Beck examined herself in the dingy mirror, pursing her lips and turning her head this way and that. Behind her, Belle was forlornly cleaning up a pile of copper and gold hair from the bathroom floor. In the other room, the cheap television was tuned to the cable weather, which was droning on about the expanding winter storm to the north.
"You think we overdid it?" Beck asked.
Belle frowned. "Yeah, maybe a little," she said. "I mean, you look good! You look...good..."
Beck rolled her eyes. "Belle, I'm homeless. Most of the time I don't even have clean clothes and get to shower maybe twice a week. Hair is just hair." She shook her head. "It's just...a little weird, I guess." She sighed, fingering her cut, dyed, and dried locks. "Well, guess we'd better head out. After I get dressed, I mean."
"What exactly are we planning to do?" Belle asked. "I mean, up until now, this has all been pretty vague, but now we need to get into specifics."
"Well, the way I figure it," Beck grunted as she struggled into a gray sports bra that matched the plain cotton panties she wore, "we've got two missions right now. Seeing as you basically cashed out and made a break for it, we need to get you a job down here. I mean..." She bit her lip. "This is forever, right? You...you're sure you—"
"I'll have to fill out some paperwork," Belle hedged, "but yeah. The ice storm...kinda helps? Worst case scenario, we all get rounded up and confined to the embassy." She shook her head. "In any case, like I said, you and Double Diamond are the two people I care about most in this world. You're all I have, really. Wherever you go, I go, and I'll deal with whatever comes up."
Beck smiled. "Thanks, Belle. You're an amazing friend." She tugged down on the black tank top she'd pulled on while Belle was talking, then picked up a pair of camo pants and stepped into them, pulling them up and buttoning them. She sat down on the bed and put on a thick pair of socks, then leaned back on her hands and let out a sigh. "Alright, I think you should take care of stuff like that today," she said. "Think I'm gonna head for that high school, ask around about this other Sunset Shimmer."
"Is that wise?" Belle asked, biting her lip.
Beck shrugged. "What? I'll say I'm a distant cousin or something, just trying to track down family I didn't know I had. I'm pretty sure I can sell it."
"Well...I guess..." Belle said, frowning. "But she's not there now, right?"
"Yeah, and that's why it's a good time to gather information," Beck said as she laced up a pair of army surplus combat boots. She picked up a green canvas vest and shrugged it on over her tank top, then slipped a pair of sunglasses with black plastic frames into the pocket of the vest. She stood up, running a hand through her short, slightly curly dark purple hair, and struck a pose, grinning. "How do I look?"
"Like a fighting game character," Belle said with a snicker, covering her mouth. "Seriously, think you're overdoing it with the army punk look?"
"Hahaha. You bought these clothes, smartass." Beck stretched her arms over her head, popping her back.
"Got the phone I gave you?" Belle asked.
"Shit, right," Beck said, grabbing a prepaid flip phone off the bedside table and stuffing it into her pants pocket, then folding a small stack of money in with it. "Well, guess I'm headed out. Call me if anything comes up, alright?"
"Right back at you," Belle said. "Good luck! I hope...I hope you can start to make sense of all this."
Beck smiled, then left the hotel room.
* * * * *
Double Diamond popped the collar of the denim shirt he wore and squared his shoulders as he walked down a sidewalk on some nameless city street in a town he'd never laid eyes on in his life yet was so familiar he could practically name every smell.
He knew how the girls thought. He knew Belle would want to do things through the most legitimate, clean, hi-tech channels she could. He knew Beck would probably rush straight over to that high school and sweat answers about 'Sunset Shimmer' out of the students.
DD had his own methods, and knew that there was one place to get reliable, solid information only a seasoned, hardened street bum would think to look.
His eyes tracked a number of faded chalk markings on the bricks of walls and the slabs of sidewalks. He followed them to a dingy alley, down that alley, and all the way through a nest of alleys and side streets until he found it: a vacant building with boarded-up windows whose service entrance had been busted open. The owners clearly never bothered to check up on their property; filth and the stench of urine and old, stale booze hung around the open doorway.
DD's nose wrinkled. *Funny, places like this don't usually stink so bad. Is this what a few days of living like a regular guy does to you?* Shaking his head, he walked through the cloud of gnats hanging around the door and into the dim, dingy hall beyond.
He quickly found what he was looking for: a man sat slumped against a wall, wrapped in three layers of dingy, filthy clothes, none of which were the right size. The man's eyes were slightly glazed; a smoldering joint in his hand gave DD pause.
Drunk was good, drunk tended to be more honest and reliable, if incoherent. Stoned...that was another matter entirely.
DD walked past the stoned hobo, searching the building. He found a few sleeping bums, most of them old and grizzled. He found one man around his age who, upon turning bleary, bloodshot eyes on him, let out a feral snarl and clutched protectively to a mostly-empty bottle of gin. He backed off slowly and let him be, then continued his search.
Ultimately, it seemed like the stoner was the only one he could actually talk to without staying here a lot longer than he cared to. He returned to the room where he'd sat, finding him still swaying slightly in place and staring at nothing. He opened his mouth to speak...
"Hey-o, hobos!" a perky, peppy voice called from outside. A very energetic, peppy young woman leaned into the open door. DD could only stare at her in disbelief. She had pale tan skin and wore darker tan pants, a dark pink shirt with long white sleeves, and white sneakers. Bright blue eyes twinkled with mischief. Her two-tone hair was short in front, a deep pink color; at the back, it was white and done up in a swirly bun, held back by a sky blue bow. Colorful barrettes decorated the pink part of her hair, placed at haphazard, random angles. "Oh hey, you're new here! Nice threads. First time out on the street?"
DD shook himself. "Uhh...no," he said. "I'm..." He cleared his throat. "Actually, I'm looking for information."
The young woman blinked. "Information? That's 411 on your phone, Mr. Clean and Preppy! Or, you know, find a cop or something. Or the Internet!" She shook her head. "All you're gonna find here are some people you really don't wanna—"
DD held up a hand to stall her. "I know what I'm looking for," he said. "Unfortunately, everyone in this flop's too drunk, stoned, or gone to help."
The stoner behind him suddenly stirred. "Knew you was a street," he slurred in a raspy baritone.
The girl blink-blinked her bright blue eyes. She reassessed DD, tilting her head. "You're homeless?"
"Let's say transient for now," DD hedged. "I've been homeless for a long time but my fortunes just changed...maybe." He inclined his head. "Name's Double Diamond."
"Nice to meet you, Double D!" the girl said. "I'm Sugar Sprinkles! I bring day-olds from the pastry shop I work at by here every couple of days so these guys don't totally starve."
DD nodded. "One of my best friends is like that," he said. "Saved my butt more than a couple of times." He jammed his hands in his pockets. "Like I said, I need information. The street kind."
Sugar Sprinkles pursed her lips, then looked past DD to the stoner on the wall. "Whaddya say, Ray?"
Ray swayed a little faster, his head weaving. "Don't know what a guy gettin' out th' gutter wants back here," he said warily.
"I need to know about a girl who lives in this city, goes by the name Sunset Shimmer."
Sugar Sprinkles hummed thoughtfully. "Huh. That name sounds familiar, can't think of where..."
"Red? Yeah, few of us know about Red," Ray said. He sat up straighter, stubbing out his joint. "Whatchoo gotta do with Red?"
"I have a friend who's...sort of a relative," DD said. "We found out about her the other day and came here looking for her."
"Sheeeit," Ray drawled. "You runnin' with somebody else that came out th' Hole?"
"The Hole?" DD and Sugar Sprinkles both said.
Ray gave DD an unnerving stare for a long, uncomfortable moment. He frowned. "'Swat I thought," he said. "You a cop?"
"No, I'm not a cop. Like I said, I'm just looking for Sunset Shimmer."
Ray snorted and shook his head. "Thoughtchoo was a street, man. You walk like a street. You ain't come out no Hole, you don't know nobody came out no Hole." He rocked back and forth, pulling a baggie out of a pocket and examining it critically.
"But Sunset Shimmer came out of this...Hole?" DD pressed.
Ray looked up at him, then went back to examining his bag of marijuana. "I ain't said nothin' bout no Hole," he said. "Ain't tellin' no cop 'bout no Hole."
DD sighed. "Right," he said. He nodded to Sugar Sprinkles. "It was nice meeting you. I don't think I'll be back this way again." He shuffled past her and out into the dingy alley. He was nearly to the closest main street when Sugar Sprinkles called out from behind him. He turned to see her run up, hands on her knees.
"I just...remembered," Sugar Sprinkles huffed. "Sunset Shimmer, she's a good friend of one of my regular customers." She pulled out her phone and swiped through some photos, then presented a selfie she'd taken with a girl with bubblegum pink skin and big, poofy hair that looked like cotton candy. "Her name's Pinkie Pie, she goes to Canterlot High School. I think Sunset does too."
"Yeah, we know that much about her," DD said. He bit his lip. "What do you think Ray was on about, all that about the Hole?"
"I dunno," Sugar Sprinkles said with a shrug. "I'll tell you one thing, though. There's a lot of urban legends about really weird things going on over at CHS. Like, paranormal stuff. You know, magic and aliens and ESP and UFOs and all that kind of thing. I've heard some crazy stories about CHS, especially in the last year or so."
"Really," DD said. "Thanks."
"Good luck," Sugar Sprinkles said. She frowned. "Are you really homeless?"
"Hopefully not for much longer, but yeah," DD said. "I, uhh...my friends and I just came out of Vanhoover. Our Camp got hit hard by the storm."
Sugar Sprinkles winced. "Ouch. You're lucky to be alive."
* * * * *
The bus pulled up to Canterlot High School. Beck disembarked, frowning thoughtfully as she took in the school with its clean, bright spring green grass, shining pavement, cheerful and welcoming brick facade, and marble statue of a rearing horse that stood in the center of the courtyard.
*I should have gone to a school like this,* she mused. *This is the life I was meant to have. This or something like it.* Her frown deepened; she bit her lip, putting on her sunglasses, and strolled purposefully up the walk.
It was almost eleven in the morning. Beck didn't know much about how schools worked, but the best she could figure, the students should be in their last class before lunch. She felt a bit apprehensive, like she was trespassing, but she fought down her sudden case of nerves and walked through the doors.
The inside was a bit more worn than the outside, with shoe-scuffed floors and signs of peeling and fading paint. As soon as she crossed the threshold, the hairs on the back of Beck's neck stood on end.
Something was wrong here.
She couldn't put her finger on it, but the school was too quiet, and a heaviness hung in the air. It was the same sort of quiet despair she'd felt in some of the more grim shelters she'd passed through over the years, only stronger, more pronounced.
A girl with grey skin and long, messy blond hair walked past. Her clothes were a mix of drab greens and blues, and her shoulders were hunched as she shuffled along, carrying a stack of papers. Her misaligned gold eyes were clouded, and her lips were pursed. She shot Beck a brief, slightly nervous glance, then shuffled along, head down.
Beck watched her head down another hallway for a long moment, then walked over to the school directory and examined it. As she did so, she wondered at the utter lack of sound in the halls.
Weren't schools supposed to be noisy? Even if class was in session, there should still be...something going on. Brow furrowed in thought, Beck took off down a random hall, walking slowly, casually observing everything around her. As she rounded a corner, she bumped into an older man with dark hair, a dour face, and a slumped posture. He frowned at her. "Shouldn't you be in class?"
"I'm not a student here," Beck said. "I'm just visiting a cousin who goes here. Thought I'd have a look around the school, she really seems to love it here."
The teacher let out a tired, apathetic groan. "Whatever," he said in a bored, disaffected tone. "You're supposed to have a visitor's pass from Principal Celestia, but I wouldn't bother her right now. Just...don't hang around too long, alright? And if you get caught, I never saw you." With that, he slouched away, grumbling under his breath.
"Huh. Weird guy." Shrugging, Beck set off on an aimless course, roaming the halls, occasionally pausing outside a doorway and leaning near the cracks to listen in. What she heard only made her more confused and anxious.
Teachers were delivering lectures in flat, lackluster tones with no emotion. Students were silent; on the rare occasion she heard a student's voice, it was dull, lifeless, and listless. She passed a music room and heard students playing a lifeless, dreary dirge on badly-tuned instruments. She cringed. The only voice she heard with any emotion or passion in it anywhere in the school was the Civics teacher, and what little she could make out of the woman's lecture just from listening at the door cracks was...disconcerting. Ultimately, she found herself in the school library, where a number of students who apparently had a free period sat around at tables, their eyes dull and lifeless.
As she inconspicuously walked around the library, a detail caught her eye. Every single student seated in the library was reading the exact same book.
As Beck lost herself in the stacks and watched the creepy, vacant students, the library doors burst open. "Oh, FUCK THIS," a girl with a raspy voice snarled. "Hey! HEY! You guys! Put that stupid fucking book DOWN, don't you know it's poison?" Beck jumped as, suddenly, a book was projected violently across the room, slamming into a wooden shelf with a solid thud.
"RAINBOW DASH!" an older voice said in a scolding tone. "What do you think you're—"
"Get lost, Ms. Cheerilee," the girl replied. "Go grab an early lunch or somethin', we're takin' the library for a little bit."
"Now just hold it right there, young lady—"
"Alright now, settle down y'all," a voice with a deep country drawl said calmly. "Sorry 'bout Rainbow Dash, Ms. Cheerilee. Ms. Glimmer's been crawlin' all up in her saddle like. You don't really wanna be around Rainbow when she's in this bad a mood, right?"
"Girls, I'm warning you," Ms. Cheerilee continued. Then there was a loud thud and a louder thump, and the country girl sighed.
"Sorry 'bout that, Ms. Cheerilee," she said with a grunt. Beck peered around the edge of a bookcase and gasped. A peach-skinned girl with a Stetson was dragging an unconscious mulberry-skinned woman in a frumpy dress into the librarian's office while a girl with blue skin and wild rainbow-colored hair propped herself up on the check-out desk and folded her arms. "Reckon you'll have a right pear of a headache when you wake up," the country girl continued. Once she'd deposited Ms. Cheerilee in her office and closed the door, she turned and sighed. "You didn't need t' come bargin' in here raisin' no fuss, Rainbow!" she snapped. "We're s'posed'ta be keepin' a low profile 'til we have a plan!"
"Yeah? That was before Starlight Glimmer dropped that poison book on us!"
As the girls argued, Beck noticed something off about both of them. Something far more unusual than the fact they'd just assaulted a teacher and taken the library like a couple of gang members.
Neither of the two girls had ears.
Or rather, they didn't have ears on the sides of their heads.
As she watched them argue, Beck realized that both girls did have small, equine ears poking out of their hair on top of their head, ears which perfectly matched their skin tone and twitched and flopped as if they were alive.
She also realized that the blue girl, Rainbow Dash, had a pair of feathery wings growing out of her back. It didn't take long for her to realize the wings were real.
Beck retreated back into the stacks, her heart hammering, her eyes wide, and her mind racing.
*What the fuck?!*
Had she suffered some sort of brain damage from the fever? Was she seeing things? Had she developed some sort of homelessness-induced dementia? She'd certainly seen enough mentally ill people in her time on the streets and in the camps and shelters. They saw things that weren't there, talked to people that weren't there...
Had Beck, having just learned the truth about her own past, snapped and gone crazy?
She was drawn out of her own ponderings when she overheard something that demanded her attention:
"Ah'm startin' t' think Rarity's right," the country girl was saying. "'Til Sunset Shimmer gits back, it ain't a good idea t' go it alone. Even with th' Dazzlings helpin' us out, we ain't—"
Beck's eyes narrowed, her thoughts quieting in a snap, replaced by determination and anger. She took a deep breath to steady herself, then started to walk back out—
"Ah, Rainbow Dash! There you are."
Beck stilled herself as the Civics teacher walked into the library. A chill ran up her spine.
Rainbow Dash scowled at the woman. "Starlight Glimmer," she said dangerously.
"That's Ms. Glimmer to you, young lady."
"Yeah, no," Rainbow said defiantly. "You're not a real teacher, I ain't gonna treat you like one, and I ain't gonna be in your bullshit class."
Starlight Glimmer narrowed her eyes. "Oh, I think you will," she said darkly. She raised her hand, which glowed with a turquoise aura. A similar aura wrapped itself around Rainbow Dash's head for a brief moment. The other girl tensed, eyes wide, clearly ready to leap to her friend's defense.
A blue glow emanated from Rainbow's skin, and the aura around her head popped like a soap bubble. She folded her arms and smirked. "Sorry, 'teach', that doesn't work on me," she said.
Starlight's lips thinned. "Maybe not, but I'm pretty sure handcuffs, tasers, and rubber bullets do," she said, pulling out her phone. "I'm also pretty sure Bow and Windy won't like picking their daughter up at the police station because she was arrested and expelled."
Rainbow bristled. "You stay away from my Mom and Dad, you psycho horse bitch!"
"And what about that little freshman, what's her name, Scootaloo? What would she think if her idol was dragged out of here in shackles?" Starlight Glimmer smirked. "It'd be so hard, wouldn't it? Leading your pitiful little student rebellion from behind bars?"
The bell rang. The listless students who had been sitting around reading stood up, put their books away, and filed out of the library.
"Oops! Guess it's time for lunch!" Starlight Glimmer said in a syrupy tone, putting her phone back in her pocket. "You girls run along now. A healthy school lunch is the cornerstone of a good education!" She narrowed her eyes. "I expect to see you in my classroom the second the bell for next period rings, Rainbow Dash." With that, she turned on her heel and stalked out.
Rainbow growled at her back, her wings bristling.
The other girl sighed and put an arm over her shoulders. "C'mon now," she said in a soothing tone. "Let's go grab some grub."
"Can you believe that...ARGH!"
"Ah know, Ah know," the country girl said patiently. "Jes' wait, sugarcube. We'll fix her wagon. You know we will."
As the two girls left the library, Beck stepped out into the still, silent room, empty save for the unconscious librarian. Her mind was racing with everything she'd just seen and heard, but even as she struggled to process it all, one thought bubbled to the surface, a passive observation that, at the time, hadn't seemed important, but now demanded her urgent attention:
During the entire altercation between the two strange girls and that horrid woman, none of the reading students had so much as blinked.
Beck sat down in one of the vacated chairs, scrubbing her hands through her dyed locks. "What kind of crazy school is this?!"