”
Rainbow doubled back. “No, sentai, groups of heroes, magical girl stuff. Not… the other thing.”
“What other thing?” Sunset asked. Rainbow leaned over and whispered into her ear. Sunset made a face identical to Rarity’s. “That’s disgusting!”
With only nine bands left, the crowd for the semi-finals proved smaller than last weeks. The losing bands had taken their family and friends with them, leaving behind those who just wanted to see bands go at it, not caring who won or lost. The first band didn’t go on until three in the afternoon, giving the Rainbooms plenty of time to relax and calm their nerves, or in the case of Sunset, hunt for Twilight.
This fairground isn’t that big, she has to be around here somewhere. Though it wasn’t big, the grounds proved to have many holes to hide in. Sunset made two rounds around the fairground and still couldn’t find any trace of Twilight or Moondancer for that matter. However, on her third round, while walking behind the leftmost stage, she found Trixie skulking about, wand in hand.
Sunset stepped up behind her. “What are you doing?”
“Eeeeeek!” Trixie whipped around, quickly stowing her wand away. “Nothing!” She cleared her throat and adjusted the clasp of her cape. “Trixie was just scoping out the competition.”
“Uh-huh.” Sunset saw the sweat gathered on Trixie’s brow, and the way her pupils erratically moved. “Trixie, are you all right?”
“Trixie is just fine, thank you very much! She wish she could say the same thing about you! Today is the last day your band plays in this competition!”
“For the last time, we’re on the same side, Trixie!”
Trixie paid her no heed and stomped on by. But as she pushed past, Sunset swore she saw something other than pride and vanity in her eyes. Fear? Sunset watched her go, making a mental note to keep an eye on her. She then resumed her search, circling around the stage before entering the heart of the grounds again. Even with the light breeze, the day proved to be a warm one. Wearing her leather jacket probably didn’t help. Sunset wiped a little sweat from her brow and decided to take a break with her friends in the parking lot. Upon arriving, her eyes fell onto Rarity in her new outfit.
Sunset gave herself a second to choose her words carefully, looking for the least scathing comment. “Rarity, you look like a windchime.”
Applejack let out a cough that sounded like, “Told ya.”
Pinkie took a bite out of her cotton candy. “I still say she looks like a hippy.”
Rarity wore a glittering beige jacket with metal chimes dangling from the arms. There were more around the hem and decorating the boots. The jacket covered a white shirt and purple skirt. Around her head was a band that matched the jacket. Rarity stuck her nose in the air. “I needed something that would stand out and get people to notice. ‘That’s so unique! Wherever did you get it?’ Why, darling, it’s a Rarity original.”
Sunset pinched the bridge of her nose. “As long as it doesn’t impede your playing, I don’t care what you wear.”
“I’m glad you said that, because I have outfits for everyone!”
Applejack let out a long, agonized sigh but said nothing. Upon Rarity’s reveal of everyone’s outfits, Rainbow spoke up, holding her dress aloft.
“Rarity, I can’t wear this. It’s not nearly cool enough.”
“But, Rainbow, it fits you to a T. Besides, it goes great with our Wondercolt accessories!” She pulled out a pair of Wondercolt ears and tails. “We’re singing ‘Shake Your Tail’ after all.”
“You still have those?” Sunset asked, remembering the flash mob led by Princess Twilight.
“Of course! Just in case the school needs a little bit of spirit!” She jumped and waved her hands.
“I get you’re trying to promote your business,” Rainbow said, “but don’t you think you should have run this by the band leader first?”
“Sunset said it was okay.”
Rainbow scrunched her nose. “I meant me!”
Pinkie took another bite of her candy. “I thought Sunset was the leader?”
“She doesn’t even play an instrument!”
“No, but this whole thing was her idea,” Applejack said.
Rainbow gestured to her guitar case. “Yeah, but I play lead guitar and I’m lead vocals. Plus, I wrote most our songs.”
Fluttershy crossed her arms and turned away. “I wrote songs too. We just barely play them.”
“Girls, we’re off topic now,” Sunset said, moving her hands in a placating manner. “It doesn’t really matter who the leader is. And if it helps Rarity out, just wear her costumes for one song. Come on, it’s for a friend.”
Rainbow shoved her hands in her pockets and looked skyward. “Fine. For a friend.”
“Besides, it’ll be fun dressing up again!” Pinkie said. She put her mouth around the remaining cotton candy and swallowed it whole.
Sunset reeled back. “Right. You girls get dressed. I’m going to go look for Twilight again.” She didn’t get far in her search. Upon returning to the main event area, Sunset found the first band had begun playing, or at least, they were attempting to.
A boy playing a saxophone furrowed his brow each time he blew his instrument only for bubbles to float out instead of music. He gave it a vigorous shake and tried again, but to no avail. His bandmate on the keyboard didn’t fare much better, hitting off keys every third note. By the confusion on her face, Sunset believed it was more than her just having a bad day.
Over on the middle stage, she could see the members of the next band frantically running back and forth searching for something. One of them looked like she was on the verge of tears.
Trixie, please tell me you haven’t stooped this low…. Again.
A finger tapped her shoulder, and Sunset turned around, spirits further dampened on finding Flash with his hand held out. “All right, give them back,” he said.
Sunset looked at his hand. “Give what back?”
“Stop playing dumb and just hand them over!”
She smacked his hand away. “The only thing I see you asking for is a knuckle sandwich!”
Flash balled his fist. “My guitar pick and the drum sticks. We had them fifteen minutes ago, and now they’re gone.”
Sunset crossed her arms. “And you think I took them?”
“Well gee, who else has a penchant for sabotaging others by any underhanded means she can think of?” Flash crossed his arms as well.
“Here’s an idea: maybe you misplaced them.”
“I know exactly where I left them, Sunset. Just give them back and maybe I won’t tell the judges you tried to cheat.”
Sunset rolled her eyes. “I don’t need cheap tricks to beat you. Now, I suggest you keep moving before I lose my cool.”
Flash stood firm. “You don’t scare me, Shimmer.” They stood their ground, neither flinching from the other’s intense glare. The electricity between their eyes threatened to spark something much more explosive until Flash finally took a step back. “This isn’t over.”
She watched him go, easing up her scowl when he turned away. He’s gonna move up to second on the list if this keeps up. She shoved her hands in her jacket pockets, and felt her fingers brush against something that shouldn’t have been in there. She pulled out a blue guitar pick and resumed her scowl. Horse apples. Trixie, why?
After searching fruitlessly for Twilight for another twenty minutes, and seeing the second band have to forfeit because one member couldn’t find her clarinet, Sunset returned to her friends once again, finding them all dressed up. She marched over to Fluttershy and put Flash’s guitar pick in her hand.
“Find Flash and tell him you found it by the food court.” She closed Fluttershy’s palm around it and leaned forward. “Tell him you found it,” she said carefully.
Fluttershy, now dressed in a green shirt and pink vest with a pink and blue double skirt, tilted her head. “Umm, sure. Why—”
“Just do it,” Sunset said in a snippy tone she usually saved for Rainbow. Looking hurt, Fluttershy walked away, guitar pick in hand. Sunset made a mental note to apologize later.
Applejack stepped over. Rarity’s outfit for her consisted of a simple orange dress with a wide skirt that ended above her knees, black pants, and brown boots with apple prints stitched into them. Her hair, was done up in two long pigtails.
Now that Sunset really looked at her, she didn’t think Applejack had enough hair for pigtails of that length.
“Why did you have Flash’s pick?” she asked, voice flat and eyes lidded.
“Trixie’s making sabotage rounds.” Sunset looked Applejack up and down, taking note of her hunched shoulders and bent knees. “You’re having a great time, aren’t you?”
“More fun than a hog in a mud bath,” she said between her teeth.
Sunset jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Well, the second band had to quit early, so the middle stage is ready for set-up. Let’s go.” She looked over at Rainbow, trying to examine herself in the side-mirror of her car. “C’mon, Dash!”
Rainbow turned, showing off a blue and purple shirt with a large v-neck, purple plaid skirt, and fishnet leggings of all things. She tugged at the choker around her neck. “I can’t tell if I love or hate this.”
Rarity waved her arm, making her wind chimes jingle. “You look great, darling! It really puts together the ‘rocker’ look! Sunset, I made an outfit for you too!”
Sunset paused from picking up the amp. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, Rarity, but I won’t actually be on stage.” She took one look at the puppy-dog eyes Rarity gave and yielded. “Sure, I’ll—”
Rarity held the outfit out in front of Sunset before she could blink. “Here! I think it really brings out the yellow in your hair.”
“Right.” Sunset took the clothes, wary of the slightly manic look in Rarity’s eye. She headed for the restrooms to change while her friends continued set-up. A few minutes later, Sunset joined them on the center stage wearing a sleeveless yellow blouse and a ruffled knee length skirt with wispy cloud patterns.
Oh, I get it. I’m the rising sun. Hah.
Rainbow tested her guitar chords, nodding as she made the correct adjustments. “All right, I know we haven’t had the best week. But we’re halfway to beating the Sirens and putting this all behind us. Another win today puts us in the finals, so let’s just go out there, forget about our problems, and let the music do all the talking.” She looked down at her outfit again. “Hopefully it’ll say more than this,” she muttered.
Pinkie bounced in her seat. “Go out there and have fun! I am totally down for this plan!”
“Good luck, girls,” Sunset said, giving a thumbs up. “I’ll be on the lookout for Trixie to make sure she doesn’t try anything funny.”
Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Come on, it’s Trixie. She’s a minor annoyance at best.”
Not when there’s more than her pride at stake. Sunset slipped onto the other side of the curtain and hopped off stage. The band from Crystal Prep was still playing, giving Sunset time to make a choice: hunt for Trixie, or hunt for Twilight. At this point, there was very little she could do to sway Twilight back to her side, so Sunset would have to leave it to fate. She could stop Trixie from interfering, however.
Like Twilight, Trixie proved hard to find. Sunset moved through the crowd, checked under the stands, and snuck around behind the stages, but couldn’t find hat nor cape of Trixie. By the time Sunset returned to the main field, the Rainbooms had taken the stage and were ready to go.
“We've just got the day to get ready,
“And there's only so much time to lose.
“Because tonight, yeah, we're here to party,
“So let's think of something fun to do.”
Sunset cupped her ears. It almost sounded like Rainbow’s mike was going out. She disregarded the thought when Rarity’s windchimes floated into the air, taking her arms along with them. Rarity’s eyes filled with panic, and she struggled to bring her arms down to her keytar. Applejack furrowed her brow, glaring at Rarity like she was doing it on purpose.
For the love of the sun, Trixie! Sunset whipped around, trying to find the saboteur. Turning to her left, she finally saw Twilight and Moondancer make their way toward the other stage. Sunset flinched toward them on instinct, but turned the other way to keep searching for Trixie.
Whatever force was controlling Rarity began slowly dragging her away from her microphone. She stretched her neck forward to keep her voice heard as her part of the song came up. “Do your thing, erk, you know you’re an original!” she grunted, sliding back.
“Your ideas are so funny that they’re criminal.” Applejack finally caught on that Rarity was not acting that way by choice, but could only watch confused as her friend flailed about.
Sunset spared a glance at the faces of the crowd goers. They certainly seemed interested, but not the least bit concerned over the happenings on stage. A single spotlight flashed upon Fluttershy, and she froze like a deer in headlights. She looked upon the crowd staring back at her, and for a moment, Sunset thought she might faint.
Fluttershy took a large step to the right, but the light followed her. She stepped again, then stepped to the other side while trying to find her rhythm again, but the light proved persistent. Finally, she dove for cover behind Pinkie, her tambourine barely audible over the drums.
As she weaved through the crowd, Sunset finally caught sight of Trixie hiding behind a crate of supplies in between two of the stages. Sunset balled her fists and ran around to the other side. Trixie’s back was angled toward Sunset, her attention engrossed in the mayhem she was causing on stage. Her wand moved back and forth, dictating Rarity’s actions and occasionally moving the light to try and shine on Fluttershy again.
“That’s enough, Trixie!”
Trixie jumped, jerking her wand hand up. Rarity also leapt into the air before her arms were momentarily freed. “Go away, Sunset before Trixie jinxes you too!”
“Trixie, I know you want to win,” Sunset said, trying her hardest to keep her voice calm, “but this isn’t the way to do it. And you’re sabotaging the one team trying to help you!”
“Not true. Trixie is sabotaging everyone.” Trixie flicked her wand, and Rarity’s arms flew into the air again. “This one just happens to be really easy. One magnet charm, and your friend is Trixie’s marionette.” She tried to give a haughty smirk, but the tips of her mouth came up forced.
“Trixie, I know you’re scared—”
“Stop trying to empathize with Trixie! You don’t know what I’m going through! Stop trying to be some stupid hero! This is my fight and I’ll win it without your help!” Trixie flung her arms down, and a loud tearing sound could be heard from the stage. Sunset looked over to see Rarity’s sleeves had been completely torn off, leaving her on the brink of tears. Trixie stowed her wand away and turned her nose up. “Good luck getting to the finals now.” She shoved her way past Sunset and disappeared around the corner.
“Shake your tail, ‘cause we’re here to have a party tonight!” the girls finished, trying to sound as peppy as possible.
The curtains closed around the Rainbooms as their song ended, and Sunset hurried back on stage. “Are you girls okay?” Rarity ran past her, fully in tears.
“Define ‘okay’,” Rainbow said sullenly.
“Ah thought you said you would be keepin’ an eye on Trixie?” Applejack said, pointing a finger at Sunset.
“Hey, I tried to stop her! I spent most of the song trying to find her!”
Pinkie stepped up to Sunset’s side. “Besides, it’s not Sunset’s fault one of us spent most of the time running back and forth across the stage.”
Fluttershy wilted. “I got scared.”
“It was a light. A light!”
Rainbow slumped against one of the support beams. “Ugh, with a performance like that, it’ll take a miracle for us to advance.”
“We’ll worry about that in a second,” Sunset said. “I’m going to go check on Rarity.”
“Ah’ll go with you,” Applejack said. They set out for the parking lot, finding Rarity curled inside her car with a blanket over her.
Sunset tapped on the window. “Rarity, it’s us.”
Rarity groped around until she hit the unlock button and allowed them to open up the door. “That was the most humiliating moment of my life,” she said, keeping herself wrapped in the blanket. She briefly stuck her head out to give Applejack a sharp glare. “Thanks for the help by the way!”
Applejack huffed. “What’d you want me to do? Stop playing my part too? Two instruments missing and one off key, we’d never make it to the finals like that. We’ll be lucky if we pull it off as is. Maybe next time, you’ll wear something more practical.”
Rarity fully emerged from her cocoon, eyes red and narrow. “My choice of clothing is not the problem here, Applejack! How was I supposed to know someone was going to bring a magnet to the fair?”
Sunset wedged herself between them and held a hand up before Applejack could respond. “She’s right, Applejack. The only one to blame here…” Sunset sighed. “Is Trixie.” And me, but I’ll handle that later. She laid a hand on Rarity’s shoulder. “I understand if you want to go home. I don’t think there’s much left here for any of us, really.”
Rarity mulled it over before nodding. “I think a long bath would be nice after a day like today. I’ll see you girls later.”
They exited the car and allowed Rarity to finish composing herself before she drove off. Applejack turned her head back to the stages. “Today’s been about as smooth as old bark on a tree.”
“Where do you get these from?”
Applejack shrugged. “It’s a gift.”
“Return it.” Sunset ignored Applejack’s annoyed grunt and marched back to help the others finish take down. Flash Drive had taken the stage, with Flash having his guitar pick returned. His drummer had improvised by using two thin branches as drumsticks. Even so, as Sunset walked around the stage, she heard the unmistakable snap of a guitar string. Flash cursed but tried to continue playing like nothing happened.
Sunset admired his determination if nothing else. From the corner of her eye, she could see Rainbow wincing every time Flash missed or had to improvise a note.
The Rainbooms loaded their equipment up and gathered around Applejack’s truck. “Ah say we get while the gettin’s good,” she said. “No sense stayin’ around to see this trainwreck.”
Sunset looked to the sun, steadily sinking to the horizon. “You’re probably right. But I want to see if Twilight keeps her word or not.”
“Ah hate to tell you this, sugarcube, but Ah’m pretty sure she’s playin’ for keeps, just like the rest of them.”
Hearing it turned Sunset’s stomach, but she knew Applejack was right. Still, even if Twilight was trying to distance herself from Sunset, Sunset still wanted to be there to watch Twilight play.
Applejack rolled her neck and sighed. “All right, Ah can already tell by that look in your eye you’re gonna go anyway. Might as well tag along.”
Rainbow groaned. “Yeah, fine. Guess I don’t have anything better to do.”
“Inspiring as always, Dash,” Sunset deadpanned. Back at the stages, Twilight and Moondancer were prepping their act, while Flash was setting down. He locked eyes with Sunset, grabbed his guitar, and jumped off stage toward her.
As he approached, he held his guitar aloft. “Mind explaining this?”
“It’s called a ‘guitar’. I would think you knew all about them,” Sunset said unable to help herself.
Flash’s face began to turn red. “I meant the string!”
Sunset crossed her arms. “Boy, you’re determined to blame me for your misfortunes, aren’t you?”
“Because I know you caused them!”
“I’m not sabotaging you, Flash! In case you hadn’t noticed, Rarity—the girl you’ve had puppy-dog eyes for recently—was just dangled around like a puppet! We’re both being messed with!”
“Okay, by who then?”
Sunset bit her tongue. As much as she would have loved to get the heat off her, she couldn’t sell Trixie down the river. “I don’t know, but it’s not me!” She found herself caught between Flash’s skeptical lidded eyes and Applejack’s questioning eyebrow.
Flash gripped the neck of his guitar. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. We still put on a better performance than your band. Enjoy the view from the stands, ‘cause that’s where you’ll be come next weekend.” He stormed off, leaving a chill in his wake.
The tension broke upon a loud squeak that emanated from Moondancer’s piano. Sunset turned, finding they had begun performing for the judges. Twilight kept her eyes closed and performed with every bit of grace and artistry Sunset had come to expect. Moondancer played equally as well, but every time she hit a certain key, a loud squeak sounded from within the piano. Her eyes flew open as it happened a third time, then a fourth. Upon the fifth, she slammed her hands against the keys, the squeak mixing in with the dissonant noise. She willed Twilight to slide off the top, then propped it open and reached inside.
From within, Moondancer pulled out a rubber duck. She stared at it, long and hard, her expression blank. “Hilarious.”
Pinkie thought so. She laid on her back, holding her sides while she laughed up a storm. Sunset gave her a sharp kick when Moondancer and Twilight looked down at them.
Moondancer flung the duck into the crowd. “May we start again?” she asked in her sweetest voice.
“I think we can allow that,” Cadence said.
Twilight took her place atop the piano again, and her and Moondancer began their duet anew. Twilight still refused to look at her friends, and played with no intention of losing. But as the song progressed, her notes slowly fell out of tune. Sunset focused on the violin pegs, and could see them slowly turning. Twilight played through, teeth clenched as she redoubled her efforts to keep her music sounding perfect.
Thankfully, the song ended before she could fall completely flat. Cadence cringed as she wrote something down. “That was… good, girls.” She and the Dazzlings stood and moved onto the next band.
Twilight set her violin aside and made her way down to the grass. Mouth thin, eyes narrowed, she marched straight toward Sunset, stopping when there was only a foot between them. She crossed her arms and tapped her shoe against the ground.
“Oh no, I know what you’re thinking,” Sunset said. “We did not put that duck in Moondancer’s piano.”
“But it was pretty funny,” Pinkie said.
Twilight kept her eyes locked with Sunset’s. “I’m just finding it very convenient that after you told me to throw the match, Moondancer and I run into a set of complications.”
Sunset shook her head. “You can’t seriously think I’d stoop this low and sabotage you of all people?”
“Well, I know you’ve resorted to underhanded tricks in the past, so I wouldn’t put it past you,” Twilight said heatedly.
The barb struck Sunset through the heart, and she staggered back. “Of all the people I thought would have believed me,” she whispered. “Twilight, you know me better than that.”
“I also know how badly you want to win.”
“Yeah, for all the right reasons,” Sunset said, starting to raise her voice. “You know that. Why are you trying so hard to win?”
“To prove to you I can handle myself! You seem to trust everyone else but me!”
“Well, I trusted you to throw the match here, and look how that went!”
Twilight balled her fists. “See? That’s all I am to you! A tool to help get what you want! Well not this time! Trust me when I say, Moondancer and I are going to win, even with your cheats!”
“We didn’t cheat, but now I’m starting to wish I had!” Sunset yelled, her cheeks splotchy. “Go ahead and try to win!” She lowered her voice to a challenging whisper. “I’d love to see how you fight off the Sirens.”
Twilight let out a scream of frustration and stormed off, but not before a hint of green flashed across her eyes. Sunset watched her go, a sickening cold quickly replacing the furious heat that had burned through her.
Moondancer stepped off the stage and stood by her ear. “Remember when I said you would screw things up on your own?” she asked, voice filled with smug satisfaction. “Well, this is that moment. And you performed wonderfully!”
The furious heat returned with a vengeance, and a sound came from Sunset’s throat that she couldn’t quite identify. It sounded like a fire-spitting cat, but she was too busy lunging at Moondancer, nails aimed for the girl’s throat, to notice.
Applejack sprung forward and got Sunset into a full-nelson just as Moondancer jumped back. “No, Sunset, she’s not worth it!” Applejack yelled in her ear.
Sunset heard, but it didn’t register. “Let me go! Just give me ten seconds and I’ll rearrange her pretty face!” If there was any consolation, it was that Moondancer had at least looked scared for a brief moment. Her victorious smirk returned until she hid it behind a hand and walked away, tittering softly, a green light in her eyes as well.
Applejack didn’t let Sunset go until Moondancer was well out of sight. When she was finally released, Sunset fell to the ground, feeling numb and frozen from the inside out. The tears fell on their own, the only release she could give without screaming to the sky.
She wanted to slap sense into Twilight. She wanted to dropkick Moondancer into next week. She wanted to bury the Sirens ten feet underground.
But with her friends arms wrapped around her, Sunset knew all she needed right now was their support. It was all she had left.