Sparks Catch

by Tale Swapper

Hearth Fire

The silence was broken by a short bark from Aria. "So? You're acting like that's a bad thing." Everyone turned to face the ex-siren, who smirked. "Look, Twi- if you understood everything about magic, you wouldn't have embarrassed yourself during your first round against us. And Pinks said it right. This is a different world; if magic worked the same way here, we'd probably all be turning into ponies again." She shrugged. "Things change. You have to adapt and learn. There's nothing else for it."

Discord grinned. "I think I like you, girly."

Aria glared back at the janitor. "I can't say the same. I met your counterpart, Discord; you might be just a kooky troll on this side of the portal, but I saw what your reflection called fun." Glancing at Twi, she scowled. "I heard that you're trying to reform him on the other side. Good luck with that- I'm not going back to Equestria until he's locked up or tamed."

Twi frowned. "He's learning, Aria..."

As the ex-siren and the princess started arguing, Sunset turned to the rest of the group. "Aria does have a point. We're moving into unknown territory, but we have a chance to experiment and practice with the new magic before the next crisis."

The Rainbooms glanced at one another before Rarity spoke up. "That's... a refreshing change, anyway."

Pinkie grinned. "Oooh! Last time, we had to go fight the Dazzlings without much prep work, and that... didn't go well." Her smile dropped for a moment. "If we hadn't had you there, Sunny, it could have gone really bad."

Sunset smiled. "Thanks, Pinkie." She turned to look at Twi. As she studied the animated princess, whose discussion seemed to fascinate both Discord and Twilight, she felt something give out a little. Twilight beat me, but she didn't do nearly as well against the Dazzlings. As other pieces of her mental picture of the princess fell into place, she frowned. I think I need to talk to Twi. There's something I need to know.

Her contemplation was cut short as Applejack stood up. "As much as I appreciate Pinkie giving us a place to regroup, Ah can't keep takin' up space here. And, if we really wanna practice, we need to head somewhere with a bit'a privacy." She held up her cell phone. "Granny's offerin' to let us continue our meetin' at Sweet Apple Acres."

Twilight glanced around, then stood up. "Okay. So, I mean-" She quailed as Applejack glared at her.

"And if you try to duck out, Ah'm gonna hog-tie you. You went too far lookin' for answers we have, and you've got info mah sister's gonna need. So you're comin' with us."

Shinig Armor frowned, then paused, Big Mac's hand on his shoulder. The big man spoke quietly. "Your sister deserves to know the whole truth. None of the girls will hurt her none, Ah promise." A little louder, he addressed the whole room. "That offer ain't just for the kids. Anyone here is welcome to come to our home."

Rainbow grinned. "So what are we waitin' for?"

Twi stood at the door of Sweet Apple Acres as Sunset watched the sun descend towards the horizon. After the end of the gathering at Sugarcube Corner, Celestia had allowed the girls from her school to take a day off; Sunset, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie were drained after their fight, and the other Rainbooms were unwilling to leave their friends behind.

The Crusaders joined Big Mac in his truck, all three exhausted by their ordeal. While Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom were just tired, Scootaloo had passed out halfway to the farm. Big Mac took the sleeping girl up to the guest room, while Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom hunkered down in the youngest Apple's room.

Celestia had not joined the caravan heading to the farm. Despite her desire to get the full lowdown on the new magic, she and Luna needed to return to CHS. They'd dragged a protesting Discord along with them, but not before Celestia had tasked Sunset with a full report on the events of the day and the impact of the new magic. In her own words, it was "Time to stop sitting on the sidelines."

Besides the staff of CHS, the rest of the party had made their way to the farm in record time. Rainbow Dash had immediately put the isolation to use, using Applejack's base to manifest her wings and taking to the air with obvious glee, lines of power across her skin sending her to new heights of speed. Fluttershy's newfound confidence gave her enough will to take off and join her friend in a more sedate flight- and after Rainbow's inevitable crash into one of Applejack's favorite trees, had revealed a new manifestation of her power.

Twi slowly spoke up. "I didn't really believe it, you know." Sunset turned, frowning. "When you said Fluttershy had healing powers, I assumed you had mistaken something else- maybe pain negation- for true healing." She shook her head. "But-"

When Rainbow had crashed, Fluttershy had landed within seconds, moving to inspect her fallen friend. Rainbow's new abilities didn't make her impervious to harm, and he's managed to dislocate her shoulder. As Twi had watched, Fluttershy, still in her winged pony-form, had breathed in a long breath, then exhaled a pink mist which settled over her friend's dislocated shoulder and fractured ribs, restoring them to full health. The pink-haired girl had nearly fallen unconcious afterwards, but what should have been a month of recovery for Rainbow Dash had been over in seconds.

Sunset looked at Twi, then shook her head. "Twi- Aria was right. We're moving into unknown territory. We have to let go old assumptions. Everything we know about magic is suspect, now."

Twi nodded. "Yeah. We should work to experiment with the girls, figure out the ways the elements can manifest. I mean, it may be a new form of magic, but it's going to have commonalities with normal magic, so we should-" She stopped as Sunset hesitated, biting her lip. "Um, Sunset? What's wrong?"

"Twi, do you remember back at the Battle of the Bands? How our first attempt at using the elements failed?"

Twi flinched. Sunset had used "our", but Twilight couldn't forget her own failing to understand how to bring out magic- any magic- during the first part of the battle. "It wasn't a very good plan. Coming together and expecting the elements to manifest wasn't enough."

"But it would have been enough, back in Equestria." Sunset leaned back against the railing. "I've been talking to the girls about the differences between ponies and humans, and I don't like what I'm seeing." She looked away. "I'm not really a pony anymore, Twilight. I've spent five years here, and I've seen the differences between the two worlds." She sucked in a breath. "The new magic works on a person-by-person basis. It's like cutie mark magic taken to an extreme. None of the girls got magic which corresponds with their counterpart's tribe. They got magic which belongs to them- what they focus on."

"And that fits with cutie mark magic. But there still has to be an underlying system of-"

"I'm not certain there does." Sunset cut Twi off. "Pinkie doesn't have the enhanced strength of earth ponies, Rarity doesn't have unicorn telekinesis or spellcraft, and even when ponied up Rainbow doesn't have any weather control. But what's really damming is Aria's magic. She was a siren, Twilight- her whole magical signature was devoted to controlling others and then harnessing their emotions. Instead, she's manifested a physical ability."

Twi opened her mouth, then slowly closed it. When she finally spoke, she seemed almost hesitant. "Why are you so certain magic is different here?"

"Twilight told us that the only signs of magic she could detect focus on people, Twi. There's no natural earth magic, no weather magic at work, and no harmony magic. The only time magic has expressed itself here was through equestrian artifacts, or through people." She looked up as the sun dipped below the horizon. "Magic works on an individual basis here. It focuses on what someone wants and matches it with what they're capable of. I think it works that way because humans are more individualistic then ponies."

Twi considered for a moment. "Well, I suppose that's true." Then her face brightened. "And that would explain why music is the key to invoking Equestrian magic- music works when different instruments and playing styles come together in a whole- a literal harmony."

Sunset nodded. "Yeah." Then her frown shifted. "Twi- I think we need to talk about today a bit. Just the two of us."

Twi froze, then glanced at Sunset. "Sunset, I wasn't here today. I can't give you more insight then you've already figured out about what happened today."

"Yeah- but this isn't about magic. You actually hit the nail on the head- you weren't here today." Sunset didn't hesitate as Twi flinched. "Twi- I don't blame you for having other responsibilities, your own problems in Equestria. But if anything, today's events proved that I can't afford to wait for help. If some new magical crisis pops up, you probably won't hear about it from me until it's over."

"I- I don't think I understand." Twi shook her head. "Are you saying you want me to leave? That I "

"No. Never, Twi. You're my friend, and nothing will change that. But if I'd been a little more confident, a little more certain of myself, a little more proactive in handling magic on my own- without you- we might have been able to avoid Scootaloo's meltdown. My first instinct was to call on you for direction- but there might not be time for that next time. And Anon-A-Miss solidified my bonds with my friends. They looked to me for answers; I need to know how to find them on my own." She pulled in a breath. "I learned how to manipulate people a long time ago. I learned to think like a human over the past five years. I learned to be a friend over the last six months." She looked at the princess square in the face. "Now- now I need to learn to Lead."

Aria Blaze looked over the bare apple trees covering the hillsides south of the farmhouse. When the meeting at Sugarcube corner had broken up, she'd expected nothing less than a return to the old status quo. Despite Sunset's willingness to let the former sirens back into the school, Aria noticed a reluctance among the rest of the school body (including most of the Rainbooms) to live and let live. Unlike ponies, this seemed to be more of a reasonable fear and distrust of former predators than fear of the unknown, but it still made forming connections difficult. Aria had fully expected a quiet walk home and an evening spent without contact with anyone but her sisters.

Instead, upon emerging from the sweet shop, Applejack had busily herded Aria into her van alongside Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy. Applejack seemed to believe that Aria would be joining the other girls at Sweet Apple Acres, and the ex-siren hadn't voiced any complaints to the notion. Honestly, she'd been too surprised to protest at first, but as the van had left city limits she'd settled in to see what happened next.

As if echoing her thoughts, Applejack's voice cut the silence from behind her. "Ah'm suprised by a lot of what's happened today." Moving to stand beside Aria on the porch, the farmer pulled in a short breath, then let it out, condensation misting the air near her mouth. As the sun sank in the sky, she turned to glance at the ex-siren. "But- Ah gotta start with mah thanks."

Aria glanced at Applejack. "I suppose for saving your sister?"

"Not just savin' her, if ya wanna hear the truth. It coulda ended with me on the ground, and if it had-" Applejack shuddered. "Sunset told me what it was like, tanglin' with Scootaloo. If mah sister had gotten in there, started trippin' em' up, Ah don't know what woulda happened." She smiled. "Aria, you mighta saved some of mah family today; and Ah owe you for that. But-"

Aria sighed. "You don't want me around because I'm danger-"

"Let me finish." Applejack cut her off. "That ain't true in the slightest. No, the but was because of me. Somethin' you said tonight, about the world changin'. What did you mean by that?"

"Exactly what I said." Glancing at Applejack, she sighed. "After Starswirl banished us here, we spent over two millenia moving around, trying to find places where we could gather enough power to keep ourselves going. It was always the same; move into a new area, worm our way into influence and power, hold onto it as long as we could, gather up more strength- then run, once people in power caught onto our mind control, or whomever we allied with died or wised up. We had to change- learn new languages, new customs, new ways of doing things." She paused. "I was the foreunner, you know? Always the first to pack up when things went south, first to go to find something new. Sonata always kept sight of what we really wanted, and Adagio was always really good at playing the game once she knew what was going on, but I was the one who dragged us out of the collapse of whatever empire Adagio was trying to build, who helped Sonata pickup the pieces of what she'd managed to get for herself. So I'm used to being first into the fight, always. First to fight, first to change, first to adapt."

"Hmm." Applejack stayed quiet. Then she spoke softly. "And why you're the one who's been tryin' to work with us. Celestia told us you were the one to ride herd on Sonata and Adagio when you were meetin' with her."


"Again, thanks for that. But, as Ah was sayin', I heard your little speech." Applejack looked uncomfortable for a moment, then pulled in a deep breath. "Ah need your help- or perspective, or lessons, or somethin'." As Aria turned to stare at her, Applejack continued. "Ah'm not one to change much, but things are getting dangerous. Sunset's gonna need help, and Ah cain't afford to be stuck in the past when she's plowin' ahead." She looked the ex-siren in the eyes. "You just told be you'd adapted over time. Ah don't know how to pay yah back, but I'd like you to teach me."

Aria blinked. "Me? I was your enemy-"

"So was Sunset."

" know, I never heard the whole story about that." Aria raised her hand to cut off Applejack's explanation. "Not right now." Studying Applejack for a moment, she nodded. "Alright. I don't know if I can teach you to be more mentally flexible, but I'm willing to help you out." She gave a viscous grin. "In return, I want you to keep me in the loop about everything your group figures out about magic." As she was about to continue, Applejack scowled.

"Ah'm gonna keep you in the know anyway, Aria. You ain't thinkin' straight; it ain't "mah group" anymore. It's "our group." You've fought beside us, saved mah sisters. You're one of us, if yah wanna be."

Aria froze. "Wait, what? Are you..." She searched Applejack's expression. "You're serious." Applejack watched as a smile- not a smirk, a grin, or a leer- formed on Aria's face. "Huh. I didn't expect this."

"Ah figured as much. Still, since Ah can't pay you with info, what should Ah pay you with?"

"If it's between friends, Ah shouldn't''t have to pay you." Aria saw Applejack's expression, then grinned. "But- if you really wanna pay me back, then I could use a sparring partner. I do want to practice with my new magic."

"...sparrin'. With a girl who's as strong as me, with two thousand years of experience." Applejack gulped, steeled herself, then extended a hand. "Ah get the feelin' this is gonna be painful, but it's a deal."

Aria reached out and shook Applejack's hand. Never expected one of the Rainbooms to claim me as one of their own. Gotta say, this girl's got fire and iron- she's committed to succeeding, and willing to do what it takes.

As Applejack disengaged from the handshake and turned to reenter the house, Aria glanced over Applejack's form. Solid muscles, no body fat, still pretty flexible. Good. Sparring with weaklings is never fun. Then she found herself glancing at the other aspects of Applejack's form. She shook her head as Applejack entered the house. She's asking for help, not a girlfriend, Aria.

Still, gotta admire that determination. She's might even make a challenge when we spar- Aria found herself blushing as she imagined grappling with the tall farmer. Well. This could get awkward quickly. I'm really glad Sonata isn't here to see this.

Twilight Sparkle glanced across the four teens gathered before her. After watching Rainbow Dash casually violate multiple natural laws, Fluttershy's healing capabilities, and Rarity's self-made bag of holding, she'd discarded her stubborn refusal to believe in magic fairly quickly. (She was ignoring Pinkie's abilities. While on a rational level she acknowledged they existed, Twi had informed her that trying to figure it out might break her, and she wanted all her faculties intact.) The girls had promised to tall her everything they could, after swearing her to secrecy on the particulars. They'd gathered in front of the fireplace in the living room, nursing drinks and munching sweets.

As Rainbow vanished to "take care of her ribs" (despite Fluttershy's healing, they still seemed to be tender) and Fluttershy nursed a mulled mug of cider, the four remaining Wondercolts related the events of the last two years- Sunset's arrival and eventual control of CHS, the Fall Formal, the Battle of the Bands, and Anon-A-Miss. As the complicated web of social interaction, magic, and shenanigans was laid out before her, Twilight was able to correlate major events against her sensor data. By the time the girls and Flash had finished, the sun had dipped below the horizon. Twilight regarded her notes, then slowly set down her files.

"This- all of this is amazing. You've managed to tap into something no other humans in history are able to do." She shook her head. "But- this secret- a lot of people will get hurt if it comes out, won't they?"

Pinkie grinned. "Comes out? Nah, none of us have really hidden magic, have we? Just- no one believes in it."

Fluttershy nodded. "You saw it and still questioned calling it magic. Most people- even my parents- think we're making stuff up." Her smile grew more pensive. "But, I mean, we really have been lucky no one important has paid us any attention."

Twilight shook her head. "And publishing anything would throw away any secrecy. All of you would be hounded, and the gate might get closed." She looked down at her lap. "My reasons for doing this seem pretty petty now."

Rarity waited for Twilight to continue, then glanced up from her sketchbook when no more was forthcoming. "That sounded like the lead-in to an explanation, darling. I don't mean to pry, but-"

"But you want to know." Twilight looked up, face pinched, mouth drooping. "I suppose you guys know Crystal Prep, right?"

Flash grunted, glaring into his cup. "Know is the wrong word. I think our sports teams know the bottoms of their boots pretty well, but beyond that all I know is that you guys have about triple our tech budget. Micro Chips was complaining about it."

Twilight pulled in a deep breath. "Yeah. Crystal Prep has to have the best of everything, and has to win everything. It's a very competitive environment." Her voice shook slightly as she continued. "I'm... anxious. A lot of the time. I've never really been able to work well with people without getting to know them- but Crystal Prep's all about winning. No one is willing to help anyone else without something in it for them." She paused. "I skipped two years of middle school, before my parents enrolled me in Crystal Prep."

"Principal Cinch assured my parents that she could challenge me intellectually, and she was right. The curriculum and resources are top-notch; it's the students who are the problem. For the first year at CP, I managed to keep my head down, but during my freshman finals, I aced half the exams. And Cinch publishes the top twenty names from each class after the finals. I went from unknown to every eye on me. The people who wanted a leg up started hounding me, and the people who wanted to be the best tried to sabotage me." Twilight shuddered. "After the third time someone tried to plant drugs in my locker, I had an anxiety attack. But Cinch convinced me to keep quiet about it."

"She told me that I'd need to be prepared, that when I got into the real world people would do the same or worse. She offered to take "special care" to keep the bullies off my back, so long as I signed up for several of the academic clubs. My sophomore year, I was the "top" member of the academic bowl, chess club, and reading bowl. After the first semester, I was starting to get worn down, and tried to apply to an advanced placement program. I was hoping to get into the Everton Independent study group, or take some classes at Canterlot Tech, but..."

As Twilight trailed off, Flash connected the dots. "You were carrying three academic teams, and from the sound of it, Cinch wanted you to keep it up. She wasn't going to write a letter of recommendation and have you leave Crystal Prep."

Twilight nodded. "She... hasn't said that to my face. But she didn't complete any of the letters in time for applications at the end of last year." She pulled in a deep breath. "I had started looking into ways to get recommendations from other sources when I first detected the energy signatures around CHS last semester. Cinch tied to block my research at first, until I convinced her I was trying to publish a research article. She knows that if I can publish something groundbreaking while at Crystal Prep, it would do a lot more for the school's reputation then having me as a student. When my research took off at the end of last year, she gave me my own lab and extra resources "To further your pursuit of the truth."."

"Which led you to us." Rarity set down her sketchbook. "So. You can't defy Cinch without having everyone paint a target on you, and she won't let you move ahead so long as she's able to use your experience. Am I right?"

Twilight nodded, near tears. "Yeah. And now I don't know what to do. I can't continue my research like this, and I need some way to get out of there. I-" She swallowed, her breaths coming more rapidly. "I can't stand it much more. Cinch keeps the bullies away, but she's isolated me from- from everyone. I've got nobody I can trust, my parents think everything's fine, and-"

Twilight stopped as firm arms circled her. "Shh. If no one else, at least we can listen." Fluttershy murmured, pulling Twilight into a hug. For a few seconds, Twilight struggled, before limply falling against the shy girl. Closing her eyes, Twilight slowly felt her panicked breathing slow, syncing with Fluttershy's even breaths. Normally, Twilight would have been disturbed by contact with another, but the gentile calm which radiated off the pink-haired girl slowly bled off her anxiety.

Rarity cleared her throat. "Fluttershy's right, Twilight. You're not alone, you know- Shining Armor came with you today, and I think he'd be willing to listen if you spoke to him. And failing that, you have us." Her voice gained a hard edge. "I've been the target of manipulation before, darling. I've always found a bit of perspective useful in those situations."

Pinkie grinned. "Uh-huh! If there's any way we can cheer you up, just ask!"

As Fluttershy disentangled herself from Twilight, the purple girl looked accross at the three girls before her. "Thank you. I- I can't really say how much that means to me." Looing at Flash, she frowned. "And, you-"

"I can understand why you're hurting, Twilight." Flash's gaze was stoic. "and I don;t like how you've been treated. If my sister come out of this fine, you've got one more person in your corner." He glanced up at the ceiling. "But- you'll need to apologize to her, first. You may have been hurt and threatened- but you're not he only one who may have lost a chance today."

Scootaloo raised her hand, a ball of fire forming in the outstretched palm. Raising it above her head, she sighed down at the threat below her, striking her target with cold, methodical precision. Turning in midair, she sighted her second opponent, ignoring the burned body with rainbow hair, even as the voice inside her screamed-

Scootaloo jerked upright, chest heaving as the nightmare ended. Whimpering, she looked down at her hands, seeing for a moment the red flames which enveloped Rainbow Dash.

As if summoned by the thought, a raspy voice carried to her ears. "Awake, squirt?"

Scootaloo glanced up to see a familiar pair of red eyes fixed on her own. At first, relief rushed through her- Rainbow's Alive!- but he thought stuttered to a halt as she recalled her last meeting with the athlete. "...Dash? What are you doing here?"

"Looking out for a friend's little sister." Rainbow said. The look on the athlete's face was hard to read. "And- trying to figure out what happened to my honorary little sister."

Scootaloo looked down at her hands. "Rainnbow, I'm sorry." She felt tears well up in her eyes. "I shouldn;t have tried to get magic, shouldn't have-"

"Hey." Looking up, Scootaloo caught Rainbow's gaze. She shook her head. "Scoots- you did it again. You acted without thinking, and this time, things went worse a lot quicker. And I do need to talk to you about that. But that's not why I'm here." Leaning forward to lock eyes with the smaller girl, Rainbow spoke slowly. "Am I really that scary?"

"Scary?" Scootaloo yelped. "What are you-"

"Apple Bloom told us that you were trying to get my attention. Scoots- why didn't you come to me? Were you really that afraid? Did you really think you needed magic to try to talk to me?"

"...after we confessed. After everything, you seemed so mad. Mom and Dad, Flash- they were upset. You- you were furious." Scootaloo swallowed. "I'm not like Rarity or Applejack. We don't have family to hold us together. I got scared- scared you'd never talk to me again. I messed up big time with Anon-A-Miss. I didn't mean-"

"To drive me away." Rainbow Dash's voice was bitter. "Scoots- look at me." As Scootaloo looked up, Rainbow continued. "Do you think I'm stupid?"

The question threw Scootaloo for a second. "What? No way!"

"Then why did Anon-A-Miss work?" Rainbow's voice hardened. "For all that things turned out okay, we really screwed up with Anon-A-Miss; but it wouldn't have worked if we'd just trusted Sunset. It was stupid of me to believe, even for a minute, that Sunset would pull something so ham-handed- but I did. When I figured out the truth, I thought whomever designed the page was counting on my idiocy." She turned a smoldering look on Scootaloo. "I may have been- or still am- mad at you, Scoots- but I was furious with myself." She stood up and walked to the window.

"Oh." Scoots was silent for a moment, then drew in a deep breath. "And today? Are you mad about-"

"Yesterday you did the same thing I did a lot- jump to conclusions, run headlong into trouble. You messed up, but at least this time you didn't mean anything malicious by it." Rainbow Dash turned back to the younger girl. "No one's hurt, nothing's damaged, and both Twilight and Sunset were blindsided by what happened. You were stupid, but unlike Anon-A-Miss no one could have known how bad things would get."

"But this has to stop." Rainbow walked forward, stopping at Scootaloo's bedside. "You need to stop running into things like this. So Flash and I are gonna teach you."

As Scootaloo's eyes brightened, Dash cut her off. "This isn't going to be fun, Scoots. Mom had a training plan she used to break me of my stupid when I was a kid. It's military-style learning, which means no room for screw-ups, and physical effort. But trust me- when we're done, you'll be trained to think twice before you act." She shook her head. "It means listening to your gut when it protests, learning from your mistakes. It's what saved me when I doubted Sunset." Reaching down, she ruffled Scootaloo's hair. "You're gonna hate your big sister by the time she's done, but if you want to make it up to me, that's what it's gonna take."

Scootaloo looked up at Dash, fear in her eyes- for a moment. Then her gaze steadied. "Alright, Dash. I'll do it."

"Attagirl, squirt." As she walked to the door, Rainbow paused. "I'm going to go get your brother, and then we can get something to eat. And who knows? Maybe we can get a handle on your magic as part of your training."

If Rainbow had looked back as she left the room, she would have seen Scootaloo's enthusiasm vanish as the last words were spoken. Looking down at her hands, the little girl's thoughts turned to her nightmare-

Burned and broken body lying on the ground, Sunset engulfed in flames-
Rarity dying, bolt of lightning tearing around upraised scarf-
Rainbow Dash's look of horror as Pinkie burned-

-and desperately drove her nails into her palms, trying to stop the shaking, as her mind rebelled from the thought of crimson flames.